If there was a jug of Almaden on the table I knew it would be a bad night. She often came home from work and had a glass of wine, or Sherry, but an Almaden night was different. I didn’t always know what had triggered it, and frankly the list of possible transgressions was long. It was a toss up who or what started it, but when that jug of Almaden appeared I braced myself.
He never drank. They didn’t fight so much as jab each other. Both smart and skilled at using words as weapons, they’d go at it all through dinner. It was a slow fight to the death.
They had what you might call—if you want to take a romantic view— a stormy relationship. A second marriage for both, they each married for different reasons, though I think they must have been in love at some point. He represented stability, a steady (and good) income, and freedom from her parents who lived with her and her kids. She gave up her job, independence, house, and took her daughters out of their neighborhood, and away from their friends. He needed a mother for his orphan children, and someone who could release him from his desperate pain. One doesn’t relish thinking about them this way, but they were both in their thirties, so sex was surely part of the equation.
When things were good, they would kiss in the middle of the kitchen in front of us, or he would twirl her around as they danced. They were the kind of dance partners people at weddings would clear the floor for. They loved to travel and would take long trips together, and far away from us I imagine there wasn’t much to fight about. Every year they’d leave us in the care of dubiously responsible adults, and head to France, Italy, Greece… Even after we were grown and flown those trips continued. I think travel was part of the glue that held them together.
Each was charming in a particular way, and brilliant. They threw extravagant and creative theme parties. Many were costume parties. I remember him once dressing as the rosy finger of dawn. Both loved music and singing and writing ridiculous poems. He played the piano. She was gregarious and a wild flirt, especially when she’d been drinking. On those nights she was fun and exciting, but those jug of Almaden nights were different.
That was anger drinking; drinking to prove a point or make a statement, or it was something between them that was beyond my understanding. It was mean and I hated it. It made me hate them both. Why did they need us for their audience? It was as if we weren’t there, or we were pawns on their dysfunctional chessboard. I watched silently as she’d fill glass after glass, getting meaner with each one. There was no room for other conversation, there was barely enough air for us to breathe. They sat at opposite ends of the dining room table, the four of us, two on each side watched them like a tennis match.
When I was sixteen we went on a camping trip to Cape Cod, and at the last minute she decided she would stay home. It rained and was freezing all weekend, but it is one of the best trips we ever took. I understood then that our blended family was such that any five pieces fit well into the frame, but six created an unworkable tension the frame couldn’t accommodate. There were a few other trips with five of us and all were better than ones we all took.
As one by one we went off to college things improved. I was the second to go, but when I visited the air seemed cleaner, freer. When it was finally just the two of them they bought a bed and breakfast in the Berkshires. She was there full time, and he commuted on weekends from Long Island. I believe it was the best time of their marriage. There were still angry moments, holiday tension, and varying degrees of détente but I don’t think I ever saw another jug of Almaden.