When everything broken is broken,
and everything dead is dead,
and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,
and the heroine has studied her face and its defects
remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,
as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves
has lost its novelty and not released them,
and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,
watching the others go about their days—
likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—
that self-love is the one weedy stalk
of every human blossoming, and understood,
therefore, why they had been, all their lives,
in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—
except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool
of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic
life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,
faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.
As in the story a friend told once about the time
he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.
Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.
He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket
he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing
carefully, and drove home to an empty house.
There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.
They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”
she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.
“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”
“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,
“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,
and go to sleep.
And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.
It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.
- Robert Hass, “Faint Music”
“You knew I was working.”
“I did. I wanted to see you in action, pouring drinks like a dutiful barmaid. That spraying tap looks like a real bitch.”
“I’m working until a quarter past nine.”
“I’ll wait.” The waitress went inside. Emma felt the air. Rain never cooled things off the way that she thought it would.
Anna Hadley Smith narrowed her eyes behind the bar. She poured herself a shot of whiskey, grateful that Chelsea was playing Manchester. The job was easier when the men stared at a screen instead of her tits. She never thought that she’d see Emaline again. They had kissed once on a dare at boarding school, but that was before. They had been good friends before. They would read in the courtyard together discussing Joyce, Albee, and Barrett Miner. Emaline had been infatuated with him since primary school. He had been at the party where she and Emma had kissed. Anna wondered if Emma had done it for him. When it was still before they had taken a theater class together. They always wanted to play opposite one another in scenes.
Anna hadn’t seen Emma in seven years. She watched the adult her friend had become. She’d grown her hair and cut bangs but still had the wide eyes of a child. Anna had chopped her hair and dyed it black like Freulein Sally Bowles. Emma had crept into her daydreams from time to time. Where was she? How’d she end up? A Google search said that she worked for Oxfam, raising money from wealthy donors. Facebook yielded nothing. Oxfam had offices all over the country. In Ireland, too. Yet here she was, drinking in Kensington and Chelsea. An uninvited phantom whose existence proved that life had continued when before became after.
By a quarter past nine Emaline was drunk and content. Anna went to the bathroom and changed into her street clothes. She fixed her eyeliner, swallowed an Adderall with sink water, and inspected her fingernails as she made her way to the front. “Emaline Lee,” she said as he reached the table, “your parents should have had the sense to name you Annabel.”
Emma’s mother looked at her mobile, silent on the table. She had spoken to Emaline earlier in the day. Emma had told her mother that she was going to go to the pub where Anna Hadley Smith worked because she wanted to talk to her. Emma’s mother remembered her daughter before she’d gone away to boarding school and met Anna. As a child, Emma had loved to read because she could imagine the characters and places the way that she wanted too. When she was about eight she realized that Roald Dahl was dead and wouldn’t be able to write any more books. Emma cried in her room as her mother tried to soothe her. “Look at all he left behind, though. He left the world his books.” It was the first time that Emma had contended with death and the first time Emma’s mother knew that she could not stop the world from being sad for her daughter.
Emma’s mother asked her why on Earth she wanted to dig that old mess up again. “Just let it go,” she had urged. “What good will it do now?”
“It won’t do any good now.” Emma had answered without hesitating.
“You’ll never move on if you keep doing this. Let it go.”
“I don’t want to let it go.”
“You’ve been torturing yourself about that time for years. You got out, that’s what is important. You keep making this your life.”
“It is my life.”
“It was better when you just told everyone she was dead. It was over then.”
“But she’s not dead. She’s a fucking bartender.”
Her mother looked at Emma. At twenty-four she looked like a woman with the helpless eyes of a child. Her daughter wasn’t going to change her mind. She relented.
“Bring your ID. You’re the only girl in the entire United Kingdom who is refused a pint because she looks too young.”
Emma picked up her purse, jingling her keys. “I read this psychology study from Cambridge. It said that when an adolescent experiences trauma, he or she mentally remains in an adolescent state, even as they mature into adulthood. They’re often perceived as younger than they are because they embody the version of themselves that they were when the trauma occurred.” Emma’s mother let out a sigh.
“Emaline, I don’t give a toss what some Cambridge psychologist says. You’re not some passive creature in a study. Your self-punishment is a choice. Do what you want,” she paused, “but I don’t want to hear it anymore.” Emma looked at her mother wistfully.
“I’ll be home later.” She kissed her mother on the cheek, closed the door behind her, and headed towards the train.
“I was referring to the poem.”
Anna wasn’t sure how she had expected these opening lines to go, but she hadn’t expected Emma to be so composed. An icy, stoic rage in Emma’s eyes made Anna shift her weight from one foot to the other. “What do you want?”
Emma remained poised, but faltered underneath her veneer. She hadn’t thought about what she wanted. She realized that up until this point she had thought that showing up would be enough. Enough for what? Enough for who? She had thought about this moment. She had practiced her speech in the bathroom mirror for years. Her mother would knock gently and ask her whom she was talking too. Embarrassed, she’d mumble something unintelligible until she could hear her mother slink back down the hallway.
