I had heard the murmurings of fear over what would become of me since I could understand words. I had listened to my sisters plead with my dad to not let me be a sacrifice to my mom. I had seen the beaten, sadness in my dad’s eyes when he said he would support me when I was older “no matter what”.
The older I got the more I felt the danger of the outside world. I held on tight to my mom’s love like a post in the ground through the storms of her illness. I lived for the moments when schizophrenia loosed it’s grips and my mom and I were free to live in our magical world made even more precious by my growing sense of what we were up against.
Time had become another terrible set of eyes to ignore. Time settled down next to the social workers, my dad, counselors, passing strangers as another thing I just wanted to leave us alone.
Like a pet boa constrictor starting curl up against a small aquarium my preteen years pressed hard on the thin glass protecting the existence I had always known.
I prayed every night. 100 Hail Mary’s. I would say them under my breath as I lay beside my mom on our mattress on the floor. Holding up a finger for every one. I said each one just right, wracking my brain to be sure I kept track. Always erring on the side of too many. The terror of the idea of having any control rubbing painfully against the unthinkable reality of having none at all. I would whisper them. One after the other. Please keep my mom safe.
My mom was never settled. There was always a place she dreamed we were going. A place where my mom would join a tennis club. I would join a school. We would have friends. My mom and I had toured private schools in Middleburg with halls full of khaki skirted girls swishing by, circled properties for sale in Sonoma, CA, looked at pictures of trailer parks.
We bought an RV just before my 12th birthday. It ‘s pearlescent finish glared against the dusty overgrown backdrop of our driveway. It sneered at us like a mean kid to a pale boy stumbling up to bat. As if we could escape.
We stacked our cats in cages, led on 4 dogs, packed a few black trash bags full of clothes and planned to drive across country to visit Julie. She had just moved to Seattle with her husband and baby girl. Like the alternative realities of my mom’s tennis club and our life on a farm in Middleburg, the idea of Seattle lay out before us in a pleasant mirage. Me, our 4 dogs, 5 cats, my mom, her schizophrenia and my burgeoning teenhood all crammed into that shiny RV. Compact and shooting off into the unknown, like a spaceship into the black.
We had been on the road for three days when we pulled over in a small town in PA. The trip had been fun. The RV smelt like new leather. We had a working tape player. My mom and I had blasted Disney songs in French. We talked about my sweet, fat baby niece in Seattle. I started to imagine myself holding her. My mom seemed clear. Maybe we would make it.
We parked in a mostly empty, hot parking lot. We needed more dog food. We were walking towards the small pet shot when a voice pierced through, “Mam, excuse me, mam”. There she was. Middle aged. Her hair fluffed back in a conservative way that must have taken some effort. Her pants were high, and her stomach bulged out. I imagined stepping on her and her popping like a tick. “You sideswiped my car. You took my mirror off”. Her words were short, constipated. Her eyes blinked fast. My mom told me to ignore her and keep walking. I felt the rise in my mom’s voice. She muttered something under her breath and flicked her hand at the lady behind us. “I’ll call the police” the lady called after us.
My mom stopped and turned. I wanted to pull my mom and run. To throw myself at the woman’s feet and cry. Please not us. Not this one. Please. Please. Please. The idea of my mom and I sitting in Seattle with Julie and Elle started trickling away like sand down an hourglass.My mom told her to stop following us. I saw the change in the woman’s eyes like a cloud rolling over the landscape as she registered the unhinged tone to my mom’s words. The inconspicuous turn in someone when they sensed my mom’s sickness. The shark smells blood. Now she could be concerned. That’s right, concerned. The kind of concern that covers up ignorance & fear like cheap perfume doused over BO.
The woman’s eyes turned to me. She was excited now. There I was. Standing just behind my mom. Too old to be hiding behind my mom’s leg. “Shouldn’t she be in school” the woman demanded. Now she was feeling it. A real hero of normalcy. My mom muttered something else. And told me to get in the RV. ” I’m calling the police,” the woman said again. The police. She said it like she enjoyed the sound coming off her lips. Responsible. She would report us.
