The Lucky Ones


I carry fears around the way some women accumulate old lipsticks in the bottom of their handbags. In fact, I’m one of those women, too. Most days, this works out okay, but sometimes I leave my bag in a hot car or the sharp end of one of my keys knocks the lid off a tube—who knows how it happens, really?—and then the next time I reach into the depths of my bag for a fallen tin of mints or the magnetic sunglasses that are forever eluding me, I feel something wet, something gooey, and my hand comes back up looking as if I’ve been in some kind of accident, like instead of being the kind of woman who lets old lipsticks accumulate, I might be another kind, the kind who keeps razor blades in the bottom of her bag, just in case. That’s how gruesome melted Sheer Ambrosia Fire looks under the nails and between the fingers. Like some kind of warning.

Of course, I intend to clean the lipsticks out, and on these bad days, I do, because I have no other choice. I lay out a sheet of newspaper on the dining room table and I shake the bag upside down, letting the detritus of my quotidian life rain or float down, depending on weight and density. Back in grad school, when I was a smoker, there was always a dusting of tobacco and the clank of a dead lighter or two, sometimes the lepidopteran flap of the spare flights I carried—for real—for late-night darts at the bar. But that, as I’m trying to get to here, was a long, long time ago, and while today’s dusty bits are usually the crumbs of granola bars or a crushed Tylenol, I know I should be a better person by now.

I should have made more progress, and I shouldn’t be so afraid. I should be a person who has her act together, inside and out. I should be a person who has designated compartments in her purse—one for a phone, one for a wallet, one for those blasted sunglasses, and one with a zipper for the lipsticks: just two at a time, a tinted lip balm and a color. Have you seen these women in the department stores or, most astoundingly, at the ticket counter in the airport with their coordinated luggage? How they unsnap their handbags, reach in with manicured fingers, and pull back just the thing you imagine those enviable fingers reached in to retrieve? How smooth they make this reaching seem, as if their whole lives are this effortless, this finding of things without even looking. And what is that smell rising up from this immaculate place? Fresh leather, like a new car, with mint and floral notes at the finish.

In my bag? Pens. So many pens. A murder of pens, a collision of pens. Maybe I need two pens—black and blue. Not eight, not twelve. That’s too many pens. How can I possibly write with them all every day? How does the purple pen, the playful shade I turn to most often for commenting on student essays, feel when she sifts down to the bottom of the pile and I forget her there?

On the days when something so bad happens in my purse that I can no longer pretend I’m coping, I try to choose the sports page or the classifieds for the dumping, but I should probably try to find something with no words at all. Next time, I should cut open a brown paper bag and use the blank inside, because I’m distracted by all those words peeping out from beneath the lipsticks, pens, Post-its, receipts, hair clips, and plastic junk from the dentist that the children greedily collect but never think about again: royal family finger puppets, rubber bracelets promoting flossing, weird gooey things in shapes of tree frogs or human hands that adhere when you fling them at windows. Imagine one of those sticky, stretchy hands, a translucent red, after a month at the bottom of my purse, dusted with crumbs and stray hairs, reaching with clotted jelly fingers to touch the word clean.

Such aspiration from a misfit toy! My dumped purse and the newsprint are a mixedmedia found poem, but right now I need to focus. I am trying to find the center of a metaphor: lipsticks are to the bottom of the handbag as fears are to the amygdala. I am no kind of brain scientist, but I used to work in a cognitive psychology lab; fundamentally, the amygdala is responsible for implicit memory—emotional responses connected to fear. I want to shake out the implicit from where it lies curled in the amygdala, loosen this tight knot of hidden fears, spread the images across the paper, and then maybe find a place to store them in the hippocampus with the explicit memories, with the memories I can at least pretend to understand.



The truth? I worry too much.

