Chapter 9 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

auGust 1983

Sylvie walked the city with Kent and the other basketball players, even though she slowed them down with her normal-length

legs and normal-person fitness. They were all over six feet tall, most of them six foot five, at least. They strode ahead of her, a visually intimidating pack that cleared the sidewalk. More than once, Sylvie saw people stop to watch them. It wasn’t just their height that was arresting but the purpose with which the men walked. They moved as the team they’d been in college—matching strides, taking directional cues from one another. Several of the guys addressed Kent as Captain, which amused Sylvie at first, since Kent hadn’t been their captain for two years and they were no longer on a team together. But they referred to William as their teammate too, and Sylvie began to wonder if being on a team was a different kind of commitment than she had previously understood. Neither she nor her sisters had ever played sports—it hadn’t been an option for girls in their neighborhood—so she had no way of knowing. She admired the unspoken understanding between these men: Kent made the decisions, and the others followed his orders in the most efficient way possible. When the group crossed roads, one of them would wave a long arm, as if greeting the waiting cars, while they continued to move at a pace only they could keep.

Sylvie kept thinking she would break away, turn a corner, and walk back to Julia. She hadn’t meant to leave with Kent. She’d

spoken to him in front of the apartment building, the sun beating down on them. She’d planned to hand over the news like a bowl of bad apples and then back away. But she hadn’t been able to do it; she’d followed him to meet his and William’s friends, driven by a strong feeling that if she didn’t help, William wouldn’t be found. This made no sense, of course, but from the moment Julia called her, Sylvie had been scared—scared as if her body knew something about this situation that her brain did not.

She remembered feeling William’s emotions on the bench that night and how tired he’d been. She remembered how little light he’d contained. She remembered the questions in his manuscript. Sylvie had talked to William about missing her father and only later remembered that he had a father and mother who wanted nothing to do with him. She’d showed Kent the note and the check because she wanted him to make up his own mind. Maybe Sylvie was wrong. If Kent thought the situation was as clear-cut as Julia did—simply a man leaving his wife—Sylvie would force herself to calm down. She would climb into the bed beside Julia and lie there until her sister woke from her nap. Sylvie would make Julia a comforting dinner, and she would stay with her sister until she was back on her feet. For weeks, or months if necessary. Until the ache had disappeared from living in that apartment without her husband.

“William may have wanted out of his marriage,” Kent said, after studying what she’d handed him. “I can buy him not telling me that. But I don’t like the tone of the note, and William would never skip his classes. Something is wrong. We need to find him.”

Sylvie knew that her concern for William had confused Julia. She knew it wasn’t right that she had left her sister alone in that apartment. But with Kent’s words, Sylvie’s fear became so loud that she knew she had to do something to quiet it or she would be no good to anyone. Before leaving with Kent, Sylvie had gone back into the apartment to return the note and check, and she’d called

Emeline and Cecelia. She asked them to keep Julia company and then hung up before the twins could ask any questions.

Sylvie had met Kent only once before, at the wedding—where he had been jovial and charming and several girls in the neighborhood had declared him dreamy. Now he looked weary and stressed and like the kind of person who had no time to waste. Sylvie jogged down the now-dark Chicago streets, trying to keep up. The young men glanced over their shoulders and slowed down for her. They had covered Northwestern’s vast campus, spoken to the security guard for the history building, checked out the gym. They waited on the sidewalk while the tallest guy stuck his head into every bar and restaurant Northwestern students and faculty frequented and scanned the room for William. They wove through the neighborhoods that bordered the university, sweeping up one street and down the next. This took a long time, a few hours at least, though Sylvie couldn’t be sure because she wasn’t wearing a watch. Now they were headed to collect a man named Arash, whom all of the players seemed to know.

Sylvie watched Kent become more drawn. He didn’t joke with the other guys, who occasionally laughed because, even though this was a grim situation, they were happy to be together. Most of the players assumed they would find William drunk somewhere, unhappy about his failed marriage. He must be on a bender was a comment Sylvie heard more than once. This seemed unlikely to Sylvie, since William drank very little, but she hoped they were correct. In the meantime, Kent seemed to be aging as the minutes ticked by, as if he were living out a long life with his missing friend, compressed into a single night. The only person he spoke to regularly was a player named Gus, who seemed to have endless energy. The young man jogged ahead of the group and then circled back and talked into Kent’s ear.

A player named Washington said to Sylvie, “You look worn out.

You okay?”

Sylvie peered up at him in the shadows. She had been near tears as she ran after the men. She was wearing sneakers that she’d thought were comfortable but had given her a blister on her heel. She was worried about William. She was worried about her sister. She was worried, in a detached way, about herself. Sylvie was also moved by the players’ commitment to help her brother-in-law, and in the face of it, she realized that she was committed too. She had to see this search out until the end, whatever the end turned out to be.

