The bare essentials have to be chosen wisely. I have to leave so much behind in this frenzied panic of capitulation that my sentimentality for these various objects is quickly tested. Toothbrush, stockings, credit card, cell phone, six bras, forty-seven dollars in cash plus one half-spent Dunkin’ Donuts gift card (non-redeemable for cash), driver’s license with the abhorrent photo, six pairs of underwear. Leave behind all the leftovers, all the lost change, all the scented candles half-melted for over a year. Leave behind the empty feeling that nothing’s going to change. It’s one thing to go on living with it, but our respective limits have been tested far enough and it feels I’m hurtling down the emergency lane towards a padded barrier, facing the final point of escaping with my sanity intact. Gotta leave it behind; push yourself forward now, everything will pass, goodness will come to be and the light will bring you salvation.
All the old clothes shoved in a worn green-grey duffel bag. After each selection is carefully considered, I resign the remainders to their fate. He may choose to burn them, to forget the horrible thing I’m doing to him, he may choose to keep them for my smell, still present (I assume because one can hardly detect one’s own scent), as a memento of this love we attempted, and failed. There’s only so much a suitcase can hold when escape creeps into my consciousness. These clothes will be my companions for days and months, but I’ve only three hours before he gets home from work and a lot more to pack.
The old letters from Daniel: they’re only going to distract me with their weighty presence. A reminder as to why my flight is necessary. Memories from just after college when Daniel was courting me and the edges of life were amorphous, yet to be shaped by dissatisfaction. It’s really all that’s at the heart of what I crave, what pushes me away, this undeniable yearning for the satisfaction that accompanies contentment. I need somewhere to be content. I need a child to be content. At the very least, they’re easier to carry than the photo books.
A copy of The Secret History, by Donna Tart: need a bit of light reading for the road ahead. One of my recent favorites, her prose is just so elegantly witty.
Painting of the Chicago waterfront circa 1943 by my great uncle Hubert: hung above the CD collection in the living room, it’s brought me vague pleasure (or a melancholy sense of satisfaction) in its serenity and its part as a diversion for my thoughts and anxieties in the living room. Quite often I find myself staring at the placid scene, cargo freighters docking into ports interspersed with merchants and sailors adorning the marina, and I wonder what this meant to my great uncle, where his inspiration originated from and how he would react knowing it’s being viewed 50-ish years later, 600 miles away from the scene pictured. This distance is irrelevant to art, the scene is as clear as if I were actually present at the Chicago docks of his time, and I am, for these brief, liminal minutes. Too large to take with me though.
All the useful documents people are supposed to have: passport and birth certificate, stuff like that. Not much to say about these except how do I still not know how to look good in a photo? Was this something I was supposed to learn along the way?
American Standard Bible: father gave me this copy when I was only eight years old. I don’t think I truly read it for myself until about ten years later. I only opened it because I knew that’s what he wanted me to do, to accept the Lord into my life like he had. I finally caved and listened to the words, not simply reading them and looking at them. I was suffering from my sins, suffering between the creases in my skin, between my damaged joints. This book is the key to my redemption and, like myself, a secret of interpretation.
Goodbyes are in order: the only one here to see me go is Munchkin, the cat. His soft brown fur and calm temperament always helped to distract me from the rest of the house. There’s no space for him unfortunately. I leave him behind; I wouldn’t want to disrupt his peaceful way of life anyway. Why do I still have so many old clothes I never wear anymore? So many old things I haven’t looked at in years, what was I thinking keeping so much of this junk around? No wonder I was always complaining about the lack of space in this unbearable home. I wish I could take him with me. The cat I mean.
Cold skin returns me to myself, a creeping whisper along my hips. His hot breath answers my touch, drawing me in closer till we’re as close as he allows and the world around us disappears. Our sweat comingles, gently dripping into a collective luminescent pool. Along with our branded musks, the scent of mutual lust emanates from our bodies and intertwines with the juniper lightly wafting from some candles. His elongated voice collapses into me, but I was in another place and too distant to listen. I’m entrenched in the embrace of our rhythm, far too preoccupied to care about our surroundings or the moisture collecting and cooling under my back. Everything feels so real and vivid, like a photorealistic painting taking me to another place, but at the same time obscured in a waking dream. He tells me what to do, where to go, what to say, overpowering my senses with corporeal sovereignty. After a while I blow a soft bubble between us, keeping us afloat in this realm of duplicity, but we separate and cannot be found. We lie awake in this dark cave—illuminated by the candles—while we watch the drawings around us come alive and taunt our affection. Underneath the cave is a layer of song, a sense of being lifted somewhere higher, but by music or, I guess you could call it getting high, but not exactly. But he is unaware of my true intention. He doesn’t know how his touch has served its purpose, my purpose. He thinks I am weak. He leaves and then I sit alone, with my humble pride and new meaning, everything I asked for.
