My cat is a dog. And a toddler and a sweet little angel cuddle bug. He is also a minion sent from the depths of Bengal cat heritage. He must be. He is wild.
I return to the living room from microwaving my soup a bit more, and I find my cat on the end table, nose down, licking the butter off my toasted baguette. I clap and stomp and shout at him to get down. Bad Kitty! To which he jumps off the table and stares up at me from the floor, smacking his lips and cleaning his face with his tongue. It is my own fault. I know my cat will get into anything; I am a foolish, foolish human to leave my carbs unattended.
My cat loves me so much he follows me about the house, jumping onto desk, counter, and couch. Wherever I am, he needs to be. He walks over my keyboard, my papers, and my plate.
He roams the hallway of our house, screaming and howling gutturally as if he’s being dismembered. He annihilates a fuzzy rattle mouse in minutes, first detaching the tail and then ripping the fur from the plastic rattle body with fang and claw. And then he gnaws and grinds, killing the toy dead a thousand times over. I find the pink felt ears on the bathroom floor, the tail behind the toilet, and the pelt in the closet because my cat has violently tossed it about, eventually losing it under the door.
He treats the litter like sand under which a treasure is buried. Like a dog, he digs, shoveling out pilesof litter behind him onto the tiled floor.
We can’t have plants or flowers, real or fake, because he nibbles and tears off blades and petals. He knocks over my coffee mug because he is trying to cover it up, apparently to hide evidence of food and protect us all from predators who might come to drink it out from under me. He flips his food and water bowls for the hell of it. He is a terror.
He loves me so much he sprints at the last moment to slip through the open door of my bedroom. He knows he’s not allowed in because he sharpens his claws on our upholstered Wayfair furniture, bites the wicker basket that holds my yoga mat and blocks, jumps into the 3-inch space between the television and the bottom edge of the cubby that houses it. In the shower, he wets his paws and lies on the tile. In the closet, he makes the clothes innocently hanging there his own personal string things for clawing and yanking and punching holes into. I cannot extract him from the room because he hides under the bed, smackdab in the middle.
I’ve pulled a muscle in my trapezoid reaching for the rascal. I’ve slid in fuzzy-socked feet attempting to grab him, practically snapping my pelvic wishbone in two. He must enjoy making a fool out of me.
He loves me so much he nestles into me, purring like a miracle, and head-butts my Facebooking hand so I will pet him instead of scrolling my newsfeed.
He opens the pantry by pulling the underside of the door. He heads for the pork rinds and macadamia nuts and bread and chips, destroying the bags and their contents. He climbs into the way back knocking over Corona bottles, shattering them into bits, spraying beer over everything. He hunkers down, drags his feet, protests in the biggest way he knows how.
When I make food, I must clean before I eat or I will discover him counter surfing in all his naughtiness, opening the container of grape tomatoes, eating breadcrumbs, and smearing his litterbox paws over stove and granite. He will crouch to lick bowls in the sink, slurp milk-water, scoop ice cubes and bat around lids and spoons and the plastic strips you peel off shredded cheese packages.
My cat plays fetch. He demands my attention. He noisily climbs through the shutters to lie along the cool window glass. He shreds unopened Amazon boxes and leaves pieces of tape and cardboard all over the house. He is a pain in the ass. And sometimes when I look at his sweet kitty face with his big eyes and whiskered mouth, as he sleeps curled up with all four paws in a pile, my heart swells ten sizes.
My cat licks his furry body, he roots in the cat box, he sniffs his brother’s butthole.
And now my baguette has cat tongue slime on it somewhere. But I refuse to fall for the old “I licked it, so now it’s mine” trick.
My cat is smart, but I’m smarter. I’m his human, and I have parenting to do. The easy thing would be to throw away the baguette. But that only teaches him he’s won.
Hours passed, and Mom finally said, “Okay, time to go.”
“But it’s not morning.” I sat up on the soft couch where I’d been trying to sleep. William slept in a recliner by the window.
“Leslie.” Mom stared at me. Her heavy voice seemed to come up through her from the ground.
William jolted awake.
“Can’t you for once, just stop going against every single thing and do what I say?” Mom lit a cigarette.
