I replaced the nozzle of the gas pump and got back into my car.
“You sure this is what you want to do, Elsie?” I asked. I wanted to look her in the face when I said it, but for some reason I couldn’t, so I just stared through the windshield at the large red lettering that spelled out “QUICK MART” on the building in front of me.
“Yes.” I suppose I really didn’t expect her to say anything else, but I wasn’t above hoping that she’d change her mind last minute. I pulled out of the gas station and back onto the freeway.
The silence between us was unbearable. I think Elsie didn’t want to talk because she knew I’d ask about where she was going. I just didn’t know what else to say.
“Some music ok?” I asked Elsie.
I turned on the radio. A song was just ending.
“That was Relient K with ‘Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,’” said the DJ, “and up next we’ve got ‘Wish You Well’ by Thousand Foot Krutch.”
The soft guitar solo that opened the song filtered through the speakers, forcing my hands to unclench slightly. What a perfect song for right now.
“Sometimes love feels like pain
And sometimes I wonder if it’s all the same”
I first met Elsie about six and a half years ago as a freshman at Myron College, which kind of makes it an accident we met in the first place. I didn’t choose Myron, really. My parents chose it.
“We won’t pay for a school that’s not Christian,” they said. “If you want to go somewhere else, you’re more than welcome to, but you’re going to pay your own way.”
They knew that meant I wouldn’t be going anywhere they didn’t check off on. I guess I could have taken some loans and gotten by at a state school. But they were all huge, and I wanted somewhere a little smaller.
As it turned out, all my parents really cared about was that the school was Christian in name. Thankfully, they didn’t bother digging any deeper than that. Not that Myron was a bad place; simply that, when we visited, the tour guides mentioned that Methodists had founded the college, but now the school chapel was used for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim services every week, as well as being the meeting place for a number of other religious groups on campus.
So Myron satisfied my parents, and it seemed like I wouldn’t be too constrained there.
Moving in was a mess. There were people all over the place, toting boxes and bags, sweating slightly in the August heat. I had picked up my room key, and, thinking I knew exactly where I was going, I was laden with a suitcase, a duffel bag, and a backpack. My parents were both carrying boxes.
Turns out I didn’t know quite where I was going after all. We spent an arduous ten minutes trekking into the interior of the building looking for room 485 to no avail.
“Maybe we should head back to the lobby and ask someone,” suggested my mother.
“Maybe,” I said, and kept moving forward.
“You lost?” said a voice to my left.
Having located the odd numbers on the right side of the hall, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the doors on the left was open, with a girl standing in the threshold.
“Uh, I don’t think so. I think it’s just a little further down the hall.”
“You moving your sister in?”
“No, me. I don’t have a sister.”
“Then I think you’re lost,” she said with a smile. “This floor is all girls.”
“Oh. Well…ummm…you wouldn’t happen to know where the guy’s 400 wing is, would you?”
“Matter of fact, I do. Follow me, I’ll show you.”
She stepped out and led the way down the hall.
“So you’re a sophomore, right?” I asked.
She smiled. “Nope, I’m a freshman. I just made the same mistake in reverse already.” We both laughed. “I’m Elsie, by the way.”
A memorable way to meet someone, I suppose. I did remember her name after only that one meeting, whereas with most people it took me two or three times. But then again, you meet so many people the first few weeks of college that I didn’t immediately think anything of it other than, well that girl was nice. And cute.
But I kept running into Elsie.
When you first start college there are some people that you meet once and never see again the whole semester. Then there are some people that you see around enough to remember their names. Finally, there are people that you actually talk to, people you start to become friends with. Elsie was in that last group. For us, it was music that started us talking.
About a week after we first met, I was lounging in the dorm lobby between orientation meetings when Elsie walked and saw me. Or at least she saw my t-shirt, I suppose.
“You listen to Emery?” she asked, excitedly, pointing at the band’s name splashed across my chest.
“Yeah, I love ‘em.”
“They’re really good. Where’d you get the shirt?”
