The Distance from A to Z - Natalie Blitt


IT STARTS WHEN JED MAKES the final turn off I-495. My legs shake, my stomach turns, and there doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the minivan. No, scratch that. There’s clearly not enough oxygen. It’s probably because the stupid minivan is so damn old.

“Stop.” Jed’s eyes don’t leave the road.

My whole body is bouncing, just tiny movements but enough that I debate telling Jed to pull over. Just a bit of air. That’s all I need. Fresh air to replace the recycled air I’ve been breathing for the last three days.

“Do you want me to pull over?”


“Are you going to be sick?”

“No,” I croak.

My brother turns briefly to check my face, but I know his tricks so I copy his movement, rotating to look out the window. If his eyes meet mine, he’ll know how terrified I am.

He could always tell. Back when he’d coach my little league team, I’d be up on the mound, breathing unevenly, trying to silently talk myself into not freaking out. Perfect games don’t matter, he’d say, his knees bent so he could find my eyes under the brim of my baseball cap. He said once he could tell by the way my blinks slowed, like I was using the movement of my eyes to quiet my breathing. It’s a good thing you don’t play poker, he’d laugh. Your anxiety is written all over your face.

I know right now he’s concerned. I know he’s just trying to help. But if we can just get to Merritt, get me on campus, I’ll be able to breathe. It’s hard to believe I’m almost there. Finally.

We’re stopped at a red light and he turns to look at me head on. “Abby, you’ll be great. You’ll learn all the things you want to learn and totally geek out on . . .” He pauses for effect and bites the corner of his lip. “Italian?”

I roll my eyes.

“Stop playing with her, Jed.” Simon speaks up from the backseat, a yawn distorting his words. “You know how irritated she gets. It’s Mandarin she wants to learn.”

And then they’re both laughing. Jed who’s twenty-eight and Si who’s twenty-five, guffawing like a couple of cartoon characters.

I know they’re teasing. But still, my anxiety has now been replaced by a singular thought. My need to get to Merritt, New Hampshire, to Huntington University, is all I focus on for the next hour. At Huntington, I’ll spend the next eight weeks geeking out in French, proving my fluency, and securing my exit route in the process: my ticket to France.

Exit ticket, I remind myself over and over again. Billet de sortie.

There’s silence in the car when we pull up to the Ballentine dorm, my new home away from home.

A sense of calm finally takes over.

“Cubs win?” Si asks, slipping on his ball cap and rolling his head to get rid of the kinks. He slides his white sneakers on, easy to do with the laces always open, and unclicks his belt.

I count to ten. In French. And then to twenty. And then from there I skip by tens to trente, quarante, cinquante, and then I slow down again for the bizarre ones. Like seventy, which doesn’t have its own unique number; instead it’s just referred to as soixante-dix, as though counting went from sixty-nine to sixty-ten to sixty-eleven. And then up to eighty, which is quatre-vingt, four twenties, and then four-twenty-one and then—

“She’s an expert at tuning you out.” Jed’s voice interrupts my review session just as I’m about to get to quatre-vingt-dix-sept, or four-twenty-ten-seven, also known as ninety-seven.

“Maybe I should just turn on another baseball game.” Si shrugs, but I turn and give him the evil eye because I’ve lost count and suddenly I can’t remember the larger numbers. Cent is one hundred, but what about a thousand? There’s million and mille and milliard and I can’t for the life of me remember which order they go in.

Because once again we’re talking about baseball.

That’s why I needed to get out of Chicago. That’s why I couldn’t just study French at Northwestern or at the Alliance Française.

Because all my family talks about is baseball. Baseball and whether the Cubs have a chance at the World Series this year. Or really, how they don’t. But how if they just . . .

I’m in a family made up entirely of armchair quarterbacks.

It makes my blood boil. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t be held responsible for my actions.

It’s a problem because, as my grandmother used to