We go to the hospital together. I don’t want to go at all. The photos tucked behind grosgrain ribbon in the sterile room will contain our toothless grins, our Brownie vests, our prom dresses with spaghetti straps and cheap iridescence. We have come so far since our teenage years: the acne has retreated, our butterfly clips replaced with subtle bobby pins. We have college degrees and men send drinks to us when we go to the bar. We are stumbling into adulthood. We are trying.
* * *
Joanna comes over to shower and use my hair dryer a few hours before we plan to pick up the others. She bikes to my house because a tree fell on her car during the hurricane. Most of Long Island has had power restored, but Joanna is not so lucky. The flyaways from her ponytail form a frizzing halo around her head.
“The Mobil station ran out of gas on my way here,” Joanna says. We are sitting on the front stoop, shoulder to shoulder. The pachysandra along the walkway has withered in November’s early chill. “The attendant brought out a long pole to take the price numbers down and everyone in line—it must’ve been thirty cars—started leaning on their horns. You couldn’t hear the yelling because of all the honking. It would be funny if it didn’t feel like someone was about to pull a gun out of their glove box.” Caution tape is wound around gas pumps and fallen trees in our neighborhood. Exposed power lines crackle and I am afraid to touch anything outside my home. Growling generators in our neighbors’ yards keep me up at night.
“Someone in Glen Cove tried to use a gas grill inside his house and ended up killing himself. It’s all so heavy and sad. All of this is,” and she knows what I’m talking about. It has been eight days since the hurricane and four since Holly overdosed. Sandy. Holly. My mouth is full of their names. We go inside. I hand a fluffy towel to Joanna, show her how to adjust the water temperature, leave her be. Sifting through a tin of teabags in the kitchen, I can hear a sob over the rush of water, over the kettle’s shrill alarm.
There are things within me that I can’t articulate because I’m afraid of what they might mean. I went to bed with a sick anticipation when the storm rolled up the coast that first night, dreading and hoping for destruction I could witness myself. The local news shouted tragedy in the kitchen, but what woke me up that morning after the hurricane was the crack of butter in a hot pan as my mother made breakfast. The power never flickered out. When Joanna sent a text about Holly and the plan to visit her in the hospital, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t get it.
* * *
Our mothers took turns leading the Girl Scout troop, which is how we all became friends. Holly’s mom taught us how to make sock dolls in kindergarten; in third grade, my mom led us in Christmas carols sung to dozing nuns with blankets on their laps. When the war in Afghanistan started, we sold pins that spelled USA in beads with Valerie’s mom. Shannon and Joanna’s mothers weren’t crafty, but they were reliable for carpools.
The five of us sat at a lunch table together in middle school. The cafeteria smelled like bleach and tater tots, and we huddled to hear one another over the din of our classmates’ shouting. Our bodies were changing and we hated them. There were code words for everything in those days. Getting your period was a visit from cousin Ethel and tweezing your eyebrows was mowing the lawn. We adopted Homeland Security’s threat system to rank our self-image daily. The yellow loathing was always there, like the low-grade fever of fear that squatted in airport terminals, but some days it was worse than that. “Orange, High,” Shannon might announce, face flushed with a breakout. When Valerie went up a size in jeans it was Red, Severe. My hips were wide but I wasn’t tall yet. I stared in the mirror for hours, poking the pouch of my tummy as though I could prod it away: Yellow, Elevated, always.
By the time we reached high school, we began to retaliate against our confusion. Shannon gave blowjobs to a kid under the bleachers during gym class. Joanna and I ran for hours, without destination, as though we could outpace our baggage. Valerie dyed her hair: streaks of pink, a shocking blue. Holly started cutting, though it was months before we knew.
* * *
I sit and watch the local news while Joanna brushes her teeth. My tights are opaque. I am layered in dark knits. A blonde news anchor stands in a pile of ashes in Breezy Point. A six-alarm fire burned swaths of the neighborhood hours after the hurricane. Floodwaters kept residents trapped. No deaths have been reported, the anchor says, though few can call this a miracle. Charred plaster crunches under her boots. She picks up a toddler’s plastic toy and shoves it into the camera: primary colors blanched, symmetry warped. There are so many stories like this.
“Hey,” Joanna says, entering the room. Her hair is dry, straight and soft, but she has not put on makeup. I haven’t, either. She is six feet tall and sick of strangers pointing, but she still wears stilettos when we go out at night.
“I’m going to throw up,” I say. “I can’t go. Her parents are going to be there and I can’t talk to them.”
