Please be advised that this story includes descriptions of self-harm and suicidal ideation. —The Editors
For the past thirteen days I’ve been sleeping in the canoe hanging in our garage. The canoe is aluminum and wider than it is high, but still a canoe: a raised middle seam, two plank seats, and bars bracing the center. It’s suspended from the ceiling by pulleys, tied off so it dangles about a foot above the cracked cement floor. Our house is only seventeen years old, but it was constructed from shabby materials and so the floor’s cracked prematurely. I’ve confined myself out here to keep from contaminating my children with my sadness, indecision, existential crisis—whatnot.
It’s a harebrained idea, but literally, it’s all I’ve got. At least that’s the case I made to my family for why I’m out here in the garage when our perfectly good house is just steps away. My shrink said that if you can get a person through the first ninety days following a suicide attempt, it’s statistically remote that they’ll try again.
Of course, our insurance only covered three days of inpatient care, which is why I’m out here on my own recognizance with seventy-four days still to go.
Eating is one of the many logistical problems this arrangement causes. I don’t want to come inside and put myself back at the table and so my kids have been taking turns bringing me food. Earlier tonight, Zack, my oldest, came out with a glass of milk, gingersnaps he’d baked himself, and his headlamp from camp so I could see what I’m doing out here. Zack’s like that, quiet, so I think he’s zoned out but then he’ll do something unexpected and I’ll see that he’s been paying rapt attention.
“Are you trying to get me fat?” I said, reaching for the cookies. “Dad help?”
“Made’m myself,” he beamed. He’s always been a good cook. When the boys were little I used to joke that we baked for sport.
We used to do a lot of things for sport, David and I, before the kids, before the routine of being full-time working parents, mortgage holders, and weekend lawn mowers. Our neighbors, Dahlia and Steve, still come and go with exhausting regularity. Dahlia’s always exhorting us to get out there and keep exploring new things, but we just barely seem to make it to work, school, the grocery store, and home again. David says, “It’s enough.”
It is enough: two kids, a home, friends, family—it’s everything I thought I wanted—but I didn’t think a life so full would feel so small, so pointless in the larger scheme of things. What’s worse is that David thinks everything is great—fine, at least. “But you’re the assistant manager now,” he said the last time I brought this up, roughly four weeks ago.
If you’re looking for a cause—I am—his actions and words don’t seem like enough to have pushed me over the edge.
My fear, and it appears justified, was that there was no one BIG thing. It’s not that I’m suppressing some major psychological issue that caused me to—
Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute. I mean, yes, I slit my wrists, but—c’mon, I picked the least promising way possible to kill myself. I know the statistics on efficacy. “If I really wanted to kill myself I would have put a shotgun to my head,” I told my doctor. “That’s ninety-nine percent effective.” The way I chose only works roughly six percent of the time.
Obviously, I didn’t mean it.
I have always wondered what would push a person right over the edge.
As it turns out, it was just an opportunity on a down day. Or maybe not even a down day, just a day, like all the other days. The relentless march of the regular. There wasn’t any caustic remark over the breakfast table, no look of irritation handed off with the groceries. Nothing—just a winking blade promising something new: a way out.
“Why not?” it seemed to whisper. Aging is nothing but one loss, one leaving, after another. Joy, for instance, slipped out some moment when I didn’t know to watch for her departure.
Now, right before my eyes, Zack’s growing, and leaving, in equal measure. All of sudden he’s physically solid with a new flood of testosterone redefining his face, bulking up his shoulders. He coughs. He’s standing there, contemplating my camp, which consists of all four of our sleeping bags pressed into the canoe as a makeshift bed. There’s fabric everywhere as I’ve got my project—a quilt made from pieces of our castoff clothing—strewn aft and stern.
As a condition of my release, my shrink mandated an activity, one with physical results. My grandmother incorporated me into her sewing circle when I was seven, so I know how to use a needle. I’m not a small, precise person, but it was a relief to have something to do with my hands, and tangible is a nice change too. Most everything I work on nowadays is consumed or vanishes or never materializes: food, money, security.
Because of Gabriel’s brilliant palette and David’s penchant for plaid, I’ve been able to make the sections distinct, one devoted to each of them. I’m not allowed to have scissors—which is stupid—but I’m trying to behave in front of the kids. The afternoon after I came home from the hospital, Zack and Gabriel came down with all their stuff and together we picked the fabric and the size of the squares and they cut them all out for me. We’ll cut my wedding dress, the liner, when we know the dimensions of the finished quilt.
