Once in a while (or more often than I care to admit) I’ll zone out and start thinking about stuff that does me no good. Here is an example from when I was staring into space for five minutes in the produce section at Safeway:
They’re going to peel open my skull, take a peek around and be devastated by what they find. Or don’t find. I don’t know if they can tell this from an autopsy, but the way I live doesn’t adhere to anyone’s expectations or standards. In fact, I’ve been a disappointment to a lot of people. When I die, it will be unremarkable but not in a sad way because hey, I’ll be dead. Anyway, the only information they’ll get out of my autopsy will be that I ate 3 pints of Ben and Jerry’s Toffee Coffee Crunch, was still using Clearasil at the age of 80 and I may or may not have 76 cats back in the apartment I died in.
It’s the weird stuff you get obsessed about while picking out carrots or trying to figure out the difference between red cabbage and plain lettuce.
In Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands Emily Shepard is a teenager who loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson and seems like your run of the mill 17-year-old. There’s mention of mental illness and wildness but I could never tell if that was just Emily being a teenager or if she was in need of hefty medications and therapy three times a week. She’s a door-slamming and yelling teenager, hates her drunk parents most of the time and likes to go out and party. Both of her parents work at a nuclear plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They have loud drunken fights and quiet hung over mornings.
One morning with every boring thing in its proper place, Emily goes to school, her parents go to work, and things go to hell. At Emily’s school there’s an announcement. All of the students are filed onto buses they’ve never seen. As the buses leave the town and the army comes in, rumors and pieces of the story start to come together. One of the reactors had a meltdown, Chernobyl style. There’s whispering that Emily’s father was working while loaded and caused the tragedy.
Emily tries to think back to the morning before leaving for school. Did her dad seem drunk or hung over? Was it his fault? Everybody thinks so. Since he’s dead they all look to her. She’s his daughter. It’s her fault. Her hometown becomes a ghost town with the national guard surrounding it. The area won’t be inhabitable for hundreds of years. Emily realizes both her parents are dead from the nuclear meltdown and she’s on a bus to God knows where. She decides to slip away.
It is the beginning of her new life.
She becomes a homeless teen with a made up name. She falls in with a bunch of other kids who crash at a filthy crack house. She services truckers for money and drugs. She tries not to think of her parents or the town she grew up in. As strange as it sounds, she worries most about her dog Maggie who may have been locked in the house during the meltdown. She obsesses on this. She decides that while yes, her life sucks big time, she’s still alive. It’s the dead of a New England winter and at least she gets a warm place to stay.
But this isn’t what she wants. She disappears and builds an igloo out of frozen leaves and garbage bags. She meets Cameron, an eight year old boy with a black eye. He’d been through a series of foster homes and was used as a punching bag. She feels a terrifying and unexpected tenderness for the kid and takes care of him; making sure she gets healthy food for him to eat and getting him to read the books she steals. But one day Cameron gets a cold he doesn’t seem to get over. It’s a bitter winter and they’ve been sharing a cold back and forth but this is something different. Cameron’s fever won’t leave and he can’t breathe. Emily takes him to the ER and then splits because she feels guilty that she didn’t take him in sooner and that she didn’t take good enough care of him.
She decides there’s only one place to go: back to the uninhabited town she left almost a year ago. She has no doubts that the radioactivity will eventually kill her. She just wants to go home. Sleep in her own bed, look at her journals and books. She wants to find the body of her dog Maggie and give her a proper burial.
A friend of mine recommended this book as we were driving around town and listing the past couple of books we had just read. I stored it away in my brain because I’ve read some of Chris Bohjalian’s other work and really liked them. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a book to read when you’re in a particular mood where all you can think about is where you’ll end up in life. A mood where all the people you interact with become satellites orbiting your world. It’s a good book to read when you believe you’re the most selfish person in the world and you have no redeeming qualities..
In the end, you can go home. You might die from cancer or radiation sickness. You might have to eat refried beans from cans two years out of date. You might not even realize you’re lonely because you’re sleeping in your own bed.
But you will still be you and you will still find your way home.