I’m shipping something overseas and today’s the postmark deadline. We also need tennis balls and a green t-shirt for a school play, so I take my youngest three boys and head to the post office at the mall instead of the one downtown. When we arrive, the line is out the door and I consider turning around, but it’s already late afternoon and I don’t have time to go anywhere else.
My ten-year-old holds our place while I grab an envelope, address it, and fill out the customs form. Then I relieve my son of his post and he joins his younger brothers playing Bang! which is like laser tag, only without lasers. Or a purpose-designed venue. Or the birthday party atmosphere.
I call my children’s names, gently at first, then sternly. The shift in tone means nothing to my kids—it’s for the benefit of other patrons. Actually, it’s for my benefit. I don’t want to be seen as “that mother” who doesn’t discipline her children.
Miraculously, the game stops. I wonder if all the talks my husband and I have been having with our boys are finally sinking in, but no. They’ve just found a shelf full of candy.
“Can we have this?”
“Can we have some of these?”
I gauge the distance to the counter. Still a good twenty paces. But there are four new customers behind me.
That’s when I feel the first twinge. It’s like being on the upper floor of a house and sensing the air change after someone opens a window downstairs. My eyes skitter to the HVAC vents: clean.
Still, my body picks up a frequency.
“Boys!” I snap.
The ceiling tiles look new, which is not to say they haven’t recently been replaced.
I think of leaky pipes and holey roofs plagued by rain. Cardboard boxes sitting in puddles, mail sacks slung through drizzle. Damp warehouses, stuffed with paper, moisture spawning in the air.
There are nine customers ahead of me; behind me: seven. I wonder how many of them have landlords who paint over water damage instead of conducting repairs. I picture tiny blooms in the fibers of their clothes and hair.
I could skip this deadline. I could just grab my boys and go.
The package in my hands—it’s already addressed. Signed. Sealed. The name of the post office stamped in red in the upper right-hand corner.
I consider gutting the envelope and dropping the carcass on the counter with some coins. If only I carried change.
My five-year-old has found a truck and he’s banging it against my heel. I shake him off, not as gently as I should. “Please stop,” I say.
My eight-year-old appears with a science kit. “Tom has one like this and you can make slime that looks like blood. Can we get one?”
My chest tightens like I’m holding my breath underwater. There’s pressure in my ears and they’re starting to pop. I scan the carpet for flood stains, the skirting boards for peeling. The windowpanes are too bright to check for spores, but I see no bubbles in the drywall.
My eight-year-old drones through a tube he’s made with his hands. “Can we, Mom? Can we get one? Can I get one like Tom?”
“This is taking forever,” my ten-year-old moans.
His face is too close to mine and I can’t bring his eyes into focus. Something seems to be cracking between my ribs.
My five-year-old smashes my foot again and I shuffle forward. Five customers to go.
My head is swirling now, like the plasma globe at the science museum, how it sends neon bolts towards your palms when you move your hands across its surface. My third eye throbs and I counteract the pressure with my thumb.
I feel powdery and pale. But when I catch sight of myself in the passport photo mirror, I look flushed, my face slick. Every part of me is cold.
“Move up,” says my ten-year-old, and my body closes the gap.
My five-year-old is still at my feet. I rest the heel of my hand on his head to stop myself rocking. My legs are like tinfoil, ready to crumple with a twang.
“This is soooo boring,” say my eight-year-old. “When are we done?”
His complaint pings off the side of my head. I am both frozen and fluid. Ice courses through my veins. Blood smashes in my ear. I hear my heartbeat, my pulse doing double time, then pausing.
I look down at the envelope and don’t recognize my hands. I watch them shake until it makes me dizzy and I have to look away, my eyes swinging so abruptly everything goes black. To save myself from falling over, I grab a focal point in the form of a poster, but there’s too much red and yellow and the contrast hurts my brain.
Somehow, I manage to dig my sunglasses out of my bag and start weeping with relief. I stick my fingers under a lens to block the tears, then can’t stop patting my cheek. I’m cradling the package with my other hand, clutching it against my stomach, swaying the way I used to do with babies.
My eight-year-old tugs me forward. “We’re next,” he says, which stops my lip wobbling. I clench my molars hard and wiggle my toes to make sure they’re still there. I try to count them down in order, but can’t tell left from right.
“Can I help you?” asks the clerk.
I shove the package at her and point.
She asks if I want insurance and I answer her by blinking, but she can’t see my eyes through my Polarized lenses. I push the sunglasses up and knock them off my head. I fumble my wallet out of my bag, trying to remember the color of my credit card.
“You need a PIN.”
I pick some digits that seem familiar, but nothing happens.
I try a different combination, but after I punch it in, I realize it’s part of an old phone number. I don’t remember whose.
I hand the credit card to my ten-year-old because it won’t fit back in its slot and pull out a wad of cash. I have no idea how much it is. I see a ten and a twenty on top, but don’t know how much that makes or if it’s enough, so I just give the entire wad to the clerk, hoping my trust earns out.
She counts what she needs and gives the rest back and asks if there will be anything else. I shake my head as much as I can without making myself sick. Then I run.
I have a kid in each hand, but I don’t know which kid or which hand. The tall one follows. I can’t drive, so I head for the emergency exit and drag us all outside. There are some smokers on the steps and I push through their cloud and sit.
The ten-year-old takes my bag.
The eight-year-old pats my knee.
“Was it moldy in there?” asks the five-year-old, and I can’t even nod for fear I’ll faint.
Nicole Melanson is a recipient of Australia Council grants in both poetry and fiction. She also writes essays and edits WordMothers, supporting women’s work in the literary arts. A native Bostonian and former Sydneysider, Nicole now lives in Brisbane with her husband and their five sons. Find her at www.nicolemelanson.com / www.wordmothers.com / @wordmothers.