Follow the Sun
Six days after Halloween, my nine-year-old, Wes, is still dressing in the furry, puffed-out uniform of a Mongolian nomad. He even sleeps in the hat, a worn out souvenir his father had collected from one of his travels many years ago. I would force him to remove the costume, if it did not bring such visible delight to his round, rosy face. He is not ashamed as he climbs the tall steps of the school bus, or as he walks the cavernous halls of Roosevelt Elementary, or when an older boy dashes past him on a skateboard as Wes plays in our football field-size front yard, but really, in the seemingly infinite expanse of the unexplored land of the nomads. His peers (although his peers are most likely not his classmates or neighbors, but the characters in history or fantasy) make fun of his ever-changing passions, but I believe he sees these kids as playing along with him, or at most, obstacles he has to overcome in order to get to his ultimate goal, whatever it may be. To me it’s mostly a mystery.
I walk into his bedroom full of clutter, collectables, some covered in dust, left forgotten, also posters half falling off the walls, books, all that take him to other lands. I watch as he somehow makes the act of chopping up a stuffed animal with an axe made of a long, blown up plastic balloon look like the playful doings of an innocent child. And it is, really. Wes is not violent, I know this. Once he becomes involved in a new area of interest, he could be serving that same stuffed animal a proper glass of tea at a meeting between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussing the Declaration of Independence.
I had come in here to tell him dinner is ready, but I can’t help standing here a little longer than necessary, trying to imagine where he is right now. Wandering the grassy or sandy hills for days and at last finding a tiny creature to eat that would have to last the next few. Traveling alone, or with a friend, a child, on horseback, wondering where the next stop will be. If it’s livable, if it’s safe. But not dwelling, just moving, forward, in a direction that exists only through the sun. Is the sun trying to fool us? Is there really something out in the distance, past the wind-shaped curves in the sand? I think he notices me standing here because he has stopped what he was doing, but is not being so obvious as to look up at me. I summon him to the dining room and we eat a silent meal and afterwards he goes to sleep in his full Mongolian attire while I wait up for the man who acquired the worn out hat.
It’s a drizzly, gray sort of evening as I drive home from the animal shelter. I volunteer there and don’t presently have a job, since it’s Ralph who wants to earn all the money to support the family. Then, of course, he complains about how hard his job is and if only he could get someone to at least clean up around the house so he can relax when he gets home from a long day at the firm. I hope to God he’s not home right now; I’m sure I left some dirty dishes unwashed that would most certainly be cause for a few screaming fits and a ruined night. As I take a right-hand turn onto our street, I already notice something is amiss. The suburban neighborhood always has the same cars on the street and in this weather, no one would be standing around outside without some sort of cover. But this time, the street is different. There are more cars than necessary and all parked in close proximity to our house. Ralph, his tall but puny frame, is hunched slightly in the rain and I can tell he’s cold. Others are standing around in our front lawn and I instantly get a sense of dread. Not like I’m not filled with dread any other day, but this is different. The car is driving itself at this point, my mind in a fury. The green and gold-trimmed 1990 Plymouth Grand Voyager pulls into the driveway and I quickly, but shakily exit the vehicle. I make my way over to the gathering of drenched shirts and backs of heads, still racking my brain, wondering if there’s something I did that is undoable. Ralph turns his head towards me, not moving his body at all. Nothing. He looks away.
“What’s going on?” I realize now that my voice is as shaky as my footing.
As the silence grows more intense, I join the circle and gaze around the small crowd to see if I recognize any faces. Sammy’s mom and dad I recognize from school events, one stranger, and a neighbor kid holding a skateboard up by the weight of his foot. My husband is of course here, but Wes seems absent. Then I see him. He walks forward a little from behind his father and is finally the one who responds.
“I hurt Sammy. With a baseball bat from school.”
