My anxiety sneaks into my mind like thick, black smoke curling up from under a door. The kind that smells like burned rubber and tastes like pennies. The kind of smoke that at first, you think only you see, so you ignore it and go on about your business, but on double-take, it’s there. It’s white at first, just a warning, but as time passes it changes to grey and then slowly smutty and finally black and thick, and it’s billowing. There’s nothing I can do to stop it from coming inside. So it does. It consumes the room in my brain while I stand frozen, watching it and gasping to breathe.
Ginny and I talk on the phone every day on my way home from the office. It’s the only time I have an hour all to myself. If we wait until I get home, I’m too distracted by my mom-jobs and there’s not much continuity in our conversation. So, we relish the hour we have available to us just to be sisters.
Yesterday on my commute home, I was distracted. Our schedule lately has been crazier than normal. Jamie’s been out of town on business more than usual. I’ve been working an old-fashioned 9 to 5. For the last little while, I’ve felt like I was forgetting something like I was trying to drive a car with a flat tire.
By the time I got to the Flint River, I realized I’d not talked to Ginny. So, I called her. No answer. I waited a few minutes and called her back. No answer. I texted her. No answer. I texted her again. Nothing. I let myself start thinking. That’s odd. It’s not like her not to answer.
I walked in the door and smelled supper. Jamie had promised Colin spaghetti and was busy chopping onions the way a man who never chops onions does it – big pieces cut in lots of different shapes and sizes, no symmetry. “Want help?” I asked. His glasses had slipped down on the bridge of his nose and the tip of his tongue was stuck in the right corner of his mouth. He’s concentrating. It’s endearing. It’s a tiny detail, a snapshot, locked away somewhere deep inside for pulling out later.
I love those little details of him: The way he opens his mouth when he winks at me. The way he puts both hands on either side of his nose when he is really laughing. The way his eyes droop a little when he is in desperate need of rest.
“Nah, I’m almost done.” Ground beef sizzled on the stove in a pot I never use. Doesn’t matter, he’s cooking supper. Hallelujah! I drop my purse in a chair at the kitchen table. Maybe her phone died? Maybe she is outside with the dogs and doesn’t hear it? It’s still white-smoke. A warning. Don’t do it to yourself, Cantrell.
Walking into the living room, I saw Colin’s feet before I saw Colin. Lying on his stomach, legs bent back at the knee with his feet kicked up in the air behind him, he doesn’t look at me before he speaks, “Hey, Mama. Can we read in your bed before bedtime tonight? Daddy will move me if I fall asleep. Can’t we?” I don’t really want to, but how much longer is he going to ask to snuggle and read books together? “Of course, bud. Let me get settled and we’ll talk about it, ok?”
I throw the empty blue Solo cup I picked up in the living room in the bathroom garbage can and scoop up a pair of dirty socks lying in the hallway. Jamie and I have decided that without careful attention, our house would resemble a frat house: empty cups on a side table, dirty socks stuffed between couch cushions, a twist tie here, a dead battery there, a gum wrapper under the armchair. Something is broken somewhere. If I look, I’m sure there is a spill somewhere. A frat house.
I lumber back to our bathroom to change into after-work clothes and complete my transformation from Elizabeth-at-Work to Mom-at-Home. Called Ginny. No answer. Texted Ginny. No answer. She didn’t say she had plans tonight.
I put my phone on top of Nanny’s white jewelry box that sits in the middle of my bathroom vanity. It still holds her Eastern Star and Worthy Matron pins, but now I keep my jewelry in it, too. When I was little, the jewelry box sat in the middle of Nanny’s dresser surrounded by a Coty powder box, perfume bottles, an empty Sucrets tin that held safety pins, and other clutter. Behind the jewelry box, she kept important clippings from the newspaper that she didn’t want to lose: an article about homemade bug spray, a recipe for a salve that took the sting out of a wasp bite or a recipe for a congealed salad.
I close my eyes. The smoke is turning grey now and I can see it coming under the door of my brain. “Stop it,” I say out loud through gritted teeth. “Pull it together!” I breathe slowly and deeply. Once. Twice. I put on at-home clothes. Call Ginny. No answer. Text Ginny. No answer. Where is she?
