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You Will Do This

She will look tired. He will look bored. They will sit on the edge of their bed, close enough to indicate they are still married, far enough apart to indicate how it is going. They will have called you to their bedroom, which will be immediately weird. Your parents never do that, and you will assume you are fucked – in the kind of trouble you will not be able to talk your way out of, or tantrum your way through. Walking down the hallway, you’ll try to remember where you hid your Juul, wondering if they found the tiny vibrator Linea stole from her total bitch stepmom and gave to you — the one you’ve been too freaked out by to try, and put in your panty drawer, which is both stupid and obvious. You will be convinced they have found it, and that when you walk in, they will present it to you like a dirty, slutty, buzzing Christmas gift.

As you walk into their bedroom, you decide you will not speak first. You will have learned this from previous family meetings that started with you speaking and ended with you picking at dead skin on your thumb while they spoke.  

“Reggie hit a nurse today,” your mom will say.

This will be a relief. No vaping, no vibrators, no you. This will also not be a surprise. Reggie spent thirty years at the Rough Steel Assembly plant working with guys who just got out of the military or jail. She swears more than other grandmas do, and smokes more than other grandmas do, and is more than capable of hitting someone, including your mom when she was your age.

But Reggie is also fun to watch Wheel of Fortune with. She’s raw-funny, brutally honest, and doesn’t get into your shit. And up until she went into the hospital, she was around, and oddly, became your best friend since you ate a bottle of Doxepin last Fall and people stopped sitting with you at lunch, because nobody likes a clinically depressed black girl.

“She’s hitting the nurses now… so…” Your mom will shake her head and wave her hand as she fills the silence with nervous energy. “A prognosis of terminal blah, that won’t get better even if the new drug blahs… Reggie wants to come home, but there’s no way she can blah for herself, and she can’t come here, because we can’t take care of someone who blahs in her own blah…” And then, finally, “Maggie, she needs to be in a home. She’ll listen to you.”

And in this moment, you will know.

You will know that Reggie is dying, and that your parents have already decided where she will die. You will know that there’s nothing you can do about it, just like last Fall, when they put you in a home, and there was nothing you could do about it. And you will know that even though you are being used; for one small moment, their fear makes you powerful. You will be fifteen years-old, overweight from antidepressants, slightly high in your parent’s bedroom – and for once — you will be in control. Not of the outcome, but of the process, and after the fourteen months of state-appointed therapy, you will understand that process matters. So you decide you will do this.

The hospital will smell like rubbing alcohol and gravy. You will stop at the lobby gift shop to buy one of the impossibly chipper mylar balloons that say things like You Did It! and Oh Yeah! When you get to the room, you’ll hear the sound of someone buying a vowel on the TV above Reggie’s bed. She will look small. Generic. No lipstick. Rare. Hair undone. Never. You walk to the side of the bed and tie the balloon to her wrist, the same way she used to do for you when you went to the zoo.

“You did it,” you will say, reading the balloon.

“What’d I do?”

“You hit a nurse.”

Not quite a laugh. But a smile. A tired little curl on the side of her mouth. The wheel spins. People cheer.

“How’s Linea’s –

“Haven’t tried it yet.”

 She nods.

Her stomach is rock hard, distended from liver failure. She lays with her arms across her abdomen like a child with a tummy ache. She motions for you to come closer with a hand that is bloodied and bruised from weeks of IV’s. You lay alongside her on the hospital bed, your head nestled into her shoulder, the same way she laid with you when she called 911 and waited for the EMT’s to arrive. The wheel spins. People cheer.

“Reggie – I think, maybe –”

You feel her fragile arm squeeze against your body, and you stop. The things you had prepared to say, will go unsaid. You will not tell her it will be okay. And you will not tell her that she might even like it in the home. Because it probably won’t, and she probably won’t, and you respect her too much to pretend otherwise.

“I know why you’re here, Maggie,” she says in a low gravel. “And I’m still glad you came.” This time her eyes smile. She dozes off for a minute, and then, “I’ll go. Just don’t tell your parents I was so nice about it.” One last squeeze, and then she relaxes. You will feel the tension she has kept in her body for seventy-six years recede into resignation, if not peace. Your state-appointed therapist would say she has reached acceptance of her outcome.

Neither of you will move as the lunch tray is delivered. Laying together. In silence. Side by side.

Above her bed, the puzzle is solved. People cheer. The contestant hugs his ecstatic wife and perfect children. Behind them, in big block letters, on cubes of bright white light, are the words Here We Are.

“I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself, Maggie,” she whispers.

“Me too Reggie.”

Steven is a former resident artist at The Purple Rose Theatre, an alumni resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theatre and Writer in Residence at Pegasus Theatre Chicago, and 16th Street Theatre. His plays and fiction have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Hippocampus Magazine, Conclave, New Millennium Writings, Spork Magazine, Ampersand and Drift Magazine. Steven’s work of creative non-fiction, “I Like You” was selected as one of the notable American Essays of 2015 by Robert Atwan in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology.

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