Dad paid me the day before I returned to BYU. He didn’t have the money to give what he’d promised, but it was enough to cover the half tuition I owed. I spent my last day in Idaho with Charles. It was a Sunday, but I didn’t go to church. I’d had an earache for two days, and during the night it had changed from a dull twinge to a constant sharp stab. I had a fever. My vision was distorted, sensitive to light. That’s when Charles called. Did I want to come to his house? I said I couldn’t see well enough to drive. He picked me up fifteen minutes later.
I cupped my ear and slouched in the passenger seat, then took off my jacket and put it over my head to block the light. Charles asked what medicine I’d taken.
“Lobelia,” I said. “And skullcap.”
“I don’t think they’re working,” he said.
“They will. They take a few days.”
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
Charles’s house was neat and spacious, with large, bright windows and shiny floors. It reminded me of Grandma-over-in-town’s house. I sat on a stool, my head pressed against the cold counter. I heard the creak of a cabinet opening and the pop of a plastic lid. When I opened my eyes, two red pills were on the counter in front of me.
“This is what people take for pain,” Charles said.
“Who is this us?” Charles said. “You’re leaving tomorrow. You’re not one of them anymore.”
I closed my eyes, hoping he would drop it.
“What do you think will happen if you take the pills?” he said.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what would happen. Mother always said that medical drugs are a special kind of poison, one that never leaves your body but rots you slowly from the inside for the rest of your life. She told me if I took a drug now, even if I didn’t have children for a decade, they would be deformed.
“People take drugs for pain,” he said. “It’s normal.”
I must have winced at the word “normal,” because he went quiet. He filled a glass of water and set it in front of me, then gently pushed the pills forward until they touched my arm. I picked one up. I’d never seen a pill up close before. It was smaller than I’d expected.
I swallowed it, then the other.
For as long as I could remember, whenever I was in pain, whether from a cut or a toothache, Mother would make a tincture of lobelia and skullcap. It had never lessened the pain, not one degree. Because of this, I had come to respect pain, even revere it, as necessary and untouchable.
Twenty minutes after I swallowed the red pills, the earache was gone. I couldn’t comprehend its absence. I spent the afternoon swinging my head from left to right, trying to jog the pain loose again. I thought if I could shout loudly enough, or move quickly enough, perhaps the earache would return and I would know the medicine had been a sham after all.
Charles watched in silence but he must have found my behavior absurd, especially when I began to pull on my ear, which still ached dully, so I could test the limits of this strange witchcraft.
MOTHER WAS SUPPOSED TO drive me to BYU the next morning, but during the night, she was called to deliver a baby. There was a car sitting in the driveway—a Kia Sephia Dad had bought from Tony a few weeks before. The keys were in the ignition. I loaded my stuff into it and drove it to Utah, figuring the car would just about make up for the money Dad owed me. I guess he figured that, too, because he never said a word about it.
I moved into an apartment half a mile from the university. I had new roommates. Robin was tall and athletic, and the first time I saw her she was wearing running shorts that were much too short, but I didn’t gape at her. When I met Jenni she was drinking a Diet Coke. I didn’t stare at that, either, because I’d seen Charles drink dozens of them.
Robin was the oldest, and for some reason she was sympathetic to me. Somehow she understood that my missteps came from ignorance, not intention, and she corrected me gently but frankly. She told me exactly what I would need to do, or not do, to get along with the other girls in the apartment. No keeping rotten food in the cupboards or leaving rancid dishes in the sink.
Robin explained this at an apartment meeting. When she’d finished another roommate, Megan, cleared her throat.
“I’d like to remind everyone to wash their hands after they use the bathroom,” she said. “And not just with water, but with soap.”
Robin rolled her eyes. “I’m sure everyone here washes their hands.”
That night, after I left the bathroom, I stopped at the sink in the hall and washed my hands. With soap.
The next day was the first day of class. Charles had designed my course schedule. He’d signed me up for two music classes and a course on religion, all of which he said would be easy for me. Then he’d enrolled me in two more challenging courses—college algebra, which terrified me, and biology, which didn’t but only because I didn’t know what it was.
Algebra threatened to put an end to my scholarship. The professor spent every lecture muttering inaudibly as he paced in front of the chalkboard. I wasn’t the only one who was lost, but I was more lost than anyone else. Charles tried to help, but he was starting his senior year of high school and had his own schoolwork. In October I took the midterm and failed it.
I stopped sleeping. I stayed up late, twisting my hair into knots as I tried to wrest meaning from the textbook, then lying in bed and brooding over my notes. I developed stomach ulcers. Once, Jenni found me curled up on a stranger’s lawn, halfway between campus and our apartment. My stomach was on fire; I was shaking with the pain, but I wouldn’t let her take me to a hospital. She sat with me for half an hour, then walked me home.
The pain in my stomach intensified, burning through the night, making it impossible to sleep. I needed money for rent, so I got a job as a janitor for the engineering building. My shift began every morning at four. Between the ulcers and the janitorial work, I barely slept. Jenni and Robin kept saying I should see a doctor but I didn’t. I told them I was going home for Thanksgiving and that my mother would cure me. They exchanged nervous glances but didn’t say anything.
Charles said my behavior was self-destructive, that I had an almost pathological inability to ask for help. He told me this on the phone, and he said it so quietly it was almost a whisper.
I told him he was crazy.
“Then go talk to your algebra professor,” he said. “You’re failing. Ask for help.”
It had never occurred to me to talk to a professor—I didn’t realize we were allowed to talk to them—so I decided to try, if only to prove to Charles I could do it.
I knocked on his office door a few days before Thanksgiving. He looked smaller in his office than he did in the lecture hall, and more shiny: the light above his desk reflected off his head and glasses. He was shuffling through the papers on his desk, and he didn’t look up when I sat down. “If I fail this class,” I said, “I’ll lose my scholarship.” I didn’t explain that without a scholarship, I couldn’t come back.
“I’m sorry,” he said, barely looking at me. “But this is a tough school. It might be better if you come back when you’re older. Or transfer.”
I didn’t know what he meant by “transfer,” so I said nothing. I stood to go, and for some reason this softened him. “Truthfully,” he said, “a lot of people are failing.” He sat back in his chair. “How about this: the final covers all the material from the semester. I’ll announce in class that anyone who gets a perfect score on the final—not a ninety-eight but an actual one hundred—will get an A, no matter how they performed on the midterm. Sound good?”
I said it did. It was a long shot, but I was the queen of long shots. I called Charles. I told him I was coming to Idaho for Thanksgiving and I needed an algebra tutor. He said he would meet me at Buck’s Peak.