I went home for a month for Christmas right after Jessica’s mom was in the car accident and I called Nicky Forrester for the first time in a while. The drive from Boston to Michigan was comforting in a familiar way with the static in the old Nissans radio and the eddies of snow swirling in the streets. I heard about the accident from my mom, and I saw the tire marks on the asphalt at the intersection where the car had failed to stop and hit her while she sat innocently and unassuming at the red light. That road gets salted better now.
Nicky had been my best friend all through high school so I haunted the trauma ward with him and Jess while they waited patiently for something, anything, to change in the report Dr. Greene brought out every morning, and every afternoon at four o’clock. Nicky had brought home graduate school applications and Jess had brought her college applications, so spent the majority of the time with Mr. Forrester silently watching football drinking coffee and trying to wean myself off of cream and sugar to see if I could learn to like it black. A week went by, and so did Christmas, nothing had changed and I was down to a pack of Splenda when Nicky and Jess had to go back to school. I drove Nick to the Detroit airport on a Sunday morning when they sky was bright and we really got to talk for the first time. We sounded like adults, we talked about what we were going to do, and I couldn’t help but think about how old I felt, even though we were only twenty-two. I wasn’t filling out applications for school, I was filling out applications for jobs, and the thought of working construction for another summer, and then maybe forever pressed in the realization that I was stagnant, like I wasn’t wandering through life with everyone else as their change came in a whirlwind like a twister of leaves in the fall, bright and with a snap of cold and wonderful, but standing and watching as the globe spun around me, and I got old and waited for something to happen like I had been waiting all week.
I went home for a few days and threw paper airplanes around my room and thought about cracking open my engineering book. The first day I dug through my room and found old photos and some videos that Nicky and I had made when we were fourteen and Nicky decided he wanted to be a movie director. That lasted until the end of high school before he decided that wasn’t a realistic expectation. The second day I found an old volcano I had helped Jess build for her 8th grade science project while Nicky was busy being studious himself. I didn’t have any siblings growing up unless you counted Charlie who was four and from my mom’s second marriage, but I never really got to be an older brother like Nicky was, and he was a busy guy so sometimes I would step in and help out since I certainly wasn’t going to do the Physics homework.
I wouldn’t say Jess was close enough to me to be like a sister in any way, she was generally whiny when she was younger and we did everything we could to evade her prying questions, and she couldn’t keep her mouth shut so we always got busted for skipping class. But it didn’t seem to matter to her either, when I asked if she wanted some company around the house while her dad stayed at the hospital and she had to go to school. She always talked and she talked a lot so she must have been lonely after Nicky left and she was alone. I wonder if she missed the sound of her own voice the way you miss how a friend can’t say the word “father” without dragging out the A making it sound pretentious, like a joke. So on the third day when my room was torn to pieces and my mom had taken to asking me if I wanted to help her out at the flower shop more than usual I told her that I was thinking of going over to the Forrester’s to sit with Jess while they watched and waited for more change. Maybe Jess wouldn’t mind having a friend around. Maybe I could be the voice of reason to a high school senior who felt like she controlled the world, but a scared daughter who was terrified that nobody could.
When I showed up on her doorstep with lasagna, she talked and she said she often got homesick because it wasn’t home without anyone to talk to. Her whole body seemed to have electricity to it, like if she stood still too long in the foyer she might vibrate so violently she would shatter. I took to showing up every day after she got out of class with Dunkin Doughnuts when I realized that Jess was in an empty house, leaving the TV on all afternoon so she didn’t have to open the front door to the quiet. I would sit on the stoop reading the paper Mr. Forrester had ignored or forgotten, and sometimes I would salt the front walk. I might not be able to hold the family together like Nicky, or cure Mrs. Forrester like Dr. Greene, but I felt like I was doing my part, or as much as I was capable of, and it was nice to feel like I had some sort of purpose when I woke up in the morning aside from evading my mothers probing comments about school.
