The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday. 

Rule of Threes

Another one of the superstitions that floats around my family to this day is the saying, “Everything happens in threes.” Death, engagements, babies, luck of the good or bad kind, doesn’t matter. I’ve had times of my life where I was set to go on vacation, won a vacation, and took a side vacation within a vacation. Conversely, I’ve had rules of three that make me want to die and forget the number ever existed.

The significance of threes comes from the Creator, Redeemer, and the Sustainer. It’s supposed to represent some sort of omniscience, some kind of karmic circle where a situation will come around to provide a lesson that wasn’t learned with the first action. Mix the rule of threes with Murphy’s Law – what can go bad, will – and you have a spicy concoction of misery.

After convincing my parents that I was, in fact, straight, I began to reflect on my track record of zero boyfriends, zero romantic encounters, infinite times of unrequited love. Sure, I liked plenty of guys in school, but they never liked me. When I was in ROTC, I asked a boy to the military ball and when he told me he wasn’t going, I thought nothing of it. He later said hello to me at the military ball with his date. And that’s pretty much how my entire high school career went, pining for boys who never wanted me, but still trying. I received my first kiss at 17 on a beach at a pre-college part with kids from my graduating class. Then, two weeks into my freshman year of college I got drunk at a dorm party and made out with an Irish exchange student who – at the time – I thought was very cute. When I was sober that following afternoon I discovered I was wrong, and that he was nine years older than me.

Aside from the boy I loved for ten years who later came out as gay, I had an unrelenting crush on my brother’s best friend. A typical teenage movie scenario, he spent an awful lot of time at our childhood home, and I grew more and more fond of him as the years went on. I knew I could never – would never – have him, though. He was tall, athletic, very handsome, uproariously funny, and I was frumpy, fat, and his best friend’s sister.

He went on to join the military and I forgot about him until the December of my freshman year of college when my brother’s girlfriend threw a welcome home party for him. He had just finished a tour and was visiting for two weeks before getting deployed again. As a group, my brother’s friends and I were bad news. We smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of liquor, and did a lot of dumb things. This night in particular I was drunker than usual, and high, mostly because I was nervous of seeing my brother’s friend. I eventually became too bored and drunk to stand around and found solace in a bed in my brother’s girlfriend’s house. I crawled under the covers and prepared to fall into a rum-induced sleep.

My brother’s friend seemed to have the same idea and came into the bedroom shortly after me, first not noticing my presence and then acknowledging me and getting in bed but on top of the covers. We sat there laughing at the fact that we both had the same idea of finding a bed. Suddenly, the lights turned on and it was another friend, who exclaimed in shock that we were both in a room, alone together and he heckled us until leaving and shutting the lights off again.

Years of bottling my feelings were loosened by alcohol and I rolled over to face my brother’s friend and tell him that I had a crush on him for years. He said, “Really?” and laughed. I was embarrassed. He was laughing at me.

Then he kissed me.

We were both drunk and kissed horribly and touched awkwardly and eventually sexed haphazardly; sometime in the middle of the night, I drunkenly lost my virginity to my brother’s best friend in my brother’s girlfriend’s parents’ bed, only to find out he too was a virgin who had never been kissed. I was shocked by that.

Was this supposed to be love? We had a not special, special moment together in a forbidden situation that could have been improved from literally every angle, figuratively and literally speaking. We didn’t use protection, so I had to buy Plan B the next morning which he reimbursed, and suddenly I felt like a sex worker. This wasn’t how I wanted to have my first sexual experience with someone I knew for almost half my life. After he paid me for the Plan B, we never spoke about that night again. It wasn’t until 2014 that he reached out and apologized for how it all went down, but at that point, what was the point?

I went back to school and sunk into a deep depression. I didn’t feel fulfilled in the slightest in regards to how I thought sex was supposed to feel. I was mad at him for being able to forget me as easily as he did – but it was easier for him anyway, considering he left for Bahrain shortly after I returned to Massachusetts. Even though the Plan B worked, some deranged paranoia within me was convinced I was pregnant, because I had this looming sense of dread that – of course – something else bad was bound to happen. Murphy’s Law, I thought.

A girl from my English 102 class invited me to a party at her house in the middle of February, and I decided to go because a couple of my rugby teammates would be there and I figured it would be healthy to socialize. She said it was a pajama theme, and my naive self assumed actual pajamas. I showed up to her house in flannel pants, a tank top, sweatshirt, and slippers only to be greeted by girls in brightly colored, sexy negligees and onesies and matching top and bottom sets. I immediately went to the fridge for a beer and realized, once again, I was out of my element.

The night grew more awkward for me when I reached for my second beer and was questioned for taking them.

“Caity told me I could help myself to the Natty in the fridge, because I don’t have a connect.” They shot that down quickly and I was resolved to stay sober for the night. Within an hour or so of being there, though, I felt incredibly light-headed and weird and decided to not finish my second beer. Instead, I went out back where the smokers were and lit up a black and mild that I had in my pocket; I was in my experimental phase with inhalants, and liked black and milds because they tasted like vanilla.

The group smoking cigarettes left, leaving me with an unassuming guy. He asked me for a light and I just gave him my black and mild, re-lit it for him, and as I put the lighter back in my pocket he stopped me and asked my name.

“Kaitlin.”

“I’m Jake,” he exhaled up and away from me and leaned in to kiss me.

I was surprised at first, but willing. This was my first real house party and a guy was kissing me even though I was dressed like a sack of potatoes – maybe he was repaying me for giving him my black and mild? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I pulled back from kissing him to get a good look at his face and, while still a little woozy, I could tell he was attractive. Without saying a word, he pulled me back in – hard – and began to aggressively grope me. I pushed away and told him to slow down, to take it easy – but I was so inexperienced with sexual encounters that I didn’t really know what was supposed to feel right and what wasn’t – and I was still a little woozy.

