The morning was really good for once – until the phone rang.
She didn’t take it. Not yet. She was not going to answer that damn phone. She had any number of excuses in the back of her mind, vague, dreamily, as if nothing else mattered than here and now. And everything else could magically take care of itself. You could say – think – anything to shape your world and it would do as you pleased.
In the end, she took it. Her lips still tasted salty and she allowed herself a second to remember that …
“Carrie – ? Are you there, honey?”
Okay, now there was no way back:
“Mom – what is it? Has something happened?”
She almost wished for it, although her gut told her it was not like that. And her heart that it should not be like that.
But it was something that would make her perfect, salty day all dry up.
Carrie seated herself upright in the bed, with the cell phone pressed hard to her ear. She soon pulled her legs up under herself, pressing her jaw equally hard towards her knees as she listened. It had only taken 10 seconds and now she was curled up like a steel spring.
Jon did not wait long before he rolled out and began looking for his socks and jeans as if nothing had happened. He knew it was now the only thing he could do.
The quiet morning before the suburban beehive woke up was still quiet. But in Carrie’s mind storms were raging.
Why could it never be different with mom, after all these years?
“Please, could you say that again?”
Carrie had to ask because from the moment she had picked up the phone, everything had become more and more unreal.
Her mother was happy to prolong that reality:
“Look, I know it’s hard to wrap your head around, and they have hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. But this time it is you!”
“Me … “
“Yes! Marcus will give you 100,000 dollars as part of the Church Universal’s yearly Give Way-Event. The only condition is that you’ll use them to improve, well, anything really. Start that business. Draw … whatever.”
“Uh … I don’t know if,” Carrie tried, but it was really too late.
“Don’t you think that it is awesome, darling?” her mother beat on. “I am really glad Marcus and I kept in contact all those years. And you know, last year there was a widow who lived on welfare in Boston who received the Event Money and she has a small salon today that – “
“Look,” Carrie said, “I’m really not sure that – “
“I mean,” her mother continued undaunted, as always, “with you leaving college like that and never becoming a lawyer and then – “ she hesitated ever so slightly ” – that problem down in Florida, and all the hard work afterward… I think you deserve it, Carrie.”
“I really don’t want to talk about Florida … “
Carrie didn’t know if she was irritated with her mother for using that damn euphemism for Carrie’s short, but nearly fatal, dance with cocaine over 15 years ago. Yeah, it had all started in Florida, but it wasn’t just Florida where the problems had continued. And why couldn’t we call it what it was …
I was a crackhead, mom …
But her head now was beginning to swim with something that almost made her long for that escape.
“Mom, this really isn’t a good time. It’s morning here and I need to think about this … “
“Well, you have been thinking for 15 years, haven’t you?”
One of the Deborah Sawyer witticisms. You never quite knew if it was designed to make you laugh or cry.
“I have been trying to build a life – caring for my family.”
“And draw. I know you love drawing. And then of course that job …
“What, the cleaning?”
“No, no – something better.” Deborah Sawyer sounded like she had found something precious that had been lost for a long time ” – maybe you could use the money to pay for you doing more of that interpretation work for that organisation you help – I can never remember its name – “
“OMAC – that’s it. With the migrants, and all.”
“That’s right. Separated migrant families. And other – “
Carrie didn’t say anything now. She seriously needed to stop this. It felt like she had been hit by a brick.
“Mom … it’s Marcus,” she then said.
“—What is it about Marcus that you don’t like?”
“Okay, it’s not just about Marcus,” Carrie finally said.
“Then who is it about?”
The old knife’s edge in Deborah’s tone, whenever they talked – it had never completely gone away.
“Look, I am not going to meet him, okay?” Carrie said with finality.
Jon had long stopped getting dressed and was standing there looking at her with a half-puzzled, half-worried expression.
“Do you think it’s funny for me having to work my ex to help you?” her mother said, the knife still getting sharper.
That tone – it was like her mother’s attempt at cutting away at that always smoldering exasperation and frustration that she seemed to carry around, just beneath the surface.
“No, mom, I don’t think so.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s a good offer … ?” Deborah followed up.
And then before Carrie could answer, her mother added:
“If I had had that offer at your age, it would have changed everything.”
“I’m 40, mom. And – “
“That’s my point, dear. It is never too late.”
“It’s certainly never too late to try to fix my life.”
“Well, that’s grateful, dear – real grateful.”
Carrie pulled her legs up tighter and clenched the phone hard now. Sure, she was naked in the bed with only part of the sheet pulled up around her body, but that was not the problem. The way this conversation veered off – the way it always veered off – made her feel it wouldn’t matter how many clothes she put on. Sure, a moment ago she had also been naked – but she had not felt naked. She did now. And in the bad way.
“Mom … ?”
You don’t mean that.
“Listen – ” she started, then caught Jon’s eyes.
He eyed her, questioningly. She covered the cell phone with her hand:
“Kids … ” she whispered.
“But – ” he began.
“I’ll be fine.”
He quickly tugged his shirt all the way down into his trousers and tightened his belt. Then he grabbed his shoes and was out the door, to wake up Emma and Michael.
