Chapter 10 – William

Hello Beautiful

auGust 1983– ovember 1983

He walked the city For most of the night and then returned to the shore of the lake. It was still dark out. No one was around, and

even the air was motionless as he waded into the water. No birdsong, no traffic noise behind him, no human voices. It felt like the world had paused. William had to walk for a long time before the water was deep enough to go over his head. He hadn’t thought to bring any weighted objects; he’d stopped thinking hours earlier. William contained only a yearning for water, for darkness, for quiet. He wanted to sink, but his giant body kept trying to float. Even after a long time in the water, when he was pretty out of it, his feet would shoot sideways, and he would be on his back, as buoyant as any boat, staring up at the sun. He was no longer a person with a name and a history; at that point, he was a cork bobbing in liquid, and he could only note the soft, pruned feeling of his hands, the sun burning his face, the water making its way into his eyes and ears. He was sleeping, or unconscious, when there was a roaring noise, and voices, and hands tugging at him. He couldn’t open his eyes to see what was happening. He listened—heard Kent call his name after a time—but only because he had no choice. When he woke up in the hospital, dry, and saw Sylvie on a chair next to him, his first thought was that he’d failed. The fact that he had failed meant he had to continue to walk forward with his life history—his mistakes—slung

over his shoulders like a heavy backpack. This fact exhausted him, but he was too tired to reject it.

william was i a different hospital from the one he had first woken up in; after nearly a week of evaluation, he had been moved to an inpatient psychiatric facility in downtown Chicago. The lake was three blocks away, out of sight. William was aware of the body of water, though, despite the distance. While he drifted in and out of sleep, he still felt soaking wet, far from shore, and unable to stay underwater.

During the first few days at the new hospital, either Sylvie or Kent was always in the room when he shifted in and out of sleep. He saw them but wasn’t strong enough to speak. Kent spoke to him, told him he was going to get better, told him his doctors were excellent, finally told him he had to return to school but would be back in a few days. Sylvie rarely said anything, just sat in the room’s one chair and read her book.

As he became more alert, her presence felt complicated. He suspected that Sylvie was the only person, other than Kent, who hadn’t been completely shocked at what he’d tried to do. She’d seen the bleakness inside him that night on the bench and in the footnotes of his manuscript. His wife had read his footnotes too, of course, but he knew Julia’s primary response had been dismay that William contained those kinds of thoughts. For Julia, this meant he was the wrong man for her, not that there was something wrong.

William was aware that he was glad Sylvie was there, even though something about her presence didn’t sit right—the Padavano family should want nothing to do with him. Every time Sylvie was in the room, he half-expected the door to swing open and Julia to walk in. He tossed and turned under the weight of this possibility and tried to stay unconscious for as many hours of the day as possible. “Sleep

is a great healer,” Dr. Dembia told him. She was the doctor assigned to him in the psychiatric unit. “You’ve been working very hard for a long time, William. Give yourself a rest.”

One afternoon, when William woke from a restless nap, Sylvie said, “Can I ask you a question?”

He heard distress in her voice. He had to clear his throat to say, “Yes.” And then he felt resigned, because no matter what she asked, he had to answer. He couldn’t lie anymore. Like a piece of fine porcelain unable to bear any weight, he could no longer take it.

“Do you want Julia to visit? We’re not sure what to do.”

His body emptied of air under the force of the question. He knew the answer, though. He’d written it into the note before he left the apartment. He understood that this was a necessary postscript, a clarification. “No,” he said, his voice winded. “Julia and Alice should stay away from me. Forever.”

He didn’t know how Sylvie took this announcement, because he didn’t look at her. He knew it was a horrible thing to say, but he meant it, more than he had ever meant anything before. “Tell her that I give Alice up,” he said, and turned his face to the wall. He stayed that way, his eyes closed, until Sylvie was gone.

