I am standing in front of my bedroom mirror, leaning against my J.C. Penny bunk bed. I am looking alternately at myself, dressed in my favorite purple, brown and green pantsuit and at the posters of thick boned and shiny coated Appaloosa and Thoroughbred horses dotting the white walls, their hooves glistening as they run through wheat fields and on windy beaches. I could hear my mom in the other room, vacuuming. I took a deep breath. I was ready. It was go time.
It started with a bottle of baby aspirin.
I recently experienced my first high grade fever and my mom gave me an orange baby aspirin. I loved the orange-y way they tasted; like Tang but condensed into a tiny flavor button that exploded when you bit into it. I let the pinky-orange tablet sit on my tongue until it was at the perfect stage, just between mushy and powdery, then with reckless abandoned, I would smash it between my back molars. I decided one fateful Saturday afternoon in 1974 that if one baby aspirin had so much flavor and was so much fun, then, well, more would be even better. By the end of my mushing and biting and savoring and swallowing adventure, I had consumed the entire bottle of Bayer's Baby Aspirin. My mom knocked on the bathroom door. I had been sitting on the toilet chewing then getting up to look at the pinky-orange glob on my tongue before swallowing. I felt sick. My stomach rolled around like a Kit Kat wrapper in a windstorm. My head, in an ironic twist, my six year old self was not quite old enough to fully appreciate, throbbed with one of the worst headaches I had ever experienced. I opened the bathroom door. My mom stood, framed in the doorway, her yellow sundress with white and brown overlapping circles shimmered under my gaze. She leaned towards me, eyebrows furrowed, blue eyes crinkled. “You don’t look good, Cristien. How bad is it?” I slumped onto the bathroom floor unable to answer her. She saw the empty bottle of baby aspirin on the counter. “Did you eat the entire bottle?” I tried to nod but was pretty sure my head was not cooperating. “Yes...” I finally eked out. “Crap.” She replied.
I was leaning against my mother’s shoulder as we sat in the emergency room, both hands on my stomach in a vain attempt to stop what felt like a roller coaster competition for: Worst. Ride. Ever. My mom absently patted my back. Then, he appeared. I looked up from my miserable, nauseous, throbbing, aching, shaking, moaning state of existence, and saw him. I sat up, tried to smooth my sweat-matted hair. He looked me in the eye, put a soft warm hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey there, seems like you like those aspirin.” I nodded, smiled and felt even more flushed, which I hadn’t thought was possible given my feverish state. His voice was husky and full of concern. His green eyes sparkled with just a hint of a smile. When he took his hand away from my shoulder, I put my smaller hand over the spot, letting the lingering warmth seep into my palm.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur of efficient nurses in white snapping gadgets together, poking me with sharp metal objects, cold metal tables and the taste of strawberries when a mask was placed gently over my mouth. I woke up, lying flat on my back encased in a million baby blue polyester blend hospital blankets. My stomach felt like someone had vacuumed it, which as I found out later was not too far from what actually happened. Every inch of my body ached. Even my fingernails felt sore. I looked over and saw my mom through the side rails on my bed reading a magazine. The doctor came in. “How are you feeling? he asked. I nodded and a thousand pebbles crashed against one another in my head creating electric blue and white sparks that blurred my vision. “Ok.” I tried to smile and look brave. He smiled back at me, put his hand on my forehead and I leaned into it like a cat does when you pet it. I wanted to stay that way forever. “Looks like you are feeling a little better.” He said as he moved his hand from my forehead to my shoulder, swiping his small grey pen-light into my eyes. “You’re all set to go home, but no more aspirin for you young lady.” I nodded, pebbles clanging as I silently glowed under the words, young lady.
