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February 2024

Subconscious Decisions

Kale Choo Hanson

You are a person—a mother. Your car moves along a wide highway. It cruises at ten over the speed limit, but your foot is tipped back at the ankle, hovering over the break. It’s a Saturday afternoon and there aren’t too many people on the road. Just a couple cars that travel alongside you, a delivery truck that changes lanes ahead. In the back seat is your son. He is barely one and positioned backwards—the safe way—in child-protectant shell of plastic and fabric. He is sleeping. You see his face in the tiny mirror positioned above him. It hasn’t hardened into anything that resembles yours yet. Only after he is born you realize how long it takes for babies to emerge from a blurry monotony of round cheeks and abnormally large eyes. You think that if you had to pick him out of a room full of babies with ages only measured in months that you could. You think this but know that he would be the one to find you. You want to stare at his face longer, but you return your eyes to the road. Ahead, your lane is slowing down for a van with a mattress tied to the top. You kill your cruise control, flip on your turn signal and wait for a clear space. The motion is familiar. You have done this same drive hundreds of times, maybe even thousands. Your mother lives six exits away but lights for a baseball field rise above the fifth exit, so you don’t have to pay attention until then. The only reason you can get there so fast is because of the trees, the homes, the expanse of rocky land that this highway has replaced, paving the earth with a thick crust that shoots you 30 miles away in no time. You think about how your mother will never leave that house, how she still has your crib and blocks stacked in the basement, and you know that you will continue making this drive. Maybe one day your son will be making this drive, his hands as big as yours, curled around this steering wheel, the seat pushed farther back to accommodate his legs, his soft whisp of hair now thick and black like yours. The thought makes you uneasy and you wonder how any mother gets to the point where she decides her son is responsible enough to drive. The state says 16 but that still feels like a baby to you, brain not yet developed, cheeks wearing a complicated shadow of acne and strengthening hairs. You glance at your son’s sleeping face and hope that you will be able to trust him at 16, that he will be the kind of teenager who helps people pick up the things they drop, who can connect with his peers, who asks women permission, who knows when people are trying to take advantage of him. You have to make him this way. That’s a lot to ask, you think. There are so many places to go wrong. You pick up speed as you pass the delivery truck, your wheel edges into the next lane and you think that it’s okay, the person behind you will understand, no one wants to pass these trucks. Your mother wouldn’t be happy. Since your son arrived, she has downloaded an app onto her phone that tells her how fast you go on the highway, how reckless you’ve been when your mind is elsewhere. When you arrive at your parents’ house she will come to the door with her phone in her hand and you will have to explain to her that it was a truck, that she knows how long it takes those things to stop, that she would have sped around it too. When you settle back into the lane, the truck in your rearview mirror, you make the smallest movement. The bone of your middle finger unhooks from the bottom of the steering wheel and reaches under the turn signal lever, flipping it up to silence the ticking. This tiny mindless action sends the smallest, most forgettable jolt through your body and without your knowledge, an eyelash, one of the smaller ones toward the corner of your lash line, detaches from its root and dangles from the sweep of your eye. The next movement you make isn’t made by you, but rather by your body. It is one of those correcting responses like itches or sneezes, the ones that require no thought because they are always correct, relieving you of something, providing solutions. You continue to drive as the side of your right index finger rises to your eye and rubs it. You realize what you have done and pull your hand away from your face. The eyelash, that you hadn’t even known was there, has tucked itself behind your lower lid where the skin is dewy pink. It intrudes on the softness, the delicate thing becoming sharp and rigid, its two edges like needles pushing into silken flesh. A car comes up fast and speeds around you, a woman peering into your car at you, then your son. You must be slowing down or drifting in your lane. Bad mother. You flutter your eyelid and are at once aware of the anatomy of your eyeball, the lens, the iris, the aqueous fluid, wet, sensitive. The eyelash asserts itself. You blink again. Your body is employing another response mechanism, flooding the wetness with tears. Your vision blurs, muddling the view through your windshield into smudged colors, a drunken kaleidoscope of moving pavement, rhythmic white flashes at the edge of tire. Your son wiggles his body in the back seat, eyes still closed. You hope that danger is a concept he has not yet grasped and the that the smooth sway of the car lulls him. You consider if this is one of the moments your mother is always telling you about. They may not remember the event, she says to you after you let your son wander a little too close to the edge of a pool, but they will remember the feel, the trauma. Then there is pain. A slicing pain that moves with curve of the eyelash as you blink, triggering more responses in your body: sweat across your lower back, hot tears sliding onto your chin, your neck, heightened breath. You step on the brake to slow the car down and rub your eye again, with more aggression this time, forcing the other open to watch the road. But your body insists on blinking both eyes. They are a pair, they do everything together, they’ve tracked every page with the same movements, flicked back and forth as you considered something, blinked hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of times, together. Your good eye empathizes with the other, wants to open and close too if it will help the other dislodge its foreign object. If you had lived in the city like you had wanted to, this wouldn’t be happening. You could have clutched your son against your chest and stared out the train window, the roll of wheels against tracks making your eyelids slow and heavy. But your mother wouldn’t hear it, couldn’t imagine why you would want to be in a place like that. Don’t you want her to see your son? Don’t you want her to watch him grow? Would you rather have his lungs be full of pollution and his chance of being murdered high? Keep him here in the suburbs where the roads all connect and the lawns are soft and cushy. The view of the highway appears to you, then disappears, then appears again. You use the flashes of sight to keep the car steady, to stay in the lane. You should pull over, you think, but cars flash by and you can’t look at them long enough to change lanes. The eyelash has buried itself so far into your body that the stream of tears is not working. A car honks as it passes you and you realize you have been drifting and yank the wheel back. Then, there is the nasal cry of your son. His screams strengthen as he emerges from his sleep, remembering once again that the thing he knows best is to cry out for his mother. You rub your eye. You make a shushing sound with your mouth. You blink. You flip down the mirror in front of you. You look at the road. You pull the thin flesh under your eye down and examine the bottom curve of your eyeball. You look at the road. You tell your son that it will be okay, everything is okay. You look back at your eye, the dark shadow of an eyelash sitting at the line where white meets pink, water meets flesh. You reach your finger inside. When it touches the hypersensitive, vein-crept, surface of your eye, your body kicks you out. Your eyes squeeze shut. You hear the panicked honks, feel the tilt of the car. Your arms reach out in front of you, as if there is something to grab, a lever, a button, something that would set everything back a couple minutes before the eyelash decided that it wouldn’t hold on any longer. You think about your son, how he must be feeling a weightlessness, a lifting from his seat, a relief from the heaviness we realize we have to carry for the rest of our lives. It only grows. Grows like other babies, swaddled, cribbed, carried, kissed, neglected, crying. Somewhere a baby laughs, discovering the warm tongue of the family dog. Somewhere someone is buying a bunch of discounted flowers because they have just begun to wilt. They believe that they can bring them back to life. Somewhere someone is feeling balled fist against temple, the crack of the nose bone, the bursting of blood. Somewhere someone thumbs the cheekbones of their child and asks for forgiveness. They say that they are sorry, that they will never do it again, isn’t this apology enough? Somewhere someone is told by their therapist that not everything is their parent’s fault. Somewhere there is you, wrapped in a Mulan costume, the official princess dress not the battle gear. You are small but still have to push your body beneath the sink, the smell of powered cleaners closed inside with you, the mass of pipes digging into your kneecaps. You have a mini flashlight in one hand, and an ink-filled journal in the other. You found it tucked between the scarves and extra linens in the back of your mother’s closet. You had never seen her writing in it before, never known she did things that had nothing to do with you. The cabinet below the sink is tight and you peel the pages apart right in front of your nose. You read about him. About how she wants to run away with him, leave you behind, absolve herself of responsibility, burden. You read about the man who is not your father and you don’t really understand. You emerge, return the journal, and find your mother sitting on the floor of the living room, supergluing a broken teapot. She looks down at your dress and scolds you. As she brushes the powdered Comet from Mulan’s sash, you have already forgotten. It was just one of those moments, the kind that you won’t remember. You were too young. You were just someone, somewhere. Somewhere there is no one. Rusty screws on abandoned Ferris wheels, beetles procreating on beds of moss, streams of wind against packed icy ground, empty dressing rooms that listen to performances through the walls, bones of a cave explorer who went too far, ecosystems of crustaceans feeding on whale carcasses in sunless waters. There are poisoned waterways where fish don’t swim, empty buildings slowly being consumed by vegetation, plants that hold traces of carbon from atomic bombs. The same plants that are eaten by you and your son, the violence carried just beneath the skin, just beneath the consciousness. The air you breathe, the food you eat, the materials you touch, you hope that they don’t inform your subconscious decisions. You hope that no matter the pressures from the outside world, you remain a person—a mother. A mother like your mother. The slight rasp in her voice, the indents of red on her nose bridge from her glasses, her hands that reached out to steady you. There is another person somewhere, just like you, bracing for impact against her steering wheel, her eyes burning but finally open, glimpsing sky, dark pavement, the green of the median. You know that her mother is waiting for her, waiting to fill her glass with something to drink, give advice, opinions, a hand on the shoulder that squeezes gently. She, like you, is in a space between, before the safety glass beads, before the air bags erupt, her foot on the brake, her tires in the air, her body turned in its seat, her hands reaching and reaching for her son.

