I can’t grip the muddy ocean floor through my Vans. Their oily tentacles move with ease at this depth. The oxygen in my astronaut suit is low. I search for cover.
Sweat makes this suit itch and stick. Somehow my eyebrows have become super absorbent, and no salt stings my eyes. I am clear. My sight is perfect.
Even though the giant squids are close, I stop to look around with all of my eyes.
Something within the deepest parts of myself kicks into gear. My breath is slow and steady, my heart calms. Able to run now without exertion, it’s easy to see the entire ocean. Clarity from above.
There’s a cave not far from where my body jogs. From the outside, the cave looks dark and deserted, but from above I see it’s filled with brilliant fish swimming above a large, pulsating light. I’m drawn to the hard candy pink and tangerine fish.
I head toward the cave entrance, knowing I’ll get there before the monsters can catch me. They won’t follow me in. The last minutes of my sprint are effortless. Yellow is woven through everything.
I joke to myself that this situation is so absurd, even Dali would have discarded the idea. I hear a hearty chuckle. And then I start to think that being a single mom is so fucking hard. But somehow I know it will be easier soon.
My three year old has been inside all day because the weight of depression and anxiety has sewn me to the couch. She was sad when she woke this morning and I’m struck stagnant with the fear that my unspent sadness is somehow pouring into her.
I have to get away while her attention is on the movie. I slide to the floor. I crawl two feet to the bathroom and lock the door. I sit on the floor wedged between the toilet and the sink. The toilet paper roll is almost empty again. How do we go through so much?
The movie has ended and she has noticed I’m not in the living room. She starts to bang on the bathroom door after trying the handle.
There is a loud, insistent knock on the front door. Someone is here to tell me that I’m the worst mom in the world because my sadness has polluted the most beautiful, loving creature on earth. They’ve come to tell me that she’s an angel and I’ve failed at life so they are taking her back. They need to give her a better mom now. The one she deserves.
I don’t want to answer the door. I don’t want to let her go.
I’ll do better, I whisper into the toilet paper. I’ll exercise and meditate more. I’ll find a way somehow to release this pain and to forget my fears. Please, give me a chance to do better.
“Mommy, someone’s here!”
I breathe deeply to steady my voice. I pull the fear in and push it down deeper, where the grief lives. “Don’t answer it, Miss, I’ll get it.”
I look in the mirror to see if the depression is visible. I wash the sleep out of my eyes. The red puffiness remains. The deadness refuses to fade no matter how I try to snuff it with the light that I know is in there somewhere.
“Mommy,” she whispers. She has slid to the floor and pressed her face into the small gap under the door.
I recite a prayer for peace and miracles. “I can do this.”
Another deep breath before I open the door. My daughter is holding onto me, peeking around my hips.
It’s a koala in a three-piece designer suit. He holds a glittery silver cane with both paws.
“We need to speak with you about your toilet paper use,” he says in a faint Australian accent.
I’m stunned. Part of me wants to laugh but another part of me knows that this koala is serious.
I invite him in and ask if he’d like a cup of tea, apologizing for the mess as I move a pile of clean laundry from one couch cushion to another.
He declines the tea but sits. I watch him survey the space, and then count the number of bedrooms on his digits.
“There are only two of you here.”
He pulls an envelope out of his suit pocket.
“We got a report that you use ten times the amount of toilet paper and tissue paper than that of other households in your demographic.”
How can that be? I can’t even cry.
“Would you say that your usage has recently increased?”
His fury eyebrow is creased. I don’t want to upset him. I want to make sure he has everything he needs.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Koala, I don’t mean to use so much.”
“Please, call me Mr. Higgenbottom.”
My daughter giggles. “Bottom!”
He looks at her and smiles.
“You’re fury. Can I pet your face?”
“No you may not, young lady, but you can pet my shoulder. That would be alright.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea? I have peppermint and berry flavors, but no eucalyptus. I’m sorry.”
“No thank you. I need to ask you some questions and then get to several other households today. Traffic is hell.”
Mr. Higgenbottom pulls a cigar and a box of matches from an inside suit pocket.
“We don’t smoke in the house.”
He strikes the match and takes his time puffing the cigar until it is lit. When he has a bright red coal going, he looks up and raises one of his eyebrows.
“You clear cut our forests and yet you ask me not to smoke in your home?”
I shrug. Looking at the floor, I see that my toes have been kneading the rug.
