The headache is the limit, the circle, the disk. The black horizon.
Sometimes it’s a dull, red glow, soft latitudes of pain.
Or a field of searing, orange craters. They burst open through the dark.
Or, with a gentler hurt: tall, blowing vanes of magnetized color.
Sometimes it’s still. Maybe then, it sleeps.
When it convulses, the headache goes hideously inside out, and out of the unset dark ground and whirling lost lights of the sky comes an awful machine sound and the sweet, faint smell of necrosis.
Did you already know?
Once, with the headache quiet, a voice grows inside it. “It’s still pouring,” it says.
That voice bathes me in sweetness. In nectar. It is her voice, our voice. She brings it to me. She is standing at a window. I cannot explain. She has pushed aside a motel curtain and is looking out into the weather.
“Of all the places for this to happen. I’ve never seen anything so gloomy.” She, my mother, is looking out the window onto a highway. It is Blythe, California. I cannot know this. Trucks roll by through a storm-induced twilight. On the other side of the road, a café, with a few old outbuildings around it, is sunk under the weight of the sky. “How can anyone live here? Are you sure we have to spend the night?”
The other voice, my father’s, explains that while he made sure the engine could handle the trailer, he didn’t consider the clutch. Now the transmission is slipping and needs to be checked. He is sorry, Nadine, but he hopes you can agree that it should be looked at, even if it means spending the night, because he’d rather not have us all stranded in the middle of nowhere in a storm.
We say that’s funny, because if I’m not mistaken, we are all stranded in the middle of nowhere in a storm.
“You know what I mean. At least we’re in a motel,” says the transmission.
She lets the curtain fall closed. The narration in the background is the rain.
I thrash, no rhythm. I raise my arms up, over my head. But the arms and the head are not real. I kick. I jump, I spin. The sound is a series of colossal explosions. Headaches rolling down a mountainside, no end to them, each explosion preceded by a searing flash of light. The light when it comes is a brief, silent nerve-light that shines only on itself. The sound echoes through our body, shaking us to pieces. I’d like my mother to tell me the kind of things she tells my sisters when they are scared. It’s okay, boo-boo, it’s nothing – I would like her to say that to me.
They hover in the crystalline air, blue and bright, the words Sand Dune Motel, and below them in bright pink, the word Vacancy, shining. There has been a sudden onset of yellow light across the desert, and the low, pink building behind the sign glows with it.
A sound grows out of a pinpoint. At first it is nothing, a whisper, then a distant cry, a greeting even, but it grows until it’s clear that a piece of the headache has broken loose and is hurtling toward us. Then it arrives, flashes by, and recedes, dragging its sound with it, in a different key.
“Truck,” says a high, tiny voice.
“All right everybody, road’s clear,” says my father. “Ramona, up. Grace, hold Mommy’s hand. C’mon. Off we go.” Then I’m being jostled back and forth, in a rhythm, listening to my mother’s labored breathing. My father says the restaurant’s an example of how in the desert things are farther away than they look. “Hey, why did the chicken cross the road?” he asks. When no one answers, he says: “Pancakes, I guess.”
“As soon as we’re done eating, I’ll pack the car. Nadine, you’re right, we should leave soon. The clutch will get us there. If we leave in an hour, we’ll be there by three. Would you look at the sky? Looks like we’re done with the rain. Grace, can you stop playing with your food and eat it, please? We’re not going to stop if you get hungry. Nadine, you’ve barely said a word all morning. Nadine, are you all right?”
A green station wagon sits parked in front of the pink building. Its lines give it a slight, forward cant. There’s an orange and white trailer on the back. I cannot explain – it is at the center of my sight. We are walking toward it.
“Los…Angles,” says the tiny voice again, with difficulty.
“Los Angeles,” says another voice, also tiny, but stronger. “That’s right, Ramona, we’re moving to Los Angeles. Because Mommy doesn’t like Phoenix anymore. Right, Mommy?”
There’s a low chuckle from my father, followed by, “Nadine? Honey?” Then, a moment later: “Grace, Mommy’s sleeping.”
There is a beautiful song in the background, an endless, sweet hymn, a lullaby.