I worry about a lot of things, but mostly, I worry about the physical safety of my kids. All the time. To be fair to myself—I try—we’ve been through a year of orthopedic trials. Last November, our son fell twenty feet out of a tree, fracturing his pelvis, and our daughter was diagnosed with scoliosis severe enough to require spinal fusion surgery. The surgery was last month. Risks included infection, paralysis, blindness, bleeding, death. After the surgeon’s shot of morphine in her spinal cord wore off, she endured a few days of brutal pain, but holding a cold cloth to her forehead and a warm one to her belly, I’d think, You’re alive, you’re alive, thank God you’re alive. As I said, it was a year. Somewhere in the open pockets of my brain I can almost see a tiny version of myself crawling among the spare buttons and threads of memory, and I can tell you, she looks frazzled. Her nerves are shot.

Off crutches now, my son scowls as he heads for the nearest tree, daring me to warn him down: he is not afraid, and he doesn’t want me to stop him from doing “anything that’s at all fun forever.” My daughter, still recovering, brushes me away when I arrive with a footstool or another pillow to ease the pressure on her back. “Mom. Seriously. I’m fine.”

My worry isn’t good for them—and it isn’t good for me.


I was sexually abused as a child. I have written the story of those years again and again, in fiction and nonfiction, from far away and from right up close. Repeatedly diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, I have lots of practice remembering the traumatic events (at least some of them) without reliving the traumatic events. Also, there was the car accident that killed my fiancé when I was twenty. I wasn’t there, but for years, even though I didn’t hear the wailing that arrived at the devastating scene to pronounce him dead, the sirens, any sirens, were like an oyster knife in my heart.

But I’m wondering if my worry problem is not these huge brain-changers but the accumulation of smaller dangers, the accretion of minor fears on the shores of my brain, the flotsam and jetsam—the kind that make us laugh, the kind that to the casual, outside observer seem like quirks of my personality. I won’t go so far as to hope anyone finds them charming, but like the rattling lipstick tubes in the bottom of my purse, they aren’t really hurting anyone.

Are they?


Exempli gratia: I am terrified of projection screens. Specifically, I am afraid one will fall on my face when I’m either pulling it down or pulling it up.

I have seen it happen.

Because I am a teacher, this fear of projection screens and the possibility that the heavy metal casing will slip from its anchors and smash my face does, in fact, affect my daily life. I teach essay-writing, so airing my terror about falling screens to my students actually has a defensible pedagogical underpinning. I am modeling the process of essaying. Here is this thing that waits for me at the back of my brain that no one else can see: What do I do with it? Where are the patterns and connections? How do we make meaning? Where do things fall apart? Plus, my example isn’t scary or triggering for any of my students. Who’s afraid of a projector screen? As their artsy, oddball teacher, I am comic, not tragic.

But. When I reach for the dangling string to engage the roller mechanism on the screen and pull it down into an extended and locked position, a tabula rasa on which we can project our work of the day, a thunderbolt of adrenaline rocks my body.

One moment, I am a professor wearing teacher black and well-heeled boots, clicking around at the front of the classroom as if I have every right and reason in the world to be there. Then my fingers curl around the cord to pull downward, meet the resistance of the mechanism— I’m trying to pull down, but it wants to coil up—and I feel a jolt of fear right in my heart, a shock of sweat to my armpits and forehead. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck vibrate, sending out distress signals, and my tongue, sucked of moisture, tastes as if I have just eaten a teaspoon of instant coffee, bitter and dry. I cannot swallow.

Sometimes I can fight through this moment, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, coaxing the screen down into a locked position, but if the screen gets stuck or sucks back into its casing or makes any kind of unusual noise, I can’t do it. I step back, hands up in a gesture of surrender, and ask for a brave volunteer: “Hannah, would you get this for me?”

Usually we’re far enough into the semester that the students know the story. Most are sympathetic. It’s hard to be human, isn’t it? We accumulate so much over the years. Sometimes there’s more than we can carry alone.



