She took her son’s advice and went to the cheapest carwash in town, the one that cost only five bucks but she had to do it on her own, entering the tunnel with her car. In the tunnel, water and soap were pumped over the vehicle while she kept inside, watching the flood as if through the porthole of a submarine tank. A clear bottom vessel. An aquarium, and she was the fish.
She might even have liked it if she could have gone with her son. But he was in school at the moment. Anyway he was not at the age when he’d do things with her. He was just coming out of the time of rupture and reject, barely peering over the mending edge. And in fact his suggesting the cheap carwash – in order to help her – was a magnanimous hint at reconciliation. She had to be contented… she was.
Going through the damn tunnel, alone in the car (although it was few yards long, very large and with wide open doors at both ends), was a panicking thing. She was claustrophobic and increasingly so. She started fretting ahead of time. Her anxiety expressed itself with severe logic impairment… suddenly she could not count her change or dial the number to turn on the wash. She couldn’t decide if she should stop the engine once the process started. And of course she grew incapable of reading signs… written words made no sense. Asking other customers helped at last, clearing her paralyzing confusion. She managed after all.
There she was now: inside and too warm. Things around her got clouded and blurred while foam coated the windows. She felt as if she had fallen into the river with her car, drowning slowly.
Then the memory came, equally suffocating. Of when – fifteen years earlier – she had left her baby in the car in front of the hardware store.
Her husband had been in for about an hour. She had waited, sitting in the back, the baby in the front. He was small, a few months. She had been with him since his birth, not a break. With him and her husband… whom she feared and who felt quite a stranger to her. No one else was around, her family abroad, her language disastrously poor, no friends yet. Thus she had been alone for several months, taking care of the baby boy around the clock, afraid of her husband.
Now she saw him at the door, followed by an employee… he was asking some questions, he wasn’t done still. She asked, shyly, if she could get out of the car and wander in the hardware store for a bit. She needed a break, a diversion. Oh, so badly.
He said yes and she breathed. She had no idea the baby shouldn’t be left in the car. In her country regulations were loose… none for sure regarded this particular matter. She did not think of danger since she didn’t come from a dangerous place. And the car was parked in front of the entrance. She locked doors and she went, eager to stroll through the aisles. Eager to see anything: nails, glues, hoses… Walk around with her arms free. Think about something masculine maybe, something practical, something else. Maybe she got enraptured, maybe she lost track of time, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes were past when she heard a commotion outside. Then her husband materialized besides her and tugged her by the arm.
Outside, the police was tampering with the car doors. An old couple had called them, assuming the baby was abandoned. She understood very little: enough, though, to try explaining she had entered the store, maybe, fifteen minutes ago? Fifteen minutes big maximum. No, she didn’t know the baby couldn’t be left in the car. No, she didn’t know. The police wrote a report. Her husband drove them away. During the entire time she had her eyes fixed on the baby’s face.
She had noticed a discomfort although he didn’t cry. But a slight discomfort. She then realized he was sweating. Maybe the baby was hot. Maybe the car was hot for the baby. He might have missed air while she was away. He might have felt like suffocating, like fainting and she wasn’t there. Maybe the baby could have died while she wandered like an idiot among faucets and screws.
“You look like a heroin addict, you look like a bum,” said her husband, “that is why this happened.” “Expect things like this to happen again since you look that way.”
She did not know. She considered her little flowery dress. Maybe he was confused as well, ashamed and upset by the incident: that is why he said these things. Maybe he was mad at her for other reasons. He might have started worrying about her growing thin. She looked skinny. She looked very tired.
In the following years the thought came back, often… baby alone in the car, maybe weaker and weaker, baby who could have died. Could he? How could she tell? These things always occur when we don’t expect them.
And her wasting time, alone, in the store… that way, that dumbest of ways, she could have killed her baby. Probably she almost killed him. She was the almost killer of her baby boy. Yes she was.
The memory grabbed her by the neck, there, in the carwash. And it tightened up. She couldn’t stand the enclosure any more. The heat. The blurring. The water. She thought she would vomit or scream or both. Useless agitation… hell was over already. It had lasted only five minutes. She drove away.
Things were going very badly with her boyfriend. She had just moved in with him, leaving home, friends and neighborhood behind. Quite a huge step now accomplished. But things at the dawn of their ultimate commitment turned out ugly. Then they precipitated as they often do. Last night she realized the end was imminent. Unavoidable. And a fine disaster: she knew.
Then she felt an urge to wash her car… a luxury she usually couldn’t afford. Now! With no further ado: wash it, even in the cheapest carwash of town, as her son suggested.
Her son, the one she never would leave, would she? The only one probably. Still, the one she almost killed.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Womb, Poetic Diversity, Synesthesia, Adanna, among other journals and anthologies.