It usually started at about 4 AM. The storm in her head:
Text school about Michael’s lunchbox.
Clean up mess in living room.
Do something for Jon so marriage is kept alive. Or at least …
Text therapist about new appointment for Michael’s feeding disorder.
Check account. Do budget.
Don’t spend too much.
Buy special vitamins for Michael – webshop.
Remember Emma. Gift. Or something.
Draw something. Don’t let it die.
Patch up with Mom. Or at least … something. Marcus?
Text Theresa about coming over, leave key. Prepare tasks.
Change the tire on Michael’s stroller. Buy new.
Find relaxing music.
Make up with Michael for yesterday’s outburst.
Send new pictures of the kids to Dad.
Buy Michael’s special bread.
Update Michael’s MD.
Prep event tonight with Jenny and co.
She tried to focus on something else, so she could at least relax, even if she couldn’t fall asleep again. But the storm grew in strength and the clock ticked closer to 6 AM when she had to get up.
But there was no more sleep. And just before 6, all hell broke loose as usual, when Michael woke up and began screaming. He still wasn’t good at these transitions, even if they had installed special lightbulbs that automatically came on an hour before he usually woke up, so it would be easier. At least that was the hope. Michael was afraid of the dark, that much was for sure. Not much else was.
Carrie didn’t really remember how she got from the mattress on the floor in Michael’s room and out on the streets with the special stroller.
It was the usual whirlwind of making sure to keep up with his rituals, speed-packing the school bag and diminutive lunch box, and generally trying to keep things as smooth as possible.
Jon had the car, so they had to walk up to the bus stop and be very punctual. Public transportation wasn’t exactly crowding the suburbs of Yuma.
But at least it appeared like the special bulbs had worked. Despite starting out in panic mode, Michael calmed a lot quicker than usual, and as she pushed his stroller through the chilly November morning towards the Interstate, she chalked that up as a victory.
That she hadn’t showered, changed clothes, or slept well mattered less. They had done something that had worked. Something that would work better. Something that could make a genuine change for Michael.
She looked at the curly hair in the stroller seat below. It belonged to a head full of mysteries. Right now the boy was humming another tune, probably something they had taught him in school, and which he had caught after the first time.
He chewed his bread, drank water from his bottle, and looked for numbers on the dull brick hedge that separated the houses from S Avenue 8. As usual, there wasn’t any but Carrie knew he was always looking.
The bus stop was little more than a sign in the sandy gravel on Frontage road, running parallel with Interstate 8. Carrie stopped.
There was a crowd there, which was rather unusual at this hour. Most of them spoke English but with something that she pegged as Canadian accent. There was a slightly panicky tourguide, too young, who was trying control the chaos. Apparently, they were guests from the Yuma Foothills Resort down the road, and their private bus couldn’t start.
It wasn’t everyday that larger travel groups stayed in this part of the town. Heck, it wasn’t everyday that anyone traveled to Yuma at all, unless it was for work or family.
But of course it had to be today. Now.
“So, pliskie,” she said to Michael who was still chewing happily on a piece of bread, “looks like we’re going to have to join the public transport lottery.”
Michael’s special stroller was designed for a big kid, six years of age and older. Someone who needed such transportation because he wasn’t safe on his own in traffic, not by a long shot. Someone like her son.
Because of its length busses couldn’t take two normal strollers as was usual, only hers. So the bus had to be stroller-free. And free of too many people in the aisle with all their bags and belongings.
Carrie tasted something bitter.
I wanted to be a goddamn lawyer. Or artist. Or both. Now I’m fighting for a seat on a bus in the desert.
She felt a keen urge to sit down somewhere, alone, and just have a very strong coffee. Her own little hold-out against the world.
On such occasions, she could still make herself believe that everything would be all right. That she would make it somewhere. Or that Michael would, for that matter.
Unfortunately, that would not be possible for another 45 minutes or so.
Then people began pushing to get into the bus, and she heard someone yell, “Watch it!”
Michael was waving his water bottle. It was empty. “Water!”
