“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.
Rose Smith was born in Utah and raised in Arizona and upstate New York. She is the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story, Idaho, was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Rose lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
“Serpentine” by Ember Johnson
Ember Johnson’s essay “Serpentine” was a finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. In this piece, Johnson masterfully evokes tension and anguish through her poignant exploration of her experience as a military wife and widow, offering a unique perspective on the burden of carrying on alone.
by Ember Johnson
At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband’s body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bed sheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss. Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin.
First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I’ve been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I’m a military wife. And he’d come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.
I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.
I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.
“Where,” I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, “where did you go?”
Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.
The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It’s easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it’s doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted, European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.
It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim florescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next.
Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind herself. It was for his clothes. And I was to help.
He tossed his boots into it with a thunk and crumpled his T-shirt into a basketball, which he shot from an imaginary free-throw line. He stripped off his underwear.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You can’t leave your drawers on?” The surgeon wasn’t operating anywhere near there.
“Believe me,” he said, “I’ve tried.” And his glance toward the curtain said it all. VA hospital nurses are a harassed and hardened breed.
I unballed the socks he handed me and added them to the sack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the papery blue surgery gown and flailed around his waist for the ties.
“Here,” I said. “Lemme get those.”
I tied two bows, and he stepped back to give me the full view. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he said and licked a finger that he ran across an eyebrow. “I wear this well.”
Two nurses returned, pointing him to the recliner, and covered him with a thin white blanket from the waist down while they began prepping his IV. They hustled me out and pulled the curtain closed one last time, asking, “Do you know your way to the surgery lounge?” I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. This was our third surgery for the same ear that had been blasted by an IED in Iraq. Yes. I knew the way.
Now, as I get ready to leave the funeral home, the director hands me a similar paper bag. Nearly identical to the one from the hospital. The medical examiner who autopsied my husband’s body has filled it his clothes. Jacobson, B. is scrawled across the top in black marker.
“Are you waiting for your father?” was a common question I got asked in the surgery waiting room. “No, my husband,” I’d say. And then to clarify that I wasn’t married to someone twice my age, I added, “He served in Iraq—well, still serves.” None of his injuries eliminated him from a deployment rotation schedule, so he was always somewhere in the process of going back to war. Instead of making small talk, I usually sketched new layouts for the garden or our farm’s pasture. One year during a surgery wait I added fruits—apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. The trick would be keeping the chickens out. During another surgery wait, I devised a new rotational grazing system for our lot of horses, goats, sheep, and llamas. But I’d also figured a way to temporarily block the entrance of the driveway to allow them to graze the yard.
Once I actually encountered another Iraq War vet. He was several years younger than my husband and had a large, irregularly shaped dent in his skull where part of his brain should have been. The verbal abuse that this soldier hurled at his nurses traveled easily through the thin walls to where I sat waiting for my husband in the MRI waiting room. “Bitch,” he spat. “Cunt.” He didn’t want to get on the exam table. “Michael,” one nurse’s voice cut through the wall, “You lie down—and then tell me if you want Johnny Cash or Elvis—I’ll give you headphones.” A no-choice choice. A fake choice. Designed to redirect someone’s attention away from what he really wants, which is always the one thing he can’t have. In Michael’s case, I imagined it was to have his mind and body back the way they were before the war. In my case now, my husband is dead and never coming home again. So, my no-choice choices: Burial or cremation? Family cemetery or Fort Snelling? Coach or van?
Traumatic brain injury is tricky because every injury is different, and so is every brain. VA doctors had concluded that the blast that took out my husband’s eardrums also sent a concussive force through his head. Combined with the sustained stress of living in a combat zone for two tours of duty, each an entire year in duration, this had caused him to come back from his last one with short-term memory problems, severe neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and a sincere desire to kill people who irritated him: mostly strangers, but sometimes his boss. At the National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in St. Paul, he worked as an electronics mechanic on Blackhawk helicopters, but his boss, a first sergeant, had never deployed to a war.
To cope, he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Instead he built a castle out of wood, set it up on the floor in the middle of the living room, and he and our three-year-old son staged epic battles between Transformers, X-Men, vintage GI Joe action figures, and all the Marvel superheroes. They played for hours at a time. Day after day. Until one evening, as I washed the dinner dishes and listened in, it finally hit me: this wasn’t normal. What appeared to be a loving, engaged father was a loving, engaged father but also a man who wanted to avoid paying bills, helping with farm chores, making decisions, and having an adult relationship with his wife. He would wake up at night and not know where he was. He looked for IEDs in the road during his commute to work. And while we used to banter with ease and tease each other over money or day-to-day living decisions, now there was no playing around. He simply stalked off.
He’d run out of space inside himself. He could no longer hold his two lives together: the one we’d built together, with a large vegetable garden and a lively barnyard, and the one he’d made out of sand and Kevlar. Animals got sick, needed shearing, or we ran out of hay. Their babies came breech or young ones got stuck in a snarl of fence wires. His career was a dizzying array of schematics for helicopter systems. Circuit diagrams. Training modules. His performance could determine the outcome of a life-and-death situation for the crews that flew them.
