4. Winter Wonderland

This story was first published on 17 January 2012 in Atticus Review. In the introduction to the issue, Editor-in-Chief  wrote:

“Winter Wonderland” is a masterpiece. I’m not sure I’ve read another story that so brilliantly gives various perspectives of a suicide attempt, including the attempt-er herself, whose voice is not a crazy one, but steady, normal, kindhearted, and sensitive. The tone and structure are admirable, and the shifting points-of-view were conveyed effortlessly.

. . .

A man and a girl stroll along shoveled sidewalks, between tall snow banks, beneath a faultless sky. Sun strikes the snow, making it sparkle like fairy dust. The man says they are walking in a winter wonderland, thinking of the song. The girl agrees but sees the affluent area as a wasteland, thinking of the poem.

The girl spent the past night on a gurney in a hospital hallway, the only available space since the emergency room was already overrun with casualties from cars colliding in whiteout conditions. Apart from some soreness where a tube was shoved down her throat and occasional pain in places where people must have grabbed her she feels fine and wants to forget what happened.

As it is she recalls nothing past six or so last night and little of this morning. Just light so bright she had to close her eyes on the drive home. Hot water inundating her in the first-floor shower, clean clothes left for her on the toilet seat, a big blanket covering her on the living room couch. The woman saying she should spend the rest of the day sleeping. The man waking her to say she should take a walk with him before sitting down to a late lunch.

Invigorated by the cold the man says sunshine cures all ills. The girl says she agrees but thinks about the old woman who lives with them. All she needs is insulin to set her right and stays in the shade to protect her porcelain skin.

The man is the girl’s father. He wants to cheer her up but cannot comprehend how she has the audacity to act so unhappy. What around here could possibly torment a teen? Particularly one who was never forced to endure years under foreign occupation and the remainder in exile, doing mind-numbing manual labor and supplementing meager paychecks by renting to riffraff.

The man asks the girl why on Earth she did what she did. The girl does not have a ready answer. Annoyed by her silence the man seeks distraction, pointing to the massive icicles forming under the eaves of an imposing home. He says they shimmer like the crystal chandelier inside but thinks about the snow piled up on the flat roof of the duplex he owns across town. This morning in the middle of everything else a tenant called to complain.

He regrets how closely the girl has come to resemble that tenant, always finding fault with everything but her own behavior. On several occasions he tried to talk some sense into the tenant, chiding her for the cars and kids she could not afford. His wife warned he should keep quiet or he would regret it.

.

A woman stands in a kitchen, stirring a pot of soup. Steam fogs the windows so she cannot see the glittering snow outside. She is the girl’s mother. All she sees is the girl face down in vomit, unresponsive to the most forceful shaking. All she hears is the screaming ambulance, pushing through impassable streets, the unconscious girl hooked up to the breathing apparatus.

The woman stayed behind so the man could talk to the girl alone. Each time she opens her mouth, she says something stupid the girl is sure to point out. This morning when she told the girl how disgusted a nurse had been about having to divert resources from deserving people to a drunken kid, the girl just glared and asked why on Earth she needed to tell her that now.

The woman still feels the sting of the nurse’s censure. She wonders why women get blamed for the way their children turn out while men remain beyond reproach. So utterly unfair since she was the one who was so conscientious while the most they ever did was to recommend she stop fretting.

That physician on the train barreling across Europe during the flight from her homeland. She begged him to examine her newborn only to have him laugh when he took a look, saying any infant sleeping with her arms above her head like a ballerina could not be anything but healthy. And those American doctors she consulted once her endearing darling became a sullen, lethargic girl. All so condescending, saying it was just a phase. Even the one prescribing those useless B-12 injections. He was merely humoring her.

Still there is the chance something had managed to slip by her. After her precious child contracted chickenpox, she stayed up nights to keep those frantic fingers from scratching open the pustules covering that perfect face. Yet this morning she noticed the girl still had that small scar right below her left eye.

The woman lowers the flame on the stove and descends to the basement. She removes sheets and pillowcases from the dryer, irons and folds them, then carries them up to the girl’s room, along with clothes she notes now smell of spring rather than reeking of regurgitation.

After stashing the clothes and making the bed the woman is at a loss for what to do next. Every Friday she returns from work looking forward to cleaning the house so her family has a pleasant place to spend the weekend. But the slanting rays of the Saturday sun signal it is too late for that now.

.

