C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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The Migraine Train by Robert Chazz Chute

This is a draft of the first chapter from my novel Romeo, Juliet & Jerome. I’m pitching it to whoever will listen at the Canwrite Conference this week. I hope you enjoy it.


 The headaches began when I was six. I don’t remember anything before that. It’s as if zero to five is a dream that pulls away as we wake. Or maybe God gives us a rare free pass so we can better let go of the time we were most at everyone’s mercy.

In my earliest memory, Moms giggles and rolls on the floor. I’ve just asked why she always has a glass of blood in her hand. “It’s just wine, baby boy,” she said. “I drink it because red goes with roast beef. And everything else.” I can still see her looking down and saying, “Oh, shit. You made me pee myself!”

We lie to ourselves so much we have no business thinking we can tell the truth. For instance, when I’m a movie star, my fans will say that Bio-Dad took off as soon as Moms got knocked up. That little is true. Then they will say my parents named me after the escapee. False.

Moms told me the truth about my name eight years ago last April 20. “Your birthday’s the same as Hitler’s.” Moms pointed that out every year. It was my eighth birthday. I wanted a black forest cake but Moms said it was too late to go out again. She forgot the birthday candles, too, so she lit a cigarette and stuck it in the top of a stale cornbread muffin. I tried to blow it out. She cheered. “Blow! Harder! Harder!”

The cigarette paper glowed and sank as the ash rose. The smoke stung my eyes. My cheeks hurt. Moms laughed and finally pushed me away. She popped the cigarette nub back between her teeth, brushed gray flakes off the muffin and handed it back to me.

“Thanks, Moms. This must be what birthdays are like in prison.”

Her eyes widened and her thick lips went to a thin line. “I already said I was sorry,” she sulked. “Sorry, sorry, sor-ree!” She eyed me and took a long pull of wine. She used a water glass.

A breath. Her shoulders pulled back. “You know what time it is?”

Oh, no.

“Truth Time!” she announced. She showed too many teeth for a kind smile. I held my breath. For Moms, the cost of admission to Truth Time was a five-drink minimum. For me, the cover charge was death by embarrassment.

“I didn’t name you after your father,” she said. “His name wasn’t really Romeo. But he was a Romeo.” Moms explained what that meant. I noticed a familiar aura around the red light on the hot plate she used to heat the apartment. Moms’s voice boomed off the yellowed apartment walls. Any sound was too large for the small room. The light bulbs got brighter and brighter. My eyes were slits. The Migraine Train was coming.

“Here. Try again, Einstein. Make a wish.” She handed me a lit match. The flame’s light stabbed the back of my left eye. I made a wish and blew it out. She did not drop dead. Instead, she toasted me with more thick red wine. That birthday migraine lasted two days.

The doctors drew blood and poked and prodded and X-rayed and scanned. They guessed and surmised. By the time they were finished, I was disappointed I didn’t have a brain tumor.

Our family doc back in Maine—we had one then—mentioned to me that red wine could cause migraines. “But you’re a little young for that.” He stopped chuckling when he noticed my frown.

“What if Moms drinks a lot of it?” I asked. I didn’t know that I should have asked to see the doctor alone. I sat on the examination table. She stood next to me, eyes flat and hard as nail heads. I kept my eyes on the doctor while, with one hand, I picked at the sheet of paper under me. I made tiny tears along its edge as Dr. Chuckles’s eyes shifted from me to her cleavage. Me to her light mocha skin and dyed blonde highlights. Me to her full lips. This was before the booze and the cigarette smoke worked her over. She stuck her jaw out and crossed her arms. A beautiful woman capable of sudden, sharp anger is a striking sight. Moms looked like a pissed off goddess.

I’ve talked to the children of alcoholics since. We all tell the same story. Living rooms aren’t for living. Everyone uses the same word. “Minefield.” All you can do is breathe and sometimes you can’t even do that. Home is never home. Home is house. That’s where the useless pleading and empty promises of atonement happen. House is the crime scene where the threats and punches and beatings with hairbrushes occur. It’s where you don’t want to go, even after the cold makes your breath plume yellow under florescent streetlights. Eventually you come back. You never know what will happen next. All children of alcoholics want the same thing. We yearn for boredom.

If I was a little younger or Moms was a little older, Dr. Chuckles might have been my hero. Instead, he shook his head. “Wine migraines don’t happen unless you’re the one doing the drinking, kiddo.” He grinned at me with the widest mouth in Maine that wasn’t smeared on a scarecrow. “Migraines are a hormonal thing…though, stress can also kick off a migraine.”

