An excerpt from the short story I wrote yesterday, "Mateus."
“Maybe you should be grateful for him,” our neighbor, Suzanne, said to me. She was fifteen years older than I was. We were friends but she was also my mentor in parenting in part because her daughter was dead. Emily was our first kid, me and my husband Walt. “Let her have this,” he’d say. “She means well. Everyone means well with a sick kid.”
We thought Emily had a tumor and the doctors hadn’t picked it up yet. She had migraines for days. Couldn’t leave her room. We had to tape the shades against the wall because any light made her scream. She was six, seven. Suzanne lived across the street. She had a pool that the neighborhood children used. I read once that Mozart vomited when he was a kid and he heard an ugly sound. Suzanne didn’t have the pool while her own kid was alive. She had a lung condition and went after college, which was longer than what was forecasted. Odd thing to predict, as if it were the weather. “I was grateful for the additional time,” she told me sitting on the deck of her pool, and I remember one time thinking I was a horrible person because I almost said, “But you paid all of that money in tuition.”
I was happy that day. Happy but scared. Emily was playing with her friends and it was in a yard we could see from the deck. I was always ready to run to her. She’d drop with the headaches like she’d been shot from rafters. They didn’t have a gradual build-up. They were like these arrivistes of agony. Kids thought she was playing at first but everyone knew now. Didn’t stop her friends from playing with her the same way, which is probably what good friends do. “They’ll find it,” Suzanne said, noticing how hard I was looking across her yard into the neighbor’s yard. “That’s what doctors do. In time.”
The kids were running. Tag or some such. Boys vs. the girls. The girls stacked with a line-up of tomboys like our kid. They weren’t throwing any balls, which was better, couldn’t get hit in the head. The first time I found her under her bed it was because I heard her. I reached for her in the dark, sitting on the edge of the mattress. There was nothing there. And I thought, “Is this what you feel first, as the mother, the absence of the form, then you feel the form, and the form is stilled?” I thought that so fast. Then I heard her. “I’m under the bed, mom. With Mateus.”
Her voice had a trace of flint to it. Of resolution. Like the sound you might make when you’ve had a fever for days and it breaks and you are wracked, thinner, that triangle shape of skin and bone at the top of your chest, below your neck, sunken, maybe bedewed with the last of the sweat, and you say, “I’m okay now.”
She wrote stories for me and her father and acted them out and I thought this was one she was practicing. But I didn’t think about it much because I was just so happy she was not in pain. When she had her worst headaches she’d go under the bed, tell us later about how Mateus helped her.
And finally I said, “What does he do? Is he kind to you? Does he have comforting words?” She said, “He doesn’t talk much, but I trust him. He says it will be okay. Then he touches my front, touches me everywhere, and he goes up into me. And it’s like we are wrestling, with him behind me, only I’m not wrestling, I want him to win, and it feels good and then when he is done my headache is gone.”
She said that to me alone at a Friendly’s. Was our place. Though it was also where she went with Walt. We wouldn’t let her have ice cream, fearing it’d bring on a headache, so we told her she was allergic but she could have an extra order of fries, which she said was better because ice cream was overrated anyway.
“It’s a defense mechanism,” Suzanne said. “The pain is sufficiently great that she has to come up with something. The body copes, the mind helps.”
Sometimes I’d rest in the bed while she was underneath. “Still okay?” I’d ask. “Still okay,” she’d say back. I was scared. “Kids think of all kinds of things,” Walt told me. “When I was babysitting my sisters one time, it was hot, I had just gotten home from practice when my parents went out, and before I got into the shower I was just in my underwear, no shirt, cooling off, and I chased them, I said, ‘Louie is gonna get you,’ and when they told my dad later and he asked who Louie was, I realized I meant my dick, but I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t tell him what I meant. I said something about a friend I made up. But it wasn’t anything. Who knows what passes through your mind.”