Here is the long version of the story I tell my students:

When I was in fourth grade I attended an elementary school in Newbury, Massachusetts, we all called “the Round School”—although, in truth, the school was shaped like a lollipop, and the kindergarten and the third and fourth grades were housed in the stick. At the Round School, I had a young, pretty teacher whom I adored: Mrs. Daniels. She had short dark hair, and while I wore owl glasses and loomed like a fairy-tale giant over all the other boys and girls in my class, I got my hair done in a pixie cut so I would match Mrs. Daniels. By the end of the year, Mrs. Daniels was heavily pregnant, and while I certainly knew the condition of pregnancy meant she was going to have a baby, I don’t remember truly understanding either the details or the ramifications. It didn’t matter. She was my teacher and I loved her. What’s a swallowed pumpkin between two smart girls with pixie cuts who love to read?

And then one day, there was an accident—right at the front of our classroom, right before our very eyes. It was spring, and the windows were cranked open. Mrs. Daniels walked to the center of the room, reached up, grabbed the cord to pull down the screen for the overhead projector—and the whole, big, metal, hulking thing slipped from the brackets on the wall and crashed onto her upturned face.

There was blood. That’s all I really remember. Mrs. Daniels was on the floor on her knees, holding her face in her hands. Blood gushed from between her fingers and splashed onto the spread of fabric covering her round belly. The wide canvas of her maternity dress—I can’t remember the color, but it was tent-like and pastel—displayed the expanding blossoms of deep-red blood to a gruesome effect. I realize now that what was happening then and what happened after had nothing to do with the condition of pregnancy and everything to do with physics and the heavy momentum of a screen falling from its brackets and being caught by Mrs. Daniels’s face, but in my young mind, somehow, what we kids were witnessing was pregnancy or birth or something, and it was terrifying. Bloody and impossible.

How did all the other grown-ups get into the room? Did Mrs. Daniels call for them or were nearby teachers alerted by the sound of the crash? The story my hippocampus has made of the scene has no audio track, only images, and I can’t see the other kids in the memory either. Only Mrs. Daniels, her face occluded by her spread and bloody fingers—and then the other grown-ups. No kids move around the periphery of this memory. We are a locked frame of fear. I can feel the smooth, molded desk chair under my legs as if it is a part of my body, the ridge midthigh, as if I will never go anywhere without that chair again.

So much blood.

Who were all those grown-ups? The principal? Other teachers? The school nurse? At some point, the grown-ups helped Mrs. Daniels up off the ground, led her away, and memory stops.

That’s it. My brain failed to record the ending, and maybe that’s why I’m doomed to keep replaying the narrative, a pop-song earworm for which I don’t know the lyrics. Here’s the thing: Mrs. Daniels never came back. The screen fell, Mrs. Daniels fell, the blood flowed from her face and onto her belly like the first plague of Egypt upon the earth—and then they led her away. The next morning, a substitute was sitting at her desk when we came in, we were told nothing I can remember about our missing teacher, and the final days of the school year turned to summer without her return.

I can’t remember ever seeing Mrs. Daniels again, and somewhere along the way into the various compartments of my brain, the details jumble and conflate: Mrs. Daniels and falling screens and gushing blood and late pregnancy and the way in which someone we love can be there one minute and gone the next—forever.

While the grown-up me recognizes that all of that blood must have been coming from her nose or even a cut in her forehead—as a mother I’ve learned that noses and head wounds bleed a lot—the menace of the overhead projector screen has stayed with me, adhered in a complicated way to the mystery and danger of pregnancy and stuck altogether to something that feels like . . . what? Abandonment. My brain would have me believe that Mrs. Daniels never even came back to say good-bye, and maybe it’s that betrayal that gave me this fear to carry all these years, through the mysteries of sex and adolescence, well into adulthood, and onward into my own turn to don a maternity dress and float around the front of a classroom in the long shadow of the overhead projector screen. We were pixie-cut twins who loved words, and she left without ever saying good-bye.

Was she dead? Did she die? Did the baby die?

Surely not.

Surely not. Right?

Surely my fear is out of proportion with the actual risk of falling overhead projector screens. Statistically speaking, I should be more afraid of slipping in someone’s spilled latte or taking a sharpened pencil to the eyeball. There’s a logical explanation for Mrs. Daniels’s disappearance. We were nearing the end of the school year, and she was nearing delivery. It probably just made sense to start her maternity leave. I’m guessing it’s as simple as that, and my nine-year-old mind made way too much of what I saw that afternoon when the screen came crashing down.

