I’ll make my own way; I’ll make my own way
Don’t bother counting on me, loving me, just act like I’m gone…
And I’m just so bored of wasting my time
Love and death are always on my mind…
The surviving baby squirrel seems to have rapid breathing, but we can’t tell if that’s normal. We aren’t experts. We are contemplating whether it sustained internal injuries when it fell from the massive oak in our front yard. My husband, Ash, transferred the squirrel to a wicker basket that my mother had gifted me with pampering goodies many years ago. He covers his hand in his leather work glove and gently but efficiently cups the squirrel, tiny nails snagging on the wicker, and lifts it to eye level so we can both observe it. I tell him that maybe we shouldn’t handle it if it does have internal injuries, but he’s intent on analyzing it and wonders out loud if it was injured, wouldn’t it cry out when held, and then I spot the bit of blood on its nose and I gasp. He confirms he’d seen that; it was a nasty fall. It has turned out to be a rough day for Ash, when plans are thwarted and you wonder if it’s a sign; the signs we are ever presently looking for to explain the sad chaos of life.
On his way to a counseling appointment that took weeks to schedule and months to convince him to make, our 1999 Nissan Altima decided to finally quit. In Florida September, a characteristic feels-like-102, the hottest 3:00 time of day, in the middle of after-work, main-road traffic came a plume of sizzling smoke from the hood. He was luckily by a nearby Walgreens, where he waited for the tow truck. Later, after a courtesy ride to our house, when attempting to revive plants beaten down by hours of tenacious sun and 110% humidity, while he’s cursing his life, worrying about whether the fuckers at the counseling clinic will charge him for the no-show, worrying about how he’d get to work the next day, wondering how the fuck he’d get a car, and more annoyed that he’d planned on trying to get sleeping pills at the clinic for his persistent insomnia, two baby squirrels plummet from the oak and land just feet away, and there’s the moment of the glitch of time and reaction when one of the neighborhood stray cats, which happened to be nearby, in National Geographic predator style is on the scene, snatching one of the babies and running off. In a stroke of destiny, its sibling was spared, the other stray uninterested and indifferent, and in a flash crawled up Ash’s leg to perch on his shoulder, all the while the cycle of nature running its course as he watched helplessly the predator chewing on the baby squirrel in what he described was a horrid sound as it was eaten alive. All of this is relayed through text as I’m heading home.
Ash is afraid to leave the squirrel unattended, so I start Googling madly “treating an injured baby squirrel” and then “how to tell if a baby squirrel is injured” and then eventually the local animal rescue services. I leave a couple messages, and gauging from pictures and Dr. Google, we conclude the squirrel is about five weeks old, and one site advises not to feed it but to keep it warm. We are reassured by the basket in our screened patio at 5:00 when it’s still 90. I get a text, “Thank you for calling about the squirrel. What city and zip code are you in and can you send a picture.” Out in the sauna patio, I remove the kitchen towel Ash covered it with and poise to get a good picture. Its right eye is visible, the tiny front paw tucked against its cheek, and it’s still thin, not filled out like an adult squirrel, still dependent on its mom for feeding, its tail a ribbon of flat hair and not a puffed tail standing upright, the characteristic of an adult squirrel. Fifteen minutes later I’m asked for an address and that whoever this is will be by around nine, the soonest, to pick up the squirrel.
