Make no mistake about Bethelda, though she’s five years old. If anyone dares to misjudge or overlook creatures like her, God help them then.
Go ahead. Look at her. The curling brown hair, the scrutinizing eyes. The make-believe ballet executed with authority. The rumba, punctuated here and there by her fierce roar. That night at dinner you could see her stiff lips when they told her to shut up. “I could kill,” she muttered under her five-year-old’s breath.
She wanted to discuss the artfully seasoned string beans. It wasn’t case law, but Bethelda was wise enough to love her moments with string beans. If our dinner companions had let her speak, they would have heard Bethelda’s operetta, a passionate and powerful string bean description including the mystery of how string beans become flesh.
"What are you talking about?” they said. “What is she trying to say?"
Bethelda couldn't catch her breath to explain. I knew if they just listened, they’d be charmed this time. But she began to stutter under the mean air, and they mimicked her.
You could see it as clear as the fine crystal. You could taste it along with the tapenade. It was Bethelda getting through dinner. You could see her trying to work out the humiliation in her child’s mind. Her eyebrows narrowed together into one knotted focus, like arms trying hard to hang on to a lost declaration of love. You could see how the shock drugged her and how her eyes got slow.
It occurred to me she might never return. I tried to get her attention to flash her the biggest grin I could, but her eyes were as far away as fish at the market that have been dead for hours. I may have been a little scared.
About this time at these family reunion dinners my habit has been to devise the world’s greatest swashbuckled kidnapping. We would steal foreign identities, live in Paris, create a secret code, wear black eye patches and rescue all the rebels who wander this world damned. I needed to believe the plan that night.
I struggled to remember where I put the 800 number for United Airlines. Ha! As if an earlier flight out could have saved either one of us. As if by some miracle they’d leave us alone. I wondered how I could crawl under the table unnoticed and stay there so I could avoid making chit chat over the slumped figure of a dead child. My foot explored, measuring the space under the table. I was about to drop my napkin and claim to search for it when the hostess, my sister-in-law, announced we should all move to the family room for after-dinner drinks.
Bethelda took a deep breath, walked herself to the upstairs bathroom, and bathed large tears in warm basin water. She did this alone, she’d tell me later, all by herself like a big girl. She braced her small head in front of the mirror and watched the tears in her eyes.
The best photograph of Ralph, my handsome, irreverent, deceased husband, lives in their family room. It says, “Hey there, kiddo!” whenever I've passed it once a year for ten years now. About this time at these family reunion dinners, I cry. This evening is no exception, and Ralph’s ghost photo intructs me to rally. “Baby, I’m here,” it says. “Don’t let reality fool you.” He’s laughing in the frame. He’d know how to rescue Bethelda. He’d love the wound out of her and make her giggle. He had a knack for that.
“I think it wouldn’t be worthy of Bethelda to let her crumble under pressure or teach her how to fit in.” I blurted that sentiment to the hostess, my sister-in-law, as she measured shots into glasses.
“I said, I wonder if Bethelda is okay.”
“She can take care of herself. You know she gets too excited.”
“Kids need to get excited. Bethelda does anyway.”
“From the woman who never had kids! How would you know what Bethelda needs? She needs to control herself, that’s what she needs.”
While cocktails were handed out I imagined a neatly placed bomb in the family room’s armoire and found my digestion improved. Kidnappings and bombs. What a unique would-be mom.
“I’d like to take that trip with her,” I said, rallying per Ralph with extra confidence, nonchalantly leaning on the armoire right about where I’d put the plastic detonator. “She wanted to go to Hollywood, remember? You and Carl could spend some time alone.” They couldn’t be right. What tiny kid should learn to control herself? Hollywood was the place for us. Not a full blown crime, just a week’s worth of kid stealing.
Often when I acted like I didn’t care, I’d get my way with Sis Karen, the hostess, and her husband Carl, the host. Also, if I came on like a confident commercial or channeled a narcissistic corporate tycoon they’d trust me.
Sis Karen, the hostess, picked up a ritz cracker crowned with trout paste and shook it at me. “She’s always talking about going away with you, but she has to learn she can’t get everything she wants.”
“Could I stay a couple extra days? You’ve got so much room. I won’t bother a soul. It'd be fun! ” I was wrong to say it so soon. Maybe I was a little desperate. My sister-in-law sensed I was planning a Mission Rescue Bethelda.
“Don’t be weird. Leave it alone.”
I hate tragedies. I get very angry when I smell them. So I’ll ask you not to believe in them, please. And, please, make no mistake about this.
