Poisoned by Jocelyn Jane Cox
It’s late August. Our son is four years old. He’s at the side of the house, out of our sight. He can survive, even thrive, without us looking at him every second. Or we can at least try it out anyway.
My husband and I are on the front porch looking at my husband’s arm. He has a bad case of poison ivy. The sores bubble across his hands and are creeping up his forearms. Despite topical treatments, he looks ravaged. Because of this, we’ll soon get our property “remediated” and peek out the windows as two men in Hazmat suits sort, one weed at a time, through the groundcover surrounding our house.
My husband is not a complainer, not a hypochondriac in the slightest, but it does obviously hurt and obviously itch. And the effect that oil from a plant can have on skin is fascinating. Our son has overheard us talking about it several times this week.
It turns out he hears everything. In his presence, we speak only in general terms about the news, politics, the president, and all the people with whom we disagree and who disagree with us. But he has seen me making the signs and even helped me color them in. We talk to him in broad strokes about kindness. We will be having all the discussions, in-depth, and sooner than we think.
He has also examined his father’s arm and understands this affliction came from our yard. He has gleaned that there is danger right where we live. Suddenly, he’s bolting toward us from the sideyard, rounding the bend, shrieking. We can’t make out what he’s saying. Time slows. My brain calculates pain math: no visible blood + running = no stitches and no broken bones.
He is sprinting with a look of shock across his face. We hear the words more clearly as he approaches.
“I was poisoned!” he screeches, now on the porch, and pointing to a welt forming in the middle of his calf. He has misunderstood, in a way, and also understood perfectly.
I hold him on my lap and wonder if he is allergic. While my husband runs inside for some ice, I hug our son close and scroll to learn what signs we should be looking for. Then we sit there saying, “You’re okay,” watching to see if the reaction escalates, but it doesn’t. “You’re okay,” I repeat, squeezing him tight.
It’s late August two years later. Our son is now six years old. We’ve been invited as guests to a charming local pool, a communal situation where the members tend to a flower garden and take turns cleaning the tiny kitchen. It’s not a country club. It’s rough around the edges, weedy and rusted, nestled in between distribution centers. But one can imagine, while there, that it’s the 1970’s and that kids really can roam free and fly high amid butterflies on the seat of the tree swing. The locker room doors are painted turquoise, the same shade as the shimmering pool. A rainbow flag flutters nearby in the breeze.
This is not our first time here; we are fortunate to get these invitations from Nika and Lila’s mom Yulia, a tenacious woman from the former Soviet Union with enviable curly hair. She has become, due in part to the state of the world, one of my closest friends. When here, though, we let all of that go. I let myself slip into the cool water and let myself slip into a dream state: away from the computer, away from my opinions, away from the town, the county, the state, the country, and the world outside this small parcel of land.
When Nika starts screaming, we see her on the sidewalk near the pool entrance, adjacent to the little garden. She is folded forward and holding her face. We jump out of the pool and bound toward her. Little Lila is there, too, eyes widening.
“Can you take her?” Yulia says, pointing to her younger daughter, and I quickly scoop up the toddler so Yulia can attend to her older child. Behind us, another mom, Kari, starts to yelp. I look back to see her by the pool swatting frantically at her long hair, dancing around.
I hold on tight to the child in my arms and spot my own in the distance, looking at me quizzically from a cluster of picnic tables.
“Stay right there!” I call out to him. “I think there are bees!” I say. I don’t want to scare him or others, but I figure I might as well bring some clarity to the confusion.
Yulia is now in the kitchen with Nika, who is bawling. Kari has stopped her frenzied dance and is now beside me on the sidewalk.
Then she glares at me with a gravity we’ll laugh about after the fact. She says my name slowly with perfect phonetics. When we run into each other in the years to come, I will do impressions of her in that moment. We will shake our heads and chuckle.
She holds out her hands for the child. “One. Just went into. Your bathing suit.”
I feel it suddenly, a light tickling on my stomach. I quickly pass Lila into her arms and bolt across the grass to do my own dance. I peel up my modest swim tank and commence the swatting. But it’s too late.
I’m pierced: I feel the sting.
It’s chaotic for a minute there.
And then it’s calm.
Nika whimpers while they pack up the car to go home. I accept an ice cube and slather on a little blob of salt paste, a salve quickly whipped up by someone I don’t know.
Just as when our son was stung, there are 20 or so minutes when I wonder if I’m allergic.
“I’m okay,” I assure him while we drive home, but it does kind of hurt. “It’s just like when you were stung. Remember that?” I ask, and he doesn’t.
But Nika’s been stung three times today on her face: the lower part of her cheek and under her chin. Was it one bee or was it three? Was it 10 bees or a thousand? Was it wasps? Hornets? I’d seen mine briefly (was it the same as hers?) – it was furry. It was attached to me and I had to flick at it twice to detach it. I don’t think this incident is something she’ll forget or I will either.
Later, we’ll all describe it to each other and to people who weren’t there, as if it was some kind of attack or battle. We will break it down to who was where, what happened first, what happened after that, what we each witnessed, and in what order. How Lila broke free at some point in the middle of all of it, slipped in a puddle under the pavilion, and hit her head on the cement. A lot happened in the course of about two minutes.
