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September 12, 2019 Nonfiction


Paige Thomas

Layover photo

There is snow that falls like a snake. It comes from the sky hissing and finds a bush to hide beneath. The leaves on the branches of the River Birch are alive, again, vibrating. They are brown and curled. The snow reaches the grass that lines the asphalt beneath my feet, still hissing.

There is also cold. This cold settles behind molars; it sinks into week-old incisions at the back of my mouth. By now, I think that the stitches the oral surgeon sewed into my gums after he removed my wisdom teeth have almost entirely dissolved. I think this is January cold.

When the time comes for Mom to tell me “she is moving back home” it is not like snow or hissing. It is silence: very quiet noise in my head. In that silence, a fear that I kept tucked between my ears leaks out. It is hot on my temples and cheeks. I hope it is unnoticeable because I do not know what it is, yet. I work very hard in that silence to think of the two plane rides: the one from Idaho to San Francisco, the usual five-hour layover, then the second plane but this one is thirteen hours. It will touchdown in Sydney, the land down-under, Mom’s home. I think about Blair, my little sister with the extra chromosome. She must (she will) be leaving too.

What came first: the chicken or the egg? I know, at least, the mother chicken came before her chicklings and where she walks, they follow. They all hope to make it until the next season, to turn fluff into feathers. What follows next is disorder—I am told that this is growing up—but I can only speak from experience, which is to say, the oldest chick is already two flights and a layover away, and the youngest one will never outgrow her fluff, and I feel like the ugly duckling. I am the goose who wants to stay in Idaho. Perhaps, this is the wrong nursery rhyme. Let me start again with the three little pigs. The straw house never stood a chance, so I built one made of sticks. Brick would have worked better, but it seems I ran out of time to gather the three little pigs under the same roof because I did not know what the big bad wolf looked like. In other words, growing into a swan does not sound right without a mother there to watch. 

Back to the hot that left my ears. It sticks without thickening; egg yolk down my neck, or a hot burner left on in the afternoon. I could put my hand on it and leave it there until it turned my skin to white flake circles. Snowstorm flesh. Is this acceptance? Mom has been saying more that I have already forgotten. She says something about selling the house, how money could make the ends meet. I say: I support you. I think: is this true?

The night before my wisdom teeth surgery, a week before I know about the leaving, I come home to champagne. Empty beer bottles on the counter; a sink that holds some of their caps. Neighbors sit around the kitchen table, and they adore Mom. I hope they think of me as a daughter by extension even though I cannot help but notice how the bean dip is cold, salsa has been spilled, and someone is getting married. It is alright because the champagne was for the toasts, but now everyone leaves. I am left to stuff their empties into a WinCo shopping bag. I wipe the sliced onion off the counter. Saranwrap on the olives and back in the fridge. I pour half-flutes of champagne into the sink until it is also full of empty glasses. The fridge is for the re-corked bottles of wine that I do not drip down the sink, but I think about it. Mom is in the living room refusing to leave—not leave—go to bed. She is so soft spoken, funny, intoxicated. She trips over the dog and I don’t see it. I hear her hit the carpet; a boom in the bones of the floor. She is fine, she says, she holds her face in her hands, tells me she smashed her nose. I want her to go to bed, for her to follow me to it.

When there is no longer a kitchen to clean, she still sits in the dark. A shadow in a chair in the living room under the big window. Because she turned the lights out, the little red button on my phone is so bright and easy to touch. It should have been harder to hit “record.” 

We bargain in the dark. When I replay, tinny and forced is the sound of my laughter as I talk against the shut-off lights. The cat is in the tree, she says, I’m fine, she says. I just want her out—the cat—that’s what she says will get her to move. I can picture the cat halfway up the artificial limbs, hear the crunch of the string lights in her little jaw between her little teeth, but I think I am just remembering that from this morning. Misremembering that from this morning. In the video, the string lights are off. It starts with a few seconds of off-white linoleum and my socked feet as I walk from kitchen to living room, then, of course, black and I am thankful. There is only the soft whisper of Mom refusing to move. There is only my too-loud voice. Does it make me less ugly that I kept the video because the lights were off?

Two days on hydrocodone and I am still afraid to brush my teeth. I thought the mouth heals faster than any other body part. I guess I am relieved that they did not cut four teeth from my thigh. Mom tells me she feels like she is nursing again. She is up every four hours to make sure I take more pain killers; Doctor says to stay on top of the pain. Mom makes sure I am floating.

My bottom lip, I can almost feel it again when I rinse my mouth. Really, I am dragging water across my teeth and gums as I tilt my head back and forth because I can’t remember how to make my mouth want to swish. I part my lips and let the pink water fall out. I pick up a piece of white that falls onto the porcelain. It’s a shard of tooth that I roll between my index finger and thumb. 

When the older chick and the ugly duckling visit Mom’s home years before she moves back, the older chick has too much sangria. Nothing happens except for her too loud laughter in the echoing subway. She clings to me on the escalator down. Pinches my jacket with her claws and peels sound from her little chick beak. My cousins don’t seem to mind. I want to push her onto the tracks. Ugly, ugly duckling. 

