Ch. 1- Life Shit
The sun sinks below the road. I think of you. I think of you laughing in my passenger seat, your hair all awhirl from the wind coming in through your rolled-down window. You stick one hand out and ride the air like a boat with it. It’s September, the month we met years ago. Your other hand rests on your knee holding a lit joint. “Before You Go” by Lewis Capaldi is playing on the radio. One of your favorite songs.
I try to imagine your scent again. It is vague in my car. I crack a small smile thinking of you next to me again. Nothing’s been the same without you. Nothing has. Most nights, I’m crying uncontrollably, really. I know that makes me sound weak, and it’s one thing you never liked; that I cried so much. I get sentimental too easily. I’m a ‘thin-skin’, as they’d say.
I tried so hard. To be perfect. To be everything you wanted. But maybe that’s where I went wrong. Maybe my fault was loving you so hard that I would do anything for you. But that’s love isn’t it? Giving 110% and fighting for what you value, even when it gets hard? Or maybe it was infatuation, but I don’t believe that, because I loved you far beyond lust or obsession or attraction. I loved your future and your past and your journey. I fell in love with everything that is you.
Is it a fault to love so hard? I always wondered. My mind trailed back to all the mistakes I’d made. All the things I blame myself for and regret. Are they the reasons you left me behind? And our love behind? I wondered. I have a list with all those faults on it, and somehow, the trees blurring by on this small backroad remind me of it. Every stupid thing I’d ever said would replay through a radio in my head. A radio with no pause button or volume button or station change switch.
I catch myself speeding and slow down. My expression becomes sad and solemn, rather than angry at myself. I’m so consumed with these thoughts. I can’t live like this I thought to myself. …You used to always say that, too. Will I always be so dedicated to you?
Sirens and lights approach me. I pull over and drop my head into my hands, I can’t do this, I can’t keep doing it. I can’t afford this!
The officer comes up to my window, “Ma’am.” He begins.
“Evening, officer.” I say, a lot happier than I feel.
He continues, “I’ve seen you around here a lot. I catch you speeding and looking distraught. I’m not here to give you a ticket, but I wanted to make sure you’re okay. Is there something on your mind, ma’am?”
My eyes are catching up to that ‘not okay’ feeling inside and I hold back a floodgate, “I’ve just been overwhelmed with some things. I’ve just had someone on my mind that I’ve lost. I’m okay. It’s fine.”
He lets out a small sigh, I know he can tell it’s not fine. He looks sympathetically at me for a second, and then pats the roof of my car and says,
“Well, I hope you have a good day, ma’am. I hope everything comes together for you”, and he slides back into his black explorer and drives off.
I sincerely didn’t expect that. I expected a $500 fine and a trip to court. I wiped my face and got myself together to get back on the road and just drive home. Home to my empty, tiny one-bedroom apartment; to all my bills, to the silence, to another lonely night.
Maybe tomorrow would bring me hope… but I knew that was an unrealistic dream.
I make it home, but barely remember the drive. I mechanically put the key in the knob, turn it and walk in. I put my things down on the counter with all the mail I have yet to sort through, and steep some tea to sit down with in the living room. Sitcoms I watched in the 5th grade play on the screen, the colors mirroring on the opposite wall, splashing watercolor light on my couch. The characters and production are so sloppy, yet humorous, predictable, and comfortable. And that’s all I needed: stability.
I’m twenty-two and living alone. I don’t have friends, I work at a small hardware store in town, and, on weekends, work with an attorney to open a cozy bookstore I’ve dreamed of. I’ll sip tea all day there, have a store tabby cat and name him Hot Rod. He’ll sleep in a little bed on the counter I’ll sit behind and watch TV from a little grey box while I wait for customers to come in. And I’ll quit my job at the hardware store.
It’s not that I hate the hardware store, it’s quiet and never busy; Bob, the shop owner, is nice. But it’s not my place. I don’t belong working as a cashier in a hardware store. It’s great getting discounts on tools, because I do enjoy fiddling with metal work and whatnot, but it felt lonely there. It just seems so… like it’s dusk on my life. But I’m young, and it’s depressing. I don’t want to retire in 30 years from that very shop.
My thoughts are disrupted by my toilet flushing and a shuffle from the bathroom, then the door opening. I practically jump and then realize my mom is walking around the corner, into the living room.
“Oh good! You’re home! I’ve been waiting for you!”
“What are you doing here? You didn’t call. You scared me, I had no idea you’d be here!” I start to get a headache, “and how did you get in?”
“Oh, I made a copy of your apartment key when me and your father visited in April… when we went out to the local farmer’s market to get a peach pie. You gave us your key, saying you might take a nap while we were out. So I got a copy.”
