A short story by Laura Dennison
The bed sheets are becoming the color of beach sand, and the musk in here spills out the door in a gust as soon as anyone opens it. Last week, my hair got thick and matted like coarse black seaweed. I pretended I was a mermaid, slick with oil, feet bound in the confines of a twisted comforter. But a knock on the door reminded me: mother, not mermaid.
After months of reusing unwashed socks that radiated the stench of sweat and stale onion rings, Andy taught himself to do his own laundry. I pretend this is an achievement on my part—that I’ve eased my son into adulthood. But his white t-shirts are smeared with the indigo dye of his blue jeans now, stains I opt not to see. His socks may be clean, but his shoes track mud onto the crimson carpet of my bedroom. He’s swung open the door and stands, staring, looking more and more like his absent beanpole of a father.
Whenever I see Andy when I’m this depressed, a bump the size of a walnut forms and gets stuck in my throat. The lump contains all the apologies I’ve offered for my illness before, and all the “I know, Mom, just shut up,” answers they’ve received.
Andy’s eyes dart from wall to wall.
“Uh,” he stammers. There’s a white slip of paper in his right hand. “There’s a 10th grade science museum trip. Mrs. Stanford says I need to quit forging your signature, so here you go.”
The walnut has had roughly enough time to dissolve.
“Sure,” I say. I prop myself up in the bed and rummage through the used tissues and granola bar wrappers gathered on my bedside table, trying to find a pen. Andy hands me the permission slip and I sign it in a loopy cursive signature I barely recognize. The paper flutters in my shaky hand as I pass it back.
“Thanks,” he says quietly, his voice flat. He turns to leave and shuts the bedroom door behind him.
“On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.“
I mourn for the science museum. Until Andy was 10, we used to ride the T into the city, where the museum sits along the Charles River, a dirty and chilly snake of water everyone in Boston loves regardless. On our first trip there, the summer before he started the first grade, Andy threatened to jump in the river because he wanted to swim. I un-clung his body from a metal railing and pushed the hair back out of his face.
“You can’t go in that water,” I told him. “It’s dirty and filled with trash. Not even fish like to swim in that water.”
Andy’s eyes got wide. He called it “the fishy-free pond” and, under the impression that the body of water could not sustain life, quickly walked away from it.
Every year, we’d travel back to the museum. Andy loved to try to balance on the spinning, circular platforms that connect two subway cars together and pretend that he was surfing on some beach in California. He seemed like the lone person laughing on the green line. Back then, both our cheeks were still chubby—mine would push up into a rare smile as he staggered when the train came to an unexpected halt.
At the museum, we’d move from exhibit to exhibit. There was a room full of playground equipment meant to demonstrate the properties of physics, where Andy and I would always ride on the seesaw. I still have a picture of him giving a thumbs-up next to a model T-Rex hanging on the fridge door. We would stare at the massive slab of a cut cross-section of a Redwood tree and marvel at how something could live healthily for so long. At the human health exhibit, Andy’s mouth dropped wide open when he saw a pair of charred smoker’s lungs on display next to their pink, sponge-like healthy counterparts.
One year, as we made our way out of the museum, Andy looked up at me, his mouth stained blue from the rock candy I’d let him buy at the gift shop.
“There was no exhibit in there about people who get the way you do,” he said.
He was ten, and by then, I’d been in and out of hospitals enough times that Andy understood what was going on. When we reached the street, I held his hand tight, prepared to pull him away from any rouge MBTA busses.
“Maybe there was no exhibit on people like you because your type of sickness doesn’t have to do with science,” Andy suggested.
“Maybe,” I agreed, because I felt like being honest. All the medications and therapies seem like educated guesses at best. Andy’s soft fingers stuck out in between mine, and he wiggled them like tentacles as we crossed the street, attempting to break free from my grip.