I stand, letting the rain soak my hair thoroughly to the scalp, in a way feeling as if it is washing this knowledge from me. But my mind does not move from the words my son just spoke. I look at him and he is gazing into the distance, stuffed bear in hand and fur hat tilting to the left side of his head. A true nomad.
My college roommate and I did everything together. We had the same classes, knew the same people, went to parties together, and shared our deepest thoughts and secrets. She always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. She was my best friend.
“Dana, what do you think about this for tonight?” I asked her, holding a yellow and orange flowery dress up to my body. I was going on my first date ever, with a man named Ralph. He had been in my Intro to Psych class and we became close really fast. Yesterday he asked me out though, and I was ecstatic.
“It’s a bit much. You’re biking to the movies right? You may want to wear something a little more comfortable. It’s a few miles away.”
“Yeah I guess you’re right. But I want him to see me like he’s never seen me before.” I put the dress down and decided I would take more time to think about it. For the next few hours, Dana and I talked about life and love, and we danced, with the cassette player blasting.
There was an hour left until the date, so I decided to go take a shower. I opened the door to our room and there on the floor outside was about a dozen roses crushed, the red bleeding into the blue carpeting, and a note that had been ripped to shreds. I tried to explain to him later that the music was loud and I hadn’t heard him knocking, but he believed what he wanted to.
Wes is sitting on the couch and Ralph is pacing the living room and fuming, his bald head pink and about to burst: What were you thinking. He is a child. You are a child. You put him in the hospital. You could have killed him. Slap. How could you do such a thing. We did not raise you this way. Stand up. Get over here. Look at me when I’m talking to you. Slap. How are you going to fix this now. There’s no going back. You need to learn from this.
How can I just sit here while he is doing this to Wes? The truth is, I have no idea what to do in this situation. He hurt a poor child by living in his fantasy world, but is beating the shit out of him going to really do any good? My mind is full, but it is blank. Wes is so terribly damaged because of Ralph. And I am letting it happen. I am an awful mother.
One week before Ralph and I married, I was on my way home from Ron and Dana’s wedding and the drive was anything but relaxing. The traffic, mixed with the knowledge that Ralph had not wanted me to go sing at the wedding in the first place, was messing with my mind. Time was either not happening, or happening too slowly. Cars were honking at 20 beats a minute and tires crawled at a painstaking rate, never making it to the next traffic light. Falling leaves swayed this way and that, but seemed to not want to glide to a stop on the ground. I cranked up Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” and hoped that if the music could take my mind off of Ralph for a few minutes, time would start moving again.
When I finally reached the door of his small 2 bedroom apartment that he shared with three other guys, I suddenly had the desire to be back on that long stretch of road, safely trapped between miles and miles of green and gray cars. The courage finally came and I turned the key in the lock, expecting to be greeted with shouts and rage. But the place was dark and silent. I flipped the light switch and saw him sitting there on the couch, alone, with the T.V. off. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe he was sleeping.
“Hey honey,” I whispered quietly as I walked in his direction. I could hear his light snores already. As I pulled the blanket that was laying by his feet over his body and touched him gently on the cheek, his eyes opened slightly.
“What time is it?” He asked. I then noticed the almost empty bottle of Jack Daniels sitting within his arm’s reach.
“It’s 6:30. I left the reception early. I only sang that one song I wrote for them. I think they liked it,” I shared as I smiled warmly at him.
He did not smile back. “I thought I told you not to go to that damn wedding. Why is it that you constantly choose other people over me?”
“Honey, I wasn’t choosing them over you. Dana is my best friend and I promised her weeks ago that I would write this song for her and sing at her wedding. We didn’t have any plans tonight.”
“Well it would have been nice if you had at least considered my feelings about this. But you just went. Like that. And Dana is not your best friend. She is trying to break us up. Do you think a real friend would do that to you?”
“Ralph, no one’s trying to break us up.” I wanted to keep the situation under control, but he seemed to be spiraling.
He started to stand up but fell backwards onto the couch. He was successful on the second try but his fumbling had frustrated him. “You’re not even listening to me. Don’t you love me?”
