From “How Can I Help”

“Was I supposed to follow Hayley, pursuing her across the twenty-five-mile-per-hour zones to the hospital, where things would proceed pretty much exactly the same had I not followed her? Was I supposed to return to work, where, through no fault of my own, I would be perceived as cold and un-empathetic? Was I supposed to do a five-minute ‘breather’ as a way of understanding that in such moments our vision invariably clouds? Or was this a situation in which our first instinct is our best instinct and the clouding occurs in deliberation? Who was I to Hayley, really, but a chance shaking of the biological dice? Let her go.

“As these thoughts presented themselves, one after another, like a series of flashcards for learning nothing, I found myself passing a mock-Tudor house with a trim lawn, bordered with topiary. Beyond the house were horses, then 10 miles of sod farms. In middle school and then steadily through high school, I had been infatuated with a boy who lived in this house, a perfectly untouchable Joshua Michaleson. My love for him was not entirely unrequited: once, after finishing a chemistry-lab writeup we were partnered for, I was invited, albeit by his father, to stay for dinner. Joshua showed me the special freezer, for the quarter of a cow they had purchased, and there was also a greenhouse with geraniums and tomato plants. Next to the kitchen table, on a high shelf, was a red plate that I was told was part of a Quaker tradition; it read, ‘You Are Special Today,’ and one ate off it only on one’s birthday, or on some other very special occasion. I had loved Joshua before, but now I loved him with the intensity of someone who would have felt honored to be a piece of furniture in his realm. In my house, at that time, there were hundreds of goldfish that our mom had brought home in plastic bags, in one of her streaks of spending and what she called her ‘bouts of personality.’ Joshua was the eldest of five brothers; also at the table was a live-in nanny, a woman from Hungary, whose name I didn’t catch. She had corn-silk hair pulled up in one of those ponytails that lend a special shape to the head, a sort of volume which I’ve never succeeded in reproducing. I don’t know where the mom was. The nanny seemed at least one part tennis star. I felt, at that dinner, that I was sitting amid the most beautiful, intelligent family in the world.

“Joshua’s father drove me home. I asked him to drop me off at the house two doors down from my actual house. The porch light was not on at my house. Inside, my mother was sleeping. Outside, Hayley had gathered the plastic bags of goldfish from all the corners of the house and was finishing placing a stack of them on our front lawn, next to a sign that read, ‘Free! Please take!’ She was never a keeper of family secrets. Only I was. I never used to tell Hayley, or anyone, anything. But for some reason, I suppose because Hayley had an undeniable talent with the other gender, that evening I confessed to her that I was in love with Joshua Michaelson. She stood quietly next to the fish. Quiet was rare for Hayley. She knew the Michaelson family.

“Finally, she said, ‘You’re too good for him. Just remember that. He’s not rejecting you, you’re rejecting him.’

“It wasn’t true, I know, but something about my sister’s way of being—it was our household that was secretly the golden one. I was able to believe that. For a moment.”
Rivka Galchen

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