The child in my womb develops. He is a strange one. He likes when I watch The Price is Right in the motel room off Route Seventy. He kicks every time Bob Barker says, “Come on down!” I leave the show on for him, even when I’m not watching it, even when I’m just looking out the window—sipping on some tea—thinking to myself about how far the two of us have come. I feel a transitory swell of nausea (maybe I should have eaten something before the tea) and his kicks only make it worse. I turn off the TV and think in the silence. All I have left has made it into this room. All I have left is within me or in my hastily packed bag. The thought pervades my consciousness that I am beyond Daniel’s grasp, that every decision I make from this point happens without Daniel’s hand on the back of my neck, without Daniel’s gaze measuring my intentions. I think I’m going to be sick so I stumble into the bathroom where I vomit globules of semi-digested veggie lasagna and thick streams of bile. This becomes a ritual repeated every couple of hours until I know something is wrong, until I feel the water between my legs, and I realize I should’ve left a few days earlier. My life is beginning again.
Eight years have passed since the day I met Daniel. He was a child and I was a child and we both knew the future couldn’t wait. All the steps were written out for us, in our vows, in the mortgage, through every room of the house. His parents were stone-faced, working-class, good no-nonsense Samaritans who inadvertently gave him a morose sensibility and a peculiarly malicious view of the world. His parents couldn’t have cared less about whom he ended up with (hopefully someone with more money than he) while mine were always poking around, providing potential matches for me. But after Dad passed, Mom was the only one there for me, but she gave me too much space to grieve. She was affected just as much as I was, but she needed to be the strong one, for my sake, so we let it simmer beneath the surface. With no one left to come between us, we tore each other apart.
“I asked you a question, Veronica! How many times…Please look at me while I’m talking to you.”
“Around 8:30? I don’t know, I wasn’t keeping track.”
“Well, I wish you would call me next time,” she says, opening the pantry door and taking out a can of chicken noodle soup, “You know how much I love to worry.”
She never asks me how I am anymore, because on the off chance I actually have something to tell her, the answer is never good enough. I can feel her hand on my shoulder, encouraging me cordially to explain where I was and what I was doing and whom I was with, all without actually having the guts to ask me. Whatever.
“It’s not like I was out that late, I just needed to get away for a bit.”
“Why? Don’t tell me you were out with that Mikey Hurwitz again.” I can feel my eyes rolling of their own volition.
“Are you really asking why I needed to get away? Dad’s gone and that’s all you can think ab—”
“You can’t talk to me like that! I lost him too! Don’t take this out on me—oh shoot!” she turns the can opener knob too hard and drops both can and opener on the floor. She’s so fucking clumsy all the time, and it’s only gotten worse since Dad passed.
“Like you haven’t done the same to me!” I say as I begin to walk away from the soup spilling on the floor.
“Baby, please…y-you don’t want anything to eat?” I glance at the expanding puddle.
“Uh…no thanks. Not hungry.”
“Honey…” I stop and turn around. “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to antagonize you, I just can’t imagine the thought of losing you too. We may only have each other now, but a lot of folks don’t even have that. Can’t we just try to get through this with love instead of sarcasm?”
“Yeah, I love you too, mom,” I say as I continue walking upstairs to my room. I don’t even know who she is some days. I throw my backpack on the bed. Creeping under my skin, a distended ache of dread jitters out and through my legs. Looking over my sullen, untidy room, I try to breathe rhythmically, to alleviate the anxiety as the space tightens and squeezes breath from my lungs. I start to get that itchy feeling of anticipatory desperation so I breathe faster, deeper. With repetition I’m able to calm my nerves, but a transitory memory of Dad—tranquil in his chair, watching his Bears play the Vikings—sends me right back in and my thoughts stumble over the same obstructions that plagued me after his death. I pull out the box from under my bed, the box I refused to open. The note within rests solemnly in my brain, its contents familiar, but still haunted. I carefully remove the cover, setting it aside on the bed, and ready myself to examine the four strange objects within this innocuous receptacle.
1. The note: one of our many correspondences. We would give each other these notes in order to tell each other what we really felt, what we couldn’t say verbally. When one writes one’s thoughts down, they take on a whole new voice, a truer voice in my opinion. Only in writing were we able to find the right words to comfort each other, to be able to verbally hug each other, it was a beautiful thing we shared. It began as a spelling exercise when I was in grade school, but quickly progressed into a vessel for our unspoken connection. I read it over a couple times, remembering the embarrassing things I wrote to him, things I would never take back, that I couldn’t say to anyone else. The memories we shared are firmly planted now into my own, like seedlings adopted from a distant garden, a garden no longer able to flower. This last one was just as unassuming as the rest, covered in smudges, errors, and grammatical mistakes, but never devoid of his wit and essence.
2. Dumb smiling cartoon longhorn postcard: disproportionally aligned next to a broken X-beam fence, its coarse grin buckling stupidly. Something he and mom must have bought during one of their many trips down South to visit Aunt Marie. All her siblings, including Dad, left her behind in “Hell” Paso to bear the responsibility of caring for grandma. Not sure why this is in here, maybe a subtle reminder to travel around the US like he always wanted.
