(1) I’m not that old. Just barely eighteen. I live in a nice suburb of Boston and go to a nice school. I get good grades and have friends. My life lies ahead of me like a wide-open book. I’m lucky, they say. So why, then, am I lying on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor? It’s noon. I should be at my interview with a college representative. Instead I draw lazy circles on the linoleum with my fingernails and watch yellow spots dance behind my eyelids. I listen to droplets fall from the bathtub spout. Glob-glob-glob. When I open my eyes, I find my tears have formed a little puddle on the floor. An oval of indigo so smooth I could skim my fingers over it like glass. I tilt my head and look from a different angle. The water turns pale, almost gray. Eddies swirl near the ledge where I imagine I stand. There’s a sudden pounding on the door. I open and close my mouth wordlessly, a fish gasping for air. “Alice! Come on, I gotta pee!” whines my little brother, Sammy. When I don’t answer, he yells, “I’m gonna get Dad!” He draws the word out in two syllables. "Daaa-aaad!" “Wait, no!” I lurch up. I’m shaky on my feet but manage to reach the doorknob and twist. A blur of brown hair rushes by and I step out. I look out the window in the hallway. Clouds unfurl across the sky, the ends thin and stretched, like fingers, grasping. I’ve only made it two steps towards my room when I have to stop and press my hands over my ears. Glob-glob-glob, the sound returns. But this time it fills up my head, bouncing back and forth, Glob-Glob-Glob. Pounding. GLOB-GLOB-GLOB. My breath ragged, I grab the walls to hold myself up as I struggle down the hall. I find the ballerina music box my mother gave me in the back of my closet and yank out the bottom drawer. The pill bottle greets me in all its bright orange glory. I shake several pills into my palm, and they explode bitterly on my tongue. I reach for the knob on the side of the music box and wind it up. The ballerina begins to dance to The Waltz of the Snowflakes. Her dripping blue tutu sparkles as she twirls. Her hands rise above her, framing her perfect smile. In the ballet, Clara wanders through dancing snowflake ballerinas in what looks like wonder. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that the scene isn’t quite right. That, in a way, Clara is utterly lost. I trace the ballerina’s porcelain frame, her skin the color of snow. Her dark hair pulled back so tight--and then I realize I've forgotten something. It takes me a minute, but I remember: College interview. I find my suit in the back of the closet and hastily iron it out. The fabric is hot as I pull it over my skin, and I hiss through my teeth. My dad cannot know I’m late, so I heave my window open and climb onto the roof. The shingles are uneven and slick below my feet from the rain, but I hold my arms out for balance. When I reach the edge of the roof, I look down at the weedy grass below. For an instant, I imagine it is a pool of water, and I begin to feel weightless... But it isn’t, so I turn myself around and reach for the trellis. *** “I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn I was on the swim team,” I tell the wrinkly old man with a firm upper lip. I point to my resume, “But I decided to quit my freshman year because I wanted to focus on my academics. See, I was determined to take AP tests in all three sciences. And this paid off. I ended up with all fives.” For the first time, the man’s face softens, and he gives me a nod of approval. I continue, “As for non-academic activities, I joined the art club freshman year. You can see my painting ‘The Ocean’ in the library’s student exhibition.” “Impressive,” he says, scrawling something across his notes. But then he glances up and asks: “And why do you like art?” “Well, I like it because…” I rifle through my mind, desperate to latch onto the right response. Remember, you have to sound genuine, I hear my dad telling me. “...Because it allows me to express myself,” I say with as much passion as I can muster. “Good,” he says, checking something off. I manage to smile in reply, but it feels like a grimace. “Well,” he tells me at the end, shuffling his papers in his hands. “I’m very impressed by your academic record and activities, and I look forward to reporting to Johns Hopkins.” He pauses. His voice is strained. “Just don’t be late next time.” “Yes...I...I’m so sorry about that.” “I get it, you’re a busy girl,” he says, sliding his notes into his bag and pushing out his chair. He raises to his feet and puts his hand out for me to shake. I discreetly wipe the nervous sweat off my hand before grabbing his. His skin feels coarse against mine, like sandpaper. He gives me a slight smile that seems to say you’re in. My skin crawls, his grasp feels like a cuff around my wrist. He finally drops my hand. I watch him smooth a crease in his suit and turn to go. As I stare after him, I think of ‘The Ocean.’ The truth is, I copied it out of an obscure art book I found at the library. The truth is, I lie a lot, even to myself. *** That night, my dad is talking about a life-saving surgery he performed as he sits at the head of the dinner table between Sammy and I. There is a seat across from him that has been empty for nearly four years. A seat none of us has sat in since. Sammy is buried in his phone, but my dad doesn't care. His gaze, as always, is fixed on me. “Johns Hopkins is what made me the doctor I am today--what enables me to save so many lives.” he says. I imagine a scalpel sinking into flesh, cutting a large patch of human meat out of the body. Hands clenching around muscle and bone, dumping some person’s lost parts into a silver bin. Clink. I drop my fork against my plate, suddenly uninterested in the lasagna. My dad doesn't notice this. He’s already got that faraway look in his eyes. “All thanks to that school. It’s the best medical school in the country.” No doubt he’s remembering his own years there. “Johns Hopkins.” I hear it every morning when I’m in the shower squirting shampoo onto my palm, Johns Hopkins. With every scratch of my pencil, every tap of the calculator, Johns Hopkins. Drifting off to sleep, Johns Hopkins. Even in my dreams, it assaults me. Johns Hopkins, Johns Hopkins, Johns Hopkins. Some girls my age have a boyfriend or girlfriend they spend all their time thinking about--I have a collection of old buildings in Baltimore. “Alice,” my dad snaps. I look up, realizing I zoned out. “Yes?” I put a tight smile on my face. He shakes his head as if to say silly, silly girl. “I asked how your interview went?” “Oh, great. It was great.” I was twenty minutes late. “Did you discuss all the talking points we went over?” “Yes, I did.” I told him I chose to quit the swim team because I wanted to focus on school, not because... “Did you tell him about your extracurriculars? Your art?” “Yes.” I made it up. I can’t draw a straight line. “Alice.” He sighs, scratching his chin. “I feel like you’re not taking this seriously.” I bite my tongue. “I said yes to all your questions, Dad. I did everything you said. Of course I’m serious.” His eyes narrow. “What? I’m probably going to get in! He said I had a very strong application. Plus, I have alumni status. You don’t have anything to worry about.” “Still, these things are no guarantee...” he starts to say, but I’m no longer listening. His words have been drowned out; outside, thick raindrops slant across the sky, pounding against the pavement with increasing force. Words slip through the crack “...and don’t forget...” GLOB-GLOB-GLOB. “...they’re favoring alumni’s kids less these days...” GLOB-GLOB-GLOB “...nothing’s a guarantee...” GLOB-GLOB-GLOB. “Ow,” I say, sucking air through my teeth and clutching my head in my hands as pain spreads throughout my body. I feel a pressure against my temples. “I just think it’s--” He cuts himself off and reaches for my shoulder. “What’s wrong, Al?” his grip tightens and his eyes fill with concern. I rub deep circles into my temples to try to ease the feeling, the feeling that everything inside me is turning into liquid, is melding together, but it’s no use. “I’m having another head--OW!” I grit my teeth together and double over. My brain is going to tumble out of my head and roll out the door, into the stream of water in our subdivision street. And it will float away, I know it. I just know it. I stand--I fall. I am curled up on the floor. And god, it hurts. I’m pressing into my head so hard, curling my nails into my skin, to try to detract from the pain... “Al!” my Dad shouts, crouching beside me and rocking me against his chest. But he’s no longer a person. He’s become a blur, slipping through shades of blue. Indigo. Navy. Cobalt. Azure. Lapis. The color of the day sky. Then time is winding back, and he’s the sky at the break of dawn on a cloudy day. He wraps around me like a thick fog. And then it moves around me, this blur. The blues and grays slice into one another, gathering and building until they are cresting like waves. I can feel him, underneath it all, trying to hold me down, but I’m already too far gone. It is horrifying, so horrifying, and yet I lean into it. I listen to the steady beat of his heart. This is my anchor. I can only hope it will be enough. In times of crisis, he is always steady. I am anything but. In this way, I am like her. I am like my mom. (2) Her sunglasses kept on slipping down the bridge of her nose. Finally, she pushed them into her skin to hold. I could see my reflection in her shades. I only got one thing from my dad, his crooked smile. Everything else was all her. The deep-set dark eyes, the small nose, the pink, almost doll-like cheeks. And of course the hair. Dark and wild, impossible to tame. I must have stared at her for too long, because she looked away and said, “Let’s go, Alice.” She grabbed my hand and tugged me after her. I played with a loose string on my bathing suit as we stepped up to the pool’s edge. The water lapped along the perimeter, sloshing over, cold as it touched the tips of my toes. The water was translucent, yet the pool seemed somehow bottomless. I tried to tighten my grip on her hand, but she slipped it away and jumped in the pool. “Come on,” she said, gesturing for me to follow I stared at the deep blue water. I was always afraid of water. As a young child, I hated baths and showers. How the water filled my eyes until they stung, how it filled my ears and nose and mouth. I was afraid too much would stream into me, that I