I thought back to the time she beat me when I’d done nothing wrong. It was William who’d kicked my top bunk from the underside, making it lift off the frame and fall on the diagonal. Mom should’ve known I wouldn’t scream without a good reason. But she didn’t care. When her mind told her to do something, she did it, no matter how strange, dangerous, or terrifying.
I didn’t want to get hit, so I shut up.
Mostly, Mom didn’t hurt us, but the possibility of it hung over me always, like a rain cloud, heavy and ready to burst.
Mom glared at me, puffed on her cigarette, and crossed her arms. She cocked her wrist to hold the cigarette away from herself a bit.
William and I followed Mom out of the house where Mom slid the key under the doormat.
The sky was dark blue-grey and held a wet chill. A dog barked in the distance. The three of us climbed into the car and drove.
“Are we going to Gramma’s?” William asked. A glimmer of hope trailed out of his voice.
“We’ll be there soon,” Mom said. “We have to keep driving for now, so they don’t find us.”
“Who?” William asked. I knew her answer before she spoke. I suspected William did, too, but maybe he thought there was a chance she’d surprise us.
“The government.” Mom’s head bobbed and shook slightly as she spoke. “We’ve been over this before. See all those bright headlights approaching? They never stop. Those are the semi-trucks. Big-rigs. That’s the message from the government that they’re after us, so we better keep running.”
“They’re just trucks, Mom.” I couldn’t help it. I was annoyed. I had to make her understand. “That’s what they do, drive. And it’s dark now, so they have their headlights on. Duh.” Why did she have to make everything so complicated?
“Don’t be a brat. Leslie.” Mom smashed her cigarette in the metal tray below the radio. “They are just trucks, but with communists behind the wheel. And you can’t tell a communist just by looking.” She was rambling now like she sometimes did when she had ideas rolling around in her head too important to keep inside. “That’s why it works. It has to be something easy to fool people with—the general public. We’re smarter than that. They hide behind all these machines and medical procedures and political agendas. And the trucks are their way of telling us they’re going to ram into us to immobilize us before they rape us and hang us by our feet. William knows, don’t you, my sweet boy?”
Mom faced him briefly, the whites of her teeth flashing as she smiled.
“Uh-huh,” William said in a slow, low voice. Mom patted his left leg with her right hand and then punched the lighter knob in the dash. A ring of orange glowed, and when it popped, she removed it and brought it to the cigarette she had just placed in her mouth. A singeing sound came from her mouth as she set the cigarette’s tip on fire. New smoke filled the car, and my lungs burned.
Stomach growling and eyelids drooping, I moaned, “I’m hungry. When are we going to eat?”
“You just had a sandwich,” Mom said.
“But that was forever ago.” I threw my back against my seat, again and again, at first in protest but then because I found comfort in the rhythm.
We pulled into a Stater Bros. grocery store parking lot. We went to the back of the store to use the restroom. Then, in the aisles, I grabbed a bag of Oreos. William asked Mom to get Mother’s Animal Circus from the top shelf. I wandered off on my own without realizing it and spotted a miniature baby doll in a sky-blue polyester dress. She had a beanie body and plastic arms, legs, and head, with a wisp of painted-on hair. I picked her up. She fit in the palm of my hand. A helpless little baby with the power to comfort me instantly.
“Put her back.” Mom pointed at the aisle behind me.
I ignored her and carried the baby around while Mom pulled a six-pack of Pepsi off the shelf before pondering the produce section.
At checkout, I laid my baby on the conveyor belt.
“I told you to put that back.” Mom’s eyes settled on the cashier. “Kids,” she said and shook her head.
“No.” I expected her to look me right in the eye, but she avoided me, laughed unevenly, and handed the cashier some money. And I got my baby doll.
In the car, I ate Oreos and caressed my hairless doll. I looked more closely at her face every time another car passed, letting flashes of light in. She seemed so sweet, her face frozen in mute happiness. I couldn’t get over how small she was. And how perfect. And how mine.
The next thing I knew, Mom called my name.
“Leslie, wake up.” Her fuzzy voice reverberated in my head.
