This excerpt is from Chapters 1-3 of North for Sun, which is available on Amazon.
The doctors won't tell me whether anesthesia lets you choose your last thought. The internet won't tell me, either. The video that turns up shows closed eyes and candy-colored buttons. Beeping and more hoses. Her face looks smaller asleep. The scene cuts to an animation of an elegantly spinning brain while the girl's foot shakes. I need to know if consciousness blacks like a curtain or a fading. With my night pill, the unconsciousness came like fast sleep, except for the catches in my breath. I'm used to breathing, so I woke up when I stopped.
When the chair kicks back, the girl closes her eyes and gets a moment of composure. I get very nervous thinking about this moment. I don't trust the way her body lies. It shrinks. My thoughts have ruined a lot of moments for me, and I don't want to start off my new brain on the wrong foot. I don't know if it works that way. No one knows how it works. If I stare at the picture of the lake long enough, it will paint itself on my dark inside eyes. Given a choice, I would like this view for a start, or at least I would choose it over something ugly. Or if they let me have headphones, I'd like that.
After my eyes re-open, I guess I'll be hungry, so I was thinking about packing myself a snack. Something wholesome like an orange. Food hasn't been interesting for a while, but the doctors say I could feel better right away. Anyway, I like knowing what I'll do when I wake up. Nobody knows if I'll be able to write when I wake up, or I don't trust the people who say they know. I know I will be able to read.
My life was hard to weigh until it became easy. I choose a shaking foot over a spinning brain. All my literary machinations aren't worth as much as an orange, enjoyed from the peel to the final segment. If I can have months of eating oranges, I'll give up writing about ugliness. While I can, I squeeze out the words like wringing a rag. Time travel gives me pictures of the past, but I want memories. If I can't remember my voice when I wake up, I'll read it. I'll tell myself how to get better. He'll tell me again and again. Alongside the snack, I fit my small life into the box for after I re-open. I choose something whole for a start.
Before I walked, I watched myself in the dressing room mirror, standing with a strange girl I knew for a peripheral cast-mate for this act: my first return to college. The dining hall was particularly suspicious that day. The strange girl sat at my table, which was feeling too warm in the unnatural lamps. Her expression was sweet as a flower, and I looked forward to the beginnings of things. In the mirror, my reflection retold me this anticipation.
"It's so close, it's almost moving," the girl said about the picture. "I could stare at the lake all day."
The frame swallowed light into its metal. It was striped blue on blue, and the view assured me I was well again. I bought it with a haste that I mixed up with happiness before we left.
The pedestrian street outside the campus bookstore wasn't completely plowed, so we picked our way down the path carved for us. Her flower face couldn't be seen past our heavy coats. She talked about herself urgently. I don't remember her name. I surprise myself with my awful memory. Time travel should give me a special ownership over the past, but it runs away the same.
The picture is on my desk. I can see her face if I try. Her skin and hair were the same as mine after a summer of fading. Her face was familiar in the way that a friendly face is familiar, or at least it was easier to read the friendliness because I knew her face.
I could hold onto that face. Most faces since the hospital were masks. The plastic bend around the smiles, the angles that changed too fast for real human expression. I became very worried I wouldn't see a person again.
Sometimes I think I would trade everything that followed for this girl. She has become a kind of opening into a more wholesome and linear life, and maybe she was. I can't give some people up. At the end of things, I want to see that our lives ran parallel all along. Whatever afterwards came in the shadow of our meeting, which means we were fixed closer than we thought.
When I finally told Dan about that night, I left her out. It wouldn't be popular to tell my future husband he wasn't the watershed in my life, that he was probably himself a radius from this unnamed girl. I skipped to the walk.
"I walked across Lake Mendota. The entire thing. It was frozen over. I was following the sun."
Dan leaned his elbows across the table. I thought his eyes were bluer, but I couldn't see if they were numb or melting. He is always bending, inspecting things. This dirty bar had grown old with us. I hadn't seen these wrinkles, like fresh slits in ice steadily forking and cross-hatching.
"I know you weren't following the sun," Dan said.
"How did you know?" Sometimes I expected that I hadn't done it at all. If someone proved my life wrong, I'd be relieved for the answer.
"You said it was night when you got to the other side? And you were going north." He scanned the maps behind his eyes. He was leaning too close now, face-first, while he crushed nachos into his mouth. "The sun passed on your left. You couldn't have been walking toward it."
