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Still life with tornado, p.13
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.13

           A. S. King
 
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  Bruce didn’t answer. This was not Bruce’s usual behavior. It was as if something were happening to Bruce in Mexico. I don’t know if it was the lying, the truth, the seaweed, or the shooting stars that changed him, but he was different on Day Five than he had been.

  Dad bragged that he’d reserved two umbrellas on the beach. Up until Day Five, he’d only reserved one umbrella because Mom said it was rude to take up too much space with our rule-breaking. But Day Five he went all the way. He said, “I paid to come here and sit on the beach with my family.” He was talking like all the other selfish bastards at the resort now, except when he said my family he sounded like he owned us, not like he loved us.

  Halfway through breakfast Bruce asked, “So what are we doing today?”

  Mom didn’t answer because Dad was the vacation planner.

  Dad didn’t answer because he was giving Bruce some payback in the not-talking department.

  I said, “I want to swim, but then I want to do something else.”

  “What else is there to do?” Mom asked.

  “I saw on the daily newsletter that there’s a Ping-Pong tournament and stuff like that all afternoon. Games and a nature walk, too.”

  “I didn’t come here to play Ping-Pong,” Dad said.

  “Okay,” I said.

  “There’s a kids’ club schedule at the main desk,” Mom said. “We’ll go look at it after breakfast, okay?”

  She said that to me. But Dad acted like she said it to him. He said, “I don’t need to look at the fucking kids’ club schedule. I’m not here for games.”

  Mom said, “Why not let them go and have fun?” I wanted to tell her that the kids’ club was for little kids, not for me and Bruce, but I kept quiet.

  Dad looked at Bruce. Bruce was pushing his food around on his plate.

  “It’s not up to you, Helen,” Dad said. He was acting so cranky, we all just stared at him while he shoved his omelet into his mouth and washed it down with the watered-down orange juice they were passing off as fresh-squeezed when anyone with taste buds could tell it was mixed from powder.

  Mom got up and I got up and Bruce got up. We all went to look at the kids’ club activity schedule for the day.

  Mom and Bruce had a conversation while I asked a balloon man in the lobby to make me a dolphin. When I came back with my balloon dolphin, Mom said, “Okay?” to Bruce. Bruce said, “Okay,” to Mom and then they hugged.

  They both made a big deal out of my balloon dolphin.

  When Mom headed back to the room, she looked at Bruce and said, “Ten minutes?”

  He said, “Okay.”

  But we didn’t wait ten minutes.

  We stood outside the door and listened to them fight. Dad said Mom was undermining his authority. Mom said “What authority? This is vacation!” Dad said she knew damn well what he was talking about. Mom said, “I think you’re going deeper, Chet. I think you need to stop and remember why we’re here.”

  “And why are we here, Helen?” he yelled.

  “To help you,” she said. “To help you learn how to relax.”

  “And you think I’ll relax when you undermine me? You think I’ll relax when you’re a bitch to me in front of my kids?”

  That’s when Bruce touched his room key to the doorknob with his shaking hand and we walked in. It hadn’t been ten minutes. Probably more like five.

  Mom was sitting on the sofa. Dad was standing above her with his arms wide, making his point. When we walked in, he put his arms to his sides and walked toward their bedroom. His fists were clenched. He didn’t even look at us.

  Mom said, “Oh, hey, kids! Get ready for the beach!”

  I said, because I was ten and excited for the kids’ club, “After the beach I can still go to the kids’ club, right?”

  Mom said, “Sure, honey.”

  Dad came in from their bedroom and just stood there.

  Bruce said, “When are you going to just be nice to her?”

  Second Chance

  Mom has met ten-year-old Sarah. This is what goes through my head as I stand there and look at the two of them. Mom is a new mom. She isn’t the same mom ten-year-old Sarah had. She now wants to have fun and do things. Right this very minute, she wants to go to a movie with ten-year-old Sarah.

  I admit I feel oddly jealous.

  I finally got my mother back—just a tiny bit—by having an existential crisis, and now ten-year-old Sarah is going to reap the benefits of my hard work.

  “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”

  “What movie are you seeing?” I ask.

  “Whatever’s in,” Mom says.

  “I really could use a nap,” I say.

  Ten-year-old Sarah is holding Mom’s hand. I remember that. I remember holding my mother’s hand. There is a thin membrane between that time and this time—so thin I can’t see it, but it’s here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

  When Mom asked me last week what I wanted to do to have fun, I couldn’t think of anything. I don’t know what fun is. Fun is going to the movies, I guess.

  Mom is on her phone checking show times. Ten-year-old Sarah walks into the kitchen for a glass of water. I’m left in the living room with my mother and the sliver of tissue that’s still stuck to the TV.

  Mom looks up at me and says, “I don’t understand what’s really happening here.”

  “It’s weird.”

  “It’s a second chance,” she says.

  “I still need you,” I say.

  “We’ll have more fun this week. We’ll go to a museum or something.”

  I like museums. I love museums. But I can’t find the answers in a museum.

  My answers are somewhere else.

  Maybe in Bruce.

  Maybe in ten-year-old Sarah.