“I went to a concert this summer.”
“Oh, cool. Are they good live?
“They’re great. You like concerts?”
“Big time, but I don’t make it to very many. Home is small-town Oklahoma, so there’s not stuff close enough too often.”
“Hey, no way! I’m from Arkansas, right over the border. Where in Oklahoma?”
“Know where Checotah is? Well, I’m just east of there.”
“Wow, I could drive there within an hour.”
That’s how our friendship started, little conversations like that. They were the foundation for the ever increasing trust that we built with each other. While we still talked about music and other small things like that later on, we also branched into deeper subjects of, as Douglas Adams put it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Elsie’s favorite book), “life, the universe, and everything.” We became each other’s first line of defense against the insanity of the world. If I had a problem, I’d talk to Elsie about it. People asked us if we were dating from time to time, but it wasn’t ever like that with us. We were just really good friends. And that was fine. I don’t think I would have made it through college without Elsie.
Late February that year, Elsie started dating this guy named Brian. I knew Brian a little bit, well enough to say “hi” whenever we passed each other, though not much better. I suppose I got to know him a little more after he started dating Elsie, but even most of that was secondhand info. On the whole, Brian seemed like a mostly ok guy. Elsie seemed to enjoy being around him, so I was happy for her.
Honestly, though, I didn’t pay that much attention to Elsie and Brian’s relationship. I had other things on my mind at the time. I had other friends, I was focused on my classes, and I started writing for the Myron Herald, the campus newspaper. There wasn’t much room left for Elsie’s boyfriend.
That’s how things passed for pretty much the rest of that year. Elsie, understandably, hung out with Brian a lot, but I was happy that she made time for me, too. I just enjoyed being around her. There were times we’d sit up all night just wondering about what was coming in our lives. I’m sure Brian wasn’t a huge fan of us spending time together, but I guess Elsie put her foot down because the issue never came up between the two of us.
At the end of the year there was a semi-formal dance. It was an annual thing, and a pretty big deal. Elsie, of course, went with Brian. He asked her with a huge bouquet of tulips and a note that said something like, “These tulips are nice, but not nearly as nice as your two lips.” Kill me now. I mean, the guy couldn’t even write a little note without turning to a cheesy, clichéd line? Besides, he should have known that Elsie liked roses.
Most people were asking dates. I personally knew of at least five other guys who would have asked Elsie if she hadn’t been dating Brian. I think one of them went for it anyways. I didn’t have my eye on anyone in particular and didn’t really want to go to the trouble anyways, but I still decided to go. My roommate, Phil, didn’t have a date either, although it was more because he couldn’t find anyone who would go with him, so we went together to avoid the appearance of having no friends. He spent the whole week prior to the dance referring to me only as his “wingman.” Naturally, I tried to avoid him.
We got to the dance early, just as the band started playing, because Phil said he wanted to “scout out the single ladies.” There weren’t a lot of people there when we first arrived, but it filled in pretty quickly. A few people had started dancing when I saw Elsie come in. She was wearing this blue dress with the slightest green sheen to it, so that whenever she turned it caught the light. The low “V” of the top fell elegantly over her torso, and a silver necklace adorned her neck. Her long, black hair shimmered down her back. Damn, she was pretty. I must have been staring, because she caught my eye, smiled, and waved.
“You look great!” I said, walking over to her.
“Thanks! Not too shabby yourself. I like that shirt. See, Brian? I told you that you should’ve worn more than just a polo.”
I took notice of Brian for the first time. “Hey, Brian. How’ve you been?”
“Hey. Pretty good, pretty good.”
“You know Phil?” I motioned towards my roommate, who thus far had been standing awkwardly to the side, not saying anything and half looking away.
“Yeah, I think we’ve met before.” He shook Phil’s hand. Phil gave a little nod. I was pretty sure they hadn’t met before. “Well, fellas, I think Elsie and I have a little dancing to do. We’ll catch you later.” He steered her away.
Phil and I got some drinks and went and sat in some chairs on the edge of the room. He wanted to keep milling around, but I told him this was the best way to scout the girls.
