Ask Me Again

Clare Sestanovich

June 12, 2024 
The following is from Clare Sestanovich's Ask Me Again. Sestanovich was named a “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation in 2022, and is the author of the story collection Objects of Desire, a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper’s Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn..

In a courtyard behind the hospital, with cold metal benches and leafless trees strangled by Christmas lights, Eva came upon a doctor smoking a cigarette. He sucked on it hungrily. He exhaled out of the side of his mouth and glared at her—defiant, adolescent—as if daring her to point out his hypocrisy. She was the actual adolescent: sixteen years old. She could have told him that she enjoyed hypocrisy. No, not in herself; her own contradictions made her seem strange and ugly, like dressing-room mirrors that revealed angles of her face she couldn’t usually see. But in other people, inconsistency was interesting—a mark of complexity, maybe maturity. She smiled at the doctor. He crushed the cigarette under his shoe, an elegant pivot with an inelegant sneaker, and went back inside.

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You weren’t supposed to like hospitals, but secretly Eva did. She liked being close to so many extremes. Birth, death. It was surely the cleanest place she had ever been—surgeons, she learned, scrubbed their hands for two to six minutes, all the way up to their elbows—and also the dirtiest: blood, shit, infectious disease. (She timed six minutes. It was a long time.) People yelled in hospitals and people whispered. They limped or they hobbled or they sprinted from one emergency to the next. She had watched a man fall asleep standing up. There was good news and bad news. Miracles happened, but sometimes—a lot of the time—life simply dealt you a bad hand.

Whenever she heard an ambulance approaching, Eva went toward it, not away from it. She stood right next to the automatic doors of the emergency room, longing to cover her ears and willing herself not to. It would have been easy to block the sirens out, but she had recently adopted a new ethic, too new to be violating already: Block nothing out. If she listened long enough, close enough, the wailing of the trucks became an urgent pulse inside her body.

While her grandmother slept in a semiprivate room, a pale-green curtain separating her from a carpenter who’d fallen off a ladder and broken his back, Eva wandered the halls in search of characters. In the basement—radiology—she found a woman in a plastic chair clutching a jagged chunk of rose quartz in each hand. In her lap, a pile of other crystals: amethyst, obsidian, tiger’s-eye. On a floor with a view all the way across Central Park—cardiology—she found a man singing union songs while wheeling an IV up and down the hall. “Which side are you on,” he belted, then hummed, then belted again. (“Yours,” a doctor rushing past assured him.) Through an open door in the pediatric wing, she found a toddler wearing a Styrofoam helmet. His parents argued loudly while he stared at the television: a soap opera on mute. Abruptly, his mother changed the channel, and a dour newscaster appeared. The child smiled placidly as grim headlines scrolled across the screen.

Then there were patients, like Eva’s grandmother Adele, who seemed too empty to be characters. Vacant stares in the waiting rooms, haggard faces in the cafeteria. The elevators were packed with people who didn’t want to look at you. But of course they had stories, too—all the more alluring for seeming blank, or being hidden. Eva was good at looking for clues. Everything could be a puzzle, which meant that everything could be solved. A man leaned over the water fountain, his gown gaping open to reveal all his moles and liver spots and gummy pink skin tags, and in her head, Eva connected the dots, drawing a constellation across his back. All the sounds in a hospital, she discovered, seemed like codes: the beeping of machines, the squeaking of sneakers on freshly mopped linoleum. They were probably all code for the same thing. Hurry.

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She brought these characters, these puzzles, back to her parents. She meant it as a kind of comfort: someone else’s story to distract from their own. Adele wasn’t unconscious, but she wasn’t exactly awake either, and no one would say when, or if, she might be. The doctors, with their unreadable expressions and their unknowable expertise, with sentences so complex they might as well have been secrets, blandly instructed them to wait, cryptically promised they would see. Eva’s parents were not very good at waiting. They paced, they grimaced. They clenched their hands and jaws without noticing they were clenching. Her dad was better at it: he had his sketchbook, the rhythmic sound of pencil against paper, like an animal scratching plaintively at the door. Eva’s mom kept buying things from the vending machine at the end of the hall, packages that had been there for too long: crackers crumbled to dust, chocolate white with age. She opened them and then abandoned them, forming a pile on an empty chair, as if stockpiling for some future disaster.


Adele was in the hospital because she’d jumped out the window at her nursing home. It was a second-floor window. She hadn’t died, as she’d hoped she would. Her bones broke in lots of different ways: her right kneecap into many pieces, her lowest rib neatly in two. Her pelvis had somehow remained intact, spider-veined with cracks like the surface of a melting lake, but her ulna had pierced straight through the skin of her forearm. By the time Eva and her parents arrived at the hospital, it had been pushed or pulled back into place—reset.

