For Christmas Mom was getting her face done. She sent me computer printouts of different noses, different eye shapes. She wanted know which ones I liked best.
“They’re all nice,” I said, “but it’s about context.” Each week she sent more and they became bookmarks and scratch paper. They fell out of my purse at the grocery store. My older brother Colin mailed her a Mrs. Potato Head and my younger sister Samantha called to say his sense of humor was completely inappropriate. Nobody in the family got along anymore, not since Colin had rolled the car last year when he was drunk. He’d walked away from the accident but Samantha had broken her leg, her pelvis, her collarbone. Misfortune brought out the truth in any situation. It peeled back everything nice and revealed what couldn’t be camouflaged.
Mom chose a new face and set a date. It would be two days after the Christmas party. She had invitations printed and when I opened mine, a slip of paper fluttered to the ground. It was a picture of what she would look like after the surgery. The caption said, ‘Come and face the New Year.’
I taped it to the refrigerator and called to decline. “Too many people, Mom. The house gets packed and they’ve got me on Dilantin now, which is worthless.”
“Honey, you have to get back on the horse.”
“I didn’t fall off a horse.”
“You know what I mean,” she said.
The night of the party I took a taxi from my university apartment in Georgetown. Mom’s house was just outside the District on the Virginia side. I stood at the bottom of the hill and pulled my coat tighter. It had snowed the day before and the lawn sparkled, sugary and pink in the dusky air. Christmas candles burned in every window of the house and shadows moved behind the curtains. The place was alive and squirming like a can of bait.
I started up the driveway. The cold made my muscles stiff and I tried to walk from my middle, hefting one leg forward at a time. I went through the side door and into the kitchen, stomping snow off my shoes. Terry, Mom’s housekeeper, was commanding several men in tuxedos.
“We need to get those passed before the buffet,” she said, handing out different trays. “And these need to be gone before the cake and pudding.”
“Hi, Terry,” I said.
“No coats in here,” she pointed to the side hallway. “Take it to the guestroom.”
“Nice to see you, too.”
I threw my coat on the guestroom bed. It seemed shabby next to the fashionable lumps of fur and cashmere. I’d only stay an hour or two, I told myself, just long enough to put in an appearance and get out.
I poured a glass of tonic water, and edged into the crowded dining room. The chandelier scattered little prisms of light across shoulders and walls. On the hors d’oeuvres table there were printouts of Mom’s ‘new’ face. They were stuck to small sandwich boards that popped out of the finger foods like gopher heads.
“Sweetie, there you are.” Mom kissed me behind my ear. She was already tipsy. “When did you get here? Oh!” She turned and plucked a morsel off a tray. “These are so good!” She pressed one against my lips. “Now, don’t hide in the corner all night.”
“I’m not hiding.” I chewed mechanically.
Mom tugged me into the thick of the crowd. “Oh, Arleen, have you met my Ellie? She’s right here, my oldest girl.”
Arleen was an elderly woman who squinted at me. “Is this the one getting married?”
“No, that’s my youngest.”
“Well, we haven’t met then.” Arleen stuck out her hand. “How do you do?” I stared at her hand. It was trembling slightly.
“I, um, don’t shake hands,” I smiled, tried to look friendly.
“Well, how odd.”
“Arthritis,” Mom said.
“It’s not arthritis,” I said.
“It struck very young.” Mom’s tone was low and conspiratorial. Arleen nodded.
“Is nobody taking my word for this?” I picked a sandwich board off the table and looked at it. “Apparently not.” I didn’t bother to explain myself anymore. The term Myotonia-Congenita-autosomal-dominant didn’t roll off the tongue very well, just hung leaden in the air. “So this is it, huh?” I looked at the picture of the new face. It was strange and familiar at the same time. The overall effect was definitely Mom but the individual features were foreign and blurred around the edges.
Mom continued to confide in Arleen. “I was just going to get a lift,” she said, “but you know. If you go in for an oil change you might as well get a tune-up.”
“Oh yes,” Arleen said. “Nobody likes to take their car into the shop.”
“Mom, I’m coming to the hospital with you,” I said.
“Mmm,” Mom waved her hand, still eating. She had on a new ring. “Don’t bother. It’ll be a dreadful bore. It’s minor surgery.”
“It’s not minor surgery!”
“There’s no need to see me until I’m all healed up,” She grabbed my chin and squeezed. “So take a last look,” she said, and moved away into the crowd. I smiled at Arleen and edged against the wall.