“Yeah, you go walking around and you’ll miss some,” I said, “ ‘cause they’re walking around, too. Sit still and you don’t have to deal with picking through all the bodies and you can see ‘em all.”
So Phil agreed, although I think he was skeptical. His foot tapped to the beat of the music, and his eyes impatiently scanned back and forth. I tried to play it off, keeping a steady gaze towards the dancers. I saw Elsie and Brian out there. Elsie was twisting and moving like nobody’s business. For good reason, she was drawing some stares. They looked like they were having fun, so I was happy for Elsie.
I was content just sitting there, but after about ten minutes Phil got restless.
“This’ll never work.” He said. He got up and melted into the undulating crowd.
I was feeling weird that night. It wasn’t really that I was sick or tired or anything like that. I just didn’t quite feel myself. I spent most of the night just sitting there, sipping on punch. I wish I had seen Elsie more than the occasional glimpse of her dancing with Brian, but I think she had a good time. Towards the end I lost all sight of them. They must have left, I thought, and he didn’t even let Elsie say goodnight. Unoriginal little bastard is probably kissing those two lips right now.
My stomach turned over and I felt a pressure in my chest. I must’ve had too much punch, I thought. I’m making myself sick.
“Sometimes life is just like rain
‘Cause you never know when it’s gonna fall down on you”
Fall of our Senior year, Elsie was dating this guy named Greg. Greg was a couple years older than Elsie and me, but he lived in the city of Myron. Elsie had met him in a bar while she was out with “the girls” the previous semester.
Greg was an idiot, and I’m sure Elsie knew it. I knew Elsie could have done better, but she told me she was happy. The thing was, Greg wasn’t an explicitly bad guy. He drank, but not excessively. He worked a crappy job cooking for some run down restaurant in the bad part of town, but it got him enough money to keep up rent on his apartment, keep food on the table, and keep the cable TV coming in. I think that’s all he did after a day on his feet: flop down in the easy chair and zone out to SportsCenter. But again, there wasn’t anything inherently wrong about that.
I think he wasn’t really sure what to make of me, and I think maybe he didn’t like me that much because of it. That was fine, because that meant I didn’t feel bad about not liking him much either. Maybe he thought I was intruding on Elsie and him, but if that was the case he just didn’t take the time to try to understand me. I would’ve told him it wasn’t like that between me and Elsie.
Anyways, that fall a guy I worked with at the Herald gave me four tickets to see the minor league baseball team a town over from Myron the first Sunday of September. I invited Elsie, Greg, and this girl from the paper who I kind of knew. Her name was Lauren, and she was cute enough. I picked up Lauren at twelve-thirty, and we met Elsie and Greg at the ballpark by one. The tickets weren’t great: upper deck; but in a minor league stadium, even the upper deck isn’t that high. Besides, who am I to pass up free tickets? There was hardly a soul around up there, so even though our seats were about halfway up, we pretty much got to pick where we wanted to sit. We were down the third base line, so we were lucky enough to stay in the sun about as long as it lasted before the stormy-looking clouds that kept rolling in completely obscured all natural lighting. With the exception of the ever worsening sky, the first four innings passed rather uneventfully; both pitchers were hitting their spots, so there weren’t many base runners. I tried to engage Lauren in conversation, but my efforts were largely in vain. Lauren, it turned out, was a pretty dull girl.
Midway through the fifth Elsie and Greg went to go get some food. When they came back, they were arguing. I’m not exactly sure what about, but it seemed pretty serious. They quieted for a second when they sat down at first, but then Greg started to say something and Elsie excused them both. She pulled Greg to the next section over and they began to talk quite heatedly, although they never started yelling. I lost focus on the game, and, now that I think about it, I stopped paying attention to Lauren, too. I kept stealing glances at Elsie and Greg. It didn’t seem to be going well. Elsie was still sitting, but Greg had stood up and was waving his arms all over the place. He looked like a monkey.