“None of us know what to say,” Joanna tells me. “We have to go, though. What if things don’t get better? What if—we regretted not going?” She’s right, of course. The thing that none of us will say is that every time this happens could be the last time.
* * *
Our parents waited in the parking lot with books when we went to the mall. We stayed up too late on Myspace, faces illuminated by a bluish glow as we carved digital spaces for ourselves. One night, Joanna brought vodka to a sleepover in Valerie’s basement and we diluted it with Vanilla Coke and orange juice to get drunk for the first time. My head felt disconnected from my body and my words felt disconnected from my brain. After the dancing in pajamas and the hundred pictures taken out on the lawn, we settled onto piles of blankets and confessed the darkest things we held inside. I told them I had found text messages on my dad’s phone with a woman named Kathy: I want to fuck u, he typed. xoxo, she replied. I eavesdropped constantly and searched for things I did not want to know. Each small revelation of my father’s indiscretions clawed shame deeper inside me but I couldn’t stop.
“I cut,” Holly said, and we didn’t know what she meant until she rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. Stripes of hurt ran against the blue of her veins. Some lines had scabbed over in dark stages of healing but others flared hot and new. “I think it will make me feel better, but then I do it and I just feel worse. But I can’t stop. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m doing it until it’s there on my arms.”
We told her that she needed to tell her parents. We crushed her with hugs and told her that we loved her, that she was so pretty and smart. I felt brave, saying these things to a friend in trouble, but Holly’s action scared me. We all said we hated our bodies, but I didn’t really hate mine, not enough to do that.
* * *
Joanna and I leave to pick up Shannon and Valerie. I have been driving this route my whole life. When you pass the high school on your right and the mailbox covered in yellow reflectors on your left, you know there are four houses left until Valerie’s. A few traffic lights still blink red, waiting to be reset. Huge trees lay flat with roots and earth pulled back like flaps of skin. Debris is everywhere.
The four of us are back in our childhood homes after college and a few first tries at living on our own. Joanna returned from a year of playing basketball in Croatia last month. I have been commuting to New York for an internship with a science magazine. I sift through letters to the editor and make coffee on the hour. I have no idea what I’m doing but at least I don’t have to pay rent. Shannon works for her mom, screen-printing shirts in the studio attached to their garage.
Valerie, the meekest of us all as children, has got her shit together the most now. She makes wine at a vineyard on the North Fork. Men are shrugged from her life like wet raincoats. When we go to nice restaurants, she orders for us all. She comes down the front steps of her house when she sees us pull up, and slides into the backseat.
“Is your power back yet?” she asks us.
“No,” Joanna says. I don’t say anything.
“Neither is mine. It feels like things will never be normal again.” Valerie tilts her head back. From the rearview mirror, I can see that she is balancing the tears that pool in her eyes. We drive in silence. Before we reach Shannon’s house, I have to leave the car in idle to drag a tree branch from the road.
* * *
When the rest of us went to college, Holly went to rehab upstate. Valerie overheard a phone conversation between her mom and Holly’s mom: it cost $10,000 a month to be there. She was in therapy for seven hours every day. It should’ve lasted six months.
We chose cards from our campus bookstores to send to Holly. Mine were fluffy and safe: a baby bunny in a cowboy hat, a poodle in curlers. I only ever wrote about the past, because that was what we shared. Remember that time we got kicked out of the bowling alley and you took the bowling shoes with you, I wrote. Do you think they still have that single red Converse sneaker you left behind?
I tried to get out of visiting her on the Saturday in July we planned that first summer, but leaving my friends to do it alone seemed worse than going through with the day trip. Joanna drove us in her family’s old Astrovan. We read horoscopes from the back pages of magazines to each other and pretended to fall asleep.
The rehab facility was a small campus of one-story buildings. We were given name tags and escorted to Holly’s residence hall, to her room at the end of a hallway with taupe berber carpet. Holly heard us coming and swung the door open wide. Her face was bloated and changed by the antidepressants. Paintings from her art therapy classes hung on otherwise empty walls: a girl crumbling into ash, trees stretching into birds that flew off the page. She used her fingers to paint; no brushes or pencils allowed.
We were given four hours to spend with our friend, whom I avoided talking to in case she could sense my fear. Shannon sat next to her when we went to a nail salon in a strip center next to the town’s supermarket. The manicurist frowned when she took Holly’s hands and spoke to a woman next to her in a language we didn’t know, saying words we could imagine. The first cuts Holly had shown us years ago were raised white scars, accompanied now by cigarette burns and a tattoo she gave herself with a needle and a broken Bic pen. “I’m sorry, I know they’re bad,” Holly said.
“Hol, you’re fine,” Shannon told her. “You’ll be okay.”