“I’m okay,” she said, and stopped paying attention to the discomfort in her body. She just kept moving forward, as fast as she could. In the players’ wake, Sylvie was aware of how different her physical life was from theirs. The players were powerful, unassailable. In Sylvie’s normal life, she avoided quiet streets after dark and crossed the road if she sensed any aggression or worrisome behavior from a man. She ignored catcalls, kept her head down, turned the nearest corner. In the library, even, she knew when to slump her shoulders, minimize her hips when she walked, and cross her arms over her chest. She, and all women, were prey. But in the company of these men, Sylvie dropped her usual worry over her physical safety. Their proximity meant that strangers would leave her alone.

Each block they covered looked like a puzzle, and Sylvie turned her head from side to side, trying to spot the missing piece: William. When they reached a far corner of Northwestern’s campus, they met Arash—an average-sized man with heavy eyebrows and an intense stare. He reported that he’d asked all over the university and that it had been several days since anyone had seen William. “Arash is our physio,” Washington told Sylvie, and she nodded. She no longer questioned Washington’s use of the present tense. These men were still on a basketball team together in their hearts, and they had a physio and probably a coach or two. Her own team was her sisters, and she was apart from them. She knew Julia must be awake now

and upset at her. Sylvie felt like part of herself was in that apartment, on the couch beside her older sister.

Standing behind Arash were a cluster of young men, who turned out to be seniors on the current Northwestern basketball team. They had been William’s teammates too, and Kent had been their captain, and so they’d showed up. Sylvie’s eyes smarted, and when she reached up to touch her face, she realized she was crying. Relieved that no one noticed, she stepped deeper into the shadows.

“We should split up,” Kent said. “William’s been missing for over twenty-four hours. We need to cover more ground.” He broke the group in two and sent Arash and the young players in one direction. Everyone else, including Sylvie, would travel deeper into the city with him.

There were now upward of twenty current and former basketball players jogging through Chicago, scouting parks famous for their basketball courts, checking the identity of people sleeping on benches. At some point, the sun began to rise—an orange orb filled the spaces between buildings. Sylvie tried to remember the last time she had seen a new day begin. She tried to remember what day of the week it was and what time she was due at the library. She asked Washington, who was wearing a watch, what time it was, but she was so tired that the numbers he said didn’t make sense. She wouldn’t show up at work, she knew that. She also knew that Head Librarian Elaine wouldn’t be happy; she had a few favorite themes, and one of them was accountability.

At one point, Kent dropped back to walk next to Sylvie. He spoke like a man conserving energy, and she had to lean closer to hear him. “William’s gone dark before. He has this in him. He stopped talking and eating for a week once when he thought Julia was mad at him and the coach had benched him. He bounced back pretty quickly, but I think I’m the only one he let see him like that.”

Sylvie’s entire face ached with something like relief. It was nice to know that she wasn’t crazy. She almost told Kent about the footnotes

in William’s book, but instead she said, “We’ve been up all night.” Sylvie rubbed her eyes, because that was a stupid thing to say. She had a memory of Ernie’s hands on her waist and remembered how it had felt to lie naked beside him without any fear or knowledge that her world was about to tip off its axis. It felt like a memory from another life. It occurred to Sylvie that she might have disappointed Ernie, the same way she was about to disappoint Head Librarian Elaine. He had probably waited at her apartment door last night, confused that she never came home. I’m not anywhere I’m supposed to be, she thought. And I have no idea where I am.

They visited three midtown libraries in a row and went inside to check the carrels. Midmorning, Sylvie, Washington, Gus, and Kent entered a deli to buy everyone sodas. Sylvie noticed that, under the store lighting, the young men’s faces looked cracked with fatigue. She could only imagine what she looked like and was careful to avoid any reflective surfaces. It had been hours since anyone had mentioned benders or bars. It felt now like if they found William, it would be terrible, and if they didn’t find him, it would be the same.

When they exited the deli, they paused on the sidewalk, the icy sodas sweating in their hands. The rest of the players were halfway down the block, waiting. Sylvie noted the pause; she suspected Kent didn’t know where to go next. The air had a new heaviness; the sun was climbing into the sky, bringing with it a dense heat. A loud noise approached them from the side—the keening of a siren. Sylvie turned toward the sound, but it immediately split, or doubled. An ambulance thundered past them as cars pulled over to get out of the way, and two police cars, sirens shrieking, turned a corner and followed the ambulance. The air pounded with noise. Kent, Sylvie, Washington, and Gus looked at one another, a shared fear on their faces. Sylvie knew they were having the same thought: William?

“Gus,” Kent said, “run!”

