One word means the cough of a lawn mower coming alive just after dawn at my Grandparents’, another the smell of rotting, waterlogged foam in the backseat of a 1995 Pontiac Bonneville with a stuck-open moonroof, another the discomfort of sleeping in jeans, another a gummy bear with a crust of sand gritting against my molar, another the salt wind shaking palm trees, another the sight of my current self in a mirror along with all my past selves, all of them lined up behind me like a daisy chain.
I have words for them all.
The year I turned eight, my mother and I lived for 28 days in a house at the edge of the desert. The back lawn was the only one in the subdivision that wasn’t fenced in. Instead the grass bordered an expanse of brown-red sand that extended to a clean line at the horizon. When we first arrived, she looked out the back patio door and asked, “Where’s the fence?” before returning to the dark cavern of the living room.
Her nails? Bit down below the quick.
Soon after we arrived, she told me about the secret language. We were at Burger King. “Everyone has a secret language. It’s yours and yours alone,” she explained. “I have my own. So does that guy. So will you.” She removed the burger’s wrapper with unexpected care, folding and smoothing the paper into a narrow triangle just a few inches wide.
I asked her to tell me some of her words. My food lay untouched on the tray. I wanted examples, but she only shook her head. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you? You can’t speak your language or talk about it with anyone else. Christ, your grandparents should’ve told you already,” and then she tore the plastic off my kid’s meal toy and handed it to me. I didn’t pay attention to the figure, instead pestering her with questions. Do grandma and grandpa have their own languages, or a shared one? What were my dad’s words? How many words did she have?
To show she was done talking, she picked up my toy and—with nearly no force—pulled its silver arms from their sockets.
That night in the living room, my mother was asleep within minutes. I lay in my sleeping bag staring at the texture of the stucco ceiling high above me. The box of open air seemed charged, thick, and malleable. I inched open the sliding glass door and snuck out to the backyard. Thick, manicured grass packed the space between my toes. I walked to where the lawn ended and the desert began. They were separate—one side grass, the other desert—but they couldn’t be entirely divided. There was a territory where both existed at once. I invented a word for the in-between space, my first word, one I have never spoken, will not write, and lives only within me.
Questions therapists have asked in the years that followed: What was the effect of your mother’s sentencing? To what extent do you feel defined by the trauma caused by her actions? How has this affected current and past relationships? What parts of you are altered by her absence and what parts remain untouched? Is any area unaffected? If she was sitting in front of you right now, eyes wide, teeth slightly parted, her palms open in her lap in a gesture of active listening, what would you say to her?
I have a word for the silence that would follow, the lifeless air in their offices, the plastic plants hovering in corners, the expectation anchored in their faces, the ache in my jaw. Once named, the ache eased.
After the homeowners came back from vacation and discovered us, I was returned to my grandparents—my father’s parents—in Florida. While the police were talking to them, I went out to their large backyard garden, ate every single strawberry they had, and shit liquid for three days.
Her prior offenses were calculated exponentially, so my mother received a lengthy sentence. It was 19 years before I saw her again.
I’ll get back to that. First, time passed.
All I remember of my 26th year is the dog barking across the hall.
Now I’m 34, stable as a table. The words still accumulate. I started seeing a new therapist a few months ago after a long gap. To be clear, there have been no fresh collapses. For the first time in my life, I simply felt overdue.
My new therapist is an old woman. She started the first session by listing her own failures. She’d abandoned her career as a science fiction author after two books with low sales. She was estranged from her first child. She felt her work in the field of psychiatry, while minorly helpful, had never achieved any drastic change. Those were the highlights among many lesser failures. At the end of her list, she sighed and said, “Now tell me how you’ve fucked up.”
Near the end of the session, I told her about the words. I explained that I hadn’t told my husband about them. I’d never told anyone. I worked the edge of a fingernail under a cuticle, tugged it until it broke and bled. I told her I didn’t know why I kept adding them.
When she asked for more about my mother, I recited a list of facts: Spent time in a religious commune outside Chicago, went to the bathroom once an hour like clockwork, had the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap. My therapist deflated. “I meant her interior. How did she think? What was she actually like?”
I saw my mother as a walled city. Her interior was protected. To try to express it would be at best a failure. At worst, murder. I had no interest in replacing the full reality of her with my cheap, shitty vision.
I couldn’t express this on command though. I said, “I don’t know” rapidly, no gaps between the words.
At the end of the session, my therapist gave me an exercise. She told me to sit in my bedroom, close my eyes, and imagine the end of the world. “Then picture what comes after.” That was the whole assignment. I suspect she’s milking her patients for material to make a second run at science fiction.
Still, I tell Chris to go on our weekly trip to see his mother, to take our son and make up some excuse for my absence. He doesn’t ask why. The proactive therapy measure has earned me some leeway.
I drink half a beer and peel the label off delicately, folding it into a paper football. I then lay on the bedspread, my body surrounded by floral print. I close my eyes. I picture years passing. Our house falls into disrepair then collapses; humans disappear from the landscape; the nearby houses submerge into densening foliage. Then a wide, uncertain span of time. Gradually a bright red dust blankets everything in view.
A chrome spaceship lands nearby. Aliens—their limbs the width of a breadstick—emerge from the craft, bodies wrapped in silver skin-tight foil. Their heads are obscured by bulbous glass helmets, and the glass is entirely fogged over. An inch-wide mesh sieve interrupts the glass in front. It looks like some kind of port or filter. The aliens rummage through the red dust, their delicate fingers probing for relics: A petrified branch, a railing, an opaque plastic cup. They cast them aside.
When the aliens approach the area where our house had been, one of them chirps. It reaches deep into the dust and pulls out something. It opens its palm and stares at empty space—there is nothing visible in its hand. The others congregate. Then a sharp, pinched intake of air. I hear a word, one of mine, going through the mesh sieve in his helmet. One that means the sound of my mother’s footfalls in the trespassed house. He opens his palm. The word is gone, inhaled.
Another alien reaches into the sand and pulls out a word that means the sight of the sun coming in through Ikea blinds late in the morning. Another the exact weight of my son’s head on his second birthday. Another Chris’s voice when sick. And so on. The aliens continue to excavate my language and inhale it, taking their fill.
They arrive at a word that describes the feeling of sitting in a prison parking lot after a meeting with my mother, my hands throttling the steering wheel of my old yellow Corolla following our first meeting in 19 years, and during that meeting she told me she had no idea what the secret language was and no idea what I was talking about and no idea why I would make something up like that, and the feeling included the texture of the steering wheel against my forehead, the flush in my cheeks, and the guard knocking on the window to ask if I was ok but telling me to move before I could answer. Also, as a kind of suffix, the word contained the strange relief that flooded over me when I woke in the middle of the next night realizing the language was mine, mine alone. My mother had forsaken any claim to it. Still the alien keeps inhaling. The word peels open to reveal another—the first one, the border between grass and desert. Red sand, rising green. Both at once. The aliens crowd around. The others breathe in. The first word peels back, then another and another, spilling out like a fountain. Their silver ship gleams in the distance. A barrier inside me crumbles like sandstone. They take their fill.
About the Author:
Will VanDenBerg’s short fiction has been published in Threadcount, Denver Quarterly, No Tokens, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Literary Arts MFA program at Brown University. He volunteers as a clinic escort at PPGNY and lives with his wife in Sunnyside, NY. Their dog is no longer afraid of wind.