This happened. It will happen. In our new apartment, in Los Angeles, in my parents’ bedroom, it is happening. From a place much too close to me, my father says: “How you doing in there? How’s my boy?”
“Gerard, what are you doing?” Our voice arrives at last, but something’s wrong with it. It’s lazy. Not paying attention. We never call him Gerard. We call him Gerry.
“Mmmmmmmmmmm,” he says, and my home fills up with his ticklish vibration. An uncomfortable pressure is applied to my sky. “I’m having a word with my son.” We move toward the edge of the bed, but it doesn’t help. He is insistent. He insists. He comes back with his hands – I know those are his hands. While they are busy, his voice is telling my mother that she’s beautiful.
We don’t answer, but there’s a new, strange slowness to our breath. I kick her once, then twice, with no effect, and then I am placed on my side and subjected to a series of impacts, gentle at first, and slow, then faster, and more frantic.
First there is my mother, making thin, willowy sounds, like the cries of wolves beneath the sea.
Then there is my father, a train.
Then me, ecstatic at being played with, high fiving everything I can touch with my hands and my feet.
“Jesus Christ,” says my father, stopping. “Nadine? Did you feel that? What the hell was that?”
“It was the baby, Gerry. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” She sounds weary. “It’s a very active baby.”
“I know what you said…but I…I felt it. With my hand. It was…I don’t know… hitting me. Really fast. And hard. Like it was… on purpose.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” says my mother.
Our new home is bigger, with bedrooms for both the girls. It’s in what my parents call a complex. The complex is called Hilton Hills.
My mother is happier now. I know what she’s feeling because she leaves clues in her body and her blood, because I have the visions she sometimes imparts to me, and because I pay attention. Every few days she talks to her friend, Carol, who still lives in Phoenix. It hasn’t been easy, she says. Gerry hasn’t found a job yet, but he has some leads. More and more she feels like one of those big, blubbery things that sit on the rocks all day. “Not the walruses, the other ones. Sea lions.” If my father comes home while they’re talking, her voice drops, a door closes, and the call ends. After my father gets a job, Carol and my mother talk in the morning or the afternoon, when he is gone.
She tells Carol she has trouble sleeping, but she doesn’t mention that she often lies awake for hours, and that her sleep when it comes is broken and fretful. She doesn’t tell Carol, maybe because she does not know, that every moment she lies awake at night, I lie awake with her, joined to her in a vigil of deep and wordless love.
Which is why it comes as a shock when I’m jolted awake by my mother’s sobs. Not that she’s crying, but that I nodded off and missed whatever started it.
“Honestly, Gerry, I can’t believe you’re talking to me like this. All I’m saying is that I’m worried.”
“But Doctor Vargas said you were fine.”
“Doctor Vargas doesn’t know everything.”
“Did you tell him what you just told me?” There’s an edge to my father’s voice.
The silence, I believe, is being filled by my mother shaking her head. “Why is this conversation always about me?” she says. “You keep saying I’m not really here. But I’m here, aren’t I? All the time. You’re the one who’s never home.” The tone of her voice can be traced, I believe, to a note she found in my father’s jacket pocket, thanking him for a wonderful lunch. It was written by a person she has described to Carol as the girl, the girl Darla, who works with my father. We met Darla once, when we visited my father’s office. “I saw how she looked at him,” my mother tells Carol. “Like his little acolyte.”
My father begins reciting his list. It’s his list of his causes and effects. If the cause is that all our furniture’s on credit, the effect is that he must work. If the cause is that he wants to raise his family in a house, not an apartment, the effect is that he must work harder, to get a promotion. If the cause is that the baby’s almost here, the effect is that we need to pull together. If the cause is that his wife has in his honest opinion been acting strange lately, the effect is that he needs her, and he misses her, and he wants us to be able to work things out, like we used to. If the cause is that this whole move was a mistake, the effect is that we should have stayed in Phoenix.
This makes my mother sob again.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t been sleeping,” she says. “I shouldn’t be crying.”
“And the last thing I need is a wife who’s hearing things,” he says. “Maybe Doctor Vargas isn’t the doctor we need. Maybe we need a new kind of doctor.” He says this quietly – as if the words have just occurred to him – and then I hear his steps on the carpet, and the bedroom door closing behind him.
