She sat in the car, waiting. The air conditioner made her queasy. The diesel fumes outside didn’t help when she tried opening her window. The seat belt choked her- they didn’t make these things any lower, and she had years, yet, before she’d be tall enough not to worry about it. At ten, she barely came up to her mother’s armpits. Of course, that has probably changed by now, since it’s been a couple years since they last saw each other.
Her mother missed the last visit, and the one before that- before that, there was a phone call and before that it was a court-date, although she did manage the first couple of visits- once they tracked her down. But this time was right before Christmas, and Rachel had a present for her- a handmade wreath made in this strange computer-and-crafts-room at what her group home called a “school.”
She hoped her mother would show. She wasn’t sure what the place looked like, but she couldn’t wait to get there. Traffic on the San Mateo Bridge was awful though. They had been on it a dizzying 45 minutes and had reached only the halfway point on the 7-mile bridge. It was still too low to the water for her. And they were still too close to the edge. And they were still waiting.
It was strange, the complete silence they were in. There was a fuzzy spot in the radio transmission here, and her social worker had turned the radio (NPR of course) down. Jean hardly said a word- probably didn’t know what to say, not wanting to get Rachel’s hopes up and then have them dashed. She was probably one of the “good” workers, who really tried to help Rachel. But Rachel wasn’t exactly controllable, either. She found her temper shortly after losing her mother a couple weeks after the San Francisco Earthquake. Or, that’s what she called it in her mind; really, it was the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. In her mind, she revisited the past.
She and her mother had just moved. Well, moved should look like this: “moved” –because they were still living out of her mother’s van, on the streets of San Francisco with no address. And they had four dogs. And lots of black plastic trash bags full of everything in the world that they owned and a t.v. her grandmother had lent them. And they lived off of bread, cheese and sunflower seeds with large jugs of water. They sat in the van overlooking the Marina, imagined a safe bubble surrounding them and the city and their life, and talked about Great Mysteries and music and the stars; they chatted about the discoveries of ancient geniuses such as Mozart and Leonardo DaVinci and Aristotle and Einstein and theorized about why they were the way they were. And for the first time in her life, Rachel understood what it felt like to be considered one-on-one, to be a Person and not just a Child. Sure, she still had child issues, but there was a part of her that knew this was good, healthy and nurturing, and she was glad to have this time with her mother.
Her mother found a job inside of two days being in the City, across the Bay in Marin, pet grooming. She took pride in her work, often worked late and was often late for customers, although it was unbelievable how long people were willing to wait for her- she was excellent and very caring with difficult animals, and owners could see that. And they waited. It was part of what probably both saved her sanity and sped the exodus from the relationship she was in, in Arizona just before bagging up their belongings and heading Northwest. To the “Gay City” she called it. Zealous, ready for a new environment and to leave a violent partnership, she took her daughter and headed for the Golden Gate.
And there they were. Rachel had just sat down to math homework from a new school where she’d changed to her middle name, Jeanette, and her mother was on the phone flirting with some new “friend” while she worked on scissoring a dog’s feet. And then “it” happened.
The Earth- that steady presence we all depend on, whose gravitational pull is so intense that it pulled the Moon into it’s orbit over 30 Earths’ distance away; the Earth we know and delve deep to find it’s riches in- moved. And not just the kind of move where your stool lurches, but the kind of movement where someone shook your building as if they were pissed off at it, and continued to shake it for a quarter of a minute. The longest fifteen seconds of Rachel’s life.
Rachel got up off of her shaking stool to find her knees were shaking just as bad- it didn’t help! She looked up at her mother in a panic and turned to go somewhere- but where? And turned back around, coming full-circle to look at her mom again.
“Oh, shit!! We’re having and earthquake! Yes, I said an earth–” Her mother looked at the phone, stunned. “Well, guess that’s not going to work.” Dropping the phone, she set her scissors down more carefully and picked up the dog she was working on.
“Rachel, help me get these guys in kennels!” She turned, swooping the dog into a fiberglass crate behind her.
“Mom! I- I can’t- I- I’m scared! Mommy-” Rachel, terrified, eyes wide and glasses slipping off her face, crumpled like a rag-doll. She felt ashamed, as she’d not called her mother “Mommy” since she was five and her mother pulled her aside on that Mother’s Day when her grandmother took her to a visit with her mother, and she was told confidentially that she was old enough to use another name, like Mom or Mother- didn’t she think so?