Ash and I are going back and forth on the wait time and whether death is imminent, but how it would be crying out in pain, wouldn’t it, if it was injured. We have finally sat down after dinner, trying to land for the evening, and then he gets a text. “Jesus,” he says in the way that I know I should brace for something. “Mom had to pick up Jake from the police station. They took his license and the car was towed. He called her. She said he looks like death, so they’re at the hospital now.” As my husband is involved in the texting back and forth with his mother, I study him, his hair slicked back after a shower, in his house shorts and flip-flops, exhausted after his work day in the botanical gardens where he’s a horticulturalist, which means being outside all day in Florida September, finally feeling relief from the air-conditioning in our house, still at 78 because it won’t cool off to 72 until 3 a.m., and everything inside me sinks, and I know we will continue to suffocate under life’s charming schemes and be at the whim of the planetary shifts, or the alignment of stars, or with no choice but to whittle away at our karmas or to solve some cosmic enlightenment we set out to endow our souls with, and I see it all tumble unstoppably and exhaustingly without any bother to ask us, “Hey, can you handle another fucked-up year like the past three you’ve had?” We’d been through a streak of losses: our miscarriage, Ash’s friend’s suicide, and then my mother’s passing, and trying to stop it all from infiltrating our marriage. Now it was sounding like another mortal tragedy.
• • •
I’d bought two fans to put in Luna’s bedroom to counter the unbearable Phoenix summer heat, which seemed way more stifling than the Tucson summers. The house was a spacious four-bedroom with Luna’s, her brother’s, their parents’ rooms, and guest room, where Jake was staying. Jessie, the middle sister, was married and out of the house. The air kicked on at nine when the sun went down, so all day it was at 88 with the intermittent air coming on, which we didn’t complain about because it was an easy 115 outside. Eight months after graduation from the University of Arizona, I was stuck in a miserable job, doing customer service in Spanish for Verizon Wireless, but making decent money and getting overtime so I could afford to move back to Miami, Florida, where Mom had moved with her new husband. Luna had been my roommate at school, and her parents had offered me their house while I saved up, asking only for weekly grocery money I could spare.
Luna’s grandparents were visiting and her parents had snagged one of my fans to put out in the living room, a curious action, considering anyone living in Arizona should have multiple fans because the ceiling fans did no justice. Being miserable without both fans, which were necessary to not be so miserable, I’d just taken a swig of Luna’s secret whiskey bottle to numb myself before jumping into a cold shower when there was a knock on the door. On my cue, Jake popped his head in. “Hey, you busy?”
“No, just melting, what’s up?”
“Think you can give me a ride?”
Even in that heat he was wearing all black. He always wore black. He literally didn’t own any other color. Jake had decided to drop out of high school and get his GED. Apparently young, confused, and directionless, being Luna’s mom’s nephew, her brother’s son, his parents thought a change of scenery and family support might get him on some path to being an upstanding citizen, as the children of working parents were expected to be. The traditional trajectory of school, work, family, and everything we thought life should be. We seemed to strike a connection of sorts because we allied as outcasts much of the time. Luna had found herself a boyfriend and was hardly around, and I was doing a pretty decent job then of feeling totally self-conscious, ugly, and fat, so I spent a lot of time alone, as did Jake, and sometimes we’d join our loneliness. Thing about Jake, though, was that everyone noticed, especially in social situations, something was off about his moods or his reactions, and he rarely smiled, and no matter how much advice his aunt and uncle gave him, he was still making questionable decisions, or he was still doing it his way or the highway. One issue we all worried about involved a co-worker he was hooking up with at the Blockbuster where he worked. Thing about it was that she was twice his age and had two kids. Luna’s dad had advised him at length, but it was like talking to a wall, and there came a point when we all knew he was going to do what he wanted anyway. Like the time when I knocked on his door late, when the parents were long asleep, to get some CDs I’d left in the guest room, and when he opened the door, the room was clouded in cigar smoke. Luna and I smoked cigs but never in the house—her parents didn’t allow it. Even Luna’s dad smoked but we all went outside. Sometimes Luna got bold after too much whiskey and snuck a cig here and there through the open window to avoid wrapping our bodies in the oven-like nights, but Jake had not opened a window—the most sensible thing to do, and out of respect for Luna’s mom who was not a smoker and hated the smell. There he was in a fog, the oversized cigar casually dangling from his mouth, bare-chested, in his black jeans, and after I told him to open the window, he made no move to. He had no reaction. I had to walk into the room myself and open both windows and came back with incense in the hope that he’d be smart enough to air out the room.
