It would've been better if he'd just told her she had no goddam excuse. She would've felt less alone. Now it was getting worse, because Jacqui could see the expression on his face change in response to her own face betraying her thoughts. Let's count the sequence of feelings. First there was shame, then there was loneliness, now there was obligation. She tried to retrace her thoughts and figure out how she got here.
To Jacqui, her feelings felt like a bus with blacked out windows. She could be waiting at the bus stop with one kind of emotion and then the bus would arrive. It dropped her off somewhere else and she could hardly follow how it got there, let alone explain it to anyone else. Why would annyone expect that of her? Why would she expect it of herself? And yet she did. She couldn't help it.
She rolled back the film strip and played her inner recording of the bus trip until she got to the beginning.
She and Sid had been standing in the kitchen. Olivia had come bounding up with some picture she'd drawn. Olivia was an amazing artist for a child her age. It wasn't that she rendered images with any sort of real fidelity. They were still stick figures. They were however, better at communicating their emotions than most real people. With just a few lines representing a turn of the mouth or a bend of the arm, this little girl could display stick figure emotions with great range and subtly. Today she'd drawn a sequence of images with the same character.
"Why is she putting her hand in the fire?" said Sid. "And why is she smiling about it?"
"Daddy, she's getting her doll - don't you see?"
"Why is her doll in the fire?"
"The evil witch put her there. But the good witch helped her."
Jacqui took the paper and said, "Did she turn her into a tree or something? Or a statue?"
"You got it Mommy!" said Olivia as she jumped up and down. "Yeah, she's turning to stone!"
She snatched her paper back and ran back to her coloring, apparently satisfied that someone recognized what was happening in her detailed fantasy. When Jacqui looked over at Sid, he was dumbstruck.
"Turned to stone?" he said.
"I don't know, it was just something about the way she drew the fingers... they were bent in one drawing, but after she saw the good witch they were straight again. Like they'd turned to something hard, so she couldn't feel the pain of the fire."
The explaination didn't seem to erase the impression that Jacqui had just pulled off some kind of magic trick. Sid emitted a wide-mouthed "Wow" and walked to the fridge. He grabbed himself a beer and, after closing the fridge again, leaned against a door full of similar drawings.
Jacqui had seen more of them than her husband. Sid only saw the choice few that made it to display, but there were dozens more. After awhile, a parent manages the impossible and comes to understand some small part of their kid's secret life. And then of course there were those other pictures, the ones that Jacqui took special care to make sure Sid never saw. They were a little too enlightening.
"You understand her so well." Sid said.
"I worry about her." she found herself saying without quite knowing she'd said it. "I worry I'm not able to keep up with her."
"You're an amazing mom." Sid said.
And there it was. A sudden and oppressive feeling of loneliness, as if it were a winter draft rushing through a door someone had just oppened, and try as she might, she wasn't going to get warm again. That's when Sid's amazement turned to bewilderment. Her face must've flashed a grimace of pain, quick but not quick enough.
Jacqui knew she wasn't a good mom. She felt that anyone who spent enough time around her should realize that, even if they had never seen the other pictures. It should've been obvious. It was obvious to Olivia, after all.
If Sid thought she was any good, then he must not be paying attention. Those were the thoughts her brain tortured her with. That was the route it took as it drove the bus through swamplands and graveyards to deposit her on an abandoned street corner where gun shots rang out and sirens wailed from a nearby block. Sid was on the other side of the road and turned away. It might as well have been in another city entirely.
His confusion was understandable, but now that confusion was her burden. He at least knew enough that she suffered from some ill defined psychological trauma. He was going to worry and she couldn't let him worry. Worry opened the door to other things and what she wanted now more than anything was to return to that happier moment when Olivia had been excited at her mother's conjuring trick. Jacqui glanced over Sid's shoulder and watched the girl's shoulders wriggle as she worked the crayons. She told herself it would be okay. She told herself over and over and then she started to believe it.
"You're right." she said. "I have no goddam excuse to be worried."
Jacqui stormed off with a little too much haste and went to the basement. She sighed with relief when Sid didn't follow her. She pulled out a cardboard box that she'd sealed with layers of tape thick enough to require several passes with a knife to open. Inside there were drawings.
Somehow she couldn't force herself to dispose of them. These were darker examples of Olivia's art, full of monsters. One in particular caughter her attention.
Olivia had drawn a picture of her mother sleeping. There were a lot of sleeping pictures and even one labeled "Sleeping Beauty" that featured Sid as the prince coming to wake her with a kiss. That one was sweet, but this one wasn't. Above the bed there was a blob of thick black smoke. Olivia had drawn evil eyes on it. The eyes weren't looking at Jacqui. They were looking at a little girl cowering near the bed, a little girl who was helpless while her only protector slept.
What was the creature? Most kids weren't great with metaphors. When they drew witches and scary birds and things with teeth, that is exactly what they were afraid of. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, no? But not with Olivia. Jacqui knew this because she knew herself. Sometimes the dread that followed her did feel like a looming dark cloud about to envelop her. It's why she slept.
"You have no goddam excuse." she said to the empty basement.
And she didn't. Her life wasn't difficult. It wasn't any more stressful than anyone else's. Yes, things had happened to her (let's not think of them), but that was all in the past. She had Sid now. She had Olivia. And yet she felt sad. Worse yet, she felt ashamed of her saddness because, as she told herself often, she had no goddam excuse to feel that way. It was just there.
But Olivia could see it. Olivia was afraid of it. Was she afraid for her mother? Or was she experiencing the same feelings, the sense that something was after her and it would get her someday because, after all, it was right there with her in her own mind? Then that poor little girl was looking to someone to save her. Someone who was too weak to do anything about it.
Jacqui liked the story of the girl who became a statue. It made sense that a witch would turn a girl's hands to stone so that she could rescue her doll from the fire. Everyday Jacqui wished she could just stop feeling things. The happy moments might go away, but so would the sad ones - and most of all, the fear would go away. She'd bee invincible. A girl with stone fingers who could at last save her baby.
She looked at up the stairs, at the light spilling from the kitchen. Sid's feet were there. He was considering whether to come down or call for her or just walk away and let her have her moment. Jacqui wondered if there was a way. Then it came to her and it filled her with joy. She wondered, is it irony when the last time you feel happiness is when you realize what you have to do to make yourself feel nothing at all?
image courtesy of pixabay