The Complex – Chapter IV: A Homecoming

There were times where Sarah knew where she was going, and there were times where she didn’t know at all. After leaving work and the apartment complex, she had driven eastward, towards the highway, but had become stuck when her car had come up against a slight, snow-covered incline. Out of frustration, she quite literally put the petal to the metal, which caused a wave of pain to emanate from her jaw and arch its way northward before finally settling around her temples.

Grimacing, she could hear her doctor’s voice in her head, augmented, as if spoken through a bullhorn: We don’t want to have to do surgery. That had been his mantra during her visits to his office. Of course, with a problem like TMJ she could actually have years of treatments ahead of her, a dark notion that caused her to scowl as she futilely spun her wheels against the accumulated snow.

Sighing, she shifted to reverse. She wasn’t going anywhere this way and would have to take the long route home. Behind her, a car began to lay on the horn, screaming in protest through the snow-clogged air. Spinning the wheel, she turned into the opposite lane and was soon heading back in the other direction.

The road towards I-494 hadn’t been plowed. Snow coated its surface, creating the equivalent of a deadly slip-n-slide. However, due to heavy use there were shallow trenches cut into the snow by innumerable car tires. Sarah followed these, her car slowly gliding through the white, frozen morass.

She felt anxious. Her back was arched, muscles pulled tight. Daring a look out her window, she was struck by the blank nothingness of the Minnesotan terrain. Its frozen, diamond-coated landscape sparkled with a angry, lethal veneer. Even after a lifetime in Minnesota she had never gotten use to navigating the winter weather.

She often thought about how close she had been to leaving it behind. When Mom had first gotten sick she had been on the cusp of leaving. The admission letter had come, and she had quickly sent back the deposit. She then had busied herself with trying to wrangle her mother into filling out the FAFSA, that wretched piece of paper that felt more like an admission of guilt than a government aid form.

“Should we or should we not let you go to school?” the form seemed to say. “Should we or should we not doom you to a lifetime at the minimum wage?” Luckily for Sarah, her EFC had never been in question. Unlike several people she knew, Sarah’s family had no assets. Her Dad was long gone, as was her brother. Her family’s income was essentially a joke, although not a very funny one. At the time, Sarah had barely been making over 12 grand, which was hardly enough to cover the basics. The only other source of income were the Social Security checks, which were hardly easy to come by. Sarah had lost track of how many times she had driven her Mom to the local downtown office, that chalk-colored, 1970s abomination that clashed with Lowertown’s more classical brick facades.

Thinking about her mother, Sarah felt a jolt of adrenaline, a familiar feeling that often marked her drive home. She could feel her senses become momentarily heightened due to the hormonal release, and the car soon became alive with a light and sweet aroma. She wondered how often her mother had made her feel this way, and what effect it might be having on her health. There’s a future grey hair she thought to herself, her face contorting into a pained grimace. Part of the problem was that she just never knew what to expect when coming home, and so she often went in expecting the worse, and feeling almost totally insane.

Then there was what happened tonight, that mortifying moment where he had asked her out to “do something, sometime.” She had been dreading that moment ever since she had decided to kiss him at Nicola’s party, despite knowing that she had wanted nothing more. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong with him. He wasn’t a troll; in fact, he was even somewhat physically attractive. That, paired with a rather self-deprecating sense of humor had made him interesting.

And yet, there was something about him that made anything more seem unlikely. She had appreciated him asking her about things that mattered, about things outside of the day to day. Yet, it was clear that there was only a marginal connection, and that the type of thinking that she wanted to do was beyond his interest.

Outside of her car window the snow continued to fall, alighting on ground already packed high with powder. Sarah had been driving on the interstate and bit her lip as she began to make the transition off of it. Reaching the top of the exit she turned gingerly to the left, entering the home stretch of her commute. On each side of her car, dark pines stood rigid and at attention. Thankfully and inexplicably the road had already seen some plowing. Yet, Sarah knew that one mistake could still bring about a catastrophe, and she gripped the wheel tighter as pain leapfrogged between her jaw and neck.

Sarah’s home was an unassuming split-level, which sat apart from much of the suburban sprawl. Light blue in color, with siding that seemed to ache from neglect, the house looked cold and uninviting as she pulled clumsily to a stop. It was hardly a place you wanted to come home to after a long night at work. No light was shining from the windows, and the driveway appeared nearly impassable. The snow had fortified it, as if preparing for an imminent siege.

