It nears midnight and I kneel on filthy white tile with my face inside a toilet bowl. The bleak fluorescent light shows smears and stains I would rather not see. My body lurches then rids itself of the ginger ale I forced down an hour ago. I sit back on my heels, try to breathe through the next heave. But my spit is thick and the air is sour. I heave again.
Grimy metal walls with peeling red paint separate me from the other women in this rest area bathroom. A baby is babbling while he gets his diaper changed. A couple is deciding whether to stop for the night. From the next stall someone says, “Too much to drink, hon?”
Her voice is sweet in the way only Southern women can be. Blessing your heart and cutting your throat at the same time. I can see pink rhinestoned sandals and a fresh pedicure under the wall between me and the voice.
“Fuck off,” I say, but my words are indecipherable though the sounds coming from my body. I wipe my face on the sleeve of my shirt and lean against the wall. Through a crack, I see her apply lipstick, blot it and leave without washing her hands.
The rest area is just outside of Nashville and the air has already turned heavy. Most of the travelers who have stopped are walking their dogs or taking a smoke break. I imagine they are on their way to someplace pleasant - a reunion or maybe a rock concert. But not me.
Back in the car, my husband, Bill checks the weather and returns texts that came while he was driving. He’s driven most of the way without talking as is his way. He’s my rock. He knows me and all the dirty details that come with me. He never blinks when I visit Memphis and sleep in my ex-husband’s garage apartment. He doesn’t growl when I ask how much money we have in savings because one of my children needs help to get out of the crisis du jour. He is my safe place.
“Who texted?” I ask as Bill scrolls through text messages.
“Everyone,” he says, looking past his long, bushy beard at his phone. "They just want to know how you are."
“How am I?” I ask him. He stares at me. I can’t tell if it’s in pity or awe. “Do I seem normal?” I have no idea how I’m doing. Since we left Michigan, I’ve spent the ride floating in the darkness of my own mind. I feel nothing. Not even numbness. I wonder if I still exist at all.
“You are doing fine,” he tells me. "As well as anyone would expect."
I raise the lever to recline my seat and stare at my sixteen year-old daughter, Claudia, in the back seat. With her ear buds in, she’s wedged between luggage with her eyes are closed. Her breathing is rhythmic except for a whimper. Is she sleeping? I should talk to her. Soothe her. But, the last time we spoke, I told her her brother was dead. What can I possibly say to her now that would be of any consequence?
How can I explain something so devastating as losing a child? Do the words even exist? And if so, in what language? How many ways can I say ‘I am sad’ before it sounds trite and overdone? Grief pulls me to the bottom of my soul. Dark places down deep where all my monsters live and I can’t breathe. When I think I can’t take it anymore, it holds me under a little longer. Instead of clear, life-giving air, breathing only sucks in more darkness. When the thought enters my mind that I myself will soon die, I feel relieved. I do not want to live in a world that doesn’t have my son in it. And, just when my cells are turgid with pain and my mind is made up, grief releases me to float back to the surface and wait to endure the next wave.