Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

VSR Digital Archive

In St. Elizabeth Hospital, Room 589

Mom sits on the left edge of Aunt Daisy’s cot. I’ve scooched a synthetic-leather recliner close to the opposite side. Uncle George lolls on a vinyl couch a few feet away. A mounted TV screen displays nature scenes on endless loop: Sprawling meadow of lavender and Georgedelions––Spotted deer with leaf-shaped ears––Sunlit lake––Barren pine trees in hazy forest… Quiet classical music flows through a ceiling speaker, and dim lighting casts shadows on the walls’ soothing seafoam paint. We’re on the fifth floor of St. Elizabeth Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Aunt Daisy lies in the bed at the head of the room. Her arms peek out from underneath crinkly white blankets. Daisy’s emaciated limbs are pasty, save for blue-magenta-maroon coin-sized splotches across her forearms. The insides of Daisy’s elbows are blood-blistered. So are the backs of her hands. I want to gag when I think of IV-needle-after-IV-needle nestled under her veins, until they begin to swell, form bruised blotches. 

There’s no IV in Daisy now. She’s hooked up to heart monitors. She’s wearing pasty circular patches on her chest. There’s one above her right breast and one above her left. But there’s no IV. 

The doctors are giving up. It’s only humane.

Mom strokes her big sister’s hair with a fine-tooth plastic comb, restoring aesthetic order to the wispy black strands that spiked in all directions. Daisy and Mom share the same hair. Thin. Wispy. Feather-like. Dark. Onyx. The same. I’ve never noticed before.

Mom asks Daisy, “Why were you upset this morning?” 

Daisys says, “All of it…the people…the…the group…man…Them…six o’clock of it…didn’t like…ffff.” 

The TV scene changes to crimson and amber leaves scattered across an empty, tree-lined path. Now it’s fall. Just like outside, in the real world, where the month is late October. 

Daisy giggles, says “Ka-pow!” Punches the air, then frowns and shakes her head.

Mom finger-combs Daisy’s bangs, smooths them out, parts them with her thumb and index finger, then pushes them back together again. “Daisy, do you not like some of the help here? Is that it? The male nursing assistant…You don’t like him?” 

Aunt Daisy claps four times, rolls her eyes, frowns again. “The men! Six o’clock of it! And orange!”

Mom nods. “Right, you don’t like the male employees. Some of the help here is bad, I know.” 

Mom stops combing and settles her hand on Daisy’s forehead. An image of foamy, white water crashing on coastline flashes across the screen. Beach time. 

George slaps his right leg. His shirt is magenta, the same shade as the bruise in the center of Daisy’s left hand. “Now Angie, that’s just not true! The help here is excellent, right, Daisy? Angie, I don’t know why you put ideas like that in Daisy’s head.” 

Daisy flicks the air. Giggles. Her cracked, anemic lips turn upward into a grin. Mom grins back, says, “I like it when you smile.” 

George claps his wrinkled hands together. “I see her smile every morning when I walk in. I say, ‘hello, dear,’ then she smiles a big smile––I love to see that smile––Then I smile, and then we’re all smiling and happy.” 

The nature scene shifts to a snow-capped mountain. Welcome to winter.

Daisy reaches up toward her forehead, where Mom’s hand rests, and grabs the diamond on Mom’s finger. Mom lets Daisy cling to the ring. “That’s my wedding band. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Very shiny.”

George smooths his khakis, strokes his protruding belly and says, “So happy. We’re just so happy to see each other! We eat lunch and breakfast together every day. Yes, we enjoy two meals, and we talk. We have conversations.” He pats the thick paperback on his lap. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. “Daisy really understands much more than everyone thinks she does.” 

Daisy inhales. The noise is raspy. She coughs and coughs, hacking into the open air. Her sallow skin momentarily fills with crimson color. She releases Mom’s ring and says, “And it all was…and it all was not…and they…yes! Wonderful!” 

Mom tucks a flyaway hair behind Daisy’s ear.

George clicks the heels of his oxford lace-ups. 

The screen changes again. Back to the meadow. A repeat picture. Endless cycle.

Daisy closes her eyes.

