You don’t know hunger. Not like we did. You don’t know hunger that surpasses pain. When your body is too weak to send distress signals. When your organs have shifted from fight to flight, to surrender. When you don’t even have energy to fuel the aching. I’ve been there.
I’m there once again whenever my mind takes me back more than three decades, to the hardwood floor in the ground-level apartment with the bright red door. It’s a private entrance, no hallways or shared access points stand between it and the world that carries on without us. My baby brother and I watch The Care Bears Movie on a loop. Doing something we’ve always done tricks us into believing everything’s fine.
I lie there, long after the movie fades, watching the insides of my eyelids turn from black to burnt orange as cracks of light push through the opening front door. My eyelids manage to peel halfway back for the briefest of moments. Just long enough to know we’re no longer alone.
Hands hoist and gently stretch my tiny body along what feels like a bed. It starts to roll. Travel across the indoor/outdoor threshold is marked by a cool breeze that whisks over my face. I’d forget all the days prior spent waiting to be found. This day is upon us now though I am unappreciative as the sun sets on my suffering.
I remember what came before, spreading bacon on top of the heating vent to cook. That was after we’d devoured the raw hotdogs and any food that didn’t require preparation. It felt like hours waiting for each piece to warm, slowly curling into a darker shade of pink. Holding back any longer seemed impossible and we stuffed slimy fistfuls into our tiny mouths. When the bacon ran out, our time started to do the same.
I can revisit the dining room table where we sat on the day preceding those that led us here, anticipating what turned out to be the last meal our mother prepared for us in this apartment. It was Quaker Oats. The warm air was spicy and sweet and I knew she’d added cinnamon and raisins, just how I liked it.
My brother and I launched into our usual “time to eat” chair dance—a synchronized sibling routine the two of us developed before opportunities to perform it grew scarce. We stopped mid-bop when our mother emerged, wild-eyed and ashen-faced, from the kitchen holding the pot. She dug a spoon into the oatmeal, fixing her gaze inside the pot as though something there didn’t belong. Her body stilled.
All these years later I can see my eyes lifting to meet my mother’s. My eyes following her back into the kitchen where she scraped all the oatmeal into the trash. Then to her opening our refrigerator and scanning its contents before grabbing an armful. She paced from the refrigerator to the garbage can and back again. Dumping more and more items into the trash as if on autopilot, with the fever of a person carrying out an urgent mission. Back and forth she went, muttering about how “they” poisoned our food.
My lip quivered watching her, spoon still clutched in my fist. My brother and I stared at her, anticipating further instruction. We stared at each other when those instructions never came. We stared at the covered windows, at the slices of California sunshine forcing entry into our asylum.
I remember. I remember tiptoeing past my sleeping mother during the secret survival sessions that followed. Sessions of defiant hotdog eating and bacon warming. Voyages concluded with my brother and I taking turns atop our little bathroom stool, drinking water from the faucet.
Occasionally my mother opened her eyes. “What are you doing?” she’d ask, often in a voice almost too soft to hear. Without ever waiting for an answer, she’d tell us to come back and sit down.
But we soon realized that most of the time, even if she was looking in our direction, my mother didn’t see us. She was watching something beyond the realm of our existence. Only now and then did her awareness snap back toward our presence.
I see the three of us cramped atop couch cushions tossed to the floor because my mother believed spies were peering in from the canyon behind our building. She drew the blinds while instructing us to stay well below the windows that could offer them a line of sight. But then she announced that the floor was contaminated, and we couldn’t touch its surface for even a second or we’d absorb poison. Our living space compressed to the narrow airspace below the window sill and above the cushions buffering us from the hardwood.
When my brother or I needed to use the bathroom, our mother got on all fours and had us mount her back. She carried us, one at a time, to and from the toilet. It was like a pony ride at first. Everything seemed like an adventure as we rode her slight frame around the apartment.
We had to be extra still and quiet when Cee-Cee knocked on the door, though. She was my neighbor and best friend who came by almost daily to see if I could play with her outside. I melted into the cushions, made myself invisible until she gave up hope and left.
Trips to the bathroom became less exciting. My mother moved slower. Her knees squeaked as they dragged across the floor. I could barely stay upright for the rides and mustered only a sluggish sliding dismount from her back to a slumped position on the toilet seat.
She’d lie on the floor, waiting for me to finish so she could haul me back to our cushions. Upon returning, we’d collapse into a heap and rest. It always felt like night.
I’m back at day four without food. Or maybe it was day fourteen—the days bled into each other, the passage of time marked only by altered states. By stages of weakness. Everything looks blurry now. My legs wobbled when I tried to use them. Moving my body felt like a task I was not adequately equipped to perform. So, I ceased trying.
My memories stop and don’t start again until the red front door banged open. Until someone carried me away and I awoke inside of a hospital. Most else escapes me.
I forget that before separated by psychosis, my mother and I loved each other. I forget that she always took care of us until one day she didn’t. That she was still “mommy” escapes me a little more each day.
Until one day, a reminiscent journey takes an unusual turn. I remember that in the depths of her despair—when my mother was convinced our floor was contaminated and untouchable—she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled with us on her back. She touched the poisoned wood, so her children wouldn’t have to.