A while back I talked to a friend who had recently stumbled into a repressed memory. We talked about that feeling, falling through a black hole, observing everything in your life you thought to be true as it dissolves into flashbacks, and strange dreams, and that lopsided feeling when memories come back with different endings. It is an emotional unearthing, and it begins a ripple effect through your life, with the potential of a tsunami.
My stumble into memories past began in July, 1992, when I was rear-ended at the stoplight on Callowhill and 14th Street in Philadelphia. It was a metallic green Gremlin in the rear view mirror, and when I saw how fast it was coming, I grabbed the wheel and pressed my foot hard on the brake. The impact came to the driver-side rear, like he wanted to thread the car between the two lanes and instead put accordion pleats into the frame of my Saab and the car in the next lane.
Police were called, reports were made, and the officer told me my car was drivable, but probably totaled. “Call your agent. Get a back x-ray. File a claim,” was his professional advice.
Regarding any compensation from the driver for damages, it seemed that besides the lack of brakes, he had no license, no insurance, and no proof of ownership. The officer told me to write it off and be glad that I wasn’t hurt. “He’s going back to jail,” the officer said, “He’s a regular.”
I stood on the corner as they walked past me to the cruiser.He was in handcuffs, shirtless, and under his ribs I spotted a long, jagged scar, as if he had been stitched up by an unskilled amateur or a doctor in a hurry. It was one of several scars that showed a man who had not lived an easy life. His name was Paul Brown and I can still see his face. His skin was coal black, and his features were sharp, almost regal. Our eyes met and I knew he was there to give me a message.
My life was different from that day forward. I wrote RAIN FALL as fiction wrapped around a reality that waited over thirty years to present itself.
As the rusty station wagon pulled past us in the parking lot, its rear door flew open, and a boy, maybe four years old, tumbled out. His leg was caught on something inside. The old car dragged his upper body—head bobbing, arms flailing, voice screaming—about fifteen feet along the pavement before lurching to a halt. We stood motionless as a scrawny woman in worn jeans and a faded work shirt jumped from the passenger side as the vehicle rocked to a standstill.
“Teddy, baby,” cried the woman. She pleaded to anyone who would listen, “Someone help me! Call an ambulance! My baby needs a doctor!”
A man in paint splattered overalls lumbered out from behind the wheel and around to the front of the car. He knelt next to the child and gently brushed the dirt from his face.
“It’s gonna be okay, son. Your mama and me’s here.” Between words of comfort, the father worked to untangle the strap and buckle from the failed booster seat. Within a minute the boy was free. The mother’s panic subsided and she delicately scooped the disjointed marionette of a body into her lap. She traded looks with the father and he bolted upright and went to get help. She cradled the boy and began to sing.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” His eyes opened at the sound of her voice and his body started to move. As he scanned the circling crowd our eyes connected and I froze.
Yes, I know.
A muscle in my hip began to twinge. Then darting pains moved down my right leg. The leg went limp, and I stumbled to catch my balance. A tingling sensation entered my fingers, followed by the empty feeling that signaled a fainting spell. I ached all over—like I was the one who had crashed on the concrete. Then it came to me. I had taken that fall. The extent of the damage had been down-played and the memory submerged, but there was one thing I could never forget. When I fell, there had been only one witness. And there was no cradling, no song of comfort, and no calls for a doctor.
An image bubbled up like a sour belch and my body sagged under a wave of nausea and memory. It had been a Tuesday, a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late October. We were on our way from school to my ballet class.
The first thing I remembered was the cream cheese and grape jam sandwich—the meticulously wrapped, perfectly cut snack Mother had waiting for me every day when she picked me up at school. It was smooth and gooey, with circles of purple sugar puddled in the air pockets of the thick-sliced bread from the German bakery. All my third grade friends ate peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread, but not me.
“Peanut butter is what mothers buy when they can’t afford to give their children cream cheese,” Mother would say as she slathered Philadelphia Brand across the slice. “We can afford cream cheese.”
I had no interest in the economic or social aspect. I just loved the sandwich.
“Where’s your rain bonnet?” she asked, noticing my wet head. A hiss of irritation escaped her lips as she flipped on the lights and turned on the wipers.
There was no good answer to her question and my hunger distracted me from trying to create a clever lie. I unwrapped the sandwich and bit a corner off the neatly cut triangle.
“It’s in my pocket,” I answered as I chewed.
