Sorting

By Leslie Lindsay

Essay

 

Sweat rolls down my back and pools into my bra. It’s mid-June in southern Missouri, the heat and humidity an oppressive blanket. Inside, my throat feels clogged with desiccated leaves; a lump the size of a walnut wedges into my gut.

Fact:  Tanned arms held out various Smartphones, gazes misdirected, as a generation of cousins pressed their faces together at my mother’s funeral.

I smile as shutters click, a conditioned response, but inside the tang of bile bubbles in my mouth. Who takes family photos at a funeral?

A welcoming breeze flitters past, ruffling our hair; a rainbow of blonde and brown, natural curls and chemically straightened, and as it does, I taste her in my mouth, rolling my tongue over the grit of guilt and pain and disappointment.

It’s been ten days.  Two-hundred and forty hours of wrestling with the logistics of death, of explaining things to my children, of living when she was no longer.

Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.

Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.

 

In journalism, we’re taught to ask the Five Ws and the Sixth H:

 

1. What happened?

2. Who was involved?

3. Where did it take place?

4. When did it take place?

5. Why did that happen?

6. How did it happen?

 

It’s always the Fifth W that is the hardest to answer.

 

***

April 17, 1985 (When)

You wake up earlier than usual that morning because you want to impress a boy at your junior high school. You walk past your parents’ bedroom and notice that your mother (Who) isn’t there, that her side of the bed is empty, an abandoned shell—crumpled-up sheets and a feathery impression of her torso, the salmon pink comforter still tucked in tight. Those army corners. Your father is snoring heavily, and you watch him through the crack in the door, the steady rise and fall of his chest. You wonder where your mother is. Your parents don’t get up until 7:30am. It’s 6.

BEN TANZER

Welcome.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you about my new essay collection Be Cool—a memoir (sort of) from Dock Street press.

 

Well, great, congratulations, truly, should we get right into the questions?

Yes, of course, soft ball questions, right, I hope.

 

Yeah, sure, anyway, so, navel-gazing…?

What?

PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

ned-vizzini_612x380

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of author Ned Vizzini, who committed suicide in Brooklyn on December 19th.  Our thoughts are with his friends and family.

Below, in its entirety, is his December 2012 interview with Brad Listi on the Other People podcast, which Ned called the most candid he’d ever done.  If you would like to learn more about his life and work, please visit his website.

JMB CoverAt two in the morning I am summoned to a blacked-out room in the back of a second-story clothes store.  Fashion show posters are tacked to the walls, newspapers scattered on a desk.  An emerald lamp glows from a low shelf filled with books on photography and art.

Propped in the corner of the floor sits a long-limbed woman, older but chic, with the face of a Nagel and the body of a Degas dancer.  She’s wearing party clothes, a black dress and half kicked-off heels and her makeup is runny and smudged, like a paint fight between Picasso and Salvador Dali.

I’m standing in the door with the hallway lights behind me, black Stetson and the lambskin coat, hair down to my waist.

“Come in,” she says. “You look fabulous.”

Two Revelations

On Thursday, May 3rd, 2007, at about six in the evening, in Spokane, Washington, my mother and father had a fierce argument. Fights and conflict were rare for them, and never lasted long. They’d been married thirty-nine years. They had a happy marriage. My father said, “If you want me to go, then I’ll really go.” He went upstairs. A few minutes later, my mother followed. She found him sitting on the end of their bed, his eyes unfocused, his head and shoulders sagging. “What did you do?” she shouted. “I took some pills,” my father answered. “ You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” My mother went into the bathroom. All the bottles from the medicine cabinet, a pharmacy’s worth of drugs including the Ativan and Trazodone my mother took for bipolar disorder, were out and open and empty on the counter. She called 911.

You’ve begun to feel like some neurasthenic Joan Didion character.  Only without the shiny coating of beauty and glamour.

Increasingly, you have nothing to say.  You are, distressingly, empty.  Empty and blank and tired and done.  Just…done.  

All you’ve ever wanted is to make everyone happy.  Now, you make no one happy.  You are nothing.

You listen to Azure Ray and cry, hating yourself and slicing up your arms with razor blades.

In The Bell Jar, you think, Esther got that plum internship.  Where’s your fucking prize?

You exist.  Just barely.

#9 Dream

By Jim Simpson

Humor

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” – Robert F. Kennedy

“Oh it’s too sad to be true
Your blue murder’s killing you.” – Elvis Costello, “Shot With His Own Gun

 

Basically, I am equal parts realist and dreamer. In most cases I know I am powerless to effect change beyond my little corner of the world, if even that. Still, I often concoct schemes to make the wider world a better place, at least in my mind. But what I am about to propose is much bigger than any “Occupy” movement. This could be the beginning of a utopian paradise. Join me in my excitement.

I am not innately funny. I am, in fact, a very solemn, somber, pensive man trapped in a funny man’s body. In much the same fashion, I am not a fat guy: I’m a little heavy because I am way out of shape, but in reality I am a skinny guy in a plumpish guy’s body. I have the pictures to prove it.

Buried deep in the heart of every comedian lies the barely faded memory of a bygone dead puppy. With the preeminent geniuses of comedy, the likes of Bruce and Pryor and Carlin and Hicks and so on, that puppy didn’t just die, it was tossed into a pot to be boiled up like the pet rabbit in Fatal Attraction, while the young child version of that future funny man was forced to watch. With any given story, comedy is indeed tragedy plus time; a comedic sensibility is born of accumulated incredulousness. One becomes a comedian the day he ceases to wonder why a thing just happened, and instead observes, “Wow, that was fucked up.”