I don’t have to let my brain kill her off when I can just as easily tell myself a different story. I can write a plausible ending in which Mrs. Daniels is fine. Her baby would now be nearly forty years old. He’s likely very handsome with raven-colored hair and sparkling eyes. Perhaps he’s working in set design on Broadway, divorced with two children of his own, and of course it’s too bad about the marriage, but he’s taken a new lover and everyone seems happier. And Mrs. Daniels, well, she’s coming up on seventy, still spry, enjoying retirement, keeping the grandkids when she can and traveling—always with a notebook in her bag to record all the most delicious details. She still loves to read, but she never could make the transition to an e-reader, even though her son got her a Kindle for Christmas a few years back, so her suitcase is always heavy with too many books.

I wonder how she wears her hair.

Here’s the main thing: the falling screen didn’t kill her, and it didn’t kill her baby. Brain, do you hear me? Mrs. Daniels is fine.


A few days ago, my thirteen-year-old daughter said something that chilled my heart. We were on a postprandial family walk. My husband was chasing after our nine-year-old son, who was careening down the street on his bicycle, having just swerved erratically from one side of the street—against traffic (although there was none), where he shouldn’t have been riding—to the other, where an actual bicyclist was zipping along. Although the actual bicyclist shouldn’t have been going so fast, I am grateful he was paying close attention; he swerved expertly, avoiding a direct collision with our son and swooping around the corner and out of sight like a bat into the dying light. A woman walking two Corgis paused to clutch her heart and say, “That was scary, wasn’t it?” Indeed.

Afterward, with the menfolk zipping ahead, I was telling my daughter how I wasn’t sure how our friends could bear to let their son just head out into the world on his bike on summer mornings and trust that he’d return in one piece at dinnertime. Even though that’s how my entire generation lived our lives, back when there was nothing called “free-range parenting,” and in fact “parent” wasn’t even a verb. That’s just what kids did in the summer while their parents were at work–they roamed on bikes, alone and in packs, peeling out in gravel lots, no hands, no helmets, plywood ramps on blocks in the middle of the road for Evil Knievel jumps. It was a banner safety awareness day when no one decided it would be a good idea to set the ramp on fire.

“Well,” she said, “you have kept us on a pretty short leash.”

“Do you want a longer leash?”

“It’s too late,” she said, shaking her head. “Everything seems scary.”

Shit, I thought. I tried so hard to not do this to her. Now how do I undo it? And I know the answer to that question is: I don’t. Now she has to undo it, but I can try to be better.

Philip Larkin comes to mind. They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . .


You know a major contributor to the mess of our brain bags these days? The internet. Here I’ve written myself to a perfectly good conclusion, a remaking of the Mrs. Daniels story, one in which both she and her firstborn son are healthy and hale, and then I think, well, I suppose I should at least do a quick search, but I don’t really want to because what if the news is bad? What if I uncover the tragic report of one Mrs. Daniels, fourth-grade teacher at Newbury Elementary, suffering a brain hemorrhage after a freak classroom accident? A death made even more tragic by the associated demise of her unborn child?

The true ending of this story matters to Mrs. Daniels herself—maybe. Then again, maybe it ceased to matter to her a long, long time ago. But does it really matter to my cluttered brain? Is the internet really going to help me clear my skull of the benign horrors clinging in the dusty corners, those quotidian fears that hold me back from grabbing onto the cord of that screen at the front of my classroom and giving it a good, firm yank? Is it going to help me loosen the leash my daughter feels too tightly wrapped around her?

Not hardly. The internet is a big pile of garbage through which we daily choose to wade. We rarely find what we’re looking for in the pile, but does that stop us?


