Life on a Seesaw

Stranded at the end of a seesaw, feet dangling above the sand, five-year-old Jason scowled. “Come on, Quil, let me down,” he said. Their eyes were locked in a battle for power. Jason risked a quick glance over his shoulder. “Mom, Quil won’t push up,” he called in the big guns to settle the humiliation.

The playground was a buzzing hive of children in perpendicular and vertical motion. Inside the drone of squeals, shouts, and laughter, Jacqueline Temple, age seven, legs stretched in front of her, locked in defiance and control, squinted against the sun. She wasn’t being mean, it was just important for her to be able to stop the ups and downs somewhere in her life.

* * *

The sun angled through the bedroom window and warmed a patch on the bed where her feet lay. She smelled summer as the perfume of lilac and the sharp green scent of the neighbor’s cut lawn drifted through the screened window. She stretched her thin body and untwisted the sheet to create a smooth garden of pink rosebuds that spread from chin to toe. Her white-blond hair splayed across her pillow like dandelion fluff. The freckles that were sprinkled across her nose and cheeks rearranged themselves as she smiled. This was her favorite moment of the day; her bed was a safe cocoon. In the summer, it was harder to tell what kind of a day it was going to be.

In the winter, there were clues before she even left her room. On an up day, her feet would feel the warmth of the wooden floor of her upstairs bedroom. Momma would be up, heater on, making pancakes, bacon, and eggs in the kitchen. From the bathroom, Quil would hear the upbeat bantering of the morning news show on the television downstairs. The living room would be ablaze with all the lamps on against the dark of winter mornings as she descended the stairs. A certain kind of energy, like a vapor of expectancy, would emanate from the kitchen and quickly fill the remaining spaces.

On a down day, the floorboards would be cold. Silence, or more accurately, the absence of sound, of life energy, would make her shiver as she crept down the stairs only to see the door to Momma’s bedroom closed against the world. The stench of overflowing ashtrays would permeate the living room from a nighttime of chain-smoking. She would be left to fix herself a breakfast of cold cereal, if there was any, and milk, unless it had gone sour.

In the summer, she couldn’t tell until her feet were almost at the bottom of the stairs.

This morning, the windows and doors were thrown wide open, and vases overflowing with bright-colored flowers were randomly scattered throughout the living room as she padded down the stairs. “Uh oh,” she said to herself, “this is going to be one of those flip-flop days.” Momma was humming a tune in the kitchen, and the smell of cinnamon rolls wrapped itself around Quil like the hug of a best friend.

“Hey, sunshine,” Momma greeted her. “What do you say we go to Disneyland today?” Jacqui Temple, thirty-seven going on fifteen, hair in a pixie cut and the same light blue, saucer-round eyes as Quil, wore capris and a sleeveless white top. She was barefoot; she liked the uninterrupted feel of the earth beneath her feet, she would tell strangers. Jacqui grinned impishly at her daughter as she separated the circle of cinnamon rolls with a knife. A pitcher of milk sat on the table surrounded by vases of iris, roses, daffodils, and bunches of lilac. Breakfast in the garden, Jacqui called it.

“Disneyland? Isn’t that, like, really far away?” Quil asked, less as a question than a reality check.

“Mars is far away,” Jacqui said. “We’d go there, if I could figure out how to get us on a rocket.” She continued her tuneless hum as she placed two plates of rolls on the table, poured the milk, and retrieved a bowl of fruit from the refrigerator. She scooped Quil up, spun her around and plunked her back down with a big kiss on the top of her head. “Don’t be a downer,” she instructed. “I know . . .” Jacqui said with a gleeful clap of her hands, “let’s call some of your friends to go with us.” She looked expectantly at her daughter.

“Oh, Momma, let’s just spend the day together. We never get to do that,” Quil said without hesitation. Silently, she recalled the day they took Julie with them to the park. Julie had not been allowed to play with her after that.

“Well, okay, precious, whatever makes you happy.” Jacqui poured the milk. “We could stop in Santa Cruz on the way—catch the Boardwalk? Ride the roller coaster? Oh, and let’s take the coastal highway. I love the blue water this time of year,” she chattered on, her voice full of excitement. Finishing ahead of Quil, she called over her shoulder, “Hurry up. We’ve got places to go, things to do.”

Quil sighed and took her unfinished breakfast to the sink.

The traffic was sluggish on southbound 101, and people seemed testy—horns honked, drivers made unfriendly gestures. Quil noticed her teeth were clamped, and worked her jaw to release the tension. K-JAZ blared from the rear speakers of their Toyota and spewed from the open windows, blasting everyone in a three-car range around them.

