A System of Linear Equations

A System of Linear Equations- Hilts, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Hilts

It’s January 1972. I’m fifteen. I have an Algebra exam that I know I will not pass. This is not something I can say to my father while he drives me to school, the radio set to the news channel with its traffic reports, the weather, the account of the eight-point peace plan President Nixon announced yesterday, and the news that there were only three military casualties in Vietnam that day. My father is less than a foot away from me, but I do not lay my head on his shoulder and tell him about the Algebra test I’m about to take. I do not tell him that I skipped gym every day for months because no matter what we do my knees hurt and swell up to the size up eggplants. I do not tell him any of my secrets any more. When he pulls up to the curb outside school, I get out quickly, say “bye” as I push the car door shut. He raises his hand off the steering wheel, not really a wave, drives on, and I carry my secrets with me into school.

The hall is jammed with bodies and their smells—a whiff of sweet powder not quite mixing with pungent musk, a cloud of patchouli, hair spray, too much deodorant, desperate sweat and funk. The slippery susurrus of sand-clotted soles on the hard-polished mud-colored tiles is punctuated by the metal clang of lockers opening and closing, shrieks and whispers and muttered hellos. The fluorescent glare is softened by cloud-paled sunlight; it glows in the banks of windows at the ends of the hallway, creeps over the clerestory windows above the lockers.

It is too hot, but I don’t take off my coat, the mink my grandmother has no more use for now that she is in the nursing home, way beyond reach out on the tip of Long Island. I try to walk a straight line through the whorl of movement, the clusters of friends talking and couples sneaking a kiss before being forced apart for the fifteen minutes of homeroom. The sheer force of congestion makes it almost impossible to avoid weaving and ducking but I power through, hands jammed into the front pockets of my jeans, elbows out so I take up more space.

It’s January 1972. I’m fifteen. In five months I’ll be sixteen, able to get my driver’s license. I’m in the 10th grade, almost at the halfway point of high school—if I can pass Algebra, in two and a half years I can graduate and go away to college, get out of here forever.

January—deep winter, shortened daylight fading too fast into a gray twilight and sharp cold darkness, wind and snow and ice crunching under heavy-soled boots.

1972—The Summer of Love was already a faded memory. James Taylor, Carly Simon, the Carpenters, and Ike and Tina Turner competed with Vietnam for our attention. I watched All in the Family and Bridget Loves Bernie. Abortion had just become legal in New York, just forty-five miles away from where I lived in Connecticut. Everything and everyone seemed either on the verge of free fall or had already tumbled.

Fifteen—childhood was practically still in sight, just over my shoulder, if I turned my head quickly. But at that age one looks forward, yes? Forward to the looming broad strokes of the world called “Grown Up,” where anything is possible and everything that matters will happen. To be fifteen is to be waiting, counting the days and weeks and months until something begins. At fifteen I was biding my time until the magical moment I knew was coming arrived, even though I had no idea what that moment or the magic would be. I just knew I’d recognize it when it came. At fifteen I still had a crush on Davy Jones of The Monkees and on Peter Tork, too; I still believed that if one of these heartthrobs were to meet me, he would scoop me up and carry me off to live a rock star wife’s life in LA.

Algebra. My knees. These are not the only secrets I carried with me into school, into the life I was trying to have. When I was fifteen my heart was packed tight with secrets—a mix of things too ugly to admit and dreams of things that might happen “someday” that I wanted to believe in.

Someday I would follow my older brother Bobby to San Francisco and we would live in a sun-filled Victorian where all our groovy friends would hang out and talk about art and music and books. Bobby and I would be friends the way we were when I was little. Dad would come to visit, see how great it all was, and let our younger brother John come live there with us in that bright happy place.

Someday I would fall in love with a magical man, a beautiful man, who would love me back in a beautiful, magical way. His love would unlock the magic in me, and I would become interesting and smart and funny and talented.

