Authors: Jordanna Fraiberg
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Copyright 2013 Jordanna Fraiberg
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
my father said, clearing his throat. His gray Buick Lucerne coasted down the freeway toward the exit ramp for Vista Boulevard. He said it like it was a good thing.
They were the first words out of his mouth since we’d left the hospital, essentially doubling the number he had uttered since the night of the accident. At least now that he was driving, it wasn’t as obvious that he could barely look at me.
You could tell we were practically home from the way the surrounding landscape suddenly transformed from a brown, blotchy mess into a sprawling green landscape, complete with a
WELCOME TO VISTA VALLEY
greeting emblazoned in pink and yellow tulips. As the founder and head of the Vista Valley Landscape Society, my mother was responsible for all such important decisions. The sign was composed of purple petunias the last time I drove down this stretch—with Derek—on our way back from a debate match. I had only been gone for two weeks, but it was long enough that the flowers had been replanted to welcome spring.
My breath caught every time I saw a flash of red, imagining
it was Derek’s Mini Cooper. It was his prized possession, a gift from his parents for leading the Vista Valley High Pioneers to victory at the San Fernando Valley regional debate championships last year. I kept hoping the bright fire-engine-red two-door would magically round the corner, proving nothing had really changed. I would have given everything to rewind time, would have done anything for some miracle that would erase the last two weeks. But that kind of miracle didn’t exist.
Besides, I’d already used up my so-called miracle quota. That’s what Dr. Farmand had called it, anyway: a miracle. After the accident, my heart stopped beating for almost three full minutes before being restarted by a paramedic. They called it a “near-death experience,” but there was nothing near about it. I died. And was brought back to life.
Dr. Farmand and everyone in the hospital kept telling me how lucky I was to be alive. But it didn’t feel like the same life I had left behind…the carefree one, with Derek.
As we drove down Vista, every storefront reminded me of him, of some moment from our past: Maggiano’s, the site of our first date, Abe’s Coffee Shop, where we stopped for muffins on the way to school, the China Palace, where we got takeout for movie night every Friday. And Vista Valley Mart, where we shopped just two weeks ago, right before our two year anniversary.…
Something snagged in my throat again. I closed my eyes and tried to inhale deeply but nothing flowed in or out.
When I opened my eyes again, we were turning off Vista and nearing the entrance to the Vista Valley Country Club. The wound on the back of my head started to pulse, like a tiny
heartbeat. The club was where Derek and I first met, after one of the weekly Sunday brunches my parents always dragged me to. I already knew him from school, of course. Everyone knew Derek O’Brien, captain of the Vista Valley Pioneers Debate Club, president of the student council, and future president of the United States. But I didn’t know that Derek knew who
was until he pulled up in his golf cart to talk with me while I waited for my father to finish up on the twelfth hole.
Only a few weeks later, I stopped driving my father around the course on Sundays and began driving Derek instead. I could hardly believe my luck. I’d never kissed anyone before, much less had a boyfriend. I wasn’t like the other girls at the club, with their blond hair and their tans, with their cute, tiny bodies poking out of their cute, even tinier bikinis. But for some reason, out of all the girls in Vista Valley, I was the one Derek chose. And for the first time in my life, I felt special.
As the car rounded the twelfth hole, a wave of nausea welled up inside me. It suddenly felt like the tinted glass was closing in on me. I wiped my sweaty palm on my jeans and fumbled around for the switch.
“You all right?” My father pressed a button on the side of his steering wheel and the window silently slid open.
I was so sick of that question. For the last two weeks, that’s all anyone could ask me, from my parents, to the endless parade of nurses and doctors, to the special counselor sent to assess my psychological “readiness” before releasing me this afternoon.
“I’m fine,” I said. Maybe if I said it enough times, someone would eventually believe me. Maybe I would, too.
I extended my arm out into the warm, still air, the car moving too slowly to create the illusion of wind. Staring up at the cobalt sky, I didn’t see a single cloud. The sun, a big yellow disc off to the right, looked two-dimensional, like it had been painted onto the sky. The weather was like this practically every day in Vista Valley. Except for the rare time it rained. Like it had that night.
“Don’t go this way,” I blurted just as my father was about to make a left onto Hyacinth Circle. It was the most direct route home, but he turned off his indicator and continued straight without saying a word.
He didn’t need to ask why. It was obvious what I wanted to avoid.
The Buick Lucerne made a right onto our street, Lily Lane. Even with the window down, it still felt like I was viewing the world through the filter of tinted glass. I stared out at the row of almost identical, freshly painted houses, all in matching hues of pastel and white, their perfectly maintained gardens spreading out before them. In the interest of “community harmony,” every public aesthetic decision in Vista Valley was planned by committee. I knew this because my mother served on practically every one of them. There wasn’t a paint job, holiday decoration, or address plaque that didn’t have her fingerprints all over it.
It felt like I was looking at a tableau frozen in time before the accident. As if a thin layer of gauze had fallen over the entire neighborhood, enshrouding it from the rest of the world like a cocoon.
This must be what a parallel universe is like,
Everything looked the same, but I suddenly felt like it wasn’t. Like everything had been taken apart, brick by brick, flower bed by flower bed, and put back together in the wrong order. Just like me.
Various neighbors appeared as we pulled into our driveway. Oscar Hodes from across the street came out to polish his car; Mrs. Nelson from three doors down decided to bring her trash bins out two days early (my mother would have something to say about that); and the Walton twins, Jasper and Jane, rode their bikes in circles in front of our house. I knew they were all really there to witness my return. There was no doubt that everyone knew what had happened. News always spiraled into gossip in Vista Valley. Especially news like mine.
My mother stood in the open doorway, framed on either side by matching flower boxes displaying her prized orchids. Tugging at her gardening apron, she reminded me of a seventeenth-century Dutch oil painting we studied in art history freshman year,
Portrait of a Mother in Grief
. The only difference was that my mother wasn’t wearing black, but she didn’t have to. Squinting her eyes to hold back her tears, she acted like she was the one who died, the one who had lost everything. But if I wasn’t crying, she had no right to.