The girl and the man approach the front door and enter. They laugh, struggling to shed cumbersome coats and boots in the small foyer. Hearing them sound so chipper the woman assumes nothing was said. They must have talked in the abstract, then shared the latest jokes, as always. She is sorry she did not go with them. It would have been good to stretch her legs and breathe some fresh air.

The girl and the man enter the cozy kitchen, where the woman is ladling soup. The man dials the radio to the local station. The woman brings bowls of steaming soup to the table, where the three of them sit and sip and listen to the forecast of another storm. The girl waves away the crusty bread the woman offers, saying it would further irritate her throat. The old woman is missing, having made the soup, eaten at the regular time and returned to her room.

.

The girl ascends to what the man calls her “apartment,” a misnomer she never corrects. While it occupies nearly the entire second floor, with one part of the L-shaped space used as a study, the other as a bedroom, what should have been the bathroom has been turned into a sewing room for the woman. She comes and goes at will, never knocking on the door at the bottom of the stairs.

The girl notes not everything is as it was before. The sketch she made of an irate Bertrand Russell is still tacked to the wall, but the crumpled pages of the paper she was writing on that troublesome Eliot verse are now straightened and stacked on a blotter marred by water rings. She shrugs and undresses. She recalls how lovely it was to be sick when she was small as she slips on a fresh flannel nightgown and slides in between cool, smooth sheets.

.

An old woman sits by a viewless window in a first-floor bedroom. She is the girl’s maternal grandmother. She skims the death notices in an expatriate paper. Seeing no one she knows listed, she sets it aside. The last thing she needs in her disquieted state is stories of compatriots scattered across seven continents.

The old woman regrets the girl could not come to confide in her the way she once did. Before they became a household of separate spaces, only gathering in that cramped “breakfast nook” for meals, that subterranean “family room” for television. Before her daughter had to run down to where she was washing the supper dishes to call for an ambulance on that clumsy wall phone.

The old woman believes her daughter was wrong in allowing the girl to remain home simply because she could not complete an assignment. Left to her own devices all the girl did was brood. Sometimes she did that too, but at least she had reason. A son living in a place that might as well be the moon after release from that godforsaken gulag. One husband executed in the courtyard of his own factory by ignorant insurgents, the other long deceased as well.

The old woman wishes the girl would learn before it is too late action is the only antidote for adolescent angst. When she was the same age, she too felt suffocated by her surroundings. But rather than drowning herself in drink she secured a position in another nation and traveled there entirely on her own. If the girl refuses to assume similar risk, she should lose her right to complain.

Clouds obscure the setting sun, and soft snow starts to fall. The old woman rises to go see what she can prepare for supper. Her daughter rarely consults her before doing the weekly shopping and yesterday did not even stop at the store. Ingredients are sure to be missing, and she will have to make do.

She wishes her daughter would pay more attention to her family’s needs instead of merely making a show of it on the weekends. The woman only has the one child, an undemanding job and a husband to help. In contrast she had to singlehandedly raise two children while overseeing a successful business. If she occasionally neglected her offspring, surely she had reason.

.

The girl wakes to see the woman sitting on the bed, staring. The woman says she has brought hot tea with honey to soothe her sore throat, but the girl knows she has simply come to snoop. She recalls the opening lines of the first poem she ever wrote, the words arriving unrequested last September:

Here I am,
Safe, secure in a cage.
They come,
Eager eyes, greedy hands . . .

The woman reaches for the girl’s forehead to check her temperature. The girl turns her head, so the hand stays suspended. The woman lowers it to push the mug on the bed stand toward the girl and leaves. Once seated on a sofa she wants to return to remind the girl how fortunate she is. When she was not much older, she was forced to start work to save her mother’s hotel from foreclosure.

The girl wishes the woman would stop doing pointless things for others. Reaching into a bed stand drawer for a tissue she sees the New Testament she was given for her confirmation last spring. Verse the woman had written for the occasion sits inside, the stanzas stuck between a blank page and inscribed with an alcoholic minister’s message. Since the woman never bothered to broach religion with her, she would have done better to skip the whole thing.

The girl takes her tea as the day darkens. She recalls that gray afternoon last November when Kennedy was killed. A stunned classmate had confided her body had gone so numb at the news she could not even cry. The girl said she felt like that too but failed to mention her own stupor started over a decade ago.

.

The woman opens the door and calls up to say supper is ready. The girl does not want to go down but does not have her previous excuse. She wishes she could stay out of sight until she is finally able to leave her horrid family and this terrible town. She hates how everyone looks at her now and knows anything she might say would only make matters worse. Who would believe she drank simply because she could not communicate how she felt about a poem?

