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Eyes Closed, Watching
This is not how I pictured my death to go.
I imagine lying in my bed at the ripe old age of 100, slipping away peacefully in my slumber. An obituary would run in the paper describing my fulfilling life and amazing achievements. Survivors would include a loving husband, two successful and happy children, and many beautiful grand and great-grandchildren. At my funeral, relatives would tell of my passion for life, my easygoing attitude, and my playful spirit. They would be telling the truth. The chapel would be filled with a sunset of brilliant flowers. Those in attendance would remark afterwards on what a lovely service it was. I would make my journey into the afterlife willingly, painlessly, and peacefully.
This scenario makes no mention of bone-chilling temperatures. Or of a vast, starless night or the lonely cry of a coyote. The warm bed of my fantasy has been replaced with a thin cotton blanket and an itchy burlap sack found on the damp ground. I pull the blanket up to my chin and visualize the lush beaches of Hawaii, the dry deserts of Egypt, the humid rainforest of Brazil. My meager comforter provides anything but comfort.
I am utterly alone.
With a weak groan, I cup my frozen hands around my nose and mouth. I force myself to count to ten before releasing the white steam of my breath. After a few minutes of timed breathing, I awkwardly prop myself up on my elbows and pry my eyes open. It seems less dark with my eyes closed. The sky is an eerie shade of monochromatic black, not a star in sight. I had always thought that the further away you were from civilization, the more stars there would be. I remember reading somewhere that the coldest recorded temperature was -89?. Pushing this thought out of my mind, I recline back onto the frozen ground and try to keep my last shreds of logic in my possession. I try to be rational as I silently take account of the supplies left in my backpack, which now serves as a pillow. I rehearse my apology speech in preparation for the inevitable fight with my parents.
But it’s no use.
My thoughts begin to race past the reasonable, logical, careful part of me, and take shelter in a darker corner. I dare to ask the question that has always been in the back of my mind, the one that I am afraid to ask for fear that it might come true. What if I don’t come back? What if no one comes? When my name is mentioned, will it come with a sad shake of the head and something like, “Oh, she was just too young”?
No. I won’t let that happen. I’m stronger than that. I’ll be found soon, and be back with my family in no time. Sure, I’ll be in serious trouble at first, but with time, this whole experience will be just a faint memory. One of many I’m sure to have.
But as the wind begins to howl, as the temperature steadily lowers, something primal and human in me is triggered. I make the long journey into my subconscious, uncovering memories that I never thought would return to the surface. I see the events leading up to this one on the darks of my eyelids. I breathe. My eyes are closed, watching.
I see stars.
September 1997. Three years old and curious.
I see me, wearing a yellow and red-striped dress, crouching on the sidewalk. A shiny, green grasshopper is hopping lazily on the hot concrete. I get up, careful not to disturb the grasshopper, and run to the yard to find a stick. I drop my twig when I hear a voice from inside the house. It’s my mother. “Jess, lunchtime!” she calls. I perk up, and skip to my faded yellow house. The grasshopper leaps away.
December 2001. Seven and ready to go.
I tug my mom’s hand harder as I see the school in the distance. I have waited for this day for ages, it seems. Second grade. These two words conjure images of a pretty, smiling teacher; a backpack full of school supplies; and a half-hour recess every day. The minute we reach the brick building, I give my mother the obligatory kiss and, seeing my friends, break away. After a few steps, I stop, turn around, and flash a grin. My mother hesitantly smiles back, but for a fleeting moment the look on her face wonders if she’s needed anymore.
April 2004. Ten and somber.
The weatherman didn’t say it would rain.
But a few minutes after we arrive at the funeral home, the skies open up and the mist leaves the mourning with damp clothes and flattened hair. I follow my cousins up the hill to where the casket sits waiting. Becoming suddenly aware of the expectant gaze on my mother’s tear-stained face, I timidly step forward. When I reach Allison’s body, I let out a gasp before I can stop myself. Allison looks just as she always had. Her dyed red hair is artfully arranged on the pillow, and her eyelids are coated with the Gold Glimmer shadow she had bought with me at the drugstore.
I idolized her. Allison had a boyfriend three years older than her, snuck out practically every night, and protested the Iraq War with her eager followers. She was, quite possibly, the coolest person I had ever known. And now was gone.
October 2006. Twelve and indecisive.
I spend what felt like hours staring at the paper in my hands. The margins are filled with crossed-out math problems and doodles of our teacher, Mrs. Lewis, getting squished by Bigfoot. In sloppy, typical 12 year-old handwriting, the words, “Do you like me? Check yes or no” are written. Under these deep musings are two boxes. The note is from Billy Muirhead, resident ginger and known cool kid. I look up and nonchalantly glance at where Billy is sitting. He’s staring at a spot on the blackboard as if it holds the secrets of the universe. I wonder if it would be valid to put a check mark somewhere between the two boxes. Sure, Billy is nice and smells better than most of the boys I know, but he caught me off guard. I let the fates decide and recite eenie, meenie, miney, mo under my breath. I check the winning box and pass the note to Sandy, who passes it to Kalie, who passes it by accident to Paul, who reads it and snickers before finally passing it to Billy.
