For Jennifer Friends and Family





Right Angles, Wrong Turns


"To find the cosine of an angle measuring forty-five degrees, you need to..." My math teacher, Mr. Haglerton, is babbling on and on about angles. He's talking to our class like we're actually listening. I find this talk about angles and shapes completely boring. Nothing is actually made out of straight lines and perfect angles that you can calculate, anyway. Only things that are man made are that flawless. I draw a big, luscious circle in the margin of my notebook page and shade it in.

The boy sitting in the desk next to me - Joe Davis - keeps running his hands through his wavy blond hair. He pulls out his Disc-Man. Pulls out a CD and switches it with the one already there. He holds the unused one up, looking at his prismed reflection. He keeps grinning. He must be admiring the line of his nose and the angle of his cheekbones. What an asshole.

I hear a click. Muffled office conversation fills the room - coming over the intercom. With another click, the intercom disturbance is extinguished. The room once again is filled with Mr. Haglerton. His dumb shapes. You'd think the secretaries would be able to figure out how to work the schools high-tech equipment by now. It's not like it has been updated in the last three decades, or anything. We are interrupted - again - by the intercom's click. This time it's the guidance counselor's saccharine, life-is-so-happy-and-fuzzy voice. She speaks to us like a voice from the heavens. Calling the next soul to be redeemed. "Carrie Sherman to the office, please."

Yes! I'm outta here. Maybe it's a message from Furlong's Family Restaurant. I hate that place - it's where I work. After being there a while, I can smell the crumbs of buttered toast and French fries that are rotting between the seams of the red vinyl booths. The body odor and grease mingle together, adding to the fragrant atmosphere. Maybe they overbooked, maybe I don't have to come in after school. Maybe I can watch TV, like my sister Jennifer will be doing this afternoon. It's not like Jennifer has to have a job. Her doctor's won't let her. She has to stay on the first level of our house. Even climbing the stairs would be too hard on her heart. Much less having a job to help earn the money she needs. Oh, please let it be a message from Furlong's.

I go down three flights of stairs, and walk towards the office. Through the windows, I see a blur of red. When I get closer I see it's my mom wrapped up in that jacket of hers. Made of a fuzzy blood-red blanket with a red stripe across it. Mr. Lewis, the principal, and the secretaries in their fitted dress suits and set hair. They're standing in a confused clump watching me. The room is buzzing and shaking, like a movie left on pause. My eyebrows raise, eyes dart around the room. "Ah. Hi, Mom." My mom has tears welling up in her eyes. "Are we going somewhere?" She doesn't offer any suggestions as to why she decided to come to school. I look at Mr. Lewis, thinking maybe he'll tell me. I am blinded by the gleam from the bald spot on top of his head.

His voice suddenly booms at me and breaks the silence. "Why don't you go get your things, Carrie." Then the room goes back to the sticky silence it was filled with before.

I walk out the door, shut it slowly. I climb up to the second floor, taking my time. I let the tip of my purple steel toed boots hit the edge of each stair. Enjoy the clanking noise it makes, and the echo that follows through the empty stair well.

I don't feel like bringing any of my books home. I never really do my homework, anyway. I'll do anything and go anywhere to avoid being home and seeing Jennifer tonight, her deflating body. It's so weird, though. My mom usually won't come and get me, especially not of her own free will. Even the time I went to the nurse on the arms of two teachers cause I was so weak and sick. She didn't get me. She was taking Jennifer to an "appointment." I grab my jacket and A-Team lunch box. I always make sure my mom sees me with it, it's wholesome lunch. She always insists that I eat "good." I think she's afraid I'm gonna end up like Jennifer.

I go back down the stairs. My mom is standing in the hall waiting impatiently for me. I follow her out through the glass doors. The wind bites my cheeks until I can feel the raw pink they have become. We approach Mom's black Camry. I try not to brush up against it--there is a brown film coating the surface like frosting.

She unlocks the doors and plops into the driver's side. She doesn't move just watches the steering wheel. I hope she realizes it won't move by itself. She does have to turn it. "What's the deal?" She glances over at me with the unfocused eyes of a drunk. Then she fixes her eyes back on the steering wheel again. As if I Zulu. God. I'm sick of this. "What is going on, mom" I say this through my clenched teeth, the words vibrating them as they exit.

She rests her right hand on the gear shift and looks up, out the front windshield. Then she turns - again - and looks at me. Another pause. La la la la la. Finally, "Jennifer died this morning, Carrie." She immediately turns and faces the other way, as if she has just been slapped. I watch her shaking hand reach to put the key in the ignition and start the car. We're stuck in air as hard as granite. I try to gulp down the lump that's lodged itself into the back of my throat.

