Meet Me at the Edge
“Meet Me at the Edge” was awarded first prize in the 2020 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition, as judged by Téa Obreht.
In the hospital, Eleanor’s body loses its boundaries. A sliver of white sheet, crisp as paper. Shine of peripheral metal, shine of significance lost on her. Light without meaning or shadow. Tell me it is night and I will believe you. Tell me it is morning and I will believe you. This sheet has not been laundered properly. It tastes of chemicals. Her mother showed her how. Remember water. Remember her fingers slippery with soap, sliding off each other. Does she still have fingers? No pain, nothing missing. I haven’t suffered.
This sheet was never dried in the sun. Warmth from the dryer can mimic but not make a fine day, wind loose and unconstrained. The seasons used to take care of themselves. Now it’s all pulling at stray threads. All the young do. Damage a thing to see how it’s made. Not her mother, not her mother, no. Indoors is for starch and steam. Her mother taught her. Sort and smooth and fold and tuck. It is this size, it takes this many folds, it cannot be larger or smaller, do not force it, it will fit.
In the drawer, a sachet to keep hidden things fresh. A scent she will encounter later and fail to place. A scent she will never wear on her skin.
Faces approach, recede. Only strangers. She doesn’t listen to them. She listens to the mechanical exhaust of the machines, which may also be her own breathing. The exhaust says, You don’t have to anymore.
She climbs a staircase. In the middle, there’s a turn, a square of space. You might never notice it, even if you went up these stairs a thousand times, never register that you must reorient yourself to ascend. Stop there. Now is the time to listen. Furniture shifting in its rooms. Furtive, soft, rhythmic pressure, younger sister dancing in her socks to a song she hums. She won’t tell anyone the words.
Older brother leaves his desk, his half-built model airplanes, improbable future, blades that cut the sky.
What are you imagining? he asks the young girl. You’re a grown lady at a dance?
Her brow lowers. She pushes him in the belly, hard. Her head comes only to his ribs; she can’t hurt him, but their mother says, No.
All I know is that nothing belongs to me, her sister wails. Hand-me-downs, as if the clothes have a will of their own. As if they can hand themselves down. Whose hands, where have her hands gone to?
I have mended them, their mother says. I have washed them. The pattern hasn’t faded. All bright as flowers laid out in the grass.
She can’t see the flowers. The light is bright but wrong. Her sister dances out of her grasp.
“What did the doctor say?” Ellie asks her mother.
“They thought it was a urinary tract infection, but then her pulse was off the charts,” Helen replies. “That’s why they called the ambulance.”
Ellie and Helen ride the elevator up to the floor they’ve been given, vertical asserting itself over horizontal, mechanical release of breath. Ellie visited her grandmother in the nursing home only three days ago. She painted Eleanor’s nails that bright coral-pink that was obligatory in the eighties, and when they enter her room, everything is white except her polish.
“Mom,” Helen says, but the body in the bed doesn’t respond. Tube in her nose, IV in the back of her hand. Her frame is small, almost childlike.
“We’ve sedated her to help her rest,” the nurse says, as if these words can make anything normal.
Helen gazes at her mother for a long moment and says, “I brought the paperwork. The do-not-resuscitate, the living will.”
The nurse leads Helen back to the station, leaving Ellie and her grandmother alone.
Ellie picks up the other hand, without the IV. The skin is cool and papery, not a chip in the polish, but why would there be? Eleanor doesn’t do anything anymore.
Mine would be chipped by now, and you would’ve noticed, Ellie whispers in her mind. She tries to conjure her grandmother’s voice. Why bother with polish if you can’t keep it neat?
She was careful to paint in long, even strokes, using her own thumbnail to scrape the excess from the cuticle before it dried.
“Ow!” her grandmother complained.
“I’m sorry. That cuticle is a little raw. Do you have your lotion?”
They found the lavender-scented tube in the drawer that contained what remained of Eleanor’s personal items. Lotion, mints, tissues. Less than she would’ve carried in her purse. Ellie massaged the lotion into Eleanor’s hands, an assertive pressure she never would have dared in her grandmother’s former life, when she was the kind of woman who put on her face. When you get to a certain age, you have to wear base every day. Eleanor believed that age was about twenty-one, the same time panty hose became mandatory, as if you had to piece together an entire second skin before you were decent enough to leave the house.
