Chapter 1: Lifestyle Changes

The waiting room in cardiology is fancier than the emergency room, with potted plants and abstract paintings that match the carpet. Responsible adults, people who’ve showered, stare into their smartphones. Shannon, whose dead phone is not smart, smells the sour whiffs coming off her jeans and t-shirt, pulls her stomach in, and inspects her chipped toenail polish, her flip-flop feet.

 

She has to call her sister in Massachusetts. Half-sister.

 

Would there even be a pay phone? She walks down the hall to the elevators and wanders back to reception, where a man is peering into a computer screen.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

The man’s eyes scan the display, his lips fluttering. “Yes,” he says to the computer.

 

“Is there, like—a pay phone?”

 

“Downstairs, fifth floor.”

 

“Do you know how much it is? To another state?”

 

He stares at her.

 

She has three dimes, a nickel, two pennies. She can’t call collect again. She wanders back to the waiting room and chooses a seat in the corner where she can see everyone. The woman across from her stands up and finds another seat.

 

“Shannon?”

 

A doctor is looking around the room. She is older than Shannon but still young, beautiful in a nailed-down professional way, with a hundred-dollar haircut. Shannon’s cheeks are hot. The doctor strides toward her.

 

The doctor is talking to her, and Shannon is looking at the woman, the face, the name badge, the skinny wrists, the watch, the diamond ring. She doesn’t understand anything the woman is saying.

 

“Shannon?” The doctor pauses.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“If she makes some lifestyle changes,” the doctor begins again, “she could make a full recovery. A lot of people do after a heart attack.”

 

“She’s not going to quit smoking.”

 

The doctor blinks.

 

“She’s not going to quit drinking, either, just so you know.”

 

“We’ve actually got a great rehab program—”

 

“Did you ask her?”

 

The doctor closes her eyes, waits, opens them again. “You can be a really important part of her recovery.”

 

Shannon’s face doesn’t change.

 

“You know Al-Anon?” the doctor asks. Shannon went once in high school. After the fourth or fifth person told her it wasn’t her fault, she had to leave.

 

“I go to Al-Anon myself, actually,” the doctor says.

 

Shannon raises her eyebrows at her feet.

 

“At this point,” the doctor says, running a hand through her shiny brown hair, “you should go home and get some sleep.”

 

“Can I see her? Can I drive her home?”

 

“Plan on coming back tomorrow. We’ll call you if anything changes.”

 

“What if I hadn’t found her?” Shannon swallows.

 

A thoughtful, practiced look comes over the doctor’s face. “It’s very good you found her when you did. She’s lucky.”

If you’re anywhere near the Pacific, the dawn sky in San Diego is low and grey like sleep. Shannon rolls the windows down, and the cool, damp air blows at her eyelids. Even with the breeze, she stinks.

 

The concrete of Washington Street ribbons ahead of her, the same color as the opaque sky. Everything is closed except for twenty-four-hour taco shops, twenty-four-hour Rite Aids, gas stations. A familiar drunk from Silver Beach trudges up the sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart. The freeway is empty and, as she merges, an airplane tears over it to land in Lindbergh Field like a giant insect coming to rest.

 

Her mother is going to live.

 

She exits the freeway and drives west, past the idiotic sign in the median: Welcome to Silver Beach Where the Sand Meets the Surf. She pulls into the parking lot of the Denny’s on Marina Boulevard, empty except for some trampy seagulls. The pigeons prefer the defunct transit depot across the street, an incredible ruin coated with layers of their shit.

 

Her first stop is the lonely high-fee ATM, where she’ll withdraw a single, expensive twenty. She could get back in the car and drive to her own bank’s ATM, skipping the fee, but how much would that be in gas? She pushes the button to check her balance, her stomach plunging.

 

Over a hundred, more than she thought.

From the serenity of her booth, she scans the color photos of pancakes and bacon. A waitress pours coffee, wincing through the steam. Shannon orders oatmeal, and the waitress takes her menu and shuffles off.

 

Alone with her coffee, she looks out the window at her life. The old depot: back in the fifties, in the tuna cannery days, you could catch a bus or a train from here; now you have to get on a freeway and go to the station downtown. She can see herself doing it, parking her car in the lot, boarding a bus, leaving forever.

 

She can almost see the ocean at the end of an alley, just on the other side of a cinder-block wall. It could have been the same path Mara and Allison took to the beach the day Allison drowned. It wasn’t the most direct route, but her sisters wouldn’t have done the practical thing that day. They would have done the fun thing, and this entrance has the winding stairs with the sea-lion fountain.

 

She thinks about this all the time.

