Authors: Kate Axelrod
“What have you guys been watching?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Annie said. “We've just been staring at it and waiting for something good to come on. We were watching
before but it was getting too violent for me.”
“I love that show but sometimes I just can't stomach it,” I said.
Henry was rolling a joint on top of one of Annie's old yearbooks. I watched as he ground the weed between his fingernails and delicately arranged it onto the slip of rolling paper. Afterward he twisted it up and sealed the edges with his saliva.
Annie and I had smoked weed together for the first time, in ninth grade. It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and we were hanging out with a boy named Ethan who had a crush on Annie. Some of his friends came over and we all piled into his big walk-in closet, which was immaculate for a fourteen-year-old boy; his jeans and khakis hung neatly over wooden hangers, hooded sweatshirts and colorfully emblazoned basketball jerseys displayed as though in a sporting goods store. Ethan passed me the joint and I held it cautiously between my fingers. I looked at Annie for the okay but she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders in this carefree sort of way that was so unlike either of us. I held the smoke there in my body for as long as I could before coughing, doing my best not to heave dramatically. Afterward, when the boys seemed sufficiently high (laughing so much that they claimed they were about to “piss their pants”), we watched a movie and Annie and I sat on opposite sides of the couch texting one another, trying to figure out if it had worked.
Maybe? Kind of? How do I know?
“Do you want some?” Henry asked me now.
“Yes!” I said, emphatically. “I haven't smoked since before finals. Can we just smoke in here?”
“Let's go to the basement,” Annie said.
In seventh grade, her parents had renovated the basement, gutting the old wood-paneled walls and ceiling, adding a jukebox (always aglow in pink neon light) and a huge, arcade-style Pac Man game. It was the site of a lot of activity in those middle school years, with a pullout couch and half a dozen air mattresses blown up on the carpeted floor; Annie's friends and I would stay over whenever we could, savoring our first real taste of privacy, a little space sealing us off from the rest of the world.
We walked past the den, where both of Annie's parents had fallen asleep, even though it was only ten o'clock. Her father was on his back, on a brown leather couch, and one arm dangled off, grazing the carpeting. Annie's mother was sitting in an armchair, her feet resting on an ottoman. Her reading glasses had slipped into her lap, the magazine section of the
“Your mom got a haircut,” I whispered. “She looks so cute.”
Annie and her mother had the same beautiful red hair, thick and glossy. They had always looked so much alike: striking green eyes, pale skin, and a constellation of freckles across their rounded cheeks. Their genetic composition was all exposed, their lineage mapped out for everyone to see.
When we got to the basement, Henry lit the joint, the tip a hot ball of amber. He inhaled a couple of times, and then passed it to me.
“You guys,” I said, “my mom was being so, so weird tonight.”
“I don't know, just crazy.”
“Can you elaborate?” Annie said.
“Something was just off. It was like she was suddenly senile or something. I don't know how to describe it.”
“What kinds of things was she saying?” Henry asked.
“She was just confused about everything. She was paranoid, saying someone had stolen her clothes even though they were obviously right there. It was insane.” I took another hit of the joint.
“Maybe she was having a reaction to something?” Henry suggested. “Is she on any medication or anything?”
I turned to Annie. “He is so thoughtful,” I said. “Admit you have the best boyfriend.”
They both laughed. “Yeah, I guess I like him?” Annie said.
“But really. You're so lucky. Daniel barely listens when I talk to him.” (This wasn't entirely true and I wasn't sure why I'd even said it.)
“I can't tell if you're already so high or you actually just think that. And that's not even true, Emma. Daniel's great.”
“He is. I mean obviously, he is. He's wonderful. But we wouldn't be friends, you know? Like if we'd all grown up together, he would have been friends with the girls who played lacrosse and thought we were artsy freaks because we wore Converse, and skirts over our jeans.”
artsy freaks,” Annie said.
“No we aren't! I hate when you say that. Plus, you cannot implicate me any longer; you're on your own in that place now.” I lay down on the beige shag rug. The floors were heated; I'd always loved that about Annie's house. I wanted to lie there forever. And then I moved my arms and legs together and apart, made fake snow angels into the plush ground beneath me.
