Reaching Rachel - Two
I used to think Dad liked me, back when I was little. Somewhere around the ages of seven, eight or nine, before I understood the difference between doing something to protect somebody’s innocence or doing something because you loved them. People think those two can coexist, but they don’t. If you truly love somebody, you’re not worried about protecting them—just making sure that they’re doing the right thing.
“Rachel,” he said, in his mischievous way. I rolled my eyes toward him, exasperated.
“I made lemonade.”
He held two glasses up, wet with condensation on the sides. I tried to conjure up enough spit to swallow but I couldn’t. It was blistering hot. It was miserable, and the air was out.
I sat up, unpeeling my tank top from my sticky back, and reached for it. Dad turned it over.
“Can I sit?” He asked, gesturing to where my bare feet purposely reserved the other seat for somebody far more important. You know, if they were ever going to come along, whoever they were. I shrugged disinterestedly, turning my head away.
“Why so angry?” He asked, taking a seat. I tucked my knobby knees up beneath my chin.
He waited a few seconds. I sipped at my lemonade.
“Is it because I wouldn’t let you watch the movie last night?”
I itched my ear with my shoulder. He took that for an answer.
“It was a grown-up movie. Besides, we rented you your own.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but the screen door banged open. Mom came shooting past, keys jingling in hand. “I gotta get outta this heat! David, stay with Rachel. I’ll be back.”
I watched her go with my usual complacency. Even at eight, I could never get that unswayed expression off my face. I think it worried my Mom sometimes, the way she looked at me. I wondered what I had done wrong when she asked me if I was I all right. It was just kind of like I couldn’t find it in myself to care one way or another.
Except when it came to Dad. Everything he did that concerned me was totally unfair. Like the movie last night—rated PG-thirteen, a romantic comedy the trailers claimed to be hilarious. I asked Mom to see it with them and she said yes right away. But when I sat down between her and Dad on the couch, it was all bets off. He shook his head and I was sent upstairs with the cartoon I’d rented the night before to watch as well, on the off chance that they’d let me stay up even later after finishing the first movie. No such luck.
“Was the movie good?” I ventured after the sounds of our ancient truck had faded down the road. I swished the lemonade in my mouth. The sourness made my teeth hurt.
“Not really,” Dad replied easily, leaning back against the swing. It creaked beneath his weight. “You didn’t miss much.”
- - -
I stuff various things into my standard-issue hospital tote with quiet defiance, hoping the angry set of my jaw and the downward slope of my mouth say more than any words could. Hannah is standing in the doorway talking to Sandy, whom I’ve started referring to as the Too-Friendly Nurse. In my head, of course.
I’m hobbling around on one leg the best I can, not bothering to examine the new clothes Hannah bought me at K-Mart as they’re transferred from their plastic shopping bags to the sturdier canvas. My clothes will reek of medicine and illness now, most definitely.
I pause at one turquoise shirt, shaking it out to see it better. It looks a little large for me. I hold it up to my flat chest and stare down, then drop it against the bedspread. The tiniest bit of stomach strains through my white undershirt.
“One day I’m going to be big.”
“Big?” Mom’s fingers danced on my forearms, and I giggled obligingly. “But you’re so tiny!”
“I’m not tiny! I’m big.”
“Big! Do you know what big means?”
They moved to my armpits. I howled with laughter.
“I’m going to be as tall as five houses put together.”
“Five houses?” With each exclamation of surprise, her pitch raised. “That’s too tall!”
“I will be—” I stretched my hand up, way up, until it was as high as the clouds. Or it was from my vantage point, anyway, laying on the grass in the backyard. My feet joined the party, just to keep my fingers company. “Like that.”
“That tall?” Mom murmured.
I nodded so hard my chin touched my chest. “Maybe even taller.”
“Careful or you’ll float right to space.”
I toss the bag onto the floor and turn away from my bed, pulling on a jacket. Hannah’s nodding at Sandy and they both are so solemn I want to laugh.
“We ready?” I ask, reaching for my crutches.
“Did you sign all the release forms?” Sandy asks.
I point to the stack by my bed.
She snatches them up and heads for the hallway. “Let me turn these in. Just a moment.”
When she’s gone, Hannah and I stare at each other. Mine turns to a glare, too quickly to be fair. She purses her lips.
“I know, Hannah. You don’t have a choice.”
“That’s exactly right. I have no choice, in fact.”
She sticks her tongue out at me. I smile reluctantly and the tension dissolves.
“There,” she says, coming forward to wrap her arms around me. “That’s what I want to see.”
“But isn’t there—”
This time, I don’t argue.
After a while of waiting, Sandy parades in and informs us we’re free to go with a peachy-keen smile. It makes my stomach hurt, so I don’t look at her. We’re ushered out with her hands hovering just behind our backs, and I clip along at my uneven pace as best as I can.
