Here’s Chapter 5.
Icy winds slashed the house by the time I was done cleaning it up. My final task was to clear the rain gutters. Digging out slimy leaf clumps while enduring the cold front was a hell of a job, but I got through it. I still hadn’t seen any sign of Mom. I began to wonder if she’d had a heart attack and collapsed in her clay. I knew better though.
My checklist complete, I had trouble thinking of things to do. I knew that I needed to look for a job, or for classes to enroll in, but such ventures felt irrelevant. I felt like I was exiled from all that, stuck aground while the currents rushed around me. I didn’t even know if that was by choice or not.
One afternoon I sat on the living room sofa and stared at the turned-off TV set. It was a big, black, sixty-inch HDTV that loomed over all else like an Oceanic telescreen. I never cared for television programming, but staring at the blank screen felt strangely relaxing. What a spectacular waste of money. At least Aaron got some use out of it. Mom was rarely home to watch it, but she was proud to own it anyway. It was the same with our internet service: Mom didn’t even know how to double-click, but she liked knowing the internet was there.
This train of thought lifted me from the couch and carried me to the study, where we kept the family PC. The study was once Mark’s bedroom, and there was still something Mark-ish about it, and entering it gave me the sense that I was intruding. I felt like Mark was going to jump out from somewhere and tell me to quit my snooping. I even felt that way during the hours I’d spent cleaning it.
I switched on the computer and opened the browser. Mom’s home page popped up: the website of the Jesse Altadonna gallery in San Francisco. It was where most of her art was exhibited and sold. The center of the page showed a large portrait of the gallery. Plain white walls and parquet floors. Paintings hung and sculptures posed. It reminded me of the tin-shit building where I attended sculpture class. I rested my chin on my left hand and decided to drift about the site. Smirking, I went to the Artists list and clicked the link that read “Myra Levins.”
Her page drew her out in plain text. Her bio, her curriculum vitae, her exhibits. Samples of her work included a photo of her “cage” sculpture, with the smiling man and woman. I stared at it for a long time, until my eyes unfocused and I fell into a daydream. I forced myself to blink and shook my head. Then I returned to the Artists page and scrolled around before freezing up and gaping.
Near the bottom of the page, between “Jennifer Valdez” and “Richard Werner,” I found “Evelyn Acceptance Weiss.”
It took me a minute, but I clicked it. She only had one exhibit, which had taken place the previous week. The samples showed small, cream-colored sculptures, abstract shapes arranged in a ring on a black display stand. I thought they looked like warped eggs, or river-smoothed stones that were somehow softened and squashed. There was also a diorama, a wooden box painted dark blue on the inside. Set within was a plaster hand in a black lace glove, cut off just below the wrist, with its fingers elegantly curved, as though clutching an unseen cigarette.
I took my hand from the mouse and rubbed my eyes. I realized that I’d been frowning, and there was some sort of heavy rock sitting in my stomach. I took a deep breath and went for the bio. There was only one thing I wanted to see.
And there it was, beneath her date and place of birth: “Evelyn is currently an undergraduate at California State University, Sacramento.”
It’s difficult to describe what I felt. The rock in my stomach seemed to gain mass, and then it dropped further inside me, pulling some of my guts with it. I knew that I needed to fill the cold hollow that it left inside me, and I tried to do it with heavy breaths. Then something gave in my head. It was like a strap was cut, and everything it held back spilled. I rolled my chair away from the computer and tilted forward with my face in my hands. I leaned until my elbows hit my thighs.
First it was laughter. I laughed at things so grand, gangly, and absurd that I couldn’t understand them. I saw a sky filled with weird orange tendrils. They surrounded me, enclosed me, chambered me like mosquito netting. I saw the sun beyond, shooting down on me, burning the familiar blue away with a relentless, emotionless white. I was frightened to be there, but I didn’t care enough to escape.
As you’d probably expect, the laughter rose to a high, choking wheeze, and then tipped into sobs. I dropped from the chair, flopping like a boned fish, and cried on the floor. My strength had gone from me, and I was too weak to lift my hands. Tears and snot slid down my face, and I didn’t bother to wipe them. I just let them drip into the carpet. It was pathetic, and I knew it was pathetic even as it happened.
I became angry with myself. I was pissed for breaking, pissed for crying, and more than anything, pissed for even feeling anything in the first place. I had so much. Even in failing, I had so much. I wasn’t stuck in the ghetto giving blow jobs to make rent. I wasn’t on the streets of Damascus, dodging death squads and mortar fire. I wasn’t scrabbling in the dirt for scraps to eat. I was in suburbia, glowing, green, American suburbia, surrounded with every opportunity to find fortune and pursue pleasure, and I was fucking crying.
Was I suffering? Could someone like me ever understand suffering? Could I ever earn the right to hurt, or the right to express it? Did I even deserve the comforts that graced me in childhood, and that surrounded me now? Obviously I didn’t appreciate them.
Meanwhile, I acted like I knew what was best for everyone else. It was easy for me to decide where Mark and Aaron and Acceptance belonged, so long as I didn’t have to assign a position to myself. This wasn’t because I was lost, it was because I was lazy. The valleys I saw as a child rose into mountains the moment I neared them, and I chose to run instead of rough it. It was too hard.
It was true. That floundering, weeping thing on the study floor was I. This was the person my decisions had turned me into, and this was the place where they had led me to be.
Energy surged into me again. I pushed myself from the floor and stood up. I went into the garage and hit the door opener. As the door rumbled open, I got behind the wheel of the Taurus and turned the ignition. My breathing was very deep, and my vision was very distant. My heart danced a jig inside me. I didn’t know where I going; I only knew it was far away from this house, this town, this world. I was scared of the thought, but a little excited, too.