The koala in a suit taps on the report with his free paw.
“This level of toilet paper use is unacceptable.”
If there are other households, this koala must have a solution.
He sits on my couch, ashing his cigar into a rusty silver tin that he’d pulled from another pocket. Mr. Higgenbottom’s soft golden brown eyes turn cold.
He must be waiting for me. The words pitch forward into the space between us.
“Do you have any suggestions?”
He raises his left eyebrow. “I suggest you do not use so much.”
Just yesterday, my daughter had tossed a whole roll of toilet paper all over this room. I had made her clean up the mess and put it in the garbage. I would have recycled it, but then the neighbors would know that I was wasteful.
Mr. Higgenbottom made a low disapproving noise with his throat.
Shit, can koalas read minds?
“I think you know what you need to do, Mz…” he flips one-pawed through the report.
“Hope,” I say. “Just call me Hope.”
He scans the mess as he lets that tone hang in the air with his cigar smoke.
“I will take my leave of you now, Hope, but we will continue to monitor your usage.”
He walks to the front door. With his hand on the handle, he imparts a warning in a low voice. “It won’t be I who comes back, Mz. Hope. It will be the Top Hats.”
We watch him climb into the back of a chauffeured town car. And then he’s gone.
My three year old looks up at me with wide eyes and a glowing smile.
“Fury talking bear!” She jumps up and down. “I want to wear a pretty dress when he comes back.”
“He won’t be coming back.”
Back on the ocean floor headed toward the cave, this memory leaves me unsettled.
My body slows as the cold water gets heavier. I check the oxygen level. Red. Red is bad on this gauge. The more needy my lungs become, the faster the needle hits red.
Fuck. My legs still run, but they are weighted and detached from me now. I’m above, looking at the top of my head. My hair is a tangled mess. My body looks stupid the way it moves. It runs like a girl.
“Go faster, you stupid girl runner! They’re coming!”
The chill of disturbed water creeps across my neck.
Where am I going? How do I get there?
The cave entrance appears just ahead, thank God. I remember the pulsating light and the fish. This knowledge propels me forward. I rush through the slender opening as tentacles slither closer. They reach into the cave, so I keep running.
In the dark shelter, though the giant squids don’t give up, I feel safe. My heart beat steadies. My body is light. I forget about the oxygen and walk toward the pulsating light.
The beautiful natural shapes on the cave walls are illuminated. As I get closer to the source, I feel a warmth in my heart spread from the core and into my ventricles.
I expect to have to shade my eyes when I turn the last corner, but the brilliance is so tender it doesn’t sting.
The large ball is half buried in the mud. I stand before it for a few minutes, allowing the full force of this beauty to loft me.
Above, there is a sickening crack. The black, black roof of the underwater cave starts to split into two.
The separation is soon wide enough for me to catch glimpses of those relentless tentacles. I fear the cave-in will endanger the ball. Working somehow from both within my body and outside of my body, I dig the mud away from the ball. I swear the ball helps by shifting around.
I have no idea if I can carry it to safety, but I need to try.
The crack above becomes wider. The dark indigo blue of the deep sea water is a stark contrast to the tar black roof.
The squids push their way into the cave, trying to capture me, but I’m far out of their reach. I keep working toward freeing the ball. It doesn’t take long. I pick it up, and though it’s huge, it’s not heavy. I lift it above my shoulders to carry it and then I steady it with my arms.
As soon as I get the light into the most comfortable position, the giant squids crash through the roof. I can’t say for sure if squids scream, but there is an awful screeching as they fall.
The first giant squid lands on the ball of light. She swallowed it somehow. I try to think back to high school biology. Where is a squid’s mouth?
In spasms, the first squid falls over onto the cave floor. The second squid watches, absolutely still.
I fear for the light. How the hell am I going to dissect that monster with no tools?
And then it explodes. Tentacles, torn up pieces of liver and skin shoot across the cave in all directions.
The giant ball of light pulsates as if telling me it’s okay.
The second squid inches back, trying to regain the stealth he had enjoyed for so long as King of the deep sea.
Silly squid. I shake my head.
He runs. He scales the walls and sets out to hide.
The ball pulsates. It wants to go up to the surface. I try to hoist it onto my shoulders, but it rolls away. I watch the ball grow smaller and smaller without losing an ounce of brilliance or magic.
The ball hops into my hand and pulsates again. It wants me to place it against my heart.