Rachel Litchman

Was it Practice?

In the treatment center in New Hampshire, when you are thirteen, the walls in your room are windowless.

The wooden floors are scuffed from heavy suitcases.

And the fire alarms—in a treatment center for trauma and panic—will not stop ringing.

You’re sleeping in a twin bed in a dark room when you lurch awake at the sound of this. You blink. It’s your first week at the treatment center in New Hampshire, and you’d much rather shut everything out, slam the pillow over your ears, and not think about the room you’re in, the plane ride that got you there, the cold air.  

But the alarm reminds you. A little red dot blinks on the ceiling. The alarms wail fire on loops throughout the night. The red light screams across the paint on the wall, grips hard at you lungs—

But what’s real? And what’s not?

If your anxiety is a trapeze suspended between imagination and reality, you’ve learned to swing back and forth between the two. You’ve gotten caught, stuck in the middle, swinging—

On one side of this trapeze are this room and this fire alarm. Your body is still and you feel the scratch of white sheets against your arms and legs.

On the other, mirrored in some unfurled memory, is trauma, is violence. The reason you’re here tonight.

You’ve spent years practicing. Jumping

from one side of the trapeze to the next.

Stop. Drop. And roll.

In second grade, the fire sergeant came to your school and taught you how to do this. He showed you how to press your hand against a door and feel for heat on the other side of it. He showed you how to wave an orange shirt in the window and cry for help through the windowpane.

Help. But did you not already say this? Or did you just not say it loud enough?

In bed, you feel paralyzed. You can’t move even as the alarms seem to grow louder. How many memories crash into your body with the wail of a fire alarm? How much sound— there are boots pounding outside your door right now. Someone will come and knock any second. Tell you to get out of bed, this is an emergency—

The fire sergeant was an expert on emergencies. When he came, he paced across the floor of your classroom. He held his hands behind his back and glanced down at all twenty-three of you on the alphabet carpet and said, “Never pull the fire alarm unless of an emergency.” He had shiny boots and a silver badge.  He pointed to the fire alarm and said, No.

He said, Don’t. He said, The first offense is a misdemeanor, the second a crime.

So when it happened, how could you tell him?

How were you supposed to define emergency for yourself, and what was supposed to warrant the pulling of a fire alarm, a cry for help?

In your room, the alarms wail louder. Against boots against wood against silence. The fire sergeant pacing, the gymnast on the trapeze pacing, the silence pacing, or the man—

The door opens. A slice of light leaks in from the hallway. A woman stands there, her blond hair, her hand curled around the doorframe, the wood—

The fire—

It seems, maybe, from years of practice, you’ve never been preparing for real. You sat on the sidelines at soccer games, watching balls move around the grass. You practiced. You prepared. When a girl got injured, your coach led you out toward the field, toward the ball and told you take her place. But how did you play this game?

From the sidelines, he yelled at you.

He taught you move. He taught you run. In health class your teacher said, “Anxiety can be medicated.” She showed you a video of pills to take and—

The fire— the woman stands in the doorway and tells you to put your shoes on. She’s looking at you in bed, trying to coax you toward her, come here, come out the door—

But your health teacher— she said she could help you. She had you write in your notebook every morning about three things that went well that week: “I ate a good breakfast” (you skipped it) “I slept well last night” (for two hours) “I am safe”

(but were you?)

She never told you to carry pepper spray in your pocket. She never told you about fathers who—

She slipped a condom over a banana and said this is how you have safe sex. She didn’t tell you what amounts of trauma you were inherently born into just by being a woman. (And further, a child).

You were thirteen.

But scratch that. This is a tangent. This is the other side of the trapeze that’s not real anymore. You’re in the treatment center now and the fire alarms are still ringing. Your body is tense and there is this pressure, the feeling of a heavy weight on your chest.

The woman yells at you.

From the sidelines of the room, a heavy knocking of her fist against the doorframe. The collision of bone on wood, and you, in your pajama pants, in your panic, finally pull yourself out of bed to follow her.

Behind her, you can see a steady stream of other girls pouring into the hallway. They come out of their own double rooms and press their hands against their ears to shut out noise.

Because every girl here has experienced some degree of panic.

Because to hear alarms again is to be reminded—regardless of situation—of emergency, of fire.

You move. In the hallway the walls are windowless. In the common area, where you pass through in order to get out the door, there are bookshelves filled with novels and board games. Yesterday night, you found the book Never Let Me Go on the shelf. You read the back cover and put it back on your mental reading list. To read this, to understand this. How many manuals you’ve read about helping yourself, how many books and doors have been opened.

But why does this feel like another invasion? Why every time a closed door is opened do you feel an alarm crawling inside you again?

You feel your lungs caving in on themselves. Your heart pounds to the frantic rhythm of bee’s wings and the sirens around you buzz. Blur. You try to assure yourself that this is just your anxiety. You say, the room you sleep in is safe. The woman guiding you out the door is a helper. She will help you. She will be the aftermath savior.

But the fire sergeant? Are you forgetting about the fire sergeant, and why isn’t he here for any of this?

Does he only show up to practice?

And what use was it to go to practice when he never took part in the real game. What use was it to kick the ball around when in real life, he only came to sit down on the benches.

Practice—this fire drill is just like before. Maybe. Like the ones you did in grade school that never meant anything. Like the ones that only left you standing outside in the cold without a coat on, the ones where you had to wait until the fire department came and saved you from fake fire.

Or if it wasn’t practice, then it was an error, a faulty detector detecting carbon monoxide when really, the batteries had failed.

A systemic failure.

But they never taught you about this.

Never taught you about how to stay by the lighted glow of shop windows in the evenings, how not to venture far off the sidewalk, onto the streets, or into the dark.

Never taught you about where a man, a woman, might touch you, how to pick up the phone and cry for help or dial a number.

Never taught you about how to break silence, open your lips, your mouth.

You’ve learned these things on your own.                                                       

In the past month, your body has learned to slip on memory like a coat. You’ve learned to jump off one side of the trapeze and swing away for too long. Are you back yet? Are you coming?

You’re waiting to be caught, and yet the fall is in motion.

You step out of the fire alarms and into the cold tonight

wondering what will happen if you let go.

Rachel Litchman will be attending University of Wisconsin at Madison in the fall of 2017. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Hippocrates Young Poets’ Prize for Poetry and Medicine, the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, and The Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers. Her essays and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado ReviewNew SouthThe JournalSolstice, and The Louisville Review, among others. She is currently a member of the RAINN speaker’s bureau.