“Gabriel’s section is really coming along,” Zack says, pointing at the remnants of his little brother’s mostly orange clothing. Unlike, say, knitting, where you start with store-bought yarn and create something new, quilting is, at its core, destructive. Something distressed out of its original utility is cut up and patterned and pieced back together. Just when you’re sure you can’t stand the colors or the intended recipient has no need of it anymore, you place the final piece, attach the downy batting, and seal it with something soft. The actual quilting part, the unifying stitch, comes last.
“It looks all right, doesn’t it?” I say.
“He’s gonna love that.”
“I’m working on yours too,” I say, plumbing the sea blue pile—his baby clothes. They match his eyes.
“It’s great,” he says unconvincingly, without looking at me.
I scrutinize it for flaws. After he leaves, I sit in my canoe eating cookies, examining the quilt furling into being. The garage is under the house, so I can hear my family upstairs, rustling through their routines. They each tread differently. Zack’s got a solid, mechanical regularity to his walk. Gabriel thumps along unevenly, bounding over things.
“Hi—” David says, interrupting my thoughts.
David—my husband of sixteen years—walks lightly, softly, like he doesn’t want to be discovered. It feels like he’s forever sneaking up on me, which is weird because it feels like he never quite sees me. One more dichotomy I’m unable to wrestle to the ground. “I still live here,” he says.
He’s standing in the doorway to the garage. He’s neat and trim, a few months past fifty; he always looks together and calm. Only the slight twitching of the vein in his neck belies the notion that he’s at peace; that twitch gives me hope. By all accounts, he’s a good-looking guy, one who stands out at our suburban BBQ’s, remarked upon for being able to see his feet over his belly. His face seems open and friendly. Only after years of trying to match his words to his features did I realize that his openness was inscrutable, a mask for an interior he does not wish to share.
“Hey,” I say, not taking the bait. I wish I’d started on his section of the quilt. He remains in the doorway, surveying. The garage is full of crap we don’t use anymore: bikes the kids have outgrown, snow tires from cars we no longer own, old gas cans, bags of bulbs I never planted, a generator David dragged home hoping to fix, and traps—mouse traps, rat traps, Have-A-Heart traps. Our want-to-be-tony subdivision manifested on a swamp without the requisite permits and it confused all the wildlife. They keep trying to get in. We keep killing them. I keep saying to David we should get rid of all this stuff, but we don’t. We walk by it, pretending it’s not here.
“This is nuts,” he says.
“It really is a mess out here,” I say, looking around the garage.
“Da-vid,” I put a sharp note into his name. “I’ve still got seventy-four days to go.”
“The boys are confused.”
“They aren’t the only ones.”
“You could try and just be happier.”
“Fake it until you make it doesn’t work,” I say.
“Not for me.”
At least, I’ve found it has its limitations. When I got to college, away from the chaos, I cried. That whole freshman year while other kids were out making questionable choices, figuring out who they were—living their lives—I cried for what had been and what had been lost. Like I even knew.
“You didn’t even call an ambulance,” I say.
“I didn’t need to! I knew what to do.”
“You glued me back together so no one would find out.”
“Oh, everyone knows. You’re living in the garage just to make sure of that.”
“That’s not it,” I say.
“Then what is it?” David says.
“I don’t know. I thought you understood that.”
“I don’t know anything anymore,” David says, turning to leave. He doesn’t exactly slam the door.
I put my hand up to my face; it’s wet again. I can’t stop the sadness leaking out of me. It happens every few years, this overflow. My therapist said I was making progress, that recognizing the signs is half the battle. But it seems to me that self-knowledge doesn’t change the reality of this world: bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people, repeatedly. Most days it feels like nothing happens and that stops me in my tracks. Meanwhile, David’s official motto is “No news is good news.”
Whoever coined the phrase “opposites attract” is a moron.
Every day that drifts into the next without incident or marker is like a paper cut. It shouldn’t hurt and doesn’t bleed, but the accretion flays my skin raw.
As a kid, I was fascinated by death. Until I tried to wrap my mind around the edges of eternity, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable escape. I read interviews with survivors who’d jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Most reported thinking, “That was a bad idea,” once they were airborne. But one guy said something that stuck with me: “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
And, maybe that’s what I wanted: the crystallization that everything is fixable?
