I leaned back in a green plastic chair coated with ice. I held a cigarette in one hand, a mug of Stoli-coffee in the other, and watched the sunlight spill over the white frosted treetops. This is the writing life, I thought. This was the first weekend of our winter break, both Steve and I had turned in our final grade sheets, and now it was time for the real work. The only problem was that I hadn’t written anything all weekend. In fact, I’d hardly had a single minute to myself. I’d been busy playing mommy — and failing miserably at it.
So, on this morning, while my stepchildren, Daniel and Rachel, watched cartoons, I decided to take advantage of the cold streak. It was minus 20 degrees with the wind chill; too cold for anyone sane (even the kids) to brave, despite the deceptively clear sky. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind like waves through the trees. I imagined finishing my drink and plunking down in front of my computer, staying there for hours.
But this wasn’t what was going to happen. Inside, a sleepy 13-year-old boy and a chirpy four-year-old girl were waiting for me to give them breakfast. They wanted to see Bugs Bunny and work their way back up to full-speed, run-around-the-house mode, and they wanted Steve and me to join them. It’ll take all my energy, just to get through the next two days.
I opened my eyes and tilted my head back. I swam in cerulean sky, and buoyed myself on that singular sensation, until Steve stuck his head out the door. “Where’s the Cookie Crisp?”
“I’ll get it for her in a minute,” I replied. “Let me finish my cigarette first.”
Steve and I had talked it over for hours this morning, before the children got up. I was supposed to calm down more, to let the children misbehave. “Just let them be kids,” Steve had told me again and again. “Let them break stuff. They can’t help it, so don’t expect them to be other than they are.”
Rachel was easy, a bit spoiled but still overwhelmingly charming. Daniel was a different matter. Special ed, obsessive-compulsive, often paranoid. Not to mention an adolescent boy going through puberty. I felt sorry for what he had to face everyday, his world a murky and mysterious abyss that most people found unnavigable. I sympathized with his confusion, the conflicting impulses he felt for me, and his mood swings (which sometimes resembled my own). But that didn’t make our day-to-day lives any easier.
I wanted to calm down, but somehow I couldn’t. I loved Steve’s kids, but I just wasn’t Mommy material. And unlike my own mother, I thought, I recognized this thing in myself.
I knew intimately all the parts I didn’t want to pass on to another generation: depression, moodiness, anger that scared even my own husband. I could control these more than my mother ever could, without Prozac or barbiturates, without psychiatrists or masochistic suicide attempts. I’m not like her, I reminded myself repeatedly. I love my mother, but I’m stronger than she’s ever been. I have parts of her in me, but these unstable elements have been tempered by my other parent’s genetic material and history. I hoped. But my biological father’s actual biology was a mystery to me. I had access only to my mother’s side of my family: a chronicle of chemical imbalances, addictions, denials, and the silences between. In spite of the mystery of my makings, I believed I could be worse. I could be my mother. Mom’s manic-depression was a constant whirlpool, always threatening to swallow her up; mine came only in surges, choppy waves that I convinced myself I would learn to ride out. Eventually. Someday when I could make myself truly pacific-buoyant, placid, watertight, trusting.
As for now, I could still feel it there, sometimes light as sea foam floating around in the back of my mind, sometimes a violent storm surge pulsing just beneath the surface of my skull. And, Steve reminded me, I was only 22. “What was your mother like when you were a child?” he asked me. “Was your mother already depressive when she was young?”
We tread water around an unspoken question, the real worry in both our minds.
What if it gets worse?
A few months earlier, I had written an essay about Steve’s and my marriage. I didn’t focus on the wedding itself as much as how my husband and I learned who our true friends were. (My husband is also my former professor, so our “true friends” were few. None of Steve’s colleagues offered their congratulations.) Responses to the essay by women my own age were far from what I imagined. I anticipated confusion regarding the irony of my title, “Kid Stuff” — do you really think of yourself as a kid? I expected to get questions about our two witnesses at the wedding — why these two friends in particular? What I didn’t expect were questions about my childhood:
“What kind of marriage did you dream of when you were eight years old?
“Who did you imagine yourself marrying?
