Holding Hands

by Mike Helsher

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Somehow I mustered the courage to ask out the prettiest girl in my eighth-grade class. Dianne was her name. She had the fancy pixie haircut that was popular in the early 70s, and big—and I do mean big, almost anime-sized—eyes. Perhaps my memory is a little tainted in this regard, like it was about the size of some of the fish I caught at the local pond back then. But anyway, I chased her through the playground after school, cornered her and yelled, “Will you go out with me?”

 “Yes!” she screamed, and then bolted away. 

A four-year relationship grew out of that oh-so-romantic beginning.

For our first date, we agreed to meet in the woods near a pond to go ice skating. It was a biting-cold day and the trail was icy. Bare white birch trees were watching me with what looked like thousands of black eyes peering from their peeling trunks as I clapped and slid along the trail in my flat-soled penny loafers. Nervous, I had forgotten to put on my snow boots before I left home. Or maybe I wanted to look fancy in my nice shoes. Either way, it was a bad choice. I made my way along the trail with arms hung out from my sides for balance, slipping and sliding, but didn’t fall. I was relieved to stop at a trail intersection and watch, as Dianne walked steadily toward me from the other direction, confident in her stride with her big round eyes, an enormous white pompom bouncing atop a ski-hat, a multi-colored plaid wool overcoat, and white figure skates slung over her shoulder.

“You better not try anything or I’ll cut you with my skates,” she said.

Sparkling white teeth gleamed from a crooked, mischievous smile. But the only thing I wanted to try in that moment was to not fall on my ass. Even though I was wearing the stupid shoes, up to that point, I could keep my feet on the ground. But now, in her presence, they just whipped right out from under me. My tailbone hit hard on the ice. Her laughter echoed through the bare birch trees that surrounded us, still watching. I squelched the pain—instilled manly pride has its benefits, I guess. A dopey, not-so-debilitating kind of shame ran through me as I scrambled to my feet. But before we could get to the shore of the pond, we had to descend down an icy hill. We made it about a hundred feet and whoosh, I fell again. This time I just lay there on a bed of slushy footprints that had frozen solid, as she belly-laughed at me. I slid and wobbled down the icy hill in my stupid, shiny black shoes with a penny sewn in the tongue, and fell a few more times before we reached the bottom.

We sat on a fallen tree by the shore of Round Pond to put our frozen skates on. We were in the middle of a cove on the back side of the pond, far away from the crowds that would gather out near the pump house on the other side; where the Haverhill Massachusetts Fire Department would sometimes hose the ice down to create a new, glossy-smooth surface. Skates laced, we cautiously glided out to the middle of the cove. Getting used to the smooth flow of ice skating takes a while, especially when you’ve just stuck your feet into what feels like two blocks of ice.

Now it was her turn to fall. She pushed hard a few times with the spiky toes of her figure skates, leaned to one side, spread her arms out like a gliding, turning seagull, flapped her mittens, and yelled, “watch me turrrrrrn!”  Her legs swooped out in front of her. Boom, her butt bounced onto the hard ice. She didn’t have any instilled manly pride so she yowled loud and clear across the pond. There was a little bit of giggle in her tone, though, which made me laugh. She looked up at me with the anime eyes and a puckered side-pout. I helped her up. By that time I had been playing hockey for four years so my skating skills were more than good. And, though still a little stiff from the cold, my feet were warming up.

“Well, you skate way better than you walk,” she said.

I tried to help her to stand up, but it was like she had forgotten how to skate. I had my arms under hers. She wrapped her arms around my neck and I held her up as best I could, but her legs kept dropping out from under her. Eventually, she found her balance, and then pushed away from me.

At that point, I was overtaken by the same impulse I had on the day I asked her out. I darted after her. She skated away screaming and cawing like it was her first ride on a rollercoaster. I got a hold of one of her arms, swung her around, launched her off at high speed, and laughed as she did the flapping chicken thing with her mittens again, wobbling, but not falling this time. She skated back to me and we took turns swinging and launching each other. My toes were tingling back to life. I could feel my body cracking a sweat under my long-johns after a while. Over and over again we swung and launched each other until we were huffing out clouds of frosty breath.  

Worn out, we circled slowly, moving closer. And before I knew it, there we were, alone in the secluded cove on the back side of the pond far away from the crowd, just the two of us cruising around on skates together—holding hands.


Writing beneath the bell jar: lessons from Plath

by Laura Dennison

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“Not the mental illness one,” my professor told me. “Mental illness is not . . . hip. And literary magazines want hip.” I was finishing my undergrad degree, and we met to review which of my essays to send out to The Sun.

He spoke the truth: mental illness isn’t hip. It shouldn’t be. But my professor’s honesty got me worried that my non-trendy topic would translate directly into unreadable material. I wondered if I should ditch my in-progress memoir entirely, and instead buy a pack of American Spirits and book the next flight to Iceland for some backpacking. Those things, surely, were hip.

My second, more troublesome fear: how could I—just one person—accurately tell a story about mental illness? Would I misrepresent, romanticize, or sensationalize my experiences? How would I adequately acknowledge the role that privilege played in the quality of my care? Where was the line between helping others feel less alone and just adding something dark to their already stormy headspace?

I thought back to 16, when I was assigned Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my high school psychology class. I don’t believe Plath glamorized mental illness, and while her book spared no grimness, I found reading it somehow freeing, most memorably for its central metaphor: the bell jar, trapping her within her thoughts. It may randomly lift, granting her the freedom of fresh air, but it always stays suspended over her, threating to come crashing down once more at any time. I still remember the night I set The Bell Jar down on my bedroom rug after finishing it, feeling at once comforted and deeply unsettled. The comfort came from the fact that no, I was not the only person in the world who felt the way I did. The discomfort came from how accurately Plath was able to use metaphor to make her specific experiences disturbingly familiar.

Remembering Plath helped me solve both my concern with hipness and my fears surrounding how to discuss mental illness. First, fuck being hip. Second, I let metaphor do much of the heavy lifting. After all, real-life mental illness on paper would either look like 300 blank pages or 300 pages of illegible scrawl. Rather than restrict my memoir’s topic, I strove for authenticity, hoping this would be enough to avoid glamorizing or sensationalizing. I realized that I did not need to write my “mental illness story,” but the memoir of a 12-year-old girl inundated with psychiatric diagnoses and medications and the six years of tumultuous aftermath. By rejecting pathology in favor of character and quest as the central focus of my book, I rejected the limiting classifications that makes illness un-hip, and found the freedom to tell the story I needed.


Laura Dennison is a graduate of Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. and is a content editor at Southern New Hampshire University.