3. Ancient thumb piano: not really that old, but the finely matured wood grain would make any amateur think otherwise. It was a present for my eighth birthday, to my dismay. It wasn’t an Easy-Bake Oven like all my friends received; so naturally, I was disappointed and left it to rot in some unseen corner of my room. I ignored it for a while until I reached the point of boredom where even a thumb piano becomes interesting, so I acquiesced and unearthed it from the dust-ridden corner and played around with it. Now I play it all the time—actually, I don’t, but I tell people I do because Dad would’ve appreciated my sarcasm.
4. King James Bible: now it all makes sense. This is the capstone on the pyramid of symbolism this box is supposed to contain. He always wanted me to be his smiling little church daughter, his little fucking saint Mary. Everything I’ve become is just too sinful for him to imagine, his baby girl kneeling in Mikey’s room instead of at the fucking pew. Of course he would try to fucking indoctrinate me from beyond the grave. And here I was thinking that maybe he could finally accept me for who I am, for the real me, in his final moments. That his faith would allow him to come to terms with who I’ve become, and to love me for myself and not for who he wants me to become. If he thinks this shit is gonna work on me now, then he was stupider than I thought. At least now I won’t ever have to listen to his fucking sermons anymore or those goddamn lectures at dinner. I shouldn’t say that…I’m sorry Dad. I just don’t know what to do right now, I don’t know how to deal with this—with this horrible loneliness you’ve left me with. I just want to see you again, Dad. Please come back. I don’t want this to happen to everyone I know and everyone I will ever know and love. Tell me it will be all right. Oh God, Daddy I miss you so much…please.
“Daniel,” I said, “Daniel, there’s no way around it. We’re going to put a baby inside of me and-and either you’re going to help me raise it or so help me I’ll…I’ll do it myself, but I need to know if…”
“Where is this coming from? Last time we talked this child was just a possibility and now you’re talking about leaving me? Where was the in-between?”
“This is the in-between, okay, Daniel? I don’t know how else to say it. This is the moment you get to decide between our future and your future. A child growing inside of me could be a beautiful thing we share, or you could choose to just abandon me here and we can throw away everything; our love, our baby, everything will be gone and you’ll be happy. I just need you to tell me what you’re doing because I’m ready to go.”
Silence waited for us to speak, dripping in through the windows, through the silent stillness of our backyard sycamore out from the tips of his fingers rapping nervously on the side of his thigh, as he always does when he’s “mulling things over.”
“Well, can I have a moment to think about it?”
“Daniel, why do you always do this to me? It makes me feel like you’re putting our lives on pause.”
“That’s not fair! What kind of a future can you imagine if we just rush a baby out! Not a very good one, not for us or the child. We barely have enough to get by now, and things will only get worse with a baby in the mix.”
“How can you say that to me? How can you just stand there ‘thinking’ and fucking talk to me like that? Don’t you want to have a baby with me?”
“Of course I do babe, of course. I-I just don’t think now’s the best time what with the way the economy is…I could get laid off soon or get a pay cut or something…”
“Here we go again with the economy. Your favorite excuse for not loving me. You’re just gonna keep on waiting and delaying this until we’re all dried up and then you can laugh at me—”
“Now that’s just not true. I swear, are you even listening to yourself? Every time we do this it’s like I’m not even here, am I? You already know what you want and you’re just going to go and-and fucking take it, aren’t you? I don’t even fucking exist anymore except for my dick!”
“All the waiting, the waiting. I just want to not wait for once, is that really so bad? We’re going to have this child…and I, I just know it’s going to happen.” As if he had read about his mother’s death in the morning newspaper, his entire face suddenly languished and his normally curious eyebrows folded towards each other. I knew what he would say next. This discussion had gone on long enough, had repeated itself an infinite number of times in all possible multiverses, for me to know where it was heading next. He would negate my feelings, he would reverse them around on himself, and then he would use that opportune moment of sympathy to delay us further. But not this time, I had already made sure the plan was going forward and he was going to pay for the many years of mine he’d wasted with his petty whining and his childish manipulations.
“Oh I do, my love. It’s just such a commitment and I’m not sure we’re ready.”
Ready. Not ready. We’d been married for five years, but the last few years had dragged on long enough. He didn’t know but I was already pregnant, going way back long before we’d even had this discussion; the baby just took a little while to develop. It wasn’t Daniel’s, I was done with him. He was so incredibly uninterested in the world around him, a pallid spectator simply experiencing everything without fully comprehending the lives that were at stake or the subtle ways in which people confided to him their most personal reflections. He never listened when people told him what needed to be said. He acted like a victim, constantly blindsided by my desires, which, had he listened to me for once in his goddamned life, were carefully addressed in our conversations pre-coital and post-.
