is nothing until you make it into something; that’s what Nina loves about
baking. Flour doesn’t taste like much until combined with a few other things
and then put into a very, very hot box. The next time you see it, it has
completely transformed; it has become something that people will lust over and
praise you for. While it’s technically the product of chemistry, Nina prefers
to think of it as the closest thing humans have to magic. To her, the knowledge
of how to build this food is the most sacred that we have and have passed down.
Following the steps of a recipe is merely invoking it once again.
hears the argument rumbling down the stairs before she can make out any
specific words. Her father’s voice rumbles like he’s part bulldog, and her
mother is all high-pitched squealing and uncompromising wit. Nina dips the
whisk into the bowl of dry ingredients sitting in front of her and begins to
stir. White powder into more white powder; it looks like nothing because it
still is nothing. Nina realizes she’s left her ring on when a cloud of flour
puffs up. Tiny granules of it find their way into the flawed diamond. She pulls
it off and drops it into her pocket.
just don’t understand why you have to go today,” her mother says. “It doesn’t
only saying that because it wasn’t your idea,” her father says. “If it was your
job to keep the school running, you wouldn’t want me to complain about it.”
it’s Saturday,” her mother says. “Can’t you wait until tomorrow?”
walks the short distance to the fridge and grabs the butter. She warms it with
the palms of her hands and then unwraps it and drops it into the mixing bowl.
Pouring the sugar in after the butter, Nina turns on the mixer and steps back
to let it do its work.
. . besides, I’ll get in trouble if I leave it until tomorrow,” she hears her
will know?” her mother says.
hears a familiar clapping sound and knows her father has let his hands flop to
his sides in a dramatic, helpless gesture. “There are people all over that
school all the time,” he says. “If something happens, chances are I won’t be
the first person to know.”
mother’s voice drops, and Nina doesn’t hear what she says next. Nina steps forward
and turns off the mixer. She scrapes the sides of the bowl and then goes to the
fridge to get the milk. While she measures it out with the other wet
ingredients, she hears her parents’ conversation continue.
John,” her mother says, “it’s Daisy’s birthday.”
doesn’t see her father roll his eyes, but she knows instinctively that he does
this. He starts to respond, “I told you, I have to—“
to the school, I know,” her mother says. “But we both know that’s not where
whisks the wet ingredients until they begin to come together. “That’s such
bullshit, and you know it,” he says. “I’ll be right back.” Nina hears the door
open. She pours a third of the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl.
her mother says, but the door slams before she gets out the rest. Nina hears
her sigh, and the silence that follows is harder to listen to than the
argument. She sets the mixer on a lower setting and alternates between adding
the wet and dry ingredients to the bowl.
love?” her mother says as she walks into the room.
mom?” Nina says without looking up.
is the cake coming?”
mom,” Nina says. “I think it’ll be good.”
looks over to see her mother nodding.
worry about it,” Nina says.
not,” her mother says. “I’m not worried about it.”
stops the mixer to add the last of the dry ingredients and fold them in. She
notices that her mother’s fingers have started to rap the counter. Nina glances
from the skeletal hand to her mother’s face. She never realized it before, but
her mother has excellent cheekbones. Her dark brown eyes set over those
carved-out features gives her a hawk-like look. Nina starts to feel sick, so
she focuses on dividing the cake batter between cake pans.
going to have a good birthday, mom,” she says. “Don’t worry about that,
mother snaps out of her trance. “Why would you say that?” she says. “Why would
I be worried?”
quickly shakes her head. “No reason.”
good, because nothing is wrong. We’re going to have a wonderful day.”
slips the cakes pans into the oven and says nothing.
Nina puts on her dress for the party, she feels an exhaustion that she hasn’t
experienced in a long time. Maybe not since her senior trip in high school,
when her entire class went to the local amusement park. Nina, like everyone
else, had insisted she was too old for the trip and was just using it as an
excuse to not be in class. However, as soon as they got there, the seniors dispersed
as though they had never been to such a paradise before. The day flew by in a
haze of funnel cake, sunscreen, and wooden rollercoasters, and when the new
adults climbed back onto the bus at the end of the day, it all felt like a
dream. The final strains of their responsibility-free youth had been pushed
through their pores, and everyone was left feeling spent and wondering what had
is the exhaustion that Nina feels now. Her feet hurt from standing all day, her
shoulders are stiff from the posture of uncertainty, and her knees are about to
buckle underneath her. She struggles to zip up the back of her dress by herself.
It is different now, though; When she was on that bus, she had the hopefulness
that is an eighteen-year-old surrounded by friends, four years of college in
front of her.
pulls at the dress’s skirt and then exits the room she shares with her little
sister. Daisy almost runs into her as soon as she crosses the threshold.
“Careful,” Nina says, holding
out her hands as if to stop her. But Daisy can’t be stopped. She pushes Nina
out of the way and runs into the backyard. The doorbell rings and Nina goes to
she says, hoping her enthusiasm will mask the fact that she has no idea who she
is talking to.
a blonde woman says back. She pushes her daughter into the house, past Nina.
come on in,” Nina says. She smiles and tries to remember where she has seen
this woman before.
you have a . . . lovely home,” the woman says. She glances from the rip in the
couch to the worn carpet in the hallway.
you,” Nina says. She scratches her elbow.
should I put this?” the woman says, handing Nina a beautifully-wrapped pink
“Oh, I’ll take it,” Nina says. She turns and
the woman lets herself into the house. Nina watches as she crosses to the back
door and slides it open. Nina sets the present on the mantle over the fireplace
and walks into the kitchen. She wrings her hands and puts one on the fridge.
Then she hears the doorbell again.
her mom yells from across the house.
you get that?”
glances at the counter. She goes to the fridge and pulls out the platter of
celery and carrots. “I can’t, mom, I’m busy.”
hears her mother swear as she makes her way to the door. Her mother never had
the patience to learn how to walk in heels, so her feet make a comforting
clomping sound on the hardwood floors. Then silence falls as she prepares
herself to greet the next mom.
door opens. “Hi, guys!” her mother says.
Cathy, how are you?” a startlingly deep voice responds.
doing well, thank you,” her mother says. Nina squeezes her eyelids closed.
“Come on in.” The door shuts again.
hears her mother come into the kitchen. “What are you doing?” she says.
wraps her fingers around the sides of the platter. “I’m . . .”