“Well, you can’t just walk in like that, mom, you scared me. I thought you were a murderer!” and that’s kind of a breach of privacy. I’m an adult! I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“Oh, don’t be silly. I don’t go around carrying knives or whatnot.”
“No, mom, I mean a person in my apartment that I didn’t know was there, might as well have been a murderer. I’m not saying you are one.” I inwardly roll my eyes.
“Nonetheless, I was just in town visiting Margaret and thought I’d drop by. I put some leftover soup in the fridge, I hope you don’t mind that I used your stove. It’s immaculately clean and looks like it’s not used much.”
“I cook, mom. Every morning and every night. I just also clean it, because I like it ‘immaculate’.”
“Then I’m sure Henrietta didn’t mind it at all. …And your father cleans our stove very well, don’t act like my kitchen isn’t clean. I raised you in that kitchen, and a lived-in stove never killed anybody.” She said with a huffy undertone, and then, “…but I like it. What cleaner do you use?”
“Mom. What are you really here for? I know you didn’t drive 50 miles to find out what stove cleaner I use. …And it’s Maleluca ‘Tough & Tender’.”
“Ah, that’s a good line. I use their laundry stain remover.” Her tone was hushed and she was fiddling with a bobble-head pug keychain, staring at it like it would give her words or answers.
“Mom. You are avoiding something. What is it?”
“Oh gosh mom..”
“-got into an accident the other night. You know the things he’s gotten into… he just fell into a bad rhythm again, and was driving to a gas station a few miles from the motel he stays at often. He passed out while he was driving and drove straight into that streetlight in Old Thomas’ Auto Shop’s parking lot. Old Thomas saw it happen and had called an ambulance. It’s a good thing he’d stayed late. Had he closed his shop at the normal time, no one would have discovered the accident until morning.”
She quickly wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and went on, “Your father is beside himself. I just… I needed to come here. I wanted to see you and I wanted to tell you in person.”
“Where is dad?”
“In the hospital with Gary. I didn’t want to see him like that. I couldn’t. I tried to. I had to leave.”
“You never came to see Margaret, did you?”
“No… Margaret moved to a town west of here last August.”
I thought of telling mom we should go back and be with dad, but there was no point forcing her to see her injured and possibly dying son, right now. And, to be honest, I was exhausted and couldn’t drive tonight.
“Okay mom, why don’t you stay here, at least for tonight. We’ll figure this out. Maybe tomorrow… Well, let’s just try to get some rest now. You can sleep on the couch; or you can take the bed, I’ll sleep out here.”
I took a blanket from my linen closet and just used a throw pillow to sleep on. I didn’t even close my eyes until 12am, I’ve already had so much on my mind. And now I felt selfish that I had my own problems.
I hadn’t even talked to my brother in five years. Was it longer ago than that? I couldn’t remember. I just picture him dancing with Aunt Lane at her wedding all those years ago. I think that’s my last memory of him. Before… I pushed the thought away.
The stars twinkled lightyears away outside my window, ‘I wish I were a star… so far away from all this life shit.’ I whispered to myself and then drifted off to sleep.
The sun pierced through the pulled back window curtain, I heard bacon sizzling on the stove, and realized I had a crooked neck from sleeping curled on the couch last night.
“Goodmorning!” Mom called from my tiny apartment kitchen, quite chipper, contrary to the news that was broken last night.
“I’m making a grand feast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes for us and I was hoping we could go out and shop at Molly’s Botique today and the other cute shops in town!”
I got up, and walked over the bar, rubbing my neck.
“Mom, I was thinking… we should drive back up and at least be in the hospital where Gary is at. I know you don’t really want to be so far away from him right now. Either of them. You know dad needs support right now.”
Her expression went from ‘happy fun day’ to solemn and bleak, “I just… okay, you’re right. Let me at least pack this into containers and we can eat on the road. I’m going to want a snack to eat.”
The sun played peek-a-boo between the leaves of the yellowing trees lining the long highway. Google maps relayed directions to get onto the interstate, which I ignored, because I already knew where it was. I-72 would take us most of the way there, cutting the drive to 4 hours and 23 minutes.
Siri’s chipper voice stated, “Stay on I-72 for 46 miles. Arrival time: three-thirty PM.”
“Thanks, Siri.” I said, as if a real person was behind the automated Australian voice.
Mom was already restless and hungry, so, reaching for the food bag, she said, “Alright, I’m digging into breakfast! What do you want?”
She shoveled me some eggs into a tupperware tray and added two spears of bacon and a pancake. I held the warm, fluffy circle in my hand, like a kid and didn’t even bother with the utensils. With one bite, I remembered why I loved mom’s pancakes so much.