Back in the kitchen, Jamie is stirring spaghetti sauce. “How was it today?” he asks. “Meh, fine.” I’m going through the mail now, my phone on the bar. I’m trying not to watch it. I allow myself to steal glimpses, looking for the tell-tale oval that hold the ellipses that mean she’s texting me back.
I clean off the table. I fill the sink with hot water and three squirts of Dawn dish soap, the pink kind that’s supposed to soften your hands. I use the spray nozzle to make suds appear and steal a glance over my shoulder at the clock on the oven. 6:18 pm. If I haven’t heard from her by 6:45 pm, I’ll go to her house.
Jamie starts talking about his day. Clients. Work. Projects. I try to listen, but the me in my head is squatting on the floor of my smoke-filled brain to breathe. Acrid, dark, mean smoke billows under the crack. It’s coming too fast. There’s no stopping it now. Plunging my hands into the hot water, the suds are high on my forearms. The hot water feels good. Deep breath. She is fine. You know she is fine. Why do you do this to yourself?
I wash the dishes. Glasses first, then silverware, then dishes. Just like Mama does it. The suds are warm too, and I let them climb my arm. This is the most accomplished I’ve felt all day, I realize, as clean dishes glisten in the kitchen’s fluorescent light, drying rack almost full now. I twist the dishrag tight, squeezing it hard into the sink, open it and wipe off the kitchen table. I wipe down the countertops, too. I unplug the drain. Rinse out the dishrag. Dry off my hands.
I text Ginny. No answer. I text again. Nothing. It’s 6:42 pm. Where could she be? What if she needs me? What if she is calling out to me right now for help and can’t reach her phone? What if someone has hurt her? The me in my brain is still squatting, so I let that me put her hands over her ears and tuck her head between her knees, gulping in acrid smoke.
Supper is ready. I take Colin’s lucky rock, a Time magazine, and a magic wand he bought at the school’s book fair off the bar and back to his room. “Hey, mister,” I whisper to him, “go on and wash up.” He slides off the couch, head first into a handstand. I walk back to the kitchen. If I need to go to Dawson, I need to go before supper. What if she’s fallen? What if someone was watching her leave her office and ambushed her?
I grab my phone off the counter and call her office. Machine answers. I hang up. “Babe,” Jamie’s voice is low and soft, “What are you doing? What’s the matter?” He knows this happens sometimes. He knows I crouch low in the space where I can still breathe, still function. He knows sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t. I choke back tears, determined to hang tight. “I can’t get her. I’ve been calling since I got to the bridge.”
I know she is alright. I know there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. I know everything is going to make sense in just a few minutes. I know it will, but I don’t. “She probably had a meeting, or maybe she’s on the phone,” he says with a voice more concerned for me than her. “I know,” I whisper back, “I’m sorry.” He leaves me be. Not his first rodeo.
I text her office-mate in the most nonchalant text-voice I know how to type: Hey, girl! It’s Elizabeth. Do you know if Ginny had plans after work tonight? Can’t get a hold of her…
It’s delivered. Within seconds, she responds: Yes! She had a chamber meeting.
And, just like that, it’s over. Just as quickly as it filled the room in my brain, the smoke is sucked back under the crack in the door, as though I waved a magic wand and reversed it with just as much energy as it billowed in. I cough out the black smoke, the taste of pennies dissipates. I swallow. My throat is dry. I open the cabinet, reach for a glass, hold it under the nozzle to fill it with water from the sink. I take a sip. Of course. A meeting.
The smoke is gone from the little room in my brain now. I’m tired. I breathe. I close my eyes at the bar in the kitchen and teardrops form on the edge of my eyelashes. I blink them to the floor.
“Colin? Where are you? It’s time for supper!” Gaining confidence now, I stand tall while I spoon spaghetti into a sage-green earthenware bowl. The garlic bread smells good. My knees feel weak. I’m out of breath. I’m embarrassed. Jamie cocks his head, eyes concerned, “Ok, now?” I nod.
The boys tumble into the kitchen loud and laughing. They are all elbows and knees and feet – like puppies. I smile at them as they flop into their seats at the table. My heartbeat has slowed.
Things return to normal. But, I watch ever so subtly, just over my shoulder, for the smoke to sneak in again under my door.