Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Learned Helplessness

A sun with a strength to effloresce in the Northern California suburb enveloped the grids of homes that formed swirls of culs-de-sac, the leftover orchard trees that dot tightly fenced-in yards. Record highs for this December afternoon, said the voice on the alarm radio, 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but it should have been more like 59. The unexpected warmth made your armpits clammy and the soles of my feet sweaty. My socks absorbed the sweat, I tore off my leg warmers and lost them. I asked you where my roller skates were; they were white with lavender wheels. Your hair was in curlers and the scarf tied around your head was also lavender, like my roller skate wheels. You said they were packed away still, in the boxes in the garage. Parents do nothing but work all the time, you muttered without looking at me, so it would be a long time before we would get all the boxes unpacked and get fully situated in the new house. I asked you if it was a lie that my roller skates were in a box in the garage, and you said no, "and besides, you are not old enough for those skates, and they will be big. You have a tricycle." My tricycle was blue and very short, and it made me feel so small, and because it wasn't pink or lavender, I looked like a small boy every time I rode it across the tar-crusted asphalt of our new street. You had made my hair boyish, too. Blunt bangs and a tapered bowl of a mane.

       You handed me an orange with a hole in it, and then you stuck a straw in it. The sun bled into our kitchen from the garden window, and my mind began to recite the song from the Florida Natural Orange Juice commercial, the one that pictured a plump Valencia orange with a straw puncturing it. I loved it, and I was always asking you to please please please stick a straw in an orange for me, just like they do in that commercial. It was the first commercial I saw where I understood all the English words. Now, you announced that we were going to the park. I was allowed to take the orange.

        We hurried to shove my socks and shoes back, then headed for the door to face the electricity that was the sun that day. Suddenly, before we could reach the door, the doorbell rang, and before we could decide to look through the kitchen window to peer out at who it was, we heard rustling outside, and voices whispering to one another. Shadows passed by the window; we did not recognize the voices, we didn't recognize anything about the movement of the shadows. Our reaction, almost choreographed, was to crouch down into a corner of the kitchen. You chewed on the loose end of your tied scarf, and I became nauseated when I realized that neither of us knew if the front door was locked. My dad would be furious if he knew we were home by ourselves with the door unlocked.

"You have to go check and see if the door is locked," you told me. The voices were still outside, and there was scuttling and scratching noises coming from the same direction. I knew; the voices were trying to break in. I sucked on the straw, hoping that the fortifying orange juice would come flowing up into my mouth, but nothing. The desire for liquid in my mouth made my mouth dryer, and I felt my lips starting to chap at an alarming speed. I sucked harder on the straw until it hurt my cheeks. My grandmother held me by the waistband of my pants to insure that I wouldn't dart up from our safe corner. But then she loosened her grip and repeated, "you have to go check and see if the door is locked."

         As I crept out of the kitchen and turned a corner to face the front door, the floor beneath my feet started to tilt in the direction of the door. My socks slid on the hardwood, drawing me closer to the door, going faster than I wanted to go. I didn't think to turn the bolt, and instead, I tried pushing on the door with all my weight --all 50 pounds of it-- and I could feel the strangers on the other side of the door trying to push into the house. I had no strength in my arms, they were just flacid pieces of flesh.What were these strangers going to do? I couldn't see her but I knew my grandmother was no longer in the house with me. My face grew warm and my saliva turned into metal at the thought of being alone now.

        My back was turned to the door, I could feel a draft, it was opened a crack. With anticipation and with lifeless arms, I waited to see if all the strangers would come trampling in through the door. A rattle came from the ground and rose up into the rest of the house. I thought the earth was splitting open, it was a small quake. I looked down the hallway, now twice as long as it had been when I first walked toward the door, and the walls were suddenly pink with Autumn.

      I looked down at my legs, and I saw what looked to me like small children grabbing hold of my ankles. Suddenly, I was 20 years older, my body was inflated, my head nearly reaching the ceiling, and my arms involuntarily brushing up against the statue heads. The children tying my ankles down were laughing. I was certain they were laughing at me, but I didn't know what it was that had provoked them to start laughing. Probably my size, they were expecting me to be like them, small, but I was huge now. One of the children squeezed my ankles really tightly and squealed as I tried to scream in agony from the pain it caused. I couldn't scream, my voice was gone. The child saw my face, and in a frightened state, scurried toward the hall bathroom, which was now several yards farther down the hall than it had been before the walls turned pink and the statues heads started protruding through the stucco. The child messily scurried on all fours, like a feral animal, and turned into the bathroom. I tried to quickly run after him, but he was too fast for me as I had to pry my legs free from the cluster of children holding down my feet. I was terrified that the children would follow me and keep scraping at my shins and pulling me back toward the horrifying saint heads. My heavy legs stumbled down the hallway and I scraped my head against the ceiling stucco as I finally turned into the bathroom. There, I was met with a jarring sight.