“Well, it can’t keep your head dry if it’s in your pocket, now can it?” She fidgeted in her seat and split her attention between the road and my lap—waiting for a stray gob of jam to roll off the waxed paper and onto the baby blue upholstery.
“What’s wrong with you, Rita? Do you want to catch pneumonia?” Another one of those questions with no good answer.
She hit the gas to vent her frustration and turned from the main road into a subdivision under construction—one of her many shortcuts to avoid traffic. The big engine answered with a
burst of speed that sent us into a fishtail across the wet pavement. The shock of such a quick response registered on her face and in her attitude. She backed off the accelerator, straightened in her seat and put her hands back in the 10-2 position.
“Well, that was a bit of excitement, wasn’t it?” She managed a smile, but her voice held a thread of nervousness.
I took another bite of creamy-sweet comfort recognizing that things had shifted. There would be no further mention of my lack of headgear or the threat of illness.
The white Cadillac had been a birthday gift from my father. It was brand new, not “a hand me down,” as Mother now referred to her past vehicles. While it symbolized his love, it was also a test of her ability to handle luxury. This rolling reminder of his success and prosperity was to be driven with care.
“You and your mother will be riding in style.” Daddy winked at me as we stood in the doorway watching her reaction to the surprise. She pranced down the driveway twirling the new keys around her index finger. Once inside she settled into the leather seats like sinking into a cloud, then started the engine and was off for a spin around the block.
When she was out of sight, he knelt down to my level like whatever he was going to tell me needed to be eye to eye.
“And, you’ll be a lot safer than in that old Dodge. You’re my precious cargo.” He gave me a tight-but-tender hug. I felt precious.
Not wanting to upset the balance of my mother’s new frame of mind, I wrapped the other half of my sandwich with care, stashed it in the brown paper sack, and turned to get a box of napkins she kept with Kleenex, spare sunglasses, and an assortment of other items in a basket on
the back seat. Just out of reach, I got on my knees and, butt toward the roof, stretched for the basket.
“Be careful now,” Mother said. “Do you want to fall?”
I laughed to myself and reached for the napkins. Then I heard her say, “Watch out!”
The car swerved and her right arm swung out. If I’d been sitting in the seat it would have been a protective gesture. Instead, she connected with the back of my legs and I lost my balance. As my foot searched for a solid surface, it found a handle instead. I heard a click. A blast of frigid air hit the side of my leg and the world outside pulled at me like a giant vacuum cleaner. I grabbed for something to latch onto but managed only handfuls of slippery smooth upholstery.
The bottom half of my body felt wet and the top half rigid. I sensed myself losing contact with the car—fingers grasping for anything stable, my body twisting, being sucked out into some kind of tornado.
I heard the words, “Help me Mommy. Help me,” but I didn’t know who was saying them. And I didn’t hear anything in return—just squealing tires and the crackle of wet rubber on slick pavement.
Too late. I was flying—then rolling. Slick, hard, gritty, raw—over and over. All I could think was, “Please Jesus, make it stop. I’ll be good. Just make it stop.”
Then my mouth was full of leaves. They were bitter and wet. Softness with sharp edges surrounded my body. I had stopped moving but my insides still sloshed and vibrated. A quiet numbness settled in, and I wet my pants.
“Oh my God, Oh my God, Rita, are you all right?”
I heard my mother’s voice in the distance and I willed my arm to move so she could find me. Her footsteps came closer, stirring up the earthy smells from the ground around me. I heard
her scream. Then I was in her arms and she was crying. She held me tight and it hurt, but I couldn’t speak, and I didn’t really want her to let go. I dug past the slick raincoat into the softness of her cashmere sweater and let myself sink into her embrace. She stiffened, and shook me with quick movements like she was trying to wake me from a bad dream. My body answered with a repeat of the whole experience, including every slam and crash of flesh on concrete.
“Oow!” I screamed. “That hurts!”
“Okay now, let’s get you out of here and back home. You must be freezing.” She started to squeeze my arms and wiggle my wrists. “Does it feel like anything’s broken?”
I did an inventory of my aches and pains and reported with all the medical authority of an eight year old who had just tumbled out of a car and into a ditch.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
She helped me up and, after a vain attempt at lifting, put her arm around me for support and pointed me down a path lit by the Cadillac’s headlights.
“I can’t carry you,” she said. “You’re just too heavy.”
Each step set off an explosion inside my body, making a pinwheel of fire behind my eyes that blurred my vision. I tried to be brave. I told myself it was over—that Mother would take care of me—that I was safe. I took a deep breath and let the familiar aroma of her Arpege serve as a tranquilizer.
