“Mama! Can I make you a mermaid? Please! Please! Please!” my daughter shouts. I try to protest, but before a single word can fight it’s way out of my lips, she’s dumping damp sand on… More
My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.
She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.
I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.
I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.
“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”
I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.
“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”
Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”
I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.
We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?
My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door. Was it God? Was it my own conscience? “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.
I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.
I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.
I knew I had to love her.
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“The bastard had it coming,” Claire says, raising one eyebrow. She gives Norman, now dead in a box, a look of disgust.
“Well hot dang, we all go eventually,” Ruby says, peering over the top of her gold-rimmed bifocals. She peeks at the somber crowd gathering behind them in the chapel, then leans in close and whispers, “Speaking of that, do you know how he went?”
For the shortest moment, the two ladies peer at Norman. Ruby lifts her glasses and blots her eyes with an old tissue from the front pocket of her baby-blue polyester jacket.
Claire shrugs and fixes her plum-colored church hat. “In his sleep. Heard through the grapevine he was found in nothing but his knickers.”
“You don’t say!” Ruby pulls a pearl-studded mirror from her pocketbook and applies some rouge, right there in front of Norman. “You weren’t still seeing him, now, were you?”
“Every now and again he’d come over for a drink from my cabinet and…well…a woman has needs. I’ve got to get my kicks while I can. Know what I mean, dear?” Claire asks, laughing.
“I think I do,” Ruby says. “I also know the old chap preferred dancing with me.”
“That’s a cockamamie lie, if I’ve ever heard one!” shouts Claire. She jabs a finger into Ruby’s chest. “Square dancing? That’s hardly the same as the dancing we did between my sheets every Tuesday afternoon before meds.”
Ruby swats Claire’s finger away and hisses, “You no good hussy!”
Claire and Ruby paw at each other like two alley cats fighting over fish bones. Claire plucks Ruby’s wig from her head and tosses it into the casket. A child from the first row of seats giggles, and someone yells, “shush!”
“You shush!” Claire and Ruby shout back. No one dares to make another attempt to break up their argument.
Ruby reassembles the wig on her head backwards. “Hrmf!” she shouts. “I think it was you and your liquor cabinet that did him in,” Ruby says, flicking the broach on Claire’s lapel.
“Hardly,” mocks a sultry voice from behind them. Claire and Ruby stop, stunned. They turn to find Ethel wrapped in her fox fur and standing so close they can smell her expensive peach soap.
“What in the Sam Hill is that supposed to mean?” asks Claire. She presses her hands to her hips and pouts her lips at Ethel.
Ethel leans toward the ladies. “He died while we were making love. That old dog had plenty of tricks, now, didn’t he?” she asks, walking away before either lady can answer. Ruby shudders.
Claire looks back at Ruby, fixes her wig, and says, “The bastard had it coming.”
“Sure did,” says Ruby, shaking her head. “Care to get some tea?”
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Looking toward the future, unknown and untouched mountains carve the sky in jagged ways, slicing it into pieces. Threatening clouds roll so close to the mountain tops that they are punctured, sending rain spewing onto the coarse ground below. I bite my lip and look away, fearful of the commitment it will take to make the climb.
But I’ve learned I mustn’t focus on the mountains. I must focus on that first hill, step, pebble, or rain drop. If I get past that first speck of dust, then I’m stronger than yesterday.
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This post is in response to Donna-Louise Bishop’s Prompt Pot. You should give it a go!
Kim walked into the diminutive waiting room with her Kate Spade bag clutched under her arm. I can do it this time. She tucked a loose strand of blond hair behind her ear, replacing it with the other strays as she approached the sign-in desk.
“Hi,” she smiled and ducked her head, “I’m Kim Green. I have an appointment at 2:15 p.m. I’m a bit late, I know.”
The clerk rolled her eyes. “You’ve been here before. Walked out on grief counseling, right?”
“Yes,” Kim said, clearing her throat. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Have a seat,” the clerk huffed. “I’ll call you soon.”
Kim sat next to a man cleaning his glasses. He had on khakis that were far too short and a plaid button-down. She caught herself snickering at the sight of him. She stopped. Be kind, Kim.
She picked up a magazine from the stack next to her and pretended to read it so that she wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. Her pulse quickened with each minute that passed sitting in that chair. The walls shrank and expanded with each inhale and exhale. Sweat dribbled down her forehead. The red exit sign called to her.
But she didn’t leave. Instead, she reached in her bag and pulled out sanitizer, a stick of gum, and a photo of her and her mom. She sanitized her hands because God knows what kind of dirty freak had his hands on the magazine last. She looked back to her neighbor, now cleaning his phone. What’s his deal? OCD? Nerves? She shook her head, unwrapped her gum, and folded it neatly into her mouth.
Tears scalded her eyes when she looked at the photo. It was the last picture taken before her mom’s sudden death. Kim and her mom were shoulder to shoulder in the photo. Bright smiles and blissful ignorance filled their faces.
She was hit by a drunk driver six years ago, just two days after the photo was taken. Kim thought she could handle her death just like she handled everything else: on her own with grace. She couldn’t. She spent the last six years waiting for the pain to pass, waiting for her mind to heal. She hardly recognized the girl next to her mom anymore.
A trashcan was nowhere to be found, so she balled up the wrapper and put it back in her bag. When she did, her fingers grazed smooth glass. Kim gasped. She knew exactly what it was; it was a half-empty bottle of vodka from the previous night. I must’ve forgotten to throw it away.
She closed her eyes remembering the telephone pole, touched the bruise on her face knowing how lucky she was. What if that pole had been a car with someone’s mother in it? What if I was going faster? She shuddered at the thought.
“Kim?” the clerk called. “The therapist is ready for you.”
