Authors: Kate Axelrod
“Are you feeling okay? Do you feel sick or something?”
“Oh please, please,
don't do that. You think I'm crazy, Emma? You think I'm crazy because I want to protect my family? Do you think I like living this way? Living in a home that could poison me at any minute! This is torture,
THE rest of the afternoon passed slowly. I didn't know what to do. I wondered if I should call 911 or my father, or maybe just Annie or Daniel, someone to talk to. But really I didn't want to do any of those things. I didn't even want to move, just wanted to let this uncomfortable feeling in my chest settle. I went into my room and closed the door behind me. My bedroom had barely changed since I was a kid: purple carpeting, pale pink walls, a white, faux-wood desk that still had the faded remnants of Magic Marker scribbled on the drawers. (I'd done this when I was eight or nine and then my mother and I spent an entire Sunday afternoon trying to scrub the desk clean, using various kinds of brushes and sponges, soft, plain ones and Brillo pads with thick, wiry backs. Nothing would do; after all these years, there was still this faint writing, which now seemed an oddly sweet artifact of my childhood.)
was still visible in loopy, faded, peach-colored writing. It was something of a fad then, in third grade, to write your name backward, and it had seemed like such a feat when Annie and I were able to write
of our names backward
. For months we'd written notes to each other this way, imagining that no one could understand our secret, coded language.
I tried to distract myself by reading Gawker, browsing Facebook, looking through whole albums of people I barely knew, checking to see what my roommates had been up to since we left school: one of them was in Turks and Caicos with her family; another was skiing in Vail. She posed next to her younger brotherâthey looked breathless and wind-burnt in big, heavy parkas. The semester had only been over a handful of days, but already a senior guy had been “asked to leave” (this was the prep-school way of getting expelled) because he stayed on campus a few days after finals and was found drunkenly passed out in the evergreen shrubs behind his dorm. There was a whole thread of Facebook comments, people writing to say how unfair it was, how they wanted to protest the administration at Oak Hill. I tried to care, to focus on anything other than my mother, but it wasn't working.
I lay on my bed, flat on my back, and tried to steady my breathing. Okay, so yes, I
called someone, but earlier in the week when I'd mentioned to Annie and Daniel that something was off, I hadn't meant it like this.
My mother always had an abundance of neuroses, but none that had ever seemed to verge on psychotic. She always made me unplug the toaster oven after I used it, and sometimes she'd come into my bedroom in the middle of the night to peel my socks off because she worried my feet would be too sweaty while I slept. She was always fastidious about washing fruit, even grapefruits or tangerines, when the skin was simply thrown away. It didn't matter if
was the one eating it and didn't care about the potential harm of pesticides. We had fought about these things mercilessly at times, and thinking about it now I could feel the tension rising in my chest.
You're being so crazy
, I would scream at my mother. But obviously that wasn't really what I'd meant. I'd meant neurotic, controlling. I'd meant, couldn't she just leave me alone for five minutes and let my feet sweat if I wanted them to?
I had only been home for seventy-two hours and somehow everything seemed different, irrevocably warped, having shifted in the cruelest way.
Maybe I would go to the movies. Maybe being in the dark, in an empty theater, sealing myself off from this bleak time of day, when afternoon leaned toward darkness, would be just the distraction I was looking for. When I was a child, I used to call dusk the loneliest time of day. And at seventeen, I still felt the slightest bit unsettled as I watched the sun sink into the sky.
I wondered if it was possible to sneak out of the house without having to engage in another lengthy, distressing conversation with my mother. And as I slipped out the door a few minutes later, I could hear her muttering to herself, rearranging some furniture in the den, shifting the coffee table this way and that.
MY father was sitting in the den with a book in his lap when I returned. The lights were off, and the scene seemed so stilted, like the beginning or ending of a play.
“Dad, why are you sitting like that in the dark?”
“I don't know. I came in here to read but I guess I just forgot to turn the lights on and got a little distracted.”
“Lost in thought.”
