MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“I thought she died,” someone whispered. I didn’t know who said it, but I knew they meant me.
I remember the halls of my high school the first day of my senior year. I remember lockers that were green like the flu and taupe, a feeling of illness.
I heard she was committed to a mental hospital, that’s where she was last year. Have you seen the scars on her arms?
I remember I woke up early that morning, startled that the day had arrived, changing my clothes over and over. My mother tried to braid my hair, but it wasn’t perfect so I took it out.
She flunked out.
I remember I didn’t realize I hadn’t brushed my teeth until after I was already in the main office, getting my locker combination.
She's such a slut.
I remember walking alone.
There is a long history of loneliness in literature. Of loneliness as a prerequisite to love. Almost like you can’t really love someone unless you’ve been alone and loveless for a long time. At least, if you’re a woman. Almost as if this protracted alone time is a purification, prepares a girl to be worthy of a man’s love. Think of the Greek myths, the Odyssey—Calypso dancing sorcery alone on her island, Penelope waiting twenty years for her wandering husband to return. Think of our fairy tales, the stories we tell our daughters before we put them into bed: of Cinderella toiling in the dust before she can be fitted for those slippers, of Rapunzel living in a tower with only her long hair as silent company. And then her prince comes to rescue her.
Nabokov said that all good stories are fairy tales. At seventeen, I was primed to be someone’s princess.
It started on purpose. Mid-September: I was taking a creative writing class alongside English, theater, studio art, social studies, math, and Latin. I hated algebra, I loved Latin. I loved writing most of all. My creative writing teacher, Ms. Croix, was new. She didn’t know anything about me, only vague notes from the school social worker. In class, she gave me blank pages to fill however I wanted.
She wrote comments with purple ink in my black-and-white mottled composition book, things like “Lovely image!” or “So clear!” or “Wow!” with so many exclamation points. At seventeen, I filled journals like running water.
That Monday, in my notebook at the end of my assignment, in her cursive writing on blue lines, she added, “Come to my room after school today to talk?” The question filled me with fears: Did she find out about my past? Did she talk to someone? Does she now think I’m crazy too? I spent the rest of the day with a hollow chest, a stomach of crawling insects.
I opened the door to her classroom certain I was in trouble, that I was again a disappointment to some adult. She wasn’t alone. Due to overcrowding, the new teachers had to share their classrooms, and I recognized the man next to her—another new, young English teacher. I must have seen him before in the halls.
Ms. Croix waved me in front of them, the big wooden desk between us. The other teacher was tall with broad shoulders, leaning against the desk. “This is the young woman I was telling you about—this is Alisson,” she told him. “Alisson, this is Mr. North.”
Right. Him. When you don’t talk much, you hear everything—the other girls thought he was so hot. His dark hair was long enough to stay behind his ears but still short enough to be appropriate for a grown-up. He had a full shadow of beard, something only a handful of senior guys could manage, and flouted the requirement about teachers wearing ties. I noticed his shirt had a tiny moose embroidered on the side of the pocket—he shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch just like the students did. The mixed signals of adult man and teenage boy in his body radiated through the air, making everything thick and quiet and warm. His eyes fixed on mine and I felt stunned; an animal across a meadow. My breath caught and ribs knit. He was a concoction of the accessible and forbidden, the perfect teenage lollipop.
Mr. North offered his hand. I blinked and breathed and shook his hand strong, like my mother taught me. When our palms pressed against each other, it was like an electric current was made complete, everything suddenly alive in me.
“Hey,” he commented, impressed or surprised, or at least pretending to be, by my handshake. My face was still full of questions. Ms. Croix continued to him, “Alisson is a gifted writer, and I thought she could use some extra attention outside of my class.” I felt my skin go hot. And then to me, “Mr. North is a writer too—he’s agreed to start meeting with you after school.”
The teacher started on about his background—Columbia, Cornell—and how we could meet here tomorrow after school, just bring a new journal, just for us. He kept smiling at me. But I kept spinning Ms. Croix’s words inside my head—she called me gifted. She thought I was good. Good enough to deserve something—Mr. North was a gift. I saw myself looking at Mr. North as he looked at me, that slow-motion feeling blooming in my body.
Mr. North put his hand on my shoulder. Would I come see him tomorrow? He wanted to see me. I heard my voice leave my body: yes.
The thing about princesses is that they’re not usually very active in their own lives. Things happen to a princess, and all she has to do is say yes. Sometimes she doesn’t even have to speak, her prince will just appear, ready for action. He knows what she needs, maybe even more than she does.
Passive princesses abound in fairy tales—they are always falling into danger and the path of some man who has to take the trouble to save them. “Sleeping Beauty” is the most obvious example: a beautiful girl who is trapped in slumber and needs her true love’s kiss to awaken. And we cannot forget the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where yet another princess is saved from the sleep of death by the mouth of her prince.
I had my own troubles with sleep.
My insomnia was sneaky. Sometimes it would happen like this: I would be reading and just keep reading. I would start a new painting, using watercolor and nail polish on canvas I bought at the crafts store where I worked on the weekends. Or I would have started cutting something out of a magazine, Seventeen or Sassy, with some specific idea for another collage, and keep cutting and rearranging and smearing purple glue stick and watch it turn clear on the poster board and then I would hear birdsong. Those nights happened by accident. The worst nights, though, I would be in bed the whole time, in the darkness, and just be awake.
