The Attendance Line, by Elizabeth Cohen

Art: Requiem For a Dream


I don’t know the rules here. And I just hate to lie. I don’t know what the mother is supposed to tell the school when her daughter has been out all night at her drug dealer’s house and has not come home. Does this qualify for “sick”, I wonder? I suppose I should call in sick for her. She will be expelled if I don’t; she has had too many unexcused absences. And, technically, it is a sort of sickness going on here. I am really not all that cozy with the idea of lying, period. This sort of decision requires caffeine.

I turn off the stove and pour the water into the coffee press. Steam clouds the glass and the aroma of coffee lifts into the room. I could just leave a message on the machine. They have a place you can call in early and do that. The “Attendance Line.” “Marissa will be out today,” I could say. Sounds right to me right now.

While the coffee is steeping I put the clean silverware away in the silverware drawer. I like to make sure the salad forks are all in the salad fork slot, the dessert spoons nested one inside the next. It is nice when you can open a drawer and witness all the cutlery sleeping where they are supposed to sleep, each in their own little wooden bed with their own siblings, nobody out of place.

I could just leave things, of course. Not call in sick, not lie. Let her face the consequences of her actions. Maybe this would be some sort of wake up call. But letting one’s child get expelled from highschool – one’s A + all-around-honor-roll-child, I might add, who recently wrote a paper on the Cuban Missile blockade that could pass for a United Nations position paper – doesn’t feel right. It feels like I would be sabotaging her future. But then one would have to beg the next question: what sort of future does a child have when she goes out every night like this, stays with the drug dealers, or other people, who one has never even heard of nor seen.
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The main drug dealer is an odd fellow worth describing. That scruff on his chin must pass for a beard in his mind. Baby scruff. The way he pulls on it sometimes is like he is some bearded philosopher, pondering, say, Occam’s Razor, or some other philosophical conundrum. His name is Gary. When Gary comes over he swings into the drive way in his new Ford Bronco and just waits. The one time he came in the house I noticed his right knee was in constant motion, like something fluttering in a breeze. It sort of vibrated. Sometimes Marissa’s knee does that. Or her foot taps incessantly. It is like some part of their bodies have been abducted by metronomes. They are stuck keeping a fast rhythm, some kind of runaway samba that we are all supposed to ignore, like it isn’t happening. If you look at their busy knees they get upset. “What are you looking at,” Marissa asks me, if I do. She tells me I am passive aggressive. The way I look at her tapping foot, her knee.
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When the coffee is ready I pour it into the white mug with the “M” on it. It is the Marissa mug. Long ago we got these mugs with our initials. Mine is the “T” mug, for Teresa. As I reach for the “M” mug, the “T” mug looks at me from the shelf like it is thinking “wrong mug, asshole.” But on this morning when Marissa is still at her drug dealer’s house, and about to miss school, I want to drink my coffee from the Marissa mug. I want to taste the coffee in a way she might taste it, put my lips on a place I knows her regularly touch, so I do. Then, I add milk and a lot of sugar, just the way she likes it. We sometimes joke about this— her sugar preferences. “Have a little coffee with your sugar,” I might say. To which she will reply, “I will and I’ll have a little cake with my frosting, too.”
She has a good sense of humor, my Marissa.

A year ago the siren that wailed up the avenue was for her. She was found blue and unresponsive on a river bank, downstream from where she had jumped off a bridge. When she finally woke up in the hospital, two days later, she looked around the hospital room, as if surveying the afterlife. “Well. That was refreshing,” she said. We were all appalled, naturally, but somehow we smiled. She can do that; Marissa, make you smile when you are feeling appalled or panicked. Technically, it was amusing.

My mother used to say it whenever I went out on dates as a teenager: “Every time I hear a siren I think it is for you.” In my case it was hyperbole. I was a garden variety teen, whose most dangerous activities might have been tee-peeing a neighbor’s yard or stealing a sip off my dad’s can of Budweiser Lite when he went to the bathroom. I would steal a sip and my mom and I would exchange glances and smile. Bad girl. I didn’t even like beer. It was just a thing I did. Like I needed to prove I actually was a teenager or something.

But this is not the case for Marissa. She steals lots of things. Gum at the store. Money from my wallet. Shirts from Pac Sun. “They have cameras in there, you know,” I once said, looking at the pile of booty on the side of her bed.

“I know,” she said, “that is why I did my hair like this. Do you like it?”
She is the sort of girl that you cannot keep from trouble, the kind of girl sirens are actually for.