The sheen of a police cruiser on a lucid July 4th would cause most people to squint, but when the windows rolled down and that young officer with the callous brow called my name, my eyes widened. When the slightly older officer with sunken cheeks and eyes made invisible by opaque shades opened the door and started towards me, I ran. It was a foolish choice, one I would tell my child never to make, but I ran as fast as my swollen pregnant legs could manage through the Main Street parade. Amidst the chattering mass of patriotic bodies I tumbled through time, carrying both my own weight and the weight of my unborn child, using the pendulous energy of our combined strength to batter my way out and into a tranquil, secluded alley.
I lost the cops, but I also lost myself. I never do well in crowds. My anxiety becomes severely heightened in the midst of the bustle; I believe I have some mild form of agoraphobia (this is purely a self-diagnosis and not medically verified) that comes out like a wave when I am subjected to large groups of unknown people. My doctors told me it could be related to the death of my father, as one of my initial episodes occurred in conjunction with this event. Running back into the crowd, my vision becomes a blur, my thoughts scatter in all directions, without water it feels as though my throat will close and my heart will burst. This brief exertive moment was enough to fully deplete my weakened pregnant strength, another decision I would tell my child not to make. I heard the cops and other people shouting from all directions, I heard children crying, tubas discharging, birds tittering, then the sky opened up and shone down upon me and I was free, taking with me all I could ever hope to redeem myself of. I cried the Yellow River Flood. I cried the ocean’s most destructive waves and its churning depths. I could feel the crushing pressure and stress building up inside me so I threw up all over the cracked grey sidewalk, right by a family of five who watched me, aghast, with a gaze full of pity. I knew I was going to die, it hurt so much.
With the inescapable tug of war going on within me, I was given a chance to make penance. Each assault on my nervous system brought a new wave of remorse and regret. I wanted to repent everything I’d done, every incorrigible urge I’d hastily acted on, for there had been many in these troubling few months. Blundering between fierce pain and paranoia I see an entire world out there for us. It’s not a very big world, but it has everything we need, everything to help him grow. I watch him playing over by a towering maple, he’s spinning around in circles, making himself dizzy. And his face is so full of joy, so incredibly free that I want to go over to him, to experience what wonder he sees in the world. But childbirth has a way of making you forget that there’s another world outside your own body as well.
When my folks talked all the time about seeing God and hearing the voices of the angels and whatever, I always thought they were making it up to get me to go to church. I never actually believed like I believe now. What I didn’t know is that with some experience came great uncertainty and with more experience came desire for fulfillment. My desire was finally fulfilled the day I fully accepted my religion. I do believe I saw God that day. Was it the God that created us all in seven days? Probably not, but it was my God. I don’t know what He looks like, but He has a great voice—though He’s a real chatterbox (but don’t tell Him I said that). He told me everything would be all right, that once my life was over all the trouble and pain I’d gone through would end and I would be with Him and He would keep me company along with everyone I’d loved and He’d be like Daniel was before everything went wrong. He told me that all I had to do was raise the baby, the dear little child I’d always dreamed of. The infant I’d gone to such great lengths to acquire would be my beautiful little ticket to Heaven. If I could find the strength to live the rest of my life—no matter how hard—and raise my baby, then I would finally find the peace in my life I had always desired.
God had a really great sense of humor. He said, “You’ve done a great job so far, Veronica, but I saw you. I’ve seen all your deceptions of faith and breaches of your own morality.” He gave me an impish little smile, like a child’s. “But you know I’m here for you, love, though if I were you, I’d be looking for a good lawyer right about now. Take care.” I’m paraphrasing of course, but He really had such a way with words, I couldn’t believe it. Like my father, He could deliver jeremiads all day and night, but it filled me with such calm. His voice just flowed into me, like a mug of hot chocolate or a day at the ocean. He made the twenty-six hours a little easier in that it only felt like twenty-five. Once the floodgates opened and the little bugger was declared masculine, alive, and in good health, Doctor Evans asked me what I wanted to name my new little boy. I was far too exhausted to tell him anything but the full truth so I said, “Doctor, I spoke with God and He told me what to name my child. He told me, ‘Veronica! Listen to me, Veronica; you have to name your child something unique. Something special so that people will know his personality without even knowing his face or where this boy came from. I know exactly where this child is headed, and I know exactly how his life is going to go. He’s going to be successful and have a great job and call his mother every night, or at least twice a week. Best of all, he’s going to be a humble gentleman, a real handsome family man, so that’s what I want you to name him. Call him Humble Sullivan, and don’t even think twice about it.’
“So that’s what I want to name him, doctor; Humble Sullivan.”
I got a call from Daniel. I knew there was no way to avoid him. He spoke frantically, telling me shocking things I couldn’t understand. I don’t know why he called; he talked about his own world, a world that only he thinks is important. I couldn’t listen to his lackadaisical attempts to win me back. Like him, I just didn’t care anymore. He said, “I’ve been waiting for you to come back, but every night I can feel you getting further and further away from me.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Daniel. There was a time long ago when hearing your sad little voice coming out of this machine would’ve made me rush back, but now all I have is this child. This child is between us now and the more it grows, the more the gap between us does too. Every day I realize that when I left you, I made the right choice.” I could hear his breathing on the other line, but I still wasn’t sure anybody was listening.