“Take that out to the
backyard!” her mother says. Nina grabs the plate and carries it outside. She
sets it on the table and anxiously glances around the party. She doesn’t have a
peer in sight. Nina feels the sweat drip down her spine and her bare legs start
to itch. She pulls her heel out of her shoe and rubs it against the opposite
ankle. Then she hears it: a blood-curdling scream fills the yard and Nina’s
eyes latch onto the source of the noise.
sister is lying on the ground, clutching her leg. Her black hair is spread out
underneath her like a spider. Her enchanting green eyes are scrunched closed in
pain, although she isn’t crying. Nina runs towards her.
is screaming, not she isn’t screaming words. “Daisy, what happened?” Nina says,
but she can see for herself. There is a long gash running down the middle of
her sister’s leg, and Nina feels the urge to lean down and try to close it up
with her hands. She looks around, but can’t find the cause of the accident.
happened?” she says again. Then, “I’ll get mom.”
stands up and feels the blood rush to her head. She takes a few steps towards
the house, and then stops before she reaches the back door. Here, she leans to
the left and vomits the entire contents of her stomach into the bushes. Then
she heads inside.
Nina screams. She can hear her voice crack. “Daisy’s hurt! She needs you! Mom!”
mother appears from the hallway. “What?”
hurt! She’s needs a doctor, or something! She’s bleeding!”
my god!” Nina’s mother runs past her and into the yard where Daisy is laid out.
Nina can feel the fear run though her, but her mother is surprisingly steady.
She turns to one of the women present. “Call an ambulance.” The woman pulls out
her phone. “Nina?”
mom?” Nina says. The tears are starting to leak from Daisy’s eyes, and Nina
looks away so she doesn’t follow suit.
get your father,” her mother says.
go do it.”
everything, an awkward silence stirs between them. “At the school?” Nina says.
mother looks up and into her eyes. “You know perfectly well where he is,” she
nods and turns to go. When she reaches the back door, Nina hears the other
mother say, “An ambulance is on its way.”
isn’t sure if it makes her sadder that the bar is virtually empty. She hasn’t been
here many times, but as soon as she walks in, the bartender makes eye contact
with her and nods. There are a few cracked barstools that line the counter, as
well as a booth that looks like it hasn’t been scrubbed down in weeks. The
light is dim the way it is in bad cop movies. Nina makes her way to the end of
the bar to where her father sits.
she says. He doesn’t look up. “Dad,” she says again. He still doesn’t look up.
She walks forward and climbs onto the barstool next to him. The bartender walks
over and puts a glass of water in front of her. Then he retreats.
puts her hand on her father’s arm. “Dad,” she says, “you need to come home.
father looks at her, and at first his expression is horror. But as he surveys
her, his lips slowly crack into a smile. “What do you mean?” he says.
did something at her party, and when I left she was bleeding all over the
smile doesn’t falter. “But Daisy’s so little. What could have happened at her
picks up her glass and takes a large sip. Then she says, “Dad. Listen to me.
You need to come home.”
He leans forward onto the bar
and rubs his forehead with his hand. “Yeah,” he says.
wants to slap him. “Dad, I’m not kidding.” Still he doesn’t move from his
barstool. “Dad, I’m not fucking around. You really need to come home. Now.”
head snaps to the right. “Don’t use that kind of language around your father,”
use whatever kind of language I want,” she says.
eyes flash. “Not around me.”
she says. “Then come home and punish me, or whatever. Just come home.”
reaches forward and strokes the sides of the pint in front of him. “I don’t
think I can,” he says.
can,” Nina says. “Now get up.”
don’t understand,” he says. “There’s so much—“
“I don’t care!” Nina says. “I
don’t care about your life problems or your marital issues or your midlife
crisis. I care that my sister is gushing blood in our backyard, and you don’t
seem to give a shit.”
father stares at her. His cheeks turn red.
are you coming, or not?” Nina says.
father says nothing. He swallows and looks down at the bar in front of him.
stands up. “I don’t have time for this. We’ll be in the ER. You’ll regret this
when you sober up,” she says.
turns and walks towards the exit. She makes eye contact with the bartender, who
nods at her. Her hands barely feel the door when she throws it open.
mom texts her from the emergency room as Nina drives back home. Things are
relatively under control, but she needs her as soon as possible. Can she grab
Daisy’s stuffed giraffe and a few other things from the house before heading
over? Nina agrees and gets to it.
house is eerily empty for being so colorfully decorated. The food that she and
her mom set out is still in the process of being disturbed, even though no one
is left to eat it. Purple streamers sag over the doorway to the kitchen,
embarrassed that they are left without anyone to notice them. Nina runs to her
sister’s room and grabs the stuffed animal in question. Then she collects the
few other things her mom requested and heads to the kitchen. She drops
everything on the counter and goes to get a bag from under the sink. Nina
quickly packs it and throws it over her shoulder. Then she goes to the fridge
to get a couple cold bottles of water.
she opens it, she freezes. There, staring back at her, is the cake she spent
all day making and decorating. It mocks her with its rounded edges and garish
yellow frosting. She is tempted to take a chunk of it in her hand and throw it
to the floor. But no, her sister might remember it later and want it. There is
no point in being wasteful; This has been a tough enough birthday as it is.
the cake feels like an unexpected weight in her stomach. She reaches forward
and pushes it farther back into the fridge. Somehow, this move makes the nausea
subside a little. Nina slams the fridge closed. She is out the door and back in
her car in thirty seconds. It’s difficult to remember to drive slowly.
bright yellow cake is still in the back of her mind as Nina nears the ER,
though. Learning to bake was the moment Nina realized the power at her
fingertips. She has control over this magic of chemistry; she can cobble
together joy by combining what doesn’t naturally exist side by side. Nina
contains this old knowledge and calls it back when things are hard. Everything
is nothing until you make it into something.
thinking, breathing, these things are more difficult than you remember. If you
could just call them all back, summon them from death (the death that you made
for them), things might be better. Or messier. But in any case, they would be
different than they are now.
you’ve sent someone to the dead, there’s no retrieving them. There’s no lying
down in warzones; we’ve said it before. So take a deep breath and count
yourself as lucky. You get to live and dance with everything that was left
behind. You get to make house keys out of pieces of broken glass.
moment you taste the vomit in the back of your throat is the end; but you
already knew that. It burns there, and you ignore it. The disappointing thing
about expectations is that sometimes they come true. Sometimes everyone behaves
as though they knew what they were from the beginning. In this moment, the
argument over nature versus nurture will play through your mind and you will
know that it is neither, but something else entirely different. It is something
that swells in your brain, both there and not there, that accounts for the
decisions we make. You watch your limbs moving in this moment and have trouble
believing that you would ever do these things to yourself; but there it is.
course, your body knows before you know. The knowledge of this reality is as
old as anything has ever been. Your chest waits for the blow that is coming;
it’s not a physical blow, but then emotional pain has always had a place in
destroying the human spirit. You put your hands up to block it, but you feel it
anyway. The crush starts from the inside and works its way out. Your fingers
shake as you wipe the sweat from your forehead. It takes over every part of
your brain until it seems like someone is beating the rhythm of this feeling
into your skull. You finally surrender yourself to it, and let everything go.
