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If I Stay, Page 7

Gayle Forman

Page 7


  There’s a small chapel in the basement. It’s hushed in there, a library kind of quiet. There are plush chairs like the kind you find at a movie theater, and a muted soundtrack playing some New Agey-type music.

  Kim slumps back in one of the chairs. She takes off her coat, the one that is black and velvet and that I have coveted since she bought it at some mall in New Jersey on a trip to visit her grandparents.

  “I love Oregon,” she says with a hiccup attempt at a laugh. I can tell by her sarcastic tone that it’s me she’s talking to, not God. “This is the hospital’s idea of nondenominational. ” She points around the chapel. There is a crucifix mounted on the wall, a flag of a cross draped over the lectern, and a few paintings of the Madonna and Child hanging in the back. “We have a token Star of David,” she says, gesturing to the six-pointed star on the wall. “But what about the Muslims? No prayer rugs or symbol to show which way is east toward Mecca? And what about the Buddhists? Couldn’t they spring for a gong? I mean there are probably more Buddhists than Jews in Portland anyway. ”

  I sit down in a chair beside her. It feels so natural the way that Kim is talking to me like she always does. Other than the paramedic who told me to hang in there and the nurse who keeps asking me how I’m doing, no one has talked to me since the accident. They talk about me.

  I’ve never actually seen Kim pray. I mean, she prayed at her bat mitzvah and she does the blessings at Shabbat dinner, but that is because she has to. Mostly, she makes light of her religion. But after she talks to me for a while, she closes her eyes and moves her lips and murmurs things in a language I don’t understand.

  She opens her eyes and wipes her hands together as if to say enough of that. Then she reconsiders and adds a final appeal. “Please don’t die. I can understand why you’d want to, but think about this: If you die, there’s going to be one of those cheesy Princess Diana memorials at school, where everyone puts flowers and candles and notes next to your locker. ” She wipes away a renegade tear with the back of her hand. “I know you’d hate that kind of thing. ”

  Maybe it was because we were too alike. As soon as Kim showed up on the scene, everyone assumed we’d be best friends just because we were both dark, quiet, studious, and, at least outwardly, serious. The thing was, neither one of us was a particularly great student (straight B averages all around) or, for that matter, all that serious. We were serious about certain things—music in my case, art and photography in hers—and in the simplified world of middle school, that was enough to set us apart as separated twins of some sort.

  Immediately we got shoved together for everything. On Kim’s third day of school, she was the only person to volunteer to be a team captain during a soccer match in PE, which I’d thought was beyond suck-uppy of her. As she put on her red jersey, the coach scanned the class to pick Team B’s captain, his eyes settling on me, even though I was one of the least athletic girls. As I shuffled over to put on my jersey, I brushed past Kim, mumbling “thanks a lot. ”

  The following week, our English teacher paired us together for a joint oral discussion on To Kill a Mockingbird. We sat across from each other in stony silence for about ten minutes. Finally, I said. “I guess we should talk about racism in the Old South, or something. ”

  Kim ever so slightly rolled her eyes, which made me want to throw a dictionary at her. I was caught off guard by how intensely I already hated her. “I read this book at my old school,” she said. “The racism thing is kind of obvious. I think the bigger thing is people’s goodness. Are they naturally good and turned bad by stuff like racism or are they naturally bad and need to work hard not to be?”

  “Whatever,” I said. “It’s a stupid book. ” I didn’t know why I’d said that because I’d actually loved the book and had talked to Dad about it; he was using it for his student teaching. I hated Kim even more for making me betray a book I loved.

  “Fine. We’ll do your idea, then,” Kim said, and when we got a B minus, she seemed to gloat about our mediocre grade.

  After that, we just didn’t talk. That didn’t stop teachers from pairing us together or everyone in the school from assuming that we were friends. The more that happened, the more we resented it—and each other. The more the world shoved us together, the more we shoved back—and against each other. We tried to pretend the other didn’t exist even though the existence of our nemeses kept us both occupied for hours.

  I felt compelled to give myself reasons why I hated Kim: She was a Goody Two-shoes. She was annoying. She was a show-off. Later, I found out that she did the same thing about me, though her major complaint was that she thought I was a bitch. And one day, she even wrote it to me. In English class, someone flung a folded-up square of notebook paper onto the floor next to my right foot. I picked it up and opened it. It read, Bitch!

  Nobody had ever called me that before, and though I was automatically furious, deep down I was also flattered that I had elicited enough emotion to be worthy of the name. People called Mom that a lot, probably because she had a hard time holding her tongue and could be brutally blunt when she disagreed with you. She’d explode like a thunderstorm, and then be fine again. Anyhow, she didn’t care that people called her a bitch. “It’s just another word for feminist,” she told me with pride. Even Dad called her that sometimes, but always in a jokey, complimentary way. Never during a fight. He knew better.

  I looked up from my grammar book. There was only one person who would’ve sent this note to me, but I still scarcely believed it. I peered at the class. Everyone had their faces in their books. Except for Kim. Her ears were so red that it made the little sideburnlike tendrils of dark hair look like they were also blushing. She was glaring at me. I might have been eleven years old and a little socially immature, but I recognized a gauntlet being thrown down when I saw it, and I had no choice but to take it up.

