Red Light, Green Light

“Don’t drive the Volkswagen in the fish tank.”  Jessica forced her fingers through her short hair.  She wished it were still long so she could wrap it around her hands and yank it all out.  Maybe then she’d feel better.  But the long hair was gone, an early victim of her ‘predicament’, as her husband called it.  And the biggest part of that predicament refused to obey Jessica’s orders.

“But Mom, I was just showin’ Mister Fishy my car.”

“Laura, Mister Fishy can’t drive cars.  Now please go play in your room so Mom can finish her homework.”

The child moved away from the fish tank, guiding her Hot Wheels Bug along the bookcase, onto the card table, and across Jessica’s notebook.  Jess snatched the car.  “Laura!”

“Mom!  That’s mine!”

“You can have it back if you’ll go in your room and leave me alone to finish my homework.  Okay?”  With a shrug Laura agreed and disappeared into the bedroom making beep-beep noises.  Jessica looked at her watch.  She had to review the whole chapter today before class.  She would never get it done.

Maybe it was a mistake, trying to take a class.  She’d hardly been able to tend to her own child because of the lupus.  How could she expect to go to college?  What about all those times she’d forgotten to change Laura’s diaper?  Or spent an hour searching for her keys only to find them still in the front door.  Or passed out on the floor from sheer exhaustion, to wake with a shock half an hour later, praying the baby was still alive.  She didn’t even know her own phone number half the time.  What was she doing trying to learn computers?

But Laura would start preschool in a few weeks, and then Jess would have no more excuses to stay home and hide.  The doctor had taken her off her medications, slowly, and she was holding her own – still not well, like before the baby and before the lupus had invaded her body, but she wasn’t likely to get any better.  It was a time to face the world again.  “To add a program to the start-up menu, click on ‘start’ and then ‘settings’.  Right?”

Jess checked the book for the answer.  “Wrong.  Click on ‘taskbar’.”

The front door banged open and a masculine voice called out.  “Jess!”

She threw her pen in the air.  “In here, Terry.”

Her husband appeared in the doorway, almost wearing a suit.  His necktie dangled loose around his neck, jacket in his hand.

“You’re home awfully early.”

“I’ve got to fly to Houston this afternoon.  My blue suit back from the cleaners?”

“Hanging on the bedroom door.”

He headed down the hallway.  “I’ll be back tonight, around eleven.  Need you to pick me up.”

“Laura goes to bed at nine.”

“Bring her asleep then.  You don’t have to get up early in the morning.  Your class isn’t until noon.”

Jess sighed.  A little voice shrieked, “Daddy!” and feet thundered down the hallway.  For a moment Jessica was alone.  Leaning over, she scrounged around on the floor for her pen.

“Okay, where was I?  The taskbar.  This would be so much easier if I had a computer!”

Terry returned in his clean suit, one arm holding his travel bag, the other holding Laura.  “Now which one of these should I take with me?”

“I hate it when they make you work late like this.  And why can’t they provide shuttle service?”

“We need the money, you know that.  And Fred followed me home.  He’s taking me to the airport so I don’t have to leave my car there.  I just need you to come and get me.”

“Do me a favor and put Laura back in her room before you leave.  I’m trying to study.  We have a test today.”

Terry tickled the little girl.  “Okey-doke.  C’mon, little monster.  You play in your room so Mommy can do her homework.”

Jess made it halfway through the next paragraph before her husband came back.  “Having fun?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I can do this.  I had no idea it was going to be this hard.”

“So quit.”

“But we need the money.  I’ve got to get a job.  And in order to get a job, I have got to upgrade my computer skills.  Things have changed since Laura was born.  Back then, we were all scared of windows 3.1, it was so high tech, and now they’re adding windows 99.”

“You’ve got a job: tending to Laura.  Besides, I make enough money.  We’ve got a place to live, food to eat, cars to drive.  And medical insurance.  What more do you need?”

Jessica looked around the living room.  Aside from the card table, three mismatched folding chairs, a TV set atop a coffee table, the room was empty.  “How about furniture?” she asked.  “Or curtains?  We’re the only family on the street with bed sheets tacked up over the windows.”

Terry smiled.  “Hey, it keeps out peeping toms.”

“Not to be sexist or anything, but look at this place.  You’d think a bachelor lived here.  God, Terry, we eat off plastic dishes!  I’d love to have dinner on real plates for a change.  With glass glasses instead of atrocious purple and blue cups.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jess.  You know your lupus gets worse when you stress yourself out.  And you certainly won’t be able to work if you’re sick.”