In the driver’s seat, Jacqui blew big bubbles from her strawberry gum and seemed to derive no end of pleasure from popping them with the tip of her fingernail. “Did you see that one,” she turned to Quil, her eyes wide. The cloying fruit smell of the gum made Quil nauseous. She turned her nose to the window and inhaled.

“Mom—you’re weaving out of our lane,” Quil warned, noting the close proximity of a car on her right. Her head ached. She’d rather be home buried in one of the books on her Summer Fun Reading List from the library. Flip-flop days made her stomach hurt.

“Such a little worry wart,” Jacqui chided. “You’ll be gray before you’re ten. Oh, look—we’re on empty,” Jacqui peered at the gas gauge. “We’ll get off at the next exit. I could use a cup of coffee anyway,” she said as she slid across traffic. Brakes squeaked, horns honked. Jacqui smiled into her rear-view mirror, stuck her hand out the window and waved a fleeting apology. Quil took a raggedy breath, and with white knuckles, clung to the armrest.

Jacqui pulled into the Chevron and paralleled next to the pump. She swiped her card, pushed the Regular button and inserted the hose. While the gas was pumping, she said, “I’m going into the mini-mart to pick up some snacks. Hungry?”

Quil sat with one hand holding her stomach. “Not really—probably later though.”

“Good morning,” she said with enthusiasm to the clerk at the counter. “Great day to be out traveling. Do you get off before sunset? Sure hope so. Kind of day you don’t want to miss,” she chattered on. “Oh, I’ll take a couple of these too,” she said, adding two packs of gum to the pile of chips, cookies, sunflower seeds, sodas, M&Ms, a package of cashews, and some beef jerky. She dropped a twenty and a ten-dollar bill on the counter and said, “Keep the change. Have a lovely day.”

“Here ya go, sunshine,” she handed the bag through the window to Quil, and walked around to extricate the hose from her gas tank. “You know, I’ll bet I can get just a little more in the tank,” she chirped. “They always short-change you,” she said loudly to no one in particular. She squeezed the nozzle tentatively, and then gave it a quick blast. Gas back-splashed from the tank, drenched her hand, shorts, and ran down her leg. “Shit! Shit!“ she screamed. She dropped the nozzle on the ground and wiped frantically at her shorts and leg. “Damn!” she yelled, stomping her foot.

“Mom . . .” Quil jumped out of the car, grabbed a handful of paper towels and started to blot at the gasoline. “Damn it, Quil. Leave me alone,” she sputtered and slapped Quil’s hand away. Jacqui was crying now, and pacing back and forth. “This would never have happened if you hadn’t been whining about stopping for food.”

Quil looked at the ground. A man in an SUV behind them stepped out of his car. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he offered.

Jacqui glared at him. “Get a vasectomy,” she shouted. He got back in his car and slammed the door. “Well, now the day is ruined, thanks to you,” she turned on Quil. “I hope you’re happy. Get in the car.” She slammed her door and revved the engine as Quil slid into her seat and fastened the seat-belt. “Why do I even bother,” she shouted. With a squeal of tires, they shot out of the gas station and onto 101 North.

Quil regulated her breathing and looked straight ahead. She pretended she was sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, surrounded only by the sky and sea. In the distance, a seagull called and a raven soared high above the waves. The sound of the surf soothed out the wrinkles of her mind as she turned her face toward the sun.

Jacqui flew past Petaluma at 80 mph cursing drivers as she swung the Toyota in and out of traffic. Stuck for a moment in the middle lane, she blared her horn until the white haired woman in front of her pulled to the right.

Quil stayed in her oceanic safe place until Jacqui swung the car into their driveway, jerked to a halt, and ripped the keys from the ignition. Wordlessly, she slammed the car door, and then the front door of the house, apparently oblivious to the fact that Quil was still sitting in the car.

Quil sat quietly for a moment. She glanced through her open window at Mr. McLaughlin next door, mowing his front lawn. His wife, Gladys, sat on their front porch sipping from a tall plastic cup, which she raised in greeting. The sun made the car a cozy haven, and the drone of the lawn mower pulled her towards sleep. Perhaps it would be okay to lean her seat back, just for a few minutes. No. She knew what she had to do.

She paused at the front door, with her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath, and released it with a quiet ‘whoosh,’ before stepping inside.

There was a trail of debris all the way to her mother’s room—keys, Jacqui’s purse with contents spewed about the floor, the bag of junk food smashed and scattered like a bulimic’s nightmare, shoes kicked off peeking from under the chair and the table, clothes tossed randomly lying crumpled and abandoned, and a vase of jonquils sideways on the floor, water spreading in an ever-widening puddle. Jacqui’s door was shut against the world.