“How did you envision your wedding day?
In other words: No little girl dreams of getting hitched in a courthouse to a middle-aged man. What happened to you?
“What did you want when you were a little girl?” they all asked, struggling to understand.
“A dog,” I told them. “I wanted a dog.”
Divert attention, laugh, move on.
Everyone thought I was joking, and I was in part. But this was also an answer I’d been repeating since I was ten years old. When the aunts grew persistent: “Are you seeing anybody? Why not? Don’t you like boys?” When Grandma (the only person in my family who I’ve never seen take her anger out on anybody) cornered me with watery-eyed concern: “Oh, honey, someday you’ll want somebody. You don’t want to be alone forever. Can you imagine getting old alone? Dying alone?” The answer was always clear: “I don’t want to be alone forever. I want a dog. No, really: a big dog, like a golden lab or a golden retriever.”
They had no idea what I was talking about. And I had no idea what they really meant either. I noticed they were abnormally joyous when I traveled to L.A. with a male friend during spring break my freshman year of college. (Travis is gay, but no one in my family knew this at the time.) It took me years to recognize what my family was really asking me, all those years ago. If she doesn’t like boys, maybe she likes…But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I and the people who cared about me were speaking
two different languages.
Eventually, my mother turned self-appointed interpreter. “Sheyene doesn’t have time for boys,” she’d answer for me at family gatherings. And this was something everyone could latch onto: Yes, Sheyene is serious about her studies, involved in clubs and sports, work and school. She’s a busy girl. She just doesn’t have time for boys.
I listened to my grandmother repeat those explanations, murmuring them to herself and others like a prayer. I heard my aunts join in, a chorus of the same rationalizations, repeated, revised, rephrased. For the first time in my life, I saw how words could lead us. And I let my mother’s words lead me.
I perpetuated her explanation with unreasoning zeal, blindly stumbling forward
behind short syllables in gruff tones at high volumes. “Boyfriends are a waste of time,”
I proclaimed with conviction. “I have too much to do,” I insisted. “I have too much to do.”
I felt angry that my family couldn’t talk to me about the things I actually was doing. I felt angry that I made straight A’s, read and wrote, and it was never enough. All they could ask me about was boys. I found boys my age profoundly uninteresting: clumsy, self-centered, silly. Girls were even worse. So throughout my childhood, I was both outcast and snob. I’d been rejected by the popular kids, the pretty faces, but felt they were beneath me anyway — politically and intellectually disengaged. I didn’t even find boys my age attractive. Their foreheads were too smooth, their bodies too unformed, like a block of clay dough straight out of the package. I knew it would take years of experience to form them, to give them the lines and curves and character I found interesting. Somebody had to shape them, and be shaped along with them.
But it couldn’t be me, I told myself decisively. And then I wondered. I wondered whether I was right to feel this way — or was I just a snot? I wondered why even my closest friends had such different tastes. They liked movies like License to Drive; I loved Out of Africa. They thought Corey Haim and Corey Feldman were hot, while I fantasized about Robert Redford and Sean Connery. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered, worried, wondered again, and finally forgot myself in the words: I just had too much to do.
I may have been slow at adapting to new ways of thinking, but I was finally starting to grasp my stepson’s approach. Daniel made sense of the world tactilely, by feeling objects. At Steve’s and my house, Daniel rifled through our mail daily, flipped through magazines and books, sometimes stole a credit card or necklace or ring. He’d spread pages of manuscript across the floor of Steve’s study. He’d take pens and pencils from my study, and either pocket them or distribute them around the house — three pens on the living room carpet, five pencils in the hallway, two in the bathroom. He walked around the house in Steve’s leather jacket, my black high-heeled boots, and he felt what it was like to live with us. In short, Daniel wanted to connect to us through physical contact with the stuff of our lives. While this could be a nuisance, it made a kind of beautiful sense, at once simple and complex, rooted in basic human biology, with a profound grasp of symbolism. (For a long time, Daniel wanted a plain gold ring, just like Steve’s and my wedding bands — the material manifestation of lifelong commitment.) Obsessive logic was always a ruling force in my world, so I understood and respected Daniel’s attempts to connect to us through our possessions. After all, the notion that essence is in things was hardly illogical.