Eleanor’s makeup had made her gestures seem more emphatic, authoritative, possibly false. Ellie preferred the bare-faced grandmother of the nursing home, but she couldn’t say Eleanor was more herself this way.
“I had the operation,” Ellie murmured as Eleanor’s hands warmed under her touch. This was an experiment she’d been trying: little disclosures that seemed safe because her grandmother was growing too confused to understand. And now a big one. She held her breath.
Eleanor said nothing.
“I don’t know if you’ll approve or disapprove,” Ellie continued, a bit louder. A hysterectomy at thirty-six. Practical after twenty-odd years of fibroids, no husband, no plans to start a family. Her grandmother was a firm believer in the practical. But a shame, she would have said, to give up being a woman in the ways that counted.
Eleanor remained silent, studying the second hand Ellie was working on as if it didn’t belong to her, as if Ellie were performing a magic trick. Ellie decided this was confession enough. She wasn’t seeking absolution—only to learn if a new honesty were possible, in the strange space of the memory wing, off the record, out of time.
“They have to dry,” she said when she was done. “Wave them around.”
She demonstrated, splaying out her fingers and raking them through the air. Her grandmother mimicked the motion, narrowing her eyes as if suspecting she was being mocked.
I miss being afraid of you, Ellie thinks, guiding the limp hand back down to the hospital bed.
Why did you go into my drawer without asking?
Eleanor’s mother again. Eleanor was her right-hand girl. Hot water, starch and steam, working at things the men could not grasp.
I was looking for a Band-Aid.
How the children coveted the tins, pretty and neat. Over time, the white paint softened and faded from the rounded corners, yet the red cross endured—pure, even, symmetrical along all axes, a declaration, a punctuation mark, not a mystery. (Her younger sister—was that still her?—married Catholic, converted for love, those writhing bodies on the cross, no one understood.)
Tin for her brother’s marbles, tin for her father’s nails, tin for her mother’s safety pins. Fasteners, fasteners. A few Band-Aids left, she’d hide them to empty the tin before someone else could claim it. How do we go through them so quickly? her mother would ask, her hands on her apron, deciding what they would take up next.
Why were you in my drawer?
I didn’t see anything.
What was she supposed to not see? There must have been a secret. A secret, a promise, a discovery that would let her know her mother, but she always knew her.
Where have you been? Her mother asked her father. She asked her husband. Their answers were only part of the story. She and her mother refused to be hurt. You can choose to be happy. That was the secret. Tuck it away in its own scent.
You must tell me if you fall down.
Eleanor must have shown her the scrape. Look, I was brave enough to pick the gravel out myself. Brave enough to set her teeth against the sting of antiseptic. She thought her mother would be proud. Pride, what she shared with her brother. I could’ve flown the planes with him when the second war arrived. I could’ve been the hero; I could have survived everything.
You must tell me when you fall.
Where did all the tins go? You can bury things and forget where, but they do not disappear; even what has been thrown or given away—these things still exist. Someone could still find them.
Her mother survived the Depression by pretending it wasn’t happening. No waste. Her brother didn’t tumble to his death until years and years and years after the war, yet there are no years, only corridors, and look, here he is, just above the turn in the stairs. He’s only hiding, her father’s open-seeming face on his face. All the men hide. They sidestep her neatly, but her husband falters. Two children, and then he didn’t want her anymore. Home with a scent she couldn’t place.
She never asked. What good would it do? Even ugly things can be cleaned and folded and tucked away.
“You’ve had to sit in too many waiting rooms,” Ellie says, rejoining her mother. Helen was the one who waited while Ellie had her surgery, flipping through People, worrying and feeling sorry and letting her eye linger over draped fabrics, tightened skin, in a magazine she would never buy.
After the procedure, when she drove her daughter back to her basement apartment in the city, Ellie said, “I’m sorry.”
Her mother’s eyes darted toward her, pilot light of worry igniting. “Why are you sorry? You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“You would’ve liked being a grandmother.”
“This has nothing to do with me.”
