January 3, 2012
There are things I know about those years because I’ve written them down over and over ever since; like a monk transcribing a bible, I write my story to myself again and again. Let’s go back to Bethesda.
I am sitting on the edge of my dressing table, legs out in front, facing my mother. She is so close to me, putting on my socks; I can’t see her face. The only way I can see my mother’s face from those years is to look at the photographs. I don’t think I got to look at her straight on very often — I was in the stroller, or down at her shins, until she scooped me up, and then her presence was more of a smell than a sight, a feeling. So she is in front of me and I can see her face because she is looking at my face for a change, and she looks into my eyes and asks, “What did you call it?”
“Befesda,” I say. She thinks this is funny; she gets me to say it again. “Bethesda? Or Befesda?”
“Befesda,” I guess. I can tell by her reply that this is wrong, but she laughs, it makes her happy that it’s wrong, so I say it again. “Befesda.”
Bethesda is where I was switched from a crib to a bed. I was asleep one night when the door opened and the light went on, waking me up. A strange man came in with some boxes and tools and put together the child’s bed that was to be mine. The mattress came in a cardboard box that smelled dusty, and I imagined the hair-raising sensation of rubbing against soft cardboad, which put my teeth on edge. The mattress was leaned up against the wall, its bare surface striped with dull orange and rust, and it looked like a door through which unpleasant things came, like a slab that could topple over and crush me. I was not asked to sleep in the new bed that night; it was hard enough to get me to go back to sleep in the crib. But the next night, after the mattress had been pinioned to the bed and sheets had been applied, I was supposed to sleep upon it, in a bed without sides, which was not nearly as secure as a bed with walls all around it, and a nest of soft blankets. I could fall out of a bed with no sides; things could come at me from all directions, underneath, overhead. It was dangerous and risky and I was not old enough for it, I felt implicitly. Also, nobody had asked me. I liked sleeping in my crib with my stuffed animals, in my fort of batting and velvet.
So when my mother finished helping me into my pajamas, and stood with her back to the crib and told me instead to get into the bed, I refused. I cried and said no, I didn’t want to, I wanted to sleep in the crib. She told me I could not, and I yelled in reply that I didn’t want to sleep in the bed, that it was impossible for me to sleep in the bed because it was terrifying and vulnerable and I was a baby for god’s sake, I had to sleep in a baby crib. I got my way the first night, at least for a few hours; she came in once she thought I’d fallen asleep and tried to move me to the bed, her hands catching the skin under my armpits as she tried to effect the transfer, but I woke up and screamed at her until she gave up. And as she left the room in defeat, I thought, good. I will scream non-stop every single night for as long as it takes to ensure that I will never sleep in that bed.
The next night, the crib had been removed from the room.
This is around the time I started waking up in the middle of the night and finding myself in the car. I’d have some memory of my mother coming into my room when I was asleep, either dressing me against my will or just throwing a blanket around me, and carrying me out to the garage to place me in the the back seat of the car. I’d wake up and we’d be driving over the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, headed for my grandmother’s in the Bronx. There were red and amber flashing lights; the air was cold and acrid; the outside was right there, so close, and I was supposed to be in my crib. How much was dreamed? If I woke up at my grandmother’s, my face against the nubby bedspread on the stiff couch in the spare room, I would know that it had been real, the glossy rain of the turnpike before I turned the other cheek to the vinyl seat and fell asleep again in the pool of my own warmth. Sometimes I woke up at home, and I’d never know for sure whether those nights had been real or dreams, or what the difference between the two might be.