I glance at the clock. It’s twelve-fifteen. As usual, she’s right on time with my lunch. “Come in,” I say, getting to my feet, reaching for the crutches.
Stacey comes in, carrying a stack of magazines and videos. They have become her peace offerings, these things she collects for me, her way of saying she doesn’t think I’m crazy, even though I’m sure she does. “These are the newest Sunset magazines—two have articles on rainforest getaways—four local Sunday newspapers, and two movies shot up there. Harry and the Hendersons, about a Sasquatch, and Double Jeopardy.”
We both know how much it means to me, these pointless, silly gifts; we also know it won’t do any good. I’m not going to suddenly “see” where I’ve imagined. The walls of my downstairs are now entirely covered with maps and photographs. None of the butter yellow walls beneath can be seen.
I take the pile of things from Stacey, knowing I will watch or read each item carefully. Knowing, too, that all I’ll find are images that strike a chord but create no real memory.
While Stacey puts things away in the kitchen, I go into my living room and sit down on the sofa. In the new Sunset magazine, I see a photograph of the Hoh rainforest that makes me feel homesick for a place that doesn’t exist.
I look up to see Stacey holding a tray of croissant sandwiches. It isn’t until I see the look on her face that I realize I’m crying.
“Maybe I shouldn’t bring you this stuff.”
“I need them,” I hear the panicked edge in my voice.
So does she. She sets the tray down on the coffee table. “You have to come into the real world.” Her voice is tentative; I know she’s wanted to say this for a long time, but has been afraid. We are not yet the sisters we once were, who could say anything to each other. She plucks up a sandwich, sets it on a napkin and sits across from me.
“The real world,” I say softly, putting the magazine aside. Getting up, I make my awkward way to the window. There I stand on my good leg, staring out at the houses across the street. Now, in the winter, the lawns are dead and brown, as are the trees. There hasn’t been a leaf on the road for months. Everything on the block is gray or brown, it seems, and the pale sunlight only manages to dull it all. “Last night I dreamt I was stuck right here,” I say, without turning to look at Stacey. “Watching life pass me by. In my dream, I could see your house. Your lights were always on; there were kids in your yard. One of them was a quiet, watchful girl who always waited her turn. You named her Joy. And here I was, stuck. Wrinkling like a dying grape, going gray, wanting.” I take a deep breath and turn around to face her. There’s something I need to tell her; something I probably should have admitted before. “You weren’t the only reason I got on that plane. Most of it, maybe, but not all. I was so tired of who I’d become.”
Stacey doesn’t respond to that. I’m not surprised. She doesn’t know what to say, and she doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. Our relationship is fragile; we both handle it like hot glass.
“You can’t understand,” I finally say. How could she? My sister never let anything pass her by. She’s never been a spectator.
“Are you kidding?” She stares at me as if I am a science exhibit under glass. “You think I don’t know about wanting more?”
“You were a cheerleader, for gosh sake, and homecoming queen. And now you’re pregnant and in love.”
“Sixteen years ago I was a cheerleader, Joy. When you went off to college, I stayed in Bakersfield and worked dead-end jobs.”
“But you met Chris . . .”
“And he didn’t just break my heart, he shattered it, remember?” She sighs. “I used to watch your life and feel like such a failure. You came home from college in love with Thom and had the perfect wedding and then got the great job at the high school. You succeeded at everything you tried. I hated always being in your shadow.”
I frown. “Is that why you moved away?”
“I thought a big city would help, but in Sacramento I felt even more lost. It was too busy for me. So I came back here and used my divorce settlement to buy a house, but I still couldn’t manage to get a decent job. It’s tough when you’re twenty-eight years old with no husband and no education—especially when your sister seems to have it all.”
“You should have come to me.”
I want to tell her it’s not true, but we’re well past the lying-to-each-other stage. The last year has given us that, at least. I glance out the window; anything is better than looking at her. “I know you did, but I was barely hanging on. Thom and I were fighting like crazy.”
“I know,” she says softly. “I came over one day to talk to you, and found him at home.”
So that’s how it had begun. I’d wanted to know, though I never would have asked. Now that she’s planted the words, I see them grow: how they were friends first, my sister and my husband, commiserating about their disappointed lives, then commiserating about me, then finding solace in each other.
“It took him a long time to tell me how unhappy he was, but once he did . . .”
I hold up my hand. “I get it.”
“So, I know about being lost, Joy,” she says instead. “Can you imagine how it feels to hurt the one person you love most in the world? To break your sister’s heart and know you can never apologize enough?”