Daniel’s world, however, was not limited by logic. Or as Steve said: If you argue logically with Daniel, you won’t get anywhere. Logic means nothing to him. This was difficult for me to even conceptualize, much less deal with. As a result, when the reason for Daniel’s fixation was unclear, when I couldn’t make sense of it, I flailed and wallowed.
I struggled to stay afloat.
Our next weekend with the kids two weeks later was a time for floundering. On Saturday, Steve and I took the children to the mall Christmas shopping in the early afternoon, and Daniel fixated on a particular hat. A thirty-five dollar leather cap advertising Tide laundry detergent. He begged and begged for it, and we said, “Maybe you’ll get it for Christmas.”
“No, I want it now,” he insisted.
“Maybe for Christmas,” Steve and I repeated, with one voice. And Daniel began
Now, three hours later, Daniel was still crying. I knew it was not about the Tide cap anymore. Daniel gets scared, scared of who he is and all he isn’t. Steve and I both knew what was wrong, on the deepest level. But that didn’t make Daniel’s behavior any easier to bear, at least not for me.
Just as Daniel seemed to be surfacing, we all sat down to watch the news together. Daniel was completely uninterested in world events, so he often watched the fireplace instead, observing the shifting colors of flickering flame. Fire relaxed Daniel, and usually he liked this — squeezing onto the love seat between his dad and me, Rachel scaling the back of the sofa, everyone close and calm. Not today. Without warning, he sank into tears again. Steve sent him to my study, and told him to come back out when he could be in a better mood.
I was exhausted by his emotion. “What just happened?” I asked Steve.
“I think he felt left out,” Steve answered, wrapping an arm around my shoulders.
“We are all just relaxing, just sitting here together watching the news.”
“Sometimes I think he doesn’t want to be part of things. He doesn’t try,” I said, feeling myself harden a little inside. Part of me resented the perpetual drain of Daniel, especially on days like this.
“It’s when things are going well that Daniel starts to feel how different he is from everyone else.”
I knew Steve was exactly right, and I felt sorry that he was.
Ten minutes later, I found that Daniel had peed on the bathroom floor. He apparently had changed clothes at some point, and there was piss all over his discarded sweat pants and boxer shorts. I cleaned it up and told Steve. He took Daniel into his study, but left the door open. In the kitchen with Rachel, just out of earshot, I imagined the patient, fatherly tone of Steve’s voice as they talked about it.
Less than an hour later, Rachel would come to me looking guilty. She couldn’t quite make it to the potty on time. Her pants and underwear were soaked, as was the bathroom rug. “It was an accident,” she told me, “just an accident.”
“I know. Accidents happen,” I said.
I did not get angry. Instead, I went to the bathroom alone and cried while I ran water for Rachel’s bath. I cried and pretended I was laughing, while I picked up the second pair of piss-soaked pants of the evening, while I rolled up my cashmere rug and took everything to the laundry room, while I scrubbed the ceramic tiles of the bathroom floor. I cried and no one noticed. I cracked up, and I was glad they didn’t.
When I was a child, more than anything, I wanted to move to California. I remember how happy we all seemed there, at least in my memory of those trips we’d taken with Poppy. So I had surrounded myself with pieces of that fantasy, soft sand, gray-black pebbles, shells and bits of broken coral and years of outdated calendars. At first, I wanted to take my whole family with me to live in an enormous seaside mansion, but as I grew older, I dreamt of going alone, digging clams and living right on the beach. If only I lived by the ocean, I told myself, I could feel safe and sane and live a normal life, all by myself. I didn’t need a house, or tent, or blanket. Just cool sand to slide my feet under, crashing surf — natural, understandable rhythms to drown out the strange, unpredictable waves in my brain.
By eighteen, I’d even worked out my mantra: Crazies belong near the ocean. I hadn’t been to L.A. in over a decade, not since my grandpa died. So my first spring break from college, I decided I was going. My friend Travis was going with me. We spent three days in Hollywood, three days in Santa Monica. Most of the trip felt shallow, disappointing, disillusioning. I hated L.A., hated the way you could feel the poverty on the sidewalks of the stars, then take a taxi into Beverly Hills and run into Gene Wilder in Polo Ralph Lauren.
