My next door neighbor is in a coma.
She's not my next door neighbor any more; she hasn't been for years. Yet, when I hear about Alice's accident, that she was on her bicycle at 12:20 AM when something happened, that she hasn't woken up, I go downstairs and pull back the kitchen curtain to expose, in the aftermath of a desultory shrubbery, her house. It's a big blue pseudo-Victorian with pert gables, narrow steps, a sweeping train of a backyard. It's empty. I don't know what her parents did with the dog. I'm 28, in my parents' kitchen, killing time.
There isn't much news. No details, just a few vertical facts, pillars in a dark room. Alice was riding her bike. Something happened. She's stable but in the hospital, hundreds of miles away from where the black-eyed Susans are starting to bully the other plants in her mother's garden. Some of the weaker flowers, pink and wilted and small, look as if they might die. There's no sign of a watering can. They -that nebulous, inscrutable they- don't know when she'll wake up.
The use of the word "when" for the word "if" is very like Alice. There's a picture of us from back when we were little, when our parents were friends instead of neighbors. She's three or four, fat and happy, reaching for the camera. I'm two or three, slight and sour, trying to hide behind her back. It would be tempting to say that Alice was everything I wanted to be, older and fearless, garrulous and savvy. The truth is starker: Alice was everything I'm not.
I'm stuck on the "something happened." I want to call someone and ask: what? A car door? Another bike? A baby in the road? Or just one of those slippages that sometimes occurs, the world losing power, flickering back on in an altered configuration. When Alice decided something should happen, it did. She arranged canoe trips and reunions, parties and proms. She was student council president, president of her class. She dragooned me into taking University French and joining the spelling team. For a year and a half, I drove her to school every day.
I haven't seen Alice in ten years. That's a lie, of course: I saw her twice or three times on the street, another time in the Asian grocery buying wine. I've seen her house; I've seen her parents and her sister and her dog. Mostly, though, I've kept track of her through the tenacious, inexplicable grapevine that afflicts university towns. It has comforted me to know that she's out there making things happen: building boats, counseling students, promoting festivals, doing all the things I didn't do in the places I haven't been.
I have never wanted Alice to be like me. I have never wanted to be like Alice. That's not the order of the universe; it's not the picture I taped in the album I pull out from under my childhood bed. I'm scared; she's brave. I'm shy; she's not. I dance; she can't. I'm diffident; she charges forward, takes no prisoners, makes things work. It's an oversimplification of who she is, but it's who she's been to me.
I fall off of bicycles. Alice dodged the door, slipped past the bumper, braked in time, sped unharmed through the night. Why not? It's easier to believe than to stomach the idea that we're -suddenly, ruinously- the same.