And do all the things that needed to be done, even if the world had stopped a little bit in their bedroom.
“Carrie … ?” Deborah’s voice sounded more distant now.
“Want to tell me what this was all about?” Jon asked just when she had felt relieved he probably wouldn’t.
The breakfast table was half empty already, so Carrie was toasting some more bread and searching for the marmalade and moving some dishes around, and looking for more to do, so she did not have to sit too much at the table and talk about Emma’s homework or that Stanton kid Michael was afraid of, and who did seem like a certified bully.
Maybe he has absent parents?
“Can we talk about it … later?” Carrie eyed Emma and Michael.
“Sure,” Jon said quickly.
“Talk about what?” Emma asked.
“About … when we are going to visit Miriam in LA,” Carrie said quickly and looked at Jon.
“Yeah, right,” Jon said.
“Well, when are we?” Emma asked in a tone that was loaded with impatience bordering on … pain.
Carrie breathed deeply: “Maybe next month.”
“‘Maybe’?” Emma had not said much this morning, as usual, but now …
“What about grandma? She lives there now, doesn’t she?” Emma continued, “we could visit both.” But it was obvious from her tone that it was nothing she really wanted as much as visiting her best friend who was no longer there.
“Are we going to visit grandma?” Michael quipped while slurping his cornflakes. A flake had somehow become stuck in his wily blonde hair.
“Yes, dear, but … ” Carrie started and removed the flake as she sat down.
“You forgot the marmalade, mom!” Michael complained, fiddling his toast.
A change of subject. Never had it been so welcome.
“I did.” Carrie got up and took the jar of strawberry marmalade. She had taken it out of the fridge but left it on the table.
Carrie went back and sat down and gave Michael the jar.
Michael turned the jar upside down and since it was open he almost immediately covered her toast and most of his bread in marmalade – and quite a bit of the table.
“No – ” Carrie started. And there they went again.
But it was comforting, after all. It was routine. Even the post-postponement of that LA visit. Carrie wanted so badly for her daughter to be able to visit Miriam, but not alone. On the other hand, it would just make her relation with Deborah worse, if Carrie followed her daughter to LA and did not visit her own mother.
So it was the ritual ruminations that were shut down as quickly as you could find some marmalade to worry about and thank you for that.
It was the ritual chaos in the tiny dining kitchen in a dry white house with a low-angled sun-bleached turquoise roof, doors, garden gates – or what went for a garden.
The garden was there but it was all the things there was never time for, and usually not enough money for, to really do something about. So it just had to be as it was.
It was home. In good times and bad times.
It was the comforting chaos and homely box full of unfinished dreams and decoration plans that she knew as a base, somewhere to shelter.
It was the shelter she had to leave in under 15 minutes.
Carrie and Jon finished up without talking more about the call from Deborah. Or LA. All the things that were better talked about … later.
And then Hammond picked up Jon on his way to the station, so for once, Carrie had the car. And the kids were allowed a ride in a real police car, so that also helped matters.
If being alone with your thoughts was helpful.
Carrie knew the city too well after all this time. She could almost follow the roads blindfolded, she thought, as she drove off to work herself. Everything was familiar – in all the ways that were both good and bad but ultimately comforting.
A strange kind of comfort … like sedation.
Today, though, Yuma was covered in the sun that made its city vista mosaic of rust red, and white look a little milder and more inviting than she had ever felt it would be.
Carrie had never wanted to come here, into the desert, close to the edge of this adopted country of hers.
But there had been work for Jon and none for her, so the story had played out as it always had in these situations. They moved here and not anywhere else.
And then she had to find work – any kind of work.
When Carrie reached Meachum’s Nursing Home she stood there for a moment.
Then she measured herself and went in, trying to put on her best ‘I don’t care’-face.
But it wasn’t the uniform or the stench of bleach that bothered her.
It was that damn phone call …
Carrie went through the doors and checked in. It wasn’t that bad.
Some cleaning ladies have to check in way earlier … this isn’t bad. This isn’t bad.
She thought about it and noticed the usual stillness in the air and the dust on top of the picture of Monument Valley in the reception. The dust was never cleaned because there were strict rules (regulated by strict budgets) about what should be cleaned and what should not.
Carrie knew very well what had to be cleaned. After five years she knew every nook and cranny of the 200 rooms, hallways, offices, and toilets of Meachum’s.
It was strange … when you wiped a table somewhere you began to notice cracks or marks and all kinds of atomic details when at home you could barely remember the color of the cushions on the couch.
That’s what cleaning full-time gets you … it makes you a goddamn robot with a photographic memory of things that don’t matter …
She walked down the hall, nodded a few greetings to personal on morning watch and Mr. Hansen and Mrs. Mckenzie who were always roaming early.
In the little dressing room at the end of hallway 1, Carrie found the one person she always slightly dreaded to see, yet had learned to live with. Like a sore knee …
Clarice’s tiny wiry 50+ body struggling with the uniform and filling no space at all and her voice and attitude filling everything:
“Fucking hell – why can’t they ever get the sizes right for the new ones?!”
“Hey … Clarice … “
Clarice looked up and grinned and Carrie was reminded to be grateful that at least smoking was never a vice she had had.
