Underwater a novel, p.10
Underwater: A Novel, page 10
She is afraid I’ve taken a step back.
She wants Brenda to come.
She wants Brenda to help.
On Sunday, she finally convinces me I need to make an emergency call to Brenda. She picks up right away. I tell her about my dad.
“I’m so sorry, Morgan.” Brenda’s voice is comforting, like an oversize sweatshirt. There’s a part of me that wishes she were here. I want to sit on the steps with her just long enough to feel the sun on my face. And then I’d go inside and shut the door again.
On the phone, Brenda asks me how I feel. She says I’m talking slower and quieter than I usually do. She wants to know if I notice. I tell her I don’t feel electric. I’m sapped of energy. I’m used to feeling like I can’t stop fidgeting. But this thing with my dad has just made me numb. All I want to do is curl up in pajamas and stare at the wall. It’s different from the way I feel when I need to take my emergency pill.
“Do you want to hurt yourself?” She clears her throat. “I’m sorry I have to ask that, but it’s important for you to tell me if you’re having those kinds of thoughts.”
I tell her no. And that’s the truth. I couldn’t do that to my mom. Or Ben. I feel tired and immobile, but I don’t want to die. “I want to sleep.”
We keep talking. I’m not even sure how to put the way I’m feeling into words.
“It’s okay not to know,” Brenda says. “Maybe you need to figure it out. And we can work on it some more on Tuesday. You can call me before then if you need to talk.”
I thank her and hang up. Maybe I should’ve told her she might as well quit now, because I will probably end up just like my dad.
* * *
Evan stops by a few times over the weekend. He has probably texted, too. I haven’t turned my phone back on to know for sure. I haven’t even taken it out of the drawer I shoved it in. I ask my mom and Ben to tell Evan to go away.
They don’t say those exact words. They’re nicer than that.
I don’t go near the door when he comes. I stay on the couch. Or in my bed. Or I hover in the hallway. Ben tells him I’m sick. My mom says we’re having some family issues we need to deal with.
“That boy is going to lose his patience with you,” my mom says, shutting the door. “You should talk to him.”
“I can’t. Not yet.”
I watch the surfing DVD Evan gave me. I watch it over and over again. I play it on the computer. I wear my headphones. I hear the wind and the laughter of his friends in my ears. I still envy the freedom of Evan sliding down that wave. I still wish I could stand in the sand there. I wish I could cheer. I wish I could be something other than what I am.
Monday morning comes and my grandma calls. She is the only grandma I have ever known. She’s my dad’s mom. My mom’s parents died before I was born. But I’d visit my dad’s parents every July. Grandpa Ben—the grandpa who was so grand, my little brother was named after him—would take me to the county fair to buy me cotton candy as big as my head. When I was in middle school, he rode the flippiest, turniest, spinniest rides with me even though he was way older than anyone else going on them.
When I was sixteen and the ink was barely dry on my driver’s license, my grandpa died suddenly of a heart attack. He’d been working on his beloved Bel Air when it happened. My grandma heard a crash. She ran to the garage and found him on the ground next to a pile of stuff that must have fallen from the tool shelf when he bumped into it as he fell.
People said the kinds of things people say to make everyone feel better when someone dies. They said, “At least he went doing something he loved.”
Those words didn’t make me feel better. I missed him when he was gone.
At the funeral, my grandma told me my grandpa had left his car to me. I felt so special. I assumed that because he adored that car, he must have adored me. To this day, I have no doubt this is true, but sometimes I wonder if that car was nothing but bad luck.
Last summer, I drove Ben down the coast to visit our grandma without my mom. I was hoping to take my brother on all the same rides at the fair. He wasn’t tall enough. But I did get to buy him cotton candy as big as his head.
This morning, my grandma tells my mom everything that happened between yesterday morning and now. My mom stands in the bathroom getting ready for work. She has to set her cell phone on the back of the toilet and put it on speaker so she can use her hands to brush her teeth and comb her hair. I listen from the hallway, but my mom doesn’t know. Ben can’t hear because he’s eating breakfast in the other room with the TV on. She thinks I’m with him. She wouldn’t want us to hear this.
My grandma’s brittle voice comes through the speaker. “When I went to pick him up, the people there said he has PTSD. They gave me some phone numbers. They said it would be a good idea to try to get him into a program, and that he needs to stop drinking, too. The drinking makes everything worse.”
“No kidding,” my mom says.
Anybody I’ve ever been related to knows this already. Even my grandma knows this. But she says it like yesterday was the first time she’d ever heard it.
My grandma tells my mom she thanked the doctors and walked out the door. She says my dad sat in the passenger seat and didn’t say a word. At home, he sat on the couch and still didn’t say anything. She said it was like he was a teenager. She chuckles. My mom doesn’t. My grandma says she cooked all day. Eventually my dad migrated to the kitchen to watch. He sat in a chair and made promises that he would research the alcohol counseling programs listed in the pamphlets my grandma had fanned out in the middle of the table. And while he made those promises, she made him everything he always loved to eat. She mashed potatoes and drowned them in gravy. She served the potatoes with a pork roast she’d marinated for hours in the fridge. She made a three-layer chocolate cake with homemade buttercream frosting for dessert. When my dad ate all the food, it made my grandma think he was okay.