George reclines on the couch. “Angie, aren’t these nature scenes lovely? You can get ones just like them on your television at home. All you need to do is––”

Mom leans over Daisy, toward George. “You need to put her on ‘do-not-resuscitate.’”

“Now Angie, Daisy and I talked it over just this morning––Daisy really can communicate a great deal––and we concluded that Daisy should remain on ‘code blue.’ Our medical decisions are between us, as a couple. They’re personal. Stay out of this, Angie.” 

“Daisy needs to be on ‘do not resuscitate.’ She has 20% of her heart functioning left, and she weighs 100 pounds, maybe less. If the doctors perform CPR, they’ll break every one of her ribs. They’ll kill her. When her heart stops, we just need to accept––”

“Angie, if you want these scenes on your home television, all you need to do is go to––”

A scream bursts from the neighboring room. Blaring. Shrill. Crackly.

Daisy’s eyes fly open. They’re deep brown. Just like Mom’s.

“Oh dear!”

George nods. “Yes, dear, someone screamed.” 

Daisy points to the television. “No. Deer!” 

George smacks the couch. Thwack. “Yes! It’s a deer on the screen! Very good, dear!”

Another scream. Raucous. Shrieky. Wild. 

Mom stands up. 

“It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going to help. I’m grabbing a nurse.”

George stands up, too.

“Now Angie, will you stop suggesting that the help here isn’t very good? I don’t know where you’re getting ideas like that, and I don’t know why you’re planting them in Daisy’s head. I’m sure the nurses have it all under control. Isn’t that right, dear?”

Daisy doesn’t respond. Her eyes are closed again.

Mom bends down and plants a kiss on Daisy’s bangs. “I’ll be right back, Daisy. You…you stay right here. Don’t go anywhere, now.”

George chuckles. Mom doesn’t.

The screen still displays a deer, gawking at us with its triangle head and round nose. The snout is dark, the same shade as Daisy and Mom’s hair. Light reflects through the deer’s leaf-shaped ears, which are pink, so pink. The deer stares us down.

Horse Girl

You are a horse girl. You have always been a horse girl. You collect figurines of horses, ceramic and delicate, that you wipe the dust off of every morning with a special cloth you stole from your mother’s eyeglass case. You dream of them, too, close your eyes and then you are riding a beautiful blonde mare, holding onto her mane as she gallops through fields of tall grass that just brush the bottoms of your bare feet.

You have never ridden a horse and this is the greatest tragedy of your young life. For your ten years, you have just wanted to be near one. To touch one. But horse riding is an expensive hobby, you are reminded again and again by your mother. She is tall and uniquely beautiful, with bright red glasses resting against her angular brow. Her hair is cut short and blunt, the ends tickling your nose when she kisses you goodnight. 

This morning, you wake up early. Keep your eyes shut for just one second longer. Try to remember the way the horse felt, hold onto the feeling of her mane in between your fingers. The wind in your hair. But it is too late. When you wake up, it is full and immediate, the way only a child can. You sit up, one of the stuffed horses you sleep with rolling off the side of the top bunk bed. You have a bunk bed, but no siblings. This is one of the things your parents don’t talk about.

You climb down the ladder in the dark, knowing the placement of the rungs by memory more than touch or sight. You retrieve your fallen horse, this one dark brown, named Chocolate Chip, and place him in his spot by your pillow. Then you set about your morning routine, the one that happens before your parents wake up and it’s time for breakfast and brushing teeth and getting dressed. The one that is yours alone. You take the cloth made for glasses out from your jewelry box where it’s hidden. Pick up the first figurine, the one on the far left. Start with her snout, then her ears. She is mid-jump, front legs raised elegantly in the air, her hind legs just ready to lift from their little ceramic stand. She is white, and gets dusty easily. Clean her gently, as your mother has warned you that ceramic is a fragile, breakable thing. You have a figurine for every birthday—you don’t know if you love horses because of them, or if they were gifted to you because of your love for horses. There are ten now, lining your dresser like a small battalion. Soon there will be an eleventh—your birthday is now exactly two weeks away. You hope, selfishly, to have your party at the stables in the park, even though you know you will have the same party as the year before. In your living room, and there will be cake, red velvet, your favorite, with cream cheese frosting. Last year, your father found a horse shaped out of marzipan to put in the middle, surrounded by the ten candles. The marzipan was like nothing you’d ever tasted, and you cried when you bit into the horse’s head, feeling, suddenly, remorseful.

