Kansas City, Missouri
Johnson hadn’t been home in a week. Instead, he chose to sleep at his apartment on campus, which was fine because I didn’t really want him back anyway. I enjoyed my morning cigarette while standing in a clutch of trees at the edge of our property. The children picked flowers. The town’s tornado siren went off. We were on the far side of the pasture, the house floated on the horizon like a cruise ship, Tom and Victoria grabbed my hands and we started running. Dark skies closed in, the wind swirled, snatching anything not nailed down.
We made it to the shelter and closed ourselves in. Like a summer blockbuster movie the metal doors pounded. It was a huge monster that was outside trying to get in, and that’s what I always told the children. Victoria stood calmly against the wall of the basement while Tom clung to my waist. I hand combed his hair running my fingers through the strands. They were tassel soft. It was possible that everything would be gone when we got outside and then disappearing would be easy. The storm took us. Johnson wouldn’t know where to start looking. The siren stopped and as we crept outside, everything was okay. It was still a beautiful day and I felt nothing but disappointment. I counted on a light breeze that carried an anxious early afternoon heat, hoping it would go away once the darkness settled.
Like whirlpools the kids skirted around me, and moved through the obstacle course kitchen, chairs, table; Tom bumped the edge and the vase at the centerpiece wobbled. Victoria stopped mid-stride and glanced at me while touching it slightly, which kept it from falling over. She was loose and quick; perhaps one day she would become a magician. I was seeing grown up moments in them, tiny creases starting to form on Victoria’s forehead when she frowned, and the dimples in Tom’s cheeks, which were almost permanent since his reaction to most things was a smile. I tried to remember that this was temporary and they wouldn’t be young forever.
I set the metal teapot on the stove and began the water for tea. Mint was tastier with sugar, the Mason jar on the counter full of tiny white crystals. I often found Tom standing there dipping his finger over and over inside the glass, and sucking it clean. He repeated until the sound of my feet crossing the wooden floor announced his partner in sugar crime. There was a little bit of discovery for both of us but no one was saying out loud that sugar was a treat not a food group.
Steam curled off the mug, soft ripples of energy while I stirred in the sugar. I anticipated the bite, kick, and then I felt it in my eyes. It was too good, not excessively good, because then it’s just selfish. The taste improved with every bird sip, the water cooled, and minty aroma chased the sugar. Tom and I single handedly worked through a pound of sugar over the course of a few months. It felt like progress, something we did together. The house stirred in one spot, where the children played, and my action was inaction. There was nowhere for me to go but I felt a magnetic force pulling me to where they sat. Live through your children, which is what everyone says to you when you are mothering. When we went outside there was so much time left in the day and looking again it seemed like time didn’t even move forward. Just being there had to be enough. These kids needed me, and they didn’t even know it, and that’s what they don’t tell you about, the need. Children take so much for granted. Why shouldn’t they?
Victoria and Tom played side-by-side, cross-legged amid a sea of toys and surrounded by a sofa. The windows on the first floor wide open to keep the air moving, and until the phony tornado, it was dead calm. The storm had passed but the drapes still danced a little jig at the edge of my vision. Every so often I felt a trickle of wind.
With my tea I sat near them just outside their world. Victoria colored on a piece of paper and Tom stared at a pile of Lego bricks. Like a surgeon finding the right artery to cut, he put pieces together. Light filled the room, and I picked up my camera and focused on their faces. Their eyes glowed. It was a cliché to think that their power was from somewhere deep inside them but it was. They started to heat up and through the viewfinder they gained a substance. Stepping in closer, no longer camera shy, they ignored me. Victoria pulled back her bed head hair, tucking it behind each ear, knowing she was having her picture taken. Tom looked at her with awe; he was still a very young seven years old. At eight, Victoria begged to be taken seriously but was still afraid of the dark. They both recognized a photo-op.
They weighed heavy, often in tiny ways. Some days after getting them fed, “Mommy is taking a shower, alone.”, I would inform them as I slowly climbed the stairs. It was a matter of telling them where I was in the house; they were old enough to sit and play by themselves. It wasn’t like I was asking them to shingle the roof. Victoria and Tom took turns bursting into the bathroom, crossing that line which we had agreed upon, ripping the shower curtain open like a Christmas present. Tom didn’t even say, “Excuse me.” I wanted to lock the door and put in earplugs and sleep in the tub. They wouldn’t starve. Keeping your eyes on other people for every waking moment was the challenge, and no one told me that either. I learned with Victoria. She followed me around like a duckling. Tom arrived a year later and I was suddenly outnumbered.
Staring at my wet and naked body, Tom laughed. I blinked between the rivulets of water; I felt his humor. I focused on him, then he would smile and bound away like a kitten. “Other room!” he would say, his eyes never truly on me, just staring at my steamy presence.