Emaline froze with fear. She picked at the base of the wine glass, feeling her heart pulse as she reverted to her fifteen-year-old demeanor. She felt chilled but had begun to sweat. She was having trouble breathing. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, she thought to herself. Nothing was happening the way it was suppose to. She lifted her eyes to meet Anna Hadley Smith’s.
“Emma, what are you doing here?”
“You can be properly trained here. Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare for Christ sakes!”
“Those are playwrights.”
“The Americans are doing something new. I don’t want to spend my time singing like a loon and drowning myself in a river.”
Her mother looked at her with overwhelming sadness. Her eyes looked lost as she contemplated the wilderness before her. For the first time Emma felt selfish. When they had argued about her leaving over the past few months she had only felt angry. Her mother just wanted her around to take care of her, so she wouldn’t be alone and have to take responsibility for herself. Emma had carefully dispensed her mother’s medications since she could count. Her father left them when she was eleven. Her mother still said that he was away on business. Emma didn’t know if that’s what her mother really thought or if she had grown so accustomed to explaining his absence this way that the truth was irrelevant. Emma wrestled with the idea of fleeing the car without her suitcase. She wanted her life to be without the marring of hopelessness.“Aunt Sally is coming later today. She’ll stay through Christmas. I’ll be back mid-December after revision. If this was a mistake then I’ll come back to St. Paul’s.”
“Your father will be back from his trip soon. You haven’t even discussed this with him.” Emma couldn’t bring herself to look her mother in the eye as she lugged her suitcase out of the backseat and entered the international terminal.
‘Dear Emaline, Welcome to Payson Academy and Claire House! My name is Myra. I’m the proctor for international students. It’s my job to make you feel at home here. After you get settled come visit me downstairs in 4D so I can give you a tour. Excited to meet you, and welcome to America! XOXO, Myra’
Emma put the note back on the desk and lay down on the bed. She slept soundly for the next five hours. She awoke at dusk. The sky behind the chapel was orange and pink with wispy clouds stretching above the spire. She felt a ping of sadness. Dusk had meant dinner back at home. Her mother always set three places before pouring two glasses of red wine and a cup of milk for herself. “You’ve had a long day,” she would say. “You deserve a drink.”
“Mum, Dad isn’t coming to dinner tonight.”
“I know dear, but I don’t want him to think we’ve forgotten him if he comes home earlier.”
Emma watched the pink sky turn violet. She wondered how Sally was holding up. The doctor told her not to call home for about a week. It would be less disorienting for her mother that way. Emaline hated that doctor. She hated him for treating her like her mother’s nursemaid. She hated the horse-sized pills she had to dole out every morning. She hated him for charging twice the rent and leaving her mother broken. Emma glanced at her unpacked bags and turned on the light. The room was instantly bathed in a sterilized, lifeless white. She put her clothes in the bureau, hanging a few dresses and sweaters in the closet. She lined the few books and plays she’d packed across her desk. There was a knock at the door.
Emma opened to door to find a thin Filipino girl with thick shoulder-length hair, wide almond eyes, and a smile like the sun. She shook Emma’s hand warmly with both of hers. “Emaline, I’m Myra. It’s so great to meet you.” Emma was grateful for such a welcome.
“Please, come in.”
“I’m so sorry to barge in, I just wanted to make sure that you got my note.”
“I did, yes. Thank you. I’m afraid I fell asleep. Travelling always knackers me.” Emma’s manners caught up with her. She offered her desk chair. “Please, make yourself comfortable.” Myra smiled and took a seat. She was holding a thick stack of brightly colored papers.
“Completely. I’ve never liked flying.” Myra smiled again, a bit dazed. Emma recognized Myra’s confusion as she sat on the bed. “Oh, right. Tired. Travelling always wears me out.” Myra laughed, opened her pen and pretended to write on one of her handouts.
“Knackered equals tired.” They both laughed. Emma indicated the papers. “What’s all this?”
“Your welcome packet.” Myra handed them to her. “It’s a lot of information, I figured it would help to walk you through. This first yellow one has Payson’s academic policies, all of which I’m sure you’ve seen before. Plagiarizing or cheating of any kind, possession of drugs or paraphernalia, etcetera, etcetera, are expulsionary charges.” Emma reviewed the sheet.
“Here are the boarding rules across campus, including Claire House.” Myra indicated to a section under the heading “Disciplinary and Boarding Policies”. “These are a bit more involved.” Emma read them slowly. “Breakfast is from eight to nine-thirty AM in the dining hall. You’ll check in with me here every morning.” Emma nodded. “Depending on your schedule, classes are from ten AM to one PM, and lunch is from one to two. You don’t have to go to the dining hall for lunch. Most people just eat wherever and hang with their friends. Afternoon classes are from two to four. From your theater scholarship I’m assuming you’ll be in the plays. Rehearsals are from six to eight, so between four and six is your time to eat dinner, relax, start your homework, whatever. That’s your time.” Myra paused. “Still with me?”