A little over a year ago, I wrote a pretty awful suicide note that, for a variety of reasons, it turned out I couldn’t use. A few days later I wrote a much more eloquent reflection on that note and on the night it was written. I considered how shamefully glib I had been in addressing my closest friends. I recognized that, as I was attempting to put the final touches on what I thought were my soon to be infamous last words, the sun had risen, meaning I had run out of time: I claimed an unwillingness to kill myself during daylight hours, suggesting that two or three in the morning would be the ideal time to do the deed because anyone who might possibly have prevented it would be deep in sleep. I went on to admit that I’ve never been comfortable even hearing about knife wounds, let alone inflicting one on myself, but a knife was all I had. “In the end, I just couldn’t run a sharp blade along my wrist,” I wrote. “I can’t tie a noose, can’t afford drugs, don’t own a gun. And I don’t cook with gas.” Those were my utterly appalling reasons for not killing myself. That night.

A few weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon in November, I spent most of the little money I had on beer and cigarettes, a bag of Munchos and a pound of M&Ms, and I settled in for what turned out to be a thirty-hour drinking-sobbing-loud-music-smashing-shit binge that culminated in me sending an email I don’t remember to one of my best friends, asking him to take care of something for me when I was gone. Sometime later, two best friends arrived, took away the knife, and loaded me into the truck.

I spent the night in the emergency room, primarily because I was still far too drunk to be let loose in a psych ward, but also because it took some time to find an empty bed – as seems to so often be the case, those wards were overflowing. My friends stayed with me the first few hours. They each took a turn in a room down the hall with the crisis worker, telling her all the pertinent stories. They offered me reassuring thoughts, promised this was the right thing for me to do, told me I was going to be okay. They could just as well have been telling me I’d been voted Homecoming Queen: by then I’d taken up semi-permanent residence in the rabbit hole and at that sad hour I was busy contemplating the drapes. I was too desperately sad and too ashamed to absorb anything save the fact that I was in a bad place and it was about to get much worse before there was any hope of it getting even marginally better. They recognized that, my buddies Peaches and Hank. They understand me in a fundamental way, the true me, not the distorted version of me they found in my apartment that night, the version they had watched drag his ass around for months, a version which, looking back, is entirely unrecognizable to me now. Regardless of how hard I had made it for them to be my friends those miserable months, they get me, which is why, when I left the hospital room once to use the bathroom, Hank climbed into my vacated bed and struck a pose, Peaches snapped a picture with his phone, and sometime later Peaches posted the photo to Facebook with the caption, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.” It would be one of the first things I’d see when I flipped open my laptop after I got sprung from the psych ward, and even in my ongoing black fugue I laughed so hard I almost cried. I also noted the one comment accompanying the picture, from my friend Edge: “Uh-oh. Where’s Gary?”

Indeed, where was Gary?

Generally speaking, I was lost. The final straw for me was a girl – and I almost literally mean a girl, she’s seventeen years my junior (don’t worry, I’m easily old enough to be your cool uncle) – but it’s neither fair nor reasonable to say it was because of the girl. She’s not to blame for me ending up in the hospital. Saying any of that was her fault would be the same as if I wrecked my car and blamed it on the telephone pole around which it was wrapped: I was the one in motion, sir, not the pole. She was young and careless, I was old and foolish, but more than that, I had spent the previous two years dropping the ingredients of my life into a stew pot, seasoning the mix with self-pity and a burgeoning sense of worthlessness, and leaving it over a low heat to simmer. This is never a good idea, but in my case, I don’t really even cook – I’m generally hapless in the kitchen unless you need a pickle jar opened or want to have mildly adventuresome sex – so there was no way this could possibly end well.

More specifically, by the time Edge’s question appeared on Facebook, I was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance that carried me an hour southwest to the nearest hospital with an available bed. My shoes and belt, cigarettes, lighter, a fistful of cash and my down jacket were stuffed in a plastic bag, which one of the ambulance attendants passed to the admitting tech when they deposited me on the business side of a set of doors that locked automatically behind them the instant they departed. I was interviewed and probed and prodded and wrist-banded and, eventually, shown to my room. And then I was watched. I don’t know if it could be called my official status in the first twenty-four hours after I arrived on Ward A3, but it comprised the admitting tech’s parting words to me before she relinquished me to my unadorned room: I was on CVO, “constant visual observation.” It makes a certain kind of sense, considering I’d arrived there on the heels of trying to kill myself, but at the same time, unless I decided to either drown myself in the toilet or brain myself (to death, which I’m not sure is possible) by smacking my head repeatedly against the floor, there was absolutely nothing within reach that matched my imagination’s capacity to do myself the ultimate harm. But I’d brought this on myself, which meant that if they told me I’d have company every time I took a pee, I had no standing to get either bashful or indignant.