“I need you to come back, babe. Tell me where you are. I reported you missing. The police told me they found you, but that you ran away somehow. They’re after you, you know. You can keep avoiding me and telling yourself that you’re doing the right thing here, but I won’t give up until you’re home with me, until this insane streak you’ve been on is over and you apologize for leaving and for fucking some random guy and for-for never caring about how I felt. When they find you, not even God will be able to help you. Not even that fucking little bastard fetus in your cunt can…” I waited patiently as he rushed through the last of his insults, sensing some relief as he released the last of his tangled emotions. I let him finish as the electronic transmissions slowly dissipated from his receiver, across the 1,143 miles of telephone wire and out through my receiver, gently flittering away in the air around me and then I left him alone, as it had always been.
Frightened by the horrible possibilities of this near-disaster, Humble and I made our way West. I got him all the way out to Seattle before he turned one, silently passing by the many restrained static lives. While Humble’s soul and his heart were developing rapidly, his right ear was underdeveloped, only partially functional and overly sensitive. All he had was an earhole and some gnarled bits of cartilage surrounding it. The doctor said he would be fine, that the gruesomeness of his deformity was mostly cosmetic and to fix it would cost more than I could possibly afford. I talk to him in both ears, but I can’t tell if there’s a difference. It pained me at first, but I have hope for him. This will be an obstacle that he must learn to surmount; it will make the rest of him stronger. I’d give this child both of my ears if it would help.
He was such a good boy for most of the trip. He rarely cried, he always laughed when we played together, and he never seemed to notice his aural deficiency, though of course everyone else did. Mothers and fathers and children alike would whisper, stare, glance, and try whatever they could to get a peek without me noticing, like they’d never seen a fucking ear before. I watched him grow with great envy and sadness. What it would be like to be a child again and get a fresh chance to grow up into something, to not have to carry the burden of life. But God had given me my second chance (probably my only second chance), and as long as I looked out for Humble, God would look out for me like my mother tried, but never could.
Humble doesn’t take his medicine. I’m afraid to force it on him, but it’s for his own good. I tell him this and he throws it all up on me. This is the first of my breakdowns and it happens in the third rest stop bathroom along the way.
This neatly respectable way of life continued until Humble’s cessation of interest. Seattle isn’t suitable to Humble for whatever reason. The clouds are too thick, the streets are too clean, the rent is too high. There are too many things to complain about. I don’t always understand this child, but he’s the boss. Humble doesn’t want the best, which means I can’t want the best either.
I find a job and a small, furnished place in Tacoma, nothing special, just a waitress gig at a Greek diner. Olympus diner, funny enough, is what they call it. I ask them why not Tacoma diner or something more unassuming (I mean, who are they trying to fool into believing this place is even distantly related to the home of the gods of Ancient Greece?), but they don’t answer my questions. I’m the only one amused by the pitiful joke of a restaurant that has become my life. I shouldn’t say it’s not special; the owners are a pair of Greek immigrants, Nicholaos and Sofia Mavros, who’ve owned the place since 1976. They’re both very unhappy people with a display of forehead creases for every frown, who hardly acknowledge my presence amidst the gradual churn of transaction that seems to continue unceasingly until closing time. I add nothing to their world other than another name to write checks to every Friday, which is a suitable arrangement for all of us. The other workers usually keep to themselves, but they’re approachable and friendly enough to offer me advice about local restaurants that aren’t masquerading as kingdoms of divinity. They share brief scenes from their lives, which elicit amicable reactions and bring the end of the droning shift closer without disrupting the aforementioned business crawl. Gloria’s story of the same cop pulling her over three times in the past year is a perfect example of this type of vacant (no-room-for-disagreement) sermon. At times, the management is annoying, for lack of a better word. The roof in the kitchen drips so they put a red plastic bucket underneath and tell me to empty it every hour. I’d ask them why they don’t just fix the roof, but my questions tend to float in space like moisture in the suffocating humidity.
“The City of Destiny” they call it. In a way, it does feel like my destiny to end up here, or it’s my punishment for this transformative rebellion. Either way, I’m here, Humble’s here, Humble’s happy, I’m stuck, everything’s fine. I push my way past a group of obese middle-aged people hanging out of their booth. Their girth extends out into my path and I fall, spilling hot coffee all over my chest and my arms. No amount of apologies or tiny napkins makes the searing pain go away. The coffee is heated to just under 200 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure maximum freshness for maximum length and adequate warmth for our picky, adequate customers, however this also leads to second- and third-degree burns along my sternum and the surrounding area. I pass out. The wounds cling to my skin like unwanted tattoos after a half-hearted laser removal session. I’m let out of the hospital in a few days, but I still carry the scars, reminders of the life I can’t leave behind because I’ve already left my first one behind and my head starts hurting now and the only thing keeping me going is 10mg of OxyContin every four hours.
It’s been a year.