“Sure, let’s go.” I thought it’d be a relief to blast the air in my car and get out of the house.
“Thanks, I just need to get to the Blockbuster,” he said as we both walked past the living room, the older folks surviving on iced tea and my full-speed, oscillating fan.
Jake was about 5'9" and had spent the summer working on his buffness, as I suppose most seventeen-year-old boys did. He had taken to drinking protein powder shakes and had rigged together an old bench press that was rusting in the garage, and every day he’d bench out in the backyard in full heat and sun. His gait reminded me of an Irish soccer player. He had thick, dark hair with neat sideburns and a devilishly handsome face, although he had not inherited Ash’s green eyes from their mother and ended up instead with the dark eyes from his father’s side of the family.
We climbed into my ’99 Nissan Altima, and I pumped the air to four and once again questioned how the fuck I’d ended up in such an inferno all the way from Jersey. How the hell did civilizations survive in the desert? And the image of the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune answered—badasses with self-sustaining, desert-equipped suits. I kicked on Bjork’s “Hyperballad” because I’d been obsessively listening to her album Post for a straight week and handed my purse to Jake. “Light us up a couple smokes,” and then I took the plunge and asked him, “So what’s going on with this chick? Is it serious?”
His voice reminded me of a Jersey winter night, a midnight-blue stillness, a refrigerated calm, a lamp lit street, wind scratching any remaining sandpapery leaves, car wheels on slushy roads. “I don’t know but we enjoy one another’s company.”
“Mind if I stop real quick to grab some beer?”
He shook his head and looked out his window. His profile was the sharpness of a Greek god or Roman soldier, and then I remembered seventeen and how I was always on the outside looking in while my friends knew all the right moves for understanding life and its demands that I was still questioning, and I thought Jake was also looking for those answers or asking those questions.
The brief exposure between the car and the 7-Eleven had made my shirt stick to my body. I offered him a Coors from the not-cold-enough six-pack and looked around for any cops before a generous gulp while Jake had already chugged about half of his.
“You two have a lot in common? You know, considering the age difference?” Trying to get Jake to reveal details was a study in patience. I’d gotten used to the longer pauses that came with waiting for an answer.
“We both love horror movies and metal, and it’s easy to talk to her.”
None of us had seen this woman, so we’d shown up a couple times to the Blockbuster during Jake’s shift in the hopes of an introduction, but there was no sign of her, so we toyed with the idea of his making it all up, but there were phone calls and remnants of a vanilla perfume on him.
“What do you like most about her?” I asked as I pulled into the Blockbuster lot, calculatingly scanning the brightly lit store for her, and then there she was. “Is that her?” I asked before he could answer.
He’d already fixed his gaze on her and, without any fanfare for this woman whom he was totally into, just said, “Yeah.” But then again, it was his usual stoicism.
She was a little plump, her Blockbuster shirt ill-fitting against a generous bust and supple arms. Her hair, in a ponytail, was a badly executed home-dye job of that auburn color that we all thought could make us look like Jean Grey from the X-Men.
“So you didn’t answer my question,” I said, still trying to get a good look at her face before I turned to look at him. “What you like most about her.”
Dusk had become night; the play of light and shadow turned his eyes to slate. With his characteristic smile, lip corners turned downward, he answered, “She doesn’t question who I am, she never does, just accepts it, and she smells like vanilla.” And with that he said thanks and kissed me on the cheek, and then I remembered, the way I would always remember him, the time we were both drunk in the back seat when Jessie was sober enough to be the driver that night, Luna in the passenger seat, Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle blaring, and he’d asked me if we could hold hands, and we did, all the way home, half conscious except for the feel of warm skin, and I thought it would be like that if I had a brother, and we’d be perfectly fine with holding hands like that, just to know we were connected.