When I was seven I had trouble opening my eyes after I sneezed. I rubbed them a little and gradually the muscle softened and I was able to blink. Later that year, it got worse. After a sneeze, my stomach remained clenched and my lungs wouldn’t fill. Once I waited so long for air that when it came, I threw up on the floor next to my desk at school. They cleaned the carpet and sent me home. My parents had just divorced and everyone agreed it was the stress. “Children are very sensitive to these things,” said the school counselor. She didn’t know that my father had lived in another state for as long as I could remember.
I began to take hot baths in the mornings before school. My legs were stiff and hard to bend but the heat helped. I started to stick to things. Door handles and handshakes were the worst. My hand wouldn’t open right away and I would have wait, counting off several seconds in my mind until the muscles loosened. If I was startled or pushed, I couldn’t correct myself and would fall to the ground, waiting for my body to relax. “Get up,” people said. “Why don’t you just get up?” Everyone thought it was some kind of joke they couldn’t understand. It made teachers angry and the other children resentful. Who was I to take their time?
Some days I sat inside the plastic they hung over the desks of troublemakers. I was the first girl in my class to receive the honor. It was a clear shower curtain suspended from the ceiling like a jellyfish around my desk. The plastic warped the room and muffled sounds. It was to prevent me from distracting other students but all I remember is how the smell of old vomit wafted out of the carpet when the heat was on. The cubicle kept the smell close. Even when they took the curtain away, it hung around my body like a cloud, following me home at night, hovering over my bed while I slept.
I read books on witchcraft and sorcery, checking them out of the library and hiding them at the bottom of my laundry basket. I read about girls with psychic powers who been in comas or almost drowned. I borrowed Colin’s comic books about superheroes with elastic arms and gills instead of lungs. I was changing into one of these people, morphing like they did, only I was blessed with a useless talent; I was turning to stone. One day I’d wake with my joints fused. They would have to carry me down the stairs like a dresser drawer and then push me around in a hand truck, a life size doll, a piece of sculpture, something to look at and then ignore. In the quiet of my room I felt certain I had an important secret, an important destiny but at school and out in the world, I knew it was a lie. There were no secret powers, no revelations. You got along or you didn’t.
These are my first memories. I know I must have other ones, earlier than seven, but they are blurred snapshots without time or feeling. Sometimes I think I do not remember because I was happy and happiness makes no lasting impression. The doctors wanted to know why I wasn’t brought in sooner, why hadn’t I come forward. But I didn’t have an answer. The disease was hereditary and nobody in the family had it. There were whispered conversations. My mother looked at me more. Sometimes she came over for no reason and kissed the top of my head. That was a close as we got to talking, thought in truth I didn’t want to talk. The disease had allowed me to peel back the corners of everyday life. It allowed me to see the inner workings, the limitations of people around me, their false charity, their fear of embarrassment, which only fed my own. I’d learned that if I could not be understood, I would not be tolerated.
“Myotonia,” my mother said, as if marveling at the very existence of such a condition. “Well, at least it’s not an ugly disease. We can be thankful for that at least.” And she was right. It wasn’t degenerative or progressive, just annoying — those were the doctor’s words. My body would be an annoyance, like an insect you can hear but not see. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth required more strength than they did in other people because the muscles were contracted for a longer period of time. I needed my pills to make me into a real person. Without them I was still a comic book character with a useless power.
* * *
In the hallway more people were arriving. The door opened and a blast of cool air pushed into the foyer. Mom had hired a young girl to take coats at the door and she ran from the hall to the guestroom, looking like a shapeless, moving lump. Last year mom hired a swing band and pushed back the furniture, rolled up the rug. The police arrived later to shut it down. They were friendly and stayed for a slice of flaming pudding. This year there was just a bar, and of course Samantha’s wedding. She was the big news.
“Ellie!” Samantha was limping down the hall. “There you are.” She was leaning on Peter’s arm. He was her physical therapist after the accident and now he was her fiancé. Peter was thirty and Samantha was eighteen. Nobody except Mom thought it would last.
“Hi, Sam.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m just hobbling around like an old woman tonight,” she said.
“It’s the barometric pressure.” Peter frowned. “I told you. We should have done more stretching.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I know.” She smiled at me. “He’s always right, you know.”
“Can you help me get her to a chair?” Peter craned his neck, looking into the living room.
