College student Bec is dangerously adrift. Self-conscious and increasingly uncertain about her long-term plans, she’s studying a major that no longer interests her and is caught up in a bewildering affair with a married professor. In an impulsive attempt to redeem herself, she answers a want ad seeking a caregiver.
What she finds is a wealthy, cultivated woman in her midthirties. Once an advertising executive, accomplished chef, and skilled decorator, Kate is now in the advanced stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). She and her husband, Evan, handle their situation with mordant humor, careful planning, and a lot of determination. Yet while Bec perceives the couple as charmingly frank and good-humored, strains exist beneath the surface.
Bec is soon a vital part of her employer’s household, and their increasing closeness transforms both women’s lives and their relationships. The more she acts on Kate’s behalf, the further Bec strays from her stringent comfort zone. She performs every task, from the most administrative to the most intimate, and she translates Kate’s speech for strangers, friends, and even family. Sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes reluctantly, Bec advances further and further into Kate’s world, surprised by her own increasing dedication and ease. But how closely can Bec intertwine her own life with Kate’s?
The two confront their obstacles unsentimentally, with dark humor and unflinching candor, as their relationship is slowly stripped of pretense. Honesty becomes their touchstone: They may find humor in the most devastating moments, but they won’t pretend to believe in silver linings that don’t exist. With crystal clarity, debut author Michelle Wildgen has crafted a deeply affecting novel about the singular relationship between two women, balancing humor and regret, sensuality and necessity, and testing the outer limits of friendship. Advance Praise for You’re Not You
“Michelle Wildgen’s novel You Are Not You is so skillfully rendered that it’s hard to believe it is a first novel. The character of Bec, a twentysomething who has a habit of falling into things---jobs, love affairs---is funny, completely unsentimental, and really great for a reader to hang around with. Her worldview and how it changes when she goes to work for Kate, a refined woman in her thirties, is riveting. I simply couldn’t put this book down.”
---Whitney Otto, author of How to Make an American Quilt
“What an enjoyable and deeply satisfying novel. In You’re Not You, Michelle Wildgen manages to capture, in some extraordinary way, what it’s like to be a fairly ordinary college student, waiting for one’s life to begin. Bec is a wonderfully complex heroine, and the nuances of her relations with the remarkable Kate are both vivid and suspenseful. This is an exhilarating debut.”
---Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona
“With You’re Not You, Michelle Wildgen has produced an artful and slyly seductive debut novel about a caregiver in full thrall to her charge’s steely hold on sensuality, taste, and grace.”
---Helen Schulman, author of P.S.
“Michelle Wildgen writes with a lush, fierce clarity about the most private and complex of matters: the relationship between identity and intimacy, the body’s pleasures and profound betrayals, the sharp impact of loss, and the gifts of deep attachment. You’re Not You is startling and smart, a wise, beautiful novel.”
---Nancy Reisman, author of The First Desire
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Michelle Wildgen is a senior editor at the literary quarterly Tin House. She earned an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence and has received a scholarship to Bread Loaf and a residency at Hall Farm Center for Arts and Education in Vermont. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New American Voices 2004, Best Food Writing 2004, StoryQuarterly, and TriQuarterly. The story on which this novel is based appeared in Prairie Schooner, where it won the 2004 Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I would begin on Thursday morning. The idea was for me to arrive early, by seven thirty, so Evan could show me what he did for his wife before he left for work, and afterward I'd follow him and Kate through a typical morning and afternoon. I had one day to observe and then training was over.
I began the morning by smacking the snooze button in a single well-aimed flail at six fifteen. I then lay immobile, arm outstretched and palm still .at against the warm grooves of the clock, enumerating my regrets over the switch from a night job to a morning one, until the alarm resumed.
After a pot of coffee, however, I began to change my mind. It turned out our living room windows faced east and sunlight flooded the room, something I had not had the opportunity to note in the nine months I had lived here. I settled myself before the television, coffee cup a pleasingly warm weight on my stomach, careful not to unbalance the couch (a green and gold yard-sale affair we had to treat gingerly, since Jill and I had hacked off one of the legs to get it in the front door, then propped it back on the splintered stump). I even opened a window to let in the breeze. You really could hear birds chirping in the morning--that wasn't just in folk songs. I sipped my coffee and listened to the anchors' chitchat. Things were happening in the world. For once I knew what some of them were.