Gus was gone, down the block before Sylvie could understand what was happening. He was unbelievably fast. Later, Sylvie would

be told that he was their point guard and could run the three-quarter sprint in three seconds flat. The rest of them ran after Gus, while he ran after the ambulance and police cars. Soda cans were dropped on the sidewalk, where they spun away like tops. Kent was fast too, and so were most of the guys; they sprinted across the avenue, hands raised to keep the traffic at bay. They needed to cover enough ground to keep Gus in sight. Washington was apparently the slowest player; he trailed his teammates. He was seven feet tall and ran like a tree that had been uprooted from its forest. Sylvie couldn’t keep up with Washington, but she could see his long back weaving through the pedestrian traffic ahead, which allowed her to stay connected to the group.

The lake appeared abruptly, and the shimmering surface made Sylvie squint. She was panting now, her heart thudding in her ears. The water looked like a shining plate, extended to the horizon. Charlie used to take his daughters to the lake on occasional Sunday afternoons when they were little. He would drink beer and chat with strangers on the beach, while the girls built sandcastles and tried to see how many somersaults they could do underwater. Sylvie felt a pang of grief for her father, and then the grief inched further. She had lost the only other man in their family. What if they’d lost William? She tried to feel what her brother-in-law was feeling—stretching out beyond her own boundaries to do so—but she felt nothing.

She was on the lake path now, still running. The ambulance and police cars had stopped up ahead but kept their flashing lights on. Sylvie was dizzy and slightly nauseous. There were gray spots in her vision that she knew weren’t part of the landscape. She was sprinting but falling behind, at the tail of this group. Please don’t be William, she thought, in rhythm with her footsteps. Please don’t be William. She stopped when she finally reached the parked ambulance. She stood, shaking from exhaustion and nerves, on the edge of the path. Because of the heat, the beach in front of her was already half filled with families and sunbathers. On the sand, kids

had paused playing, and men and women in bathing suits were standing on their towels, hands shading their eyes so they could see what was happening in the lake. What could be happening in the lake? Sylvie thought. Kent and the other players had jumped down to the beach, where the paramedics and a handful of cops were standing at the very edge of the water. She turned in the direction they were looking and watched a boat approach at a very slow speed. One of the paramedics and a few of the basketball players waded into the lake. The other two paramedics waited at the water’s edge with a stretcher. The boat was close enough for Sylvie to see a man lying on the deck. She couldn’t see enough to identify him one way or another. Kent and Gus were up to their waists in water. With the paramedic, they raised their arms over their heads, and then they were lifting the man. His face turned to the side. It was him.

“William,” Sylvie whispered, as if to call him, as if in his current state he could hear only whispers.

William’s eyes were closed, and he was limp in his friends’ arms. He was wearing an untucked button-down shirt and pants. He didn’t have on any shoes. One of his arms hung down, touching the water, while the other rested on his chest. More friends joined Kent and Gus; more hands supported William as they struggled to carry him out of the lake. Kent staggered once, and Washington was immediately at his side, his arm around Kent’s shoulders. They laid William down on the stretcher, the movement gentle.

A teenage boy standing near Sylvie said, to no one in particular, “That guy looks dead.”

“Sylvie,” Kent yelled, and that was what unfroze her. She ran to them and, not knowing what else to do, how to help, held William’s freezing-cold hand as they carried him off the beach and across the path. When they reached the ambulance, a paramedic said, “Only one of you can come in the vehicle.” He looked at Sylvie. “You the wife?”

Sylvie stared at the paramedic. She felt like she couldn’t let go of William’s hand. His fingers were so cold that her skin seemed frozen to his skin, and if she was the wife, she would be the one to ride in the ambulance. So, without looking at Kent or anyone else, Sylvie nodded yes and climbed into the back of the vehicle.

The ambulance was in motion before Sylvie realized that William was breathing—shallowly—and she almost threw up with relief. She was wedged between the wall of the ambulance and the cot he had been strapped onto. The paramedic leaned over William. He pulled up his eyelid. Pressed his fingers to the side of William’s neck. Covered his body with a blanket. William’s face looked swollen, and his skin was a gray color. He had a bruise near one of his cheekbones. He was very still. Too still, Sylvie thought.

The hospital they drove to was the same one where Julia and Cecelia had given birth and Charlie had died. Time kept slowing down and then speeding up. Medical people wearing scrubs lifted William out of the ambulance. Kent was there; he must have taken a cab. He was talking to the paramedic about blood pressure, and she remembered that he was in medical school. “I should call Julia,” she said, and walked into the hospital, unsure if anyone had heard her.

While the phone rang—she was in a booth just off the emergency room waiting area—Sylvie blinked and touched her face. Her hair was stiff, probably from dried sweat. It felt good to sit on the booth’s tiny seat. Her body was a collection of aches and pinpricks; muscles she didn’t know she had were confused and upset by the ordeal of the past hours.

“Hello?” Julia said.

