Since he’s been returned to us I just itch to go around to every loud kid running back and forth on this street and jerk the goddamn firecrackers out of their hands. He hasn’t been right since he was sent back and he’s my son, and what’s a mother going to do now that there are no packages to fill, now that there is no longer a mission to follow or emails or phone calls to wait for? At every small noise outside he jumps and begins reciting the deepest points of the ocean, and I am not above making secret phone calls about the noise, burning a bridge or two with the parents who live three houses over. But there’s nothing to say about the situation except Thank God he made it back alive. Nothing to say to my son about it except What’s on the tube tonight, or When would you like to take a drive, or I’m getting supper on the stove, what would be your pleasure? For a mother’s pleasure is to provide all available comfort to her children, whatever form that might take.
And when the doctors said, when the caseworker told me and my husband, when they sat us down and informed us that our son could be ‘damaged’, that he may have ‘seen some things over there’, and when the doctors suggested we get all firearms out of the house and maybe just hang around the bathroom whenever he took to shaving and maybe keep all medications and sedatives locked up like tiny gold ingots – when all that happened, well, of course we asked our son to explain himself. We weren’t pushy about it. The doctors told us to not ask direct questions about such things, to just continue life as usual and not pry, but what do these goddamned doctors know, wearing jeans under their white coats and looking as young as their patient who is my own son, who in the not-so-distant past squalled in my arms and shat on my thigh – who are these doctors? Our son denied it, though, said he hadn’t seen shit, and when he said this his mouth had twisted up in the same apologetic smile he always got when lying to protect someone else’s feelings. Only now his face wasn’t that of a twelve-year-old kid covering for a cousin or sister, now he was a grown man who may have ‘seen some things over there’ and had a new sour way about him that left us all behind. So in this way my son answered our question, and the day when all that happened I lay down on my bed’s quilted comforter, which predated any of my children, and cried.
Because I love my son, and I would do anything. I would do anything.
And now, today, there’s the annual family get-together and it’s at our house. We are expected to host because we host it every year, and have a yard and have a house that is beautiful and used to inspire pride. But I could just spit at it now. Look at what it holds. For years my husband and I worked hard for this house, for its hardwood floors and store-bought rugs that look more expensive than they are, for these furniture sets and mirrors on the wall that mimic space. We filled up this house with children, and after them window orchids and a dog and cat, and when we used to have frequent visitors, there wasn’t a person who entered who could resist commenting on how pleasant, how inviting and alive our house seemed, how all the enjoyable life forms were represented. And now our son – the one who left us but is now returned and at twenty-four is living in his childhood bedroom – our son has recently set up a saltwater fish tank in the living room that takes up half a wall.
The fish tank was something he insisted upon. It took three men to install and requires a reinforced living-room floor; my husband spent weeks in the basement drilling and sanding to prepare for its weight. There are 2,000 pounds of water in our living room and they are all under my son’s care. On the days he’s not looking for work on his computer (or telling us he is looking for work on the computer) he is by the fish tank, measuring its ‘levels’ and pouring in chemicals to balance the pH to tamp down any unnatural or harmful algae proliferations, to prevent mold growths. And when he’s not tending the fish tank he’s at the pet store, staring at the aquariums for hours at a time, deciding what fish to collect next and what oceanic simulacrum will please them.
His driver’s license has been allowed to lapse, as our son had been returned ‘damaged’. He has ‘seen things over there’. The doctors recommended against my son driving, or operating any heavy machinery. These doctors, who cannot disclose exactly what my son saw, nor the concrete consequences of seeing such things, nor any solid predictions of how long these phantom visions will haunt my son’s future, have no trouble offering instructions on the day-to-day living they have no part in. These suggestions trip off their tongues polished and soft and land in my ears as acid.
So my son is chauffeured everywhere. Or he walks. But he rarely leaves the house or neighborhood unless he is exercising or collecting wildlife. A few weeks ago, he bought a hamster at the pet store instead of a new fish. A few weeks before that, be bought a parakeet. On these pet store journeys, I wait patiently in the car and listen to the radio, wanting to give him the illusion of autonomy. And if he walks out with a new animal, if I see him exiting the store burdened with not only another trapped creature but all the supplies and cages and pellets that are needed to keep it alive, what can a mother do but rush to help him, load up the trunk with a smile and think, Yes, he loves animals, this is connection, this is good. So that is what I do.
And tonight we are having a party, which I worry about, because in the ten months since he’s returned none of us have been prepared for other people. When our son first came home there was a steady stream of phone calls and the occasional pop-in from relieved family members, until I politely and silently sent out an email requesting privacy to allow him ‘time to get acclimated’ to his surroundings. I did not mention anything about the doctors’ wishes. My son needed his privacy, I told my family, and so did I. The message was cheerful, positive. I did not express weakness on my son’s behalf: this is a mother’s first rule.