When I haven’t left the house for a while, my thoughts tend to spin so fast they end up stuck together in a useless puree of unintelligible guilt and fear. After Andy’s footsteps have faded, I shut my eyes and put my head back into the dent I’ve created in the pillow. The hours pass and my spine aches from lying in one spot for so long, but flipping over to my other side seems to require more effort than I have. Sometimes I wonder what Andy might say if his friends ever ask what I do for a living. Maybe he answers “a potato” or “a lump of flesh,” or maybe he lies and says I’m a flight attendant always away on trips to Dubai, or a successful dentist busy working at the third practice I’ve opened. Almost anything has a better ring to it than SSDI check collector—diagnosis, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder with catatonic features.
Getting better, as they call it, is tough. If I wind up in inpatient treatment, the only place Andy can go to is his Aunt Lorraine’ house. We share whatever familial fuck-up lurks in our brains, just in a different manifestation. The flow of vodka through her veins as Andy kills time on the X-box stays on my mind whenever I’m locked up in a ward. I swear, as I woke up from the anesthesia after the medically-induced seizure during my first round of electroconvulsive therapy, it was Andy’s voice:
“No fair when you’re a fish!”
When I was doing better, I used to take Andy to the town pond, and we’d race out to the splintery wooden raft. I only let Andy win after every few races, so that when he did, it would be something special. But he’d poked fun of my one webbed toe since he could talk, and I’d always been a fish to him—much faster in the water than I was on land.
Funny thing is, I feel like a beached whale for now. I’m spread out the discolored comforter like it’s sand, stripped down into my underwear, watching the way my stomach’s gone concave again from eating so little. My nerves make me sweat, though, enough that I could swim in the pool of it forming in my belly button. I spread my arms and legs out like a starfish and recall all the times Andy and I used to go to the water.
I hold so close to those good years we had during his time in elementary school. I was with it enough back then to plan things. I’d pick a day, shave the bristle off my legs and bikini area, pack slices of watermelon and some bologna sandwiches in the cooler, and count out the pills I’d need to for the rest of the day and slide them in my purse. I stuck to the strict diet my new-ish MAOI antidepressant drug required and dutifully recorded three good things that happened to me each day in a journal I kept on my bedside table.
Almost every time we would swim to the raft and I beat Andy, he’d shake the water off his face and call out “No fair when you’re a fish!”
I would stick my tongue out and poke my left foot out of the water to put my webbed toe on display. He would laugh or start to splash me, and—like I always believe when times are good—I felt joy surge through me, thinking how I held the key to happiness in my son. How I’d never, ever relapse.
Only I still sank.
Last I knew, Andy had a thing for owning pet minnows. It used to strike me as odd, since minnows die so often. But he keeps at it. Every so often, he’ll buy a new batch of fish at the pet store and bring them home in a clear plastic baggie filled with water. Whenever I trial a new medication that seems to only add to the long list of failures, I try to keep those little guys in mind. They’ve helped think like this: if you must die often, reemerge.
I try to make that my mantra. I would love to go back to the water with Andy someday. I’d love to use a knife to cut into a juicy watermelon for both of us to share and not spend the whole time wishing I could plunge that knife into my own skin. And I need to keep the promise that I made.
The promise came about when Andy was only nine. The hospital stay was too long. He complained that Auntie Lorraine’s house smelled like cigarettes and said he wanted to see me, so for the first time, I let Andy come to the ward’s visiting hours. I took him to the spot in the cafeteria where they kept the packets of cookies, then brought him to the TV room and set him up with some coloring supplies and a mandala.
Andy picked up the black and orange markers because it was close to Halloween. We sat mostly silent as I colored alongside him, but when he’d almost reached the center of his mandala, he put his orange marker down and reached for my wrist and gently tugged at the blue hospital bracelet I was wearing.
“Mommy?” he said, after a short pause. He hadn’t yet switched to “Mom.” I held my breath, bracing myself to yet again come to find that children know more about what’s going on than we give them credit for. “Can you promise me something? And I’m not just saying this because Auntie’s house smells.”
