2 weeks before
She reaches out and slaps me.
Her hands are cold, the skin stretched tight over the blue marbling of her veins. My body recoils before I can register the hand mark on my cheek. Soundlessly, I run my thumb across my jaw. My mother’s lips are a hard, thin line. She didn’t look particularly shocked or emotional.
“What was that for?”
“You have to fucking listen to me.”
My hand drops to my side and I stumble backwards. Okay, Okay, Okay. It is the only word I can come up with and it sloshes back and forth inside my skull. Maybe if I tilt my head, the word will leak out of one ear and leave me completely empty. Okay, Okay. This is okay.
“You didn't have to slap me.” I say this but the words feel hollow. Something to fill up the space between us.
“You want me to drive all the way to Dale City for some sauce.” “YOU FORGOT IT.”
“Jesus.” I clench and unclench my fists, trying to pull together the threads of my mother’s mind. I imagine them, blood red, thrown across the room like confetti. A down cycle. Down. Down. Down. My mother is unspooling in front of me, vibrating with anger, and I feel like I am the one going crazy.
“Just fucking leave. Just go.”
My stomach growls, an unwanted interloper that dares to make itself known. She’s sitting on the bed, the sheets twisted around her. The plastic bag of food is perched precariously around her exposed ankles.
“Okay.” I hold out my hands, a pacifying gesture.
I want to scream, but instead I silently shuffle backwards. It’s slow progress because of the dog shit and the trash around my feet. Okay, okay, okay. I don’t know what this is: a mantra, a bleak attempt at self-reassurance. My mind feels cloudy as I reach for the door handle. Thank God, it’s still there. A way out.
It’s just me and her in the apartment. My father has always orbited around us, inevitably crashing into our lives. On and off, on and off. But for now, as I rest my knuckles against my eyelids, it’s just the two of us. The door screens her from view, but I know she’s just staring ahead, blinking in confusion.
She won’t even eat the food that I’ve given her: steaming yellow rice with peas and carrots, cheese pupusas wrapped in oily parchment paper. I will wait for her head to droop, her face slack against the dirty sheets. Make sure she’s finally still. That’s when I will find her food all dried up, clumps of rice and dehydrated vegetables. The reason I was punished. Of course, she will have no recollection. She never does, living in an acrylic world where all the paint bleeds together. But I always remember. Each memory hovering like a beating pulse, a dull throbbing that continues to light up the insides of my cheek.
The earliest, tangible memory I have of my mother was inside her closet.
My mother, when I was four, had crawled under her desk while she was working as a triage nurse in Alexandria, Virginia. For much of my childhood, I imagined the scene in detail because this was the very beginning of the end. I see my mother, her chin curled against her chest, and my father scooping her up as though she were weightless. Over and over again, I see the television screen throbbing with news of the DC Sniper, my father’s calm procession across the lobby. I see him later standing at the gate of my preschool, dusk burning around his shoulders. It will be the first of many apparitions, strangers waiting to take my hand. Your mom’s in the hospital.
She retreated into her closet, suddenly and inextricably agoraphobic, and never would return to work again. The closet had a sliding paneled door. She wedged two desks on either end, one for me and another for herself. There were soft string lights that floated above us like dragonflies, silently hovering over our heads. My mother sketched, her forearms freckled with marker ink. What I remember, so distinctly, was that my McDonald’s burger, nestled in crinkled yellow and red paper, had onions. Onions! The fact that my mother——her hair wispy around her ears, dark shadows running under her blue eyes——was undone, hidden in a closet, didn’t faze me. What startled me was the ubiquitous presence of the onions, strongly fragrant, that scattered over my burger bun.
My beautiful mother no longer wore mascara and blue eyeshadow to work.