“Not now, pliskie, please.”
Michael could copy whole tracts from the few books in the living room. By memory. He had taught himself to write at age 3 or thereabouts.
But she knew it would be easier to comfort a baby with a 40 degree fever than argue with him about when they should fill his bottle.
Carrie put the brakes on the stroller. “What the hey … it looks like we’re going to be late for school again. I hope Mrs. Winters won’t–”
Then she saw a man, a twenty-something, leather jacket. He was standing behind everyone else, towering over a lithe Asian woman who was queueing in front of him to get onto the bus.
Carrie had seen the guy before. She was sure he had worked at the gas station, cleaning the cars or something. Had she given him a tip then? She couldn’t remember his name. Eduardo perhaps? Or … ? But right now he looked rather dishevelled, and not like he was on his way to any kind of work.
The woman seemed vaguely familiar, or maybe Carrie was just tired.
Or angry about her latest spat with her stepfather, who was from Hong Kong. Somehow she always saw—
Wait. What the hell is his hand doing in her bag?
Carrie stopped moving with the stroller. She didn’t hesitate:
The man was almost the last in line, so the other passengers who were struggling to get in heard nothing, but he did. And so did the woman.
“Get your hand out of my bag,” the woman said firmly. She had piercing dark eyes and wore a blue vest over a white shirt. Her jeans were also white.
She could have been a cleaning lady on her way to work, except the tone of voice was more like a drill sergeant’s.
The young guy had already removed his hand and fiddled around as if he were looking for something in his own pockets. But it was pretty obvious what he had been trying. “What the fuck are you yelling about, lady? I’m sorry, I bumped into you, okay?”
The bus doors began closing. It would take a wrench to get in now.
The Asian woman kept standing there, between Twenty-Something and the doors. He looked as if he was about to use a wrench on her. “Oh, great, now I missed it.”
“You can walk, for all I care,” the woman said, hands on her hips. She was still staring at him with those penetrating dark eyes. “You are lucky I’m not going to waste time with the police on such a piece of waste like yourself.”
Twenty-Something’s tone changed to a low growling sound. “You fucking chink.”
“I’m from Korea,” she said calmly. “Now get out of here, Mr. Waste.” She shook her head, as if she was actually sad about something.
Then Michael erupted in giggles. “Waste! Waste!”
Her son loved words. And there was no rhyme or reason to what he cast his love on. Or why he couldn’t use them like other kids.
Some days Carrie actually thought it was kind of cute, even if it was a de facto disability that became more and more constraining every day.
Right now it wasn’t cute.
And Mr. Waste was not amused, either. “What did that little shit say?”
Carrie felt the chilly needles in her gut. He didn’t look much like Jeremy, and it had been so many years ago. But that tone …
“Nothing,” she said. “We were just leaving.”
“No, you are not,” he said, “make him apologize. Damn kid.”
“He can’t.” Carrie struggled to keep her voice steady. “He can’t talk.” She had turned the stroller away from the looming figure of Mr. Waste so Michael couldn’t see him. The boy continued, “Waste!”
“Michael – not now!”
“See, the shit can talk just fine.” Mr. Waste took a step towards Carrie, and she felt her blood become ice.
He was like Jeremy. Perhaps even worse. And she wouldn’t be able to get away from him with the stroller.
“Nobody says all kinds of things to me,” Mr. Waste said, his voice deep and hard.
His voice was now like something in the earth waiting to erupt, to come out into the light and just ravage everything.
“You fucking people are all the same!” the man spat. “Make him say ‘sorry’!”
“He is just a child!” Carrie felt the tears press. She also felt how the man’s fist closed around her arm and how it hurt. And then numbness …
“—Make him say it!”
Carrie fought the tide of panic. Could she use the thermo with Michael’s water thermo as a club?
She didn’t have to use anything.
“Hey!” The lithe Korean woman called out. And when Mr. Waste turned …
… she kicked him hard between the legs.
He went down, like a sack of meat, and lay in the dust, whimpering like he wasn’t much older than Michael. The cars passed like everything was completely normal.