Like most things, the anxiety was the hardest part to get through. The skin sliced easily. It was like the membrane holding me in, holding me together all these years, wasn’t the protection I’d thought it was. Under the blade, it seemed so flimsy and inadequate to the task. But cutting the radial artery horizontally turned out to be a short-term strategy. The artery, when severed deeply enough, often constricts and pulls back, self-sealing, because of course it does. So the gush, the gusto, was short lived. What came after: the weak, weeping blood flow; the dizziness; the clammy skin; the waiting to see if the moment would clarify my position on life—all that lasted a lot longer than the rush of blood that accompanied the initial slice. I sat on the floor of the bathroom feeling woozy and unsure until David came home about an hour later and found me, waiting. As I do.
He moved around doing something downstairs, I couldn’t tell what. I started to worry. I looked at the mess I’d created and wondered who would clean it up. My heart climbed the stairs with him.
I wished I was unconscious, dead already—something. In a swarm of buzzing emotions, shame and regret seemed the loudest. It seemed doubly awkward to have it be self-evident that I’d failed at this too. I closed my eyes.“Oh sweetie,” he said. “It’s not that bad.”
I opened my eyes but was unable to speak. I felt like I’d been talking about this my whole life but now that it was here, I still couldn’t explain.
David’s not a doctor, but he could have been one. Calm in emergencies, and he can deal with all kinds of things that make other people run. He’s wasted in his sales job where it’s all hustle and gin. He’s the real deal: head and heart and horse sense.
The year before we married, we bought the canoe out of the want ads to float the Allagash in the early spring. Under the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, we ran rapids, fished for trout in small eddies, floated past young moose, and marveled at the expanse of the sky. That boat carried us places we’d never been, places we wanted to go. Places I still want to go.
On the third day of our weeklong exploration of a section of the Saco River, we came across a family out for a day trip with two tiny kids plunked in the bottom of the boat. We cleared a tricky rapid section and David eddied out near the shore, waiting for the family to paddle through. Their approach looked good, but their bow got pushed out and they glanced off a boulder before dumping into the fifty-degree water.
“Drag our boat out,” David yelled at me as he plunged into the spring melt surging past, stumbling towards the family and their gear flotilla racing downriver.
The parents were scrambling and shouting, trying to reclaim their children and their boat. The mother grabbed the younger son as they went over, but the daughter, maybe seven, had floated free. She was wearing her life jacket but the water was so cold. It was hard to hear anything over the noise of the river but her parents were now screaming, “Amy, swim!” over and over again. Amy was floundering, barreling downstream, her head in the lead. David had moved laterally across the river to catch her. We all saw it coming. She hit a rock head-on and was knocked unconscious. The water took her body, around the rock, bobbing downstream.
David, swearing and yelling, forged his way upriver. Amy’s parents lost their minds and their canoe floated free again.
“GET TO SHORE,” he yelled to them. He caught Amy and dragged her to the bank. He tipped her on her side and drained the river water from her lungs. He was about to administer CPR when she sputtered back to life. I felt lucky to be with someone who plunged in, someone who allowed no room for doubt. I watched him with a glow spreading throughout my body, warming me.
A few months before my run in with David’s razor blade, Zack cut his hand with a kitchen knife. The ensuing trip to the emergency room resulted in a big bill for a small injury. The ah-ha moment for David came when the surgeon confided that the surgical glue they used was like superglue, available over the counter. David stocked up at the drugstore on his way home.
I knew all this and still I didn’t expect him to glue my wrists up himself.
“See,” he said, blotting the blood. “Your cuts look serious, but they’re not that bad. It’ll be easy to get a good seam.”
Practical isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to your lover.
He sprayed the alcohol-based disinfectant into the cuts. I squirmed.
“Won’t hurt for long,” he said. He lined his supplies up on the side of the counter: an eyedrop bottle of surgical glue, a foam-tipped applicator, and a little pile of steri-strips.
“How would you know?” I said. I sat on the edge of the toilet with my arms on my lap. With his thumb and forefinger, he smoothed and pinched the cuts together, pressing the skin into a tight, slightly raised seam. Keeping the pressure consistent, he saturated the applicator with glue and ran a fat line over the top of the cut. The idea is for the glue to create a sterile seal and allow the skin to reattach. He finished up by layering on steri-strips, and then a round of gauze. After he finished he stood up, tipped forward and kissed the top of my head.
I used to be afraid of big things. When I was eight my parents called it quits and everything in our lives became a zero-sum battle. One warm evening, late in the summer, early in the separation, my mother brought laundry I’d forgotten over to me at my father’s house. Seeing her, my father refused to open the door to let her drop off the clean clothes. “Leave it on the front steps,” he yelled through the locked door.
Instead my mom used her old house key and came inside anyway.
The police came quickly, but it was still too late. No visible injuries were sustained that night, but their penchant for chaos imprinted on my DNA. The quiet that most people find relaxing is the time I spend waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I was embarrassed that the police had to roll a car to our home. Everyone could see how little love lived there.