“Ha, yeah, I guess. Mom and I got into a fight while you were out. She left a couple of hours ago and I haven't heard from her. Her phone's off.”
“Did you call Aunt Elaine?”
“Yeah, she's not there.”
“How worried are you?”
He sighed heavily, closed the book in his lap. “I don't know,” he said.
The landline rang a few minutes later. It was a call from the manager of the A&P down the street. He said there was a woman sitting at the loading dock. She was okay, but seemed a little disoriented, a little confused. Her ID said she lived at this address. Did someone want to come by?
It was a six-minute drive to the A&P and we were totally silent as we made our way there. My father usually loaded some CDs into the stereo or chose a playlist from his iPod before we went anywhere, but that night we arranged ourselves quietly in the car. No music, no NPR, just the soft ticking of the turn signals, the wheels against the icy pavement, the quiet hiss as the heat floated through the vents. I was thinking of things to say, a legitimate question I could possibly ask, but nothing felt appropriate; everything seemed either too dramatic or sentimental or too frivolous for what was happening.
There was a pounding in my head; my eyes were glassy and wet.
“I'm so confused,” I finally said.
My father didn't respond, just slammed the base of his hand against the steering wheel, honked at the guy ahead of him, who had stalled at the light.
“That wasn't meant at you,” he said, turning to me for an instant. “Sorry.”
The shopping center was nearly empty. There were a couple of SUVs parked here and there, and a tiny Honda hatchback that looked decades old. At the other end of the lot was a Best Buy, its bright yellow lettering luminous against the dark, starless sky. And there was my mother sitting on the pavement, just beside the loading dock of the supermarket. Her hair was short and choppy, mostly dark but speckled with gray. From the distance she looked like a child, a little boy waiting for someone to get him, to bring him home.
She was dressed in the same outfit as earlier in the dayâdark jeans, leather flats, a navy cowl-neck sweater. She was wearing a down jacket that was unzipped, and no hat or scarf or gloves. She'd always hated winter accessories. As we got closer, I could see that something in her face looked strange, a little off, her eyes focused on something in the distance. She seemed calm, though, without that frenzied affect she'd had earlier. I turned away, didn't know where to look. I felt as though I might be sick and I wondered if this was the moment that I'd look back on and know, irrefutably, that everything had changed. I wished that I could've somehow held onto and savored the ordinariness of the past few days.
MY father carefully approached her, then squatted down to her level.
“Carol, you need to come with me,” he said gently. “It's too cold for you to be sitting out here like this. We're going to get you some help and then we're going to head home.” He was firm, but had adopted the same sort of tone that I used when I was babysitting for some sweet but unruly five-year-olds who just wouldn't get to sleep.
“Look, I told you yesterday that it wasn't safe anymore,” my mother said. “I know this is hard for you, but I just can't do it. They're going to kill me if I stay there. You have to believe me. It's just not safe.”
“I know you don't believe me or understand, but I'm okay here, really, I am. You don't need to help me.”
“I don't need to help you? Carol! This isn't a joke. Listen, we'll take you to the hospital and get your meds readjusted and then you'll be fine. Please. Please don't do this!”
My mother laughed in a dry, sardonic way and then said, “Oh stop, he just doesn't know any better.”
“Just stop,” my father said. “Please just stop responding to
“Dad, seriously, what the fuck is going on? Should I call an ambulance?”
Someone from the store, a young guy, his face ablaze with acne, was standing nearby. He was wearing green khakis and a starched red shirt with the A&P emblem on the left side of his chest. His hands were clasped behind his waist.
“Do you mind giving us a minute?” my father asked him.
“Oh, of course, I'll be right inside if you need me.”
“It's supposed to snow tonight, Mom,” I said stupidly, as if this kind of logic might be helpful. The air was brisk and icy, and I just stood there, next to a clump of dirtied snow and a dip in the pavement that was filled with a pool of slush. I stared at a few empty, flattened potato chip bags, watched as a lone can of Diet 7Up rolled away and disappeared.