After about an inning, Greg stormed off. Elsie stayed a section over and just sat forward in the seat, chin cradled in her hands. A little while later, she got up and walked out of the grandstand. I told Lauren I was going to get a hot dog and went after her. I caught up as she was headed down the stairs.
“Elsie, what’s going on?” I asked. “What were you and Greg arguing about?” She just shook her head and continued down the stairs. I tried again, “Come on Elsie, you know you can talk to me.”
“Greg’s being stupid. Don’t worry about it.”
I tried to reassure her. “I do worry. Come on, what’s wrong?” But she wouldn’t say anything else and just kept on walking. So I followed her. She walked down the stairs, out of the stadium, and out into the parking lot. As we walked past rows of cars, the rain that had been threatening finally started falling, quickly picking up into a heavy shower. She stopped at the base of an empty spot in front of a light post bearing the designation “Lot E Row 23.” I stepped up behind her.
“That’s where Greg parked. I’m sure of it. When we pulled up he said, ‘Good, the car’ll be easy to find when we leave.’” God, Greg’s a moron. Who the hell drives off without his girlfriend? I sure wouldn’t have done that to Elsie.
As I tried to comfort her, I saw her cheeks were wet. I’m not sure if she had been crying or if it was just the rain.
“You want to go back in to the game?” I asked.
“No. I guess I just want to go to bed right now.”
“You don’t want to try to talk to Greg.”
“Hell, no. And I hope that asshole doesn’t call and try to apologize either.” She sniffed, and her breath caught for a moment.
I walked Elsie to my car and drove her back to her apartment. She had been dating Greg for almost six months, but Elsie wasn’t about to put up with a stunt like that. Nonetheless, I could tell that it would probably bother her for a little while. I wished there was something more I could do. I offered to walk her up to her room, but she said no, thanked me for the ride, and gave me a hug good-night. I got back in my car and drove to my apartment. I had completely forgotten about Lauren.
“Sometimes faith feels like doubt
And sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever get out”
Elsie once told me that she used to be a Christian. That was how she said it, just out of the blue one day.
“I used to be a Christian, you know.”
I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I’d always been a Christian, though I guess that was mostly just because my parents were. I never gave much thought to it one way or the other. I just was. So how to respond to a statement like that?
“Yep. When I was a little kid.”
“Well, what are you now?”
“I don’t really know,” she said.
I don’t really know why that’s stuck with me, but it has. Maybe it’s because it has stuck with Elsie, even though I don’t think she knows it. If you were to have asked her at one point, she might have said she was Buddhist. A month before that, maybe agnostic. I’m not sure I’ve even kept track of all the different creeds Elsie has claimed to confess. During school, she went to about every conference, speaker, and service she could. It was like she was looking for something she could never quite apprehend. Talking about spirituality in its many forms became a hobby.
“I like this idea,” she’d say, or, if she didn’t like it, “Those people are idiots.” She found many more belief systems she didn’t like than things she actually agreed with for more than a few weeks. That was how it usually went: she’d wholeheartedly leap into an idea only to stick with it for a couple weeks before it, too, joined the “idiots” list.
Although I was happy enough to listen to her whenever she felt the need to talk through some new concept, her whole “Spirituality Quest,” as I came to think of it, was only something I watched her do from afar. My parents dragging me there was the only reason I went to church as a kid, and I just didn’t care to wade into any of that. I didn’t mind that Elsie did because fighting the energy she put into it would’ve just been stupid, and it never pulled her apart from me.
There was a while there just after college, however, that Elsie did drift away from me. In a way, it almost seemed normal. We had just finished college, and had no strict connection anymore. There were a bunch of college friends that I quickly and quietly parted ways with. But a lot of those were people I said “hi” to as we passed on the sidewalk. Now their sidewalk was halfway across the country. Elsie and I had become close. That hadn’t been my imagination. Even our sidewalks were kind of close. So why did I not hear from her for five months? She hadn’t even returned my calls.