His words had been so brutal, and his rejection of Sylvie’s sister and niece so final, that William knew Sylvie would never return. The night that followed was long. William remembered being in the lake. He tried to reckon with what was left of his life: Kent, and his other friends from the team; the medications Dr. Dembia had prescribed him. That was all he had, and he knew he was lucky to have anything. His old life sat at the bottom of the lake. He’d just pushed away the last piece, Sylvie, and it was a loss that ached. William had experienced a strange peace beside her on the bench that night—as if he’d been able to set aside his pretending and just be—and he’d felt relief each time she walked into his hospital room. But William had revealed himself to be the kind of monster who abandoned his wife and child, and there were consequences to that.

the door to william’s room had to remain open, even at night, so the nurse patrolling the halls could lay eyes on him at any time. There were no locks inside the unit, not even on the bathrooms. The unit itself was secured with a thick metal door, which was always bolted shut. Visitors had their bags searched, and the main door had to be unlocked to let them in and locked again once they were inside.

Dr. Dembia met with William for a half hour every afternoon. She had short gray hair but a youthful face. William didn’t know if she was old or young: Perhaps her hair color meant she was older than her face looked, or perhaps her hair had prematurely grayed. He’d been in her care for a week when she said, “I was finally able to speak to one of your parents. I called your father at his office.”

A chord buried deep inside William vibrated. He wished he hadn’t taken things so far that his parents had to be involved. He’d given the doctor his mother’s and father’s names when she’d written down his life history. “I assume he said that he couldn’t help,” William said.

“He said you were an adult and therefore on your own. He actually hung up on me. William, I want you to know that that isn’t a normal parental response. It’s unkind and unfair. You deserve, and deserved, better from your parents. You were born to two broken people, and that’s part of why you’re here.”

“You think he’s a jerk.”

She smiled. “Well, that word doesn’t really fall under my technical vocabulary. I would say that I suspect your father also suffers from depression.”

William found it hard to picture his parents’ faces. He saw them at the train station, waving, but their forms were blurry. The idea of his father being depressed had no traction in William’s mind; it just slipped away. These sessions with this doctor, who paid attention to him—sank her eyes into him like fishhooks—were exhausting. The

other two doctors who visited him were distracted; William only got a sliver of their focus. He was more comfortable with that arrangement. “He and my mother haven’t been part of my life,” he said. “Not for

a long time, anyway.”

The doctor tilted her head to the side, and William could see her considering the veracity of this statement. It occurred to him, for the first time, that just because you never thought about someone didn’t mean they weren’t inside you.

william woke up o e morning nauseous and sweaty. He knew this was a reaction to his medication; finding the most effective combination of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications was a process of trial and error. He kept his eyes closed for a few more minutes, because he knew this would be a difficult day, and he was in no hurry for it to begin. When he did open his eyes, he saw Sylvie sitting next to his bed. William blinked at her. She was sitting very straight in the chair, as if she were being tested on her posture.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” he said, uncertain whether she had in fact come back or he was hallucinating.

She nodded. “I had another question,” she said. “You said you didn’t want Julia or Alice. Is it all right if I visit you? Or do you want me to go away too?”

Go away? William thought. He’d been dreaming about his conversation with Dr. Dembia regarding his parents. In the dream, William was swimming away from his mother and father, while they swam away from him. And he had told his wife and daughter to go away. So many people leaving each other. There had been a claustrophobic atmosphere in the dream, a foreboding, as if they were all about to find out they were swimming in a fishbowl. They were trying to get away from one another, and they were doomed to fail.

William looked at the young woman in the chair. He knew she was real and not a hallucination. He knew he wanted her here. He didn’t know why, but that didn’t matter right now. William was trying to relearn what it felt like to want anything at all.

“Don’t go away.” His voice was tired, fuzzy with drugs and sleep. “I’m sorry I hurt your sister.”

Sylvie said, “You hurt yourself too.”

He shook his head, rejecting this. “Is Julia okay?”

