I kick upwards, furiously, but I do not move. I do not move.
My mind is blank and calm. I picture our neighbor’s empty pool in winter, and how it fills with dead leaves.
Someone grabs my upper arm. I am being dragged forwards, roughly.
The grip on my arm hurts and my head is pushed to the surface.
“Lucy?” It’s Ren. He is calm.
I am heaving up green water and my chest is making a long, wet rattling noise. There is no breath in my body. I feel as though I have been ripped out of my own skin and forced back into it.
Ren tugs me to the edge of the green pool. I am topless, still gasping, when he grabs my face in his hands, looks into my eyes and says, “That was an incredible jump, you crazy person.”
I crack the smallest of smiles. It really was.
Months before the jump, when I first arrive in Costa Rica, I am homesick, unsure of my feet, my hands, the space I occupy in a new country. Thick black-and-yellow centipedes wind their way through rotting fallen leaves after rain. Spanish words feel oblong against my teeth and I order all the wrong things in restaurants. A simple plate of fish and rice becomes a tactical nightmare and I am brought near tears trying to fillet an entire red snapper, its enormous jelly eyes reproachful as I dismember it gingerly. I begin to have vivid, terrifying dreams: ants crawling through my ears, morphing into spiral staircases that twist down into my chest, filling me with their glittering movement. It rains every day, hot and heavy until the red earth slides away from the crumbling ridge of the mountain bordering the edge of town.
The students around me are colorful and witty and just as feverishly excited about this new school as I am. At first, names are too difficult to remember so we label everyone by their country of origin: Lebanon, Nigeria, Austria, Uruguay. I want so badly to make friends, I want to be trusted, I want to share secrets and pass notes during stagnant orientation meetings. I have two roommates: Pehna from Brazil and Sophie from France, both a year ahead of me in school. The first night we fill our tiny room with candles and paint red comets across our cheeks with lipstick. The three of us hover over a makeshift alter covered in flowers and candles and burning sage. We make tiny slices on the pads of our index fingers with an X-ACTO knife, muddle our blood, and make a solemn pact to love each other like sisters. The cut on my finger throbs pleasurably for the next few days, a reminder that I have friends.
I am one of three Americans but people are thrown by my dual French citizenship and light brown skin. I try and explain being biracial, having a British father and an Antillan mother, but no one is patient enough to listen. I become increasingly unsure of how to answer their questions—no, I wasn’t born in the United States; yes, I am an American; no, I don’t speak English at home—and I finally stop trying to provide a concise explanation for myself. I begin to accept that there are many things even I do not know about who I am and where I come from. There is a curious distance growing between the physical fact of my body and my ability to account for it.
Two weeks in this new place, and I’m sitting on the cement terrace behind the library at 2 a.m. Past midnight, every conceivable thing comes to a halt, exhausted by heat and the relentless sting of mosquitos the size of quarters. But I’m awake, loneliness grinding in my head as I write in my journal, preoccupied by little problems. Corrugated plastic sheeting covers the terrace and on it falling drops of water pop like weak fireworks. I try and complete my writing prompt but mostly I am staring at the tall boy with dark eyes sitting one table away from me, the only other person braving the mosquitos. I don’t like his plaid shorts, but something hot clenches in my stomach when he catches me staring and says,
“Hi. I’m Ren. You’re the other American, right?”
“Yeah. I’m Lucy.”
He goes back to reading. I’m left feeling luminous, imagining that—if not for the rain—he’d hear my jumping heart.
Home begins to drop farther and farther away, a previous life. I’m learning the names of new fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market, and I’ve got friends, beautiful friends with thick curly hair like mine who teach me how to use avocado oil as conditioner. We wear kimonos from the absurdly cheap thrift store and eat rum-soaked blackberries in bed, giggling as we compare tan lines and contemplate vague philosophical quandaries, enchanted by our own intellects. Penha and Sophie are particularly lovely. Our first night’s promise has thickened into a deep and intimate friendship. The tiny room we share together is a safe haven of secrets and giggles.
There are classes to attend, but not many. School is challenging but I am intelligent and determined to exceed expectations, to triumph, to make something of these two years abroad. I try not to call my mother and father too often. Someone is always using the phone in the dorm, and there is no private place to talk where I can’t be overheard. Our emails are a bit stiff and secretly, it’s because I am afraid to miss them. I am filled with a strange homesickness every now and then, but I try and muffle it while I shudder into my pillow late at night.
