Authors: Kate Axelrod
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “What's up, baby? You pretty drunk already?”
“How was your mom today?”
I shrugged. “It's whateverÂ .Â .Â . She's whatever.”
“Emma, come on. Tell me.”
“I really just don't feel like it right now.”
I knew that he was trying, but right then I didn't want to hear it. Didn't want to think about it. I wanted to be the girl who didn't care about anything, who was wild and fun, who could try coke like it was no big deal. I wanted to be the girl who gave her boyfriend a blow job in the bathroom of his parents' house, while family and friends milled outside the door, sipping their drinks, examining a painting that hung on a nearby wall, wondering if it was an original.
I started to undo his belt buckle, slipped the little leather knot out of its loop.
“You seriously want to do this now? My grandparents are like twenty-five feet away.”
“Ugh, fuck you.” I wanted so badly to lose myself in recklessness, but I just couldn't quite get there.
I walked into the kitchen, where the caterers were circling around each other, grabbing platters of miniature tacos with slices of sirloin steak, eggplant puff pastries, chicken teriyaki skewers. I saw Daniel's mother feeding herself a tiny potato pancake with a dot of sour cream in its center. She stopped me.
“Let's go into the den and talk for a minute?”
I was starting to feel jittery and my heart was beating heavily, pounding. I didn't need to talk, I was fine.
“Are you feeling okay? Do you want to talk? Daniel's filled me in on what's going on. It sounds like you're going through a hell of a lot right now.”
I was fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.
“I'm okay,” I said. “Thanks, but I really am.”
She looked at me in this knowing way.
My heart was starting to slow, and I felt something else, something like emptiness, creeping in.
“Okay, sweetie. Well, I'm not going to push you, but I'm here if you need to talk. And if not me, I could find you someone else. This is serious business, okay? You need to take care of
She was wearing a chain with two gold letters dangling from the middle.
for her children.
“All right,” I told her. “All right, thanks.”
My high was coming down and I felt the faintest headache lurking somewhere in the back of my brain, waiting to rear its head. I poured a couple of shots' worth of whiskey into my wine glass and kept sipping.
I woke up at five or six on Christmas morning. I was naked and felt drool caked onto the side of my face, which was pressed against Daniel's bare back. The heater was making a loud gurgling noise, and it felt like a hundred degrees inside his bedroom. I felt sick and needed some fresh air. I whispered to Daniel that I had to go, would call him later, and happy Christmas. I slipped out the door. The doorman downstairs was asleep; his eyes fluttered open and he apologized profusely at the sight of me. “No, no,” I said. “Please, it's fine.”
I felt awash in cold when I stepped outside. The sky was mostly a dark blue but was beginning to lighten. The street was empty, except for an old man walking a dog on the corner. She was a big German shepherd and they both walked gingerly, then the dog paused to pee, and a stream of yellow pooled on the curb beside her. The owner patted the dog's waist. “Good job, my girl, good job.”
CHRISTMAS night, Annie and I went to dinner at an Indian restaurant in Mamaroneck. It was nestled in a strip mall where everything else was closedâa nail salon, a Hallmark store, an enormous Staples, all empty and dark. We were the only two people inside the restaurant, which had plush burgundy walls and brown velvet curtains separating the dining area from the kitchen.
“Come in” the waiter said, “anywhere you'd like,” and he gestured around the open space. “Want some alone time?” Annie joked. “Let's sit on opposite sides of the restaurant.”
“Never!” I said. “I never want
alone time.” I was only half kidding. Time moved so much more slowly when I was alone, and thoughts of my mother kept seeping into those empty spaces. What was she doing and how miserable was she and what was happening inside her head? When I was at the hospital the day before, one of my mother's doctors was waiting for the elevator, her hands shoved deep into her coat pockets. She looked at me, with this sad, resigned half-smile.
Once those neurons get started
, she said, but she didn't finish, just nodded solemnly and stepped onto the elevator. I kept thinking,
Once those neurons get started
, then what? I imagined the detailed cell drawings we used to have to do in ninth grade bio, with the nerve endings reaching out, trying to connect to each other. What were those nerve endings doing in my mother's head? Were they frenzied and lost, desperate to communicate but running in dizzying circles?
THE moment Annie and I sat down at the table, I felt ravenous. As soon as our food arrived, I tore off big, warm pieces of naan, folded the flaky bread directly into my mouth.
“Tell me things,” I asked Annie, in between bites. I was relieved by my own hunger, relieved that my body was indicating some return to normalcy. “What did you do last night? How are things with Henry?” I stirred rice into my chicken tikka masala, ate everything all at once.
AFTER dinner, Annie and I went into a Walgreens because it was the only place open. We roamed the aisles of the drug store, discreetly opening and smelling shampoos and body washes. We bought a pad of temporary tattoos that proclaimed
in bold lettering. There were guitars with flames, drum sets, a girl headbanging, some sparkling musical notes.
We went back to Annie's house and it was all Christmas movies on TV, except
You've Got Mail
, which was on some version of HBO. We lay down on the couch in the basement and I finally felt relaxed. Not exactly happy, but content. Annie got some paper towels and a shallow dish of water and a pair of scissors and we covered ourselves in tattoos.
“Should I make a sleeve?” Annie joked.
“I bet Henry would love that,” I said.
Annie's brother, Zach, who was two years older than us and a freshman at SUNY Purchase, flicked on the lights in the basement and walked downstairs.
“No way!” Annie called. “We're watching a movie. Turn them off.”