Sylvie sat even taller; she looked stretched, as if she were trying to be in more than one place at once. “Julia is upset,” she said. “Obviously. But she’ll be all right. She doesn’t know I’m here. It’s just that I think”—she hesitated—“that you deserve to have visitors. I know Kent visits, but he’s too busy to come often. You don’t deserve to be alone.”

This sentence struck William like he’d been shoved in the chest. He didn’t deserve to be alone? He didn’t think this was true, but he believed Sylvie meant what she said.

“Thank you,” he said.

Sylvie nodded, and then they were both quiet for a few minutes. The quiet was loud, like the ambient rush of a white-noise machine. William wondered if there was something else he should say. Sylvie looked uneasy too. It felt like they’d reached the end of a script, and now one of them needed to either make something up or leave the stage. William thought longingly of sleep. Maybe he could disappear from this moment, into unconsciousness.

Sylvie leaned forward and said, “I was wondering if you could tell me about Bill Walton.”

“Bill Walton. The basketball player?” She nodded.

William was surprised, but he knew the answer, so he gave it. “He’s a playmaking big. Played for Portland and was a season and finals MVP. He was plagued with injuries, though. Broke his wrist twice. Sprained his ankle. Dislocated fingers and toes.”

“Goodness.” Sylvie looked lighter, relieved that they had found something to talk about.

“Walton broke a bone in his foot, and they had to make a kind of sling-slash-cast for the foot to try to reduce the pain. They gave him painkilling shots, which he played on, and that messed the foot up even more.” William couldn’t believe he was speaking this much, but now that he’d started, he needed to give Sylvie enough information so she truly understood. “Walton’s a great player, maybe the best passer in the game, definitely for a center. He loves basketball, but his body is terrible. His knees are…impossible, and he has endless foot injuries. He’s on the bench for the Clippers this year.”

Sylvie said, “It seems impressive that he was able to play at all, much less win MVP, with that body.”

“It is,” William said. “It is impressive.” But talking so much had exhausted him, and he fell asleep. The next time he opened his eyes, Sylvie was gone.

dr. dembia told him that she was giving him homework. “I want you to write down every secret, every part of your life that you kept from the people close to you.”

He looked down at the plain notebook he’d been handed. William nodded and then put the notebook to the side. For as long as he could remember, he’d tried to push away from anything uncomfortable, to not allow it close. But he had pushed away so much that there was nothing left. He knew that to get well, he needed to consider his wife, his childhood, and his failure to manage what had looked from the outside like a great life. He wasn’t ready yet, though. It was enough to simply know that the time was coming and that he could no longer hide. When William slept, he dreamed about water, and while he was awake, he walked the psych unit’s halls.

Kent sat in the chair in the corner when he visited, his long legs reaching into the middle of the room. He looked sleepy and sometimes closed his eyes. “Stop feeling guilty,” he said. “You would have done the same thing for me.”

“I’m not in medical school with two part-time jobs. You shouldn’t be here now. How many hours of sleep did you get last night? And now you have to drive back to Milwaukee.”

“I’m only coming here once a week. My buddy is covering my shift today. You can’t make me stay away.”

Kent’s affection for William was too clear and too uncomplicated. It shone on William like the sun. No one had ever loved him unconditionally like this, and that love, when he was the most undeserving he’d ever been in his life, made William feel like he was burning up. He paced the room, trying to cool himself down with motion.

“I think you think I’m still in danger. But I’m not. I won’t do it again,” he said. “I promise.”

Kent studied him from beneath lowered eyelids. “I want more than that, you know. I want you to feel better. To love your life.”

William laughed, a brief, dry sound. When had he last laughed? “That’s not funny,” Kent said.

William felt chastened. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought it was.” He thought for a moment. “Do you love your life?”

“Shit, yes.” Kent said this with force.

William looked at his friend. Kent was still at his playing weight and seemed to glisten with youth and health. They were both twenty-three years old. William felt at least forty—which was ancient. He put his hand over his busted knee.