I like this small town in Costa Rica. It is far from the beach, but there are supermercados and panaderias and the farmer’s market every Sunday where a toothless man slices open a green coconut for me. I eat the translucent meat with my bare hands because it is cold and I am always thirsty. The men call to me, Maldición! Reina! Bruja! Princesa De La Noche! I am a young woman, then a frightened woman, and finally an angry woman. Their jeers and hisses, the sucking noise they make with dry lips, all their sounds follow me into sleep and even my dreams are filled with unease. I am followed onto the bus one day by a middle-aged man, his smell of alcohol and sharp, salty body odor pressing against me as I frantically count my change, handing it to the driver with shaking hands. The man sits across from me and I pile my bags of groceries on my lap, trying to shield myself from his hot gaze with papayas and laundry detergent. At first I don’t recognize what he’s doing; it isn’t until he begins making soft grunting noises that I notice his hand jerking loosely in his trousers, eyes fixed on my face. I clamp my eyes shut, tears streaming down my cheeks. Everyone else on the bus looks out the windows.
But school is quiet, and the heavily gated campus feels safe. I feel guilty for being thankful that there is a guard and barbed wire along the top of the chain-link perimeter. I can’t pinpoint what I’m afraid of, but it seems incongruous with how much I love this place. There are evenings when we dangle our sandaled feet off the bridge, passing bags of plantain chips back and forth, and flicking ashes into the polluted water. Tiny armadillos skitter like armored cats through the mulch bordering the stream. The Norwegian students have taken to smoking clove cigarettes and they are so sweet and dark that even three feet away I feel as though I’m smoking one, too.
I’m getting to know this boy, Ren.
Sometimes I catch him on the basketball court, late in the afternoon. He likes to shoot hoops with the quiet consistency of meditation.
I’m looking for him, now. Tonight’s evening is purple and clear. There are fireflies, which I’d never seen before coming to Costa Rica. It hasn’t rained in a few days, and the air is thick with the sound of frogs. I hear the slap and swish of a basketball before I catch sight of him, shirtless.
“Hi,” I say.
He doesn’t reply.
I sit cross-legged in the grass and stay quiet until he finishes, tucking the ball under his arm. Ren walks over to where I’m curled up and sprawls in front of me. He has a freckle on the palm of his left hand, just like me.
“I like when you bite your bottom lip,” he says. I flush in the dark.
And I’m in love. My friends shake their heads: a campus full of international students and I’m wasted on a boy from Washington state. Ren is tall and lean with wide shoulders and a thin mouth full of naturally straight teeth. The bottom ones lean slightly to the left, as if pulled by an unseen magnetic force. We are good, close friends; he tells me things and then waits, quietly, for me to confess something back. One afternoon, Ren teaches me how to ride a bike, and later that evening he washes the gravel out of my palms and knees after I skid spectacularly down a steep hill.
Most nights we walk into town to buy bottles of acidic wine and cheap pockets of pizza dough filled with melted chocolate. Ren and I read together every evening. He introduces me to Charles Bukowski in early September. We sit on my mussed bed and pour through The Last Night of the Earth Poems until I fall asleep drooling lightly on the quilt. Ren lies down gingerly next to me, trying to limit his breathing so as not to wake me. He likes me enough that he is wary of touching me. Around 3, I shake him awake lightly and whisper, “Hey, hey. You need to leave.” I feel that waking up together would be too intimate—the mussed hair and waxy crystals in the corner of our eyes.
We’ll never be those people who have the luxury of belonging in their own heads, ” says Ren.
He’s picking lemons for me, shirtless. I watch the muscles of his back expand over his ribs as he reaches up to knock another down. They are thick-skinned, fragrant lemons with only the tiniest bit of juice. I’m going to make simple syrup with the rinds to mix with cheap silver tequila.
“But that’s a good thing.” He’s getting worked up. “They turn in circles in there like animals until they’re comfortable enough to settle down.”
Ren tosses a lemon my way, gauging my coordination. He tosses it pretty hard, and I have to throw my hands up quickly in order to stop it from slamming into my face. I wonder if he meant to aim that dangerously.
“I wouldn’t mind feeling a little more at home in my head,” I murmur.