By the time I arrived at the Norrises' house, I felt downright hale. My lungs, I thought, breathing deeply as I rang the bell, seemed to be of genuinely admirable capacity.
Evan opened the front door. "Bec," he said, smiling. "I guess this is the official welcome. Come on back to the bedroom." He was wearing dark pants, a neatly ironed white shirt.
I watched his hands swing as we walked to the back of the house, liking him. Something in Evan's gait seemed familiar, but then lately I had detected a bizarre habit of trying to associate every person I liked with Liam: If Jill made me laugh I listened to the tone of her voice to see if it was like Liam's when he told a story; if a guy on the street gave me a certain kind of smile I searched his face for Liam's thick eyebrows or his straight white teeth.
In the bedroom Kate was in her wheelchair, already dressed in a khaki skirt and blue T-shirt. Her damp hair left dark patches on the shoulders of her top. Her face was pale and bare, her eyes soft. Without makeup she seemed soft-fleshed, vulnerable as an open mollusk. When she spoke to me, her voice was low, the words slurred and indistinct
though it was clear she was trying to enunciate. Evan translated after each phrase, switching pronouns and glancing back and forth between us.
"So we let Evan . . . do everything today . . . and you watch, okay? Sometime I'll have you dress me . . . just so you know how, but . . . we can do that later."
When this last part was repeated, Kate gave me a sheepish smile. I said, "Oh, don't worry. I'll learn soon enough, right?" Maybe at the beginning she always gave herself a little grace period before she showed a total stranger everything. Frankly, I was grateful for the wait. I might not stay at this job beyond the summer. Perhaps I would never have to deal with dressing, period.
But I was resolved to put in the three months till September. Look at Jill--back in high school she'd stuck it out, for no money, volunteering at an ugly nursing home for almost a year. By contrast, I'd found a pretty easy deal (I allowed myself a moment of superiority), and presumably I had a bit more fortitude at twenty-one than Jill had had at seventeen.
"So," said Evan, clasping his hands, "let's get to it."
The three of us went into the bathroom, which was palatial. There was room for three chairs, Kate and Evan facing each other next to the counter and me standing perpendicular to them, opposite the mirror. On the counter was a neatly divided compartment case of makeup and a few pricey hair products lined up near the sink: bottles of creams and mousse and a vial of something syrupy and clear.
Evan held up a bottle and said, "First you take a little of this and rub it on your hands and put it through her hair."
She let her head tip back as he combed his fingers through her hair, which looked silky and heavy, and rubbed his palms over the crown of her skull. The cream smelled of limes and coconut. That was just fine. I knew how to do that. He combed her hair back from her face, parting it to one side. I made a mental note that it was the left side. Her skin was pale, flushed through the cheeks and dusted with freckles I hadn't noticed the day before. Her eyes, a light, clear tortoiseshell amber, bore a burst of gold around the pupils. It was not a girlish face, but built of firm lines instead, her eyebrows slanted rather than blandly curving, her nose long and straight, the tip slightly angled toward her lips, her mouth wide but not especially full. It was the face maybe not of a model but of a tall woman, its scale too bold to be comfortable on a petite frame. How tall had she been? Five eight, five nine? Not just the chair but her thinness made it difficult to guess. The proportions were off.
When he finished she said through Evan, "How are you with makeup?"
My hand darted up to my face. Then I knew I should have put on a little, out of deference to the job. I hated makeup--my eyelashes felt stiff when I wore mascara, and I always forgot powder. I never understood how Jill could go out on a hot summer morning with her eyes smoky and dark and her mouth covered in a coat of burgundy lipstick. Yesterday at the interview Kate hadn't seemed to be wearing much, but now I guessed it was the kind of expertly blended makeup that only looks like nothing.
"I can learn," I hedged.
"Evan learned," Kate said.
