By Cindy Carlson
Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while.
Crazy Heart—Stephen Bruton, Gary Nicholson
Twice I’ve opened this old spiral-bound journal to the same page. The first time, a scrawled note at the top caught my eye: Someday write the Zooey story. This second opening seems no coincidence. Someday write the Zooey story, it demands. The rest of the page stretches blank, begging for details, the five words an opening, a fissure.
I can go sometimes years without thinking about you. Your story is packed so deep—wedged under layers of memory, sullen and silent—that barely a whisper escapes. But, as I stare at the empty sheet of paper, there you are on the day I left, sadness and confusion frozen on your face. And there I am, turning to go, as the clang of the iron door reverberates in the nape of my neck and shudders to the base of my spine.
The summer of 1971, when you dropped into our lives, is shrouded now in a blur of images. The morning we met Allen at the Holiday Inn. Barb and I, on breakfast shift, were used to big smiles and small tips from the nameless businessmen blowing through town.
“You won’t believe what just happened with the one-top by the window,” she whispered, pinching a strand of long brown curl that had escaped its leather clip, and tucking it behind her ear. It wasn’t the rolling papers that had startled her, but the fine leather wallet they dropped from, and the cuff-linked wrist that swooped across the table to retrieve them.
Then Allen that night at our dinner table in the big white house on New Hope’s Main Street. Collar loosened, sipping wine, gushing over Joan’s spaghetti sauce, he seemed a kindred spirit to three post-college roommates, half his age.
“You’ve got to meet the guys at the house,” he said, referring to the herd of young men up in Morristown he and his wife had befriended. “Especially Zooey.”
And then you were at our door. You stood, all six-plus feet of you—shy, fawn-faced—in tattered jeans, T-shirt, moccasins. Chestnut curls flopped over your forehead.
“I’m Zooey,” you said, as though that would explain how you were about to move in and turn our lives on end.
Viet Nam had made you skittish. You jumped—like Addie our German shepherd—at loud noises and sudden movement. Mostly you sat on the threadbare living room rug, stroking her head, every now and then scribbling and sketching in your dime-store notebook or getting up to change the record from Poco to Jesse Winchester. You didn’t say much about the war—whether you’d signed up or had an unlucky draft number, or how close you’d been to combat, or why you were already back. I never asked. Fresh from the heady days of campus protests, I was over the war by then, confused about what from my rebellious college experience might belong in this alien adult world.
The night you braided Joan’s waist-length strawberry-blonde hair, I felt a pinch in my chest, fearing you had picked her out of the three of us. The next morning a crinkled page of lined paper rested on the dining room table. The poem was simple, child-like: “Braiding Joan’s Hair.” Tactile and sweet, it could have been about petting Addie. Maybe you already had a girlfriend; still, I was relieved.
It’s not that I fell in love with you. You habituated yourself into my company, filling a void that stretched between my ambivalence about the future and my fear of not finding my place in it. By Labor Day, while Barb joined Joan with a “real” job as a social worker, I was still biking to the breakfast shift at the Holiday Inn. You were around, disappearing for weeks, then returning to sprawl across our living room floor. A cipher. A quandary. Intrigued by my candle-making hobby, you helped me design and cast dozens of them until we caught the kitchen stove on fire.
And when you suggested a road trip in your brother’s van to wring the last gold out of autumn and sell the candles along the way, I never saw the folly in it. Only the delicious grail of freedom. With rent paid and a month of tip money in an army-issue shoulder bag, I quit the Holiday Inn and we headed toward the on-ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike. You talked of money to be had once we reached your brother’s, but all he offered was a bare mattress in the back of a Volkswagen bus and a ride to wherever we wanted to go.
It’s not that I fell in love with you. You approached me timidly in the smoky haze of the bus floor and, by now, in full adult-avoidance free-fall, I surrendered my sensibility as we rumbled the back roads of New Jersey.
St. Elizabeth’s College, I think it was. A small crowd of the fringe set found us quickly, anxious to check out what was going on with the VW bus and the hippies. I should have known that someone can’t pull onto a campus and sell candles out of the back of a van. The $50 we pulled in before the security cops came was barely enough to reimburse your brother’s drive home. I’d like to think that, more times than not, I would have chosen to head back with him. Instead, I carry with me the memory of a bottomless shiver in the late autumn breeze as his taillights sped off down the highway.
I’m glad I didn’t fall in love with you. Instead, I could watch with some dispassion as your mood became manic in the upcoming days. We headed north for some reason I don’t remember. As the waning fall foliage painted a backdrop for a fog of free rides, diners and interstates, we found our way to my old friend’s back porch on Boston’s north shore. It was Halloween. You hatched a plan to confront the spirits by taking LSD on the beach. Nothing I could say would dissuade you; I had no clue how to intervene. I could only stand by and witness.