A staff member doing his routine 15-minute checks on each patient poked his head into the TV room entryway. He marked something off on his clipboard. My hair was clean for once, help up in a clip that had been deemed safe enough to avoid confiscation to the closet that held my shoelaces. My hands fluttered to flatten the loose strands.
“Sure, honey,” I said. “What is it?”
“You gotta promise, though,” Andy said. He looked up at me, his green eyes like spotlights, and extended a hooked pinky finger. I offered mine in return.
“Okay. You promise that you will never, ever, ever, ever kill yourself.”
He shook our pinkies up and down and I wondered if he could hear my heart beating fast under my thin cotton T-shirt. Of course, I wanted to believe that this promise would be easy to keep. I told myself the same thing when I first found out I was pregnant and truly believed bringing a child into the world to love would be more than enough to cure me of this disorder.
“I promise, Andy.”
On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM. I drew a line underneath the words and signed my name, then folded the paper and handed it to Andy. He insisted I write the date down before he slipped the note into the back pocket of his jeans.
There is no contract on earth I will ever honor more seriously, and there is nothing I’ve faced more difficult.
Some days, I swear the air has changed to something much denser and viscous. Today, though, the air has changed to water, and I can’t breathe. I start to panic, because I know that Andy and I can’t live in parallel. He needs air, but I’ve grown ugly slits like gills that seem to help me survive in ways I shouldn’t. The bed I’m in keeps sinking me deeper. With every placebo-like pill I swallow, the fear mounts—Andy’s fifteen, half time neglected, and living fine without me. His lungs are probably pinker and stronger. I can’t seem to believe there’s any science behind that, either.
Before my last hospitalization, I went to the ER, where I stayed for a few days until a bed in the behavioral health unit opened up. The TV mounted in the corner of the room was set to a nature channel. At night, I couldn’t sleep, so I lay awake and watched a documentary about the ocean floor. Apparently, scientists have been stunned to discover the presence of aquatic life near the pitch-blank bottom. These animals survive, but with gross adaptations. Their colloquial names are things like “coffin fish” and “vampire squid.” With time, evolution has made them into what seems like monsters. Their internal organs are their only source of light. They’re hideous, yet they still roam around in the darkness, surviving on whatever scraps they might find.
I realize now that I’m living on my ocean’s floor, grossly conditioned to survive. There is little human about me. I bore and birthed a child; I held him for the first time and cried tears of joy. I named him Andy, and then I cried alongside him when he wailed in his crib, requesting I bring him comfort. I grew cells to fetus to human being, hoping he would bring me comfort. There is no more demented a medicinal wager.
Andy’s father left with the excuse he’d be a bad parent. I chose to stay with the hope that I would adapt. I’ve morphed and continue to morph, but if life is a case of survival of the fittest, I’m worried there might not be enough time to learn to survive.
I sleep on it. It could be Tuesday but it might be Thursday. I never know anymore. There’s somebody over the apartment with Andy, though, and I’m relieved to find this helps propel me out of bed. I move to the bathroom and stare at my blotchy face in the mirror, pulling at tufts of tangled hair. From the hall, there is commotion—whispers, the solitary beep of the smoke detector, and a loud smack I later find is from the broomstick hitting the side of the wall. I listen to stifled laugher and watch as the sight of my own pale complexion captivates me. I don’t recognize myself, and my eyes look gray. I’m losing pigment like one of those deep-sea creatures.
When the skunk-like odor of weed wafts under the crack of the bedroom door, I go to scold Andy, only my hand gets stuck hoovering above the doorknob, and I eventually decide to run back into bed. I don’t remember the last time I showered. My hair is seaweed, and my reflection doesn’t match how I feel—like one of those grotesque sea creatures, complete with claws and fins and tentacles sprouting from my sides. There’s one deformity for every time Andy skinned his knee and I wasn’t waiting inside with Band-Aids. There’s one for every time he brought back a quiz with an A on it, but I was too busy being buried under a stack of blankets to find a magnet to hang it up on the fridge and say congratulations. How is it right to tell my son what he can and can’t do when he’s the one who’s had to call the shots all along?