For nearly her entire life, from Kraków to Boston to the assisted-living facility in New Jersey (“The Village,” they called it), Adele had been a devout Catholic. She gave God credit for everything, beseeching him desperately, thanking him profusely. She had never insisted on anyone else’s devotion—Eva’s father (her son) hadn’t been to Mass in decades, Eva’s mother could be haughty in her nonbelief—but their ingratitude had worried her and brought her pain. Then, a few months before she jumped, all that had changed. With a suddenness that seemed biblical, her piety had turned into rage.

Why had everything been taken from her? Her husband, her driver’s license, her bladder control, one friend after another. And then the house. She had given her life to that house. She had given other people lives in that house. Three children, six grandchildren. She raged instead of eating, raged instead of sleeping, raged into the phone long after she had accidentally hung up. The doctors had explanations for the anger. Tangles in the brain. Something called plaque. The explanations made her angrier. She was not one of those old people. She was not confused—she was furious.

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She left a note beside a dish of spearmint lozenges before she jumped, dated in wobbly handwriting no longer recognizable as her own. December 3, 1906. (Later, the doctors used this against her: she was a hundred years off.) In the note, Adele’s anger was not personal or petty. That might have made things simpler—that kind of rage might have been easier to refute, or at least to ignore. She didn’t call her children traitors or cowards, which made them realize that’s what they were. It was the world, she said, that had disillusioned her, God who had betrayed her. And not just her. She could have tolerated that; who was she, after all, to be spared grief and humiliation and incontinence? But what about the others? The young, the beautiful, the not yet disabused. What would happen to them?


When Adele woke up, she wasn’t angry or regretful or sorry; she was sad. The nurses spoke to her in cloying voices, simple sentences. In the end, she got her wish: she never went back to the nursing home. She spent a week in the hospital, and then she was gone. She didn’t say much in the final days, and when she did speak, it was without looking at anyone—her words into space. At night, she chanted Hail Marys until the words began to loosen and slur with sleep, as if she were drunk, but she was only dying.

It happened on a Monday, when Eva wasn’t there. She was alone in the two-story house where she had lived for her entire life, on a block wedged between the park and the cemetery, near the highest point in Brooklyn. None of the buildings on their street matched: there were a few cramped, clapboard structures like theirs, a set of brick condos with built-in air conditioners and shiny chrome gates, some classic brownstones with American flags waving out front, and, most recently, a new apartment building—all smooth gray surfaces, with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was evening, and through the kitchen window Eva could see the many varieties of Christmas trees in the living rooms across the street. There were colored lights and soft white lights and harsh LED lights. Their own living room still didn’t have a tree. Maybe her parents had forgotten, or maybe they had remembered but it had seemed too festive, too celebratory, given the circumstances. Either way, Eva didn’t mind.

She had a book in her lap, but it had been open to the same page for a while. The sky got dark while she sat like that, not bothering to turn on a lamp. It was better to look through other people’s windows if they couldn’t look through yours.

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A woman appeared in the apartment across the street, checking the laundry for dampness. She gathered everything but a pair of pants into her arms. Her mouth was moving. Was she talking to someone in the next room? Was she talking to herself ? For several seconds, she stood motionless in the center of the carpet. She might have been waiting for something, or she might have forgotten what she was doing there.

When Eva’s parents came home that night, they explained that Adele had waited until she was all alone to die. Eva’s mom had been arguing with the doctors in the hallway; her dad had been buying coffee in the cafeteria. When he walked into Adele’s room, blowing into the hole of a paper cup, his tongue burnt, she was already dead. He put the coffee down without spilling. His hands were warm and hers were going cold.

Eva’s parents didn’t cry, so Eva didn’t either, but they were all very solemn. Adele had cried often, without explanation or embarrassment, and Eva wondered if their composure was a kind of betrayal. The last time she had seen her grandmother, Eva had been sitting in a plastic chair among all the machines that distilled Adele’s body into numbers: heart rate, blood pressure, temperature. The numbers were green or yellow or red. Green was good and red was bad. Yellow was not so good, but by then yellow was normal. Her grandmother said her name.


She would have reached out to hold Adele’s hand, but she was worried about messing up all the tubes. The old woman’s eyes were two wet stones in her face. They looked off into space, or at something Eva couldn’t see.

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“If you know you’re going to fall,” she said, “jump.”


From Ask Me Again: A Novel © 2024 by Clare Sestanovich. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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