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Wheel of fortune

A story

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Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 31 2020

18 min read

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CW: Discussion of religious trauma/abuse

Esther had always wanted to see Lake Itasca, so they went to see Lake Itasca.

“From tiny acorns grow giant oaks!” she had said when they hatched their road trip plan. She was impersonating Mr. Glendenning, who was fond of tracing the Mississippi up and up and up from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico all the way back to where it began, in the humble waters of Lake Itasca, in a nondescript corner of northern Minnesota. Esther grasped, in a way Caitlin could never understand, that there was a lake, and there was a river, and there was a sea. Esther knew she lived at the headwaters of some greater self, and she kept searching the banks of the lake for divots in which she might assert herself and spill downhill toward whatever ocean awaited her.

Esther could make fun of Mr. Glendenning because it would never occur to her that she wasn’t a mighty oak. Both girls knew that Mr. Glendenning was an example of a bum acorn, laying on a forest floor, never to reach its true potential. Esther was all potential, and Caitlin liked sitting in her shade. By the time Caitlin realized she had totally misunderstood her friend, it would be too late.

But on that too-warm day in August, Caitlin was starting to get worried about how long Esther had been inside the Kum & Go. It had to have been at least 15 minutes at this point. At least.

The sun baked her bare feet, kicked up on the dashboard. She sat in the passenger’s seat, flipping over her tarot cards one after the other, a satisfying snap as each flipped over to reveal its hidden truths. She wasn’t yet very good at understanding what each card meant — Esther had bought her the deck and Tarot for Dummies as a graduation gift, and she seemed crestfallen that Caitlin couldn’t tell the future yet — but she liked looking at the pictures and trying to imagine she knew what they meant.

“Which one is us?” she asked the deck, shuffling the cards until one felt right underneath her fingers. That sense of rightness was something she was still chasing, a sort of nausea mixed with a strong feeling of falling forward and catching yourself at the last second. Picking the right card to begin with always felt slightly like just stopping short of a cliff’s edge. Stop too far from the edge and you wouldn’t see anything. Stop beyond its edge, and you would tumble into oblivion.

She knew — or at least she’d read — that there was no one right card but, instead, a right series of cards. The cards spoke to each other, and they told stories together. One in isolation wasn’t supposed to explain anything, but she thought, maybe, a single card could explain her friendship with Esther, which felt all the time like a mystery where she knew the solution (or at least a solution) but had no sense of the question Esther was even asking to begin with. A single card, though, might help her zero in on the question, and she could work forward from there.

She felt the familiar seasickness, a prickle across her skin, when she got to the right card and something inside of her ached to stop. She flipped the card over to reveal the Wheel of Fortune, which she knew to mean something about luck and the randomness of chance. She had laid the card on the center console between passenger and driver’s seats, and from her perspective, it was right side up, perhaps suggesting good luck. If Esther were here, however, the card would be reversed from her perspective. Bad luck.

Esther chose that exact moment to throw open the drivers side door, gasping for breath in that way she did when she was too elated to laugh and too terrified to breathe. “Go go go go go go go go go!” she said, seeming to command Caitlin, ignoring that she was, in fact, the driver and was, in fact, the one fumbling to put the keys in the ignition. The car (a gift from Esther’s parents upon graduation) started smoothly, with a cool purr. Esther tried to throw it in reverse, forgetting that she had put on the parking brake. (Esther always put on the parking brake. Caitlin never understood why.) After a few agonizing moments, she realized her mistake and tore out of the store’s parking lot, wind rushing through her dirty blonde hair.

“What the fuck?!” Caitlin said, nearly tipping over as she tried to remove her feet from the dash and slide them back into her shoes.

“Look,” Esther said, adjusting her rear view mirror. Behind them, the store manager had stormed out into the parking lot that was rapidly receding from them, and he was actually shaking his fist, the sort of thing Caitlin believed only happened in movies. “Look,” Esther said again, but in a tone that suggested conspiracy. She pulled open her jacket (Caitlin only now realized how strange it was that Esther had worn her heavy jacket on a late August afternoon in sun-drenched Iowa) to reveal several bottles of Smirnoff Ice. Esther’s smile spread across her face in a porcelain shatter. “Jeff couldn’t get us any. So I figured… why not?”

