There was a time when I wasn’t so dependent on other people for everything. I try to trace back the chain of events to the origin of my illnesses, but I can’t remember any more, and anyway, that kind of thinking only leads to regret. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I have multiple sclerosis. Two autoimmune diseases that together make my joints hurt and my body feel like it’s constantly undergoing an electric shock, from the neck down through my legs.
But I didn’t write this to complain, even though that’s what is happening. I write this to describe what happened to me the other day.
I was in my wheelchair, blanket over my knees, and my nurse was walking me slowly through the park. I was avoiding people’s eyes, because around here they want to prove that they are tolerant, aware and accepting of the handicapped, so they smile these exaggerated smiles that only make me feel more distant and unacceptable. It’s ironic. But anyway, my gaze was centered on a group of trees coming up on the right side. I watched two squirrels chase each other in a spiral up the tree nearest me, when suddenly the ground started to rumble and wham, the earthquake hit. One of the trees slowly uprooted itself and fell, not even five feet from where my nurse had stopped in her tracks. It was a tremendously loud sound, as if a thousand marbles had hit a tin roof. That’s the only way I know to describe it. The tree was in our path and a large branch had nearly hit me.
I turned around to ask the nurse if she was all right, but she was gone. I could see where the root ball had lifted itself out of the hole, but I couldn’t see the hole itself. I heard screams around the park, far away, but nothing near me. I stood, my legs shaking from the effort, and looked as far over the tree as I could. And here’s what was odd. It was a blustery, cold winter day on my side of the tree, but on the other side, it was sunny and warm. The tree had leaves on that side and the sun was rising on a beautiful prairie. I sank back into my chair, not believing it. I looked around, hoping to see my nurse, because I can’t push the wheels very far with my weak arms without being in a lot of pain.
Out of the hole came a giant hand, pressing on the root ball. Another hand came out on the other side of the hole, and then a head appeared. A giant head, that was completely bald. I found that I was holding my breath out of fear and disbelief. The head turned, and two eyes looked at me and then crinkled happily. A booming laugh issued forth from the giant mouth that soon came into view. He reached out and grabbed me and by some miracle my pain was gone and his grip made me laugh as well. It was completely ludicrous, and I couldn’t do anything, but I wasn’t frightened any more. I looked back and saw my chair sitting by itself on the sidewalk next to the branches of the tree, and that’s when I saw my nurse run up from the other side of the park and scream. She couldn’t see me and apparently couldn’t see the giant.
It was dark, and the road was narrow and dusty. That’s the only explanation that she could give, later, for what happened; it was dark, and the sun was just going down, the shadows were new and her eyes weren’t used to them. She had seen no other cars, no sign of people living nearby, just the forest, and the road. She came around a bend, saw the gaping dip in the road just as her car lurched sideways slightly, saw a flash as the setting sun managed to illuminate the scene between the trees.
Her car was airborne just for a moment. She heard a small explosion, probably her tire being punctured, and then the car settled at the bottom of a small ravine, snuggled nose first in the shrubs, and far too late, like a punchline, her airbag poofed into life. It would have been funny, if it hadn’t been such a terrible situation.
Jeannie sighed, and attempted to move her arms, which were pinned to her sides. The airbag deflated, and she was able to squirm, finally, and unclipped her seatbelt.
“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Stranded in the middle of the woods. What now?”
She reached over into the glove compartment and took out the flashlight. It glowed brightly when she switched it on.
“What a relief,” she said to herself.
“You should cry,” said my son. “It will release a lot of this tension.”
“What tension?” I replied. “I’m doing fine.” And I was. I turned my back to him and shoved more dishes into the dishwasher. I’d been holding it together for weeks since the funeral, and I didn’t need all the attention I was still receiving from my family.
Steven sighed. He pushed off the bar stool ostentatiously and it bumped against the wall of the kitchen island. “I just think crying would help. You’re going on like nothing happened, but it did happen, and we all want you to grieve.”
I looked at him for long moments. “I am grieving. Why do you keep nattering at me to do it differently? I’m FINE,” I said. He sighed again and walked away. I could see the tension in his shoulders. HE should cry, I thought to myself. But it’s the widow who is the focus of all the attention. I longed for the day when they would all go home and I could get on with life.
Later that day I had an appointment with the banker. Alan had left unfinished business when he had his heart attack, and I was picking up the pieces.
Steven and I parked down the street in a garage and the sounds of traffic and the exhaust fumes gave me a headache instantly, though I wouldn’t admit it to Steven. He would only try to call the appointment off and send me to my room with a washcloth for my eyes. I wanted to appear capable and efficient, and part of it was not reacting to such trivia as traffic and noise. Poor boy. His father just died and his mother is a cold fish.
