A Heart in a Body in the World
Annabelle Agnelli is trying to hold it together in the parking lot of Dick’s Drive-In. After what just happened, she’s stunned. Frozen. And then—imagine it—Annabelle’s wrecked self suddenly takes off like a lightning bolt. She’s clutching the white bag, which has the unfortunate word, Dick’s, stamped across it in orange. Her burger is still warm. She’s holding the Coke, too, which sloshes like a stormy sea as she tries to outrun the bad visions of the recent past. French fries spring loose in the bag, and it shakes around like a maraca.
Of course she’s heard that saying—A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Coach Kwan has a poster of it in his office. It shows the silhouette of a girl at sunset, running up a steep mountain path, and it’s all clouds parting and God rays shining down and purple mountain majesties. There is no panic and dropped napkins and hair flying. That poster does not look like this.
Where is she going? No idea.
Why is she going? Well, sometimes you just snap. Snapping is easy when you’re already brittle from the worst possible thing happening. It is easy when you’re broken and guilty and scared. You snap just like that. Like the snap has been waiting around for the right moment.
So, now, Annabelle Agnelli is no longer trying to hold it together in the Dick’s Drive-In parking lot. She’s lost it. Utterly lost it. She’s ditched her car entirely, and she’s jogging down the sidewalk, fast, at a really good clip. Coach Kwan would be proud. She’s getting sweaty and her mind is swirling, and it’s all a little unhinged for the straight-A student that she is. She is a good and nice person who keeps things together, but that has been a big job, an enormous job, a job that’s way, way too big for her lately.
It gets worse. Of course, this is what often happens: Things get worse and worse still. A spiral follows gravity downward. She’s been running for who knows how long, and it starts to get dark. It’s metaphor-darkness, but it’s also just the truth. Night falls. Big clouds cross the sky, threatening rain. So many things are falling—night, rain, the last of the stuff holding Annabelle Agnelli together.
She’s halfway down Seattle’s busy thoroughfare of Broadway. Then she turns down Cherry, and before she knows it, Annabelle is on the path that hugs Lake Washington. It’s March, which means that the sun goes down around five, five thirty. She has no idea what time it is, though. People with hunched shoulders and their jacket hoods up are walking their
dogs. Little dogs and big dogs are pulled and yanked—there’s no time for luxurious sniffing with the sky that black. There’s a bicyclist or two or twenty, speeding home after work, their wheels zizzing by her. Backpacks are slung over their shoulders. Their tight, shiny bike pants shoot past, meteor streaks of luminescent yellow. Streetlights plink on.
She keeps running. There’s a little pit-pat of rain, nothing major. The burger bag is gone (in a trash can, she hopes, though she can’t say for sure), but Annabelle still has the Coke, and her purse bangs against her side. She stopped by Dick’s after hanging out with Zach Oh and Olivia, and so she’s wearing her jeans and a sweater and she’s way, way too hot. Her jacket is in the car; her regular running clothes and shoes are back at home. None of this matters.
Now, she’s past Leschi and then Seward Park, and it’s a little creepy out that way, with the lake a deep indigo and the big evergreens shaking their boughs overhead. This is the thing she wants to outrun: the creepiness. Not only the creepiness of Seward Park and the creepiness that just happened at Dick’s, but all creepiness, all powerlessness, all moments where you feel your fate in someone else’s hands.
Seriously, she should not be running in this part of the city at night. People get hurt here. Robbed. Killed. She feels a weird fearlessness. Whatever. Come and get me, she thinks. Do you think I care?
Then, she thinks something else: I could keep going and going.
This is where big ideas come from—a flash across the brain screen in moments when all the circuits are throwing sparks. The where and the why and the I don’t know form the tiniest ball of cells you’d need a microscope to see.
Big ideas can lead to great things. Big ideas can lead to disaster. The cells begin to divide.
Her phone has been buzzing in her pocket. She is hours late getting home. People are worried. She brushes away the thought, but then the responsible-person guilt collides with the burn in her legs and the ache in her toes. This is a large part of Annabelle Agnelli—the weight of what she owes everyone. It makes the gears of her anxiety click and whirl. Finally, she stops. She’s panting hard.
There is a park off to her left. She’s lived in Seattle all her life, but she’s never been out here. GENE COULON MEMORIAL BEACH PARK, the sign reads. CITY OF RENTON. She slurps down the Coke, crushes the cup. Crushing things feels awesome. She walks in a circle until her breath regulates, because she knows what will happen to her muscles if she doesn’t. Her chest burns.
Help me, Kat, Annabelle thinks. What do I do?
Keep going, Kat answers.
See? Kat is her best friend, so she understands. Kat knows Annabelle better than anyone, except maybe a certain someone who is losing her mind right about now. A certain someone who is calling and calling. Annabelle reaches for her buzzing phone.