“They have your license plate,” Caitlin said, head dizzy, like she had actually gone over the cliff.

“Dealer plates,” Esther said, and she started laughing.

On the center console, the Wheel of Fortune danced in the wind, until it flipped over and landed at Esther’s feet, reversed.

Caitlin started out hating Esther, and she always had the vague sense she might also hate her in the end. Their friendship carried a circularity within it that felt inevitable. She was always traveling right back around to that first day when they were randomly thrust into the same fifth grade homeroom in Washington Middle in Dubuque, their mutual hometown. They had attended different elementary schools, and the first time Caitlin saw Esther, who had a brisk snap of self-confidence to her, she instinctively knew she needed to get there before Esther did. She had no idea where “there” was, just that Esther was heading in the same direction and had a head start.

They could not have been more different. Caitlin could only find herself in intense solitude, and she turned to hobbies like playing video games and curating her Magic: The Gathering collection as a way to do things that might stand in for conversation. She knew she should let people in close, but she also knew the danger in that.

Esther wanted more. It kind of didn’t matter what was happening. She wanted more. She thrived on attention, and it didn’t matter if the attention was good or bad, just as long as it wasn’t indifferent. She was in all the plays, even though she wasn’t good so much as she was loud, and she managed three separate relationships with other boys in their high school simply by reflecting the attention they paid her right back on them, a magic trick Esther didn’t realize she knew how to do. Esther never had to engage with you too deeply if she could just make you see the person you most wanted to be by being in her vague proximity.

It was Mr. Glendenning who had put them together to work on a project, tired of the way they kept endlessly trying to outdo each other, which might be why he still occupied such a weirdly outsized place in their friendship. In the second semester of fifth grade, he had finally had enough and made them work together on a project about the mighty Mississippi, asking them to map it, all the way from Itasca to Louisiana.

Looking at Dubuque on the papier mache model of the whole river that she and Esther made for their final project (the result of both girls trying to top each other with effort, until they had somehow gotten in over their heads with a project neither was willing to complete or willing to abandon), Caitlin for the first time understood how old everything was and how she, too, might be washed away. She felt tears come to her eyes unexpectedly, and she reached out without realizing what she was doing and was surprised to find Esther’s hand waiting for her there, as if it had always been there. They stood, looking at this tiny world they had created, hands entwined, Caitlin crying, Esther chewing on her lip, until it was time to drag the model to school and present it to the class. They got an A+ (of course).

Esther had wanted to break the model into pieces and maybe set it afloat on the river itself, to return it to its mother in some weird way. Caitlin refused and took it home, where it sat in her bedroom for a few years, a constant reminder that she, against all odds, had found a best friend. (Esther never remarked upon the model still being in Caitlin’s room when she came over to visit, if, indeed, she noticed it.)

When Caitlin needed more space in her bedroom, she moved the model into the basement storage room. Eventually, the model was destroyed when the river overran its banks and flooded Caitlin’s whole neighborhood, because Esther always got her way in the end.

“Well, it’s obvious,” Esther said, hair still dripping wet from the hotel shower. The Wheel of Fortune card was sitting between them, still bad luck pointing toward Esther, good luck pointing toward Caitlin.

“Is it obvious, though?” Caitlin shook her head. “Look, one of us here has read Tarot for Dummies, and one of us hasn’t, so…” She grinned.

Esther laughed, took a pull from her Smirnoff Ice. “I don’t need to read some dumb book to know what Wheel of Fortune means.”

“Please don’t say Pat Sajak, please don’t say Pat Sajak, please don’t—”

“No, it’s what you said, right? Like chance and fortune and luck and stuff.” Esther regarded the card with the dark look that she got when she was trying to be smarter than everyone in the room and knew she would have to bluff.

“If it’s what I said, then why are you acting like you had some great revelation or whatever?” Caitlin wanted to be talking about anything else, but sometimes, they would get into a conversation where Esther knew the question, and Caitlin knew the answer, but they had no path between those two things. This was evidently one of those times, and they were just going to have to get through it.