“Are we there?” I felt dizzy. My nose tingled with chill. I rubbed my hands on my thighs and then sat on them for warmth.
“Not yet. Here, sit up.”
I realized the car wasn’t moving. At some point, while I slept, she’d pulled off the road and parked us in an empty lot in the middle of nowhere. Evenly-spaced halogen lights glowed hazy yellow. Lines marked where cars should be parked, but ours was the only one. And it was just like Mom to ignore the rules and park sideways across two spots.
She faced forward and spoke to the windshield as much as to us. “This is important. Listen very carefully, both of you.”
I rubbed my eyes.
“What?” I said. Then panic struck. My baby—where was she? I felt all over the seat and in the cracks. Then I put my hand as far under Mom’s seat as I could reach.
“Take this.” Mom had turned sideways in her seat so she could give me something.
“What is it?” I held out my hand.
“Nothing.” She dropped two white pills into my hand. “It’s just something to help you stay awake.” She popped the tab on a can of Pepsi, and it made a crisp hiss.
“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to take any pills.”
“Leslie.” Her voice had a mean, firm growl in it. “Do what I say. I am your mother. It’s my job to protect you, so it’s crucial that you listen to me and do what I say.”
“No, please,” I said, blubbering. I didn’t trust her. If I took pills from her, I might fall asleep and never wake up.
“Leslie, take them, dammit.”
“Did William take them? William, did you take them?” Were they teaming up to kill me?
“Yeah,” he said. “I took the same thing, and I’m fine, see?”
I believed him, and I trusted him, but I still was notgoing to take any pills. I pretended to put them in my mouth and then took a gulp of Pepsi. I lowered my hand and dropped the pills onto the floor of the back seat, hoping they would make it all the way under William’s seat so Mom wouldn’t find out I’d lied.
“Good girl.” She clapped once and held her palms together. “Now open your mouth and show me. And lift your tongue.”
I showed her my empty mouth.
“Okay, good. Here’s what’s going to happen.” She sounded the most serious and clear she had all day. Her eyes shone like gems in the rearview mirror. “We are going to stay here in this parking lot.”
Where were we? Would anyone hear me if I screamed?
“And I’m going to get out of the car,” she said. “And lie down with my head in front of one of the tires.”
I held my breath.
“And one of you is going to drive. You’re going to drive the car right over my head. Okay. Which one of you wants to do it?” Mom looked at William and then at me and back at William.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “No. No way. Neither one of us are going to do it. That’s crazy. What are you talking about? We don’t even know howto drive.”
“It’s easy,” she said. “I’ll lie down right in front of the tire, and all you have to do is step on the gas. It’ll be over real fast.”
Silence took over for a moment, and the windows fogged up. And so much heavy stuff swelled in my heart it was about to rip apart at the seams.
“I’ll do it,” William said.
“What? No!” My heart pounded super-fast, now, even faster than it did when I jumped on the trampoline. “No, just stop it. Stop saying it. Stop agreeing with everything she says.”
I cried hard, wishing I knew where my baby doll was, wishing she could protect me. But she couldn’t. She was just a stupid little doll with a stupid plastic face and a stupid beanie body in a stupid blue dress. She was no comfort to me now.
“You’ll die.” The words wobbled through a bubble of snot at the back of my tongue. “Then what’ll happen to us if you’re dead?”
“It will be easier this way,” Mom said. “And then maybe they will go easier on you.”
“Okay,” William said once more. He sighed. “If it’s what you want. Come on, Leslie. Just do what Mommy says.”
“No.” I shook my head hard. Could my brain be loose in there? It was all stuffy and achy. “William, stop it.” The words hooked in my throat. “Mom, nobody is going to drive over anybody’s head.”
“Okay,” Mom said. It was that simple—as if I had only just told her there were no more Oreos left in the bag.
“I have another idea,” Mom blurted. “I could just strangle you two, and that way you won’t have to suffer any torture. And then I’ll find a way to kill myself afterward without you trying to argue me out of it. Who wants to go first?”
“Mom, stop it. You’re scaring me,” I said. “You can’t strangle me.” I knew she could if she wanted to. She’d tried it before.
