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The First Time She Drowned
Author: Kerry Kletter


   MY MOTHER WORE the sun like a hat. It followed her as we did, stopping when she stopped, moving when she moved. She carried her beauty with the naiveté of someone who was born to it and thus never understood its value or the poverty of ugliness.

   As children, my older brother, Matthew, and I were drawn to her like tides, always reaching our arms up to her, pulled to her light. If she had shadows, I did not recognize them as such. I saw her only in her most perfect form, and any suggestion of coldness or unkindness was merely a reflection of me. This was the unspoken agreement I had with her, suspiciously drawn up before I was old enough to understand its cost.

   Until I was a teenager, my family lived on the poor side of a wealthy town in Pennsylvania. It was a washed-out-looking neighborhood where the colors of the houses were tired and peeling from neglect. Still, we had a huge backyard that stretched wide and ripe with all things wonderful to children. On its left seam it was lined with blackberry bushes whose purple juices stained our fingers as we stuffed them into jars for jam. On the right and perched tenuously on a hill as if cresting a wave of green sat an enormous yellow boat, so old and weathered, it had undoubtedly crawled its way to the shores of our yard to die. The boat was as big as our house and about as seaworthy. When I once asked my mother why we bothered to keep it, she looked not at the boat but at my father, who was tooling uselessly about its deck.

   “It’s a fixer-upper for sure,” she’d said. “But maybe there’s something we can salvage.” She didn’t sound very convincing.

   If nothing else, the boat was the perfect venue for playing pirates. Every weekend, Matthew, who loved to wield his authority in being three years older, played the role of the good captain while I, in a flash of prescience, was relegated to the part of the doomed and hated buccaneer. He would order me to move here and there, serving as both actor and director of our little scenes, and I would follow his instructions dutifully because Matthew was always better at pretending than I was.

   Meanwhile, my father cleaned and fussed with the old boat, muttering and sighing as if his repetitive efforts might someday induce its spirit back to life. My brother and I would race wildly around him, as heedless of his frustrated cursing—the background noise of our childhood—as he was to our presence. For it was not for him that we played and scrambled about, maybe not even always for ourselves, but for her, the one who wore the sun like a hat, who was the sun to us. Because she mattered more. And because I sensed on some subterranean level that she needed us to, sensed that if we did not play the role of happy children, she might break like the Atlantic upon us.

   Yet, for all my efforts, there were moments when I would catch my mother looking at that broken boat with the strange and startled horror of the drowning. This frightened me, and always I looked to Matthew to see if he too noticed the seas rising behind my mother’s eyes. He did not. Or if he did, he did not acknowledge it. But I saw too much. And I was never as good at pretending as Matthew was.




   DR. MEEKS’S OFFICE is on the other side of the hospital and sometimes, if the weather is decent and the nurse escorting me is kind, we take the outside route to get there. I see him on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it’s a five-minute walk, so if I’m lucky, I get ten extra minutes of sunlight on top of the four hours we are permitted each week. By comparison, even murderers on death row get out more than that. I know this because James and I looked it up. I once complained to Meeks that my vitamin D level is probably dangerously low, and he replied that if I’m so concerned about my health, I shouldn’t smoke so many cigarettes. I told him I smoke only because there is nothing else to do—which there isn’t. He suggested I could be “spending my time working on myself.” I told him I refused to take advice from a man who wears jazz shoes and a fake orange tan. Ever since Meeks agreed to have me committed here for something I didn’t do—something that never even happened—we haven’t gotten along so well.

   The hospital grounds are lush and vast with grass the color of Ireland. The beauty is not for the patients but for the visitors, to protect them from the bleak, stretched-time despair behind the façade. It’s like the white picket fence that masks the ugly truth of a suburban family. Or in my case, the sprawling lawn, the sunlit mother, the large boat that doesn’t actually sail.

   Those of us inside the hospital walls spend most of our time staring out of locked windows with steel mesh screens at all that beauty we cannot have. But today on the way to Meeks’s office, the outside world feels different, like something that belongs to me too, not just a piece of sky I get to borrow for four hours a week from a nurse with keys. I have just turned eighteen, old enough to sign myself out of here AMA—Against Medical Advice. Yesterday I turned in my seventy-two-hour notice, which means I will be leaving this hellhole in two days. Two days. Hallelujah.

   Nurse Mary and I enter the waiting room with its beige and brown tones and the single, uninspired painting on the wall of a small child with her back to the observer, playing in the sand. All of the decor is designed to soothe, or at least not provoke. It’s just one of the many insidious ways they suck the spirit out of you in here, make everything so bland and dull that your limbic system just shrivels up like a raisin and dies.

   Dr. Meeks cracks open the door to his office and sticks his big llama head out. “Cassie,” he says in the same morose way he always says it, like he’s about to show me a dead body. He has tight curly hair and milk-white teeth and looks like a second-rate game show host on cable. He opens the door wide and I walk past him to the couch, sit down and wait for this to be over. One last session and I’ll never have to see him again.

   “So. You’re really going through with this,” he says.

   For the past two and a half years I have hardly looked at him, fearing that to allow even a moment of connection is to risk breaking, just like most of the other kids here. But today I look directly into Dr. Meeks’s eyes, and when I do, my whole center of gravity shifts, moves lower like a stake in the ground, making me sturdy and immovable. He has no power left. “Try not to miss me too much.”

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