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It was the sound that woke her. That rapid staccato of pills and plastic. When she was little, Mia spent countless Saturday mornings waiting for that sound. The problem was that it usually came after all the good shows like Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo had ended and given way to the progressively boring ones like SuperFriends and Shazam. It was an especially long wait if she didn’t hear it before Soul Train or American Bandstand, because when the dance shows came on it meant the kid shows – including the boring ones – were over, which meant the morning was over. Had six-year-old Mia been asked, she wouldn’t have been able to articulate the profound relief she felt hearing that muffled clatter from her mother’s purse. She only knew that mommy would be up soon, and that the day, whatever it held, would finally begin. But at sixteen, Mia was no longer up early waiting for her mother to appear, she was up late dreading it.
What had happened – what had been happening her entire life – was that her mother had gotten a migraine at work, come home early, and retreated to her room where she took enough medication to knock out a horse. Mia couldn’t wake her when she was like that. Not even if she wanted to. Well, that’s not exactly true. She could, but it would take a while. Once, on the night of her seventh-grade dance, Mia and her friend Jane persisted in trying to wake her long enough that she actually did get up, and then she actually drove them to the dance. It was a short drive, thankfully. Her mother weaved through the eight or so blocks of leafy neighborhood streets to the school, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she nearly hit several parked cars along the way. Eyes sparkling with glitter and lips shiny with gloss, Mia and Jane hid their unease behind sidelong looks and stifled laughter, giggling at her mother’s sleepiness the entire way.
But whatever. That was a long time ago. These days her mom’s drugged slumbers allowed a certain amount of independence a lot of other kids didn’t have. Like, she didn’t have someone checking on her whereabouts all the time, or nagging her about her grades as often. And she was able to sneak money out of her purse when, like earlier, she ran out of cigs. She would have mooched a pack instead, but the brand her mom smoked was awful. They tasted like shit, really. Barclay. The only thing worse would be menthol. So, at around nine, having finished her last one – the one turned upside down for luck – Mia crept into her mother’s room, took some cash from her wallet, and walked down to the vending machines at the 24-hour laundromat for a pack of Marlboro reds and a coke.
She had fallen asleep watching an old black and white movie, a romantic comedy called The Philadelphia Story. It was still on so she couldn’t have been asleep that long – fifteen or twenty minutes maybe. Wiping the saliva that had pooled between her hand and cheek, Mia stole over to her door to see her mother’s figure come shuffling into the dark of the dining room, then heard her hand brush the wall in search of the light switch. Once she found it, she quickly set the dimmer to low and dropped her 5′ 11″ frame onto one of the side chairs, causing it to creak in surprise.
Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck! It was going to be one of those nights, then. She knew it would be. She knew it after school when she found her mother was already home asleep in her room. She knew it a few hours later when her mother still hadn’t emerged, leaving Mia to pop a Lean Cuisine in the microwave, a meal she almost skipped, but what the hell – she had resisted eating all day. She knew it all evening, but had tried very hard not to know it, distracting herself with some homework (so she might get her GPA up to a respectable 2.0), a little TV (a lot of TV), and getting ready for her date with Zach.
They had their own private ritual, she and Zach. Unless he was too fucked up, or too tired, he came over every Friday night after hanging out with the gang. He didn’t like her hanging out with them anymore. They weren’t a good influence, he said. He didn’t feel comfortable showing anyone they were girlfriend-boyfriend, anyway. Definitely no PDA. He was shy like that. Instead, Mia waited for him to come to her. If she fell asleep, he would toss rocks at her window. It was so romantic when he did that. Like Romeo and Juliet. More often, though, she heard the zipper-like sound of his Enduro as soon as it turned onto her street. Heart pounding, she would run down to greet him before sneaking him up to her room. Sometimes she’d wait outside on the stoop under the sycamore tree and listen to the soothing, rhythmic cadence of the katydids until he showed up. Once upstairs, they might watch TV or listen to music, but always they made love. On nights she wasn’t in the mood, she ignored the slightly sick feeling in her gut and faked it anyway, just to make sure he knew how much she loved him. After, she would rest her head on his chest and listen to him talk for a while before he slipped back out again around four. He loved her completely, he said. He told her she alone made his life worth living, that she was his rock, his star, his inspiration. He told her she was like air to him, necessary for his very existence. Understandably, he got really upset when she wasn’t home, which rarely if ever happened anymore. She had stopped sleeping over at her best friend’s house, and made sure to be home by midnight if they went out. Tonight, she had finished her hair and makeup, put on her tightest, sexiest jeans, and was listening for the sound of his bike when she nodded off, and fuck if her mother wasn’t going to ruin it!
She leaned in close to get a better look through the gap in the door and felt her eyelashes brush the doorframe. Her mother sat at the dining-room table, pale and drawn, pressing the phone to her ear with one hand and gripping her head with the other, thumb and middle fingers pressing in hard like a vice clamp. Shoulder-length blonde hair fell limply around her face. Mia noticed she still wore the yellow top she had on when she went to work, but at some point she had changed out of her slacks and into a pair of green sweats. She looked like a daffodil bent and languishing after a rain. Her tennis shoes, scuffed and worn from walking like a woman twice her age, were untied and on the wrong feet. When she began to speak, she slurred a little.
“Cherie, it’s me.” Cherie was Mia’s aunt. She and her husband, a round, bearded dude who sometimes looked at Mia in a rather creepy way, had recently gotten married and moved back to St. Louis from New Mexico. Or Arizona. Somewhere west like that. To be closer to family, she said, such as it was. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “It’s bad. Can you take me to the hospital? Please?” Her voice was pitiful in its strained, urgent pitch; damp, coagulated sound escaping from clenched vocal chords. Mia stood rooted behind her door, watching with a kind of guilty detachment. She was aware of herself standing there, every one of her senses was on alert – she could smell her mother’s lingering perfume and the tomato sauce left in the paper tray from dinner; she heard the crickets outside and the blood in her ears; she felt her stomach clench and her mouth go dry – but her thoughts were as frozen as her body, trapped by the fear of being discovered and the hope of escaping a night at the hospital.
