Every Falling Anecdote

Fall, the first:

Years after it happened they still come round the house, sit around the kitchen table, and ask me just what it was like to fall. They all want to hear about it again and again, if only to find the faults in my story and treat themselves to a few corrections.

‘It felt like I’d done it before,’ I begin.

‘What’s that called,’ they say, ‘déjà vu?’

Except we all know that’s not it, because it happened here and everything that happens here is not like anything that may have happened somewhere else. They wonder if there’s any coffee going, which there has to be, and then we sit there for a while, in the suburbs of everything, with people going away and more or less no one coming back.

I fell on a Saturday, whilst crossing the lake with Sis on our way home from town. We never bothered with the scooter those days. Dad claims they’re too expensive when accidents happen. She was on about the latest episode of Buffy. I was complaining about my Christmas slippers, which had been delivered in the wrong colour, and that’s when, out of nowhere, the rules slipped away from underneath my Timberlands. The lower layers of the ice exploded in a loud flopp.

‘Flopp?’ they interrupt.

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘That’s what it sounded like.’

‘Ok, alright then,’ they say, but you can tell that’s not the word they’d choose.

‘Go on,’ they say, ‘and then?’

I tell them how this gun-shot sound reminded me of last year, when we celebrated the end of a really boring century (at least for me) and the beginning of a horrid one so far. We were standing outside our house, and Dad asked my cousin Jörgen to open the champagne. The cork rocketed over the garage and landed on the barn roof. They all laughed and said he should have handed it over to someone who’d actually had a drink in his life, as if his parents didn’t know that he’s been picked up from gardens around town at four in the morning at least three times and stomach-pumped once. This all gets brought up; it’s seen as part of the anecdote.

Dad used to say that if I ever fell through the ice I’d float. My buoyancy was not up for discussion. When they tried bathing me as a baby I kept breaking the surface, heavy all around but somehow really expansive as well, and at sixteen I was now so broad-shouldered they could have used me on the field instead of a tractor. Dad, obviously, was not in any way involved in my baths anymore (we’re not freaks), so the tractor was his new joke about me. He said I was practical, meaning that I would never leave.

You’re not supposed to be frightened if you fall. It’s all jokes and pats on the shoulder, a few drinks at the pizzeria/pub/post office, death in one instance about ten years ago, but fear is edited out. So actually Sis should not have been screaming her head off.

‘I remember,’ I tell them, ‘she took a step back when she saw it crack.’

‘It never happens that slowly,’ they say, holding up a cup of coffee with a downward glance at my cleavage. ‘You never remember that much.’

I thought the drifting apart would last forever. Then the cold came in as if from the left, and my clothes grew heavy, pulling down and underneath the ceiling of that wet tent. I tried kicking my boots off. My jeans were kissing me all over; I’d finally found a pair that made it look like I almost had curves. I was in a porridge pot but doing the opposite of boiling, and all the while her screeching was pissing off the lake itself. This wasn’t how we deal with things. The sounds: slower, and proper waves, which can fill the smallest of holes when they break the usual surface. Then they all came running to pick me up.

That’s what happened the day I took up my place in the lake’s historical gob.

‘Good,’ they say when I’ve finished this telling.

‘Is there more coffee? Scooter has no fuel for the way back.’

*

Fall, the second:

It goes without saying that most people, who aren’t from around here obviously, think we’re total idiots. If there’s someone not-from-around-here listening (sometimes Jakob, our neighbour, brings a friend from university down south) I like to keep an eye on them and look out for the disbelief. It’s like noticing someone’s acne.

‘You mean you’d rather freeze to death than walk around the fucking lake?’

It’s a habit, we say. We really mean the accidents and not the shortcut, but we don’t care if that’s clear or not. The ice clicks its fingers when you walk on it; it tosses unruly nightmares. I saw a documentary about bullfighting the other day, and when the guy with the beefy legs was thrown up into the air they slowed it all down, so you could see each part of the fall. He was upside down for a pretty long time. We’re the best in the country at falling, and at being picked up, and that’s the line every good falling-anecdote should end with:

‘Then they picked me up.’

‘You shouldn’t let it get to you,’ Sis said.

We were strolling on top of seventy metres of nothing. The plan was to be home in time for a particular Buffy re-run.

‘What are you talking about?’ I asked, pulling at the collar of my coat.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘What happened at Onur’s. Just forget about it.’

Neither of us had seen the guys since Tuesday’s workshop with our Swedish Youth Temperance group. It had ended in ‘awkwardnessstuds’, as Sis called it.

‘They were talking about me,’ I confirmed.

‘You could have just changed the subject. Or sent him a message afterwards, or something.’