I do not have much practice when it comes to people who have had too much to drink. It is like a switch—the act of care—has been flipped, turned off. Maybe that is why I record Mom’s shadow sitting. It is not quite a good enough excuse.

Doctor says it is normal. He says it is normal for nausea to occur. Says to eat to counteract the meds and I am fed by Mom. She takes care of me. She does not know how awful I will become in a few hours. I guess there is a threshold in my body that Doctor, Mom, and I do not know about. Two days of hydro is my threshold; two days and half a night I walk into Mom’s room and tell her I am going to be sick. 

Is this still like nursing? This bucket cleaning and switching? I take up her whole night. At one point, Mom holds back my hair, but I cannot tell you when. She listens as I empty myself into the bucket, then it’s the bile, then it’s only dry heaving until early morning. I can still hear the animal noises I made. A visceral remembering that blots out champagne and cats up trees. I do not, however, remember how I sounded whenever I lifted my head from the bucket. All I can remember is the smell of bleach and my swollen locked jaw, and the holes in the back of my mouth with the ripped stitches, the soon-to-be dry sockets. I bet Mom remembers what the moments in-between sound like; I think I need her to. 

I guess we can add to your chart that Hydrocodone makes you vomit, says Nurse. Yes, Mom says. Yes, I repeat, but it takes a certain amount; it has to reach a threshold. 

Dad is out of town the night that the bean dip is cold. He is conveniently gone; although, I never asked him to be in town for my surgery. It is just wisdom teeth and by that, I mean getting rid of them, so when Mom—his ex-wife—is buzzed beyond reason, there was no way I could call him. There are cans of worms I will not open no matter how hungry I am. I call M, instead. It is January and we broke up last September, but he never liked drinking either. He will understand how I want to share my panic. 

I text him. M doesn’t seem to understand, at least, not right away. He gets caught up on a matter of possibility, or it might have been impossibility. The impossibility that Mom is intoxicated for the first time since M met me, first time in years. Or it is timing. I already act as if Mom has left before I even know the possibility of her leaving. I have not asked for a ride—from Mom, from him—since the beginning of high school; all those years ago, but the pre-surgery instructions tell me I cannot drive myself. Doctor told Mom that, too, at the pre-op and I know she heard. Yes. I ask her more than once. Yes. I ask the day before champagne toasts. I think I asked this morning. Yes, yes, I did. In the living room dark, I ask her a different question: 

why did you drink so much when I need you?

needed you to take me?

I’m fine I’m fine I’ll be fine she speaks from the floor.

I ask M: will you drive me? 

of course.

I solve a problem I never thought I would have. I guess I did not consider Mom not being able to help. I think—I used to think—of Mom as bound by her word. Bound by something inextricable. I wish I could misremember her champagne breath, forget the tissue between. I wish for a loose association of the night before my bloody gums. I am learning it is not only Mom who might want to forget to remember all. 

When Nurse says I can bring someone back with me, I am not the only one who hears because the waiting room is small and Mom and M are there, sitting together. Mom still wanted to come—says she was always coming. She does not argue when I tell her M is coming too; M is driving. In the car, she does not bring up last night. She seems—fine. She still seems fine when I ask M to go back with me. I simply need to not ask Mom. Perhaps, this is when she decides that her little duckling can take care of the ugly by herself.

Let me try to explain. I am afraid to wake up the morning (of the surgery, after). General anesthesia pumped through a needle and a tube in my arm terrifies something animal in me. Before the pinch and prod and pump of the sleep under my flesh, Doctor tells me I have good veins, they are the first veins he has seen all day, no hide-n-seek games; I am surgery #3. The reader on the tip of my index finger tells Doctor and Nurse the adrenaline in my body is real and petrified. My heart climbs and climbs with its hammer. I guess I am more embarrassed at this point than afraid of my own ferocity. Now, I know I’ll feel the same rush when Mom tells me she needs to leave, to move in order to be happy, but I will not know that until after my gums have started to heal. M smiles and nods from his stool across the little room from me. He reads the discomfort of my body like a bullet pointed list. He listens to my language, the lack of. Most importantly, he does not leave, but that doesn’t really matter because I can’t remember counting down three, two, one before I become the shadow in the chair.

I think I have lied because I am actually afraid of not remembering the time between the black and the waking. I am afraid of all the other time where a portion of my existence is unaccounted for, unassigned. Mom must stay put (in the waiting room and more) because, because, because I am having a hard time remembering. M fills in some gaps, but I am having a hard time remembering how to stand with the undoing at my feet. I am soaked in what I never wanted to touch: Mom as failure. Mom as person.

There is also the syringe with pink-clear wound dressing, but I cannot stop throwing up and throwing up the old cinnamon flavor of my dry sockets. I don’t like that Mom must have understood why I left her in the waiting room. The look on her face. She might have watched me leave with the best intentions, but she must know that I am full of ugly, of wanting her to be consumed. 


image: Aaron Burch