The romance lasts for six days. It is my first and only (not to mention shortest) relationship.
For a while, anyways.
I see Billy years later, at the mall, putting Cheez Whiz on crackers and asking anyone who dared walked by if they would care for a free sample. He’s got a face full of acne and a Cheez stain on his apron.
My loss wasn’t too great.
August 2008. Fourteen and slighted.
Thank God the nice lady in the bathroom has extra Kleenexes in her purse.
She pulls out a tube of lipstick, a rolled up People magazine, and three tampons before she finds a wrinkled tissue. I take it gratefully, turn to the mirror, and get to work wiping the watery mascara off of my cheeks. She hands me another and I blow my nose loudly.
When Cadie Dannon, eighth-grade goddess, invited me to the movies with her, her boyfriend, Mick, and some high-school guy named Keagan, I was thrilled. I blew all my babysitting money on a pair of gorgeous black silk shorts and silver wedges. My purchases remained hidden in my hamper until the next weekend, when I left my house wearing my church dress and changing when I got to the mall.
But Cadie was nowhere to be seen. I sat at a table in the food court for almost a half-hour. Right as I was about to leave, she and Mick stumbled out of the movie theater, giggling at some inside joke. Cadie took one look at me, and after planting a kiss on Mick, let out a long laugh and disappeared through the automatic doors.
I sniffle one last time and throw the Kleenexes away. The woman, middle-aged and probably with teenagers of her own, gives me a kindly smile and envelopes me in a hug. She smells like apples and too-strong perfume. “There will be other boys, sweetie, don’t you worry. And if he wants you back, I say to hell with him,” she murmurs into my shoulder. I pull away, trying to mask my surprise. I not only realize that she has completely misunderstood my situation, I resolve to remember her as one of the few cool adults out there, just for swearing around a minor. She must have noticed my shocked expression, because she hurriedly asks if I need a ride home. I comply and we leave the mall, her sweater draped over my exposed shoulders as we walk across the parking lot. When we arrive at my house, she gets out her powder and helps me cover the tearstains on my cheeks. As I climb out of the pickup, she grins and winks at me. I give her an enthusiastic thumbs-up as I run up the sidewalk to my house.
I’ve never been the real religious type. A few church services on holidays have been about the extent of my spiritual experience. But if I did believe in all that, I would say that on that August night, I met my guardian angel.
July 2011. Seventeen and free.
I’d never seen real fireworks before. Every Fourth of July, my family would go out to the middle of nowhere and buy a couple of crappy sparklers from a crappy stand owned by a guy with a crappy mustache. He would stare at my chest and make dirty jokes about our founding fathers. I loathed the Fourth of July.
But this year it’s different. My parents left me and my sister at the house for a weekend at a bed and breakfast at a vineyard about 40 miles away. We had woven an elaborate web of lies to convince them to leave us by ourselves. In the month leading up to that fateful weekend, we were perfect little homework-completing, house-cleaning, sweet-talking angels. We were golden.
And we, my life being the stereotypical teen movie that it is, decided to throw a house party. I had had a boring summer so far, and thought that a little good old-fashioned crazy fun would throw me out of my funk. I was ready to, as the expression goes, party till the cows came home.
So here I am, sitting on a folding chair, letting the fireworks form white spots on my eyes. Living the dream.
I’m about to call it a night when Sammie calls me over to the porch. My skirt swishes as I slowly get up from the chair and walk up the front steps to my house. Sammie’s clutching a fruity wine cooler like it’s her child and, from what I can tell, she’s buzzed. She reaches into the cooler beside her and tosses me a beer. I take a few gulps before relaying it to some guy with dreadlocks. After the incident of 2009, in which I downed a Miller Lite at a pool party and promptly retched on my towel, I had vowed to follow the 1/3 rule when offered a beer.
Sammie has apparently never heard of this rule, as I watch her slowly sway back and forth. When I start to get dizzy from watching her, I grip her shoulders and guide her to a chair, thinking the porch swing may be a bit too much for her.
“So Jess,” she slurs, sloppily putting an arm around my waist. “I was thinking. We should go for. . .” She pauses to think of the word. “A drive,” she concludes.
I chuckle and try to let her down easy. “Don’t you think you’re a little intoxicated for that, Sam?”
“Oh god no, not me. I’m not that stupid. Jimmy could drive.” She gestures to a guy I’ve never seen, Jimmy, I assume. I wouldn’t have noticed him if she hadn’t pointed him out. Not unattractive, but hardly swoon-worthy, he has olive skin and shaggy brown hair. He sees Sammie, making no effort to conceal her pointing, and smiles. Sammie, in her drunken stupor, explains that she met him through Student Council freshman year. They had sat at the same lunch table for a couple of months before she transferred. I think that this is hardly a reason to invite him to my house party, but so be it. With a gesture that would have been coy if she wasn’t so drunk, Sammie beckons Jimmy with her finger. He gets up from his spot on the porch swing and joins us.