One day when we were digging through her mothers convoluted filing system for her social security card for her application to Duke, Jess made the decision that she was going to help make dinner for her Aunt Linda and Mr. Forrester before they went back to the hospital for the night. Jess would still visit every morning before class, but while things remained stable Mr. Forrester insisted that she try and finish out the semester strong and maybe take some time off at the beginning of the next semester. In a sad way I think he was hoping something would have changed and maybe they wouldn’t be in the hospital, but I think that Jess feared different and said she felt useless in Biology when she could be doing something, anything else. The roads were bad, so they would head back early, and she wouldn’t see them in the morning because the snow was falling in thick flakes and the traffic would be horrible in the morning when she tried to go from the hospital to the school. But I knew she wasn’t going. The day before I noticed she hadn’t set the coffee pot timer or her alarm and when I remarked on it she had said not to worry about it.
Jess had followed the meatloaf recipe with precision, chopped everything meticulously, made a side of peas, wiped the counters, cleaned up after herself as she cooked, and only ate two bites. Her short brown hair was pulled into a spiky ponytail that stuck straight out, revealing the bottom dyed a vibrant shade of magenta. Her eyeliner was smudged from the day but her eyes remained bright. Even at night, when she was tired and dressed in one of her ex boyfriend’s old sweatshirts and a pair of her older brother’s Columbia sweatpants, her eyes never drooped, they looked far away, like they were swearching for something beyond the television screen.
“It was good. That was a nice thing,” I said sitting on the counter, watching her rearrange the dishwasher.
“Want to go out to eat?” she asked pausing for the briefest of moments.
“We just ate.”
“Well you don’t have to eat, just drive me. My dad took the car.”
“You hardly ate and now you’re hungry,” I said looking at her.
“Yeah, I didn’t eat, therefore I am hungry. Come on, “ she said, throwing at least two days worth of left over meatloaf in the trash and then not even waiting for me, headed towards the door, “No time to loose.”
So I drove her to town even though it was starting to snow thick flakes and I knew if it kept up the main roads would get slow later that night. We took the back neighborhood roads to avoid rush hour but I knew they would be impassable with snow on our way home. Jess messed with the heat, the radio, and at one point found a pack of cigarettes while digging through my glove box, opened the window and lit up. But she never spoke, she never sat still, like she was spinning so fast that if she stopped her life would spill over and nothing would hold the mess together.
I knew I wasn’t that much older than her and any other girl I might not have cared, but she had always been the little sister and I couldn’t wrap my head around her growing up and seeing her smoke bothered me. It made me feel old. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of her smoking and I knew Nicky would kill me for letting her, but I figured it would be a bit hypocritical to say something so I just asked for one too, and when hers went out and her hand was shaking too badly to get the lighter to flare again I used my own to fix it.
That was when we ran across Forte, the same restaurant my dad always took my mom too for their anniversary. I thought she might like a real meal instead of just the Velveeta and doughnuts she always ate and I knew her mother would appreciate something green on her daughter’s plate. So we walked to the door of the restaurant and Jess started drawing in the cold air like it was rushing in through her entire chest cavity and not just her mouth, and it occurred to me I hadn’t even heard her take a single breath in the car, except those polluted with smoke.
The waitress walked us to a table by the window that was near the corner and nice and quiet. Jess took her coat off and slung it on the back of the chair, smoothing the shoulders, and I realized just how tiny she really was, her wrists looked like they would snap it she bent it wrong, and her collarbones stuck out through her tank top. When we sat down I realized how quiet it was without the music from the radio so I told her a story. I told her about when Nicky and I decided we wanted to go hiking the summer after freshman year, but we ended up stopping for lunch on the side of the road and cooking hot dogs and some people who were behind us stopped and ate with us, and then a few more pulled over off the interstate and one went and bought us more buns and so we just held a cookout and then went home. It was the perfect reunion to start off the three months we had to kick it in the back yard, flicking bottle caps from the beers we had jacked from his neighbors fridge he kept in the garage, shooting the shit, just like it always was. This was what I missed about Nicky. The routines and spontaneity, all of it together. The kid was sharp so none of us were surprised when he got all of the internships and decided not to come home for any of the summers after that, but I’m not going to lie, I felt a little left in the dust. I would never have admitted it then, but I would have given anything to be dressed in a suit to be someone’s coffee slave if it only meant I knew where I was going. But instead I spent my summers watching our high schools football team get their asses kicked in preseason, watching the kids who were rookies my senior year captain the team.