Humble doesn’t hear so well. I’ve been using a natural homeopathic garlic remedy inserted directly into his ear canal and it seems to reduce the amount of infections. “Thank God he’s got another one on the other side,” is what I tell the other moms, but they can see through these shallow comforts as my way of coping with the embarrassment of having to put garlic in my child’s ear. My burns healed about as well as one could hope, but they haven’t disappeared entirely. They’re discolored in all the wrong places, raised like a mess of vines underneath my skin. Sometimes I shudder when I look at them. I still can’t believe they’re my arms, my chest. I hate them so I cover them up as much as possible, avoiding the horrible truth I have to deal with now. Humble and I get each other through every day, with added strength from God’s blessing and worker’s comp checks. My name is Lisa Sanderson now for legal purposes and Humble’s off the books. Humble’s supposed to be talking by now, but so far he’s only managed to say “Blah.” He uses his lexicon exclusively when I cook for him, refusing to eat much of anything except for that Gerber’s baby carrot mash. It’s a grave indicator as his fingers start to lose their pallor, replaced by an orange tint. I try to wean him off the carrot delight, but he often rejects my cooking, favoring the goddamn Gerber’s like they’re the ones who pushed him out of their vagina. I try not to get too mad at him; he’s still only a baby.
“There’s a right soul in that baby, but jumbled folklore don’t grow a baby well.”
God speaks to me every so often, just to check in. He likes to drive his point in; telling me how good things will be as long as I raise Humble properly. Sometimes He makes little sense. This task is proving harder than I expected.
“Humble, please stop.”
“Don’t go into that, it might be dangerous.”
“Humble, I don’t want you hanging around with those kids anymore.”
A yearning for this uncatchable life taunting me from the backseat of a sedan driving 68 in a 40 zone. I slam on the brakes as time collapses into a red sheet covering my eyes.
I would bring Humble to the park every week, if possible. There, we would sit and have a pleasant conversation and he would tell me all the things he had done in school that week and I would tell him all the things I had done at work. We would sit under a sky-bound oak tree, absorbing the good weather in our lavish encampment. We’d smile and laugh and Humble would be a little gentleman and clean everything up and then we would stroll around, looking at the birds and the trees and feeling that disingenuous sense of refreshment that only a metropolitan park can offer. We would escape together—for this ephemeral moment—and walk towards the sky with the trees in the brilliant gleam of the world and we would know what was anticipating us down the road, past our abandoned bivouac, concealed within the bushes and the ungainly trails.
I told him not to go into the woods with those kids, but he didn’t listen to me. Other mothers tell me their kids don’t listen to them either, but their kids aren’t named Humble. He was such a good boy until this last year, I think it was the bullying, or the cheap school lunches, or the uninspiring teachers. What am I to do? I don’t have the money to fix Washington State’s public school establishment by myself. And I don’t want to smother him, I have to give him room to make his own mistakes, to learn how to deal with conflict and construct meaningful relationships, but how much room do I give him? And when do I know to pull him back in? I trust that God will provide the answer, but He’s been awfully quiet these past few years. I’m just happy Humble still talks to me.
My toes unfurl as I pick grains of sand out from between them. The sky is mostly clear, there are a few stratus clouds scattered in the distance, but they’re just for show. I lather more SPF 90 onto my arms. Though my natural skin tone is a shade darker than pale, today’s sun is unrelenting. It’s been a lovely day; the water was tepid, though quite refreshing as the beach tends to be when you’re recovering from several cold, rainy (we never had rain like this back home) months of hard work. There are lots of children crying. When left unsupervised they manage to drop their snow cones in the sand or piss each other off to the point of tears. Thank God my Humble was never so ferociously misbehaved. I’m here alone, not because I want to be, but because Humble doesn’t think going to the beach with his mom is “cool.” Whatever. I can be cool when I want to. It’s a beautiful day, I’m looking fabulous, and no one can stop me from having fun. The smell of ocean salt distracts me from all the ongoing chaos in my periphery; it even manages to distract me from my own head, just for a moment. If only every day could be a beach day, we’d get nothing done, but only because we’d be drowning in our own happiness. I guess that’s why all those cold New Yorkers move to the Bahamas or to Cancun. What’s there to worry about, really, when every day is beach day…
I think things will get better, and they do, to a certain extent. Years go by, and I don’t even realize they’re gone. But some drag on and I look at the calendar in March wondering when it will just end. High school is a lot to handle for Humble. No matter how many times I tell him that things will get better and how everybody has to go through the tension and angst to build character and become a better person, he refuses to believe me. He doesn’t believe that life can change in Tacoma and when we talk, I believe him despite my reminders that it was he who suggested we move here in the first place. He shifts his gaze and rushes to his room.