Helen’s latest round of therapy had been all about “boundaries”—don’t project, don’t mistake your feelings for someone else’s—which had ostensibly simplified her dealings with Ellie but failed to acknowledge the salient fact: she was part of her daughter, and her daughter was part of her.
“You didn’t really have a choice, you know,” Helen said. “You’ve been miserable since puberty.”
Ellie laughed. “That long?”
Her mother glanced at her again, worry softening into a smile. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Ellie wanted to think she had a choice. After she called the doctor to schedule the procedure, she went on Tinder for the first time in months. Younger guy, scar on the collarbone, impatient as she was.
I feel free. She tested the words in her mind. She’d thought freedom would be grounding. She’d thought there would be a weight to it, her life laid in her hands. Yet as she let her head fall back into the seat, she didn’t feel anything. She was floating up to where the late-winter branches touched the early-spring sky. She was as light as that color.
The doctor persuades Helen and Ellie to go home and get some sleep. He’s worried about sepsis. He’ll know more in the morning.
Rather than return to her apartment, Ellie pulls out the sofa bed at her mother’s place—in case her mother needs her, in case there’s a call in the night. Her body is heavy with tiredness—she’s still recovering from the operation—but her heart beats too fast, like a clock gaining time.
She thinks of the boy with the scar, eyes blinded by the heat and the push, then counts backward to her first lover, Brian, the camp counselor-in-training, in the shed where they kept the paddles and life vests. Kissing standing up, him pressing into her through his shorts, until she said, Let’s do it for real. The angles of her soft, young body suddenly unyielding, yet somehow, in his sweat and desperation, he broke through. Ellie might’ve been his first as well, but he never would’ve admitted it. She smelled like the lake for the rest of the summer.
Ruined yourself, her grandmother would have sniffed, had she known. Your mother failed you.
I only wanted someone to tempt me beyond the shores of myself, to hold out the promise of full immersion. I only wanted the beauty of a boy falling to pieces and then regathering around me. I was more innocent than anyone knew.
There are defenses impossible to launch in an argument. You have to bet your life on them.
She remembers telling Eleanor about her first grievous wound, the boy who broke up with her senior year. Her grandmother had only one question: “Did you go to bed with him?”
Go to bed sounded quaint and lovely. They’d been everywhere except the bed: the floor, the car, the garage, the woods. It would’ve been easy to deflect or demur, but Ellie had started out in the spirit of honesty, and she was reckless enough to continue.
“Well, what did you expect?” This was Eleanor’s all-purpose, black-cardigan response. Ellie would’ve laughed out loud if it wouldn’t have twisted the pain deeper into her. What did she expect? Her grandmother had made it clear from the beginning: to her mother, to her. If you violated her standards, you were beyond her sympathy.
Helen violated the standards when she divorced Ellie’s father, a foolish, hopeful lunge toward a more interesting life. When he packed up and left with the equivalence of a shrug, she collapsed, and Eleanor was there to save Ellie, even as she judged.
“Don’t tell anyone about your parents’ separation,” she warned.
“Because people are wary of broken homes.”
Broken homes. Years later, Ellie would wonder, What people? but in the moment, she was grateful that someone cared enough to tell her what to do.
Post-divorce Thanksgivings were at Eleanor’s house. She always refused contributions to the meal, and Helen always brought a dish anyway. Fruit salad, Eleanor would remark, as if naming the dish were sufficient thanks, as if forgetting to add it to the buffet were simple oversight. Sometimes Ellie would side with her mother—she was trying; couldn’t her grandmother see that? Sometimes she’d side with her grandmother—her house, her rules. Was the fruit salad an act of passive aggression? A doomed plea for acceptance? Both?
During one of these unspoken kitchen tussles, Helen said, “We could have a little sympathy for each other. We’ve both had to remake our lives.” Eleanor was widowed before Ellie was born.
“No,” Eleanor replied calmly, stirring gravy at the stove. “For you it was a choice.”
“Do you think I would choose to be this unhappy?” Helen asked.
Eleanor turned to regard her a moment. “Yes.”
A snicker escaped Ellie, and then the guilt flooded in.