Meanwhile, the imaginary bomb helped me feign interest in the family’s heartless after-dinner debate. It’s explosion ripped them all apart the way they ripped each other apart. It liberated the oppressed. All would be right with the world.
If they knew they’d be annoyed, but the truth is something graced Bethelda that night. She told me all about it once we found a far away room to play in. (I made a search in that huge house for love one day and came up dry. Luckily, in lieu of love there were many far away rooms where you could conjure up happiness under the family radar.) In the distance, Bethelda had heard a bird outside the bathroom window. She thought it was probably a miracle “because birds don’t sing at night after dinner.” Indeed, the song made her look into the eyes in the bathroom mirror and love what was there.
Let’s not underestimate that split second though it may get continually lost and regained over the long and agonizing years of a lifetime. Bethelda owns the deep brown of a sprite eye. A potent color. Make no mistake.
Bethelda promised never to think badly of herself again. It’s really something a Parisian woman in her mid-30s might do, nevertheless, she reasoned, why shouldn’t a five year old have such grace as well. Why not try on the Parisienne’s clothes, lipstick and the Parisienne’s attitude to boot. Bethelda liked “to actress.”
That’s Bethelda, bouncing down the stairs from the bathroom, tying the ribbon of a story around her fingers, weaving a story of magic and abandonment around the room. The puffs of air that are her whispers! Puffing out her Milk Dud breath through caramel lips. Puffing out her story while sitting on my lap. In our far away room she could be as loud as she wanted. Far enough away even for us to sing imaginary opera or pretend our baseball game.
She told me about a trip a person can make to the stars. “Any time they want!” She talked about that night bird outside the bathroom window. “I tell ya,” she said to me, “I couldn’t get much lower than I was.” But the bird wouldn’t buy it. The bird wrapped its beak around a strand of her hair and lifted her to heaven. “We landed on another planet!” Her shout resounded tough and clear. I wondered how she could seem so happy after the torment at the dinner table, but she came through, the self-preserving kid.
“They made me eight inches tall. They asked me to cook my most delectable pie. That would be my sweet potato pie that has the secret ingredients. Cardamom and lemon peel. It’s ‘exquisite.’ Do you know that word?” The cardamom lemon peel delighted her heartily, and she sighed while she searched for her place in the story. “In return for my cooking they allowed me to sit in the throne of a real honest-to-god mystery.” Bethelda’s favorite word, uniquely formed as she pulled a string of chewed Milk Dud from her mouth.
There were friends on Vextar, friends who were only inches high. And though they couldn’t wrap their arms around her, they soothed her with kind words and loved to rumba too. They shrunk her to their size, sat her down in a tiny space age wisdom chair, and she felt like her old self again. “You have to be as tiny as they are to understand them. Otherwise communication is extremely compromised.” She took a serious pause to read my face for scientific comprehension.
There was a beacon on the tiny neato space age wisdom chair that glowed apple green light throughout the galaxy. It was a healing throne. “An honest-to-god, god damn mystery I swear to GOD!” It blasted wild music, “like surfing music", and the light moved too fast to even see. Swirling coils in the chair made deep vibrating tones and her body started shaking and there is a wonderful strength that comes from all the fun the chair is having. There is a wonderful strength, she told me, and it is this: The chair gives you the strength to be hopeful. The Vextarians knew! They knew exactly what she needed!
Allow me to get carried away, without scrutiny, without judgment. We're all just fighting to find some way to live anyway, right?
Bethelda acted out the Vextarian national anthem. She fashioned her microphone from the air as she’d often do when portraying punk legends. She ran in circles while her feet, confused by deep hip gyrations, grabbed the floor whenever they could. She shouted “hope” several times, dropped to her knees, then posed for perfect final seconds. She jumped into my lap, made like a buddha, and fell asleep in minutes.
So I carried her upstairs and placed her in her bed. She’s made herself a stage up there and a chemistry set and a very large red book on which are scrawled the words “Notes About My Life.” As I thanked the fates for Bethelda's imagination and reached to turn out her little lamp, my hand caught on a small object.
It fell on the soft shag rug by her bed. I couldn't make it out at first, but as it came into focus I stopped breathing. My eyes didn't want to see it. Her bedroom shadows overtook it, but I knew what it was. The tiny hope chair. The honest-to-god mystery. I felt sick and reached for her wastebasket.
I mumbled something about getting my shit together.
Of course, we of the sane and secure know there is no such place as Vextar. There are no kind people to soothe us in just the right way. Vextar is a lie we tell ourselves to stop from dying right here on the spot. If you're small enough and alone enough, you teach yourself how to make a little chair.
Everthing suddenly smelled as rotten as month-old flowers.