“We shouldn’t be friends,” Esther said, in a calm tone of voice that sent a shiver of panic up Caitlin’s spine. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, not like that. Like obviously we’re friends, and we’re supposed to be friends duh.” The ghost that was the two of them going to college hundreds of miles apart had re-entered the room for the first time since they’d gotten here and started getting buzzed.

“I don’t want to stop being friends,” Caitlin said.

“You’re my friend. You’re my best friend,” Esther said, which was the thing she said to convince herself as much as she did to convince you. “I just mean, the reason I’m here is because of chance, right? Like with the adoption?”

“Ah,” Caitlin said, and another gap between the two clicked into place. Esther obsessed over the idea that she was, somehow, living the wrong life. She had been adopted shortly after birth, and when her parents had told her about it — at the age of four, even — it was explained to Esther as two people who “didn’t have time” for a baby giving her up to two people who did. Esther’s mom framed this as God’s will that they all be a family, but Caitlin couldn’t escape the sense that Esther was forever auditioning for the role of her parents’ child.

“Like…” Esther said, and she had nothing else. Outside, it had begun to rain.

“I think we would have found each other if you were adopted by someone else,” Caitlin said. “Like maybe we would have gone to college together, or maybe we would have had the same job, or… something.”

“Yeah, well,” Esther said, leaning forward, that glint she got in her eye when she was going to say something truly dangerous, “I probably wouldn’t have been adopted by a different family unless I was a boy.”

“Oh my God.” Caitlin rolled her eyes. “You would make such a terrible boy.”

Esther laughed, flicking the Wheel of Fortune card at her, and it landed so it faced the motel room’s TV instead of either girl, spinning away from both of them, bestowing no luck at all. “Maybe,” she said, and she flopped back on the bed with evident satisfaction. “Maybe.”

Lake Itasca, ultimately, was a disappointment. It was just a lake, and after they had splashed around in the Mississippi headwaters for a bit, it lost its attraction. Esther looked around with evident frustration, and Caitlin thought maybe Esther was going to cry this time, to the degree that she almost stepped forward to comfort her, until Esther stomped back to shore.

They had spent a lot of money on a room at a nearby resort, and it was cold in that way that northern Minnesota could be in late August. Caitlin was shivering the whole way back to the room, so she took a warm shower, and when she was out and toweling off, Esther was no longer in the room, and the door was ajar. Caitlin dressed and raced out into the resort, walking briskly past the tiny handful of others staying at the resort.

Esther was nowhere to be found. Not in the sleepy little restaurant. Not in the heated pool. Not in the gym or the business center. She wasn’t using the computer with an incredibly slow internet connection in the lobby. She had disappeared, and the more methodically Caitlin looked for her, the more certain she became that Esther had somehow never existed, had been swept off by the wheel into the life she always should have led.

She finally spotted her, a silhouette lit by the dim glow of a 7-Up machine that was illuminating a night thick with cicada song. Esther was standing on the wide expanse of lawn between the resort and the lake, fists balled up, dressed in her swimsuit, facing the lake, hair wet. Her teeth were chattering, and Caitlin could tell she had been crying. She jolted when Caitlin put a hand on her shoulder. “What?” Esther finally managed.

“Did I do something wrong?” Caitlin said, certain she had.

“No.” She was still facing the lake, still shivering.

“You need to warm up,” Caitlin said. “We should get you back inside.”

“No.”

“What the fuck is going on? You’re being a real bitch, you know.”

“And you’re not?” Esther said. Caitlin was fairly sure she wasn’t being a “real bitch,” but she also knew Esther would never see it that way, because Esther only reflected you back at yourself, except in rare moments.

“I’m just trying to… I don’t know… give you what you wanted.”

“And what do I want?” Esther was finally looking at her. “Do you have any idea?”

Caitlin shook her head mutely, and then Esther had her hand, and they were going back to the lake together, and soon they were both soaked, getting colder and colder and swimming further and further out into the darkness, searching for what, Caitlin did not know.

