Riding With the Top Down

Originally published in Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue


It’s 1971. I’m twenty-one and I’m beginning to believe everything will turn out all right. I can drink in bars legally, and I’m not trapped in the house without a car anymore because my son is old enough to stick his thumb out and hitchhike with me. Jason is three, fun to be around now, and can do most things on his own, which is good because I am too young to be a mother and can barely take care of myself. We sing to Beatles songs and dance all over the house. Whenever he wakes up before me, he pours his own cereal and milk, and then watches cartoons. He doesn’t bug me to get up until 9 or 10.
Sometimes, I borrow my mother’s car and take Jason to the frog pond, where we sit all afternoon, frog eyes sticking out of the water, turtles climbing onto logs. He turns thoughtful, and says, “You’re my mother, but you’re like a sister too. Right, Mom?”

I had to hug him for that one because this is my new child-rearing philosophy: If I’m happy, my kid will be happy, so I’m having fun. He sleeps at my parents’ a few times a week. I bring our laundry for my mother to wash on those days, watch the Soaps with my sisters, stay for dinner, and then head off with my best friend to the Italian Club bar.

All those cute, strutting guys at the Italian Club bar.
Dancing to the jukebox.

Riding in the backs of pickups with the lights turned off in the moonlight, running through sprinklers on the golf course.

Once when I was tripping, I saw in the bark of an oak tree all the roads of the world, so many choices to make, so many directions to take. I felt hope like bells ringing. I would leave this town and return one day driving a red sports car, the top down, my long hair flowing, and show everyone how wrong they were about the pitiful girl who got pregnant in high school.

Turns out, that happy time never got the chance to pick up speed. While a friend borrowed my house to sell his garbage-bag full of pot, I was off with a guy in the woods singing to his guitar.  It wasn’t my pot, just my house. But the old judge at the trial wheezes, “A mother on welfare selling drugs for profit; I’m not inclined to go easy on you, young lady. But there is the child to consider.” My name is plastered on the front page of the newspaper. Now I’m not only a single ex-teen mother on welfare with a kid, I’m the leader of a drug ring and will spend the rest of my life a convicted felon.

Now when people give me a look in the grocery line, it isn’t only because of the food stamps, but probably because they know who I am and wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. I don’t blame them. If they get too close, I might contaminate them with lousy luck.

The guy I’m in love with doesn’t want to touch me with a ten-foot pole either, but the sex is too good, so he comes by on Friday nights after the bars close and parks his car on another block. He’s a schoolteacher and says if people found out about us he’d get fired.

Every week in the town hall, my probation officer harasses me with questions I refuse to answer: “Been to any orgies lately? You shoot some heroin? Isn’t that what you hippies are into?”

I feel like I did when I was a kid and lost my mother in the department store, like I’ll never see her again and on one will rescue me. I’m so lonely, I eat half a loaf of Wonder Bread toast slathered with butter and jelly every night just to comfort myself.
I grow so fat I jiggle.

Nothing fits me anymore, so for Jason’s first day of Kindergarten, my mother buys me a new pair of jeans. Jase and I walk down the corridor holding hands, and instead of thinking about how much I’m going to miss my son, I’m worried the other mothers will stare because I’m too young to have a child, and I radiate White Trash.

When we reach the classroom, Jase doesn’t want to let go of my hand. I pull a chair out for him and he sits up straight, his hands folded on the table, and stares ahead, being brave. He looks so grown up with his hair parted on the side; he’s wearing a pin-striped shirt with a button-down collar and looks so frightened I think my heart will break.

After school, he hands me a crayon drawing of the two of us without arms and teaches me a new song he learned. The next day I wave him off on the school bus then go back to bed and don’t get up till he comes home.

Jason has a life and I don’t have a clue how to get one.

I apply for a job as a file clerk at the steel mill, and another one at the hospital to train to give EKGs. Both of the men interviewing me ask who will take care of my child the half day he isn’t in school; what will I do when he’s sick? I say my mother will take care of him, which is a bold-faced lie because she has her own job. And the real truth is I have no idea how I’d get to and from work every day. I don’t have a car and there’s no public transportation. It doesn’t matter anyway, because I never hear back from them.

I’m like the frogs Jason catches and traps in coffee cans. Hitting their heads on the plastic lid. When Jason tries to hug me, I feel like he’s dragging me under. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t yell at him for something. My life is already ruined, and now I’m ruining his, too. My parents would love to have him. And he’d love to live there. If he doesn’t like what’s served for dinner, my mother makes him something special. There’s dessert every night, ice cream in the fridge, boxes of cookies, a dog, a cat, my two younger sisters a man in the house.

Jason would be better off. Life was never fair and now it’s cruel, unsafe, ugly. Whenever something good happens, something worse happens in reaction. Good people who try to change things—Gandhi, President Kennedy, Martin Luther King—are assassinate. Friends of mine are killed in the Vietnam War, which nobody with half a brain believes is about keeping American free. A friend home from ‘Nam, tells me his job was to pick up body parts, put them in bags, ship them home. Picturing this, I can’t sleep for nights on end. A Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze on TV. People riot, cities burn, police are brutal.

I am so filled with sorrow for the world, I can’t bare it.

And I can’t bare myself either.

I’m a fat, ugly sad sack who anyone in their right mind would run from. Even worse: I am not a good person. I have a terrible temper, and I’m ungrateful, selfish, argumentative, and don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. I also wouldn’t give up saying Fuck in every other sentence even if I could. I’m sure I’ve deserved all the bad luck and punishment I’ve received in life, and I don’t know how to change myself so I won’t keep deserving it. I’m in terror that life will clobber me the most when I least expect it, so I must be vigilant, which exhausts me. Dragging myself out of bed in the morning, my legs feel like concrete, my eyes do not want to see, my ears do not want to hear; I want to disappear and be nobody.

Suicide would release me.

Suicide would be a relief.

Suicide is the only way out I can think of.

My death will be a gift to my son. He’s only five and will hardly remember me, if he remembers me at all.

Jason is staying overnight at my parents’ house. At 8:00 PM, I climb into bed and dump 100 aspirins onto a dishtowel I’ve laid out in front of me. It’s an amount that, I’m told, will eat a hole through the wall of my stomach and make me bleed to death. Since I sleep sixteen hours a day, I’m counting on sleeping through it. I begin taking the pills two at a time and notice how the walls are dotted with my dried blood from the mosquitos I swatted when I was pregnant and didn’t have screens. It had never occurred to me to wash the walls. There’s something wrong with me. I thought I’d be an author, live in New York City, have outlandish and interesting friends, travel the world, have plenty of money. But I’m facing the truth: I’ve been damaged goods from the day I was born. Whipping myself with my mind like this, I swallow maybe twenty pills.

And then a message comes to me like a feather floating into an open hand: It’s always darkest before the dawn, and then another, When winter comes can spring be far behind?

It’s as though a dam breaks. I burst into tears and cry until dawn. And then I do something I never thought of before: I call the psychiatric clinic at the hospital.

Many years of therapies, six different therapists, meditating, practicing yoga, praying the rosary, and more than a few bouts of depression later, I return to my home town to ride in the Memorial Day parade. My high school friend is bringing up the rear in a red Corvette, and I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat waving.

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