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Polly, Looking

PUBLISHED: December 3, 2020


Polly’s problem after the accident, really one of her largest problems, was an inability to prune what she saw and what she thought, to stop her brain. She was both too easily distracted and too attentive. When she’d gotten out of the hospital, she’d gone on a looking binge. Ned brought her photography and gardening books, stacks of Sotheby’s catalogues he found at the local Goodwill store, piling them everywhere as a hedge against her glitches in language. Polly spent one unnerving afternoon flat on her back in the yard, watching trees encroach on clouds. There hadn’t been much to do but observe.

She had always looked too hard at things. When she was little, in a decade of assassination and riot and war, people couldn’t always scuttle her away from the news, but everything—books and records and magazines and calendars—played into some grand theory in her brain about lost people. Her dead aunt Evie gradually looked more and more like the woman on the cover of Durrell’s Justine, and her dead grandfather Frank became a doctor in LIFE magazine. Jane had framed an image of a phoenix, a Persian fresco, from a magazine, and hung it in the bathroom—a golden bird, rising in front of a black sun. It didn’t look reborn, it looked as if it wanted to scorch the world, and it became another tile in her mind, so that later when a neighbor had a parrot, she suspected it was a phoenix in disguise. Bird books, art books—the world was filled with strangeness. Gorillas playing flutes on the cover of terrifying Stravinsky albums, Chinese horses and Ray Charles, soldiers dead in the Southeast Asian mud, corteges on television instead of parades or cartoons.

Now, though, pictures sometimes scrolled around her even when her eyes were shut—a ribbon of color and random objects, usually beautiful but sometimes terrifying—and if she concentrated on a painting or photograph, she sometimes went inside of it, the way she had as a child. She saw the leaves in a van Gogh orchard and the graying wounded hands and feet of Holbein’s long strange Christ. When Vinnie, an amputee from a forest fire–fighting accident in college, tested a new, unclad prosthesis, Polly was as fascinated as the children by the titanium and the hinges. She felt as if her eyes could enter any surface: the ground, the river, closed curtains, flesh. Sam ripped a hole in his leg in late May, and Polly, remembering another little boy, could not stop seeing his interior after he was stitched closed again.

Ariel, lost in the river, would have the run of Polly’s mind.

Few people seemed to believe her when she described this issue, certainly not her mimsy neuropsychiatrist, and so Polly was pleased when she was weirdly good at finding morels that spring in the river bottomland, the cream-colored honeycombs glowing up when you were right above them. Polly was the only one who found dozens, and the only one who didn’t trip over submerged branches. She wanted to stay for hours, getting sunburnt, getting lost. Josie and Harry, Vinnie and Nora, Ned and Ariel and Drake and the kids tagged after, everyone getting a little drunk. Only Graham hung back and sat by the river, resentful and embarrassed, stealing looks at Ariel, her red-gold hair flashing through the trees.

When Polly went in for her first full cognitive testing, six weeks after the old man clipped her bicycle, the woman who administered the test wore a tight black T-shirt with black jeans and black lace fingerless gloves. The Testgiver (capitalized and one word in the leaflet Polly was given) was young, but she had gray streaks in her hair and her arms were doughy and profoundly pale, the pale of no sun, ever. Polly watched her and tried to imagine the life behind all this—the gloves, no sunlight, the CBGB look coupled with a face that couldn’t love music, or drugs, or anything wayward on the planet.

The experience was innately hostile. When Polly made stupid, self-disparaging jokes, the woman took notes. When Polly misunderstood instructions, the woman said, “No need to be defensive.” Four hours of general knowledge, definitions, story problems, arranging blocks, repeating series of words and numbers, looking at an image for fifteen seconds before drawing it from memory. Polly’s reaction time was measured, and she was given a hundred-question yes-or-no psychological test: Do your parents like your siblings better than you? Do you use dirty talk sometimes? Are you afraid of the dark? Do you believe in evil?

Everything was cold: the woman, the lighting, the furniture, the pervasive flavor of humiliation in Polly’s dry mouth. The fucking gloves—what was that about? The Testgiver said, “Some people complain a lot. We’re used to it.”

We, the wall of authority. Keep the patient small. In a follow-up, Polly was told her tests showed that she was perfectly average. “Well,” said Polly, “then why do I feel so odd?”

The youngish neuropsychologist, who said Polly and Ned should call him Dr. P (“for simplicity”), leaned back with his hands up, as if to say, What can you do? Polly scanned the sheaf of papers he’d handed her, passing them on to Ned one by one. She’d done honorably in language skills, not well at all in spatial skills and math. Ned asked about the comparison group, and the doctor beamed. Polly was stellar against sixty-year-old high-school graduates, and a solid average compared to older college graduates.

