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Saving the World


In the fall of her fiftieth year, Alma finds herself lost in a dark mood she can’t seem to shake. It’s late September; she has actually not turned fifty yet, but she has already given that out as her age, hoping to get the fanfare and menopause jokes over and done with. It’s not her own mortality that weighs heavily on her. In fact, it makes her sad when she reads that women of her profile (active, slender, vegetarian, married) will probably live—if they take care of themselves—to ninety and beyond.

She should probably feel glad that her glass of time is half full. But instead she wonders who might be alive in her dotage whom she would care to be with? Richard, her husband, overworked and project-driven, will probably not live that long; Tera, her best friend, overweight and full of political-activist rage, will likely die before Alma does; her saintly neighbor Helen, already in her seventies, fat chance she’ll stick around. Day after day, Alma feels that peppery anxious feeling that she has truly lost her way.

Earlier this year, she went to see the local, small-town psychiatrist, a very short man with an oversized face that reminded her of the postdeaf Beethoven. She explained that she felt as if a whirling darkness were descending on her, like dirty water going down a drain or that flock of birds in the film by Hitchcock. The doctor, who’d been jotting down her explanation, had looked up. He was so young; he probably hadn’t seen the film. “What kind of birds?” he had asked.

At least he is being thorough, Alma thought.

He asked a lot of questions, referring to what seemed a long list on a clipboard—about whether Alma had fantasies of killing herself, whether she had a gun in the house (Richard did keep an old shotgun down in the basement, which he would occasionally use on the raccoons and groundhogs that invaded his garden), whether there had been any untoward events in their family.

Alma tried to be accurate and provide him with the information requested. She was baffled by this dark mood but still trusting that medical science in the guise of Dr. Payne (incredibly, that was his name) could help her get back to her old self.

But after months go by and one after another of the antidepressants Dr. Payne prescribes fail by her lights—she is “better” but numb all the time; she sleeps well but can no longer smell the paperwhites Richard brings her; nothing truly upsets her, even when her agent, Lavinia, sends her an ultimatum letter about Alma’s overdue novel. (She is going on her third year overdue.)

One afternoon when she is trying to rouse herself into some wifely attractiveness before Richard gets home, she goes into their bathroom, opens the cabinet and collects all the prescription bottles she has accumulated over the last months of treatment, and for some reason, rather than flush them down the toilet, she puts on her coat and walks to the back of their property near the tree line. She scoops a small hole in the ground with her boot and pours the contents of these vials inside—no doubt hundreds of dollars worth—then kicks some dirt over it. She is concerned that deer or raccoons or groundhogs will find this trove and drug themselves into a stupor and thus become easy targets for anyone with a shotgun, perhaps Richard himself. In these small ways Alma finds she can still trust herself. She rolls a heavy boulder over the spot, circles it with the upended emptied bottles wedged into the earth (the ground has not yet frozen), and then waits, for it seems some ceremony should close this moment. But she can think of nothing, so she merely stands there for a few more minutes before the dusk and cold draw her back indoors.

She tells no one, not Richard, not Tera, whose impatience with Alma’s persisting sadness Alma can hear in her friend’s voice. As always, Tera is involved in one or another of her causes—antiwar, antimines, antisomething—and any confession on Alma’s part will bring on an invitation to join Tera on the front lines. But Alma knows she can’t treat this thing with peace rallies and political work. So, no, she does not tell Tera either. (Another sign that her instincts are still trustworthy: she knows who to talk to, mostly who not to talk to.) Most definitely, Tera won’t approve. We’re all so goddamn lucky: hers is one of the voices lodged in Alma’s head. Depression is nothing but a first-world dis-ease (she parcels out the word that way). Tera has been Alma’s best friend since Alma ended up in this rural state two decades ago, still young enough to be thought of as a waif, not a lost soul. Now Alma is older, and as her sense of detachment grows, she watches Tera go about her campaigning, her picketing, her trips down to Washington with her live-in companion, Paul, to protest any number of atrocities that Tera somehow always finds out about; e-mail has proliferated her sources of horror. Alma watches Tera the way she would a movie, a good movie, but one she has seen several times already and that, therefore, leaves her slightly bored.

Alma pretends to Richard that she is still taking her antidepressants, but she goes about her own way. She writes Lavinia back and tells her an outright lie, that the novel is done and she is merely going through it one last time. She is still making an effort to maintain her old life, covering for herself, as if she is setting up mock models in one or another room, Alma cooking, Alma going to bed, Alma writing a letter, Alma writing a novel—displays people can look at through a lit up window—but meanwhile she has slipped out the back door with no idea where she is going except somewhere far from this place.

She has every intention of returning—that, in part, is the reason for her secrecy. But she has no story yet to lead her out of her dark mood and restore her to the life that, she has to agree with Tera, she’s damn lucky to be living. 

Excerpted from Saving the World © Copyright 2012 by Julia Alvarez. Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.

Saving the World
by by Julia Alvarez

  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: A Shannon Ravenel Book
  • ISBN-10: 1565125584
  • ISBN-13: 9781565125582