The hills I drive past are as red as heat. The sky is muddy, and there are few cars on the road. The coolant in my air conditioning is low and my windows have to be cranked down by hand. That was my dad’s idea. “If your car ever ends up in the water,” he said. “You can just roll down the glass and get out.” But I-5 is all almond trees, citrus groves, gas stations, and cows. No ocean anywhere.
Since January, I’ve been going to Oakland for a weekend workshop on resilience. I drive back to LA, sometimes days later, hoping, quite frankly, to have discovered myself, whole and complete. Never is that the case.
This afternoon I’m thinking about how much of a failure I am at forty-three. I have nothing in the way of property, pets, children, romance, or money. And I live with my folks. At thirty, I was the smart, creative, fiction writer full of potential. Now I tutor high school children for $20 an hour, three days a week. Writing is some tattered dream at the side door of my mind.
My folks act as if my appearance back home is normal. We say our “good mornings” over cereal and politely ask one another if we need anything from the store, since we are going out. We have the conversations of strangers at a bus stop.
At least once a month, my dad strains to ask some version of, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” My mother, always protective, shields me from imaginary bad people, telling me where not to go late at night. I have to remind them that I am old. I have had to defend my adulthood with ferocity.
As I turn up the air in the car and refocus my attention, a voice inside my head says, “You’re going to miss them.” I hear it clear as spit. I think, “miss,” not in the brooding way of the heart, but “miss” as in loss, as in the way a drowning man lacks air or a dry one, water.
I catch my breath and hold onto that voice as if it were money.
I find over time it’s the little things that help you connect:
Walking in the neighborhood.
Washing the dog.
Making ginger tea.
Singing, “When Sunny gets blue/Her eyes get grey and cloudy…”
Letting dad finish, “pitter patter, pitter patter/love is gone, what could matter…”
Thus dad and I, we create electric blue light that sparks into the void.
But it is different with my mother. With my mother there is forgetfulness, unbalance, disorder. With my mother, truth merges with fiction, divides, then disappears.
There is my mother from before (avid reader, problem solver), and there is my mother now, she who loses credit cards, who cannot find my dad’s car in the parking lot, who leaves $60 on my bed, forgetting that I’m a professor at two colleges. That I am writing a book.
All of April and May and June, the three of us shelter in place.
I go out once a week. My folks go out four.
When I howl at them about COVID, they look at me as if I were a silly thing—they have lived through air raid sirens and segregation, race riots and Vietnam. Surely, their faces say, they will live through this too. I picture all of us drowning in our beds, our lungs turned into water.
Far more than anything else, I think about my mother.
In the middle of the night, I hear her, her synapses trying to remember what coughing is. She makes the sound of a dry rasp, like a child playing hooky. Listening, I feel I have pushed off from a distant pier, that the ripples between us widen.
That it is too late. Nothing to be done.
S. Evan Stubblefield is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and an Elizabeth George grant recipient. In previous lives she's taught young people, studied journalism, worked as an editor, and written billboard and radio ads. These days she's at work on her first novel, a book about love. Her work has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly, Minerva Rising, Ohana Anthology, and Reader's Break Anthology.
S. Evan Stubblefield encourages you to learn more about the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Visit www.bbrfoundation.org.