Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From the Archives: Awry

Here's a piece I did in Reading/Writing Autobiography, about the first time I realized adults weren't infallible. It gets kind of personal, so if you're weirded out, that's okay. I'm a little weirded out too. We can be weirded out...together.

There are spiders on the ceiling above my bed.

No, not really. I’m not dumb, I know they’re not spiders.
They’re mosquitoes: the really big, scary, spindly ones, with legs way too long for their bodies. I close my eyes and can feel a hair-thin leg against my face. I know mosquitoes drink blood, but how much? A lot? These are bigger than the gnats I fight through swarms of; maybe they can kill me

I open my eyes. The slowly moving shadows are just shadows. Stupid of me. But I’m not dumb; they really looked like mosquitoes. I roll to the side, til the bunk rail presses cold into my chest, and look at the baby bed.

The baby bed is my old bed. I’m way too big for it now. Mommy doesn’t throw stuff away, so we use it for my stuffed animals. I have lots, yeah, but they’re not girly or something. E.T. is there. And Animal, and some puppets.

And they’re all looking at me. Yeah, they look at everything, but right now their eyes are all on me.

I roll over, looking at the ceiling, but those shadows look bad. I roll to the wall and curl up, like a baby unborn, but their eyes are hot on my back. It’s not fair; they’re normal during the day. When the lights are off, they get curvy, sharp, but they can’t move—so they watch me.

I ignore them. I’m not a baby. I’m nearly six. That’s old. I listen to my brother’s snores in the bunk below mine; try to think about other stuff. The Ninja Turtles—they’d never stare at me like that. They’d have me help them fight The Foot, and give me pizza. I close my eyes, try to sleep and dream of pizza and ninjas, but something makes me look over my shoulder.
There, over the hill of blanket bluer than my crayons, past the shelf far below stuffed with Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes. Just his head visible, cut in half by the safety bar. E.T., friend of kids everywhere, my secret weapon when my cousin visits (I chased him across the yard with him once). He’s staring at me, more so than the others, because he’s got marble eyes that catch the light.

Is his arm moving?

I tumble down the ladder, my brother never waking, and flee down the hall. Usually Mommy meets me halfway. She told me she has a special antenna that all mothers have, they get it installed when we’re born, and she always knows when I need someone.

But she’s not in the hall now. There’s no light under her door; usually it’s on when I get to the staircase. Maybe her antenna’s not working. But I need her anyway, even if she’s sleeping or something, because the hallway’s way too dark, and the animals could be following me. If E.T. can move, maybe he taught the others how to. I push open her door, but quietly.

I can see Mommy, sitting on the left side of the bed. She doesn’t see me; she’s kind of looking at her hands, really close up. The other side’s empty. But that’s normal. Daddy’s boss is mean. Because of this mean guy, my dad goes on business trips a lot, and sometimes he sleeps at his desk. We don’t see him a lot now. I complain about the boss sometimes, ask why Daddy doesn’t get a new job. Mommy just hugs me when I say that.

I don’t say anything. I’ll surprise her.

I get to the front (foot?) of the bed and stop. Mommy’s not looking at me. She’s shaking a little, enough to make the blanket around her move. Maybe she’s praying, her hands are covering her eyes. It’s too dark, I can’t tell…I almost ask, but I don’t want to surprise her. Not anymore.
She makes a noise, and it sounds like a mouse, a little squeaky sound. It happens when she shakes, every couple times. There’re some Kleenex on her bedside table. Her alarm clock makes them glow, turns one of her knees sort of red. The rest of her’s not close enough.

I hear the sound again. It’s…broken, weird, not like her at all. Is she…

No. She isn’t.
Yes, she is.
She’s crying.

I’m not thinking about the animals anymore, or about E.T. coming down the hall. Mommy is crying. I crawl onto the bed behind her, I hug her really tight. She breathes in quick, like she’s scared, and looks back at me. Big bags under her eyes, looking like a raccoon. She hasn’t been sleeping.

“Jimmy,” she says, but her voice is all thick, like something’s in her throat. “What am I going to do? How can I…”

“It’s okay, Mommy.” I don’t let her finish. My voice is low, quiet, like she is when I cry. “We’ll take care of you. It’ll be okay. Don’t cry anymore.”

She stares at me, barely breathing. Her face is all wet, and she seems really small. Then she hugs me back, real tight, and she’s Her again.

I sleep next to her, in daddy’s spot, and wonder why he wasn’t hugging her instead of me.

Mom was like Superman.
Sorry. Little me’s terms. My terms: Mom was invincible. Untouchable. The bastion of sanity as the world falls to pieces around you; if it were a toss-up between God and my mom in a crisis, I’d have taken Mom in a heartbeat. Hell, I thought God was an invisible guy living in a director’s chair in our church. Mom was a living, breathing thunderbolt: wrangling five brothers, paying bills, making dinner. She even tore around in a huge Chevy Suburban I could surf in the back of. And if that SportMart guy wouldn’t let us return my defective bike, she’d stay there and argue until they gave her a better Huffy out of desperation. She was Power.
Mom was a good actress.

The stress never got to her, not in front of us, even when my father vanished on business trips to Boston where I assume he shopped for a new apartment. To us, were perfect: they smiled, and hugged, and slept with me between them in the bed like a boy Berlin Wall. She kept it up always.

Seeing Mom cry in an empty bed was akin to feeling an earthquake for the first time. The room’s corners blur, your footing becomes falling, and you can only look around and ask what the fuck was that? No idea what caused it, nor what’ll happen next. The world cracks a little, tiny fissures spreading along the edges, quietly undermining the whole of everything.
Had I known when I hugged her that she was crying—probably doing that squeaking so she wouldn’t sob and wake any of us up—because my father had left us and didn't seem to be coming back, the effect would have been less a tremor, more a sledgehammer delivered to my center of gravity. There might have been spikes involved.

As it was, it was the first hint that our home was awry. I wish I knew that word at the time; it would have been perfect.

“Hey, Jimmy, how’s it going?”
“I’m okay. Daddy’s not home, though. I think something is…awry.”

Sums it up perfectly.

Mom was crying. Dad was gone. My usual source of comfort was being comforted. I felt a strange sensation then, though I couldn’t articulate it—I was holding up the ground I usually stood on.

What would I have done, were I me now in the same position? I picture me, staring at the ceiling with wary cluelessness. I’m concerned about my Mommy, but more focused on new suspicious shadows. I wish the young me could sit up. Ask her where Dad is. Tell her more than “it’ll be okay,” know more than “mommy is sad.”

But I can’t even say things are awry. So I lie there, knowing that I gave her what I could—I helped Superman back into the air. Then I toss and turn a little, and dream of Ninja Turtles.

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