We’ve all read this book or seen the movie: it is, to varying degrees, the Cuckoo’s Nest. The nurses and techs were efficient and appropriately solicitous, if at times a bit overbearing as they saw fit. The doctors had slightly less personality than a watermelon rind. There was a smirking, edgy twenty-year old kid with pure psychotic eyes; a woman in her sixties who sobbed nonstop for two days, then proceeded to do laps around the ward in a Thorazine shuffle; a painfully beautiful young woman whose johnny kept sliding off her shoulder, revealing a long, thin neck that would have been lovely without the burn scars; and a very old man, my roommate the first night on the ward, who croaked a chant half the night: “I pray, I pray, I shall return.” The feel and sight and smell of the place can only be described as that of errant but earnest futility, a cluster of adhesive bandages cross-hatched on the scalp in the general vicinity of a brain hemorrhage. If all those aching skulls could simply be cracked and an atlas of maps could be drawn, designating the streets and boulevards and avenues and cul-de-sacs of fear and ecstasy and shame and joy and forgetting and faith and remorse . . . in which case, there would be no need for Ward A3. Instead, there is a tremendous need, and yet they are little more than the sanitary corridors of a place we go to be reminded of the many ways language can and will fail us when we desperately need it to access the very essence of what it is to be human and therefore at least a tiny bit fragile.

The failure of language that intrigued me most was the recurring question that fell from the lips of every staff person there so consistently it was as though they had just stepped out of a pep-rally type meeting in which they were reminded to keep asking: “Do you feel safe?” The first time the question was put to me, I cocked an eyebrow and hesitated for a few extra long beats because, honestly, it puzzled me. I realize it’s intended to be a purely simple, straightforward question, but the potential nuance felt inescapable. I wanted the question rephrased. Do I feel safe? No fucking way. Do I feel like I’m out of options? You bet your ass I do.

I behaved myself from the moment I arrived on the ward, but for the wrong reasons: I didn’t toe the line so I’d get better, I did it because I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible, and I understood immediately that good boys get to go home and bad boys should have their mail forwarded. As miserable as I’d made my life, as soon as I gave it away I wanted it back, or parts of it, anyway. I wanted cigarettes. I wanted my laptop and my iPod and my idiot-phone, in spite of the fact that it had by then taken to giving me nothing but bad news. I kind of wanted a drink, but that was less a driving impulse than a habitual inclination. I desperately wanted my shoes and my belt. If you’ve never spent any time shuffling around a psych ward in no-slip socks with your pants falling down, I can tell you right now, you’re not missing anything splendid. They did offer me a pair of hospital-issue pajamas, but I’d already made up my mind where I wanted the indignity to taper off, and that point fell just shy of those jammies.

One thing you should know about me is that I’m really bad at getting a haircut. When a hairstylist asks me, “So what are we doing today?” I invariably start to babble, and then I tell her to surprise me. A little crazy, I guess, but if you’ve seen my picture, you’d be right to guess my vanity doesn’t reside in my looks. I am, as it turns out, equally incompetent when dealing with doctors. There’s something about the forced intimacy of strangers for hire that knocks me off balance in an unexpected way – unexpected because I’m not generally shy. I’m not a good patient under any circumstances, but if I have to see a doctor for something below the skin, something that isn’t as glaringly obvious as a broken bone or a steadily bleeding flesh wound, I always feel like I have to talk him into it. Pretty soon I’m talking way too much and even I’m growing less convinced. It turns out actually saying, “I tried to kill myself,” sounds as unconvincing, out of context, as saying, “I love you.” No matter the truth of how you feel, it just sounds lame. So eventually I tried a different tack: I told him I’d given up. That did the trick because there were concrete, meaningful things I’d given up: I’d stopped paying my mortgage, stopped looking for a job, stopped writing, stopped doing pretty much everything except drinking, smoking, listening to loud music and punching holes in my own walls. “Okay,” the doctor said, “let’s get you better.”

Except that wasn’t exactly my plan. My plan was simply to get out of there. While getting better sounded terrific, doing so in that place was incomprehensible to me. It just wasn’t going to happen, and so instead of accepting what those fine professional healers offered, I launched my version of a psych ward charm offensive: in a remarkably short time I became the best behaved, least suicidal person any of them had ever seen inside those four walls. It was shameful and unwise, but what can I say, I’m a great interview.

I wasn’t purely a model citizen. But for one group session, I avoided all gatherings other than meal times. The one group session I did attend began with one of the techs passing out stubby pencils and slips of paper on which there was a line for our names and two more lines for us to write our “Goal for Today.” I’ve attended a lot of corporate team-building programs over the years, and this holdover from first grade has always struck me as the worst sort of condescending bullshit imaginable. In other words, I hate it a lot. But there I was, determined to be a good boy, which meant I had to play the game as it was being presented to me. So I scribbled my “Goal for Today,” and at the end of the session when the tech said, “One more person – Gary, we haven’t heard from you,” I cleared my throat, lowered my eyes and read, “My Goal for Today . . . is to be more goal oriented.” Even as the murmurs spread around me – “Wow. Yeah. That’s good. Good job.” – I felt my scrunched up little heart sing for the first time in what seemed like four days past forever. And I wanted out of there all the more because I’d just rolled out my A-material and, of course, nobody laughed.

And so I conned the doctors, conned the nurses, conned every staff person with whom I came into contact: I conned my way out of the hospital, knowing full well I still wanted to die, and with a faint inkling that what I’d imagined was the hard part – giving in and letting someone take me to the hospital – would in truth prove to be no more difficult than tying my shoes when compared to trying to get my shit together out in the real world.