She watched her mother cycle through men into a hard, bright loneliness. She watched her alchemize rejection and disappointment into toughness. When Helen hit her fifties, she had the opposite of a midlife crisis. She found an administrative job she likes and is good at. She found a nice boyfriend she sees once a week.
Meanwhile, Ellie has auditioned enough lovers that every new encounter feels like a rebound, his or hers. They offer tenderness she hasn’t earned, rhythms that have nothing to do with the way she’s responding. Everyone sleeping with ghosts.
Any that have lasted long enough to tell Eleanor about, her grandmother asks, “Is he marriage material?”
“Should I test him out for wear and durability?” Ellie responds. “See if I can cut him to pattern?”
“Laugh all you want, but don’t waste your life.”
The skeleton of the sofa bed presses up into Ellie’s own. An ache opens under her stitches, deeper than flesh. I’m not wasting my life. But her grandmother can no longer keep up her side of the argument.
“May I have a Band-Aid?” Or at least the tin, to hide the fasteners? Eleanor tries to be polite, as good as her mother could have hoped, a girl who always confesses the accident before rummaging in the drawer. Who always knows what she’s supposed to fix herself.
I choose no pain. Faces multiply above the surface. Same, different, she can’t say. Some time has passed, or at least some space, a blank. This building is only corridors. No time here, only the turn in the stairs.
“She tried to speak,” the doctor tells Ellie and Helen when they return in the morning. “It was unintelligible.” He explains that her organs are beginning to fail. He asks Helen one last time about intubation, a ventilator.
She draws herself up, her mother’s imperiousness coming into her eyes. “It isn’t what she wanted.”
Ellie hears the past tense. Too soon.
Bubbling sounds. Remember water. Eleanor asked but couldn’t speak. Her words were air. No matter, she sinks into the depths. No one can stop her. I can breathe underwater, she’d tell her sister. Watch. At the bottom of the pool, her skin wouldn’t stay stuck to the concrete, she’d float back up and hover, a genie, a mermaid, a human animal with gills, the laws of gravity suspended; did you know laws could be suspended? You could be almost naked if you were swimming, much more naked than you were allowed to be on dry land.
She was good at holding her breath. She could turn herself into a hollow person who needed nothing. She could stay down long enough that she almost believed. Maybe I can breathe underwater. Maybe I am doing it now.
On the landing, someone is calling: Eleanor, Eleanor, Ellie!
Eleanor’s eyes are closed; there’s no sign of recognition. The wrinkles have fallen out of her face, younger than Ellie has ever seen it.
They cut out my womb, and now I’m empty, Ellie wants to confess. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel free. I’ve never been good at feeling what I’m supposed to feel.
Eleanor, Helen, Ellie: among the three of them, it was always two against one, with Ellie as the swing vote. The lines of tension pulled and chafed but kept the structure upright.
Now it’s gone slack; now it’s falling. The line has turned dotty, and I’m the end of it.
No, she feels her grandmother say.
The pain comes in a wave, and Ellie allows it. She spills over. Cry as long as you want; empty yourself out; there will still be something left. And here it is: the weight of her singular life.
When she leaves the hospital, the March light is as thin as skim milk, but still she blinks in it, and then sees, under her thumbnail, a curl of coral-pink paint.
Eleanor stands at the edge of the sea. She struggles to hold her ground, each wave sucking sand from beneath her feet. Behind her, the beach is hard-packed and baked to stone, but she doesn’t want stone; she wants to tip and sway.
Marjorie is beside her; they hang onto one another’s arms, warm and gritty. Her friend’s parents’ little cabin near Cape Henlopen: Hope you don’t mind—you’ll have to share a bed. Funny what you remember. The coconut balm they rubbed into each other’s pale, untouched skin. The scent in her nose as she slept, not knowing whose it was.
The game is to stand as long as you can until you lose your balance. Marjorie gleefully wobbles, almost bringing Eleanor down. You’re a lighthouse, she tells Eleanor. You’re a tree. Eleanor laughs at the suck and play of the water, the boundary forever erased. We’re at the edge of the world! Marjorie hollers, and Eleanor echoes her call. No one in her family would believe it. They wouldn’t even recognize her, if they could see her like this.
But they do. They’re all here. Any separation was a dream.