By Lauren Slagter
Pain in her neck was the first thing Sara became aware of as she blinked open her heavy eyelids. She noted a blue curtain running the length of the linoleum-tiled room, metal rails on the side of her bed and a splint on her left wrist, with a petal of the rose inked on the inside of her arm just visible beyond the black velcro strap.
Slowly, she turned her stiff neck so she could face the Sunday morning light streaming through a small window on the far wall. She heard voices murmuring on the other side of the curtain and the beep of machinery near her head.
“What happened?” The words scratched her dry throat, coming out barely above a whisper.
A metallic jangle of curtain rings sliding along the rod announced the entrance of a heavyset woman in medical scrubs.
“You don’t remember last night?” the nurse said. Her quick smile didn’t spread far enough beyond the corners of her mouth to cover the glint of judgment in her eyes. Sara knew the look well.
“Good morning?” Sara frowned and tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear with the hand not in a splint. “Who are you?”
“I’m the person who’s been taking care of you all night. My name is Pam,” the woman said, scanning her clipboard. “The police are on their way to pick you up, so we need to get you discharged.”
“Police?” Sara raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, the police.” Pam’s disapproving look wasn’t papered over with a smile this time. “They said you were drinking last night when you crashed your car. You sprained your wrist, so you need to keep this splint on for seven to 10 days. And you may feel pain in your neck from whiplash.”
Sara struggled to piece together what happened the previous day. She remembered the fight with her mother, Kim, who had been pestering Sara about plans for an upcoming court-mandated sleepover with her daughter, Coral.
“What do you think you’ll have for dinner?” Kim had asked standing over her kitchen sink doing dishes, her sweatshirt sleeves pushed up and her graying brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“Not sure yet, maybe those frozen chicken nuggets you throw in the oven?” Sara replied from the stool at the kitchen counter without looking up from the Cosmopolitan magazine she flipped through. Sara had never cared much about doing her hair and makeup, and she was much curvier — the nice word for the extra weight she carried — than the women pictured on the glossy pages. But she liked to pretend she could be glamorous if only she bought the recommended lipstick.
“You’ll want a vegetable, something healthy,” Kim said. “What about after dinner? Do you have games to play with her? Books to read together?”
“I’ll figure it out.” Sara was tired of the topic.
“And you need to clean up your apartment before she and the caseworker come over, right? When are you planning to finish your laundry?”
“Mom, relax! The sleepover is a week away. I don’t have every minute planned yet.” “You want me to relax?” Kim stopped with the dishes and turned toward Sara, water still streaming from the faucet. “You’re relaxed enough for the both of us. Someone has to show up for our girl!”
“And let me guess, you don’t think I’m up to the task. Thank God you’re here to save everybody,” Sara fired back sarcastically.
They hurled insults at each other until the slam of the front door ended their screaming match as Kim stormed out of her own apartment. More doors slammed as Sara paced the kitchen, opening cupboards so she could bang them shut. She spotted a bottle of vodka tucked behind a stack of paper plates in the cupboard by the sink.
The familiar burn of the first gulp spread from her throat through her chest. Another pull and the tension dropped from her shoulders. She slid her hip on the edge of the kitchen counter and perched there, cradling the bottle to steady her hands still trembling with anger.
Coral hadn’t spent the night with Sara since she was placed in foster care nearly two years ago. That night Sara had put Coral to bed and then gone to a friend’s house. She was blacked out on Vicodin and Jim Beam when police arrived to break up her fight with another woman. The officers called Child Protective Services, and a caseworker arrived in the middle of the night to pack a bag for Coral and take her away.
That was when Sara “hit bottom,” as her court-mandated group therapist said. She’d since quit the booze (mostly), stopped seeing the doctor who treated her chronic back pain with endless Vicodin prescriptions, taken the required parenting classes, passed her drug tests, and sat through countless supervised playtimes with Coral. Under the watchful eye of the caseworker, Sara and Coral played Uno and forced small talk so Sara could prove her parenting abilities. The problem was Coral had become so angry. The girl was only 12, but Sara couldn’t say anything without Coral snapping back at her.