Quil retrieved and put away the items, and restored a sense of order to the living room. She padded into the kitchen, made herself a sandwich, and opened the potato chips from the salvaged junk food bag. She poured herself a glass of milk and took her lunch into the living room where she sat in a spill of sunshine. She ate, and waited.

It came later that afternoon while Quil was curled up on the sofa reading Tom Sawyer, imagining a life that included lazy summer days on the banks of the Mississippi river. It began as a low mournful cry, and built like a tsunami into a wounded-animal keening that pierced the bedroom door, careened down the hallway, and wrapped itself around Quil in a choke hold.

Quil took a ragged breath, and walked quietly down the hallway. She didn’t knock, but slowly opened her mother’s door and stood for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the darkened room. On the bed, pale, covered in sweat, hair matted, arms wrapped around drawn up knees, Jacqui rocked herself back and forth as tears streamed down her face. “Help,” she sobbed, and held out her arms to her daughter.

* * *

“Help,” the reedy voice beckoned from the bedroom across the hall.

Déjà vu all over again, Quil thought, as the twenty-year distance from childhood vanished in a word.. Fatigue threatened to hogtie her to the bed. She wiped at the grit in her eyes with her fist and reached for the bedside lamp. Its low watt bulb gave an eerie, fog-like cast to the room as she stumbled from her bed for the third time since midnight.

She flipped on the hall light and peered through Jacqui’s open door to see her mother, sheet pulled up to her chin, sitting like a small sand dune on the hospital bed.

“Help me, I’m dying,” she said, with arms outstretched. Quil padded across the carpet, sat on the edge of the bed and held her mother; she breathed in the familiar scent of her mixed with the odd new odor of a cancer-wracked body. Thin wisps of gray hair plastered themselves to the teary cheeks of Jacqui’s otherwise parched face.

“It’s okay, Mom, I’m here,” she crooned, and rocked her mother gently back and forth, her hands lightly stoking the frail bird-like skeleton of Jacqui’s back. She eased Jacqui back onto her pillow and held the paper bendable straw to her dried, cracked lips. Jacqui choked and foul smelling water seeped between the wrinkled folds of skin on her neck. Quil dabbed gently with the corner of the sheet.

“It won’t be long, you know,” Jacqui rasped.

“I know,” Quil’s words threatened to catch in the flood of mixed emotions. ‘Please don’t leave me,’ fought with ‘die already.’

“You deserved better than this. I’m sorry,” Jacqui managed. Her voice was like sandpaper.

“It’s okay –”

“I mean for everything,” Jacqui interrupted. “You never got to be a kid, you know.” She took a ragged breath in. “Someone had to be responsible, and it turned out it couldn’t be me.” A tear squeezed its way out of the corner of her eye and evaporated half way down her cheek.

“We did alright,” Quil stroked her cheek softly.

“We just didn’t know back then,” Jacqui turned her face to the wall, eyes closed.

“No, we just didn’t know,” Quil murmured. She sat back in the padded bedside chair and watched the frail figure of her mother as the sheet that covered her rose and fell, barely perceptibly. Eyes heavy, Quil drifted toward the edge of sleep, the wet, gurgling sound from her mother’s chest a steady background to lean against.

A week later, Quil sat alone in the near-empty house, in the stillness, on the cold hearth. She held Jacqui’s ashes in a box on her lap, and noticed she seemed somehow “heavier” than in her frail last days. Quil leaned her cheek against the cool marble fireplace and mused that the same fireplace could be cold and ungiving one day, full of warmth and comfort another. A sardonic smile rearranged her grieving face as she contemplated the metaphor of the fireplace and her mother’s Bipolar life. A tear rolled down her cheek, leaving a crystalline snail-trail.

* * *

Quil sat on the beach at the edge of the ocean, surrounded only by the sky and sea. In the distance, a seagull called and a raven soared high above the waves. The sound of the surf soothed out the wrinkles of her mind as she turned her face toward the sun. It wasn’t so much a celebration of her mother’s death that led her to Maui, as the release from the tyranny of her life.

A sea gull flew close overhead and deposited a plop of white feces on her leg. Quil screeched. Instantly, seething rage consumed her. Profanities flew out of her mouth, and she shook her fists against fate. Quil ran to the water and threw herself in, thrashing about madly to wash off the offending poop. Wild-eyed, she looked back over her shoulder, at the beautiful beach where she was just moments ago.

“No,” she said, simply. She knew what she had to do. She looked up at the sky, then out to the farthest edge of the ocean. With determined steps, she waded deeper and deeper into the ocean. She brushed aside floating detritus and moved through the froth and foam of the waves as they broke around her.

One more step, and as her head slipped below the surface, she inhaled.