“I’m okay, Mom,” she answers.
“Oh, God, Annabelle. Dear Jesus, where the hell are you?” Yes—God, Jesus, and hell in a ten-word sentence is really packing it in there, but this is Gina Agnelli. For her, being Catholic isn’t just about religion—it’s about superstition and safekeeping and tradition. She rarely goes to mass, but she’s got the required crucifix over the kitchen doorway, the rosary in the dresser drawer, and the stack of dead relatives’ funeral cards, held together with a rubber band. It’s almost hard for Annabelle to believe that people are still Catholic. But the Catholic church is something that’s been around for a zillion years and will keep on being around for a zillion years, in spite of the bad press and rumors of vanishing, kind of like Hostess Twinkies.
How can Annabelle believe in anything anymore, though? It’d be nice to have belief, but it’s likely gone for good.
“I’m at Gene Coulon Park. In Renton?”
“What? Why? Who are you there with? Have you been drinking?”
Ha. Annabelle wishes. “No, I haven’t been drinking! I ran here.”
“You ran there? What do you mean, you ran there? Where’s the car? Christ in heaven, do you know how worried I was? I was worried sick.”
Worry! Annabelle’s mother is always worried! She was worried even before last year, even before there was reason. Worry is another way Gina tries to keep everyone safe. Worry is a different version of prayer. Here is what happens when your mother worries: You become secretly worried. Anxiety plays in
your background like bad grocery store music. You pace and count stuff and wake at night, your heart beating too fast. You pretend to be brave, and do stuff to prove you’re not a scared person like she is. The constant worry (over your whereabouts, over certain friends, over anything and everything, but always the wrong things) bashes into your head: You are not safe. The world is full of danger and treachery. You don’t have a chance.
Look what good all that worry did anyway.
How can you feel safe? It is a complicated question. Which is fitting, because Annabelle is complicated. Hidden behind all that nice-and-pretty, she is desperate and grief-stricken.
“I’m fine, Mom.”
Of course she is not. She is most definitely not fine.
“Malcolm was trying to ping you, whatever that means! And I almost called Grandpa to go look for you, that’s how frantic I was. Annabelle, you can’t just disappear for hours.”
Malcolm: Annabelle’s younger brother. Technological genius, thirteen-year-old MacGyver. Brainiac, irritant, little buddy. Ed Agnelli: Grandpa. Nickname: Capitano. Former owner and boss of a frozen fish packing company, who retired and became the solo skipper of his own ship—an RV he drove around the country. Currently—their next-door neighbor. Add in Bit the dog: breed unknown. Small, brown and tan. Superfast underwear snatcher. Also, Carl Walter: Mom’s occasional boyfriend, division manager of AT&T. Rabid Seahawks fan. Still thinks Pop-Tarts and Hi-C are decent nutritional choices. Finally: Anthony. Annabelle and Malcolm’s dad. Former high
school athlete and runaway parent, now Father Anthony, a priest at Saint Therese’s near Boston. Also known as: That Bastard Father Anthony, which is what Gina’s called him ever since he left six years ago, after saying he’d had enough. Annabelle—she has stopped calling him altogether.
There it is: La famiglia. The family.
“Annabelle? Annabelle! Are you there?”
“Why are you so quiet? You’re making me nervous.”
Oh, mothers can drive you nuts, but mothers know you.
It’s now or never.
“I’m not coming home.”
“What do you mean, you’re not coming home? Of course you’re coming home. I’ve got my car keys in my hand. Malcolm!” she shouts. “Look up Gene Colon Park on GPS!”
“Not Colon. Coulon. Cu.” A wave of hysteria rises up. She almost laughs. Cu is an abbreviation for culo, Italian slang for ass. “But you don’t need to come now. I’ve got a hundred and twenty bucks of birthday money in my wallet. I saw a Best Western a ways back.”
“We’ll be there in a half hour, if I don’t get lost.”
“I’m not coming home. I mean it.”
“Annabelle. Stop this right now. I mean it. I’m the one who gets to mean it! What happened at Zach Oh’s? Something happened.” Gina says Zach’s name really fast. Zackos. It sounds like the online shoe-shopping site for people who’ve lost their minds.
“Nothing happened at Zach’s.”
“Is this some Dungeons and Dragons thing?”
“Mom, no. . . .”
How to explain it? Even to herself?
She replays the scene: She is leaving Zach’s. She actually feels good. She’s light, lighter than she’s been in months. They’d even had fun. Driving home, she spots the snowy ridge of the Cascade Mountains in the distance. It’s so beautiful that it fills her with a Nature’s Wonders surge of gratitude. Her iPod plays. It’s an old song she snitched from her mother—British alternative, rising good energy, from the time of shoulder pads and big hair. I’m alive! So alive!