10 minutes later, she declared she was done and I saw that she’d ate all the bacon and half the pancakes.
“Mom! Where did the food go?”
“Oh, don’t look surprised. I love me some carbs and protein,” she smiled, “now, hush, I’m going to take an after-carb nap. I’ve been up since six o’clock.”
I turned on some soft pop and enjoyed the bright morning and empty road.
Thoughts poked into my head. I remembered that time me and Alex climbed up a stack of garbage to the roof of that Walmart a year ago. We hung our legs over the front, almost touching the light-up sign. We smoked cigarettes and drank root beer and just enjoyed the quiet oddity of night atop a Walmart. That is life. I thought to myself. Beautiful, perfect, ratchet, broken, honest, good life. I smiled. My lips couldn’t help themselves.
“Alex Misen, you bastard”, I had came up behind her and gave her a light punch on the arm. “For what?” she questioned me back. “Oh, you know what.” I said with a wink, “The flowers, the chocolates, the handwritten letter. You really do know how to make a woman smitten.” I chuckled. That was the day she asked me to be her girlfriend. We drank wine in a random hot tub that night. That’s one of the things that made me so drawn to Alex: she was fearless, reckless, bold, free. She had no cares in the world. “I live with abandon! I’m only going to have one life and I better make it short and good!” That’s what she’d always said.
A baby blue Volkswagen buggy passed me on the highway. That was her favorite color. And her favorite car. She said one day she’d buy one and hang a smiley face keychain on the rearview mirror, and put tie-dye seat covers in. “…For that hippie vibe. Put a little sage on in a mini burner, stick it on the vent and just feel the good things flow”.
I smiled again, but with sadness in my eyes. We’d made this very drive together once or twice. …I pushed Alex out of my mind. There were enough painful things to think about and I didn’t need that weighing on my shoulders, too. I miss her, though. I turned my mind to counting the mile signs on the highway, feeling the heat of the sun coming through the windshield, and listening to the podcast I decided to put on.
Two hours in, mom woke up with tussled hair and needing to use the restroom, so I pulled off at the next exit and into a QT. While she was using the nicest rest-stop bathroom around, I fueled the car and got me some trailmix; the kind with the M&Ms and dried papaya mixed in.
Once I’d bought my super fresh, totally-not-processed snack, I found her looking at fuzzy keychains on a spinning tower by the door.
“Mom. Are you ready?”
“Aren’t these just cute?! I’m gonna get this pink one, real quick.”
Hot pink was mom’s thing… that, keychains, and dogs with scrunchy faces, i.e. pugs.
I heard her making conversation with the one lone worker at the register,
“Me and my daughter are going on a roadtrip. She told me about these QuikTrip gas stations and now I’ve finally gotten to use one! I found this little fuzzy monster and I had to have him. Isn’t he cute?”
She made further conversation with him, but he just nodded and went about ringing up her souvenir. He asked if she needed a bag and she went, “Oh don’t be silly”, like she always does. He handed it to her and she wished him a good day.
“Okay! I’m ready!” She said, walking up behind me. I put down the sunglasses I was trying on in a mirror.
“Thank you!” I called out to the young man at the counter.
We plopped back into the front seats of my little old golden colored Toyota, Lucy; my rusty trusty. Soon enough, we were back on the highway and mom was ready to pull out the leftovers of breakfast.
“I’m indulging myself, so don’t tell me I ‘just ate’, like your father does, I know that I did.” And then, “I’m going to need to buy you silverware.”
I didn’t have the luxury of silverware, so, before we left, we had to pillage through a drawerful of plastic forks and utensil packets from various takeout restaurants. It proved impossible to find a whole packet that wasn’t missing anything from it, so we ended up with a random green fork and a set of white utensils.
Mom went to town on a pancake with her funny green fork. I told her I wouldn’t judge and that I was hungry too, so she dished me more eggs. I guess she doesn’t like eggs. I chuckled at how she had managed to give me all of them. Driving with my left hand, I picked at some eggs with my flimsy white plastic pitchfork in my right, peeping down to poke a substantial bite every few seconds.
Interstate signs bobbed up on the horizon and disappeared again as we cruised through the many miles of open highway. Going 65 on a yellow-tree-lined road is some kind of therapy, almost enough to make me forget why I was on this long stretch in the first place. I should drive to my parents’ house more often. This is nice… besides the circumstances. I remember all the nice drives me and-
“I’m bored, let’s play I spy,” mom says. I crack a smile and genuinely can’t help it. She is quirky, but I love her and I don’t know what I would do without her. Having her here is nice. I haven’t heard her voice in person in several months, and it’s entertaining the random things she comes up with.
“Okay. You start,” I agree.
“I spy… something orange,” she challenges.