        A litter of kittens, hungry, squealing, and round-faced, lay sprawled on the checkered tile floor. The child, looking dingy and insatiate, grabbed at one of the kittens and held it tightly in his dirty little. The kitten wheezed and looked as though it was being held too tightly, but as much as I grabbed for him, I couldn't  move my hands quickly enough. I couldn't speak, my tongue felt huge in my mouth. I needed to get this kitten and this whole litter away from this disgusting child.

        And then, everything turned into sand. I started shrinking back to the size of a normal girl, and all that could be seen was sand. I heard an older cat, perhaps the mother of the kittens, meowing. She sounded healthy, maybe even capable of scaring away the snarly little child from her litter. My eyes scanned the glowing sand for a horizon. I knew I would eventually turn into sand, too.

       It was obvious to me. The only thing left to do was to begin walking. I realized, once I began moving my legs, that despite walking in sand, I could suddenly maneuver my legs more easily. Walking felt good, the ache disappeared from my knees and the scratches from the children were healing, they were following me somehow. I wanted to roll in the sand, like I used to do when my family would spend summers on the beaches of Santa Cruz, scattered like a ribbon below the Boardwalk. It was one of my favorite things, rolling in warm sand. This sand was warm, too. Maybe I could roll in it and it would feel like a warm comforting bath, and I could stop worrying about the kittens and where they had gone.

I wanted to forget the children, too.

     I walked for a long time, I can't recall how long. A sharp, poke, one that felt like it came from an insect, drew my attention to my hands. Somehow, my wrists and hands had been bound by a muslin-like cloth. When I looked up from my hands, I felt something heavy like a sack, also made of the muslin cloth, fall from my head and obstruct my vision. I shook my head to remove the sack and realized it had been protecting my head from a blistering light, a red light, one that was acting like a sun as it shone, but it wasn't a sun. Maybe a lamp.

       Nothing happened for what seemed like a very long time. The light started to fade, and the sand was melting into concrete and broken pieces of asphalt. The vast openness started to fold into a series of dirt mounds and winding concrete roads. Still concealed as Bedouins, we had a birds-eye view of the civilization that lay before us. Several of the roads ended in a fenced-off series of buildings and smoke stacks. As I stared down at the buildings to figure out what kind of factory or plant I was looking at, a voice came on through a PA system: 

Good morning, this is Alonso Jacob with your Monday weather report. We couldn't ask for a better day for the first day of Winter. Right now it's fifty degrees and clear. We're expecting blue skies throughout the day. Though there is only a ten percent chance of showers, this good weather can't last forever. It's raining cats and dogs up north, so we should see rain by tomorrow. Remember your umbrellas! Now, stay tuned for local news.

        I was staring at a carbicide pesticide factory. This is where pesticides come from, I thought to myself. I looked around and pieced together the environment in which I stood. There was a loud moaning around me, consisting of several voices. The voices of women, children, dogs.

There are scheduled to be horrific births. It was the same startling voice from the PA system.

Is it fair to be curious about what a horrific birth looks like? You see, I don't know anything about horrific births, and many of the people I know do not know, either. Am I allowed to ask this- why are they horrific? What can I do for the horrific births? Isn't that question tragic and insulting and horrifying in itself?

What met my eyes at that moment was truly something that will never leave my mind. Children walking on webbed feet, dragging lifeless limbs across the rubble and broken piece of asphalt. Raw tumors in place of eyes, infants damaged with blindness, infants that will never experience a miracle that is to see with the eyes. Not that there was much pleasure or comfort that takes place in seeing their surroundings as they were in that capsule of reality. Groups of women sat along the dirt mounds, their limbs twisted or missing. A woman in the doorway of a convenient store close to the factory was giving birth to a baby with hare-lips, a cleft palate, webbed fingers; a fetus that was unrecognizable as a human.

       I am looking at the children, the victims of Bhopal. I am standing above the factory that is killing thousands. It is 1988 and we are remembering 1984. Carbide has left the plant and refuses to clean it. Dow Chemical will refuse to clean the factory. Apple computer will revolutionize the way Americans use computers and store files in their A-frame houses with composition tile roofs. I will ride my tricycle to the park, and you will help me learn how to measure sugar for cakes and say the names of all the colors in Italian.

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