The Way Home

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Lizbeth Hernandez, Ryan P. Kelly , and Ashley Zhou

Collapsed Histories

My face burned. A pebble flew off the road and cracked against the windshield. The sound lingered in my ears, a high whine that distanced Sarah, who was saying, “I trust you, Rachel. I couldn’t tell Jake. I couldn’t—I couldn’t look at him without being afraid that he would find out.” From her throat came a noise half-obstructed.    

When my brother was in the hospital after a car crash last year, I saw my mother perform concern for him for the first time since middle school. Not even through the parade of counselors, therapists, and doctors, had she shown a gravitation towards the kind of worry tinged with affection that I’d always seen played in television family dramas. But standing beside his hospital bed, gripping the railing beside his bruised, cut face, she had wept like a chunk of her body had been torn away. I watched her from his feet, disgusted.      

Before we left, she said to me, “Go hug your brother, Rachel. We’re so lucky we’re here.”      

My brother and I had looked at each other, the wound along his eye creasing as he raised an eyebrow.     

I’d watched Sarah tend to her son for seven years. I remembered his sixth birthday party, most of the festive paper plates still stacked on the buffet table, fried wontons glazed in cold grease, Sarah sitting cross-legged on her living room floor with Isaac, laughing as he tried to strap a party hat to her head, landing it instead over her eye. I remembered the warble in her voice when she told me about her meeting with the school principal, perched on her bed behind the closed door so Isaac wouldn’t hear. The fury. The radiance. I remembered the week before he died, when I went over to return a book I’d borrowed and stayed for dinner. “Go get washed up,” she’d said to him. When he wouldn’t rise from the couch, she’d inserted hands beneath his armpits, thumbing tears from his eyes as he protested. He’d battered her shoulders, caught her mouth with a little fist.       

“Isaac, Isaac,” she’d said. “I’m sorry. You can watch after dinner. Is that okay?” She’d turned her head from his flailing arms. “After dinner you can watch.”     

There was no apology now. I couldn’t look at her. I studied the highway lane lines outside the window, something hard and hot caught in my chest that soon robbed me of vision, the outline of the window blurred through water. A tear fell on the armrest. It was a circle.       

In the hospital that day, beside the mint green shape of my brother’s legs, my mother’s desire had collapsed. I’d heard in her cries the corpse of what I always knew was true: she did not know how to love, and she did not want our bodies, our selves here to remind her. I knew the hysteria that colored her sobs could be from nowhere but recognition, the recognition that what she had wanted had come so close to becoming her life. My brother’s chin had been bandaged, but the whole time she was there, not once did it crinkle with speech.

I could have responded to Sarah, but I didn’t want the words dimmed by wind streaming over the car, so I said nothing.

Sarah said, “I didn’t tell you this before.”      

We passed a sign for a rest stop, and she latched onto it, eyes wide. She said, bland as glass, “Should we get more gas?”

I couldn’t see the meter, and she knew.     

She crooked her head, and I heard the bones in her neck slide into place. The parentheses around her mouth deepened. She sighed, said, “I didn’t tell you before, but I’m going to be staying with my mother for a while.” She sniffed. “She understands, just like you understand, Rachel.”    

A car veered into the space, much too small, between us and the car in front. Sarah braked hard, her mouth a tight line. As the seatbelt pushed into my chest, a moan like a motel door rusty on its hinges leaked from me.

Sarah straightened the car’s momentum, tapped the brake until we were no longer tailgating. “I’ll call Jake when I get there,” she said, “but can you take the car back?”       

I closed my eyes. Sun shone red through my eyelids. The pads of Sarah’s fingers scraped, soft over the turn signal. I let myself be thrown by the changing of lanes.       

When my father died, my brother and I put my mother in a nursing home. “Will you visit?” she asked just before we left. I didn’t have to see my brother’s face to know the slack jaw, the smooth slant of his cheeks that he presented during duplicity. “Of course,” I’d said.    

“Of course.” I imagined the way home, my weight in the seat Sarah had grooved. The green drive, the roads, the highway tracked by all the tires before me.

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