We entered the bank, with its two-story carpeted magnificence, and immediately the noise and the smell stopped. My headache didn’t. We padded over to the receptionist in the heavy pile carpet. “Hello,” she said. “How may I help you?”
Steven and I talked at once. “I need – ““She’s here – “
Anita sunk her fingers into a cold slab of clay. She felt tension ease in her shoulders as she squished it between her fingers then wedged it, over and over, thinking about the tiny seed inside her, multiplying in the dark. She wasn’t altogether sure she was the ideal host – it was somewhat frightening, the little shrimp-like parasite. Growing and sucking on her fluids until it emerged, possibly to stand up defiantly between Richard and her, a third, a stranger in the house never leaving. Oh the ambivalence.
She always thought, since she met Richard, that he was attracted to her “working with mud,” as he put it. She fell into a hypnotic trance each time she felt clay between her fingers, so elemental, so simple – to form it, with her hands, was so right somehow, and her thoughts pitched and drifted, and she came out of her studio hours later, vague and happy. To him it seemed like she had been having sex for hours without him, but with a non-threatening lover, someone they could both share, who could live in the backyard. He was so uncannily tidy in his habits, and when she appeared in her work clothes, splashed with slip, muddy hair and face in the kitchen, he hovered around her, clucking and fussing about his floor. They would both giggle.
There must be something in him that is artistic, thought Anita, dropping a huge lump of brown oozing clay onto the wheel. She wiped stray hair behind her ear with the back of her hand; then suddenly stopped the wheel, nauseated. Closed her eyes. Uck. Will not barf. Hold still.
Dinner last night with Archie, Lydia and Etta in their apartment – everyone so absolutely thrilled that one of them had “made it,” actually sold something, in the outside world! She looked at them around the table, a snapshot, aware suddenly of the fleetness of time – the baby would cause such a disruption, separate her and Richard from their friends. Hot tears burned in her eyes as she gripped the clay, her head bowed. Try to be more optimistic, Richard had said last night. He was so excited to have a baby coming, something he had always wanted, probably more than she did. Maybe it would get better soon, this moroseness. She returned the clay to its plastic wrapper and ran her hands and face in the sink, watching the water drip off her forehead into the deep cement sink. A human incubator. Go inside and do something else.
She returned to the apartment across the frozen grass, and looking up, saw Richard framed in the window of the kitchen, reading a book at the table. She stopped, suddenly struck silent with love, a shaft of love rooting her to the ground.
Ada carefully prepared herself to follow John. She would bring Dog, of course. She didn't need much food, though walking and riding, she was likely to eat more. She had enough corn flour to last a month, and certainly Maggie or the colt could carry it. There was water in abundance on the route. Medicine. Flashlight. Rope. Flare gun. Clothing. It all fit nicely into the large backpack, which she and Jin had rigged to fit on the horse for their short trips to the coast. The radio was the most cumbersome item, but it would travel tied onto the pannier.
She planned to walk down the highway, which was the path of least resistance, despite immense plants springing up in the cracks, and the trees whose roots had quickly broken up the hard concrete. Erosion and earthquakes had done their work, but nevertheless, the corridor of the roads was still visible, still viable. She hoped the Golden Gate Bridge was intact.
San Francisco was the biggest obstacle. She’d heard it was haunted, from more than one traveler. It had burned and burned again in the last years and been ravaged by earthquakes. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the mention of them had spooked her nonetheless.
She was in good shape from roaming into the hills. But she was slow. By the end of the day she ached so much she could hardly move. She was an old woman, and old women ache. But she was determined.
Here’s how it happened: a flash in her rearview mirror, a face, a mere fraction of a second and then she turned to look in the back seat. She wiped her face with her hands. She sat, stunned, and then looked again, watched for traffic, and backed into the road.
It certainly was frightening. The face belonged to a small boy. He had no expression to speak of, just curiosity, if she had to pin it down. It was a benign curiosity, like she held very little interest and the encounter was ordinary. As if she had a son who sat in the backseat every day and they were on the way to somewhere they’d been many times. But she didn’t have a son, of course. Or a daughter. Or even nieces or nephews. A boy had never been in her back seat.
The fleeting encounter left her unsettled on her way to the university. She was sure she had seen the boy, it was as if he were there, and then gone, like time telescoped, as if he were on film, there one second and gone the next, a trick of the camera. And this was the second morning it had happened. It wasn’t yesterday, but the day before, when she’d been backing up on her way to the store. He had the same expression, not particularly attentive, catching her eye. He was bored, but curious about her. As if he had the same experience, seeing her for a fleeting moment before she disappeared. It was unnerving. She was aware of herself from a distance. Like it had happened to someone else, someone she knew well. She wondered at her own response. She was afraid. She watched her fear bloom inside her.