He’s not listening. Ren’s busy avoiding the large thorns on the tree. There are a few minutes of silence as I contemplate the mood he’s in. This happens, sometimes. Ren winds himself around and around like a piece of taught wire, waiting to catch some hapless thought in the snare of his own head. And once he’s trapped it, Ren skins it alive. He worries the same philosophical questions over and over with meticulous rage. It scares me, this energy. I notice him jerk his arm away from a branch as a thorn catches his forearm.
“Do you ever feel anxious?” Ren asks, inspecting the deep scratch.
He pauses, lemon in hand, with this funny look on his face like he’s watching something over my shoulder. I self-consciously check behind me; nothing.
“Ren?” I try to pull him back from wherever he just disappeared to.
“You asked if I ever get anxious…”
“It’s nothing, really,” he says, and throws the lemon right at my head, again.
Penha and Sophie and I like to get ready to go out together. We shower at the same time, sometimes sharing a single stall if there’s someone else occupying the bathroom. We cover each other in shampoo and body scrub made with brown sugar and coffee grounds, polishing each other’s backs. Afterwards, the three of us stand naked in front of our closets, flinging dresses and heels and perfumed scarves back and forth: “Wear this!” “No, you.” “It’s too short!” Penha paints my nails dark blue and then dips an old toothbrush in pearlescent polish, pulling the bristles back until they flick forward and spray tiny constellations across their glossy surfaces of my nails.
Everyone is going to a gay dance club. It’s really the only option within reasonable distance, a twenty-minute drive away over the narrow crisp of mountain separating Santa Ana and Escazú. Students are recruiting friends to split cabs. Groups of girls in long earrings pile madly into the little red taxis and zoom away from the gates of the school. Ren, Sophie, a Norwegian boy named Oskar and I get a ride to the liquor store together. The cab driver waits outside, leaning against the door of his car and smoking a cigarette while we pick out slim flasks of rum and a six-pack of beer. We pay and begin to drink quickly, giggling and whooping as we are pressed into the dark interior of the car by the curvy road. Ren presses a cold beer between my knees and the sensation sends shivers vibrating along my spine. I can feel the knuckles of his hand resting against the bare skin of my left arm and it’s enough to make me a little dizzy. He and the rum make the ride go fast. We finally stumble out into a dark parking lot, the neon club pulsating in the dark. Ren catches my hand and gestures at the beers, none of which are open.
“We have to drink these before we go in,” he says.
“Why didn’t we drink them in the car?” I’m confused. Six? Just for us?
“Because we didn’t bring a bottle opener,” Ren says.
I grab a beer and wander off between parked cars, looking for some kind of sharp edge. Ren follows without asking questions.
There’s a crumby little cinder block wall forming one parameter of the parking lot. Perfect. I place the cap of my beer flush with the edge of the wall and smack it with my hand. It pops open with a sharp hiss, and foam floods the creases of my fingers. Ren follows suit triumphantly and we crouch down against the wall, drinking the lukewarm beer like it’s the first time we’ve tasted any. I lean my head against his shoulder and feel a charge pass between us. He buries his nose in my curly hair, winding a strand around his finger over and over and over. I am almost hypnotized by the motion; I don’t want him to stop. Ren’s beer bottle clatters to the ground and the noise startles me.
“Hey, hey, slow down,” I say and look up at him. He’s finished in the time I’ve barely begun mine. His eyes are glassy and unfocused. I know this look. It’s a familiar one from the many nights Ren has knocked on my door, swaying as if in a high wind.
“Are you okay?” But he doesn’t answer, simply picks up another beer and stares at it, willing the top to pop off of its own accord. I touch his cheek with a sweaty finger and he looks at me, very calm.
“I feel the best when I am like this,” he says, quietly. “I feel like maybe I can manage after all.”
Ren drops his head onto my shoulder and I feel obligated to comfort him, to say something calming and adult. But I’ve got nothing. He starts picking at a scab on my knuckle, pulling it away from the wet pinkness underneath. It stings but I don’t want him to stop. It’s strangely comforting, to be touched so intimately — so invasively — by someone else.
“Lucy. I worry a lot.”
A bright drop of blood wells on my finger and I bring it to my mouth to suck it clean. I feel like crying.
“It’s going to be okay,” I manage. “I promise it will be okay.”
