I wake up in the middle of the night with the woosh of rushing backwards into my body from a great high distance. The objects around me appear two-dimensional and it feels like nothing is where it should be. I travel down the long hall past the dripping bathtub faucet, a steady small stream, past the shelf piled ceiling high with dusty books, and when I look in the baby’s room he is gone. Holding my hand on my stomach as if it might fall out I rush through the dark checking. This feels vaguely familiar but I’m not sure why. He’s not in the kitchen, he’s not in the living room, the bedroom, the dining room, the bathroom, the laundry room or on the balcony. A terrible thought strikes me that maybe I have picked him up sleepwalking and thrown him off the balcony. I force myself to look over the railing, down five stories, but there is no sign of a splat or stain. I’ve lost him. I don’t know where he is. I pick up the bottle he left out there and start to weep. An invisible mourning dove mocks me.
The red numbers on the alarm clock read 12:25. Alongside pulsing panic I feel something similar to when you are across the house and the baby cries and your nipples leak milk, but it’s more like a hunger, an emptiness. I pull on my jacket and descend the staircases as quickly as I can, dodging boxes, old mail, crushed togo cups, the single broken flip flop, and I exit the building.
This is my fault, I realize as I stand in the cold not knowing whether to turn right or left, I’m always losing things. A chain of things I’ve lost arises in my mind, dimly connecting objects, animals , and people in a deep groove with: baby at the top now, a blurry moving figure, the second silver bracelet Deb hand jeweleried for me, again, after I lost the first one, Chicken the dog, Elsa the rat who became frozen like her namesake, Kris, Leo, grandpa, grandpa, grandma, grandma, my womb-only baby girl, a front tooth after a skateboarding mishap. My brain steers me away from the feelings that start to rise up like icebergs and generates a list of more abstract things I’ve lost: power, my inhibition, sleep, bets, my way, my lust for life, interest, races, the Dreamhouse Raffle, the beat, service, phones, my virginity, my peace of mind, traction, energy, my hourglass figure, the lottery, my train of thought, recipes, everyone’s attention, my will to live. Some of these things I re-found, but not most.
It feels like I have fallen into a different land, through a tunnel or accident. All around are strange figures like the scarecrow-looking man staring at me with great white eyes from his rusty parked car and a tall old man walking by waving a child’s lightsaber. A woman in a ripped sequined dress and glittery high heels jaywalks under the streetlight, singing “you don’t do me like you did me last summer no more”. My neighbor walks up the block. He is wearing the sweatshirt and oily-looking jeans and coke bottle nerd glasses he often wears and also the things he occasionally wears: chunky heels and bright lipstick with a patterned scarf and diamond studded cat glasses. He never looks too glamorous no matter what he is wearing.
“Hey I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he says, “I seen your peanut at Walgreens the other day.” His voice is thick, his tongue too big for his mouth, like a parrot’s. He has sucker-punched me with baby’s vulnerability.
“At Walgreens? I’m looking for him right now.”
“You can’t really control them at this age,” says my neighbor. Frank, his scrappy one-eyed chihuahua, squats down, releasing an odor we pretend we don’t smell.
It’s hard for me to look at my neighbor without thinking of his son who died at 17. I try not to let my eyes hit the sidewalk square at our feet where my neighbor scratched in wet cement RIP DavE, next to RIP CORA (his wife) and PEANUT. Peanut was his decrepit pitbull—he calls everything and everyone peanut. The letters are rough and childlike.
“You should dress up again,” he says.” Like that one night I saw you. You looked really good all dressed up.”
“I’ll try, I say. “I have to go. You have my number right? Can you call me if you see him?”
“Sure,” he said, “sure you got it,” winking. He doesn’t seem worried at all.