then it stops. The wave passes as quickly as it came. You become hyperaware of
the tiles beneath your knees. They press into your skin and try to make their
mark. Your shaky legs press into the ground and try to raise your body up. You
feel the blood rush from the top of your head down to your feet. The thing that
whispers in your ear and tells you about your needs has been quieted for the
moment. You want to enjoy the quiet, but it is, in its own way, deafening. You
place your hands over your ears, and things get a little better.
rise from where you knelt on the ground and breathe deeply. It is your first
deep breath in a long time, and it transports you far away. This air fills you
and comforts you and makes you believe that things might be okay; but this
peace is momentary, and soon your insides are twisting again.
flush the toilet in front of you and watch as your dinner swirls away. Then you
walk to the sink and wash the vomit from your hands. You scrub them with soap
twice, but the smell lingers. You glance up at yourself in the mirror, and the
banshee that meets your gaze scares you. The dark pockets under your eyes and
the sheen of sweat on your forehead tell what has just happened. You know that
as soon as your mom sees you, she will know, too. Or at least, she would have
wash your mouth out next. The water tastes a little like the rusty pipes it was
fed through, but that is a better taste than stomach acid. You swish the water
around and through your teeth, and then spit it back out in the sink. You are
disturbed by its reddish-orange coloring, but it is quickly gone.
the water off your fingers, you grab your purse from the hook on the door. Your
body feels violated, but you also feel the cathartic release that this ritual
always provides. Your hands are still wet when you grab the door handle, so you
wipe them on your jeans and then head out.
you notice first is that the pace of conversation hasn’t slowed. Here everyone
addresses each other as if the world didn’t stop when you were in the bathroom.
At first, the noise hurts your ears, but you quickly adjust to it. It’s not
hard. This is a skill that is a requirement of being in your family. You can
turn down the noise at will and focus on the sibilant tones of one person. This
time it is your brother’s voice that cuts through it all. You walk back to
where you were sitting at his side and suddenly you don’t know what to do with
your hands. Your whole body is exhausted from the effort of throwing up, and
your arms hang at your sides like two dead fish. You think this might be
suspicious, so you nervously pat your purse with one hand.
reach your seat, and your brother is in the middle of a story about college.
These stories make you feel alternately relaxed and sad, but right now you are
glad for them. You tuck a piece of hair behind your ear and look down at your
plate. Now that you have seen what your dinner looks like mid-digestion, the
food in front of you is much less appealing. You spear a piece of noodle and
chicken with your fork, but when the smell of the sauce wafts up to your nose
you almost lose it. You quietly set your utensil across your plate and try to
join the conversation occurring at your right.
. .but of course we couldn’t do that,
so we ended up going to the grocery store,” your brother, Brian, says. His
words are directed at the man across the table, who is your uncle, and his
wife. You refuse to think of her as your aunt. Her hand reaches up to her
hairsprayed updo as she listens and searches for an errant hair. The corner of
her right eye twitches and her hand lowers to pat her stomach. The bright red
hair and horn-rimmed glasses of her make her someone that you would normally be
drawn to; however, there is a way that she looks at you that you don’t like,
and it has made you form an unearned narrative about her past. You always want
to grab her and shake her, but you haven’t done it yet. Brian continues, “You
should have seen the look on the checkout lady’s face! I’m sure we were the
first guys to ever come in there wearing Tigger onesies.”
uncle and his wife wait for a moment as they ponder whether or not the story is
finished. Then your uncle slaps the table with one hand and says, “Boy, you
sure are one funny dude! I was never doing anything like that when I was in
college. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the infantilization of this
generation. We would never have had the time to pull a stunt like that . . . When
I was your age, I was already holding down a full-time job and trying to earn a
living for my expecting wife.”
feel your irises float up towards your forehead. You have heard this lecture on
the crisis that is your generation before. Your uncle likes to take up the
subject whenever he detects a tenuous link to it.
. . of course, that was before I met Holly, here.” He glances at the woman
seated next to him. “I had no idea the life that was in store for me when I was
your age,” Your uncle looks back at your brother, “but I was still taking on
responsibility the way any man should.” You grab your napkin and cough into it.
A bit of leftover vomit stains its milky white fabric. You carefully push your
hand underneath the table and drop the napkin to the ground.
about you, sugar?” It takes a moment to register that your uncle is addressing
you. “Have you figured out ‘what you want to do with your life’ yet?” His
nostrils flare and you know this isn’t a friendly question.
lips part as you begin to answer. A hundred excuses hang on your tongue, and
yet none of them seem ripe for this moment. The urge to crush him runs through
you, to make him regret ever condescending to speak to you, but again you
realize how tired you are. You want to go back, unnoticed, but it’s too late
for that. You begin, “I—“
you hear your name and your head instinctually snaps in its direction. Your
mother’s eyes burn into you and she summons you with the crook of her finger. You
stand up and resent the scraping sound your chair makes against the floor. You
walk to her side and crouch down.
Bob’s getting into the wine,” she says by way of greeting. She indicates him
with a pointer finger. “I told you to watch for that.”
lift your hands at your sides in a helpless gesture. “What was I supposed to do
to stop it?”
sighs loudly. “I don’t know,” she says, “but now things are going to be a mess
when we try to get him home.” She grabs for her own glass of wine and takes a
few gulps. You notice that the skin on her hands is starting to wrinkle. This is
the only sign of a stressful life on an otherwise immaculate woman. Her eyes
only look tired because you know she is tired.
be okay,” you say. “We’ll figure something out.”
mother nods and looks over at your father. He is starting to stand up, wine
glass in hand. You and your mother both know what’s coming, but you watch it
happen anyway. “I think, now that we’re mostly through our meal, it’s time I
raised a toast. To my beloved daughter, Gracie.” He raises his glass to the
opposite end of the table, as do the rest of your family. Only your great aunt
looks on disapprovingly. In her eyes, your family doesn’t need another excuse
to drink. You look at Gracie. She should be shrinking bashfully into her seat,
but she isn’t. Instead, she sticks out her chest and smiles the smile of a
woman who has never been wronged. “We are so proud of you, sweetheart. May this
year only be the beginning of your successes.”
here!” one of your uncles yells. Everyone raises their glasses and begins
clinking them against one another. Your lonely wine glass sits untouched. You
feel a burning in your stomach and one of your hands clenches. Gracie’s
requisite blush has appeared on her face as she forces her expression into the
picture of humility. You lean against the back of your mother’s chair for
are you doing?” she says. “Get back to your seat.”
don’t know why you still follow her commands, but you do. You trudge back to
the place from which you were summoned and once again find yourself at your
brother’s side. “And that’s when we decided to open the second box of wine!” he
says, but this time you can’t figure out whom he’s talking to. Your uncle and
his wife are having a heated argument that they’re trying to hide from the rest
of the family.
scrape your fork’s tines across your plate and wish you had faked sick for this
dinner. The cousin at your left is having an animated conversation with the
person next to her about your sister’s new job. Gracie was promoted within two
years of working PR at a wine company, and so she is the talk of any of the
family who knows what is good for them. Your cousin gestures often.
don’t know how she did it,” she says, “but then, Gracie has always been able to
get her way. I always thought she would be a success in the corporate world.”
don’t hear a response, so you look over at the person your cousin’s talking to.
