by Clara Peterson
There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.
I stared down the length of the couch at the drab gray upholstery, the worn fleece blanket that lay listlessly across my lap, the brace on my knee, and the Kleenex strewn about the whole wretched tableau. I closed my book, which I had long since stopped reading. Tick…Tick… What was that noise? The sound reverberated in the empty apartment. I held my watch to my ear — unbearable! I tore the offending object off my wrist and threw it across the room.
“Don’t cry,” I instructed myself strictly, “Don’t cry.”
I threw a pillow at the watch to muffle its still-audible tick.
The truth is, I wasn’t used to being alone. As an only child, I had always been proud of my ability to entertain myself. But I didn’t like an empty house. That’s why I had lived with four roommates — other busy Brooklynites whose general human puttering made the place feel lived-in — until, one after another, they had moved out as the pandemic dragged on. Visas ran out, budgets wore thin, and the struggle to find replacements strained the leaseholder until finally, she, too, announced her departure. Now, I had zero roommates and the lease to a five-bedroom apartment. My jaw tightened stubbornly just thinking about it. I would fill those rooms. I wasn’t about to let slip the final ribbon tethering me to my life.
My phone rang. In the split second before rational thought could reign, my heart leapt. But I knew it wasn’t him. Sure enough, there was my mom’s voice, crackling into my ear over the last remaining land-line on planet Earth. “Hi, sweetie! How are you today?”
“Same as I was two hours ago, totally fabulous,” I said testily.
“Well, how’s your…leg?” At least she remembered that much. Alzheimer’s was taking its toll, but she could still remember when something big happened, most of the time.
“My knee is the same. It hurts like hell,” I reported for the second time that day.
“Oh, it just kills me that I can’t be there!”
“It’s fine, Mom.”
“Is your boyfriend helping you? What’s his name…?” My throat constricted. Sometimes she remembered the big things, and sometimes she didn’t. Soon I would have to stop telling her. But she was still my shoulder to blubber on — the one who would stick up for me every time, tell me with real conviction that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought, I was still the greatest person alive. So I’d blubbered through it all with her the day before. Now, I couldn’t imagine rehashing it again. I answered simply: “Michael.”
“Oh, right! And he… OH MY GOD!” she cried suddenly.
I bolted upright. A current of electric fear ran down my spine. “Mom, are you alright?”
“Anna, you would not believe — There are four squirrels on my planter right now!” She exclaimed. I laughed in relief — saved by the squirrels. “I meant to put cookies out for them,” she continued, perplexed. I could hear her rummaging through the kitchen, could picture her in its warm yellow light sporting the ratty old sweatsuit she refused to give up, reheating her coffee for the hundredth time that day. I blinked back another threatening tear.
“I better let you go then,” I said, “I love you.”
“I’ll call you back! I love you too!”
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I said firmly, hoping she would take (and remember) the hint this time; I couldn’t handle another circular conversation today. I hung up and closed my eyes, wishing for the sweet relief of a dreamless sleep. But it was only 3 p.m., and lately, I had slept in fits. Every few hours I would wake from dreams so vivid they left me feeling strange and scared, hollow and hurt. Like I’d narrowly escaped a twisted world that I could easily fall into again, spiraling alone down the rabbit hole if I only took a wrong turn.
Last night I’d dreamed of the accident. I was charging down the mountain through big tufts of deep white powder that I didn’t know how to navigate. The wind cracked at my ears. I spied a sleek, untouched surface on the far edge of the slope — so I cut right. But when I got to the gleaming path, I just started going faster and faster. I couldn’t stop! I lost control. So I cut left again in a desperate attempt to slow down, but my right ski caught on a mogul — and suddenly, I was tumbling down the mountain like a paper doll, rolling through thick white chaos that became a blizzard that subsumed me. It spun me around and around while I strained desperately against white blindness for a glimpse of him, waiting for me at the next pass, arms open wide, ready to hug me on the ski slope as he had before. But all I saw was white snow and flashes of his black jacket until his face appeared in front of me with that cold look in his eyes — a look I knew. A look that said: “I feel nothing.”
The buzzer to my apartment screeched through my reverie, and I jumped, jerking my knee. I howled at the sudden pain, then rolled my eyes. “Don’t be such a baby, Anna!” I muttered, grabbing my crutches begrudgingly. “But who the hell…” The buzzer clanged again, and I scowled as I crutched huffily across the room, pulled open the heavy apartment door, parked my crutches, and made my way down the stairs, leveraging the banister and the opposing wall to swing down step by step. “If it’s another goddamned delivery guy with a package for Sarah…” I grumbled, not sure how to do justice to my wrath in light of my handicap. I reached the bottom and hopped the last few paces to open the door to the outside world.
A sharp stream of cold air slapped my face, and I inhaled sweet reality as I took in — not the dreaded delivery guy — but my friend, who had evidently trudged all the way to Brooklyn from East Harlem to stand before me now with a bottle of champagne and a bag of groceries. I yelped with joy. She grinned and held up the bottle. “There’s another one in my backpack,” she said.
One foot standing firm on the cold ground, the other hovering in the air, I lunged forward and wrapped her in my arms. “Don’t cry,” I instructed myself tearfully, “Don’t cry.”