would drown in it. I would cry and scream every time they tried to bathe me. Now, standing on the pool ledge, I felt the same way. This time, though, I managed to keep my lips clenched tight. “What are you doing just standing there? You have to come in,” she told me. “Why?” I asked. “Because you can’t let your fear get in the way,” she said. “You have to go after what you want.” Then she looked away, her eyes filling with regret. “But I don’t want to swim,” I told her. “Yes you do,” she insisted, looking back at me with a faint smile on her lips. “You just don’t know it yet.” But I closed my eyes and all I could see was blue, surrounding me in every direction. Stuck in this infinite space, I flailed and kicked, desperate to push myself up to a place where I could breathe. “Come on, Alice, get in,” she said, her voice growing weary. “But, mom, I’m scared,” I told her. She smiled gently and slapped the water. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “What if I go under?” “Then I’ll catch you.” I looked into her eyes. They looked so steady, so sure. “Promise?” I asked. She smiled. “Promise.” So I lowered myself in, clutching the concrete edge. My teeth chattered. She tread water a few feet away from me. “Good girl,” she whispered. She gestured me onwards, “Come on. Let go.” I’ll always catch you. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And then I pushed off the wall. (3) “Honey.” I can still hear his heartbeat as he sets me down in my bed. Thump-thump-thump. I slowly open my eyes to find my dad sitting in a chair beside my bed, looking at me with troubled eyes. “Do you remember what happened?” he asks softly. “I...” I take a deep breath, struggling to find words. “...I’m so tired.” “Yes, but do you remember what happened?” I try to smile, but it doesn't come out right. “You’re the doctor, you tell me.” He sighs. “It could be a number of things, but I want you to tell me what you think it was.” I look at the ballerinas on my sheets, the ones my mom bought me when I was a little girl. “It must be the interview,” I tell him, steadily meeting his eyes. “I was so nervous, I just...You know, I didn't get much sleep.” He nods. “Yes. Sleep deprivation often causes headaches or migraines, but yours was intense. I’m thinking you should see Dr. Aiken. She can prescribe you medicine to sleep better.” “She can?” I ask, like I don’t know. Like I didn’t ask her for antidepressants a month ago. “Yep. It’s not uncommon for teenagers, you know, with college stress and everything. But I’m sure you’ll get better.” He looks at me for a long time, studying me like I am one of his patients. “For people your age everything seems like a big deal, but it’s not, not really. College applications will end soon.” He smiles. “This too shall pass.” I gulp down the lump in my throat. He looks at me. “You believe me, right?” I nod and murmur, “This too shall pass.” *** At school, I sit at the table with the others on the science team. They share a bag of chips but I pass, handing it over to Maia. I’m not hungry these days--I think it’s the medicine. “Are you insane? Skippin’ on Lay’s?” Maia asks, shoving a handful in her mouth. I shrug and tap my fingers against the table. 1-2-1-2. “I have exciting news,” she tells me, grasping my shoulder and grinning, “We’re going to Nationals!” She’s referring to the swim team, of course. When I was on the team, she was the best at backstroke. “That’s great, Mai.” I say. I stare ahead at the cafeteria full of people, smiling and laughing. Of course, logically, I know this isn’t true. They aren’t all smiling, aren’t all laughing. But that’s how I feel. Maia tosses a few chips into her mouth. “Hey, you want to go out to Capital today? We can find the Beatles stash and hide out in the backroom like we used to. Jay has a record.” I shake my head. “No, I have a test tomorrow.” I pause. “I’m going to have to study all night.” “What about this weekend then?” “No, I don’t think so.” The bell rings, calling an end to lunch. I’m about to stand with my lunch tray when Maia tightens her grip on my shoulder. “Hey. You okay?” I nod. “Yeah, I’m fine.” (4) My greatest fear became my greatest comfort. I made my mom take me to the community pool nearly every day to swim laps. She wasn’t always in the pool, but she was always there with me, reading a gossip magazine or scrolling on her phone on a pool chair. In the pool, I felt free in a way I never had before. Suddenly the water wasn’t soaking into my pores, filling me up, making my insides turn. Now the water had the opposite effect. It didn’t pull me down, it cradled me in its embrace. It made me weightless. In middle school I decided to join the swim team. Even though my mom worked her accounting job from home, she didn’t come to most of the meets. She said she had important things to do. She’d say she needed to talk to a friend. She needed to go to the grocery store. She wasn’t feeling well (she frequently did not feel well). And I believed her. Despite the fact that I often came home to find her sitting on the couch, her eyes glazed, watching TV, or in bed, deeply asleep in the early afternoon--I believed her. But then one day I found the pill case she’d left on the kitchen table, a whole concoction she took