If they could successfully get through a few sleepovers, Sara’s attorney said she would have a good shot at regaining custody of her kid. Taking swigs from the bottle of vodka, Sara felt the walls of her mom’s now-silent apartment closing in on her. Her daughter, her mom, the CPS caseworker and the judge were counting on her to do this sleepover right — though deep down, she suspected they doubted she could. She doubted she could.
Sara hopped down from the kitchen counter and grabbed the keys to the beat-up black Ford Escort she shared with her mom. She needed to get out of her mom’s apartment and out of her own head. A trip to Joe’s, her favorite bar, would make her feel better. She hadn’t been there in months, since she was on her best behavior for the court. But a night of chatting with the bartender, Shawna, and running the jukebox would be a welcome relief. She could refocus on the sleepover and make up with her mom the next day.
She didn’t remember anything else from the night before.
“So the hospital’s blood test confirmed your blood alcohol concentration was 0.12, over the legal limit. The police say you crashed your car into a light pole in the apartment complex parking lot,” Sara’s attorney, Mark, read to her from a police report as they sat on a bench outside the courtroom following her arraignment Monday morning. “They’re going to bring this up at your next hearing. We’ll have to decide if you want to stick with the not guilty plea we entered today or try to negotiate a deal. I want to warn you, you could face jail time.”
Sara nodded numbly. The boom of the judge’s voice as he announced the driving under the influence charge still echoed in her aching head. Turns out, she never made it to the bar or even out of the apartment complex after the argument with her mom. Officers had checked her out of the hospital and into jail on Sunday afternoon. Unable to post the $500 bail, she spent a sleepless night on a metal bunk before appearing in the courtroom, where the judge waived bond since she couldn’t afford it.
After debriefing with her attorney and finally on her own, Sara paused on the steps outside the courthouse. A deep breath of chilly Midwest January air cleared her muddled mind. She made a beeline for the bus stop down the block, eager to be home where she could crawl into bed and pretend none of this was happening. As she waited for the bus, she switched on her cell phone for the first time since jail staff returned it to her. Voicemail alerts flooded the screen. The bus pulled up, and she hit play on a message from her caseworker as she stepped aboard and paid the fare.
“Sara, this is Linda. I was at the courthouse for another case this morning and saw your arraignment on the docket. We need to meet Thursday to decide how you want to proceed with your custody case. In light of this new charge and the fact we’re nearly two years into this case, we’re prepared to file a motion to terminate your parental rights. That means we’d have a hearing where the judge would make a permanent decision about your ability to parent Coral. Or, you have the option to voluntarily give up your parental rights and we don’t do the hearing. I’ll tell you more about each option and answer any questions you have on Thursday. Please be at our office at 10.”
Sara slumped in the bus seat and watched through the window as street signs and trees passed by against the gray sky.
At the liquor store near her apartment, she grabbed a cheap bottle of pinot grigio from the bottom shelf. Not like another drink could make things any worse. Finally home, she unlocked her door and carried a burst of cold air into her one-bedroom apartment. The living room was furnished with a TV stand, couch and chair her mom helped her pick out from the Salvation Army. A crockpot she was using more frequently to make dinner — like the parent educator taught her — sat out on the kitchen counter. This apartment didn’t feel like home. She and Coral had always lived with Sara’s mom, Kim; that was home. But now half of the monthly disability check Sara received due to her back pain went to rent for this apartment a couple buildings over from her mom’s place. Sara had leased the apartment to appease her caseworker, who insisted she demonstrate she could take care of herself as well as her daughter.