The coke and the booze were quite enough …
That was a different time, though. A life lived … by somebody else.
“Carrie … ” Clarice seemed she had forgotten why the laundry or purchaser or whoever was a jerk.
“You look just like I feel … !” Clarice then added, as if it was a divine inspiration: “No, scratch that, girl. You look a lot worse.”
Clarice pulled out a packet of cigarettes from her own pocket.
“Clarice – goddammit – “
Carrie pointed at the pack, rolling her eyes.
“Fuck it – ” Clarice lit one.
Carrie shook her head. “We’re late,” she added. “And this ‘room’ is too small for that shit.”
“Not for the two wheezes I need.” Clarice blew smoke out her nostrils, then quashed the cigarette quickly. “Now do you know what you need to look a little more spiff when you come here, honey?”
Clarice looked at Carrie as if she was a grape – and Clarice had just bitten into it. Then she blew out smoke:
“It’s that husband of yours,” Clarice said. “I can tell.”
“Yeah, you know all about husbands.”
“And you know all about men, right?” Clarice’s tone became venomous.
Carrie shook her head and started looking for her buckets. She figured she’d just go with the flow and close her ears as usual. And her heart.
She knew Clarice well enough. Despite the slight soft turn at the end of this morning’s talk, the potshots had only just begun.
“I can’t stay here any longer.” Jocelyn gulped down some more coffee. It was her second cup while Carrie had been at OMAC’s office.
One precious hour before kids.
Carrie stared at her coffee then at her own cup, which she hadn’t really touched. “Why?”
But she knew the answer. This was all just going through the motions.
The office at OMAC was lightly air-conditioned as always, even this month. And it was spartan, as always. It was as if Yuma’s Office for Migrants And Counseling was a local NGO so attuned to the people it served that its founders had decided there need not be any spiffy furniture or pictures on the walls, not even a single flower in a vase.
Everything should be dedicated to counseling those migrants who crossed the border legally or less so, and who needed help.
That was one interpretation.
The other, of course, was that there was never money for anything, especially not new office chairs or some original paintings or even framed photos. Or someone to buy and water flowers.
But those were all things, and in truth, they were not the primary need in the run-down former tarpaulin store and warehouse-building in southern Yuma, a short walk from the Custom’s Service on East 39th and with a naked desert view out of the windows in three of four walls of the building.
Dedication was the primary need, not just because there was never money. But also because the mission here – to guide and counsel migrants, no matter their legality or circumstances – wasn’t exactly something everybody appreciated by default in the United States these days.
Dedication, though, was not an infinite resource.
“Work … ” Jocelyn said, after a long pause.
Carrie nodded. “Been there.”
She thought of Meachum’s Home … of how she had this one hour before she had to go get the kids … of how much … she needed to be … here.
Here instead of there.
Always the case for me, isn’t it?
Jocelyn stared blankly into the desert behind the windows. A few miles beyond the horizon there was Mexico and all the pain and suffering of moving people that had somehow – some days, perversely she felt – turned into meaning for her.
“That bad, huh?” Carrie added.
Jocelyn shrugged as if she didn’t care, but she looked lost.
“I can’t get that break I want as a new lawyer if I work here as well. Nobody cares about this and they still expect you to do 70 hours per week if you want to get a foot in the door… “
“You heard from Kirkland & Ellis yet?”
“No, they probably even haven’t looked at what I sent them … So for now I’m stuck with Margrave. Half of it paid, the other half … ” She looked even more lost. “It’s what I have.”
“It’s what counts if you want to move up, yeah.”
“As in getting a steady job at a firm – somewhere.”
“As in that, yeah.” She shook her head. “But … “
Carrie knew the rest.
” … I want to work here,” Jocelyn said, sounding more resigned than ever. Then she shook her head. “And with you … ” She looked at Carrie but her smile was thin.
“Through thick and thin … that’s us,” Carrie said. “The team supreme. The Anti-Trumpistas … “
“Yeah … ” Jocelyn said softly and poured more coffee.
“You okay?” she then said to Carrie.
“Yeah – yeah … just thinking … about family stuff.”
“Oh, okay? Everything good back there?”
“Yeah, no – I mean, it’s my daughter – I – “
“Difficult age, huh?”
Jocelyn looked thoughtful: “Why can’t anything ever be goddamn easy? I just want to stay here and do some work!”
“But you don’t have enough time,” Carrie added.
Jocelyn looked up: “Sorry, you’re the one with two kids … “
“Never mind that.”
Jocelyn stroked her jet black hair, just above her brow. She looked away into the distance, but there was nothing but the wall in front of her – that was where she looked. But her gaze was far away …
“You know, Carrie, I really never made a secret of how much I admire you,” she then said.
“Come on – “
“That cleaning work must be exhausting … “
“It pays the bills. Some of them.”
“Not so much time to interpret legal stuff here for scared migrants, though?” Jocelyn said. “But you come here anyway. You are my best interpreter.”
“And you are … my friend.”
Jocelyn smiled with a bit more light.
“Yeah, yeah I am. But I was just thinking that with you coming here – still – it must be so difficult and – “
“Don’t make this about me,” Carrie interrupted. “I fought to get that hour off earlier so I could get down here on a weekday before the kids … you know, to say goodbye.”