When I was fifteen the secret I guarded most carefully, however, was actually no secret at all. My mother was insane. Everyone knew about my mother; there was no use trying to deny it. She stalked the streets of our little village within a city, chain-smoking Salems, muttering constantly to people no one else could see, snarling and snapping her teeth as she acted out scenes from a life visible only to her.

“What’s wrong with your mother?”

“Well, look at her,” I’d say, laughing. “She’s completely out of her mind.”

I did not talk about the nights I lay in bed listening to her foul-mouthed raving through those flimsy plywood walls. No one knew how my father and brother and I would sit in the TV room pretending to ignore her while we watched the sitcoms and the football games on Sunday nights.

I did not tell anyone about the joy I felt when my father would wrestle her into the car and check her into the famous private hospital in New Canaan or the less famous one in Westport or the infamous public institution in Newtown with its crumbling brick buildings and barred windows. I never mentioned the dread when she was released, the wary homecomings filled with the promises that this time would be different, that she would take the meds that dulled the roar of voices in her head but never wiped them clean away.

I hid the bruises and scratches on my body from the times when she pulled me to the border of her invisible life. And I could scarcely admit, even to myself, how terrified I was that someday I would follow her into the wild forest of insanity she inhabited.

The secret I carried closest to my heart, the secret I could never speak of to anyone, however, was that I still believed that if I could just say the right thing, my mother would remember that she loved me, and she would come back.

“If a system of linear equations has an infinite number of solutions, what does this mean about the graph of equations in the system?”

I stare at the sentence, waiting for the answer to reveal itself. This is simple, I think. You know this. But I do not know this, or, if I do know this, I don’t remember. There are an infinite number of solutions. Anything is possible. That I understand. It’s what this means about the graph of equations that I can’t quite grasp. I tap the eraser end of my pencil on the paper, wishing that I knew Morse code and had a friend in this class who also knew Morse code and could tap the answer back to me. Mr. M raises his head from the newspaper he has laid out flat on his desk and shoots me a warning with his eyes. I stop tapping, stare at the sentence again.

There’s a hollow opened up inside my chest, in the space right above my stomach, and the air in that hollow chatters in a swirl, bumping off the sides and picking up momentum before it expands up toward my throat. I inhale through my nose and hold my breath, trying to swallow the wail I feel trying to escape from that hollow space. Come on, come on, I urge myself, leaning forward as if getting closer to the words will help me solve their puzzle. What does it mean?

A low hum suddenly fills the air, followed by a crackling like cellophane being ripped from a box of cookies. Oh, thank God! Mr. M pushes back his chair, stands up, and moves toward the door. Someone groans with disgust as the alarm starts to beep and Dr. D’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, please exit the building in an orderly fashion. This is not a drill. Again, this is not a drill, please exit the building immediately.”

We close the blue exam books, gather our books and bags and start for the door. Some people take the time to pull on their coats; others just grab and go. I hoist my backpack off the floor and stretch for a second when I first stand up.

“Hand in your exam books,” Mr. M. shouts over the insistent beep beep beep of the alarm. “Anyone who doesn’t put their exam book directly into my hands gets an automatic F.”

“What happens if the bomb goes off while we’re handing them in? Do we get an automatic A?” I ask him, holding my exam book between my thumb and index finger in the air between us. He shakes his head, trying to look stern and reaches for the book. I let it go just as his fingers make contact and slip past him, through the door.

Even though the hall monitors are yelling and pointing toward the nearest exits, everyone heads for the front doors, to the parking lots. We all know that a bomb scare means at least an hour of freedom, plenty of time for a trip to the Donut Shop or the deli if you can get out before the cops block the exits. If not, we just sit in some idling car and talk about nothing, running the heater and watching the windows fog up from all our hot air. No matter what, a joint gets passed around. All a bomb scare really means is that someone wanted that hour off; someone was hungry; someone wanted to get high.