Struggling with the corkscrew to open the bottle of wine tweaked Sara’s wrist again, but after half a glass, the wine dulled the pain. She sank onto the couch and absentmindedly rubbed her right thumb against the tattooed rose petal on her left arm — the touchpoint that reminded her of her daughter. A coral rose for her Coral Rose. Actually Sara got the tattoo first — to celebrate her 17th birthday, shortly before finding out she was pregnant. Her favorite color and favorite flower, why not her baby’s name? Most people would get a tattoo in honor of their kid, but Sara always seemed to do things backward, unaware of the status quo other people seemed to grasp innately or unable to meet others’ expectations for her. A basket of laundry taunted her from the living room chair, so Sara scooped it up and walked to the bedroom intending to put away the clothes. But her gaze lingered on the pastel drawing of an oversized rose tacked to the wall above her bed. Drawing had always been Sara’s escape. Moving her hands to create lines and shapes was the only way she found stillness inside. Her thoughts could assemble themselves in the saturated colors she blended, rather than swirling around in her head. Art had been the one class she looked forward to in high school, before she’d dropped out when her rounding belly made her the topic of gossip whispered at her classmates’ lockers and announced the pending arrival of Coral Rose.
Coral was 9 when she and Sara drew the rose picture together, a few months before Coral went into foster care. Sara remembered waking late that Saturday as Kim finished clearing Coral’s syrup-covered breakfast dishes from the table and announced she’d be at bingo for the rest of the day. Battling a hangover, Sara reached for the pill bottle in her purse. “What do you want to do today, girlie?” she asked Coral, who was still wearing her pink camo pajamas. “We could walk to the park. Maybe check out books at the library.” Sara froze when her hand landed on the pill bottle and felt no rattle inside. Had she taken her last Vicodin the night before? Her mind raced through her options to get more pills and realized none of them were possible with Kim gone with the car and Coral under Sara’s supervision. Without her steady supply of pills, Sara would be in no condition to take her daughter in public.
“Actually, you know what would be fun?” Sara shifted tactics, trying not to panic. “What if we drew a picture together? Like a big one, with my nice crayons.”
“The nice ones?” Coral’s brown eyes widened, surprised she would be allowed to use the pastels her mom said were for grownups.
“Yeah, I’ll show you how to use them. Why don’t you go get my crayon case and a sheet of drawing paper from the bedroom,” Sara said, leaning back on the couch. She took a ragged inhale and tried to focus on a second of relief from her pulsing headache. Coral settled on the floor beside her mom, and they spread the large sheet of paper across the coffee table. Sara started to outline a rose, ring after ring of petals stretching to the page’s edge, her hands shaking as she drew.
“It’s your flower,” Sara said, grabbing the orange, pink and red crayons from the case. “And this is how we make your color.”
Coral’s fingers followed Sara’s as they blended the creamy pastels between the lines of the spiraling petals; the girly pink, sunny orange, and fiery red combining to create a warm hue that always reminded Sara of a tropical breeze — or at least what she imagined a tropical breeze felt like when she looked at the poster of a beach scene hanging in her principal’s office, where Sara had waited to hear the same lecture every time she was caught cutting class. Sara’s stomach churned, but she forced herself to conceal her pain from her daughter.
“It looks like your rose,” Coral said, standing back to admire their masterpiece and pointing toward her mother’s wrist.
“You’re my rose,” Sara replied, catching her daughter’s hand and pulling her close to her chest, her arm wrapped around the girl’s small shoulders. She couldn’t let her know anything was wrong.
A few sips of wine remained in the bottle, and Sara gave up on the laundry and lay down on her bed. The court didn’t understand the bond she had with her mom and her daughter. Kim had requested custody of Coral, but the court knew Kim and her daughter were inseparable. If Coral was to live with either of them, Sara would need to clean up her act. Coral’s dad — who Sara spent time with when she was skipping class during high school — had cut ties with Sara years ago; the latest she heard he was in prison.
“It appears the grandmother often prepares snacks and activities in advance of the mother’s supervised visits with the child,” read a line in the thick stack of reports the caseworker had compiled on Sara’s interactions with her daughter.
So what if Kim helped out? Sara was still the girl’s mom. At one of their recent visits, Sara had suggested Coral draw with her like they used to.
“Mom, I’m too old for coloring,” Coral rolled her eyes. Instead she told her mom about the A she got in math, how her teacher said she could be an engineer when she grew up, the sleep-away camp her foster parents planned to send her to this summer, and the neon Under Armour hoodies she’d meticulously selected during back-to-school shopping for sixth grade. Her words jabbed at Sara, underscoring the gap between what Coral wanted and what Sara had to offer.
