Ipecac. A word that pops and clicks on my tongue, a word from the deep jungle where men shoot poisoned darts like in the movies; ipecac is deadly but ipecac is what the baby needs because the baby swallowed poison. The baby is my brother Caleb. He’s been crawling for almost two years, crawlcrawlcrawl all over our tiny apartment, when is he ever going to walk? He crawled into the bathroom when no one was looking, the new bathroom that our landlord Mr. Ponte made for us by carving out a piece of the kitchen, so we wouldn’t have to share the one in the hall anymore with our upstairs neighbor. I love this bathroom because it has a bathtub instead of that stinky little shower where the drain always clogged. But someone forgot to fasten the baby latches on the sink cabinet and now Caleb drank poison and maybe he will die.
Unless. Unless I run faster than I’ve ever run before, to get the poison that will save him.
Out the door of our apartment at 18 Clinton Street, past the boarding house where Ben and the other old men live, where junkies climbed in the window once and put a pillow over Ben’s face so they could steal his change; past my friend Angel’s house, with the black shutters and a Coke machine in the kitchen and her handsome father who drives a Cadillac with white-walled tires that he washes every weekend; past the home for troubled boys, who are always standing outside smoking; past the home of Luka, the boy from Czechoslovakia, who wears tennis whites all summer and who I dream about while I’m in the bathtub. Then: look both ways and dash across Mass Ave to Alan Drug, the place with a speckled counter where you can drink vanilla and cherry cokes and read all the Mad Magazines and comic books you want for free. Just down the street is Cambridge City Hall with its turrets like a castle, and if you keep going you get to Brigham’s where my sister Mimi and I buy double scoops and sit on the grass outside City Hall to eat them, but there’s no time for that now. Now I need to be Mercury, like the symbol in the florist’s window, with wings on my feet, I need to be a gazelle racing across the savanna, I need to be in my seventh-grade gym class running to beat the boys in the fifty-yard dash, my heart knocking in my chest, my legs stretching like rubber bands to reach the finish line. Toward the medicine that will save my brother. There it is, it’s in the pharmacist’s hands, he’s already at the door, I pull out the five dollars my mother gave me, and he shoos it away and tells me, Get home, fast. So I race back across Mass Ave and down Clinton Street, the houses blurring past me, the little white pharmacy bag flapping in time with my arms pumping, my sneakered feet leaping over the tree roots bulging through the cracks in the sidewalk, and then up the front steps and into the house, pushing the dark brown bottle into my mother’s hands, and helping my stepfather hold Caleb as she pours the syrupy liquid down his throat. Years later I will read that Karen Carpenter drank ipecac to make herself vomit to lose weight and I won’t believe that anyone would willingly drink this poison—Caleb twists and cries like he is dying. But he doesn’t die. He throws up. He is saved.
Books and movies taught me that when you save someone’s life it means you are responsible for that person forever. Forty-five years later I am standing in my brother’s driveway, asking if he’s picked up his medication yet. He winces, like I’m asking him to drink poison. But he needs something for those times when he is crawling around inside himself and opening all the cabinets and doors, making it impossible for him to have a conversation, much less a life.
I don’t know if what is in those pills is medicine or poison. I’ve given up having all the answers; I can’t even run a city block anymore without my knees trembling. And I know by now that I can’t save my brother, but I can still run toward him.
© Caroline Wampole
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Caroline’s interview]