Zach had been sort of a lost soul in high schoolânot angsty enough for the artsy crowd but too introspective and intellectual for the more mainstream kids. He was a painter, though, and sometimes he'd come into the house a mess, broad strokes of oil paint all over his jeans. We used to joke that he did it on purpose, just to seem cool. But he'd come into his own in the past few months and seemed more at ease with himself.
He was with two of his friends that night, and he switched the lights back off and they all came downstairs to the basement. Zach sat on the couch next to me, his two friends on the carpet beneath us.
“What movie is this?” Zach asked.
“Don't pretend you haven't seen this a thousand times,” I said. “You obviously know what it is.”
“I know what this is,” one of Zach's friends said. He wasn't exactly handsome but there was something alluring about him; he had tan skin, a long, pointed nose, inky black hair. “The one where they meet online and know each other in real life, too.”
“Spoiler alert,” Annie said.
The guy with the dark hair picked up one of the tattoosâan amp with musical notes coming out of itâand asked if I'd put it on him.
“Sure,” I said. “Where do you want it?”
“Where do you suggest?” he asked.
I took his arm. “I like the wrist. Right here.”
“Shut up, you guys,” Zach said. “Tom Hanks is about to stand Meg Ryan up.”
I took one of the paper towels off the floor and peeled back the thin sheet of plastic that protected the tattoo. I put it against his arm. I had no idea what his name was, but I felt this tiny charge, a current running between us, when I pressed the tattoo over his wrist, held my hand on top of it, and counted to thirty in my head. When I took my hand off, the amp was black and shiny on his flesh.
“Nice work,” he whispered.
ON the way home in the car, I couldn't tell if the radio was buzzing or if the heat was rattling, but there was a little noise I heard in the background and something about it was really grating. I turned off the radio for a minute and then the heat. I couldn't tell if the noise had gone away or not. And then I wondered if maybe it wasn't real at all, if maybe I'd been hallucinating. I felt this quick surge of somethingâanxiety, panicâin the bottom of my stomach.
Fuck. What if. What if. What if I'm losing it too.
I tried to breathe slowly, deliberately, told myself to calm down. I put the music back on, and the heat too, and I thought the noise had gone away but I couldn't be sure, and then I didn't even know if I'd heard it in the first place.
I got home and into bed and spent the next hour googling countless variations of the same phrases. “How do you know if you have schizophrenia?” “Schizophrenia symptoms.” “If your mother has schizophrenia, do you?” “Mom has schizophrenia, do I?” I found a website called Child of Mentally Ill Parents. It was one of those old sites with choppy, three-dimensional graphics and a banner that waved in slow, disjointed waves. There were pages and pages of message boards in small blue ink. I scrolled down, browsed the headlines. “It doesn't get easier, it only gets worse”; “Mom is skitz”; “Dad was institutionalized, want sum1 to talk 2.”
And down at the bottom, “Feeling motherless.” I opened it up and started to read.
DANIEL came over the next afternoon. He'd taken an incomplete for one of his classes and had to finish his final paper over the next few days. When he got to my house, he had this big yellow backpack with him, filled with his laptop and a handful of books he'd taken out of the school library before we left for the semester. He sat on my bed in his jeans and an old sweater that his ninety-five-year-old grandfather had given to him, with tiny holes along the seams. He wore these thick woolen socks that I loved.
“E. E. Cummings was such a perv,” Daniel said. “I love it.”
“I wouldn't call him a
Shocking fuzz? Electric fur?
“It's erotic,” I said. “There's a difference between erotic and perverted.” I stood beside him at the bed and he pulled me toward him, tugged on the little belt loops of my jeans. He lifted up my sweater, pressed his mouth against my bare belly, moved his lips across the length of my stomach.
“Is this erotic or perverted?” he asked.
We kissed, but I stopped him, put the palm of my hand against his sweater.
“Would you still like me if I went crazy? Lost my shit? Ended up just like my mother?”
“I'm sorry, what?” He kissed my neck.
“I'm serious, Daniel.”
“Are you? Why are you even asking me this? Yeah, I mean, sure. I don't know how to answer that. That's not going to happen.”
“How do you know?” I asked him.
“Because it just isn't. You're fine.”
“It's hereditary. And it's really common when you're in your twenties.”
,” he said.
“Fine, but I just mean, I'm seventeen, I wouldn't even know yet. It's
that people find out in their twenties.”
“You're okay. And I love you. Can we just leave it at that? For now?”
WE hadn't had sex since all of this happened with my mother. It wasn't as though I hadn't wanted to, hadn't felt the stirrings of desireâI had, it just felt complicated. But that afternoon, I felt a wave of longing, and I climbed on top of him and we undressed each other quickly but delicately. Our bodies were naked and warm together and we were totally in sync and within minutes I felt an intense release. It was a rush of two simultaneous sensations, and the instant I came I began to sob loudly, angrily. It was a guttural cry and all of a sudden I felt wild with grief.
Daniel was silent but held me tightly, and it was the best and simplest thing he could do. He moved me in a slow rock, back and forth, as my crying eased. It was grief, yes, but guilt too. I felt sick. Oddly gluttonous, as if I'd just eaten a box of deliciously sweet cupcakes with rich and fluffy frosting and was then overcome with nausea. Who fucked their boyfriend and
enjoyed it while their mother was walking around, dazed, shuffling in little blue slippers, eating anemic-looking applesauce in an overheated dining hall, in a facility where her shoelaces were taken away? I went through a list of people in my head: would Annie, would Molly from my physics lab, would Kevin who worked in the library? Would any of them?