Jocelyn tasted the word: “‘Goodbye’ … “
Then she shifted the topic, and they chit-chatted a bit about everything else but the elephant in the room. Carrie was glad to oblige.
But her mind drifted while they talked. She had expected coffee, yes, and talk about how to help kids out of cages and anything else that could make her feel like she was in the good fight and making a difference – make her feel bigger.
And now she was thinking that she should be sad but that a part of her was also relieved. Jocelyn was 10 years younger and on the threshold of a brilliant career because she was so goddamn smart. She had already worked in many law firms, the only thing holding her back to become a partner was her own desire to be somewhere else, much like Carrie.
She wanted to do the dirty work here on the ground and help the legal department of chronically understaffed and cash-strapped charities like OMAC.
She wanted, in short, to do something for people for whom victory meant to be allowed living a life and not winning a settlement claim of 1 million dollars more.
And that was also what Carrie wanted. And that was also why she loved working with Jocelyn, even though – at times – she had also hated that Jocelyn wanted this kind of work.
Because it was only Jocelyn’s decision to hold back her career for some years that had held it back (that and not having kids, of course). It wasn’t because she had fucked up at life or anything.
In short: Jocelyn was everything Carrie had wanted to be at 30, back when Carrie was only 21 and didn’t yet know that she would never go back to law school after that sojourn to Bolivia.
A part of Carrie hated that no matter how hard she tried to put it down. And another part of Carrie hated herself even stronger for thinking of it like this. It was Jocelyn, goddammit …
I have to fucking pull myself together. I don’t need all of these thoughts … I need them like I need cockroaches in the goddamn kitchen …
It was, of course, at that very moment that somebody knocked at the door to the meeting room – and half-opened it at the same time.
A curly, redhead woman in her early 50s peeked in:
“There you are – sorry to disturb, but – “
Yeah, always interrupt then say you are sorry, Brenda …
“What?” Jocelyn said, alert.
Carrie tried to hide behind her coffee cup. It did not work.
“Margarita Morales is back with her son,” Brenda said.
“I thought we had an agreement she’d come back next week?” Jocelyn said. “I gave that case to Tom, so he could take care of it when I’m gone.”
“She might not be here next week,” Brenda said. “They want to deport her tomorrow.”
“Oh shit … “
“I thought the case was all in the clear?” Carrie blurted. “I mean, we talked to officer Dean about it last week and he said – “
“That’s not what she says,” Brenda interrupted, shaking her head. “Or at least not what I gather. In fact, we could use a little help with interpretation, Carrie – Linus went home half an hour ago.”
Carrie felt lost: “I have to fetch my kids in 20 minutes from school.”
“Can’t they take a bus?” Brenda asked in that way that did nothing to de-escalate the situation.
Carrie glared at her but said nothing. She knew it was exactly the time to say nothing. She gritted her teeth and motioned to get up.
Jocelyn got up before her: “Let me take care of this,” she said to Brenda.
“I think we need someone who speaks better Spanish – ” Brenda said ” – not that – “
She was interrupted when there was noise from the hallway … it sounded like a boy crying. And then – a woman shouting:
“Carlos – venga aqui!”
Carrie got up before Jocelyn could protest.
“I’ll call Emma and ask her to take Michael home on the bus,” she said, making a point out of not looking at Brenda as she said it.
But it was okay. Emma could do this and Michael was a big boy. It was just the bloody traffic she was worried about and Jon was working late – again.
And of course, Michael’s autism. But … Emma could handle it.
And Carrie would do what she could – as always.
On her way home Carrie noticed that Em had been trying to call her. But then there was a text saying:
Nothing important, mom. We’re home now.
It wasn’t usual for Emma to be so … clipped, Carrie thought. And yet – it wasn’t unusual, either. When she was mad … at her mother.
Yeah, I had promised to pick you both up and then you would go to Marie’s and not look after your little brother who I don’t want to be all alone in the house because he is only 10 and the neighborhood is not that … and maybe I am overreacting and …
Well, she could try a different line. Carrie thought about it as she waited in a crossing, just behind a truck that smelled like it had driven all through nine states without getting a wash.
Sorry, honey, but I think you are such a big girl now it was time you stepped up and …
Nah, fuck it.
How would she explain that she went to OMAC when she had said to everybody at the morning table 2 weeks ago that she would definitely not spend time volunteering and therefore get home earlier?
She had promised Jon.
She had promised Em and Michael.
She had promised herself.
Except that the last promise had felt more like a betrayal.
What the fuck is wrong with me … ?!
Why couldn’t she ever just figure out life? Figure out some kind of balance.
Carrie rounded a corner and … a truck raced by from the left and passed her – very close. She could hear the roar in her head and smell the diesel.
It had been just a few seconds after the red light. Or had she been … distracted?
Some other car honked behind her and she realized she was clogging everything up and quickly shifted gear, but too quickly. The car’s gears made a groaning sound and the car stopped as if it had hit something.
The guy behind her was yelling something now – while he was honking. Somebody else was testing their horn, too.