Kim stood and pulled the bottle from her bag. “Do you have a trashcan back there?” she asked, her mouth molded into the shape of determination.
The clerk looked up, un-phased by the vodka Kim was holding. “Sure. I can take that, Hun,” she charmed. “If you’re ready.”
Kim looked at the bottle one last time before handing it to her. “I’m definitely ready.”
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Before his stroke, Grandpa was my favorite. I would sit on his belly, round like Santa’s, and ask him if the battery above his heart hurt. I’d lightly press my fingers against the square shape protruding from his chest, and Grandpa would smile wide, toothlessly.
“Naw, Baby Girl. That’s my ticker,” he’d say. I imagined a tiny clock inside his chest, sort of like the Tin Man.
Grandpa was a self-proclaimed botanist, without using so many words. He planted tomatoes and other vegetables, mostly for canning to keep Grandma and him fed through the harsh winter months when the junkyard didn’t need his help sorting metals. I used to walk behind him. I watched Grandpa whisper to his green babies and touch the leaves carefully. He taught me about them, but I can’t remember his lessons.
After my grandpa’s stroke, between first and second grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They owned a duplex, and we lived on the second floor so my mom could care for him.
There were times I wanted to climb back on his belly, but Grandpa’s new oxygen tank made my belly do flips. I thought I could catch whatever was making him so sick. If I get too close, I’ll need one of those tubes in my nose too.
I don’t have a single picture of the stairs in my grandparents’ house, but I remember them perfectly in my mind: hand carved wood painted the same shade of red as fallen leaves just before they turn brown and crumble. I wasn’t allowed to play outside, so when I wanted to get away from everyone I would sit on the landing. I could hear my mom on the phone above and my grandparents’ television below. I sat there playing with dolls or staring at the cracks and chips in the yellow walls pretending they were a part of a roadmap to someplace magical where Grandpa wasn’t ill.
His ticker stopped that autumn. I was in school when it happened. He was there when I left and gone when I got home, crumbled and blown away with the leaves.
All I kept thinking was that I didn’t get a chance to hug him once more, or to really listen to his lessons.
This year, I planted an herb and vegetable garden. It’s nothing like Grandpa’s, small in comparison. I thought about him while I was out there with my hands in the dirt. I touched the plants with care like he used to. Small bits of food have managed to grow, regardless of my natural knack for killing anything green. Although, some of them are limp, hanging on for dear life. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or right for that matter. If only I could remember what he taught me.
If only we had more time.
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Electro house music crackled through the speakers as blue lights sent shadows drifting across nameless faces around me. More than once I thought I recognized someone from home, but I knew that was nearly impossible. I ran away from my abusive dad in the Connecticut suburbs, hours away from this shack of a bar in Brooklyn.
After my fourth week of working long hours in the city, my new friend, or whatever he is, James, and I were dancing and drinking away our fourth weekend in a bar. We left bills unpaid on the kitchen counter in our mouse-infested flat, so we could afford the New York nightlife.
“I need a cigarette,” I said, nodding towards the stairs.
‘What Kaitlyn?” James yelled over the music. He took another sip of his fifteen-dollar drink.
I raised two fingers to my lips and yelled, “smoke!”
James hid our drinks behind a speaker at the DJ booth and guided me with his hand at the small of my back up the stairs. The affection sent warmth through my hips as we ascended onto the cold street. Outside, he took off his vest and wrapped it around my bare shoulders. I wasn’t used to someone being so kind.
“I really like you,” James said.
I blew smoke circles into the Brooklyn air and scooted close to him. I found James on Craigslist. He was looking for a roommate, not a girlfriend. I liked him too, but wasn’t ready to admit it yet.
I flicked the butt of my cigarette and let out one last puff of smoke. “Ready?” I asked. James nodded.
Inside, he retrieved our drinks and we danced our way through the crowd until we found an opening on the dance floor. We synchronized our breaths with the beat, with each other.
After the set change, James downed the last drop of vodka from his cup and asked, “Do you feel okay?”
I nodded. I was safe beneath the disco lights. It was one place that remained constant. The place I could go when things went south at home.
“Something’s not right,” he said. I stopped dancing. James’ eyes were unfocused and his body swayed uncontrollably.
“James?” I asked. “Are you okay?” In the back of my mind, I already knew he wasn’t. Someone had slipped something in his drink and it was likely meant for me.
“I think so,” he yawned. “I need to go to bed.”
I wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and my knees threatened to buckle under his limp body. It didn’t matter. “Let’s get you home,” I said. I could feel his breath slowing against my neck. “Stay with me, James,” I said. I dug my heels in to get him up the stairs. Not one person looked. Maybe too many drunks pass by night after night to notice.
Outside, city lights glimmered beyond Brooklyn, now quiet except the whooshing cars in the distance and the clacking of my heels against the concrete.
“Kaitlyn,” he whispered into my ear, “I think somebody roofied me.”
“Shh. It’s okay, James,” I said. “We’re almost home now.”
When we reached the subway stairs, James collapsed. “James!” I shouted. I knelt beside him and grabbed his collar, shaking him. “Wake up, James!” He didn’t respond. I grabbed my phone from my back pocket and dialed 911. The gravity of not having him seemed too heavy to hold. Would I make it here alone?
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
“Oh God. I think this guy…my friend…er boyfriend..was drugged.”
“Okay, Miss. Can you tell me where you are?”
“Umm….Yeah…I’m at the Bedford L train station stairs. Please hurry. He won’t wake up.”
Ten minutes later, James was being strapped to a gurney.
“Will he be okay?” I asked the paramedic, who responded by shaking her head uncertainly.
“We won’t know for sure until we run tests at the hospital.”
Please let him be okay. “He’s all I have.”
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