Poison Air

I was six or seven. We had been to visit my aunt Josie in Los Angeles and we were making the drive back to Sacramento, through the valley on Highway 5. I remember long stretches of orchards and not much else. Mom had this old Dodge Dart and I was asleep on the back seat. I can still see the view of the front seat – one long bench seat, bucket seats were still not common – mom’s head just over the passenger side, the other woman we were with (mom’s friend Lilith? my aunt Derotha? not sure) was driving. There was a period where mom had lost her driver’s license (meaning she wasn’t allowed to drive), though I don’t remember why, unpaid tickets, unpaid registration – we had been on welfare for a while and that seems the most likely. She had a job though at this point and we had health insurance, I know that. So I think the drive down and back to Jo’s had been during this time, when mom couldn’t drive, and thus needed the other person with us.

There were remnants of a fast food stop on the floor of the car, a French fries cup, and a burger wrapper, that was just past my fingertips if I let my arm dangle from where I was lying on my side. I dozed off to the sound of the tires on the road and the women in front talking. I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but I know that at some point I woke up or my mom woke me up while we were making a pitstop. I do remember being very groggy, nauseous, and just wanting to go back to sleep. I think I was vomiting. I could hear the urgency as Mom and the other woman talked; I don’t remember, but I think I just didn’t care enough to strain through the fog to hear what they said. There was activity around finding the nearest hospital – needing it to be Kaiser (our insurance), and orders that I had to stay awake.

The windows were all rolled down, which irritated me, because the wind and noise, but the old crank windows were too hard to roll back up and I was confused enough by the change in plans, maybe I let it go, maybe I never said anything, maybe I tried to close it, maybe I complained and they explained. It’s fuzzy. What I do remember is that there was some level of anxiety from mom about my dad, about the car, about something she hadn’t done or couldn’t do, about money, along with the concern for me. I usually never knew when she was actually afraid or anxious until long – sometimes decades – after something had happened.

We pulled into a parking lot and there was a low single-story building, that they assured me was, in fact, a hospital (there was probably a bigger building behind that I couldn’t see), but it didn’t look like what I was used to thinking of as a hospital. This also confused me. Why were we going into a store? That’s what it looked like to me, with double glass doors and big store-front style windows. After that, I remember things in time-jumps.

Sitting in the emergency room waiting area, lying against my mom, and wanting to go to sleep. Crying.

Being in the little curtained cubby with the doctor, who like all adults asked me stupid questions. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Because I had been lying down I hadn’t benefited from the open windows and had been closer to the gas that had settled near the floor. Deep sleep meant deeper breaths taken, etc.

I tried to negotiate with him about the suppository they had to administer once they explained what that was. I was old enough to take a pill I said. He said no. Him telling me that I’d feel like I needed to pee, but I didn’t really and that I couldn’t go to the bathroom no matter how much I wanted to, for some amount of time that was meaningless to me.

A second attempt at negotiating something else. I felt better. No. Oxygen something or other.

Sitting in the waiting room again and begging – begging – to be allowed to go pee. I’d had a soda with the last meal, hadn’t peed yet, please I really really do have to pee, I promise I won’t poo. (I doubt I said poo, mom always always always called it taking a shit, hated cutesy words for things, even at a young age I tried to navigate the when and what was ok to say as society had one rule and mom another. “goddamnmotherfuckingshit” was her go-to “I forgot something,” “I forgot to pay that bill,” “I dropped that same thing twice now,” “I missed my turn off,” “I messed up my cross-word with the wrong answer,” curse.)

I think I finally convinced a nurse they’d called over to let me pee. And of course, I took a dump. I remember feeling chagrined (not knowing that word yet of course, but that’s what it was) and years later while in the hospital with Valley Fever induced pneumonia thinking back to that moment as I tried to convince my attending that I really had met all the goals he’d given me and they should let me go home. I was just so exhausted from not being allowed to sleep through the whole night; desperate. After he’d let me go home – a day after I stopped vomiting green mold – I’d realized the mistake I’d made and cried because I was too weak to get back upstairs after checking the mail.

Back when I was six in that confusing emergency room, aside from all the adults being frustrated with me, I have no idea what happened after that. Obviously, I survived. I was released, we continued the drive and went home. And even though I know we can’t smell carbon monoxide, that light-headed and queasy feeling comes back to mind whenever I smell gas.

So too, does the feel of that Dodge Dart faux leather seat on my bare legs, and the sound of the road under the wheels and my mom’s voice as she talked with the other woman as we drove that California highway in some distant 1970s summer.

Categories: Personal Essay

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