“Ouch. That word, neglected, keeps popping up.”
A couple of things are different—the magazines are newer, the walls repainted—but the ER waiting room at the Ogden Stanwyck hospital has that same familiar cherry/Lysol smell, recognizable as the house you grew up in.
My mother Cyndi has been a nurse here since before I was born. She used the TV in the waiting area as a babysitter since I was old enough to walk my brothers and sister here from school. The hospital staff knew us by name and by reputation: Alexander was the athlete, the serious one; Jenn was the musician, quiet, studious; Matty was the baby who loved and was loved by everyone. And Jordan—me—was trouble. I was the girl with the eyeliner and the attitude and the teen pregnancy.
Cyndi has four kids, two ex-husbands and the same hairstyle she did in the early 90s when Matty was born. We are sitting four chairs apart in the waiting room with her stare burning holes into the side of my head.
I turn the page of my National Geographic. There is a really cool story about this volcano in Hawaii that doesn’t blow up or spew ash, it just slowly seeps lava at the rate of like a foot an hour. The people who live around it can take their time and pack up their stuff and watch their houses burn from the ground up.
My brother Alex is in El Salvador trying to help set up clean water systems, the weiner. I was the first one to talk about the Peace Corps. Exotic locations, hard work that means something, yadda yadda. That was before I found out you needed a Bachelor’s degree. He doesn’t even send me emails about it. Have to get my info from Jenn.
“When the social worker gets here I’m going to ask for custody.” Cyndi speaks quietly, forming every consonant with her incisors. Her face twists up like a swizzle stick when she gets mad; her mouth takes on a cinched, asshole-like shape.
“I’m serious, Jordan. They will take him away for this.”
Let me start off by saying I knew this was wrong when I did it. I know you can’t leave a three-year-old alone. I’m not retarded. I’m just a bad parent. And I know I shouldn’t say “retarded.” I’m just a bad person.
I turn the page to a spread about Massai women. I love the Massai articles. All those matching red outfits, the jewelry, everyone smiling. Nothing to do, it seems, but herd your cows back and forth and do that jumping-in-a-line dance when the camera crews show up. My favorites are the articles about endangered Amazonian tribes fighting oil companies for their ancestral lands. It’s good versus evil, and no one wears shirts.
I’m an atypical oldest child, if you believe my high school psychology book. Sure, I led the way with all those stages of development, but I’m more of a first pancake than a trail-blazer. Two months after my 16th birthday I took my road test and became the driver for the rest of Cyndi’s brood. I’d shuttle them back and forth from school to our drafty-ass house in the valley every day, and we could stop spending our afternoons at Ogden-Stanwyck. The upside of having to tote the sibs around was that my stepdad Frank gave us his old Plymouth and bought himself a Jeep. It was a two-door piece of rust with no AC, power windows or working door locks, and it was all mine till Alex turned sixteen.
I knew from years of insomnia exactly where in our house each step had to fall, the way you had to press down on all the doors to swing them open silently. All houses around here are old unless you live in a trailer. I’ve always been clever about shortcuts. The nurses used to fawn over how bright we all were.
After Cyndi tucked herself in at ten, I’d roll the Plymouth down the gravel with the headlights off. Jenn was fine letting me slip out as long as I brought her back some high school stories about who was sleeping with whom. If I came home close to the hour when they’d be waking up I’d cut the engine at the top of the driveway and coast it back in. I learned that from Mike Seaver.
Even though she slept through this night after night, it was a small town with small town telepathy. Cyndi tracked down the details she already suspected. This did not improve our fragile diplomacy.
The lighting hasn’t changed in the waiting room, that’s for damn sure. My eyeballs are sticky.
“Parenthood is supposed to make you grow up, you know.”
I trace the arc of a Massai woman’s neck with my pinky nail. “I heard that, too.”
“God damn it, Jordan.”
Have you ever noticed how people only address you by name when they have beef with you? Cyndi, when I was in Junior High: Jordan. Why isn’t your homework done. Jordan? What happened to the money I left here? Jordan. Jordan. Thank god we stopped talking when I got to high school.
Hearing my name is especially weird now because of Jordan Junior. The maternity nurse thought it was a ridiculous idea. I told her what I tell everyone: I made him. I’ll give him my own name. Now I’m yelling it day and night and it doesn’t even feel like my name anymore.
The waiting room walls used to be taupe. They’ve selected pale yellow now. I wonder if they think it is more cheerful. It makes me think about pee.
“Jordan,” she is on the edge, doing that sighing-every-word thing. “Are you going to tell me what you were doing?”
“I went for a walk.” This is the truth.
Cyndi brings her hand up to her face and rubs at the canyon between her eyebrows. I roll up the magazine and start thwapping it on my legs to the rhythm of every Ramones song.
The weird thing is that parenthood did mature me, at least for a little while. When Jordan Junior was a newborn there was no time to think about liquor or sex or anything else. The first few months were solid adrenaline: strung out on lack of sleep, delirious and leaking all sorts of strange things from my body. I was full of awe; all that new parent stuff you think is BS until it happens. The sky opened up; suddenly I wasn’t the center of the universe anymore, the euphoria and shame of the breast-feeding orgasm. Which is real, no matter what they tell you in magazines! Et cetera.
The baby and I were a team. I finally moved out of Cyndi’s place and got myself an apartment, Section 8 vouchers and a WIC card. I got a job in the library and put him in daycare. I finished my second year at Erie Community.
“I thought you were doing well,” Cyndi says, face still curled. “Why didn’t you call me if you needed someone to watch him?”
When my son started walking he would run away from me and I would have to tie a shoelace to this belt-loop and hang onto the other end when we went out. Words and sentences started coming out of his mouth and I could not believe all those ideas, all those observations had been in that tiny head all this time. He would ask me things I had no answers to. It was really annoying.
Last night was a bad one; I came out of the shower and walked in on him watching the end of the old version of The Fly, where the tiny fly-man is trapped in the web and Vincent Price has to knock him out before the giant spider comes to eat him. Help me. Help meeeee. Well, needless to say that was a whole new wellspring of questions, demands and bad dreams. The kid is already terrified of spiders. Jesus Christ. He dropped off at around 4:00 a.m., but not me.
Whatever it is inside that cranks me up and coils me tight like a screen-door spring, it thrums at a frequency only I can perceive. It gets so loud in my head that my insides vibrate. My teeth feel too big and my lungs fight me for every inhale. I walk around with it long enough and it’s the only thing I can pay attention to, but no one else can hear it. I start to think about getting smashed by a truck. I imagine blood on the road and what it would feel like if my bones were breaking all at once. My body crumpling, pain, relief. All decisions made and answers provided.
All I did was go for a drive.
I turn to look at Cyndi and prop my chin up on my fist like Oprah. “You were bad at this, too, right?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, when we were small, it was ok. You always said you loved us when we were babies. Or at least Jenn and Matty, from what I remember. But when we started to get big,” I take a breath. I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, “You were a pretty shitty parent.” She looks up at me with her eyes watering. “The amount of time we spent here,” I sweep my magazine in an arc, “and you know, the yelling. Remember that time I did that self-esteem assignment for Home Ec? Something I had to do for school. About how I thought of myself as smart and helpful and friendly. And you tore through it with a point-by-point, um, rebuttal.” I watch a lot of Law and Order these days.
I make my summation: “It was like you were scared of me.” Of course, now, I know she was right to be. Now, I guess, I am, too. “Scared of me thinking I was,” I’m groping, I’m not really sure, but why not: “good.”
Cyndi looks away and says in her same quiet, clear voice, “I really don’t think you’re in a position to judge, Jordan.”
Sigh. “I’m not blaming you or anything.” But I am. Not that it makes a difference.
I pick up another National Geographic from the pile. This one has a story about some crazy fucks who climb glaciers in the Antarctic. Pictures of pickaxes and frostbite. Gross.
