Arc of the Circle
NEW YORK CITY, LATE 1990S
KATE MORAN was an only child. She was seventeen years old and lived with her parents in a loft apartment on the top floor of a handsome old building to the west of Union Square, just on the edge of Greenwich Village. One Wednesday morning in late April, Kate was slow getting up. She had woken in the middle of the night in a sweat, but it went away, and she fell back asleep, into bad dreams that she could not remember. She came awake with a fresh cold, and she could feel her period coming on.
"Kate!" It was Nanette, the housekeeper, calling to her from the kitchen. "Katie!"
"Okay." She didn't like being called Katie. She sat up and found a Kleenex and blew her nose, and went into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, then went back into the bedroom and dressed in a flowered dress that she had found in a flea market. The mornings could be chilly this time of year, so she put on a sweater. Kate had wavy russet hair, beautiful hair with natural pale highlights, which she wore medium length. Her eyes were grayish blue or bluish gray, depending on the light and the weather and her mood (or so she liked to think); complicated eyes. Her face was changing fast. She could almost see the bones of the woman emerging, yet she had found that the more she stared at her face in a mirror the less she understood it. She thought about this as she brushed her hair, pushing it back so that the two platinum earrings in her left ear were visible.
Kate's mother called her the Packrat, because she accumulated things. The worktable in the corner of her room was littered with old cigar boxescovered with their original illustrations, plastic boxes, metal containers, purses, bags, puzzles. Things that opened and closed. There was an old dollhouse that she had found in a junk shop in Brooklyn and had been taking apart, cannibalizing it for a project. She reached into the dollhouse and pulled out a prism made of glass, and the smooth white skull of a vole, with tiny yellow teeth, that she had bought at a bone shop in SoHo. She held the prism up to the light falling through the skylight of her bedroom, and just to see what it would look like, she held the vole's head behind the prism. No colors appeared; you needed direct sunlight. She stuffed the objects into her knapsack. They were going to become part of the Box that she was constructing in Mr. Talides's art room at the Mater School, a private girls' school on the Upper East Side.
"Katie!" Nanette was calling.
"Okay, okay." She sighed and threw her knapsack over her shoulder and went out into the living area--a large open space with polished wood floors and antique furniture and rugs. Her parents had both already left for work. Her father was a partner in a Wall Street investment house, and her mother was an attorney at a midtown law firm. In the kitchen, Nanette had poured orange juice and toasted a bagel. Kate shook her head. She wasn't hungry. She sneezed. Nanette tore off a paper towel and handed it to her. "Do you want to stay home?" "Uh-uh." Kate was already out the door and into the elevator.
It was a glorious morning. She hurried along Fifteenth Street to Union Square, striding on long legs, heading for the subway entrance. The ash trees in the square were threatening to break bud. Puffy white clouds drifted in a blue sky over the city, winds whipping in from the southwest, bringing a warmer day than Kate had expected. The daffodils were mostly gone and the tulips were blown and flopping their petals. Spring was beginning to give way to summer. A homeless man passed Kate going in the other direction, leaning into the warm wind as he pushed a shopping cart piled high with plastic garbage bags full of his possessions. She threaded through the stalls of the farmer's market that filled up the northern and western sides of the square, and at the subway kiosk she ran down the stairs and caught the uptown Lexington Avenue express.
The train was crowded, and Kate found herself crushed in a corner of the first car by the front window. It was where she had liked to stand when she was a girl riding with her mother and father, back when they had more time to take her places. You could look out the window and see the steel columns marching by under the car's headlights, and the track extending out into seemingly infinite darkness. Switches and branches whirled past, and if you were on an express train that caught up with a local on the adjacent track, there would be a moment when the two trains were locked together in a shuddering rush forward.
She didn't like it. The lights flashing in the tunnel made her feel sick. She turned away. Then she found herself looking at the faces in the subway car. The faces bothered her. If you look at too many faces jammed together, every face begins to look alien. People in the subway can look . . . humanoid.
The Mater School was only a few blocks from the Eighty-sixth Street subway station. Kate was still running a little late, and by the time she got to the stone parish building that housed the school, the younger girls had mostly gone inside, although some of the upper-school girls were hanging around on the steps.
"Kates, I have to tell you something." It was her friend Jennifer Ramosa. They walked in together, with Jennifer talking about something that Kate didn't follow. Kate felt strange, as if a feather had brushed across her face....
A gong rang...and there was the headmistress, Sister Anne Threader, going by.... For a moment Kate had a feeling of vertigo, as if she were staring into a black pit with no bottom, and she dropped her knapsack. It hit the floor with a smack. There was a sound of breaking glass.
"Kate? You moron. What's the matter with you?" Jennifer said.
Kate shook her head. It seemed to clear. She was going to be late for homeroom. "What's going on, Kates?" Jennifer asked. "I'm fine." She picked up her knapsack. It slushed and rattled. "Something broke. Damn, I broke my prism." She headed into class, annoyed with herself.
At about 10 o'clock in the morning, Kate went to the nurse's office and got some Tylenol. It didn't help her cold, which was getting worse and worse. It was a real sinus cold. Her mouth was hurting a lot; it felt bumpy and it stung. She was debating whether or not to go home. She decided to go to art class and leave after that. The art teacher, Peter Talides, was a balding, middle-aged painter, likable and disorganized, and his art room was a satisfying place. Students hung out there during the day and after school hours. Kate settled herself at a table in the corner of the room, near the window, where her assembled Box was taking shape. It was an ambitious construction, a kind of a house, made of pieces of dollhouses and all kinds of found objects. Kate felt dizzy and weak. She tried to work on the house but couldn't remember what she had planned to do with it. She felt as if she had never seen it before and as if some other person had built it.