She slipped a little, elbowing me in the ribs. It was – fuck, the cold that would be in just a minute. We dropped the subject before the surface dropped me. I remember this long, velvety skirt with studs around the waist that Sis had started wearing (she was sniffing at the bums of the emo kids, I used to tell her, the kids that had been my friends three years prior) and how it was getting wet from the snow, sliding over the toes of her Dr Martens. When I tell them the story of my fall I mention spotting Melkerson’s Mia on the east shore, shuffling snow with her iPod plugged in. I say something about her strength.

‘Her back looked like it held,’ I say.

What didn’t hold was the road we used, with so much trust shovelled up on it.

*

Fall, the third: Sister

People have fallen in all kinds of ways: with groceries rolling out from the edges of the ring in the ice, like skin creeping away from an open gash; on skis, making something like a pier with the person hanging upside down, or like Melkerson: off his head, all his six kids on their fronts to fish him up, heavier but not with regret.

‘How about you stop being such a child about it,’ Sis said when she came into the kitchen that morning. ‘People say stuff like that only because you let it get to you.’

She had her nose in a tub of zero-calorie yoghurt, her tracksuit bottoms hanging off her ass in disappointment. They reminded me of when we used to run into the lake in our pants and it was merely a fact that we looked different, not a medal.

‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered and passed me the yoghurt.

‘Disgusting,’ I said. ‘You’ve ruined it.’

I was wondering if I should ask her out to see a movie.

‘Do you want to come with me into town?’ she said. ‘I need to post this transcript.’

Sis didn’t trust the online application system. She wanted to become a dietary consultant for eating-disorder patients, and she wanted to move to Berlin, preferably way before she’d finished high-school. I’d begun to think of the town sans her, every now and then, and it was like trying food that’s so spicy you’d pay money to rewind the moment you put it in your mouth. When we were little we used to go out on midsummer’s eves and pick seven flowers, climbing over seven fences without saying a single word. There are still some old fences around here, which is useful and of no consequence. If you spoke, even once, you wouldn’t dream of the one you were going to marry. I would sneak up on her before the seventh fence. The things you remember are always numbered.

The day I fell Mum had asked us to bring back three things from the shop: eggs, tampons and detergent. You ask anyone about the time I fell and ten years later they’ll still be burping up that list: eggs, tampons, detergent.

‘Did you ever dream of anyone?’ I asked Sis, leaving the house.

‘I dreamt of different people every year,’ she said, and that was it.

Before we left the house I had the quickest look ever in the mirror. The distance between hair-dos and hair-don’ts is only the width of two fingers, and after that any hair at all is gross. Hair didn’t matter when the ice broke.

*

Fall, the other one:

It was me who started to hang out with Tore; we met through STY before Sis changed her mind about alcohol and realised that having none of it meant fewer calories overall. The week before my fall we went to a workshop with our local group, to record a series of YouTube videos about alcohol poisoning and hypothermia. Afterwards we went to ‘Onur’s’ for coffee, pizza and stationery.

Sis asked me to get her a skinny latte so she could save me a seat at the table. My drink was black when they gave me it. It looked irritable and generally lacking of fun. When I came back to the table, the chair next to Sis had been taken by Anders Fredrikson, who was ripping sugar sachets into tiny strips. I sat down opposite him and counted them in my head. Anders’s mum is from India, so he’s got this moustache which won’t grow into a full one, just an undecided film. He had a fresh cut on his upper lip that day, from trying to get rid of it. Before I got there they must have been making fun of it around the table. A corner of the plaster he’d stuck on his lip had come detached and was waving at us.

‘Do you need mummy Curry to help you?’ Kristoffer giggled.

‘Did she kiss it better?’ Sam said.

Anders was laughing, and murdering the sachets; scanning the table, he found me.

‘Hey guys,’ he said. ‘You know what it’s like.’

He kept looking at me, and very soon everyone else was doing it too.

‘You know what it’s like,’ he said again. ‘Not everyone likes to shave, right?’

At that point their laughter swelled over them, and over me, obviously, as part of them, and I thought: how far do I fall?

*

If I take one more step, can I both freeze and float?

*

Two red blots sprouted on Sis’s cheeks and Tore mumbled something about those YouTube videos. Maybe he could edit them, he said, he’d done a bit of that before at school. I stroked my upper lip, plucked smooth and safe. Anders looked into his hot chocolate, no sachets left to destroy.

‘I like moustaches,’ I said.

I licked my upper lip very slowly. Then I reached out for Sis’s latte and shoved my face into the foam.

‘Love ’em’, I said when I came back up.

Obviously there was a lot more laughter. I turned to look at Tore, who was looking at me, smiling, and then I decided, the way rules sometimes just appear by themselves in a certain time and place, that the next time I saw him he would have grown a moustache. It would be a sign, I decided, of something, a change or another still being an option.

*

Dreaming of people you sort of know

The ice bent and undid decisions underneath Sis and me. We knew it so well – the thin parts and the sections you could jump up and down on if you felt like it – we almost weren’t supposed to care about whether it was there or not.

‘We tell each other about stuff,’ I said.

She sighed and asked about what.