The story had been full of holes. Some I could feel: pits that pulled other memories until the borders fell in. I didn't know the story had a sun-shaped hole. I wouldn't have been surprised if Dan told me I dreamed the whole night and the girl before.
"You must have been confused," Dan said. "It was cold enough to freeze the lake solid, and you never wear a hat. I know you. You were freezing and hungry."
"Of course I was." I didn't explain yet how, on the other side, the confusion was insightful. "It took a long time. I don't know how long. I walked in a straight line the whole way. I thought if I got to the other side, I could do anything."
If he didn't understand that night, he didn't understand me. I had gone back and back to that night until it was a lighthouse on my timeline. I felt my boat shoes, almost slippers, sinking into the snowbank. The land had been brought to me. A lawn ornament, looking like a grounded kite, was spinning madly.
"I finally get to the other side. It's dark by the time I get to land again. And right where I'm standing is a mental hospital. I can't feel my toes, and I'm reading a sign that says, `Mental Institute.' Can you believe it?"
I waited for the laugh. I had hoped for an island or woods, somewhere I could live in peace, and got an asylum. He couldn't tell me otherwise. On a map, I saw the student union and the hospital connected with a dance pattern of my steps.
"I believe you." He looked past me, as if he was watching the game. He pushed back into the booth cushion that absorbed every old secret, until his shoulders curled. I looked around the bar at people watching. I didn't want to be overheard anymore.
"What happened next? After you got to the hospital?" Dan said.
"I walk up to the front desk and tell the guy I need a ride back to campus," I said. I was already laughing. "Guy sits back, sick of his life. And he gives me a ride back! He asks me in the car what I'm studying." Even the man's beard had been hapless, the few full-grown patches scruffy and silly.
Dan didn't smile. "Nice of him," he said. His eyes left the game or whatever had been past me. They were unsteady. I didn't see any of the meanness I knew how to throw away. "He didn't have to do that."
The story was proof of my cleverness. I had outsmarted a lake and then a professional at his own game of containment. He brought me through the exit, not the door with a buzzer that kept people in. Who made the mistake?
"What are you trying to say?" I said.
Dan's eyes gathered mine. "He probably knew and tried to help you."
"He didn't help me," I said. His help would have inverted the punchline, with me as the ridiculous figure instead of him. "He drove me back to where I started. And what about his job?" I wasn't sure what his job was. I remembered the worker scrutinizing me, behind the desk and later in the rearview mirror.
From my travels, I estimated Dan and I would be married for at least ten years, but I hadn't seen enough to guess what those years were. It really was a good joke. People always laughed. The story represented the attitude toward madness that I deserved. I had earned a break by now.
"Then what happened?" Dan said. "After you got back to school?" He made a fist and knocked on the table.
"The police took me to the hospital a couple days later. I guess somebody saw me walking down the freeway."
The story was supposed to close earlier, at the punchline. I knew this ending would wobble Dan's eyes further. He cried. It was like him to miss what I knew, that I had crossed a full earth since that night and kept on. He saw the sickness; he would say in a minute.
But Dan told me the walk had worked, that the sun set north sometimes. He listened to where I went after. I guessed he finally saw all the cracks, how pretty they had been first in sun and then moon, fragmenting the ice a step away from my straight path. I don't know how I didn't fall in.
I decided Dan understood. I don't visit that night anymore, but I still keep the picture over my desk. It's a frozen lake made of flat brushstrokes. It's shabby for a talisman, but it fits my life nowadays, a miniature of that night. The painting looks more like the walk than a photo would. The horizon had been remote as paper when I crossed it. When I got to the other side, I felt like a navigator before maps. At the end, my trip contracted, and I could have walked until morning.
FALL QUARTER: WRINGING A RAG
My second return to college was solid with promises, but they were the kind that tethered and weighed. The palm trees on campus were more beautiful than anything I'd seen in the last year. Their expense reminded me how much I was betting on myself. And I still hadn't figured out how to write. Writing was like trying to summon a ghost. I didn't know where my voice went.
Since my missed connection with the strange girl, I tried very hard to recognize the people who were supposed to be the centers of my life. I knew some faces to watch out for. I saw a girl shadowed at the end of the hall whose movement reminded me of someone. She took up more space than she needed. After my parents left, I found a reason to be around her. With the lights turned up, she did have the same nose but a different atmosphere from my friend. She had less warmth behind the prettiness. I wondered whether twenty years could sharpen her into the woman I had seen in our future. Or if she was someone else completely.