One supremely good thing did come out of the experience of being there, though. In the hallway outside my room sat the phone on which patients could take calls that were put through from the nurses’ station. I must have listened to the near side of forty or fifty phone calls while I was on Ward A3. With slight variations, every single call went like this: a conventional greeting, followed by predictable responses to what appeared to be small-talk on the other end, and culminating in words separated by sobs before the person gently replaced the receiver and continued to sit there in the hallway, plainly visible from every angle (including where I lay on my bed just twelve feet away), silent tears streaming down his or her cheeks. Honestly, I didn’t want to see or hear any of that, ever. And yet I lay there transfixed. The day you know you’re going to go on living is the day you realize your pain is not only not unique – it is, in fact, the most obvious kind of ordinary – but it is also not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.

I was up very early my last morning on the ward. The nurse who got my meds from the dispensary asked if I wanted a nicotine patch or if I’d be smoking as soon I left the hospital. “Actually,” I replied, “I’d like a nicotine patch, and I’ll be smoking the second I get out of here.” When she suggested I consider giving them up, I smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure smoking isn’t what’s going to kill me.” Yeah, I said that. My GAF (“Global Assessment of Functioning,” in case you were wondering) at discharge was a 50, meaning I was, as far as they could tell, no more than average super-depressed: I’d managed to share deep thoughts in coherent sentences, which indicated I was as close to high-functioning as I needed to be to walk out of there. Sometime late morning Peaches rolled in, the tech handed me my bag of goodies, and I left without saying goodbye.

There are loads of suicide related statistics available for consumption, but they are mere statistics and we all know those are the most insidious of lies. For instance, what does it tell you that women attempt suicide three times more often than men, but for every suicide attempt men are four times more likely to pull it off than women? Statistics: they sketch the outlines of a picture, but they don’t tell a story. Depending on your perspective, they either confirm or defy what you already thought you knew. The concept and study of statistics evolved, I imagine, from the same impulse that created man’s gods: as a comfort in a too often disconcerting world. I’d call that awfully cold comfort to the friends and loved ones left behind.

In the epigram to his book Gargantua, Rabelais said, “I’d rather write about laughing than crying,/For laughter makes men human, and courageous.” I’m not writing this because I want to share my life story – I’m writing it precisely because it is not my life story, although had things turned out differently it very well may have been, in which case somebody else would be telling it, and that would be very disappointing to me because, under the circumstances, that person might have forgotten to find something to laugh about. That would have been a genuine shame.

I spent a very long time kicking myself for all of it, but especially for what I did to the people who care most about me. I put my two best friends in the position of having to sit in a small room with a relative stranger and tell her in excruciating detail every dark, dangerous, humiliating thing they’d watched me do over the previous few months. To their credit, they stole a moment that terrible night and created an ounce of levity, and for that in particular they’ll always have my unqualified respect. What I put them through is a shitty thing to do to people who love you. But do you know what’s worse than doing that to your friends? Not giving them the option.

 

As promised, here is the follow-up to the Top Ten Ways to Go (which you can read here). The first list is useful; this list is essential. Be aware.

 

Top Ten Ways Not to Go

Number 10: Choking on vomit

I think choking to death on anything would suck: you can’t breathe, your eyes are bulging, you’re swinging your arms and half bent over. It’s an awful spectacle. But vomit, jeez. And yes, I mean your own vomit, I’m not being Spinal Tap cute here. I’m talking about that late night pass-out moment at the end of what had been a thoroughly righteous ten hours of moveable feast, right up to the point when your body makes the unfortunate choice of deciding it doesn’t want ribs and baked beans and bourbon and ibuprofen swirling around in its belly any more and gives not the least little fuck about the fact that you are flat on your back and breathing through your mouth. Um, hurl.

 

Number 9: Listening to the band Bread

. . . on repeat. Okay, who hasn’t had the experience of a new-ish friend scrolling through your iTunes library, pausing, looking you in the eye and asking, “Bread? Seriously?” Yeah, motherfucker, Bread. Seriously. I confess, I’m a risk-taker, a tempter of Fate. I wave my private parts at Death on a regular basis: I listen to Bread all the time. Sometimes I put on some Bread when I climb into bed, and I start my prayers, “If I should die before I wake,” and then I chuckle, roll over and fall asleep. Take that, Grim Reaper.

 

Number 8: Getting your ass stomped to death by a gang of midgets

Just picture the last thought that would go through your mind. That is all.

 

Number 7: Wearing skinny jeans

Guys, I don’t know who is going around telling you those pants look good on you, but whoever it is, punch that person in the face because she or he is a filthy liar. Nobody looks good in skinny jeans. Everybody who wears skinny jeans looks like an asshole, and you know what they say: if it walks like a duck . . . which you do, in your skinny jeans. It is a horrible way to go through even a brief period of your life, and a worse state to be in at the very end. Don’t take that chance.

 

Number 6: Making flan

Statistically, this is extremely rare. Don’t be the one who skews those numbers.

 

Number 5: Thrill-seeking

By comparison, this is statistically quite common: skydivers’ shoots don’t open, parasailors crash into waterfront high-rises, world-class skiers go off marked trails and crash into trees bearing signs that say “Don’t ski here” (which I realize is technically ironic, but come on). If you’re so remarkably stupid that you need a regular fix of this kind, go with God. And tell him I say hello.

 

Number 4: Suicide

Unless you write the most profound suicide note ever – and you won’t – don’t do it. I write pretty good, and I couldn’t pull it off, so do yourself a solid and don’t go there. Stick around, make fun of people, eat weird foods, find out if Ryan Gosling will finally be named People’s sexiest man alive.

