Nominated for Pushcart Prize
Subhadra Eberly was born in Los Angeles, CA and currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is working on The Smallest Dose of Everything, a collection of short stories, and is determined to live on a train someday.
The beach bars were packed by eight o’clock with men drunk enough to not mind the $3.75 spent, even after we ditched them. With the cocktails from them, Emily and I would dance all night and joke about how meeting men in bars never goes anywhere but the backseat of a car.
Some time around two, we would hop in a cab and run up the fare, making the drivers take a guess on where we were heading.
“Ladies, pay attention. It’s a big city,” they’d say.
Our summers were spent on the beach. We would lie on the sand watching tanned men with natural highlights and colorful board shorts toss things at each other: Frisbees, footballs, volleyballs. Surfers would emerge from the water in their wetsuits and see Emily—with her toasted almond spiral curls and pastel pedicures—and lose their balance on the washed-up seaweed.
“Too many fish on the sand,” she’d say.
For years Emily and I were—by all means—living the single life.
Then she married Paul.
. . .
Paul calls me for the fifth time that year and says, “I need you to get over here.”
It was happening more often. The problems meant to be his and hers were becoming ours.
I was getting ready for a date. The man I was supposed to see in an hour was a surgeon I had met earlier that week in a coffee shop. I had been at a table, drinking a double espresso, reading The Sun Also Rises. Without notice, he sat down next to me and said I was reading his favorite book of all time.
“Give me fifteen minutes,” I said to Paul, then called the surgeon to cancel.
. . .
Emily and I became friends after her first engagement, not to Paul, but to some guy named Rob. She told me when he broke it off, she bashed her head into a wall, then showed me the spot where she had to get four stitches.
“Battle wounds,” she said, and pointed at the tiny scar on her forehead.
I had never been engaged. I hadn’t been anything yet. I was twenty-two.
I said, “My problem is I’ve never met anyone who makes me want to bash anything into anything.”
“In this city,” she said, “good luck.”
. . .
The scratch marks on Paul’s face were red and swollen, but didn’t bleed.
“You look nice,” he said. “Were you going somewhere?”
“Just a date.”
The knives in the wooden box on the counter were hidden somewhere, and a new hole in one of the oak cabinets caught my attention. Emily was where she usually was, the kitchen floor, and Paul was where he usually was, standing over her, running his fingers through his graying beard.
“She’s been like this for an hour,” he said, and moved his hands into his pockets. “She won’t go unless you’re here.”
She wouldn’t do anything if I weren’t there.
“Emily,” I said. “Get up. It’s time to go.”
. . .
Paul and Emily met at a mall after accidentally stealing each other’s shopping bags.
The wedding was on the beach in the middle of the day, before the air chilled. I was maid of honor, dressed in a strapless peach taffeta—Emily’s choice, not mine.
“You know,” Emily said, “you’ll always be my best friend.”
“Like there’s any way out of that.”
“And we’ll still live the single life. Only now it will be the married single life.”
“I don’t think that’s a thing.”
I adjusted the bust on my dress and said, “We do need to discuss the cocktail situation.”
“If you’re married, who will buy us drinks?”
“If you flirt with Paul,” Emily said, “I’m pretty sure he’ll put your drinks on his tab.”
The reception was held in the backyard of Paul’s parents’ North County mansion. While the bride and groom and guests danced on the lantern-lit grass, I did what I typically did at weddings. For an hour or so I made out with the groom’s second cousin—Brad or Chad—behind some white picket gazebo. Then I downed a bottle of wine and called it a night.
. . .
The delicate midnight chiffon dress had snagged, and the heels I’d bought earlier that day to match were not quite broken in. It wasn’t the first time I’d been over-dressed for a hospital drop-off, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been the last.
On the way to the hospital, I was thinking about that surgeon—his name was Dennis—and found myself almost heartbroken. He was a marlin, I thought, the kind of fish you want to catch. Now he would never call.
. . .
Things were backwards since their marriage. Our roles had completely reversed.
