“But she wanted a kid?”
“I think she just wanted a kid, yeah. I think she was just real lonely. And she wanted a bigger kid, like I was. I could feed myself, take care of myself when she was out, you know?” I’m just going with it now, but it feels right. It does. I think that’s probably the way it was with Ellen.
“She left you alone a lot?”
“No. Well, I mean, in the evenings and during the night when I was just sleeping anyway. She was working.”
“Did Eleanor ever abandon you before Nebraska?”
I don’t like this question. I chuckle softly for a minute, and then it gets louder, and I feel the hysterics coming up my chest, my throat. I hold them down. “Like, not forever. Ha-ha-ha. Of course not.” I laugh again, thinking how absurd it is. How ridiculous. And this time, the laughter is caught there, not stopping, not softening. I bend forward and move around, trying to interrupt whatever the fuck it is that keeps it going.
Mama looks concerned. I wave her off.
“For a short time? Did she ever leave you for a few days? A week?” Dr. Frost asks.
I shrug in answer to her question and raise a hand to let her know I can’t speak, not right now. The laughter comes in a rough pattern, and I try to think of a song that would go to the beat of it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, anyway. I just want to go home, go down to my basement, and finish my bedroom. Stay in there.
Mama stands up and comes over, holds my shoulders. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
It’s much worse than the time after the TV interview. I shake my head and the hysterical laughter won’t stop. It grows. I stand up and see Mama’s frightened look. She’s obviously not sure what to think.
I’m fine! I want to tell her. I’m fine! I hold my forefinger up to Dr. Frost, who doesn’t seem alarmed at all.
“Try some deep breaths if you can,” Dr. Frost says.
I try. But it’s like laughter asthma. Once you start going, it’s hard to bring it back down. Tears are running down my face now, and Mama’s hovering, and finally she just hugs me so tight and rubs my back, shaking right along with me, and whispers to me, over and over again.
“It’s okay, sweetie. It’s okay.”
What it is, is fucking embarrassing.
We drive home in the early snowy darkness, Mama leaning over the steering wheel, concentrating on not crashing. “We’re going back for family counseling on Thursday. All of us. Okay?”
I shrug. I have no control anyway; why bother fighting it?
“Do you know how to drive?” she asks suddenly. “Did you ever learn?”
“Do you want to? It would be so convenient to have another driver in the house. If you’re interested, that is.”
My eyes widen. “Yeah,” I say. “I think that would be awesome.”
“Winter’s the best time to learn,” she says. “If you can drive in messes like this, you can drive in anything. I’ll sign you up for a class tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay.” I like that. And that reminds me. “What about school? You saw me in there,” I say. I start blushing. It’s so fucking embarrassing. “That’s what’ll happen at school when they start making fun of me. And once that happens, I’ll be branded a freak for life. Seriously, Mama. I’ll never hear the end of it. That’s why I can’t go. Plus,” I add, “I know I’m going to get stuck in a bunch of freshman classes because I missed so much school, and all my friends are juniors. It sucks.”
Mama’s quiet. We inch along the road. And she says quietly, almost to herself, “I don’t know, Eth.”
When we finally get home, Mama stops me on the step as we go inside, and puts her hand on my coat sleeve. “Don’t say anything. Let me handle this one,” she says. And then she smiles and goes in.
I feel a surge of warmth toward her and, at the same time, new energy in my weary body. After having to fight every battle for myself for so everlastingly long, it’s such a relief to have her. I finally have an ally.
“Thanks, Mama,” I whisper, but she’s already humming in the kitchen, getting ready for whatever’s next.
Dinner is more awkward than ever.
“We’re all going to family counseling on Thursday,” Mama announces, and that sets the pace for the rest of the evening.
“What?” Blake says. His eyes are blazing.
“You said we never go anywhere as a family,” Dad says. “Well, here’s our chance.”
“No way. I’m not going.” Blake throws his fork at his plate. It sticks in his mashed potatoes with barely a sound.
I think he sees me smirk. I can’t help it. He’s so amusing, getting upset about such little things.
“Shut up, Ethan.”
“Hey, I said nothing,” I say. “Touchy.”
I tsk. “Sounds like you could use a little counseling session all to yourself.”
“Boys,” Dad says, pushing his chair back to let us know he means it. I think he might be a little nervous about having to break us up if we start fighting.
I look at Gracie and she’s eating happily. She sees me looking at her and she squinches her eyes shut in a long blink. She’s still working on the wink thing. She thinks she’s doing it, though, which is enough to crack me up just a little again.