 

 

Bio

Kale Choo Hanson is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Peatsmoke Journal, Grande Dame Literary, and Glassworks. She holds an MFA from Temple University and currently resides in Philadelphia.

Journeying Women
Dorothy Johnson-Laird

they did not stay in one place

but journeyed out into the blue cool of night

with firm calves and bold ways

they wore woolen scarves around their shoulders for protection

from the wind that rushed their hair, their hardened hands

loving the rain’s feel moving over their bodies as they marked the land

 

as a baby my grandmother touched her hands to my plump cheeks

she took a careful look at me, said my face held within it a wandering spirit

said there was an urge to move in my eyes

as a child, I used to run away from my mother

escaping into the green woods

she had to race after me to catch up

wandering eyes  they called me

 

these women sang as they walked into the morning light

as part of a daily pattern of living

trading metal pots for food

they held an urge to trek distant paths in their legs, in their minds

loving to watch the wind as it captured the mountains

as it stole across the sea

 

these were journeying women

they carried herbs and oils wrapped in cloth on their hips

tall women, listening to the rain falling

around their steady figures in the night

absorbing the natural light as it ran around them

 

with their palms to their foreheads,

they looked into the middle distance

and understood the sky’s movements

from orange  to clay   to dusk

 

with long skirts in the night, flowing movements

these women could intuit stranger's fears and hatreds

they moved in silence

mapping their souls in the night

with only the stars as their circumference

as they traced quiet patterns on the land

Bio

 

Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a poet and social worker who lives in New York City. She received an M.F.A in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Dorothy also has a passion for African music. She has published music journalism with www.afropop.org and www.worldmusiccentral.org. Recent poems published by Aji, Cantos, Pomona Valley Review, and Pedestal Magazine, among others. More of Dorothy's poetry can be found at:

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100083698660157

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