Causes of migraine can include cheese, ice cream, chocolate, caffeine and your mother shrieking “Henry! Henry! Henry!” in time to the headboard thudding against a criminally thin bedroom wall.

“But you’re a little young for stress, too, aye-uh?” Dr. Chuckles said. “Your diagnosis is idiopathic migraine. It means you get migraines and we don’t know why.”

Yes, people in Maine who say “aye-uh” are not confined to Stephen King novels. At least one idiot doctor says it in real life, too.

When experts fail, they blame you. That’s how I got trapped in a tiny IKEA-stuffed office with the Psycho Therapist. He doodled while I blamed my mother. That’s how therapy works. Or doesn’t.

Dr. Moto said he could help with my “me-graines.” (Decreasing them, I had assumed.) He was a Japanese-British transplant who was pretty smug about spreading mental health among New England colonials. In the first minute of our first session, he told me his treatment style was a mix of Freudian and proto-Jungian. I was ten.

The first few sessions were the usual. As I said, I blamed Moms for everything, which, in my case, was one of those clichés that happen to be true. He would nod and ask me what my responsibility was. I shouted back, “Nada-colada esta manana, baba!” It felt good to shout since my nonsense confused him and he was the sort of prick who never lets on that he is confused about anything. I’d shout. He’d nod and try to look wise. He looked like Yoda trying to hold back on a ripping fart.

Dr. Moto plucked his eyebrows so thin they could have been a faint pencil line. He talked much more than I did. I stared at the empty space above his eyes to pass some of the fifty-minute hour. Whenever I said anything about Moms, he wrinkled his forehead really hard to yank those almost-eyebrows up toward where his hair used to be.

He asked if I thought it was significant that I used the plural, always Moms never Mom.

“Yes and no,” I said. “No, because I’ve always called her Moms since forever. Maybe yes, I s’pose…” Then I shut up. “Actually, no and no.”

 I didn’t want to explain Drunk Mom and Sober Mom but I’ll lay it out here so my biographers of my humble beginnings don’t mess that up, too. Drunk Mom yelled a lot. Sober Mom woke up and baked cookies made with peanut butter and sweet regret. She always stirred promises to do better into the mix. Eventually, when Moms moved on to Dewar’s, she started blacking out. Whenever she fell asleep on the bathroom floor, she could not remember shouting at me the night before. No cookies for me.

The Psycho Therapist’s answer to my cookielessness was lists. To-do lists. To-dream lists. To-be lists. “I will Moto-vate you,” he said.

He told me stress caused the chemical cascade that cranked up my headaches. “Chemical cascade” sounds kind of good, like a gentle pink and purple waterfall might be involved. If he’d described it the way it felt I might have taken Dr. Moto more seriously. Something like “You’re tied to railway tracks and the Migraine Train runs over your head with steel wheels and rips out your pumpkin brains over and over.”

Moto told me lists would get my world in order. I feel the need to point out one more time that I was ten. I did not own a cape. Bullets did not bounce off my chest. I did not own a cave full of bats and cool implausible weapons. Getting the world in order seemed like a job for somebody taller.

But I had reasons to follow through. I already had to keep a pain diary for the neurologist so this wasn’t that different. One of the Dads (I forget which one) paid the shrink’s bill so he pushed Moms to push me. (Push me to do what was also unclear.) Moms’s toasts were beginning to sound like slurred prayers. “To my son’sh recovery from migrainsh and shtresh!” Yeah. I know. Cartoony drunk. Everybody was antsy about my progress toward pain-free mental perfection so when no one was looking I penciled lists in a notebook small enough to hide in my hip pocket.

Warming up, I made a list of movies I liked—Star Wars and anything with John Leguizamo in it. I was especially fond of Executive Decision. John’s got a gun to save the passengers of a hijacked passenger jet. Steven Seagal and his tough-guy ponytail get blown out of a Stealth jet almost immediately. Leguizamo played a super insane Tybalt with a gun in a modern version of  Romeo and Juliet. I bet you Tybalt’s mother took one look at the handguns in his fists and another look at his crazed eyes and served up the peanut butter cookies quick.

Next, I itemized my pet peeves. School work (mostly irrelevant.) Homework (as if any rational grown-up would tolerate working at home.) I squeezed bullies between the first two items. I scrawled Team Dad at the top of my list. Also at the bottom and somewhere in the upper middle. I was peevish. I wrote the word “therapy” several times. Moto ignored that and zeroed in on the Dads.

1. Bio-Dad, formerly Romeo Sr. until Moms taught me the difference between the name Romeo and acting like a Romeo. Location: The Wind. Given all that happened later, he might have been the smartest of the bunch.

