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Feb 24, 2016 | 6 comments

Distance Lessons

by Sally Pla

the hope

“The Hope II,” oil on canvas with gold and platinum leaf, by Gustav Klimt, 1907.

She’s been emptying his bedroom drawers, scooping his Boy Scout badges, paper clip sculptures, Pokemon cards into the trash. She can’t be sentimental, just absolutely can’t, and he’s too far away to ask. The new place, she’d emailed him, is small as a postage stamp.

The desk drawer smells like mint gum, pencil shavings, leaky ballpoint ink. She pockets a plastic Bic lighter, same kind she used to angle into her front jeans pocket when she smoked and drank and flung herself around at the world. Movie ticket stubs, broken earbuds, wadded looseleaf.

Then, shoved in the back, a strange little book: a journal with a mandala spinning on its faded orange cover. Inside, the fan of pages holds his familiar, painstaking scrawl—he always pressed so hard. She holds it as if it might float away, this relic from his trip to India, the first of many backpacked wanderings. He is always gone from her, this son, following some inner prime directive.

She carries the journal out into the kitchen light.

It’s a hot night, crowded like crazy with really loud Israelis on the sidewalk celebrating the end of their military service or something (yeah and I guess, who wouldn’t), and then there’s your basic dreadlock hippie population, and the local posse of thieves and drug pushers, and the auto-rickshaws and motorbikes and Jesus Christ, the car horns even here—the same constant honking everywhere in India. I thought maybe things would be different because hey, the freaking Dalai Lama lives here. But apparently nothing is sacred.

She remembers: When he came back from that first trip to India, all she could get out of him was that it was “awesome.” He was never a talker. It used to exasperate her when he was little; she’d want to shake him to get words out. At seven, he came home with a black eye and she’d had to call the school. We’re sorry, but your son just won’t tell us a thing.

Nope, not a talker. She’d saved overtime to take him to Disneyland on his eighth birthday; he’d stepped, wide-eyed and silent, into spinning teapots, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Nemo’s submarine. Bobbed patiently through It’s a Small World After All. He assessed that mad spinning cartoon world with his solemn eyes, looked the other kids up and down, clasped her hand tightly. He never said boo about what he really thought.

But here is this journal.

About midnight, we headed back out to this hellhole-in-the-wall pub. Skinny guy in a dirty daura suruwal handing out cokes and beer. It was too hot inside, so we stood in the alley, me and Nikolai and this guy Suresh, who had just been on a yogic singing retreat. We’re trying to goad Suresh into singing for us, just joking around, and he’s laughing and resisting, but then all of a sudden, dude straightens up, closes his eyes, clears his throat and it’s like he’s a different person. The sound’s all sliding vowels and vibrating nasal hums like a wheezing accordion. People straighten and go quiet like it’s a hymn in church, which only makes Nikolai and me laugh even more. And I think it was right about then, while we were laughing at Suresh, that I first noticed the girl.

Something twists in her gut; she sits straighter in the kitchen chair. She should really put this journal back in the moving box, and only read it later, when she has more time, less stress, more fortitude, or whatever it is that’s needed to peer guiltily over your grown son’s unsuspecting shoulder into his private life. Besides, it’s nearly midnight, and she’s got the dining room left to pack.

But she’s in an impatient fever: she always wants everything at once, as if a clock timer is ticking down. Maybe it’s too much screen-staring, first at her office job and now, being laid off, at the library’s row of hulking monitors, where she sits with the unwashed and the idle, scanning job listings and cheap rentals, windows into other worlds. Even her dreams scroll past her eyelids in computer format. Dreaming in windows. Where’s that one that’s supposed to open when everything else shuts?

She closes his journal and stares for a moment at the mandala.

Thirsty, she goes to a box and unwraps a faded Star Wars drinking glass, chalky from dishwasher abrasion. She remembers him at six, seven, eating PBJs at this kitchen counter. On the glass in her hand, a worn Yoda points a green finger at the swamp: “The force is strong in him.” The kitchen tap water tastes, as usual, like blood.

She never traveled. Not like her boy. Imagine what he’s seen: Continents and continents. On these thin pages, an unknowable sphinx spelled out on flimsy foreign paper. This is all you have of him, now, this journal, this accidental window, she thinks. You might as well open it.

This girl on the sidewalk, she looks like a kid caught playing dress-up in a porno closet. A red and gold kurta minidress. Her legs two brown sticks in black plastic stiletto booties. Lipstick. I mean, this kid is a mess. Like that TV show about toddler beauty contests.

And for some reason, seeing her makes me angry. I mean, this is fucking Dharamshala, and I want it to be all Dalai Lama and mists on the mountain and righteous paths and hell yeah, yogic singing retreats and shit. I am having a hard time with these drug dealers and car horns and exhaust, and starving beggar children and now this kindergarten hooker with her pathetic little stick legs trotted out like a sacrificial lamb.