“Sure,” I said. “There’s one by the fire.” I helped make a path through the crowd. I set my tonic water on the coffee table, and fluffed a pillow in the armchair before I noticed that Sam and Peter had stopped to chat with someone. I sat in the chair myself. Music played from hidden speakers in the walls. The fireplace was gas and the flames didn’t dance, just obeyed the flow of the gas line like the flames of a stove. I recognized a few people, neighbors and family friends. One woman waved me over but I just waved back, pretending I didn’t know what she wanted. I wasn’t good at small talk and very rarely did I meet someone who put me at ease. My mother accused me of disliking company, which wasn’t true.
Samantha returned and I stood up. “Kept it warm for you,” I said, and she sank into the chair.
“Oh, thank God.” Her head slid back. “Why did I wear heels?”
“I said you weren’t ready.” Peter squatted next to the chair and pulled the shoes from her feet. “Is that better?”
“Mmm,” Samantha nodded.
“You all are the same size,” Peter said, “maybe you could switch shoes.” I looked at my black loafers.
“What’s going on?” Mom asked. She appeared over the back of the armchair. Her lipstick was smeared slightly at the corner of her mouth. “Do you need a footstool?”
“I’m fine.” Samantha looked pained. “Everybody I’m fine.”
“Colin,” Mom snapped. “Go get your sister a footstool.” Colin stood in an alcove a few feet away, almost hidden by the curtains. He’d been standing so still I hadn’t seen him. “It’s the least you can do,” Mom said, but Colin didn’t respond. He just stared into the crowd, his eyes unfocused.
Peter stepped forward and grabbed his arm. “Your mother is speaking to you.”
“What?” Colin stumbled in surprised. A small wire snaked up through the collar of his suit and into an earphone that he quickly removed.
“Go get your sister a footstool.” Mom pointed in the general direction of the hallway and Colin looked bewildered.
“He’s probably drunk,” Samantha said, but I pretended not to hear. There had been a time when I considered Colin my only friend, the only person who could make me feel not completely alone. But we’d grown apart as I’d gotten older and I worried that our connection had been coincidental. We happened to be in same place at the same time, the same house, same family. That was all. Our friendship was no better than the ones I avoided growing up, the ones where lonely kids were brought together by their own shortcomings. I thought of them like the single socks Mom kept in a hamper next to the washer and dryer. If we were going to play outside or go to camp, we wore mismatched socks. Odd socks were disposable, the kind of thing you put on for a lesser occasion, while you saved your real pair, your nice pair, for another time.
In an effort to escape the crowds, I wandered into the basement and examined the piles of junk spread across the floor. Mom had been cleaning the storage rooms, emptying them into piles for Goodwill. She wanted to have it done in time for the surgery, but it was too much to go through. I was supposed to come over next month and help her finish, after her face healed.
I recognized a small suitcase sitting off to one side. I pulled it onto the rug and opened the lid. The smell of mold and perfume slipped out. Inside were old greeting cards with pre-printed sentiments and names signed at the bottom. They were carefully arranged by date, lovingly tied with ribbon. I’d bought the whole thing at an estate sale years ago, during a period when Colin was obsessed with repairing old radios. We drove around looking for bargains together, going to auctions and garage sales. He had a business for a time. Antique dealers and other enthusiasts frequently came by the house to drop off tubes and cabinets, some as large as me. Colin had photo books of his projects and the enthusiasts looked through them, getting excited over certain pictures. Now there were just piles of left over debris, cracked dials and empty cases.
The basement door opened and footsteps thumped the stairs. I froze in place. Colin came around the corner but didn’t see me. He walked to the meat freezer against the far wall. It opened up like a clamshell and exhaled a white mist around his silhouette.
“Colin,” I said, but he didn’t hear. He opened a bottle of red liquid and took a sip. “Hey you.” I threw an old radio dial at his leg.
He spun around coughing and looking over his hand. “Shit, Ellie. What are you doing down here?” He reached into his suit jacket. There was a metallic click.
“Not having as much fun as you, obviously,” I pointed to the bottle. “What is that?”
“Red-sky-at-night.” He sat and offered me a sip. When I didn’t reach for the bottle, he poured a hefty amount in my tonic water glass. “It’s one of my own creations,” he said.
I tasted it and felt the pinch of alcohol. “You shouldn’t be drinking. Mom’s quite the breath sniffer. She’ll toss you out.”
“Not tonight. She’s soused.” Colin smirked and swirled the red liquid so that it rose up the sides of the bottle. “Don’t tell,” he said. “Remember you always said that to me? When you were walking around all funny like a marionette, don’t tell anyone?”
I pulled at the nap of the rug as if it were grass. “So what’s in your jacket?”