After school, I had gotten lucky. An alumnus owned a marketing firm close to my hometown and had given me a decent job. I even had enough money to get an apartment in a pretty nice part of town. Work was interesting enough, and I was supporting myself.
I got back from work a little later than normal one night. In my apartment, my message machine was beeping. I tossed my coat on the couch, pressed the “play” button and began to rummage through the fridge. The first message was from my mother, telling me that she hadn’t heard from me in ages and I should call. The second was a reminder from my dentist that I had an appointment in two days. I had almost stopped paying attention when the third one started.
“Hey, it’s Elsie…umm….How’ve you been?”
By that point I was frozen. The voice which had suddenly gone silent five months prior washed over me.
“So, I know I haven’t kept up with you at all since graduation. Sorry. Umm…maybe we could catch up soon? Gimme a ring sometime.” She listed her number and the message clicked off.
I remember not knowing what to think. Half of me was tense with the anger of her not calling me, but the other half relaxed, soothed by finally hearing from Elsie again. I wondered what had happened to make her disappear and why she was reconnecting now. I didn’t sleep well that night. The next day I called her, and over a fairly short, awkward, and disjointed conversation we decided to meet for coffee that Saturday.
I was nervous. I stood around my apartment for 15 minutes, ready to leave long before I needed to. After convincing myself that traffic would be bad and I really should head on, I finally did go. I was still at the little restaurant we had agreed on nearly 10 minutes early.
But I guess maybe Elsie was a little nervous too. Walking in, I picked her out immediately. She was sitting at a table in the back corner taking a sip from a mug. Her hair was shorter than it had been at graduation, now falling just above her shoulders. I don’t remember walking back there, but suddenly I was standing before the table.
“Hi,” I said, dropping into the chair opposite Elsie.
“So, uh, when’d you get back in town?”
“Oh, about a week ago.”
“Move back in with your parents?”
“Yeah, but that’s only temporary. I’m looking for a place.”
“Good. You doing well?”
“Oh, please don’t do this, will you? Don’t you know I can see when you’re upset? Just ask me the real question already.”
I was taken aback. I hadn’t even realized it, but I guess I was so upset at Elsie that I wasn’t ready to deal with whatever it was that had happened. I just wanted Elsie back. But she was right: we needed to sort out whatever had happened first.
“Ok, fine. Where were you? Why did you stop talking to me?” I said it with more vehemence than I meant to.
Elsie sighed. “You remember at the end of school? There were a million flyers around for different causes, groups, the military, stuff like that.”
“Yeah. I don’t think I ever paid attention to any of ‘em. All the real stuff went through career services.”
“Well, good for you.” She grimaced. “I did.
“For some reason, God knows why, one of the flyers caught my eye. I grabbed it and held onto it through graduation. It was for a women’s temple of some Taoist sect. Anyways, you know how I was. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do once school was through. I lasted about a week at home before I realized I couldn’t stand sitting around under my parent’s scrutiny with nothing to show them for four years of tuition. So I decided I’d go sign up. I knew they’d never go for it, so I left them a note and snuck out the night I made up my mind.
“Ok. I guess I get that. Why didn’t you call me afterwards, though?” I managed to keep the anger out of my voice that time.
“One of the stipulations of acceptance into the temple was that we take a vow to cut ourselves off from all contact with the outside world. They said it would help us achieve Tao, which would make us come in line with the universe and give direction to our lives. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call you. I just couldn’t.”
“So why are you back here and talking to me now? Looking for more converts?” That made her laugh, which made me happy and broke the awkward, latent tension.
“No, no, I’m not going to try to convert you. In fact, I quit. I realized the whole thing was crap. After five months of sitting around in a temple, it came to me that instead of giving direction to my life, the whole thing was just making my life even more stagnant. We weren’t doing anything. I mean, half of what they were trying to teach us was this ‘action without action’ garbage. We weren’t doing anything!”
“So what now, Elsie?”
“Well, I guess as it turns out, I’m back at my parent’s house with nothing to show for their tuition money once again. There’s some irony for you.”
