Published on March 19th, 2015 | by Anna Doogan4
LOST by Anna Doogan
March was a tripwire for constant rains. Even in the fresh spring air, downpours dumped cold and gray, like the steel of the bridges that whip-stitched across our wet City of Roses. The museum was overly crowded that day, slate sheets of rain slicking the large front windows.
My son hadn’t finished eating his grapes and crackers. Mostly because each bite received a sound effect and imaginary roller coaster ride around his head before disappearing into his mouth.
I had long finished my lethargic salad from the café, a few limp cucumbers and red peppers left lifeless on my plate. My daughter in my lap, chubby toddler fingers alternating between feeding me bites of half-sucked strawberries and yanking my earrings until I winced with pain.
“Go ahead and finish your crackers,” I said to my son, scooping crumbs into a pile on the square table. “I’ll throw our garbage away over there.” I pointed to a trash can at the end of the row of café tables. My daughter gripped my shoulder, wrapped little legs around my hip as I stood, sat squarely in the crook of my elbow. My son, freshly four, shrieked out siren sound effects, banged two grapes into each other before popping them into his mouth, grinning.
I carried our trash away, walked past the other parents with the same agenda of a few hours of refuge from days of soggy boots, cabin fever.
“More berries!” my daughter shouted, and I kissed her bald head. She took after me. Our baby baldness, brown skin. I was still bald long after I turned two, inspiring my dad to scotch tape bows on my head before taking me out in public. But I liked the sight of my daughter’s scalp, her intense expressions.
I went back to the tiny square table, past the mom who had brought homemade sandwiches for her four kids, wrapped tightly in waxed paper. I could never get it together to pack lunches. Instead, I always ended up flustered and succumbing to overpriced paninis and fruit plates.
The crackers were still sitting there. Grapes mostly eaten, but a few scattered across the napkin. My son’s chair, however, was empty.
I looked back down the row of tables, scanned near the trash can. I turned around in place, thinking maybe I had missed him waiting behind my hip. I thought of lavish Victorian women just then, losing children under bustles and hoop skirts, breath-sucking corsets. Or Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker, a dozen tumbling clowns suddenly emerging from underneath the folds of my dress. But he wasn’t behind me, wasn’t about to come somersaulting out.
My daughter’s weight made my arm ache. I circled the café, walked past the admission desk, looped through the gift shop. Puzzles, plastic watering cans, tiny dinosaur excavation kits. A serpentine line of families wound through the front lobby, pressed back against the wet front doors, tickets and hand stamps.
“More berries,” my daughter said softer now, sleepy head on my shoulder. Naptime. I tried to ignore the flutters of panic in my chest, walked back through the café, down to the bathrooms. I shouted his name through the lobby, looked for his curls in the crowd.
Nothing. Anxiety rising, I clutched my daughter closer, traced paths back through the museum. Through the water works, kids in plastic smocks screaming happiness as they splashed and floated rubber ducks. The dig pit with a mountain of tiny construction vehicles, rubber pellets of play dirt. The miniature grocery store, the face painting station. The clay studio. The dress-up room.
No sign of him. Heart hammering, I half-jogged back to the café, my daughter bouncing sharply on my hip. The splashing water and happy shrieks made it necessary to talk several decibels louder than normal. I shouted for my son over and over, felt my voice drowning into the crowd.
Sandwich mom was still having lunch, and I rushed up to her, sweating.
“Did you see my little boy?”
She paused from unfolding a piece of wax paper, slid a sandwich across the table to one of her kids. I made a mental promise to make more homemade lunches from now on.
“I don’t think so,” she said slowly, tilting her head. She had bangs cropped straight across, dark chin-length hair that matched the soft bags sagging under her eyes.
“We were right here,” I said impatiently, gesturing to the table next to her.
“I don’t think so,” she repeated, shaking her head. Something in the distance caught her eye and she stopped. “Wait! Is that your son over there?” She pointed.
I whipped my head around desperately, looked for my son’s face, bouncy curls, blue sneakers.
Not seeing him, I followed her pointing finger to a small boy floating a boat in the water table. Deep brown skin, long eyelashes framing big dark eyes.
Part of me wanted to snap something snide about families not always matching each other, but the rational part of me tried to show compassion in the midst of panic.
“No, no,” I tried again. “He has curly blond hair. We were here. Right here? We’ve been sitting next to you for the last twenty minutes eating lunch.”
Sandwich mom unveiled a container of carrot sticks. Washed, peeled, sliced into equal lengths. I wondered if she ever cut them into flowers. She held her hands up, shrugged. She gestured at her four kids crowding the table, and her eyes said, Honey, I’ve got my own hands full. On cue, her youngest spilled his juice and it pooled across the table.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him,” she said sadly, reaching for napkins.
I mumbled “Thanks anyway,” and walked away, circling the brightly colored exhibits again.
Lost, I thought to myself in horror. He’s lost. I tried to wrap my scrambling mind around the word.
I lost keys. I lost my phone. Lost track of time. Lost my sense of direction. But this was the first time I had lost my kid.
I jogged back to the lobby, tried to convince myself that he was just playing somewhere, having fun.
When I was four, I wandered out of our backyard, found some neighborhood kids, climbed into their treehouse. I remember sitting so happily with them, their magical world in the sky, tucked among treetops. We read books and colored until the skies changed color. It wasn’t until I climbed out of the treehouse that the magic stopped. When I saw my mom hysterical, police standing there, commotion and noise. My mom collapsed onto me and cried when she hugged me. Wailed something that sounded half-sobbing, half-sighing relief. And I felt that I had done something very wrong.
