R. A. Morean
When he died, he left his face behind. Not just in photo albums or in frames centered on walls, or in the soft feathery folds of early morning dreams, but concretely. Like now.
She is standing by the cash register trying to find a pen in the dark crevasses of a large, chapped brown leather bag, digging through old receipts, a pacifier, used baby wipes, several crumpled prescriptions, a piece of granite, a clutch of creased cards with flowers or candles or doves or any combination thereof pictured on the front and inscribed with wide, rolling script, a yellowed dog tooth, a scattered fistful of perfectly curled sandy sea shells and a wad of brown made-from-recycled-paper napkins from Chipotle. Her concentration excludes the quiet toddler in the heavy shopping cart who is stretching over in his seat to grab anything brightly packaged on the candy shelf. She glances up quickly and moves the candy further away from his little outstretched arms with a push of her foot. In the next aisle over, a man is checking out as well, buying just a magazine with cash. She finds her pen, raises the checkbook to the counter and then, in a breath, in a moment too minimal to even have purpose, she glances up. And there he stands.
It is not him, though. Of course.
But in that nanosecond, in that whisper moment, she sees him. There in profile, glancing down at change in his hand, or something in the title of the magazine, or at their small son. He vanishes when the man looks up at her and meets her eyes. He smiles and nods goodbye to the ponytailed teenager who rang him up and in another moment the sound of automatic doors closing signals he is gone. She is left again, the pen pressing down hard on the paper and, as she signs her name, she sees both of theirs in print and reminds herself to order new checks.
He appears only when she is unprepared to see him. The first time was at the gas station around the corner. It was just a month after the accident, after the truck took the curve in the interstate too fast and plowed through a chain link fence that was supposed to be replaced with a cement barrier. But the budget had evaporated that particular fiscal year. A shame. A tragedy. Just terrible. I am so sorry. We are so sorry.
Stepping out from the car to slip the nozzle into the slightly dented gray Subaru, she had felt someone moving, and a sandy haired man suddenly stood on the other side of the pump, smoothly replacing the hose. It was then she saw him. Standing right before her, in the sun, looking away from her. But it was his cheek, his long nose, the same twist of sideburn, his strong throat. A whiff of gasoline scoured her nose and she felt faint, and in the winter cold, her breath came out uneven. She jammed the nozzle back inside the pump, tore the receipt as it was printing and climbed back into the Subaru, dropping keys, grabbing them again, turning the engine over, pulling out too fast. Caleb fussed in the back seat.
Since then, she has seen him at least once or twice a week every week for the last six months. Instead of growing tedious, each fleeting encounter leaves her drained and slightly more undone, as if a malignant purpose is guiding him back to her or her to him. It’s always the same, with him congealing in the periphery and then, as she turns to bring him into focus, he vanishes. Completely—every single time. Street corners, the drug store, the children’s park, through a restaurant window, on the bus, in a doorway, in all these places some force conjures him and she is at a loss as to why. Or when it will end.
The only time she doesn’t see him is when she needs him. When Caleb is in the bathtub and someone knocks on the front door, or she’s finished loading groceries in the car and he’s strapped in his seat and she can’t return the cart, or he’s eating in his highchair and the phone rings upstairs—in each case, she doesn’t dare leave him even for a second because, now, she knows anything might happen. And if it did, she would be swallowed up by something so sinister in its anonymity, she herself would disappear. There would be no recovery from his loss.
His face never reaches her after a meal or in the car—even though in both cases she often glances to where he would be sitting, sure she will catch a glimpse of him. But no. It is only when there is a body present, another man, like a stand-in, or conduit, that she sees him.
In bed, in the dark she can’t bear to roll to his place because she cannot picture his back. Instead, she cries, hard and long, and her face hurts for his complete and total absence.
Her days are filled with interior wars.
“Come one Caleb,” put your foot in the stupid shoe
“It’s time to go,” right now, right now, right now, I can’t believe this
“I said no candy,” everyone’s looking at me
“I can’t read, Mommy’s really tired,” get away, stop touching me
“Just go to bed, go to sleep,” what the hell is wrong with you-- go to sleep. God, please go to sleep
The inside of her head screams half of what is she is thinking. The other half comes out soft and measured and everyone is amazed at what an incredibly resilient person she is. They shake their heads and say things like, “God only gives you what you can handle.” They do not know she does not sleep or still cries, or is succumbing to a dark wave of hatred for her son, the source of which is unknown.
She does not believe in God. And not because of the accident. She has never believed in God, and the crash, his death, and her unspoken half-life all lead her to believe she is absolutely right.
Caleb is growing fast now. It is late spring and he is finding frogs in the early soft mud in the lot beside their apartment. She watches him running around in the side yard, knees muddy, fingers splayed, talking to himself. She fingers the number she wrote down from the grocery store kiosk on the back of another prescription she refused to fill. She almost did this time though. But as she stood in line at the pharmacy, fear and guilt roiling in her stomach, she saw him again. Coming up behind her to grab some vitamins, was someone with his smell— sappy cut limes--and she turned, knowing she shouldn’t. There he stood, for just a singular moment, his light windbreaker brushing her bare arm. It was all too swift to say a word, to think, to do anything but hold so still she could stop time.
Now she places the folded paper near the phone in her bedroom. It’s Not Your Fault. Every Parent is a Good Parent. Call Us—is the message on the piece of paper from the kiosk.