“Well, now that the big sin is out in the open.” He set the bottle down and to retrieve a small cassette player from his pocket. “Books on tape.” He opened it. “’Dead of Night.’ It’s a mystery about a florist. Poison roses, stuff like that.” He shrugged and flipped the tape back in.
“Can you hear over it?”
“Try not to.” There were dark circles around his eyes and his skin looked yellow and thin in the blunt overhead light. “Nobody here says anything interesting anyway.”
“Mom insisted I attend so she could rub my nose in Sam’s happiness. ‘Despite everything,’ that’s what she said. ‘Sam’s happy despite everything.’” Colin closed his eyes. We had barely spoken in the past year. “So how’s it going, how’s school?”
I shrugged. “Wish I’d moved farther away.”
“It doesn’t make a difference. Believe me.” Colin was currently living in Baltimore with some artist friends, the sort that made sculptures out of hair and dog food cans.
“Think you’ll apply to med school?” I asked. This had always been his plan.
Colin snorted. “Are you kidding? I can’t work on people. I can barely peel a Band-aid.”
“But you took all those science classes.”
“Can you imagine me as a doctor type?” he asked. “It’s a type. That’s what they don’t tell you. I thought it was just skill, but it’s more than that. You have to believe that nothing bad will happen or else how could you do it?”
I knew he was thinking about the accident and I didn’t know what to say. I waited anxiously for the right words to come, something that could ease his mind, but all I experienced was my own anxiety at falling short. The prolonged silence sounded like judgment.
“I’m considering a new profession,” he said hurriedly. “Gentleman Freeloader. It has a nice ring. I’d also consider Vagabond. ” Colin pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and smoothed it against his knee. It was a print of Mom’s new face wearing computer-generated make-up, and hair longer than she’d had in years. Colin set the red bottle in the middle of the picture. It looked like a large clown nose.
“What would it be like to have a new face?” I asked.
“What’s it like to throw out your old one?” Colin kicked at a pile of debris and then reached for a radio shell. There was a crack on the back and some missing veneer.
“She just wants to feel better about who she is,” I said.
“That’s a crock.”
“I don’t think so.” The alcohol was warming me, relaxing me from the inside. “Maybe she wants to be somebody else.”
“It’s vain,” he said. “Lots of people die from plastic surgery.”
I gulped at my drink and leafed through the suitcase of greeting cards. I wouldn’t think about it.
“I remember you used to keep that under your bed.” Colin motioned with his chin. “I always thought it was weird.”
“Because they’re not worth saving. They don’t mean anything.” He picked up a pile and flipped through them. “Except for the signature, they’re all machine.”
“But maybe that’s all she had.”
“The lady from the estate sale.”
“Don’t remember.” He lay back on the carpet and drummed his fingers. “You should just throw them out.”
Colin was right. They were cheap, impersonal sentiments but that woman had cherished them as if they were the real things. I retied the ribbon around a packet of cards.
Upstairs, in the kitchen there was a loud crash. Terry’s voice rose above the rest but I couldn’t make it out. The noise pushed me to my feet.
“Just leave it,” said Colin.
“No, I should go check.”
The kitchen reeked of rum. Terry was throwing towels onto a wet spot on the floor. “We need to serve the pudding in ten minutes!” She waved a towel at a tuxedo man. There was a red stain along one side. “Where’s the other bottle?”
“I checked the pantry, there’s no more.” He showed his empty hands, palms up. “But we can use whisky. There’s lots of whisky and gin.”
“Mrs. Pritchard didn’t spend all this money to have a wino-pudding.” Terry said. “It’s Christmas for Christ-sake!”
“I’ll go to the store.”
“Honey, you don’t have to do that.” Terry said, and then noticed her hand was bleeding. “Oh, fucking hell.” She threw the towel on the counter. “That’s perfect.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in ten.” I was suddenly eager to go, to escape the house. I grabbed Mom’s coat off the rack and her keys out of the key dish.
Outside, in the driveway, Mom’s car was blocked by a big sedan. I went back inside and took Colin’s keys instead. His license was suspended for a year after the accident and on the day it was reinstated, he bought himself a Honda.
I edged my way along the icy pavement, sliding my feet a little bit at a time. The sudden silence was a blessing and I paused to look down on the neighborhood. The houses were black dots on the luminous snow. At the bottom of the driveway I inched towards Colin’s Honda and pressed the unlock button. Nothing. I stood back and pressed it again. Farther down the road I heard the answering beep. I looked at the key – it had three interlocking rings on the front. I kept my feet close to the ground and my hand on the metal skeletons of the cars for balance. Only family put their keys in the dish. No one else knew about it.
