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Fiction Issue - Third Place: Surfacing

Wednesday January 6, 2010 08:00 am EST

The kid was wearing a leash. The kind parents hold tightly to in order to prevent their kid from slipping or escaping, or staring too long at the candy aisle. “Can I have this? Can you buy me this?”


The leash was connected to a stuffed animal backpack, the kind meant to simulate freedom and adventure, when in reality they’re traps – animal traps – strapped onto a kid by the parent who overuses hand sanitizer, organics and word-spelling. “Looks like somebody needs an N-A-P? Don’t you think so, Dad? I sure do, Mom – and someone else could use a B-J.”

The kid had his hands on the large glass window, his greasy palms slipping across it, his breath creating a thin fog as he looked out, occasionally yelling back to his Master about wings and planes and pilots.

We were all in LaGuardia, waiting for our plane to board, me with a hat tugged around my head, blocking out as many sounds as possible; everyone else texting, feigning supreme importance.

I sat staring at the leash connecting the kid to his mother, held taut and unrelenting by her. She refusing to slacken the tension, he refusing to fall back toward her womb.

I had been in the city close to a month, sitting at Beth Israel, watching Mom as she lay dying; her body deteriorating, ripping itself from her spirit to dive back into the dust of the earth.

To pass time, I would read her the news each day:

The Observer – Man goes on spiritual retreat in Guyana, takes salvia, SEES GOD, vows life of piety!” If he were as close to death as me, his faith would falter and he’d wonder what the hell he’d wasted his time worrying about.”

The Yorkie Tribune – Hospitals continue to over-charge the uninsured, many battle bankruptcy. Health reform talks stall. “Same people being bankrupted by the system are those fighting reform and calling it socialism.”

Southern Herald – Family ruled to give reparations refuses, claims fortune was obtained legally, morally. “Without 300 years of free labor, that family wouldn’t be able to afford their team of lawyers.”

She had always had strong opinions, fighting alongside the underbelly. Her intensity was overwhelming, a consequence of growing up on Staten Island in a household of angry parents who ignored her – she had to yell loud to be heard and sculpt her opinions to become impenetrable.

She had called the day she found out she was sick. “It’s nothing to worry about, but the doctor found something,” she had said.

I had lost a friend a few months before to bone cancer, he was 24. The day of his funeral his father turned to the crowd and yelled, “You’re all here now, but where were you when he still had hope? You could’ve been a match!”

“Fuck cancer.”

“Don’t be rude – it’s not cancer, they’re just basil cells. I’ll be fine,” Mom had said. It turned out to be cancer – hiding in the epidermis of her forearms, writhing and morphing, and eventually throwing a stick into the spokes of our very existence. It traveled fast and unrelenting, she started slipping away with such ferocious speed, it became tender.

“Stop touching the glass!” The woman was yanking her son back by his leash, his face twisted and red, preparing to explode at any second. “Come over here and sit by me so we can get ready to get on the plane.”

He was writhing in her grasp, trying to slip his way out of his fuzzy backpack to return to the window and gaze out at opportunity and speed and desertion.

He looked over to where I sat and stopped twisting when he saw me staring back. His face fell, insecure that someone had witnessed his tantrum. I shifted my gaze out the window toward the planes lining up on the runway, ready to make their escape.

“I’m going to marry him,” I had told Mom on the phone one afternoon after I’d started an erratic, irresponsible love affair.

“Oh, for God’s sake.”

I had given her the whole story – we’d met while I was visiting a friend Out West, a group of us had been hanging out on a rooftop watching as lightening slashed the night’s sky. He and I hadn’t even spoken by the time he moved behind me and grabbed my hand.

“I have an overwhelming urge to make proclamations to you,” he had whispered to the back of my neck.

We lived far apart and would travel to see each other. “How do you feel about the Smithsonian? They say Vancouver is beautiful. I’ve always wanted to see Santa Fe.”

We thrived on the lightness of adventure and freedom of maintained individuality, but eventually found the distance insurmountable. I had started obsessing over things he’d say:

You’re always baiting me.

Why do you shave your vagina?

Maybe you still love Him.