It used to be that whenever a guy I had been dating for a month or two worked things out with his girlfriend, or simply found another one, Emily would come over with her camcorder.
“We’re going to fix this problem once and for all,” she’d say, and we would spend the night drinking vodka tonics, filming intros for video dating services that didn’t exist.
“I really, really enjoy long walks on the beach,” I’d say.
Then Emily would say, “I really enjoy laughing at people who can’t walk.”
We were big on being politically incorrect.
I’d say, “The thing I love most in life are my five cats.” Then add, “I named them after my ex-husbands. Thomas, Frank, Robert…”
“I’m a cat person,” she’d say. “Literally,” then lick her imaginary paws.
When I look back, what I thought were the bad times were actually the good times.
. . .
As the best friend, you buy the books: Hormonal Imbalances in Women, Coping with Mental Illness, Understanding Bipolar Disorder, Friends of Borderline Personalities. The inconsistency came from five shrinks in three years. With every diagnosis—even the repeated ones—I bought a new book. I kept the collection neatly stacked on the bottom left of my bookshelf—the corner I referred to as the self-help section.
The husband does everything else. He monitors the mood journal entries, fills pharmacy prescriptions, and goes to the psychiatrist once a week with his wife to get lessons on how to deal.
He also sets off most of the episodes.
Paul and Emily had been arguing earlier that night, and he made a crucial mistake. He told her the only thing he had learned from therapy was that he wasn’t the one with the problem. To that I say—introduce me to a man who doesn’t always say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
. . .
Sometimes we took Emily to the kind of hospital that saves lives. The one we were taking her to was the kind that saves minds, where they’d keep her under observation. For the rest of the week, she would eat meals with plastic spoons and sit in group sessions with potential sociopaths and pyromaniacs and teenaged girls with eating disorders.
Paul and I watched Emily spit on a nurse and accuse her and everyone else in the room of sleeping with her husband. When the staff tackled her to the ground, we turned around and left.
“I just don’t know how you do it anymore,” I told Paul as we drove away.
I’ll never forget what he said next. He said, “You know I could never leave her, even if I had to.”
That’s when Paul showed it to me—the note she’d written that night. A name-calling, name-dropping, self-inflicted death threat.
Jesus Christ, she’s got it in writing now.
“What do you think?” I said and handed him back the note.
“I don’t know. They say she does this for attention.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But who knows what really goes on in her mind?”
. . .
It still haunts me—what happened right before the date with the surgeon that never happened. Some woman from nowhere near California chose the hotel where I worked, of all places, as her last stop.
The hotel advertised itself as a beach resort, but was located three miles inland. The closest beach was hidden behind rocky cliffs—crumbling with uncertainty, as if they could collapse at any moment, yet steady and firm in their foundation. The water was always colder there, and every other summer, the stingray shuffle signs were replaced by the signs that said the sharks were swimming closer to the shore than usual.
The building was massive and white, with tiny hand-painted blue floral tiles framing the doors and windows. Palm trees lined the ceramic path to the lobby and surrounded the building, obstructing whatever scenic view there might have been from the first floor rooms—the parking lot, perhaps?
The interior was a combo every-other-beach motif, with fake palm lining the walls and plastic pineapples randomly placed in the lobby. Wooden tiki totems watched over the guests in their rooms, and with every stay, they were given a flower lei.
I still wonder why beach resorts theme themselves after the beaches in other places.
That woman—she jumped from the balcony of her room on the ninth floor. But rather than falling flat and with a splat, she landed sideways on the mesh wire fence of the hotel parking lot, and—I’m not exaggerating when I say this—split in half. Everything inside her fell out, and the police had to steer clear of the intestines on the sidewalk.
. . .
The morning after Paul and I drove Emily to the hospital, I walked over to where the woman had landed.
The sidewalk had been hosed down, and the sawdust had already absorbed the leftovers.
She had driven from Pennsylvania to do it—that woman who ended it from the balcony. In her car, she left a note written in pencil that said, “One last stop and away I go.” I heard there was another note, addressed to her family, but no one at work knew what it said.
