The best thing in her life, she would later realize, was the adolescent plum tree that lilted in the backyard of the house she shared with Gerald. In early Spring she would go out to the tree and pick a few plums and bring them back into the house in a basket. On the bad days she would make a pot of tea and just sit in the bay window Gerald had built for her. She would look at the plum tree — her plum tree, which she’d planted and raised and watched grow — and realize that this was to be her grand accomplishment in life. Not so much the plum tree, but the view of it.
# # #
“I’m going to see Ethan today,” she announced to Gerald, while squeezing honey into her tea.
“At the hospital?”
“Downtown … that’s a big step.”
Gerald was sitting on the sofa reading his newspaper — his newspaper, because, like every other piece of mail that was delivered to their house, it was addressed to him alone.
“It’s just across the river,” she said.
“Well, I’m proud of you.”
“Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to the moon.”
Both of them laughed weakly at this. It was a very provincial thing to say; a kind of inside joke from their days in New York. Gerald liked to claim he could climb onto the roof of his childhood home, spit into the sky, and hit the tallest building in Pittsburgh.
And yet, getting on a bus and paying the fare and saying, “Thank you” to the bus driver and taking a seat by the window and riding over a bridge and through a tunnel and into the city — this was something she’d been dreading for days. She came from a river town called Oil City where there wasn’t any oil and there definitely wasn’t a city. Of the fourteen girls she’d graduated high school with, only she had gotten out without a baby. It wasn’t like Pittsburgh was Prague or anything, but it was still a place with winding, darkened roads, down which you could easily disappear.
“I can’t take you,” Gerald said evenly.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“I don’t have the van.”
“It’s something for you to do with your day. Something to get you out of the house. Be good for you.”
She couldn’t argue with this. If nothing else, it would give her a reason to shower. He ruffled the pages of his newspaper and stood up, took a brief survey of the house, and said: “This is something you need to do on your own.”
# # #
She waited for him to drag his bike out of the garage and watched him glide down the steep slope into town. She fixed herself another cup of tea and sat in the window, watching a squirrel clamber through the branches of the tree with a plum in its mouth.
It was during these long, lonely mornings without Gerald that she found her mind clambering to places it didn’t quite belong. She often wondered (a) what it meant to really be alive, and (b) what it was about life that made it worth living. And what she always came up with was that the answer to both of these questions was the same. It was nothing so lofty as friendship or love. The simple functionality of human life — breathing, eating — this was the reason for, and the fruit of, one’s continued existence. This meant everything, explained nothing.
That day. That day in the woods, with Ethan. A rare day of blue skies and beautiful weather. He’d picked her up at the house, driven her out to Frick Park, and led her out of the car and over a little granite bridge, into a field full of dying marigolds. They’d walked for a short time, then entered the woods through a kind of organic gate made by two large trees, ventured off the trail and walked along the bank of a stream, sat on a rock where they watched from afar as people biked and jogged by, then back into the dirty woods where they passed a man and his son collecting spiders in jars. Soon they came to a large gulch, or ravine, down into which fell a stream of muddy water from the top of the mountain.
Across the gulch there was a house — a mansion, really — all white beams and glass and sharp modern angles. Off to the side of the house was a kidney-shaped pool, throwing up smoke into the cold Spring day.
“I’m going to put something in your hand,” Ethan had said, “and you have to take it, and you can’t say no.”
The mushrooms had worked almost immediately — at least that was how she remembered it happening. In one moment she was mashing the mushrooms into her mouth, in the next, running up the mountain behind Ethan, in her flip-flops, towards the house, and then they were standing in Ethan’s heated pool in their underwear, their hands interlaced, talking about spirit animals.
“I think you are a fox,” she’d said, braiding her fingers deeper into his.
“I’m clearly a raccoon.”
“No, you’re a fox. And what am I?”
“You’re a moose. A lumbering, clambering moose.” He’d looked over her shoulder and into one of the rooms of his house, an entire side of the house that appeared to be made of nothing but glass. “That or a bird.”
# # #
In the morning he put on a button-down shirt and declared that he would drive her home if she was ready in ten minutes. She was ready in two.
He drove fast, his car clean and new-smelling, its dashboard lighting up like an arcade game. She put on something by the Cure. It had started to snow. Snowing in April, as if snowing just for them.
“Is it new?” she asked.
“It’s new to me.”
“Is it paid off?” Such a stupid question.
He smiled and nodded. Proud.
“Do you love it?”
At this, again, he merely smiled. As if a person could ever love a car. Or a house.
“I love you,” he said later — but the answer came too late, and she knew better than to read too much into it. It was just something people got in the habit of saying to each other.
He spoke often of moving to New York, and indeed he might — although he had just bought a new house, hadn’t he? And she. She thought often of going with him, of leaving Gerald and her plum tree and packing a few dresses and hats into a suitcase and speeding off into the night to a bigger, better city. But she would never again be that person, not here, not with him.
# # #
When she and Gerald had been dating for about a year, she had found a small box in his dresser, a box full of pictures and letters and stones.
She had known better than to flip the gold latch on the box, to uncover its mystifying, devastating contents, as if the box were a thing of magic, a forbidden object she didn’t wish to upset. But she had needed to know.
When he came home from work, and saw the box sitting on the kitchen table, he had wanted to fly off the handle — she could see that — but instead he just sat down at the table and began idly rifling through the box, arranging the contents of the box in a line across the table like the timeline of a story.
