what we saw from the cheap seats
I stood for a time with the bones.
—Tess Taylor, "Elk at Tomales Bay"
The first year isn't so much reeling. Quinn has a bit of trouble adjusting: You know she ditches a fair number of classes, smokes cigarettes, goes at at midnight to drink with any boy who offers. You know this because she tells you like it's not a big deal, like it's how the first year of university is for everyone.
Maybe it is. It wasn't for you but you do remember spending a lot of time by yourself in the studio, drinking stolen cheap wine and painting on any surface but canvas. You think maybe it runs in your family, this hesitancy about life.
But you also know that you left. You know that you grew out of it, grew out of the desperate grasps at feeling, out of the not-able-to-get-out-of-bed desolation. It took therapy and it took Robert and it took a whole group of sustaining friends and professors and so many paintings.
Quinn is more deeply hurt. You know this. You know this because when you go visit her in October, there are sunken puddles under her eyes, and she can't look at her hands, and you still aren't brave enough to do anything about it.
I'm sorry, you want to say. Instead you nod when she offers you the lucky cigarette from the pack, stare at the flame and inhale deeply when her hands shake.
There's a string of nameless, faceless boys, then Lauren, then Jill.
Quinn tells you about them via text—I met someone, we had a good time, it was fine, I'm fine, yes, yes, no, Manet.
Maybe she's just getting it out of her system. Drugs. People. Being wanted—you aren't sure which.
You visit in February and Quinn has purple bruises around her wrists. You don't know exactly how to ask and you make assumptions that maybe she doesn't understand safewords because she doesn't want them. But you're her big sister and you're trying to just be a part of her life, not someone to judge her, so when she catches you staring she stares back and says, They'd be a nice color for a painting why don't you go ahead?
Santana texts you one day, Quinn needs to get out of New Haven for a few days.
This is Santana's code for worrying.
You fly Quinn out for her spring break, and you don't really plan anything. She has a horrendous cough; she spends most of her time on the rooftop garden of your building, even when you suggest going to de Young or visiting Stanford or even taking a trip up to Napa because she looks old enough.
She shrugs and keeps smoking cigarettes, coughing up smoke.
In April you Skype with her one evening, and she drinks an entire bottle of wine in about thirty minutes. Her eyes get chillingly glassy and stunning, and she makes you ache because she's far too beautiful for this world. For grainy Mac screens and any surface you could paint her on. Maybe she belongs in charcoal, in smudges and shadows—the sounds Icarus made when he was drowning and no one noticed.
In May, she informs you that she has a 4.0 and that she's going back to Lima for the summer. She also says, I'm pretty sure I'm gay.
She adds, I tried so hard not to be.
At the end of the summer, she seems a bit better. You think that probably she's grown out of those drunk days painting over mirrors like you did, and she smiles brightly when you see her for a week before term starts.
And then Rachel is there for a few days, and once when Quinn doesn't know you're watching, you see them share this sweet, soft kiss.
Quinn is your baby sister and it's the youngest thing you've seen her do in forever.
Rachel's cheeks are flushed and her eyes are bright, and Quinn sits silently in the corner for a bit while you and Rachel talk about school, and you know Quinn hasn't grown out of anything.
To be fair, you do get the sense that she tries. She doesn't smoke and she drinks a lot less and it seems like she is, to a degree, going to class more frequently and when she's in New York with Rachel, she sends you happy pictures.
She's still glassy-eyed and terrifying. Fluttering. Falling.
Maybe it's because you've watched her do it over and again, maybe because you're a painter, you know she's crashing. You also know Rachel really has no idea what Quinn is capable of, because you've felt it in yourself and Rachel hasn't.
They start dating officially in October, and Quinn has never been so quiet.
For Christmas Quinn gives you a packet of poems. Because she thinks she wants to study English, not Drama. You wonder if it's because she's tired of being in front of people to admire.
You read her poems and you begin to understand that there is so much Lucy left in Quinn, so much young ache there.
You drink hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps in front of the fireplace at your big marble house on Christmas eve, sit on the floor with Quinn, who lies down—drunk, blonde hair splayed around her head, pretty pink lips slightly parted—and if you didn't know better, her breaths are so shallow you might think she's not alive any longer.
There's a very brief period of time when things even out. Quinn gets much happier, much more verbal, full of this energy you're not familiar with at all. Rachel seems overjoyed.