Carrie was very close to exiting and yelling something back, but at the last minute, she cleared her mind and started up and cleared the crossing.
Soon she was on the small roads – into the sundry suburbia of Yuma where home was, and a kind of safety. At least until she had to explain things to Emma.
I can’t explain it, darling. I was there because I felt … I missed it. I missed doing something important. And it is important when I help them translate. They don’t have that many people who know law and who speak Spanish. They ...
She rephrased it over and over again in her, but it sounded wrong.
It sounded so wrong that even the fact that there had been a screaming kid and a desperate mother who was going to be deported tomorrow for no good reason – that fact felt more and more unreal, the more she repeated the other facts to herself. The facts that were supposed to convince her daughter it was okay she had let her down again. That she – Emma – had had to look after Michael again. Or do something else than the plan she already had. Plans which meant everything to a teenager. About friends. About being … part of the group. The important groups anyway … it seemed as if Emma had new friends every week and she went out with them and she …
Carrie sighed as she pulled into the driveway. For a long time, she just sat in the car, not bothering to go out. The road was quiet. Not so her head.
Emma – OMAC – that truck – everything …
And then, of course … a hundred thousand dollars.
It’s crazy … I barely know the man, Carrie thought as she finally got out, locked the car, and prepared for the long trek up to the front door.
What’s the catch?
Marcus Chen … she had only met the man twice and he always seemed like someone who could be philanthropic. And a quiet sort of charisma, a determination, and direction that she had always lacked.
Perhaps that was why Carrie had liked him and then … somehow – the second time – felt inadequate. It had been at her mother’s 60th birthday and not so terribly long after the whole debacle in Florida.
Sure that was something. Not many people could do that. And even get something like a real family afterward. A job. A … life.
But as time wore on, it felt more shameful again. And like something that always made her stand out. What could she have done with her life, if she had not snorted coke and fucked around and generally tried to kill herself slowly?
Maybe a business empire like Marcus Chen? Maybe a project in Bolivia for homeless children. Or a hospital for war widows in Rwanda?
So, of course, it had felt like a victory when she discovered that Marcus Chen subscribed to a religion even more warped than her mother’s.
Sure, he said he had changed and all … but … who can really change? For real? Especially when it came to what you believed in?
And that was a good thought. For if Marcus Chen was a nutcase then he could not be better than her, no matter how many homeless children he saved with his new “socially responsible business” and the whole organization behind it.
Carrie opened the front door carefully.
She could hear the telly from the living room – cartoon channels being zapped fast and furious.
There was the sound of another car behind her, but it passed too quickly on the road to see who it was.
For a moment she hesitated, looked at the white boxes that were neighboring houses, hoping for some other distraction. Then she turned again and went in.
Michael was in the living room, of course. And so were Disney and all the others.
“Hi, honey, where is your sister?” Carrie called.
“Uh, hi mom – I think she is in the kitchen.”
He didn’t even look at her, and why not, Carrie thought.
It’s not as if I’ve been that much here, even when I am here …
But the evenings were always long and Jon always got the lousy shifts, so who could blame her that she was tired.
Yeah, one person, in particular, she thought as she opened the kitchen door.
Emma was sitting at the kitchen table, typing on her phone.
She did look up: “Hi mom.”
“Mind if I sit here?” Carrie pulled out another chair.
“Uh-no,” Emma answered noncommittally.
“All right … “
When she had sat down, Carrie found that she didn’t know what to say. Apparently the same went for Emma, but at least she had some really interesting texting to focus on.
So both of them were silent for some time.
Carrie looked at her daughter – 12 years old, going on 13.
God, you are beautiful ...
“So how was school?”
Well, it was a start.
Carrie pulled herself together and said it:
“Look, Em – I’m sorry you had to go home with Michael. But after those kids started going after him, I didn’t want him to go home alone. And, well, he is still only 10.”
“I know, mom.” Emma was staring intently at her phone.
“So … are you mad at me?”
Finally, she looked up.
“I’m not mad, mom.”
Not quite the reply Carrie had expected. Especially because she could see Emma was sincere.
So there she was – Emma – the spitting image of Carrie at 12-13-ish: Long blonde hair, blue-grey eyes, and a slender but strong body that just kept outgrowing the clothes they bought for her. Or that she bought herself. She could outrun many of the boys in her class. Only difference was that Carrie had never used lenses or glasses for that matter.
But it was an invisible difference and not one that mattered.
In fact, what really mattered was how different Emma was from what Carrie remembered she herself had been like.
Unlike Carrie at that age, Emma was self-assertive and outgoing to a degree that made her seem at least a year, maybe two, older than she really was.
Only her body betrayed her – this time it was a betrayal, or so Carrie knew her daughter felt. Emma was caught somewhere between looking like a child still, in so many ways, and behaving much differently.
And then, of course, there was her passion for swimming and windsurfing, neither of which were particularly easy to pursue in a desert city. And stuff Carrie would never have considered even remotely interesting almost 30 years ago.
“You … are not mad?” Carrie replied at length.
Carrie sighed and felt a small part of the world lifting from her shoulders.
She really meant it … her wonderful, beautiful daughter.