Right before Christmas, a peculiar loneliness starts drilling caverns through my chest. I begin to sense that there is something wrong with me. There is no name for it, yet, but I am suspicious. I’ve felt depressed before, like mold creeping under the baseboard of an untended house. This feels heavier, more bewildering. I feel exhausted. My hair falls out in clumps in the shower. I skip a full week of class due to migraines that crowd my head like electric storms. I don’t have the vocabulary to articulate that I suspect I might need help; the words scatter away from me in both Spanish and English. The melancholy that’s been turning circles inside of me for months now is nesting in my chest and I can’t push it out, no matter how violently I fill myself with food or alcohol.
My friends are concerned, but busy. There is only so much taking care of someone you can do, and they’ve all filled the quota. Penha and Sophie quickly tire of doing my laundry for me, of setting backup alarms to make sure I get to class. They each have boyfriends, and begin spending less and less time in the room.
But Ren listens. He comes to see me, every afternoon, with a book and a sense of obligation that I mistake for pity at first. Our friendship has become a crutch, and it’s all I can do not to kiss this boy out of sheer desperation to keep him close. I find myself increasingly attracted to him. We enable each other’s bad behavior, the drinking and the late nights and the worrying. Ren’s anxiety piques every now and then, going from vague theoretical ponderings to full blown irrational fear of death. What used to be interesting conversations become wretched nights of pleading with him to sleep, to rest. But God, I love the sight of him knocking on my door. I love the way he traces circles around my belly button until I’m raw as a plucked guitar string. Sometimes I think we prefer each other crippled.
After a month of insidious depression I find myself flung bodily into the most glorious weeks of energy, light, and restless pleasure. I spend all my money in expensive grocery stores, the ones for the American tourists. I buy cheddar cheese and mushrooms and chives and make omelets for 24 people. I stop sleeping. I throw out piles of papers and mildewed towels and old teacups. I clean compulsively and take deep, almost delirious pleasure in running lit matches along the freeways of ants streaming across my bedroom wall. I want sex and alcohol, both in frightening amounts. I begin to ricochet like this, over and over.
We’ve made the mistake of watching a horror movie right before bed, and I can’t sleep. Ren has grumpily agreed to tell me a bedtime story, and we are nestled in my muslin sheets.
“There is a lake somewhere far, far away. A lake so deep and so incredibly blue that anyone who looks at it is compelled to dive in and drown themselves in the middle, happily,” begins Ren.
“What kind of story is that?” I murmur. I’m already half asleep, my mind drifting over mountains until I, too, see the lake.
“It’s a good one, I promise. Stay quiet. Close your eyes.”
He tucks me closer, nestling his nose in my hair. I can’t focus on the story anymore. He is warm and shirtless and I can feel his heartbeat against my shoulder blade. If I lie still enough, I can even pick up on the echo of a third beat—the remnant of a childhood heart murmur not quite healed.
I’d like to turn around and just kiss him. Plant my warm mouth on his warm mouth, feel it part. His voice rumbles against me, my mouth filling with sleep, his hand rubbing my back in circles as I drift, dreaming of kisses.
April brings Semana Santa, a week of flowers and warm bread and parades for tall flaky, gold-leafed saints. A Catholic country, Costa Rica takes Easter very seriously. Alcohol is sold only in limited amounts, and every business in the country is closed for the holiday and the two days surrounding it. We are given the time off school to explore, to travel, to feast and dance. Accompanied by several other friends, Ren and I pack into buses resembling bruised tin cans and we hurtle west towards the coast, jostled in between cages of squawking chickens.
We end up in the tiny town of Montezuma. It serves as a hub of backpacking culture in Costa Rica, tiny hostels overflowing with tanned boys clutching wax-speckled surfboards. Yoga studios, snack shops, smoke shops, one wild bar, and a few restaurants stand stacked on top of each other.
My friend Tiy and I walk down the main street, stopping for papaya smoothies and to tuck enormous crimson hibiscus flowers into our wild hair. It all feels like a vivid fever dream. Hippies with warm brown faces and green eyes sell jewelry made out of feathers from exotic birds. I ask one of them how they capture the birds for the feathers and he replies that a feather can only truly be given. He and his fiancée spend months wandering through the cloud forests of Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica, collecting feathers off the ground like rubies.