  Maybe just inside myself because I’m the only one who knows all the details of me. But there’s a thin membrane between me and myself, too. It’s like I’m a little me inside the big me and I’m holding an umbrella and the rain is bullshit and I am the rain and I am the bullshit.

  HELEN’S GLUE

  There is nothing I hate more than bullshit. Especially in a busy ER. I have to work with people who’ve been nursing longer than I have who try to bullshit me. They don’t write down every detail but they say they do. They take breaks to check their phones or post something on The Social and say they were just taking a bathroom break. The only thing I hate more than a bullshitter is a lazy person bullshitting about being lazy. And yet look at my life. Look. At. My. Life.

  • • •

  You think I hate Chet because he’s lazy around the house. Because he shrugs. You think it’s because he doesn’t really vacuum right and because he won’t scrape off the sliver of tissue Sarah put on the TV. And while I don’t respect lazy people, I don’t hate Chet because of this.

  You think I’m hard to please.

  But I haven’t told you the whole story.

  I’m not embarrassed to tell you about my feelings, but I’m embarrassed to tell you where they came from. I’m embarrassed about my bad choices. I’m embarrassed by being stuck and being the glue all by myself.

  • • •

  Nineteen years old. I had never been hit before. Not by a kid in school, not by my parents, not by anyone. I was in nursing school. Chet was in college—living off-campus in an old house near Temple. It was a bad part of town and he wouldn’t let me walk home by myself. He bought me a small can of pepper spray that fit on my key chain after the second night I stayed over and I thought that was sweet. A lot of things about Chet were sweet. He loved to cuddle and we liked the same TV shows and he loved walking around Center City holding hands and talking about everything.

  We lived in that apartment near Temple for three years. We got married at City Hall and Chet didn’t tell his mother. I was pregn
ant with Bruce when we moved out. But before that. Before that there were bad times. Chet could get too drunk and be surly. He’d tell me off and I would chalk it up to his being drunk. He was a college guy and only drank on weekends. He didn’t know how to be drunk yet. He was just messing around. He’d tease me about something too much. His favorite subject was how I’d run off with a doctor one day.

  “Only reason girls become nurses is to marry a doctor,” he said.

  A lot. He said it a lot.

  I have no idea why I didn’t see he was going to be a problem right then. Instead, I figured it was his way of showing insecurity. It was my job to prove to him that I loved him, not some unknown doctor.

  • • •

  He wasn’t drunk the first time.

  I’d made dinner for just the two of us. He came home from class and though he didn’t seem like he was in a good mood, when he saw the candles lit and smelled the beef roast I’d overcooked, he was pretty nice.

  It was something I said.

  It’s never really something you say. Remember that. But at the time I thought it was something I’d said. At the time, it’s always the fault of the person who isn’t swinging. But it really isn’t.

  He asked how my clinical rotation was going. I was working in geriatrics that month. I said that the old men flirted with me.

  “Dirty old guys,” he said.

  “Nah. They’re nice. Just bored.”

  “What about the doctors?” he asked.

  “They’re okay. One of them actually asks questions instead of telling us what to do all the time. He’s nice.”

  “Nice?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Do you like him?”

  “Like, do I like him? No. He’s—too—he’s too tall.”

  I picked tall because I had to pick something. I was going to say bald. I was going to say hairy. I was going to say a bunch of things when I stuttered but I said tall.

  Chet is five foot ten. Nothing wrong with that. I had no idea that his frat brothers called him “Half Pint.” I had no idea that tall was the worst word I could have used.

  Except it wasn’t. Remember that. It wasn’t because I said the word tall.

  “He’s too tall?”

  “Yeah. Can we talk about something else? I love you. I hate when you think I like doctors. It’s weird.”

  This was not the thing to say after just saying the word tall.

  Chet put his hands on the edge of the table and pushed it. He was trying to push his chair out. That’s what I thought. But instead he pushed the table right into my ribs. Broke one. I doubled over. The candles fell over and went out. The plates smashed into each other. My glass of water spilled onto my lap. I stayed doubled over because the pain was intense. I think I was crying.

  When he came over to me, I thought he was going to say, “Oh my God! I’m sorry! Are you hurt?” I couldn’t breathe. My rib was broken. I’d heard it snap. He was going to be concerned. He loved me.

  But that’s not what he did.

  He slapped the side of my head as it was down near my knees. His fraternity ring got caught in my hair. He pulled the hair out. He slapped me again—right on the top of my head. Then when I looked up, his fist was closed and he slapped me across the face with it and I was crying already from the pain of my rib and he didn’t get a good hit. He pulled his arm back to try again.

  I didn’t know what to do.

  I didn’t expect him to be hitting me.

  I didn’t know that I shouldn’t say tall. I didn’t know what I’d done.

  He was screaming. I can’t trust you to leave this fucking house! You want a doctor? I’ll get you a fucking doctor! See how this fucking works!

  This was not Chet. That’s what I kept telling myself. This was not Chet.

  I didn’t understand. What had I said? What had I done? I’d made roast beef. I’d lit candles. I’d candied carrots just like he liked them.