Her face had become pale and drawn, almost unrecognizable to me. No one ever thought to sit beside me, at such a small age, and tell me that they didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her. Closets and McDonald's Happy Meals slowly transitioned to my mother sprawled in her bed, lost in a haze. Orange pill canisters and endless hospital hallways converged like an optical illusion. The truth was, there was no simple answer explaining how the walls of my mother’s mind began to crumble. You could blame a lot of things: trauma from her time in the Air Force, brain injury, a lack of empathetic medical professionals. The hardest truth to swallow, by far, is the simple fact that I lost my mother before I ever really got to know her.
She looks a lot like me.
Sometimes I take this for granted, because after seventeen years of being with her, I had run away and slipped into other people’s families. And while a hairdresser or a grocery clerk might not notice that I didn’t share features with those around me, it was obvious to me. I have my mother’s strong jaw, the same shade of hair that has since turned iron grey. The same exposed veins in the same freckled flesh.
Mostly, the resemblance scares me.
In the few pictures I have managed to recover, I tower over my mother. My arms are skeletal, hanging limply at my sides. I have angled my body so that it doesn’t really connect with hers, but you can see the desperation in her eyes to inch closer. These pictures are deceitful. They show flashes of an up cycle——the way she’s outside, her expression lucid, her eyelids heavy with mascara. She still looks pale, her face dappled with shadow. Her cheeks are round and discolored, as though someone has smudged the photograph. She smiles.
In the pictures that I have salvaged, it’s my freshman year of high school. So she still has most of her teeth, but by the time that I will leave, she will lose all of them. It’s actually her worst nightmare:
“I wake up and I see myself with all my teeth gone. Just...gone.”
In the film bank of my memory, she tells this to me over and over, leaning over our apartment sink. I distinctly remember watching her fingering her canines, as though they would immediately slip out of their sockets. They were aligned straight and white in her pink gums, unlike mine. (I imagine that I take after my biological father in this sense——maybe we both have the same gapped teeth, unyielding, long limbs, green eyes. All anomalies that I don’t share with the rest of my maternal family.)
But when I see my mother for the last time, in my senior year, she will have a broken, chewed set of dentures. Time disfigures her smile into a leering pumpkin grin. It will haunt me, staring at those dirty, broken teeth. Because her worst nightmare came true.
One Month Before.
The sun splits across my dashboard, burning the back of my eyelids. I cant my head to avoid the glare, blindly feeling for the car’s visor. “Shit,” I mutter, pressing my foot to the gas. I am already dressed in my work uniform, bleach stained and reeking of old fried chicken. It’s not like I’m late, but I like getting to work early so I can sit in stillness before standing on my feet for eight hours. Beside me, my bag drops with an ugly thunk. I have been awarded a scholarship to attend a writing workshop in Falls Church and now all my notes are sprawled across the passenger side.
It’s August. The collar of my polo sticks to my neck as I switch lanes. I feel like I am swimming in my stiff, belted uniform. But in this moment, even baking in the waves of hot, stinking air, I am at peace. Someone honks behind me and I don’t even bother to give them the bird. Then, inextricably, she calls me.
I have not seen my mother in a week.
She often vanishes, this time retreating to Prince William Forest. When I was a sophomore, she left me alone in the apartment for over three months when she drove to New Hampshire on a whim. Junior year, she went to camp in Shenandoah. When I sliced my foot open, I had to call the Park Rangers in order to contact her, only to have her scream at me for disturbing her peace. The hospital staff didn’t want to treat me because I was a minor. But I have come to love these periods of peace, of silence. I had hoped that I would have a couple of more weeks alone.
My heart lurches when I recognize her number.
“Yes?” I search her voice automatically, just as I have learned to hunt for the scent of cheap vodka seeping out of my father’s pores. I can map out whether it’s an up cycle or a down cycle from the slur of her words, the cadence of her voice.
“Where are you? You have to come now. NOW. Do you hear me?”
“I can’t, mom. I’m on my way to work.” I clench my hands around the steering column until the veins gleam iridescently, pushing up against the skin. This can’t be good.