“He had his appetite.” She says this as if it should’ve been proof that he was getting better.
My mom explains that what’s wrong with my dad isn’t like having the flu. Eating might not mean anything. It’s something in his brain and his body. It’s something different.
My grandma doesn’t pay attention. Instead, she tells my mom that after dinner, my dad took a long, hot shower. She says she washed his clothes. She stuck her hands in the pockets of his pants, but didn’t find anything aside from two dollars, some change, and a crumpled-up fortune from a fortune cookie. Later, when it was dark and everyone was tired, my uncle Matt came over with three pairs of jeans and five new T-shirts for my dad.
“He brought every color.” My grandma says it like it matters. As if my dad wants to be the best-dressed homeless vet in San Diego.
My grandma says my dad folded the clothes neatly and piled them into a duffel bag. He put his new toothbrush and toothpaste in a side pocket. There was also soap. And deodorant. And two packages of brand-new underwear still wrapped in the plastic bag they came in. My grandma lists everything like she’s reading off a checklist for sixth grade camp.
“It was like he was embarrassed to take everything. Like he wanted to shove it all in the duffel and not look at it.”
I can picture her hovering in the doorway, watching him.
“Why are you packing?” she probably asked.
I can see her walking over and touching my dad on the shoulder. Her touch would’ve made him flinch. I’ve seen the way he flinches when people try to touch him, even if he loved them once. I knew to never sneak up on him to give him a hug. He became skittish even after only one tour in Afghanistan. I knew I had to make sure he saw me before I climbed into his lap and hung around his neck. And then he’d settle me into the crook of his arm and we’d watch TV together. He got worse with more tours. When I was older and he was sad all the time, I’d feel bad when I startled him as I came around the corner and into a room. I’d tell him I was sorry and try to hug him. He’d flinch at
“I begged him to stay,” my grandma says through the phone. “Stay as long as you need. We can get help. We can fix this.” We’ve all said those things before. But as much as we say the words, my dad never hears them.
The last time my dad was home about a year and a half ago, my mom said the opposite. She told him he couldn’t stay anymore. “You need to go,” she said.
Ben and I had his railroad tracks set up in the living room. I was trying to distract him while our mom and dad fought by the front door. They were only hissing at each other at first. But then my mom’s voice got louder. Like she needed to be heard. It was early in the morning and my dad hadn’t come home the night before. He’d been arrested and sat in a cell all night to get sober. It wasn’t the first time. He didn’t call my mom to let her know. He left her at home to worry.
“No more,” my mom said that day.
My dad’s key was still in the lock. She wouldn’t let him inside the apartment. And after that day, he never came home again.
“Tell her what really happened,” my uncle Matt yells through the speaker now. “Tell her how he drank every last drop of alcohol in this house and started yelling and screaming. Tell them how I wanted to call the police, but you wouldn’t let me.”
“Stop!” my grandma cries. “Just, please, stop.”
But my uncle doesn’t stop. “We told him he could stay if he went to rehab. He didn’t like that ultimatum. He never does.” I can picture him pacing across the bright yellow linoleum floor of my grandma’s kitchen, running his hand through his thinning hair.
My grandma starts to cry.
Deep down inside, I’m sure she knew my dad would never agree to get help. But that didn’t stop her from hoping this time would be different.
“I tried to stay up all night,” she says. “But I got too tired. I fell asleep in front of the TV. He slipped out the front door. I woke up still holding the remote control.” Her voice cracks. “He’s gone.”
“And so is most of her jewelry, by the way!” my uncle yells in the background.
“It’s not your fault. He’s sick. You have to stop blaming yourself,” my mom says.
“Tell her, Carol! Tell her what a colossal waste of time this is.” My uncle is so loud that my mom has to switch the speaker off.
She balances the phone between her ear and her shoulder. She mumbles something, then stops to listen. She knots her hair on top of her head. She runs a blush brush along her cheekbones. She speaks calmly to my grandma. She sounds like Brenda. She tells her she did her best.
“I’ll call you tonight,” my mom finally says. “I need to take Ben to school. I have to go to work.”
My grandma must ask her something about me, because I hear my mom say, “She’s still at home.” She pauses to listen to whatever my grandma says back, but then my mom interrupts her. “We’re working on it,” she says. I can detect the clip in her voice. It’s right below the surface. It’s a tone full of frustration. I don’t know if it’s directed at my grandma or at me.
I’m glad today is Tuesday. Brenda is coming. I haven’t talked to her since my emergency call a couple days ago. I wait for her halfway down the stairs outside the front door of my apartment. She stops and stands still at the edge of the pool.
“Well, hi,” she says. “Do you want to come over here?”
I shake my head no. She moves closer and asks if I want to go there. Still no. She moves closer again. It reminds me of when my mom and I would sit across from each other on the floor and reach our arms out to get Ben to walk back and forth between us. Only instead of gradually moving farther away, Brenda keeps closing the distance. Finally, she stands at the bottom of the stairs.
“How about here?”