I hated who I was in L.A., a stupid girl in a sky-blue spandex dress and white platform shoes, window shopping on Wiltshire Boulevard. I hated that I’d never noticed any of this before. The only place I really enjoyed was the beach at Santa Monica, a long, low-lying stretch of coastline completely prone to the thrashing gray waves. I felt oddly comfortable on the soft sand, where gulls pecked at bread crumbs and homeless people lay belly up in long pants and heavy coats. But I didn’t want to become one of them. On the beach at Santa Monica, I saw crazies, people who held audible conversations with their other selves and pulled out their own hair, for the first time. I didn’t feel scared, just sorry. Sorry for them, sorry for myself. Sorry that I’d wasted so much of my life wishing for something that had never existed.
Four days before the start of Spring semester, my grandma came to Manhattan for a dentist appointment. Grandma could manage to drive to only two places in Manhattan — the hospital where her third and last husband (Grandpa Rollin) spent the last few months before his death, and the dentist’s office. Any other destination, and she was lost. So whenever she came to town, she called Steve and me from one of those two places, and we picked her up. On this day in particular, she called me at 10:30 to come pick her up at Doctor Stevens’ office. Steve had been writing and I’d been reading all morning, hadn’t even showered yet. So I told her we’d be there in a few minutes. Ten minutes later, I found her in the waiting room, chatting contentedly with a woman whose son was in with Doctor Stevens. (And whose husband had been shot, Grandma would whisper to me
in the car two minutes later. I don’t know how. She was a very nice woman.)
“Is it okay if I leave my car here while I go to lunch with my granddaughter?” my grandma asked one of the dentist’s receptionists as soon as I walked in the door.
“Sure, that’s fine, Mabel,” one of them replied.
“This is my granddaughter, Sheyene. She goes to K-State and teaches there too,” Grandma introduced me, first to the woman whose husband had been shot, then to the receptionists.
“We’ve heard a lot about you,” they all told me. I smiled and nodded, gently nudging Grandma toward the door.
“Is it okay if I leave my car while I go to lunch with my granddaughter?” she asked the
receptionists several more times before the glass doors closed behind us.
“It’s fine, Mabel,” they told her. “Just fine.”
When I was a child, we used to joke about Grandma’s chattiness.
She’s never met a stranger, my mother would explain to whoever it was we found sitting next to Grandma outside an outhouse in Arizona, in a hotel lobby in Montana, or on a bench at our local Wal-Mart. Eventually, Grandma adopted the line herself. An icebreaker, a way to fill the open spaces between thoughts. I’ve just never met a stranger…So what are you doing here? Are you shopping alone? Do you have any children? Where do they live?
Why did Grandma talk to people everywhere we went? If this question ever crossed my mind as a child, I always had a quick and accessible answer. She’s just never met a stranger. Now I wondered: What was she missing? What was she trying to fill? Even with three husbands, each dead now, why hadn’t she ever been able to fill it? What if it gets worse?
“They told me I need to schedule another appointment with Doctor Porter in three months for another cleaning, and I’m supposed to go back to Doctor Stevens in July,” Grandma told Steve and me. “That doesn’t sound right, does it? I don’t think I really need my teeth cleaned every three months, do you?”
My grandma obsessed about this all through lunch. She would call Porter’s office right after dessert to cancel her April appointment, but she’d still be talking about her teeth two hours later, when Steve and I picked her up from her visit to her friend Opal’s apartment and took her back to our house. After Steve left to go get Rachel and Daniel, however, she changed subjects.
“Have I told you about Angie? She’s real bad now.”
Angie used to sing at my grandma’s church. She was from Germany originally, belted out hymns opera-style. But in the past year, she had developed what I guessed to be senile dementia, though Grandma had never used that term.
“She still sees her first husband. She thinks he’s come here from Germany and he’s trying to kill her.”
“Is she still in the hospital?” I asked.
“Oh yes. She can’t be out with regular people anymore,” my grandma answered, picking at her fingertips. “I need my nails trimmed, but I can’t do it myself.”
