by Sharon White
I was on top of a mountain, a small mountain in the Lake District, and my grandmother was alone at the inn. I was lost in fog. I was lost in the swirling fog and my grandmother was alone at the inn. She wasn’t as old as my mother is now. She used to call me Cherie. We were traveling together to all the famous places in the British Isles. I wanted to go to Scotland and the Lake District and Oxford. When we got to Oxford we had sherry in an American’s flat, a woman who knew lots of diplomats. I thought I was heartbroken. My mother sent a suitcase of clothes, flowered silk dresses and shiny shoes with high heels. I loved a man in Norway who smelled like fish and milk. I was drugged on Valium and had a hard time driving the shift car. Little did I know a boy from Germany had sent me a bottle of sweet wine and it was sitting, would sit, in Norway at my lover’s house for thirteen years. When we opened the cold bottle, it was sour. I’d never had a lover—was that what started the panic attacks—sex—?
.My grandmother was French Canadian. I used to go with her to a town in Massachusetts where she grew up. There were little wooden houses with white fences. She was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade-class. In her wedding picture she’s standing on the steps of the same inn where my mother had her wedding reception. My grandmother is wearing a large silk hat tipped over her eyes. She has narrow ankles. She looks like she knows she’s married a catch.
.The first one was, I think, in the airport in London. I was waiting for my grandmother to arrive. My parents had ordered me to leave Norway and travel to England to drive Nonnie around the countryside. I used to have a tiny notebook she kept about the trip. I think it was terrifying for her. She was almost eighty and had never done anything like this except with my grandfather. It was a great leap for her to meet me there. But I of course didn’t see it that way then. I was twenty-two and in love for the first time with a man who lived almost as far north as possible in a place called Finnmark. It was like a fairy tale for me—No, not really—it wasn’t actually like that, but flashes were. We slept on reindeer skins in huts on the high vidda where the reindeer herders followed their tiny reindeer bent with their large horns.
As I waited, I became more and more agitated. I paced back and forth near the baggage claim. I had a backpack and a climbing helmet. I wore a thin cotton dress. My heart was beating erratically and I felt my body turning to stone. I couldn’t breathe. My hands tingled. I was sure I’d caught some strange disease eating reindeer meat. I dropped on the long blue bench and pulled my legs up. My grandmother would never find me, spread out and paralyzed on the airport bench. I asked a woman near me if she could look for Nonnie and tell her I was here.
Soon Nonnie arrived and then the ambulance. And, after, we were on our way. I drove us as fast as I could toward Scotland.
Or maybe it wasn’t the first. There was that strange problem at Oxford. I moved from a flat near a park into the college for my spring term. Every time I tried to raise my arm to drink, my hand shook. I started holding my wrist with my other hand so I could get the heavy glass to my lips. I was in the dining hall, we were eating cauliflower cheese. Somewhere near me was Andy, a boy I thought I loved. Sometimes we kissed, sprawled on a dock on the edge of the Isis. There were iris thick and furled, cows in the meadow. There was my father sitting across from me in the pub. Peacocks in the trees and little birds hidden in the parks. Later, when I came home, I couldn’t speak. I went to the ocean and sat on the cold sand in the very early morning and watched the sun rise. The sand was gritty and wet. I wasn’t sure what had happened to me.
Do the tilting streets count? The smell of balled-up greasy paper. My hand on his back touching the pits in his skin. I don’t think so—it wasn’t truly a panic attack. Can’t think, though, when the next one happened. There were no more in England or Scotland. I was being brave and Nonnie was being sweet. Some days we sipped tea at a tiny table looking out long windows at the mountains. But I was a little nuts and she would die soon—wouldn’t she? A day or so after she lined her kitchen with all the shoes she couldn’t wear anymore. I loved the long roads that went along stone walls in Scotland and the sips of sherry at noon.
So when did the next one arrive? It must have been on my way to Brookfield in the car, up the curving stretch of highway on the border of Vermont. Unannounced and scary. I had lots of Pepsi at a basketball game. I was sure I couldn’t move. I was driving with Kenny.
And it happened again and again—the driving the tremble the gasping for breath and then pulling off the road. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror I thought my face had come undone—half screwed up. I thought I’d had a stroke. My body thrumming like a harp.
I had given up on Harald—I never went back to Finnmark—I started again as a waitress in a pub. I fell in love with the bartender. A large man with a red beard. Years later my son met him in a vegetable stand.