Victoria would peek in, and I would catch her flat gaze as it settled on my waistline. The flesh fold that never snapped back, my unkempt hairy crotch, she focused on it. She knew how to judge before she could walk. They sat on the bed and watched me dress; looking at me, you would think the secrets of adulthood could be discovered in the button and zipper on my jeans. My presence was important to them and it created a harmless place to be. I was losing time which crept into my fingertips like a mosquito bite. They didn’t care about art. Picture taking. Tom and Victoria only worried about television and the next snack. I often dragged my own wants to the foreground, past the kids. Make a list of five things you want to do and then if you get one done you have succeeded. I just picked one thing and did it. Skipped the list altogether; it was overwhelming.
I always tried to shake it off and realized that getting something accomplished usually erased the guilt. Boredom arrived in bunches and the immediate solution was to change my surroundings. Look at something else and take my camera. I wanted to drop Tom off at school with Johnson so I could take Victoria to the mall to get her ears pierced. She was young enough that I could talk her through the pain and old enough to appreciate that this was a means to an end.
At the bus stop they waited in the shelter. I watched them through the viewfinder and got a moment of recognition from Victoria. She straightened up her back and stuck her chin forward, and Tom preferred to slouch or pretend to look away when he was really waiting for me to take his picture. I stopped, they weren’t movie stars, and waited until that moment when these children had forgotten about me. I almost put them on the bus alone just to see what they would do next.
The bus engine thrummed under our seat as we moved down the road. Tom sat across the isle and Victoria leaned against me and looked out the window. We jiggled along until our stop and walked off like a family of ducks. The heat draped over us like a wet blanket. I could only think about the next place I wanted to be and not spend even a second in the moment – another thing I’m sure some wise old mother wrote down on a stone tablet. When they get old enough and figure out gravity, where and when things can hurt them, children tend to protect against the coarse world. They don’t really want any help.
The halls at The Kansas City Art Institute were lined with bad Xerox’s of bad Xerox’s for parties, lost dogs, apartments, and meditation seminars. Air-conditioning slapped my face, and with it came my own sigh of relief as Tom and Victoria walked ahead with renewed energy. In the studio there were large tables under skylights and prints that I recognized laid out. Images from the time he spent with that surfer in California, the work that made him and his name as an up-and-coming photographer. Johnson’s assistant stood over the prints staring at them. I could see she was a devout worshiper but I recognized a practiced endurance that spiraled from her eyes when she dropped back to take in our frayed arrival.
We were not part of the equation in the studio but I didn’t care. I was Johnson’s wife, and would not even slow down for a second to interact with this person. She was too young to be anything threatening but she didn’t even smile when we arrived or try to greet us. I just needed some level of recognition, a sliver of respect – bullshit can be faked, even if we all know its bullshit. She was his type. I desperately hoped to find a pang of jealously; instead I just stared at this woman like she was another student.
I knocked on the darkroom door next to me. Victoria stood with her arms crossed. “We’re going. Your assistant is here with Tom,” I said and turned to the thin woman who seemed so impressed with her own presence, which wasn’t grotesque – her face was off white like she had taken a shower in baby powder. I stepped closer and could see she wasn’t wearing make-up. Her skin was actually white and the V-neck of her shirt revealed more of her cleavage.
Offering her a pained smile, “What’s your name?” I asked.
She touched her hair brown with both hands and I noticed her firm cheekbones.
“Elizabeth,” she uttered softly. Then her hands hung at her side. She looked like a student awaiting instructions. Her black t-shirt and dark blue jeans were on purpose, casual but sexy. I wanted my husband to burst out of the darkroom at that moment, hoped he would take charge and show some interest in our son.
“Elizabeth is here,” I yelled, and then she smiled knowing this meant we were leaving.
The revolving door spun and Johnson emerged from the darkroom. “I’m working.” He barely opened his eyes, adjusting to the light. Scruff on his face, he avoided looking at me and focused on his shoelaces as if they were untied. Then the telltale giveaway, he looked Elizabeth up and down and then over to me.
The children just stared at him, not even a whisper to their father.
I had already turned back to the studio’s main entrance. “Your son is staying here while you work,” I said, as Victoria and I moved down the long hallway.
I could hear them talking. Tom asked Elizabeth, “Are you an artist too?”
Back on the bus Victoria sat next to me again, this time holding my hand. It felt like a connection to have her reach out and not just hold my hand but take it from me and actively squeeze it. There was a kind of solid completion building in my stomach. Parenting these children felt hard won. It was too on-the-nose but it was clear to me that these were accomplishments: taking pictures of them, earrings, riding the bus. All details that made up the day. Riding in the cool air made things suddenly very easy and our simple plans became a pleasure.