“Honey, just calm down. Please.” I looked down at my shaking hands and he grabbed my cheeks and pulled my face towards his.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you. You owe me at least that much respect.”
Without warning or reason, Ralph grabbed his car keys from the coffee table and started walking outside. I followed him.
“Where are you going, Ralph?”
“My car. Get in.”
I was crying by the time we reached a desolate area in Slippery Rock, PA. He had been spewing anger and jealousy the whole car ride and all I could understand of him was that he had not wanted me to go to this wedding.
“They’re all trying to split us up. Nothing I say matters to you, nothing. Don’t I mean a thing to you? How could you do this to me? You don’t love me. Say it. Say you don’t love me!” Ralph was screaming and crying and he wasn’t acting like himself. He was crazier now than he had ever been. I wanted out of the car.
“I was just singing for Dana’s wedding. I didn’t even talk to anyone.” I desperately tried to get more words in, but he wouldn’t let me. We swerved off the road and Ralph got out. Before I knew what was happening, I was yanked halfway out of the car, my seatbelt cutting into my neck. I tried to yell but no air could escape. I somehow managed to undo the seatbelt and as soon as the latch was free, I fell outside onto the muddy ground. Relieved, I tried to breathe, but the passage to my lungs was still closed up and when I opened my eyes, I saw Ralph’s, blood red, but focused on his hands on my throat. He was choking me.
We get into bed. The only sounds I can hear are ones of Wes quietly sobbing in the room next to ours. If only Ralph would scream at me as well, beat me. The nothingness is worse. The lights are out but my eyes are wide open and I see things not in the room, wondering if the world Wes has created for himself is anything like this.
I am awakened at some point in the night to sounds of stirring in the sheets. The bed starts rocking back and forth, and then, Ralph is on top of me.
“Hey, what are you –,” I start to ask, confused and more frightened by the second.
“Shhhhhh. I need this right now.” He starts undressing me and the familiar feeling of losing control comes back. It’s been so long since he’s done this. I thought it was over. The fear is gone, and my heart is only sad as my husband forces himself on me. I try not to cringe as his sharp mustache pokes my cheek. Just when things were getting bearable.
The weeks pass and I am pregnant again. I haven’t said a word about it to anyone, and it’s just as well. I know exactly what I must do.
As I turn on the water in the bathtub, I wonder how a person like Ralph can gain so much power over someone like me. Well this is the only way I know. The only way to turn the tables.
“Wes, it’s time for your bath.”
“Mom, I can take a shower myself. I don’t need your help. What’s wrong?” Wes seems a little annoyed that I am still in the bathroom with him. Soon he will see though. I put his little head in first and he thinks I am playing, trying to see how long he can hold his breath. Then I get in, still fully dressed and sink down very gently, letting my dark hair rise to the surface. For a minute I am outside my body, seeing the water take control over the motion of my arms and strands of dancing hair. All of me is in the water but my nose. I let my head sink all the way back, my eyes still open. As I let out my last breath and push down harder on my son’s smiling face, a picture comes into my mind, of Ralph singing me “Your Song” by Elton John and playing his guitar as I lounge on the bed at his college apartment, watching him intently, a lump forming in my throat. I sit up straight and lift my hand off of Wes’s head. He jerks up, coughs and spits out a mouthful of water.
“Mom, what are you doing in the tub?” He is visibly scared.
“Shhh, Wes, I was just getting into the game. Wash up now. I’ll meet you back in your room and we’ll finish To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I stare straight ahead and the squishing of my socks on the carpet continues through the hallway to the master bedroom until I flop down on the bed, not bothering to remove my soaking clothes. My eyes shut and I go back to that apartment, 15 years ago, and listen to the scratchy but soothing voice of Ralph’s and my past. I look over and see the last of the fading sun shining through the blinds and I smile, actually smile, and let myself dream, wide awake, of the things that could be.