"Oh, then no problem," I said. I took out some mints and offered the tin around. It was as though we were just girls hanging out. Except for the husband it felt like junior high. Of course, if I had paid better attention in junior high makeup sessions I might have known what I was doing by now. "This is going to be good for me," I said, through a mouthful of mints. "My roommate's been bugging me to wear some mascara since we were thirteen."
Kate smiled as she lifted her face to Evan. He dotted her skin with foundation and smoothed the makeup out, covering the freckles across the bridge of her nose, which I thought was too bad. Then he dusted her cheeks with blush and held up two compacts of eye shadow. She looked them over for a moment and then nodded at one, saying in that low voice something that sounded like "just a little." Evan went to work like a pro, whisking taupe shadow over her closed eyelids and feathering a stiff brush, tipped with brown powder, against the grain of her eyebrows and then brushing them back into place.
It was a brisk, impressive procedure, and as I watched I wondered if I would ever go through anything like it myself if I were her. She didn't have to go out every day, yet she did her hair and put on a full face of makeup? It seemed silly, so precious, to go through all these motions for nothing. But perhaps she simply liked to feel polished.
Evan lifted her face with a knuckle beneath her chin and caught her eyelashes in a curler. "If I ever get sick of the marketing game I'm going to go pro as a makeup artist," he said, then wiped extra mascara off a wand and started brushing it up and down Kate's lashes.
"I'd pay you," I said. He laughed and held up a couple of lipsticks. Kate nodded at one in his right hand. As he finished with her lips, the two of us looked her over. It was the same face I'd seen yesterday, her but intensified, her eyes darkened slightly and her mouth rosy. Now that I'd seen him do it, makeup didn't seem so mysterious.
Evan leaned down and used the tip of his thumb to brush away a bit of powder, his face intent. He smiled at her. Maybe the makeup was for him.
Finished, they turned to look at me. I glimpsed us all in the mirror, the backs of their tawny heads gleaming in the reflection as they faced me, and between them the pale oval of my face. After looking at Kate, whose coloring was faintly golden, my own skin seemed whiter, my nose a formless little button and my cheeks more rounded than I'd
ever noticed, my naked eyes a wolfish gray.
"Think you can do this tomorrow?" she said.
"Sure," I told her. I considered practicing on Jill tonight but decided I wouldn't need to. Tomorrow I would just remember that all I had to do was enhance what was there and I'd be fine.
Their ad had caught my eye because it was so calm, free of suspicious overenthusiasm and exclamation points. Very few jobs deserved that kind of punctuation, and I appreciated an employer who recognized that. They were seeking a helper for the wife, who had Lou Gehrig's disease. When I phoned, I was imagining reading books to her, serving tea that smelled of something crisp and bracing, like mint. Even after Evan said Kate was only thirty-six, I persisted in imagining someone tremulous and elderly, someone you take one look at and know she needs your help--your humor, your height, your muscled arms.
I may have been inventing everything else, but I knew the most important thing: The salary was fifteen dollars an hour, assuming I turned out to be a caregiving sort of person and got the job. I had no idea if I was this sort of person or not--it's my belief that sometimes you just let the experts decide. They weren't even looking for a nurse, or a true home health care worker. Helping out, Evan said on the phone. Driving her around, making phone calls, lending a hand around the house. How hard could it be?
He hadn't seemed overly concerned with my lack of prior experience, which was a plus. I was so unfamiliar with the details of the disease that I wasn't even certain who Lou Gehrig was--a baseball player, I eventually recalled, and I pictured a woman slowly transformed into a thick mannish figure, growing daily more meaty and sad, until I realized I was thinking of Babe Ruth.
Instead I found a slim woman with dark gold hair that fell past her shoulders and bright amber eyes. When I arrived for the interview the French doors had swung open of their own accord as soon as I rang the bell, revealing a woman in a wheelchair, her hands folded in her lap, and a man standing behind her. His hand was resting on her shoulder. The two of them were positioned a few feet back from the front doors. They were the very first thing I saw when I entered the house.
She smiled at me. Between her shining hair and her dangling gold earrings, she looked even younger than I had expected. Her prettiness and her berry-red dress were a relief and a surprise to me, so much so that I had to admit I must have been steeling myself for this moment. Even as I was pleased to see what she looked like, I was ashamed to think how I might have responded if she had been homely and lumpy, in a pilled but comfortable polyester jumpsuit. I'd been picturing an older couple, a smaller house.