  When we got older, we liked to joke that we were so glad we had that fistfight. Not only did it cement our friendship but it also provided us our first and likely only opportunity for a good brawl. When else were two girls like us going to come to blows? I wrestled on the ground with Teddy, and sometimes I pinched him, but a fistfight? He was just a baby, and even if he were older, Teddy was like half kid brother and half my own kid. I’d been babysitting him since he was a few weeks old. I could never hurt him like that. And Kim, an only child, didn’t have any siblings to sock. Maybe at camp she could’ve gotten into a scuffle, but the consequences would’ve been dire: hours-long conflict-resolution seminars with the counselors and the rabbi. “My people know how to fight with the best of them, but with words, with lots and lots of words,” she told me once.

  But that fall day, we fought with fists. After the last bell, without a word, we followed each other out to the playground, dropped our backpacks on the ground, which was wet from the day’s steady drizzle. She charged me like a bull, knocking the wind out of me. I punched her on the side of the head, fist closed, like men do. A crowd of kids gathered around to witness the spectacle. Fighting was novelty enough at our school. Girl-fighting was extra special. And good girls going at it was like hitting the trifecta.

  By the time teachers separated us, half of the sixth grade was watching us (in fact, it was the ring of students loitering that alerted the playground monitors that something was up). The fight was a tie, I suppose. I had a split lip and a bruised wrist, the latter inflicted upon myself when my swing at Kim’s shoulder missed her and landed squarely on the pole of the volleyball net. Kim had a swollen eye and a bad scrape on her thigh as a result of her tripping over her backpack as she attempted to kick me.

  There was no heartfelt peacemaking, no official détente. Once the teachers separated us, Kim and I looked at each other and started laughing. After finagling ourselves out of a visit to the principal’s office, we limped home. Kim told me that the only reason that she volunteered for team captain was that if you did that at the beginning of a school year, coach
es tended to remember and that actually kept them from picking you in the future (a handy trick I co-opted from then on). I explained to her that I actually agreed with her take on To Kill a Mockingbird, which was one of my favorite books. And then that was it. We were friends, just as everyone had assumed all along that we would be. We never laid a hand on each other again, and even though we’d get into plenty of verbal clashes, our tiffs tended to end the way our fistfight had, with us cracking up.

  After our big brawl, though, Mrs. Schein refused to let Kim come over to my house, convinced that her daughter would return on crutches. Mom offered to go over and smooth things out, but I think that Dad and I both realized that given her temper, her diplomatic mission might end up with a restraining order against our family. In the end, Dad invited the Scheins over for a roast-chicken dinner, and though you could see Mrs. Schein was still a little weirded out by my family—“So you work in a record store while you study to become a teacher? And you do the cooking? How unusual,” she said to Dad—Mr. Schein declared my parents decent and our family nonviolent and told Kim’s mother that Kim ought to be allowed to come and go freely.

  For those few months in sixth grade, Kim and I shed our good-girl personas. Talk about our fight circulated, the details growing more exaggerated—broken ribs, torn-off fingernails, bite marks. But when we came back to school after winter break, it was all forgotten. We were back to being the dark, quiet, good-girl twins.

  We didn’t mind anymore. In fact, over the years that reputation has served us well. If, for instance, we were both absent on the same day, people automatically assumed we had come down with the same bug, not that we’d ditched school to watch art films being shown in the film-survey class at the university. When, as a prank, someone put our school up for sale, covering it with signs and posting a listing on eBay, suspicious eyes turned to Nelson Baker and Jenna McLaughlin, not to us. Even if we had owned up to the prank—as we’d planned to if anyone else got in trouble—we’d have had a hard time convincing anyone it really was us.

  This always made Kim laugh. “People believe what they want to believe,” she said.

  4:47 P. M.

  Mom once snuck me into a casino. We were going on vacation to Crater Lake and we stopped at a resort on an Indian reservation for the buffet lunch. Mom decided to do a bit of gambling, and I went with her while Dad stayed with Teddy, who was napping in his stroller. Mom sat down at the dollar blackjack tables. The dealer looked at me, then at Mom, who returned his mildly suspicious glance with a look sharp enough to cut diamonds followed by a smile more brilliant that any gem. The dealer sheepishly smiled back and didn’t say a word. I watched Mom play, mesmerized. It seemed like we were in there for fifteen minutes but then Dad and Teddy came in search of us, both of them grumpy. It turned out we’d been there for over an hour.

  The ICU is like that. You can’t tell what time of day it is or how much time has passed. There’s no natural light. And there’s a constant soundtrack of noise, only instead of the electronic beeping of slot machines and the satisfying jangle of quarters, it’s the hum and whir of all the medical equipment, the endless muffled pages over the PA, and the steady talk of the nurses.

  I’m not entirely sure how long I’ve been in here. A while ago, the nurse I liked with the lilting accent said she was going home. “I’ll be back tomorrow, but I want to see you here, sweetheart,” she said. I thought that was weird at first. Wouldn’t she want me to be home, or moved to another part of the hospital? But then I realized that she meant she wanted to see me in this ward, as opposed to dead.

  The doctors keep coming around and pulling up my eyelids and waving around a flashlight. They are rough and hurried, like they don’t consider eyelids worthy of gentleness. It makes you realize how little in life we touch one another’s eyes. Maybe your parents will hold an eyelid up to get out a piece of dirt, or maybe your boyfriend will kiss your eyelids, light as a butterfly, just before you drift off to sleep. But eyelids are not like elbows or knees or shoulders, parts of the body accustomed to being jostled.