She ignores me: “Wear black, Kat. All black. Do you have a black hat, baby? I don’t want them to see you.”
“What?” Again, the wave of hysteria. I taste metal in the back of my mouth.
“I saw them again. Last night. And they took me and no one will believe me. But we are gonna catch ‘em together, I set up cameras.”
This is new. Mostly new. My mother’s down cycles have always been predictable. I would count down when I started to notice the signs, the way she would start to make impulse decisions and retreat into her bedroom, sleeping all night and day. I would wait for it to pass, when she would emerge from her room, somewhat functioning. I would sit with her while she went to bingo or went on massive spending sprees. Then I would quietly try and figure out her credit card balances, go to the grocery store and make sure she had soft foods to eat. Cottage cheese, boiled eggs, yogurt.
A few times she had hallucinated, but I had always credited it to medication. When I was thirteen and her voice had suddenly turned husky, another personality had emerged to talk with me. That had been the first time, terrifying me. But I could tell no one, because she had seizures the week before. I had seen her slowly start to twitch, and then, in slow motion, crash into the side table lamp and slump on the floor. I had cradled her head, pushing aside the shards of glass, until the shakes stopped.
“If you tell, then they will take away my driving license,” she had said when I told her what had happened. “Then what? How will I drive you to school, or to the grocery store?” That was the way it went: there was no one to tell when these things happened. If you tell, if you let them know, if you say anything... I had enough scares with CPS. It wasn’t that I was scared to be separated from my mother. I was scared what would happen to her if someone stopped watching out for her. Who would monitor if she was breathing, if she choked on her pills, if she didn’t pay her credit card balance?
“Kat? When can you come here? Are you on the way?”
I hang up and try to breathe deep. A coldness creeps over me, spilling down my neck and pinching my shoulder blades together. I do what I always do when something like this happens: assess. Will she come to my work, to pull me out? My mother has no sense of boundaries, of the severity of her accusations.
Finally, I decide I will let this pass. Eventually, she will wear herself out and sleep. After all, there has always been an up cycle to replace a downer, always. Lately, it has taken longer and longer for my mother to come back to me. It never occurs to me that maybe she won’t resurface again.
It must have been around age eleven when I started to assume responsibility for my mother. When she and I moved back to New Hampshire without my father, I suddenly became aware of the depths of her illness. The decision was based on an ugly ultimatum that left our home sundered, broken. My mother would either leave, with me, or she would shoot herself. It apparently wasn’t the first time she had made a similar threat, but my father had tried to shield me.
Why he watched us leave is beyond me. My father probably was too exhausted, too drunk, to want to stop us. I never blamed him for this. He had married into this perfect, little family: my mother and me, a two-year old little thing with sprigs of honeysuckle hair. The story goes that I reached for him, smiling, and that was it. All my father had ever wanted was the chance to have a family. He didn’t know that we were ticking time bombs: my mother was already cracking from the inside, out.
I knew, on some level, that my father’s strength had begun to ebb the day he carried my mother out of the medical lounge. I had grown up with the sag of his shoulders and his sad, wet eyes. The window of his sobriety was surprisingly short: he would come home from work, wrench his tie off, and take me grocery shopping. While he cooked, he drank bloody marys from white Styrofoam cups. The top of his lips were stained red from the putrid tomato juice, his hands shaking while he chopped and sautéed. He kept his vodka on the porch, where my mother couldn’t see. Once he passed out on his recliner, there was no reaching him. I would just curl up beside him, listening to him breathe, pretending he was there with me.
That first night in New Hampshire, it rained hard. My mother, maybe afraid, slept close to me on an army cot. I stared at the dark profile of her face for a while, realizing that I couldn’t pull her out of her preternatural slumber. The house could be burning, and there she would remain: breathing through her mouth, lips open, her face stippled with shadow. I tried to call my father, listening to the endless ringing and the shallow recording of his voice. It was in that moment that I realized what it really meant for him to be drunk. He was totally inaccessible to me. I couldn’t simply reach over and shake him awake.