The first afternoon, Ren and I hike to a waterfall. Young men with hair to their waists lay around smoking. One has a didgeridoo and the low notes strike a frequency inside me, vibrating my bones. The waterfall generates its own wind as the water crashes down into a green basin. I crane my neck and look up to the top, shielding my eyes from the sun. I think it could be as high as sixty feet. I sit on the lower rocks and tilt my face into the spume until I’m fine-coated with cool water. One of the men stands at the top of the waterfall, perched on a large rock that overhangs the slick of water. He rocks forwards and backwards on the pink soles of his feet, finally stretching up onto his toes and—I am holding my breath—diving, head first off the rock. ‘
He seems weightless, completely effortless for the few seconds before his fingertips touch the water and make way, quickly, for the rest of his body. Like reentering the atmosphere, I think. I have never wanted to try anything more.
I lie at the edge of the green pool for a few minutes of silence, trying to catch my breath. Ren is watching me, and to my embarrassment, so are a few of the men who I watched dive before me. When I sit up and get shakily to my feet, they cheer in encouragement. I start to take stock of the damage—the tips of my fingers tingle sharply, and already my thighs, tailbone, and lower back are blooming in deep, inky bruises. I am not cut or bleeding, but the impact of the water hurt like it was concrete. My breath comes ragged, and the only truly sharp pain I feel is in my upper chest. I smile again at Ren, reassuringly.
“I’m fine, I think.” He shakes his head in amazement and joy, squinting up at me through dark lashes.
“Do you want this?” he asks, handing me my bikini top. Everything hurts so badly that I ask him to tie it on, cold fingers fumbling against my back.
In the days after my jump there is a grinding—as if of stone against stone—whenever I try to turn my head. The more it hurts the more I try to laugh it off. My tailbone throbs and pops until I can’t sit down normally. I cry in my hostel bed at night before dreaming of strange animals shapeshifting in the jungle. I take Advil constantly and drink to muffle the pain and dance with my friends. I order a whole fish at a restaurant and eat it with lime and rice, confident this time. I even save the golden eyes to pop into my mouth last, bursting in my cheeks like ink cartridges. Ren is not overly concerned. I haven’t mentioned that I am in this much pain.
The return to school four days after the jump is a difficult one. The eight-hour bus ride jostles me until I feel sure I should fall apart in my seat and roll down the aisle in pieces. The pain is tempered by Ren’s hand wrapped around mine, fingers tightly interlaced. Finals come, a few days after break. I do not do well. My head is a fog. I am taking up to twenty pain killers a day to stay coherent.
The first night we are back home, Ren and I finally kiss. He tastes of the spiced rum he’s been drinking and it’s the most awake I’ve felt in the week since the jump. His lips are soft and insistent, and the movie we are in the middle of gets pushed hastily to the side as he presses his body against mine. For the briefest of moments, nothing hurts, but the moment we stop I am overwhelmed by a wave of nausea, little lights popping in my eyes as my shoulders tense uncontrollably. I excuse myself from his bed, walking unsteadily back to my room.
The next day, I’m preparing tea sandwiches for my friend’s birthday party when I pass out cold on the tile floor of my residence hall’s kitchen.
My accident and the subsequent diagnosis upon being brought to the hospital —se ha roto el cuello (she’s broken her neck) —feels unsurprising. The doctors point out a fault line cutting right through my C7 with the decisiveness of a lightning fork. I am sullen and depressed in the hospital, and my unresponsiveness raises questions with the school’s resident nurse, who has accompanied me to help with insurance, translations, medical forms. She sits down next to me in these squeaky, orange plastic chairs and puts her hand on my knee. Her eyes are gentle as she asks if she can invite someone in to ask me a few questions. She and a psychiatrist sit together and examine me quietly.
There are questions about the jump, at first. Why did I do it? Was I unable to foresee the consequences? What was my motivation? Was I suicidal? I answer them with as little interest as possible, afraid to let any quiver of emotion sneak into my voice lest they pounce on it and expose me. I feel that they are balancing on a sliver of truth, and it frightens me. The depression and joy I’d been feeling feels somehow too private, too close and well contained to expose to the world.
In my neck brace I cannot look down at the floor, and the questions veer towards my history, questions about my family, general happiness, prior experiences with manic behavior, any instances with depression. I come back for a consult with another psychologist and finally they give me a diagnosis like a consolation prize: Bipolar. I am filled with deep shame and exhaustion; the balloon of mania that propelled me off the top of the waterfall now drags at my feet, deflated.