At the mall the young Asian woman looked like she had just smelled steaming compost. Bent at the waist, her pants slid down slightly to reveal her ass crack, her olive skin smooth and unblemished. She held a freezing gel on Victoria’s left earlobe. It took a minute to take effect and I found myself in the reflection of the Gap store window across from the jewelry stand. The gun went off. Victoria didn’t flinch. There was very little to it, just a tiny bit of blood.
The Asian woman’s silky black hair fell off her shoulders and her face was lost inside a curtain of it as she fastened the back of the studs. Victoria didn’t move. The Asian woman tucked Victoria’s hair behind her ears; a smear of blood streaked a loose strand.
I started coughing again, hacked up phlegm, and looked for a place to spit it out. A garbage can filled with bloody tissues next to the chair where Victoria sat was the only option. I spat into it when the Asian woman looked away.
I returned to my reflected image. My body was round; the curves seemed permanent, almost too soft. People could see that I was a mother, especially when I had the kids with me. But when I was alone, so rare that I could count on one hand how many times that happened – did everyone automatically know that I was a mother? I stared at the mannequins and wondered who they were trying to fool with those styles. Did anyone wear them? Clothes looked better on skinny people. Like fast food commercials, you never see fat actors in those. I couldn’t escape my shape. Any outfit, no matter how carefully chosen, seemed like blankets and fancy bedspreads on me with holes cut out for arms and legs.
Victoria and Tom never noticed, and Johnson certainly didn’t care. They ate and my cooking made them happy. This was motherhood and if those great mothers who came before all others had actually shared this, I probably would have become a lesbian or gotten a dog.
When I was growing up, I never recognized or even noticed these things. Children are so self-centered and only worry about themselves. I wondered if my own mother had these same problems. She was present, part of my life, but I never once thought about what she was thinking or feeling when I was growing up. She lived through me, just like I was doing. How would Victoria see this moment, if she even remembered it? This was part of being a parent, and my own mother did it without pause.
I did not think about any of this until it was happening and then afterwards almost not at all. It was infuriating that one generation never handed down the experience to the next. A type of anxious anger built up in my chest and I had no interest in hearing from this woman. We paid and left the little kiosk. She did her job, and I wanted to slap her. I don’t know why that was. She did nothing to me or Victoria but when I passed a perfume shop and a twenty-something wearing clothes a size too small with a thong peeking out of her jeans stepped out to offer me a squirt of perfume on my wrist, I caught my reflection again in a mirror behind her. I was tire shaped; it made me sick to look at myself.
The perfume girl said, “Would you like a sample?”
Looking away from my image to her, “Fuck you.” I said and took one last glimpse at my body. I seemed to be modeling a kind of homeless slob look. My hair needed conditioner, and I appeared lifeless and pale. My clothes were so out of style that perhaps I had traveled through time to get them. The perfume girl receded and Victoria blanched at the profanity. It was okay, she’d heard worse. It should be obvious that swear words were okay in certain situations.
When we returned to the school, Tom was outside with Elizabeth. They stood on the large green lawn throwing a Frisbee back and forth. She threw it, Tom returning it to her poorly, letting it fly like a drunken pigeon. Victoria and I waited for the traffic to break, and we jaywalked our way towards Tom. She threw the Frisbee high; Tom chased it and ran into the street. He leaned down to get it and in the near distance I saw a car coming. Letting go of Victoria’s hand, I ran towards Tom. The car saw him, skidded to a stop and as he lifted his head to the sound, the bumper connected with his forehead.
He snapped back and held his head, then fell to the ground and lay on his back. I was five feet away when it happened. I missed stopping it by three seconds. Tom started breathing hard and then wept, a scared cry, breathing in gulps. I grabbed him in my arms and ran towards Elizabeth. Everything fell away and stopped in that tiny moment. Tom’s eyes were closed and then they flickered open. My heart bounced around inside my chest. I felt a huge vacant lot where my stomach was only moments before. I started to shake as my mind broke in one direction away from this scene to the nearest thing I could see.
“Get a car. Take us to the hospital, now!” I screamed at Elizabeth and she suddenly jumped to life, running off. It wasn’t fast enough. I didn’t know where to go, and had no idea where the hospital was or how far. I pressed his body to my chest and my other hand was free to cover the wound on his forehead as blood leaked between my fingers. His tears started to dry, my heart beat wildly but I could feel Tom’s heart going faster. I ran towards Victoria who stood on the grass staring at us. Tom was hard to carry and I almost dropped him.
“You know where your father is?” I said to Victoria. She couldn’t speak but nodded her head.
“Tell him to meet us at the emergency room.”
While I waited, in that moment I thought he had died. My child had been taken from me, no warning, like snapping my fingers, it was that fast. There were spots in my vision; my breath seemed broken and hard to get up the windpipe. I stared at Tom, willing his eyes to open, and then they did. I breathed, almost vomited on him, joy washed over me. I felt light, as if I had lost fifty pounds. Tom was hot and sweaty, beads of my own rolled from my forehead and dropped to his checks as he smiled up at me. I began to cry, turned to sobs, and I pulled him closer. She pulled up in a car and while I waited for her to open the passenger door I felt the raging desire to punch her in the face.