“Well,” Carrie then said, feeling it was the only real option – to treat Emma like the adult she was quickly becoming ” – I think you should be mad. I was afraid you’d be.”
“Because I had to go home with Michael and not over to my friends?”
“Something like that.”
“You said many times you liked helping those mothers and kids at OMAC, mom. I watch TV, too, you know. I have seen those cages … “
“They are not all in cages. But most of them definitely need help.”
“Yeah … “
“I wish you could go help them, mom. If that is what you really want.”
“It is.” Carrie gazed out the window at the sun-white suburban world. It was all quiet. A life of dreary predictability and steady earnings. But people were willing to risk their lives for less, crossing the Rio Grande.
“Why can’t you get a job there? Interpreting?” Emma asked.
“Like I have said many times before … ” Carrie started.
Emma shrugged: “They don’t have money.”
“You know they don’t.”
“I think they should. They help people.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Well, it should be.”
Carrie thought about Jon who at this moment might be called to help border patrol take in people. On some days when there were many illegal crossings, the highway police helped out. It was routine.
It was something she didn’t feel thinking too much about. She put a mental wall in her head and put the thought of Jon reluctantly escorting some of those women with children in their arms, into detention. That image had to stay behind a wall – for now.
She smiled at the irony. The world was so damn tiring sometimes …
“Do you think Marie is home this weekend?” Carrie asked.
“I dunno … ” Emma replied, eyeing her mom with uncertainty.
“I don’t know if she is home right now. They may have gone somewhere else.”
“Well, ‘they’ brought their phones – didn’t they?” Carrie smiled wearily, but kindly.
“Oh – okay.” Emma turned to her phone again and her fingers danced across the screen.
“I don’t usually pry, honey, but that cartoon chicken profile is pretty hard to miss … “
“Yeah … ” Emma grinned. “That’s Marie, all right.”
“That’s her. What does she say?”
“She asks why.”
“Because I’m going to take you over to Palms and let you loose with a couple of movie tickets.”
“There aren’t any good movies right now, mom.”
“What about Captain Marvel?”
Emma looked at Carrie like she had just been served broccoli.
“I think we’d rather see Pet Sematary … “
“Right … Well, ask her.”
“Okay … it’s cool. She’d like to!”
Emma put down her phone.
“Mum – you don’t have to bribe me or anything. It was really okay about today … I mean, it was annoying but it’s okay. I see Marie all the time.”
Carrie breathed deeply: “I believe you but … ” She put her hand over Emma’s ” – but it’s important to keep agreements. Or make up for broken agreements.”
“You know it is.” Carrie allowed herself a tiny but honest smile.
It had been important to say this – to do this – for Emma. And she had.
“So maybe you don’t mind me going to Josh Layton’s party tomorrow evening?” Emma quipped.
Now she had found the doe-eyes, the secret weapons she had at the ready all the time – just in case they were needed.
“I’m not going to make up for that much.” Carrie crossed her arms, but she was still smiling.
“Oh, okay … ” Emma didn’t pursue it. She knew it had been a long shot.
But it was hard to keep a lid on, just the same … :
“Just because he is 15 and Jack had some beer there the other time doesn’t mean … ” she started mumbling.
Carrie looked her daughter straight in the eyes:
“No. It doesn’t. So maybe next time he throws one of those parties. I’ll talk to your dad about it. I promise.”
Emma put down her phone.
“So if you take those hundred thousand dollars, maybe then we could throw a party?” she asked, dead-serious.
Carrie felt something hit her in the gut:
“What? What … are you talking about?”
“Grandma called – like, at least 3 times before you came home.”
“She should’ve called – she should’ve called me … “
Damn … you have to use my kids, as well, mom.
Carrie gritted her teeth: “Okay, what did she tell you?”
Emma shrugged and looked distractedly toward the living room and the sounds of cartoon Batman knocking out a joker or two.
“Emma, what did she tell you?”
“She said her old boyfriend – Marcus – wanted to give someone a hundred thousand dollars to … to get something they really wanted. That it was charity.”
“Did she tell you about Marcus’ church?”
“Is he a priest?”
“No, he is a former member of the Church of Scientology, and we’ve talked about them before – when you had that school project, remember?”
“Oh … but now he is not a member?”
“No, he started his own branch. He invented his own version of their religion. It’s pretty big in some parts of California, I hear. Your grandma was into it for a short while.”
“But we could … I mean, mom, it’s a hundred thousand dollars.”
Emma looked at Carrie, then threw a glance at the dilapidated door to the yellow grass back garden. The one with the three short withered pine trees they never had been able to get to look nice. Or had the time for.
Even pine trees …
Carrie stood up. For a brief, terrible moment it all came back to her:
Lin’s death, her sojourn to South America to ‘find herself’ (what a joke … ), ditching her law school never to return, hooking up with Jeremy in Florida, hooking needles into her arm – like Lin, slamming a car door into Jeremy’s face and hope he would be too groggy to fumble for that gun …
… all across America, drifting …
… and then finally finding a home, and Jon …
… a life … a family …
… a job.
Somebody wanted her for a job. Even with her resume. Or lack thereof.
A shitty job, yes, but somebody wanted her for it.