“Yeah, I guess so. But hey, life experience, right? And you’ve successfully debunked another religious system. That’s, what, two dozen that you can firmly mark off the list?”
She smiled. “Ha, ha.”
“No, really. You’ve gotta be close to something you can really believe in by now, huh?”
“Oh, hell. I don’t know. How am I supposed to know?” She got serious again. Her eyes sort of glazed over, and she stared into her mug. “How am I supposed to know what to believe? But there is something out there, right? There’s just gotta be. Where else would this feeling come from?”
“What feeling?” I said.
I immediately regretted saying anything. She gave herself a small shake and looked up again. “Oh, never mind. I forgot, you only put up with that stuff as a courtesy, and you certainly don’t owe me any courtesies today. But damn, it’s good to see you again.”
“Sometimes life hurts just like now
But you gotta know that it’s all gonna come back around”
Elsie lived with her parents for a few months before she found a cheap apartment not far from where I live. That’s where she’s been living ever since. She worked as a waitress for a while before getting hired by an advertising firm. She was low level, but at least she had a job where her income didn’t depend on how many hours she could work. I think even that little bit stability in her life was really important for her.
Ever since getting back from the Taoist temple, Elsie seemed just a little bit unstable. Not like she was going to crack up, nothing like that, but just that she always seemed a little off from who she was all through college. It was like she was constantly thinking about something else, and her brain was too preoccupied to put much work into her personality. Elsie was always on the extremes. Occasionally she would get super happy: running around joking, making good-natured fun of me, like how I couldn’t ever seem to find a girlfriend. I liked being around her when she was like that. The only problem was, it wasn’t quite her. Don’t get me wrong, Elsie’s a girl who knows how to have fun, but she seemed to be trying too hard, like she knew that’s what she was supposed to be doing rather than showing what she really felt.
The other end of the spectrum, however, showed up far too often. Elsie frequently appeared depressed and disinterested in what went on around her. She’d still go out, but she’d be tired and her mind seemed to be elsewhere. Perhaps the biggest change was that she hardly ever spoke more than a few words at a time anymore. Some of her local friends stopped calling her. I suppose they felt she was just dragging down their nights. Not me, though. I still liked being around her. If we just walked around the lake and didn’t say a word that was fine. At least I was there in case she did want to say something.
And one day out there, I think she did. We were walking around the lake on this gray, misty day that was cool to the verge of being cold. A gentle breeze was rustling the trees and sending ripples out over the water. Anywhere else, it would have been a crummy day, but being out there with Elsie on the path around the lake it seemed like an artist had painted the landscape perfectly just for us.
Walking had become a regular ritual for the two of us. The first couple of times we were out I had tried to make small talk. Maybe I was trying to talk enough for the both of us, but whatever I said only ever seemed empty. No matter how much I jabbered, Elsie never responded past a small nod to acknowledge that she had heard me, so I soon embraced the peacefulness of the silence. It was relaxing, and I had even grown to relish the quiet time.
So, as usual, we were out walking and not talking when Elsie slowed down. She turned to face me. Her eyes said that she was about to say something so I just remained silent and waited. She opened her mouth, but a shudder gripped her body. Turning to the side of the path, she bent over and after a couple of heaves began vomiting into the bushes.
“Elsie, why didn’t you tell me you were feeling sick? We didn’t have to go walking today.”
Standing up again, Elsie wiped her mouth on her sleeve and shrugged.
“I’ve felt fine all day,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been a little tired this week, but I haven’t felt sick.”
“The car’s only about a quarter-mile up the path. Let’s get you home and in bed.”
Elsie was ok the rest of the way to the car and didn’t throw up on the drive to her apartment, but she seemed shaken. When we got to Elsie’s apartment, I walked her up the stairs and sat her down on the couch. By then it was just past noon.
“Can I get you anything, Elsie?”
“Something to eat would be great, thanks.”
“You sure? You don’t want to make yourself throw up again.”