You finish cleaning each of your horses before your mother can open your door, still in her nightgown and voice gummy with sleep. Without her red glasses, her face is softer, and she gives you a tender kiss on the head before telling you to stop playing and get to the breakfast table. You follow her down the narrow hallway of your apartment, and the wood feels cool on your bare feet. The sun is rising now, just outside your kitchen window. The warmth inches across the room as you eat your ketchupy scrambled eggs until the whole room glows golden. Your father reads funny headlines aloud from the morning paper, and your mother laughs.

You resent the clothes your mother picks out for you. You wish you were wearing tall leather riding boots and trousers, pressed and clean, but instead you put on your same old striped shirt with the hole in the elbow and your skirt that brushes against your shins and makes them itch. 

You ride to school on the subway with your father, who holds your hand when the car gets stuck between Carroll and Bergen, like it always does. You despise the underground rides, never enjoying the feeling of being trapped in the tunnels. You prefer to run places, to run down the sidewalk and leave your parents in your dust, feel the wind pushing back on your clothes as you pummel ever forward. 

When you get off the subway, climb the stairs two at a time and burst out onto the sun-drenched asphalt. It is one of the last warm days in autumn. Breathe in the smell of it, of the leaves still green and covered in morning dew. You are allowed to walk the one block from the subway stop to your school without your father. This is your time, take it. You skip, jump over the cracks in the concrete, savoring each moment outside in the world with no one to shepard you.

Go to your locker first—this is your new special place. You are in fifth grade now, middle school. You know it is a big deal, the freeing indepence of having your own locker still fresh. You have your own lock, red like your mother’s glasses, and a combination that is unique to you. Say it under your breath when you feel lonely, or small, and feel the power of it on your lips.

In Science class, Ms. Bennett tells everyone to pair up for a project on studying plants. Don’t be too obvious about who you want to be paired with—let your eyes glance around the room lazily, like you couldn’t care less about who your partner is. You do care, of course, truly not-caring is not something you’ve learned yet. Let your gaze settle on Samantha, with her long, blonde hair and freckled round cheeks. Do that thing with your mouth, a half smile, and raise your eyebrows just so, like, Well, I’m game if you are. And she smiles back, and nods, her ponytail flouncing up and down. The baby hairs that fray out catch the sunlight and look like threads of gold.

The whole class lines up at the door, in pairs, and Samantha hooks her arm around yours. This feels bigger than it is. You walk together like this, following the line leader and Ms. Bennett to Prospect Park, where you will study maple trees. Samantha suggested maple because of their sweet syrup, and you agree, because you would agree to anything she said, really. Once your class has made a base camp under the shade of a large oak tree at the edge of the Long Meadow, you are free to run off with Samantha in search of your own maple tree. If you run just a step behind her, you can watch her ponytail swing from side to side, and maybe she will turn around to call your name.

You lead her to a tree that’s far away from the rest of the class, next to the trail that runs around the park. Near the park’s stables. The leaves are still dense and green on the branches, and you reach to pluck one. You and Samantha sit in the grass and examine the veins of the flower-like leaf, trace its shape in your notebooks. Hold it up to the sun, see how it reveals itself to you.

Finish the assignment quickly so that you have time. You know what you have to do. You tell Samantha to wait a second, that you’re going to get water from the fountain just ahead on the trail. She hesitates at first, reminding you of the buddy system, how you are not meant to be out in the world alone, but reassure her that it’s okay. Tell her you will be right back.

Once you’re on the trail, it’s just a minute or so to the left and there they are. Girls, your age, older, younger, lead horses to and from the wooden stables, and you watch from your spot just out of sight. One girl, you guess maybe a year older than yourself, mounts a dappled brown mare and trots right by you, feet away. She is just down the trail when someone calls out to her, telling her to come back, she forgot her helmet. She dismounts, ties the horse to the fence lining the trail, and walks back the way she came. Watch her, the way she moves. How she holds her head up. Her leather boots, coming up to her knees, are impossibly smooth, gleaming in the afternoon light. Her trousers are stainless, khaki colored and beautiful, her crisp white button down tucked neatly into them. It is almost enough to have been so close to this girl, the one you so want to be, and you almost turn around to go back to Samantha and your maple tree.