That she was truly Eliot’s hyacinth girl, transplanted to the States but still unable to speak. That vodka was her solution since it seemed the least like that liqueur with the delightful amber color and the seductive orange aroma she snuck over a decade ago. One sip was all it took to cause her insides to burn for hours. That she downed the vodka only to avoid what occurred in class last week. Unable to define the draw of that Auden poem on the 1939 invasion of a helpless nation not far from her own native land, she was asked to cede her turn to some cashmere-clad kid ready to elaborate on Henley’s unconquerable soul.

Which was why after being paralyzed by the Eliot poem Thursday night she wasted Friday morning doing God knows what, going down only to tell the old woman she had no time for lunch, to put it in the refrigerator for later. Why after hearing the old woman go for her afternoon nap she descended for food, a water glass and an unopened vodka bottle. Why once back in her “apartment” she filled the tall glass to the brim, took a gulp and sat down at the desk.

Why after the substance spreading through her system allowed her to form the perfect first sentence but let her down when it came to connecting it to the similarly outstanding second one, she only needed to nibble on that humongous ham sandwich but felt compelled to drain that bottomless glass.

Why another glassful was needed to address that rotting corpse in the garden, tee hee. It was starting to sprout and bloom before even a single forgetful flake could remember to melt. A real snow job, if you ask me, which of course you wouldn’t.

Why she felt compelled to waltz—hold on tight—until dizzy with words. Why when they tumbled out faster than she could type, she had to continue on longhand. Why when she lost all control of that teensy pen, she had to reach for the bottle again. It was considerably bigger than her useless writing utensil, so she found she could handle it just fine, but thanks for asking.

.

Hurry up, the man yells from the bottom of the stairs. We are all waiting for you. He does not like her being up there by herself so soon after what just happened. He does not want a surprise similar to the one he received last night.

He remembers how the woman and he returned from work after dark. How he asked the old woman what the girl had been doing, how the old woman—as inscrutable as ever—said the girl spent the day upstairs. How he called up to ask how the paper was going, how the girl called down to say she could wrap it up if allowed to work through supper. How could he have known she was lying, much less doing so from where she had fallen on the floor?

His only concern was how long the snow would last and whether he could dig out in time to drive to stores the next day. His wife and he usually stopped to shop on their way home Fridays, but the traffic had been so snarled they thought it best to postpone any side trips. He is grateful they arrived home when they did: the girl could have died. He is relieved he at least made it to the drugstore this morning: they were dangerously low on insulin.

He does not like how easily he was duped by the girl but feels confident about her future. She is after all his daughter. Even though he squandered countless nights drinking as a student, he not only completed his theology papers but also went on to compose literary works winning widespread praise. And the occasional chuckle. The girl still has time to become something special. America is the Land of Opportunity, at least for the young.

.

The girl drags a large-toothed comb through her hair, wraps a loose robe around her slim body and starts to slouch down the stairs. She has found nothing worth saving in what she had written about the poem. So much for in vodka veritas, she says with a smirk. At no point in her reluctant descent does she stop to consider how long it can take some people to learn to say what they sense. That without repeated exposure to alcohol or other intoxicants it can be generations.

Thus she will be unprepared for the wintry night a few years in the future when, living in an actual apartment while attending a prestigious university and feeling she has freed herself of her family and her history, she will rise from her bed, where she has been sleeping with a privileged law student, sit down on the floor with another unopened vodka bottle and attempt to forget him, the fetus growing inside her and the chance she is merely reenacting her mother’s story.

She will also be unready for the transformation set to occur sometime after midnight but well before a dazzling sun can displace the wan moon and pale stars. She will wake around noon, knowing only she has been changed by a nocturnal tumble but be unable to grasp it has somehow turned her into me. Still there I will be, scrounging for soda crackers and Cheshire cheese, downing them with tall glasses of cold orange juice. Trying to reconstruct recent events with one of my roommates, drinking the strong coffee she has so kindly made.

“Did I do anything really dumb?” I will ask.

“You mean running around a snowy balcony in a sheer nightgown? Balancing on an icy railing in bare feet? That kind of dumb?”

“Oh, God. Hope I didn’t scare anyone here.”

“You were released from the ER on condition you see a shrink.”

“Better tell me what else I did, then.”

“That’s about it, except you made speeches. Eloquent ones, at that.”

“Oh, God. What on Earth did I say?”

“I don’t want to tell you, and you don’t want to know.”

“Then I’m going for a walk. It looks lovely out there.”

“A veritable wonderland, like you said last night.”

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