“We spent every penny we had to buy this house,” she said quietly.  “Remember?  We had two incomes, plenty of money.  We were going to buy a sofa big enough for all three of us, and a swing set for Laura and…”

“No sense in that,” Terry cut her off.  “We’ve got what we’ve got, and be glad for it.  Tell you what, if you get an A on your test, I’ll take you out for ice cream.  Real ice cream, not the low-fat kind.  Now give me a kiss, I’ve got to go.  Remember: eleven o’clock.”

“Yeah, yeah.  I’ll write it down so I don’t forget.”

One cup of apple juice, one search for a lost puzzle piece, and two cookies later, Jessica closed her book and prayed.  This was terrible.  She couldn’t remember anything.  Between her atrophied brain and Laura’s constant interruptions, she simply could not concentrate.  Perhaps it would be better to quit now, rather than fail.  If she quit, at least she could still believe in the possibility of success.  Maybe after Laura started school and she had time to sit down alone with her books and study, maybe then she could convince her brain to function.

But what if she couldn’t, even then?  What if her brain was too far gone to come back again?

Laura squealed out of the bedroom, a tiny car in each hand.  “Time to go yet, Mom?”

“Huh?  Yeah, it’s time.  Got your shoes on?”

“I can’t find ‘em.”

“Did you look in your closet, by any chance?’’

‘’Closet?  Closet-closet-closet.”  She ran back into her room and a moment later responded with a muffled shout.  “Found ‘em, Mom!”

“Now put them on.”  Slowly Jess made her way to the bathroom to wash her face.  Her knees resisted her desire to walk and her numb hand fumbled with the doorknob.  Looking in the mirror, she sneered at the splotchy reflection, the ruddy lupus flush over her nose, the vague age spots beginning to show on her cheeks.  Even four years after giving birth, she still looked puffy and tired.

Makeup might help, she realized.  Make her look alive, at least, instead of washed-out, which was too much like washed-up.  Well, she decided, it couldn’t hurt.

It was a disaster.  Jess hadn’t worn makeup in so long, she’d forgotten how to put it on, and ended up looking like an adolescent just learning to paint her face – except for the crow’s feet and the shards of gray in her hair.  Once she’d gotten Laura to the car and settled in her booster seat, Jess surveyed her face in the rearview mirror and nearly went back in the house.  She looked absurd.

“Can we go to McDonalds?”

“Not today, we don’t have time.  I’ve barely got time to drop you off at the sitter’s before school.”  Then Jess smacked her own forehead.  “School!  Geez.  You sit still, I’ll be right back.”

Jess ran back to the house and snatched her notebook and pens off the table.  “Forget my own head…!”

She dropped her keys twice trying to lock the front door but finally made it to the car again.  Throwing the books in the back seat, she climbed in.  How sad to see a grown woman fall apart like this.  If she told the teacher about her lupus, perhaps he would give her a break.  But no, she couldn’t ask for favors.  She wanted to drag herself back into the real would on her own two feet, even if she did limp a little, and see what she could accomplish on her own.  After all, she must learn to live with this.  The lupus wasn’t going to go away.  True, she didn’t need a cane anymore, and she’d stopped passing out.  But there were no tests that could assure her that her common sense and intelligence had survived.

For a moment the car’s whine distracted her.  Jess’ left foot stomped down on the floorboards but the clutch wasn’t there.  Another concession, when the disease weakened her hands.  How she missed her old Mustang!  Driving a standard gave her such pride.  An unmistakable sense of power: mash the pedal and yank the gearshift into place when she wanted to.  When she knew it was time.  When the engine reached just the right pitch.  Driving an automatic was no fun at all.  You just sat, passive, and let some computer-engineered machinery decide your fate.

Finally the car shifted into second, just in time to reach the intersection.  Jessica stepped on the brake too hard and threw them both forward.  Good Lord!  Would she never get the hang of driving this car?

“Mom!”

“Sorry, dear.”

“I dropped my cars.  On the floor.  Please?”

Jess reached down to retrieve the toys.  “Are you okay?”

The girl examined her Hot Wheels.  “We’re fine.”

A car honked behind them and Laura grinned.  “Dad always says a stop sign don’t turn green.”

Jess touched the accelerator.  “Doesn’t,” she corrected.

“How come?”

“Because,” Jess pushed on the pedal, trying again to force the car to shift, “people are supposed to have enough sense to know when it’s safe to go again.’’

“Oh.  How do you know when it’s safe?”

Jessica stole a glance at her little girl as the car lurched into second gear.  “Beats me,” she said.  “They never taught that in driver’s ed.”

the end

(c) 1999 by Libby Block 

first published in “C.C. Writer”, Spring ’99, North Lake College, Irving, Texas


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