Rising and Falling

Gem McHaffey


My mother tells me about time. I am thirteen and we are at her friend Linda’s house sharing the same bed, both staunchly awake, trying to be aware of the space we are taking up without making it noticeable. I focus on my breathing, on the bed beneath me, on this room. This place would be beautiful. But I focus on the situation more than the space, the bodies and the breathing.

My mother tells me about time. She sits up in the middle of the night and I carefully mimic her sweeping movement. Through the darkness I can only make out the basics of her features. As my eyes start to adjust to the darkness I am comforted by her features as a constant.

“Do you want to hear one of my theories?” she asks, her voice thin and tired. She is trying to maintain normalcy, to pretend that things are not so up in the air. She always has theories, strange dreams and ideas sewn into belief. When she tells me about the world, I always listen intently, always hoping to expand myself.

I nod.

“Some people think that time is happening all at once,” she says, “Like we think the past is gone and the future hasn’t been created yet, but what if it all exists, only we can’t access it?”

I nod.

“What do you think, Ivy?” she asks me.

“I think that sounds right,” I say.

We are silent. I want to ask her so much, to ask her why we are here, why we left in the middle of the night to stay at her friend’s house without my father. I want to ask her why she won’t tell me. I ask with my eyes: why are we here? Why did we leave in the middle of the night?

“I’ll explain,” she answers out loud, “I’ll explain. I’ll explain.”


Michelle is standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She is watching my body language trying to decode me, reduce me to answers like any of this is easy. Perhaps the folds of me will give her the answer that she is looking for. This is a constant: Michelle attempting to invade my life for the drama then falling out when I mellow and flatten.

“What did your mom say?” she asks.

“I didn’t call her.”

Sunlight streams through the window, imprinting warm patterns against the counter. The light is always like this. I’ve come to know what to expect with this place, this apartment. This place would be beautiful. Things come in order and time slides between my fingers. I turn away from Michelle to the dishes. There are dishes in the sink that need to be done. There are always dishes in the sink. This is a constant. The kitchen is small and always smells weird, poorly designed and claustrophobic. This is also a constant. The containers of artisanal cheese my roommate Michelle keeps, but never seems to finish, the leftovers from last night, the small coin jar on the counter we always talk about converting into real cash, but never get around to doing. These are all constants. But what does that say about you? That I’m not really on top of things, that I have these big ideas, but never follow through. When was the last time I did dishes?

Michelle looks down for a second, “Do you think you’re going to call her?”

I shrug, “I should, right?”

She sits in her hip, “Well you don’t know what you’re going to do so… It just shouldn’t be a surprise if you go through with it I think.”

“And if I don’t go through with it?” I ask quietly.

“Then that’s up to you, I guess. She doesn’t have to know… But it might be nice to talk to her.”

I nod. I know she is right.

“Well, have you at least told…”

“No,” I say quickly, “Why would I do that?”

She raises an eyebrow, “I think he has a right to know.”


“It’s his.”

“No,” I say, “It’s mine and it’s my choice. He’s not going to care.”

“You don’t have to decide anything right now,” Michelle says, “Think about it.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?” I snap.

Michelle shrugs, “Well, you certainly haven’t been doing the dishes.”


My mother tells me about time. “Some people think that time is happening all at once,” she says, “Like we think the past is gone and the future hasn’t been created yet, but what if it all exists, only we can’t access it.”

I nod.

“What do you think, Ivy?” she asks me.

“I think that sounds right,” I say.

Time happens at once. I am meeting John in college at the library for the first time. I am waiting for him to finish his food in the dining hall. We are breaking up two years later when he goes abroad in Spain. And I am where I am when I run into him on the street and end up going back to his apartment.

It all happens at once. I am watching Michelle wash the dishes. She is clumsy as she does it as she doesn’t do it often, didn’t grow up in a house where that was expected of her. The noise is imperfect, clattering and shifting as she piles the dishes on the side. This could all be so beautiful.

It all happens at once. I am the thirteen-years-old sitting outside while my mother and her friend Linda discuss why we were there. My mother wakes me in the middle of the night and tells me to pack. We drive half an hour to Lincoln, Massachusetts without my father. She won’t tell me why and I am banished from the house with Linda’s daughter Julie as they discuss. And Julie is a foul girl, whining about how cold it is, implying we shouldn’t stand to be banished. But what’s in motion can’t be stopped. I am looking in the window from the backyard. I watch my breath solidify in the air. I know that my mother and Linda are just out of view. I am stuck looking at the interior of Linda’s perfectly manicured house, hoping that my mother’s story of what happened exists somewhere in space as my own story exists in me. If she can’t tell me then I hope she tells someone.

It all happens at once. Michelle is outside the door as I pee on the pregnancy test. I can hear her breathing in large gulps, while my own breathing is shallow. I didn’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone. I already know the answer. So does Michelle. I take solace in the final few moments where the answer hasn’t fallen, hasn’t made itself known to me. If time is happening all at once then nothing doesn’t exist. The answer on the pregnancy test is as real as I am holding it. The reality of that swells inside of me until I find it in myself to stand, to fumble to my feet and take up space in the bathroom. I take up space. I take up space. I take up space. I lose myself in the distance between the toilet and the door, and by the time I manage to get it open to show Michelle I am shaking.