Then I glimpse the back of baby’s golden-haired head resting on a graffitied window near the back of the bus going by. It’s the bus line which runs to one of his favorite spots, City Canyon. He likes to hide in the bushes there, pretending, playing, out of sight, and he and his friends play on the logs and kick soccer balls and on the playground he masters the monkey bars by trying again and again and again until he is the master. He tells me scrambled versions of the Canyon Legends he was taught at summer camp, different boulders and rock formations all with their fantastical personalities and dramas. I run as fast as I can to the next bus stop, past new restaurants and stores, panting and with a stitch in my side. Chinese Food Delicatessen, where they fawned over my big-eyed boy and carried him back to the kitchen has morphed into a sleek dark restaurant still packed at this hour with swanky young people making hand gestures near flickering candles. Through the open door I hear their mingled voices and screechy jazz. I can see ghosts of the obese and misshapen characters who used to camp out for hours all weekend nursing their tea and chatting loudly at a long table in the Chinese Deli. “Wait wait,” I scream at the corner but the bus driver looks over his shoulder, shakes his head with a smirky scoff and drives away in a hiss of air brakes. The next bus pulls up quickly and I climb the steep steps slowly behind a woman with a cane, everyone and everything too bright, lines and wrinkles and stains crooked and outlined under fluorescent lights.
People on the bus are speaking different languages from their far away original homes: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, a language which sounds part French but chopped, a language full of mushy swooshes, and a low running language with birdlike ups and downs whose dark wrinkled speaker looks 90, legs in pink leg warmers dangling inches above the floor. In the very front sit the people who can barely walk, leaning on their canes and walkers, and in the middle mothers are speaking to their children in one language and they answer in English, or not at all, instead holding tablets close to their faces. There are no seats so I stand in the middle of the bus squeezed between strollers, holding onto the strap with my wobbly knee. In the back there is a huge man holding a boombox yelling everyone needs to go back home or shut the fuck up.
No one looks at him. While the bus hauls itself out of my flat and noisy neighborhood where people get stabbed, up the almost vertical winding streets and into the lofty tree-lined hills where everyone is inside dreaming something my colleague Glendy told me pops into my mind, about how she always blamed herself for everything until one day her husband said that was narcissistic and actually she hardly had any effect good or bad on the world, things just happened (although with her she really should blame herself for a lot of things), and I think maybe this isn’t my fault, maybe I didn’t lose the baby, but actually someone stole him from me. Who this thief might be and how I failed to protect my child is murky and confusing.
I get off near the canyon. It’s almost silent, and moths flutter around street lights half-hidden by twisted thick-trunked Ficus trees. In the playground at the entrance to the canyon the metal merry-go round and cardboard sled slide and high monkey bars we played lemur on have been replaced with shiny and bright short safe structures. I thought he might be here, but there are no hiding spaces anymore and the fence is locked. An owl hoots. Baby might be somewhere alone in the acres of dark canyon, light enough for a bird of prey. I need to keep looking.
I call his name, over and over.
The canyon is populated with eucalyptus trees waving silvery leaves and filling the air with the scent of mint and liverwurst. I remember someone, baby maybe? telling me they are all under threat of being sawed down by the city because they are place invaders and I imagine all the stumps.
I climb the narrow trail slowly, carefully, blackberry vines nipping and catching at my pants, my knee cracking, and soon I hear voices and music and move in that direction, feeling my way over the ancient layers of rock uplifted and deformed by the underground tectonics, careful not to get too close to high trail edges, until I arrive at the clearing below the high school. From between the trees I see it’s a party, teens, drinking and smoking. The air smells of weed and burning, the girls’ bellies showing, beautiful girls all with long hair, boys with loud laughs all colors and sizes. Terrible emo rap is blasting, the kind baby likes so much but scares me due to all the suicides and drugs and dirgey monotony. And suddenly I am filled with sorrow, that these young emo rappers die in their tattoos and piercings and green hair and break their parents’ hearts, and my own baby listens to their music and he doesn’t laugh all the time anymore, is not so curious about the choo-choo trains! the lemurs! the dolphins! the construction trucks! is no longer a little golden laughing person I port about everywhere in a pouch, doesn’t say “I love you Mommy you’re exquisite,” in a small firm voice every night as he clambers into the top bunk.
A girl walks by and stops. “Helen? Is that Helen my mom’s friend—is that you? Oh my god, what are you doing here?” Her long black hair is streaked with pink and her mascaraed dark eyes widen in disbelief as she rushes on. “It’s Cara, Katie’s daughter. Sit here with us,” she tells me, and I sit on a blanket with some girls who are all braiding each other’s hair in the moonlight. “This is Helen everyone,” she says. “I’m trying to find Pete, “ I say, my voice breaking. “I have no idea where he is. I’m so worried. Is he here?” Everybody is drunk or on ecstasy or mushrooms or otherwise, they probably haven’t a clue an old person like me would even know but I do. I’m exhausted but adrenaline is pumping through me. Cara leaves and a girl asks me how many children I have. I tell her three, no two, sorry, just one, quickly correcting myself, shaking my head as if there was a bug or water in my ear.