It is another woman, maybe a few years older than you, who is leaning forward
and holding onto the table as though it might desert her. She nods in what she
probably thinks looks like agreement, but it really looks like resignation.
Your cousin is too busy listening to herself speak to notice this, and
continues her monologue. One of her hands moves in a wide arc and knocks into
her water glass. It doesn’t stand a chance; it falls over towards you and
spills all over your plate. You look at it and feel grateful that someone else
ruined your food.
my god! I’m so sorry!” your cousin yells. The volume of her voice attracts
looks from other family members around the table. “Here, let me help you!” She reaches
towards you with a napkin, not seeming to realize that the water didn’t touch
worry about it!” you say, jumping up; but she continues to reach for you, so
you push back your chair and walk behind her. “I’m just going to get cleaned
up, or something.”
pretend to wipe at your clothing as you make your way down the table. You catch
Gracie’s eye as you walk. She stares at you, frowning, and then takes a sip of
her wine. You stop walking.
is it?” you say.
she says, and the corners of her mouth continue to slide down.
really,” you say, “what did I do this time?”
She rolls her eyes and
scratches the side of her face. “Nothing,” she says. “You just would find a way to make my special
dinner about you.”
crane your neck forward. “Marcie spilled her water on me. How is that my fault
rolls her eyes again. “It’s not,” she says, and looks away.
should keep walking. “And just because we’re having this dinner because of your
promotion doesn’t mean everything everyone does has to be about you.” You
notice the edge in your voice, and immediately want to take this sentence back.
don’t need everything to be about me,” Gracie says. “It would just be nice if
it wasn’t all about you and your huge, dramatic scenes, for once.”
huge, dramatic scenes?” you say, and move so that you are basically standing
over one of your aunts.
you know,” she says. Her upper lip is beginning to curl. “Don’t pretend like
you don’t know.”
that’s not good enough,” you say. “If you’re going to accuse me of something,
you’d better be ready to pull some actual examples.”
“Fine,” Gracie says, “then
let’s do examples. Do you remember my sixteenth birthday, when you decided to
get drunk and throw the cake at mom? Or mom and dad’s twentieth anniversary
party, when you went up onto the roof to smoke weed?” Silence has fallen over
the entire table, and you are surprised that one of your family members hasn’t
tried to interject yet. “Or what about my twenty-first birthday, when we all
you say, “I get it. You have examples. But I didn’t do any of those things to
hurt you or take away the spotlight.”
kind of worse,” she says. “In fact, that’s so much worse. That means you’re
just a stupid hurricanes that fucks up other people’s lives.”
collective intake of breath follows this statement. A few of your family
members look at one another. The uncle you were sitting across from takes
advantage of the silence. “Gracie, you shouldn’t speak to your sister that way.
Nobody deserves that kind of talk.”
turns on him. “Shut up, Larry, you’re not my father. Nobody cares what you
uncle starts to turn red and looks like he wants to say something else.
Instead, you say, “Gracie, that’s not—“
is this really an appropriate time for this conversation?” your mother asks
from the end of the table.
both ignore her. Again you say, “That’s not—“
figures this would happen,” your cousin says. “These girls have been at each
other’s throats since they were born.”
raise your voice. “You don’t get it, Gracie! Try! Try to put the pieces
together! The reasons all those things happened wasn’t because of you!”
brow is furrowed into frustration, but she looks like she’s on the verge of
tears. “How am I supposed to know that? Trouble always seems to find you just
when I need things to be about me.”
You want to reach across the
table and make some kind of physical contact with her. Instead, you say, “No,
Gracie, that’s just when you noticed it. Trouble finds me, it’s true, and it
finds me in a pattern, that’s also true. But it’s not you.”
lower lip trembles. “Who is it, if it isn’t me?”
sniffs and you know that she must have been holding onto this for a while. Your
eyes move over the table. You are met by the faces of the people you are
supposed to love, who barely know you. They search your eyes and mouth for
understanding, and are met by the brick wall of your resolution. You know how
to hide; you’ve been doing it for years. And yet, here you are. You have never
been more visible in your entire life. The knowledge of this makes you want to
throw up again, but it also makes you feel in command. For half a second each,
you lock eyes with everyone at the table. Only one person looks down. They
know, as you know, why your behavior is reduced to this every time the family
gets together. But you can’t say it. You look back at Gracie.
doesn’t matter,” you say. “Please, I never mean to hurt you.”
shakes her head. “That doesn’t make it okay.”
know.” You feel the muscles in your face contract as you try to fight off the
pain. “Look, if you want me to go, just say it.”
know I could never do that,” she says. “Our parents would never forgive me.”
glance over at your father and then back at your sister. “I’ll deal with them.
Seriously, if you want me to leave, just tell me and I’ll go.”
and Gracie look at each other. The twenty-two years of your relationship bend
between you. Then she says it. “Okay. I want you to leave.”
were expecting it as much as you weren’t. You nod once and feel the vomit rise
in your throat again. “Okay,” you say. “I love you, Gracie.”
turn and walk out of the restaurant. Not one person in your family tries to
time you say something is always the hardest. Every time after that the impact
is a little less. Press your body against the truth, and know that once it has
passed through your lips you can no longer control it.
like pyramids will fall at the sound of these words; they won’t, I promise.
They will crush everyone in the room around you, but people are resilient; they
will pop back into place and go on ignoring the damage if you let them. You
will learn that the sentences that float through your brain are less powerful
than you ever could have imagined. They call you and seduce you, but no one
else can even hear them.
love. Whistle until the horses come back. Your conjuring of the past makes
everyone uncomfortable; seep into it anyways. Let it fill you and move you and
change the way you write. There’s nothing for us here, so let us build
something new. We must start by knocking down walls and imagining the house we
will live in someday.
tried not to look disappointed when he walked into the coffee shop. Naomi
wanted to be the type of person who didn’t judge people so automatically; she
wanted to wait until they peeled themselves back before she made any decisions about
their places in her life. Still, it was apparent that the picture he used on
his profile was the best picture he
had ever taken. Naomi swallowed and glanced down at the table. They hadn’t made
eye contact yet. There was still time for her to slip out.
. . . What if that picture had captured something about him that he only let
out in front of friends? What if this was the persona he pulled on when first
meeting someone, if only to keep his guard up. Naomi could understand that.