____________

Entering the house was like entering a void. The howl of the snow became muffled, and the frigid temperature soon gave way to the warm, musky closeness of the house’s air. Unsurprisingly, things were exactly as she had left them nine hours ago. In other words, they were messy. Half-completed projects littered the kitchen and living room. The dishwasher was partially open and partially emptied. This complemented the basket of unfolded, clean laundry that sat adjacent to the kitchen’s small, circular table. She could see splotches of dried food decorating the pewter linoleum of the kitchen floor, and a swifter broom propped up against the wall unable to do anything about it.

Open boxes of photos sat on top of the kitchen table, their contents strewn about. From where she was standing, Sarah could see past versions of herself, having experiences that were still a part of her. At the same time, that girl who stared out from the table was a stranger, completely severed from the now.

From the staircase, a low moan drifted down into the common areas of the house. Thick and muddy, the moan sounded as if  it was coming from a dying person. She began to walk towards the source of the noise, passing the pictures of herself and her family, whose eyes seemed to follow her across the room.

Striding up the stairs she felt weight press down upon her shoulders, a fatigue that she knew all too well. On the upstairs landing she paused and stared into the open bathroom, which was fully lit. Fuzzy memories swam up from nowhere. There was the sound of glass, an image of the sink full of toothpaste streaks and spittle. Her forearm had burned that night, the result of it rubbing harshly,violently against the counter-top.

Another moan broke through these thoughts, realigning her attention to the task at hand. Crossing the landing, Sarah cracked her mother’s door open, peering into the darkness.”Mom?” she said, adopting the faux bright tone. “Mom?”

A quiet rustling sound was the only response that came from the room, aside from the window rattling in its frame as the wind pushed against it. The thin beam of the landing’s light arched across the bedroom, illuminating nothing aside from a strip of beige carpet. By straining her eyes Sarah could faintly see the covers of her mother’s bed move back and forth, separated ever so slightly from the shadows.

“Mom,” she said again, preoccupied by a feeling of heat rippling throughout her body.

She shot her hand out and flipped on the light, which quickly beat back the darkness. Her bedraggled mother appeared before her, and  immediately Sarah felt a tightness coil around her chest.

Her mother groaned once more, turning away from the light, “Turn that off!”

“Are you alright?” Sarah asked tersely, shutting off the light and plunging the room back into darkness.

“I was just resting,” came the slurred, disembodied response.

Sarah ran her fingers through her thin hair and began to rub her temples. The pressure from her hands temporarily relieved the dull, throbbing pain, although it did nothing for the fogginess that encircled her head like a crown. She felt exhausted and worn thin. But even more potent was the deep sense of emptiness that she felt inside. Everything that she was felt like it had been removed or lost.

“Have you eaten today?” Sarah then asked. “Have you sat up today?”

“Oh of course; I’ve been busy.”

“Wonderful. Well goodnight.”

“How was work?” came the bodyless voice again.

“Fine,” Sarah responded in a voice that sounded strange to her. It hadn’t actually been fine. New clients had moved into the complex that afternoon, clients who she could already see being problematic. One client, who didn’t have any sort of developmental disability, had already given her a hard time. He was suffering from a TBI and Sarah had been tasked with bringing him to a doctor’s appointment.  However, in the car she had mistakenly asked him if he was going to need any help from her once they reached the clinic.

“I’m not retarded!” he had exploded, eyebrows flying towards the top of his head.

Things had gone downhill from such auspicious beginnings. Despite her apologetic fumblings, by the time they had gotten to the clinic the client was a seething mess, enraged to such a degree that Sarah wondered if he might hit her. Instead, he had taken his frustrations out on her passenger-side car door, slamming it with such ferocity that Sarah was amazed it was still intact.

In watching this spectacle, Sarah was startled by her emotions. She wasn’t angry. In fact, she wasn’t even all that startled or surprised. Here was someone who wasn’t where he wanted to be. It wasn’t a unique story.

“Fine?” the voice said, breaking into her reflection.

“Well, you know, it’s not my dream job.”

“Maybe you should just quit then.”

“What?”

“Maybe you should just quit.”

Her mother appeared at the bedroom’s doorway. Dressed in loose-fitting, wrinkled pajamas, face marked by sullen eyes and erratic hair, she looked like she had been sleeping for years.

“You’re kidding right?” Sarah rhetorically asked. “Really?”

