I Want to Say There's a Difference
My daughter’s first word is abre, Spanish for open. She’s learned it from TV, “Dora the Explorer.” This is my daughter. Kind, happy, trusting, open. When I tuck her in at night, Phelan lies on her back and laughs. She kicks and swats the blankets off. She flings her arms open, abre, for a hug but more, as if she wants to take in everything, as if the whole world is the squishy blue ball it’s made out to be in cartoons.
Locklin’s first word was duck.
When we’d drive under bridges, he’d shout from his car seat, “Duck!” and my husband and I would. We’d crouch down, cower and shake, keep our heads from being sheared off. Locklin would smile and nod, like he knew everything there was to know about danger and loss.
When I tuck my son in at night, he pulls the blanket tight over his head like a shroud.
“He’s just like you,” my mother would say, not smiling.
It’s almost Christmas, so the kids and I go to the Mills Mall to visit Santa. Before we leave, Locklin snags last year’s Santa picture from its spot on the fridge. I don’t ask why.
“Don’t wrinkle that,” I say, my voice fast and sharp, and on the 25-minute drive to the mall, I feel guilty about snapping. I feel worse because what I really want to do is slap. I want to slap and go on slapping, even though I swore I wouldn’t hit my kids.
It’s been like that – my nerves, temper, all these cliffs to jump.
When she was dying, my mother said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mother. I’m sorry I was nervous all the time.”
She meant, I think, she was sorry for how she was when I was growing up. She had a drawer in the kitchen full of wooden spoons, different sizes and weights. My mother was a quick draw. When she couldn’t get to the spoons fast enough, she used her hands, which didn’t hurt much. Other times she’d take some pills and lock herself in her bedroom and wait for my father to get home from work to handle me. My father used a belt, a fancy one he never wore. The buckle was gold. It was large and heavy and had the initial G on it, though my father’s name was Walt. “G for Gerald,” my mother explained once. “His middle name.”
It didn’t explain anything at all.
The Mills Mall is on the remote outskirts of Pittsburgh, in Frazer Township. Sometimes a bear will wander through the mall’s automatic doors and state rangers will set bear traps on the hillside near Sears. The Pennsylvania Gun Collectors often host events at the mall’s Expo Center. Last month, they held a Gun Bash and a Gun Bingo.
All of this suits my mood.
“Duck!” Locklin, who’s five now, still yells as we drive under the railroad trestles that dot the Pennsylvania Turnpike on our way here. I duck on instinct.
“Safe!” Locklin yells, sounding like an umpire.
I don’t feel safe.
“I’m sorry I was nervous all the time,” my mother said, and I think I feel what she felt. My heart stutters. My hands shake. At night I tuck the blankets tight around my legs and stuff my hands under my pillow and will my body and brain to settle. My doctor’s given me a prescription for Xanax. I break them in half to help me sleep. I try not to use them in the daytime. I use them in the daytime.
“Family history of mental illness?” the doctor asked, his head in a checklist, and I said, “I’m adopted.” In the margins, he wrote “N/A.”
Not applicable or not available?
I wanted to say there’s a difference.
Locklin is quiet on the drive to the mall. In the rear-view mirror, I watch him examining the Santa picture. His eyes narrow. His tongue peeks from the corner of his mouth, the way it does when he’s concentrating. “Leave it,” I say when he tries to take the picture into the mall, and he leaves it, face up, a red stain on the back seat.
We wait over an hour to see Santa. The line isn’t long, but it takes time for Santa’s helpers – two unhappy women in elf hats and Steelers jerseys – to help everyone decide on overpriced photo packages. I keep Phelan strapped in her stroller to stop her from ripping the heads off of the reindeer. Locklin examines fistfuls of fake, possibly toxic snow, like he’s checking a crime scene.
This year, Santa’s wonderland has a woodland theme. Santa and Mrs. Claus look like a miserable hillbilly couple holed up in a giant plastic tree. Mrs. Claus pretends to knit something, which gives her an excuse to ignore the children who clamber onto Santa’s lap and try to slap his glasses off. Above Mrs. Claus’ head, some mechanical squirrels spasm over a pile of acorns. A pack of raccoons twitch their mangy tails. The beaks on the happy bluebirds snap open and shut like claws. There isn’t a candy cane in sight.
Still, when we get to the front of the line, Phelan squeals. She is all in pink – pink sweater set, pink tights. She looks like a fluff of cotton candy on Santa’s knee.
She says her second word, the one that came weeks after abre.
She says, “Beautiful!”
“What’s your name?” Santa says.
Phelan says, “Beautiful!”
Locklin, hands in pockets, explains things.
“Her name’s Phelan,” he says. “My name’s Locklin. Nice to meet you.” He puts out his hand for Santa to shake, but Santa doesn’t see it.
“Brelynn?” Santa says, cupping his ear.
“Phelan,” Locklin says again.
“Kaylyn?” Santa says.
From the sidelines, I enunciate. “Fay Lynn. And his name is Locklin. Lock. Lin.”
Santa looks confused.
Before he can help it, he says, “What the hell kind of names are those?”
Back in the minivan, Locklin holds up the Santa pictures, last year’s and this new one, side by side.
He says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He says, “So you’re saying that this guy,” and he pauses.
He thrusts last year’s model forward. This Santa is younger, jollier, rosier. His nose is not gin-blossomed. He did not, as I remember, smell like cheese.
“Is the same,” he says, “as this guy.”
He switches up the pictures.
Santa has aged three decades. His glasses, round wire-rims last year, are now square little bifocals that sit crooked on his nose. His teeth, gum-commercial white 12 months before, have gone yellow. His brown eyes are now milky and blue as oysters.
I look closer. I squint. I clear my throat.
“Well, sure,” I say. “Absolutely.”
My words are slow, careful, but my tone is off, and my son, who is too much like me, who I want so much not to be like me, knows it.
“You know, honey,” I say, “everybody gets older. Maybe Santa had a bad year. His job’s very stressful.”
Locklin just stares. He pushes the evidence closer to my face.
“Maybe Santa just needs sleep,” I say and laugh.
Locklin does not laugh. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says again. “It’s just wrong.”
I know what he means. I look into his eyes, the same color as mine, green Depression glass, and I see it: the confusion, the anger, the fear, the way it’s hard to accept when the world and everything in it falls short.
The world promised my son a miracle.
It gave him a busted yo-yo instead.
“Santa’s a liar,” Locklin says.
Phelan, who doesn’t know the word, starts to cry anyway.
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press, 2013), Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006), and Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, forthcoming from Atticus Books in 2015. Her poetry book Spot The Terrorist! – a collection of narrative poems about her experiences as a flight attendant based in New York – was published by Turning Point in 2012. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Hobart, Superstition Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their two children. www.ljwritesbooks.com.