The key lay heavy in my back pocket. I wished for a lanyard to wear around my neck. I'd lost my room key a few weeks into college in Wisconsin. My roommate slept at her boyfriend's, and I didn't have her phone number. Even if I got it somehow, I could barely understand people in person, and the phone's background vibrations made my cousin whisper. Texting required translating my thoughts into shapes, which was another impossibility. Sleeping in strangers' rooms became a way to meet people, but hard floors didn't help my insomnia. Sometimes I asked if I could stay, and other times I pretended to fall asleep until morning.
I was very lucky. Almost all of my roommates had been good in the ways that counted. Nobody stole my stuff or woke me up. My first roommate at Stanford seemed like a happy sort of person, and she didn't bring up the retching noises my throat made in the mornings. My second roommate at Wisconsin didn't eat my food during the odd gap when I was in the hospital. My mother filled out the paperwork for me to drop out, and the box of food I found when I got home was complete. I touched and counted each cardboard box again.
I wish I remembered all my roommates in the hospitals, but some were brief or had fuzzy looks to them. I remember the faces of most of my long-term roommates. They had all kinds of skin and hair. My roommates tended to emerge as the movers and shakers in the unit, and I felt privileged to start and end my days with them. I really think other people got jealous, so I tried to be generous. Thanks to my roommates, I ended up in the cliques with the most laughs and fun. It didn't start out that way, but I got to it after I learned to think and talk. If I could have friends like them, I thought I had something worth knowing in me.
The key wouldn't engage with the lock. It rattled as it turned circles in my hand. It was a bad sign that my new roommate didn't jump to open the door, but maybe she was the kind of person to ignore incompetence as a kindness. I didn't find out because the room was empty. Her things that I could see looked hard and considered, except for a homemade ceramic. It was a brain, the color of soft mud, with a hollow inside for a candle. The handbook said we weren't allowed to have candles, so I guessed she'd put an electric light inside.
I didn't know what to put in my side of the room, other than my lake picture that suddenly looked artsy in the sparseness. My first two college rooms had been jiggered to look like my bedroom at home, but I had seen too much of it in the last year. My roommate had set down a rug whose circumference bumped into our beds, since we were closer than either of us had calculated. Her boxes took on an abandoned look, as if they were empty under the flaps. I heard a knock at the door, and each time I dropped what I was doing to get into position. My roommate's first look would be me in active, vital movement. Sitting cross-legged on the floor showed I was open-minded. I would pick my most interesting box and reach down elbows deep. As she opened the door, I would draw out a homemade ceramic of an eyeball.
I almost closed the door, leaving a crack for only the most motivated to break. The habit started in the hospital, where I learned the exact degree of openness that still demanded a knock. People wandered in like the nurses had, introducing themselves as they started their shifts. I rehearsed the conversation I would have with my roommate. Introductions didn't include diagnosis anymore, and the omission freed and pressured. Hallway sounds of strangers going to dinner carried into my room. The old secret—the comfortable talent for hiding and loneliness—closed around my heart. At the end of the day, I didn't have anything to show for all the people I'd known. They expired in the same way: the friends who crowded my life coming up, and my fellow patients, lovely in our shared transformation. They were all lost with the sickness that had excited my mind, and now the rest felt too close to lifelessness. We thought life kept walking its pattern, that we got to keep and accumulate ourselves. I lay in bed hungry.
She didn't knock. I sat up, and she mistook the rigidity for wakefulness. She said she'd driven to Modesto and back. Her face was blue in the nighttime sky through the blinds. She tried to flip the switch slowly, but it only had two modes. The room brightened without gentleness.
"I'll turn it off in a minute," she said.
Tina leaned against the doorframe as she always would. She frowned as she sometimes would. She wouldn't lose the plant-like slenderness until she got much older. She'd been a cross country champion in high school, so victory burned into her body even when its wiry lines failed. I sweated in a tank top, and her brown skin looked cool to the freckle. The new lights filtered through masses of black hair; her face had a spotty intensity around it. I blinked. It was the youngest I'd ever see, but it was already barely lined. Crinkles jumped out as she smiled, around the eyes whose blackness was the same in all the doors and rooms I knew her.
This was the first room I knew her, so small that I claim every fold in the carpet. If I went back to our room and waited long enough, we'd walk in with the still faces we kept for each other after a long day. I'd listen to our comments and silences, how they relaxed with time until the air itself was companionable. Sometimes we went years without seeing each other. When we did, it was the end of a long day, and our faces stilled again.
"Where have you been?" I asked.