“I’ll trim them for you.” I was so glad for the change of subject that I’d even be willing to pluck her chin hairs again, the task assigned to me at our most recent family Christmas.
Dementia still terrifies me. I’m just not sure what to do with the idea that any one of us could wake up one morning and our brains could refuse to relay accurate information about the reality around us. How do we come to terms with the fact that our minds are beyond our conscious authority and can deceive us utterly? How can we admit powerlessness and continue to function as if we were in control?
Is it possible to know my own fragility and still relax?
Grandma followed me into the bathroom, sat down on the cushioned toilet lid, and held out her left hand. I’d just found our fingernail clippers when I heard the front door slam. Soon Steve, Daniel and Rachel were in the bathroom with us, watching Grandma and me attentively while thick bits of fingernail glanced off the clippers. Suddenly the room felt too close.
“Okay guys, everybody out,” I told them. “You don’t need to watch me trim Grandma’s nails. Now go on.”
“Even me, Mommy?” Rachel asked.
I ruffled her hair and smiled, nudging her into the hallway.
“Even you. We’ll be out in a minute,” I told her and closed the door.
“She calls you Mommy?” Grandma asked.
“She asked me if she could a few months ago, and I told her she could call me whatever she felt comfortable with. Sometimes, she calls me Mommy and sometimes she calls me Sheyene.”
My Grandma smiled. “She’s a pretty little girl. Do you ever think you’ll have children of your own?”
“Probably not. Steve’s got enough for both of us,” I told her, and went back to clipping her nails.
“I always thought you’d marry that Travis boy,” she said after a moment of silence. She told me this nearly every time she saw me, and I’d long given up on explaining it. I just shook my head.
“But Steve is such a nice man,” she concluded while I finished the clipping.
“Yes, he is,” I agreed, picking bits of fingernail off the rug. “All done.”
We joined Steve and the kids in the living room, where I used an emory board on Grandma’s nails, filing away the sharp edges, filing them as smooth as I could.
There would still be a few rough spots when she left, but she said it was good enough. Steve and the kids decided to stay home while I took Grandma back to her car, parked outside Doctor Stevens’s office. I waited until she pulled out of sight, then turned up the radio, full-blast. Janis Joplin’s “Try a Little Bit Harder” pounded my eardrums, and I sang along.
My mother is a masochist. I had written this sentence over and over, and I’d never been able to do anything with it. The idea used to haunt me, mostly because I thought it was true. And because I couldn’t make sense of it. And, maybe, because I was scared that I was too.
Eventually, I realized that my mother was raised on suffering. She might not want to admit this. But our family appreciated agony; they thrived on self-destruction in all forms — spousal abuse (given and received), gluttony, self-inflicted wounds, substance abuse of all kinds. As a child, I found my own ways to ache, a different kind of suffering. I never intentionally hurt myself physically, but I suppose I did want to connect to the psychology of my family. The psychology of pain.
I don’t want to be alone forever. I want a dog.
Late one night, after my first day of writing in nearly a month, I explained this to Steve. I thought my family was actually asking me what I wanted when they asked me about boys, what I dreamed of, whom I wished to become. The problem was that I couldn’t recognize these questions; I’d never asked them of myself. My family thought of my life as open, rich with possibilities that they both nurtured and envied simultaneously. But I never saw my life this way. I knew only limits I had to set, internal seawalls to protect myself and others from the raging currents inside me. I never thought I could earn the kind of love I wanted.
I didn’t think I deserved it.
“I didn’t think I had earned the right to inflict myself on anyone,” I told Steve. “I was going to contain the bad stuff in me, not take it out on a child or a husband. I was not going to be like my mother.”
He smoothed my hair. “What were you going to do?”
“I was going to live alone in the country or on the beach, in a big rustic house that I would renovate myself. I would write fiction to maintain some connection to the outside world, to otherness. I’d own a dog, maybe a horse. But I would not make anyone else suffer.”
“You didn’t inflict yourself on me,” he said.
“I feel like I haven’t earned the right to feel this way . . . even to be happy.”
“I’m no sugar-daddy,” he replied gruffly. “This isn’t some kind of gift.”