“Did you want to see your mom before you go, hon?” Sandy asks, breathing heavily from exertion.
I halt abruptly. “Can I?”
The expression on her face tells me she wasn’t expecting a yes. She recovers quickly, though, and does an about face, gesturing towards a corridor. “That would be all the way in the ICU. Can you walk?”
“I can walk.”
Our journey is even slower. My leg is a lead weight, and by the time we reach the busy hallway lined with fiberboard doors, I’m hunching in on myself. Hannah offers me her arm to lean on, and I take it.
“She’s room one twenty-seven,” Sandy says, glancing at her pager. “Whoops. I gotta be somewhere. Can you girls see yourselves there?”
Hannah nods. I’m too tired to.
“I’ll be back to show you out in a moment.”
She disappears around the corner, and Hannah’s hands fall to my waist. “Do you need to sit down?”
“No.” I swallow and draw a breath from my diaphragm, like Mrs. Shirley used to tell me to when I was in choir. It helps a little. “Let’s go.”
“She’ll be all—you know.”
“I’ve already seen her. There’s bandages and wires galore.”
“I can handle it.”
“I know you can, Rachel, but you shouldn’t have to. You don’t.”
“I said I can.”
Again, my natural-born impertinence has got the best of me. I squeeze my eyes shut and plod forward. After a few seconds, I hear Hannah’s footfalls as she follows.
We reach the door to Mom’s room too quick, and I swing the door open after only the tiniest bit of hesitation. It smacks into the bathroom door, standing ajar the inside left, and the noise makes me flinch. There’s a design flaw, right there. I feel like filing a complaint.
The room is empty, not a nurse or doctor in sight. I step inside with Hannah close behind. Mom’s a few feet away, wrapped in bandages on a bed. She’s hardly recognizable—the white covers her forehead, her legs, stretching into where her hospital gown obscures it from vision. She’s wearing a neckbrace.
“Rachel?” Hannah asks, and I realize I’ve stopped moving. I take a delirious step forward.
This cannot be my mother. This cannot be my mother. This cannot be my mother.
Repeating things to myself doesn’t make any of this go away, I’ve found. Just cements it further, until the truth is so undeniable and present and just there that I have the urge to run away from it.
Up close, I see Mom’s lips are chapped. Hannah was right—there are so many monitors and tubes coming from her, I can’t tell where she begins and they end. Her body, always small but, you know, palpable, sinks deep beneath the mess of instruments keeping her alive, until it’s like there’s nothing even there to keep alive. Except a pair of dry, crusted lips.
I reach out and touch them with a still hand. I imagine her opening her eyes, rolling them at me—yes, Rachel, I am real. No need to touch. But you always were a hands-on learner, I guess—and it’s almost enough to soothe the frenzy inside my head.
“Mom,” I try. There’s no response.
“She’s not going to answer,” Hannah murmurs from behind me. I turn and search her eyes. They’re desert-dry, not a fleck of moisture lingering in them. It’s worse than if she was sobbing. The way she looks is almost resigned, and it scares me. Like Mom’s going to be just a body forever.
“She’s not…she’s not going to stay like this, is she?”
“No.” Hannah puffs a breath through her lips. “She’s in a medically induced coma. So a few—”
“—days. At least.”
“A coma. Like a soap opera.”
Hannah doesn’t respond.
“How will they know she’ll wake up?”
“It’s medically induced, Rachel. That means they put her in it, and they’ll take her out when it’s safe to operate.”
“Would you quick repeating every single thing I say? Yes. Operate!”
I jerk my head away from Hannah, to the floor. Now I’ve touched a nerve. But—it’s like these words aren’t real. I’ve heard them before, on TV and in school. I’ve read them before, in books and magazines and in brochures in the pediatrician's office when I go for checkups. But they’ve never pertained to me.
It’s like I need their definitions to understand—coma: when a person is asleep due to stress on the brain. Operate: when the aforementioned person is cut open in order to fix what has been broken.
“Let’s go,” I command, and Hannah quickly turns toward the door. She’s forgiving enough to wait until I’m outside Mom’s door, but after that she takes off. Her flats tug away from her heels and smack the ground with every furious step. I close it behind me and lean against it for a moment, struggling to regain my breath.
- - -
In the car, Hannah is quiet. I don’t ask her to, but she pulls into a McDonalds and orders us both deluxe cheeseburgers and a large fry to split. She pulls over after we’ve received our food, balancing a the box of fries on her stomach as she unwraps a straw. When she lifts them off a moment later, I see the grease has seeped through to her shirt, darkening a line of light pink to dark.