Instead of slowing down, he pushed me up against a green, metal dumpster which in February felt twice as hard and twice as cold. He forced his hands down my pants and with equal force of the dumpster push, fingered me.

Instantly I felt danger, but I didn’t know how to approach it. I didn’t know what he was capable of, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the dark with him.

I pulled his hand away from me and he resisted me doing so, and I told him I didn’t want to do whatever he was trying to do. He apologized, at first, and as I made my way towards the driveway, towards the flood light, he followed me and shoved his tongue down my throat again, this time up against the house.

“Let’s go in that car,” he had a hand on my arm and was pulling it towards the end of the driveway. I resisted, “No that isn’t a good idea.” I pulled back up towards the light and hoped someone would come outside; to this day I don’t know why I didn’t yell.

He grabbed me hard again and I felt immobilized and utterly powerless. Everything was going hazy and I had tunnel vision and I could feel my heart racing but it was so cold outside I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Again, he grabbed me, but this time it was the back of my head and at some point in these moments he pulled his dick out of his pants and forced my mouth onto it. I choked and pushed myself off him and tried to go towards the front of the house. At that moment, someone walked up the driveway to which he pulled me into him to conceal himself and said, “What’s up man?” The guy nodded and looked me in the eyes and I was so upset that he couldn’t see me screaming inside my head. Once the guy went into the house, I turned to follow towards him and was again pulled back, “Let me fuck you in this car.”

“No,” I felt the adrenaline rushing to my head. I had tunnel vision even worse.
“Well let me fuck you on top of it then.” He shoved me backwards onto the hood of the car under the floodlight, the back of my head touching the cold metal. I thought to the people inside laughing and drinking, and why I could barely function off two beers, and who was this guy? Suddenly he ripped my shirt and sweatshirt up at once to try and put it over my head. For some reason – the cold on my stomach, adrenaline, repressed rage, I wasn’t sure – I snapped. Whatever made me feel woozy wasn’t enough anymore, and I absolutely snapped.

I screamed, “No!” and threw my arms forward, catching him in both his shoulders. Backwards, backwards, I kept pushing – open hand, fists, just back until he fell into a bush. I saw him, then, for who he was. I saw a weak, scared boy. He put both of his hands up as if I was holding a gun to his chest.

“Woah! Woah! Woah! Okay, sorry, sorry.” He kept walking backwards, the bush now the only thing separating whatever was coming out of me from ripping him apart. I fixed my sweatshirt, eyes fixed on him, and ran into the house. When I found my friend, I asked her to drive me home. She asked me what happened as soon as she saw my face and I burst out sobbing. I told her everything and she rubbed my back while I sat with my head between my knees, wondering what the fuck just happened.

She took me to my friends. I went into the bathroom and noticed I was bleeding from how hard he fingered me; I still felt him in the back of my throat. Nothing came of it – when confronted, his friends defended him. He belonged to a fraternity, and apparently I was dressed like a whore.

I felt absolutely wretched. My GPA was at the point of just above academic probation. I could barely eat, I slept all day, and I hated myself. When I looked in my mirror I was completely disgusted with what I saw. I told my roommate what happened; I wouldn’t dare tell my parents. They already wanted me to go to Stony Brook and if I brought up being sexually assaulted there was no doubt in my mind they’d pull me from the roster. I didn’t believe what happened actually happened after a week, either. With no one who was at the party believing me, I felt once again like I was just providing some service. A man used me and got away with it, so what did I matter?

My roommate tried so hard to lift my spirits for a few days. She and I were very opposite in terms of lifestyle – me, a rugby player and she, a natural party girl. Eventually in the end of February, she convinced me to go out with her and a couple of her girlfriends.

“Come on, it’ll just be the girls. No boys, and we’ll all be together. It’ll be fun, please?” I said yes, let them make me over, and followed them to a party in one of the varsity sports houses directly off campus.

Immediately I was put off. The living room was packed out with undergrad girls grinding on each other for a camera. I found the bar and we stashed our drinks, but I held onto my lemonade and vodka to avoid what happened two weeks prior. The point guard for the basketball team offered me a hit of his weed and I accepted it, because he smoked it first and he had a reputation to uphold on campus. I let myself sink into drunkenness and wandered the house, looking for faces I might have recognized. I found one of my teammates who wasn’t at the party earlier that month and when she asked me to walk back to our dorm together, I jumped on the opportunity. I wasn’t having fun and I was with a friend.

We were both drunkenly stumbling back to campus, only stopping once to pee behind trees next to the science building. The thin, cold, Massachusetts air made me feel worse off than I was, and I wandered into the freshman dorm carrying my lemonade and vodka, obviously diluted and donning a black Kahlua cap. The security officer stopped us and asked me what was in the bottle. I told her the truth, because I knew if I lied she’d make me open the bottle anyway and I was clearly drunk as it was.

“You girls bringing alcohol into these dorms?”

“No, all me. Not her.”

She let my friend go back up to her room and I asked her to meet me at the police station, because I was about to get arrested.

I was read my rights, cuffed, taken out back and placed in a cruiser. The seats were hard plastic and incredibly uncomfortable, as if I deserved some sort of treatment for being a fucking idiot. We came to the station at the edge of campus, and I was put into holding, handcuffed to a bench, all my personal belongings taken from me.

That was when it sunk in.

I started to cry. “I’m an English major – I never even went to the principal’s office in high school. What the fuck is happening to my life?” My proclamations were to no one in particular, but my arresting officer looked over at me with sympathy. “Do you want to call your parents?” My eyes lowered, “You haven’t met my dad.” She cocked her head, “Hey, aren’t you on the rugby team? I love you girls, always helping with the rape defense classes.”