We Are Okay

By: Nina Lacour

chapter one

BEFORE HANNAH LEFT, she asked if I was sure I’d be okay. She had already waited an hour past when the doors were closed for winter break, until everyone but the custodians were gone. She had folded a load of laundry, written an email, searched her massive psychology textbook for answers to the final exam questions to see if she had gotten them right. She had run out of ways to fill time, so when I said, “Yes, I’ll be fine,” she had nothing left to do except try to believe me.

I helped her carry a bag downstairs. She gave me a hug, tight and official, and said, “We’ll be back from my aunt’s on the twenty-eighth. Take the train down and we’ll go to shows.”

I said yes, not knowing if I meant it. When I returned to our room, I found she’d snuck a sealed envelope onto my pillow.

And now I’m alone in the building, staring at my name written in Hannah’s pretty cursive, trying to not let this tiny object undo me.

I have a thing about envelopes, I guess. I don’t want to open it. I don’t really even want to touch it, but I keep telling myself that it will only be something nice. A Christmas card. Maybe with a special message inside, maybe with nothing but a signature. Whatever it is, it will be harmless.

The dorms are closed for the monthlong semester break, but my adviser helped me arrange to stay here. The administration wasn’t happy about it. Don’t you have any family? they kept asking. What about friends you can stay with? This is where I live now, I told them. Where I will live until I graduate. Eventually, they surrendered. A note from the Residential Services Manager appeared under my door a couple days ago, saying the groundskeeper would be here throughout the holiday, giving me his contact information. Anything at all, she wrote. Contact him if you need anything at all.

Things I need: The California sunshine. A more convincing smile.

Without everyone’s voices, the TVs in their rooms, the faucets running and toilets flushing, the hums and dings of the microwaves, the footsteps and the doors slamming—without all of the sounds of living—this building is a new and strange place. I’ve been here for three months, but I hadn’t noticed the sound of the heater until now.

It clicks on: a gust of warmth.

I’m alone tonight. Tomorrow, Mabel will arrive and stay for three days, and then I’ll be alone again until the middle of January. “If I were spending a month alone,” Hannah said yesterday, “I would start a meditation practice. It’s clinically proven to lower blood pressure and boost brain activity. It even helps your immune system.” A few minutes later she pulled a book out of her backpack. “I saw this in the bookstore the other day. You can read it first if you want.”

She tossed it on my bed. An essay collection on solitude.

I know why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway two weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in—a stunned and feral stranger—and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Only an hour in, and already the first temptation: the warmth of my blankets and bed, my pillows and the fake-fur throw Hannah’s mom left here after a weekend visit. They’re all saying, Climb in. No one will know if you stay in bed all day. No one will know if you wear the same sweatpants for the entire month, if you eat every meal in front of television shows and use T-shirts as napkins. Go ahead and listen to that same song on repeat until its sound turns to nothing and you sleep the winter away.

I only have Mabel’s visit to get through, and then all this could be mine. I could scroll through Twitter until my vision blurs and then collapse on my bed like an Oscar Wilde character. I could score myself a bottle of whiskey (though I promised Gramps I wouldn’t) and let it make me glow, let all the room’s edges go soft, let the memories out of their cages.

Maybe I would hear him sing again, if all else went quiet.

But this is what Hannah’s trying to save me from.

The collection of essays is indigo. Paperback. I open to the epigraph, a quote by Wendell Berry: “In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.” My particular circle of the human has fled the biting cold for the houses of their parents, for crackling fireplaces or tropical destinations where they will pose in bikinis and Santa hats to wish their friends a Merry Christmas. I will do my best to trust Mr. Berry and see their absence as an opportunity.

The first essay is on nature, by a writer I’ve never heard of who spends pages describing a lake. For the first time in a long time, I relax into a description of setting. He describes ripples, the glint of light against water, tiny pebbles on the shore. He moves on to buoyancy and weightlessness; these are things I understand. I would brave the cold outside if I had a key to the indoor pool. If I could begin and end each day of this solitary month by swimming laps, I would feel so much better. But I can’t. So I read on. He’s suggesting that we think about nature as a way to be alone. He says lakes and forests reside in our minds. Close your eyes, he says, and go there.