“It looked like he had stuff in his beard,” my son said.
I was just glad to get out of there before my husband saw him. We were all too close to each other, standing talking near the tomatoes. Kenny’s mother in a dark blue dress with white dots. I remember her just after her daughter died, standing in her lush gardens behind her little white house. I could smell the thick, sweet-sour smell of tomato plants in late August.
Spring that year was all flowers—the apples and pear blossoms on the hill—the delicate, pink striped spring beauties in the woods. By summer I was swimming naked in the brook, green light from the leaves reflecting on stone cliffs. I was swimming with a man my parents thought was bad news. And he did come home drunk. I locked him out on the deck and he slept in his poncho, pulled over his head like a wing. A year or so later it was all over. Just after Thanksgiving when he plucked a wild turkey clean and there was a bucket of blood and her beautiful feathers tipped in gold.
He tried to give me strawberries but it didn’t work. He had already slept with another woman.
“I do all sorts of odd jobs,” he told me when I met him at the vegetable stand.
I used to love to watch him garden, pulling the weeds with his large, wide hands.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that when Steve was sick there was no panic. Just the cold logic of each day, each day suspended on the next like a chunky necklace. He was there and then not there. A suspension of belief. I married a man I loved in early fall and he died barely a year later in spring. We sat at the table in Basalt. We ate cereal. The bowls were flowered. I walked out one night into a brittle sky blazing with stars. We were nailing a box as big as a coffin shut. I didn’t know what was wrong, all those bright cold stars in the bright cold sky. I had a drawer full of pages of words about far off places. A friend came to dinner and stayed, and there was a sink full of dishes. A meal of pesto on thin spaghetti. I climbed a mountain or didn’t. Soon, we loaded the car and an extra van and set off for the East. We were backtracking or I was backtracking. I was so cold. I had sold all my chairs, all my coats to a second hand store. I could smell winter, but we left before the snow. One day we were lost in the hills and had to turn back. We were lost in the hills one day. What does it take to erase panic—the shivers and thumping heart?
Driving. It’s interesting, it was often driving. When I moved to Philadelphia and I wasn’t driving there were other places. Classrooms, libraries, on the street. And the panic took other forms—not being able to swallow, my head exploding, difficulty riding the bus. What was that all about? After Steve’s death I drove through panic almost every morning. I drove down the highway to Springfield, past wicked hawks with their sharp beaks and slick wings, past smokestacks and fir trees and the empty ski areas, past where I was a little girl at the ski jump and a big girl at the Hartford Club. The glinting cars, the swerving highway all leading in some way to Waterbury where the hospital was, and we would sit on Steve’s bed and play Scrabble with made up words. He couldn’t spell the real ones.
I’m sitting on the wooden bench in the swamp. My child, barely five, runs behind the fence on the slope above me. All around vines drop their purple fruit, ripe, rank. Beyond me at the farm are sheep and a farmer in rubber boots walking past piles of hay and manure. I can see fences and solitary trees. I’m trying to relax in the hot October sun, and later I’ll take a short walk in the woods where sometimes I see berries and hawks and asters. I’ve driven myself here and then all I have to do is drive home over the rolling hills of pavement to the house where we live. I’ll meet my son on the other side of the fence, strap him into his car seat and drive the ten miles home. Past barns and houses, little boys on bikes and women walking briskly, pausing to stop at the crosswalks.
In the cabin. In the woods, on the edge of a field. Airplanes flying overhead. I imagine them falling out of the sky. I’m writing poems about pottery and apples. The tall firs are standing bristly and cold, the drops of rain tingling on the tips of their branches. Who’s this girl crouching in the house? Why is she so afraid? Sometimes she goes out to the frozen pond and touches the slippery banks where otters play. This is paradise but she’s frozen inside her skull. There must be something that manufactures all this. Planes just don’t fall out of the sky. Years later they do, but I don’t know that—in fact, the world is not as old as it seems to me now when my son is inching toward the age I was then. Living in a house where flies hatched one early spring against the windows. I scooped up hundreds with shiny eyes and tossed them into the cold air.
Sharon White’s book, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Eve & Her Apple and Bone House. Her memoir, Field Notes, A Geography of Mourning, received the Julia Ward Howe Prize, Honorable Mention, from the Boston Authors Club. Some of her other awards include a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Calvino Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Boiling Lake, a collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press.
Image Credit: Porsche Brosseau on Flickr