Maybe it wasn’t his physical features that she had been attracted to. Maybe he
chose that picture for his profile because his true nature showed up in it, and
she had recognized it. Maybe this was the moment that would change her life
forever; that she could tell her children about years from now. She looked back
knew instinctively that his smile was more confident than hers. “Hi,” he said.
“Are you Naomi?”
fixed the strap of her dress. “Yeah, hi, I am,” she said. She extended her
hand, but then regretted it. Dates don’t shake hands. “Are you Tony?” He nodded
and took her hand. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
ran his fingers through his messy brown hair. This drew Naomi’s eye and made
her wonder if he had run a comb through the tangled locks before heading out.
It didn’t seem like it. Then she kicked herself again for being judgmental.
we?” she said, gesturing to the counter. He smiled and nodded and they walked
the few feet to the register.
stood as if they had known each other for longer than thirty seconds; as if
they had met up here on purpose. No, that was silly; of course they had met up here on purpose. Naomi scratched an itch
on her face.
getting coffee?” she said. “I’m not sure if I am. It’s kind of late.”
no,” he said. “I don’t drink coffee.”
paused. “So . . . why did you suggest we meet up for coffee?”
shrugged, a rough and nervous gesture. “I don’t know. It seemed like the thing people
nodded, although she didn’t admire his lack of creativity. He ordered a
blueberry muffin and she got hot chocolate. What had felt like an extremely
grown-up coffee date suddenly fell back into the eighth grade. Their order came
out and they went to sit down at the nearest table. An awkward silence grew and
shuddered between them.
he said, grasping for anything, “tell me about your writing process.”
um, what?” she said. Naomi knew he was only asking because they had chatted
about it online, but it wasn’t an easy question to answer. In fact, it was
probably the most startling and conversation-stunting question he could have
writing process or, you know, what you like to write about,” he smiled and
well, you know, it’s like how I tried to explain it before. And if I can’t
explain it via written words, then I don’t think I’m going to do much better
with speaking.” Tony pulled off a piece of muffin and popped it into his mouth.
“But, um, I don’t know, I guess you could say I write contemporary fiction.” He
raised his eyebrows. “Which sounds super pretentious, I know, but it’s kind of
the easiest blanket term I can use. Um, I don’t know . . . I like to write
about people and . . . how they got to be how they are?”
did not look impressed, and Naomi didn’t blame him. She let the end of her
sentence sit on the air for a moment. Then he said, “So like . . . what’s the
last thing you wrote about?”
last thing . . .?” she said. It occurred to her that he must be thinking she
was very stupid.
like the last thing you’re proud of yourself for writing. What was the plot?”
could see her fingers shake as she reached for her hot chocolate. “Well, the
last big thing I worked on was a novel.”
eyes finally lit up. “A novel!” he said. “That’s so cool! What was it about?”
looked away and watched the two girls sitting at the table next to them. They
were staring intently at their computers, but their faces were set in relaxed
concentration. Naomi felt the overwhelming desire to switch places with them
run through her. Then she snapped back. “It was about rape culture,” she said.
“I wrote a novel about rape culture.”
blinked. “I’m sorry, what culture did you say?” he said.
rape,” she said. “You know, when victims are blamed for their own assault and
rapists are rarely punished what they’ve done. And when aspects of rape are
woven into the everyday media we consume” She nodded as though enthusiasm might
help her out.
that’s really cool,” he said, although his face had gone pale. “You know, that
you wrote a novel, not . . . rape culture.”
she said, and nodded some more.
. . . are you really involved in . . . thinking about things like that?” Tony
read a lot of feminist blogs,” she said. “So probably more than the normal
person, but not like . . . an abnormal amount.”
you wrote a novel about it, though,” he said. He ran his fingers through his
hair again. This nervous gesture made Naomi feel a little better. Maybe he was
worrying more about what he was saying than the fact that she had mentioned
rape and feminism within fifteen minutes of meeting him. “So if you read a lot
of feminist blogs . . . what did you think about Emma Watson’s ‘He for She’
was a good question, and he was clearly reaching for a subject that he thought
she would be interested in. The problem was, she had never gotten around to actually
watching the speech. “I, um, I think it was good,” she said, wanting to die. “I
think it was super necessary, for, you know . . .” This was not the best time
to find out how bad she was at bullshitting her way through a conversation.
looked at her. Then he looked at the empty muffin wrapper in front of him.
“Look . . .” he said, “do you want to maybe go on a walk around the area. You
can lead the way, since you know it better. I just think . . . it might be more
comfortable for both of us.”
flooded through Naomi. “Yes,” she said, “I really, really want to do that.”
got outside and Naomi pulled her sweater on. She pointed down the sidewalk and
they fell into a comfortable walking pace. Naomi started to relax for the first
time that night. They began chatting about school and what he had been up to
he interrupted himself. “So . . . I have to ask: why online dating?”
shrugged. “I don’t know, why are you online dating?”
smiled. “I asked you first.”
shoulder raised ever-so-slightly and she said, “I don’t know. It’s hard to meet
people in person these days.”
nodded. “That’s true,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know how people find
each other without dating websites.”
she said, and felt the gap in the conversation opening up in front of her. All
she had to do was fall into it. So she did. “And meeting people is especially
difficult when you have panic disorder.”
didn’t know if this was the right way to say it. The casual tone of her voice said
there was nothing unusual about the sentence she had just uttered, but they
both knew that wasn’t true. She felt stressed and scared and . . . somewhat
freed by having told a complete stranger about her mental illness.
disorder . . .” he said. “Like you have panic attacks when you see, like, train
tracks or something?”
yeah, I mean, not train tracks. But yeah, occasionally I’ll be triggered by
something random like that and have a panic attack. It’s not a big deal,
though,” she added, although it really, really was.
silent moment passed between them. “One of my friends has panic attacks when
she sees train tracks,” he said.
really?” she said, unsure how she was supposed to respond.
he said. “Because, um, one of our friends . . . killed herself by throwing
herself in front of a train.”
she said. “I’m so sorry.”
nodded absently. “We all went on college tours together before she died.”
that’s so horrible,” she said.
nodded again. They walked in silence for a few minutes. “Anyways,” he said, “I
know this isn’t really first date conversation, but . . .”
okay,” she said. “We grew up in the same area. I’m pretty sure everyone is
connected to the train suicides in some way at this point.”
implications of her statement hung in the air between them. Then the
conversation rolled on. Never one for small talk, Naomi chatted on and on about
the gentrification of the area, the faulty school policies that let victims of
assault down, and how hard it was to explore the city beyond her side of town.