"I want to go home," she said out loud.
The students looked at her. She started to stand up--she intended to go back to the nurse's office--when suddenly she felt really dizzy. "Oh, no," she said. She got part way to her feet, and found she couldn't stand. She sat down heavily on her work stool.
"What's the matter, Kates?" Jennifer asked.
There was a crash. Kate had slid off the stool and landed on the floor beside her worktable. Peter Talides came hurrying over. "Are you all right?"
"I'm sick," Kate said in a thick voice. She began to tremble. She was sitting on the floor with her legs out straight. "My mouth hurts."
Talides bent over her. "We need to get you to the nurse," he said.
She didn't answer. Her teeth were chattering and her face was flushed and feverish. Peter Talides was frightened. Kate's nose was running with clear mucus that flowed down over her lips. It was gushing out, as if she had a very bad cold. Her eyes flicked over his face without seeming to see him.
"Someone tell the nurse," he said. "Go on! Go!" To Kate he said, "Just sit still, okay?"
Kate said, "I think I'm going to throw up."
"Can you stand up?"
He helped her to her feet. "Jennifer. Prasaya. Please take Kate to the bathroom, will you?"
The two girls helped Kate out of the room and into the bathroom, while Peter Talides waited in the hallway. Kate stood in front of the sink, hanging on to it, wondering if she was going to throw up. Something moved inside her mind, as if some being that was not Kate but was Kate was in agony. There was a mirror over the sink. For a moment, she couldn't bring herself to look. Then she opened her mouth. The inside of the mouth reflected in the mirror was dotted with black blood blisters. They looked like shining ticks feeding there.
She screamed and hung on to the sink, and screamed again. She lost her balance and crumpled to her knees. Peter Talides ran into the bathroom. He found Kate Moran sitting on the floor, looking at him with glassy eyes. The clear mucus was running out of her nose and mouth, and she was weeping. She said in a thick voice, "I don't know what to do."
Kate's expression went blank. The left side of her face rippled in a series of twitches that moved in a wave. The twitches were marching jacksonian seizures. Suddenly she uttered a fierce, guttural cry. She toppled backward. Her knees straightened out and her body seized and froze hard in a clonic jerk. Her head hit the tiled floor with a crack. The stiffness lasted for a few seconds. Then her arms and legs began to tremble and jerk rhythmically. She lost control of her bladder. A puddle formed under her.
Talides tried to hold her arms still. "My God!" he cried.
Her legs lashed out in a clonus, knocking over a wastebasket, kicking Talides backward. She was very strong. Then her body began to scissor back and forth. Her teeth clicked together repeatedly. Her mouth was working. Her lips moved and rippled. Her tongue stuck out and was withdrawn again. Her eyes were half open. He thought Kate was looking at him and trying to say something to him. She moaned but no language came out.
Then her teeth sank into her lower lip, cutting through the lip, and a run of blood went down her chin and neck. She bit her lip again, hard, with ferocity, and she made a groaning animal sound. This time, the lip detached and hung down. She pulled her lip in, sucked it into her mouth, and swallowed. Now she was chewing again. Eating the inside of her mouth, chewing her lips, the insides of her cheeks. The movement of her teeth was insectile, like the feeding movements of an insect larva chewing on its food: intense, greedy, automatic--a kind of repetitive yanking at the tissues of her mouth. Her tongue suddenly protruded. It was coated with blood and bits of bloody skin. She was eating her mouth from the inside.
"She's biting herself!" he yelled. "Help!"
He got his hands around her head and tried to hold her chin steady, but he couldn't stop her teeth from gnawing. He could see her tongue curling and moving behind her teeth. He was begging for help at the top of his lungs. Jennifer was next to him, weeping, crying for help, too. The bathroom door was open, and students were standing in the hallway, looking in, stunned with fright. Most were crying. Several of them had run to call 911.
The girl's body went into a back-and-forth thrashing movement. Then she began to writhe. It was a type of writhing associated with damage to the base of the brain, the midbrain, a knot of structures at the top of the spinal cord. The movements were what is known as basal writhing.
Kate opened her mouth and a hoarse croak came out. She was lying on her back now. Her spine began to bend backward. Her body arched into the air. Her stomach lifted up higher and higher. Her teeth clacked together in a spasm. Her spine recurved impossibly far, lifting off the floor, until only the back of her head and her heels were touching the floor, her stomach raised up. Her body formed the shape of a C. Her head and heels were supporting her weight.
Her body remained poised in the air, writhing slowly, squirming, as if it were being driven by some force trying to escape from within. Her eyes opened wide. They were pure white. There were no pupils. The pupils had rolled up into the eye sockets. Her lips drew back from her teeth and she smiled, and a dark, bright liquid flowed from her nose. It was a nosebleed, a heavy epistaxis. With each heartbeat, a pulse of blood came from both nostrils. The epistaxis stained Talides's shirt and ran across the floor, where the blood tangled with the urine on the tiles and swirled down a drain in the center. She drew a rasping breath, inhaling blood--the nosebleed was pouring back down her airway now, running into her lungs. Her body was as hard as a piece of timber. Cracking sounds came from her spine.
The nosebleed died down.
The bleeding stopped. It stopped completely.
Her spine relaxed. She sank to the floor. She coughed once, lurching up blood mixed with sputum. Peter Talides was on top of her, his face to her face, crying, "Kate! Kate! Hang on!" He had taken a CPR class with the Red Cross years earlier, but he couldn't remember what to do.
Inside, deep in her mind, Kate came awake, fully aware. She heard Mr. Talides's voice begging her to hang on. There was an absolute peace, no feeling of pain, and she couldn't see anything. It was not possible to hang on. She thought: Oh. She fell away.