We eventually end up at a 7-Eleven. The way there is filled with Jimmy and I listening to Sammie and her stories made ten times funnier because of the fact that she’s under the influence. We turn up the Top 40 countdown, the trashy pop music that we all secretly love. We dance like what I associate with a couple of senior citizens at a roller disco to said trashy pop music. We laugh so hard that the next morning, my abs hurt and I have to take an Advil. It’s what being a teenager is supposed to be.
We finally arrive at our destination. Sammie has a craving for a blue raspberry Slurpee, and we happily indulge her. She goes back out to the car, contently sucking down her prize, and it’s just me and Jimmy in the beef jerky section.
The first thing I notice as we’re talking is what a nice nose he has. It’s a tan, perfectly-structured wonder, and I suddenly want to tell him so. My better judgment wins out and I keep my mouth shut.
We’re talking about movies now, I think, and I hear him say something about Colin Firth, and how incredible his emotional range is, and I have I seen his latest film yet? and then I hear something that brings me back to earth.
“You have really nice eyes, you know that?” he says, not backing down as he blatantly stares at my face.
“Thanks,” I enthuse. “You have a really nice. . .nose.”
In a different situation, this might seem mortifying and incredibly awkward, but we just stand there and look at each other, and we’re talking about how funny the word nose is and how expensive beef jerky is and pretty soon he kisses me.
It’s not, by a longshot, the best kiss I’ve ever gotten, but it doesn’t matter. One hand is around my waist and the other is in my hair and I briefly panic as I try to recall what I had for dinner. These thoughts soon vanish as I get lost in his touch, the summer night, the humid air drifting in through the open door. I remember how great losing yourself is.
We break apart, and he smiles, and then I smile, and in my peripheral vision I can see the cashier smiling too. He covers the hand dangling at my side with his and we walk out the sliding doors and into the night.
This book is horrible.
I, under the suggestion of a doctor, am no longer allowed to read the crime dramas I hold so dear to my heart. They fear that I’ll, I don’t know, make a break for the exit or something. I patiently explain to them that the only time I ran away was a one-time thing, but they won’t listen. So instead of reading about grisly murders in Depression-era Alabama, I’m reading about passionate love affairs in Victorian-era London. This includes such gems as Kisses and Betrayal, Aroused and Dangerous, and my personal favorite and current read, Rogue Summers. It’s been exactly 242 pages and there have been 39 sighs, 54 whispers, and 87 murmurs. I kept a tally.
I’m just at the part where Rosalie decides to let Ezra ravish her body when there’s a soft knock on the door. “Jessie?” the nurse calls. She peeks around the door, and I motion her in with a wave. She comes bearing gifts: a tiny Styrofoam cup with a few pills in it, and a mug of lukewarm water. She helps me to sit up and I down the pills in one swallow.
As soon as she leaves, I make an attempt at getting up. It’s a struggle reaching for the silver handle on the side of the bed, but eventually I succeed at standing on solid ground. I walk to my dresser and grab a brush. As I work through the tangles in my bedhead, I stare at myself in the mirror. My eyes are sunken in deep, and my skin looks papery and transparent. When I finish brushing, I pull the hairs out of the bristles and put them in the trashcan by my bed. I climb back under the covers and, thinking I’ve had enough romance for one day, turn on the news.
The piece is on a 13 year-old girl, recently found in woods on the outskirts of Albuquerque. She had been missing for four days, and updates on her whereabouts had made the front page of the paper three times in a row. She’s crying as she’s being interviewed about how she went off of the trail for only a minute. Of course, she hadn’t told anyone where she was going.
I smile as I remember another story of the same vein. It was, quite possibly, the most dramatic thing that had ever happened to the small town of Glorieta. The headlines blared: Girl, 17, found unconscious at Wheeler Peak summit. New Mexican teen, missing for six days, survives. The stories surrounding me and my miraculous survival spread like wildfire. How I supposedly resorted to eating a bear cub after starving for days. How I made friends with a Navajo boy who ultimately saved my life by teaching me how to forage for food. When people heard the name “Jessie Staver”, they always had a story—usually fictional—to tell.
My version of events always differed, however. I don’t remember what I ate or what animals I saw. I remember the cold. The always-present, suffocating cold that grabs you and won’t let go. I remember the glow of the stars against the pitch-dark night. I remember the beautiful, beautiful faces of my rescuers. I remember the warmth of the ambulance as we made the steady descent down the mountain. I remember their touch.
A bird calls outside my window and startles me awake. My eyes come into focus as I squint at the calendar on my wall. The seventeenth is circled in blue marker. My 90th birthday. I had completely forgotten. I make a mental note to call my daughter.
Easing back onto my pillow, my eyes begin to drift shut. I think about my grandchildren, the black curls of Ellie and the green eyes of Owen. I think about the type of birthday cake I should get. I think about my library fines.
But all of these things begin to fade to the corners of my mind as I go back to that night, over 70 years ago. I shuffle the cosmic hand I’ve been dealt, each card holding a memory. My eyes are closed, watching.
Only this time, I know the ending.