Published on November 28th, 2017 | by Kristen Stone0
For me certain smells: my grandmother’s claustrophobic perfume on a stranger, usually an older woman who also smokes; Calvin Klein Obsession for Men, which my father wore for years. And the way temperature or humidity feels, in your skin. The way a beam of light hits you and you want to fall down.
My son came to live with us in October of 2014. Every fall since, he’s had a hard time. We don’t have to prepare for the cold, like people up north do, winterizing their homes. Here we come alive after the limp survival months of summer. We brace ourselves for cool mornings and short days. The beautiful weather brings trigger season: trouble sleeping, nightmares, clinginess, intense emotions, and baby talk. He wants to be held, and also he doesn’t. I want to hold him more than he wants.
His therapist first pointed it out, that even young children who do not know the month or day that a bad thing happened, can be sensitive to changes in light and air. That a time of year can be charged.
Even as a young child melancholy lived in my body, especially in the winter. I experienced this getting up for school in the quiet and the dark, and riding home from ballet class in my dad’s Oldsmobile, my thick pink tights against the seat. I danced for a long time but I don’t remember loving it, I don’t remember much at all, aside from the older girls, who I danced with because I was long-legged and learned quickly, talking about periods and playing bubble gum, bubble gum, in a dish, how many pieces do you wish? I remember these older girls with heavy breasts inside their leotards, and frightening, tiny, chiseled Cynthia in her gauzy wrap skirts, pale blue. I remember the recitals, or think I do from pictures, the made-up baby faces and tight hair. And I remember standing in the dance studio, calculating the cost of the ballet classes, and worrying. I don’t remember quitting or asking to. I danced from the time my mother first read me Angelina Ballerina, until I was able to do complex multiplication on my head, while also seeming to pay attention, to keep my body strong and supple.
To be touched, casually. To have a man stand too close. The way the sun feels through the trees on a day when the light is also angled—just so—reminds you—perhaps—of an October day your parents fought, 20 years ago, or the night your father, mad about your sister’s birthday sleepover in the living room, went to the bar up the road, for hours, when he said he would only be gone a few minutes, and you cried and cried, sure he’d been in an accident.
You might remember, for instance, on a primitive cell phone your father talking to your mother, while driving, getting sideswiped or hydroplaning in a light rain, saying Shit Honey, I’m crashing, and also not knowing how you know that, because you were not on the phone with him, you were writing in your red diary with a horse on the cover and a tiny, rectangular lock. Your mother had gotten it for you at the Hallmark store. You remember, later, ripping pages and pages out of that journal. (You don’t remember why.)
At work, a little boy ran from me in the parking lot, and then he laid on the floor, kicking me in the shins, until he broke down in tears and hid under a beanbag chair. He came out a few minutes later, whispering that he needed help to open his juice box. Was it triggering when the little boy ran in the parking lot? My son, at five, used to do that.
But here I was neither the child nor the mother. I was the professional. My obligation to this child is contained and specific, these single intense hours, one per week. I kept him safe, modeling calm and strong adult behavior. After I opened his juice, we drew a picture of walking in the parking lot holding hands. When he left, I gave him a small plastic dinosaur for going safely to his mom’s car.
We cannot avoid the period from mid-September to Christmas the way we can, say, warn students before we read a book about rape, or read movie review to see if there are any weird references to adoption (I follow a facebook page for just this purpose, called, appropriately, Adoption At The Movies). If you think about it, many children’s stories start with the child or children becoming orphaned, as a way of freeing them up, for adventure. A way of taking off watchful eyes. Children with parents fantasize about being orphans. Children without parents, or children who’ve had to adapt to new parents, have already had that devastating loss.
Harry Potter is an orphan, and one of the things I find unexplained is that he seems fairly untraumatized by his life with the Dursleys: ten years of isolation and poor treatment, lack of adequate food, and frequently being locked in a closet. The only thing we could ascribe to this deep early trauma is his (justified) inability to trust adults to keep him safe, which drives the entire plot of the book and is seen as a strength. A literally magical orphan. (I cannot stop thinking like a trauma therapist.)
Is sleeplessness genetic? My father used to rise in the middle of the night or the very early morning. I remember him on the couch, the green light flickering from the tv, as he watched infomercials or whatever was on in the night before a person could watch whatever they wanted at any time at all. Baywatch? C-SPAN? I don’t remember. He didn’t eat in the night, the way my mother’s stepfather would, giant bowls of cereal eaten standing in the dark. I imagine him, a tall man I never knew, in a long bathrobe and blue pajamas. I sometimes wake up at 4am, ready for breakfast, metabolism gnawing my stomach, like a baby whose guts are the size of its angry little fist.
Another thing I remember is Blake, the hardcore kid who came with us to the student leadership conference, one my dad took us on (see, he tried, and in his trying was a heartbreaking—something—failure? A short spurt of best effort?)—the one in Atlanta where we stayed in the Unitarian church, and K was drinking beer by a bonfire, and I still loved her so much. But Blake was kind of creepy, and we all made fun of him but he kept doing it, trying to kiss people. That was the weekend also when I discovered holding hands, N and I held hands a lot, out of sight of my dad, her fingers touching the surface of my fingers. (We were getting up the courage to kiss, but I think that came later.) That whole weekend was heightened. I still remember all these thrills. The cold weather damp in my jeans. Unshowered. What Blake would do was try to kiss your ear or cheek and then move towards your mouth, and it was not wanted but also somehow had to be rejected playfully. Fifteen years later, if my son kisses me too near my mouth my body floods with stress chemicals.
The little boy’s mom walks him to the door. He is running, yanking on the knob, the door will only open with my fingerprint or key. She is telling me her fears, about the tiny boy. He cries at daycare, everyday. There is this woman at the daycare—I mean she thinks she’s a man—he’s scared of her, because when he cries she tells him to toughen up. I wonder what she thinks of me, here, in my men’s shorts and fresh fade. I try to explain startle reflexes and triggers in the fading evening light. I went to her boss and now I think they’re mad at me, for complaining. You did the right thing, I tell her. We are all up against it, these things, every day making the calculus of how to live in the world, how to not lose our resources or piss off our supports.
The other night my son wanted me to keep lying in his bed with him as he went to sleep. I wanted to get up, go, be in the light. Drink wine or tea, or watch tv. He put his small hand on my shoulder. Not meanly, but with pressure. No, he whined. Stay. Something shot through me, a bad feeling. (The body keeps the score.) I sat upright. You can’t push on my body like that, I said, and he felt bad, and I felt bad, but I also wanted to get away from him.
As I write this, I’m drinking coffee in the bakery where I used to work, shaping bread and folding croissants in the darkness. The machine that flattened the dough, you had to lay it just right or the edges would get ragged and you couldn’t push them smooth, they would wrinkle like an elephant’s skin. The butter was so cold, breaking it up into pea-sized chunks with your bare fingers. All the directions were written on scraps of paper kept under the counter, with the chocolate chips. The baker reminded me of my father and my complex desire to please him. Once, I left the baguettes in too long and they burned. Other times, the croissants were perfect rectangles, just gold, and he praised me quietly. The smell of this place reminds me of those dark, stressful mornings. Although remind is not quite the right word. The loneliness of being awake, when the rest of the world is asleep. The teeth-rattling texture of scraping flour off the metal table. Gluten in everything, stringy wheat proteins. I keep coming here.
All other photos by Kristen Stone