“No, I don’t know where Mia is. She isn’t home.” There was a pause. She sniffed. There must have been a pause on the other end, too, because after a few seconds her mother let out a whimper. “Pleeeez,” she begged. The word was breathy, high-pitched, and barely audible as if she were talking to herself. Tears dripped from her face onto the table and she began to nod her head slightly, rhythmically pushing her chin in and out.
Mia’s chest began to ache. Guilt and grief had slipped in through that narrow little crack and threatened to squeeze her heart to a pulp if she didn’t go out there, but just as she put her hand on the door, she heard Zach’s Enduro up the street. A few percussive barks from the neighbor’s dog punched through her window and was soon followed by the long awaited tap of a pebble. She held her breath, uncertain of what to do and terrified her mother’s attention would be drawn toward her room. Another bark, then a long, low growl kept her still. When her mother did not look up, she slowly let out her breath.
“No,” she hissed. “I don’t want to take you!” Mia clenched her teeth and crossed her arms as another pebble pecked at the glass. She glanced toward her window then back toward her mom. Zach was going to be pissed. Like, really, really pissed. He knew her mom got migraines – he was very sympathetic – but no way was he was he going to believe she just happened to have one so late on one of their nights, the only real time they had together. He would look at her with angry, distrustful eyes and accuse her of cheating and trying to cover her tracks.
And oh! it would take forever. Trips to the E.R. were never quick and always late at night after the Percodan, Darvocet, Cafergot and God-knows what else had failed. It was after divorcing her stepdad and Mia getting her driver’s license that her mother had begun asking her to drive her, hesitatingly and apologetically at first, but Mia had been happy to – giddy even. It meant she was finally able to do something for her and that it was just her and her mom again. But while Mia was glad for the divorce (her stepdad frightened her), it only took a couple of trips to the E.R. for her to wish he was still around to do it.
It’s not like what you see on TV with paramedics rushing people in on gurneys after heart attacks and car accidents, a swarm of doctors running around everywhere. There is that, sometimes, but with so many hospitals around the city, people aren’t just taken to one E.R. The really serious cases are wheeled in through different doors, anyway, ones you can’t see from triage or the waiting room. It’s usually an excruciatingly dull experience. Most people simply walk in through the automatic sliding doors that lead to the check-in desk, and, after being seen by triage, are told to have a seat in the waiting room where they do just that. Wait. For an eternity. Even if they’re in awful pain like her mom. That’s the E.R. most people experience, and to make matters worse, it’s in those small hours when all kinds of smelly, mean-looking people drag themselves or their family members in. Some suffer from violence or accident, but many come for some everyday thing like bronchitis or diabetes or something, and she just did not have sympathy for that. It pissed her off, actually, because why don’t they come during the day? They are ugly and scary and she hates them. Sometimes they bring their children with them. Sad and tired creatures, they look at picture books or play with farm animals and Legos at the Little Tikes table, or else sit with their necks craned toward a TV anchored high on the wall and watch shows like Cops or Jerry Springer with a parent who barely seems aware of their existence. Sometimes they smile and talk to themselves while they play, briefly able to escape the boredom and confusion around them, but God forbid an exhausted child should want something, or worse, have to go the bathroom. They’re yelled at for that. Uh-uh! You already went. You don’t need to go. Sit still, you hear?! If the poor things cry, another torrent is unleashed. Be quiet! What you cryin’ for? Ain’t got nothin’ to be cryin’ about. Shut up, you hear me? Shut the hell up!
Another tap. Louder this time. Mia looked at her bed. The movie was the only source of light in the room and was tossing a kaleidoscope of patterns across her bed. The big stuffed bunny Zach had given her for Valentine’s Day smiled at her. She desperately wanted to crawl under the covers – they looked so warm and inviting in their cozy disarray. More than anything, though, she wanted to be away, far away, from both Zach and her mom. She turned back to the door and stared at her mother for several eternally long moments until the ache in her chest became unbearable. There was nothing she could do to make it stop except go to her. Resigned, she opened the door as another rock hit the window – an angry, insistent thwap this time. He was getting mad now. In a minute or two, he would climb back on his bike and rumble home. And then he’d try to call, but she wouldn’t answer. Much as she dreaded it, she would just have to explain it to him tomorrow. What other choice did she have? She couldn’t bring him up now.
“Mom?” Her mother looked up and sobbed in relief as Mia came toward her. “I’m here. It’s ok,” she soothed. “I’m here.” She moved a lock of hair back that had fallen in her mother’s face. “I’ll take you. We’ll call Cherie and let her know, ok?” She called her aunt who asked a bit too nicely, Are you sure? to which Mia replied, Of course.
Her mom couldn’t remember where her purse was, so Mia went to get it, then grabbed her own purse, her smokes, keys, and a book before ushering her mom out the back door and down the metal fire-escape stairs to the apartment’s detached, six-bay garage. Mia held the railing as they descended and slid her hand along its glossy, paint-pitted surface. She liked the way it felt, cool and solid in her grasp, finding an unlikely source of comfort in its strength and simple purpose. Everything would be ok. The cartoons would end and a new day would start. Or, it would all be over at least. Sometimes that’s all you need for things to be better: an end. She helped her mom into the passenger seat of their old Volvo wagon, then went round to the other side and started the car. Pushing the stick shift firmly into reverse, Mia backed out into the alley, shifted into first, and drove on ahead into the darkened streets, the only possible direction for her to go.