 

Number 3: Being named People’s sexiest man alive

. . . and having the magazine come out two days after you’re dead. Gross. Ironic and gross.

 

Number 2: Fucked to death in all the wrong ways

I don’t just mean the obvious bad fucking, like unwanted prison sex. I’m thinking more about those relationships we’ve all had that have run their course and grown stale, but you keep going through the motions, even going so far as to have the expected amount of bland, uninspired sex, and while you’re doing it, the thought crosses your mind, “God, what if this is the last person I ever have sex with. Like, what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, or . . .” and then you die. Bad fucked to death.

 

Number 1: Cast into the sea

Getting beaten up and thrown off the back of your yacht in the middle of the night by your drunken-ass jealous hack-actor husband because he thinks you’re banging Christopher Walken: that should never happen (again).

 

Chapter 1

 

After the argument with my mom, everything started spinning. Tilt-a-Whirl vertigo. Hoping a prescription for glasses would make the world appear the way it should again, I made an appointment with the optometrist for the morning of Friday, March 17, 2006.

The receptionist led me to a small examining room down the hall. The doctor had me read the eye chart, then asked me to identify a series of letters through various lenses. He dilated my pupils and checked the back of my eye. My vision, he declared, was twenty-twenty.

“Then why does everything keep spinning?” I asked.

“It’s probably neurological. You’d have to get more tests to know.”

I walked back to campus wondering what kind of disorders he had in mind. Turning off Waterman Street, I passed through the brick archway leading into Brown’s campus. Students were stream­ing to and from class, pouring out of buildings, playing Frisbee on the muddy quad. My cell phone started ringing and I hoped it was my mom calling me back. Normally I talked to her a few times a day, and I thought of her as my best friend as much as my mother.

But everything had changed three months earlier: New Year’s Eve, my twentieth birthday. I’d chosen to spend the night with friends instead of with my mom, and it had cost me. She’d thrown me out of her apartment the next day, and our argument had ended in my father’s driveway, where she stopped only long enough to toss my clothes onto his lawn and tell me that this was what I’d wanted. Since then she hadn’t answered my phone calls and I’d seen her only twice.

My sophomore spring was passing in a daze of vertigo attacks. I kept hoping my mom would stop being so stubborn and just call me back. I reached for my phone as I cut across the quad toward my art history class, which started in five minutes.

My brother’s name appeared on the caller ID.

“Have you talked to Mom today?” Brad asked.

“No, why?”

“Her boss called and said she didn’t show up for work.”

“Maybe she went to New Hampshire. I don’t know, but I have class now.”

“You have to get home.”

“Seriously?”

But he didn’t have to tell me twice. Immediately I knew some­thing was wrong. My two older brothers and I always knew where our mom was. We talked to her morning, noon, and night; she never turned her cell phone off, not even while she was at work.

Growing up, she’d attended every sporting event and school func­tion, juggling a full-time teaching job as a divorcée with primary custody of my brothers and me. Until our overblown argument on New Year’s Eve, she’d been completely dependable and I could always reach her.

She was never late for anything and called her boss by six in the morning if she needed to take a sick day. This was the first time in fifteen years that her boss had to dig up her emergency contact info, which listed Barbara Ann—our mother’s closest friend from the Massachusetts suburb where we’d grown up—as the person to call if something was wrong. Barbara Ann had called Brad, who immediately called our older brother Chris and me.

“Go now, Lindsay.”

My family refers to me by my full name only when there’s a problem.

“I have to take an exam at one. I’m leaving as soon as I finish,” he said.

A junior at Cornell, Brad was sequestered in upstate New York and the drive home was at least eight hours. I could make it from Rhode Island to Mom’s apartment in Massachusetts in two hours by train. Considering I didn’t have a three-hour economics mid­term to suffer through first, I knew I better get going.

Students strode by me as I stumbled to a nearby bench. I could feel another bout of vertigo coming on, the ground swooping up to meet the sky. The four barrels lining the path started to spin: Trash, Paper, Bottles, and Mixed Containers. I shut my eyes to still the chaos. I gripped the edge of the bench and waited for my best friend Cassidy to meet me before class, like always.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You look sick.” The bells rang out, signaling twelve o’clock classes.

“Something happened. I can’t go to class.”

“What is it?”

The last of the stragglers disappeared into buildings around the main green as I told her about my mom not showing up for work. We hurried off toward our dorm. Cassidy and I had met a year and a half earlier in an art class. She’d arrived from Vermont with a unicycle and an old guitar, which was enough to impress me. Sophomore year we were sharing a dorm room and trading thrift store T-shirts and beaded necklaces.

I threw my toothbrush and a change of clothes into my back­pack. Cassidy looked up the train schedule online.

“The next one leaves at one thirty. C’mon, you should eat first,” she said.

We went to the dining hall and I got my usual meal of salad and Diet Coke. The students around us were maddeningly carefree with their soft-serve cones and their campus newspapers. Instead of waiting around for the train, I felt like I should be hitting the road immediately, borrowing a friend’s car or hitchhiking. I stabbed a fork at my lettuce as the dread in my stomach turned to nausea. Cassidy kept saying it would all be fine. I pushed my plate away and looked up at the giant clock on the wall. I wanted to believe her, but the minutes were moving toward one o’clock impossibly slowly.