“We’re going to start over,” I declared. “I’ll sell the animals and we’ll get back to where we started. We’ll wipe the slate clean.” It was a grand gesture. I knew that I was the only one who saw that places of waiting were also places that were mostly empty. And bland. A skylit room with plastic plants. A television on mute. I could give him all that I had learned of patience and liminality. I could create his space. In return, I hoped, the debris of war stuck inside him would break loose and float to the surface. Maybe even float away. “But tell me,” I said after I explained it all to him, “are you going to go through the VA for therapy or will you look for a civilian psychologist?”
And I was right. One day my husband called me, breathless, from a place where he had pulled off the highway. He’d been at the VA for a therapy appointment. “I always thought it was weird that the checkpoint was empty,” he said without preamble. “Only a couple of Iraqis stood by a shack on the next hill over.”
I heard him light a cigarette, and he inhaled its smoke through his words.
“The mortars started coming—”
“And I saw them hit a couple hundred feet away—so I nailed the gas to get through the serpentine—but they weren’t coming from the hill where I saw the two men—”
I tried to picture it. A serpentine checkpoint is a snake-like path built out of concrete road barriers, a path that folds back in on itself, meant to slow vehicles down to a crawl. A convoy stuck in the middle of one would be like fish in a barrel.
“I couldn’t figure it out—and the dumbfuck LT—I saw the trucks behind us still trying to get through the serpentine—so I yelled at him to radio back and tell everyone to just go around it and get the hell outta there—but that’s when the dirt and sand hit the windshield,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “It was an IED.”
Several seconds of silence breathed between us. This was what he had been searching for. A memory of the actual blast that had taken his eardrums. What we’d learned from his psychologist and occupational therapist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them. Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.
“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of that serpentine alive.”
I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.
First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACU’s, but I don’t know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn to cut the early morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.
That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him, but I hadn’t turned around.
I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m hearing them for the first time.
The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast iron sink; he rummages in the dish drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.
But that morning I didn’t pay him any attention. Not until the refrigerator door sucked open—a giant jaw that flooded the dim kitchen with light—and snapped back with bottles clanking against each other. A magnet slid off, and the school calendar fluttered to the floor. I sat up straight and watched his reflection in the darkened window in front of me. His movements, everything, suddenly felt hard and extra loud. Abrasive. Chair legs scraped against the oak floor, his combat boots thunked to the floor, and he grunted as he sat.
A cold draft seeped behind me. It was from the broken mudroom door. I rose from my chair to slide his heavy farm boots in front of it. During his last deployment, it had stopped latching properly, and the official doorstop became whichever pair of boots he wasn’t wearing.
“Are you okay?” I remember asking him.
“Fine,” he said, crouched over, tucking one camouflaged pant leg into the high upper of his combat boot. He zipped the laces through the top holes as he pulled and tucked with callous, mindless efficiency.
I stood by the door and waited.
“You know,” I said, “if you’re not ready to go back to work today, then you’re not ready.” It had only been a week since his ear surgery. The boys at the AASF could certainly make do without him one more day. “Fuck ’em,” I said with a shrug.
He switched feet and tucked and zipped and pulled. As he reached down, the fabric of his uniform buckled in starchy folds under his armpits and along his ribs. “No,” he said and sat up, slouching against the back of the chair. “I’m ready.” Bright white cotton balls protruded from his ear, still catching some drainage, and I wondered if he was lying to himself.
“Just stay home one more day,” I said.
He stood, zipped his fleece coat to cut the early morning chill, and slung his lunch over his shoulder. He picked up his coffee mug and paused and looked into my eyes.
I stole a glance at the clock. He was way ahead of normal. He never ran this much ahead of schedule. But his eyes never broke from their path and I turned back to meet them again.
“What,” I whispered. It was a statement and a question.
He fiddled with the knob to the broken door.
I had to leave the house that morning too. But before I left, I heard the mud room door open again. I turned in expectation, thinking he had changed his mind and come home, but no one was there, and the broken door remained closed. I headed upstairs to rouse my son.
As we left for town, I braked hard on the hill that drops into the valley below our farm, just in time for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of us. I waited and switched on the radio.
A fatal accident occurred this morning around 6:20 and shut down the Hastings bridge in both directions. Authorities hope to have it reopened in the next couple of hours. In financial news the rate of foreclosures continues to increase—
Without thinking, I did the math. There were two different routes my husband could have taken to work that morning. One was under construction, and the other was that bridge. Every military wife knows how to do this type of math. My hands started to shake. I honked the horn at the slow birds bringing up the rear, and my son startled in his seat behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”
On impulse I chose a shortcut to town that was a minimum-maintenance road. I hadn’t used it in two years and bit my lip and hoped the spring thaw hadn’t made it difficult to navigate. After a one-lane bridge, tight, steep curves with an uphill on one side and a deep-cut ravine on the other, showed signs of washout. Ragged root systems protruded from the tumbled rockside, and worrisome chunks of earth had broken from the ledge and fallen into the ravine below. A green canopy of untrimmed branches arched low overhead and blocked out the clear morning sky. I took it forty feet at a time, craning my neck around every curve, while keeping an eye on that ledge. The truck’s engine dug in against the grade, and we climbed.