Within seconds I’m on the website of the Newbury Elementary School, which still seems to house the same grades—this surprises me because it has always struck me as strange that the first and second grades were farmed out to a different building in another part of town, but New Englanders are nothing if not bound by tradition. Of course, just because Mrs. Daniels is no longer listed on the faculty page, we shouldn’t assume her to be long-dead, killed by an overhead projector screen in the bloom of her youth and fertility, as a consideration of the calendar alone tells us she would have been long-retired. What the blow of the screen may have spared, the mounting years will soon take anyway.

I ask my mother, but while the name “sounds familiar,” she doesn’t remember Mrs. Daniels or the accident; I don’t even have a first name for my search, nothing to go on beyond Newbury Elementary School teacher Daniels. Following these desultory crumbs, I find a website devoted to the history of this coastal region of Massachusetts where residents write in to record their memories. Deep in the internet forest, hoping to stumble upon a Mrs. Daniels through serendipity alone, and bolstered by the idea that if I had loved her, others had as well, I keep clicking and reading. Shouldn’t she be a feature in the town’s collective memory?

Page leads on to page, and before long I find myself in a corner of the site titled “Murders, Suicides, Unfortunate Accidents.” I don’t even need to make this stuff up. If Mrs. Daniels had been killed by that projector screen, where else would I find a record of that event? I don’t find Mrs. Daniels, but what I do find makes me grateful, not for the first time, that I made it out of childhood on that particular stretch of New England coast alive


The page kicks off with a suicide: the butcher who killed himself in the back of his father’s shop—with a gun. The contributor calls the butcher’s choice of instrument “ironic.” Do we expect all butchers to use meat cleavers for their last job? As kids, we went to Fowles to eat pancakes at the few booths behind the counter where the locals, fishermen and carpenters, sat for long hours drinking coffee and talking about winds, tides, and tools. This was the 1970s, the same decade as the butcher’s suicide, and I wonder if I heard about the tragedy and forgot, not understanding, or if I ate bacon he had cut with his big knife, licking the salty grease from my fingers. The chances seem good.

After the butcher’s story, the site moves into murders, and everyone has a lot to say about one young and beautiful Mrs. Clark, who stabbed and shot her husband, wrapped his body in electrician’s wire, weighted it with cement blocks, and dumped him into the river. The unfortunate Mr. Clark, who in his better days had been an enthusiastic wife-swapper, was discovered a couple months later in a tangle of marsh grass by an unlucky birdwatcher. The crime was dubbed “The Palm Sunday Murder,” and Mrs. Clark was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to fifty years. My favorite detail is not the suspicion that this twenty-something mother of three had an accomplice, likely a lover, who helped her to dump her 160- pound, wire-bound husband into the river, and whom she protected with her silence, but the damning evidence that the cement blocks used to weight the body had been pried from the foundation of their family home like broken teeth. I don’t call that ironic, but it’s certainly not the kind of metaphor you want girding your family story.

There are many more murders—the florist, the reporter’s wife, the elderly woman who lived above the Fruit Basket, poor Karen on the bunny trail—but what gets me, of course, is the long list of “unfortunate accidents.” No falling screens, no Mrs. Daniels, but Lordy, so much crushing, bleeding, electrocuting, drowning—everybody, all the time, drowning. Here is the place where I roamed free as a kid, riding my bike from the island to the mainland during low tide to have a cup of chili at the restaurant where my mother was a waitress, then back again across the Merrimac, the river that stars in so many of the unfortunates: stories of teenagers hitting their heads on docks and falling backward into the dark swirl, rowboats washing up empty on the beach, or the worst, a poor kid who jumped from the B&M railroad bridge and got entangled in a coil of cable. By the time the divers brought him up, they say the currents had stretched his body to ten feet long.

A man I don’t know but who would have been my contemporary sums up our childhood: “Most of us had tempted fate to a greater or lesser degree during our youth. Dumb-ass games of bow and arrow or with a .22 rifle in an enclosed basement. Tunnels, ice-flows, water-towers. Overloaded boats with no flotation devices. Yeah, we were not the bright ones, but we were the lucky ones.”


