I’m lying in a hotel bed right now. In the room next to mine, the phone keeps ringing. I can hear the door slamming against a deadbolt a few times and the voices of men shouting benign messages to each other. I don’t know if they’re talking about when they need to leave to catch their flight or if they’re negotiating how much for the hooker. Either way, I can’t sleep.
I try to call the front desk. They answer, but when I try to explain what’s going on, the young woman says, “Hello, Front desk. Hello?” Then she hangs up. The phone is broken. She can’t hear me. This is a decent hotel. What the fuck? I try again. Same thing.
Finally, I call from my cell. I explain. She says she will handle it. I can hear the phone in the room next to me ring. Things quiet down. Now I can hear loud music from another room further down the hall. I twist. I turn. I think about what will happen in the next 48 hours. Actually, the next 50 hours.
I'm at a Hampton Inn near the Minneapolis Airport. I'm on the way to see my 13 year old son who is in a residential treatment facility in Traveler’s Rest, SC. That’s the name of the town. What town has an apostrophe in its name? How did it become Traveler’s Rest?
I have to wake up in 2 hours to catch my flight and it’s becoming clear I won’t sleep tonight. My mind is spinning. I finished work. I had a glass of wine once I got home, bitched out my daughter for not doing homework, and said goodbye to my wife and other daughter as they left for hockey practice. I wrap my son’s Christmas presents. I don’t even know if he will like them. I don’t even know if he will like me.
My last memories are of him screaming at us. I can feel the scars on my arms and chest from countless violent events after asking him to go to bed, go to the bathroom, simple things. My brain jumps from the softness of his skin, the feeling of our arms wrapped around each other, holding my beautiful child, memories of us laughing or him nursing… to constant rejection, the agony of not knowing what will help, and the feeling of my hair being pulled out of my scalp. The smell of toilet refusal. Cops at my house. Restraints in the front lawn while the neighbors look on in judgment. Cleaning the bathroom. Carrying him to his room. His giggles. Bite marks. Running my hand over his short hair. The color of his skin is the same as mine. The way he looks when he lunges at me, attacking. I knitted him in my womb. I hope this place helps. It just keeps going back and forth. My brain.
Now I’m crying. I’m getting over a cold. I blow my nose. Post-COVID. Will everyone think I have COVID? Will I be able to fly?
This is real life. This is my life. It’s happening right now. Amidst everything else.
I don’t know what my first memory is, but I think it’s the first time I was drunk. We lived in Rochester Squares, low income apartment housing. My mom was about 22, and I must have been 2. There was a party and people were giving me sips of their wine coolers, thinking it was funny. I remember people laughing. I remember thinking it tasted like soda, but less sugary. I liked it. At some point, I felt dizzy and disoriented. I didn’t like that. I was looking for my mom but it was so hard to focus. I needed to go to the bathroom. I needed to vomit and I needed to pee. There was a lot of cigarette smoke, loud music, people much bigger than I laughing and talking. My mom surfaced through a crowd and she was laughing. She thought I was funny, too. I asked her if she would go to the bathroom with me. She told me, “You know where it is. I’m talking.” I made my way to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. The seat was too big for me and I had a hard time holding myself up to pee. The small brown and white tiles began to float under my feet, which couldn’t touch the ground. I began vomiting. My mom came in and yelled at me.
Actually, I remember a few things from that apartment and I don’t remember what was first. Was it being drunk? Was it when I saw my mom’s boyfriend wrestling her in the living room before she yelled at me to go back in my room? Was it when I snuck out a window to play while she was napping? Or when I’d sneak down the hall to play with a friend? Was it watching her get ready to go to work at Estabans, where I would eat broccoli enchiladas? Maybe it was the time my mom purposely drove our white Ford Fiesta into a ditch to get out of work, and I thought we might need oars to paddle our way out. Eating sticks of butter when there wasn’t anything else in the fridge. Was it seeing the picture of Cindy, my mom’s beautiful friend who killed herself, on top of a coffin? Maybe it was coloring from the back seat of that same car while we went to Tulsa to search for my father, who we never ever found.
I don’t remember which memory came first, but I do know how I felt. I was always a passenger, a sidekick, or a tag along in a show that featured my mother. I was an inconvenience or a doll, depending on the moment.
Inside, I felt insecure, in danger, and needy. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be. I wish I could have scooped up that little girl and held her. But someone else did that. My grandma.
Grandma Jean was around a lot. She would give me cookies with holes in them. I’d put one on each finger and nib at them until my belly hurt. She sang me songs and made me wear a seat belt. She cut my bangs crooked with pink tape and my mom would yell at her. Grandma and my mom bagged at each other all the time.
My father met my mother while his wife was having a surgery at the Mayo Clinic. My 19 year old mother fell madly in love and believed whatever he said, even though he was lying. He moved her to Tulsa. Although, he was seeing several other women and my mother had been deceived. She found out she was pregnant and threatened to have an abortion unless he stayed with her. She waited at an abortion clinic for him to arrive. He never came. I don’t know how I exist, except through my mother’s hope that I would save her relationship.