Suddenly a low-slung branch heaved toward the windshield and sprang back.
I slammed the brake, and giant black wings raised up in front of me.
A vulture—a big bastard—labored against its own heft and lifted, pushing itself through the thick canopy overhead.
I did the math again.
I walked my son into his preschool class and left my husband voicemails with forced vocal inflections that made me sound casual. I ran errands and chatted with people in store aisles. Chunky peanut butter or creamy? Call the local hospital or the one in the town where the accident had occurred? I took a brisk walk around a city park. I imagined the scene of confession later that night, when I would tell him how all day I’d thought he was dead.
When my phone finally rang, it was my husband’s mother. She never called me.
“Where are you right now?” she asked without saying hello.
“Just pulling into home after preschool,” I said. And waited through an awkward silence. “What’s going on?” I finally asked.
“We’ll be right over,” she said.
Ice and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The hand that held the phone began to tremble uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” I said again, this time louder. “What is it?” I said louder still.
“We’ll be right over,” she repeated. And hung up.
I snapped at my son’s slowness in getting out of the truck, three times in a row, until I heard myself yelling at him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry.”
I settled him in front of the television with his lunch and went straight to my laptop on the table in the corner of the kitchen. News websites had already posted pictures of the bridge accident. They showed the front end of a Toyota pickup resting precariously on top of a highway guardrail and a dented maroon BMW behind it, sideways across two lanes. My husband’s dark green Saturn wasn’t there.
I chain-smoked outside on the front porch, waiting for my husband’s mother. I thought about calling someone. I called my husband. It rang until it went to voicemail, and I hung up without leaving a message.
I hated waiting, I realized. I had always hated waiting.
I leaned into the frame of the open front door and stared at our silent, empty pasture. All of its gates stood open. Big black water tanks sat overturned beneath the shaded overhang of the barn.
“Show me everything,” I said to him every time he left. Because he was always leaving for places where I could not follow, and because I was afraid that I would lose him to all those things I would never see. All of those things he experienced without me. “But I bring you with me,” he said in return. He didn’t understand what it meant to be the one left behind.
At that moment, I felt him pace the porch boards in front of me. He walked its length and abruptly turned and put his hands on his hips. “This is not ideal,” he said.
A declaration. Almost funny. The half smile; the half panic that skimmed the upper edge of his deep voice when a plan was about to go south. And maybe he saw me recognize him. Because my eyes widened and welled and darted to the side. I held my breath. He hadn’t gone anywhere, I thought. He’d been trying to tell me, since I heard the front door open that morning, that he died and came right back home.
“No,” I finally answered him. Out loud. And my heart threatened to give way. To simply stop beating. “It’s not.”
The sound of ripping Velcro tears a hole in the silence of our kitchen where I have been standing and staring at his clothes laid out on the table before me. There are creases of dried blood and bits of soft tissue that cling to puncture tears in the fabric. But only to the left sleeves. Where something nearly ripped his arm off. I am pulling the patches off every breast pocket and shoulder—his name, his rank, all the insignia of his career and our country; they belong to me now. When I finish, I go straight to my laptop and punch up the same accident pictures that I saw the day he died. I want to see what I saw the first time I looked at it—the Toyota’s front tires on top of the guardrail, the red BMW sideways across the lanes—but I know that I won’t see that, because I know what happened.
The front tires of the Toyota pickup are on top of my husband’s green Saturn. They sit inside the jagged mouth of its shattered windshield and look as though they came to rest on my husband’s lap. The Saturn is crumpled like a pop can against the guardrail. Its trunk is popped open. And the toys that he had hidden in there for our son lie scattered across the highway. A white sheet drapes its smashed rear window, meant to cover my husband’s dead body. Which, along with the part of me that he said he carried with him, has not yet been extracted.
This essay began as an assignment to use a first-person voice from the position of witness. It was an assignment designed to challenge what it means to tell another person’s story by forcing a writer to contend with her own subjectivity, experience, and ego. Still, it’s always a huge surprise to me how some essays come together. “Serpentine” I wrote in pieces: scenes, images, bits of reflection that I loosely strung together like so many buttons of different sizes and colors. With the pages spread across a long work table, I stood and stared for a long time. What connected the parts? What bigger thing beyond the simple narrative were they trying to say? I saw the hairpin curves of the dragon’s tail tattooed on my husband’s arm, I saw my husband’s Humvee snaking through the concrete barriers of a checkpoint in Iraq, I saw a brown paper bag appear, disappear, and come back into view. This serpentine form repeated itself through imagery. And for the first time ever, I saw how a structure of switchbacks could move a reader through a serpentine of memories, and how those memories could travel alongside a lived experience, but in the opposite direction. Which is how I ultimately defined my role as witness to my husband’s life.
Ember Johnson lives and writes in Center City, Minnesota. She was a winner of the 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series in nonfiction and most recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020. Her work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review. She completed her BA in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in 2016 and is in her final semester of an MFA degree at the University of Minnesota.