We started on the road. My mom didn’t put the french on. She told me my father’s family probably had us followed. Her voice was hollow and wild. I felt every part of myself tense as I prepared for the outside world to storm our fences. The new leather felt hot. My legs were sweating. Then I heard the sirens. Clean, severe they whooped in back of us. My heart dropped. We pulled over in a mall parking lot. An officer stepped out and came up to the window. One of our dogs jumped on my mom’s lap and snarled and pounded. “Control your dog” his voice was mean. I grabbed our dog, Chocolate, by the collar and pulled her back. I noticed another police car pull up behind his. A chorus of wild barking and the police officer asking for the registration I held on tight to Chocolate’s collar and started my “Hail Mary’s”. Each word right. Each breath.
The officer walked away and my mom started talking to herself. We were caught it the bureaucratic riptide of laws, rules and black and whites. My mom’s love and insanity blurred lines and rendered us a pigment not recognized. The more we struggled the more we drowned. I had to sit there. Watch it all go down like spectator in a gladiator fight. I wanted to throw myself in between the police and mom. I wanted somhow to make eye contact with the officers tell them we were ok. Just please let us go. “
That’s it” my mom said, Her eyes were wide. We are leaving. “No, mom. Let’s just wait”. I pleaded, knowing my words were useless and hating the smallness of my voice. “Wait”, my mom said, “ to see what they will do to us? We are being followed!”. She took a wad of cash out of the glove compartment and got out of the RV. I saw her hand it to the police man. That is how much a mirror would cost she spat.”
We pulled back onto the road. The sirens started again along with a voice over a megaphone “Pull over immediately”. I saw the surprise cut through my mom’s eyes. We pulled into a 7-11 parking lot and two police men swerved in. Time was going at fast, garbled pace. “Get out of the car now” the first officer opened the door. My mom climbed out and the two officers threw her against our hood and handcuffed her. The dogs pounded the windows. My mom. My sweet mom. Her white skin pushed hard against the RV. I saw the shock in her wide, blue eyes. They grabbed her on each side and pushed her into a police cruiser where she passed out. My hands were on my face. I walked to the back of the RV. No, no, no. I didn’t pray anymore. The imaginary, delicate line that kept us safe. That I imagined I could beg God to keep, snapped. I heard the officer say, “there’s a girl in there”.
The words were hard, vacant and foreign. It was out of body. I was “the girl”.
For a moment my mind whirled. I could run. I could storm out and scream at the police. I could hit them. Sink into the insanity and let it overtake me. Like a final burst of manic movement before sinking to the bottom of a pool of water.
But instead I walked up to the door. I saw the policeman take me in. My small boobs poking through my sister’s old striped henley, my dirty, drawstring linen slacks my mom had bought me from Walmart, my greasy middle parted hair. I was the unfortunate aftermath. Too old to scoop up and rescue so instead he commanded, “step out of the RV”.
“How old are you”, “is that woman your mother?”, “how many animals are in the vehicle” The same tone of clean, painful questions thrown at our insanity. And now, there was only me to answer to them. I wanted to rise. I wanted to be brave. To run. To scratch. To fucking scream and scream and scream. I had tried. I had tried. And now I was here. Listening to my calm, sad voice explain we were going to my sisters. I helped animal control load our howling dogs into a van. It’s OK I told them. I was numb.
I got into the back of the police cruiser. The seat was hard. I made eye contact with two skater rats staring at me from the parking lot. I didn’t break the contact. I tried to make my face hard. That’s right. Here I am.
We arrived at the station. The officer told me to sit in a small chair between their two desks. The officer’s pant’s were stiff, a black gun showed through in his belt. I heard him and the other officer talking about my mom. I asked for a pad of paper and a pen. I drew whirls and swirls and wrote out “why me” trying to make my handwriting look neat.