As Polly watched Ned read, she began to bridle. How could the doctor be sure that her scores wouldn’t have been higher before the accident? For a fast vocabulary recall, Polly pretended that she was walking through a fancy New York grocery where she worked in her twenties—had he seen the words she’d written? Celeriac? Pancetta? Why on Earth had a clock face been flipped backward, for a month? The thirtieth percentile for spatial and math—Polly laid no claims to anything beyond algebra II and geometry, but before the accident, she’d measured out every inch of the house when they’d renovated.

“You might be depressed,” he said. “Only natural, given your constant questioning of your state of mind. Or it could be a matter of stress. You said you have trouble sleeping. The aging brain, menopause.”

Polly had just turned forty-two. Dr. P was getting a jump, there. It could be a lot of things, but she thought the simplest explanation might be best: Her head had slammed down on pavement. The neuropsychologist—whose bill would be paid by the old man’s insurance company—was not endearing himself to his patient, or adept at luring her toward his chosen point of view. He had a sharp, tiny nose and the tic of pulling on his small, white fingers while he talked, as if he were taking off a ring or giving a tentative hand job. 

Ned tapped her on the knee; Ned almost always knew where her mind was headed. When Polly snapped back into the here and now, the doctor was saying that everyone thought they were more intelligent than they were. 

Ned, normally too composed for his own good, grew pink. “She edited. She cooked at high speed. She didn’t have to pause and think through every step.”

“It may be unfair of you to set such a high bar,” said Dr. P. “We would like to avoid a victim complex, fear of failure bringing failure, bringing on an even greater depression. She’s depressed and thinking she’s damaged or that someone was at fault will make her even more tentative.”

“She has changed,” said Ned. “This is not about grubbing money from insurance. This is about helping her to understand and be realistic and continue enjoying life.”

Polly was locking into we and she and succumbing to agitation. Ned obviously wanted to hit Dr. P, but Dr. P needed to be Polly’s victim.

“If you’re hoping for medication beyond an antidepressant, there’s no magic bullet. Nothing can make Mrs. Berrigan more innately intelligent. We are what we are. But I do recommend antidepressants, and counseling.” The doctor pulled out a prescription pad, signed his name with a curlicue, and handed it to Ned, rather than Polly.

They all allowed a moment of silence. Polly imagined one of the hardest things to learn, as a psychiatrist, was how not to patronize your patients. “I don’t want medication.”

“Are you sure you don’t already use something?” 

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve told me you enjoy wine.”

“You’re a righteous little prick,” said Polly. “Go fuck yourself.”

You could take the girl out of New York, said Ned on the way home. He didn’t need to point out that she had been drinking too much.

Polly’s secret, which translated to a dozen small secrets a day: She was sure she was losing what was left of her mind. After the cognitive test, she abruptly saw the stakes and understood that admitting weakness was unthinkable. None of them needed another doomed, disintegrating woman. Polly started saying that she was fine, just fucking fine, better every day. She feigned calmness and deliberation, and those who knew her well, after briefly worrying this stance was some new manifestation of damage, went along with the whole thing. There was nothing wrong with pretending, Polly thought. People made it through cancer and jobs and whole marriages that way. And how different was she, really? If you couldn’t remember normal, how were you to tell?

Polly didn’t lie, usually, but she became good at leaving things out, eliding everything iffy that no one had noticed. Melted spatulas disappeared, bounced checks were covered, her children didn’t fink on her when she put her purse in the refrigerator or the trash in the pantry or her laptop in Helen’s toy box (despite the hysterical search that ensued). Most people didn’t notice if she called out for a dead pet, and when she stopped commenting on her weird painless migraines and started to think of her seconds of paralysis as minor spells, she stopped minding them; what a trick. When she lost herself in one of the moments, she told people that she’d been thinking about something, which was true enough, and people welcomed the chance to ignore the fact that she’d turned into an awkward statue. It would be a fine thing if she could go anywhere she wanted to with her moments, on demand, rather than, say, while driving or burning down her house.

And if she could actually pick what she saw, where would she go? Dee’s kitchen, a moment in a Michigan orchard, a French street, her own body at thirty with Ned anywhere, the minutes after Sam’s and Helen’s births. Instead she was treated to a slideshow of Ariel, images clacking like slides as they changed in her brain: a little girl throwing a ball for a dog, a taller girl with a cello looking annoyed during a concert, a grown girl with a shovel on a high hill.