For his part, Tony listened and passionately contributed until Naomi stopped
feeling embarrassed about the way she was expressing herself. Although she knew
she would have trouble conveying the tone of the date when she retold it to her
roommates, Naomi reveled in the strange, dark, and stimulating turn the night
it got late, they started walking back towards his car. Naomi lived nearby and
could easily walk home. She would have to skirt a few of the darker sidewalks
and keep her eyes open, but it was doable. Besides, she knew all the security
guards who were working in the area. So when Tony offered to walk with her,
Naomi was quick to respond that, thanks, but she could take care of herself. She
didn’t add that she wasn’t comfortable with someone who was still basically an
internet stranger knowing where she lived.
got to his silver car, and he stepped towards it. This sudden distance between
them rebuilt the tension that had dissipated when they had left the coffee
shop. Tony looked at her, and Naomi suddenly realized how much she had shared
with him, this person she barely knew. She felt stripped naked in a way she did
not like and, more than anything, she wanted to get away.
this is me,” he said, gesturing to his car.
she said, “well, it was nice meeting you.”
nodded. “Yes, uh, you, too.”
stood there, staring at each other. Both wanted to say something about the
conversation they had had, or acknowledge how weird the night had been. Did
they want to do this again? Suddenly the words were too difficult to slip out.
goodnight,” Naomi said. “Have a safe drive back.”
too,” he said. “Um, have a safe walk back.”
she said, and turned away. She made it down the street and around the corner
before she thought about this last interaction. It was clumsier than she had wanted,
but then that was kind of appropriate for the date they had had. Naomi’s
thoughts rested on the possibility of dating someone that knew about her panic
disorder from the start. What a relief it would be to escape the dread of
having to tell him about it later, of having to betray him by telling a lie by
last relationship had been irreparably damaged by this sin. Naomi had committed
the fatal error of waiting past the point of when she realized she really liked
the guy. She had waited until she was standing in line with him. He took off
his sunglasses and looked at her and she realized, Oh shit, I really do like you. I am in some serious trouble. The impact of this thought
coupled with a morning’s worth of poor self-care led her spiraling into a panic
attack. Before they had gotten halfway through their food, Naomi’s throat
started to close and she said she needed to leave. On the way out of the
restaurant, she had haltingly explained the reality of her situation. He had
taken it all as a matter of course and took her home, but this moment existed
between them for the rest of their relationship. It existed when they drove
home together on their next date, and it existed when, out of nowhere, he asked
her if he had done anything to set off the panic. She had left out such a vital
part of herself when they first met and explained who they were to each other,
and this was a mistake from which it was had been too difficult to recover.
what if she could avoid that now? What if she had put her hands on her own
narrative and shoved it in the direction she wanted? And if he wanted to see
her again, that would mean something else. It would mean she was attractive beyond
her illness, an idea that she had never before considered.
the end of their date still lingered in her mind. A gust of wind pierced
through her sweater as she darted around a corner past a sketchy deli. Naomi
tucked her hands into her armpits and put her head down. No matter how easily
conversation eventually came between them, Tony would have that final
discomfort rattling through his mind all the way home; he would have the
knowledge that she now knew things about him that she shouldn’t know after a
first date. The boundary of intimacy had been crossed too many times, and Naomi
felt instinctually that she would never see him again.
fact rested on the back of her eyes and the back of her tongue. She wanted to
spit it out or swallow and digest it, but it seemed too important for either of
those responses. This person, this interaction, they weren’t what she wanted,
but they were much closer than she had ever gotten before. Naomi wanted what
everybody else did: the closeness of another human being that saw and
understood her, and still wanted to be with her anyway.
crossed the street and hopped up onto the curb. Despite having had an
alternately horrible, confusing, and dark evening, she felt like things were
starting to get better.
whiskey from a champagne glass with one eye still on the horizon. These walls
have never been big enough to contain me; this country has never been big
enough to contain me. I’m brave and ambitious and yet cower in fear at the
sound of an airplane engine. I can see the world fall at my feet even as it
crowds into my mind and makes me want to hide beneath a kitchen table. I’m sick
of the dark, sick of this ache in my lower back; I’m sick of all of it and yet
embrace it like my disappeared lover. No one would return to this place if
there wasn’t something calling us back.
temptation drips down the back of my throat and I choke on it. “My love,” it
says, “stay with me and watch as the tide comes in. I promise it will be worth
it.” These words echo in the back of my head and I feel them in my spine. I
want to make them real; make them part of me. But . . . they’re not. They’re no
more a part of me than the dead cells rooted in my scalp. I shed them like an
old sweater and continue walking. Even though it feels like my organs are
collapsing in on themselves, I’ve no use for a second thought. These dreams
have crafted me and led me here. I will follow them lovingly until my knees
Alice couldn't help falling in love. It wasn't the type of love that had been
worshipped in hundreds of years of literature and music; it was different. There
weren't any romantic declarations or practiced speeches. There was simply what
she felt, and that was all.
was always unexpected. She would be sitting in class and suddenly there it was.
Someone would raise their hand and say something so worthy of her respect she
couldn’t help it. She began to love them. She would go to great lengths just to
be near them, waiting for another gem of irreproachable wisdom to hold onto for
a few days. Of course, they would never know; they would never even suspect how
she felt or what she did. She formed attachments that lasted for years without
the other person having the faintest idea about them.
people’s words were not all that affected her in this way; their actions served
just as well. Anything that required more bravery than she possessed was, in
her mind, worthy of admiration. But that wasn't all it was. Alice was capable
of loving someone she did not know. Really loving them. She could hold them in
her bones, withstanding any kind of injury they might do her. She could be
exposed to the worst character flaws imaginable and still be able to remember
the spark of good she had once witnessed; the spark that led that person into
her life, unknowingly changing it forever. How could this person ever be
unworthy of her forgiveness?
hated it. Who wanted to be that person, the one that others could walk over?
The one that couldn't hold a grudge? Wasn't obstinacy a sign of strength? Alice
wanted to believe that she was independent, but it simply wasn't true. She
needed people to be good more than she needed anything else. Thus, she let
those in her life get away with murder.
morning she woke up hopeful that it would finally be the day of her
breakthrough. Maybe she would get the recognition she so desired, the value and
respect that she herself often gave away for free. This was what she thought
about when she got dressed in the morning. This was why she continued to spend
so much time on her hair and makeup, despite her total lack of human contact.
Her day-to-day experience was disappointing, but the possibilities remained endless.
There was still enough hope to get her out of bed.