I remembered the night she tied my red knee-high sock around my neck. I’d awakened while she pulled tighter and tighter, and she must have seen something in my eyes that made her stop.
Tonight, with all the darkness, she probably wouldn’t be able to see anything more than a flicker in my eyes. If she’d decided to kill me, once and for all, I couldn’t stop her.
“I’ll go.” William’s voice lilted.
“That’s my good boy.” Mom gave William’s knee a hand-hug.
“Shut up,” I yelled. “God, why do you always have to agree and go along with everything she says? Stop it. Nobody is going to get strangled. Everybody, just shut up.” Tears rushed out, and sickness filled my stomach. I was going to throw up, or explode, or die from trying to make everybody stop saying crazy things.
“Well.” Mom tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel. “If you won’t cooperate, there’s only one thing left to do.”
“What’s that?” William asked. How could he be so calm? Maybe he had been brainwashed to do scary, permanent damage.
“Drive us into a tree.” Mom said it so matter-of-factly as if asking us to kill her were the most common and natural thing in the world.
“Mom?” I grabbed the sides of her seat and shook it as hard as I could. “Then let us out.”
She laughed and turned the key in the ignition.
Where wasmy baby doll? I panicked. I knew she couldn’t help me, not in a situation like this, but I still needed to find her. And I felt sorry for thinking she was stupid. What had she ever done to me? She was just a sweet, innocent baby doll.
I checked between the seams again, to see if she’d gotten stuck, and again, I put my hand between the doors and the seats, to see if she slid there. I ran my fingers over the floor mats, blind in the darkness. She was nowhere.
I felt under Mom’s seat again, to see if I had missed her. Then I remembered I hadn’t checked under William’s seat.
Relieved to feel her polyester body, I clutched her tightly. My heart relaxed as I wiped her on my pant leg and held her to my cheek.
She smelled like cigarette ashes and dirty car stuff, but I kissed her tiny plastic face anyway. I could have fit her whole head in my mouth if I really wanted to.
Yesterday as I Namasté-d to mark the end of my yoga session, euphoria swirled in my head like a wisp of bliss. I breathed out, releasing a final sigh of carbon dioxide and reveled in my moment of freedom. Shoulders lower, spine taller, my body floated out of the studio. How was it I’d almost skipped class?
When feelings of calm and ease accompany the practice, why don’t I do it ten times a day? If it has the power to eliminate pain, anxiety, and stress, why don’t I do it every chance I get?
I wish the answer were simple, but wrapped up in my messy human body and brain are all the modes of procrastination and laziness ever configured. Why do today what I can put off until tomorrow? Couch and coffee have such an extreme pull on me that sometimes, the thought of giving them up in place of exercise is the most dreadful thing I can imagine. But when I’m doing what’s good for me, I move my butt and go to yoga. And I neverregret it.
I’m trying to honor my body by giving it what it needs. It needs feel-good vibes and good food. Since bad days lurk around every morning alarm, I got to thinking about all the places I may find euphoria. And I urge you, too, to seek it out. In this world of fast-paced everything, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to slow down once in a while and participate in healthy activities that release those endorphins. There’s enough pain and suffering going on; let’s allow some pleasure to shine through those cracks.
Here are 6 ways to trigger your pleasure center:
1. Practice Yoga
Two years ago, I found my studio—my place in the yoga world. I’d stopped practicing yoga about two years before that because I struggled with muscle and joint pain, and the yoga classes available to me only seemed to exacerbate my symptoms. Something in me had changed, and I needed gentler exercise. But try as I might, I didn’t find it. So I let yoga go. I wasn’t happy about it, but I could no longer motivate myself to complete a thousand successive Downward Dogs and Chaturangas.
Since I’ve been at doing yoga at this studio, I’ve grown ¼ inch, my muscles have lengthened, and my arm, back, and leg strength has increased. I used to suffer such extreme back weakness that every three months or so I’d bend down carelessly to pick up a towel or clean the toilets and I’d end up on the floor, unable to move. It was a long road to recovery, and my back still has pain, but I can function, and I feel strong.