“I think I’ll be all right. Besides, I’m hungry. I just lost my breakfast, remember?” She gave me a weak smile.
“Ok. Let’s see…” I surveyed her pantry. “How about some chicken noodle soup?”
“Mhm, sounds good.”
I got out a pot and began heating up two cans of soup. Elsie got up and went into the bathroom.
“You alright in there?”
“Yeah, don’t worry. I’m not throwing up again, I just gotta pee.”
I went back to the soup. It didn’t take long. I had just set two bowls on the table when Elsie emerged from the bathroom.
“Lunch is served!” I said as cheerfully as possible in light of her pale, expressionless face. She didn’t say anything but tossed something small to me. I caught it.
It was a small, white stick with a little plus sign in the middle. A pregnancy test.
“Oh, Elsie,” I said. Now the throwing up in the park made sense.
Elsie might as well have tossed a grenade at me that day. I remember this part in the movie Letters from Iwo Jima where the Japanese soldiers defending the island were committing suicide before the Americans could kill them by holding live grenades to their chests. That was what it felt like.
“Elsie, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you won’t be mad. Say you’ll still stick by me.”
“Elsie you know that I’ll stick by you. I’m not mad at you; I’m here to help you work through this.” I handed the test back to her, trying not to let my hand shake. She clutched it to her chest. I pulled the pin, drew her close, and it rested against mine as well.
The ensuing days, weeks, and months were, I think, some of the toughest in Elsie’s life. When her parents found out, they went berserk. When she wouldn’t tell them who the father was, they stopped talking to her. I tried to get her to tell me, but my luck wasn’t any better. I suppose I tried to step into the void. Maybe that gave some people the wrong impression. Her parents, for example, whom I had always been on good terms with, turned their anger at their little girl toward me, even though Elsie explicitly told them that I was certainly not the father. I’ve never had that kind of relationship with Elsie.
I did as much as Elsie would let me do. Not that it was very much. Elsie took control of her pregnancy. She drove herself to every doctor’s appointment and wouldn’t let anyone else go with her. She was still working nine to five to keep up with her bills. I don’t know how she found the energy for it. I hear babies are supposed to tire their mothers out, but this one seemed to revitalize Elsie. Despite all of the trouble from friends and family, Elsie was more of herself then than she had been for ages before that. I was happy for her.
But I was still rocked to the core. I knew Elsie, and she didn’t go sleeping around. Hell, I didn’t really admit to myself that there was a chance she had slept with some of her past boyfriends. How did Elsie get pregnant, I kept asking myself. She didn’t even have a boyfriend when it happened. Did I miss something within the silence of our walks? Had I not been there for her enough?
One evening I was back at my apartment after work. It was about six months into Elsie’s pregnancy. I was eating dinner when my phone rang.
“Hey, it’s me,” Elsie’s voice greeted me.
“Could you come over for a bit? Please?” Her voice wavered slightly.
“Sure. I’ll be there in ten.”
Driving towards Elsie’s apartment, I wondered what it could be. Maybe she had tried to call her parents again. Mostly, they had just refused to pick up. She got away with using my phone once before it, too, apparently went onto the “ignore” list on their caller ID. A few times Elsie tried to bypass that barrier by calling from a pay phone only to run headfirst into another in the shouts of her mother.
When I got there, Elsie was sitting on the couch. One of the childcare books that she had bought secondhand lay on the coffee table in front of her. I sat down next to her.
“Been reading up? You’re going to be such a great mother.”
“No I’m not. I’m a horrible mother.”
“Awww nonsense, Elsie. You’re a great person, and you’re gonna be a fantastic mom.”
“No, I’m not. No, listen to me!” She stood up and shoved the book off of the coffee table. “I’m not going to be a mother.”
“What do you mean?” I felt frozen.
“I…I miscarried. I saw the doctor today because I couldn’t feel the baby move. It’s dead.” Tears began to fall down her cheeks.
I felt the grenade explode. “What was wrong?”
“They…um…they’re not exactly sure yet.”
“The doctor doesn’t have any idea?” I was incredulous.