In March Quinn explodes.
Santana calls you and says, Quinn punched a wall in Rachel's dorm during a fight and we're at the ER because she broke her hand.
They don't last much longer than that, which has to do with the dilemma of how to hold someone else's plastered, shattered hand.
Quinn goes to Lima for the summer again and you don't hear much from her. When you do talk she seems absolutely heartbroken and like the world is starting to burn her insides. This is what she tells you, anyway, and you hesitantly suggest seeing a therapist—you did for about two years during undergrad because you had nightmares and you couldn't kiss Robert some days because the scars from your father's belt along your entire back hurt far too much—and Quinn just laughs once, sharply, and after that you suggest that maybe she should stop smoking so many cigarettes.
The past years have been rocky but you realize the destruction there has been tiny fires compared to the slow, stop-motion explosion that begins at the beginning of Quinn's third year.
One night, you Skype and she just cries for half an hour, with choppy, short blond hair and long, clumped eyelashes, doesn't say anything, hugs the stuffed lamb from your shared childhood.
I don't understand what's happening to me, she says.
She falls in love. Madly. In a few weeks.
Spencer, to be fair, is fierce and quiet and absolutely stunning. Brilliant. Harsh and regal—the sharpest cut heirloom diamond.
Robert gets an offer to teach law at Harvard, and you end up getting some space in a few galleries in Boston, so you move with him to Cambridge. You're planning your wedding, and it's much closer to New Haven, so you think maybe it'll be good.
Quinn and Spencer, on the bright days, are absolutely adorable. They come to visit you in October, to celebrate Spencer's birthday, and they talk for hours with Robert about politics and philosophy.
Spencer makes Quinn laugh, and they share all of these really sweet kisses sometimes.
You take them to Boston because Spencer wants to see some of your work, and you catch Spencer drag Quinn up against a brick wall in an alley, watch as Quinn says, Here? and Spencer nods, and Quinn immediately shoves a hand, rough and unapologetic, down the front of Spencer's pants.
You know months beforehand that it's going to end poorly, but you have no idea how bad Quinn's going to get during that time. She gets diagnosed with Bipolar I, which, at this point, isn't surprising, and you find some comfort in being able to place a name to the bloody, broken fissures in your baby sister's brain. In the spring, she has a mixed episode. This, you
Spencer calls you one night in tears, because Quinn overdosed on a bottle of Vicodin and seventeen shots of vodka. Spencer says that Quinn seems okay, that Spencer is with her in the dorm and her breathing and heart rate are consistent so they're not going to the hospital at the moment.
You don't know how to process this information. This is, you realize, a suicide attempt, but maybe not a conscious one.
She's seeing a therapist, Spencer says. I got her to go see a therapist and I don't—what do I do?
You want to tell Spencer to get out while she can, to get out before she falls so in love with the sharpness of Quinn's cheekbones and the fullness of her lips and the bone press of her hips that she can't bear the weight.
You did this.
Instead, you say, Don't leave yet.
One day Santana shows up at your studio.
She sits down very seriously in front of you and says, I didn't want to tell you this over the phone.
Your chest seizes in the still, drowning air.
She says, Quinn's in the psych ward at the hospital on suicide watch for the weekend.
She says, Fucking idiot sliced open her left wrist with a knife, Fran. Jesus Christ.
She says, Spencer found her.
She says, Spencer's not leaving but I would.
You visit the next weekend—for the life of you, you cannot visit Quinn in the psych ward—and she doesn't wear a bandage over her wrist any longer, although her stitches have just been removed.
You don't talk about it. You don't know how.
Quinn offers you a cigarette and you accept, and the smoke is heavy, because for this, there aren't words.
Quinn agrees quietly to do a summer program in poetry at Brown. It's close to you, so she can stay during weekends. She and Spencer break up in May, dramatically and violently, but when Quinn comes over to your little brownstone, she sits on the front steps and blows a smoke ring and says, Every shitty thing she said about me is true.
She's thin, and you try to make as much food for her as possible when she visits.
You're painfully aware that she's close to attempting suicide again many times because she tells you very calmly that she's spending nights on the roof of her dorm.
Every morning when she texts you, your chest unbinds slightly. She's here.
At the beginning of August, she gets put on the right dose of the right mood stabilizer, and it's almost like a miracle, because for the first time in what you figure is probably her entire life, the world is the right distance away—and close—in its interaction with Quinn's brain.
