My grandmother is having a nervous breakdown. She calls her sister a bitch and breaks dishes in the sink. I’ve never heard an adult swear in English. Her face is masking, and she’s scaring me. I’m twelve; we’ve been left in her care while my parents attend a Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. My great-aunt calls to ask if I’ll come to her apartment and open a can of tuna fish.
“Don’t say um, Jill Amy.”
“Also, I need you to pick me up some Ex-Lax.”
Please say you are joking. “Where do I do that?”
“At Jones Pharmacy, Jill Amy.”
Sure. I mean, why didn’t I know, at twelve, where to buy Ex-Lax? So I buy Ex-Lax, and walk to my great-aunt’s apartment, and now she’s yelling about how my grandmother is a bitch, and they’re all freaking me out. The can of tuna is on the counter but there’s no can opener. I check drawers and cabinets. I check them a second time, a third, I’m searching like I can’t hear her ranting beside me.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t find your can opener.”
“It’s right there, Jill Amy.” She’s exasperated. I’ve opened six pill bottles for her, but they haven’t kicked in yet. She has gestured to some kind of mechanical device. I have no idea what to do with it. “Jesus Christ, are you telling me you’ve never used a mechanical can opener before?”
“If you had a mechanical can opener, why did you need me to come up here and open the can for you?” In the middle of the crazy, I was still asking reasonable questions, like crazy might have a sensible reply. It took a long time to unlearn this.
Yesterday, G asked how much money I had. “I need a drink super super bad.” I gave him four bucks and he came back with an Izze and two dollars. “The shop lady said they were $2. I brought 3 straws so we can share. Or I can go back and get a second one, but then you won’t have any money.” He is 6 and worked all this out himself. And that’s the thing about resourcefulness. We have it because we want to be self-reliant. Or maybe because we want to be self. We are supposed to work through the natural codependence of our childhood. The task of adolescence is to learn to care-take yourself. It isn’t your job to care-take the rest of us. I was twelve. In the middle of an old war between two sisters in their eighties. And all I could think was, My parents are going to kill me.