The jumbled bag of the brain works together, of course, but it’s the hippocampus who’s the wellthumbed Moleskine notebook in this picture, sorting out the details and working on the narrative of the accident: it was Mrs. Daniels, we were in fourth grade, she was pregnant, etcetera. The amygdala is the Nervous Nancy who brings the jolt to the heart, the sudden wash of sweat: Watch out! It’s falling! Ever vigilant to triggers, she is the one who sounds the alarm, and in me, the amygdala is strong. She keeps her head on a swivel, and she never takes a break.

I should no longer be afraid of overhead projector screens. Despite my preference to avoid the chore, in my twenty-five years in the classroom I have pulled down screens hundreds, if not thousands, of times—and no screen has ever fallen on me. If there’s anything at all to be said for reconditioning, my brain should have long ago replaced the fear response associated with the fourth-grade accident with the simple humdrum of daily life in a room with an overhead projector. The stimulus should be losing power. The metallic grind of the retraction mechanism should no longer send me under the desk with the surge protectors, dust bunnies, and dried-out highlighters—but it does.

Human brains are wired for rapid automatic responses. Fast action can save our lives. Say you’re walking along a wooded path and you catch a glimpse of something coiled, black, and shiny out of the corner of your eye. You leap sideways, and then—safely on the other side of the path—you finish processing that flash of an image, recognize that the giant snake you just saw is actually a discarded loop of garden hose, and laugh at yourself. These side-jumping automatic responses are balanced by the responses we actually plan when we have a few seconds—or, say, a lifetime—to consider the details. Basically, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (including the hippocampus) work together to give humans the capacity to exercise control over the things that scare us, but this same capacity, when applied with extra diligence, allows us to imagine the failure of a given scenario or dangers that don’t exist. In other words, we can think our way in and out of our own fear.

It’s possible I suffer from an excess of imagination. Context is everything, and God is in the details. I live my life through the twin tenets of curiosity and close observation. I believe imagination and storytelling are central to our survival as a species—and yet, it’s my imagination that makes me jumpy. A projector screen is not (that) scary, but as quickly as my prefrontal can remind my amygdala of this fact, my amygdala can counter with her maybes and what ifs and yes, but perhaps this time the maintenance guy left the last screw in his pocket.



I dump my brain bag out onto the spread newspaper and start sorting: things I need, things I don’t need but can’t bear to get rid of, things that are damaged beyond repair, and things I never should have saved in the first place. I do the work of necessary maintenance. We’ll never chronicle all the things that might be piling up to get us—loose projector screens, doomed pregnancies, murderous jilted wives, coiled cable, rising tides. I mean, look at my own family in just this year—a fall from a tree and adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. A year ago today, I wasn’t afraid of trees, and scoliosis was something that existed only vaguely in the bend-over tests they had us perform in middle-school PE. But now? They’re on my list.

In the forty years since Mrs. Daniels’s accident, I let myself linger in the limbo of wondering. In Egypt, after the blood rained down, then came the frogs, the lice, the locusts, and so on, until finally, in His final display of absolute power: the deaths of all the firstborn children. But really? In the front of my brain? I think Mrs. Daniels had a screen fall on her face that day, and yes, there was blood, but I doubt it was that bad. She had her life to live, a baby to take care of, and her life wasn’t in the classroom with us—at least not all of it. Mrs. Daniels was a woman with a pixie cut who shopped in grocery stores and read books and—gasp—had sex with her husband (or with someone at any rate) and got herself in the family way. She’s not mine to hold up in this moment of terror. I can let her go now.

I’m not convinced the human brain can be tidied like a purse, but I take comfort from the dumping, the categorizing, and the speaking of words that have gone unsaid. The brazen act of telling a story all the way through to the end



Rumpus original artwork by Lisa Marie Forde

Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, and a new collection, If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press on September 1, 2022). Her essays have appeared in many anthologies and in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Longreads, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A 2020 NEA Fellow, she is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Ball State University, a senior editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, and executive producer for the podcast Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence. Visit her at and on Twitter @jill_christman. More from this author →