  As I sat, doubled over, I lost count of how many times he slapped my head. I don’t remember him landing one on my face, but later the mirror reflected a woman with a faint bruise.

  Who was she?

  What had she done?

  • • •

  I didn’t go to school for two days after that night.

  I could cover the bruise on the side of my face easy enough, but I couldn’t do the work I had to do with the pain. I’d taken as much Advil as I could. I’d wrapped my chest as tight as I could. I walked around the apartment standing up as straight as I could. I wanted to look normal. That was what I did. That is not what I recommend anyone do, but it’s what I did. I walked around and tried to stand up tall.

  Chet had already apologized. He said he was stressed out over an exam.

  He didn’t say it right then when the roast beef was on the floor. He said it the next day. That night, after he’d hit me enough times, he just went out. Stayed out all night.

  That was the routine. That became the routine because I let it become the routine. I am the glue.

  When I went back to my rotation, the tall doctor noticed I couldn’t do my work without wincing and he asked me what was going on. How was I supposed to tell him? Him? He was nice and cute and concerned and the longer I waited before answering his question, the more he knew without me having to tell him.

  I can spot a battered woman at twenty paces now.

  They’re always the ones not saying anything about how they got that bruise or how come they can’t reach above their head or why they can’t walk without limping.

  I was nineteen years old.

  How was I supposed to tell anyone what happened?

  I couldn’t move back in with my parents. I couldn’t even tell my best friend what happened. I just brought Chet to Thanksgiving and Christmas that year and showed him off like a prize dog or something. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I didn’t leave before it happened again.

  He said he was just stressed out. He hadn’t done it again since.

  But he still asked me questions about the doctors.

  That only stopped once Sarah was born. Six months after we buried Gram Sarah. I hated him by then. What he’d done to me and Bruce was unforgivable. I’d kicked him out twenty times. He never left.

  And now, we’re here.

  It’s like putting a movie on pause for twenty-six years.

  I’m stuck, eating staples, on pause, glue.

  But meeting ten-year-old Sarah changed everything. I can see my Sarah in her. I can see what she used to be like. Though, at ten, Sarah had already seen what Chet could do. She saw in Mexico. She saw before Mexico, I bet.

  My Sarah? My Sarah doesn’t see shit. She’s all conflicted. She stopped going to school. Something happened but she can’t talk to us. Why would she ever trust us? Chet and I have been lying to her since she was born.

  Kids are smart. I’ve said that my whole life. In the ER when we have to give bad news to the parents before we give it to the kid, I say to my nurses, “You can’t bullshit a kid. You have to tell the parents first, but the kid knows.” And there I was bullshitting a kid when I know you can’t bullshit a kid.

  Honest Things

  I don’t go to the movie. I open my umbrella and balance it on my headboard. It’s dangerous if I sit up fast, but I don’t plan on sitting up fast. I plan on napping. Except I don’t nap. It’s impossible to nap if one’s mother is out with oneself and one is not there with them. It’s very confusing.

  I think about calling Bruce again tomorrow. I think about him staying at the B&B on Pine. I want to be honest with him, but more than that, I want him to be honest with me.

  • • •

  I get up and manage not to poke my eye out with the umbrella. I put on a thick sweatshirt and I leave. Dad still isn’t home and no one has said anything about it. Maybe his weekend insurance eme
rgency will last all night. Maybe he got mugged on the way home and is lying in a puddle of his own blood. Maybe he’s seeing someone on the side.

  I leave the house and decide to stand in random places. On 16th and Pine, a guy says to his friend, “It’d be really cool if you had a bed that makes you shrink because then when you sleep you’d take up less space.”

  On 16th and Locust, a woman tells her partner that his shampoo smells like Lysol.

  On Broad and Locust, I hear the beginning of a conversation between two middle-aged women and I follow it.

  “It was a great book.”

  “I didn’t like it.”

  “Come on. Didn’t you think Gregory was hot? I mean, I just read it for the scenes where he’d take his shirt off and chop wood.”

  “I thought the Gregory character was a douche.”

  “He was confident.”

  “He was a douche.”

  “He was hot.”

  “I thought the most interesting part of the book was the wife who took shots of Jägermeister as mouthwash.”

  “She was weird.”

  “Not as weird as Gregory chopping wood shirtless. Creepy.”

  “Hot.”

  “You’re forty going on sixteen.”

  That’s where I stop following them. Halfway between Locust and Walnut. I’m sixteen and I think I’d have liked the Jägermeister- mouthwash wife better than Gregory.

  I stop listening to people and walk down Walnut. It’s a nice night. Ten-year-old Sarah and my mother are at a movie. Dad is AWOL. Bruce is in Oregon and he might be coming to see me. He can’t be my therapist. I will be my own therapist.

  Twenty-three-year-old Sarah says, “What’s the first thing you would talk to your therapist about?”

  I say, “Oh, hi. This isn’t weird at all.” I notice she’s carrying my favorite umbrella again. I left mine at home. I wonder can the two exist in the same place at the same time. “It doesn’t look like rain,” I say.

  “I always carry it just in case.”

  “Always?”

 
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