Cyndi looks over my shoulder. It appears she has decided to be mad. “My temper was short, sometimes, sure. You all grew up like it was a race. What was I supposed to do? Then you.” She looks away from me. “You didn’t make it easy. As reckless as your dad and twice as mean. Let me tell you, Jordan, if you don’t remember: I told you I loved you every day right up until you started telling me to fuck off. When you were eleven.” My throat hurts. Her eyes are glazed but her face keeps still, staring at the opposite wall. “He was a drinker, too, you know.” She looks away, the opposite direction. “Of course you know.”
When I was six, I found my Dad at the bottom of the stairs bleeding out his head. He had a problem with balance brought on by cans of shitty beer. I was the last one to seem him still breathing. Go ahead and diagnose me. It won’t change anything.
Cyndi is still talking. “Maybe I couldn’t relate to you, but I never neglected you.”
Ouch. That word, neglected, keeps popping up. I know that Junior needs constant, vigilant supervision according to the Rules of Parenting—that everyone else is apparently born with implanted in their brains like the Matrix or something—but I secretly think he’d be fine without me. He gets his own juice boxes and crackers all the time. I know enough to keep this opinion to myself.
Ok, I fucked up, I know. It’s not fair of her to bring up my father, though. I haven’t been drunk in three years.
“I was just going to get the mail. Just a short walk, just a few minutes. He was still sleeping.” But by the time I got out in the street my car was right there. After the night we’d had in my clammy apartment, with those little clothes covering every surface, I decided I was entitled to some air. Be gone an hour or less. And the thing about just driving around and driving around is that the scenery can be so beautiful sometimes that you just don’t know when to stop. Then, of course, you do stop, at the top of Burns Hill Road where you can see everything and the hills are all covered in fall leaves like someone spilled paint on them. The air is so nice it’s hard to know when to get going again. I didn’t even feel like drinking. I just wanted to breathe for a little longer. Watching the sun slide up its route, totally oblivious.
She is looking at me weird. This isn’t making very much sense now that I’m saying it out loud.
“I left the TV on in case he woke up.”
“Jordan.” If she keeps saying my name like that I’m going to ask her to leave.
“Jordan, the neighbors called me at work at 10:00 AM. They said he’d been crying for 45 minutes and your car was gone.” She breathes in and out. “I asked them to call 911.”
One hour. Sixty damn minutes for him to wake up, climb up on a stool, fall down, and wake up the girls upstairs. All the hours I spent with this kid, watching him watch cartoons, and nothing. Not till he knew I wasn’t looking.
The social worker is a man in his thirties, looks like. All social workers I’ve ever met have been middle-aged women. Very interesting. He stops to introduce himself to Cyndi and me and I make eye contact like you do at a bar. He flinches, which is quietly pleasing. Fucking with people is a hard habit to break. He goes to speak to the ER staff.
Cyndi’s voice is even lower now; she doesn’t want her coworkers to hear. “It will take a lot of work to get him back after this.”
“You don’t care?”
Jesus Christ. “What?”
“Are you on drugs?”
I laugh. I’m not trying to piss her off but he irony is killing me. “If I was on drugs this wouldn’t have happened.”
She looks at me, then past me, again. A woman in her fifties, wearing pink scrubs with her bleached hair in a scrunchie steps toward us, white sneakers flashing. It is Donna, one of Cyndi’s coworkers three days a week in the recovery room. She smiles at Cyndi by bringing the corners of her mouth even with her molars. Doesn’t look at me, beckons us to come with her.
We’re going back to the exam rooms. I know the way. It is only a few minutes until Mr. Child Protective Services comes to me with papers, I know. When we go through the swinging doors the walls change to a mint green. We are getting deeper into the hospital. My gut gets tight.