So I try to forget she’s there and keep laughing with my friends, but goddammit. Her eyes are gigantic, the whites nearly glowing in the dark, and it’s not because of the make-up—it’s because of her panic. But no one else seems to notice or care that there is this local girl, this kid, here, freaking out. She is so silent. We are so noisy.

Suresh is still singing, and there’s a small crowd around him now, some drunk guys joining in, or trying to, and everyone laughing. The girl edges closer to the crowd of laughing men. She keeps nervously looking behind her. Someone accidentally elbows her and she wobbles backward into the street on one high-heeled boot.

Weren’t there nicer places he could have traveled to? But she could have told him: destinations are always a disappointment. She lightly rubs the reverse hieroglyph of etched letters, that braille of pencil stress that makes the thin pages curl around themselves protectively. He should know that. He should know these lessons of distance.

She remembers him as a twelve-year-old baseball player. The photo she’d kept pinned to her cubicle wall: the tilt of the cap, gangly arms and legs, freckles, cowlick, gap-tooth smile. Her boy, kneeling with bat and glove like a million other kids in a million other baseball photos, All-American artifact of normal, so her coworkers could observe and nod. So they’d overlook the missing bits.

I feel like I know this little kid. She is looking at me like I do. Like she’s thinking: “Nothing can save me, I know I’m fucked, but my eyes have latched onto you for some reason, you poor sucker, because maybe in some insane unlikely way, last ditch hope and all that, it looks like you see me. For whatever reason, you get it. You see me. Maybe maybe maybe you are the one who will help.” I mean, that’s what it looks like her eyes are saying to mine. I don’t know how to explain it. Damn it.

Her boy was eighteen when he went to Dharamsala. Older than she was when she had him, alone, at sixteen. Both of their wails echoing through the free clinic. “Just the two of you, little mama?” the delivery nurse had asked, suddenly seeing her in the middle of labor. The nurse had made calls, got her off the street. It was a kindness that reached right in and pulled her, stumbling, out of one nightmare world and into another.

So then, get this, out of the blue, a big shit-faced Brit tourist dude comes up and starts flirting with the girl. Seriously, she looks like a fucking kindergartener. “Whoa ho, how now,” he goes. “What have we got here?” Real loud, and everyone stops singing and turns around for a second. He’s stooping to look her in the face, hands on his knees and bending over her, and swaying back and forth because he’s so shit-faced drunk, and she’s smiling all nervous like, back at him, like it’s all cool, like this is what she’s there for. Which she is. But she keeps darting quick little glances back my way. I look at Suresh and Nikolai but they’ve chosen to ignore the whole sordid drama. Right. Smart mates.

She stayed a year with him at that shelter, then moved on. Year to year, place to place, job to job, rung by rung, the two of them, mother and son, going the distance together. Each job had been a little better-paying than the last, until now. Until this lay-off. Now, old ghosts are tapping at the panes, showing her the street is still outside the window, black-mouthed and hungry, waiting. It’s good that he’s gone already, on his own, never looking back. But she can’t puzzle out whether that means she’s succeeded or failed.

She washes his old Yoda glass, re-wraps it, puts it back in the cardboard box. Out the kitchen window, past linen curtains she’d sewed when he was small, a sapphire night holds its breath. Then it starts to snow.

I look around for her handler, pimp, whatever he’d be called, and yeah, sure enough, there’s a skinny guy with a gold tooth and a stringy mustache across the street in the shadows, watching the drunk Brit, face like a side of beef, who is looking all kinds of interested. I can’t believe this kid’s knees aren’t knocking together with fear. I wonder, what is it like to have to put up with that kind of shit? I mean, how is that fair? But, oh yeah. There’s no fucking thing as fair.

When he was six, her boy had constantly asked about his father. By sixteen, he only shrugged, disgusted, because it was useless anymore to question her. She’d showed him how to keep worlds apart

I love you, she wants to cry out to him, wherever he is. You are my world.

Let’s not forget where we are. The Dalai Lama is asleep in bed somewhere across town, in that cinnamon colored robe of his, or whatever color Lama pajamas are, while all this kind of shit goes down in the street. I just have a hard time with that serene Buddhist acceptance of “what is.”

He so itched to go. Bussed tables, desk-clerked midnight shifts, changed oil, banked savings. His only outlet was pick-up basketball. Home at midnight, slick with sweat, spent and desperate, eyes darting around the apartment like a captive, searching for the exit.

Then the big ugly Brit puts his arm around this little girl. She kinda shrugs her shoulders to push him away, you know, without meaning to, just impulse, and she was looking kind of guilty, like she knew she was supposed to put up with it, would probably get the shit beaten out of her if she didn’t put up with it. I was rooting for the part of her that didn’t want to put up with it. But at the same time I was also trying to pay attention to this funny story Nikolai was telling about Bangalore.