It was Peter’s car. I opened the door and sat in the driver’s side. The leather was slippery and the dash looked oiled. The car started easily. The radio was tuned to a classical station and I imagined Peter and Samantha listening, side by side. I turned it off. I considered trekking up the hill to find Colin’s keys, but there wasn’t any time and I didn’t want to bother.
I pulled out of the neighborhood and onto the main road. The car felt eager for a good run and I sank my foot into the gas pedal, watching the speedometer climb. The road was empty and the cab was quiet inside, completely still in the onslaught of scenery and motion. I had a conversation once with a girl who wanted to know what it felt like to be me. I told her it was like driving with the hand brake on, and I imagined as I drove that this is what it felt like to be her, like everyone else, full of dizzy movement.
I slowed at a red light, then stalled. I tried to turn the heat down but couldn’t figure it out, so I wrestled to take my coat off. Next to me a young boy was in the left turning lane, nodding his head in time to music. The light turned green and we both pulled out. His turn signal was on and but he swerved in front of me, cutting me off. Motherfucker! I tapped the brake, trying not to overreact. My hands had an iron grip on the wheel, the knuckles stood out like pale stones. A set of yellow eyes flashed in the road. A little creature was darting to safety; there was nothing to fear now, but my body didn’t know. My arms locked out, jerking the wheel to one side. The car jumped onto the shoulder and then up onto the grass. There was a noise like a rusty hinge opening and then the car slowed to a stop. I thought I had turned the radio off but I had just turned it down. The faint hum of a symphony seemed to come from far away in the night.
“Okay,” I said and listened to my own shuddering breath. I tapped the brake. Behind me, in the red-lit world, there was a telephone pole with a gouge on one side.
My legs were rubbery as I stepped out of the car. I leaned on the hood for balance. I didn’t want to call the police. I didn’t want to drag this into the world of the real and unchangeable. I summoned my courage and looked. The passenger-side headlight was shattered and there were long scrapes down the side of the car, like tears blown out of an empty socket. Other than that it appeared okay; the wheel wasn’t blocked. I told myself, it was better than I expected. I pressed my hands against the hood until they stung with cold. Up ahead there was a small produce stand, shuttered for the winter and behind that was a plowed field made corduroy by the snow in the troughs.
“It’s not my fault,” I said. The accident had taken no time at all, a breath. Already the memory of what happened seemed like a knot in my mind, a hiccup, something I should be able to undo.
“It’s not my fault.” I kicked the wheel of the car and the force knocked me onto the pavement. I felt betrayed as I lay there waiting for the strength to get up. It was the locked out muscles in my arms, the flawed strands of DNA, not me. We were separate. A light snow was starting to fall, flurries melted onto my face. If they knew, if Mom or Peter or Samantha found out, they would look at me the way they looked at Colin. No, it would be worse. There would be pity.
When I was fifteen, Colin drove me to Tennessee to see the fainting goats. They had Myotonia as well, and when they were scared their legs locked out like tent poles and they fell over. People called it a faint. They were bred for meat and bait for tourists. Colin had written to the farm asking for a brochure and I read it out loud in the car.
“It says here that they were used in sheep herds to protect the sheep.” We were driving west on the 81. Colin had his arm dangling out the window. He wanted to buy me a fainting goat for my birthday and already had built a pen in the backyard, rickety and lopsided. Mom said if we brought back a goat she’d eat it, but she was generally afraid of animals. “When a predator attacked the herd,” I read, “the Famous Tennessee Fainting Goat, trademark, would ‘faint,’ giving the sheep a chance to run away. They provided an easy meal and incentive for a predator not to give chase.” I threw the brochure to the floor. “Well, that’s fucking great. Happy birthday.”
“Oh, come on,” Colin said. “Everybody loves a free meal.” He fiddled with the radio, drawing up static until he turned it off and started to sing. “I’m looking over my dead goat Rover, That I over-ran with the mower. First leg is missing, the second is gone. Third leg is scattered all over the lawn.” Colin looked at me. “Underwater style!” he said. He put his finger to his lips and warbled.
We drove through the night to Tennessee. I slept with my head on the armrest and then I drove while Colin slept. I had driven a few times before but never on the highway, and I was alarmed at how much driving a car felt like someone else was driving. I sat in the seat holding the wheel, holding myself still while the car raced. The night was a tunnel. Signs appeared and were gone, just flashes of color. Other cars had a bubble of light around them and they seemed to float towards me and then away. I slapped my face to stay awake, pinched my arm and felt my body asleep under the skin.