Carrie just hyperventilated.
She felt the woman’s hand on her shoulder. “And now we should go. Come on.”
Carrie let the Korean lady lead her on, but she walked as if in a daze. The only thing that kept her together, was the things she had to do for Michael: Give him bread, saying a special sentence. Refilling his water bottle. Give him a chocolate cookie (his only other choice of food) and clean his mouth and face with the baby wipes from the compartment below the stroller seat.
Michael appeared even more relaxed now that they hadn’t had to squeeze themselves into the bus. He gad been totally oblivious to the whole scene.
The other woman was older, probably ten or twenty years. Carrie noticed the tender streaks of silver in her jet black hair. She still looked like she could take on ten guys like Mr. Waste and not work up a sweat, though.
She was also tanned and lean like she was used to physical work outdoors but moved at the same time with a certain gracefulness. Carrie looked away.
“Let’s go back to the smaller roads,” the woman said. “Do you live hereabouts? I’m Michelle, by the way.”
Carrie nodded weakly. She was still looking over her shoulder from tim to time.
“It is okay,” the woman said. “He won’t follow. He doesn’t have the …” she smiled self-assuredly “well, you know.”
Carrie felt her mood lighten. “I thought you were about to put him down with a karate chop, the way you moved.”
“Actually, I teach Taekwondo.” There was a twinkle in the dark eyes. “But it’s called ‘Korean karate’ by some, so close enough.”
“Was that, uh, kick from Taekwondo?”
Michelle snorted. “More like from the less cozy part of Seoul where I grew up. A woman my size can only down a guy his size with a single ‘chop’ if it’s a movie.”
Carrie allowed herself a little smile. “You could teach this kick, then. It works.”
“Sure.” Michelle grabbed a phone from her bag and began texting while they walked. “I’m a doctor, though, and just started in a new clinic. I wouldn’t want to treat a patient for testicular torsion if I had taught his assailant how to bust balls first.”
They both laughed now but inside Carrie felt hollow.
Here was another woman who had made it to do so much more than her. Maybe Michelle wasn’t a movie star but MD and martial arts teacher sure was a tad up from unemployed college dropout who still had difficulty keeping away from Jack Daniels. And then there was … Michael.
They walked past more dust colored parcel houses with clay colored roofs. Like the one she lived in.
She ought to text Mrs. Winters … She ought to call Jon … She …
“You look like you need a napkin.” Michelle said, nodding at Michael.
“I’ll get it,” Carrie fetched the package from Michael’s stuffed school bag and a diaper and some clothes fell out on the sidewalk. Carrie quickly began the wiping routine for the sixth time. They had stopped at a crossing.
“Hello there.” Michelle gave Michael a small wave, while bending slightly down so she could catch his gaze. And pick up the diaper for Carrie.
“Waste!” Michael giggled.
“Does he always repeat random words like that?” Michelle asked. “Well, sort of random.”
“All the time.” Carrie received the diaper casually and stuffed it in Michael’s bag with everything else but in her mind she was getting ready for her prepped explanation of Michael’s autism.
MD or not, she wasn’t expecting Michelle to understand any of Michael’s ‘off’ behavior, not really. Almost nobody did. She shrugged, “he is on the spectrum.”
The street light changed but Michelle stood very still. “I know. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”
Carrie’s preparations began to falter. “You know?”
Michelle looked straight at her. “My adult son is on the spectrum, too. Plus ADHD. And some other things that are … not clear yet.”
“Oh? But can he … uh, manage?” Carrie floundered. She had not seen that coming.
Michelle’s lips formed a thin line. “He lives in an institution in San Diego. I just moved here.”
Carrie regarded the other woman again. Michelle was the same as before and yet completely different. In fact, she appeared more brittle than the tough guy at the bus stop.
Finally, Carrie held out her hand. “I’m Caroline. It’s good to have you in Yuma, Michelle.”
CARRIE & MICHELLE, 10 NOV 2015
Cover photo by Gary Chan