I backed the car down the driveway, still marooned in that far-off space where my heart and lungs governed. The road beckoned me to a land free from all pains and worries.
Just before my rear wheels could touch the pavement, a stumpy gray van barged up behind me, aiming for the center of the drive. Its driver must only have spotted me at the last moment. The van stopped with a jolt, and I got three angry horn honks.
I couldn’t back the car out any further; the van hadn’t left me enough room to squeeze onto the street. I had no other choice but to put the car in drive and roll back up into the garage. The van backed up a bit, adjusted its angle, and took the free side of the driveway.
I felt that heavy, sinking sensation pouring through me again, not the drop of a single rock but a whole avalanche, that yanked on my innards until they tore. There was no ignoring her now. I got out of the car and slowly stepped out to meet her.
I had to wait a few seconds while she stashed some things in her purse. I could see the top of her gray head through the driver’s side window. Then she looked out at me. I saw my droopy eyes in her face.
“Tara? What the hell are you doing here?” she said.
“I was just leaving, Mom,” I answered.
She got out of the van and shut the door. She stood in front of me, her brow wrinkled, her eyes squinted, and her mouth hanging open. She wore a yellow Snoopy T-shirt besmirched with the paint stains of years gone by, an old work shirt. Her jeans, frayed at the knees and ankles, were similarly stained. Her clothes were very loose and baggy, and I was surprised at how skinny and tiny she looked.
She didn’t hug me or make any other effort at greeting me. She had a battery of questions first, and questions were just what I couldn’t deal with. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine, Mom. I’m going to be fine, but I have to get going now.” I inched back toward the garage.
“But, how long have you been here? Were you waiting to see me? Why didn’t you call the studio?”
“It’s okay. It’s not a problem.” I don’t know why, but I started to panic. I had to get away. I continued to walk backward to the car, but she followed me and maintained the distance between us.
When I got the driver’s side door, I pulled the latch with my left hand and saw my escape just inches ahead of me. I just had to get in. Then Mom seized my right hand.
“Tara, you can’t leave me wondering like this,” she said. “Can’t you stay a little longer and talk to me?”
I was too close to back down now. My mind rocketed to a state of extreme terror, and I needed to leave. Without thinking, I drew my right arm inward, and then threw it out in a swift, jerking motion. The sudden, desperate force of it threw Mom off-balance. She stumbled backwards and crashed into a pair of easels in the corner of the garage.
Terrified that I’d injured her, I hesitated to watch her recover. When I was satisfied that she’d regained her balance, I said, “Mom, I have to go. I’m sorry.” I saw my own eyes staring at me from that corner, giant and lit with fright, and they burned an afterimage in my sight that I couldn’t clear, no matter how hard I shook my head. I slumped into the driver’s seat again, started the car, backed down the drive, and shot out of the neighborhood in one long, blurry motion.
I sped out to the edges of town, weaving through traffic and shooting past red lights. I didn’t think that Mom would try to follow me, but if she did, I wanted to be sure that there was no way her van would keep up.
I realized how keen each of my sensations had become, from the dryness of my mouth and throat, to the grip of the vinyl steering wheel in my hands. All of my nerves were active and afire, and I felt alive and lifeless at the same time. I kept driving, and I didn’t stop until I was far out of town.
Stars poked out of the violet sky. I sat in my car, on the side of the north freeway, and watched them. It was a strangely clear evening. The few clouds I could see were long, thin, and faint, and they stretched across the span of the sky, from one horizon to the other. I wanted to focus on them, to rip my attention away from the fiery memories of Mark, Aaron, and Mom, but the back of my head still ran the images in an endless filmstrip. It ticked away, making cold calculations and scary realizations. I tried to stuff each thought down with a heavy sigh, but I couldn’t make it work. As the sun slid past the round black hills of the west, the conclusion announced itself to me as a question.
You know what you have to do, don’t you?
Mom’s horrified face flashed before me to cement my answer. Yeah, I knew.
I turned the car back on.
I took the next exit that came up and then reentered the freeway going south. I watched for the sign marked “Clemens Rd.” There were some odd detours on the way because of the overpass construction, but I got back to familiar territory in time. Traffic was scarce. The sky was black. The landmark I was looking for stood proudly out from a field of flattened land. Cheap sodium lamps bathed the earth orange. I pulled over to the right edge of the street and stayed put for a while. There were no homes or stores on that side, only dirt fields and weeds. I sat and mulled one last time. I thought about the chances I’d lost, the people I’d hurt, and the people I’d continue to hurt in my bent, broken state. Would they forgive me? In the place of those people, would I forgive myself? I wondered whether living like that would be bearable.
The engine thrummed, and my last doubts crumbled. I was already on the plank, a short walk left ahead of me. What was there was ponder?
I put the Taurus in reverse, and rolled it back into the fields. As I pointed the front of the car at the pale orange spire, I found that the storm in my head was easing up. My muscles were relaxing. I began to believe that this was really the only way that my tale could end.
When I was content that my aim was true, I braked and went to drive. I felt my features harden into a grim expression, and I poured my concentration into getting this done right. Keep the safety belt on, press the gas to the floor, and hold her straight. I can do that. I launched ahead.
The engine spun to a high growl. I accelerated over the two lanes of Clemens, and then shot into the dirt. The steering wheel jerked and twitched in my hands, but my grip never faltered, and I kept the beam in front of me. For several seconds it was distant, a bright spike in a black horizon, and then all at once it filled the windshield. Shocks and tremors rumbled through the glass and metal around me, and I squeezed my eyes shut as a sharp biological spark stung me and I swung the steering wheel to the right.
I thought I heard the skid, but I didn’t hear the crash.