Polly’s great-grandmother Dee told her once that there were three kinds of dreams—not the passing filaments, the sorted trash from the day, but the ones that came back, over and over—about three kinds of things: wishes or desires, loss or being lost, and fear. All her life, Polly thought these categories felt true, and lately, they came to her in combination.

Right after the accident, Polly wandered around most nights, not quite sleepwalking, always with some goal in mind. She woke up confused about what was real and what was a dream. Did she still smoke, sometimes, or had she quit cold turkey before she’d had Sam? Was she having an affair? Had Dee made face cards come alive? Polly would smash memories and images together, and on the mornings when she was still in this state, she was half-blind while she made the children breakfast and tried to sort out the truth—had she bought tickets for Sydney? Was she pregnant?

Ned called these moments déjà you, and tried to be light, but during the night, Polly would lose the line between memory and the here and now, what had been, what should be. She was editing her story, surprised over and over in the morning to find the work was erased, and she was haunted by the in-between, true and not, the story bending once it hit her brain. Her occasional inability to distinguish what was real and what she’d dreamed was a torment at first, but she began to accept it, even look forward to it. Most of her dreams were pleasant, and she cosseted them. She wanted, in the privacy of the dark, to think about the good things, to spend time with people who were gone, to let the world be strange. During the daytime, she forced her mind to make sense, but at night, she told Ned, it was like doing mushrooms again, in the gentlest possible way, and thinking this way, indulging her strangeness for those limited hours, made her relax. She worried less about shorting out. If things got weird, she told people she needed to rest, to lie there and drift. Dreams felt true again, and often she could push them into whole stories.

But on the first night of Ariel’s disappearance, Polly saw only bits of things, none of them good. She was tangled in grass, she was in a restaurant kitchen but the stove was over her head, she was running down the hall of Dee and Papa’s house in Stony Brook, a figure following her inside the ocean-blue painting on the wall. She tried to stay in the dream but couldn’t, and when she woke up, Ariel was still gone, and Polly cried quietly, while Ned talked in his sleep about tides.

They had to remember that this wasn’t their tragedy. On Saturday morning, before Ned left to search again, before Sam and Helen could hear people blither on about how there was a chance that Ariel would be found, Polly and Ned told the children that Ariel was gone, that there would be no miracles, that she had felt no pain. Sam sobbed and wouldn’t talk. Helen watched him, not entirely grasping what had been said, and told Ned and Polly that Ariel was scared of the water, as if that made her drowning impossible.

And what had Polly said in response? A half hour later, walking along the river while Merle and Jane watched the kids, she hoped it hadn’t been the wrong thing. She sat down on a bench and watched the water pass and thought, If I sit here and wait, I’ll find her.

Saturday morning, overwhelmed by the sound of the helicopter beating over the house, Polly and Jane and Merle took Sam and Helen to the museum in Bozeman. They went through every room, read every label about Plains tribes and dinosaurs, inland seas and megafauna. They winnowed around vanished things, trying to make the children concentrate on giant lizards and bison and insects in amber and quilled cradleboards.

Everything disappeared. Maybe it would help, knowing this. Maybe Polly’s childhood trips to the museum had been meant to bring home the same point. Look at all the wonders that have vanished, and yet here you are.

Polly, who had known many people killed by water, and who now had a problem sorting the past from the present, was born with the name Apollonia Asta. Merle Schuster had been in a poetic phase, and Asta was the name of Jane’s dead mother. Those cursive As and Ls took Polly years to master.

Some history, and a love story: Merle had met Jane in 1959, at a cocktail party thrown by some English major using his absent parents’ fancy house in Ann Arbor, with a full bar, silver toothpicks for the olives and cherries and pickled onions, mixed nuts in an Italian glass bowl. People were dressed up, smoking and talking pompously about Bergman, while Jane was joking about the movies—admiring them, but comfortable enough to make fun of the boatload of symbolism in every frame. Merle heard she was well traveled and knew French and Italian and some Spanish. She was only nineteen, an orphan, but she’d started college early, and her grandfather was a Big Deal in archaeology and mythology. She was tall, with light-blue eyes that jarred against her thick dark hair and gold skin, which looked as if she’d been sunning on an island instead of stumbling through a dank midwestern term. All this, and she was from Montana.

Jane told Merle that Bergman had consulted her grandfather for The Seventh Seal and The Magician, meeting at Le Pavillon for feasts while they talked about death and old dreams. This level of sophistication, as well as the way Jane smoked a cigarette and preferred whiskey to beer, made various parts of Merle’s body and soul expand. He’d grown up smart but poor, and he wanted the world.

