The limp expression on his face was nothing new, but it still tore gently into Monica’s chest each time she looked at her son. With each tear in the fabric of motherhood, she buried the urge to give up, to send him to another doctor, to admit to the nagging suspicion that she might be helpless in abetting his return to a colorful life. Time, he just needs time. The weakened facial muscles had moved in with the rest of his body just a few months ago, kept hidden when he could manage, painfully present when he came with her to run errands and put together jigsaw puzzles and she brought him iced tea while he painted the parlor. For the better part of a year she’d been alone in the house. Leaving for work as the sun greeted the day. Retiring to an empty bed soon after it fell. The routine became comforting, but it took time. For so long it had been herself and Clay, the duo the walls of the home knew as the son and mother who found solace in the other, as a pair who loved to love people.
Her son’s returning early from his second semester at college and the work-study job he’d held at the university library was an unexpected adjustment. Four months had passed, both of them cognizant of how they were ignoring the climate of this alternate timeline their days were cascading against. Standing in the newly painted parlor, one could feel an oversaturation of clouds that had formed in the house, ominously tempting a storm the shape of which neither mother or son could sketch. When they’d set his old bedroom in order, Monica did most of the unpacking and arranging while Clay made frequent and lengthy trips to the powder room. It was in that day’s dryness, in the blaring silence of that first evening they sat seeking out flat-edged pieces of a 1,000 piece puzzle she’d been waiting for summer break to tear the seal on, when the realization of her part in the situation calcified as motherly responsibility. However unexpected this all was, she internalized a positive conviction for how this would all turn out. This was all for the best. Her boy was in a state of crisis, a state she had never travelled to, but she found purpose in his needing to be cared for. Caring for him was all she knew how to do.
Monica pulled the sedan past the bright red door of the coffee shop, throwing the shifter in reverse and deftly pulling the wheel so the tires gripped the curb. The weekend edition of the paper had advertised a combination art show and open mic at this coffee shop with the red door at a zip code far enough from their town for Clay to observe and not be recognized. The remoteness was key in coaxing his participation in the evening. She had seen her son become terribly scattered when facing the prospect of running into someone who knew him when he was the person he was before whatever in his mind stopped sparking. Wanting him to have the opportunity to begin anew, she had not as of yet come up with a better way than attending this sort of gathering. Music and art; the pair was all he sought out in his former days, his good days. Ideally, the onus to go would have come from him. They were past ideal. Her strategy had shifted to guerilla, as guerilla as one can be when walking on a wide carpet of eggshells. Further than she’d imagined when she welcomed him in, her motherly resilience was being tested. That strength had not faltered. If this doesn’t work, I’ll keep on trying. I’ll try and try until one day we look back on these months and hold them up in contrast of how bright your life has become.
“Clay,” she said, not pulling her foot from the brake pedal. “We’re here. Go get some culture. I’ll pick you up at 10. Keep your phone on for me, okay?” She looked at him, trying to find his eyes.
He responded by fishing the phone from his rear pocket and flipping it open to reveal a soft glow.
“You good?” she asked, exaggerating the tilt of her head toward the wheel so much it nearly depressed the horn.
“Yeah, just fine,” he whispered, daring to peek at her shining eyes, if only a glimpse.
As the door shut, only half-latching, she watched the side mirror reflect his shrinking shape and cross behind the car. He stepped softly upon the curb and there he remained. Monica realized her waiting might deter whatever shred of confidence remained within his social faculties, so after reaching across the seat and securing the door, she popped the shifter into drive and pulled back out to the street without a second look.
Dusk settled around her as she advanced along the city blocks. Pages flipped in her mind, the heft of all those books offering aid falling against her arm as she turned immediately to their indexes. Going to the bookstore on lunch breaks, faced with spines of touting titles and their vertically printed witticism. Standing there, feeling a heat rise in her chest and paint her ears crimson, she decidedly swallowed the elevated temperature along with the twinge of shame she was certain had brought it on. Why does no one else dare stand in this section of the bookstore and peruse the publications that offer relief to the pain ailing themselves or their loved ones? Why allow shame to impede on the healing of the sick? The books outlined an accurate depiction of Clay’s symptoms, but time and again she found the words hauntingly stale, technical. Flesh knows when its own suffers. Never did she crack open such a book to find it anything but hollow. On the crossroads of philosophy and science, of talk therapy and psychotropic medicine, a weary traveler was found beaten by the road that had seen her there, without a compass to guide her and hers home. With each new book, each article or thread she discovered online, it seemed the focus on how family and caretakers can help was always either too thin, too religious, or too mystical for her taste. Lunches saw Monica back in the hospital break room, most of the time gossiping with the younger nurses she tended to befriend.
She had reached the limits of the city and resigned to the notion that she would spend the evening steering her thoughts as she steered the sedan. Monica turned at the corner of the block, determined to follow the city’s perimeter before slowly slicing through its innards. Waiting at the foot of the traffic light stood a baby’s carriage gripped by a young woman with wavy black hair. The green washing over her windshield yellowed and Monica slowed to a stop. She watched the girl check both sides and proceed to push her way across the street.
She second-guessed herself. Maybe Patty had a play in all this. Her daughter, Patricia, knew only bits and pieces of the silent struggle going on within the walls of her childhood home. The more Monica’s independence had swelled, the stronger her endeavor grew not to reach out to her daughter when Clay moved back home. Patty had moved out of the house and the state when she was 17 and Clay 12, and with each passing year, the defensive, selfish logic prevailed if she Patty didn’t need Mona, then Mona didn’t need her. Besides herself, his sister was the only other lifeline he had. Who was she to keep them from each other? It truly was about Clay this time.
Time. This needs time. He just needs time. I’ll keep him safe. I’m doing my best here. I’ll keep doing my best here. She turned the wheel again, wanting for a place to just sit still. She parked a block from the coffee shop, waiting until five to ten. Something will give. One day this all will be fodder for retrospect. One day.