Susan Eve Haar
I’m in the kitchen cutting carrots. The floor is slate, so I’m wearing socks. It’s one of those Berkshire houses; we’ve rented it for the weekend so our City kids can see the leaves change color, those glorious, incendiary oranges and reds.
The house is warm, and the kitchen lights are pushing back against the imminent darkness. It’s beginning to rain. I am contemplating the nature of love. I’m remembering those teenagers on the subway yesterday, two raggedy teenagers with multiple piercings, kissing with such intensity, such yearning, such total osculatory absorption. I’m thinking about that, and tearfully slicing onions, when my little girl runs in, flushed with cold, her bangs slapped against her forehead by rain.
“Will’s been in an accident,” she gasps.
Something in me slows down, that chill of anticipation that prepares you for anything or nothing. That’s when my husband runs in, slamming the door behind him. Will is draped over his shoulder. Steve is wild-eyed and terrified; he looks like he’s run from a fire, or perhaps a hunter with a deer.
“He went over the handlebars.”
I reach for Will. I take him in my arms and hold him, his body across mine, against my heart. We wrap around each other. I’m not ready to look at the damage yet. Not here. I carry him out of the kitchen to the master bathroom and shut the door behind me. I sit on the edge of the tub feeling his skinny bird body, his ribs heaving in and out. He’s shuddering. I slow my breathing, I will him to quiet, I will him to be strong. Then I tip him back so I can see his face. It’s hard to tell with all the blood, one eyelid scraped raw, the eye already closed. But I force it open though he bucks and screams. Both eyes are intact, and he can wiggle his jaw.
He’s sobbing now. I see that there’s grit ground deep into his face. One side is skinned, streaked with dirt and gravel, the gray embedded like gunpowder residue. There’s clotted blood below his mouth and caked on his jaw. I see that’s raw too, all the layers of skin scraped away, the flesh red beneath. He shrieks:
“Don’t touch me!” But I turn him carefully and pull off his shirt off while he screams. He is so thin, the bones so delicate, his scapula like bound wings. The knobs of his spine are raked raw, each a small red circle like a bloody dime. And that’s the extent of it; the damage is succinct. I try to explain this to Will. It’s going to be okay.
“No, no, no!” he screams. I hold him, I wait. The screaming becomes a kind of drone, he’s getting tired and
pauses for a moment, exhausted.
“Look, Will, am I your mother?” I ask, and he nods, clinging to me with both hands, his body still shaking.
“Do I love you?”
He knows this is a trick question, but he nods anyway.
“I know you’ll be okay. We just have to clean it.” I say this in my most matter-of-fact way.
“No!” he shrieks. “It will never be okay. Never!” Snot festoons his nose. “You’re lying. You lie!” and the tears slide out from under the shut eye and pool in the valley of his swollen cheek.
I pivot, put the plastic stopper over the drain, and turn on the taps. I rock Will while he wails; the steam rises around us. Dipping in a hand, I run more cold water. I know he doesn’t trust me.
By the time the tub is full, we’re both a little worn out, but still he flails out at me, retracting his legs as I lift him into the water. He stands there naked, the water up to his knees, sobbing. One eye is oozing a sticky liquid that mats his eyelashes, and the bruising is rising fast, purpling his face. I’m afraid to touch him. I strip off my clothes, drop them on the floor, and get in. Will stands facing me, his eyes shut. There’s a smudge like an experimental bit of moustache under his nose, and the wounds on his faces are already clotting. He holds his arms in front of his face, warding me off. One wrist is badly scratched and already so swollen it doesn’t match the other.
“Is it enough if I kneel?” he begs, as if I can give him an exemption.
“Look, you do it.” I hand him the washcloth moistened with warm water and guide his hand upward toward his face. He shrieks, though the cloth isn’t even there yet. It’s like when he’s over-tickled and all you have to do is wave a finger.
“We’ll wait ’til you’re ready.” I run some more hot water, warming us both. Will crouches, curled up on himself, all bone and shiver and hurt.
“I will never be ready. Never.” He glares at me one-eyed and wild. “You can wait until I’m a grown-up. You can wait until I’m dead. You can wait three hundred years so I’m dead anyway before we get out of this tub. I will never be ready!”
“Look,” I say. “You could do one-sided bubbles. Like this.” I make a fish face and blow out gently, my face tipped into the water. “Can you do it? Try.”
“Do I have to?” He’s still crying, his face so puffy I can hardly see his good eye, squinched up in misery.
“If you do it I won’t have to use the cloth.”
“But what about my eyes?”
“I closed them when I hit.” He shivers.
“Do the cloth,” I order, holding it out again, and he weeps, batting it away.
“No, don’t touch me!”
Now I am beginning to catch his despair, and there’s a whiff of panic between us, that somehow neither of us will ever get out of this tepid tub, caught in the twilight zone of injury.
“If you can’t do it, someone has to. It can be me. It can be your dad. Or it can be the doctor. But he will hold you down and just do it,” I warn.
“So, call him, I don’t care!” Will screams.
“Daddy, anybody.” Will is desperate and wily and he’s calling my bluff.
The door opens. It’s my husband. He’s changed his clothes and is wearing fleece slippers. His thick hair, salt and peppered, is combed carefully back, the furrows distinct, gelled back. I want to kill him.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” He sits down casually on the toilet, crossing his legs. He leans forward, checking us both out.
“We’re okay,” I say.
“He was wearing a helmet.” He looks at me for forgiveness. “I could drive you to Lenox; they’ve got a great emergency room,” he suggests. Now Will begins to scream in earnest.
“We can take care of it.”
“You’re sure?” He looks at me earnestly, his pale blue eyes taking us in, Will and me, some naked lump of humanity.
“I’m sure,” I say. “GO.”
The door shuts behind him and there is a sense now that we are in this together, me and him. I look at him, my poor little wounded wiggle.
“Is there anything,” I ask him, “anything that you want that you don’t expect to ever get?” I am fishing in the dark here, but he quiets and says:
“Yes. There’s a car. I saw it on TV. It has one red side and one blue side, and it moved with a box and a pointer and it could back up and turn over and it never crashed into anything; it just flipped over and raced away so fast.” Will’s voice is rhapsodic now, he’s almost in a trance and I say,
“Think about it. Think about the car. If you let me clean you up so there’s no more dirt, I will get you the car. That exact car. I will get it tomorrow.”
And he says, “Do you have to use soap?”
I press the washcloth up to his cheek.
“One,” I say, and take it away. We count up to eleven because I favor odd numbers, then work backward, just for variety. He cries and cringes, but he lets me do it.
“Think of the car,” I command. “Where will we get the car? Do they have it at McCays or will we have to go to Toys ‘R’ Us?”
“Stop it, stop it, you’re hurting me!” he cries. “You have hurt me more than a hundred times. More than infinity. And it will not stop!”
I grab him now and pull him to me; he’s struggling and hitting out at me. I hold his arms back and I whoosh out the dirt, daubing, squeezing the soapy water while he howls. I don’t quit. I won’t let him scar.
His face is raw, and the knobs of his spine are leaking blood. The grit is gone.
“We’re done,” I announce. I lift him out of the tub gently, my hands under his arms. I wrap him in a towel and he hunches against me, one side of his face so delicate, the pale skin translucent, and the other distorted, oozing, clean.
“It was terrible.” He cuddles against me now.
“Very terrible,” I say, and I try not to cry.
“But you know,” he looks up at me tenderly, “we had to do it.”