My friend Karen waves to me, gestures toward her car. I shake my head, walk past the cop car with its bubble lights spinning, the cop huddling with a group of auto shop boys peering at a black Camaro, its hood up and engine revving a mechanical blatablatablata punctuated by a roar so loud it obliterates the sirens of the fire engines that are getting closer.

I walk up the slight incline of the side exit, pushing the mink closed with my hands in its pockets as I pass the duplexes with their shared driveways and the asphalt-shingled bungalows. At the end of the block I stop, look, and listen before I cross over, heading for the house on the other side of the busy road. Through the open carport and up three steps to what used to be the side door on the wraparound porch. The door isn’t locked, and I drop my backpack on the dining room table, head down the short hall, and push open the door at the end.

The room is dim, blackout shades drawn against prying eyes and the sunlight. I stop to let my eyes adjust, squinting toward the bed across the room. “Hey,” I say softly. The bed shudders as Mike turns over, drops his head back onto the pillow.

“Hey, yourself,” he croaks, eyes still shut, then lifts the blankets up, making a tented invitation for me to join him. I can see one of his nipples, a dark target on his pale skin. His hair falls over his face, some of the silky-almost-black of it catching in his wiry goatee. He drops the blanket to push the hair back and lets out a yawn.

Another secret I carry, one I push as far away as I possibly can, is that I do not love him. I don’t even like him much anymore. But when he waves his hand toward me, I drape the mink on the back of his tall stool and lean down to take off my boots. The red numbers on the alarm clock on the table next to the bed glow 8:30. The waistband of my jeans digs into my belly.

“I’m pregnant.” I’m surprised when I speak these words to the tiles on the floor. Take it back.

“Huh?” Mike says, stretching through another yawn.

I look at him, take a deep breath and square my shoulders. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, shit.” He drops one arm over his eyes and the clock glows 8:31.


  1. Elizabeth, this is so powerful. It underscores the sad reality for many teens, kids who have stressors at home so big, so unimaginable—I mean, who’s got time for homework? Writing about family members with mental illness is such important work. Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to following your writing.

  2. Couldn’t stop reading – got drawn right into the story. As a high school teacher I could relate. There are so many students who carry heavy secrets around with them. Sometimes they tell me, and I feel the pain of the respective students. This poignant story rings with authenticity. Thank you.

  3. Hi Jenni,
    Thanks for your kind words.
    Elizabeth Hilts

  4. Hi Eric,
    You must be one of those great teachers who students feel safe with; thank you for your kind words and thank you for being that kind of teacher.
    Elizabeth Hilts

  5. So wonderfully told. Thank you.

  6. Thank you, SarahJ!

  7. Love this, Elizabeth. So powerful. Glad I found it.

  8. E, this is so very moving. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Incredibly powerful, heart-rending.

  10. WOW! Elizabeth, this is so raw, so emotionally honest that it makes me want to grab that 15 year old you, wrap her in a huge hug and never let her go. You, my friend, are amazingly talented.

  11. Every time I read something of yours I can’t tear my eyes away until the very last line.

  12. Thank you, Robbi!

  13. Thank you, Irish!

  14. this is very well written

  15. Riveting! More proof that you, my gifted colleague, can do anything with words.

  16. Emily, thank you so much!

  17. Aw, Kasha, so sweet! Thank you!

  18. Thank you, M.

  19. Patty, thank you! I want to do the same thing…

  20. Thank you, Susan!

  21. Gus.
    That’s all. Just Gus. Don’t want to kill the buzz.
    You’re amazing.

  22. You never cease to amaze me with your writing. What a powerful story, E!

  23. This is powerful, beautiful and yet, raw. You were meant to be a writer E. Thank you for sharing with us.

  24. Thanks, Gus!

  25. Thank you, Gina!

  26. Thank you for reading, Lori!

  27. This was nicely written, and I like the structure. Such economy with words. I enjoyed this, connected to it. The burden the narrator carries . . . you made that real.

  28. Thank you, Kilian.

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