I never sleep. I cry. I send a message to a friend, which turns into receiving the love and validation I need to keep crying. Eventually I look at the time and I see I have less than an hour before I have to wash my face and look just a smidge less disheveled so I can guzzle as many drinks as possible between the Delta SkyClub opening and boarding my plane. I’d like to sleep on the plane and it seems alcohol is probably going to be the only thing that makes that possible. So that’s what I do. I stand up, I wash my face, and I politely throw all my snotty tissues in the garbage. I drive, delirious, to airport parking and somehow navigate myself through baggage check and TSA. I reach Delta SkyClub at 3:30am, 45 minutes before they open. I chug my champagne with a side of orange juice.
I sit down in my seat near the back of the plane, preparing for comatose when a young woman sits next to me. I know her. She goes to my gym and I don’t like her. We both exchange niceties and I tell her my tale of why I’m on this plane with her while she reports back about her fucking birthday and some cousin she’s visiting. The world - this plane - doesn’t even feel real anymore. We eventually take off and I fall asleep with sand paper in my mouth.
I’m driving. Atlanta Airport is such a shit show and after 24 hours without sleep and traveling in planes, trains, and automobiles, I am in a rental car for a 2 hour drive to the middle of a Confederate flag. I’m listening to Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller but my mind is continually distracted by images and anxieties about him. It still doesn’t stop. I have to keep pausing the book so I can cry. It’s raining. Visibility sucks. I drive to a Hampton Inn. The manager at the front desk is petite and smoking outside under the car port when I arrive. She comes in to check me in, asking me in her most hospitable Southern accent why I’m in her little town. I tell her. She doesn’t say a word. She goes, “Hmm” and doesn’t make eye contact after that. I must be a shitty fucking mother. My son and I are a piece of shit. Why else would we be there?
I think that’s what pisses me off the most. Whether it be some Crossfit peer or a person checking you in to your nightmare, people never know the whole story. They create the story they want about me in their heads. That’s been going on since Day 1. Nicki is a whore. Nicki is a ditz. Nicki is trash. Nicki is crazy. She’s a bad mom. She’s wild. And all you get is the silence or the fake smile or the top of someone’s head as they avoid eye contact. I’m unworthy of even seeing their pupils. I’d like to burn a city to the ground. Now we know where he gets it from. I can blame his dad all I want but no one carries my rage like my children. I kind of don’t hate that about us. It’s the only time I feel powerful.
I stare at a wall in my hotel room for a couple hours before going to visit him. I still can’t sleep.
Going to see my only son in a locked facility across the country is probably the strangest thing I’ve ever done. I wish the drive from the hotel was longer. I have the thought that I need more mental preparation, but I don’t actually know what could prepare me for such a fucked up scenario. When I see him, he is different. He doesn’t look feral anymore. His embrace and sincere love fill me up in a way I can’t describe and in a way most mothers don’t know. It was beautiful. I felt my nervous system regulate. My heart stopped pounding and after some knocking around, I felt us fall into a familiar transaction; him coming up with outlandish scenarios for me to navigate, or me providing information on an obscure topic, such as the origin of goulash.
On the second day of visiting him, I know our time to part is drawing near. We’re in the cafeteria - about 6 large wood dining room tables, one or two families at each. My beautiful son is tired and lying his heavy body across my lap. I do everything my body remembers to do; I brush his short hair with my fingers. I actively hold his body close to mine- flexing my muscles around his young adult frame. Feeling my lips on his warm cheeks, I tell him over and over again how much I love him. When I stand to leave, I whisper in his ear that I want him home. He cracks and begin to sob. We say “I love you” as many times as we can fit in before I realize all the other parents have left. I finally say goodbye and avoid looking back as he is escorted back to his unit. I leave the cafeteria doors down a corridor. I feel that heavy rock in my chest rise into my throat. It feels juicy, more like a water balloon, ready to burst. I can’t cry. I don’t want anyone to see me cry. I walk faster to pass them. As the corridor opens to the parking lot, I pass a mother and two siblings on my left. I look directly at the mother’s face. She’s making the same face. Her lips spread and tight across her mouth stopping herself from sobbing. Oh fuck. The water balloon gets bigger. It’s spreading to my eyes. I walk fast. I’m at the back of the parking lot. To my right, another mother. I can’t not look. Same face, but head low. We’re both ashamed. Keep moving. Then another. And another.
This feels like something out of one of those psychological horrors Lisa is always suggesting I watch. I’ve told the story of this day. Of this moment. And all these people seem to think this is some moment of solidarity for me - like “Oh wow, someone you can relate with” or something. But it’s not. It’s completely fucked. As I power walk to my car as quickly as my stout legs can take me, all I can think of is how separated each of us are. We are drowning, independently, in our pain. We are doing what is most unnatural. This is so fucked.
And as each of us reach our vehicles, I hear car doors slam. The water balloon bursts. I finally scream. And so does everyone else.
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