We got breakfast at a truck stop. The sun was a pink smear in the sky and we gobbled doughnuts and coffee in a parking lot flanked by cornfields. “I’ll miss this part of the country,” Colin said. He was headed north for college at the end of the summer. His date of departure loomed in my mind. “You should take my room. It’s bigger and Mom will just use it as a closet otherwise.”
“Okay,” I said, knowing I would never be the one to pluck his posters off the wall.
“But now you’ll have the goat to look after. He’ll keep you company. You can faint together and the neighbors can wonder what you’re up to.”
I examined our reflections in the plate glass of the truck stop window. “Do you think we look alike? We both have the same nose, everybody says so.” I touched the distinctive bump on the bridge.
He smiled. “Mom’s always apologizing for the nose.”
“She says it’s a man’s nose.”
“Lucky for me,” he said.
“I think we look more alike than Sam. I mean, who does she resemble with her black hair and pale skin?”
Colin shrugged. “Loretta Lynn?”
“She’s prettier than either of us, but she doesn’t look like Mom or any of the aunts.”
He laughed. “You’re just mad about the nose.”
“What would you think if she wasn’t our sister?”
“Oh, come on.” He crumpled his coffee cup and threw it into the car.
“What if she was just a half-sister?”
“Are you getting cranky? Do you need some ice cream?”
One day he would realize that Myotonia was genetic and nobody in our family had it. One day it would occur to him that I was an interloper from another gene pool and I wanted to hear that it didn’t matter — that nothing would change. I wanted all their love, even if I was only entitled to half.
We got to the farm around noon. There was a big sign over the entrance. It read: “Tennessee Fainting Goats, Come and See the Legend!” and then another sign: “Flea Market Today!” The parking lot was full, so Colin parked on the grass. Tables ringed one side of the barn, stretching out into the lawn. A van sold ice cream and another table sold popcorn and soda. Balloons were tied to the fence posts and heat distorted the air like the plastic curtain that hung around my desk years ago.
“Maybe we can come back later,” I said.
“Hell, no. Today’s the day.” Colin yanked off his seatbelt and opened the door. “Let’s go pick one out.” I sat in the car, feeling the air conditioning suck out the door into the heat.
“I don’t know,” I said. I was tensing and I rubbed the top of my legs. “Don’t let me get knocked down.”
“For Christ-sake, you’ll be fine.” Colin walked around to the passenger side and opened my door. “I won’t let anything happen,” he said. He scooped me up and set me on my feet. “There,” he said. “Feel better?” I didn’t, but I walked with him towards the entrance.
“That gets you into everything,” the cashier said and stamped our hands. “Goats, gifts and grub.”
Colin smiled. “I bet you’ve never said that before.” The man didn’t smile back. We walked past the flea market to the goat pens. Everywhere there were children with balloons tied to their arms and flowers painted on their cheeks. People fanned themselves with paper plates.
“Where are the babies?” I said and peered over the fence at two large spotted goats standing on the other side of the pen.
“They bring them out at noon.” A woman in a yellow dress stood behind us. She held a small battery-operated fan up to her sweaty neck. “The young ones are better fainters.”
“I want to see a goat!” a little boy shrieked. I stepped closer to Colin. This was definitely a crowd.
“You wait here,” Colin said. “I’m going to find the owner.” He walked away with a roll of money in his hand. I wrapped my arm around the fence post, leaning into the solid wood. All up and down the fence arms dangled over like tentacles, waiving carrots or hay. One child waved a drumstick of cotton candy. The goats wisely stayed away. They seemed calm. Perhaps the ones in the field were just normal goats. I shaded my eyes against the sun, which pressed heavily on my neck and shoulders. A voice echoed out over the farm.
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” There was a loudspeaker nailed to the side of the barn and it fed back an insect whine. “The moment you have been waiting for! The one, the only, Tennessee Fainting Goats!” Music played and the crowd pressed forward, though there was still nothing to see. “Please do not throw anything into the pen. Please do not shout or wave your hands.” As if on queue, people began to shout and wave their hands. A boy my age pushed his way next the fence.
“I don’t see them,” he said to no one in particular. “I don’t see them.” There was movement behind me. I reached out to steady myself but there was a quick pain in my side. It was nothing to worry about, I knew that, but my body didn’t and I was already falling backwards. A woman in a yellow dress grabbed me under the arms. but I was too heavy and slid to the ground.
