Nonfiction by Alyssa Ross
“You were an awful child,” Mother likes to say, especially when she has some red wine and an audience. She weaves exaggerated tales in her slight Southern bark: stories about the terrible things I’ve done and the grief she’s endured.
The accounts begin with my birth, and they don’t stop. When she starts, I press my glasses to my face. And even though I’ve heard them all a dozen times, I still brace myself, because the images she conjures are as real as runny eggs. I can see them even when I can’t remember them. That’s how I learned to tell stories.
This is a story about me.
I was four years old when I overdosed on cough medicine.
My mother was working to support our family of three and, in the Alabama fashion, she usually left me in the care of my Aunt or Grandmother Walls. My parents were still married at that time, but I was rarely left alone with Dad because he was – according to the women of the family – unreliable. But one Saturday morning while the family women were busy, Aleeta decided to let me stay with him while she ran errands in Huntsville.
Dad liked to watch me get hold of something new. This time, the way the story goes, it was ice cream. Peering up at him, I threw my spoon on the floor and dug my hands into the bowl. I spread the cold cream across my face, only getting about half in my mouth. The sight made his thin lips stretch into a wide grin. I screamed but Dad did his best. He gave me grape lollipops to chomp on and Barbie dolls to throw. After a few minutes, I’d get bored and rip the doll’s head off. I remember pulling the translucent hair, the satisfaction of that plastic pop confirming it was fake. Exasperated, my father sat me in bed and put on my favorite Batman cartoon but, again, I lost interest, and I snuck into the bathroom while his haggard, icy blue eyes fixed on the screen.
Intent, I’m later told by my father, on some misdeed, I must have hoisted myself onto the vanity. I can imagine the marble counter, cold against my naked legs. As I opened the medicine cabinet, I would have noticed Mom’s blue bottle of almond oil. She rubbed it into her nails at night, and I could smell the cloying sweetness of it when I crawled in bed next to her. I popped the top off and sucked in the smell. I desperately wanted to devour that scent – to keep it inside me forever – but I knew that would make her angry, so I carefully put it back.
Then I saw another bottle filled with bright red liquid. I opened this one and took a sniff. The pungent, medicinal aroma smelled more like my father. I’d never seen mom use this one, so I figured she wouldn’t mind if it went missing. I took a sip and it was bitter, but it made my tongue tingle, and I know myself well enough now to know that I would have liked that then. A new taste was something I could never resist. I took another sip, swishing it around in my mouth, feeling that medicinal tingle.
By the time dad came to check on me, I’d finished the entire bottle. The way mom tells it, dad stood still for over a minute, staring at me as if I were a cartoon creature crawling out of the TV. I smiled back at him with wild eyes and red stains across my mouth. I imagine looking something like the Joker’s twisted daughter, a frightening sight for a young father.
Dad held the bottle in his hands, looking hard at the label: “Cough Medicine: Not intended for children under 12.” We sat like that – me with my crimson, crazed smile and him staring down at the bottle – for what seemed like hours. The phone rang abruptly and he jumped up, breaking our hypnotic bond.
It was mom just checking in. Dad didn’t tell her what happened. She asked, “How’s little bug behaving for you?” He could only stammer something unintelligible.
“What’s going on,” she said, but he still struggled to respond. She pried. “What’s my baby girl doing?” Her questions were met with silence. Dad nervously wrapped the curly phone cord around his finger.
Mom swears she responded firm but fair. “You’d better answer me now, David.”
He mumbled a few coherent phrases like “medicine cabinet,” “cough syrup,” and “red mouth.” Mom may have been absent during many of the mundane moments of my childhood, but she was a force in times of crisis. She hung up on David and called poison control. They redirected her to a nurse.
“Get her to the ER as quickly as you can,” the nurse said, “before it really hits her. These medications are not something to trifle with.”
Mom rushed home and picked me up without saying a word to my father. As she scooped me up with one determined arm, he put his hand on her shoulder.
