“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
“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.