Someone started yelling for people to get back and give me some air. I could feel the dirt on my face. My mouth was touching the ground. My leg was bent as if it was still propped on the bottom rail and the contracted muscle of my thigh looked like an ugly hock of ham. If only someone would throw a blanket over me, I could hide my legs and then I would close my eyes and pretend it was a real faint. It would be so lady-like in the heat and afterwards it would be a joke. The woman in the yellow dress leaned over and the plastic blades of her fan hovered like an angry bee at the end of my nose.
“Give her space! Give her space!” A big man in a tank top grabbed me and hauled me to my feet and through the crowd. He sat me down in the shade of the ice cream van and held a glass of water to my lips. “Are your people here?” he asked. “Where are your people?” I shook my head. Across from us a woman was making cotton candy, spinning the paper cone inside the metal pot. Pink tentacles of sugar wrapped around her arms and reached up into her hair like wispy strands of refrigerator mold.
As soon as the man turned for help, I ran to the car and lay across the front seat. The air was thick and smelled of molten upholstery. I saw the brochure crumpled on the floor where I had thrown it.
“Hey.” Colin pounded on the window and I sat up. He was holding a small speckled goat in his arms, all skin and bones. It looked at me without blinking. “What do you think of this one?” I pressed my hand against the glass and Colin shifted his weight. “Open the door.” He had left the keys in the car.
I rolled down the window. “What’s his name?”
Colin looked to a man standing behind him. “Rufus,” said the man. “That one’s Rufus and this one’s Star.” The man held another goat, black with black eyes.
“But Rufus is more playful,” Colin dandled him. “Isn’t that right?” he said to the goat. “You’re a better fainter.”
I looked at their small droopy faces suspended in the window frame, waiting for me to choose. They were just babies who would do what they were told, packed up and sent off at my discretion. Curiosities bred for the curious. I shook my head.
“Trust me,” Colin said. “These are the two cutest ones.”
“I don’t want one.”
“Pick one,” He said, and when I did not, he passed his goat back to the man and reached inside to open the door.
“I don’t want one now.”
“Just come out here and play with them.”
“I can’t.” I put on my seat belt and looked at Colin, daring him to make me. His jaw squared.
“Get out of the car, Ellie.”
“Give us a minute,” Colin said to the man and he walked away with a goat under each arm. Colin squatted next to the door and spoke in a low voice. “What is wrong with you?”
“Too many people,” I said.
“We’re here, Ellie. We drove twenty hours and now, we’re here. You can’t change your mind.” Colin ran a hand through his hair.
“And what happens when I go away to college? I can’t take a goat with me. I’d have to sell it.”
“If you didn’t want one, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I didn’t know until now.” I fumbled with my seat belt, but stopped when I saw how irritated he was. “You left me in a crowd. You know I don’t like to be in crowds!”
“It’s all in your mind, Ellie. You’re so afraid of falling, you make it happen.” He turned and walked to the driver’s side. He slammed the door and started the car.
“You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know—”
He grabbed my arm. “You won’t let anything be good,” he said. “You’re set on being unhappy!” He let go and pulled out of the lot, scattering several people as he went. On my arm there was a red imprint of his hand. For a moment I saw the predator in him looking for an easy target.
Mom was waiting for us when we arrived at the house in Virginia. “I reported the car stolen,” she said. “You’re lucky you’re not in jail, mister.” And then she started crying.
“We told you where we were going,” said Colin. “You said it was okay.”
“I thought you were making it up. I mean we can’t even catch a cold from a dog — so why would Ellie have the same disease as a goat?”
“But I gave you a brochure.” They argued for a few minutes and I felt relieved to be out of the car, away from Colin, who was so clearly irritated with me. Our return trip had lacked all the adventure of our journey the day before.
“So where is the goat?” Mom asked. “My God, is he in the trunk?”
I shook my head. I grabbed her hand and whispered, “I am the goat.” But I said it softly so she wouldn’t hear.
“What?” she asked. “Who’s wearing a coat?”
* * *
The ABC was brightly lit and I set the rum bottle on the counter, in front of the clerk. “We’re having plum pudding.” I said. “It’s a family tradition. We have it every year.”
“ID,” said the clerk. He had thin, stubbly cheeks and a beaten look about him. I held out my ID, fake but trusty. I was sweating underneath my coat, leaning on the counter for balance. Through the window Peter’s car watched me with its one empty eye.
“Do you have a Christmas tradition?” I asked.
He typed in my license number. “I’m Jewish.”