But. The horse is tied just there, just a few feet away. Don’t hold back. Step closer, first cautiously. Hold yourself back from running to her, stroking her shiny coat. Horses scare easy— you know this. Try to steady your breath as you get closer. And then you are there, next to her, with her. Breath in. Keep the warm, earthy smell of her hair in your heart. Her eyes are nearly black, eyelashes long. Look into them. Remember the way they look, so human. 

And then you touch her. Run your hand down her long face, along the small patch of white hair that covers the bridge of her nose. She won’t even move. Don’t look away, either, hold her gaze. Her hair is rougher than you expect—nothing like a cat or dog—course and strong rather than soft. This feels right to you, the way a horse should feel.

Again, this is almost enough. Almost. But no one is around. The saddle is there, already on. You don’t know when you’ll have this opportunity again. Release her reins from around the fence post. 

You realize, as you swing your leg over the saddle, that mounting a horse is intuitive. Anyone can do this. You feel her breath, her huge ribcage expanding and retracting beneath you. She knows what to do before you tell her, her muscles rippling underneath her coat as she begins to first trot, then gallop down the trail. She gains speed so fast and you are terrified—force your eyes to stay open against the feeling of absolute fear that’s taken hold of you. The wind is unlike anything you have ever felt, whipping your hair around your face, making your eyes water. But it is good, so good. The fear, the wind. Her legs feel like extensions of your own, her body is yours now, too. Let go of the reins, lean down to ride her like the mare in your dreams. Take hold of her dark mane, press your nose into it, inhale as you are propelled forward.

You feel her neck move underneath you, something changing in the tendons under your hands. And then she is lifting off the ground, like your first ceramic figurine, front legs parting from the earth. You are lifting, too, from the saddle and into the air. And you are soaring. Realize that this is what you’ve been searching for this whole time, this rising, this feeling of flight.

The Man Called Sue

He walked up to the mic stand gingerly—he didn’t look like someone who did karaoke, and yet here he was. He didn’t belong in the beer-drenched hall, enclosed in an expensive navy blue suit, tie knotted just so under his Adam’s apple. But despite his buttoned-upness, his hair was overgrown and floppy—that of a young boy who refused to sit still in the barbershop chair. And so he climbed up there, pressed suit and wild hair, and picked his song. It took a long time, and an awkward silence filled the crowded room, a specific kind of silence that comes only with the absence of music in a karaoke bar. One where you can hear clearly the shifting of young people in their seats, their attention turning away from the stage and toward their phones.

And then his song started. Twangy, and slightly old-fashioned. Those who frequented this bar, on 2nd Avenue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, were used to synthesized Top 40s hits. But this was not that. A guitar, only, and the sound of a live audience.

The man (the boy?) started tapping his shiny, wing-tipped Oxford to the beat of the music. A little off-tempo. Bobbing his head dis-jointedly, just enough so that his hair flopped, almost comically, this way and that. The colored lights glinted off the disco ball and drifted across his lapel.

It was a Johnny Cash song. Almost all spoken dialogue. A little silly in its blatant Americana—all fist fights and lost fathers and booze. But the man had such an earnest look on his face that it made the song instantly, easily loved. And he did the voice, too, with a barstool-cowboy gruffness. A sheepish bravado. 

He slowly started to shed—first the jacket, thrown onto the sticky bar floor, and then the tie was loosened and the top buttons undone and the shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He came out of himself until his hair matched his clothes, like an overgrown altar boy eager to ditch church and get back to the neighborhood baseball game.

And then he was dancing. Holding the mic stand, dipping it like a dance partner that he loved dearly. His long-stiff limbs—you could tell he hadn’t moved like this in while—suddenly, awkwardly, beautifully free.

By the end he was panting, rosy-cheeked. The song ended, and he stood there, so different from when he first stepped onto the stage. The room was quiet for a moment. He nodded once, then moved from the spotlight. And then everyone, slowly, everyone clapped. And he smiled, quietly proud. And satisfied, so satisfied.

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