And somebody wanted her for a wife.
And she was somebody’s mother.
Life was … normal.
It was never normal.
It always came back to this.
That no matter how hard she tried she would never make it as far in life as her peers, women her age.
She had made one crucial mistake – no, several, in fact. She had fucked up. And everybody else had a head start.
No matter how much she pretended that things were normal, they never really were.
Sure, lots of women her age had lousy jobs.
Or no jobs at all.
But they were not stuck. Not like her.
Carrie breathed deeply, then turned to her daughter. She saw the fear in Emma’s eyes and hated herself for using it, but the girl had to be put into her place.
Her mother – Deborah – had used her – Emma – to get to Carrie, and it had to stop. Right now. Right here:
“Emma, what if it had been you Jack Monroe had taken those photos of, without your clothes and shared on Facebook?”
Emma shook her head: “He’d never – I mean, he got expelled – he’d never do that. He could never do that, I mean … “
“But what if he had. Or what if somebody else did?”
“I’d hate that. Sure. I would.”
Emma looked more and more bewildered, but the fastness and rising anger in her mother’s tone held her. She dared hardly move.
“Miriam thought Jack loved her, that he would give her something because she was loved,” Carrie said. “He betrayed her trust. In the worst way.”
“Yes, but – “
“Hear me out, goddammit!”
No. That had not been her intention …
But Carrie found herself short of breath, something old and mean rising in her as well. Some urge to strike.
Strike out at it all …
“Marcus Chen is the CEO of a big company that sells charity campaigns, but his church – his new, improved version of Scientology – is funding most of it. When his company sells a new campaign to collect money for boys in Africa who got their legs shot off in some war – boys who are Michael’s age – then his new church gets to host charity events where they sell their church. You go to an event and you get a folder about how great his church is, and you meet all the right people from the church who say all the right things about how poor the world is and if only more would do like them and help. Sooner or later you wind up just a little bit tempted to give some more money to some other program the church has. And then the church can go out and say – ‘Look, this or that person gave us money. We are so good. And we are so legit’.”
“I don’t understand, mom.” Emma had tears in her eyes now and Carrie was painfully aware that there were no more sounds of Batman beating anyone up.
Michael could always smell danger a mile off … I guess I taught him well …
And now there was only the sound of one person beating someone up …
Carrie tried to compose herself: “It is simple: Jack said he loved Miriam, but in reality he used her. He used her to show his pals – those pals he really wanted to be liked by – what a cool guy he was. He used those photos to pretend in front of his pals that he was really good at fucking an underage girl!”
“Mum – stop it!”
Emma had gotten up now and she was crying, and Carrie was vaguely aware that she herself was shouting. But it didn’t matter now …
Storms had a tendency to live their own life. And they had to blow out, hadn’t they?
There was nothing she could do – was there?
“Marcus Chen only wants to do good – to the kids in Sierra Leone, or to some poor hairdresser in Boston or … to me … because … “
Carrie searched for the words, found it harder and harder to breathe.
” … because he wants to promote his church so they can trick people into becoming members so they can brainwash them and take all their money.”
“How do you know that?!” Emma cried. “You said they were different. When we had the school project, you said they were different. Different from Scientology.”
“Not that different!”
“But how do you know?!”
Emma struck back, with all the force and fury of a soon-to-be teenager who already knew too many of her parents’ weaknesses. And who was hurt enough to exploit them.
“Have you even looked at their website … ?” Emma continued, wiping her eyes. “Well, I have. Maybe you should not always judge things … people … before you look at them, mom.”
“I don’t – “
But Emma continued, and now she was the flood that could not be stopped:
“If you did that then perhaps you wouldn’t be so afraid to change things, and then we could move away … from this!”
She threw her arms out in a gesture that encompassed both the run-down suburban box they lived in, but also much more.
Carrie knew what that ‘more’ was.
She knew how much Emma hated school.
She knew how much Emma longed for another place to live – like all the cities she had imagined would be so much greater than this asshole in the desert …
She knew such a place, in Emma’s fondest dreams, would be Van Nuys in Los Angeles, where Miriam had moved just 3 months ago and left Emma to suck up to Marie to be part of a cool group …
“You can’t trust a website, darling – ” Carrie started, but it was too late. Much too late.
“Don’t tell me what I can trust and not trust,” Emma yelled back. “Don’t tell me about something when you haven’t even looked at it – have you looked?”
Carrie hesitated, then shook her head: “No, but I know Scientology and your grandmother was also – “
“Stop trash-talking grandma!”
Carrie’s face hardened, but she also felt the tears sting now.
“I don’t trash-talk grandma. She has been shopping around in the spiritual supermarket since I was a girl your age. After she and granddad divorced she has always – surprise, surprise – found a new man who was the perfect man and who had the perfect new religion. Until, of course, he was not good anymore.”
“I don’t care,” Emma said, sobbing and picking up her phone. “I don’t care about what grandma did. Or grandpa.”
She looked up through tears:
“I care about what you do.”
“So we can afford to move?” Carrie asked, feeling something tugging at her shoulders.
“No … ” Emma cried ” … so you can come home every day from work and not be angry all the time! I hate it!”