It may take you a while to find your studio or instructor, but if you remain committed, it’ll be worth it. Start with restorative yoga. Stretch those limbs, breathe, and Namasté your way to improved health and state of mind.
2. Forest Bathe
When I first heard the term forest bathing, I laughed, picturing myself in the middle of the forest, sitting naked in one of those old galvanized tubs and scrubbing my armpits with a handled loofah. But forest bathing is much less literal and typically requires more clothing. It refers to immersing yourself in nature. Taking a hike in a beautiful place is the perfect way to do this. When I walk through the 28-acre park near my house, I take it all in, feel my legs stretching out in front of me as my feet swallow the path.
Connecting with nature feels so good, and when I reach the top of a hill and set my gaze on the purple and orange sunset, a little blast of energy fills my head. I feel transformed into a happier, healthier being by exerting myself and letting nature bring me back down to a comfortable resting heart rate.
I used to get the same feeling when I ran. In college, there was this street we called Ford Hill. It stood at a 45-degree incline. When training to prepare for basketball season, after a couple of miles, that hill showed up in the middle of my run. On my toes, I climbed, slowly, because it was a beast that threatened to pull all the muscles in my legs, twist my ankles, and make me pass out. But when I reached the top, man, I felt a lifting of everything heavy in my head and body. Endorphin rush accomplished. Forest bathing at its finest. And it led to some of the best sleep I’ve ever had.
The sun is a natural, healing force of nature. We think of it as dangerous because of its damaging UV rays. We slather ourselves in sunscreen. We shade our faces and seek shade in efforts to fight off cancer. The truth is, we all need a little sunshine. The sun provides us with Vitamin D, which our bodies use to absorb calcium and promote bone growth, among other benefits.
If you’ve never lain in the sun and let its warmth lower into you like a mini orgasm, you haven’t truly lived. Yes, wear sunscreen, and limit your exposure somewhat, but stop fearing the sun. It’s good for you and feels good, too.
4. Get It On
During sex, physical sensations of pleasure cause the brain to release chemicals that make us feel even more pleasure. Sex also has many health benefits. Need I say more?
5. Get Creative
Photography, painting, writing, etc. are all creative endeavors that help boost mood. Participating in right-brained activities can send you into “flow state,” a state of being where you lose track of time and become completely submerged, which requires intense concentration. This can enhance performance and heighten levels of neurotransmitters in your brain. Imagine all the feel-goods bursting in your nucleus acumbens, which controls dopamine release, shooting off like fireworks to improve your attitude, self-esteem, and performance.
We all know that when we feel better, every aspect of life often improves. Hobbies also help relieve anxiety because they give us a sense of self outside of the demands of work and home. When participating in activities we enjoy, we feel freer and can come to see ourselves and each other with more love; we relate to each other with more patience and understanding.
Creative endeavors help bring the world to us as if through a rose-colored lens. The lows don’t seem so bad, and the highs seem, well, higher.
Two years ago, I attended a six-week mindfulness course when my doctor suggested it. He thought I would benefit from learning techniques for lowering stress and anxiety. He was right. It worked.
If you don’t meditate regularly, the benefits wither away. Most of us don’t have time to lie quietly and do “nothing.” But once you practice and learn how to quiet your mind, you realize the act of meditating isnotdoing nothing. You will soon discover just how free and euphoric meditation can make you feel. And then, you may be more likely to make the time to do it.
I recommend starting with guided meditation, which is more like a step-by-step imagery session that gives you something to focus on—a place of peace to visit in your mind. And you willfall asleep. But as you become more attuned to the practice, as with anything, you become better at it.
The course I took also taught breathing techniques, because ironically, breathing is hard. We take it for granted as an automatic respiratory function, but most of us don’t actually breathe correctly. We suffer from shallow breathing, which doesn’t allow the body or brain to oxygenate and relax. When you take deep, slow breaths, your lungs expand, and those muscles strengthen. You allow more air in to spread through your body in a lighting, lifting, calming experience.
With enough meditation, you can experience that euphoria—that feeling of being in a pain-free, happy state where you respond instead of reacting, where you enjoy instead of stressing out.
