It’s a picnic, but someone must stab the Epi-Pen into Leila’s thigh. This is a new allergy, and sometimes she forgets and swallows what she should not. Today she reached for the salad, with feta and thick slabs of apple, but then her teeth crunched on the body of a nut, and she waited five whole minutes to see if her immune system would even flare, and it did, and then she was taking those deep, whooping breaths that must have terrified the people closest to her. Though, for a moment, they looked at each other, instead of her.
Now Leila kneels on the checkered blanket, with her friends and her boyfriend, Steve, all circled around her, as she turns the Epi-Pen upside down, then right side up again. She was supposed to have learned how to stab herself with the tester they included with the prescription, but she thought she’d know from working at a summer camp once during college so she never practiced. The camp counselor handbook said, after training, she would be able to help even the littlest child.
Steve takes the medicine from her hand, maybe because he feels he must. He rolls up her shorts and exposes her thigh, the muscles already tensed. When he strikes, it’s fast. Leila tells herself that you cannot push a needle into someone’s skin with tenderness, but it feels so angrily personal the way he digs a little. So personal, the way he doesn’t stroke her hair as the ambulance wails. Instead, he tells someone not to pack up the food. They don’t all need to follow in their own cars to the hospital. They should enjoy the day and the lake and the peach pie that Maura baked for the occasion, and maybe he’ll meet them later.
Downstairs, my daughter arranges her stuffed animals—who have come to the vet for a thorn in a paw, a cold, a belly ache—by illness. By how quickly they require care. She has been playing alone since the early morning, when I was able to butter some toast for her. I hear her talking in what she calls ‘big girl terms,’ about fevers and cancer and inflabbation. The lion roars back loudly, which must indicate that he is in more pain than the last time she played doctor.
Upstairs, the heating pad against my abdomen does no good. Something needs to come out of me. It won’t. “What is the pain like,” the nurse asks over the phone. “Burning, stinging, sharp?” Like something is erupting, becoming, changing. Like it will devour me, then turn me into a lasting hunger. “We’ll call you back,” she says. “Try to sleep.”
I do, and I don’t know how many hours later I am bleary and awake, I don’t know if my daughter has eaten lunch, I don’t know if she has bathed or if she has left the house to go explore the neighborhood and get lost or stolen. I know I am what they call a bad mother, but in the haze, she comes to me anyway.
My daughter pushes the door open with her foot. A bang: once, twice, and finally the wood gives. She grips a tall, thick glass, one of the ones she is not meant to take from the cabinet because it is too heavy. It is filled to the brim with water. It sloshes onto her hand and wrist, soaking her sleeve.
“What’s this?” I ask her, or I think I do, unsure if my jaw has moved at all.
“You said I hadta drink stuff when I had the flu,” she says. She places the water solemnly on the bedside table. “Will it help you, Mama?”
She sneaks closer, although she shifts her weight, like she is still preparing to run. I wonder for a moment how I have made my own child afraid of me, and then I realize this is a different me. The one who cannot explain why I feel all these fragments of emotion: a loneliness that is closest to existentialism, fear for how I cannot depend on anything not even myself, sadness for who I have become, sadness for who I have lost, sadness for my daughter, who might have been loved better by someone else.
“Oh, darling, come here,” I say, and my daughter leans in and presses her face into my cheek. We are warm together, her soft, warm lips against my sweaty skin. This is tenderness, and I hope she can understand. I say: “My doctor, what would I do without you?”
I will take a drink of water and it will do nothing, but I will pretend for her, just as she pretends for me. I coax her onto the bed and try to halt the spasms in my abdomen, so I will not flinch. Believe, I say, through my embrace, in the curative powers of even the most exhausted love.
PROTECTIVE INSTINCT II
I fall running through the path in the woods that leads me, and the rest of the eleven-year-old campers, to the cabin on the lake where we study frogs trapped in glass beakers. It is a race and I was winning until I was not, hands and knees in the dirt. Above me, the sky shines blue and the trees are lit into the freshest green. I wonder, as I lay there, what has just snuck inside me: what splinter of wood, what little sack of ant eggs.
At first, I ignore the camp counselor who says I ought to go to the infirmary. What does it matter, this peeled off feeling in my knee? But it hurts so much, and I look down and there is blood patterning down my arm too, and rubs of my skin are missing from all my joints.
The nurse says, “We’ll call your mother to pick you up.”
“No, please,” I reply, and press into the bandage to see how much these scrapes and cuts hurt. There is a part of me who has always liked that feeling, which I call ‘sweet,’ maybe because of how new it is. An unexpected burst in my body. “Don’t tell her. She’ll be frightened.”
My mother is the type of mother who only has one thing in her life, a child. I am not old enough to know this, but the reality of it exists between us both in the way that she pulls the blanket around my arms and makes me a grilled cheese sandwich with the sides burnt because she started thinking about how every little hurt is all her fault, including how she forgot to flip with the spatula until thirty seconds past time.
I hide the cuts on my forearms for three days, keeping my arm pressed to my side when we talk. I eat cereal with my opposite hand. I poke under the bandage when my mother isn’t looking, to feel the scabs forming, hard and crusty under my finger. The injury is a secret message, and I’ve bled for it: I’ll never make it as far as the others.
On the fourth day, I slip, and am not good at hiding, and my mother sees the tan bandage on my forearm. She peels back the bandage, despite my protests, and prods the healing rivulets. She drops to her knees to check my legs.
“What is this?” she demands. “What happened? Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t they call?”
“It’s nothing,” I say, trying to avoid her hands. I try to pull at my sleeves, my pants, but I am wearing shorts and a tank top, so finally I have to tell her the story of the woods and the running and being the only one and not looking and tripping and laying there with the sun in my eyes trying to understand what happened. And then how I didn’t tell her, because I figured I could just handle it myself.
“Honey,” she says, pulling some antiseptic out of the closet she uses for medicine. “You can tell me anything.”
I nod, and watch her tuck the bandage into place. She is gentle, rubbing the cream with my newly-washed fingers. She changes the bandage too, smoothing it over until she is satisfied. It should be a relief for this secret to be past us, but I can’t help but wonder why it took her so long to even notice everything torn up.