Cassidy reached for my hand as we walked downtown to the train station, her fingers glinting with the silver rings she always wore. My backpack thumped against my spine. I wanted to be overreacting, wanted this to be a false alarm, but something in Brad’s voice had faltered from his usual tough-guy stoicism.

I hugged Cassidy and bought a ticket for the northbound train.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” she called across the terminal.

 

The train was packed with people leaving Providence for the week­end. I took the window seat beside a blue-suited businessman and began scrolling through the contacts saved in my cell phone. Starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet, I called friends and relatives—many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years—to ask them if they’d heard from my mother lately or happened to know where she was. I tried to sound casual. I phoned old friends we’d sailed with every summer in Rhode Island, soccer moms from our hometown of North Andover, and the neighbor across the hall in Mom’s apartment building in New­buryport. I called information for more numbers. Everyone was quick to assure me that she probably just needed a long weekend away. I thanked them and moved down the list, feeling dizzy and trapped on the slow-moving train. My phone started to beep. I called my older brother Chris and told him to meet me at the Newburyport station. He’d left his office job in Boston and rushed to Mom’s apartment as soon as Brad had called a few hours earlier.

I sat pinned against the window, restless at every stop. My phone battery died halfway down the list of people who might have said, “Your mom’s right here.” The train crossed into Mas­sachusetts, groaned through Boston, and slid up along the coast, finally pulling into Newburyport. I was the first one off the plat­form.

Chris honked from the parking lot and I ran over and got into his Ford Explorer. He’d been pacing our mom’s apartment for the past few hours, trying to figure out where she’d gone. The drive­way was empty; her car wasn’t there. Chris said he’d even called the police, but they told him that people skip work all the time, and a person wasn’t officially considered missing until seventy-two hours had passed, unless we had reason to suspect a crime had been com­mitted. Even after Chris explained that this was extremely unusual behavior for our mother, the police officer said there was nothing he could do until Monday. We should try to relax; she probably just went away for the weekend.

But even as Chris told me that he’d called the police, I resisted the idea of involving them. As scary as it was to not know our mother’s whereabouts, I had no doubt that my brothers and I would find her. We knew her patterns and all the likely places she might have gone. Beyond her unswerving reliability, Mom had raised us in an air of intense privacy; as kids we weren’t supposed to tell anyone that our parents were divorced. Calling old friends to ask if they’d seen her lately made me feel like I was breaking her rules, but already I could sense that something more important had snapped.

As soon as I got in the car, Chris handed me our mom’s red suede purse, saying he’d found it in her apartment. Mom had given me this bag for Christmas two years earlier, and I’d returned it to her when I grew tired of it.

“Start looking through there,” Chris said.

“She always takes her purse.”

“I know.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look, Lindsay!”

At twenty-four, Chris was four years older than me, old enough to boss me around. He resembled our mom more than Brad and I did, with his narrow nose and chestnut hair. I started digging. Mom’s Wet n Wild lipstick was down to a dark red stub. I sifted through her drugstore reading glasses, a scattering of receipts and blank sticky notes, a handful of spare change, a hairbrush tangled with strands of dyed brown hair, a bottle of beige foundation, and her black wallet, bulging with credit cards, small bills, and creased photographs of my brothers and me. I couldn’t imagine where she would be going without all her essentials. I threw the bag on the floor and told Chris to drive faster.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of the white clapboard house on High Street. Mom had been living in an apart­ment on the third floor for the past year and a half. I’d been prepar­ing to leave for my first semester of college when she announced that she was done with North Andover.

“The boys are gone and you’re leaving too. Why would I want this big old house anymore?” she’d said at the time.

So Mom sold the house we’d grown up in amid talk of start­ing over. She rented an apartment in Newburyport, a picturesque coastal town forty minutes from North Andover, where she planned to make new friends, find romance, lose weight, and do all those things that amount to a second chance. We didn’t know anyone in Newburyport and weren’t sure why she was moving to a town that would double her commute to Woburn, where she worked as a special education teacher. My brothers and I didn’t question her motives, though. With the ocean just down the road, it seemed like a good place to start over. If Mom had any fears about a new beginning, she kept them to herself.

I took the stairs two at a time, up three flights, and reached for the spare key above the door frame. I threw open the door wanting to believe that Mom would be waiting on the other side, ready to put this whole misunderstanding behind us. The apart­ment was cluttered, same as always—books stacked beside the couch, an empty coffee mug on the table, and Mom’s brown cor­duroy blazer draped over the back of a chair. It looked like she had just run out to the store. Needed eggs, maybe milk. Like she’d be right back.

But her key chain was hanging on the hook in the kitchen, crammed with at least twenty keys, including the one for the Subaru Outback she’d bought a few months earlier. I never under­stood why she toted so many keys—I couldn’t imagine what they all opened—but along with her purse, Mom took this hefty ring wherever she went.

“Chris, did you see this?” I said.

“She must’ve taken her spare car key.”

“Then she won’t be gone long.”

After plugging my cell phone in to charge it, I emptied the purse and made a paper trail of receipts and sticky notes, trying to retrace our mom’s footsteps. A crumpled receipt for gas pur­chased at an Irving station near her office in Woburn, her Ameri­can Express card swiped at seven fifteen a.m. on Thursday, March 16. Meaning she’d gotten to work the day before about a half-hour earlier than the other teachers, who came in at eight. My mother was always punctual and often early, but never late—which was why her boss was alarmed enough to dig up her emergency contact info when she didn’t show up by midmorning.

