WHEN YOU WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL in Rose, Nebraska, you had two choices. Choice One: be a brainy bookish type, or a world-class jock, or just crazy-ambitious like Jenna. In other words, someone everyone knew would go on to college and a job somewhere besides Rose, Nebraska. Choice Two: do whatever you could to convince yourself and everyone else that you, too, would end up somewhere other than working at the hardware store with a too-large family and a home stocked with K-mart’s best.
Billy Doheny had, without meaning to, created a previously non-existent Choice Three. Brainy and jockish, he had the highest IQ as well as the best free-throw. He also had a schizophrenic mother who, in a crazed moment when Billy was thirteen, sawed up her husband while he was knocked out on pain killers for a bad back. When the police came to get her, she was trying to fit the pieces of her now-late husband into the dishwasher.
Billy had three younger siblings. He started working at K-mart that same year. Everyone, including Billy, knew he was there for good.
Jenna and Billy had been the couple through junior and senior year. A doomed storybook romance – Jenna would never stay in Nebraska, let alone in Rose; Billy couldn’t leave until the youngest had finished school, another nine long years. They were king and queen of every dance imaginable as well as the main two faces in the yearbook. The day after graduation Billy asked Jenna to marry him. It had been a last-ditch effort that even he knew couldn’t work, but he insisted she take the ring anyway. As far as Florencia knew, Jenna still wore that ring around her neck.
After Jenna left, she and Billy kept in touch for a year or so. Jenna got thinner and astoundingly more gorgeous and started landing small but lucrative TV jobs. Billy worked at K-mart, coached the high school basketball team, and read books on string theory, the civil war, discrimination in the workplace, Shakespeare. He was determined not to miss out on an education. Shortly after his twenty-third birthday he started hearing voices and immediately checked himself into the only mental clinic in Rose — Happy Grounds Home — where he talked patiently to a shrink five times a week and spent the rest of the time reading or roaming the dusty and sparse but apparently Happy grounds of the clinic.
Florencia had been straight-ahead Choice Two in high school, but unlike most choice-twoers it didn’t bother her. She didn’t much care where she was, here or there, no difference as far as she could tell. Same sorts of people, same concerns. Different clothes, yes, or ways of talking, but still the same people. She and Jenna had miraculously stayed friends, so of course she knew Billy, but she never ran into him or any of Jenna’s other friends until Happy Grounds Home.
Florencia worked as what the staff referred to as a “sitter,” but whose official job title was “Care Giver Level Two.” Care Giver Level One was the official title for the janitorial staff. Florencia’s job was to sit with the patients if they wanted company, or if company was prescribed for them by a Care Giver Level Seven, a.k.a. a psychiatrist. When she walked into the room and recognized Billy Doheny sitting on the bed intent on a book about relations in the Middle East, she almost turned around and walked out again, insisting another sitter be assigned to the patient in room seventeen. Not for herself, but out of respect for Billy, whom she was certain wouldn’t want to speak to his beloved’s best friend about his family curse. But Florencia never had been one to run away, so she sat down in the chair strategically placed in every in-patient room and waited for Billy to look up.
By the time Billy was released into his own guardianship, he and Florencia had been sleeping together for three months. They knew every inch of the Grounds, including those covered in some kind of grass to which Florencia was apparently allergic. And while Florencia liked Billy well enough, and was admittedly rather enamoured of certain parts of his body, she was also a practical girl and knew exactly what was happening. Billy Doheny was lonely and desperate, and she was there to understand him. Not understand the physics or sociology he liked to talk about, but to understand him, there, in Happy Grounds. And that, she knew, was an attraction that was intensely strong and inevitably waning. Whether or not Billy ever got out of Rose, he belonged with a Jenna, not with a Florencia.
Which is exactly what Florencia explained, with the full force of common sense behind her, to Jenna on the phone.
As for Jenna, listening quietly 2,000 miles away to Florencia’s calm and practical monologue, she couldn’t help but think: That could have been me. That could have been me.
Whether this was a mantra of disbelief and envy or a prayer of gratitude, even she wasn’t quite sure.