It took a little
while for it to set in that she was still alone. Doubts began to fill her mind
as she walked to class. Her hand reached to open the door. There was that small
feeling of mystery, the idea that the unknown awaited on the other side. Maybe
today things would be different.
she entered the room, people looked up from whatever they were doing. It was so
brief; just one moment in time. Their eyes connected with hers and her stomach
flipped over. Please see me, she thought, Please just see me. Please
smile or say something or even glare or frown. Please just acknowledge the fact
that I am really here.
as quickly as they glanced up, they would glance down. She would have to accept
her status as a specter in the corner of the room. Alice made her way to a desk
as distant as possible from everyone else. She sat there and pretended to have
something else to do, something like reading or studying. People chatted with
each other as they waited for the professor to arrive, laughing and generally
raising their voices. For the most part, Alice could tune them out; but never
completely. Her discomfort continued to rise. Then the lecture would finally
begin and she could hide behind the enforced silence.
it was over, Alice raced out. She didn't stay behind to remark on the topic of
discussion or ask the professor a question. She didn't want to face her
solitude any more than she had to. When she got back to her room, she could pretend
that she was okay with the way things were. But she had to make it back first.
California wasn't always as picturesque as it was presented to out-of-staters.
While the climate was usually fairly mild and predictable, there were periods
of winter that were almost unbearably bleak. The sky remained grey, and the
wind blew the rain sideways. Alice had difficulty functioning when it was like
this. The water soaked through her clothes and affected her insides in a way
that she had never been able to explain.
made it out of the storm and up to her room. When Alice closed the door behind
her, she shut out a world. She peeled off her wet clothing and left it in a
heap on the floor. She would deal with it later. Fighting her way across campus
had drained all her energy. She wanted sleep. It was the middle of the day, but
she wanted to curl up in a ball and feel nothing for a little while. She
slipped into her bed and pulled the covers over her chilled skin.
had a particular way to organize her thoughts before she fell asleep. It
involved her incredible imagination and voracious capacity for story.
had never had a safe home to return to, or even somewhere where she felt she
could be herself. Her reality had always revolved around shame and repression
and staying isolated so that nobody was forced to see who she really was.
of forming connections with other human beings, Alice constructed new
realities. She created her own false history that became steadily more
elaborate until she almost believed it. Then it simply existed. It became its
own entity, one that she could visit on a whim. It was especially helpful in
times of distress, when it became a place she could go to escape for a little
while. Alice eventually grew bored of any one story and discarded it, spending
the next few days crafting a new one.
she is mysterious and strong, the girl that everyone wonders about. People pass
and can sense her pain, but don't know how to reach her. Finally, a guy about
her age sees her and tries to find a way through the obstacles she has
constructed. He looks like everyone and no one, and she knows how he feels
about her. He loves her, the way that she loves people without really knowing
them. He has found something incredible in her. At first she resists, but then she
lets him in. She tells him everything that happened to her, and he is shocked
because he had no idea.
turns over in her bed as she rides this wave of emotion. She hears the crack of
desperation in her voice as she speaks the words, feels tears fill her eyes. As
much as it hurts, she can't let it go.
then Alice reaches the point she always does with this story. She hears her
father's voice in the back of her head, pulling her down. She shouldn't want to
have a white knight. She doesn't need to be rescued. If there is one thing that
she has learned through the years of living under his influence, it is this:
she does not need to be rescued.
she switches over, discarding the fragments of this persona and assuming another.
This one is more vivid. It is one of her favorites.
begins with some natural disaster, a hurricane or an earthquake that causes
widespread destruction. Somehow, Alice makes it out alive. Stripped of all her
loved ones, Alice wanders through the wreckage of the city, feeling lost in her
immeasurable grief. Then she comes across a house. It is filled with a varying
number of children who need her help. She doesn't like children, but the
choices are easy. She will take care of them. She will advocate for them. Everyone
will make it out alive.
she'll do it alone.
occurs to her that, even in her most outrageous fantasies, she is still alone.
She shifts uncomfortably at this thought. She wonders what this means about
her, this relentless need to prove that she can make it by herself.
Alice drifts away
on thoughts of devastation and imagined heroics. She begins to let go and the
line between truth and all-consuming fiction blurs as she falls into the
oblivion of sleep.
My love, this is the last thing I will make for you, and I
promise it won’t be as bitter as the rest. We have been separated forever
(hopefully), but these thoughts still pool in the back of my mind.
everything to me, the whole world and the rain in California. You took my hands
and filled them with energy, took my bones and filled them with promises. Part
of my brain still wanders in the wilderness, looking for you. Your soothing
eyes are still where I left them, but they don’t hold me anymore. I walk among
clouds and through rivers and sing of the things that have gone.
then. Go out into the world and fill it with compassion until everyone drowns.
You split my palms open and left me to bleed, but my wounds have long since
healed. Find your voice, your real voice, and use it to call the lost back from
the dark. Paint pictures and hold mirrors until the monsters can’t bear to open
their eyes anymore. Love someone else, love many people, and try not to betray
them. There is a space waiting for you.
are no dreams here, not this deep. This deep there is only silence. For a
moment, I lose track of where I am; of who and what I am. I can hear my heart
beating so I must be alive. The silence becomes peaceful and I float along on
it until I start to fall. My head drops first, leaving my neck and torso far,
far behind. I don’t remember needing to breathe, but suddenly I need to. I gasp
for air that won’t fill my lungs and the panic begins to set in. There will
never be another moment but this one, and suddenly I know it’s true.
eyes snap open and the warm darkness floods around me. I’m not off in the ether
somewhere; I’m in my old dorm room. My roommate sleeps five feet away, draped
gracefully across her bed. A shock of blonde hair peaks out among the folds of
her fluffy black comforter. The presence of another human being soothes me, and
I relax back into sleep.
bouncers don’t know who they have, but a smile helps me evade the “No Sandals”
rule. My roommate glides past, asking them their names and repeating them as
though she has known them for years. I hear them, but forget them instantly.
She holds out a manicured hand and two of the men reach for it. She steps
inside, turns around, and says, “We’ll be back soon.”
will?” I say. “I thought we were here to dance.”
laughs. “But it’s so early! We can dance later.”
descend into the underground bar and she walks more confidently than I do, even
though I’m the one who has been here before. I stumble over ordering my drink,
but feel better once the whiskey burns into my stomach.
on,” she says.
Where are we going?” I say.
upstairs.” She turns and marches across the room, drink in hand. She glances
back over her shoulder and I hurry to catch up.
a slow night at the bar and the bouncers seem glad for the company.
are y’all doing back up here?” one says.
here to hang out with you guys,” she says. “What did you think we were doing,
man is taken aback by her recall of his name. A smile takes over his face. She
tries to step out into the night air.
on, ladies,” one of the other bouncers says, “we can’t let you come outside
with those glasses.”
“Alright,” she says, and leans
against the doorframe, “then we’ll stay here.”
take another sip of whiskey. Then I start to laugh.
so funny?” the third bouncer says.
