Other than the cot, the mattress, the covers, and my body, there were no unattached objects in the jail cell. I remember that the smallness of the space wasn’t so bad. Even 30 years later, though, I haven’t forgotten the blankness that both drained and filled that room. The space seemed almost two-dimensional, but, unlike a paper cut-out or a line drawing, the emptiness felt heavy, as if it could squash me.
I can recall wanting to close my eyes to block out my view of what was missing, but I also wanted to make sure that I stayed awake. Even though I was exhausted and thoroughly defeated, I also knew that my father would be arriving soon to take me back, and I didn’t want to waste any of the time alone that I had left.
At some point I realized that, although the police were detaining me in this cell, they were not arresting me. No one had taken my picture or fingerprints. I had no idea if my mother could or would press charges against me, but at least in that moment it appeared that she wasn’t going to try to punish me before I returned home.
What would she say this time? The previous winter at the hospital, she had been so angry. Raging, red-faced, monster angry. After I hadn’t succeeded in permanently escaping, after I had vomited up all the pills, I had ended up at the hospital where my mother had gone to medical school—the one where she had done her residency in child psychiatry, and the same one where she sometimes still practiced as a physician. No one had seemed worried that I would die, and yet they had insisted on taking me to the hospital. Not to the closest one, though. Instead, they had brought me to Johns Hopkins, where my mother could not remain anonymous.
And so, she had stormed into the hospital room and had shouted: “How could you do this to me!?” Not, “I am so happy you’re still here.” Not, “I love you and would miss you if you were gone.” Not, “I’m here for you and I want to help you.” My mother didn’t really know how to be that way with me.
I did occasionally ask my mother why she seemed particularly aggressive and cold toward me. Sometimes, she would explain her behavior by pointing out that my “father always said ‘I love you,’ and he was lying.” Honestly, I never understood why her relationship with my father affected her relationship with me. Maybe she just wanted to remind me how my father had betrayed her. Perhaps she needed me to understand the intensity of her pain and her limitations as a result. My father had cheated on her, or so it seemed. He had sworn that his affair with the nanny hadn’t begun until after the separation, but that made no sense, given how quickly the two of them had moved in together.
Still, I preferred my mother’s bit about my father’s empty displays of affection to the other way she often tried to explain her anger toward me. She would declare that I was “the lightning rod in the family,” and she seemed to want me to wear that title like a badge of courage. She was wrong about lightning rods, though. They attract electrical currents, but they do not absorb the strikes. Instead, they function as a pathway to the ground and are only one component in a whole system of protection. I felt more like a saturated paper towel dissolving in the pouring rain.