Kate mouthed hello. She shifted her knee slightly to one side, so that it pressed something, a switch or a button of some kind, on the chair. The big French doors swung shut behind me.
"Hi there," I said. I nodded to both of them. I wanted to address Kate, even though it was tempting to go toward Evan, since I had already talked to him. He'd turned out to be tall, maybe a bit gangly, with thinning blond hair and a handsome, lean face, long-nosed and etched with lines around the lips and eyes. He wore round wire glasses and rubbed at the back of his neck in the manner of someone who recently cut his hair shorter than he'd meant to.
"Becky, right?" Evan said. There was something bookish and friendly about him.
"Everyone just calls me Bec, actually," I said. "Don't ask me why."
I took a step toward them, wondering how to greet her. The movement of her leg had thrown me off. Evan had told me she was almost totally paralyzed, but clearly she could do some things, so I held out my hand for her to shake. Her glance alighted on my outstretched hand and then on her own hands, thin and attenuated with oval unpolished nails. The hands lay in her lap, motionless. She gave me a little shrug and a smile. Suddenly I was sure I'd made a terrible decision coming here--what did I know about this job besides the money they offered? I hadn't thought this through at all.
"I'm kind of an idiot," I said.
She spoke, glancing toward Evan and grinning, and I took another step forward, straining to hear her. Had he mentioned this part, that I would not understand a word this woman said? Unsure if I was supposed to be answering, I watched Evan watch her and then say to me, smiling rather kindly, quoting his wife, "The important thing is that you feel at home enough to say so."
Evan set Kate's hand on the armrest, her fingers placed over the wheelchair buttons, and they led me through the living room toward the kitchen. The living room was cool and pearl gray, the sort of place that looks as if no one ever sits down. On a table by the wall near the kitchen door was a statue of a girl, and as we walked past it--Evan first, then me, then Kate, the chair's gears whirring softly--I slowed to look at it. One arm hung at her side and the other curled over her head. Her stomach muscles were molded clearly, and so was the muscle at the top of one thigh as she stepped forward. The breasts curved out from her rib cage and came to a smooth undifferentiated point at the tips. Someone had hung a spider plant too close to her, so she had a mermaidish mop of green hair.
Kate saw me looking at the statue and rolled her eyes. With a tolerant smile, she tipped her head toward the kitchen, where Evan was waiting for us. I took it to mean the statue was his taste and not hers.
In the kitchen she stopped her chair at the table and Evan gestured for me to sit down as well. He stood, leaning against a butcher-block island in the center of the room. Behind him half a dozen battered copper pans hung from hooks in the ceiling. A row of cookbooks slanted against the refrigerator. If I'd had a kitchen this beautiful, I thought, I'd know how to cook by now. As it was, I mostly microwaved butter and poured it on things.
Sitting across from Kate gave me a chance to get a better look at her. The back of her head was cradled in the padded half-moon attached to the back of the wheelchair. When she brought her head forward, to swallow or take a breath, it fell a little too far, so that I could see her pale side part. She had the kind of hair, straight and heavy, that I'd always coveted. I was very aware that my own hair was a dark frizz around my face and stuck to the back of my neck. I set my forearms on the table and realized my button-down shirt had a tiny stain on the cuff. I felt incredibly out of place: fuzzy, damp, badly dressed. You think you're showing up to help people out, but there they were, cool and sleek and regarding me with an air of friendly curiosity, as though I were a Girl Scout or a Mormon.
If I got through this without embarrassing myself, I decided, I'd go home and call Liam. Let that be my little carrot to draw me through. I hadn't seen him in days, which was typical, if unpleasant. Sometimes I wandered aimlessly around his part of campus just to glimpse him, though we were smart enough not to be seen strolling the lawns together. When he did see me, sitting in the Rathskeller on rainy days, a book and beer on the table before me, or when we passed one another trudging up the steep sidewalk of Bascom Hill, we nodded and smiled pleasantly, leaving our sunglasses on. Sometimes we stopped and spoke-...
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