“I’ll give you something to live for,” Kent said. “I’ve got my eye on Michael Jordan—you know, the North Carolina kid who made that big shot last year? He looks good. Maybe the Bulls can get him when he enters the draft.”

William nodded. He thought of the conversation in which he’d told Sylvie about Bill Walton. Michael Jordan was much harder for William to think about. Kent was excited about Jordan because he looked like the future of basketball, but William found it impossible to contemplate the days and weeks in front of him.

“Listen.” Kent studied him. “Are you sure about your marriage being over? Because I can talk to Julia, if you want. Help you mend fences or whatever’s necessary.”

“I’m sure it’s over.”

“All right.” Kent sat up straight in the chair for the first time. “We’re going to watch the Bulls together on TV this year. Every game. You’ll come to Milwaukee, or I’ll come to you.”

Come to me, William thought. Where? Where will I be?

william had e tered the hospital in August, and it was now late September. The leaves outside his window were losing color, their dark summer green washed away. William appreciated this small moment in time when the colors faded, a visual deep breath before the new season arrived.

Dr. Dembia said, “Have you finished your homework?”

It had been a while since she’d asked him about the notebook; he knew this was a nudge. He shook his head. “Not yet.”

When Sylvie arrived at William’s door, he was aware he felt grateful to see her. He was becoming more aware in general. What had been a dull paste of emotions inside him had more texture. Sylvie had recently brought socks that Emeline had knit for him and an art book from Cecelia. It had become clear that the twins were concerned about William too, even though they’d stayed away from the hospital. In different ways, three of the four Padavano sisters continued to care for him, as if their sheer number, and adjacency to Julia, could paper over the hole he’d created in his own life. You’re

not alone, their attention told him, and he was moved by that kindness.

William knew Julia would hate that Sylvie visited him. His wife would have rightfully considered the note he’d left—along with the addendum he’d given Sylvie—the end of their marriage. The fact that Sylvie had decided to continue, even temporarily, her relationship with William was messy at best and bordered on disloyal. The Padavano sisters had acted with complete unity, he knew, for their entire lives. He had watched Sylvie and Julia sleep in each other’s arms on his couch. He found it hard to believe that Sylvie had crossed that line for him.

Sylvie set down her purse on the corner chair. She said, “I’m curious about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—why did he change his name in the beginning of his career?”

William smiled; his thoughts were still on his estranged wife, and Julia wouldn’t have asked him this question in a million years. Julia had no interest in basketball and was always trying to shoo William and his attention away from his favorite game. She’d had her eye on who William would become, after the next job offer or once he had a PhD after his name. He didn’t blame his wife for this conditional acceptance; he’d grown up with parents who’d never accepted him at all.

“William?” Sylvie said, her head tipped to the side. “You all right?

You look far away.” “I’m here,” he said.

He knew, with his new awareness, that he should tell Sylvie to return to her sister for good. He should tell her that he would be okay without her visits. The nurse who patrolled the halls and peered into each room had just walked by and would walk by again in four minutes. William felt more grounded in his body. Kent would be here on Saturday. You should go, he thought. But he couldn’t make himself say the words.

sylvie was sitti G i the chair, and William was pacing from one side of the room to the other. He’d been in the hospital for over two months. It was almost Halloween, and the nurses had taped posters of jack-o’-lanterns to the walls in the common room. William wasn’t able to open his window, but he could see that people outside were now wearing jackets or vests while they walked down the sidewalk.

“How many rings did Bill Russell win in total?” Sylvie said, after several minutes of watching him slowly ricochet from one wall to the other.

“Eleven in twelve years,” he said, and stopped walking. The warmth—that discomfort he felt when Kent gazed at him with his wide-open face—flared inside him. Sylvie shone affection at him too, and even though it was hard, he was trying to accept it. He’d smiled once, during Kent’s last visit, and his friend had slapped him on the back, delighted. Dr. Dembia had said to him, “Discomfort is just a feeling, William. It’s okay to let yourself feel your feelings.”