The fire was also Esther’s idea. Everything was always Esther’s idea. But it was nice in the face of the cold of the night. Caitlin had gone to grab whatever she could scrounge up from the resort’s restaurant, which was basically closed, a vacuum running endlessly. Esther gnawed on a BLT that had long since gone cold, staring into the fire.

No matter what Caitlin said, Esther wouldn’t talk to her, beyond noncommittal grunts. “I’m sorry I’m here,” Caitlin finally managed, and Esther gave a single bark of a laugh. “No, I really am! I’m so fucking sick of…” She let herself trail off because she realized what she was getting sick of was Esther, and the wheel was finally bringing her back to the start of the circle. She couldn’t escape its movement no matter what she tried.

“I’ve been here before,” Esther finally said.

“Itasca?” It was a long moment before Esther nodded. “I don’t understand, Esther. Is something wrong?”

“They got me,” Esther said, in a small voice. “They got me.”

“Who?”

“I was five or something. We were here with some of my parents’ friends, and there was this girl a couple years older. There was a kids playroom, and it had a bunch of costumes in it. Old Halloween stuff. She found a wedding dress and a, like, tuxedo. She made me be the groom, so she could be the bride, and I don’t know. I liked it.”

Caitlin didn’t know what was going on, but she knew enough to feel the shore washing away beneath her.

“My parents found us, and they were fucking…” Esther shook her head. “They took me right out there—” she raised a shaky finger toward the lakeshore “—and they dunked me underneath the water. Over and over and over. They were trying to get the demon out of me.”

“The demon?”

“They were mad about something else. Something I’ve forgotten. I breathed in a bunch of water, and they pulled me out, and… I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what they wanted. They loved me so much. I was so lucky to be their kid. I think.”

“That doesn’t sound very lucky.”

“Wheel of Fortune.” She took a long sip of the 7-Up Caitlin had bought her. “I only have the edges of this… thing… inside of me. And I want more. But I can’t find it.”

“I’m sorry,” Caitlin said, because she didn’t know what else to say.

“Don’t be.” Esther was looking at her from across the fire, and she looked beautiful. Caitlin realized, suddenly, that Esther always looked beautiful. “You came here with me. You had no idea, and you came here with me. I love you. I love only you.”

Caitlin had no idea what to say, still, so she kissed Esther, because it felt like the best time to finally do it, and when Esther kissed her back, she wondered why she hadn’t done it sooner.

In the years that followed, after Esther died, Caitlin realized that “I love only you” hadn’t been a romantic proposition. It had been a flag planted in the ground, an attempt to halt the circle in its endless turn. Caitlin was the only one Esther had ever let see her, even a little bit, and Caitlin realized how much of Esther had been washed away in that lake. She hadn’t wanted Caitlin to kiss her. She had wanted Caitlin to save her. It would be far past too late when Caitlin realized that.

They finally broke up on the way back to Dubuque, screaming at each other in the parking lot of a gas station in the middle of the night, the buzz of the gas pump filling the warm night. Caitlin wanted something Esther couldn’t provide, and Esther wanted Caitlin to solve her, which was, of course, impossible.

They saw each other only a few more times after that, the last time at a wedding, where they finally reconnected, at least a little, in a way that made Caitlin realize just how much she had missed Esther and just how much she had grown past her. Esther had moved back to Dubuque to get married. Caitlin was in Chicago, never to return to her hometown. And then Esther was no more, going the wrong way down a one-way.

At the funeral, Caitlin tried to freeze Esther in place in her memory, holding onto one memory in particular. The only image she could find was Esther in the glow of the 7-Up machine, mostly in shadow, but her edges lit by the soft glow of the resort’s lights, the moon glinting off the lake. Whoever she had been had been washed away long before Caitlin ever met her. Caitlin had never gotten to see her, but she had gotten to see her edges, which was, in the end, kind of the same thing.

She realized one other thing many years later: She never again drew the Wheel of Fortune, no matter how many years she did tarot with that dumb deck Esther had bought her (she wouldn’t let herself buy another). She finally spread all of the cards out across her table one night and realized she no longer had it. Someone else did. Where they had taken it, she could not know, but she tried believing sometimes that it was in better hands than the ones who had dealt it.

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