Nika will understandably develop a fear of bees, a distrust of them, these tiny creatures with stingers who maintain all the flowers in our yards, across the land, and apparently manage to keep our whole ecosystem churning. She will have a temporary fear of that idyllic little pool. They will take a break from going, and so therefore, will we, which is fine with me because I wasn’t really scared of them before, but now, laughter aside, I kind of am as well.
It’s late August another year later. People have died for all kinds of reasons, some gripped by a virus, some at the hands of law enforcement, some from hunger, some from fear of going to the doctor, some, like usual, from car accidents, cancer, and old age. We are outside, at a park, writing postcards to voters whom we don’t know and will never meet.
Our son, now seven years old, has become an expert at affixing stamps to the upper right-hand corner. He believes, at our urging, that everything we do matters. Even minor efforts, like these slices of paper, could maybe make a difference. This time, he has even drawn some stars on each one in blue marker.
From home, I comment, I comment, I comment. I try to not back down. I wonder if they can find out where I live. Of course they can. I try to not look away. I send don’t forget to vote texts for a local candidate, hundreds at a time, with the push of one button on my computer, and receive threats in return. I am told that my whole family deserves to die in a fire. Yulia is told she shouldn’t have been born. We try to laugh it off but these words also can’t help but sting. I remind myself that the recipients don’t see our personal phone numbers through this system. I send another batch, 250 then 250 more. I schedule and attend meetings, talk about things like volunteer engagement and organizational structure. What we’re doing might matter, it might.
When our son eventually drifts away with another little boy toward the nearby lake, I am glad. He has been so isolated, we all have, and the prospect of him making a new friend fills me with an amount of elation that I realize is not natural. From a distance, I see they have found a turtle. They are watching it walk slowly across a path, giving it space. They seem to be discussing this journey.
Blue pen, red pen, green pen, black. Each sentence a different color and scratched hastily, with hope. I chuckle with a friend nearby, listen to some remarks from a candidate, and join in the applause. I banter with someone I know from online meetings, who I have only met in person for the first time today.
Of course, we don’t know for sure if any of this will actually help. We don’t know what the results will be in November. We have no idea, yet, what will occur in DC in January. We don’t know what will come of the next cycle or the one after that. But we’re trying.
At our house, we never tune into those stations on the television. Even so, in a few short months, we will be forced to define the word insurrection for our son, though we’ll have no interest in doing so, and we won’t really fully understand what has happened or how it happened, ourselves.
“Mommmmmmmmmmm,” he screams from across the field, running toward us. The mental math again: moving fine, no blood. “Mommm!” he’s screeching. Déjà vu, but he’s bigger than he was before, and swatting at himself, specifically at his shorts. He’s in a violent state, jerking around, panicked. I rush in his direction and meet him, mid-field. He’s hitting at himself. I pull him behind a tree and pull his pants down quickly and see at least one fly away in the confusion. I know a bit what a sting feels like now; I know now how it hurts.
Honeybees can apparently only sting once; they die after they sting. Wasps and hornets can sting multiple times. Just like at the pool, I don’t know if this was a group of stingers or an individual, but this time our son gets four stings, two on his lower legs, two on his inner thigh, almost at his underwear line. He’s angry this time. Confused.
“I didn’t do anything to hurt them,” he says.
I tell him what I’ve learned about late August. I’ve heard that bees get nervous as fall approaches. I tell him that sometimes they have nests in the grass. He may have accidentally walked over one and this might have scared them. Their agitation causes them to lash out.
At home, he balances a plate of cheese slices and round discs of salami on his lap in bed. I place a few ice packs on his legs. Then he dozes off on a cloud of Benadryl.
“Just ignore them,” I used to say when bees came around our front porch. “If you ignore them, they’ll ignore you,” I used to say. But that seems like horrible advice at this point and, even if we were capable of ignoring them, our son now has every reason to believe that method won’t work.
Isn’t it better for us to acknowledge what could happen?
I tell our son: don’t flail, don’t swat, don’t risk provocation. I tell myself: don’t comment. I instruct him to stand up calmly and walk away then watch from afar to see what they’re up to. I read, but I don’t type. Now, I send texts to people I know, but not to people I don’t. I pay attention, knowing that there are aggressors among us. I wonder when we’re going to be poisoned next.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” I used to say to our son. “It’s okay,” I used to say to him. I don’t say this anymore.
Jocelyn Jane Cox holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is working on a memoir about her mother passing away on her son’s first birthday. Her essays, short fiction, CNF, and humor have appeared or are forthcoming in Slate, Shambles Literary Journal, LEON Literary Review, Brevity Blog, Roanoke Review, Five Minutes, Newsweek, WIRED, NBC Think, The Independent, Belladonna Comedy, Little Old Lady Comedy, Frazzled, Slackjaw, and Chill Subs. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives near Nyack, NY with her husband, her son, and her antique eyeglass collection. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynjanecox and Instagram @jocelynjanecoxwriter