We had been to that hospital many times. To the ER, or the psych unit. We have spent hours waiting for them to assess and release her; so long that they have had to offer her Jello and bad meals on hard plastic trays while we wait for them to cut the plastic bracelet off her wrist and send her home again. Somewhere in a drawer I still have the teensy hospital bracelet she came home with when she was born. It said SMITH, GIRL on it. We hadn’t chosen a name for her yet. One of the many things we could not agree on. He was gone a few years later. Left her with his mother’s middle name and a beautiful mole beside her right eye, like his own. He had a love for heroin; she is what they call a “garbagehead.” That means she isn’t fussy.

Someone called 911 after Marissa leapt into the river. Nobody actually knows who. They gave the name Pete, but there was no Pete there. I never could find any Petes, anywhere, to ask about that day. Pete is sort of an outdated name. Nobody is called Pete any more, so far as I can tell.

“She said she wanted a rush,” one girl told me, who appeared at the hospital one afternoon. Maybe she was Pete. That would be so 2016, actually, a girl named Pete. The river swallowed Marissa whole and spat her out twenty feet downstream, unconscious and with a cut on her stomach that required twenty seven stitches and left a pink, saw-toothed scar. Technically, you could call jumping off a bridge a rush. You could call being found dead a rush. You could, technically, call being revived by EMTs on a river side a rush, I suppose.

“She is so lucky,” the ER doc said. “Most kids that jump there drown. There being the Oxbow bridge. It is one of those well know teen dying places.

Lucky, lucky, lucky, I thought, as I collected the bag that contained her red Snoopy watch and still-damp Adidas. “You are so lucky,” I said in the car, driving her home from the hospital.

“You are so passive aggressive,” she said. When I asked her why she did it, she said, without a pause, “ah, but the real question would be ‘why not?’”

I take the coffee back to bed with me. I will turn on the news and drink it under the covers. Maybe something bad will be happening in the world, an F4 tornado, perhaps. A revolution somewhere. I can drift away nicely on the tide of faraway disasters. Something about the whole world in crisis feels good. It is comforting, when your daughter has spent the night at her drug dealer’s house and hasn’t come home yet and you can’t decide if you should call in sick for her so she does not get expelled from school, to think, we are all in this together here on earth. I can think: People’s kids are at risk in Ethiopia. Kenya. Afghanistan. It is really pretty normal if you look at the big picture.

On the way up to her room, the coffee sloshes in the M cup, spills onto my grey tee shirt and the rose and ochre runner on the stairs. “Oh shit,” I say, to my shirt, to the rug, to the cup. Shit, shit, shit, I say to life.

I can’t help it. I take a detour. I walk into Marissa’s room and just stand there. There is her unmade bed, her pillow still dented from her afternoon nap. There is doggy, her stuffed beagle that I once had to drive thirty-three miles to retrieve from a motel in Tennessee where it had been left behind on a vacation. c There is her favorite Alice in Wonderland poster. I got it for her for her birthday. There is her bong and her torn tee shirt that says “Disney is Magic.” I continue to stand there for a long time, just stand there.

There, beside the shirt, are the high top Adidas, the ones she was wearing when she was collected from the muddy, cold river bank a year ago. The pair she was wearing when she drowned. I have washed them several times but I sometimes I think they still smell of river. The smell of damp and mildew and dried river snail and death and then not death after all. She has drawn on them, with a black pen. Little curlicues and hearts adorn the rubber toes. On the ankle of the right one, she has drawn a small peace sign in orange marker.

“Peace out,” she has written beside it. And: “Love.”

I pick up the phone and call the attendance line. A recorded message informs me that I should leave a brief message back, with the time date and name of my child, along with the reson for their absence. “Marissa Smith won’t be in school today,” I say, speaking slowly into the recording. “It is Tuesday, March 28th.”

She is a good girl, deep down. She still sleeps with her stuffed animals. She likes pancakes with chocolate chips in them. She says they are a dessert pretending to be breakfast. Which I find sort of clever. I am still allowed to laugh at her jokes. But if I say anything about where she goes, when she comes back, she reminds me how easy it is to, say, jump off a bridge if one’s mother is too controlling.

The Attendance line informs me I can listen back to my message before saving it by pressing the number 1 or erase it by pressing 2. I listen back to myself. I listen to myself saying the name of my once dead child. My voice sounds so steady, like I am reporting pure truth. But truth in a sort of sad costume way—truth as a marionette or a baby clown. This is our lives now. We are marionettes, just hanging from strings off the Oxbow Bridge. Suspended there forever, since that day she died and then didn’t die. And died.

I press “1”.

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