Suddenly Sara felt the wine coming back up. She dashed to the bathroom, kneeled on the dirty blue mat in front of the toilet and threw up the acidic alcohol. Along with the bitter bile, up came the sadness she carried in the pit in her stomach, the insecurities and self-doubt, the belief she could be better. She emptied herself of all she could no longer stand, and her head felt surprisingly clear as she steadied herself on the bathroom floor. She knew what she needed to do.
The frigid air cut through Sara’s T-shirt as she got off the bus a few days later and walked up the cracked blacktop driveway toward the Department of Health and Human Services. The square brick building was blandly administrative, looking both innocent of the emotional baggage dragged through its halls and appropriately ominous.
She took the stairs to the Child Protective Services waiting room on the second floor, where she’d spent so many afternoons over the past two years. Sara often brought Kim along to these meetings, but today she wanted to come alone; she’d already told her mom what she had decided. The smell of stale coffee met her at the door, and the receptionist greeted her by name. Sara managed a nod in acknowledgement as she settled onto a hard plastic chair. She usually stole glances at the other people in the waiting room, looking for signs these folks were more or less messed up than she was. But today, Sara focused on untangling the words she’d need to explain her choice.
Seated across the table from her caseworker, Linda, in their usual meeting room, Sara fiddled with her wrist splint. She talked in circles about the car crash, how hard she’d tried the past couple years, and how she wanted to do right by her daughter. Finally, there was nothing left but to detonate her sentence-long bomb.
“It’s better for Coral if I give up my parental rights.”
With her revelation came a flood of tears.
“I respect your decision,” Linda said, her blazer bunching awkwardly around her shoulders as she leaned toward Sara. “Coral’s foster parents have expressed interest in adopting her, and your decision will allow that to proceed more quickly. They’ll take good care of her.”
Sara inhaled sharply and closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to block out the image of someone else taking care of her baby girl. But she wanted better for Coral than what she could give her. This could be a fresh start for both of them, a chance for Sara to pick a different path for herself.
Linda handed tissues to Sara as she cried. After several minutes of trying to catch her breath and stem the flow of tears, Sara rushed out of the office and away from the course of action she had set into motion. On the bus, she rode past the stop at her apartment complex and got off near Joe’s instead. The place would be mostly empty this early in the afternoon. She felt more at ease as soon as she stepped into the dim room that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and beer. Weaving through a cluster of low black tables and chairs, she settled onto a stool at the dark wooden bar.
“Hey girl, it’s been a while,” the bartender Shawna, wearing her signature black T-shirt and heavy eyeliner, greeted Sara and started mixing her usual vodka-tonic. Shawna eyed the splint on Sara’s wrist, and Sara’s right hand instinctively reached to touch the rose petal there. “What happened to you?”
“Just my latest screw up,” Sara’s laugh didn’t come out as light-hearted as she had hoped. “It’s not a big deal. I’m sick of wearing this thing.” She started to undo the velcro straps and slid the stiff fabric off her arm, her skin looking pale and shriveled where the splint had left imprints. Her coral rose seemed especially vibrant in contrast. Shawna set the drink on a napkin in front of Sara, alongside the splint she’d laid on the bar.
“Oh, I’ve never noticed your flower,” Shawna nodded at the tattoo. “How long have you had that?”
“I got it on a whim in high school,” Sara said, realizing in all the late nights at Joe’s she had spent joking with Shawna, she hadn’t mentioned her daughter. There was no reason to bring up her and her connection to the tattoo now.
“It’s pretty,” Shawna said as she turned to head to the other end of the bar. Sara folded her injured arm against her stomach, the coral rose inked on her skin held protectively against her soft center. With her other hand, she picked up her drink.
About the Author: Lauren Slagter is a writer and freelance journalist who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and has roots in a handful of small Midwest towns. Her journalism has won numerous awards, and she has a creative nonfiction piece pending publication in Great Lakes Review. See more of her work at laurenslagter.com.