She looks down at the test and up at me, trying so hard to read my expression before she reacts. Only I don’t know how to react. I support my weight with the doorframe.

“I think I’m going to puke,” I say thinly.

Michelle’s eyes widen, “Like really?”

I arch over and rest my hands on my knees, “No. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

She doesn’t say anything. We are completely still and I am thinking about space: the space I take up, the space inside of me, but I can’t rationalize it. I focus on the floor beneath me, how it feels against my feet. I focus on my breathing and restoring motion to my body.

“Ivy,” Michelle says quietly.

When I look up at her I see the moment my mother and Linda step into view. My mother is leaning against the doorframe to the living room and Linda’s hand is on her shoulder. It happens quickly. My mother lifts up her shirt to show the bruises staining her middle, and I am small in my seat, catching my breath as the answer makes itself real to me. If time is happening all at once, then the moment my mother steps into the window has always been real. It’s still real to me. It is. It is. It is.

“How are you feeling?” Michelle asks me as I find it in my body to straighten up and look at her, “Talk to me.”

“I’ll explain,” I say quietly. The words do not belong to me, “I’ll explain. I’ll explain.”


On the first day of a history class I take in high school, the teacher goes to the board and draws a straight line.

“This is what people think history is like,” she said, “That there’s a clear chain of events. This happened then that happened and so on.”

She erases the drawing and replaces it with a drawing of a circular motions like a

corkscrew, “But really it’s like this, the study of cause and effect. History is a series of choices. Rising and falling action. Are we doomed to repeat the mistake of the past given this model? This class will ask that question.”

But I don’t know what I believe. My mother tells me about time and I believe her because I am young and it is heartfelt. But I don’t know what I believe. Maybe I can’t stand on my own feet. I am reaching back to her to try and rationalize what is happening now, what is inside me.

Did she believe in the eternal before or after me? Can eternal time be anything except suffocating? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. And maybe I do believe in the eternal, as a way of self-preservation and a way of self-hatred.

“Do you want to hear one of my theories?” my mother asks me when I am thirteen.

No, I say. I want you to tell me what happened. I want you to be honest. But maybe that’s how she tries to tell me. She never says it out loud because at a certain point she thinks I’ve figured it out. I want you to tell me what happened.


My mother tells me about time. She is sitting next to me on the bed in Linda’s house. I am trying to answer my questions with her movements, the way her features rise and fall. I take them as a constant and now I rewrite the history in my head.

“Do you want to hear one of my theories?” she asks, her voice thin and tired. She wants me to think that everything is fine. Her voice tells me she doesn’t have words to explain that someone we both loved and trusted is destructive. She tells me about time. She wants to talk about something else. I stare at her. She tells me about time.

It happens all at once, then, this rising and falling action. I am sitting here on the counter trying to decide if I should tell my mother that I am pregnant. I am sifting through belief in time to try and find a way back to her, a way to tell her without hurting her. Maybe she will look at me and see herself. Maybe she will hear my voice and hear the fight that ended in those bruises.

It all happens at once. I am sitting across from Julie as my mother and Linda come into view, trying so hard to keep my face straight. I am sitting here pregnant, trying so hard to keep my face straight in front of Michelle. I am sitting in the dining room staring at the red accent wall in Linda’s house as my mother tells me what happened and that we will be moving in with my grandparents in Connecticut until she can figure out somewhere to go. But I don’t leave Connecticut until I graduate from college and my mother still lives there with my grandparents.

And I believe that time is happening all at once when it is this suffocating. Time is wedged between my lungs.

I am thirteen and in the car with my mother as we drive to our new life in Connecticut, deathly silent. My mother turns to me and says, “this is going to be a new start for us. He… won’t be able to find us. If you are worried about that.” And I turn to her and coldly say, “Well, he didn’t hurt me.”

I don’t want anyone to touch me, to get close to me. I run into John on the street and I haven’t seen him in so long, and for a second I forget myself. We go back to his apartment.

It all happens at once. Michelle turns back to me as she does the dishes and says, “Can you remember to put water in the bowl if you eat cereal and don’t like wash it right away? It’s really hard to clean.”

And I nod at her.

“Do you feel sick at all?” Michelle asks.

I shake my head.

“Do you know when you’ll start to feel sick?” she asks.

“No,” I say, “I don’t know anything about this.”

Michelle shrugs and looks away and I know what she is thinking. That I don’t know enough to keep it. If everything is happening at once, then I have already made the decision.

If everything is happening at once then the choice has already been made. Every consequence is part of my body. How am I to know what is dangerous?

Michelle finishes the dishes and looks up at me one more time, asking the same question with her eyes.

And I am in circles. I am reaching into my past self, my mistakes, and lunging forward. I am rising and falling in the same rhythm that my mother once did when she didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to explain. I both see and don’t see. I extend past what I am given and yet I am locked down and heavy.

Michelle asks with her eyes: are you going to call your mother? What are you going to do, Ivy?

And I answer. Rising and falling, “Yes.”