I laughed and pulled him closer. “No, it is a gift. A gift from the Goddess of Fate who had mercy on my pitiful soul.”
“You could have earned something better,” he told me, rubbing his face against mine. “Some younger, handsomer guy . . .”
I kissed his forehead.
” . . . but you didn’t, so you got me,” he finished, and we both laughed. We sank back into the sofa together, and I leaned against his shoulder and sighed.
“You know when you actually think, you’re pretty good,” Steve told me. “But you don’t like to think.”
Perhaps I should have been offended, but I wasn’t. It was true. I didn’t like to think. And it was always easy for me not to.
If I didn’t write, I didn’t think.
That first weekend of winter break, my coffee mug filled with vodka and Folgers, my hands busy with cigarettes and cereal boxes — I had started with good intentions. I wish I could write, but I can’t. We need to devote our attention to the kids. After that, I relied on shifting timelines: As soon as we’re through with Christmas…As soon as I complete my MFA applications… Right after New Year’s…I had spent the better portion of the past month (our entire winter break) not thinking. I drank to excess, I smoked to excess, I ate to excess, I exercised to excess, trying to drown thought or suffocate it, to weigh it down or sweat it out. Why was it so tempting for me to stop thinking, stop writing?
When my mother was my age, she was still writing. As a child, she had written poems and stories; in her late teens and early twenties she sometimes kept a diary. My mother’s elder sister, Aunt Sharon, once wrote non-fiction, but now no one in my family engages in any artistic expression of any kind, except me.
Why did they stop?
The reason suddenly seemed clear: Writing was dangerous.
I still don’t remember much about the events surrounding my grandpa’s death of lung cancer at the age of 66. For years, I’d had no idea what was wrong, why everyone was fighting, why we wouldn’t speak to my aunts and cousins for years after this. But, for some reason, I eventually recalled one scene: I remember watching my mother angrily pace my grandparents’ kitchen floor, tan rotary phone in hand. She screamed into the receiver, calling my Aunt Shirley, Aunt Sharon, and Uncle Roger — her three half-siblings — all liars. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but there was one word I heard my mother repeat over and over: Memoir. She spit the word out like a sour grape. That fucking memoir. I didn’t even know what a memoir was. And everyone around me refused to talk about it. Aunt Shirley and Sharon and Uncle Roger are dead to us. They’re telling lies about your Poppy. This was all my mother would tell me. We have to be loyal to Poppy, to protect his memory.
It took years of eavesdropping for me to finally piece together what happened, and I’m still not sure of the details. What I do know is this: My Aunt Sharon once wrote a short memoir, part of which delved into the death of her father and my grandmother’s remarriage. In one section, Sharon revealed how my grandpa had beaten my grandma on several occasions early in their marriage and how heavily he drank, at least before my mother was born. When Mom found out, she was furious — furious that my aunt wrote it. My mother has since admitted to me that she knew about the drinking and Poppy had hit Grandma a few times early on. But she didn’t think that they should be talking about that on the day of her father’s funeral.
My mother, Karla Roe, named after her father, inheritor of his fury. I am the next generation.
What we risk by writing is learning what we don’t want to know, seeing what we wish never happened.
Who would my mother be if she kept writing?
Would I love her as much if she had?
Ten o’clock was usually lights-out on weekends when the kids stayed with us, and I would usually put Rachel to bed before Daniel. She often fell asleep on the floor while trying to finish a movie. But Daniel was tired this Saturday night, and Rachel was not. Daniel opted to go to bed; Rachel asked to finish Lady and the Tramp. I understood her need to finish what she’d started, and Steve was already half-asleep on the couch. So I said okay, but she had to lie down while she watched the movie. But she didn’t. And she didn’t go to sleep after the movie either, after I’d tucked her into bed. I knew she was restless, even though I couldn’t hear her at all. Instead, I could hear Daniel’s sleepy pleas: “Cut it out, Rachel. Stop it.”
“Quit bothering your brother,” I hissed into the darkness. “It’s time to go to sleep.”
I heard them again, several times, and finally Rachel appeared in the hallway.
I put my hands on my hips and she stared at the carpet.