She hadn’t cried at the airport, seeing him off. He’d left with two changes of clothes; a small medical kit she’d insisted on. She’d wanted to buy him one of those towering external frame backpacks, a sleeping bag and pad, canteen, poncho, money belt, the works. But he said no. He’d travel light. She flinches, remembering the flimsy pack between his shoulder blades as he wandered off into the terminal. She felt empty, useless. Like she’d sent him off into the world with nothing at all.

I look away for a moment and next thing you know, the big Brit and the little girl are gone. It’s supposed to be no big deal—just the typical sad shit, and if you’ve been around, you’ve seen all the typical sad shit, the beggar kids, the old amputees, the child-whores, all these twisted dusty dirty people that pull and pull on you, ready to swindle you and suck you under, and you’ve seen it and you’ve seen it and seen it to the point where you don’t usually see it anymore. That’s the goal, that’s where we try to get to, traveling around, out in the world. Because otherwise, in twenty seconds, you could give everything you own away. In twenty seconds in this life you could be stripped bare, and still be surrounded by thousands of poor suckers that want still more from you, want to suck the very flesh from your bones, and still it’s not enough to solve anything.

She sits down at the kitchen table, then gets up. Wind worries the window gap; icy snow taps a pattern like television static. The sapphire night has clouded into blue-grey murk. Under the streetlight, her rental U-Haul is covered in frosty film. There’s a ton of work left, packing and loading, and then, tomorrow, a snowy trek across town to the much smaller place, the place the size of a postage stamp.

But for now, the orange U-Haul glitters in the alley, snow-bewitched. She decides that if, on the next journal page, things turn out better, maybe she will chuck everything and go seek him out. Find him on the sidewalk of a strange city a million miles away. Greet him in a cyber café. She will bring him that external frame pack. She laughs.

The kitchen windowsill collects its quiet wedge of snowdrift.

Down the end of the alley I see them, the big dude and the little girl, about to turn a corner. I grab Nikolai by the arm, drunk lug that he is, and holding each other up, the two of us go over to shout them down. “Hey, Debbie!” I say. Nikolai snorts and laughs, because this little Indian girl so doesn’t resemble a ‘Debbie’ (and I snort too: for some weird-ass reason, I just called her by my mom’s name.) “Hey Debbie! We’ve been looking all over for you! Debbie! Where have you been all my life?”

Nikolai sees the big drunk British dude turn around—and he stops laughing; he’s not going to follow me down that alley. But I run right up. They look like a father and child. I have a stupid smile on my face. The big Brit’s piggy eyes gleam; he is wondering where to punch me first, head or stomach.

“Sorry mate,” I tell him. “I’m saving you here. You don’t want this one. You don’t. Trust me. See my friend, there?” I point back at Niko. “He found out the hard way. She’s got all kinds of diseases. Best to let her go.”

He knows I’m shitting him, but he’s not sure why. “Bullshit,” he says. “Mind your business, eh?”

The girl’s eyes are dark saucers, black holes with white rims of fear. She darts her head around to check out where her pimp is, what he’s seeing.

“Just trying to do a brother a turn,” I say to the Brit.

He hesitates, and when he does, I slip the girl a twenty and tell her: “RUN!”

If she was scared before, she is terrified now. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. I don’t know if I screwed up her situation here, her lot in life, for better or worse. But it any case she’d better run. Maybe she can get a bus ticket, I don’t know, get the fuck out of Dodge. I don’t even know why I care. “Get a bus,” I tell her. “Go! Leave!” It’s like I’m mad at her. But clearly it’s the only answer. The big dude is looking at me with all kinds of murder on his face and I know I’m about to punched, and then I do, I get clocked, hard, there in that alley, and after that, things are black and hazy.

So now, here I am, sitting here, writing this at some broke-ass clinic, sporting your standard shiner, split lip, and fractured cheekbone. Suresh says: “You have achieved a certain worldly look, my friend.”

The doctor says in his musical English, “Not to worry, not to worry. These things will heal, all in good time.”

But I’m not even thinking about that because somehow, I’m still mad at the girl. “Debbie.” Where is that coming from? Being mad? She’s got to figure out some kind of other life for herself. Jesus. And I’m mad about the twenty lousy bucks because damn it, I’ve got medical bills, now, and finite resources. I’ve got to live my goddamned life, and I’m tired of waiting for everybody else’s shit to heal…

The boy’s mother closes the journal and traces the mandala round and round with her finger, round and round and round, while the kitchen light blinks and the snow keeps burying the U-Haul. Mandala round as the world. And with each finger-revolution, she whispers, oh, my poor child, where are we now? And where are we now? And where are we now?

Ω
Sally Pla has written on business and family issues for many publications, including MetroParent of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and The New York Times. Her first novel for young people, The Someday Birds, will be published in 2017 by HarperCollins.

6 Comments

  1. A really good story. So much is told in this one moment of a mother’s love and sorrow.

    • Jeanne, thank you so much for reading my story. I’m very honored! <3

  2. So beautifully written. Sally Pla is a most talented writer.

    • Thank you so much <3

    • I’m so grateful to you for reading. Thanks!

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