For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.
Our governor gave us the stay-at-home order yesterday. With presumptive positives surpassing 1000 in the state, it’s a wise directive. That said, judging by the volume on I-66 right outside my condo, only a handful of my fellow Virginians are complying. And no, they still have not finished replacing the sound wall as they ravage the land around us for new express lanes. Which means even as spring explodes from the tulip poplar and cherry trees all around the complex, my balcony door stays sealed tight.
Temperature pushing 100. Shaking, nauseated, dizzy, and a little green. He sleeps for nearly 13 hours, so motionless at daybreak I have to rustle the blanket to make sure he’s breathing. When I call the school, they tell me Flu B has been making it past the vaccine.
He sleeps on. Sometime after 10am, he creaks out of bed and shuffles to the kitchen with a blanket draped over his shoulders. I am parked at the dining table plodding through cut-rate wifi to VPN into work. As he passes, I look up at his sallow face and ask him how he’s feeling.
“Sick,” he rumbles, his voice dipping even lower than the adolescent tenor which is emerging with increasing frequency these days.
Old shortcuts lead to dead ends. Minor annoyances to major road blocks. Drifting off during the boring parts of class, crumpled papers forgotten in the bottom of the backpack, goofing off in the hallway. D grades. Closed doors.
As he fails, his world shrinks.
Only the first quarter of his first year of middle school, and hard lessons are giving my boy’s psyche a good scraping.
On my son’s first birthday, a stomach virus knocked him flat. For the next few days, he couldn’t keep anything down. Even though he begged for the comfort of nursing, I had to ration his time on the breast. We fed him Pedialyte from a dropper. He screamed in protest until thirst overcame his resistance.
After a few days, he rallied. Small portions of pureed food stayed down. Great quantities of breast milk too. He resumed scooting all over the house and tormenting the dog. The doctor had said he’d get over it, and this seemed to hold true.
Except that he kept losing weight.
Sense skates over the damp oil of detangling spray. The film coats my son’s raveled mat. His head is a summer hayfield bleached gold and heavy with dew. At the tips, tendrils going to seed thin and fall away.
Down under all that flower and dust, the stalks twist into themselves. Pile up. Snarl. My fingers burrow to the base of his skull and find the nest there. I begin to brush. Starting at the ends, the gesture is one short stroke. Then another. The brush barks over the ragged rope. Its plastic bristles chatter as if scraped across a guiro’s ridged wooden belly. The boy tolerates this, gripping his nerf gun and re-reading Sunday’s comics.
Little holes in the bag of rice gave it away. Three and half years living in this place, and here was the first sign of uninvited guests. On our next trip to town, we stopped at the hardware store for traps. Despite Bug’s insistence that we buy the $39 ultrasonic pest repeller, I opted for Tomcat traps. A four-pack for four bucks.
We smeared on peanut butter and tucked it into the cabinet corner. The next morning, we heard a snap. Big brown eyes, white fuzzy belly, limp broken body. “Oh, he’s so cute,” Bug said sadly. Into the weekday rush we crammed this death. We shrank it down to fit. School, work, a morning meeting and already late. I dumped the trap, mouse and all, into the garbage. Another dab of peanut butter on a clean trap, and off we hustled into our overfull day.
On the drive to school, regret hit hard.
He asks. I fumble. Events crash past, plowing under a vocabulary both dated and outgunned. My words like vestigial limbs grasp at an extinct terrain.
As we drive the short distance home, NPR wallops us with our nightly load of federal ordure. The new Congress just voted to pave the way for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Our representatives exhumed an old law which will allow them to slash the pay of any federal worker down to $1. In a stage play of quasi-constitutionalism, those who ask the toughest questions wield no power. The men in charge anoint a public opponent of civil rights as the nation’s Attorney General and an oil tycoon as Secretary of State.
He slides into bed next to me, his left side far warmer than his right. His chilled skin presses in as he drinks from my heat. “Can you put your arm around me?” He asks.
“Sure, scoot down.”
A shifting. The sheets tangle and we kick ourselves back to softness. Dark lingers. December morning takes her sweet time stretching awake. We wait her out.
“It’s funny how the neck is shaped,” he says in his dreamy murmur.
“It’s like it’s designed exactly right so someone’s arm can fit underneath.”
He blocks the dryer, wild eyes and a grin. I duck, pump, shoot. His wet boxer shorts whip past his ear and splat against the back wall of the drum.
“Oh man!” He turns and yanks a shirt from the washer tub, untwisting its rope of an arm from a pillowcase. He cuts in front of me and pivots. Past my block, he fakes then scores. “Yes!” Fist in the air.