It certainly was not her fault. But she was still a monster. When Caleb went to bed, it was all she could do to tuck him in and leave. She resented not being able to go anywhere without him, wrestling with the stupid car seat, packing snacks, milk, juice, diapers. She didn’t want to change one more single diaper, make another meal, stuff boneless limbs into jackets or socks, get up every night for one reason or another: bad dreams, diaper rash, hunger, something invisible in an eye, a splinter. She couldn’t stand to watch him anymore and did not take him to the park.
But the reason she wrote down the number from the Kiosk was because the night before, when she kissed him, she bore her teeth and pressed down on his face so hard he started to cry and she had to turn and walk away. Later that night, she cried into her pillow.
Summer was hot. And though the heat made records, there were no jackets to contend with, or cold drafts in the apartment or runny noses. The apartment had a shallow pool painted aqua marine and it opened a week early for the season. He loved to go and splash. There were a gaggle of young mothers who came with their children after work in the late afternoon and she joined them. She had quit her job when he was killed. They had bought life insurance when she found she was pregnant with Caleb and she quit work as an assistant at a big law office. She was not going to work when Caleb needed her. She did understand he needed her.
The cement is burning and small footprints evaporate quickly. There are four other mothers around the pool. One, the blonde, is smoking with her legs crossed on the lounge chair looking very much like a 1950s movie star with bright red lipstick, a white one piece bathing suit and a matching white floppy hat. The others mothers are talking about a reality show, while intermittently yelling directions at their children, in both English and Spanish. The children are older than Caleb, four girls, three other boys, all wet and slick like seals and Caleb wants to play.
But that means getting into the water with him. The shallow end is still four inches over his head, and she does not want to get wet. The bathing suit she has on is navy blue, a one piece, and faded in spots. It gets loose in the water and the straps fall down. She just managed a shower this morning and if her hair gets wet she’ll have to rinse it in the sink because Caleb isn’t sleeping well and has discovered how to climb out of his crib. And her hair will get wet. He will splash and she doesn’t want to yell at him. He’s in a pool for god’s sake. He’s supposed to get wet. She understands this as well.
“Mommy go in. Mommy go in now.”
She does not want to move.
“Mommy go in please?”
He is sitting at the edge, not looking at her, poking one chubby index finger into her thigh. “Mommy please?” He quickly leans over and places his head in her lap for a second and then does a jackknife into the water. She instinctively grabs his arm and relinquishes, slipping in quickly, the cold water making her inhale fast and wrapping his arm over her shoulder. He turns fluidly and wraps his other arm around her neck and gives a squeal. The other mothers look over. She has not gotten wet with Caleb since the pool opened, since he died at the end of last summer.
In the cool water, his small body is lighter than a bird’s. He is nothing. He stretches out one hand and slaps the water, laughs at the transparent chaos, turns at the waist and slaps both arms against the surface, just delighted with himself. She walks around in a circle while he tests the surface tension again and again and then, realizing she will have to rinse her hair in the kitchen sink anyway, heads out to the deep end, thinking she will tread water with him, that she can tread water with him perched on her hip.
Caleb grows wide eyed, laughs again as the water curls between them, and then tilts his head so far back, she has to stop or he will arch into the water. She tilts like a balance so he can still extend backward but misses the surface and she sees his straight sandy hair ropey with water fall and fan out, hiccupping on choppy little waves. She walks around with him in his upside down world and tries to ignore the singular idea in her head. The phone number is still upstairs. It would take almost nothing. She could just let go. He would slip under.
The sun glitters on the surface of the water and she makes her circles wider so she is really beginning to tread water going out. He squirms and laughs and she must hold him tightly as his buoyancy grows. It is as if he is not even there, floating. He senses he cannot arch back anymore and watches the world through two fists held up to his eyes. Water fills her mouth and he climbs higher, squirming to stay above the surface. She can feel his toes on her chest, pressing.
She knows she can never let go and this is how it will be for the rest of her life. She will always have to be vigilant and she doesn’t trust she can be so strong, so focused, so in love for so long. Making the crest, and coming back from the deep end, his weight grows more substantial with each step and he shimmies back down, an arm returned around her neck and he tosses his head back again, looking for that upside down world.
With his throat creased with baby fat, she tickles him and he laughs and tries to protect himself and pushes himself upright against her shoulder again. He lays a wet head of new lank curls against her hot collarbone and she turns in a straight line back to the shallow end, noticing two of the mothers are standing and watching her, and the one with the cigarette is half out of the lounge chair, clutching her hat.
But she is not looking at them. His wet hand found her cheek and he looks right at her. And she sees him. Not fleeting this time, but real. Caleb does have his eyes, blue and green and like the sea, and when he turns, like now to wave at one of the seal girls dancing in the water, she sees a ghost of a dimple. But it’s not a ghost, it’s real flesh. In the sunlight, she clearly sees that his hands, resting on her forearm, are his hands, and broad—everyone says Caleb will have large hands. And then he turns to her again and she kisses him, smells him, he is a wet little boy, her boy, not his father but a part of him. He sits on her hip, clearly outlined against the blue of both sky and water.
As she moves to the curved edge of the pool, she understands she will never see him again, except when he is enclosed in those wooden frames and shiny albums—there will be no more fleeting moments of love, or desperation or bewilderment.
She lifts Caleb up, still light and as he leaves the water his weight becomes real. Then they sit at the edge of pool and count each other’s fingers and toes.