I used to spend so much of my free time looking at baby photos, now I don’t even know what I do. I have my work, my friends (who come by to tell me how good I look and how well I’m doing, even though I know they’re only lying to make me feel better), and Humble. After the accident, God came to me in my sorrow. I was unable to think lucidly with all the painkillers, unable to take care of myself after tending to Humble and nurturing his growth. But God saw my sacrifice. They always tell you that God will come in your darkest moments to show you the light, and He did. He told me how great a job I was doing raising Humble, how beautiful my self-sacrifice for him was. He told me I am a charitable person and my life is to be cherished, that what I’m doing for him is the best thing a mother can do for her son. But He also said that I would have to get another job soon to support Humble and myself. He said though I had already sacrificed so much, there was a lot more pain and work to come if I wanted to truly earn my place by his side. I understood His words, internalizing them, though his manner of delivery confused me as always. I asked Him where we should work and live next. He said, “Well darling, I say you should go where your heart has pushed you all along: Seattle, Washington.”
These years are lived well, but time etches its fingers through my skin. It’s weaving its way along my scalp, through the divorce, through the unconditioned depth of my peeling veneer. It coils a trail of withering notches in my heart and soul, while Humble watches me and acknowledges time showing itself through my flesh. We’ve struggled to connect these few weeks, but I take his hand and confirm his glare. “It isn’t alright for us to run away like this”, he tells me, but his remarks are lost along with the rest of the fragments we’ve left behind. The solitary truth fueling our departure is the vacuuming purgatory I’ve become in these years. These years brought us friends and love, loss and more loss. They gave us little we could continue with, little for us to find left in our hearts, but we carry what we have with us, finding new light in the days ahead, hoping for an extension of ourselves in the future we seek.
We take our seats at the front so I can look onward, through the fog, at the destination approaching. Humble mumbles to me about falling asleep. I try to tell him about something I read online that the moment you decide to sleep your brain begins to unwind itself and ends up running even faster than normal, which makes it the best time to plan the next day, something confirmed by CAT scans, but when I attempt to speak, his eyes lock themselves and he impersonates dormancy. While he pretends to sleep, I look at the other passengers on the 11:25 bus to Seattle. There are only two other kids, both in the middle seats on the right-hand side with their parents. I think one of the children is adopted because she’s Asian and the parents are white. “Good for them,” I think, that their parental nature is so overwhelming that it could extend to children created by strangers in another continent, as their own flesh and blood sits right next to them. My thoughts are interrupted by a bump in the uneven road. The biological-looking child has to hold on to the seat in front of her to steady herself. Moving further along, there is a man seated two rows behind them whose face is concealed by his hat and the darkness of the bus. He sits along the aisle with his leg sticking awkwardly out from under his seat, almost fully obstructing the way to the bathrooms like a downed tree impeding passage on some road. His somber presence is unnerving so I look at the man seated three rows behind him on the other side. He’s a commuter, judging by his grey briefcase, and poor, judging by his frayed jacket and hat. The man wears a striped tie that’s much too small for him and quietly but audibly hums a tune (something folky I think) that asserts his righteousness.
This uncomfortable group (plus the aggression of the bus driver) buzzes up the I-5 at 63 mph. I don’t know where these other people are coming from, but they look weary, like the people in photographs of the Depression. We had traveled silently along the barren interstate for around twenty minutes when Humble finally leans over to me and whispers,
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I told you not to drink so much lemonade at the terminal. Make it quick, we only have about fifteen more minutes till we get there.”
As Humble scoots around me and walks down the aisle, the bus suddenly lurches backwards to avoid a broken tree branch on the road. Humble, whose precarious passage through the bus has gone steadily, stumbles and narrowly misses a face-plant by grabbing onto one of the convenient handrails. As the driver smacks his horn in a fit of misplaced anger, Humble collides with the leg of the mysterious passenger.
Sensing Humble’s urinary discomfort, I expedite the remorse by blurting out, “Sorry about that, sir,” as Humble bumps into the shrouded man’s leg again. The man shifts his position in disgust, unveiling his petrifying face. His intense gaze points directly at myself, then slowly turns toward Humble with a glare. Humble looks away sheepishly, wearing his guilt and embarrassment in equal measures, and tries to hurriedly avoid the man’s leg, but he quickly grabs Humble by the arm. The man’s face is a contorted mass of anger and self-hatred bearing no resemblance to the calm indifference one looks for in a stranger. He wears his unknown shame like a soiled bonnet, perfectly complimenting his unkempt beard and his worn, sunken eyes. Everything he does now is illuminated by the fear in Humble’s sorry face. The man’s intense visage unsettles nearly everybody on the bus, save for the unknowing bus driver who rumbles along the I-5, now unobstructed, oblivious to the scene of frenzied desperation occurring twenty feet behind him.
“Are you just gonna let your mother apologize for you like that?” the man asks Humble, his voice tinged with anger and grief.
“Let my son go!” I try to stand up for Humble, yelling on his behalf.
“I’m s-sorry…” But his attempted reconciliation is unsuccessful. I’ve never seen him this afraid. I wish I could just go over and explain that this man isn’t angry with him, he’s angry at the world, at his own circumstances. He’s taking out his putrid aggression on my poor child, not really caring about the consequences or the impact of his agitation. I would instruct Humble to simply ignore this negative man, to shake him off, turn away, and go on with his own life, for this man is too far gone to save and the world is full of men like him. But this is not the right time or place for this conversation.