Elsie started sobbing. I will forever remember her face at that moment. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed more emotion in a single instant before or since.
“I killed it,” she wailed. “It was me.”
“No, no, no, Elsie. This is not your fault.”
“Yes it is.” Her body still shook, but she regained enough control to talk. “Last week, I was sitting at home after trying to call my mom again. She never picked up in the 14 times I tried.” Another sob racked her breath. “I tried to call you, but I guess you were at work. I’ve been teetering on the edge of control for so long, and I just lost it. I literally went crazy.
“It started off slow. I was furious. Mad at the world. I know you’re not supposed to drink when you’re pregnant, but I did. I started taking shots. I don’t remember how much I had.” Wow, I thought. Elsie’s a bit of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. I didn’t have a clue where this was going, but I knew that a drunk, out of control Elsie did not sound good, never mind the fact that she was drinking while pregnant. “That didn’t help, though. I think it just made me madder. I started attacking everything around me. I kicked the door and threw the lamp across the room. And then…and then I started beating myself. I hit my head against the wall…and started punching my stomach. As hard as I could.” She broke down again.
I was stunned. I’d seen Elsie get heated before, but never anything like this. This broke all bounds of who Elsie was. I kept thinking, this has got to be a lie. Elsie would never do this.
She took a couple minutes to regain enough composure to speak. “Finally, I tired myself out so bad that after I threw myself against the wall I fell down and couldn’t get back up. Between crying and the alcohol, I passed out. It was probably only about five in the evening by the time I passed out, but I slept through till morning. The baby hasn’t moved since.” She fell silent apart from the occasional hitch in her breathing from crying. Utterly at a loss, all I could do was wrap my arms around her. I felt completely empty, completely worthless. I hadn’t been around for her call when she needed me the most. As I held her head to my shoulder, I closed my eyes and for the first time in far too long, I prayed.
“I wish you well, I wish you well
On this trip to find yourself”
Two months ago, Elsie had the operation to remove her child. Her parents even showed up to mourn with her. I guess that’s what a tragedy can do sometimes.
I’m pretty sure that I was the only one who heard the whole story from Elsie about how the miscarriage occurred. People don’t usually ask questions when you say “miscarriage.” I don’t think the doctors even knew everything.
It’s been a strange time for Elsie these past two months. She’s been understandably muted, but at the same time, she seems confident. The fun-loving but perpetually searching girl I met in college has been joined with a woman more introspective and assertive. The result is a mixture that’s undoubtedly still Elsie, but it’s a new Elsie.
And so I found myself driving to the airport. Four weeks ago, Elise decided she needed to get away. The memory of her unborn child haunted every step she took, she said. She needed some place where she could start over. I told her that place could be here, but she insisted.
“No. I need somewhere no one knows me at all. Somewhere I don’t have to conform to any expectations. Somewhere I can just take time to sort out my life.”
I told her I understood. I didn’t.
She didn’t tell anyone where she was going. All I knew was that she’d put most of her belongings in long-term storage.
We pulled into the airport and parked. I took her bags out of my trunk and helped her carry them in. She took care of her own ticketing. I was intentionally kept back far enough that I couldn’t hear her speak to the airline assistant. Remaining bag (she had checked the others) in her hand, we walked over to the security checkpoint. She turned towards me. I felt my throat swell.
We stared awkwardly at each other for a moment.
“Don’t go, Elsie.” My voice broke slightly when I said it.
She reached out and hugged me. I held on tight, and we stood there for a minute.
“Thank you,” she whispered in my ear.
Then she picked up her bag and walked through security. I stood there until I could no longer see her, then I walked back to my car. I sat inside not doing anything, as though I had forgotten how to drive.
I thought of Elsie and prayed she would be all right. I prayed that wherever it was she was going, she would be happy. I prayed that she’d find what she was looking for, because I knew that even as much as I loved her, neither I nor any other person on earth could give it to her.
“I wish you well, Wish I could help
But I can’t help you find yourself”