I may have cloaked that day and the journey home in the veil of amnesia. Perhaps it took only one ride; maybe the driver didn’t notice anything unusual. I must have managed to sleep. No details remain for me, only a sense of the gradual shredding of your grip on reality. By the time we reached New Hope, your eyes were wild and your words strung together in random syncopation.
Addie greeted us at the door wagging her tail.
“She. Is. The Devil!” you shrieked. “I must kill her.”
“It’s Addie,” I said, sliding between you and the dog. “She just wants you to pet her.” I mimicked a patting motion over her slender back as though explaining to a child, suddenly aware of every fiber in the air around me.
Something about the motion calmed you and I led you to the couch. I edged toward the stairs.
“You two get re-acquainted and I’ll be right back.” My voice was thin and too cheerful as I slinked up the stairs.
There was a phone in Joan’s room. I called Barb at work.
“We’re back. Zooey dropped acid on Halloween and freaked. You’ve got to come home. I don’t know what to do. He wants to kill the dog.”
“My God, that was two days ago. Try to keep him calm.” She hung up.
I stared at the receiver. Panic gripped deep in my core and swept to my throat. I choked for air. A voice in the back of my head whispered: this is what terror feels like.
“Dear God,” I prayed on the exhale.
“Zo,” I called, but no response. “How about a nice bath? You must be tired. I’ll get one started.” As the tub filled, I heard your footsteps on the stairs. Shit. What now? I hadn’t really thought this through.
You were agitated, fingers drumming on your thighs as you walked. “I need to go to the police station,” you announced.
I looked up, squinting to conceal the horror lines from my forehead. “What for?”
“My dad always said if I was in trouble, I should go to the police station.”
“Okay,” I said, and grabbed the edge of the sink to steady myself. “We’ll go right after your bath.” I helped you undress and you slid into the water. The drumming stopped.
I knelt by the side of the tub and stirred the bubbles. I had talked friends down from bad trips, but this felt seriously different.
“So,” I mustered the most normal voice I could, “do you know where you are?”
As though that was the usual answer to my question, you slipped under the suds.
“Hey, you down there.”
You popped to the surface, soap foam dripping from your nose and earlobes.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Nope.” Back under the bubbles.
A knock on the front door. I crashed down the steps. It was Allen. Oh-my-god, Allen. Tears. Hugs. Relief. Then Barb pulled up. Besides leaving a message for Allen at the Holiday Inn on the chance he was in town, Barb had phoned Joan at the drug clinic where she worked. Her advice was the state hospital in Trenton. The call had already been placed.
“Zooey,” I called up the stairs. “Time to go to the police station.”
Your energy surrounded me, prickly and feral, in the back seat of Allen’s car as we sped the night highway to the hospital. I took your hand and suggested we sing. You broke into a chorus of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” timid at first, then full-voiced as we all chimed in, repeating the same phrases over and over just to fill the hour-long darkness.
The night nurse at the admissions desk looked up, unruffled by the odd quartet coming through the door—Allen and Barb still in their suits, you and me tie-dyed and wrinkled after a week on the road. She rose to greet us, clutching a clipboard. Barb stepped forward with introductions. I stopped short, struck with the fear the nurse would ask me about your parents; I had no idea. She turned to you.
“We need some information before you come in, sir.” She wore a green cardigan over her medical blouse. Her shoulder-length hair, gray as her slacks, was pulled back with bobby-pins. Her pen was poised. “What is your name?”
“I am Jesus Christ.” A gravelly voice seemed to emanate from somewhere deep in your body. You stood straight and tall, eyes fixed past her face toward the next set of doors.
“Come right in,” she said.
I visited you once in the hospital, two months later. We sat in the spartan visitor’s room, an orderly at the door.
I didn’t tell you that the doctors couldn’t decide what to do with you except high doses of Thorazine. They knew nothing about LSD-induced psychosis; they called Joan and Barb for advice about drug trips. You were part of a new wave of cases.
I avoided saying I had left New Hope and moved back home, toying with the idea of grad school, maybe becoming a drug counselor.
I left out my nightmares, the month spent sitting in my old bedroom staring at blue walls, creating alternate endings, imagining the details I never knew about your life. Wondering what it takes for a mind to snap.
And I failed to mention I had no intention of returning. Or how sorry I was for leaving you there.
You started to take off your clothes; maybe you thought I was there for your bath. Just like that, the orderly swooped in to corral you through the back exit. I could almost taste the metal as the door clanged shut.
I never said good-bye.
When not traveling and birding with her husband, Cindy spends her time along the Chesapeake Bay. A winner of the Hampton Roads Writers contest for creative nonfiction, and a reader for Writer’s Block VA, her work has appeared in numerous online travel journals, The Quotable and The Wayfarer.