I peel myself from wet sheets, calling to my mother for help. She wipes down the plastic cover fitted to my mattress and remakes the bed while I, shut-eyed against bright bathroom lights, change into fresh pajamas. I keep at least two pair that fit, Transformers and G. I. Joe, though by now the printed cartoons make me feel almost as much a baby as still wetting the bed. I sleep dry the rest of the night, only to wake up wet again tomorrow.
I’m twelve, too old for these accidents to still be accidents—must be something wrong with me, I conclude. Something I couldn't see or feel. On the advice of doctors, I strip dairy from my diet, resulting in the longest month of this milk-guzzling cheese lover’s young life. Three days a week, my mother drives me to a chiropractic office where I lie on a table and try to relax while my glands are stimulated, the chiropractor’s knuckles working like pistons in my soft abdomen. I refuse fluids after six o’clock. I set an alarm for the middle of the night. Nothing fixes me. I sleep through the alarm and wake yet again in the aftermath, soaked in fluids I hadn’t put in my body. I’m starting to think of myself as failed experiment, as alien specimen, my biology part hose or fountain. Whenever I dare imagine myself, I see me from above, my body on tables, scientists scratching their heads over my impossible autopsy. Of course, the doctors, the chiropractor, and everyone else promises I will eventually outgrow wetting the bed, but I had already waited a lifetime. Childhood passes slowly when every night is split into before and after.
Although I only wet the bed at night, I was a bedwetter all the time, and being a bedwetter eroded possibilities. I couldn’t sleep over at friends’ houses. I skipped camp with my sixth-grade class in Sonora; I joined the seventh-grade class instead, and for a week I avoided answering my new classmates’ questions about why I was not at camp. My evasions, misdirection, and outright lies proved more isolating than if I’d faked sick and stayed home, but not as isolating as wetting the bed at camp would have been. The teachers knew I wet the bed; they knew why I could not tell anyone my age the truth. My mother told a few parents as well. If I’d been invited to stay the night somewhere, my mother would decline on my behalf, and on the drive home she’d give me another name in the shadow network of adults who kept my secret from their children, my friends. Knowing they knew made me more ashamed than ever. Being a secret bedwetter chiseled all my experience into certain shapes. Decided the poses I assumed. Made keeping the secret my life’s work: I couldn’t imagine surviving exposure.
I was made of hidden frailties.
My father had been applying a chemical to our family vineyards that depressed the population of Black Widows since before I was born, but after changing chemicals when I was twelve-years-old the population exploded.
The first Black Widow I ever saw had made a web in the irrigation valve of a vineyard row. It appeared as a red hourglass floating in the dark, little more than a heat spot in my vision, barely enough to make me pause before putting my hand in the valve to turn the regulator. As my eyes adjusted, the Black Widow’s fat body and eight sharp legs like jointed needles resolved into view. I asked my father what I’d found. He killed the Black Widow with the end of his shovel handle.
Soon Black Widows moved out of irrigation valves up the canopy of vines to live between the berries of grape bunches. They dropped flossy webs from our garage rafters to the concrete floor, their black bodies camouflaged like assassins in the night. I found a Black Widow in the coat closet by our back door, vibrating in her web with a blister-white egg sack; after that I checked my coats with a flashlight before putting them on.
Black Widow venom induced nonstop retching, shook the body from the inside out, and could prove fatal to the very old, the very young, and the ill—the last danger zone terrified me most because I worried venom entering my body would expose yet another frailty I didn’t know hid inside me.
Around the dinner table one night, my mother told a story about Black Widows making their homes in port-a-potties, which from everything I’d been learning about the invaders on our doorstep, sounded to me like ideal Black Widow habitats: dark and damp, where victims willingly exposed their softest, most tender flesh to attack. She claimed to know someone bitten in the privates. I could not have borne such humiliation.
Held annually in my hometown and attracting people from all over the central valley, the Caruthers fair was the largest free-gate fair in California. The very old checked in with each other to learn who had survived the year. The very young were debuted, shown off. Older children rode rides, claimed midway prizes, asked their parents for toys from stalls in the commerce barn, and to look again at the animals in the Future Farmers of America pens. Teenagers shared first kisses at the fair. I’d been one of the babies debuted and in a few years would be one of the kissing teenagers. At twelve, I was in between, and a secret bedwetter.
My mother gave me money for rides, games, and root beer before she started another shift volunteering at my school’s food booth. I suppose she wanted me to enjoy myself, safe from my nighttime problem, but I’d learned to gauge risk in every situation, and the fair seemed dangerous.
In the midway, the smells of cotton candy and corn dogs mingled with the fumes of diesel that kept the rides spinning. People lined up to ride the Gravitron, Zipper, and Hammerhead, each pulsing with colored bulbs. Barkers shouted at passersby, daring them to test their luck. Extension cords passed under gray protective covers crossing the grass path—I looked at those dull shields instead of meeting the eyes of strangers or searching for friends in the crowd. I wanted to be invisible, inaudible, without mass or a trace of odor. I kept out of everyone’s way, kept away from people I knew, and kept drinking my root beer. Soon I needed a bathroom.
My blood went cold at the sight of port-a-potties. I could almost see through the plastic doors to an executioner’s row of Black Widows, rubbing their legs in anticipation of unwitting victims. Except I was not unwitting. I'd armed myself with knowledge and would not be undone by the urge to pee. I held it. Turned more laps around the crowded midway, ignoring the barkers, side-stepping couples, hiding from classmates. Until I pissed my pants.
One story should not have been enough to frighten me out of using port-a-potties, especially as pressure built in my bladder, but my reality had been shaped by stories, by imagining what would happen if. I didn’t skip sleepovers and sixth-grade camp because I wet the bed, I skipped because of the stories I’d invented about what would happen if my friends ever found out I wet the bed: I’d be ridiculed, pariah-fied, ejected from friendships with cause. The truth about me would flood the world, drowning my past as well as future, and I would never arrive anywhere I hadn’t already pissed myself. To pass the hours I might have otherwise spent with friends I read books, adding shape and form to the dramas already in my head. Of course I avoided port-a-potties. I’d pictured Black Widows biting my penis, pictured my gnawed penis falling off, though not before deadly poison had spread to the rest of my body—I’d imagined calling my mother from another room to help me, and imagined her arriving too late, to find a husk of skin and blood on the floor, a death spasm knocking my knees. Such conjurations overpowered reality.
I rushed from the midway without letting myself run. Found some privacy at the back of the food booth. Rubbed the corduroy grain of my pants up and down until I'd blended the wet and dry to the same shade, more or less. Soon my mother checked on me. I must have stunk. My hands were sticky. My face throbbed scarlet. I felt my body had betrayed me. Root beer had betrayed me. The fair had betrayed me. My secret—my life—balanced on the edge of exposure.
My mother gave me a long look but didn’t ask for explanations. I sat on a food booth stool for the rest of her shift, assuring her this was where I wanted to be, that I didn’t need anything, not even water. I felt the first breeze of fall blowing through my wet pants, which signaled the Black Widows’ coming hibernation, so in a way I’d saved myself. By refusing to use a port-a-potty I’d outlasted the threat for another year. My legs remained strong enough to stand on, even if shivering. I would suffer no collapsing muscles, no poison seizures, no parts dropping off. The fair had betrayed me, but I would not forever spoil the fair for all those people, family, friends, and strangers, who would have otherwise watched me die.
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