I told her about the time we both got really drunk on our senior spring break trip to Mexico, when I carried home Nicky’s girlfriend who had passed out, and he got angry seeing me hold her while she was limp and her neck stretched while her head lolled against me and her hair hung down in strings, so he punched me. I showed her the dimple over my knuckle from when I had punched him. It was all I could think about, anything I had ever done with the Forrester’s, everything I could remember. I mentioned every cousin, every uncle, watching baseball games with her grandfather. I told her about the time someone brought Krispy Kremes to the class bake sale and Nick’s girl had made us spend hours making cupcakes so we got pissed they had been lazy and we stole the doughnuts. I told Jess about her mother laughing until she cried finding us at the same age she would be in the spring, sitting in the tree house in the back yard, the sun shining down, with a dozen glazed rings between us. The dog had been barking and Mrs. Forrester had come outside, and she couldn’t believe that we were all grown up. “Oh my God,” she had said, watching as we threw bits down for the poodle, “and you boys can vote. You are eating stolen doughnuts in a tree house and you can pick our president.”
At the mention of her mother Jess started talking. The waitress came. Jess got the special, which was chicken, and at her insistence I ordered a steak. But she didn’t stop talking, it was one continuous stream of thought like she had couldn’t go another minute without telling me exactly what she was thinking at that very minute.
“You know everyone wants to talk to me about what happened and wants me to talk about what happened and I just don’t feel like it, you know? It’s like I’m living it, I don’t need to hear about it too. She’s out like a light and there’s nothing we can do about it but wait, so just shut up and wait. You know Mrs. Morris stopped me the other day while I was trying to get us some groceries? She was trying to be all sympathetic and indignant towards the whole thing with me, but I didn’t want to be and told her it could have happened to anyone. And then she said she was going to write a letter to the city saying that they needed to salt the streets and take care of them, especially in front of that Kroger, but I don’t think she will,” she said picking up her asparagus with her fingers and taking small bites it from the top.
“Maybe she will.” I offered sitting in front of my full plate of food. She glared at me so I took a bit of potato.
“I doubt it,” she answered.
“Even so, she was trying to be nice.”
“People don’t need to be nice and they certainly don’t need to worry. I’m fine, all of my homework is turned in, the house is clean, I get fed, right? I’m not a charity case; I don’t want their food. Do you think I look like a charity case? Do I look like I need help?” She demanded an answer from me so I told her that no, she didn’t seem to be struggling. She never got angry, she just kept shaking her head like can you believe these people? But I could, because I was one of them in disguise, I just didn’t want to talk about it myself to be perfectly honest. It was awkward, like she said, there was nothing else to do, and I hadn’t even had a grandparent in the hospital so I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer in the consoling department.
“It’s not my fault, right? So they don’t need to be nice and they don’t need to worry. They only care because they should, not because they do. “
“Well I care,” I said. She asked so many rhetorical questions and I wanted to answer every one of them like I knew the answer, but I knew she would kill me if she got a sympathizing response that the rest of the world generically doled out, even if that was how I really felt, because I didn’t know what she was going through, so I wasn’t fool enough to answer a single one and pretend.
“Okay, yeah, I know.” She said. But she never gave me the icy “thank you” like she had to Mrs. Morris in the supermarket and I was thankful.
“So what’s the plan for tomorrow, need me to drive you to school?”
“Got it handled?”
“Do you think you could come pick me up around three to take me to Best Buy, Dad’s been meaning to get a cable cord for the TV in their room for ages. And while we’re out do you have time to come with me to the pet store, I think the fish needs a new tank, a bigger tank. Maybe he needs some other little fish to help him eat all of the food and to swim with him. Maybe we can grab that tonight on our way home.”
“Easy killer. How about we just pick up a movie from Blockbuster. Chill out or you’ll burn out, okay?”
