A Danger to Herself and Others(6)

I didn’t bother correcting him. I knew how much he liked the idea. The mature thing to do was to let him keep that thought if it comforted him.

California was why he’d wanted to send me to summer school in the first place. I’d never lived anywhere but New York, and with college applications just around the corner, good ol’ Byron thought I should audition living away from the Upper East Side. (Though he said he and Mom would miss me terribly.) I wonder if now he wishes he’d kept me closer to home. If he wishes he hadn’t put such a premium on broadening my horizons. (A phrase I’ve heard in his voice for years.)

He kissed the top of my head when he left, even though he hasn’t been more than two inches taller than me since I turned fifteen. Mom didn’t kiss me at all. At five foot seven, I tower over my mother, who’s only five foot three. She always marveled at my height, wondering where I’d gotten it from, as if she couldn’t believe that someone who grew up to be so tall had ever actually lived inside of her. Once, she and I were out to lunch with a friend of hers, and Mom said that the hospital must have mixed me up with some other baby, there was no way she could have given birth to someone who ended up this size. I pointed out that we had the same green eyes, and I clearly share her husband’s hair and eyebrows.

“But where’d you get all that height?” she countered with a smile, and I couldn’t come up with a clever response.

“You two are so lucky,” Mom’s friend said. “You’re more like best friends than mother and daughter.”

Mom beamed.

Before they left me alone in this room, I said, “I like California, Dad.” He smiled and I smiled back. Whether or not it was the truth hardly mattered since I was stuck inside. This room could be anywhere and the only thing that would change would be the view through the small window.

In case you’re wondering, though: I don’t particularly like California. In fact, I think the whole state is weird. And not in the way that so many New Yorkers think it’s strange—too laid back, too culturally shallow, too much driving, too many cars, too much space. Too dark at night. Too much sky. (I don’t think those things, but I’ve heard other New Yorkers say them.)

To me, the weirdest thing about California isn’t only that the ocean is on the other side, but that north can feel like south, and south can feel like north, and east and west don’t feel quite right either. The university’s campus is what they call “on the peninsula,” which (as far as I could tell) means near Silicon Valley. You could go north into the city—not the city (Manhattan), but San Francisco—and the temperature would probably drop precipitously. But then farther north, up in Napa Valley (where I went on vacation with my parents years ago), the temperature might rise ten, twenty, thirty degrees.

And here—up in the mountains along the water with the too-tall trees and foothills and valleys—the temperature is cooler than it was on campus, even though this place is miles south of the peninsula. On top of all that, there’s a severe drought, but the fog is so thick that each morning it condenses into water that drips off the roof, and there’s frost on the window even though it’s August.

It’s like California doesn’t have to follow the laws of nature.


Lying on the bed, I can only see a skinny strip of sky out the window, so I shift my attention to the ceiling. It’s one of those pockmarked ceilings, full of dents and drips, like gravity tugged at the plaster before it had time to dry and harden. At least, unlike the walls, it’s white. If I concentrate on the ceiling hard enough, I don’t notice the springs in the cheap mattress digging into my spine.

After a while, I stop staring at the ceiling and shift my gaze to the walls instead, studying every manufactured crack and divot.

Then I look up again. This time, I stare at the lights: two long, skinny fluorescent bulbs under a plastic cover. What will happen if the bulbs die while I’m here? Will they send someone in with a ladder and a fresh set of bulbs? Maybe they wouldn’t trust me with a maintenance worker in the room. There’d be too many items that could be used as weapons: the glass in the bulbs, the screwdriver they’d need to take the cover off the light fixture, the metal hinges on the ladder, to say nothing of the ladder itself. They’d have to take me outside while the bulbs were changed, even if it was just into the hallway.

Footsteps. The sound of the door opening. I don’t have to take my eyes off the ceiling to know that it’s Dr. Lightfoot, tap tap tapping in her ballet shoes. Then Stephen, in his heavy, black boots, too warm for this climate (not that I’ve been outside lately), peeking out from under the hem of his scrubs. I’ve gotten used to the rhythm of their steps: they check on me every morning, and then come back in the afternoon for what Lightfoot refers to as our “session.”

But this time there’s a third set of steps. Slap slap slap. Bare feet.

I turn my head, keeping my back flat against the mattress. It has a vinyl cover like the ones in the dorm. Though this mattress is even thinner than those were.

There’s a girl standing behind Dr. Lightfoot and Stephen. They took her shoes—must’ve had laces—but not her clothes. Not yet. She’s still wearing real clothes: boot-cut blue jeans and a white, scoop neck T-shirt. She curls her light-brown toes against the linoleum floor. Her long, dark hair falls around her face like a sheet, but I can see her eyes are almost black, and a few freckles dot her cheeks like scars.

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