I say, “all of you. Why do all of you need to be here? There are, like, three
second bouncer stiffens and says, “Just wait until 10 or 10:30. It’ll get crazy
looks at me. “Oh, we’ll be long gone. That’s way past our bedtime.”
fall into conversation with the third bouncer and insist that I could do his
job. He looks at the empty line and laughs, offering me the stool he sits on. I
prop myself up on it and cross my legs. The first bouncer ogles my breasts.
we had ladies like you out front, we might get a few more customers,” he says.
brushes past him. “No jokes, Chris, this is serious,” she says. A couple passes
the line, clearly uninterested in coming inside. “IDs?” she yells after them.
first time I see my college roommate she is the picture of tiny blonde
frustration. I walk into the room that we both have already moved into, passing
each other by a few hours, and see her hunched over her bed. Her right hand is
wrapped around a remote control and she is staring at the television sitting
two feet away.
still not working!” she says to her father, who is full of energy mixed with
mild irritation. Both he and our housemate see me come into the room.
he says. “It’s so nice to meet you!”
shake his hand. “Um, you too,” I say. I look up at her expectantly.
don’t know what else to do at this point,” she says, “I think we’re going to
have to call CSC.”
I say, stepping forward, “I’m your roommate. It’s nice to meet you!”
Her eyes flicker from my
enthusiastic smile to my awkward demeanor. “You too,” she says, and quickly
shakes my hand. She mashes a few more buttons on the remote and says, “I just
don’t know what to do!”
only Tuesday night and I’m already on the verge of tears. I walk into our room
and can’t stifle the feelings that are crawling up from my skin.
how was—whoa, what happened to you?” she says.
throw my bag on the ground. “I don’t know what I did,” I say. “I don’t know
what I did wrong.”
weren’t you at—I mean, didn’t you just come from bible study?” she says. I nod.
shake my head and cross my arms over my chest. “It’s not me.”
said it would be me, but it’s not . . . it’s her.” She waits for me to complete
my thought. “He chose someone else to lead this time . . . I couldn’t . . . I
don’t know what I did . . .”
She sits there on her bed and
contemplates the shape of my brow. This is a role reversal for us. “Do you
think you could ask him?”
you think you could ask him if there was something you could change? If you did
shrug and feel my bottom lip tremble. “I don’t know . . . Maybe. I just . . .”
takes a deep breath. “I’m so sorry,” she says.
wipe the tears from my eyes. “I don’t know,” I say. A few moments pass. Then I
say, “I’m going to take a shower.”
take the longest shower of my life. The hot water scalds my skin but doesn’t
let me forget the things that passed only a few hours before. I feel the
betrayal like something has started eating at my intestines. I get out of the
shower and towel off my body. Wrapping my hair up onto my head, I walk back
into our bedroom to get my pajamas.
roommate’s blue eyes are wide and filled with tears. She’s clutching her phone
to her ear. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. I understand.” She nods her as though the
person on the other end can see her. “Love you, too,” she whispers, and hangs
was that?” I say.
nothing, it’s not important,” she says, and shakes her head. Tears start
rolling down her cheeks. “It’s just . . . I don’t know—it’s something with my
boyfriend’s frat . . . I can’t . . .”
I cross the space between us
and hug her. We are not the hugging kind, but this moment feels important. We
pull away and look at each other. Then she reaches for the handle of tequila we
have left over from a night of partying.
you take a pull, I’ll take a pull,” she says.
smile, grab the bottle, and put it to my lips.
back home for spring break and a Snapchat from my roommate pops up on my phone.
I open it to see a low quality video of our housemate’s off-key singing. The
video was shot around the door to our living room and our housemate has no
idea. Ten seconds pass and then the video disappears from beneath my thumb. Then
it only exists between us.
Halloween night and I have nowhere to go. Truthfully, I’m too sick to be out
anywhere for more than an hour or two, so it doesn’t matter. But my roommate
has an invitation and is trying to decide what to do. I know she wants an
excuse to stay in, so we start talking about ways she could refuse. She picks
up the scraps of poster we have left over from a doomed art project.
can’t . . .” she writes in big block letters, “I’m busy.”
the stakes have been raised so I run to our room and grab a neon green trucker
hat, a long brown wig, and some sunglasses. It takes us four tries to film her
riding in on our housemate’s longboard, holding the sign and wearing the props,
but we finally get it. I send the clip off to her friend.
then sit down at our kitchen table and spend the next two hours filming
ourselves lip-synching to songs we have long outgrown. We never share the
results with anyone, but it is one of the funnest nights of the year.
pull out of the parking garage and turn on my blinker. I have just left a
particularly unsettling therapy session and I’m having trouble following my
thoughts as they collapse into one another. My phone starts to ring. It’s my
roommate. I slide my finger along the answer button and put it on speaker.
I say, my voice tired and strained.
the cheerful voice on the other end says. “Did you just get done with therapy?”
I should be back soon.”
you want to maybe come home and go get frozen yogurt with me?” she says.
laugh and relief floods through my body. “Obviously,” I say. “When has the
answer to that question ever been ‘no’?”
She laughs, too.
“Good,” she says. “I’ll see you soon.”
sitting on my bed, staring at my computer and trying to distract myself from
the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know it yet, but in a month I’ll
have my heart broken in this very spot by someone living 400 miles away. I hear
the front door open and feel the shake of the apartment as it closes. I know
from the pace of her steps that it is my roommate, just returned from class. I
subconsciously track her movement as she makes her way upstairs to our room.
I say when she appears, “how was your day?”
was good,” she says. “Although I had a little thing with one of the other
students in my class. This guy thinks he can correct me every time—“ She stops.
“What’s wrong?” she says suddenly.
I say. “What do you mean?”
been crying,” she says.
How do you know?” I say. “That was like two hours ago.”
shakes her head as if this is a silly question. She sits down on my bed. “Of
course I know,” she says. “You’re one of my best friends. What’s wrong?”
shake my head. “Just thinking,” I say.
. . .?” she says, and we both fill in the gap.
nod. “I don’t know why,” I say. “I don’t know why.”
she looks at me knowingly. “Because you think, maybe, things could have been
different if you had met at another time.” It’s not a question. “It’s hard when
you obviously have strong feelings for each other, and it still isn’t right.
And then you have to leave. Of course you’re sad about that.”
nod. “I wish I wasn’t,” I say.
too,” she says. “It hurts my heart to see you sad. It makes me feel like I
don’t know what I’m doing.”
smile and say, “The bonded pair.”
light behind her eyes is joking, but her mouth is set in a serious line.
“Libby, it’s real,” she says.
always thought I wanted to live alone, but I know better now. The difference is
subtle and significant. It’s as though something in my DNA says it’s safer to
live among numbers. I don’t notice this until my roommate leaves for the night
and the emptiness becomes so palpable I have trouble sleeping. Humans weren’t
meant to be so far apart; we cover our ears with our hands and call out to one
another across the void.