She flinches at the words, but she ignores it. Up ahead, she sees the slowly spinning Dick’s sign. The delicious smell of grilling burgers marches through her heater vents. On a whim, she pulls in. She’s suddenly starving. It’s so alive hunger. It feels good.
She orders, and then slides the money through the bank-teller-ish window of Dick’s. She pushes the little lever of the box for a straw, yanks a stack of napkins. She collects her bag and her drink. And then she turns around.
There are two young guys in line behind her. The one in the army jacket is obviously drunk. He half leans on his friend. “Hey, beautiful,” he slurs to Annabelle. “Hey, come here.”
He steps toward her. He reaches for her arm. She feels his fingers through her sleeve.
“Chad, come on, man,” the other guy says.
“She’s beautiful. I want beautiful.”
“Chad, knock it off.”
Annabelle wrenches her arm free. She tries to pass, but can’t pass. The so alive vanishes. She stands there with her bag, paralyzed and small. The friend steers drunken Chad into another line.
“I was going to step in, in a minute,” the man behind them says. He’s as thin as fettuccine and wears a peacoat and a muffler. He has kind eyes. Annabelle wants to kiss him. Honestly, she’d do more than kiss him. She doesn’t care if he hoards bongs or spends his days in his mother’s basement, learning guitar. She doesn’t care about anything except the offer of safety.
All of it—the hand, the arm, the vulnerability, the urge to kiss the saving man—it crashes like an avalanche. All of the wrongness thunders and falls and threatens to bury her alive. Annabelle wants to be strong, and strong on her own, but she has no idea how. She doesn’t want to imagine that some guy can save her, because she knows that’s a lie. She doesn’t want to feel fear like that, or be paralyzed by it ever again. She wants to rise up, set her gorilla-mean chest right up against the chest of anyone threatening her. She wants to be the kind of woman who says No man will ever and No one messes with me, who banters about the power of her vagina and cutting the dicks off of bullies. Fierce talk. Bold, big, back the fuck off talk.
She’d like to even just believe talk like that, but she can’t. It’s not only because of what happened nine months ago. It’s about the bigger reality here. A reality that words can’t make
untrue. She’s five foot three. She’s a hundred and ten pounds. She’s a young woman. History—her own, and the world’s, years and years ago and just yesterday—has told her the truth about the vulnerability of her gender. As a female, her safety, her well-being, and the light she has for the world are still often overlooked and stomped on. That is quite clear.
She is also beautiful, which means it’s what people see first, and sometimes, the only thing they see, and this is power and weakness both, but mostly weakness, at least so far. And while no one has put a hand on her (this is not that story, though of course for many women it is)—she understands something after last year that she wishes she didn’t. She understands that when push comes to shove, literally or otherwise, that she must rely on other people being good and doing the right thing. And this, as she knows—as she knows very, very well—is a terrifying thing to rely on. It’s fine most of the time, but at others, it is a thin thread. The thinnest.
She feels the thinness of that thread when that man’s hand is on her arm, and she realizes there is nowhere for her to go, and nothing she could do, not really, if he decided to harm her. She can’t overpower him. All she has is her voice, and even that can seem as helpful as shouting into a hurricane.
She is back in that place again, that horrible place, and the fun day is gone, and the happy music is gone, and the hunger is gone, and there is only the need to claw herself from the avalanche and get away. And that is how she finds herself here, at Gene Coulon Park in Renton. Her mind whirled and her
feet slapped and slapped the pavement and now she is standing in a parking lot, trying to tell her mother what she is suddenly determined to do.
“Annabelle!” Gina nearly screams. “Stop going silent! Tell me what is happening.”
“I’m not coming home. I’m going to run and keep running. I’m going to run until I reach Washington, DC.” Of course, this is crazy and impossible and doomed, even if she’s a long-distance runner and has two marathon medals hanging on the doorknob of her room. It is silly, and dramatic, and naive. Also—idealistic. Of course, she has no concept of the realities here. She has no plan. No team. No training. She will fail, fail, fail. But all she can feel at this moment is how much she personally needs this. She needs this so bad.
Yes, she is that Annabelle Agnelli.
“This is PTSD, Annabelle,” her mother says. “Don’t you remember what Dr. Mann said? This is hyperarousal, recklessness. Have you been having flashbacks? You haven’t been sleeping well, I know. Talk to me. No one just does something like this. People who do . . . they plan, Annabelle. For months. There’s, I don’t know! Lots of stuff involved! No one just takes off. I’m coming to get you. Stop acting crazy.”
Stop acting crazy? Well, it is far, far too late for that.