A receipt for groceries purchased at Market Basket four days earlier: milk, cheese, hummus, and French bread. Photos devel­oped at CVS, a whole roll shot on the sand dunes of Plum Island, a barrier island between Newburyport Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean: sunsets, driftwood, and fishermen casting offshore. It all fit into her routine. I was about to give up and hurl the empty purse across the room when I noticed one more receipt, folded and tucked in an inner pocket.

“Chris—”

“What’d you find?”

“A receipt for a Budget rental truck.”

The yellow copy, dated Wednesday, March 15, made more sense to my brother than it did to me. Apparently the moving truck was all part of the plan. Mom had recently bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, fifteen minutes south of the ski condo where we’d vacationed for years. After almost two decades of working as a special education teaching associate, Mom was looking forward to an early retirement within a few years. The apartment in Newburyport was never supposed to be permanent; she was just taking some time to figure out where she wanted to settle down. Brad had planned to drive home on his upcoming spring break to help Mom transport a storage unit full of furniture to her new house. The truck was scheduled to be picked up the following week.

I had always envisioned my mother by the sea—she had dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast on a Rhode Island bluff we sailed past every summer—but she took a turn for the moun­tains instead. Normally she included me in every decision, right down to making the grocery list. But things had changed since our New Year’s Eve fight. We’d barely spoken since, and I knew next to nothing about the house she’d bought. Still, I hoped that’s where she had gone.

Chris called Budget rental and learned that Mom hadn’t picked up the truck early. My next thought was that she’d gotten in her car and driven north, wanting to map out the furniture arrangement in her new house or shop at the nearby outlet stores. Maybe her cell phone had run out of battery power en route. She would plug it in and call one of my brothers or me when she got there, but the worry was in the waiting. She phoned at least one of us every morning by the time she got to work. She was my morning alarm, and instead of saying prayers at night, I talked to her.

Chris had already called 411 and requested the phone number of our mother’s future neighbors in New Hampshire. Once con­nected, he introduced himself and asked if they’d seen any cars in the dirt driveway beyond their barn. Any lights on in the windows? They said the property looked deserted but promised to keep a lookout. The Budget receipt implied that Mom was following a plan, one she’d eagerly shared with my brothers and the details of which she’d stubbornly kept from me in the wake of our argu­ment. Even if I didn’t know where the house was located or what it looked like, a house in the mountains sounded simple enough. For years Mom had been saying she needed to simplify; things were finally falling into place. I held on to the yellow scrap of paper as if it were irrefutable proof that things were still as they should be.

There was also the possibility that she hadn’t gone north yet. Maybe she was just playing hooky and would come walking into the apartment any second. She would apologize for making us worry and relay an amusing story about her day off. Since this seemed just as likely, we decided to wait it out. Instead of chasing after her, it made more sense to remain at home base and wait for her to come back.

Brad got on the road at four, right after finishing his midterm. He had transferred from Boston College—Mom’s alma mater—to Cornell for his junior year. He called Chris and me at least ten times during his ride. We leaped for our cell phones, thinking Brad was about to say that he’d gotten hold of Mom, while he was hoping to hear that she’d just walked into the apartment. As the hours wore on, the calls became our way to keep Brad awake on his drive. After feeling exhausted for weeks, he had finally gone to the doctor a few days before. Tests revealed that he had mono, which explained his fatigue, fever, and sore throat. We were worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel and flip his truck into a field full of cows.

On his sixth or seventh call, Brad told us to go to every gas station that Mom might stop at on her way out of town. He was hoping they’d have security cameras recording the pumps. A video clip of a white station wagon pulling into the frame and a fifty-three-year-old woman pumping gas. How it would tell us what direction Mom took or where she was heading, we didn’t know. She’d bought a half tank the day before at the Irving station near her office, but we figured she’d top it off if she were planning a getaway.

We left a note on the kitchen table before leaving:

Mom,

We came home to see you. Please call us.

Love,

C, B, and L

Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Getty—we checked all the Newburyport stations without any luck. The pumps were old and the signs dis­playing the prices had not yet gone digital. The thought of security cameras in such a quaint suburb was absurd. We got on I-95 north and looked for gas station symbols on the blue service signs that lined the road every few miles. Six p.m. and the sun had set with­out our noticing. The interstate pulsed with yellow headlights. We followed an exit toward a Getty station and entered the adjacent convenience store, where the clerk on duty was a few years younger than me. He flipped through the day’s receipts to see if he could find one that matched our mother’s credit card number, but we grew impatient watching him dig through the thick wad of paper slips.

“She drives a white Subaru Outback. Midfifties, five-four, chin-length brown hair, probably wearing jeans, looks like a mom. Anyone like that come through?” Chris asked.

“Lots of people come and go,” he said.

“Do you videotape the pumps?”

“The tape’s locked in the office, but the manager comes in at eleven.”

“Think he’ll be able to show us the tape?”

“Don’t see why not.”

“Okay, we’ll come back then.”

“Actually I might’ve seen someone who fit that description this afternoon.”

Music to our ears. But even if our mother had passed through, it told us nothing about where she’d gone next. Still, it was some­thing.

Chris and I got back in the car. We knew it was time to call our father. In the seventeen years since their divorce, they’d never learned how to get along. Mom had done her best over the years to convince my brothers and me that he was not a good man, and even less of a father.

“We have to tell him,” Chris said.