Feeling alone, my thoughts collapsed into warm, salty tears. Eventually, I had the painful realization that my tears wouldn’t wake my mother, wouldn’t bring her to me. The rain lashed against the windows, blurring my view of the roof shingles and the muddy lawn. I would learn to slip away, just as both of my parents did, when these feelings threatened to eclipse me.
I am sick.
It’s mid-September and the hallways feel stifled, the air is still heavy and pregnant with moisture. I ran out of cold syrup a few days ago, but I can’t buy anymore because I’m not eighteen. There’s two mental countdowns drilled into my head: the day I’m a legal adult and graduation. I’m not sure what’s more pressing at this point. The wave of initial back-to-school sickness passes for most, but I keep getting more and more sick.
“You don’t look so great.”
I’m perched on one of the black lab tables, watching my feet skim the floor. I get to school as soon as the custodians unlock the door, then I make my rounds to the teachers who arrive early. Mrs. Ahrens, who never actually taught me, looks up from her keyboard. She hands me a tissue.
“Weird that you haven’t gotten any better. Did you go to the doctor’s?” I can’t go to a doctor’s without a legal guardian, but I don’t say this.
“It’s just stress.” I shrug my shoulder, accustomed to lying to well-meaning adults. “You know, senior stuff.”
There are half-moon indentations in my palms. Perfect impressions of my fingernails. The truth is, people are starting to notice.
I wake up to the sound of her moaning. It’s maybe eleven at night, a few hours after my shift ended at work. Shit, shit, shit. She’s trying to climb the ladder of my loft bed, but doesn’t have the strength. Through the thick darkness, I can make out the shape of her at the bottom rung. Her body sags against the cold, black metal, crouched in thin bars of moonlight. I’ve never seen her like this.
“Kat,” she cries.
“Go back to sleep.” The words come out as a half-audible croak. I had almost lost my voice at work.
“What the hell do you want?” I prop myself up, trying to feel bigger than I am. Sometimes, when she gets like this, I have to be mean. Loud. But it’s hard when my bones feel hollow with sleep, my voice a raft that keeps slipping away from me.
“Shadow...figures.” She’s talking slow, an awful slurring. “Can’t. Sleep.”
My head screams. I just want to sleep so then I can wake up, go to school. Closing my eyes, I try and imagine myself sitting cross legged in the hallway. I can see the checkered linoleum, cool to the touch. For a minute, this stills the hammering in my chest.
There’s a loud crashing sound and she’s back on the ground. It’s hard to believe that this is my mother. I once loved her, I know this. But now all I know is disgust, black and acrid in the back of my throat. And for the first time in my life, I’m scared of her. I’m terrified of what I’ve become, exhausted and brittle and uncaring. Or maybe I care too much.
My mother crawls back to my door, and then collapses against the threshold. She’s been saying things, but I can no longer distinguish words. I touch my hot cheeks, only to realize that I’ve been crying, too. Quickly, I climb out of bed and stagger to the door, turn the lock. I have never locked myself in from my mother. A moment later, I can hear her weakly pounding against the wood. Crying harder.
“Please, just leave me alone,” I whisper. I have given up all pretenses of being mean. I want to fold up in on myself, to become very small. There’s the sound of her throwing her body against the door and then more crying. I drag myself to the closet and curl up on the carpet, hands over my ears. The sound of her, broken and ragged, slices through me. I just want it to be over already, for her to sleep it off. When was the last time she slept? When was the last time she was cognizant? I suddenly can’t remember.
I wake up to the shrill sound of the fire alarm.