“Just let me go to the store.” I knew I wasn’t a Forrester. I hadn’t stopped her from smoking, I hadn’t cooked the family dinner for her, I wasn’t forcing her to go to school. She was old enough and too young all at the same time and I didn’t feel like I had any authority to accompany my attempts to take care of her because if it. All I wanted to do was make her slow down, take one step at a time, hold all of herself together before she began to fracture and the shards would fall, before they would crumble and crash, smash and splinter, fall apart. “Please, just, please let me do what I want.”
“Pick something else. Pick one thing.” Her mouth froze in an open O. She regained her composure and slumped back in her chair.
“Where was I when you and Nick were in the tree house?”
“When you stole the bake sale stuff, and my mom was there. Why didn’t I get a doughnut?”
“That’s seriously what you’re concerned about right now?”
“Well I’m sure I wanted one.”
“I’m sure that’s why we hid.”
“Well if you don’t like me enough to share one of a dozen doughnuts with me then why do you like me enough to sit with me every waking minute. Are you afraid I’m going to run away or go crazy or something? Or is this some unresolved thing from the past, like you’re trying to take responsibility/. Did Nick put you up to this?”
“I don’t know, it seemed like something I should do.”
“Hey, I’m getting something out of this too, I’m not working a shift in the flower shop.”
“So you’re using me?”
“It’s more of a symbiotic relationship if you look at it.”
“And you get fed good food. Keep eating your steak,” I took a bite, “the meatloaf was really good wasn’t it?”
“I said it was, it was.”
“But it wasn’t the same, was it? I knew the whole recipe, I did everything just like she did, but in reality, I know nothing about cooking or meatloaf, and as good as it was, especially to have now, it just wasn’t the same, and I couldn’t get over that. It wasn’t what I wanted, you know?”
“Jess what would you like to do after dinner?”
“I want to steal doughnuts, I think I would have liked that.”
“Well there are no doughnuts.” I said thankfully, “There’s nothing to steal,” which is unfortunately where she came up with the idea to eat and split before the waitress came back with the bill. Maybe I thought it would be cathartic but this time I really don’t know. I had been thankful for the diversion almost as much as she had been. I wasn’t good with the hard stuff about life and death and consoling, but I was very good at simply existing as a distraction. And that’s all I was and all I wanted to be, because that was all I was capable of offering. I was just trying to be a person, you know?
I’m not generally the kind of guy who dines and dashes, but we were young and it was one of those situations where even years later she would shrug off and always say it just seemed like a good idea at the time. When she proposed the idea of running she was actually smiling and I figured it was harmless so I looked around the restaurant and I asked her if she was sure and she said “Absolutely”. There was a big part of me that thought this was exactly like something Nicky and I would have done, and another even bigger part of me that thought nowadays this was something that Nicky would kill me for doing, and taking his sister along. Never mind the fact that it was her idea.
“You’re really sure you want to do this? They make you clean the dishes in the back if they catch you.”
“No they don’t, “she said snorting, “that’s only in the movies. Come on, there’s the back door that leads to the valet parking lot. You say you’re going to warm up the car for me, and I’ll be waiting for the check and go to the bathroom and I’ll just book it if they see me. Meet me back there?”
“I’ll have the car pulled around and ready to hit the gas.”
“Perfect,” She sat smiling and my brain frantically tried to find a way out of the situation. We waited another minute for them to leave the check and I stood up to leave. I told her to watch in case the waitress came back and she was busy scanning the back of the room when I went up to the hostess. I slipped her a handful of crumpled bills for the meal, and told her it was from the table in the corner. She looked inquisitively at me but I shook my head and walked across the street to get the car.
It was a completely windless night so the crunching of the snow under my feet echoed across the block like I was the only person in town, but it could have been the world. I got in the car and I twisted the key and the car shook to life, vibrating in a familiar and reassuring way. I pulled up behind the restaurant and cranked the heat, just as Jess briskly walked through the door. The second she hit the night she began to sprint, flashing under the parking lot lights. The powdery snow kicked up behind her and she dragged in what seemed like an entired drift raking her feet into the car, and I punched the gas as fast as I could without losing control in the unplowed parking lot. She laughed. She laughed and she smiled and I felt proud. She quieted as we hit the first stop light and the car rattled as we waited for it to turn. I turned my vent towards Jess as she curled up in a ball and cranked the heat as high as it would go.