My son has always been a beautiful kid, and I’m not just saying that because he looks like me. He is my precious bean, a cocktail sized human, blah, blah, blah. Like his father, he is a complete spaz. I was precocious, but nowhere near the fence climbing and fight picking of Jordan’s dad. Back in high school we used to get drunk and fuck in fields, parking lots, the bathroom of his grandmother’s house while she was in the next room watching Regis. He would steal random, chintzy things from the Dollar Tree for me, just to piss me off. I can’t fucking stand shoplifting. Like I need any more crap around the house. After I was already pregnant I caught him relaxing on the front porch of the house he shared with his ex-stepdad, Leesa Blatzik’s head bobbing up and down in his lap. They were both stoned off their gourds, so it was hard to get mad at one or the other. I mean, out loud, anyway. One has to be rational about these things.
When he joined the army to clean himself up he sent me a post card from North Carolina that said: I love you. Sorry for being a bastard.
Donna puts her hand on Cyndi’s back and they walk ahead of me. I jog to catch up, putting Donna in the middle. She is keeping her voice quiet.
“…Going to be fine. Small bump on the head. A little dehydrated.” That’s bullshit. He knows where the juice boxes are. “Children’s Services is probably taking him for now.”
“Now?” My voice comes out loud and both of them stop and look at me, all eyebrows. Again, I am being inappropriate. I whisper, “They’re going to take him now?”
Donna looks at Cyndi and clears her throat. “Yes, Jordan, if I had to guess. That’s what happens.”
We stop walking in front of a light blue room with two single beds, one obscured by a paper curtain. I guess this is what happens. I hadn’t thought about it in real time. “Is this him?”
Again, she glances at my mother before speaking. “Yes. You’re allowed in to see him before the paperwork is served. He’s asleep, but he was asking for you earlier.”
Cyndi’s face ratchets right back up. “He was probably crying for you for hours,” she hisses.
I do not respond. I can’t even hear her. He’s in there with the nurses, who are coming and going around me as they have been coming and going for twenty-one years. I know I should run in there, should cry, apologize. Should say I need help. Should wail and beg for him. Good lord, I want to. But I can’t move or feel my fingers. There’s a bed in the room with a curtain drawn around. The older women talk in slow motion around me. The antiseptic smell from the floor blots everything else out, like a siren in your ear that blurs your vision.
There’s a hand squeezing my arm, I can feel the fingers individual pressure through my sweatshirt. Donna has me around the bicep. I might have been backing away.
“Jordan,” Donna has some kind of accent. Midwestern? Is she Canadian? Polish? “Jordan, wake up.”
I’m awake. I’m standing in the hospital. Junior is in that room without me. I left him alone.
I shake off the woman’s hand. I look at her, then Cyndi, and I’m trying to look angry but I don’t think my face is cooperating. I must be slack-jawed. No wonder everyone thinks I’m high.
Of course, if I was on something now, if I was floating around on THC or bounding through the world with a gut full of vodka or especially if I was tearing up the molecules of the atmosphere on crystal or cocaine, I’d be able to meet everyone’s gaze and smirk right back. I’d have energy enough to propel forward like a sound-barrier breaking car from the June issue of N.Geo. This personality that causes all this trouble would be there plastered to the windshield of my face and nobody would fuck with me.
But here I am on my own, like I’ve been for the past three years, and it’s like I’m moving through KY Jelly.
“Let’s go in, Jordan.”
Okay, Cyndi, okay. Thank you for keeping your voice down.
He is sleeping, they were telling the truth about that. There’s my boy, his pink mouth hiding his little adorable rat teeth, the chin-dimple he got from his stupid father. His honey blonde hair is dark with sweat at his neck, it happens every time he sleeps, it was like that this morning when I snuck out. There’s a patch of gauze at his left temple with the tape stuck right next to the soft skin of his hairline. I register the gauze and back away. I’m going to lose my shit. Completely. I don’t want to wake him. What would I say? But no, I start blubbering and Donna is holding me up and there’s snot on my face and the nurses are trying not to look disgusted. What the fuck are they grossed out about? They handle pus and puke all day.
That man is lurking, I can feel him outside the door. Cyndi does too; she takes the ten long steps to the hallway. Please, Cyndi. Please send him away. Buy me some time. I’m sorry I messed up your life and I’m sorry I joke-flirted with the grim reaper. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Okay?
Art by Yvonne Martinez.