When I call my parents with news of the accident, my father is away on a business trip. My mother—having grown up with a doctor for a father—is consistently unruffled by any ailments. She proves as calm and collected as always, soothing me as my voice shakes on the phone, reassuring me that everything will be all right and my body will heal itself. A week later I talk to my dad on a crackly phone line and mention that I am feeling much better. He asks, “What from?” and I realize that my mother did not pass on the news to him.
Ren is sitting on his bed, tongue pinned between crooked teeth, forehead divided in deep thought, eyelashes longer than mine. I don’t know what he is looking at, but it cracks me clean through.
He glances up and grins. “Hi, broken girl.”
It’s been three days since I left the hospital, and I’m going insane. I feel like a coned dog with my neck brace digging into me. Sex with Ren is a good excuse to take it off. To take everything off. To forget that I don’t feel okay, and that I haven’t for many months.
All I can think about today is kissing him again.
“Come sit with me,” he says. He tugs at my neck brace with a furrow between his eyebrows. Ren feels responsible. He’s delicate with me and it makes me bitter. I feel as though he has taken it upon himself to feel bad, and he won’t give it up because it satisfies the part of him that wants to take care of me. Meanwhile, I want to keep pretending I don’t need taking care of.
For now, we eat condensed milk out of the can, metallic and sweet and cold from the icebox, as smooth as his tongue in my mouth.
The thought alone makes some deep inner chamber of my stomach clench like a fist.
“You’re so soft,” he says, running his hand over my legs. I push my legs against him, watching his pupils dilate wide. When he kisses me, it is soft and urgent. His huge hand is back under my shirt and his fingers trace the curve of my breast pressed against his chest. We fumble and strip and wrap our legs around each other hungrily and I’m laughing and maybe crying a little.
Ren’s teeth cut into my lip. I am weak and dizzy and overflowing and inadequate and ecstatic. The weight of my head is enough to crush both of us, Ren’s hand on my neck, apologetic, as he kisses me harder.
Half of May slips by before I can shower myself. Ren helps me, patient with a loofah and gentle with his big hands, making sure the shampoo doesn’t leak into the corners of my eyes. We wait till everyone is asleep. 3 am and he is careful to run the water first, getting it the perfect temperature before unfastening my brace, pulling my T-shirt over my head, unbuttoning my pants. I stand still with my eyes closed during the whole process, barely feeling anything, not Ren’s hands on my lower back as he nudges me under the water, not the heat of the shower, not the relief of being clean.
The days escape me. Medication is constant and my mind feels like an unoccupied chair. I have moments of intense, all-consuming rage that burns me to a crumpled heap, screaming in bed. I imagine that everyone is lying to me, that I haven’t broken my neck and that it’s all some insane plot to humiliate me. As if to prove that I am not broken—that I can’t be broken—I bang my head against the concrete wall of my room hard enough to make stars pop in my eyes. The pain feels savagely satisfying. My spine is sticky and swollen, my shoulders tight around my neck. The migraines become blinding. Most days are spent in bed, shut away in my room with the curtains drawn and the unwashed sheets knotted between my thighs. It’s only when Ren knocks—so softly—that I move. It’s as if I never broke the water’s surface after I jumped, as if I am still falling, waiting to land in another life, my real life.
This can’t be it.
I am sitting on the floor of the shower stall, unable to move, fully clothed under the hot water with my jeans around my knees. This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. Mix muscle relaxants with alcohol and your blood turns to maple syrup. It’s a strange alchemy. My heart takes its time in the beating, and I count the seconds between each palpitation. My neck brace is in my room. I need it. I can’t lift the weight of my own head. I’m afraid to call for help. Everyone else is still out at the bars. I’m not allowed off campus, not after the administration discovered I haven’t been wearing my neck brace.
I think I fall asleep, for a little while.
And then there’s a pounding on the stall door.
“Lucy? Lucy. Lucy. Lucy. Lucy. I hear your breathing. Unlock the door.”
I can’t get up. I try to tell Ren but it doesn’t come out right. He gets down on the floor. I see his big hands hit the tile. I love those hands. Big enough to palm a basketball but gentle enough to place flowers on top of the tres leches cake he made for my birthday.
His knees next. I love those, too. I love pressing myself against them as we tangle in bed, hot kisses in my ear. No boy has ever touched me like he does.
“Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh god. Lucy.” He sees me and what I’ve done.
You weren’t supposed to see this, I try and say.