“But you can still eat pudding,” I said. He handed me a brown bag.
I drove back to the house. The snow was coming down harder and there was a concrete square where Peter’s car had been, filling up with dusty white. I parked the car and stood in the road looking at it. The passenger side faced the street. Peter would see the damage immediately. My heart raced and there was a funny taste in my mouth. I held the rum bottle in the crook of my arm like a doll. I had to get the keys back into the bowl. I started up the driveway and then stopped. I should tell Peter but he might call the police. I wasn’t drunk. I was fairly sure. I took a few steps towards the house and then back down the driveway, uncertain what to do. Terry might not remember that I’d left.
I heard singing as I approached the house. Through the dining room window I saw a whoosh of flame before the backs of people crowded out my view. Voices sang, “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” Rising and falling, the familiar words were dulled and distant. They had served the pudding without me. I set the bottle of rum in the snow. It was just a stupid tradition. Fig pudding tasted horrible anyway. Mom usually rounded us all up and made us stand in a line, there were always pictures taken, toasts made. How could they have lit it without me? Suddenly I felt exquisitely homesick. The bright house, the candles in the window, it was all so familiar and so oddly sacred. I though of the last summer Colin lived at home, the last time we were all together. I didn’t know how precious that time was, how irreplaceable. An icy gust of wind reached through my coat and stung me. My skin pulled tight across my face.
I fumbled with the iron gate that led into the backyard. It was an unblemished blanket of white. I walked to a small shed and pushed open the door. Wood from the old goat pen was stacked in one corner. Boxes of old tools, rags and bicycle parts. Moonlight shone through a window and silvered the fronts of glass canning jars. Trash was piled on the floor like in the basement, which meant that Mom had been sorting in here, too. I found a hammer and screwdriver and slipped them in my pocket.
I hurried down the driveway to Colin’s Honda and stood on the driver’s side. It was opposite the house, facing away from the party, out of plain sight. I took the edge of my coat and placed it over the headlight and then hit it with the hammer. Three times and it broke. I placed the pieces on the sidewalk and hammered the blinker light as well. Then I knelt over the pieces and split the larger ones, using the screwdriver as a chisel. There was a snapping sound to my right and I tensed, looking for the source of the noise but I was alone. It was just a night sound. My breath shimmered in a cloud, like a pillow between me and the world. This wasn’t my fault.
I scattered the debris around Peter’s car. The red plastic wasn’t an exact match but I sprinkled a little snow to hide the pattern. A hit and run. If Peter left the party late he would assume that some drunken guest had smashed into his car. The street was narrow, it would be an easy conclusion and insurance would pay. In my mind I was already explaining myself to Colin. I’ll pay you back for everything, I thought. Just don’t tell.
I put Peter’s keys in the kitchen bowl. The kitchen was deserted, a mess of empty trays and serving dishes. Silverware soaked in a plastic tub and an army of Champagne glasses stood at attention on the table, many with lipstick kisses. I washed my hands and pressed a hot towel to my eyes. In the black window above the sink I saw myself reflected, the same old face, except transparent.
I checked for Colin in the basement first and then walked the ground floor. Guests were leaving and the waiters circled the house picking up trash and empty plates. I mumbled a few good-byes but I felt conspicuous and kept my eyes low. The muscles in my back jumped continuously, the trapezius, the rhomboids, the teres major and minor. I knew them all by name.
“Hey, Ellie, you leaving too?” Peter bumped into me in the hall. His cheeks were flushed and he was smiling.
“Not yet.” I’d forgotten I was still wearing a coat. Little red beads of plastic stuck to the hem like drops of blood. “Why don’t you guys stay a little longer?”
“We could sit and have a drink.”
“Some other time.” He gave me a quick hug. I was trembling.
I found Colin standing at the top of the stairs, cornered by a neighbor. “Colin,” I said. The hall was crowded with departures and there was no way I’d waddle up the stairs in front of all these people. “Colin.” There was too much noise. I crumpled a napkin to throw at him but that was ridiculous. He would be down in a minute. Don’t tell, I kept thinking the words, practicing them in my mind.
I walked into the dinning room and picked at the food — keeping an eye on the hallway. The pudding was half eaten and rolled on its side like a piece of deflated football. On the sideboard there was a Polaroid of Mom standing behind the blue pudding flame, her head floated above it. I touched the bump on my nose and wondered if it would be the last picture of her with the face I knew, the one I shared. It filled me with the compulsion to take more pictures but then, no matter how many I took, there was always going to be a last one.