Próxima Estación: Esperanza

Carrie had her next anxiety attack on a bus.

It was so severe that she actually fainted briefly but unlike so many other places it had happened, at least she only had about two feet to fall from the backseat and to the floor. 

The driver heard people yell and managed to pull over, even though the Interstate was rather crowded at this hour. 

Yuma was a desert city, but it did have rush hour, especially during the dreary weeks before Christmas, as if everyone who had work wanted to get as much done as possible before disappearing into their cozy worlds of normality. 

Unlike her.

Was that the last thought she had had before the attack? Was that the cause?

No, she was just bitching to herself, after dropping off a screaming Michael at school.  

Because anxiety didn’t need any particular reason to hit you. From one moment to the next, you just felt as if your body were being filled with icy needles, heart pounding, difficulty breathing, vertigo. 

Your body was responding to some pent-up fear, not any threat in particular. Or so Carrie had understood from the joys of scrolling the internet for health warnings. 

Of course, it also came sometimes because she was stressed out of her fucking mind with her autistic son, her mountain of digital rejection slips, ongoing rows with her mother and stepfather, and life, in general, slipping away from her already tenuous control.

But recently it had just come, like lightning. Not even Jon’s PTSD from Iraq was that unpredictable.

The driver leaned close to Carrie, who was still on the floor. She was a sweaty woman twice her size and smelled more of perfume than of soap. “Mam, can you stand up?”

“I don’t … want to.” Carrie had balled her hands into tight fists and kept knotting them tighter in order not to focus on the needles.

Everyone else was staring, as if they expected a different answer. But before the driver could say anything else, Carrie struggled to her feet. “I have to get off.”

“Should we call someone?”

“I’ll call. I’ll be alright.”

It was a lie, of course. An exercise in pure will, getting out with nothing but the desert on one side and a fertilizer shop on the other. And assuring everyone that it was no problem at all.

The December morning was chilly and she had planned to go downtown to shop and scratch one of the seven million items on her to-do list before she had to pick up Michael again from his special school (Emma could make it home on her own. Or so she told herself). 

After Carrie had swallowed her xanax without any water, she decided to cross the Interstate and walk along Avenue 3 because there was pavement and she didn’t have to be so close to the cars. There were also more possibilities to get home once she got closer to actual houses, and away from the barren openness around the Interstate.

One of these days I have to buy my own car … yeah, and if pigs could fly …

After about twenty minutes, she turned and headed down East 24th. The pills were working, the needles receding. But now she felt like she had a load of lead on her back instead. There was none of the usual stifling heat this time of year, and she ought to have worn a thicker blouse, but somehow she couldn’t summon the strength to take another step.

Carrie flumped down on a little green spot near the Chevron station and food mart and tried not to breathe in the road exhaust too much, but it was as far as she could manage. The gravel between the pavement and the station parking lot was dotted with bushes cut into basket-like shapes; they looked like one could sit on them, but she stayed where she was.

After an interminable time, just watching traffic, as the minutes ticked by, she tapped her phone.

Could she call Michelle? She was working, of course. So … no.

So was Carrie’s husband. Probably in the middle of nowhere right now, on patrol out near Gila, or maybe the border. She shouldn’t call Jon when he was working …

Jenna? Ha!

Carrie looked at the increasingly small list of options on her contact list. Then she looked at the clock on the phone.

In a couple of hours, she had to have shopped, cleaned up at home, applied for a job she couldn’t hope to get or hold, planned Michael’s training for today, decided how to speak with Emma’s teacher about the continual bullying in school, checked for news about her humanitarian brother-in-law who had gotten himself into a hell of a fix over in fucking Africa and … just figured out how to keep from falling apart for another day …

She had to get up, get going. Before the next attack.

The pills would only work for so long.

To distract herself, she went into the little shop next to the gas station. 

Inside the shop, soft drinks, sandwiches and all kinds of mostly edible goods stood neatly in rows. Nice orderly choices, like her teenage self had dreamt life would be.

Good. She could focus on something for a few precious minutes that wasn’t life or death or money. 

A young Latina woman, barely in her twenties, hovered behind the counter, oblivious to Carrie’s presence. She was looking down at something under the counter and humming contentedly to a tune from the loudspeakers. It sounded familiar.

It was.

Carrie went over to her.

“Can I help you, mam?” The bright young thing put her one hand over her phone which she had been checking under the counter. 

Carrie pretended not to see it. There were some rather steamy texts in Spanish there, she had noticed. And Carrie still spoke Spanish pretty well.

Which was the point, of sorts.

“Is that Manu Chao you are playing?” she asked the young woman.

The bubbly sales assistant lowered her shoulders, as if in relief and treated Carrie to a warm smile. “Why, yes, do you know him?”

“Oh, yes. During my first and only trip to South America, I played that all the time on my Walkman.”

The young woman nodded. “Uh-huh.”