But the medication, and the alcohol, I try and say.
It made me slow, I try and say.
“I messed up,” I manage to say.
Several days after Ren finds me in the shower and sticks his fingers down my throat, the school nurse, my residence coordinator, Penha, two teachers, and the principal intercept me on a rare trip to the cafeteria. I am spirited away in a knot of concern, ushered into the nurse’s tiny office. The door is locked behind me. They sit me down in a chair and talk about my well being. My sessions with the school therapist have been alarming, yes, but I realize that the root of their intervention is my refusal to wear the neck brace ordered by the doctor.
Do I want to get better? they ask. I don’t answer; I simply stare at the floor as tears boil over my cheeks. There’s a plea to consider the school’s potential liability should I drop dead on my way to class.
Ultimately, it’s decided that if I want to remain on campus, I have to wear my brace constantly. The nurse will come check on me twice a day.
The brace is yellow with my own sweat. I take it off as soon as I return to my room each day, sometimes jumping up and down and shaking my head in a frantic and painful act of rebellion. I find it difficult to eat while wearing it and impossible to sleep. I particularly don’t want Ren to see me wearing it. It makes my neck so stiff that my friend has to rub my shoulders with eucalyptus oil for an hour before I can turn my head.
But eventually, the human body reorganizes itself. After three weeks of dazed hell I begin to feel better. There are mood stabilizers and tiny vials of lithium dilute. I snap the tapered end of the vial and hold the liquid under my tongue. I start to like the ritual. I make my bed in the mornings and do my laundry; I eat small, regular meals. The muscle relaxants keep the shoulders from bunching up around my spine, and the pain begins to ebb, slowly.
It’s the end of May and the rainy season is back. I’ve been coaxed out of my room for the first time in two days by the mango tree outside my window. The fruit has been falling off the trees, rotting fast in the thick grass. Wasps puncture the waxy skin, licking out the stringy insides with tiny probing tongues. I’ve been watching from my window for days now, a little jealous. But today, I find that I can get up, neck brace firmly strapped around my bird bones. I’ve showered and put on underwear, but brushing my hair still escapes me. As an afterthought, I dab perfume behind my ears and it makes me feel like I’m being followed all the way out to the mango tree.
The fruit is warm and dusty. I’ve eaten green mango jam all year long, smothered on bread and cheese or right from the jar with my fingers. But the fruit itself, ripe and fragrant, is something else. The sugars clot in strings down my chin, and I realize it’s the first piece of fruit I’ve eaten in well over a month. I eat seven more in quick succession until my stomach is fizzy and I feel a little drunk. But I am moving, and it feels good to breathe in all the humidity and greenery of that back garden.
That night, I get permission to take off my neck brace. It’s been a month and a half since the diagnosis, and I’ve begun to straighten. In celebration, we are going to Bar Amigos for pool and good french fries and tall cold beers. It’s a Friday. Ren gives me a piggyback down the street, whooping. I feel as though perhaps everything is okay. Around 2 a.m. he kisses me against the pool table and whispers,
“You’re the love of my life.”
We’re a little drunk, standing outside the bar, savoring the lime pulp at the bottom of our weak, golden beer. Ren is smoking a rare, celebratory cigarette, and I watch him take pleasure in the foreignness of it. The year is almost over; we’re all going home terrifyingly soon. I’m feeling nostalgic under the florescent lights clustered with furry moths. I’ll miss the little stores stuffed with Fanta and rolling papers, the trips I take to buy greasy bags of hot french fries. Ren is returning to Washington to spend the summer working on a crab boat. He looks down at me and whispers, “What am I going to do without you?”
His mouth bumps against my neck and I giggle. How fresh to be kissed there, with the same tongue I watched lick salt off the edge of a beer earlier, the heat of his breath soft against my collarbone.
And then, sharply, a different heat as Ren touches the cherry end of his cigarette to the skin behind my ear.
I am too surprised to make noise, but I twist sharply in pain. The burn is as sobering as the ringing of an alarm, a shock of searing clarity at the end of this strange, overwhelming year—every lesson a different pain.
Ren looks at me, almost as surprised as I am, and then grabs my wrist, pulling me in.
“Come here, Lucy,” he says and he holds me tightly, blowing on the burn that’s already a white crescent bubble. I’m not sure whether it was an accident or not, and I can’t bring myself to ask.