“Pete, Pete, Pete,” voices call, and then I see him. And he’s grown, oh, how he’s grown so fast it’s incredible! His big round head badly barbered, an earring shining in his ear. He is tall, so tall, and handsome in a slightly scary way, his tiny shoulders broadened, his legs stretched, cheekbones where there had been round pads of baby fat.
“Mom,” he shouts, losing his balance slightly as he comes towards me with his arms outstretched. “You came to my party, I can’t believe you’re here,” and he stumbles and lands beside me on the blanket and gestures grandly with both arms. “This is my world mom, this is my life, it’s my 18th fucking birthday, I’m a man.”
“You’re my baby, I came to find you, I thought I lost you,” I say.
“Mom,” he asks, “are you high? Are you drunk?” Gasping with laughter he puts his sloppy arm around me and asks “What the fuck how did you even find me? I can’t believe this. Oh my god you’re wearing your pajamas. Your blue flannel jammies.” My thoughts start to thin and clear like stars moving slowly away from each other, rearranging themselves in space. We’re suddenly surrounded by teen paparazzi.
“I took some Ambien,” I say slowly, “I couldn’t sleep. Maybe I took too much. I thought you were lost. Or you’d been taken. It seems to be wearing off now.”
“Nobody took me anywhere. You didn’t lose me. What do you mean Mommy, what do you even mean you thought you lost me? I came here of my own accord!” he shouts with joy. His vocabulary is so developed.
“I just wanted to find you,” I tell him. “And I did. Here you are.”
“My mom got high on fucking Ambien and came to save me,” he calls out like a preacher. “I’ve been saved!”
“Watch your language,” I say, but I’m just joking with relief.
For a moment on the blanket there in my mind I had three children, one must have been the girl who was never born, and one was my baby boy, the third being my grown boy who is moving on to new places and the two boys are the same person and it is almost impossible to understand, like time itself is a beautiful painful mystery.
“Well,” I say, starting to feel embarrassed, “I think I should head home now.” Pete, Pete, the paparazzi start to chorus, that’s wrong, you gotta take your mom home, you can’t let her go home alone, take your mom home in an Uber—and I would love this, to have him home and in his bed, tucked, safe, close, but I tell them, you guys don’t need to do that, no, no, I’ll be fine, I insist. I can’t ruin his night.
Then Pete says, “Come here,” and walks me over to a trail I haven’t seen before, wider and flatter.
“You should go out this way.” he says, “it’s easier, it goes up to River Street. Sorry I don’t want to go home yet, I love you, this is so weird, are you going to be OK? Do you want me to walk you to the street?” “It’s OK,” I say. “You don’t have to.” And for just a second our faces, as we hug, are exactly the same, that frozen grimace of being about to cry, and I know I will cry later, but we say goodbye. He kind of backs away towards the party and we wave at each other and he looks wise and I am making a smiling through tears face that says something like “Well, what can you do?”
“OK, go, go,” I say. “Be careful.”
The drug is being tidied up in my synapses and as the strangeness of the night starts to slough off, and the voices fade into the distance, confusion is replaced by a raw awareness of the stars, the crescent moon, the orange poppies you can see in the dark, the cold damp air, the white wild radish flowers. I might walk the whole way home. There is a grief in my throat that may have been there forever and I swallow quickly. I snap off a tiny radish and eat it. I start up the new route. The sand and rock are goldenish in the moonlight, mica sparkling, and remind me of a recurrent dream from the beloved Oz books I read many years ago which I had read aloud to Pete, his small sweet body curled into mine under a cover of blue and dinosaurs. In this dream I would hold my breath and lift up and fly high across the Deadly Desert—to a place with real magic, far and hidden from the world I knew, never thinking in the dream of the hole my vanishing left behind.
Jamie Deiner attends the Writers Studio San Francisco, parents two teenagers, and works as a speech and language therapist helping young children connect and communicate.