“I miss this house so much,” I said. “You don't know what I would give to just be here, all the time. And now that my mom is insane I probably will be.”
“She's not insane, Em. I'm sure everything will be fine.”
“I should go home soon.”
“Are you too high to drive?”
I considered this for a moment. “Um, maybe?”
“I can drive you home.”
“But what about my car?” I said.
“I'll drive your car and then Henry can follow and we'll take my car back.
“He's barely high anyway,” Annie reassured me.
“No, no, that's too much.” I sat up. “I'm fine. I'm high, but I can drive.”
“But you know we hate that,” Annie said.
“It's cute that you guys âwe' each other so much,” Henry observed. “Annie, you never do that with us, only with Emma.”
“Well, it's different,” Annie said, and smiled at him, kissed his hand. “âWe's take years.”
“It'll happen, Henry, don't worry,” I said. “One day she'll be âwe-ing' you left and right.”
ANNIE drove me home a little while later. It was only a two-mile trip and there were no highways, just two big intersections and then across Mamaroneck Avenue. I was zoning in and out, feeling the warm leather beneath my hands, thinking of Daniel. And when we got to my house, I was so relieved, so grateful I hadn't driven back there by myself. The moon was full and pale, completely unobscured against a black, black sky.
“Thank you so much for driving me,” I said. “I'm so happy to be back here.”
“I'm so happy you are too,” Annie said.
Henry pulled up behind us.
“Okay and I hope your mom's all right, by the way,” Annie said. “I mean, I'm sure she is, but just keep me posted, okay?”
ON Sunday, I took the Metro-North train into the city and then two more subways to get to Daniel's. It felt a little less frigid there, a little less windy, as if somehow all the light, the people, the city brimming with activity, could generate a kind of warmth.
The doorman stationed in front of Daniel's building smiled at me.
“Yes, thank you!”
The elevator opened directly into their apartment and Stella, Daniel's chubby Maltese, was waiting at the door. She panted and her mouth hung open in a way that seemed impossible not to interpret as a smile.
“Hello, little girl, hello!” I told her.
Daniel walked out shirtless, wearing boxers that said “Daniel's Butt Mitzvah” across the back. He kissed me on the lips and pulled me gently down the hallway.
“You're naked,” I said accusingly.
“We have the heat way up.”
“Wait, wait! Should I take my shoes off? It's so slushy outside.”
“Oh sure, whatever you want.”
“Are your parents home?”
“Not yet, soon. Patrizia is making dinner, though. They should be home in like half an hour.”
I'd been to this apartment a half dozen times, but I was still somewhat amazed each time I got there. The ceilings were so high and there were floor-to-ceiling windows, a patio that wrapped around half of the twenty-seventh floor, overlooking green stretches of Central Park, where the reservoirâsilver and gleamingâsat in its center. But then Daniel's room was nothing out of the ordinary; it could've been any seventeen-year-old's bedroom anywhere. Posters were taped to his wallsâWilco, the Walkmen, Neil Young. And in the corner, he'd started drawing with what looked like charcoal pencils; it was the beginning of something, two figures embracing. Maybe it was naive of me, but at the time I sometimes thought that if I'd had an apartment like that, I would've felt compelled to keep my room nice, to make my bed every morning and organize my books and not leave all my clothing in piles on the floor next to my dresser. But maybe I was wrong, maybe your bedroom was always just your bedroom, no matter how wealthy your parents were.
Daniel's parents were doctorsâJane a psychiatrist and Steve an internist. Both of them had private practices nearby, and Steve was on the faculty at Mount Sinai Hospital. Every so often they took trips to countries in West Africa, flew out in a tiny plane, set up little makeshift clinics for a week or two, but never stayed long enough for the reality of the despair around them to settle in, and, perhaps, permeate their own first-world lives.
When Jane came home, we all walked into the dining room and she embraced me warmly, pulled me close, and a slew of bracelets clanked together as she rubbed my back affectionately.
“Sweetheart, it's so nice to see you again!”