I’m moving in with K, she inspires me.

I don’t trust myself with you.

I began slipping away from myself – one afternoon when he snapped me out of my opaque haze by calling me desperate and hanging up the phone.

“You can’t ever really know anyone,” Mom had said. “It’s best that you just get over it now and move forward.”

I had gone home so she could help mend the hole in my chest. I’d lie on the couch as if my legs didn’t work, daydreaming about his lips on my thighs. Mom would make me sandwiches and we’d take early-morning drives to watch the dew melt and look for garage sales.

We even took a trip to visit her brother in Syracuse; he was a heroin addict living in a trailer behind the estate he cared for. We made sure he ate dinner and would play cards at night before he’d leave to go “help out a friend.” He’d return late, slipping in and out of consciousness before passing out on the couch. We left one afternoon when he was out; Mom dropped $100 on his kitchen table and was silent the whole way home.

Both of our hearts were broken in those weeks, but it was also then that I realized the strength of us. Women absorb sadness. We throw all the putrid shit of life into a deep, deep pool that resides somewhere inside our guts between the ovaries and the uterus.

ATTENTION PASSENGERS OF FLIGHT 3346 TO ATLANTA, WE ARE NOW READY TO BOARD OUR FIRST CLASS, GOLD CUSTOMERS. PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO GATE C4. AGAIN, WE’RE ONLY BOARDING OUR FIRST CLASS PASSENGERS.

Mom’s friend Lynn had called me. “Your mother is in the hospital, the doctors aren’t sure how much time she has. You need to get here, sweetheart.”

I had forced myself to grasp onto each moment with her, no longer desperate to get away and completely unwilling to forget. Each minute became pivotal and the advice she mumbled, dire. I ingested every bit of it, coveting her wisdom, preparing myself for her absence.

Your student loans aren’t goin anywhere, pay them.

You’re not the greatest writer, ya know.

You can only be in charge of you.

Your father is not your problem.

Stop being so selfish and have a baby.

Don’t settle.

Don’t you ever settle.

I’ll haunt you if you settle.

In our final month, I would clean the scabs that grew around her chest port and hold her gown closed as we shuffled together toward the bathroom. I’d massage her feet and watch her chest move up and down as she slept.

I remember the exact instant she started to really die. It was morning and her watery eyes moved to meet mine, I felt like she was seeing clear into my soul, looking at a piece of it she’d always owned.

“I can’t go until I know you’re going to be OK,” she had whispered.

“I’m gonna be fine. I’m a wild tiger, just like you. Now get outta here, Mommy.”

Her eyes had closed and she started slipping, like a cargo ship sinking beneath the surface of the sea in the aftermath of a storm, quiet and powerful; all of its weight lost to something much grander.

I watched as her body heaved and then stopped; there was nothing climactic, she was there one second and gone the next – a memory of mine from that point on.

“Do you like stickers?” The kid was standing in front of me holding a glossy sheet of tiny cartoons. The animal trap backpack lay on the ground behind him where his mother stood, mouth agape. He had fled.

“They’re OK,” I said, staring at the freckles that spread across his nose onto each cheek – freckles he’d most likely hate when vanity reared its head.

“You can have one if you want.” He handed me the sheet covered in pictures of farm animals driving various modes of transportation.

“I like this one with the boat and the chicken,” he came around to my side to see which I’d chosen.

“That’s a rooster and that’s a tug boat. But you can have it anyways.”

He peeled the sticker back with his grubby fingers and reached toward me. I could smell peanut butter and sour milk, but was comforted by the heat of his little body so close to my own. He placed the sticker on my sweatshirt, pushing his index finger into my chest just over the spot where they say our heart resides.

His mother walked up behind him, ashamed. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. This one’s just all over the place. I try to keep him at my side but he always manages to slip away.” She turned to the boy, “C’mon honey, we’re boarding.”

“OK,” he said, staring at me as she grabbed him by the shoulder. “See ya ‘round.” His mother reached down to pick up the backpack and slid it on his arms. She hung onto the leash but gave him some leeway.

“Yeah, see ya ‘round,” I said, watching as they walked toward the gate that would take me home.