Sushi With Debbie
© Copyright 2022 by Amber Baker
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
we pulled the car up in front of the door and the house opened up, I
thought you looked beautiful. I even said so to your granddaughter
sitting next to me. She only knows you now— white hair to the
waist and a flowing purple top to match your nails. I know the door
to the brown house never opens. There’s a curtain of overgrowth
shielding the fowl stench inside of dog droppings, smoke, and
ammonia. It was always a sad place.
Your walking sticks rise and fall slowly to support you along the ramp— a new addition since I left ten years ago. Diana opens the car door for you and you let out a wail as your bones crack to meet the seat. The cracks were so loud its as if your legs were to start glowing. The smell slaps us. It seems the air in the car was sucked out in a vacuum and replaced by a putrid perfume. We have a bottle of Febreeze in the back that we silently squeeze along the way. I calculated a short car ride with nothing more than 10 minutes. The entire way, I get flashes of my fifteen-year-old self riding in your passenger seat with the car swerving as your hand reaches over to land a few blows. You and Diana put the flame to a couple of cigarettes and I’m grateful for the new air freshener. I’m surprised to see you’ve abandoned your Virginia Slims for Misty’s.
When we arrive at the restaurant, I ask for a table outside, with as much air as possible, yet still in the public eye. I sit more than an arm’s reach away. The sweat is sticky. I imagined the particles of my skin fusing with the particles of the wooden chair one by one. The thought of that makes me feel trapped like I’ll remain facing you forever. Between us, the humid air puts pressure on our lips. There is no way for words to squeeze their way through and reach the other side of the table. We only speak from the self— avoiding any back and forth and the chance of entanglement. Your clouded eyes look up and you tell us to work as much as possible because social security ain’t much. I see your eyebrows bunch and wonder, for a second, if you’re about to cry. We grab your sunglasses because your “cataracts are acting up.” You tell us if Maxine hadn’t come by in the winter, you would have starved. I don’t know if I want you to die.
Your hand glides up to flip your hair. At that moment your bones pause their cry. You tell us everyone in town tells you you’re too old for waist-length hair and three-inch nails. My cheek stings in rows of four. I noticed you cleaned your plate and the sadness slaps me again. I wonder if you have enough food to eat. You always fed me. I eat another bite of sushi and you tell me I’m turning your stomach by eating raw fish. The spicy salmon slides down like a rock.
As we walk to the car, Diana asks if there’s anything you need. Your walking sticks rest on the pavement and your chin tilts up towards the sky. “Just some laundry detergent and dish soap.”
While we’re waiting in the parking lot I read you my piece about mom and dad. We never talked about how it felt to be left on earth without them to protect me. We never talked about what it was like for you to identify your brother's body in the same room I woke up with him in. That day you left with someone else’s kid. You were a stranger to me and I despise knowing you so well now. We moved to a new town when I was nine. You planted hastas in the yard and filled my shelves with glass eyes and porcelain skin. I already had dolls my dad got from the garbage.
When I turned twelve you had me sign some papers to change my name. There was no amount of ink that could make my home with you feel permanent. I thought of the purple hastas you tucked inside the bed hugging the house and how I always felt like a weed being watched and waiting to be plucked. All of this filled the silent space after I finished reading to you.
“That’s real purty, Amber,” you croaked.
You write much anymore?” I asked.
“Can’t see the letters on the keyboard.”
Diana comes back to the car with your detergent and dish soap. The base of my neck stiffens as the trunk shuts with slightly more force. I sat there as I ranked the clicks on a scale of intensity. I know this is hard for her too— Debbie’s firstborn. She offered to join us for lunch to ease my nerves. She understands my unrest in tendencies to scan for dysfunction after growing up with unpredictable co-regulation.
There’s a shielded pass of the Febreeze before slowly depressing the handle to relieve the stench in the car. As we get closer, I think of her calloused feet scraping the floor to dodge the excrements of her dogs. The same feet I used to massage week after week to keep the swelling down.
We pull into the driveway. I glance at the overgrowth again. The weeds have started to tower over the red shingles on the roof, resiliently reaching for the sunlight. It’s as if they’ve outgrown the house, too. You let out a wail as your hips crack to raise your leg out of the car. “I have to run to the bathroom. My colitis is acting up bad.” I’m relieved. There are no true and pleasant words that could conclude our excursion. You weave through the weeds to finally hit upon the door handle. The sadness sets in again as the smell lingers in the car and I realize that you didn’t make it to the toilet in time.