I watched him walk toward the store, a fluorescent haven against the night, toward this woman, more a mother than a girlfriend, and I thought how lost some of us are and how we never find our way, and an incredible sadness washed over me. He wasn’t cut out for this place, a stranger to himself, to us. Some of us weren’t. If I was on survival mode every day, I knew that Jake was less than surviving.
• • •
After thirty minutes of texting with his mom about Jake, Ash makes a sudden dash for the patio to check on the squirrel. I beg him not to pick it up again because it might have internal injuries. He grabs the basket from the ground and sits at our patio table, and after careful examination, he says, “It’s dying, I know it.”
Less than a year ago, Ash had gotten the first text from Jake he’d had since forever, when he revealed that he had thirty-six months to live and had been diagnosed with congestive heart, liver, and kidney failure. We hadn’t heard from him in almost two years, and a few years earlier when we’d seen him, he was in bad shape. A host of physical ailments had surfaced during a relationship that was going sour, and we knew he was taking the prescriptions while still drinking heavily. His reclusiveness and social anxiety worsened, and eventually he ended up losing everything: his business, his girl, the house, and his health. A combination of mental illness and alcoholism ended up in homelessness after an attempt at living with his father, who eventually called it quits and asked him to stop drinking or move out. We all knew he was drinking himself to death, living out of a car his mom passed on to him. This was the second time his mom picked him up from the police station for the same offense of parking where he couldn’t and drinking in his car, and now they had confiscated his license and towed the car. When his mom picked him up, he was in such bad shape she took him straight to the ER.
Ash grabs the basket and heads out through the patio door toward the front yard. I follow him in a state of anxiety. I am bracing myself for a breakdown after a day of multiple emotional assaults, and I wonder if it’s a full moon with a fuck-you to one of many of Shakespeare’s endless revelations about the human condition: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” But how does self-blame factor into others’ choices?
Ash is under the oak in our front yard, the basket at his feet, and I look frantically around the yard and neighborhood for signs of the strays, catastrophizing the scene of the surviving sibling’s demise.
“Maybe the mama will take it back,” he says as he walks away from the basket.
At the sight of the unattended basket with the helpless baby in it, I plead, “Ash, let’s just wait for the lady to pick it up later. What if the cats smell it and come back, we’re taking a risk here…”
And then he’s at my side, some twenty feet from the basket. “No look, look,” he whispers as he points to the oak. “You see it? The mama is coming down, look,” and his gaze is alert and hopeful. We wait, still and soundless, playing life’s game of cause and effect, taking our chances and hoping for the best. A squirrel we can’t know is the mama is poised halfway down the oak, its little head scanning in the jerky movements of watchful animals. “Look, see, it wants to come down, but it’s checking for the cats,” comes his optimistic whisper. “Come on, come on,” he urges the squirrel in a possibility of telepathic communication. The squirrel advances further but then starts to turn to climb back up. “No, no, come on,” Ash urges, and then we lose sight of it.
Back in the patio Ash makes a final study of the baby as he’s stroking its body and head with a gloved index finger. With a sigh of conclusiveness, he retracts his earlier diagnosis. “Well, maybe it will live. I’ve been petting it and it’s not crying out or cringing in pain or anything,” he says, finally pulling the kitchen towel back over the basket and placing it back in its original corner.
As we head back inside, I do that human thing we do of trying to find connections and meaning in the unexplainable in our lives. I had lost my mother to cirrhosis two years ago, not because she was a drinker but because of decades of painkillers and opioid use, and now Ash could lose his brother, who had been drinking himself to a pulp for close to two decades—we weren’t hopeful. We’d seen stage III with my mother, who’d actually had a procedure that extended her life two years because she could not survive a liver transplant in her late sixties due to other complications. At thirty-four Jake’s self-proclaimed diagnosis, because we had no way of knowing if he’d actually gone to a doctor, was eventual organ failure, which meant draining of abdominal fluid every ten days. I thought it was quite the universe’s display of irony that both Ash and I would experience losing a loved one to liver damage brought on by use of different substances. We knew the suffering that awaited Jake if he was at a point of no return.