Now I know what those notes say. They’re all about who’s getting blamed in the end.
I imagined what I would do if—like that woman—I got in my car and drove to the other side. I wouldn’t bother leaving a note. I wouldn’t even jump.
I’d be at a nightclub somewhere in Florida, maybe Miami, salsa dancing with all the well-dressed men who want your number but never bother to call. Vodka tonics would be a thing of the past; I’d make the switch to Mai Tais and Piña Coladas.
I’d live the tropical life.
Emily was the one who said it, that in Florida there’s always the risk of hurricanes. But in my mind, those were the safe kinds of storms.
. . .
“We should move,” I told Emily, years ago. “To a beach that doesn’t try to kill you.”
There had been another sewage spill in Mexico. The shore was septic. The transmission of tetanus and hepatitis was likely.
Emily laughed and said those kinds of beaches don’t exist.
We went through the list, starting with the coastal west. In Malibu there are landslides, and the problem with San Francisco—aside from Bolinas being in the center of the Red Triangle—is the San Andreas fault line.
Hawaii has volcanoes. Period. Plus, you have to worry about rip currents, reef breaks, and shore breaks. And what about those box jellyfish in Waikiki? One sting and you’re good as dead.
“Let’s go east,” I said. “Florida?”
In Clearwater you get struck by lightning. New Smyrna is the shark capital of the world.
“And in Florida,” she said, “there’s always the risk of a hurricane.”
. . .
Emily called me the day she was released from the hospital.
“Well, that was a nice vacation,” she said.
This was an inside joke of ours—one we knew was in bad taste.
She told me about the girl with trichotillomania—how the strands of hair she hadn’t pulled made her look like she had been caught in a house fire. The schizo guy—he would tell the tables and chairs they had been resurrected. The argument was that he was there when it happened.
“Yes, yes,” he said to a gray plastic chair. “It took three days, but then you came back.”
And when the chair offered no reply, he said, “Are you saying I wasn’t there? I’m a man of the cloth, thank you very much, and certainly not a liar.”
It didn’t matter if any of it was true. These were the stories Emily loved to tell before saying something like, “I really learned a lot about myself when I was there. I think I’ve finally got a grip on this.”
Emily, according to her last three therapists, had abandonment issues, among other things.
“But enough about that,” she said. “Let’s go to the beach.”
I thought about the last time we went, and the intentional revealing of the dissociative scars running up her thighs.
I didn’t want to go to the beach. I wanted to get away from her.
“Yeah,” Emily said. “Meet me at my house.”
“Give me fifteen minutes.”
I hung up the phone and ignored the cobalt décor, the self-help books, the glass and chrome dinette, the crimson faux-leather sofa, and went straight for the clothes. And the shoes—God forbid I’d leave without the shoes.
. . .
The sun sets differently on the East. To avoid homesickness I wake up early and stand barefoot in the low tide of the Atlantic. I look to the edge of the world, to the miles of darkness, and watch for the sun creeping up on the horizon. If I don’t think about it, the effect is almost the same.
Six months after I moved here a hurricane did hit. It was a small one, but would you believe the eye of the storm was right over me? The roof of my rental was destroyed. Rain flooded the place, soaking through the carpet, making mold the landlord’s primary concern.
The destruction from the storm would have sent anyone from calm weather back, but I viewed the minimal damage as a symbol of safety. I stood outside in the violent wind and the debris, took one last look at that house, and checked into a motel.
I thought about when I left California, and what happened on the way.
. . .
I had been on the road for days and didn’t know where I was going, or if my car would even make it there. Somewhere in Texas I saw the warning clouds approach, and for a moment considered turning around, but found myself speeding up instead.
When the hail started in the middle of the night, the roads were slick and dangerous. The windshield cracked twice, and all I could see ahead of me were the newly formed dents on the hood. The hazard signs on the highway told me to slow down, but the questions kept me going eighty-five through the ice.
I wondered, how far away do you have to be?
And how long do you have to be gone?
If you’re already cross-country before the big storm hits, is your name still on that note?