“Oh, now… it’ll be okay, whoo! Take it easy.” Her mother attempted to make light, calm Rachel down. Of course it wasn’t going to work. She just resigned her energies, instead, to shoving the rest of her own pets into kennels as fast as she could.
The earthquake was over before she finished- it was only fifteen seconds of their lives. But in that moment, Rachel felt she’d discovered a part of herself she didn’t know, and didn’t like. A coward, a wimp, a whiner and a child. It didn’t matter that she was a child, still; it didn’t matter that the force that created the Earth’s movement was beyond her ken. It didn’t matter that her mother, for once not berating, not judging, but helped her get to her feet in total understanding, hugging Rachel to her as if to never let her go. Rachel found a part of herself that she wanted to shove, deep away and never see again. The earthquake was more than lost homework, more than life turned upside down; it was the raw stripping away of facade and the light of day shining upon dark things inside. Things that didn’t want to be seen.
And now, in this car, visiting again her daymare, she shook herself awake to reality as the cars began to move, inching slowly at first, then finally making headway as everyone carefully skirted around a terrible collision. Someone had outlined the area with sparking flares, and official-looking men and women in uniforms were busy running around in different directions. Other rows of cars and ambulances were in the way, so visibility was minimal, but Rachel tried to distract herself from her thoughts by seeing what she could- anything was better than admitting what she really feared herself to be. She was a decent young girl- why, if she were older; if they had been there when these people wrecked; if only she had held out when asked for a number to call, when the babysitter her mother had picked had to go for the day…
No. No what-ifs, thought Rachel. But then the thought of herself trying so hard to get a glimpse- of what? Somebody dead, or cut-up, or hanging out a windshield? What kind of person WAS she, anyway?
Rachel sat down in her seat and readjusted her seat belt. She felt miserable, conceited, censoring herself and not knowing why; insecure about who she was and why her family was such a wreck.
It could have been such a good day- they were going to hand out class rewards, and although she didn’t hope for much, she was sort of hoping for some kind of acknowledgement- this was the first time she had tried this hard to do homework, participate in class and not get detentions. But she got called from class just after lunch and had to take her bag- they had found her mother, who’d agreed to a visit. Butterflies abound, she had gathered her things as quietly as she could and headed to the office where Jean was waiting.
Jean was in a skirt-suit, as usual, shoulder-length blond hair in perfect order. She took Rachel to her car, opened the door for her and helped her toss her bag into the backseat. Very little conversation.
“Ready, Rachel? We set this up a few hours ago, I know it’s fast, but you haven’t seen your mother in a while…”
“Yup.” Rachel didn’t dare say anything else, in case she flubbed and let Jean know how much she wasn’t really looking forward to this. Or how much she wanted it to happen.
“Can we go to my house real quick? I’ve had a present for her that I made just before you brought me here- I kinda hoped I could give it to her the next time …” The next time she showed up, is what she was thinking, but she let herself trail off. She didn’t really want to be bitter. She just wanted her Mom.
“Yes, of course, it’s just down the hill.” A quick stop at her house, and they were on the way to the freeway and California’s busy Bay Area roadways, where it took you a good two hours to get anywhere you needed to be.
Only it wasn’t just two hours. It was more like three, or maybe four. Their meeting was for four o’clock in their Foster City office, she had been told. She had been staying across the water in Hayward. Nice little family, nice little hills, small school and a house on aquiet street, what with the barricade in the middle. And excited foster parents. Darla had been nothing but understanding. Teddy, her foster-father, wasn’t quite sure what to do with this small she-creature in his house, but he was coping. Church, youth events at said church, counseling- she was inundated with the “healthy family lifestyle” her aunts always thought she’d benefit from. Starkly different from the single-mother-turns-gay-and-parties-all-night scenario where a role-reversal was the norm, as she had lived before the group and foster homes.
Rachel’s tummy rumbled; Jean picked her up just before lunch and she was famished. But it’s not like there was a place to stop here on this bridge. She squirmed in her seat, lay her head on the seat belt, using it as a make-shift pillow.
They were moving- out of the window, Rachel could see those ahead anticipate braking by tapping on their brakes with their feet so their lights would shine and let others behind know their move- that’s how it worked, and she could see Jean doing the same thing.
Rachel mused over past road trips, and the idea that, no matter how far you’re going or what your plan is, you always have to hit the brakes somewhere, and it’s usually because of someone else It struck her as ironic and bitterly amusing.