My mom turns the heat up to high, even though the engine is still just as cold as the winter wonderland outside. The air that is swirling through the car feels like ice cubes, it collides with my body. I am consumed with chill. As deep as the marrow in my bones. And as constant as the pull of gravity. Like the summer when I was three.

We were on a family sailing trip to a chain of islands in Lake Superior. One morning Jennifer and I slept late. The comfort of my Rainbow Brite, her Garfield sleeping bag. Our parents were on the dock having coffee. We were going to go to be with them. I was going to go first, she promised me she would hold the rope. Keep the boat close to the dock while I got off. I stretched across to reach the dock; she accidentally let go. Nothing for my legs to reach but air, I fell into the water below. I still had sleep in my eyes and dreams in my head. They both dissolved in the threat of my life. I remember my breath being frozen inside my lungs because of the cold water. My ribcage couldn't compete against the rushing waves to make room for my lungs. I tried to keep myself up by kicking my legs and swinging my arms. The fabric of my pajamas undulated in the water. Gripping my knobby little knees, making by legs so tired. My eyes focused on the algae and rock covered bottom. Stuck there. Even though the water was thirty five feet deep, I could see through it like it was a piece of freshly Windexed glass. My spine formed a ladder of buttons down my back, shook with the cold. My skin became rough and coated in goose bumps. The screams of my dad shot through the air, but never reached me because a wave washed over my head at the same time. Finally, swooped into the arms of the park ranger who jumped into the water for me. Stood on the dock letting the drops of water slide off me. Even after being in the warm August sun for the rest of the day, I couldn't shake the chills that consumed my entire body.

Now, as I sit in the car I'm as stiff as stale French bread. Can't really think straight. Or about the things I should be thinking about. I am not thinking about the night we should have been fast asleep in our yellow bedroom at our dad's house. We had a five-forty a.m. flight to Denver the next day. Instead of sleeping, we talked through all hours about the adversities of middle school. I am not thinking about how we wore our matching Christmas dresses and bows, and sat on our fireplace. We were holding our cat, Morris, trying to pass the time until we could go to church. We were excited because we got to be two of the "wise guys" in the Christmas pageant and bring frank-in-sense and gold up to baby Jesus. I am not thinking about the avant-garde haircut she gave me when I was four years old. This was before my mom found us and rushed me to the hair salon to get a more appropriate hairstyle. I am not thinking about the day she was riding the lawn mower at full speed. She was singing the theme song to "The Smurfs" like she was Pavarotti himself. I couldn't stop smiling as I watched her from the window and she wove through the dandelions in the yard. I am not thinking about the time she took me to my first rock concert. I didn't know how to act, and was a little bit scared of the punks surrounding us in line. She made me feel safe. Like I had a bubble to protect me from the spikes on their heads. I am not thinking about the way my stomach felt when it would almost touch my tongue after she gave me underdog pushes on the swing set in the back yard.

Instead, I keep remembering last Christmas dinner. It was instantly spoiled and tension filled when she covered her plate with only three naked pieces of lettuce and a miniscule pile of corn.

I remember the right angle of her jaw bone, it and her face stuck out like a cardboard cut-out from her neck.

I remember sitting next to her on the couch as we watched TV. I could hear her stomach growl, and asked her if she was hungry. She told me she was full.

I remember looking at the green veins glowing through the transparent skin under her eyes, and shivering.

I remember not being able to sleep because my ceiling was shaking as she did jumping jacks and secretly exercised long into the night.

I remember when we went dress shopping for prom, how her chest looked like it had a xylophone protruding from it. She looked vulnerable and exposed, like on of those sculptures of Christ hanging from the cross.

I remember the time I came home from school with my bladder ready to explode. I ran into the bathroom. Stumbled upon her figure hunched over the toilet and gripping the edge of the bowl.

I remember her holding out her hand, and how the ligaments stuck out so much that they formed what looked like a rake extending from her arms. It didn't seem at all capable of being part of a human body.

I remember walking two and a half miles through the December wind from my pottery class, pulling my jacket around my ears to keep them warm. My mom was having another conference with Jennifer's doctors and nurses. She forgot to pick me up.

I remember the phone call from my mom on her cell phone. She told me that she was on her way to the emergency room with Jennifer. Her heart couldn't even carry the blood through her body anymore.

And all I can think of is falling into Lake Superior.

The heart wrenching cold.

Murky silence.

Clear vision.

Sinking.