After she spread out the travel blanket, I collapsed on the back seat. My head spun like I was on a Tilt-a-Whirl and I wanted to vomit. But I thought of the mess on the upholstery and held it in.
Things were hazy until Mother settled me in a hot tub of water, pouring in what seemed like a ton of Epsom Salts. She put on a convincing smile as she bent over the tub and agitated the salts into the water.
“These will do the trick.”
What they did was create a gritty layer on the bottom of the tub that not only felt uncomfortable but registered sharp stings and pinpricks on my hands and legs. But the heat relaxed me, and as I started to doze off, I heard her on the phone in the hallway.
“Yes Mrs. Ford. Rita will be at class next week. She’s just a bit under the weather, and I thought it was best to keep her home.” Mother’s voice was light and musical, with the sound of ice cubes tinkling in her highball glass as a familiar background melody. “She’s soaking in a nice hot tub even as we speak. We mothers have to take good care of our children now, don’t we?”
A few minutes later Mother appeared in the doorway holding a freshly filled glass in one hand and a steaming cup of something in the other.
“Hot toddy,” she announced. “You’ll get a good night’s sleep and by the morning this will all be forgotten.” Most of my mother’s cures involved a substantial dose of liquor – hot buttered rum for a chest cold, whiskey with honey and lemon for a sore throat, and the deep amber manhattans that took the edge off her nerves on days like this.
She balanced herself on the side of the tub and put the cup under my nose. The mix of alcohol and sugar burned my eyes and made my stomach growl. I took the cup. It was still too hot to drink, but the rich steam went up my nose and brought a blissful, hazy feeling.
Mother’s head came down close to my ear. “These bruises will be gone in a few days, sweetie. You can stay home from school till then so you won’t have to tell anyone. I don’t want you to be embarrassed about what you did.”
Then she kissed the top of my head and whispered, “And Rita, there’s no need to tell Daddy about this either. He’s busy with work, and it’s okay that we girls have our little secrets.”
But, I didn’t want to keep it a secret. If Daddy knew what happened, he would put me in his lap and kiss every scratch. He would take me for ice cream and to the lake for a pony ride, and tell me I was his big, brave girl. Then I understood. If Daddy knew what happened, he would take away the Cadillac.
“So, it will be our little secret?” she asked.
She took my silence as agreement.
“Good. Now drink your toddy while I get your bed ready. I’m boiling water for a nice hot water bottle.”
Halfway out the bathroom door she stopped and came back to the mirror. She put her drink down on the edge of the counter and leaned in close to inspect the darkening circles around her eyes. “I think next week we’ll go shopping,” she said, as her finger tested the skin with a gentle tap like it was a cake just out of the oven. “How about a trip down to Marshall Fields? We’ll visit Aunt Maude and stop in the toy department to look for that new Barbie doll you saw on television. Wouldn’t you like that?”
She was out the door before I could answer.
I drank the toddy in big gulps. It smoothed over all the jagged edges, and went straight to my head. I slid down in the tub to get my shoulders under water. My whole right side was tender and reacted to the pressure with a sharp pain. Through the bathwater I could see the color around my hipbone already changing to a bluish purple.
* * *
“Hey Rita! Are you with us?” My friend Carla yanked at the sleeve of my parka and pulled me from the hot water of my childhood memory into the cool March of the present day. I shuddered from the trip and looked around to get my bearings.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.” My tongue was thick with remnants of the hot toddy.
“You were off on some other planet—just trippin away.” Carla flapped her arms in a bad imitation of a bird in flight.
“I guess I was,” I said, one foot still in the dream world. “It was just that little boy. He made me remember something that happened when I was a kid. I had forgotten all about it. Until now.”
“You saw someone fall out of a car? I swear, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, he flopped out onto that parking lot like he was a bag of potatoes.” Her voice was elevated, with that edge of morbid excitement that comes from witnessing some one else’s disaster.
“Can you imagine if the car had been going faster?” she went on. “Like out on a main drag somewhere?” She paused to visualize the result, and shook her head at the thought. “He’d really need a doctor.”
I wasn’t willing to share my reality with her grisly imagination. I turned away and walked toward the crowd that had gathered near the boy and his parents. The whoop-whoop-whoop of a siren announced the ambulance rounding the corner. It brought a sigh of relief from the onlookers and tears of joy to the anguished parents.
And the boy? He still looked stunned, like a baby bird that had toppled from a high branch, but comforted by the knowledge that he was tucked safely under his mother’s wing.