“It’s an hour to Greenwich,” she says at last, after chewing for a few seconds. “When we get there, we’ll pack in for tonight, but tomorrow I’m taking you shopping.”
“I don’t need—”
“Yeah, you do, unless you want your Dad to.”
I bite into my hamburger to avoid answering.
She lets out a short laugh. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Swipes her knuckles beneath her nose, punctuates every word with her fry in the air. “An hour from me. Four from Portland. And then you wreck.”
“Life’s idea of a joke, I guess.”
The car is silent for a contemplative moment.
“Rachel,” she sighs, tossing her fry back in the container. “I wish I could keep you. I really do.”
“But it’s like…” She stares up at the car ceiling, and the green of her eyes intensifies. “This baby is taking everything from me. My livelihood. My mobility. It’s just going to get worse in the next month, and in all honest, it’s not fair to you. I’ll be on bedrest, taking blood-clot shots, eating like a pig.”
I lean against the window.
“I don’t know what to do without her,” Hannah mumbles. Her breath comes out in a wheeze. I glance over at her, slightly alarmed, and find her lower lip trembling. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this. She was supposed to be there when Molly was born, but now—”
“She’s not dead.”
“Then quit acting like she is. Maybe she’ll be better by then!”
I can tell Hannah wants to dispute this, but she lets me have my fantasy. I curl my legs up underneath me, resting my chin on them, as she puts the car into drive.
“Driving’s easy, Rachel.”
My hands were shaky as I reached out and gripped the wheel. “Okay.”
“You don’t look okay.”
“Good. Just relax.” She pressed her hands down on my shoulders, forcing them out of their rigid position. “Now you press on the brake and shift into drive.”
“Good. All right. Let up on the break and tap the gas.”
The car lurched forward with a screech. I slammed my foot down on the brake.
“Ouch.” Mom rubbed the back of her neck where it had collided with the headrest. “Okay. Well. Try again.”
“No. I can’t do this.”
“Yes you can.”
“No, Mom—I really—I can’t.”
But I was already out of the car, slamming the door behind me. I went around to the passenger’s side. Disappointment was plain in Mom’s eyes. She’d been so excited to give my first lesson. And here I was, shutting her down.
“I don’t even care about driving,” I mumbled as we switched out seats.
Her hand fell upon arm. “You will one day. It’s best to start as soon as you can.”
“I said I don’t want to. Can you just leave it alone?” I pull my car door shut with a bang, forcing her back. Mom waited a few seconds before slowly walking around to the front. She got in, wordlessly fastening her seatbelt.
“We have Hannah’s tomorrow,” She said at last, easily shifting. She pressed the gas and the car slid forward without even the slightest jolt. It was a fluidity I would never possess, no matter how hard I tried. “You packed?”
“Yeah,” I lied, and we didn’t speak again.
“Rachel? Wake up. We’re here.”
I rub my eyes and blink against the light. It’s mid-afternoon, maybe two. Hannah’s car door slams and I take a moment to gather my bearings before swinging the door open. The cold pavement seeps right through my flimsy sandals, and I rise up on my toes reflexively.
Hannah lives in an apartment in Greenwich Village that’s probably at least a million dollars. Rich, my uncle by marriage, is some CEO of a company in France. I only know this because I overheard Mom talking about it with her best friend, Kate. I’d never ask otherwise, and she would never volunteer the information.
Thinking about Kate makes my throat hurt. I love Kate. She’s the one who came over and stayed with us for three months after Dad left. She was mother to me, comfort to my mother. She made dinner whenever Mom was too tired to get out of bed. She made Mom laugh in ways that I couldn’t, that nearly took the shine out tears right out of her eyes. I automatically reach for my pocket, where my cell phone would usually be, to call and see how she’s coping. And then I remember my cell phone burned along with everything else in our car.
Hannah comes around to help me, and I lean against her for support. We take the elevator to the fourth floor, where her apartment is located. I’ve never been, but Mom showed me the pictures. It’s gorgeous, that much I know—wood floors, crown molding, a fireplace or two, huge windows. Hannah’s key jingles as she unlocks the door and pushes it open, kicking her shoes off as she goes in.
I follow her, trying not to gape as I slide my feet from my flip flops. It’s even more beautiful than I had imagined—so light and airy, every room painted a pristine light.
“Oh, good,” Hannah says casually, picking up a piece of paper that lays on a flat railing up the borders the risen kitchen. “Alice was here.”
“Alice?” I ask, stepping tentatively further into the room.
Hannah waves me forward. “Yeah. The cleaner. She saw a cockroach which is just great. I can’t spray when I’m pregnant. I’ll just tell Rich to hire those one guys—the environmental exterminators or whatever they’re called.”
Finally, I reach her. She wraps an arm around me.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I only wish Mom had been here to see it.