Something very wrong. My stomach suddenly lurched and I thought of the worst. A decade of working in social services had made me jaded and overprotective, pessimistic about humanity. I looked out to the slippery parking lot, potholes and puddles. I half-expected to see some shadowy figure clutching my son by his hand, luring him into a dented van with promises of sugary candy, of puppies. Did he know what to do if a stranger approached him? I tried to mentally review conversations we’d had about it. We had made up our family code phrase: wild pink shrimp, spontaneously chosen by my son from the label on a can at Trader Joe’s. We had diligently told it to family and friends, and they always chuckled when I explained it. But I repeated it to them anyway, and said, please memorize it. Just in case.
I went back to the admission counter, caught the eye of the young woman sorting alligator hand stamps from robot hand stamps. She had wisps of brown hair that kept fluttering in her face like a little wing, diamond stud in her nose.
“I can’t find my son. My son is lost.”
The words felt strange as they tumbled in my mouth. Like chewing something unexpected, peculiar. Words my lips didn’t want to form.
A pregnant woman was browsing the gift shop, touching tiny boots shaped like sharks. I envied her just then, her swollen belly cocooning her baby. Baby’s whole world snuggled into a safe swaddle of flesh and blood and heartbeat. I touched my stomach for a second. Soft belly and rippled stretch marks reminding me of those long months when his world was contained beneath my skin.
When I first found out that I was pregnant, I jumped with excitement. Then I called my mom. Then I immediately started panicking about all of the things I had done before I knew I was pregnant. How many cocktails had I slung back while dancing at Crush? How much second-hand smoke did I inhale? What about that crazy weekend in Vegas? At night, my mind sifted backwards through memories, tallying all the ways I might have messed up before my son was even born.
Worry didn’t stop after his birth. It just changed shape, changed directions. Changed forms, depending on the day and circumstance. I surrendered to the realization that motherhood brought a thin layer of protective worry that settled onto my skin each day, under my clothes. Worry was a routine. Something I’d learn to accept each day, like brushing my teeth.
But now here I was, and I had totally lost him. My biggest fear as a mother, realized.
The woman at the counter was calm, efficient. Like I imagined EMT workers to be with broken legs.
“What does your son look like, Ma’am? How old?” She grabbed a stack of post-its, signaled to the security guard at the front doors. Their invisible language. I watched him move towards us, sliding his walkie talkie from his pocket.
“He’s four, but pretty tall,” I started, and she scribbled it down.
“His hair is blond, fair skin. Greenish hazel eyes,” I continued.
It tripped her up for a minute, her pen hesitating in air. Her eyes flickered up at me for a second, studied my face. I felt her taking in my dark brown skin, my dreads.
“What is your son wearing?”
“Oh…” I was suddenly embarrassed. It took enough effort to get my kids up and dressed , fed and out the door without memorizing what they were wearing. I looked at my sleepy daughter. I vaguely remembered picking out her flowered shirt and gray cotton pants that morning.
“He’s wearing pants. Jeans, actually. Blue sneakers. I know that, for sure. And a t-shirt…that is…red.”
I wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to admit it. My voice sounded unfamiliar, not my own.
The post-it woman nodded, made a coded announcement on her walkie-talkie. I heard my son’s description broadcast over loudspeakers and felt my knees go rubbery, my mind drifting into a dream. Staff and security spilled suddenly out of nowhere, combing the museum, ants sniffing out sugar. I watched them swarming, weaving through the crowd.
When I was a kid in the humid Pennsylvania summers, my grandmother would call out to me as I rode off for the afternoon on my bike.
“Don’t stay at the creek after it gets dark, and don’t get lost. You might get snatched by someone.”
I would roll my eyes as I pedaled off, laughing at the idea of shadowy hands reaching for me out of the water, from behind trees, through the rocks that I’d pick to skip on the rippling surface .
But even so, when sunset tinted orange and the summer shadows got longer, I’d pedal home swiftly, hunched over handlebars, branches of black birches looking twisted and menacing in the dark.
“Mama.” A tiny voice at my leg interrupted suddenly, pulling on my gray sweater.
My son stood there smiling at up me. Jeans and blue sneakers and a green t-shirt with a dinosaur.
I dropped down on one knee to hug him, warmth flooding my chest. I wailed something that was half-crying, half-sighing with relief.
“I was inside the boat,” he said, pointing to it in the exhibit nearby. “I was on an adventure.”
The pretend wooden boat sat behind us, blue and white and red. Children climbing up to peer in the periscope, sliding down to the portholes. The post-it woman caught my eye, spoke on her walkie-talkie, called off the search. The staff disappeared as quickly as they had emerged.
I wasn’t ready to drive, so we sat parked in the car while rain hammered the windshield, blurred the view outside. My daughter napped in her car seat, and my son ate an apple, and on the stereo Tori Amos wailed about these little earthquakes. I wondered if being lost and being on an adventure weren’t sometimes the same thing. Especially when it comes to parenting.
I don’t know if my son noticed that I read him an extra bedtime story that night, hugged him more than usual. Checked on him three times instead of twice after lights out, watched how his body folded snugly into his blankets, his even breathing. As he was dozing off, he asked me to rub his back, and I snuggled next to him in his racecar-shaped bed. Tracing lightly between his shoulder blades with my fingertips, intricate patterns of lines and squiggles, like etching tiny maps to get home.