I posted an excerpt of my memoir last week. It was part of a selection that was chosen for publication in an anthology, so imagine my dismay to find, as I scanned my writing after posting on Facebook, several typos and general writing errors. Those errors were not present when I submitted my story for publication. So what the hell happened? Did I post an older, unrevised version? I don’t think so. Did letters and commas jump around in the middle of the night to fuck with me—do they have a mind of their own like our pets do when we aren’t home? Whatever the reason, it’s a harsh reminder about how time-consuming and imperfect the art of editing can be.
I’ve corrected the errors, but who knows, I may not have caught them all. We live in an imprecise world, and not only should imprecision be accepted, it should be ignored. Try telling that to the part of me that wanted to erase the damn apostrophe in “Put Wet Umbrella’s Here” on the white board at Massage Envy. I once used my pinky to smudge out a misplaced apostrophe in “its” at a coffee shop. I looked around in shame, hoping nobody saw my obsessiveness, my grammar wisdom in action. But why am I the one feeling bad—I’m trying to correct grammar and put a stop to illiteracy one apostrophe at a time. Should mediocrity go unmatched? Should repairs that improve writing conditions everywhere be stifled? I think not. However, getting every word perfect every time is exhausting and, apparently, not really possible for the likes of me. One question remains: how do others do it? And one statement remains: we hate and admire them simultaneously.
“Ultimatum” comes from Latin, meaning “final demand.” Typically, the word has negative connotations—it implies a means of repairing a relationship that has soured because of one person’s words or actions. How many of us have heard something like, “If you don’t stop talking to [your ex], I will break up with you”? Not you? That might mean you’ve never been in a possessive relationship where co-dependency and mistrust dominated the scene. Lucky you.
But I digress. Ultimatums aren’t always about threats stemming from jealousy or intense discontentment in misguided attempts to motivate a partner and keep the relationship alive. While, by definition, an ultimatum is intended to encourage change, sometimes that desired change is positive and healthy for both people in the relationship.
This was the case with my parents. For those of you who don’t know my story, the short of it is I was brought home by my sixth-grade teacher to live with her and her husband as their foster kid. They’d never fostered before. And conversations about having kids ended in an agreement to let God decide.
And then I came along.
During my eleven-year-old summer, CPS placed me in a new foster home because the one I was in made me lonely, sad, and sick to my stomach. And when the school year started, I began school at Yorbita Elementary in La Puente, CA. My teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, greeted me with her kind, blue eyes, and she taught all of us with compassion and brilliance. As the school year progressed, and as I exhibited signs of both high intelligence and neglect, Mrs. Ferguson slipped behind the scenes to read my cumulative file and contact my social worker to discover more details about my situation.
I was hungry all the time because my foster mother imposed strict rules about eating. After I vomited the contents of my stomach in the school bathroom one day, Mrs. Ferguson inquired about my health. I thought I had the flu, but I was malnourished, and over several weeks, Mrs. Ferguson observed as I lost weight and showed up regularly but unbathed and with greasy, stringy hair.
And then one morning, when I sat at my desk, I noticed items in the cubby that didn’t belong to me. Class was about to start, so I didn’t have a chance to question or turn over the goods.
Then, Mrs. Ferguson spoke, announcing a classroom rule change. “I’ve decided you can now eat in class if you want. I figured if you’re hungry, you should be able to eat.”
I placed my hand inside the cubby, touched the foil-wrapped sandwich, the little baggie of pretzels, the bright reddish-yellow apple.
I looked around the room to gauge my classmates’ faces. Did they have food in their cubbies, too? Not that I could see—I was the only one.
When my dad tells of how I came to be their child, he merely says, “Your mother came home from school every day talking about you, worried about you, and wondering how to help you. I told her she had to either shut up about you or bring you home.”
So she brought me home.
I’m eternally grateful for my mom’s big heart and my dad’s ultimatum. Together, they did what most people would never think to do—they rescued a stranger from emotional abuse and provided unconditional support, guidance, and love.
I often wonder what my life would’ve been like had I never met Mrs. Ferguson and her husband. Would I have fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system? Would I have turned to drugs and other dangerous behaviors as a means of escape? Would I have died on the streets somewhere with nothing but loneliness and fear in my pockets?