He said, “I know you bring up basketball to make me feel comfortable, Sylvie. It’s very nice of you.”

Sylvie raised her eyebrows, surprised by this.

“And I know you read my book.” Without stopping to think, William reached for the empty journal on his bedside table. “I have homework from the doctor. Maybe you could help me with it? I appreciate your visiting me. I should have said that before.”

“I’d like to help you,” Sylvie said, in a careful voice.

“Can you write down what I say, as a list? I’m supposed to write down the secrets I kept from…well, Julia.”

Sylvie reached out for the notebook. Like him, she’d grown up going to confession in church. Entering the dark booth and lowering herself to the kneeler. Confessing her sins to the screen that separated her from the priest. William thought of that sacrament now and felt bad for all the children who were forced to divide their

ordinary lives into sins and not-sins so they would have something to say to a cassocked stranger.

“The first one is that I knew you read my book,” he said. “I never told Julia that I’d figured that out.” His manuscript was still on the top shelf of the closet in his apartment, unless his wife had thrown it out.

Sylvie wrote in the notebook, her head down.

He sat on the side of the bed, ready for his body to be still. “I never wanted to be a professor.” He paused to see if there was a reaction, then went on. “I never told Julia that I was eating lunch in the Northwestern gym every day and that I was helping Arash with the basketball players. She had no idea how much time I spent in the gym. I didn’t tell her how unhappy it made me that she read what I was writing. That it was more a journal, more for me, than a book.” His head dropped lower. “I didn’t want to have a child.” He closed his eyes, sank into the deepest part of himself. “I didn’t tell her I had a sister.”

There was a gasp. “You had a sister?” Sylvie whispered this, as if the words were sacred, too important to be uttered at volume.

“She died when I was a newborn. From the flu, or pneumonia, maybe. It destroyed my parents. I think they were never able to look at me without remembering her.”

“Oh, William.”

He and Sylvie sat in the same stunned silence. They sat in the unthinkable—William never thought of it—loss that preceded all the other losses. He had never told anyone about his sister, and something blossomed out of the confession. When William closed his eyes, the little girl sat beside him. He had given her substance by telling her story. He was confident that his parents never mentioned her because they couldn’t bear to. If only three people remembered her short story and never spoke it aloud, she was erased from history. William was in this hospital to try to inhabit his own body, his own history. His sister was part of that, but she was also a person in her own right.

“What was her name?”

“Caroline.” He’d never said her name out loud before.

William felt the little girl beaming because she was the subject of so much attention. He could also feel the bright red and yellow color of the leaves outside the window and the heightened emotion of the woman across from him. He’d never had this level of molecular awareness before, never felt so much in a single moment. William had always evaded the pointed spears that emotions threw at him and been quick to smother any uncomfortable sensations. He had a hard time believing that other people were able to stand being alive if it came at them with this intensity.

“I couldn’t have told this to anyone else,” William said. “I don’t know why, but I had to tell you.”

Sylvie looked at him, and he knew they were both remembering that night on the bench, under the stars. She said, “Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded.

“In your manuscript, in the footnotes, you said something like It should have been me, not her. Was the her your sister?”

William stared. “I don’t remember writing that.” How was he still surprised by the secrets inside him? But it was the truth; he’d always known that his parents would have preferred him to be the one who died. “I imagine I meant my sister, yes.”

He looked at Sylvie’s open face, and he knew that he could tell her anything and she wouldn’t judge him. He had told her every terrible thing inside him, and she was still holding a pen, ready and willing to write down more.

“I think that’s all,” he said. “Maybe you should tell all of this to Emeline and Cecelia too. These shouldn’t be secrets anymore.” William paused to take a breath. “I don’t think there’s anything else to add to the list. I wasn’t a good husband to Julia. She deserved much better.”

Sylvie shimmered in front of him, and that was how he realized he was crying.