I sat there for hours. Listening to hands on keyboards, the hollow rings of phones and the cold bleeps of walkie talkies and shuffling of heavy clothes. Finally a black woman walked into the station. Her eyes were wide and dark. She had a full body and short, grey speckled hair and wore a scarf. Her full lips were painted a berry color. I was told she was here to bring me to a place where I would be held till they could get in touch with a member of my family. Her Toyota was warm, clean and smelled like artificial vanilla. “Did they give you anything to eat?” she said as she turned out of the station parking lot. I shook my head and she said “bone headed policemen” the humor in her voice was the safest thing I had heard all day.
It was night by the time we arrived to the long brick building. It was surrounded by cornfields. We walked in. The fluorescent lights were cool and clinical. The tiles were wide and white. A man in his thirties with blond hair, a long neck and the self important, chipper air of a senior camp counselor mixed with the bored authority of a substitute teacher in an inner city school greeted us.
“Your mom has been committed” he told me. “They are hoping they can keep her in the mental institution so she doesn’t get sent to jail”. The words passed over me. I just nodded. He asked me to spread my legs and proceeded to pat me down. “Take off your shoes please”. He explained to me that no one wore shoes, “makes it harder for you to run off” ,he said, smiling. I heard shouts and saw two adults holding either arm of a young spanish girl with thick eyebrows and amber colored eyes, “fuck you” she yelled. “That’s Iris” he said “She has trouble. But I can tell you won’t be trouble, right?”.
He took me along a white, narrow hallway with plain, solem doors on each side. Finally we stopped and he opened one. A small white room with a twin bed in the corner. It had crisp sheets and a salmon colored blanket. “It is about to be lights out.” he told me. “ The door locks once we close them. Someone will knock in the morning at 7:30.”. He gave me a final look and left.
I went up to the window. There were bars across it. I looked out into the dark cornfields. I had never slept in a bed alone before. I imagined my mattress at home. On the floor. I would have been curled up against my mom’s long, white legs. I would have felt the warm bodies of our dogs and smelled the wood burning stove. For a second I thought about how scared my mom must be and felt a low, hard, dull ache rise to my chest . I looked out again and let myself feel how alone I was. I pulled the tight, hard sheets back and climbed in the bed. Finally hot tears poured down my face and I fell asleep.
I spent three days there. My siblings and father were at our family reunion in the Ozarks with no service to speak of. I befriended Iris, the wild spanish girl with amber eyes. “How many guys have you had sex with” she would ask me? She yelled to her friend, a beautiful spanish girl named Angelica with long wavy hair and a gentle look to her, “she’s never even kissed a guy”. Iris was there because she had been caught hot wiring a car, Angelica was there because her step father had beat her and her mom up. I spent three days in the long, one story brick building. I sat in a common area with hard, stiff cushioned couches & ate in the cafeteria.
Eventually I got in touch with my one and only best friend, Sarah. Her parent’s drove to get me. Her kind, southern father looked at me and made a joke about looking for my mom next time he watched the show ‘Cops”. They took me to the mental institution where my mom had been. A man in white explained to me again that they would keep her there as long as possible to avoid jail time. He took me back to see her. I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect.
My mom was wearing a white, cotton sweatshirt. She smiled when she saw me. She looked fragile. I didn’t like seeing her in that room. The people all around. Each one secluded with their pain and demons rendered weak and obvious against the sharp, white, clinical edges of the space. “They told me where you were. Were you OK” my mom asked. There was a crisp, clear tone to her voice. I told her it was not bad. That I had the name of the pound where our dogs and cats were and that I had made friends. “I knew you were having fun” my mom said. Her soft, pale wrists had angry blue rings around them from the handcuffs. “They left me in a room for hours” my mom said. Her eyes started to look agitated. Then she looked back at me. “ I was fine because I could feel you were having fun. Your dad is coming. I will be home soon.”.
“I’ve been playing ping pong. You know I love ping pong” she told me.
…and there we were.
A white room.
The clean lines of the world finally had us right where they wanted us.
I had been sent off. To keep me safe.
But they didn’t have us. And they never will.