Today is my dad’s birthday, and I’ve sent him a Bitmoji text with a little birthday wish in it. It’s not much, but no matter what gift I give or how many words I write in cards, I will never feel like I can appropriately express exactly what he means to me. He helped save my life, but he’ll never see it that way. He’s too humble—a man of few words who sprinkles sarcasm like dust on everything he says.
If you ask him about the time he gave his wife an ultimatum, he’ll say he just wanted her to make a decision. He got his wish, and I benefitted in the grandest way imaginable by being in the right place at the right time. I often apologize to my parents for my terrible teens and for costing them so much money and grief over the years. My mom will correct me and say I was easy to raise. My dad will say it’s about time I pay up. They may use different words, but lucky for me, they speak the same language.
William was climbing the birch tree in my grandparents’ front yard, and I was in the upside-down part of a cartwheel, when Mom drove up to the curb. She didn’t care that her car kissed the curb backwards, on the wrong side of the street. She never cared about rules.
The window on our side was rolled all the way down, and she leaned towards us.
“Kids,” she said. “Get in the car. Hurry.”
She had a white bandage wrapped around her wrist when she put her arm out to pull the lock up. Her other hand rested on the steering wheel. A bandage cuffed the wrist of that arm, too. It had only been a few weeks since she’d tried to kill herself in the middle bedroom. Nobody had talked about it, and now, here she was, driving up as if nothing ugly or bloody had happened.
I thought about the white lines across her wrists. I somehow knew she’d cut them even though she never as much, and I believed her when she said the scars were from before I was born. This made me feel a little better because at least it wasn’t my fault she wanted to die. Something else in the past made her feel like killing herself. But that was then. Now, I felt responsible for her suicidal tendencies.
William jumped out of the tree and ran to the car.
“Don’t,” I said. “Stay back.” I backed up toward the house. “You can’t be here,” I shouted. “Gramma said.”
“Just get in the car, now.” Mom said it like she was in a hurry. I knew she wanted to drive away with us before Gramma and Grampa could stop her.
“I’m getting Gramma.” I ran to door, but Gramma already stood there with her hands on her hips, and Grampa walked up right behind her. They both darted out onto the grass. The screen door banged shut.
“Go on, Roberta.” Gramma put her arm out and flicked her wrist as if shooing a fly. “Get out of here. We’ve had enough. Stop harassing us. You can’t have them. You’re not well.”
I beamed at Gramma, feeling secure in her attempt to protect us. That’s right, I wanted to say to Mom. You can’t have us.
Mom scowled hard before giving up and speeding off, using the neighbor’s driveway to turn around.
“Come on, kids,” Grampa said. “Get inside. We’re done for the day.” He went into the house first, and then Gramma, followed by William and me.
The sky was blue, and all the dirty, flowery smells of spring filled the air. Fall spread out all around us, but winter was coming. And it had been such a perfect day for playing outside.
A few weeks passed. William and I attended school regularly for the first time in over two years. It seemed like a “normal” family life for us meant living with our grandparents and without our mom.
I believed that maybe Mom had given up trying to take us away. After she tried to rob us from the front yard that day, Gramma and Grampa used the word “harassment” every time they talked about letting Mom come over to visit us. They said they just weren’t up for it, and that more time “without incident” needed to pass before they could trust her.
And then, one day, at recess, while I swung high on a swing, Mom shouted at me from the other side of the school’s fence. Her fingers gripped the chain link tightly like she might be trying to lift the fence out of the cement and throw it across the playground.
The most stylish person in our family, she wore over-sized sunglasses and an orange and pink paisley scarf to hold down her hair, and even when she was trying to steal me, she was beautiful.
“Leslie,” she said. Her voice rushed out of her face in a strained, harsh, and deep sound, like maybe she didn’t mean for it to come out that way.
I scraped my shoes along the dirt to slow myself, and I bunny-hopped out of the swing. Standing on the safe side of the fence, I glared at her. The way her scarf blew a little in the breeze made me want to run to her.