“Do you want me to come with you? Maybe I can help.”
“No, David, you’ve done enough,” she said. She headed out the door.
My mother says the sterile smell of the hospital made my stomach turn worse. After waiting in the cold in the examination room, we got good news and bad news: because Dad had waited so long, pumping my stomach wouldn’t help. I’d already digested the drugs.The good news was that I was handling them well.
Not knowing what to do, but wanting to satisfy my mother, Doctor Packard gave me Ipecac to induce vomiting. Within minutes I was throwing up handfuls of tar-colored liquid. The black bubbles oozed from my mouth, dribbling down to my chest. When the vomiting stopped, the doctor told Mom to take me home.
He warned her that I was at risk of going into a coma if I slept too long while the drugs were in my system.
“She needs to stay conscious,” he said. “Try to keep her awake for 24 hours. Then she’ll be in the clear.” The drugs would make me sleepy, he warned her, but I shouldn’t be allowed to nap for more than two hours at a time. Now that I’m older, I find it odd that they let me leave so quickly, but that was the way with some doctors – always ready to release the broken bird.
We went home late in the evening and, instead of being sleepy, I was wide-awake. I learned cough medicine had the opposite effect on me, leading me to avoid it during the cold seasons to come.Dad had fallen asleep across the couch. Exhausted by the unexpected, mom set her alarm and lay down on the bed.
“Why don’t we try to sleep a little,” she said, almost pleading. I sat down next to her and watched as her eyelids flickered shut.
Two hours later, the buzzer went off and mom quickly slapped her hand against the alarm. She turned her head and was startled to see me sitting up straight. My dark blue eyes were fixed on the dark, empty wall.
“You okay, honey?” she asked.
I turned my head and, without blinking, gave her a broad grin that revealed my sprouting new teeth. She wasn’t exactly reassured, but she reset her alarm and went back to sleep for another two hours, because we felt safer in our home.
Mothers have an uncanny ability to truly see their children. As my limbs and hair grew long and unwieldy, my Mom began to witness my fondness for transgression. While I didn’t become a junkie – like my younger self in the story – I continued to challenge my body and the objects and people around me: at seven I swallowed a gold chain; at eleven I rammed a golf cart into a tree with my sister riding in the passenger seat; at sixteen I crashed two cars; at eighteen I punched out the window of my ex-boyfriend’s house; at nineteen I started a street fire in Richmond; at twenty-two I had an abortion, and by twenty-five I was divorced and living with my little sister.
One weekend I came home from college to find several grainy, yellowing pictures and pastel papers scattered across the dining room table. Mom had laid out my drawings of chickens and leaves and jungles. There were dusty stuffed animals that I’d held in my crib. I noticed an engraved spoon and some other childhood trinkets.
“Look at this,” Mom said, and pointed a polished nail towards my old baby calendar. This was a gift (she’d never buy something so sentimental) given to new moms to make notes about their baby’s progress. I skimmed the pages and felt disappointed by her sparse notes. The few sentences that she managed to scribble down each month all sounded the same – some variation of “This baby’s got a temper,” or “She threw another fit today.”
I can’t judge her too harshly. When I think of the day I overdosed, how I’d snuck past my father and gotten into the medicine cabinet, how terrified my mother must have been, how well I’d “handled” the drugs and how ominous a portent that would be, I understand why she never bothered to fill out the baby books. She was too busy to fill out those books. So I forgive her. I value our time together more than the objects that remain. But the next time she tells a story, my stomach will drop and I’ll wonder What will it be this time? The one about the childhood humping? The bed-wetting and the little blue pills? I cringe when I think about it. Next time, I’m going to beat her to it.
Alyssa D. Ross was born in Guntersville, Alabama, but spent over a decade in Northern Virginia. After abandoning art school, she went on to pursue writing. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD. from Auburn University where she teaches writing and literature. In her spare time, she also teaches for the Alabama Prison Arts+Education Project. Select readings are available at www.alyssarosswrites.com