For a minute, panic forks its way across my skin like cold water. White light flashes from the corners of the room. My dog whines from my feet, pacing across the covers. His ears are up, just as shocked as I am. I tuck him under my arm and slip out of bed, sniffing to see if I can smell smoke. I think of all of the electrical wires, tangled and hidden under the rising trash in our living room. Images of embers, tongues of flame, fill up my vision. But I move quickly, not one to panic. I’ve had too many brushes with ambulance sirens and hospital monitors to really be scared. All I can think of is how I am going to move my mother. She is so much bigger than I am, especially if she’s unconscious. And there’s no way that I can ask for help.
The apartment is dark and silent, aside from the screeching fire alarms. I pivot my dog in my arms, straining to hold onto him and find the light switch. As usual, I am horrified to see the conditions that I live in. My room is my sanctuary--a recent one, too, since I used to share a room with my mother. The rest of the apartment is a sprawl of trash that I carefully work my way around. I continue to scan the living room, where my mom has been sleeping because her room is too uninhabitable.
In my confusion, with the throbbing white lights screaming behind me, I don’t notice that there is pounding at the front door.
I run to the door, unbolting it as fast I can. I am face to face with officers, their faces grim. I can see neighbors streaming out behind them, collecting like flies at the edge of the wallpapered hallway. They stare at me, at the police, at the white flashing alarms.
The men push into the apartment and start looking around. One turns to me, a familiar look in his eyes. “We were called because there was a suspected intruder.”
“Is there anyone else in here?”
“No, it’s just me. I can’t find my…” And then I stop. Peering across the officer’s shoulder, I can see her, incoherent with her fear. God, she did this.
The officers exchange looks. I am very familiar with their disbelief, their annoyance. “Is that your mother?”
I nod because my voice might betray me. One officer says something into his radio and then talks to the other officer, who goes to talk with my mother, or maybe the building superintendent. Embarrassment makes my cheeks hot. I immediately turn, because I can’t just stand here. I can’t look at her anymore. The officer follows me, because he has to take a statement.
“I’m sorry, she’s not very present at the moment.” I stop. “Annmarie Wagner. My mother.”
“Oh.” He scribbles something on his pad. I have to keep moving to disguise how badly I am shaking. She really was so lost in her hallucinations, that shadow men were creeping through the apartment, that she left me. She left me to be discovered by police and roaring fire alarms. It’s maybe four in the morning, but I stuff books into my backpack, determined not to take in the officer’s expression: pity, anger, annoyance. But what he says next makes me freeze.
“Do you live here?”
It’s just a routine question. After all, this is my bedroom and these are my books. My dog calmly regards me as I zip my bag shut. This is going to be okay. I’m okay. I don’t even realize I’ve spoken until the words are already out:
“No. No I don’t live here.”
The officer nods and leaves. I grip the railing of my bed to steady myself with one hand. Okay, okay, okay. The familiar mantra is like warm air flowing through my lungs. The alarm shuts off and the sudden silence echoes in my head like a phantom drum beat. My other palm is still on my bookbag, frozen. The blood rushes in my ears, a loud cacophony that is really just my breathing. I rummage through the closet and grab some clothes.
No. No I don't live here. Not anymore.
I run out into the night, past the other residents who are slowly streaming back into the building in confusion. It’s not until I’m sitting in the car that I finally open up my phone. I have nowhere to go; I have never asked for help. Never considered leaving. Who am I supposed to contact? The only people I can think of reaching out to, my friends, have never glimpsed into this side of my life.
Outside, there’s a warm, gentle breeze that envelopes the car. I crack open the windows, thinking that maybe I can smell oncoming rain. Inside the car, the screen lights up my face, casting it a bluish color. This decision is larger than I am. It fills me with a kind of determination, a kind of hope, that I have never experienced before. Not since the moment when I was eleven and realized how truly alone I was.
Is anyone awake? I’m in trouble. Please.
I don’t wait for a response, just pull away from the parking space. I let the predawn darkness settle around my shoulders like a blanket.
KATHERINE BROWN is finishing her undergraduate at the University of Mary Washington and plans to pursue an MFA for nonfiction. Her work gravitates around the exploration of family.