When she was leaving—looking as exhausted as William, as if they had just run a marathon together—Sylvie stopped in the doorway. “You said you didn’t want to be a professor. Did you want to be a professional basketball player?”

“Yes, but I wasn’t good enough, even before the injury.”

“That must have been terribly disappointing,” Sylvie said, and he nodded.

william k ew he had one more thing to say before Dr. Dembia would allow him to leave the hospital. She kept saying, “Just a few more days,” and he understood that he hadn’t said everything. He didn’t understand why he had to say everything, but there were rules to getting well, and he had to follow the rules. The doctor was pleased with the medication levels, and William no longer felt like he was hanging off the fender of a car that sped across town and then hurtled to a stop. His hands were no longer clammy, he could sleep at night, and there were moments of calm. He was learning the difference between calm and disconnected and was working to make his days more the former than the latter.

Arash visited and gave William a stern look. “Remember how I told you we keep tabs on our players?”

William nodded.

“Not everyone has good news to share when we follow up, and we try to help out when we can. You think you’re the first one who got in trouble? The coaching staff had a meeting about you.”

“Oh God,” William said, horrified.

“You brought value to our program when you interviewed the players this summer. I can’t guarantee you a job on staff. Obviously being here”—Arash frowned—“is a hurdle to overcome. But the

university always needs resident advisers, and your doctor said you could handle the responsibility, so we’re going to get you a room in a dorm. That will cover your living expenses. We’ll see what happens from there.”

William found himself unable to speak. He’d been worrying about where he would sleep when he left here. He had very little money in the bank and no possibilities. The only option he’d been able to think of was to travel to Milwaukee and sleep on Kent’s floor, but that was problematic too, because Kent had a new girlfriend, a fellow medical student. She would understandably not be thrilled to have her boyfriend’s depressed former teammate taking up her space in the room.

“You pity me,” William said finally, and the words were sour in his mouth.

Arash shook his head, hard. “You’re depressed, not crazy. It’s not insane to be depressed in this world. It’s more sane than being happy. I never trust those upbeat individuals who grin no matter what’s going on. Those are the ones with a screw loose, if you ask me. Also, I’m not offering you a job. I’m offering a room.”

William’s brain clung to a new refrain, after the weeks in the hospital: No bullshit and no secrets. He could recognize both now, and when he reviewed what Arash had said, he knew it wasn’t bullshit. The coaches did track their players, and he had given value to the team in the past. The hours he’d spent listening to the boys explain how they’d been hurt meant something—to William, perhaps to the boys, and to Arash, in his mission to keep all the players strong and undamaged. The memory of those hours in the stuffy room—when so much else in his brain was water-damaged or frayed

—remained intact, and it was a place William didn’t mind revisiting. When he considered this further, he realized it might be the only memory he had that didn’t cause feelings of regret or dismay. He had been helpful.

“Thank you,” William said.

When he walked the halls that day, he realized that he’d stopped feeling lake water against his skin. The cool liquid no longer tickled up his spine. He had a room to sleep in, which allowed him to believe, for the first time, that there would be a next step.

William wasn’t surprised that afternoon when Dr. Dembia said, “You never mention Alice.”

He was standing; he turned away to look out the window. This was what he needed to speak about. This was what he had to say in order to leave. This was what he had to know in order to start over. This was the last secret, which he could no longer keep.

He said, “I started getting darker—everything was getting darker

—before she was born. It wasn’t because of her, but she showed up when nothing made sense anymore, and I had to keep turning off lights in my head to make it through the days. The thing was—” He stopped, looking for the right language.

“Yes?” the doctor said.

“Alice is a lamp. A bright lamp, from the moment she was born. She kind of shines. Looking at her hurt my eyes, and I was afraid to touch her.”

“You were afraid of her light?”

“No. I was afraid I was going to put her light out. That my darkness would swamp her light.”

“So you felt like you had to stay away from her, to keep her safe.” “I have to stay away from her, yes.”

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