She goes to therapy weekly and she doesn't miss doses and she has a 3.8 in school still, and she's by far one of the most gifted humans you know. It's incredible to get to watch her heal, to get to watch her become so close to the sweet Lucy you knew for a few years: She tells you quietly one night, I have nightmares still, but then I dream.
The scar on her wrist fades a bit by October, and she comes to visit you during her fall break.
You share two bottles of wine, and Quinn sits on your kitchen counter with Robert's old guitar and plays Bob Dylan.
By about 10 you're incredibly drunk, and so is Quinn, and Robert sees the two of you intertwined and tangled on the couch, and he smiles and kisses both of your foreheads then heads to your bedroom.
Quinn's body is flush against yours, her head against your chest, arms all the way around you. You can feel her ribs pressing into yours, the softness of her breasts. You trace her spine and you don't dare move: She is the closest thing you know to yourself, and she is tender and fragile and strong and right now she is twenty-one years old and alive and asleep on top of you, breathing steadily: She is weightless, heavy magic that smells like chardonnay and sandalwood.
You have her for Thanksgiving, and Judy and Tom have moved to New Hampshire so they come as well. Quinn is precise in her movements but this time when you all have too much wine she doesn't cry. She laughs.
In February, she visits one quiet weekend. She wears leggings and tall wool socks and riding boots, big comfortable sweaters and scarves, and you think she has—at last—grown into her body's existence, because her dancer's posture has relaxed a little bit; she folds up in chairs and bites the tips of her pens while she does reading for classes.
One night, she's at the table with you and Robert. He's known her for years now, been there steadily while you were terrified and couldn't express it.
She looks at both of you and worries her bottom lip and then says, Do you think I'm better enough to be good for Rachel?
Robert takes your hand and squeezes, then very seriously says, I think you're absolutely wonderful.
She and Rachel start officially dating soon after that, and you and Robert go to New York for a weekend to show some of your work at your friend's Upper East Side gallery, and you go on a double date with them.
They're beautiful and young and adorable and they seem remarkably happy together. I've definitely stopped smoking, Quinn says, and Rachel beams at her, and Robert laughs.
You go to New Haven to watch Quinn defend her thesis, which is hilarious because Quinn absolutely thrives in front of arguably some of the most brilliant people in the world, answers precisely and eloquently and then she cracks some absolutely dorky lit joke about Wallace Stevens and they all laugh for a good minute before they continue.
Rachel seems so proud, and you've watched Rachel perform a few times so you know the look they reserve only for each other at times like this. It's new and it's scary for you for a second to see Rachel look at your baby sister like that. But then Quinn shakes her professors' hands and they end up hugging instead; you know some of them have fought all of her demons with her, felt them through her poems.
When Rachel looks at Quinn like she wants her forever, you are proud of Quinn for deserving that, too.
A few days later, Quinn and Rachel visit for a weekend before they're heading back to visit Rachel's dads for a few weeks in Lima. Judy and Tom join you, and you don't drink wine at dinner, and you see Quinn crack a goofy, indulgent smile at her salad and then at you, but she doesn't say anything.
You take Robert's hand a bit later, and you say, We're pregnant, and then there's lots of hugging and Quinn wears this shit-eating grin and tells you, I knew it, fattie, with a kiss to your cheek.
A little while later, Judy is telling stories to Rachel and Robert about the two of you when you were small, and they're the few happy ones you have.
You catch Quinn's eye and walk outside, sit on the front steps. She follows half a minute later, leans her head on your shoulder.
Are you scared? she asks.
Absolutely terrified, you tell her.
You feel her nod, rustling the fabric of your shirt. If the child's anything like you, you'll be just fine, she says.
You smile. Ideally he or she will be like Robert.
She laughs. Well, our family's track record has to change at some point.
You sit back and ruffle her smooth hair. Special brains, our family.
She nods, rubs her nose. You know what the scariest thing is? she asks.
Well, for me, it's just—all of the dark parts are still there, you know? Like, the suicide attempts and the scars and everything don't go away. But. I'm here, you know? And—you're having a kid. How cool is that?
She starts to cry then, silently and softly, and you say, It's pretty cool, Quinn, and she nods and kisses your cheek as you squeeze her warm, steady hand.