“It’s me.” Sylvie found it hard to speak. She realized she didn’t want to put what had happened into words. When she told the story to her sister, it would be real. It would have happened, and what happened would have consequences. What those consequences would be, she had no idea. She was too tired, and her imagination had been run over by reality.

“Where have you been?” Julia said. “Where are you?”

“I’m at the hospital. You should come here. We found William.” Sylvie hesitated. “He was in Lake Michigan. He tried to kill himself.”

There was a pause, and Julia said, “No, that can’t be right. It’s hot out, so he must have gone swimming, and he’s not a strong swimmer. He never learned when he was a kid.”

“He was unconscious, Julia…”

“No, no, he couldn’t have done that.” But there was hesitation in Julia’s voice now.

“You thought the history department was wrong too, about him missing classes. Julia, this is real. This is happening.”

Julia was quiet at the other end of the phone. Sylvie felt terrible in every part of her body. Terrible for her sister, terrible for William. “Just please,” she said, “find a cab and come here. I’ll call Emeline too, and she can meet us here to watch Alice.”

“He left me,” Julia said, in a slow voice. “He was very clear. He wouldn’t want me there.”

Sylvie stared at the foggy plastic wall that lined the booth. She was facing the seating area, and nearby there was an older man sitting with his head in his hands. Next to him, a woman wearing sunglasses stood with her arms crossed over her chest. Even if she hadn’t known where they were, Sylvie would have known they were waiting for bad news.

She said, “You’re not going to come?”

“He has Kent. Kent will take good care of him.” Julia cleared her throat and then said, “I need you, Sylvie. Please come back to the apartment.”

Sylvie opened her mouth to speak. She felt like a collection of rusty hinges: her jaw, every joint in her body. She said, “Let me wrap things up here first.” She returned the receiver to the cradle and then stood in the booth until a man knocked on the glass to indicate that he needed to make a call.

She had no trouble finding Kent in the waiting room. He and his friends occupied seats in the far corner. They looked like what they were: a basketball team that had waded into a lake. Everyone else in the waiting room seemed to have chosen seats as far away from the team as possible.

“The doctor won’t speak to us,” Kent said. “You need to go to the desk and ask if you can sit with William until Julia gets here. I don’t want him to be alone.”

“She’s not coming.”

Kent gave her a sharp look. “At all?” “Not now. I don’t know.”

Kent closed his eyes for a second, then said, “Fine. The ambulance driver thought you were his wife—tell the lady at the desk the same thing so they let you in. And when you talk to the doctor, make sure William is not only being looked at physically but has a psychiatric consult.”

She thought, Tell Kent you have to leave. Tell him your sister needs you. She said, “You’re in medical school. Shouldn’t you go?”

Kent shook his head. “Only family allowed. I can’t pretend to be related to him.”

Tears filled Sylvie’s eyes, though she couldn’t have guessed what she was feeling, because it felt like everything. She nodded at Kent and walked to the desk.

She said, “I’m William Waters’s wife,” and the nurse led her through a door and then down two hallways, past open doors that showed men, women, and children in various urgent states: crying, bleeding, unconscious. Sylvie felt increasingly unwell herself. Her clothes rubbed against her skin. The blister on her heel stung with each step she took.

The nurse stopped and pointed to a doorway. Sylvie walked through it, alone. William was lying on a bed. His eyes were closed. His feet were covered by a blanket, but they hung off the too-short bed. With William spread out in front of her, Sylvie could see that his

skin looked wrong. Extra pale, and somehow stretched. Like he had been inflated and was now returning to his normal size. The nurses had taken away his wet clothes; he was wearing a hospital gown, and his arm was hooked up to an IV. This was the first time Sylvie had been alone with him since the night on the bench, six months earlier.

“I thought you were dead,” she whispered.

There was one window in the room, which had a view of a green leafy tree. The childbirth floor was above this one and on the other side of the huge building. That was where Sylvie had been before, where her nieces were born, and where her father died. There was a hard chair next to the bed, so she sat on it.

Sylvie closed her aching eyes. She was aware of a sensation inside herself—a pattering, like light rain—and, slowly, she realized it was relief. She was relieved. She was relieved that William was alive, in front of her. And she was relieved to be the person in this chair, in this room. When she’d spoken to Julia on the phone, Sylvie had been focused on what was supposed to happen—a sick man’s wife was supposed to come to his bedside—but it was better for William to be with her. Sylvie could trace the dots that had led him to this room; she’d known, somehow, that this wasn’t impossible. With her eyes closed, Sylvie could imagine William walking into the lake, feeling like a tablespoon of water that could no longer stay on a spoon. There had been no more gravity holding him together, and so he’d tried to dissolve into the giant body of water. Sylvie sat at his bedside, loose inside her own skin, so she could share some of her strength with him while he slept.

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