Steve smiled and lifted his plastic, thick-framed glasses up on top of his head. He was handsome in a conventional sort of way that my father wasn't, with a thick head of silver hair, and striking hazel eyes. “Have a seat. We're not so formal here, if you haven't noticed.”
“So, Emma, I remember you told me you were having some anxiety about leaving your hair iron plugged in on the carpet every time you left your dorm room. Is that still worrying you?” Jane said. She was sitting across from me and wearing a tank top, with lots of cleavage exposed. Her chest was tanned and freckled, ornamented with a bulky turquoise necklace.
I laughed, a little embarrassed. “Oh! I don't know? Not really. I guess I haven't used it in a while anyway.” There was something so disarming about how candid Jane was, and also something utterly likable about her openness and the way the entire family just seemed to home in on what they really wanted to talk about.
“You guys look tan!” I said, doing my best to change the subject. “Where did you just get back from?”
“Oh, I go to this little salon on Columbus Avenue every now and then,” Steve said.
Daniel laughed. “Of course you do.”
“Oh please, cut it out, you guys,” Jane said. “We were in Argentina. You know, Daniel's sister is over there on a Fulbright. We had a wonderful time, really. Lots of delicious food.”
“So, Daniel,” Steve interrupted, “you just plan to hang out at home and bother us for a month? What are you going to do here until you go back to school?”
“I was thinking tonight that I was just gonna buy an ounce of weed. That should last me a little bit? Should be pretty blazed and happy, and stay out of your way.”
I cringed at hearing Daniel say the word “blazed” in front of his parents, but his father didn't seem concerned. These were the kind of parents whom you could talk openly to about anything; they were free of judgment and welcomed any sort of conversation, no matter how awkward or inappropriate.
“An ounce!” Steve said. “I don't think that'll last you too long. But seriously, you're here for almost a month, right? I think we ought to get you an internship or some sort of volunteer position? Do you need to start visiting colleges?”
“Steve,” Jane said, “he just got home! Leave him alone, he's on vacation.”
“Vacation from what? From taking four classes and smoking marijuana with his friends and reading a little here and there? That's hardly what I'd call hard work.”
“That's really all you think I do?” Daniel said.
“Well, I'm going to call Ralph and see if he has anything you can help out with again. Okay?”
Daniel turned to me. “So, my dad went to college with Ralph Nader and he never actually votes for him but likes to maintain this pseudorelationship with him, so he can pretend he's still liberal.”
Steve sighed and laughed a little. “It's complicated, okay?”
“We live in a two-party system, blah blah blah. A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, for McCain, Romney, whatever. Doesn't that sum it up?” Daniel asked.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Jane said, “but what kind of wine do we want with dinner?”
“Anything red. I'll get it.” Daniel got up from his seat and examined the bottles of wine encased in a glass cabinet on the other side of the kitchen. I could feel my face flushing just a little, could feel myself filling up with affection for this family. There was something so sophisticated about them, the way Daniel's parents seemed to regard him almost as their equal. Would my parents
have asked me what kind of wine I wanted? Would I even have
the answer to that? I felt a swell of desire as Daniel walked back to the table, a slim, dark bottle in his hand. I was so relieved to be there with him and his family, after feeling so constricted at home. Every so often I felt a flutter of panic about my mother. Though I'd barely seen her the past couple of days, something still seemed so off. I kept thinking about asking Daniel's mother for her professional opinion about what was going on, and I had this fantasy about telling her each and every detail of my mother's odd behavior, imagining that somehow Jane would have an explanation for everything, and I'd be calmed by her maternal and medical wisdom. But I'd somehow convinced myself that my mother was probably okay, that I was probably overreacting, as I often did.
We finished dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, and then moved over to the living room. I folded up in a corner of the couch, cupping a stemless glass in my palms. Jane told a story about a trip their family had taken to Paris when Daniel was about seven or so. He'd been extremely attached to his blankie and had it with him throughout the vacation, bringing it along to the Louvre and the Left Bank, and every other tourist attraction they visited.
“So, the moment we get on the plane,” Jane continued, “Daniel has a panicked look on his face that says,
where is Blankie?