He was born a twin — that was the first piece of the puzzle — a detail which, in and of itself, was shocking and disorienting enough to make her think that the past year with him had not happened at all. His twin brother, Harold, had been a standout athlete in high school, a star lacrosse player, pretty much the polar opposite of Gerald, whose interests had ranged towards drugs and tattoos and guitars. They weren’t any closer than normal brothers — none of that special telepathic insight that twins are rumored to have. In the summer after their junior year, Harold had started gaining weight and fainting a lot. He’d died on Thanksgiving Day of that same year, from infective endocarditis, a valvular disorder of the heart. Gerald had watched him die — watched himself die — seeing in the wasting-away of his twin brother the deterioration of his own face, his own body. A seventeen-year-old boy who saw his own death and had to live with the knowledge of that.
In the Jewish faith, he explained, it was customary to place stones on the graves of loved ones, in a symbolic act of building a monument to the dead. He had collected these stones for his brother — stones of interesting shapes and colors; stones both smooth and rough — but he could never quite bring himself to visit his brother’s grave, to lay them out on his headstone. His own name was inscribed four inches to the right of his brother’s, the date of his death an open-ended question that he of course preferred not to have answered.
# # #
She put on a sun dress and got on the damn bus close enough to noon that it might have counted as morning.
She pulled on the cord just as the bus emerged from the mouth of the Armstrong Tunnel, and was deposited at a reasonable walking distance from the hospital. She didn’t mind walking. She didn’t mind the cold. She didn’t mind that it had once again started to snow. But then she started to cry — first a flood, then an explosion — because walking aimlessly through the a city in clothes that did not match the weather while crying uncontrollably was just the sort of thing a mentally unstable person was expected to do. Outside of the hospital, she had vomited into a plant.
She knew that he was being kept in the trauma ward of Sisters of Mercy Hospital, but such details were impossible to use to her advantage when she could barely navigate her way through the building. A nurse or an orderly of some kind took pity on her and directed her to the third floor, where she was presented with a set of double doors which would not open unless she spoke into an intercom and negotiated her visitation rights. And what would she say, then? I’m here to see the boy I am in love with. I’m here to see the boy who I killed.
She waited for a doctor to swipe his badge along the sensor outside of the door, and followed him into the unit.
“I’m looking for a boy named Ethan,” she announced to a woman who looked, for no better reason than that she was middle-aged and sitting behind a computer, to be the person in charge.
“You family, honey?”
Family. Yes, family. She had always wanted to be somebody’s family.
It was cold in the room. It was cold, and the air was dry, and Ethan was lying supine in the bed with a tube in his throat and another, thinner tube taped to his nose, and still more tubes, invading his arms, stuffed into his rectum and groin, all of it translating what was left of his basic life function into a series of multicolored waveforms on the monitor that hung from a corner of the room.
She sat in a chair beside the bed, took out a book and began reading out loud.
In minutes, seconds, hours — who could keep track of time in a place like this? — a young nurse came into the room. She said nothing, only smiled — a warm smile, an inviting smile. But also a very sad smile. She was wearing a yellow paper gown.
She liked this nurse. She liked the tattoo on the side of her neck. She liked how meticulous she was with the bag of medicine she was hanging, the expertise with which she programmed the rate that the medicine would be delivered to his veins, how she took the time to label the lines, and to date them, with little pink stickers.
She liked this nurse, and so she had asked her: “Is he dying? Are we all just wasting our time?”
“I felt his hand move. When I squeezed his hand—”
The nurse put a gloved hand on her shoulder. “It’s just seizures, honey. There’s nothing there.”
“His eyelid moved. He blinked. I saw it.”
The nurse said nothing. Somehow, this was even worse than if she had come right out and said he was braindead.
“I gave him the heroin,” she blurted out. “I wanted him to feel good, but also … not to feel good. He just seemed too American, too successful. I told him I was going to put something in his hand, and he had to take it. And he took it. He took it and he drove off in his car.”
She surprised herself with the power of this admission, the weight it carried. She wondered if she would be thrown in jail, arrested on the spot. Through all the guilt and regret she carried, it had never occurred to her that she had broken the law. That she may have done something illegal.
The nurse looked at her, not unkindly, and said: “We have a woman here at the hospital, a social worker. Someone you can talk to about this. She’s—”
But Zooey was already running out of the room and through the nurses’ station, past a team of doctors and residents who glared at her over their clipboards, and down a winding flight of steps, out of the hospital through its turnstile doors and into the snowcast industrial day.
# # #
Gerald was up early the next morning. She didn’t mind. She’d already been out to the tree, and sat in the window — but there hadn’t been any squirrels, or tea, on this day. Just her and a chef’s knife and a bowl of underripe plums, and light from the garden, spilling into the house in dusty, slicing rays.
“Are you getting the van back today?” she said to Gerald.
“Don’t know yet. Pete still has it. Something with the fuel pump.”
“Oh.” She split one of the plums open with the sharp knife. Extracted its dimpled stone. She set the stone aside as if for future use, dragging the sharp blade against the rim of the sink, and reaching for another plum.
“So. How was Ethan? Did you say goodbye? Did you use?”
“I did neither of those things,” she said haughtily — but there was something in her voice, a lazy tenor, that gave the whole charade away.
He stood up, threw the rolled-up newspaper on the table, and began to get ready for work. She stopped him as he passed her in the kitchen.
“I’m sorry I drew those pictures. All those nooses, hanging from trees. I shouldn’t have put them in the box. But I wanted to share something with you and your brother — a piece of myself, I guess. I just get so punky sometimes.”
He said nothing. Maybe he knew then. Maybe when he kissed her, and took the knife gently from her hand, and put the knife back in the block, he knew that he would never see her again. Or maybe he preferred not to know. He wheeled his bike around to the front of the house, and she watched him pedal off down the street from the bay window, not looking back at the house as he descended over the hill.