The rest of that day and for much of the following week, I recalled the feel of his hand on my shoulder and the concern in his voice. My parents, barely on the other side of adolescence themselves when my sister and I were born, were overwhelmed with raising twins and getting my dad through graduate school. Because money was tight, they worked as RA’s or residential associates in a doom filled with over 30 hormone-raging physicist-in-training and were constantly being called to put out a small chemical explosion, or help disassemble the motorcycle that had been built in the women’s bathroom, or remove the still functioning and ungodly heavy cannon that had mysteriously been dropped into the wading pool. In other words, my parents did not have a lot of time for my sister and me. This was fantastic in some ways. We were the only children on campus and we got to run around the entire 100 plus acre grounds unsupervised, playing for hours, sometimes entire days in the various dorms, auditoriums, libraries, the wading pool and enormous olive tree grove. I got to watch someone light a cannon full of gunpowder and paper mache on exam day in order to startle the masses of students slumped over test papers. I helped students prank a dorm resident when he was on vacation by rearranging his entire dorm room using glue and basic geometry so that the ceiling became the new floor. It was fun getting woken up by giggling grad students at 3am so you can help them TP the dean’s residence or fill the wading pool with hundreds of gold fish. It was amazing when the students who lived in our building constructed a haunted house just for my sister and me. I got to help build contraptions that shot small household items into space. No one challenged me when I took long serrated knives from the cafeteria or Bunsen burners from the chemistry lab to use for my daylong archeological digs. I parachuted from the top of the one of the graduate housing dorm room roofs with two bed sheets tied together. When one of the dozens of students who looked after my sister and me was busy studying or making out in the TA’s lounge, I learned how to nurse my own bruises and soothe myself when I became scared.
Despite the excitement and daily sense of adventure my life had at the time, I secretly longed for a mom or dad who would hover over me at bedtime asking inquisitive question after question. I ached for an adult who would sit next to me on Saturday morning to watch cartoons, or brush my hair while we ate popcorn and listened to the radio. When I got hurt, my mom or dad would ask, “How bad is it Cristien?” As in, do we need to take you to get stitches? To be fair, I got a lot of stitches. Instead of a clinical assessment, I wanted someone to rush over, put a warm soft palm on my forehead and gush, “ Are you ok?” So, when Mr. Doctor, as I called him, leaned over me, a concerned look creasing his forehead, a slight smile curving the edges of his mouth, and put warm soft hand on my forehead while asking me “How are you feeling Cristien?” I was hooked. I wanted more.
The rest of the week was spent plotting. How does a six year old get admitted to the emergency room on a Saturday afternoon without getting hurt too badly? How do you assess the dangerous-to-dumb ratio of an idea? How do you know the where the tipping point is between a brilliant plan and a could-get-you-killed-stupid scheme? How do you know the scenario you picture in your imagination will actually come to fruition? I didn’t. But I had to try. The memory of those green eyes, soft palms and the way he thoughtfully warmed his stethoscope before placing it on my shoulder blades were powerful. I couldn't resist. I fine tuned a plan.
Being someone who enjoyed exploring the world through my senses, and being willing to, on a dare, taste just about anything that smelled good, I came up with the perfect idea. The time I drank whole bottles of vanilla and almond extract I felt woozy but the burn the liquid made as it poured down my esophagus was tolerable. When I drank all the cherry cough syrup in one sitting, I felt ok, sleepy all the next day, but generally fine. What else smelled good enough to drink and would make me sick? By Friday, I had my answer. Gasoline. I loved the way it smelled. I loved the tangy, bitterness of gasoline vapors when they wafted up my nose. Perfect. By Saturday morning, my good idea was turning out great. I brushed my hair, smoothed my bangs, and after asking my mom to help me put on my favorite outfit, I was ready. I stopped to look at myself in my bedroom mirror. Ok, I thought as I checked out my 6 year old reflection staring back at me; my purple, brown and green checkered pant-suit look good, my vest was buttoned up, the bell bottom of my pants hung just below the heels of my worn in brown cowboy boots. I even wore my appaloosa belt with its dappled horse-head buckle. I sauntered out of our dorm room apartment, cowboy boots clipping on the sidewalk, the bright Saturday morning sunshine warming my shoulders. I walked to the parking lot where I had previously stashed the bit of hose I lifted from the chemistry lab earlier in the week. I unscrewed the gas cap on my dad’s blue Volvo, savoring the tangy waft of vapors, stuck in the hose, and with a deep inhale and satisfied smile, sucked in the sweet smelling gas. The last thing I remember as I slumped against the Volvo’s rear tire trying not to get any of the gasoline I’d spit back up on my purple, brown and green pants was my dad leaning over me. “Cristien, did you just drink gas? Jesus Christ. How bad is it?”