Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Fear

Years ago I was shopping in the cavernous Gap Outlet store on Milwaukee Avenue, intent on finding the perfect top for this Christmas party-ish thing I had at work. Some rap-reggae music pumped through the sound system, louder than the usual musak, and the kids behind the registers moved to the beat with just enough energy to make me think the manager wasn't around. A perfect urban holiday scene. I sifted through the racks until a found a deep red cardigan with a gray lace tank to go underneath--yes!--and I began weaving my way through the crowd to head towards the register when I heard:

"Jasmine, stop playing! Where are you?"

My 25-year-old bitchy, pseudo-hipster self scoffed at a woman who'd name her daughter after a Disney character. I got in line to pay.

"Jasmine! Jasmine!" The woman began stalking the aisles, calling out the little girl's name.

The music took on a bam-bam-bam heavier beat, a mocking soundtrack to the woman's voice, which was pleading now, choked with the anticipation of tears.

"Jasmine! Please! It's not funny."

I'm ashamed to say I wasn't the first to step forward. It was the woman next to me who did, adding her voice. "Jasmine!," she called out, and left her place in line, heading in the opposite direction of the mother. I did have enough sense about me to push up to the registers and ask the kids to turn the music off.

"No," one said.

"We don't know how," said another.

"Find a way to turn it down," I said. I left my stuff on the counter and called, "Jasmine!", and began walking circles through the store. A minute or two went by. The music cut out. More women shouted the girl's name. The mother, frantic, the tears coming freely now, dashed through the racks. Someone ran out to the street--the busy, bustling, high-traffic street--and then we all knew this moment could get bigger than us. Much bigger. The mother slowed for just a second, as she realized every bit of the store had been scrutinized. "911," she said. "911," women repeated, and there was a mad rush to the register and they scrambled to find the phone. I looked at the mother and my insides shook, unsteadying my legs and hands and the muscles around my mouth. Fear. Naked, desperate, wild, frightening. As frightening as anything I'd ever seen.

And then, in less than five minutes, it was over. A Gap worker handed Jasmine off to the mother, and the little girl--so little--wailed as the mother grabbed her. A flurry of activity and they were gone. The mother hadn't waited around for an explanation; she'd gotten out of the store as quickly as she could. I doubted she'd ever be back.

The women asked the Gap employee for the story. Unlike the mother, who had her daughter to hold onto, we needed the story.

"She was in the storage room," he said. "She closed the door behind her."

"Oh," we all said, and stumbled back in line to pay for our stuff.

I only told my sister about it. And when I did, I cried. Maybe it's true what some people say about the 97% of our brains we don't use, that one of those percentage points is taken up with scenes from our future, and every so often a little bit leaks into our consciousness and we experience deja vu. Maybe this incident struck me so hard because I knew I'd be at a mall with a toddler one day, a little guy who thought it was hilarious to hide behind a display at Old Navy. Or that I'd be running down the street calling my almost ten year old's name, only to find him at a friend's, playing Wii bowling. Maybe that's why I recognized that fear; I knew it was inside me.

After that incident, and especially after I had kids of my own, I couldn't watch a TV show or a movie about a kid getting snatched or read a book about children gone missing. It hurt too much. Those narratives poked at the fear always residing in the pit of my belly.

Until, for some reason, this weekend (You didn't know this would end with a book recommendation, did you?). I picked up Losing You, a thriller by the husband and wife writing team known as Nicci French. It's about a mother's hunt for her teenage girl who disappeared while on her paper route. A pretty by-the-numbers thriller, but it captured that fear with such brutal, encompassing force, I couldn't put it down. Maybe I admired the skill, the technique, and I guess I could separate my fear from the character's, or maybe, it was a case of classic catharsis.

I still won't touch The Lovely Bones, though.


  1. I know that fear. Your post had me crying. I recently read The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond. I recommend it if you can bring yourself to read another book on the topic of missing children.

  2. Beautifully retold. This happened to me. I was at ohgodwalmart. My oldest was seven. The way it escalated and they called a "code Adam." It makes me cry and want to vomit when I think about it. I remember tunneled vision, the surreal yellow sundress when they brought her back to me. ACK. I, too have a deeper understanding about lost children because of it.

    I read the lovely bones. As a reader I was engaged. As a mother I was horrified (which meant it was well done) as a writer I was editing. Crappy story arc at the end. :)

  3. The Lovely Bones is one of my all-time favorite books. It's beautifully written and believe or not it ends with just a little bit of hope.

    Isn't it amazing how different books and experiences affect us?

    For me it's the books about mother's dying of a fatal illness that absolutely kill me. The thought of being on my deathbed and knowing that I'd never be able to see my daughter get married or my son graduate makes me shrivel up inside.

  4. I'm on my way to welcoming a 7 year old into my home through adoption. Last night, my husband told me that one of his two greatest fears is that the child will try to runaway in the night and we'll lose him. I laughed - yeah, that's me, cruel to my husband. Then I read your post.

    Here's what I learned from you: I'm not ready to be a mom. I'm not afraid of many 'normal' things. Or maybe my brain just isn't in the right spot.

    I'm still going to adopt this little guy (even if I'm not ready, surely I can be in a month's time). I'm going to try to help my husband deal with his fear, because it is vaild.

    Thanks for opening my mind - this was a great post.

  5. Oh, Chantal. One thing I've learned from bringing two children into my home is you have no idea how you are going to feel once it happens. Whether you adopt or give birth, there is a before and an after, and they are so different.

    Don't be hard on yourself. Just the way you phrased your first sentence, "I'm on my way to welcoming..." tells me you you are a loving person.

    The love definitely comes first; the neurosis (for some people) follows!

    I'm envious of people who don't worry about such things. Not worrying doesn't necessarily mean you aren't ready to be a mom; it just means you haven't had the experience yet. Big difference.

    Congrats to you and your husband and your wonderful new family.


  6. Chantal - Loretta's advice couldn't be more perfect. (I love you Loretta! I think you need to start and advice column.) Good luck adapting to the wonderful world of motherhood. You'll always have a support group of people here should you need us. Of course we tend to be a little random, but sometimes randomness helps. Take care!

  7. Oh, man. The neuroses are just starting to creep in with my little one. I am like a hawk with the stroller lately. Not sure I can handle a whole novel on that topic.

  8. Holy crow, Loretta. Do NOT read LIVING DEAD GIRL. Don't do it.

    That is the first time I've every un-recommended that book!

    Your post gave me chills!

  9. I think it's baby steps for me. Maybe that TV show about missing people?