The Juice Box
I wish I could tell you the story of an alcoholic, abusive father. I’d like to be able to tell you the story of a detached mother unable to emote. I’d liked to tell the story of a child shunned, teased, mocked, and hated by her peers. I wish for anything, even a hint, to explain the damage done.
I met Barbara in kindergarten. I dropped my juice box. I didn’t know what to do, so I watched the juice bleed out on the floor between my feet. A cherub, white cotton dress breaking at the waist, red sash for a belt, color matching the ribbons holding the ponytails at either side of her head, her hair the color of a golden retriever, flowing in gentle curls, her eyes, the color of a noon sky on a cloudless summer day, watched me.
“We can share.” She offered her milk forward.
With crossed eyes, I took the straw in my mouth, sucking in one long draw.
Oh, the damage done.
A single child, rather, my brother didn’t live to be born, I loved Barbara in those early days as much as any girl-child could love another girl-child, existing in our own universe. The coming years would challenge our bond, others penetrating my life, becoming closer, deeper. I’d like to point my finger to a moment or an influence, like the protagonist in the final scene of a who-dun-it and say: “That’s it!”
Little wedges here and there.
Just the lean side of puberty, over Barbara’s, she poured off two ounces from a bottle of bourbon, refilling with water. “This’ll be fun!”
I declined with wide eyes and open mouth. My father’s done few stupid things, all when he’d been drinking.
Barbara laughed, not feigned, dismissing me with a bounce of her hand as if counting stars in the sky.
Puberty came on her like fire across a drought-parched field with a long, slow march into insanity.
She suggested we make out, practice for when we have boyfriends.
Maybe I shouldn’t have lied when her parents came over, asking me about Barbara’s drinking. Barbara told them it was a onetime thing. I was thirteen. I didn’t know any better.
“You really gotta stop.”
Barbara gave me her dismissive smile. “I learned my lesson. I’ll leave their booze alone.”
Night sat quiet, summer’s humid air sticking to the sheets. I didn’t have anything against air-conditioning. I enjoyed experiencing things as presented by nature. My name invaded my sleep, Barbara whispering at the window.
I let Barbara in the front door, thankful my parents slept upstairs. She defied her appearance, manic, trying not to laugh, her eyes crazy like I’ve never seen before. “I need a shower.”
With the backdrop of rushing water, Mom came from the stairs. “Everything OK?”
“Yeah, Barbara got all muddy and wanted to clean up before she went home, so’d her mother not be worried.”
“I’m a mother.”
Barbara, in my robe, sat on my bed, holding my hands. She talked about the coming school year and English class. We’d be reading three books and knowing ahead of time, we read them over the summer. She didn’t like the third book. “Too corny.” She thought Tom was nice and was sorry she didn’t get his phone number before we were let out for the summer.
In the muted light of my Cinderella lamp, I looked past Barbara, staring at her pants and underwear heaped carelessly on the floor, a more thorough darkness painted beyond the shadows as raw swatches of absorbed light. I wanted to ask what happened. I wanted to ask if she were okay. I wanted her to offer her milk forward, that I could drink deeply.
She’d become a stranger. I watched her walk away her hair dancing on her back, wearing my shorts, large on her, my underwear hugging her where no one should have penetrated at her age. I’d take care of her clothes, double bagging, tying tight, hidden, pushed deep into the trash can.
Oh, the damage done.
History is seen in retrospect. That’s why we call it history.
“You should come with me,” Barbara said between classes in the hallway appearing behind me.
“You know, the party.”
“We’ve not talked in weeks, Barb. I have no idea what’s going on in your life anymore.” I didn’t want to, but I rolled my eyes.
“You’re so judgmental anymore.” She waved away her comment. “You’re my best friend, well my only real friend. You’ll like the party. People like us get anything we want for free.”
I cut at her with a sideways glance. “That stuff will ruin your life and kill you.”
“Look at me,” she answered gleefully. “Straight A’s! Kids want to sit at my table! I can run a mile, not break a sweat! If this is a ruined life, I’ll take it.”
I had no argument.
I hadn’t considered drugs could have fueled her over-achievement. After all, a plane, even the moment before it crashes, appears to be flying just fine.
Her parents were concerned with her belligerence. Since she didn’t demonstrate the characteristic signs of a child at risk, they took the sagely advice Barbara was simply acting out, sure to outgrow the phase.
History is hidden, sometimes double bagged. We were told in health class, four million people in the United States used heroin regularly. Barbara giggled. I didn’t know then, history again, Barbara rushed forward on a quest for more. She could have been the poster child for the gateway argument.
Friday night, early in November, soon after I got my driver’s license, I talked Barbara into going out to dinner, just her and me, maybe walk around the mall like we used to before her world went terribly wrong. I let myself in, her parents away for a long weekend in New York. Barbara didn’t answer when I called.
Her bedroom door objected with a ratcheting squeak, opening. She sat on the white wooden chair next to her bed smiling at me, her legs stretched out comfortably. The summer sky, cloudless, watched from her eyes just as animated in death as in life. Her right arm curled as if crippled, her fingers in a claw, a band of rubber still tight around her upper left arm.
I dropped my juice box. I didn’t know what to do so I let the juice bleed out on the floor between my feet.