Bethelda's room got close to me, snuggled up to me. My needy happy drunk, it breathed all over me. And while the shadows got longer and more intimate in there, I remembered Ralph telling me he was afraid of suffocation. I remembered the sound of his breathing as his lungs filled up with water in the hospital. The dark in Bethelda's room could have picked up one of her stuffed frilly pillows and finished me off real quick and clean. My old cold sweaty hands started shaking. I stopped trying to pick the honest-to-god-mystery up from the floor. Every time I tried a wave of nausea started. Just leave it alone, I said to myself. The blood will rush to my head if I reach for it, and I’d be gone. What good would this passed-out faux mom be to Bethelda then?
But I’ll be gone anyway, I thought. It’ll be weeks before I can come back. Damage weeks. Weeks alone in her imaginary world. There is no outside help.
I reminded myself that I was an adult. I reminded myself I had a plane ticket. You’re a grown-up, I thought. You can get away. Bethelda the tantalizer. Bethelda the nuisance. Bethelda herself could be some child I invented, clawing me up with her “hope chair.” Her stupid uppity brilliance. They'd never let me have her, but she'd land on her feet. She's self-taught. Then I caught a glimpse of her small sleeping lips, her eyelashes, and the skin on her face glowed in the moonlight. Lucky brilliant sleeping girl, glowing without lifting a finger. Bethelda will never die. She's much luckier than I will ever be. I hated her.
Yes, the smell of tragedy had entered her little girl room. It laughed. It asked me why I chose to ignore fundamental facts. I always have ignored them, but it asked me in a way that made me feel doomed. I lifted my head from the floor and managed to lean over her Disney quilts. Bethelda’s stuffed animals watched me from the corner of her bed. The fact they weren’t real made me tear up, and I hated myself for not being smart and careful and numb. Strange, I thought, how my desire to live or die depended on proving the existence of life on other planets.
I went over the facts: I wasn't nearly what I should have been. Not enough of anything to be able to save anyone from anything, just a heap of crumpled feeling without legs or speech or courage. Logically speaking, it was time to get up off the god damn floor, walk to the door and shut it behind me. How had I let this happen? It was time to stop being an idiot. It was time to be productive on this earthly plain.
In a shaft of moonbeam which lighted my shaking hands, I started the resolve. I didn't have to slam the door, I could sneak out quietly. I didn't have to make a big production, I would simply never contact my sister-in-law, the hostess, ever again. I would never return a phone call, never write. I would make excuses, become busy with many passionate pursuits and simply, graciously, never have enough time to visit. The resolve quieted me, and I felt a calm numbness novocain over the panic in my chest. I was finally able to breath, dry my face on my sleeve, lift myself up. I walked to the door and grabbed its cold brass knob, like all its impressive coldness would save me.
But I was mistaken.
Big deal fates wouldn't allow me luxury. The Vextarians had their wacky hold over my universe. I threw up. I had no rights to Bethelda, but I couldn’t leave. I gripped my hands together to stop shaking and knelt before the exit door, trapped in between worlds. I would have gnawed my leg off, but I was weak and sick. Losing one more thing made me want to die, and this mistake's heart pounded loud. This mistake stopped breathing.
Not breathing is one way to escape any trap, though it doesn't pan out the way you'd expect. It can fool you, finality can clear things up, then living takes over. Death's the healer, Ralph used to say that. Strange that a child could mean so much. It was just ridicule at the dinner table. No one really died. Strange that she would keep on going, and I would too. Maybe I was just a type. A type that took things too much to heart. The sound of her tears. The feel of her tiny fingers in my pockets, searching for magic dust pellets. The exuberant dance that seemed like overkill, that no one else understood, but that I was crazy about. The foolishness, the over-excited breathy pontifications about life and love that frustrated others to distraction, but that I loved. I couldn't leave her. I thought better and watched Bethelda.
I thought better and saw Bethelda had never stirred. Those fates had presented her a lonely prize at dinner, put her creative engine in overdrive. Her coping response had exhausted her. I thought better as I cleaned my mess and made everything fresh and good for her. I thought better and watched her.
I carefully watched the sweetness in her lonely face which washed away all creeps by sleeping soundly with a smile even. It took some little while, and then I thought something even better out loud in a whisper. I had to say it out loud because I wanted to make it stick: "It’s a better miracle that my Bethelda could make herself a world and a chair and some hope." My plane was going to leave too soon for me to say goodbye or brush her morning hair or give her something more, I don’t know what. I said it again, small and quiet so that all the small and quiet Vextarians could hear it.
After all, I knew Bethelda wasn’t really alone. If no one else loved Bethelda, I knew I did. I’d love Bethelda all my life.