I enter the subway car. To my delight there is an empty seat near the door. I sit, rummage through my bag for my book and begin reading from where I left off, but the words are blurry and I cannot concentrate. I am aware of a powerful odor emanating from the person seated next to me. I close my eyes and try to concentrate on breathing through my mouth. My stomach clenches and my eyes begin to water.
I’m five years old. Mrs. Williams is rustling about in the other room. The pain in my chest is as much from the ache I feel because my parents have left on their yearly trip as it is from my fear of the woman who has been hired to take care of us for the next few weeks. Mrs. Williams with her coiffed hair and antiseptic smell, everything about her is no nonsense, business like, a kind of grim resignation that oozes from her every pore. When angry she uses her hand, like a paddle, it comes down swift and seemingly without emotion, as though the pain I feel upon contact has nothing to do with anything: arbitrary, remote, senseless.
I hate Mrs. Williams and my anxiety and sadness that my parents have left us, even for only a few weeks adds to my hatred of her. She crinkles and rustles when she moves, her skin hangs from her body like an ill-fitted suit, she smells of soap and perfume that make me nauseous. She is stocky and seems well rooted to the ground, her movements are steady and purposeful. She rides out the time my parents are gone like a convict doing time. I can find nothing pleasant about her. Just thinking about her fills me with fear. Her dislike for me and my sister is all the more apparent when my brothers are around as she obviously dotes on them and shuns us. If ever there is a dispute, it is my fault, no matter that I am the youngest with siblings a full eight and six years older than me.
We are told she had a son sent to Vietnam who never returned. We are told it is because of this son that she adores my brothers. I take this information in stride. It is fact. I am representative of something unwanted, something I do not and cannot understand. She is particularly concerned about my bowel movements. She takes note of them, even going so far as to stand guard outside the bathroom listening for sounds of success. As I sit on the toilet I imagine her ear pressed to the door. Why this is important is something I can’t figure out, but that it is, is evident by the reports she feels compelled to give my older siblings. Now my brothers and sister are on high alert. My bodily functions are examined, discussed, they have become a topic. The more I am closely observed the more anxious and fearful I become.
I grip my book tightly and try hard to breathe out of my mouth. I glance over at the woman next to me. Her eyes are closed and I realize she is asleep. As the train careens through the darkness, her body sways with its motion. The train turns. She leans into me, the smell of soap, antiseptic, and some other odor I cannot identify, but that reminds me of those weeks once a year when my parents left us in the hands of someone who should not have been caring for small children, is over powering. She is unaware of me or the memories her presence has evoked.
I think of my children. I see the look of anxiety on my daughter’s face when she says, “No, not going to Katie’s class. That is the old school. Emma goes to new school. Emma goes to new school with Mommy.” And all I can hope for is that her new school will not be staffed by anyone whose presence gives her cause to remember them decades later with anxiety and a feeling of plummeting through an endless darkness.
Visiting the new school