I assured him it was in our luggage underneath the plane and we'd find it as soon as we landed. He's a little skeptical but he believes me, I guess. But you know, we never did find the blankieâwe looked and looked and I even called the hotel when I got home, but it never showed up.”
“Mom, you're taking way too long to tell this story,” Daniel said. He drained the wine from my glass.
“Do you see how he picks on me?” Jane asked.
“Do you see how great she is but how long she takes to tell her stories?”
“Okay, okay. So days, weeks go by. Then we get the phone bill at the end of the month and it's unbelievable, I mean, through the roof! Turns out we have all these calls to France.”
“You're kidding,” I said.
“Daniel was calling the hotel, every day. He'd come home from school and just call the concierge and hang up!”
“Oh, you're so cute,” I told him. “How did you even get the number? And why were you hanging up?”
“I don't know how I got the numberâI guess I was just a resourceful little kid. I was just expecting that someone would pick up and tell me Blankie was there! Or that Blankie himself would pick up.”
.” I was a little tipsy, my lips stained with wine. I loved him. I had never said it out loud, but I knew that I did. I felt overcome with it for a moment, watching Daniel with his mother, their easy laughter together.
Afterward, both of us a little bit drunk, we went into his room and I got into bed. That we were allowed to sleep in the same bedroom was something of a noveltyâat school it was impossible, and my parents wouldn't have been comfortable with it either. Daniel's parents didn't even seem to consider that it was an issueâperhaps it was the double standard of him being a guy, or maybe they were just so evolved and open-minded that it simply didn't bother them.
Daniel fumbled with his iPod, which was connected to big boxy speakers on either side of his room. He put on some Neil Young albumâand this was something I really admired about him: he played full albums at a time, the old-fashioned way. No singles, no iPod mixes, just the whole record, straight through. Daniel had always been serious about music, but not in an annoying, dogmatic sort of way. He'd told me he just felt that the structure of his favorite albums, their order and cohesiveness, were all deliberately and very carefully planned. And I understoodâit was something my father would've said too.
Daniel got in bed beside me, brushed my hair away from my face.
“You know, my dad thinks I'm just this boring stoner who doesn't care about anything. It's not true. You
it's not true.”
“Oh, I know,” I said, and I climbed on top of him, straddled my legs around his waist. “I'm not so worried about that.”
I got back to Westchester midafternoon. It was one of those strangely beautiful days in winter when the sky was a single stretch of blue, untouched by clouds, the sun gleaming and bright, despite the icy weather. I walked into the foyer of my parents' home, which opened up directly into the living room, and saw my mother standing barefoot on the couch, a roll of silver duct tape in her hand, lining the edges of the window with thick strips of adhesive.
From where I was standing, it almost looked as if she were decorating the room for a birthday party or some equally festive event, almost as if she were one of those crafty mothers who taped colorful signs to doorframes and filled rooms with shiny, congratulatory balloons. But there was something hurried in her movements, something frantic.
“Yes?” She sounded exasperated.
“What are you doing?”
“I'm sealing the windows.”
“Can you come closer? I can't really hear you.”
I went into the living room, sat down on the leather loveseat across from the sofa my mother was standing on, kneading her bare toes into the plush cushions.
“Sealing the windows from
? Dad already put in the storm windows when I was home for Thanksgiving.”
“No, no, no! I'm not worried about the cold. It's just that we need to be careful.”
“Emma,” she said, and she ripped a piece of tape with her teeth, pulling at it, twisting her neck to the left. “They put bad things out there and sometimes you just have to protect yourself, okay? They put toxins in the air and I don't know why, I can't tell you why, I wish I could, but I can't.”
I stared at her. At the slight creases below her eyes, which made her look so tired, exhausted, really. I didn't know what to say.
“Who's âthey'?” I asked her, but she ignored me.
We sat in silence for a minute and then she continued, “Someone is trying to hurt us and I just want everyone to be okay. I'm just trying to make sure that none of it gets through the windows. I already sealed my bedroom and I'll do yours when I'm finished here.”
“Does Dad know?”
“Know about the poison?”
“That you're sealing the windows.”
“Well, I didn't start until he was at work today. I've tried to explain this to him before, but he doesn't really seem to understand the severity of it.”