No sirens have ever been called to the home David, Zack, Gabriel, and I share. No voices have ever really been raised, no furniture cast over, no doors locked in anger, nothing. We’re calm. But sometimes I wonder if we should be shouting about all the things that are slipping away every day, things we miss without ever bothering to acknowledge what they meant to us in the first place.
But David’s not that kind of guy and we’re not that kind of couple. We accumulate slights, nurture resentments, harbor grievances, sure.
The day after “the incident,” as David calls it, I drove myself to the doctor’s office to see if everything was done up right. She took one look at me: car keys in hand, overly calm recitation of events, superglued wrists, and promptly inpatiented me at Mercy Health. I may also have mouthed “help.”
I can still hear them moving around upstairs, winding down their day. I can’t sleep, so I wipe my hands and start up on Zack’s section. I’m piecing with light blue thread and a tiny needle so the stitches will be nearly imperceptible and the effect will be one of an undulating wave of blue fading from light to dark and back to light. Like all patterns, this one started out pleasing, but I find I often lose the trace and have trouble finding it again. Sometimes I have to rip out whole bits and redo them because I’ve pieced together non-contiguous sections.
My shrink says in the middle of a crisis virtually everyone just looks to save him or herself; it’s instinct—it’s normal. I’ve always wondered if I’d called my parents out on their antics, refused to participate in their charade, would they have changed? But we only had two settings: warring or silent. No middle ground, no DMZ. And so, shocked by the seismic shift in our lives, I assiduously attended to my third-grade responsibilities.
I’m trying to keep my mind on the quilt, but I’ve grown to hate the tedium. I’m not even a third of the way through this quilt and the fun part—picking the pattern and the fabrics—is already over. I’m worried I’ll quit. Also, it’s hard to be holding Zack’s baby clothes. Those memories are equal parts complicated and sweet.
I’d always heard—hoped—that you only understand your own parents when you become a parent. But for me, becoming a mother was like running into a locked door. Where David cradled Zack and opened his heart wide to him, I faltered, sure I was doomed to pass on only bad things. Every age, every milestone, only widened the span of my incomprehension over what had passed for love growing up.
“They were so young,” David would say. He tends to act like I exaggerate everything. “They didn’t know what they were doing.”
I hate him when he defends them. “We were young,” I say when he goes that route. “Not that young,” he says.
“They knew,” I say. “They should have.”
The next morning, I awake when the door slams behind Gabriel.
“Hey honey, how’s it going?” I ask. I sit up and we hug. The boat shifts around some and clanks against the wall. I feel his breath on my neck.
“Good, good.” He pulls back a little and looks at me. “How are you?” he says. Our motion sets the boat swaying. He looks wary as he asks this. At thirteen, he seems younger, rounder, more buoyant than Zack did at the same age. A gift to his mother.
“I’m good?” I say.
“How good?” he says, looking at me with those eyes that see more than his years. I gesture to the boat.
He sighs, “Mom….”
I’ve spent the last fifteen years saying I cared most about what was good for the boys but what I’d learned lately was that I wanted something for myself, more.
He hands me the bowl of cereal and a spoon. He picks up the milk he’s brought down as well, and together we do an elaborate pantomime of him almost spilling the milk all over me and the canoe. There’s lots of laughter between us, but I worry he thinks it’s his job to cheer me up. “Thanks, honey,” I say.
“Got to go mom, love you,” he says and departs.
I hear feet rushing around, a few slamming doors, and they’re off into their days. Without them above me, I have no idea what I’m doing down here. I’ve taken an extended medical leave from work so there’s really nowhere for me to be. That seems deeply appropriate and also an oversight.
I haven’t been in the house since I left for my doctor’s appointment. There’s a bathroom in the basement, but I haven’t been upstairs. The urge to sneak around my own house overwhelms me. I go in through the garage door and up the stairs.
I feel like an intruder, though one with good intentions. Do they all have clean underwear in their drawers? Has the dust started accumulating in those mousey clumps under the beds and along the floorboards? I throw in a load of laundry, and ferry suspect items from the fridge to the trash.
The trash hasn’t been taken out in a while. I stuff it down with my foot. The twist tie keeps popping off, so I have to hold the bag with two hands. I drag/carry it to the driveway and leave it there next to the cans. Lifting it might cause the glue to give way entirely. As it is, red splotches dot the bandages on my wrists.
