Adrienne Celt’s previous work for The Butter can be found here.
The first time, you nearly died on Easter, at home in the greenlands of Washington. I was sitting outside at a restaurant in Arizona, having skipped a hike with friends so I could relax and hang out with the dog. The waitress brought me a pear and Brie sandwich, which sweated in the heat.
I didn’t have the spirit for a hike I knew to be a death march: straight uphill, no tree cover, lots of miles. The dog is an enthusiastic walker, but if you try to take him up a mountain he’ll stall out every time, until eventually you have to pick him up and throw him over your shoulder, fireman-style. We were both content to sit on the patio; for late spring, the temperature was still moderate. The dog knew me to be a soft touch, who would probably feed him from the palm of my hand.
With nothing else to do, I called you from my sunny perch, expecting to comfort you through a hard time our family was experiencing; even spilled out all over the country, we all feel it close to the chest. On the other end of the line your voice was nasal and strange; you couldn’t speak a sentence straight through. By the end of each thought you lost track of the beginning, so your statements were schismatic. Except one. I’m sorry, you said, I’m sorry. Over and over again. I asked: For what? But you just kept repeating it.
You used to take us on death marches too, all of us kids. Down endless rainy sidewalks, past the university tennis courts where we stole electric yellow balls and looked for quarters in the long bank of payphones. Once, all four of us raced down a hill while you watched, our hair and our arms trailing behind us as we pushed our chests out for the wind to buffet. I tripped, skidding partway down on my knees, making you cry that it was all your fault. Apparently you told everyone else to be safe, but not me.
Blood ran down my shins, into my sneakers, and I howled. We walked to a restaurant and applied stinging bandages while you sipped a beer and the other three kids picked at botana plates. Rice and beans and enchiladas. I think we walked there, anyway, but it’s quite possible that you carried me.
That day on the phone, I wasn’t sure you’d ever walk again, not even to death’s door. There was something unstable in your voice. I tried, weakly, to wish you a happy Easter and you breathed in. Sharp. Oh, is it? you asked.
My sister lives near you, but she has children of her own. It was Easter for them, too. When I hung up with you and called her, they were looking for candy-filled eggs in the yard, checking behind the shed and underneath flower bushes. As we talked, my sister drank orange juice, and we managed to convince ourselves that you were fine. That our conversation, yours and mine, didn’t happen. Or at least, not the way I thought. We both wanted the holiday to be peaceful – we felt we’d earned it, after dealing with some other trauma, some other sister, earlier that week. And so it wasn’t until hours later that the police broke into your room because you couldn’t get out of bed to answer the door. Couldn’t get out of bed at all.
On the sunny patio I picked at my sandwich, gone moist from the cheese. I ate all my greens. The dog lifted his ears whenever a sound echoed out in the distance.
You’ve endured many firsts with me, I know. First terrible injury at the age of two, when I rolled headfirst down my grandmother’s concrete stairs, knocking out all of my front teeth. That was Easter, too, or more accurately the night before. Easter eve. My mouth filled with blood that time, and the teeth – just milk teeth – turned grey before they fell out into my hand. There was a tense month when we all wondered if my permanents would grow in at all, or if I would need baby dentures.
Afterwards, it seemed like an isolated ordeal. We told the story all through my childhood as the time that. Not the first time. Because how could we have known back then that I’d knock out half of one adult incisor in St. Petersburg, after being drugged in a bar? That I’d wake up once more in a stupor, my mouth tender and ablaze. How could we have known that some future Easter you would put enough alcohol in your system that doctors would blink and whisper behind their hands that you should’ve been dead, after that. By rights, you should be dead.
My grandmother had a bush with pink flowers that she planted to commemorate my birth. I was looking at it, newly blooming, when I tripped and started my arc towards the ground. I know you reached out to grab the back of my cardigan, but just missed – I know because you told me, while we were both hysterical in the kitchen. Blood clinging to our shirtfronts. At two, I didn’t care that you tried. I didn’t thank you for trying. All I felt was my own urgent pain, and a new fear of my own feet, which were so unreliable. Some Easter, I thought. Some Easter.
I flew out and found you in the hospital, pliable and confessing. Pale as lace. Ten years without a break in drinking, which explains how you’re alive: practice. It turns out that killing yourself slowly for years can forestall the more immediate dooms.
The hospital was cold, and filled with the scent of takeaway food I bought at a grocery store across the street. The doctors were too polite to mention it, but I saw everyone’s eyes dart to the cardboard box. The smell hung around us and drifted through the curtain to the hall, down who knows how many passageways, into who knows how many rooms. I remember wishing you were less coherent so I wouldn’t have to talk to you as the potatoes grew cold and greasy.
That night we watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and you kept saying it was strange, as if maybe no one else had noticed.
The second time, you nearly died on the Fourth of July, as if you had some grudge against celebration: candy and fireworks. Sugar and explosions. It’s half-good, half-bad, you told us, when you admitted you were drinking again. And how, we asked, is it good? Because, you said. I like it.
When I was a teenager you met me on top of a downtown hill on the Fourth: a picnic with you and my friends. You were the driver, but also welcome – it was easy for us to spend time with you, because you laughed when we laughed. You were fitful, and foul-mouthed. I wonder now if I didn’t do a good enough job preparing you for the acute doom of my leaving, the way I’d someday go and live my life without you. You didn’t have practice.
As we drove home the traffic was so bad that we wondered if the cars around us had been abandoned; the moon reflected against all the windowpanes, making the glass bright and opaque, so all the bodies but our own were invisible. After twenty minutes of total standstill we came to the conclusion that this was the Rapture, and we were left back. The last standing, alone in the car. The thought made us giddy; I was almost disappointed when the cars began to move.
I didn’t know about the future, then, because no one does. The meaning of the night was in the moon, erasing everything. I thought that if I had to be marooned with anyone, you were the right choice. The one who knew best. The one who would figure things out, get us home.
Adrienne Celt's debut novel The Daughters is out now from W.W. Norton/Liveright. You can find more of her writing and comics here.