‘Dreams,’ I said, ‘like really weird dreams.’

She said she never remembered her dreams. She said it was a sign of bad self-esteem, remembering everything you dream.

‘But you just said you used to dream about different people every midsummer.’

‘Did I?’ she said and sped up.

I stopped for a second while she kept walking. Her neck looked sweaty and cold where I could see it above her coat. She didn’t like scarves because there was always the possibility, she said, of someone grabbing one end of them and strangling you. I caught up with her.

‘He dreams the weirdest stuff,’ I said. ‘Things you’d never think of.’

I meant you as in ‘one’ but also not. I meant she had no imagination, so there.

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ she asked.

‘I know it’s stupid but he makes me laugh,’ I said.

‘Why are you being like this? Is it just because of the moustache thing?’

Underfoot, the sound of the first crack.

‘A crack?’ they interrupt mid-telling. ‘Yes, well of course,’ they say, ‘sometimes it is a crack. But often it’s more like a snap. Are you sure it wasn’t more like a snap?’

I correct myself, and I continue to describe the steps of the fall in detail, from the mild weather to the positioning of us in relation to the shore, and the colour of the ice against the rocks far away.

Sis was refusing to wear glasses at the time. Mum and Dad had already taken her to get her eyesight tested, but she insisted on keeping the glasses tucked down the bottom of her rucksack, hoping something terrible would happen. This was why when the STY invited guest speakers she’d always sit in the front row, whilst Tore and I sat at the back, writing things down and passing them between each other: what happened during the night to all these people we sort of knew. None of our neighbours would be themselves anymore. We’d dreamt them out of their own and their practiced anecdotes. Anders Fredriksson played ice hockey with ears instead of feet. A giant ear replaced the Swedish flag in front of the college, with us saluting God knows what in front of it. The people from around here all had coffee around tables and realised, horrified, that they were deaf, had lost their words, babbled incoherently. All those dreams were full of ears, and nobody ever heard about them but me.

One of the things I’ll never include in the story is the last dream Tore told me about.

‘It’s nothing,’ I said to Sis. ‘Will you hurry up already?’

That scrap of paper, now in my coat pocket, soon destroyed by water, said:

I dreamt something brilliant last night. It was hairy.

Compared to that everything else around here was a repetition, piled upon another in my throat.

*

Fall the last: they pulled me up

At this point in the telling there have been multiple coffee top-ups. If it’s winter chances are it’s gone dark with all the interruptions. The listeners might be talked into staying for dinner, at which point my story is hurried towards its ending. They all remember that it was Melkerson’s Mia who heard Sis’s screaming first because she was out in their yard, and that she called her brothers. They lift weights and run races but they’ll never run away. They came out as far as they deemed it safe and threw themselves down by the edge of the freshly opened hole, turning their bodies into rafts for me.

‘You knew what to do with that, didn’t you Annelli?’ they say around the kitchen table, as an encouragement to wrap things up.

If I didn’t know what to do with that I wouldn’t have been from around here. I am from here not because I fell, but because I knew how to pull myself up the right way. In one of the rooms upstairs my sister’s alarm clock goes off in time for Buffy, quite a few times after she’s left, making everyone around the table jump.

Once I was up on dry land I let myself be carried into the house by Mats Melkerson, whose armpits smelt of burnt cheese. No one called an ambulance but a pretty good crowd had come running and I could tell they were disappointed to have missed the picking-up itself; it happens so quickly and the rest is really not much to see. On our way up across the lawn I saw Tore arrive. His face showed up between two birches and stayed there for just a second, which was when we might have seen each other, had it not been for her screams. She came running up the slope, hysterical, and Tore took hold of her and held her but really carefully, the opposite of how I was being hoisted over one shoulder. He helped her up the slope, her cheeks laminated with snot. His own face looked very dark and prickly, though, at least from where I was. Hep, I thought. I won. I lifted my arm and jabbed it upwards, opened my throat up and cleared it.

They never tell you how much time there is between the second you fall and when you come back up. There were enough seconds for everyone and everything that doesn’t get told. There was time enough for non-colours: the white of my hand and the lilac behind my eyelids. There was time for kicking up a fuss and for thinking that it was moronic. Everything takes so much longer down there that I even had time for a headache.

At the end of the anecdote there’s always a missing point. It’s left down there: what I was shouting, when they carried me towards the open door of Melkerson’s house to get me dry, the whooping, or how I hit Melkerson in the jaw without meaning to, pushing against the lid of the sky.

Jessica Johannesson Gaitán

About Jessica Johannesson Gaitán

Jessica Johannesson Gaitán's short fiction and poems have appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, Gutter, Structo and The Scotsman. One of her stories was a winner in the Glimmer Train Open Fiction contest in the autumn of 2016. Originally from Sweden and Colombia, she arrived in Bath via Edinburgh, where she works as a bookseller and podcast editor. She is one half of @therookbookery

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