Afloat (excerpt)

By Esther Ehrlich

I'm lying on my stomach on the moss-green carpet in my friend Rebecca's living room, which is doubling as my bedroom until I can find my own place in Berkeley. I'm searching through the Help Wanteds like I've done every day for the past week and a half. I need a job, an apartment, my own bike. Some friends would be nice, too. Rebecca has been shut like a locked suitcase now that I've officially moved here from the other side of the country. I think it was easier for her when I was just a faraway idea.

"It's for you," Rebecca's roommate, Jon, says, carrying the phone in from the hallway. He is a sweet man who sometimes calls me kiddo. It makes me feel like I belong here.

"Es?" Dad's voice sounds as thin as air from a fan. Before I can do the math and figure out if its a strange time for him to be calling, he says,"Something's wrong with Mom."

"A flare-up?" I ask, but even as I say the words I know that's not what he's talking about. Mom has had multiple sclerosis since I was seven. Her cycles of pain are as dramatic and familiar as the shifting Boston weather.

"She can't sleep. She's scared to be alone. She's been curled up on the couch for two days—"

"I'll come home," I interrupt, not wanting to hear the list get longer.

"No, wait," Dad says. "She's talking about wanting to go to the hospital. We'll call you tomorrow when we know what's happening."

"Can I talk to her?" I ask.

"I don't think so, Es," he says.

I hang up the phone. My heart is too big for my body, my body too big for the house. Rebecca's roommates walk around quietly, pretending that they haven't overheard my conversation. Rebecca's face looks tight. She takes a deep breath and then heads toward me, her arms outstretched as if to close the gap that has been widening since the day I arrived. I smile like a nervous kid about to be punished and then walk past everyone and out the back door.

I tug open the little crawl-space hatch that's behind the back steps. Bending low, I creep into the darkness. Above my head, voices and footsteps. I feel around for the dangling string and yank the light on. Every morning I come here to get clean clothes from my duffle bag, since there isn't room in the house for my things. Now I stoop under cobwebs. I walk around cardboard boxes and a rusty blue bike. My red Kelty backpack, a present from Mom and Dad for my fifteenth birthday, leans against a wooden post. I drag it toward me, sit down in the cool dirt, and wrap my arms around it, the closest thing to home.

I'm on Rebecca's bike, pedaling hard. I need to ride somewhere, but have no place to go. Through my tears, the trees look like green sea glass. My legs throb and my arms ache, but I can't stop riding. Like a fish, I open my mouth in big Os, warm air filling my chest.

My sister, Talia, just phoned. She sounded like a TV newscaster brisk, efficient, confident, so I knew the news was bad. "The hospital is what she wants, Es," she said, her voice softening into a sob just before she hung up.

I listened to the dead phone air. Mom is on a psych ward.

I want these cars and people and houses to disappear. I want pure quiet and a huge flat road with no one else on it. I want to pedal this bike with all my might across this huge country until I arrive at that hospital. I will rush in. I will find Mom. I will scoop her up in my arms and carry her away.

Cars are beeping. I'm not stopping at intersections. I'm not stopping at traffic lights.

Mom is on a psych ward. This Berkeley sun is too bright. There are too many birds singing too many songs in the bottle-brush trees.

As I ride up to Rebecca's house, her upstairs neighbor, Philip, is working on his van in the driveway. His skinny body is bent at the waist like my Zeida praying. He is very quiet. There is sunlight in his red-gold hair. I get off my bike and walk into the cool rectangle of the van's shadow. I stand still, resting in the calm chunk of shade.

"Hey," Philip says, looking up. When he sees my tear-streaked face he says, "Hang out here and keep me company." Then he dips his head back toward the engine. I sit down on the driveway and listen to him hum. It's a tune I recognize but can't name.

"Would you get me the blue-handled channel locks? They're in the top tray of my tool box," Philip says, his voice just loud enough for me to hear. I root around among the metal tools. I like having a job to do. When I hand him the channel locks, he says, "This will just take a second. How about coming in for some tea?" Though I've only met Philip once before, I'm such a lost pup, I'd follow him anywhere.

He leads me up his creaky wooden staircase, through a dark hallway and into his warm, yellow, sunlit kitchen. Without asking, he makes me a mug of raspberry tea, pours in honey from a jar, stirs. While I sip the sweet tea, Philip talks about his van. He describes all of the work he's done over the years to keep it running smoothly. "Intake valve, carburetor, timing chain," he chants like a quiet song.

When I finish my tea, Philip takes my mug and washes it. He dries it with a white dishcloth and puts it away in the cupboard. He wipes up the water around the sink. He turns to me. His head is tilted to the side like he's about to ask a question.

"Want to see a movie?" I blurt out.

In the dark theater, as the opening credits to "La Bamba" begin to roll, I lean toward him and whisper, "My mother."

"Yeah," he says, nodding as if he understands. Then he wedges the bucket of popcorn between our thighs.

When the movie is over and the lights come on, Philip bends toward me. I feel his breath on my neck. "I don't see my mother anymore," he whispers in my ear. "She's tried to kill herself too many times."

My father pats my back as we walk side-by-side through dried fall leaves, away from the huge brick building with the pale green room where my mother paces. Mom is alone in that room with only a bed, a dresser, a wastebasket, a box of Kleenex, and her thoughts, which keep her awake so many hours that her eyelids are raw pink and swollen almost shut.

Mom sees me and her smile is dried-out lips pulled back over teeth. She shuffles over, and I wrap my arms around her. Her body is weightless; I swear if I let go shell float up to the ceiling. I sniff her neck, needing her smell to anchor me. Instead, I am hit with the empty scent of disinfected sheets. Her hand rubs my back, windshield wipers swiping side-to-side, leaving me cold as glass.

"I love you so much, Mom," I whisper in her ear. She pulls away and grips my forearms with a strength that startles me. Through puffy lids, she looks at me, her dark eyes fierce. "I know that you do, honey. All of you do. And I love you, too. But, I'm sorry to say, all of this love is not going to save me."

Her words hit some unknown place deep inside of me and a space cracks open that's still and calm and terrifying. We sit together quietly in that space, which is what Mom wants, which is what she'd hoped for in choosing to talk to me. I can't fling out encouraging words. I can't tell her she'll be fine. I can only nod my head over and over and breathe my warm breath into the half-dead air.

After a few minutes she pulls me to her and holds me hard. She's ready for me to go. I can't bear leaving her in the care of strangers. I imagine her as an infant and then as a young girl, stunned into silence by the gray walls, the gray floors, the gray touch of the orphanage. I want to bring her someplace beautiful—a cabin in the middle of a pine forest, a cottage by the wild autumn sea—and find a way to make her better. But even as I'm imagining this, her eyes are pleading with me to go, just as they pleaded with my father to bring her here two weeks ago.

As I leave to meet my father in the hall, I notice Mom's winter cactus, bloomless, on the dresser; green runny nubs where bright pink should be. Then I see them, the fuchsia blossoms that she waits for all year, lying limp, on top of crumpled Kleenex, in the bottom of the wastebasket.