“Well, you’re not happy,” her mother responded flatly, as if she had settled something. “You’re just never happy.”

She turned away from Sarah and began to walk towards the staircase.

“I’m done with this,” Sarah hurled towards her retreating back.

“You don’t like it, so don’t do it,” her mother responded, unsteadily grabbing hold of the staircase’s railing. “Just keep it simple.”

Just keep it simple. This had always been her mother’s mantra, for as long as she could remember. Sarah threw up her hands and scoffed in disbelief. Nothing is simple, she thought to herself, spinning on her heel and turning towards her room.

But maybe there was something there, buried underneath the madness, or hidden behind the superficiality of the statement. Maybe everything that had happened, everything that Sarah had put herself through, was all meaningless and unnecessary. Fueled by this, she changed directions; instead of continuing on into her room she turned back and followed her mother down the stairs.

The sharp clattering of ice hitting glass greeted her as she entered the room. Her mother, immersed in fixing herself a water, was standing in the kitchen, facing away from her. Sarah watched silently as she moved shakily throughout the kitchen, opening the refrigerator and removing a block of cheddar cheese. She then pulled out an particularly sharp knife from the rack, which made the hair on the back of Sarah’s neck stand up.

“Mom, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking of going back to school.”

Her mother’s form jumped ever so slightly at her words, and she emitted a slight, barely audible grunt. “What?”

“I need to go back. I need to make a change. We both need it.”

Sarah crossed the room slowly, articulating each word as clearly as possible to make sure her mother understood. “This here,” she said, pausing, her pointer finger outstretched towards the house’s floor. “This isn’t working.”

Drawing closer to her mother Sarah immediately knew something was wrong. Her mother’s hand was poised over the cutting board and shaking uncontrollably. Underneath this, blood was pooling rapidly on the cutting board, its red and black hues dazzlingly contrasted against the white plastic.

“Oh my god, Mom! What have you done?”

The cut wasn’t deep, but Sarah was still worried. Heart thumping wildly she grabbed violently at the sole towel within reach, a ratty, stained thing. Pressing it harshly against the ravaged part of her mother’s thumb, she winced. Every nerve felt like it was on fire.

“I’m sorry,” her mother murmured. “I’m sorry.”

“Let’s just go clean this.”

Sarah held her mother close as they walked towards the bathroom, with one arm around her waist and the other holding her damaged hand wrapped in the towel in the air. Her mother sagged against her, surprisingly heavy despite her rather slim figure.

Pushing the door of the bathroom open, Sarah half-moved, half-ordered her mother onto the closed toilet seat. Reaching for bandages underneath the adjacent sink, she looked at her mother, who sat hunched over on the toilet, her head drooping towards her chest. Mostly it was her mother’s exposed arms that startled her. Thin and pale, the arms possessed an abject cragginess; a withered look, with lines, deep lines. Sarah could also see, out in the kitchen, her mother’s now abandoned glass of ice cubes, which had already begun to lose their shape, slowly deteriorating into nothing.

Sarah looked back at her mother. Whatever anger and frustration she had been feeling a moment ago was gone, replaced by something else. Here was a woman who at one point had been ok. She had married and raised a family; she had been happy, at least for awhile. Yet, here was a woman who had been born and raised in a specific time, in a specific place, and whose history had broken her down as much as it had built her up.

The woman who Sarah was looking at was not her mother, at least not the one from the photographs strewn about on the kitchen table. It wasn’t the woman who had shown up clear-eyed to every field trip, who had stayed by her side until every school worksheet was completed, or had practicing reading with her until Sarah had left her classmates in the dust. That person, who had loomed over her childhood, was gone.

What was she now? Sarah couldn’t say, but she could feel something cold and awful creeping up behind her, even though she knew the house was empty. Maybe it was always supposed to be this way, with Sarah attending to her mother on this night, in this room. Whatever the case it couldn’t last. They were on an unsustainable course. We don’t want to have to do surgery, came the voice of her doctor once more, and fear threatened to overwhelm her.

She began bandaging her mother’s hand, who was mumbling under her breath, and at that moment she understood how the relationship was specifically affecting her. Something was happening inside of her as much as it was outside. Sarah finished the bandage and then stepped outside of the small bathroom. She looked around, and was staggered by how alienating it all felt. Even though she was standing in the house where she had lived for her entire life, everything was foreign. She didn’t know where she was; she didn’t know who she was.

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