I believe that my mother must have told my father she’s been hearing a voice. As it happens, I have been teaching myself to speak. If Ramona, who lives outside my mother and is fully visible, can astound people by making sounds that only sometimes resemble words, imagine what will happen when I, who no one has ever seen or met, greet a person from inside my mother’s body. So far, though, I’m unable to make a sound. My words are perfect, clear as a bell, but they don’t vibrate. They have no echo. They might as well be happening in outer space. But I can be forgiven, I think, for hoping that the voice my mother hears is mine.
“All right, kiddo. I guess it’s just you and me.” Sometimes, when we’re alone, my mother speaks to me. Now it’s in a resigned voice because, a minute or two after her conversation with my father ended, we heard the front door of the apartment open and close, which means that he has gone out for a walk.
I love you, Mommy, I say, in my silent, stillborn words.
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” she says. She laughs a humorless laugh and stands up – she’s sitting in the armchair in the corner of the bedroom. She stands up and walks to the dresser. I hear a drawer slide open.
You and I need to work things out, like we used to, I say, silently, borrowing my father’s phrase.
“Nadine, you just need sleep,” she says. She has found what she was looking for in the drawer, and she shakes it. It makes the sound of a rattle. Next comes a soft sound, a little pop. Then the rattle-sound again, and we go back to the bed, and there’s water falling into my mother’s body, as she drinks. We shift again when she lies down.
“You’ll be here soon, won’t you? Can you promise me that? Because I’m really, really tired of carrying you around. You’re so much heavier than the girls were. I need someone else to carry you for a while.”
Yes, I say, I’ll be here soon. You won’t have to carry me. I say it even though I have no idea what I mean.
As she falls asleep, she places her hand on her stomach, and I push my hand against hers, so we are touching, palm to palm, through the membrane of our body. When my mother feels the pressure of my touch, she pulls her hand away and groans.
Grace and Ramona have temper tantrums, but theirs can’t compare with mine. If my mother had accepted the touch of my hand, there would not have been a tantrum. But she didn’t, and the tantrum started. It grew when it re-heard her say she was tired of carrying me. It spiked when it pieced together the logic of my parents’ talk and understood that I would soon be evicted from my home. In the tantrum, I am in constant, violent motion, lashing and jerking, trying to get free.
I don’t remember – but I must have heard – another pop, the rattle again, and the sound of water in her body.
Then I’m slowing, I’m being filled with metals, with silver and mercury and black ash, with copper and bitumen and poisoned rain. I am being pulled down into the mud, and above me a bright and terrible voice is screaming and sobbing, and a crushing blow lands on me, followed by a pressure, by a prolonged, protracted, relentless force.
The headache is the limit, the circle, the disk. The black horizon. Sometimes it’s a dull, red glow, soft latitudes of pain. Or a field of searing, orange craters, bursting open through the dark. Or tall, blowing vanes of color.
When the headache is dormant, I search for them. My sounds. It’s still pouring. But there is nothing, no voices, no rupture of brightness, no playgrounds, no carnival, no kids, no laundromat, no elephants, no cars, no summer, no rain.
So I start my list, my list of those things. If I drop the thread, I look around until I find it, and I take it up again, until the lightshow flares and the headache comes to take me in its oblivious hands.
Once, when the headache is small and blank, when it has collapsed to a small white stain that drifts around the black horizon, I move the headache onto the list of things that are not the headache. When nothing happens, I wait for a while, and then I remove it. I put it back again. I remove it. Then I start to take them all off, everything, one by one. Swing sets, horses, trains, and ice. The laundromat. The swimming pool. The station wagon. Everything.
I look for the lullaby, and when I find it, I take it off.
What I have is silence. A dull glow on one side, heat and light. This reminds me of what my father said to Grace, once, when he was trying to explain something to her. The moon.
I take the moon off the list. I remove the sky.
I take Grace off. I take my father. Then Ramona.
I go looking for my mother. I find her. I wait, I think about it, and then I take her off.
Where are they now, all those ghosts?
That is when I guess that I’ve been born.