My fiancé strikes Gretchen’s name from our guest list. He shrugs declaring, “It is what it is.” I correct him: “It is what it’s become.” I tell him to add her name back. We’ve had this conversation before and I know my anger is illogical. He’s never eaten Italian ice with her on a picnic blanket peppered with sand or held her hand while jumping off a diving board.
He looks up, a tic he’s developed to keep from rolling his eyes, and says the thing he often says about Gretchen: “Some people are always crashing the same car.” This is his way of saying, “You can’t help her; don’t try.” I agree with him that some people are always crashing the same car, that in fact Gretchen has crashed her car twice—three times if you count the drive through bank incident—but I do not believe that she should be classified as some people. No matter how close he and I become he’ll never know Gretchen as a child. She will always be an unfortunate piece that came with my family package. He will never understand her singularity.
He hits the back arrow, correcting his mistake. “Whatever she ends up doing, it’s on you,” he says, half-joking, and I declare, half-joking, that any therapist would disagree with his statement of codependency. It will be different this time.
It’s fall and we’re at a playground in upstate New York. We are sitting on a carousel holding onto metal handrails. Rust eats into the colored paint. Each of us takes a turn grabbing a bar, running as fast as we can, and jumping on to spin. We do this until one of us says we are so dizzy we will throw up or our mothers tell us to stop.
Gretchen is oldest. She is wearing a striped turtleneck. Her hair is pulled into a braid on each side of her head; sharp dark bangs hover just above her eyebrows. She is smiling, unselfconsciously, proud of the window where her front teeth should be. Amy and I arrange ourselves on each side of her. She squints into the sunlight, her blonde ponytail giving up and falling out in pieces over her blue Tupper Lake sweatshirt. The pink barrettes on each side of my head are uneven. I’m wearing a maroon velour V-neck disaster. It’s hard to forgive this decade.
Our mothers are sisters. One of them has knelt down on a sea of brown oak leaves and pointed a Polaroid camera in our direction. Someone has written October 7, 1984 on the lower right corner of the photograph. It can’t be my mother. I don’t recognize the handwriting. The seven is crossed in the European style.
It’s difficult to rank the worst of Gretchen’s performances. So many are memorable—men slapped, glasses thrown, words launched like missiles from her small mouth. I’ve felt her disease.
It was fall: Amy and I drove to the Catskill Mountains to visit Gretchen for a girls’ weekend. She still had her children then. The sun sank behind the mountains and the Navigator struggled up the incline. We had been on the road for hours. As we sat idling at the top of the unpaved driveway everything seemed wrong: the house was too still, the windows were dark.
Gretchen met us at the door, sedated and dazed. In the background, her children bounced on furniture and kicked over half-played board games. We smelled the alcohol and felt the pills bleeding through her incoherent words. As we ate dinner, she drank. Behind the house, the flicker of a bonfire spat into the dusk across the lake.
The hours passed and her conversation slid from a love of everything and everyone to a hatred of a world that wronged her and a family that never treated her fairly. At every turn she saw conspiracy. Gretchen always viewed the world as a web of interconnected signs with her as its focal point, pushing her toward a decipherable destiny. The bird landing on her windowsill meant that she was the favored among us, that she was destined for great things. The streetlight dimmed as she skipped below because she willed the darkness. There were no lines for her, no boundaries. Everything blended together. The empty glass in her hand was the natural progression of a perpetually unquiet mind. Slowly she turned inward, her head resting on her folded arms, collapsing into silent pain.
The television drowned out her crying. A commercial came on with talking ducks, and she raised her eyebrows and smiled a smile that morphed into a small laugh revealing the dimple in the left corner of her mouth. In the flash of that second, we saw the face of an eight-year-old.
By midnight her children were passed out on the couch in their play clothes. Gretchen cried quietly. There was a finality to what she had become.
As a child, Gretchen loved secret plans: plans to make money, plans to acquire pets, plans to avoid the watchful eyes hovering over us. Most often, she would plan for us to wake up after our parents were asleep and slink out of the house to ice cream stands, toy stores or pettings zoos. She swore that all the places that we were allowed to visit sparingly were open twenty-four hours. She elected herself the waker: if one of us fell asleep, and the way we’d be awaken was a critical component of her plan. “I’ll tap you on the arm three times,” she’d say, “ and that’s how you’ll know it is me,” as if the threat of someone else waking us at midnight loomed large. None of her plans succeeded. For each of us the pull of sleep was always stronger than her ideas.
At night we held prayer contests to see who could come up with the best prayers, who was the most devout. Gretchen always won with her argument prayers. Fingers entwined on her chest she began her address to God with, “Here’s the thing…,” and went on to explain a situation in which she acted contrary to the directions of parents, teachers, or religious authorities but should not have been punished for doing so because what was in her heart was good and she was simply misunderstood. That was one of her best qualities, her ability to convince you that if you could just see things her way, there would be no reason to be angry with her because she meant you no harm.
We’re standing on the lawn after the reception. The sun is shining brightly. Gretchen’s dark hair is streaked with chunks of ashy blonde. On her left shoulder a handbag smeared with insignias hangs limply. She wears a tight black dress that hugs her tiny frame and large sunglasses that envelop her face. She always looks expensive.
I stare at her intently. At family gatherings, we used to appoint a Gretchen Minder to watch her and intervene before she drank too much and launched into a tirade of insults. The position rotated. We all took turns. But now there is no need. Most of our family has stopped inviting her to events. Birthday parties, anniversaries, picnics—these are all out. The organizer of each of these gatherings is always defensive. They feel the need to explain their decision by citing a Gretchen incident. No one blames them.
Holding an empty wine glass in one hand she runs the other hand flatly down the side of her dress. Struggling for balance she begins to talk loudly to herself using the words “farce” and “charity case” and “disgusting.” Hearing her speak is like listening to a foreign language studied only through flash cards. Some of the words come through but there is no meaning.
Then she looks in my direction. Dislodging one heel from the grass, she tries to stand up straight. She tells me she never liked me much. That, in fact, she never liked me at all. She walks toward the house, collapsing half-way across the threshold onto her knees and outstretched palm. Someone will have to pick her up and put her in a cab and send her off to—where? She is far from home. Doors that were once open to her are closed.
Guests are shocked, some are furious. I know that you can’t shock and furious Gretchen away. The more reaction she gets the more she performs. The band begins again and the low din of conversation resumes. People apologize on her behalf. Most pretend not to notice. I look toward the house and place a bet with myself on when her apology call will come. I wish there was some way out for her but we all know that her exit will be one way. That is why I keep crashing the same car. I know of no other way to love her.
Courtney Hayden is from Saratoga Springs, New York. She works in finance and has a degree in political science and economics from Union College.
This is Courtney's first published story.