When we drove out of Brewster, the sun was setting in our eyes. Joanna pushed eighty on the highway. We put the windows down and screamed along to songs.
* * *
The four of us sit in the parking lot of Mather Hospital for a few minutes, gathering our thoughts. We were all born here. The sky is bright and clouds move fast above our heads. A man in flimsy slippers stands on the corner by the ambulance port, smoking a cigarette. There are stains on the front of his blue hospital gown and this, more than anything, breaks my heart.
We are blasted with hot air when the doors at the visitors’ entrance slide open. Holly’s father is standing in the lobby with his cell phone pressed to his ear. When he sees us, he raises a finger and finishes his call. In the cafeteria beyond the front desk, people sitting alone huddle over melamine coffee mugs in the same shade of teal. “Girls, she woke up half an hour ago,” he says. A leather belt does little to hold up his rumpled khakis. This latest tragedy has socked him.
We are given five minutes to see her. I file into the room last. An old woman sleeps in the first bed, body tucked into itself like a kidney bean. Holly’s side of the room is full of flowers and plush toys from the gift shop downstairs. I Love You, balloons read. Get Well Soon. There is a sweating plastic jug on the tray table next to her.
Holly’s hair is shorn. Her features are small and angular again. I can remember where on her cheeks that dimples appear when her mouth stretches into a smile. She is medicated so her movements are slow. “This is just like the old days,” Holly says. “The five of us together.”
“Kinda,” Joanna says, “but Hol, you’re in a hospital bed. This isn’t good. We’re worried about you.” I feel ashamed to be tucked into this declaration of we; I don’t deserve it. I am holding my breath to avoid the sterile stench of this room.
“It was a mistake. Someone in the house had pills, I only took a couple. I didn’t know what they were.” She raises a hand to her head and pulls at her hair, and Joanna backs off.
“We just love you, Holly. You have to remember that.” The girls murmur assent and move in for hugs.
“When I get better, we have to go back to that mini golf place out in Riverhead. Remember the time I hit the ball into the parking lot and it set off a car alarm?”
I am watching an IV bag leak medication into Holly’s arm so I don’t realize she’s talking to me at first. “Oh yeah, I do. That was a long time ago,” I say.
“Well, old friends are the best friends,” Holly says. Joanna nods and reaches for the water jug and a plastic cup. Shannon and Valerie each squeeze one of her hands, and I end up patting the hill of her calf under a crocheted hospital blanket.
* * *
When we were Girl Scouts we adopted a highway that bordered two sod farms on the southern stretch of our town. In orange vests, we picked up empty cups and dragged tires to the edge of the road. People dumped larger trash in the reeds and we uncovered it all: a children’s swimming pool, a porcelain toilet seat. While reaching for a discarded cell phone, I found a headstone instead. RUTH JAVITS, it read, BELU
And that was it. There were more: ANDREW WHITE US MARE
And one with Cherished Grandfather etched in four different fonts. A mason’s mistakes, ditched on the side of the road. We laughed about it then, about how maybe these people didn’t die, or couldn’t, so their headstones were just thrown away.
* * *
Soon they will begin electroshock therapy, and Holly’s memories will be ripped from their roots. The other girls will visit her in the halfway house where she lives and tell me about it afterwards, but my arm is stretched out now, palm pushing away, holding her at a distance. I am learning to say no. Still, there will be days when I am on the train, swayed backwards into thoughts of her wrists in cuffs and the electrodes placed at her temples. Commuters in long coats nap or tap at their phones while my childhood friend convulses on a metal slab. I know that’s not how they do it these days, that it is not so medieval and cruel, but the image will not leave my head. Grief would be easier than this, I tell myself, wishing it were not true.
Crews come from South Dakota and Nebraska to repair downed telephone poles and restore power to the East Coast. At Christmastime, we collect coats and gift cards to grocery stores for the families who are still displaced. When I look up, there are holes in the sky where trees used to be. The countertop jars in delicatessens fill, then empty, and eventually disappear.
In the spring, it will be time for the school physician to chart the growth of students in the district. He will sit on a teal vinyl chair in the nurse’s office of the elementary school, waiting for students to file in, our cousins and neighbors among them. Behind the white divider, he will ask them to touch their toes, folding into themselves as the teeth of their vertebrae rise from taut skin. He will measure the curve of little spines with a cardboard scoliometer. He will watch for mismatched topography and the roll of a mercury ball along the ticking of a crook’s degrees. The boys get high-fives and are sent on their way, but he will worry over the girls for a little while longer. Okay, now let me read your arms, he’ll say. Now let me see your arms.