What Jane liked about Merle: He was good-looking but gawky, with a high forehead and curly hair, a lanky Roman statue with an astounding, aquiline nose. He didn’t patronize her, he admitted ignorance rather than feigning seriousness, he truly listened, and he knew how to fix things like cars and clocks and doorknobs. He was honest, and ardent, and read books. She pitied his polio-withered left arm and marveled at the brown, muscled right.

Jane didn’t know Merle was a sweet but melancholic alcoholic who would have trouble, all his life, finishing anything—fencing projects, novel writing, the dishes. Merle didn’t know that every member of Jane’s family had at least one substantial secret, and that all these secrets had pooled in her body and her brain.

Jane was beautiful, as beautiful as her lost mother, Asta, who’d existed only in photographs since a car accident in 1941, and as Asta’s mother, Perdita, Papa’s first wife, who’d died soon after giving birth in 1917. Jane was so lovely that Polly could remember being eight, living with Papa and Dee, watching visitors—poets and academics—spill things while they tried to have a conversation with her. On the first day of school, Jane was always the mother everyone looked at, and Polly would feel a bolt of pride make its way through her dread of the new. Even then she’d known, without minding, that she would never come close. Jane could beat Polly in tennis while hitting with the handle, and on the iced-over pond near the farmhouse in Michigan, Jane would make graceful figure eights around her daughter, who fell again and again. Jane was elegant; Polly was not. Whatever genes Papa and Perdita had brought to the table—beauty, the ability to glide, the ability to kill with a look—very few had been left for Polly, whose figure was closer to that of Merle’s sweet dumpling mother, Cora.

Jane was still a junior at the University of Michigan when she became pregnant. She managed to receive her bachelor’s degree two years late, but everyone gave up something. Instead of hitchhiking around Europe, or writing poetry, or whatever escape he’d half-planned, Merle signed up for a graduate degree in microbiology in Ann Arbor. They moved into married housing but spent most weekends at Merle’s family’s house a half hour away, a small plain place with linoleum and thin-planked oak floors, a cross on the wall next to school portraits. Merle’s parents fed them; a swarm of teenagers cared for Polly when Merle and Jane needed to be young and alone.

Jane, child bride with no siblings, became silly and giddy with the noisy, chaotic Schusters. Merle’s brothers and sister and the flood of cousins in the neighborhood dressed Polly up and took her to church and for walks. Everyone paid attention to her, first grandchild, novelty—they read books to her, taught her games, gave her their best marbles. They took her to a cabin and towed her around a lake in an inner tube; they pretended she was managing to whip the cream or smash the potatoes on her own power.

The world was happy, accelerating—Merle would ditch science to write novels, Jane would get a doctorate someday, in something, because she knew everything—until the morning Merle’s father, Frank, and sister, Evie, were given a ride in a plane as a gift by Merle’s uncle, who hired an Air Force veteran to fly them. The ride was a celebration of Evie’s fourteenth birthday, but the plane dropped into Lake Michigan a mile from Elberta, a place of beautiful white sand dunes. The pilot had been intent on suicide, waiting for an opportunity, and they were simply unlucky. Polly was three. A family can be snapped to the ground, just like that, and almost forty years later, the wounds still bled red tears.

As a result of these absences, Polly came up with some specific ideas about death. She believed that when people died, they disappeared but began anew somewhere else, disguised and hidden from the people of their old life. This explained all the youthful angels in art books, and Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Polly didn’t know what had ended up in Frank’s and Evie’s coffins, or how to explain the mangled airplane, but she believed they were hidden away, warm and unripped and safe, not understanding how sad they’d left the world. But when she tried airing her ideas, she upset Merle, and Jane explained again that Frank and Evie were gone forever, either buried in the ground in Michigan or up in heaven.

When Merle and Jane announced they were moving to New York a few months later, Polly assumed that the point was to find the dead again. Why else would they leave her world behind? She was bereft, and theories and solutions filled her brain. She would find Frank and Evie on her own, because clearly no one else knew how to go about it.

And so Polly and Merle and Jane set off for the city, three against the world. Merle drove the cat with a baggie of veterinary downers, and Polly and Jane took a sleeper train from Detroit. Polly remembered thinking through her task—she remembered remembering, even though Jane now claimed she’d been too young—on the ride from Michigan to New York, watching the landscape blur by in a frenzy of supposition. 

In New York, they found a third-floor apartment on Thompson Street. Papa and Dee’s place was a few blocks away, but it wasn’t big enough to take in refugees. They were often traveling, and they were a blank in Polly’s mind until she was six or seven. She was a denning child, given to blanket forts and shipping boxes, the queen of small spaces, and she refined her plan while hiding in a thicket in the muddy courtyard behind the apartment building, a secret trampled place among elderberry bushes that she made her own. 