Now it is late spring, and it is the end of May, and it is today, it is right now. I am hosting a party. I have spent the day chopping vegetables and making dips by hand, my son coming in every now and then to jeer, to tell me that I could just buy this shit pre-made, why am I making life harder on myself? But I ignore his anger, for while yes he does seem rather angry about it for reasons I do not wish to think about, I am just going to be happy he is speaking to me today and not keeping silent vigil at the fish tank or at the cage of the new parakeet or hamster, or walking the dog around the block for an hour or more and bringing the poor old thing back exhausted, its tongue flopping out of its mouth, near collapse. I am just going to be happy today and chop my vegetables and take pleasure in the granite countertop that my husband installed for me a year ago in a show of love and commiseration while our son was away, when we were still waiting in the kind of hopeful terror that brings people together. I will ignore my son’s inexplicable temper that ignites unexpectedly, unpredictably, like a stray oil rag carelessly thrown in the trash, just as I have ignored the ants that have appeared inside our house since the weather has warmed.
I ask my son if he can take care of the ants – maybe he could spray some Raid or something around the house’s foundation before people start arriving. I often give him jobs around the house, but sometimes I regret it. Like right now, as he disappears out the back door with a can of Raid, I regret it. I give him a half hour, then I wash off my hands and go to find him.
I locate him in the basement. He’s covered in dirt and grass stains and counting the ants, trying to swerve them toward the stairs and up to his room. He clambered in through one of the basement window wells, he tells me. He followed the ants right in. He wants to keep them in his room and study their colony. I shoo him away, take the Raid from him, and spray the ants directly. As we watch the insects twitch and backtrack and finally die, his face contorts in an unfamiliar expression, and he begins muttering, Mariana Trench, Challenger Deep, Tonga Trench, Horizon Deep. Then he turns to me and says calmly: Walk seven miles to the nearest town and imagine you are moving beyond the reach of sunlight. Imagine the density of your surroundings is 1,000 times that of sea level and will crush your bones to meal. Imagine when you arrive you are greeted by diatomaceous earth, which is nothing more than crumbled fossils, and sea cucumbers, the brainless sifters of such earth. Then you will have some idea of the Challenger Deep.
Then my son takes the basement stairs two at a time and retreats to his room and slams the door. My husband is outside fiddling with the grill and picnic tables and hears nothing. I take comfort in knowing that every ant is dead, but then I look toward the window well and see a few more sauntering in, and I continue spraying Raid until my eyes water.
The evening, with all its promised people and happy faces, stretches long before me.
An hour later, guests start arriving. My husband, a kind, lovely man who is away most days working deep into retirement to keep this beautiful house and my son and myself afloat, is corralling people into the living room and adjoining back yard where the barbeque has been set up. But people refuse direction; they want to linger in the living room, they want to look at the fish and comment on the exotic trees that my son has recently planted in pots around the room. In the past month he has expanded his collection of live items to plants: a rubber tree and an orange tree and even a lemon tree, a philodendron, a bromeliad and a sago palm. On the end tables there are pots of African violets and several dracaena and a ZZ plant, a schefflera and a snake plant. The space is choked with fauna. My son insists on keeping the windows bare to allow light in, and he spritzes the leaves constantly to keep them hydrated. The room is humid and harshly bright; everyone is shuffling in, staring, and one of the children (there are several small children under the age of ten who belong to my various nieces and nephews) cries, ‘It’s a jungle, Weird!’, before streaking out the sliding doors that lead into the backyard. The adults fall silent for a minute. The room becomes one pursed, worried mouth. Then my husband says, ‘I got the grill going,’ and ushers the crowd outside.
And the children have brought along their toy guns, some of which are meant to fire exploding caps which their parents (thank god) have left at home, and some of which are water guns, meant to spray water or jelly or whatever liquid is placed inside them. I am in the kitchen with a cool washrag pressed to my face when I see this out the window – one of the little boys who has a cap gun is running around joyfully, away from the adults, pretending to shoot one of his brothers or cousins (it’s hard to keep up with the rapid reproduction rate of the extended family) while the cousins or brothers run away in ecstatic panic, laughing so hard they trip over themselves. The gun clicks whenever the trigger is pulled, supplemented by the boy’s vocalizations of what he imagines gunfire sounds like.
Then here comes my son, edging into the kitchen, and I am relieved to see that he has emerged from his room. I put down the washrag surreptitiously and pick up a knife to mime cutting vegetables. He eats a carrot stick, wandering over to the window, and also sees the little boy – his cousin’s son. My son looks at the boy steadily, without blinking, munching on the carrot stick, and in any other universe this would be a normal day, this would be a wonderful occasion of family coming together to celebrate a holiday and chat and gossip and see the military son who has triumphantly returned, but as I watch my son’s flat gaze and sagging shoulders I know: this is not that universe or any other.