She drove recklessly, looking over at me with a petrified gaze. Her long hair had come undone and she pulled it away from her face. Tom took turns looking at me, and her, then back to me. The blood on his head was only a trickle.
We stopped short at the door to the emergency room, “If I ever see you again I will kill you,” I said to Elizabeth.
I never took my hand off his forehead, his warm body wrapped around mine, his eyes open, staring off into space like he’d just seen a great white shark in the bathtub.
“It’s going to be okay,” I whispered in a panicked voice. Inside a nurse rushed up to us and I described what happened. She took Tom from me and I followed them to a bed at the end of a very long hallway where the nurse wheeled him away.
He was gone for an hour. Loneliness chased me around the room, and I was buoyed by the fact that when the nurse took him, he was alive. My eyes darted across the white drop ceiling of the emergency room waiting area. I counted the random dot grid of the tiles, wondered if a machine made them, and started to look for a pattern in each tile that was repeatable. I counted the tiles, lost interest, and instead stared at a television set in the corner that was tuned to the news. The nurse who took Tom from me arrived a few minutes later, my breath stopped as the words came out of her mouth, “Tom is fine, we’re doing an x-ray. You can come wait in the room.” She said and waved for me to follow her.
I was instantly filled with glee, sugar sweet and I wiped the sweat from my face, hands damp, I dried them on my clothes. “Jesus Christ,” I whispered aloud. I had dodged something very dangerous, and zigged when I should’ve zagged. It wasn’t luck or anything else but a kind of circumstance. I swore to be vigilant and never let him out of my sight. From now on I would be the good mother and he would know no harm. My stride stiffened as I followed the nurse. Putting on a good front for these people was my only concern. She showed me to a chair in the hospital room and then disappeared. I waited for Tom to arrive.
The doctor glided in first with the nurse behind him as she wheeled a calm and bandaged Tom back into the room. The doctor must’ve been a basketball player; his belt was almost parallel to my chin. I coughed again and lost my breath; I couldn’t stop. Finally the cough slowed down to a hack. He was very patient with us and Tom sat staring at me like his voice had disappeared.
“Tom is fine. Lucky. But he will have a nice scar on his forehead for a few years. X-rays reveal nothing. I’d like to keep him here for a few hours. We try to keep head wounds awake for a while,” the doctor said.
I coughed deeply, caught my breath, “Nothing to worry about?”
“No,” the Doctor smiled. “But that cough sounds terrible. How long have you had it?”
Coughing again, “Six months.”
He looked at my purse that was wide open on the floor. “Those aren’t cough suppressants.” He pointed to my cigarettes.
“I want to sit with him until he can go home.”
The doctor said, “If you have that cough in a week, the same or worse, you come back,” he smiled and walked away.
The coughing stopped for a while and Tom stared up at the ceiling. The nurse, who for the first time became a person in my eyes, came back with a deck of cards and a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
“You two need something to occupy your time,” she said, her fat face slippery with sweat. Chubby sausage link fingers handed everything to me. She was suddenly in focus, like a television that had quickly found reception. Her body was worse than mine and I’m sure she knew it. I felt her stare at me, her insecurity oozed. Her body was sagging, her chest was huge – a shapeless mass under scrubs. She disappeared and the shifts must have changed because we never saw her again.
Tom and I played Go Fish. Another nurse brought more ice cream, and Tom let me share some of it with him as I suddenly found my appetite. This nurse was thin, young, and must have been told something by the last nurse. Perhaps she was given a piece of advice, “Don’t make eye contact with the mother whose kid got hit by a car. She is your future if you aren’t careful.” I knew there wasn’t anything I could do about all of this and knew that I didn’t have to be nice to these people anymore.
By the time Johnson showed up I was almost asleep in the chair. He talked to Tom who was still awake. I peeked and could see a sleeping Victoria in his arms.
“What happened?” he whispered.
“I was playing Frisbee,” Tom said.
“I thought you got hit by a car?”
Tom sighed, “Yeah.”
Later, when I woke up, Johnson had fallen asleep in the opposite chair with Victoria snoring on his chest.
It felt good to see Tom laying in bed and talking to his father. Not because it was the right thing to be happening, my husband was suddenly revealing true empathy for his son, which should be natural for him. Now I had something on Johnson. It was me that kept our son alive. I brought him to the hospital and they saved him. It was me who reacted when he didn’t. Others might see it differently, I was there and he wasn’t. It was a little tug and pull between us and made me feel better. I was alive in that moment. He just showed up because of the guilt. There’s a difference and we both knew it.