 

Her sisters—half-sisters—were strong swimmers, but they were small. There was no lifeguard—it was early, a fall morning. There was a rip current.

 

Is this true?

 

She doesn’t know how she knows the story. Mara was seven, Allison almost nine, and Shannon was a baby. Their mother had taken Shannon to the doctor—she was a fussy baby, their mother thought there was something wrong with her—and the girls were home by themselves. They decided to walk to the beach.

 

Mara’s father took her back to Boston with him after it happened, leaving Shannon with their mother. Is that when she turned into a drunk, or had it already started? For as long as Shannon can basically remember, her mother was a drunk. You can’t get disability for alcoholism anymore, but when she applied for benefits you still could, and Linda had been a pretty, pitiable young woman whose kid had drowned. Her caseworker liked her.

 

Sitting in Denny’s, Shannon sees the checks arriving into the future, sees her mother trundling home with her little paper sack. She buys a fifth every afternoon, never more, though it would save her a thousand dollars a year if she would just buy the jug.

 

Shannon could save herself: drive to the station downtown, get on a Greyhound, ride as far as it will take her. When she gets there, she could get on a boat. From the boat, maybe a train.

 

The waitress sets a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, refills her coffee, and sets a side plate of sausage next to it. Shannon looks up.

 

“On the house,” the waitress whispers, and she’s gone.

 

Shannon tears into the sausage, thinking, Who does she know outside San Diego, that she actually likes? Mara lives back east, which, not. She pictures sitting with Mara on what would be her perfect living-room couch, candles, classical music playing, passing her a pipe. She smiles and covers the sausage with syrup.

 

She leaves a 50 percent tip for the waitress. Afraid of falling asleep at the wheel, she walks home on the boardwalk. The marine layer is thicker, the air warmer. The drunks are up now, the beach foragers, the dogwalkers, everyone moving at the same pace as the fog itself, even the joggers, floating over the hard-packed sand below the cliffs.

 

She doesn’t remember Allison, but she imagines her drowning all the time, pictures her floating away from the shore, the noise of the beach fading. There’s a long pier to the south, near the city line, and when you walk to the end of it, you notice how quiet the water is without the waves crashing. The ocean swells and foams, sleepy and regular, hypnotizing you if you stare down at it. Sometimes, she thinks she would like to be there in the waves, in the quiet, under the water. When she gets super-stoned, she feels like she’s already there.

 

The door to the apartment is unlocked. She fishes the cordless out of a pile and replaces it in the cradle to charge. She walks down the hall to her room and settles onto her bed, takes out a Ziploc, and packs what’s left of its contents into her gummy pipe. She leans against the pillows, and finally, finally, inhales the vacant-lot taste of Mexi dirt weed. When it’s cashed, she’ll have to wait till next Friday, seven whole days from now, for her final paycheck. Her dealer is an asshole.

 

Later, she drifts into the living room to watch TV and falls asleep on the couch in her mother’s spot.

 

When she wakes, bombs are exploding in her brain. She blinks in the nonspecific light: it could be any hour, any planet. The downstairs neighbor is playing video games that rattle the cups and saucers in the sink. She turns up the volume on the TV.

 

The cordless rings. She stumbles toward it. “Hello?” she coughs and mutes the TV. “This is her,” she says.

 

The voice on the other end softens. “Your mother’s taken a turn.” A weird phrase: the caller has an accent Shannon can’t place.

 

“She had a small stroke,” the voice says. “It’s called a minor stroke, but it’s fairly serious. We’re going to need to keep her a while longer. Can you come in today?”

 

“Is she going to need a bedpan?”

 

“Beg pardon?”

 

“Is she going to need a bedpan when I bring her home?”

 

“ . . . No, I don’t think so—but please come in as soon as possible.”

 

Shannon is quiet.

 

“Hello? Miss?”

 

She sets the phone on the counter and observes it. The phone’s voice is tiny, a bug’s voice. She creeps backward. She crouches at the coffee table.

 

The voice goes quiet. After half a minute, Shannon hears a recording: If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you need help, hang up, and then dial your operator. Then an accusatory, stuttering tone fills the room. She walks back to her bedroom.

 

She yanks her sheets and makes the bed, something she can’t remember ever doing. She jogs back to the kitchen and hangs up the handset. She dials her friend Brandy’s number: Brandy’s dad pays her gas-card bills, among other things.

 

“Hey, girl,” Shannon says, purpose creeping into her voice. “Wanna go for a drive?” Her free hand crumples a receipt on the counter into a little ball.

 

“I don’t know,” she says. “How about New Mexico?”