My room was small: my twin bed, my grandfather’s wooden writing desk, my own phone and answering machine, a bookcase overcome with books. I covered the walls with words and images I cut out. There was a coughing radiator, painted lavender, in the corner. I had an alarm clock that did little. Sometimes my mother would call me after she got to work, around nine or ten in the morning, to see if I was up yet, repeating my name on my answering machine until I picked up the phone: Ali?… Ali? It’s your mommy.… A strange song that would infiltrate the last of my dreams. Most days I would wake up to an empty house.
So it was that at the beginning of senior year, I was almost always late to school. The doors automatically locked after the final homeroom bell rang; from then on you had to get buzzed in by the ladies in the front and get a hall pass to go to whatever class you were late to. Most days I was not in homeroom at 7:20 A.M. for my homeroom teacher to mark me as present. It took only a few weeks for the women in the office to start rolling their eyes at me when I’d ask for a pen to sign the clipboard, even if I was only a few minutes late. Especially if I walked in closer to lunch.
By this point, it seemed as if everyone had given up on me. I had exhausted my parents’ disapproval and emotional investment that had no heartwarming return, and the only thing left was a sort of resignation to my situation. I would get myself to school or I wouldn’t. I was seventeen now. It was my problem. It’s not like I needed a ride anymore. I had a car that was as old as I was. I had saved the $600 to buy it from cutting fabric at the crafts store and babysitting the previous summer. Gas was only $1 a gallon most weeks, and I was supposed to give my little sister, Lauren, a ride home in the afternoons after her swimming practice. My success or failure was on me.
I had unusual relationships with most of my teachers that year. Other than Ms. Croix and Mr. North, most teachers at Hunt High School didn’t think much of me. Notes taken about my instability and excessive absences on formal papers at school; a series of Fs that were part of my permanent record; my legally defined education plan, explaining in detail how I needed special attention and extensions and exceptions—these were all made available to my teachers before I even set foot in their classrooms. It wasn’t exactly a glowing introduction. Looking back, I see how these things were meant to help. They weren’t intended to make me feel bad about myself. But all they did was make me duck my head as I walked in and out of classrooms, shame seeping out of every pore.
Other students continued to say things in front of me in poorly executed whispers or in notes that were “accidentally” passed to me in class, my name on the folded paper in my hands. A Greek chorus turned cruel.
Do you think she’ll show up tomorrow, check yes or no.
She totally ran away last year.
She’s such a psycho.
She slept with that guy too???
The rumors were a twisted truth: I had slept with all three of my serious boyfriends in high school. I had been a cutter. I was in a lot of therapists’ offices and on a lot of psychiatric medication over the years since middle school. And I had electroconvulsive therapy, ECT, one summer, after a series of months where I would barely leave my room. It wasn’t magic, but it had worked. I put on my clothes, walked into the sunshine. I stopped being trapped by sleep. It was enough.
I had run away once, just for the night. I can’t remember what fight I had with my parents that spurred my spontaneous flight from home, spending the night driving around in some guy’s car. I don’t even remember his name. I was sixteen, it was winter; it was too cold to sleep in his car, so we drove and drove, the Smashing Pumpkins album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as our soundtrack in the dark, with only the lights from other cars to see.
And it’s true that I physically disappeared from school my junior year. After my rocky first two years, my high school suggested I not bother coming back but instead perhaps consider getting my G.E.D. in night school? My mother not so politely suggested they take a better look at the laws regarding students with disabilities, as by the eighth grade I was already a well-documented depressed, self-mutilating, insomniac adolescent. It was eventually decided that I would attend Pinecrest, a small, therapeutic day school my mother found and forced the school district to pay for.
At the end of my junior year at Pinecrest, my counselor, my homeroom teacher, and the vice principal joined my mother at a large table that seemed to be specifically for meetings like these. I had been in so many of these meetings. The vice principal opened my Pinecrest file—thin, practically roomy—and I had a choice: I could stay at Pinecrest for my senior year and graduate through this program. I had an A in all my classes. I got to take French. There was group therapy every afternoon. I was a model student. Once I saw a boy being restrained by three staff members because he had some sort of psychotic break and started screaming awful things in the hall. Me, I just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t happy and couldn’t get to school on time. I had mostly stopped cutting myself by then. By Pinecrest standards, I was a success story. My high school diploma would still say Hunt High School, where I was supposed to be, and I was legally protected from disclosing any of my disability accommodations in my college applications. No one would ever have to know.
Or I could go back to Hunt. A chance to be a normal teen girl, everything ordinary and boring. How I longed to be boring. Anything was better than the drama of my depression and mood swings.
“I want to go back to Hunt,” I said, a choice that unknowingly led me full speed to the teacher.
I wish I could reach back through space and time and make a different decision. And then I wonder about things like fate, how sometimes things are just chosen for you, how women are chosen to endure suffering.
Sometimes we are the ones who choose it—Pandora opens the box of suffering herself; even though it is a trap, even though she doesn’t understand what is going to happen, it is her own hand that breaks the lock open. How in “The Little Mermaid,” the real one, not the Disney fantasy, she chooses to drink the Sea Witch’s concoction that will let her dance with legs and the prince instead of just the waves, but every step she takes is like on a sharp knife. In the original story, the whole time the sea nymph is falling in love, her feet are bleeding from supernatural, invisible blades. Even drinking the potion is a sword through her body. And yet it is her choice. She wants this. Every step is hers.
It seems as if no matter how active or passive a girl is, she is still doomed.
Copyright © 2020 by Alisson Wood