“Oh come on! Don’t tell me you’re sorry; tell it to your goddamn mother who’s doing everything she can for you. Do you want this poor woman to apologize for you the rest of your life? Go on, tell her!”
Now Humble is pale and quite obviously needs to urinate. The man must be intoxicated, spewing arrogance from his doleful mouth, delighting in his chance to flaunt his righteousness.
“Sorry mom,” he says as quickly as possible.
“It’s okay baby, go pee. This man and I are going to have a conversation.”
With that, Humble squirms away to go relieve himself. I shift my way over to this man and sit on the seat in front of him, turning my body all the way around to face his grotesque features.
“What? You pissed at me for disciplining your little brat? You should be thanking me,” he says with a smug eyebrow raise. I look him over for a few seconds before responding.
“What gives you the right to discipline my child?” I inquire.
“He bumped into me and didn’t say a fucking thing. He made you apologize for him. That’s what gave me the right.” By now the harshness of the man’s frustrations is audible. There’s sweat forming along the side of his face and he frequently repositions himself so he can look down on me. The man’s sneer is almost carnivorous with his canine slightly visible and his tongue scraping his teeth rhythmically. I let him simmer in this state, playing off his anger and his desire. I know there is nothing he can do or say that could affect me, especially in a public space like this one. I make sure not to validate his bigotry but to suffocate him in it until he sees himself the way I see him in this moment.
“You don’t know my son, just like you don’t know me and we don’t know you. Now I don’t know why an innocent bump has made you so angry, but you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. My son, Humble, is the sweetest boy in the world and he would never hurt anyone or do anything bad. He’s been taught to do the right thing with God’s help.”
“No wonder your son is so fucking aloof! If you and ‘God’ keep letting him off the hook for everything he does he’s going to keep thinking he can get away with shit like this.” As his volume increases, everybody else gingerly looks at us with concern, hesitatingly wondering if they should get involved.
“You don’t get to say that about my son! He’s my boy and he’s all I have left in the world!” I feel my eyes tighten and close, shutting out this egotistical alien, waiting for him to disappear. With his image blacked out, it’s easier to berate him. It’s easier to confront his aggression and combat it equally. Even though he feeds from my aggression, and I do concede it to him, I am able to tear him down starting from face value all the way to his eccentric personage. When I get up from my seat to lay the final blow upon him, he retaliates with incarnate brutality. At this moment, Humble emerges from the bathroom to witness us grappling in the middle of the bus. With the stranger’s arm locked around mine and his foot neatly embedded around my leg, we stumble together onto the floor, like a couple lumbering into bed after a night of exhausting dancing, trapped in a paroxysm of angst.
“Get the fuck off me, you cretin!” I yell through tears.
“Gruh fuff!” he yells in reply, his mouth full of my jacket.
“Get the fuck off her!” Humble screams as he tears the man off me. The bus is now stopped completely on the outskirts of Seattle in a lonely industrial part of the city. The other passengers are helping us to our feet while the bus driver yells vague instructions and profanities, simultaneously quoting possible jail sentences for aggravated assault. I feel a distant observer overlooking the whole incident, silently watching the madness play out. Outside the bus, there are trees stooped over us, looking down on our petty movements. Inside, my mind has wandered around the bus, finally finding itself back again while my real self simply reacts, disassociated from the events occurring around me. Above the bus, He and I watch the scene play out, not realizing that it is “I,” myself who is locked in combat with this horrible man.
We wonder how these two civilized people are on top of each other, biting, scratching, and fighting like animals, or more like two Black Friday shoppers combating viciously over a TV as though the fight itself were the actual force propelling these two beings into a state of violent turbulence. It hurts to know that this is me, the only me there is, that this is what I’ve become, but at least I have Humble’s calming presence to protect me. My baby boy, this is what it’s all about, no? The fight, the struggle, all for you, my son. I can’t believe how much you’ve grown in these few short years. Through everything, you’ve always been there for me, Humble. You’ve always helped me when I asked, you’ve stayed out of trouble, you’ve brought decisive meaning to my life. So what if one asshole on a bus thinks I offer excuses for you, all we are is just an apology for something we can’t control. So what if I want you to be happy and not worry about saying sorry for everything. Let mommy take care of you, Humble, you have no idea how much joy and happiness you bring me every day, apologizing for you is the least I can do. Oh Humble, there are a lot of people out there like this sad unfortunate man. I just hope my boy can figure out which ones are good and which ones aren’t. But this is his burden now; I’ve done what I can. I passed this burden of life onto him a while ago. All I can do is wait for my salvation. You probably haven’t even realized the entire world’s out there waiting for us, Humble. You just have to take the first step on your own.
Charles Noyes is a Senior at Bard College and is currently unpublished. His fiction primarily focuses on strange people in strange situations and his language is often direct, but never harsh. Charles currently interns at the Conjunctions office on campus and has engaged with challenging fiction and poetry.