Then Emma turned and ran up the stairs, to her room.
And Carrie knew she had just broken an agreement for which there might be no way to make up.
It was darker than usual when Jon came home.
Jon could only see the small light above the stove when he took his jacket off in the utility room. That and the laptop.
And otherwise shadows.
Jon took a deep breath and walked gently to the kitchen door but he did not turn on the ceiling light.
He went slowly over to the kitchen table, pulling out a chair.
Carrie didn’t look at him, didn’t greet him. She stared into her old laptop. The pale light from the screen combined with the weak light from the stove to paint her face with shadows that looked like they were part of her skin.
He sat down.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s me,” Carrie just said.
“Yeah? How so?”
“I hurt her.”
“What do you mean?”
She told him.
When she was finished, Jon went to the fridge and got out a beer. Before he sat down again he turned and asked her: “Do you want one?”
They drank their Budweisers from the can and said nothing for a while. Then Carrie said:
“Say something, dammit.”
“What do you want me to say, Carrie?”
She looked around the kitchen, like a trapped animal. There were plenty of exits, but no way out.
“How about I’m a bitch and I don’t deserve to be a mother?”
“We’ve been here before. Everybody hurts their kids, even if they don’t want to. You can only try your best. You … did your best.”
“I did not!” Carrie stood up and almost knocked over her chair when she pulled it back. She looked as if she was about to go somewhere but just froze in the middle of the kitchen room. Then she looked back down at Jon, eyes full of pain, and he really began to feel bad now. He had seldom seen her so distraught.
Carrie pulled back her sleeve: The scars were still there. Like they would always be.
“I … beat this,” she said.
“You did. You beat it good.”
She turned the computer at him. The screen was filled with job adverts. She had been searching for something new – again.
“I got one. Even if nobody said I could.”
“Nobody said you couldn’t do it.”
“Enough did, and they were right. I should have died out there – on the road.”
“You made one mistake and it got you into deep – for a while,” Jon said, his voice steady even though he himself felt like getting up and just getting the hell out of there.
“You got back,” he then added. “You’ve been back for many years.”
“I have,” Carrie said. “But I still hurt my kids … I hurt you.” Tears were in her eyes.
“I do it so often … ” she whispered.
“Not that often … ” Jon said but his voice trailed off.
“Yes, that often,” Carrie said. “Often enough.”
“What are you going to do?”
Carrie sat down again. For a moment she looked out the window into the dark, dilapidated garden and then she looked at Jon:
“There is a baseline, you know.”
“For how much anger that’s normal. In families.”
“Oh … “
“You were right,” she said. “All the times you told me. Parents aren’t perfect. Nobody is.”
“I’m way beyond that baseline, Jon. I have been for … years.”
“What you said to her today,” Jon tried. “It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t …. “
“Not what I said. But the way I said it …” Carrie’s voice became hard:
“I will not hurt her ever again like that. Not ever.”
“I’m taking Emma to LA next weekend,” Carrie said. “Then we’re going to see Miriam, my mom – and Marcus Chen.”
“His corporate HQ is in downtown LA.”
“The first two parts I agree on,” Jon said, “the last part … “
“I know what you are thinking but she is right – Emma is right!”
“I don’t know the man. I don’t really know if it’s Scientology or … or if he actually left because it was Scientology and tried to create something new, something better.”
“And what if it’s still the same old deal?” Jon looked at his wife squarely “Or worse: What if it is and you don’t notice it?”
“I’ll prepare. There’s a lot of Internet that can be looked through from now and until next Friday.”
He nodded, but then looked at her again because he knew it was not going to be that easy:
“You can patch up with Emma in other ways that are less … risky. It’ll take time, sure. But right now you are inviting her to give some kind of veto as to whether or not you should take that damn money and become poster-girl for Marcus Chen and his ‘church’.”
“I’m not. I’m taking her with me so she can see Miriam. That is what she cares about. I’m going to see mom, too, so we can have a serious discussion about how she is going to behave with our family in the future – and her grandchildren. But I’m seeing Marcus Chen myself.”
“Okay … “
“And I’m making the decision about whether or not to receive his charity for myself.”
Jon sighed: “Okay,” he repeated, “I still don’t like it much, though. I don’t have much faith – no pun intended – in this man and his organization.”
“Neither do I,” Carrie said and took Jon’s hand, “but Emma is right: I haven’t really looked at things. I just made a judgment about who he was and then decided beforehand that it was not okay. And that my mom behaved like … she usually does, well, that didn’t help things either.”
“So let’ say he is legit,” Jon said. “You have a hundred grand now. What are you – we – going to do with them? Will you quit your job? Start a business? Draw for a year?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think it will make you happy?”
“I don’t know – and really, I don’t care if it is this or that. But I have to take some kind of risk … to be happier. Otherwise – ” her voice trailed ” – I’m lost.”
Jon put his other hand over hers.
“You could find another job.”
“I should. But you know I don’t feel I … “
“Yeah, I know. But do you deserve that money from this man, then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe – even if he is for real – I will run away at his doorstep. And I will have wasted the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But that is the risk. The point, though, is that I have to do something – anything – to change.”
“It’s the only point there is,” Jon said