Atonia

Jackie Hedeman

Lily had perfected the taco. She would grab her duvet—olive-green, and twice as wide and twice as thick as a normal dorm bed duvet—and fold it around her body. Then she would roll over and go still. She would lie still under all that down, a 5’3’’ maybe 110 pound drift of taco meat. She would remain submerged until long after dinner, with only a tendril of long dark hair escaping the shell.

Lily, Amy, and Carol were my roommates. Our senior year, we won the housing lottery and moved into our apartment-style dorm: four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and one, long, functionally tiled bathroom with a drain every three feet. The building was designed by I. M. Pei, and there was a sculpture by Picasso out back. It didn’t seem real.

Carol was always running in and out. She was in two dance troupes, which she juggled with an engineering major, graphic design commissions, and the art classes she actually wanted to be taking. Entire weeks went by when we would only see her for a combined nine hours or so. She went to bed around three and was up again at seven. She was perpetually sleepy, but never seemed to need sleep.

Amy and I had similar schedules. We took breaks to huddle over Whose Line Is It Anyway clips on YouTube. We filled our time with nail painting sessions, midnight movies, visits to the mall, trips to New York, and laughing until our stomachs hurt. We were so wrapped up in each other that in senior year we slapped a label on it—heterolifemates—and vowed to marry at age 65 if no preferable suitors came along in the meantime.

By senior year, Lily was almost completely nocturnal. What was dinner for me was her first meal of the day. I made sandwiches, and she prepared delicious-smelling Chinese or Japanese dishes on the stovetop without a splatter guard. After she returned to her room and shut the door, the entire stove and half the counter was covered in a thin film of grease.



Lily and I came from the same Illinois town, although I never knew her there. We met in college, and compared notes. Yes, That’s Rentertainment had the best DVD selection (her, anime; me, British detective shows). Yes, Basil Thai wasn’t real Thai food, but it was still delicious. Yes, Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day was a shitshow. Yes, Roger Ebert was the best hometown ambassador anyone could ask for. Yes, the cows with the holes in their sides were weird.

Lily’s parents owned the donut shop where the town’s churches got their post-service donuts. I’d driven by a few times, but never been inside. If I had, I would have definitely met Lily, because she used to put in twelve-hour shifts on the weekends.

“All those donuts!” Amy exclaimed, her eyes lighting up.

“I hate donuts,” said Lily.

On the night that an ROTC freshman ran across campus to show a friend his disabled rifle and triggered a campus-wide lockdown, Lily and I sat on the floor of our common room with our shades pulled down, and painted our nails. “Are you flying home for fall break?” I asked. “We could give you a ride from Chicago.”

“That’s so nice!” Lily said. She picked up a shimmery blue polish and held it next to her big toe, considering. “I think I’m staying here.”

Lily only ever went home for winter break. During the summer, she worked in a lab and lived in summer student housing. One July, the parent of a hometown friend of mine called in a panic. It had been weeks since Lily’s parents had heard anything from her. I reassured her that I could easily find out what was going on, and as soon as I hung up I sent an exasperated e-mail to Amy, who was also working on campus. Tell Lily to turn on her phone before the entire Champaign Chinese parent mafia breaks down my door.

Amy wrote back. That girl.



The four of us drove to Carol’s parents’ house for Chinese New Year. The pictures of the evening show me accepting delicacy after delicacy with a smile of joy and resignation pasted on my face. This was our third year sharing this particular meal together, and each time I left uncomfortably full of some of the best food I would ever eat.

Senior year made everyone selfish and self-involved. Carol’s pictures also show Amy speaking animatedly with Carol’s younger sister as Lily looks on, tired, blank-faced, her hair uncombed, her chin propped on one hand, exposing a wrist thinner than it was at the beginning of the year.



Carol’s breakdance performance was held on a Friday in February, a strange, unseasonably warm night with high winds. During the performance, the weather shifted and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. Amy and I shivered our way back to the dorm, unprepared in our light jackets.

Back home, Amy knocked on Lily’s door, then opened it and went in.

“She’s not here.”

Amy stood in the middle of Lily’s room. She glanced back at me. “Maybe she’s in her carrel working on her thesis.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, because everything was gone. Lily’s room, previously covered in posters of Japanese boy bands and baseball teams, was stripped bare. Almost bare. The duvet was piled on the bed. A sheet of paper sat on the desk.

“Do you think she’s in her carrel?”

Lily’s entire room smelled of the duvet. It was a deep, human smell. Not unpleasant. Lived-in. Are you blind? I wanted to ask Amy. Instead I said, “Economists don’t get carrels. And all her stuff is gone.”

Amy finally saw what she’d been looking at. Her eyes widened. She picked up the sheet of paper, and standing side by side we both read.

Lily was gone. She was going home. She was taking time off. She had been depressed. She was depressed. She was taking care of herself. We had been the best roommates ever. If we saw her again—when we saw her again—we weren’t to mention this letter. She was embarrassed. She had to leave.

I glanced at the duvet. The taco. I wanted to crawl inside and still the shaking of my limbs, the clenching of my stomach. Amy finished reading. She gripped my arm.

I don’t remember whose idea it was. We wrote Lily an e-mail. We said we loved her, we were proud of her, we knew she had made the right decision. Amy kept telling me to add exclamation points to make it more cheerful.

We sent it, and sat in silence, staring at my laptop.

“What now?” one of us asked.

We went into the living room and sat on the couch and waited for Carol to come home. She would be holding bouquets of flowers, proud of her performance, maybe buzzed from the after party. She would be smiling, and shivering, and talking at the top of her lungs. We were about to ruin her night.



Once in sophomore year, Lily had sleep paralysis, and woke frozen and terrified, staring at the ceiling and wondering how the witch sitting on her chest and caressing her face had climbed the ladder and into her bunk without anyone noticing.

At dawn, I found Lily hovering over Amy’s computer in the common room, as Amy looked up the symptoms and found a pretty robust list of scientific and medical explanations. Stress, fatigue, an erratic sleep schedule—all were more likely than the explanation Lily had cobbled together from conversations overheard throughout her childhood: namely that a ghost sent to steal the breath from her lungs would press her into the mattress and smother her there.

Amy’s explanations reassured Lily, and we all went back to bed, and Lily never had another episode. Or maybe she did. How would I know? Maybe she frequently lay under her olive green duvet, sweating, eyes wide, heart beating out of her chest, afraid, knowing that she didn’t have to tell us about what wasn’t real, and maybe thinking that she couldn’t tell us about the stuff that was.



At some point in the three years after Amy, Carol, and I graduated, I managed to convince myself that Lily had gone to live with her grandparents in China. She had spent more than one happy summer there while we knew her, and it would certainly explain the lack of contact: the dead cell phone, the unanswered e-mails, the stagnant Facebook page. I thought of her with her grandparents, taking care of herself by taking care of them, wrapped in the kind of love we had been unequipped to offer her. Maybe she would stay there, I thought. Finish her education. Start her life.

I’ve always been good at telling myself stories. In our fourth year out of college, one of Lily’s high school friends contacted me. Lily was not in China. She had made it no farther than her bedroom in her parents’ house, and there she remained, under an unknown taco shell duvet, motionless, suspended.

Author Portrait

Jackie Hedeman is a first year MFA candidate in nonfiction at The Ohio State University. Before starting at Ohio State, Jackie worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit community learning center on the west side of Chicago. When not contemplating her triple passions—the Midwest, chocolate chip cookies, and Cold War espionage—Jackie is at work on a series of essays on once-key people in her life who dropped out of sight.

 

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