I dismiss the worry. In fact, I have worried so much that in the last six months my hair has gone entirely white-gray, which internet articles tell me cannot happen but indeed has happened. And once the anomaly became apparent to me I immediately started dying it every four weeks, praying any change would be unobserved. And it has worked; even my husband has not noticed.
The family is mostly outside, but we have a sliding glass door in the living room that leads to the back yard, and from the kitchen I hear it repeatedly sliding on its track, opening and closing, opening and closing. It’s the children. Some of them are wandering indoors, knowing enough to leave bouncing balls outside but still carrying in the toy guns, and now they are tapping at the fish tank with the orange-capped barrels, now some of the younger children are digging fistfuls of potted earth from the many plants and making piles on the furniture. I do not discover this but my son does. He has finished his carrot stick, possibly the only thing he will eat tonight, and he has walked out of the kitchen and into the living room, and here are the children doing child things. My son makes a funny noise like a growl or a shout that brings me round quickly, knife still in hand, and I see what he is seeing: a clutch of five, six, seven children running around the room and throwing dirt and knocking hard on the aquarium’s tempered glass, and actually one of the little boys has dragged a chair over to the fish tank and is standing on his tippy-toes, lifting the tank’s lid, and as my son and I watch the child pitches his toy gun into the water, startling the fish into a wild scatter. And then I am hollering, I am yelling for the kids to get the hell out of the room, and they just look at me and my son with neutral faces like we are nothing.
And my son is striding over to the fish tank, shoving the kid off the chair so hard that I rush over just in time to catch the child with my left arm before he sprawls onto the hard floor, my right hand still gripping the knife in mid-chop, and my son opens the tank lid, reaching into the water to drag the gun out, but the tank is so huge that even he cannot reach the bottom with an outstretched arm. He darts into the kitchen to retrieve my cooking tongs and makes desperate swipes at the bottom, eventually fishing the plastic gun out and flinging it so that it dents the paint and wets the wall, after which he turns and stretches out his arms as if to hug the tank. He looks like raggedy Christ on the cross, turned away and pathetic. At this the children shrug and toddle off down the hallway as one entity, one of them snatching up the sodden gun before joining the rest as they move inward to the heart of the house, and I think of the ants and how such invasions cannot be halted as hard as one tries. I reach out an arm to my son’s shoulder. He is sweating and heaving some kind of strange noise out of his middle and I dare not touch him when he looks so dangerous. So unlike my son, the son that left here three years ago whose old face appears to me in memory like bright, unsullied water, who used to wear colors but now wears only drab fabrics that recall old uniforms and stink like matted animal pelts. Instead of touching him I turn toward the hallway, where the children have disappeared.
I am feeling dizzy, I am perspiring in the humidity of the room. I still have the knife because I forgot to put it down, because I have forgotten how I arrived here myself. I am only thinking of the children now and how they will ruin everything. I hear them opening doors. I am thinking I need to reach them before they uncover something private, compromising. I am thinking I need to protect my family. I am thinking that when I get to the children, I will rip them apart, I will grab each one and wrench their arms out of their sockets, I will shake one of them until their goddamn fake gun clatters from their hands and I will brain one of them on our shiny hardwood floors that I washed and waxed just hours before. I am thinking of ways I will smash the teeth from their wicked heads when my husband calls from the backyard. I can hear his voice, carefree in the moment and unaware of what is happening inside, and he is cheerfully calling to me and my son to come out, the burgers and hot dogs are ready, everyone is about to say a prayer. I hear him wait and call again, and a minute after that I hear my husband give up on us and start praying. Dear heavenly Father, he begins.
And I am standing at the mouth of the hallway, breathing in hoarse gasps, and I can hear the children’s footsteps clamping around in my son’s room, and one of them has discovered the parakeet, the hamster, and now they are opening the cage doors and coaxing the frightened animals toward the exits. I can hear my son, who is damaged and has seen things I will never be able to see or share, crawling on the floor in the living room, scooping up the violated dirt as he weeps and whispers frantic apologies to the fish. I can hear some of the children now move into my bedroom where they drag my quilt onto the floor, and they are rolling around on it and screaming CARPET-BOMB! and giggling. I am sweating through my shirt and angry and inexplicable tears are dropping out of my eye-sockets as I see my huddled son’s shadow quiver on the wall in the day’s late light, and I am entering the darkened hallway holding a dull knife, listening to my husband’s prayer that is faraway, underwater: And thank you for delivering our son back to us safely, Lord, and thank you that this war is over, amen.
Image © Olena Shmahalo