Carrie forced herself to smile. The girl in front of her probably didn’t know what a walkman was. They had already been on their way out around the turn of the Millennium when Carrie had gone away.

Away from everything.

For the first and last time.

Carrie felt queasy, as new intrusive thoughts began to claw at her mind. It had been a good journey. But the reason for it had been bad.

Too many people died in her life. Too many … 

“It was just a trip after high school,” Carrie lied. “To see the world.”

“Okay. Can I help you with anything, mam?”

“Uh, perhaps a bottle of water.”

“We got Castle Rock.” She nodded at the fridge behind Carrie. “Over there.”

Carrie nodded and reluctantly went over to the fridge. “How much?”

“1.99, please.”

When Carrie left the shop, nothing had changed, of course. Still just the dreary vista of cracked asphalt, scattered palm trees and the rest of the sun-faded suburbia. And above an equally indifferent sky.

She shuddered. Who was it that had said that life was more like smoking a cigarette? 

The first few puffs tasted wonderful, and you don’t even think of it ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it’s nearly burned down to the end. And then you’re conscious of the bitter taste.

Carrie had smoked more than her share and worse … before. She hadn’t expected life to be like this, though, once she stopped. It was supposed to be better.

I got a family, sure, but the rest of ‘normal life’ … Crap. 

There were no clouds in the sky, but Carrie felt the deep dark void just beyond the thin pastel blue, waiting to fall on her. 

She stood in front of the food mart until a car rolled up for gas and she had to move. But she couldn’t go anywhere. It was like the whole place was a cage.

In despair, Carrie pulled her phone out of her handbag again. Just a few more moments. A few more clicks. Maybe someone had written something on Facebook?

Yeah. Someone always has.

She smiled grimly and then her expression changed to bewildered surprise as the first item popped up in her feed.

It was a travel picture from when she lived with Julia near Cochabamba—in Bolivia. A scan of an old photo, sure, but it was still pretty crisp. She had posted it not so long after joining Facebook to commemorate it had been 10 years since she had been traveling around South America. 

Julia had also been on Facebook by then and had liked the photo. And there was even a comment from her:

‘Amigas por siempre.’

‘Friends forever.’

And a lot of hearts and smileys.

The post was another one of Facebook’s algorithmically selected “Memories” pulled forth from past entries on her profile, using all the data they had on her to increase engagement, as was the corporate euphemism.

Carrie didn’t need a robot to pick her memories. She had bitched about the “Memories” feature many times to Jon but she had given up on trying to figure out how to nix it. Resistance was futile. Like fucking Windows Updates …

She stared at the smiling woman on her phone’s small screen.

It was a photograph of Julia in the summer of 2000, taken with Carrie’s old camera, one day at the river, after a very long evening. Neither had gotten much sleep, but the world and everything in it had been settled. 

Carrie thought Julia had looked particularly serene that morning, despite the wear and tear from hard living which was already visible in her young face.

She had been sitting on a small jetty close to the boat, her naked feet dangling over the water of the Río Espíritu Santo.

Carrie didn’t remember exactly what they had been talking about the night before, but they had listened a lot to the Manu Chao tape she had bought for Julia on the Villa Tunari market some days earlier (a copy, like every other tape, CD, VHS or even the new DVDs you could get in Bolivia, but that was Latin American market adjustment in a nutshell … )

‘Friends forever.’

It had been years since she had even messaged Julia. And they had been so close back then.

Carrie had traveled down via the Pan-American Highway for three months and the stayed over 9 months in Bolivia. Sure, that little thing about dating Julia’s brother had had something to do with her lengthy pause, but Julia was Julia. She was a sister, Carrie never had. There was no other way to describe it.

Or was she just being too nostalgic? If Julia was so important, why hadn’t they chatted, or emailed, or called each other in, what, three years? It had already begun to peter out back when she had posted that photo and tagged Julia.

But it had never been like any of them could afford to go visit each other, thousands of miles away. It had never been like that.

Carrie’s throat felt dry. Julia was another casualty of her life. People died, people got angry at you, or estranged, or … just disappeared. There were no constants. She had had some hope about Michelle, who had been a revelation when they had first met a few weeks ago. But now … well, she had to work, of course. 

Still, why was there this cage around her life, invisible but impregnable all the same? For home-going mothers who had nowhere else to go? She loved her kids, but she needed … more.

And the sky was still above her, and empty. Except for a feeling, of looming darkness. It was like a pit inside, but it was also all around. There was no jetty to sit on anywhere and just watch the world go by and feel …

Carrie shut the phone. She’d have to keep moving, or there would be another attack. She felt it. She’d have to focus on shopping, training to get Michael to eat, applications …

But there were no further attacks that day. And when she picked up her son from school, she kept thinking about the jetty.

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CARRIE, 4 DECEMBER 2015

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Cover photo by Julio Cabrera Tizoc on Unsplash

Gas station – Google Street View

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