2. Rebound Dad. Self-appointed Lt. Colonel in the KISS Army.  He let me stay up late to watch movies I was too young to see. When lit out in Rebound Dad’s junky old car, Moms burned black rubber tire into his white concrete driveway. I didn’t question that at the time but I think it means he was sure she’d come back.

Last seen: through the rear window’s dirty glass. “Waving” sounds like goodbye. What do you call what you do with your arms when you are waving for help? I did that until Rebound Dad was just a dot.

3. Cheater Dad AKA “Schmuck.” He and Moms made the driveway scene in Item #2 happen. By then I had “defiance issues” according to my teachers. On our first day at Cheater Dad’s house, I ripped through his pool table’s green felt. He would have loved to cure me of those defiance issues with the thick end of a pool cue. Moms ordered him to leave my discipline to her. (That didn’t get done.)

He shut up whenever I entered a room, as if we were playing Passive Aggressive Statue Tag. A fish in a freezer has a warmer smile. Still, passive aggressive is better than aggressive aggressive any time.

Last seen: who cares?

4. Lawyer Dad AKA Henry! Henry! Henry! “Highest thread count of the bunch,” Moms told me. “This one’s a keeper.” (I lost the sight in my left eye for an afternoon over that factoid.)

Lawyer Dad’s job was to dig alimony out of #3. He got distracted. We moved in. Then Moms thought he’d moved in on his hot new secretary. He pled not guilty. He pled with Moms to be reasonable. He did not know her well.

Last seen? New driveway. Old story.

Dr. Moto compared my list to the timelines in my file. “Have you noticed you get an increase in the frequency and severity of your me-graines each time your mother er…has a new man in her life?”

“My” me-graines. As if I owned them instead of the other way around.

Moto often asked questions to which he already knew the answer. When I called him on it, he said his questions helped me “stay engaged.” He was very concerned about my “practiced disaffection” and, when I was really bored, “disassociation.” Dude had no idea what Cool looked like.

“Does it bother you? Do you wish your life was more stable, Romeo? That you could count on one good thing not changing? On average, I see that your mother goes through a new fellow once a year, bouncing from one to the next.”

Bouncing. Moms. Bouncing. Must. Stare. At. Eyebrows.

 “Romeo, you know I care about you, right?”

Bouncing. Bouncing. “Henry! Henry! Henry!” Thud! Thud! Thud!

“Romeo, you know I want to help you, correct?”

Eyebrows. Eyebrows!

“Romeo, you don’t have to face this alone.” Moto reached out and touched my hand. I own one picture of myself as a little kid. I’m all big cheeks and bright eyes and curly black hair. My face looks so…I don’t know. Open? I teared up. A hot baby tear escaped. My face wasn’t slammed shut quite enough yet to keep me from crying. Maybe the Psycho Therapist told himself he was helping me. Or maybe Moto pretended we aren’t all just looking out for ourselves.

“Do you want to know the real secret to the perfect cure for me-graines, Romeo?”

I rolled my eyes. “No, Dr. Moto. I’d like the pain to push through my head like a rusty spike.” I said it as cheerfully as I could. It’s kind of funny that way.

He leaned forward in his chair. The walls sucked closer and the air got thin. My face heated up. My chair pressed hard into my back. That didn’t make any sense until I figured out it was me pushing into the chair. Even so, it felt like the chair was pushing me toward Moto. “Have you started masturbating yet?”

“Nope,” I lied. “No, uh…”

“Masturbation!” His face was like a light. “You should start now!”

“Now? Here?

“It’s all about rerouting blood away from your brain. When the me-graine starts, there’s less blood in your brain. That’s when you see the halos around lights and things seem brighter and louder and you feel nauseous.”

Nausea did well up, but it wasn’t the Migraine Train steaming into the station.

“Then the body overcompensates,” he said. “The body sends too much blood to the brain. Blood vessels press on surrounding structures and the pain is…exquisite.” Again, the come-to-Jesus smile. “Exquisite” pain. Like he was saying, “Jerk off or die.” He let his bare, smug face hang open. “Masturbation is the secret cure for your headaches and your stress.”

“Um. Uh-huh?”

He moved one hot hand to my thigh, rubbing up and down. Mostly up. I thought his hand might burn through my jeans. His other hand covered his crotch. I jumped up and ran out. I burst through his office door. Moms sat in the waiting room.

“Cured!” I announced.

A week later we abandoned Maine for New York. Mother and son, we ran side by side, each in our own solitary race. She ran to. I ran from. I’m still running.

 Copyright © Migraine Train, Robert Chute, 2010. All rights reserved.  

Filed under: My fiction, , ,

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