I feel like this is her version of meeting in the middle. It’s not the edge of the pool. It’s not the center of the courtyard. It’s only a few more steps from where I already am. I stand up. I grip the railing. I put one foot in front of me, and then the other. I take six steps until I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs.
Brenda takes my hand. She squeezes it. One squeeze. A squeeze that means everything without saying it.
“Sit,” she says.
Brenda adjusts herself on the bottom step. She straightens her legs out in front of her, then crosses one purple-Chuck-Taylored foot over the other one. “Tell me about the rest of your weekend. How’s your dad?”
She doesn’t seem surprised. And she shouldn’t be. It’s not like someone who gets hauled away on an involuntary psychiatric hold is expected to be in excellent condition after it happens. She asks me for more details, so I tell her what my grandma said.
“I see.” She scribbles a note down. Her forehead wrinkles. I bet she doesn’t want me to notice that. “I understand how that would be upsetting.”
“It’s just the same old thing. He only cares about himself.”
“Oh, Morgan. I’m so sorry. I know it can seem like he’s being selfish, but there’s more to it than that. Are you feeling frustrated?”
“I’m not frustrated. That’s not what’s wrong with me.”
She wrinkles her forehead again. “Then what is it?”
I know I have to tell her everything I haven’t said out loud all weekend. I have to say the things I had on the tip of my tongue, but shoved back down my throat. I have to tell her all the things I’ve only thought. But it’s hard to get the words out.
“It’s just … How can you tell me, like, how do you really know, that I’m not going to be like him? It could happen, right? Fifty percent of me came from him.”
Brenda looks at me. She looks at me hard and she looks at me long. “You are not like him.”
“Yeah, right.” I lean forward, elbows on my knees, and stare at the door of the apartment in front of me. There’s a sign hanging on it that says LIFE IS BETTER AT THE BEACH.
Brenda taps me on the chin so I’ll look at her. She holds her hand to her chest. She presses it firmly to her heart. “Your heart needs comfort and reassurance. Give it that. Don’t be a victim. Be a survivor.”
I shake my head. I try to undo the bad thoughts in there. I want to jiggle them loose and leave them on the ground in front of me. I don’t want to be a victim.
“Look behind you,” Brenda says. “Look how far you’ve come.”
I’m afraid to turn around. I’m afraid it will look so far away that I’ll want to run back inside and slam the door. But I do what Brenda says. I turn around. I look up the stairs. They are steep and there are a whole bunch of them. My front door is standing wide open. The Santa Ana winds blow in. I can picture the kitchen curtains with the light blue sailboats on them floating up into the air. The other thing I see is that it is a long way back up there. For me, at least. For someone who’s been holed up in an apartment at Paradise Manor for the last six months, sitting here at the bottom of these stairs is a pretty big deal.
“Are you proud of yourself?” Brenda asks.
“I want you to own it, Morgan. Are you proud of yourself?”
“Good. You should be.” She writes a note down. I picture it on the page. Morgan is proud of herself.
“I might’ve made a mistake, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“I might’ve pushed Evan away.”
I gnaw on the corner of my thumbnail. “I was trying to keep him out of the drama.”
“Let’s not call it drama, okay?”
“Okay. What should we call it then?”
“Oh, we could call it lots of things. But drama isn’t one of them.” Brenda crosses her feet in the other direction. “What is it that you’re afraid Evan will do?”
Seriously? “Well, he could decide I’m crazy and never talk to me again.”
“Well, no. Not really.”
“Do you like it when people tell you what to do and make decisions for you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why do you think it’s okay for you to do that to Evan?”
Why does Brenda always have to be so smart?
“I think if Evan decides being friends with you is more than he can handle, he can make the choice for himself,” Brenda says. “But it’s not really fair that you make the choice for him. Unless you feel this relationship is potentially bad for you. Do you think that?”
“No. My mom even said she saw part of the old me coming back.”
“Exactly.” She writes down a note. Like she’s really getting to the meat of things. “Be honest with Evan. Tell him what’s bothering you. Then let him decide. My feeling is he’ll say he’s okay having a friend who’s going through some stuff. And you’ll feel better knowing he’s okay with it.”
I decide to wait for Evan at the bottom of the stairs after Brenda leaves. I’m afraid I’ll chicken out if I don’t wait outside for him. Hopefully he’ll come straight home from school so I don’t have to sit out here forever. Because the stairs get more uncomfortable the longer I sit on them. I shift from butt cheek to butt cheek every few minutes as an hour passes by. I look at the water in the swimming pool and remember what it feels like to jump into it. I never hesitated to jump into the pool on hot days. It was the only good thing about Paradise Manor. After I scooped all the leaves out, I loved to leap in, swim to the bottom, and pop back through to the surface. It was one of the best feelings in the whole world.
And it hits me that I actually miss it.
I miss swimming.
At exactly that moment, Evan comes through the front gate. My heart rate speeds up and my palms get sweaty because I’m going to apologize. But then my heart sinks. Because Evan’s not alone. He has Taylor Schneider with him. She only lives a few blocks from here, so it makes sense that they go to the same school now. And have probably fallen madly in love with each other.
by Marisa Reichardt have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes