Her childhood memories are reduced to:
…the blinding white shimmer of the brown lake where her family has a house. The thrill of jumping from the dock, anticipating the splash, the rush of water up her nose. A water moccasin easing through the water, blunt snout rising.
…the brownness of Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s farm in Virginia, winding roads plastered with wet leaves. The plague of carsickness, the pungent scent of tobacco in a pipe, the taste of green beans cooked by her grandmother’s maid. Plunging hush puppies into the buttery broth on her plate.
…picking a scab off her sunburned shoulder at the beach, followed by the floral scent of the cold cream her mother applies while talking over her head, a conversation about a neighbor’s marriage she isn’t supposed to understand. Fidelity. The pocket of sand in the crotch of her bathing suit, a silver pouch of grape juice in her hand, a wet chin.
…the moment at the end of a church service where everyone rises to grasp hands, mixing perfumes, jewelry easing down a tanned wrist, the hiss of discarded church bulletins sliding across the floor. The thunk of a dropped hymnal, the muffled ring of a pocketed cell phone, a growling stomach, a note passed to her sister about baked Alaska at the country-club buffet.
…the cold tile of the bathroom floor upon which she sits cross-legged, locked in by a displaced armoire while her cousin, who is supposed to be babysitting her, eases onto her bed with an older man. There is the slim rectangle of light, a gasp, the creak of mattress spring, an entire world.
All this happened before boarding school. Now boarding school is minutes from being over.
Emery Dixon sits with her ankles crossed at graduation. Her pale hair blows across her lightly freckled face and sticks to her lip gloss. The folding chair is uncomfortable, and she shifts but can’t get it right. Can’t sit like a lady. What to do with the long legs? She wears her grandmother’s pearl earrings and is sweating in a bright teal cotton dress underneath her robe. The hot pink crape myrtles obscure the view of Cooley Academy’s Great Hall, a three-story building constructed of lumpy handmade bricks, once a hospital for the Confederate wounded, which if you didn’t know, you’d soon learn from two plaques and a statue of General Joseph Johnson on horseback. In the early hours of their last morning on campus, the seniors will decorate Joseph like a good Southern woman: pink lipstick, white gloves draped across his lap, and yes, pearls. Emery is in charge of the gloves.
Onstage, the commencement speaker, some sort of scented-candle entrepreneur in a purple power suit who is supposed to inspire the graduates, says “lead with your gut” and “have your babies young, then go in for the kill, like I did. Find your dream; sniff it out—sometimes it smells like Evening Rain or Fresh Vanilla Linen.” She tips her head back to laugh, and her bobbed hair doesn’t move. This advice, Emery thinks, is only slightly better than her parents’ advice, which could be summarized as “don’t perform sexual acts on video.” Really, she thinks, her parents’ worries could all be boiled down to this: Don’t embarrass the family.
“I believe in the two-minute Rule,” the speaker was saying. “Every habit, every goal can be started in two minutes or less. Maybe not finished, but started.”
Emery waves dutifully to her parents and two younger sisters, who also have her father’s strong chin, and who wear empire-waist pastel-colored dresses and floral headbands. Church clothes. They have middle school teeth and are fooling with each other’s charm bracelets. No one chews gum, because this is her father’s pet peeve, smacking. Smacking is for cows, and you are not cows, you are Dixons. Her sisters will go to Cooley Academy, and perhaps, she thinks, be subjected to the same indignities, mainly from other high school girls, like her roommate Colby, who was frank about Emery having “baby clothes,” “man feet,” and a “slightly asymmetrical face—one eye higher than the other.”
“You should try sleeping exclusively on one side of your face, to even it out,” Colby told her the first year of boarding school, during those homesick early days when she cried in her bunk, called home daily, and ate small packets of almond butter at night, squeezing the thick paste out of the plastic packet with her lips.
Today, just before filing onto the field, Emery let Colby pluck her eyebrows and now they sting, maybe because of the sweat. Colby had slumped over her, her hot breath gunning straight for Emery’s nose, attacking her brows with gleaming silver tweezers. “You’ve got to get these right before college. Kappa cares about brows and handbags. You can’t show up to rush in one of your asexual sweaters.”
“Can I borrow a sexual sweater, then?”
“You should thank me, you know? I’m saving you from, like, the do-gooders’ club or the newspaper staff.” Colby sighed. “I’m genuinely exasperated with you and your jeans.”
They go for their last chocolate milkshakes at the independent pharmacy on the corner, a brick establishment that smells like witch hazel, Preparation H, and burned popcorn. The cross-eyed lady behind the lunch counter keeps her gaze low and nods at them as they pay for the shakes with change, froth spilling down the sides of the Styrofoam cups.
“Do you think we’ll develop eating disorders in college?” Colby asks, in a way that makes Emery think she’s almost excited about the potential of dysfunction in her semi-adult life. Colby slurps her shake loudly.
“Not on purpose,” Emery says, wincing at the hot sun, licking a trail of chocolate from her straw.
That night, at an Italian restaurant after graduation, Emery sits across the table from her family, and they look like strangers. Her coiffed and loving mother, her infinitely respectable lawyer father, her girlish sisters. They’re talking and bickering and laughing and picking olives from one another’s plates, so animated, so used to themselves as a unit. They move together. Her father offers her a sip of his wine and winks at her, as if to say she is grown-up, and he understands, as if to cue her that he is on her team. She drinks from the glass, savoring the sultry, purpled notes of cabernet, and wonders if she likes the taste. Not really, but she wants to, she wills herself to. Suddenly she is struck by the way her own flesh and blood seem gruesome to her. She loves them so much, God, so much.
That night, Colby places a floral garland around the iron horse’s neck and Emery lays a pair of white gloves across General Joseph’s lap. Afterward, perhaps on a high from the trespass, Colby runs up and down the dormitory halls, screaming the lyrics from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—CHICKEN IN THE BREAD PAN, PICKIN’ OUT DOUGH—drinking Boone’s Farm from a plastic cup, until she passes out on their dorm floor in her flip-flops, thong showing, snoring.
“Colby,” she whispers.
Emery looks up at the chalky white ceiling and is choked by a sort of hysteria. She can’t sleep, and her stomach hurts. Her heart is pounding and she’s short of breath; it feels like the sudden onset of madness or illness. Graduation means change. When she first came to boarding school, she felt foolish in the bathroom, ashamed of her pajamas and bare feet, and she chewed gum at night instead of brushing.
The best advice she’s heard is to read obsessively, and she does: Judy Blume for nostalgic purposes, Gaiman and Rowling to be current, Faulkner to stretch, and her father’s old Human Sexuality textbook, which she swiped from the thrift-store pile. Because. Well. She doesn’t get all the mechanics, and it feels a little late in life to be asking for clarification. And whom would she ask? But the cross-section of a flaccid penis is unhelpful and fails to stir any feelings other than bewilderment. Whenever she skims the book, she gets the term vans deferens stuck in her head. What does it do? Does she need to know?
In the early morning hours, someone tapes the strings of unwrapped tampons to General Joseph Johnson’s raised sword. Emery opens her blinds to watch the janitor sweeping the uneven brick sidewalks, whisking the hot pink azaleas into an overturned trash can. The tampons, swollen with morning dew, flourish like the cotton blossoming in her grandfather’s fields.
She wears all the wrong things to college; she can feel it. Even when she borrows a sexual sweater from Colby, it isn’t sexual on her. It’s just a sweater. Her mother, Marge, sends her a box of new dresses in the mail. Surprise! the card says, in her mother’s oppressively perfect script.
I know I should feel thankful, Emery thinks, but all she feels is rage when she looks at the cheerful shift dresses carefully wrapped in tissue paper, the hand-drawn cards from her sisters, and an engagement announcement her mother has clipped from the local paper. A girl they know, a respectable girl in pearl earrings, with a smile that indicates thousands were spent on orthodontics. And now she has to carry the box awkwardly across campus back to the dorm room she shares with Colby, whom she finds applying colored mascara and mugging at herself in the mirror, twisting, pouting, snapping selfies.
“What are you doing?” Emery asks, scanning the piles of clothes in the closet-size room, which reeks of heady, vanilla-scented perfume.
“Everything. You can’t just walk out there and not look put together! This is a college campus, not 4-H club!” Colby has her hands on her hips.
“Do you want to get ice cream?”
“Do I want to? Yes. Do I need to? No. I’m dieting. That Jesus diet thing. Nothing cooked.”
“I don’t really like walking into the cafeteria alone.”
“The message here is to skip the ice cream, babe. We have a rush event in two hours. What are you going to wear?”
“Something from this box.” Emery stares into it, at the mint-colored tissue paper and dresses, expensive and shamefully square. Her mother’s love is an impenetrable shape, inflexible. She will bestow dresses, praise high grades, scratch Emery’s back while watching a movie. There is no way in and no way out, and the love is the same and will always be the same. It is as conventional and reliable as a twenty-minute sermon. And right now it is not helping one bit.
“No. You. Aren’t. Tell your mom to return it and give you the money, and I’ll take you shopping.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can’t go in there looking like you’re on your way to Sunday school. What’s next, lace ankle socks and saddle shoes? We have to upgrade.”
Emery sits in front of her computer so Colby can’t see her tears, which have always come too easily. She checks the weather, which at this point she thinks should just say: Global warming is going to kill us all. There are pictures of tornadoes and hurricanes, and Emery grits her teeth. The hysteria is setting in again. All summer she battled waves of it, playing tennis at the country club, babysitting her sisters, riding with her mom anywhere, leather upholstery burning the backs of her thighs, her mom braking for shadows and squirrels and blaring Yanni in her Volvo.
A half hour later, Colby is throwing blouses over Emery’s head, shouting to the next room over, “I’ve got a fashion emergency. Who has size 6 jeans?” A button snags her hair and Emery feels mute, stupid, angry, and grateful as Colby and another girl, a blond in white jeans named Sue-something, stand back, appraising her, fixing her.
This is how they live together. This is friendship, Emery thinks.
Soon Colby pulls Emery by the hand to the row of colonial houses where they will have tea with the members of different sororities. Emery notices a girl from Cooley—God, what is her name? Sara?—the girl from her art class, who now looks older. She’s grown her hair out and there’s a blue streak in it. Everything can change in a summer, Emery thinks. The blessing is that reinvention is possible. Emery waves; Sara nods; Colby tugs until they are on the freshly cut lawn of the first sorority house.
Save me, Emery thinks, looking back at Sara.
The older girls are on the balconies wearing matching T-shirts, waving, smiling in a way that seems to Emery to be both saccharine and menacing. They’re singing.
“Look at me,” Colby says, squaring her shoulders to Emery’s.
Emery turns to face her.
“Don’t sweat. You should blot your face or something.”
“Everyone is sweating—”
Inside there are songs, skits, dances and Emery feels the rage brewing again, coming up from her kidneys, burning her esophagus, and she is surprised by the urge she has to pelt one of the singing girls with her cookie, a chunk of dough covered in powdered sugar, a “lime meltaway.” Even the cookies are fucking cute, she thinks. She feels as if her face doesn’t belong to her. Why do I want this? I must want this, or I wouldn’t be here.
She sits cross-legged next to Colby, who she’s pretty sure is making one of her practice faces as the sisters perform a skit. If I painted these girls right now, Emery thinks, I’d make their faces green and exaggerate their eyeballs. Or paint them homeless and groveling for money, sleeping on cardboard behind Home Depot. Or walking on stilts.
She’s never painted anything but very respectable landscapes. A tobacco barn in winter. But no one has barns anymore, and it doesn’t snow, she thinks. Maybe it will never snow again. When she was little she wanted to be a weatherman, or weather woman, and if she were the type of girl who could deal with embarrassment, that’s exactly what she’d become, a goddamn meteorologist who painted on the weekends.
Five minutes later, she’s standing on plush rose-colored carpeting with a cup of sparkling punch, having what she knows is a stupid conversation about shoes.
“I like a little heel. I feel just naked in flats,” the Tri Delt girl is saying, shaking her head just slightly.
“I’m tall, so.”
“So?” the older girl raises her eyebrows.
“So, I don’t like to tower over everyone all the time.”
“Personally, I think you should own your height.”
“What kinds of things do you like? What excites you?” the girl asks.
Emery can’t find dignified words. She’s nauseated and has the sense of stumbling, even though her heels now are rooted firmly in the carpet.
“It was great talking to you,” she says, eyes on the clock.
“SO great,” the girl says, smiling fiercely. “I need to go sing the Door Song,” she says, excusing herself.
Colby is energized, eyes flashing when they reunite in the lobby.
“Do you know that after we leave, they project our photos onto the wall and score us?” she whispers. She is smacking gum. Every few seconds Emery catches sight of the neon yellow wad. She watches for it, imagines reaching for it and avoiding Colby’s teeth.
“Scoring? That makes me want to throw up.”
“You got good recommendations, right? You had a babysitter who was like a KD or something? That’s respectable. You’ll do okay there.”
But Emery is starting to think she might not do okay anywhere. She has man feet and baby clothes. If she gets drunk, she might perform a sexual act on video. She is sweating in her borrowed jeans, the unforgiving denim tight around her thighs. She feels as if every part of her is restricted—her flesh, her voice, her breath. She goes back to the dorm and checks the weather. She watches a video of a tornado in Missouri and remembers the drills in elementary school, folding up like a fetus on the dirty bathroom floor, the scent of dried urine in the grout, fingers clasped around her neck, emergency lights flashing overhead.
That night Colby begs her to go to a party. Colby has already tried on four outfits and, after examining her butt in a striped dress, goes back to the first ensemble of jeans and a silk blouse. “If you don’t go, you’re sending a message about how much fun you’ll be to have as a sister. You can’t talk to the sisters, but you want to be seen, trust me.”
She stares Emery down while making a large bun on top of her head, injecting it with pins, wincing as they pop in place, as if her hair could feel.
“You can’t be tired.”
In the last three years, Emery has spent more time with Colby than with her own family. Colby is pigheaded and condescending, and yet, seeing her stand there underneath the fluorescent light with a disgusted look on her face, Emery feels a weird sort of tenderness for her, an awareness that she can’t really help herself—her mother is a bear of a woman who sends Colby laxatives and “emergency cleanses” in the mail.
It’s like I have Stockholm syndrome, Emery thinks, as she puts on her shoes and follows Colby out the door.
The street has a different energy at night. Heat still rises from the road. People are laughing, moving down the street in groups. Everyone is affiliated, everyone is moving. There is the rhythm of music and a system of invisible boundaries, places you are welcome and places you are not. The girls slip into an old brick home with black shutters, majestic from far away, dilapidated up close, a cluster of boys in shorts and boat shoes sitting on a ledge, smoking cigarettes, eyeing them. Emery and Colby join the throng of people inside, Colby clutching Emery and pulling her through the house. What is she looking for? Emery wonders. She tries to look comfortable, happy, and not self-conscious or overly eager to please. The rooms are dark; the bodies around them are pulsing with warmth and energy. A tangle of arms, dripping beers, pass overhead, a bass line Emery can feel in her heart.
And then the music is quieter, just a little, and they are in someone’s bedroom. They have crossed an invisible boundary. Am I lucky to be here? Emery wonders. There are tapestries on the wall, people whispering on the unmade bed, some older girls from Cooley standing in the corner of the room, boys in pastel polo shirts, hair overgrown into careless curls just so.
“Oh my God,” Colby whispers, elbowing Emery in the ribs. “Coke.”
What was it the Candle Lady said? The two-minute Rule, Emery thinks. More like the thirty-second rule, if people are watching.
The first time she takes coke is like a rescue. Her nose burns, then there is a dripping sensation in the back of her throat that makes her want to gag, but only for a second. There is no rapid ascent, just a gentle wave of euphoria, her heart beating faster underneath her borrowed blouse, a sensation of getting to know herself, of there being a shortcut to all the things she really wants to say and do. She has her finger on it. She has clarity and courage. And she wants to move. She wants to talk, or make something. Art, maybe. This is her body. See what it can do?
“Hey,” she says, walking up to one of the guys manning the cooler. “Can I grab a beer?”
She’s tall enough to look him in the eyes, and she does. “Can I get one for my friend, too? Thanks.”
A few minutes later a red-haired guy everyone calls Boney has his finger in her mouth, rubbing cocaine across her gums, which go numb. She’s glad she brushed her teeth before coming out. They smile at each other. Boney is the opposite of bony; he’s built like a small bulldog and has thick, reddish hair. He has his hand on her back now. He’s not handsome, so he must be rich or really charming, maybe a funny guy or the guy with the drugs, otherwise he probably wouldn’t be in this room with these beautiful people in small shorts. Standing here with him is too easy and she knows it, but she likes the attention, having an anchor in the room. She can’t hear everything he says. Something about “watered-down lager” and maybe “exotic dancers and a built-in pole in the basement.” Cue laughter. Laugh. Easy enough.
Colby hisses in her ear: “You shouldn’t mess around with boys during rush, just in case—”
“Shut up,” Emery says, denting the silver aluminum can with her fingers. “Just shut up.”
And for once, Colby fades into the background. And Emery is dancing, and when she falls asleep it will be not just morning but mid-morning, and she will sleep not on her right side, as Colby has instructed, but on her left, her asymmetrical face turned toward the air conditioner, drool soaking the fabric of Boney’s pillowcase.
“No. I won’t wear that,” Emery says to her mother in the bridal shop downtown, where they are picking out her debutante dress. She steps back from the poufy gown as if it were already capable of humiliating her. “I want something straight in the hips. No princess stuff.”
“You can wear this dress,” Marge says calmly, “or pay for another one yourself.” Marge stares her dead in the eyes and smooths her skirt with one hand.
The forty-something shop lady in sky-high heels, the hunger for a commission evident in her lined eyes, nods and retreats behind the counter, flipping through a notebook. Emery knows she’s still listening. It’s her job to make peace, to suss out their concerns and annihilate them, to send everyone out the door with the notion that they have been victorious.
“I guess I’m not getting a dress, then,” Emery says.
“You know,” the shop lady says, easing her way from behind the counter to the space between Emery and Marge, “The column-style gowns are really popular these days, and we happen to have a few in stock.”
“It’s a very classic look, very Carolyn Bessette,” the shop lady says, which seems to reach Marge. “The princess gowns are sweet, of course, but the column gowns, or even those we might describe as bias cut, are elegant, especially for a woman of height.”
A woman of height, Emery repeats to herself.
An hour later, Emery and Marge are driving back to the university, a bias-cut dress sheathed in a garment bag hanging from the backseat hook. At first the victory is sweet, and Emery can picture herself in the dress underneath the spotlight, on her father’s arm. It is all part of feeling remade. But minutes later the silence in the car begins to eat at her and she steals a look at her mother’s face.
How does she feel right now? Emery wonders.
She has a momentary notion that she’s acting like a spoiled brat, but she grits her teeth and pushes it away, just like the day she took the box of precious dresses to the consignment shop. Some of the money has gone to new jeans. Some of the money has gone to coke, which she didn’t really have to pay for—Boney seems to have an endless supply—but she’s seen some of the older girls pitch in, so she does too.
“I love you,” Marge says, pushing her sunglasses into her thick hair so she can lock eyes with Emery. She looks like she’s searching for something. Like she wants something from Emery. Like she’s hungry, starved even.
“I love you too,” Emery says, staring through the window of her mother’s Volvo. Something is nagging her, and part of her wants to go home with her mother and watch a movie on the couch, but another voice in her head interjects: You’re the one who sent me away to school, when I didn’t want to go, when you knew I didn’t fit in. When you knew I was sensitive and anxious about spending the night away from home, even for one night. You’re the one who sends me stupid little-girl dresses. If it were up to you I’d be an overgrown child with a bow in my hair, but one who lives far away.
That night, she and Colby wander out to the frat house, not the one that everyone knows about, but the exclusive one, the brown ranch house tucked back in the woods on private property. There’s a long, unkempt lawn covered in pine straw. A few lines, a few beers, and the night gets away from her quickly. She loses Colby and doesn’t care, and soon she is in Boney’s bedroom again, which is dark. The sheets of his bed feel damp in the humid air. He climbs on top of her and she feels a mix of disgust and compassion, then confusion.
While they are in bed, Emery becomes aware of light washing over her mostly closed eyes. The door is opening. There are people in their room, watching.
“Come on, guys!” Boney tries to be chivalrous, springing up from the bed with a pillow over his crotch. He tries to make them go away, but they don’t. Why would a normal person put up with this? she wonders, curling up, turning her head away from the light. Why are we a joke?
She has the sensation of existing outside of her body, of watching things happen to it.
She will get up in the morning and make eggs for the boys and the handful of girls who stayed over. For good or bad she has a sense of belonging here, of possessing privilege.
Morning comes, and she stands at the sink in last night’s clothes, bleary-eyed, rinsing a dirty skillet after making eggs for the boys and the handful of girls who stayed over. The counter is covered in beer bottles and the scent of stale beer overpowers everything. The Brillo pad is rough on her skin, but she scrubs harder because it feels good to do it. She can look busy this way and the boys reeking of alcohol high-fiving each other in the hallway will leave her alone. Maybe they would leave her alone anyway.
The boys are smoking cigarettes on the back porch underneath a gray sky. She looks through the window as she cleans the skillet, and she sees an empty bird feeder hanging from an oak branch. She has a bad taste in her mouth, as if she had a mouthful of bitter sunscreen.
She wipes her eyes on her sleeve and continues scrubbing. Her nose runs; it is always running now.
In April the azaleas bloom again around the fraternity house in the woods. They are so bright, and so pink, but to Emery they feel wasted on this place whose inhabitants have done nothing but piss on them as they mill about the yard late at night stamping out cigarettes, yelling, always yelling.
The only class she goes to now is Intro to Drawing, where her easel is next to that of her Cooley Academy acquaintance, Sara. They sketch houseplants, book stacks, and clothed grad students posed like JC Penney catalog models, and Sara says stuff like “this isn’t art; this is regurgitation,” and Emery nods. Afterward they drink coffee and Emery mostly listens to Sara, who still has the blue streak in her hair and a little tattoo of a leaf behind one ear, and who, while somewhat reserved in manner, seems to be full of ideas in a way that Emery envies. They smoke and order more coffee.
“I hate my roommate,” Emery says, which is true, and it feels good to get it off her chest, but as soon as she gives life to the words she feels guilty. She pictures Colby, manically pulling jeans on and off and looking in the full-length mirror, starving herself all day only to binge on pizza sticks at night after she’s had too much to drink, jealous of Emery’s unexpected rise in social status.
“You should come see my place,” Sara says, placing an elbow on the café table, resting her chin on her hand.
Emery knows the house, a run-down bungalow south of campus in a bad neighborhood, where Sara lives with two other artists, skinny upperclassmen who steal bones from the medical school, paint them, and hang them from the trees.
“Yeah,” Emery says. “I’d like to.”
“You know,” Sara says, exhaling, “the South trains women like us. Even when you’re in preschool, you know who you ought to be.”
“I know,” Emery says, sighing. She’s aware of the cognitive dissonance at work, the way she wants to think of herself as a good person, or a progressive person, someone rebelling against her privilege, when really what she’s doing is tearing through tuition dollars and burning a hole through her septum.
“You have to get away from the frat scene. If you ever want a break from the scene one night,” Sara says, “just call me. Here’s my number.”
Emery pockets the number and takes a cup of coffee back to her dorm room, where she hasn’t slept in weeks but does still keep her clothes, which she needs to wash.
Colby is in bed reading a fashion magazine. She sits up and the magazine falls to the floor. “Since you don’t really live here anymore, you should knock,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” Emery says, and for a moment, she means it. But she is not sorry for leaving Colby to herself; Colby has friends and spends most nights rotating outfits and snapping photos with them. She’s sorry because when she comes into this room she’s reminded of the girl she used to be, or still is. She doesn’t know.
“You look tired. Do you ever sleep? Or do you just do lines all night?”
“I don’t sleep enough.” Emery opens her closet door and bends over to sift through the smoky pile of shirts and jeans at her feet.
“The way you do drugs is so…so gauche,” Colby says to her back. “There’s like, an elegant way to do coke and an addict’s way to do coke, and you’re like an addict. You’re scary skinny and failing out of school. It’s gross.”
Emery spins around. “You don’t know anything about my life.”
“I used to.” Colby stands up, crosses her arms.
“You don’t know what kind of art I like, for one, or even that I like art. You made fun of my music. You treat me like a project.”
“Now I’m embarrassed for you.”
“Fuck you.” Emery shakes her head. She just wants the conversation to stop.
“No. I’m more sad than I am embarrassed. That’s what I should say.”
“I don’t think I ever could make you happy. I can’t make anyone happy.” Emery stares down at the pile of laundry.
What she can’t say is that some people find love, or rewarding friendships, or good books, or nice dogs, and she has found cocaine. It is a magic wand, and every night she says she’s going to take a break, but she doesn’t because it makes her perfect. Between lines she loves herself in a way she had never thought possible. During the day, when she sits in Boney’s bed trolling the Internet and skipping class, she finds herself pausing on photographs—like one of a boy touching the hand of his dying infant brother—that make her sick to death with sadness, and in her life there is only one solution for sadness, and she knows what drawer Boney keeps it in. Cocaine is her rebellion and her white flag.
“I’m going to give you some space,” Colby says, one hand on her hip. “Are you sleeping here tonight?”
The door slams, and Emery wipes her nose and reflexively sits down at Colby’s laptop and looks at weather reports. There is the stock photograph of the same damn palm tree blowing in the same damn hurricane that they always use when there is nothing specific to worry about, just the constant threat of storms.
Seeing the palm tree reminds her of evacuating the beach with her family once, their Hilton Head vacation cut short by Hurricane Floyd. She and her sisters held hands in the backseat of the Volvo, and even though she knew she was supposed to feel fear she felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, because she liked the way danger brought her family together. She liked the scent of her parents’ drive-through coffee, the notes of jasmine in her mother’s perfume, the look of her sisters’ matted hair when they woke up from napping against the window, laughing, talking with cold french fries in their mouths.
How much it sucks to want happiness, she thinks, and know you can’t have it, not for long.
It feels like a purging of sorts to do the bad things, to abandon herself to a moral and social free fall.
She drinks water, scrolls through photos of a drought in the Midwest, drums her fingers on the desk. In the hallway she hears the din of the normal college girls, the girls who turn in papers on time and buy discount designer bags online. Fuck those girls. Why can’t I be one of those girls?
Occasionally she dreams she’s being eaten by a fish, silvery underneath the surfaceof the lake where her family has a house, and she’s embarrassed to run from the water, because then everyone on shore would see the thing with its teeth in her thigh. Or the pocket of sand in her bathing suit.
The debutante ball is over, and she is alone in her bias-cut dress, barefoot, one shoe in her hand, the other one God knows where. She has been walking for an hour, making wrong turns, trying to find the peach-colored beach house on stilts that her father rented for the celebratory weekend. She walks out to one of the dunes and vomits in the sea grass. Early in the morning the shape of a shrimp boat moves slowly in the distance underneath a cloud of crying gulls.
She is hungover and her nose is bleeding.
“Where have you been?”
She hears her father behind her and has the urge to run. She turns toward the water and imagines swimming away, but she doesn’t have the energy. She just stands there. It’s hard to watch him stomping and stumbling over the sand. He is full of rage, and soon he is by her side. She closes her eyes.
He grips her shoulder, pinches it with his strong fingers, and gets right in her face. She can smell Scotch on his breath and realizes that he has often smelled this way, medicinal, and that he must be a drinker too. All these years thinking it was Listerine or just the way fathers smelled.
“Look at me! Where have you been?”
“I was out.”
“Just out? You walked away from your own debutante party. Do you know how much we had to pay for this? Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re wasting your life. You’re wasting our money.”
“Don’t say that. Please. I know you think—”
“You want to know what I think? I think you’re a disappointment. And another thing—I hope you’re on birth control. Girls like you don’t deserve children. What a fucking mess that would be. Get your fucking life together.”
He turns to walk down the beach. Shaken, Emery slides into the house and goes straight to the bathroom for a shower, letting her gown fall to the floor. The water is lukewarm and smells sulfurous. She lets it pelt her in the face, then turns to rinse her back. She hears one of her sisters come into the bathroom. She cuts the water and steps out of the shower to dry off. Her head is spinning. She steadies herself by gripping the towel rack.
“We were worried about you last night,” her sister says. She reaches for Emery’s hand.
Emery takes it away. She feels toxic, contagious. “Don’t touch me,” she says, slinking out of the room.
It is not what she wants to say, but it is exactly what she means.
She locks the door to the bedroom, a room that is completely foreign to her but is decorated in a familiar way: two twin beds, a bedside table, and a glass lamp filled with seashells. She drops her towel and walks over to the lamp, pulling its plug from the socket, unscrewing the top. She pulls out a purple and gray shell, the edge of which is rippled and sharp, and rakes it across her arms, drawing blood, but not much. She lies down on one of the beds. The comforter feels cheap and scratchy against her skin. She remembers that her suitcase is in the closet and that in it is a bag of coke, which Boney had hidden for her in his room after his parents flew in unannounced to take him to rehab the week before.
They both had been on academic probation and rarely left the house. Someone had called his parents.
She turns onto her stomach, draws the pillow over her head, and groans into the mattress. She knows she can’t avoid it. She’s going to go to her suitcase, and she’s going to open the bag. Within minutes she’s throwing dresses and underwear on the floor, fingers trembling as she unseals the plastic bag.
The overdose that night is not a tragedy but a relief. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of a long, breathless sentence. When she wakes up in the hospital, her father is standing over her, the lights in his dark hair. Marge is sitting in a chair against the wall, looking as if she’s having trouble swallowing, as if she can’t stomach her own saliva.
“Tell us,” she says. “Were you trying to end your life?”
Emery cannot answer the question.
Two days later they bring her home. They have searched her room and locked the bedroom door. She feels catatonic, unable to speak; she doesn’t know which part of herself to reveal to them. The things she wants to say sound innocent; they sound like things a young girl would say, not the words of a girl who has done coke nearly every day for the last eight months. Not a girl who OD’d on a bag of coke cut with heroin. She wants her mother to rub her back, but her mother won’t look at her.
I wish we could spend the summer together at the lake, she wants to say. I want to go to bed and hear all of you in the house. I want to feel the weight of water in my hair, have Mom bring us cucumber sandwiches on the dock. I want my skin to burn so I can smell the aloe in the refrigerator. I want the dog to sleep on my bed.
She is not going to get what she wants and, sadly, what she wants more than her parents’ compassion is cocaine.
She stands at her bedroom window. It is two a.m. and everyone is asleep. She opens the window and the warm air feels like an invitation. The neighbor’s sprinkler is on, shooting water across his unnaturally green lawn; it sounds like a very quiet machine gun. She can see her mother’s car in the driveway, can imagine the keys on the dash. She has Sara’s number; she could call her. If she stays here, they will send her to rehab, another place with new people, another place where she will be confronted with failure, cornered by it. She closes her eyes. There is the water moccasin gliding through the lake, the cold feel of the bathroom tile beneath her crossed legs. She drapes one leg over the windowsill.
What happens next?
When I first published “Emery Dixon,” I asked readers: Does Emery stay home, or does she climb out the window, and why? After tabulating the votes—which came in over Twitter, Medium Notes, and email—the die has been cast: