Suburban Vertigo


Suburban Vertigo
by Anna Qu


I take a seat facing the direction the train will be moving. I love the feeling of going somewhere, the low lull of wheels on track, and the simple, visible progress of getting from point to point. The commute to Smithtown is over two hours so I’ve come prepared with my journal, a book and a bottle of water. I wait for the LIRR train to pull out of Atlantic Terminal so I can leave the city behind me.

When we start moving, I journal about Steph’s bridal shower and the group of college friends I’ll see in a couple of hours. Over 10 years ago, we were randomly selected to share a suite freshman year of college. Steph and Laura shared one room, while Rose, Zino, and I were next door, in a triple. Anne, our sixth, lived down the hall.
A decade later, we’ve chosen various career paths: designer, writer, nutritionist, engineer, professor, and early intervention for kids with learning disabilities. We grow closer and distant at intervals and obstacles, but we come together during holidays, birthdays, and now occasions like these. Over time, it’s become one of the more reliable things in my life.



“Thanks for picking me up,” I say to Dani, Steph’s sister and her maid-of-honor. “Is anyone there yet?”

“No problem. My cousins and aunts have been here since 10,” she says. “They’ve been helping with the decorations, so I don’t think there’s much to do.”

I check my phone. It’s a few minutes past 12 and I teeter between annoyance and acceptance. As a bridesmaid I’m “required” to be early, but after 50+ back and forth emails, texts and calls to decide on a date, type of games, ‘things to do’ at the shower, little had been agreed upon or done. With my strawberry rhubarb pie in hand, I am ready to do my part; carry presents, perfect centerpieces and table settings, smile, show my enthusiasm for cheesy games and kitchenware. But Dani is telling me there isn’t much to do.

I take in the sunny town as we drive through Main Street. I suspect these storefronts haven’t seen much change in the last couple of decades. When we turned off the street, homes of various style and age start to space out; cozy cottages with old shutters to grand mansions with stately columns. A calm nostalgia I’ve come to associate with Long Island washes over me. I forget about the tiny box I rent back home, the coffee shops with wobbly bistro tables occupied and shared by laptops, iPads, notebooks, and the quick pace I have to keep up with on the streets so commuters don’t overtake me. That seems to be my goal lately: not to be overtaken by daily trifles, baby strollers, or dads with a kid strapped to their chest and dog leash wrapped around their ankles.



Rose is the last out of our group to arrive. We grew up down the street from one another and have been friends since third grade. She was smart, thoughtful, and like the pied piper, kids were always drawn to her. She’s exactly the same, except taller and with highlights in her hair. My eyes make a be-line for her stomach.

“Drink that one,” I motion at the lighter punch sitting to the left of the sink.

“Sweetheart, that’s the non-alcoholic one…” Steph’s mom hollers over the crowded kitchen. “…for the expecting Mommies!”

“Wait, what?” Zino exclaims, her face turning a deep maroon. Her lips fall into flattish “O” that comes out silent.

“Surprise!” Rose says, giggling. There are smiles all around. I am the worst at keeping secrets, so when Rose told me about the pregnancy, I took the liberty of telling a large number of our friends over the course of the last month. I start ladling the pink lemonade punch into a clear plastic cup.

“Rose, why am I the last one to know!?” Zino asks.

“That’s because Anna couldn’t keep her mouth shut.” Rose shoots me a look.

“Hey, I didn’t tell Zino!” I protest, handing her the virgin punch as a peace offering. “And I saw her last Saturday. Just look how surprised she is!”

Rose shakes her head. She’s at the end of her first trimester and just starting to share the news. With a husband, a condo, a dog, and family on both sides happy to babysit, if life experience was a race, she would be the first to make it to the finish line.

She pulls out her white iPhone to show us a blurry sonogram, and I draw back instinctively. I can’t help but think back months before: my legs butterflied in stirrups, and the nurse, Maria, turning the ultrasound machine toward me. She circled the dark area on the gray screen with the tip of her index finger. Tap Tap.

“Look, here.” She taps again. I feel a rage I cannot explain: rage at her finger demanding my attention, rage at myself for having unprotected sex, rage at the failed abortion. Rage that seemed to have accumulated and has nothing to do with her, but nevertheless had been summoned by the tap tap of her finger over the small black bean on the screen. “You can see it.”

“Why didn’t the pill work?” I forced out. “You said as long as it was within 13 weeks it would work.”

She shrugged, not unsympathetically. Her auburn hair was disheveled and her ponytail lopsided. She looked tired.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work. It’s less invasive but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

I said nothing, rage still curdling. I bled for days.

“We can surgically remove it today. What did you have for lunch?”

Lunch? I couldn’t remember lunch. It felt days, weeks, maybe lives ago. The rage subsided to something else. I thought I had dealt with it. Taken the pill, bled through pads, underwear, jeans and bed sheets. Bled through my clothing to a cushion on a chair. I had forced my body into a miscarriage. I wasn’t supposed to have a half aborted fetus still inside my body.

This was just a two-week follow-up. I had dealt with it.

Maria ushered me to the front desk where I signed release forms and handed over a credit card. Then an old woman with very bad breath was bending over me, inserting a tiny IV into my arm. I tried focusing on her words. She was telling me everything was going to be okay. Her pale face was folded by deep wrinkles, and before I can count them all or decide if I believed her words, she blurred. I held on to the image of her hair as she faded. It reminded me of a dandelion flower, when it turned into a blow ball, a perfectly round halo ready to float away.

The unexpected memory pinches the back of my throat and I take a step from my friends. The whole house is decorated for the bridal shower; powder blue, turquoise and violet lanterns hang from the ceiling, two glittering banners that say “Happy Shower!” and “Congratulations!” balloons and streamers in an array of matching pastel colors. Everywhere I look, there’s adorable, suffocating new life.

They are moving forward while I stumble and fight for a different type of forward; the kind that’s two steps back first. My closest friend is having a baby while I just had an abortion. It feels like things had gone terribly wrong but I can’t put my finger on how or where or why.

During the first semester of college I claimed myself independent from my family to take out enough student loans to go to college. I worked three jobs to cover my essential needs and moved off campus to save money. I was the first to know about parties, the first to have a college boyfriend and the first to move in with that boyfriend. They were kids away from home, living on their parent’s dime. I was the independent one. But here I am, standing under pastel lanterns, admiring vintage rings and discussing their fiancés and husbands and futures.

I thought I could take my time. I thought I could travel, do odd jobs, go back and get my MFA in writing. Take an entry-level assistant job at a literary agency that paid $30,000 a year. Eat on a dream.

Except, in reality I am almost a decade older than the other assistants, and my job is administrative, menial and not dream-fulfilling at all. And I am still hungry.



Dani, in her fuchsia pink shirt and gold sandals, clears her throat and makes an announcement. It’s time to collect in the living room for games and presents. There are more people than seats: Anne and I shared a chair, the rest of the girls perch on ottomans. The family members—mom, soon to be mother-in-law, aunts, and cousins—take over tanned wrap-around couch and armchairs.

Stephanie sits in front of the mountain of boxes with her arms crossed, giggling nervously. She’s been made to wear a banner that says ‘Bride-to-Be,” and there are balloons and endless tassels tied to her chair.

The game, a list of questions for the audience and the bride-to-be, make Steph feel like a stranger to us. We throw out lukewarm answers and then guess to see if the groom got it right. The questions range from where they met, the most romantic thing he’s done, his favorite sport team, and how many children they want.

Next Dani moves a chair next to Steph to signal it’s time to unwrap gifts. The bridesmaids have their duties: Laura is seated with a pen and notebook on her lap to record who to thank later for what present, Zino stands to the side with a camera, and I am ready with a roll of tape, a pair of scissor and a paper plate. As the artist, I get to make the bridal shower hat out of the ribbons from the gift-wrapping.

Dani hands Steph a small extravagantly wrapped box, and reads the name on the card out loud. Laura scribbles neatly as we wait for the unveiling. There’s a long silence as 25 pairs of eyes wait for Steph to timidly unwrap the gift. A polite ‘oooh’ follows the uninteresting pack of aprons. The gift giver, one of Steph’s aunts’ stand, hug her, and hold still as Zino snaps a photo. Then the ribbon is passed down to me and I tape it to the paper plate. This happens again and again until all the gifts: pots, spatulas, silverware, wine glass sets, and half the kitchenware from the registry at Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond has been exhausted, and I have a colorful, voluptuous hat we make Steph wear.

Afterwards we commune at the marble kitchen island for more punch. I eavesdrop to Rose admiring Anne’s engagement ring. It’s been in the family for generations, and Anne still needs to resize and get it cleaned, but just can’t bear to part with it right now. Rose nods in understanding. The two of them are not particularly close, but their timing makes them more familiar. Rose tells her where she had her ring resized.

I remember the text exchanges while Rose was taking pregnancy tests after pregnancy test. I was elated, and she was calm and matter-of-fact. And the following day when Anne texted an oversaturated picture of her hand. I stared at the image, confused until I saw the rock on her ring finger. I stared at it a beat too long, slow to acknowledge the nudge that said it was just the kind of ring I would want.

This bridal shower is just the beginning; the bachelorette party will follow in two weeks, and then of course, the wedding. We’ve already created a secret Pinterest account for Rose’s baby shower in a couple of months. I’m anxious Anne will ask me to be her maid-of-honor, and the time and monetary commitment it will mean. And I know that no matter how untimely or inconvenient it will be, I will have to make it happen, because it’s what you do.

I pull myself from my circle of friends again and go stand in front of the table of desserts for some air. My strawberry rhubarb pie is between a row of black and white cupcakes, and the cheesecake. I take the pie out of the box, reorganize and move the “Mr. & Mrs.” napkins closer to the matching plates.

I’m coming down with a case of suburban vertigo. I take a polite sip of the punch and champagne mix in my hand, squeezing the plastic cup until it bends to my will. The walls are closing in on me. There’s an iron after taste. I’m not sure what’s worse, comparing myself to something I’m not sure I want or having this distorted feeling of disconnect.

The conversation drifts from topic to topic; housing market on Long Island, public schools, wedding planning. Rose is saying they just closed on a house in New Hyde Park, but they will have to redo the entire house: the bathroom, kitchen, a section of the living room, and the basement. The current owners also painted the inside and outside entirely pink. Even the drapes in the house. The girls laugh at that.

“Obviously the first order of business would be to repaint…” she says. “Everything.”

Then Laura starts talking about how her parents might buy a building with her and Michael. She’s been looking at the fixer uppers, but it’s hard to find anything under two million dollars. She sighs and the girls shake their heads in understanding. Real estate.

I turn the plates until the “Mr. & Mrs.” is aligned perfectly with the words on the napkins. Then I misalign, and realign.

I want to want to keep up my friends. I want to walk back in their circle, but I’m overcome with a crippling inertia. School systems? Houses? Two million dollars? The disparity between the two worlds, theirs and mine, seemed like the contrast between the soothing muted pastel colors surrounding us and the immense pulsing red of my current being. Surreal, twisted and angry.

It wasn’t that I wanted what they had; I knew that I could and would in time, but right now I wasn’t where I wanted to be, or thought I’d be at the cusp of 30. At the moment nothing was working; not my body, my relationship, my writing or my pitiful job. This was not what I thought it would be like.

In the corner of the dining room, a clean white apron is spread over a bistro table. Color markers are scattered for those who want to scribe congratulations and best wishes for a happy marriage. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to my friends but I didn’t want to be them either. I had made my choice. They had made theirs. That was all there was to it.

Next to the apron is a large glass jar for words of wisdom. I walk over and pick up a violet pen. I want to reign in my resentment and bitterness, and write something inspirational, meaningful, and kind.

What advice did I have for their future together? When nothing comes to mind, I take my iphone out and search ‘wedding wishes.’ The results are kitschy and clichéd. I pick up a lavender sharpie and write something completely generic.

Take lots of vacations!



“You want a ride?” Rose asks me. For a second, I’m afraid she’s sensed my strange natation and that it’s seeping out of me. Am I ruining everyone’s good time?


I nod slowly, as if being reprimanded. She’s been giving me rides since she got her permit, since before her pregnancy, before buying a condo, before getting married. Before jobs, before college, before cars, even before pimples.

“I have dinner plans, so we need to leave soon,” she warns.

Now that it’s time to leave, I stall. I watch the late afternoon light crawl up the soft white walls and the furniture. Then I find and pet the cats. I ignore Rose’s second glance and go get some pie. Everyone else is digging in.
The rhubarb has a bite and is perfect with a squeeze of Reddi Wip. Zino is collecting a quarter portion of all the desserts on one plate. Steph is audibly enjoying a big piece of cheesecake. Rose starts cutting a slice; it’s the only desserts she likes.

Every time I went to one of these events—bridal shower, bachelorette party, wedding, baby shower—I second-guessed myself, afraid I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. That I was missing out—whatever that meant—and now could no longer get back. Time was leading us forward, but unlike a train ride, I didn’t know where it was taking me or if my friends would be there when I arrived.

Anne and Laura whisper about separating a single cupcake to share. I roll my eyes at them and they both give me their versions of a lopsided smile. The last bite of the crust is bitter sweet. I can only make the choices I make.

Lunch is still spread out on the granite kitchen island and empty plates are piled off to the side. The burning cans of sternos are still hot and blue, and a thick film of oily, opaque grease had solidified over the oversaturated chicken and artichoke dish. The salad has been picked through and the pasta is stiff and crusty. A few of the family members start clearing up.

I take the final cue, hug Steph twice, and grab one of the miniature bottles of champagne Dani’s lined up by the entryway before following Rose out.

In her white Lexus, we take the Long Island Expressway. It purrs underneath us and she drives in silence for a while. Rose has always been more of a listener than a talker, and as the houses blur to highway we settle into the ebbing day and who we’ve always been. It’s a feeling I get with people I’ve known a long time, often the only common ground left.

“How’d Lisa take it?” I ask.

“She didn’t say much. She asked why we told her before the first trimester was up.”

“Your mom is so weird,” I laugh. Lisa, for as long as I could remember, had always been blunt and unnecessarily callous, just like my mother. Typical Chinese moms. “I’m sure she’s really excited.”

“I hope she babysits.”

“Yea,” I say, flipping through the radio. NY has the worst stations.

“It’s always the mom’s fault,” she sighs after a moment.

I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t. Suddenly, I am acutely aware of where she is in life; facing all that she knows, taking in the possibility and responsibility of being a mother, and still choosing to bring a child into this often difficult world.

“How do you feel about motherhood?” I ask, half-smiling.

“Mm, I don’t know,” she shrugs, her eyes on the road. I’m impressed by her composure, her courage.

“Maybe we needed to blame our mothers just to make it through life,” I say. “Maybe it’s just growing pains.”

The sun is setting behind the clouds and just beyond us thick beams are breaking through, casting rays of unnaturally majestic light. It’s a spectacular view. We’re moving at 70 miles an hour, but we remain the same distance apart. For a few seconds nothing changes and then I can see it—the familiar skyline— materializing out of the milky horizon.


Anna Qu holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Threepenny Review,, Jezebel, and Free Range Nonfiction. If you like her work, she has a forthcoming piece in Kweli Journal. Follow her on Twitter @quillingit

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