“Fine. You call.”

He was probably in the middle of dinner, but like our mother, Dad always answered the phone.

“Dad, it’s Chris. Something’s wrong.”

“What?”

“It’s our mom.”

“What about her?”

“We can’t find her.”

“Can’t find her?”

“She didn’t show up for work. We’ve been looking for her all day.”

“She’s probably up at your ski condo.”

“She’s not there,” Chris said. “Brad’s driving home from Cor­nell and Lindsay’s with me.”

“Call me tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll hear from her by then,” Dad said before hanging up.

Chris slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Dad thinks we’re overreacting.”

“What did you expect?”

Chris swallowed whatever he was about to say and looked out the window. I knew Dad wouldn’t share our immediate alarm. Our mother was hardly his favorite person. It baffled me that my parents had been married for almost two decades. Mom acted out of emotion, Dad out of logic. He was a Princeton man, an engi­neer, and then president and CEO of a high-tech company until selling it at the age of fifty. He had also married another woman whose name was the same as my mother’s: Michele. An unfortu­nate coincidence as well as a constant reminder to my mom that she had been replaced.

Dad and his new wife lived in a beachfront mansion along with their beautiful towheaded child, Maggie. At fourteen years old, I suddenly had a new sibling. In my mother’s eyes, this was against the rules. A man was supposed to have only one wife, one set of kids. Even as my mom was so keen on starting over, it seemed she had never forgiven her ex-husband for seizing his own second chance.

Dad’s version of starting over included undertaking the resto­ration of an enormous old house as well as an early retirement so that he could be a stay-at-home parent. When he wasn’t occupied with Maggie, Dad was building cabinets, gutting old bedrooms, landscaping, and otherwise trying to restore his property to a Gats­byesque splendor it hadn’t seen in decades. He was a Renaissance man, still as fit and handsome as he was when my mother met him in college. His eyes were the same deep blue as the waves that broke on West Beach, right outside his bedroom window. By all outward appearances, his second chance had panned out quite nicely.

Chris and I drove around Newburyport for a while, checking parking lots for a white Subaru while speculating about where our mom could have gone. We went back and checked her apartment for any clues we might have overlooked. We called her cell phone several more times, but it continued to go straight to voice mail. Even though we still had at least an hour before we could view the gas station video, we got back in the car. Being on the move was easier on our nerves than sitting in the apartment; we were hoping to spot Mom’s station wagon or even pass her on the road.

But it was hard to tell what kinds of cars we were passing. March in New England meant the sun went down by six p.m. and the only light thereafter came from headlights, an indifferent moon, and a smattering of stars. Chris pulled into a liquor store parking lot off the highway. The adrenaline-pumped afternoon had collapsed into utter fatigue. Worrying was tiring. We reclined our seats, hoping to rest until eleven o’clock or until Brad called again, whichever came first. He’d been driving straight for the past six hours and had about two more to go. I shut my eyes, but I was no closer to sleep when a policeman rapped on the driver’s side window and beamed a flashlight in our eyes. Chris rolled down the window and we both sat up a little straighter.

We knew the officer would be of no use until several more hours passed, so there seemed little point in explaining our pre­dicament. Easier to just let him assume we were causing trouble outside a liquor store on a Friday night. We rolled up the windows and got back on the road, and for a few minutes I hated the cop, even though he’d done nothing wrong. It never crossed my mind to turn my frustrations on my mother, who had put us in this pre­dicament in the first place.

Ten thirty. We cruised through Newburyport, past the board­walk and the waterfront restaurants, looping through the brick-faced center of town for the fifth or sixth time. Everything was closed. Coming up on eleven, we drove back to the Getty station. The same kid was sitting behind the counter, no manager in sight. Apparently the manager was taking the night off and had forgotten to press the Record button on the camera that morning. The kid told us this without looking up from his magazine. We got back to Mom’s apartment just before midnight.

We did our best to not wake the neighbors, but the wooden stairs creaked and groaned and our footsteps echoed up through the halls. We opened the front door, willing Mom to be dozing in her easy chair, feet up on the ottoman, wineglass on the end table. But the lights were just the lamps we had turned on before leaving.

We called Brad to tell him about the dead ends we’d run into at the gas stations. He was still a half hour away, and I pictured him cruising in the fast lane, palming the steering wheel while going over the possibilities for the hundredth time: her new house, a weekend getaway, a dead cell phone battery, an explanation that would make perfect sense when she returned. Even as he told himself to stay calm, I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been, a fire-alarm fear difficult to explain to anyone but Chris and me—because we felt it too. It was completely out of character for our mom to take off without telling us. Her mood swings could be brutal, but her temper always cooled quickly, and she was nothing if not consistent in phone calls, care packages, and visits. She was the glue that held us all together.

I crawled into my mother’s bed, searching for her body’s inden­tation. Chris lay on the couch, a trail of receipts stretching across the floor in front of him. We called out to each other in the dark.

“She probably just went away for the weekend,” I said.

“It’ll make sense in the morning,” he replied.

Neither of us sounded convinced. I pulled the blankets up under my chin. Minutes or hours passed, marked by the faint whoosh of cars on High Street and the dim beam of headlights across the ceiling, like signals from an erratic lighthouse. I finally fell asleep, tangled in the roses of my mother’s sheets.

 

Excerpted from MISSING, by Lindsay Harrison. Copyright © 2011 by Lindsay Harrison.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.