“…Is there actually something orange you can see?” I ask.
“No, but you have to find something orange.”
I know that’s not how the game works, and I’m about to school her on the classic game of ‘I-Spy’, but instead, I play along.
“Okay, …THAT ORANGE LEAF!” I call and point.
“Where?” she tries trailing her focus to the imaginary dot my finger makes in the trees.
“I didn’t see one!” She turns back to me and pouts, “you go, and I’ll point to something real.” she touts.
“It was real! I swear!” I laugh and pick a thing for her to find.
After our made-up game with lots of bent rules, finding cardinals and abandoned bricks and cars on the side of the road, we decide we need one more bathroom break before walking into the hospital.
The Wendy’s smells of stiff frying oil and faux chicken. Mom prances to the black restroom door and tries the handle, only to discover it is occupied already. She dances back, exaggeratedly like she always does, and I order nuggets and fries, and a burger for mom.
I sit down at a block-like table with red trim, in a booth that has uneven springs and is probably 50 years old. The facilities were made available, finally, so mom took a dash for it, while I poured a hefty pool of ketchup for my fries.
“I still don’t think I want to do this.” Mom says, sitting down with me a minute later and looking pale, “I want to see Gary, but not like that.” She picks at the tomatoes on her burger, but doesn’t eat.
I wish there was something I could say, something to console her or encourage her, but ‘It’ll be okay!’ didn’t sound truthful and would fall empty on a concerned mother’s ears, anyways. So I reached across the table, instead, and held her shaking hand and said the only thing I could think of that was actually true,
“Mom, I’m here and we are sitting together. Gary is still there, dad is there. Let’s all be a family together; our family; and support each other. We have love. Love is all we can hold onto, and it’s pretty sturdy.” Besides with Alex Misen, my brain added as personal commentary.
Mom seemed to be a little less stiff in her posture and gain more life in her cheeks. Not a lot, but a little, and I’ll take that. She nodded and we picked up all the courage we had, along with our food and things to head out the door. My stomach was in my throat, but I didn’t tell her that, I needed her to lean on me right now. The hospital was just across the street, but it seemed like we walked for miles.
Dad was in the waiting room, by the check-in counter, waiting for us. I had texted him to let him know we’d be over. We got our mint-colored hospital bracelets and followed dad to the 3rd floor, the 5th room, where Gary lay in a cool room that smelled of sanitizing products. His neck is in a brace and a breathing tube is in his nose. I winced, inwardly, but kept my posture. I felt mom go close to limp on my right arm. Once she seemed to gain her knees again, she walked slowly in, as if waiting for something else bad to happen. At his bed, she sat down; right next to her unconscious son, and held his hand with hers and cried over it.
He was gaunt, but I knew it was from his self-neglect. His drinking habits and diet of Doritos, beef jerky, and cigarettes and root beer didn’t offer much nourishment. He had a tattoo of a skull and cross bones on his left forearm, just proximal and lateral to his elbow. It was faded, so it was old, but I had never seen it before.
Or maybe I had, in a picture or two? I thought back to see if I could remember, …ah yes! Thanksgiving 5 years ago, when I hadn’t been home, but he was on university break. That’s when I saw it on mom’s facebook page.
There was some other tattoo on his wrist of a girl’s name in Victorian lettering, and another small one of a spear-head behind his ear. I could smell the stale rum and tobacco and imagined him drunk and staggering from his motel room with the green walls, out to his beetle green 2004 Honda at nine at night. And then I prayed a small ‘thank you’ that Old Thomas had been working late.
I managed to discover my senses enough to sit down on a cold stool, but I might as well have melted through it, because I felt numb. I didn’t know whether to hold his hand, sit there like a statue or say something. What would I even say? ‘Hey bro, how’s life been?’ clearly not good, ‘I’m sorry it’s been rough.’ really? Maybe, ‘I wish…’ Nope, I had nothing. What was I supposed to say when I hadn’t even spoken to him in half a decade? The words would fall meaningless and shallow.
It seemed stupid to even try and conjure up a sentence, so I sat there like a statue, watching my parents hold his hand or his shoulder, looking from him to God to each other, all with tears in their eyes. My hands were folded in my lap, my eyes were just staring through space.
about an hour later, a nurse came in to replace his vitals bags, followed by a doctor holding a clipboard. He looked at my parents and said,
“the injuries are not fatal, we have him on detoxifiers to clear the hydrocodone out of his system. …However, we ran a test this morning after noticing something on the x-rays,” he hands my parents a sheet.
I find myself mindlessly chewing on a peanut from my trailmix, which I guess was in my bag, but I have no idea how any of the contents made their way into my mouth.
I hear the doctor say, “his kidneys are going into renal failure.”