“You know if you ate a brownie once in a while you could look like the rest of us and stay warmer.” She didn’t really respond at all and I figured she was tired, so I put the car in reverse and backed out onto the road. I drove down the main street which was partially plowed and crawled through the dimly lit town and didn’t even have to worry about stopping until the third light which turned yellow on us. I slowed carefully and let the car pack the snow, and I couldn’t help but think it was a situation like this that probably created Mrs. Forrester’s conditions in the accident. The stationary car gently breathed warm air on the snow melting it. I imagined the exhaust kissing the cold pavement, leaving a clammy trail behind. The cold air would freeze it again after we were gone, and the street would be empty once more, waiting for someone to come, someone like us, but we wouldn’t see the luckless fallout or even know it was us to blame.
“Turn right,” Jess said abruptly.
“Just—just turn right,” she said. She sounded frustrated. I sat still for a minute rationalizing her request, but I couldn’t. I gave in and decided not to question and slowly started turning the wheel, looking through the intersection to see if I could go. “Just turn already! Quickly before someone comes!” she barely choked the words out, her eyes bulged and her throat caught like something was strangling her and like it wouldn’t let her go. So I turned and drove down Oak Street, waiting for her next direction. When I had passed three streets she asked, “Where are you going?”
“You said to turn right, I thought you knew.”
“I just want to go home.”
“Alright then,” I said and I got in the left hand turn lane at the next intersection. The light hit red as we pulled up and I had to stop again.
“Turn right, you can turn right on red here, yeah?” she craned her neck, looking for approval in the absence of a “no turn on red” sign.
“I’m in the left hand turn lane!”
“I don’t fucking care! Get over! Keep moving. Don’t stop, I just—keep going!” So I threw the car in reverse and then inched behind the car next to us until I could turn right and I did.
“You can’t pull shit like this Jess, it’s dangerous. Where are we going?”
“I want home,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Home is to the left.” I sighed, speaking like she was a child who simply didn’t understand.
“Don’t stop driving. Don’t stop for a minute. Just drive.”
So I stayed in the right hand lane and my eyes stayed on the traffic lights and her eyes stayed on the rearview mirror and every time I didn’t turn fast enough, if the headlights of the car behind us created patterns and shadows on the dashboard and illuminated the snowflakes she would say “Turn, don’t stop, don’t stop for them.”
So I wouldn’t stop, so I kept driving. I drove in complete circles turning right, and turning right again. We created a square, spiraling out like a lost plane searching the ocean for salvation in a small bean shaped island. I turned into neighborhoods and rolled through stop signs and drove all the time spiraling through the night, the only sound the rhythmic and dependable tick of the turn signal. Sometimes I turned to add an extra mile to the circle and maybe we would see something interesting, and sometimes I turned away from the house on purpose. I didn’t want her to go home to the emptiness any more than she wanted to, so I kept driving and turning and going forward all the time. Because that was all I could really do. So long as we didn’t stop, so long as the lights stayed green, she had nothing to be afraid of, we wouldn’t be hit.
The snow was peaceful, the turns less frightening and more methodic. Jess sat in the seat, her arms wrapped around her knees like she might be able to hold them to keep them from shaking. Her breath was shallow and rattled slowly, and steady and the steam rose out in front of the silhouette of her face, and I felt like a child. I wanted to ask her what it was like, what she felt, how she wrapped her head around the world when nothing seemed to make any sense except a grocery list and the mundane task of continuing. But I didn’t, I simply watched the road, and watched the snow, and I couldn’t think of anything I was capable of. So I told her what I could, “You’re fine. You’ll be fine,” which is a funny thing to say when you just don’t know, and there’s no way to see, but you can’t bring yourself to tell her the truth.