From my spot in bed, I can still hear waves of words.
“Dude, we should always come here to smoke,” a voice a bit deeper than Andy’s says. There’s a small coughing fit, then Andy talks.
“We definitely can. My mom’s basically a vegetable. She doesn’t care about anything.”
I expect to remain frozen, only something usual happens. Rage builds. A rare emotion. Of course I care about something. I care about what Andy does. I think that maybe I should get up and tell him his friend has to leave. Even still, my arms and legs seem glued to the mattress. I try to gather momentum. My right leg twitches. That’s it. I swallow back the tears and close my eyes.
After the apartment quiets, my body and mind finally decide they’d like to move at the same time. I get up slowly and pay a visit to Andy’s room, a space I’ve left undisturbed for months. It’s been hours since his friend left. Andy’s sitting on his bed and reading a magazine about mountain biking. When I enter, he looks up briefly but says nothing. On the wall, there is a new poster of a tan woman sitting on the beach wearing only a thong bikini. Her pink nipples seem to mock me.
“You can sit down, you know.” Andy’s words startle me. He pats at a spot next to him on the bed. “My sheets aren’t clean,” he says when I don’t answer. “But they’re probably cleaner than yours.”
I take a seat at the very edge and look up at the single florescent twisty bulb lighting the small space. He needs a light fixture. He needs some more milk cartons for his stuff. Maybe some shelves up from Ikea. But who am I kidding. He needs a lot more than furniture.
Andy sets down his magazine, dog-earing the page for a bookmark.
“What’s up?” he asks, his eyes scanning me. With each mark of how unkempt I am, he can evaluate, roughly, my level of depression. I can see the numbers adding up in his head as I attempt to articulate what I need to say. There are still some minnows swimming on the window’s ledge in a fishbowl. He’s even kept the glass clean. It’s incredible to me that a teenage boy would put so much care into something with such a small, fleeting life.
“Do you hate me?” That’s all I manage to say, as if I’m one of his fifteen-year-old classmates, not his mother. The curls of his sandy blonde hair spill out of the sides of his baseball cap. He takes the hat off, puts it back on.
“I never want to have a kid,” he says. The indent of the cap has left a semi-permanent mark on his head. He covers it back up and the ring is magically gone. “Not if I ever end up sick as you.”
Of course, this is not the best thing to hear. He could have said, “No, of course not. I love you,” or, “No, of course not. You’ve done the best you can,” or, “No, you’re my mom and I’ll always love you no matter what.”
But then I would know that he would be lying. Instead, he’s offered the truth as bait. I bite it.
There is no way to say I regret Andy—the beautiful and forgiving being who has somehow sprung out of my own body. If this were a world where everything was as it should be, any one of these things would be more than enough to get me out of bed each day: the way he bobs his head with each step he takes, the way he writes the letter F just like me, the way that one bottom tooth juts out just a little too far.
There is no way to say that having Andy was right. It’s an imperfect world. There’s the times we had to water down the powdered milk. The baseball games I missed because I was in the hospital. The dinners he had to make himself because I was too busy sleeping.
“I’m sorry about how things have been,” I tell him. I know he’s used to it. I know he’s heard it before. But I need to tell him again. “Things will get better.”
Andy rises to his feet. He reaches for a folder that’s sitting in a milk crate underneath the window with the minnows’ bowl. He opens the folder and thumbs through it until he finds a paper, which he unfolds and puts into my hands.
There it is. FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.
In my body, there’s a warmth that’s been absent for months. Instead of asking Andy if I can hug him, I reach forward and do it. He offers no objection. I haven’t felt his flesh for much too long.
Andy is proof. If fish can do it, he can, too. The strongest survive. He’s adapted to live in the harshest condition. My grip is so tight, but his bones are stronger than I could imagine, and so are mine. So I squeeze him as hard as I can. There is still love here, even in the darkness.
Laura Dennison is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.