My hands reek from the garbage and the dressing needs changing so I head upstairs to our bathroom. Towels and David’s dirty running clothes litter the floor. I peel back the bandages, one at a time. The lines look so slender, just barely seamed shut. My hands are sticky. I wash them and then grab a towel from the stack on the counter, knocking David’s razor to the floor.
It was a condition of my release that it be removed from the house. I can’t believe he lied. I hear him protesting to himself: “But it’s still good!”
It’s so shiny and clean. There is no trace of my blood on the blade. Is he still using it? I mean, it is beautiful with its tortoiseshell handle and all. His grandfather gave it to him. It’s one of his favorite things. I should have been kinder. But—
I stare at it, waiting. Will it speak to me again?
When I said I was moving into the garage instead of the house, David gave me that look he gives me when he thinks I’m off my rocker. “Really?”
“Yeah, I just need a little space, a simpler existence for a bit.” That wasn’t right, or wasn’t exactly right anyway. I didn’t want to contaminate the kids and David with the sadness I still feel slipping out of me at every opportunity.
“Do what you have to do.” He said it like we were discussing what to make for dinner or who was taking the kids to school.
When I came home from the hospital, Zack and Gabriel didn’t ask where I’d been—the things we don’t say. I moved into the garage and life resumed almost as it had been before. After a few surreal days, I asked David what he’d said to them.
“I told them to act like everything was fine.”
“This is fine?” I said.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
“Say I don’t,” I said.
“Theatrics won’t solve anything,” he said.
“I needed to get your attention.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ve always had my attention. Acting fine is the fastest way back to being fine.”
As if encoded in the boys’ DNA, I’d passed on not my sadness, but my fear that acknowledging something would make it too real to bear. Even if it’s a recessive trait, they got it from both of us. It was something I didn’t know David and I shared.
I thought David’s quiet confidence would rub off on me. I thought when we parked the canoe in the garage that we were smart enough to find our way. I thought at the very least that instinct would kick in. But we still need a map. Most days it seems we’ve only begun to explore the ways we can love each other and still fail.
I hear the boys come in downstairs. I’ve been caught out. I stand in the bathroom listening to them recount their days. They don’t know I can hear them, so they’re happy and unguarded. Their buoyant voices float up the stairs.
Then the laughing stops.
I hear Gabriel. “I need to check on Mom.”
“When are those two going to get their shit together?” Zack says.
I don’t hear Gabriel’s response but I imagine it’s a shrug.
“Like we’re fooling anyone about how fucked up this family is,” Zack says. He sounds angry, rightly so.
A wave of shame drenches me. I hear David come in downstairs and the boys resume their patter, debriefing him on school and sundry.
As their conversation comes to an end, it dawns on me that I’m not where I’m supposed to be and worse—I’m a mess.
I notice David in the doorway and my insides lurch.
He seems unfazed to find me unwrapped up here. Which is pretty much where we part ways. I want him to be fazed. Just like I want him to occasionally be dazzled. I want our lives to be bright and bold and deeply felt—unfurling under a blazing sun. Instead, it feels like he’s trying to fold himself, and us, up small. I want him to say something sappy to the effect of: this will be a turning point for us.
“Things will be back to normal soon,” he says. He puts a plastic drugstore bag down on the counter. He moves closer and puts his hands on my shoulders. I know he means it to be comforting.
“Probably not,” I say, reaching down to pick up the razor off the floor. I hold it up. He moves to take it. I hear the boys on the staircase.
“Mmm,” he says, retracting his hand. He motions to the plastic bag he’s holding. “I—”
“Thought we heard you up here,” Gabriel says as he and Zack crowd into the bathroom with us. We’re all almost touching.
“What the hell?” Zack says, seeing me holding the razor.
“I was just trying to tell your mom that I got an electric one,” David says, reaching for the razor, but Zack is faster. He reaches over and knocks the blade out of my hand, sending it clattering across the floor.
“What the hell, Dad? Mom?” he looks at each of us in turn. “Gabriel,” he says, holding his arms out in front of him like a block to keep us from going for the razor now lodged behind the base of the toilet. No one moves.
Gabriel pulls out his phone and punches in three numbers.
“Who are you calling?” David asks. He makes a grab for Gabriel’s phone but Gabriel feints and steps back into the hallway.
We hear him say, “Hello, 911?”
I see David’s brows lift in surprise. His eyes bug out ever so slightly. He opens his mouth to yell, but nothing comes out.
“We have an emergency.”
In the house of nurture versus nature, in the halls of habit, the boys have forged their own path, created their own way. That phone call leads to disaster, and I know it, but I find myself smiling nonetheless.