“Leslie, come on. It’s time to go.” Her voice sounded normal this time. “Come around and get in the car. Hurry.”“No.” I shook my head to show I meant it. “I’m getting my teacher.” I turned away.
“Do what I say, Leslie. It’s very important that you listen to me. We have to go.”
I turned towards her again. William sat in the passenger’s seat, blinking at me.
“Gramma and Grampa know I’m picking you up. They said it’s okay.”
I relaxed a little. Then I ran around to the skinny opening in the fence by the office and squeezed through.
A bag of Fritos and a cold Pepsi greeted me when I slid into the back seat.
We drove and drove for what seemed like hours. My stomach turned sweet-and-salty-sick.
When it started to get dark, I said, “What are we doing? Where are we going?”
“Vegas,” Mom said. “But first, Apple Valley. It’s where Sherry lives. You remember my girlfriend Sherry, don’t you? She used to live down the street from Auntie Philys.”
It was twilight when we turned into the driveway.
At the front door, Mom bent down and pulled up the doormat to get a key out from under it.
We tip-toed through the cold, dark house. Mom switched on the kitchen lights. They buzzed a little.
“Be quiet inside.” Mom waved her hand around as if to make sure we knew she meant inside the whole house.
In the backyard, a giant trampoline sat in the middle of a grassy area.
“Can we jump on it?” I felt for a latch that would unlock the sliding door.
Mom didn’t answer, but she didn’t stop us, either.
William and I climbed on, alternating our jumps, then trying to get in sync. I bounced and laughed until my breathing heaved and my legs ached, and so much darkness descended I could barely see the edge of the trampoline.
“When are we going home?” I said once we’d reentered the house. “Gramma and Grampa must be wondering where we are.”
“I told you, they said it was okay,” Mom said. “Now, stop talking about Gramma and Grampa. Aren’t you glad you’re with me and we’re reunited as a family? Mommy’s missed you so much.” She leaned against the kitchen counter, smoking a cigarette, and came closer to hug William and me at the same time.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
William said he was, too, so Mom opened the kitchen cupboards one at a time until she found bread and peanut butter. She pulled a knife out of one the drawers and a jar of strawberry jelly from the fridge.
The glint of the steel reminded me of Gramma’s knives and how Mom used them to make herself bleed. My stomach turned.
“Peanut butter sandwiches, it is.” Mom untied the bag of bread. Her cigarette dangled from her lips, and the ash grew long like a snake firework squirming in the street before it died.
“Mom,” I said, “your ashes are gonna fall into my sandwich.”
“Here.” She pushed the bread, jelly, and peanut butter towards me along the counter. “Make it yourself, then.”
I ran my finger lightly over the shallowly serrated edge, feeling good that it was in my hand instead of Mom’s. I made sandwiches for the three of us. William and I stood in the kitchen as we ate. Mom watched us with squinty eyes through cigarette smoke. She never touched her food.
We left the ingredients on the counter, and I put the knife in the sink.
“What now?” I said.
“Nothing,” Mom said, tapping her fingers on the counter. “We wait.”
“For what?” William asked, peanut butter clinging to his lips.
“For tomorrow, when it’s safe to get back out on the road.”
Sherry never came home.
Mom stared at the dark television screen. She must have been looking at the glare and slices of light and movement we created. She closed the drapes, and we sat there in Sherry’s living room, shifting our eyes between each other and nothing while the kitchen lights buzzed into the night.
Let’s return to the trees become light, oxygen, wood, and waxen canopy, photosynthesis our mother.
We could fight by living, striving, and thriving. We could fight the death we chase with shallow perception, believe in new roots, tossing aside where we come from.
We could sway and bend so we won’t break.
But we work towards stress and lies about what it means to make it. We could build foundations, a home, strong children, a backbone, and these could be our legacy.
We could toil for money not ethics, status not fortitude. We could look the same as we might had we fought for the good and the many, for content of character and not comments on social media pages.
But it is neither truth nor integrity we seek; we build card houses, images out of false praise.
We could build each other up.
We could tear each other down, protect our flimsy empires with arsenals of self-interest.
We could eradicate fear. It could matter not that we died but that we lived.