“Well, why aren’t you in bed?”
“My tummy’s keeping me awake,” she said. “It’s telling me I’m hungry.”
I looked at her skeptically at first, trying to figure out whether she really needed food or she just didn’t want to go to bed yet. Then I remembered the year that mom and I lived with my grandparents, all the late nights of eating snacks and watching re-runs and sitting around the kitchen table, talking with my Poppy. It was perfect — all of it was exactly what I had needed.
I sat Rachel down on the kitchen counter. I gave her a granola bar and some hot cocoa, and we talked a bit while she nibbled her snack. We spoke in hushed voices, about the movie and the fact that Rachel didn’t eat much of her supper and what we’d do tomorrow. When she was done, we exchanged kisses and I tucked her back into bed. She was asleep in five minutes.
My sleep, however, was broken by bad dreams . . .
I’ve just dropped Rachel and Daniel off at their mother’s house, and now I’ve come back home. As I walk into our living room, I see a flash of movement in the hallway. This is odd because I’m supposed to be the only one home; Steve is at a meeting. I walk through the hallway, past the bathroom into Steve’s and my bedroom, and there they are again: Daniel and Rachel, Daniel riding a scooter around the bed and Rachel running alongside him. I’m angry. Why did Mary bring the kids back to me? I wonder. “How did you two get here?” I ask them.
They only snicker in response and Daniel scoots off down the hallway. I grab his arm. “Daniel, you know you aren’t supposed to ride the scooter in the house.”
They both laugh.
Daniel drops the handles and lets the scooter fall to the ground, then drifts off into his father’s study. “You sit there, Daniel,” I tell him, pointing to the love seat, and he plops down, quietly sulking.
Rachel laughs and runs in circles around the room.
“Rachel, this isn’t funny,” I try to explain, sitting down in Steve’s swivel chair. I pick her up and plunk her down on my lap. “Now, how did you and Daniel get back here?”
She giggles and squirms off my lap, but I hold onto her. I’m still holding onto her arms when I hear the front door close.
He walks back into his study, and I keep my grip on Rachel.
“Look at this,” I tell him, frustrated near tears. “The kids are here again. I dropped them off at Mary’s and she just brought them back. I don’t know why.”
“Where are the kids?”
“They’re here. Daniel’s over there . . .” I say, turning around to point at the love seat. But he’s gone.
“Well, he must have run out of the room just before you walked in. But Rachel’s right here,” I tell him, growing more disconcerted. I shake her arms lightly and she giggles.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m holding onto her. Can’t you see her?”
Steve raises his eyebrows in disbelief. “You’re telling me that you’re holding Rachel right now?”
I’m growing angry and nervous. Why is he being so dense?
“Well, what do you think?” I ask sarcastically.
He pauses, and instead of looking annoyed, he looks shaken.
“There’s nobody there, Sheyene.” The moment he says these words, I look down and her arms vanish between my fingers. She’s gone. Or rather, I realize she was never here. I crumple into tears, and suddenly Steve’s gone too.
An insistent fear wells deep inside of me, crashes through my consciousness. There’s nobody there…
I woke with these words pounding against my temples, tangled in all the other debris my mind can dredge up at two a.m. Sweaty and uncomfortable, I got up and went into the bathroom for a drink of water. From the hallway, I heard Daniel’s clicking sounds, throaty noises he sometimes makes unconsciously in his sleep. I could still hear them when I went back to bed. For some reason, this unsettled me more than it should have on that night; I was shaken, so I decided to wake Steve and tell him about my dream.
Steve listened to my summary, then asked sleepily, “You realized you were dead at the end of the dream?”
“No, I was demented. Worse than dead.”
He held me tight. “What a terrible nightmare.” And the moment he said those words,
I felt my terror disappear. Two thousand miles from California, we lay perfectly still and floated.
This was the sanest place I’d ever been.
Sheyene Foster Heller earned her MFA from Goucher College in creative non-fiction writing and currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches English and creative writing courses online.
She has almost completed a memoir, Natural Disasters, of which selections have been published in Bevity, Nebraska Review, Clackamas Literary Review, and Tampa Review.