daily. Pills with scary-sounding names I didn’t understand like Remeron, Celexa, and Savella. I did not want to confront her. I was terrified. But I wanted her to be happy. When she woke up from her nap that day, I was standing right there beside her bed, my hand on her shoulder. “Mom?” I asked. Her eyes blinked open. “Alice?” she asked wearily, almost as if she wasn’t sure it was me. I took a deep breath and held up the pill box. My words were slow, petrified. “Why are you taking these?” She sat straight up in bed, her eyes wide. And then her cheeks turned red and she was yelling at me, “This is none of your business, Alice! How dare you look through my things--how dare you!” She took a deep breath. “You are not to tell anyone about this!” I nodded hard. She shook her head, her voice suddenly soft. “I’m very disappointed in you.” “I’m...I’m…” My lips pinched, I began to cry. “I’m sorry.” She turned stone-cold. “Wipe those tears away. This is nothing to cry over.” Sniffling, I struggled to keep my tears down. She stared at me, still shaking her head, and pointed out the door. *** I kept on treading water. I swam every single day after school and on the weekends for at least four hours. My arms chopping through the water, my feet kicking with all their might, pushing me forward. When I swam, I didn’t think about life. All I thought about was me and the water, and the clock, and winning. Every night, I came home reeking of chlorine. My fingers turned into shriveled prunes. But I kept on going, kept on pushing myself toward that next medal. By the end of eighth grade, they covered my walls. I was the best on the team. But I wasn’t good enough. I was determined to make it to nationals, to finally clench that gold medal in a triumphantly raised fist. Then, I determined, I would feel whole. (5) The next day, I wake up and the sound is everywhere GLOB-GLOB-GLOB. My eyes are wet, everything is a blur as I look through the blinds to see a sheet of fat raindrops falling over the earth. I bite my cheeks to stop myself from screaming, but a whining sound escapes. My legs are heavy, my head is heavy. I roll out of bed and fall on hard wood. Somehow, I manage to crawl across the floor into the back of the closet. I take out the music box and pull open the drawers. I lean my head back and dump pills into my mouth and swallow them dry. “Come on, come on,” I mutter, and take one more. “Come on!” I scream, winding up the music box. The ballerina spins in a perfect circle, but now her smile is now crooked. (6) “I had dreams, you know!” That's what she said that day, leaning out her car window in the driveway. The smoke billowed from the exhaust pump of her car into my lungs. I felt like I was going to throw up. From the exhaust or her words, I didn’t know. She was leaning out the driver’s window, shouting at me. My dad had been called in for an early shift, and Sammy was at a sleepover. It was just me and her, it seemed, as always. I remember feeling envious. Everything seemed to pass by them, no big deal. But not for me. Everything hit me so hard. “Mom, please!” I screamed. “Come back inside!” It was raining, but I could hear her perfectly fine. “No! I can’t do this anymore! Do you know how long I’ve had to put up with this? Do you know how long I’ve had to live in this damn house? I’m not supposed to be here!” “Yes, you are!” My voice was ragged. “This is our home!” She looked so determined. “I just wanted to dance!” “You didn’t want us?” I asked, the words breaking. She did not seem to notice. “I was so close!” “Mom, please, just come back inside!” I begged. She looked crazy, her hair undone, her cheeks flushed red. “I was supposed to join a company! The Bolshoi! Mariinsky! The New York City Ballet! I could have been with the best! But no, my mother told me ‘go get a husband, go get kids!’ Well, bull-shit! BULLSHIT!” I think this was the first time I realized what this thing in her was, what I’d only seen in short bursts. I’d always thought it was anger, but now I knew that it was worse. I knew that she was sad. “Mom, please!” I would have gotten down on my knees. I would have done anything she wanted. I could see she had made up her mind, and yet... “But you promised,” I said, my voice weak. “You promised you would catch me.” I watched as her engine roared and the car swung out of the driveway and down the road. (7) A tear slips down my cheek as I watch the ballerina spin to The Waltz of the Snowflake. How long had I spent making myself blind? How long had I lied to myself, told myself nothing was wrong? Nothing was coming? I’d let myself believe she was impenetrable. But all along she was made of porcelain. She was delicate. She had shattered into a million pieces and smiled through it all. I trace her shiny frame one last time. And then I pick her up and walk to the window. There are no more raindrops. There is only an ocean, rising. Soon it will cover my window. I throw the latch and slide the glass panes open, and I toss the box out without a glance back. Let her drown. The Waltz of the Snowflake plays in my mind. And then I am lying on the bathroom floor, right where I began. GLOB-GLOB-GLOB. I close my eyes before it happens. The window breaks, and water rushes in.
By Stephanie DeGnore