In the days before Mom’s death, I knew something was off. The first signs were that she’d stopped talking and wouldn’t open her eyes. I’d whisper I love you’s in her ear, but she’d only move her mouth with no sound or words. On Christmas Day we finally got the hospice nurse there because her blood pressure was alarmingly low. Her professional opinion was that in her delicate condition, she should be hospitalized, although Mom’s wishes were to die at home. We had alerted my older sister in Virginia, but a blizzard stalled the flights. We admit now, in a tug-of-war between forgiveness and guilt that she had suffered unnecessarily as we’d held back from the morphine drip to give my sister a chance to say good bye. The nurse with a Mediterranean accent, all sympathy gone from her voice, admonishingly said, “You hear those sounds she’s making? That means she’s in pain,” and we knew then we were selfishly prolonging her suffering. Those final three days in the hospital, I’d had the strangest of revelations, feeling somehow privileged that I had witnessed a final demise of the human body, an experience that set us apart—healthcare professionals, hospice nurses, and loved ones who witnessed the natural breakdown of organic material. Such intimate knowledge of death rearranges one’s wisdom. Yet while I accepted that her body was like any other organic material, I struggled with accepting that I would never again look into her sea-foam eyes and hear her distinctly Cuban voice. Ash and I had arrived on December 24th and she passed on the 27th. At the thought of going through another end-of-life experience with Jake, I demand, with a fuck-you, an explanation from the cosmos.
“Mom says they’re running a bunch of tests, and she’s told them about his mental illness and his attempted suicide by drinking,” Ash says while looking at his phone. “She says that he thinks everything is a cliché and that when they mentioned counseling, his response was, ‘Sure, if you wanna have a staring contest.’”
I take Ash in an embrace, and his strong hands run up and down my back in a routine I’ve grown to love, and we don’t say it then but we had before, that Jake had cut his life short, and we might inevitably lose him. I kiss Ash’s thick lips, after fourteen years a feeling as familiar as breathing, and then he leaves my embrace and drags the exhaustion of the day’s trials to the bedroom with little hope of a full night’s sleep. I listen for my mother’s voice. I close my eyes and replay it like a voice mail, careful of all the nuances, the familiarity of the Cuban woman’s bold yet feminine voice, like an ocean thunderstorm, sunflowers turning to face the sunlight, the aroma of properly made Cuban mojo and homemade caramel, and dry leaves and palm trees in pre-storm wind gusts. During a phone conversation less than a year before her death, when I had the nerve to complain to her about the shit of my life, she told me to go and gain strength from a tree by wrapping my arms around the thickest trunk I could find and becoming one with its natural essence. At the time we were all concerned about her mental state, but perhaps she knew she would soon return to nature, a power she had always believed in. I never took her advice, and I hated myself for that, among so many other things we do to unwillingly hurt our loved ones. I winced at the thought that I had squandered her advice.
On my way to work, I get a text from the squirrel lady who’d picked up the baby around 9:30 p.m. that it’s a five-week-old, and it was perfectly fine with no injuries, and they would rehabilitate it until it was ready to be set free. I take what I could get. The silver lining of the previous day’s assaults was the survival of this creature and its unexpected sidetrack in its destiny, falling from a tree with its sibling that had not survived but could have if it were not for the wrong-time-and-place scenario. Is the fault really in ourselves? I curse whoever solely uses that as an explanation for the suffering in our lives. Whoever solely thinks it’s so easy to explain. I wonder if they’ve experienced love and death. I find it trivial but I am desperate to give some equal weight to not preventing my mother’s opioid use or Ash not preventing his brother’s alcoholism against the saving of the baby squirrel. I challenge Shakespeare. The fault is both in ourselves and in the stars.