I’m Stranger. You’re Stranger. Together, We Are… Strangers
written by: Dan A. Cardoza
It’s not easy raising a child, and that’s if they’re two of you. I’ve done this ever since I gave birth to Charlie. We haven’t seen his father since he ran away with Oxycontin.
To a six-year-old, darkness can feel as heavy as a smothering blanket. That’s what Charlie called his favorite patched quilt. He’d sleep with his head under the protective abracadabra most nights breathing into the chasm of air between the mattress and the wall. “I’m safe in the corner,” he’d say, “tucked away from all of the monsters.”
Maybe Charlie was too embarrassed about covering his thoughts. After the age of seven, he never used the quilt again.
When Charlie was in the 2nd-grade, I’d give him hugs as consolation prizes for bloody noses, torn shirts and split lips. It’s getting better these days for kids, but back then, being different spelled t-a-r-g-e-t on your back to all the bullies. Lunches were thrown in trashcans, uneaten. School supplies disappeared or were destroyed. More than once, the school secretary called or texted, “come quickly, he’ll need a fresh pair of pants to replace his mud-splattered jeans.”
On rare occasions, Charlie would share the ugliness directed to him by his tormentors, their destructive words and sharp taunting, how each expletive was an emotion cut, quick to bleed, slow to heal.
The worse names wouldn’t leave his tongue. I could only imagine the internal horror and psychic torture show, everything he couldn’t share festered inside, grew into a disease of toxic misery.
Of course, Charlie’s teachers were concerned, “We’re disgusted about how Charlie’s been treated.” But they never appeared disgusted enough. “Charlie needs to fit in, how about a new sport, Cub Scouts, maybe? Although our school is sectarian, have you thought about church, possibly some type of youth group activity?”
Inside the boiling pot of my skull, I fought back the steam and screams, “We’re atheists–atheists!”
In the early days, Charlie was a magician.
One day he was the large Anderson paned window. The next day, he was an elegant sofa.
On a whim, if the day were sunny, he’d choose to be the picture window. And what a window he was. He was a 6’x 8’ foot, large, latticed window. His reflection was visible in each of the framed window patches. He was a matrix of mirrors, mostly bright and shiny. As a window, he had a magnificent view, everything outdoors that existed, existed through his magical lens. And with the passage of time, he brilliantly distorted everything, so that everything changed.
If the day were cloudy, lacking the usual brightness, he’d turn into the large arched-back sofa pushed up close, next to the window. Here, he convoluted himself into deep, wide wale corduroy. He even sported matching decorative pillows. He was his very own cumuli, soft and safe away from any gathering storms.
Age two through five, he was the stack of pillows on the luxurious sofa, carefully stacked against the arched back of the oversized sofa. On top of the pile of pillows, he could kneel and watch the world as it floated along.
Once he turned six, he conjured himself into sofa cushions. After all, he was a big boy now, no need for him to kneel on a platform of pillows to see out. On the rectangular cushions, he could simply stand and gaze outside. This behavior lasted until he was eight.
Springtime made him run with the manic squirrels, just outside on the greenest of lawn.
During the summers, Charlie morphed into contrails. Up there is where he’d chalk the sky with the straight lines of a game of tic-tac-toe, including “X’s” and “O’s.” In the bluest of summer skies, he was a rowboat, constantly rowing the heavens up until supper.
In the fall, he’d switch again, morph into his favorite oak tree, including the acorns and rusty crape paper leaves. Up there is where he’d roost all his dark, knotted branches with the worrisome and scowling crows. If he really wanted to, he could turn himself into one of those, but he never did. But the crows did teach him their secretive language: the sound of guiros, picking locks, how to make noises that replicate rusty hinges.
Toward the end of each day, in the darkest winters, Charlie dressed up in tall, baggy black stilts. Then, from way off in the distance, near the horizon, he’d walk toward his likeness in the picture window. It’s from this view he’d scare himself nearly to death with all the impending darkness that approached him.
The first time Charlie was hospitalized, it was a rainy, late Tuesday. I had to take time off work. I picked up Charlie at school, and we headed south from Blue Ash, Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio. When we arrived, we had to wait two hours for a fifteen-minute exam, a long crystal needle, and the dreaded prognosis of future hospitalizations. I was all in though, steadfast to a flaw.
Ms. Goodwin, the Psychiatric Social worker, at Hamilton County attempted to comfort me, “You’re a single parent, so very strong. I feel your pain.” Though she meant well, I wanted to spit out her well-intentioned verbal poison and shout, “No freaking way, you can’t feel my pain or anger!”
But I remained calm, mumbled in my head, “Save your energy and patience, Liz, you’re going to need it.”
The word schizophrenia was first coined in 1910 by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler. The term combines the Greek words, ‘schizo’ (split) and ‘phren’ (mind). Jack Kerouac, a genius, had schizophrenia. He lost himself forever in the long corridors of time.
And now I have my very own Prince Charles.
Charlie was just eighteen when he turned into Prince Charles. It was awkward at first. After all, I was certain we didn’t have any royal blood in the family. It was the psychiatrist who introduced us. He wrote a prescription for it, but it never worked.
Following the hospitalization, little did I know I’d never see my beautiful Charlie boy again? From that day forward, he was Prince Charles.
Over the next few years, we collected mental health professionals instead of high school banners and college diplomas. The system means well, and it’s getting better, but honestly, real help is a complex manufactory when it comes to emotional illness. It’s a colossal Steampunk gear-box, rift with therapeutic cogs and well oiled flywheels. Each compound produced is from an outdated, twentieth century, mortar, and pestle, each chalky pill yielding an exacting tincture of oblivion.
And when nothing works, you invent your own steam fueled, Zeppelin. Climb in and float away into a void. In the end, if love were a cure, there would be no need for pills.
I’m grateful for my beautiful Charlie, the boy who lived in the window, sofa, and sky.
I look through his magical window almost every day now. Every windowpane still reflects Charles, a Charles without a college degree, a satisfying job, a happy marriage, and my grandchildren. If I sound cynical as hell, send me a bill!
Trust me. I’m, rarely sentimental or bitter, no time for that.
I live alone now, I’m not going anywhere. I have to stay here and be strong in case Prince Charles chooses to visit anytime soon.
I’ve been told Charles loves traveling the countryside, up and down all the different streets of America. He’s homeless, likes it that way. It’s been years since the day he told me he was finally free.
I hear around that my Prince names each of his new friends, either Charlie or Charlene depending on gender. That way, no one is a stranger.
Dan’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in the Apple in the Dark, Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Bull, Cleaver, Coffin Bell, Door=Jar, Entropy, Dark City Magazine, Gravel, Lowesoft Chronicles, Mystery Tribune, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest, Spelk, Your Impossible Voice.