“Good. Sundays through Thursdays there is a mandatory study hall from eight to ten PM. During this time you must be in your room with the door open, doing homework. Room phones are shut off during this time. You can go to the library if you have special permission from your advisor and house parent. Mr. Simpson is our house parent, he’s a Spanish teacher.”
“Does he live here?”
“Yeah. He has an apartment at the end of the hall with his wife and two kids. He and I switch off patrolling the halls during study hall. If you’re caught not doing work you will receive a unit. You can get two units without anything happening. Units are for skipping classes or rehearsal. Everyday at two the Dean’s office prints a list of all students. Next to everyone’s name is the number of units that they have acquired.” Emma stretched her back. This seemed like something that could wait until the morning.
“What happens when you get three units?”
“Three is detention. Four is a meeting with your parents or legal guardian. Five lands you in front of a disciplinary committee that determines your probation or if there are any mitigating circumstances to your situation. A sixth unit is expulsion.” Emma took a breath. Myra looked her in the eye.
“So… don’t get a unit.” Myra nodded.
“Don’t get a unit. I mean,” she conceded, “the unit scale is wiped every three months but still just don’t do it. This is a circular campus with a lot of windows. Trust me when I say that whatever it is you think you’ve gotten away with, you haven’t and it will be on the unit board at two PM the next day. If you somehow do get away with whatever it is, acknowledge the break and recognize that you were lucky. If a teacher is particularly fond of you, you might get a break. The most important thing to remember is that if you get a break it’s because someone was feeling generous, not because your actions went unnoticed. Everything is noticed and generosity doesn’t strike twice.”
“What, you’re saying this is some kind of total institution? I didn’t see a panopticon in the middle of the courtyard.” Myra looked surprised.
“You’ve studied Foucault?” Emma nodded again.
“Yes. Last year in sociology.” Myra paused her diatribe. Emma felt uneasy.
“They don’t teach that stuff here until second semester senior year, and that’s only if you take the senior sociology elective. There may not be a physical structure in the center of the courtyard, but it’s certainly an apropos description. It would behove you to remember it.”
“How do you know about that stuff?”
“I like psychology.”
“Seriously, though. Don’t get units.”
“I got it.”
“Excellent. Next is the pink sheet. There is a sign in and sign out book in the living room of each dorm. Any time you leave campus you need to write the time you left, and ETA on when you’ll be back, who you’re with, and a contact number. During the week you can leave campus between four and six. On the weekends your curfew is eleven-thirty. If you’re spending the night somewhere you have to have a permission sheet signed by the parent hosting you and, in your case because you’re international, your academic advisor twenty-four hours in advance. So plan ahead.” Emma rubbed her eyes.
“Almost done. If you come home drunk or high, or if there is any indication that that kind of thing occurred during your overnight stay, or if you didn’t stay where you indicated on the permission slip you’ll face automatic disciplinary action regardless of your number of units. I also see that your mother said that you are not allowed to be in a car with a student driver. That’s a unit too, and the teachers that don’t actually live on campus all live in the vicinity, so. Panopticon.”
“Panopticon.” Emma echoed her wryly.
“What else?” Myra shuffled through the handouts. “No boys in your room, ever. That’s instant probation.” Myra paused. “I see that you take Prozac.”
“It says here that you’re on twenty milligrams of Prozac daily, to be taken in the morning.”
“I don’t mean to be rude but I really don’t think that my medication is anyone’s business but my own.”
Myra put the paper down and looked at Emma apologetically. “I’ve always thought that that piece was invasive too. It’s just that the more we’re on the same page with you, the more fulfilling your time here will be. Plus, you’re not allowed to have psych meds in your room so if you give them to me I’ll bring them to health services in the morning. You’ll pick up your daily dose from them after breakfast from now on.”
“Ok.” Emma realized she had crossed her arms in response to all of this information. She didn’t want to be petulant. She placed her hands in her lap. Myra flipped through the papers. “I believe that that’s it for now. Oh, we have class every other Saturday so there is study hall on those Friday nights. You get used to it though, I promise. Now I just need you to initial and date all of these and we’ll be all set.” Emma took the stack from her, taking the pen she offered. She hesitated. She has assumed that the school would be strict in all matters discussed, but she hadn’t expected to feel like she was signing her right to privacy or a personal life away.“Emaline?” Myra nodded towards the papers. Emma put the pen to the signing line.
“Emma. I prefer Emma.” She signed and dated the sheets.
“Perfect. I’ll make a copy of these for you and give them to you at breakfast tomorrow before we go to health services.” Emma felt numb all of a sudden as she watched Myra take the papers. “Goodnight, Emma. We’re so glad that you’re here. See you in the AM.” Myra shut the door. Emma remained standing, staring at the door. The hall was quiet as she switched off the light.