This time when I look at my sister I see a woman I’ve never met, one who’s been through hard times—is still going through them, perhaps—and lives with the pain of her own bad choices. She knows about fading; maybe every woman of a certain age does, especially in quiet towns like this one where the sun can be so hot.
Not like the rainforest.
There, in that moist green and blue world, there is no drying up of a woman’s spirit.
I push that thought away. No good can come of it. I turn back to Stacey. This is what matters. Us. Whatever is unreal about who I met or where I’ve been, it’s all led me back to this moment with my sister. The beginning. “So,” I say softly, “how’s the pregnancy going?”
I hear her surprise; she takes a thin breath and battles a sudden smile. I can’t help wondering how long she’s been waiting for me to ask. “Good. The doctors say everything is normal.”
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“They think it’s a girl.”
A niece to shop for; dress up like a little doll . . . love. “Mom would have gone nuts.”
“We thought we’d name her Elizabeth Sharon.”
That hits me hard. “Yeah. She’d like that.”
We fall silent again. I want to say more, make a sweet, innocuous comment about the baby, but I’ve lost my voice. Selfishly, I am caught in my own sense of loss; I take a deep breath and try to let it go, but it’s difficult. I keep remembering my dream, where I was frozen in this spot, the aging aunt, watching life pass her by.
“You’re losing it, aren’t you?” Stacey says after the pause.
I look at her, wondering if that’s accurate. Can you lose something you never really had? “I’m scared, Stace. It’s like . . . I don’t know what to hang on to. I feel like I’m going crazy.”
She stares at me, frowning. Just when I expect an answer, she leaves the room. I hear her making a phone call in the kitchen. Then she returns and says, “Come on. I’m taking you somewhere.”
“What do you care? It’s out of this house. Get your purse.”
To be honest, I’m thankful for the distraction. I follow her out to the minivan.
Fifteen minutes later, we pull up to our destination.
The high school is bathed in lemony sunlight. Bright purple crocuses cover the dry brown ground around the flagpole, reminding me that spring is on its way.
“Are you okay?”
It is a question I’ve come to hate. To answer it requires either a lie or a truth that no one—me included—wants to hear.
“Why are we here?”
“Because it’s where you belong.”
Stacey says something I can’t quite hear, then gets out of the van and slams the door.
I get out of the minivan and stand on the sidewalk, leaning heavily on my crutches. Gripping their padded handles, I step-swing-step-swing down the wide cement courtyard toward the administrative building.
The Quad is surprisingly quiet today, no kids skipping classes to play hacky sack in the sunshine or looking for a place to kiss or smoke.
Stacey runs ahead to the building and opens the door for me. Familiar flyers—they’re the same ones year after year—clutter the bulletin boards in the hallway. They’re looking for student leaders, and singers for this year’s spring musical, and volunteers willing to decorate for the upcoming dance.
As I approach the main entrance, the bell rings. Within seconds, the Quad is crowded with kids laughing and talking.
When they see me, a roar of recognition goes up. Suddenly I’m Mick Jagger on stage. A star. Everyone talks to me at once, crowding in close.
Stacey squeezes my arm. “This,” she whispers in my ear, “is your real life.”
It takes us the entire ten minutes of the class break to work our way through the crowd and to the main office, where we’re overwhelmed again. Finally, when I’ve hugged at least one hundred people and been welcomed back by even more, we make our way down the hall to the library.
I’m struggling with my crutches at the turnstile, when I hear Rayla’s throaty laughter and scratchy, I-used-to-be-a-Camel-unfiltered-smoker’s voice. “Well, it’s about darn time.”
I push through the shiny metal barrier and find her standing at the checkout desk, with a skyscraper of books beside her elbow. “This is a big job for one woman,” she says with a toothy grin.
I laugh at that. We both know that either of us could easily do it alone. It is a secret we keep from the administration. “Now, Rayla, you know you love bossing the kids around when I’m gone.”
She comes around the desk, her skirt flowing, her silver bracelets tinkling, and enfolds me in a fierce hug that smells of hairspray and Tabu perfume. “We missed you, kiddo,” she says.
I draw back, look down at her. “I’ve missed you, too.” And it’s true.
For the next half hour, we walk around the library, talking about ordinary things—budget cuts, contract negotiations, recent acquisitions, and Rayla’s upcoming spring break trip to Reno.
“So,” she says at last. “When can we expect you back?”
It is the question I’ve been dreading. Back. By definition, it’s a return to what was.
I take a deep breath, knowing there is only one acceptable answer, only one sane one.
Stacey is watching me closely. So is Rayla. They both know. Not everything, perhaps, not all the reasons for my disquiet and my disappointment, but enough.
“Soon,” I say, trying to smile.