The three of them on Thompson Street learning how to live. They made coffee at the same time every morning, stopped letting the laundry mildew on the floor or in the washer, began to have dinner at 6:00, with an eye on Walter Cronkite. Merle put on his badly ironed starch-rippled shirts every day to be an assistant for a biologist he despised, and Jane took summer classes at NYU, though she was always behind, always late. She’d grown up with Dee, a world-class cook, without ever paying attention, and now she floundered through Joy of Cooking. She was only twenty-two, hot and resentful in a housedress, starch water in a Coke bottle with a saltshaker top, ironing work shirts while they watched Julia Child on television. Polly remembered the mundane moments, not just the laugh reel, the construction of a stew, a cake, a sauce. “Soufflé on a Platter,” for instance—Jane was a real mouth-breather for that episode, watching with a steno pad and a pen. Some experiments were repellent (salmon soufflé with canned salmon, bones and all), but the triumphs— duck à l’orange, béarnaise sauce, éclairs—burned their way into Polly’s soul. 

Giddiness when a meal worked, hungover mornings. At night, even when she was three years old, Polly never dreamt of breaching the wall of the bedroom door. It was Merle and Jane’s world. They were different people on Thompson Street, always whispering to each other, always close, and Polly was always with them but forever in her own world, watching. They were nothing like the people she knew now, another point for memory over imagination.

Whenever she was out in the city, Polly searched for her dead aunt and grandfather. She always looked at the eyes, because it might be the only way she’d know. Evie had huge chocolate eyes with soft brown eyebrows. Polly didn’t know how old Frank and Evie would be now—time seemed infinite, since they’d left Michigan, and she believed they’d choose whatever age they liked. Frank might be a teenager, Evie a baby, but Polly hoped they’d both be her own age. She spied on people in museums, circled customers in the fish store to look up at their faces. Back at the apartment, she’d sort what she’d seen against photographs in the grubby brown photo album.

That spring, she finally found Frank and Evie at the dry cleaner’s on Sullivan and Prince and studied them from behind her mother’s legs. Evie, fourteen when her plane fell into Lake Michigan, now looked as if she were about ten but still had flat dark hair and a small mole on her cheek. Her eyes were right, clear rich brown, and her skin looked the same, and her voice sounded familiar when she asked Frank when they’d have lunch (another convincing detail). Frank’s eyeglasses were different, and he was pale, but everyone was paler in a city. He was counting a stack of brown-wrapped dress shirts while the Chinese woman who ran the shop scanned the shelves for a last packet.

Polly was stealthy; she was careful. She couldn’t bear the terror of them looking back, the answering flash of recognition or the disappointment of being wrong or being forgotten. When another customer entered, a large woman with curly hair and a shiny coat, Polly wedged herself between Jane’s leg and the counter, splitting the difference between strangers to avoid and strangers to watch. Jane counted the money in her red change purse while they waited for the man and his daughter to finish, coins tapped out onto the Formica counter. The old Chinese woman reemerged in a cloud of hot fabric and blue chemicals, and the smell of the place was like its own ghost. As she handed Frank a raincoat and hung Merle’s only suit and Jane’s blouses from a hook, the young Evie met Polly’s eyes and smiled.

Polly felt her face crack open. She gripped Jane’s leg so hard her mother gave a little yip and looked down in confusion. “They’re not dead,” Polly said. “I told you.”

The other people in the store heard her. Evie looked away and Frank took her hand. Jane led Polly outside, into the wet pavement smell of spring, but Polly knew she’d been right. Frank and Evie still existed, though changed. They’d come here to hide and she’d found them. They’d forgotten who they’d been, but she knew better.

That afternoon Polly and Jane wrote letters. Polly knew most of the alphabet but didn’t bother with it on such occasions. Jane gave her a mug of cocoa and three pens, red, blue, and black, and they sat down to pale-blue sheets of airmail paper. When you’re three, you can write your own epic in your own hidden language, and even after you’ve faced the fact that some sort of shared code is necessary, the mystery of the original story might survive, if it was there to begin with. Polly drew careful slanted shapes with spaces and exclamation points to mark shifts in the story. She knew she should write the way she talked, rather than the way she thought, but after a few minutes the pattern strayed, and her private handwriting circled the page. She drew human figures, birds, clouds, a cave in a mountain, jagged waves, and fish with sharp teeth.

“What’s all this, honey?” asked Jane.

“The people are thinking about whether to fly or swim or live on land,” said Polly. “Now that they’re someone else.” She drank some cocoa and went back to her pencils. That night she explained again, and Merle told her that dead was dead. Polly tried to talk about it again when she was eight, but then she put it away, with other childish things. 


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