“Emma, I need to take care of this, and I think you should go home,” my father said.
“Are you kidding? I'm not gonna just leave you here.”
“Emma, please, I'm serious. Call Annie or your aunt or someone, and tell them to pick you up. Now.”
I waited for Annie's car to pull up, and I thought about how much time we'd spent in this parking lot before I'd gone away to school, smoking cigarettes and leaning against cars, waiting for something interesting to happen. I kept imagining the moment when I could tell this storyâtomorrow or next week or next monthâand say,
It was so terrifying, it seemed like my mother was totally losing her mind, but then it passed, it was all okay.
Annie arrived in her father's sleek gray coupe. Each seat had its own temperature dial, and she had set mine one notch below the highest, the way I'd always requested it. I could feel the heat seeping in through my coat, and something about that small act of intimacy, of Annie's thoughtfulness, made me start to cry.
“Thank you so much,” I told her. “But I can'tÂ .Â .Â . Is it okay if we don't talk right now?”
“Of course, of course. Whatever you want. We'll just drive back to your house.” The windows were all fogged up from the cold and I dragged my fingers along the glass, drew ribbons and shapes in the moisture, like I'd always done as a child.
When we got home, Annie hugged me again and unloaded the backpack she brought filled with DVDs and a couple of magazines from the checkout aisle at CVS. When we were thirteen, we went to this party at a tenth grader's house, and I accidentally got so drunk I spent an hour upstairs in the bathroom crying, trying to will myself to throw up. Annie just sat there with me on the ceramic-tiled floor, rubbing my back, promising me everything would be fine. And something about the certainty in her voice, the calm, soothing way Annie had spoken to me, made me want to believe her.
I wanted, so badly, for her to do that again.
“What the fuck is happening, Annie?”
But she couldn't this time, didn't have much to offer me. “I don't know, I really don't.”
AS soon as I got into bed, I called Daniel, but he was at a party and it was too noisy to talk and could he call me back later? I texted him instead:
Something really crazy is happening with my mom. Can you call me back?
He didn't call for forty minutes and by the time he did, I was too angry or sad, my insides too twisted up, to answer the phone.
THE next morning, everything was still and quiet. I'd gotten a text from my father just after six
, letting me know that my mother had been admitted to the hospital in White Plains, and I should come by whenever I got up. I lay in bed for a while, trying to force myself to move. I was expecting to see chaosâas if the house would somehow physically reflect the senseless disorder and confusion of the past twelve hours. I was expecting the living room to look like the aftermath of a tornado that had swept throughâbroken glass, garbage strewn everywhere, a badly soiled carpet. But when I left my bedroom, I saw that the kitchen sink was clean and polished-looking, a handful of forks were upright in the drying rack, some books were stacked neatly on the coffee table. Our family cat, Grandpa, was stretched out, resting sleepily on the sofa. A roll of duct tape sat beside the windowsill, and a strip of silver hung limply, like day-old confetti.
I took a shower and called Daniel, who sounded half-asleep and was too hungover to talk.
“Hey, baby,” he said. “My head is killing me. Can you just call back a little later?”
“Ugh, no. You're so annoying! Do you want to talk to me or not?” I had never spoken to Daniel this way before, but suddenly I didn't want to be polite, I didn't want to have to act my best around him anymore.
“Jesus, do you have to be
I was sitting in the county hospital, in the waiting room, in the psych unit on the ninth floor, where my mother had been admitted just a few hours earlier. The walls were painted a pale shade of green and there were matching pleather chairs and a television in the corner that was running a loop of the same few news stories. I heard someone say,
Your dad is not bipolar, he
I thought about that difference, and I stared at the woman who was uttering these words, at the two inches of exposed sock between her loafers and her black dress pants. The woman was wearing Garfield socks and I stared absently at the cat's faceâbright and bloated like a pumpkin, set beneath a thought balloon with a piece of lasagna and a clutter of