When I win a coveted spot on a spring break study abroad trip to London, I promise myself, this time it will be different. I’ll leave my schedule open, be available for opportunities. I won’t immediately run off by myself and do my own thing. The first few days, I doggedly stick with the plan. Every morning at breakfast, I let my fellow classmates know that I’m up for anything: museums, galleries, musicals. Let’s do this. I walk up to groups of people and offer to join in on making plans for the day. When I make plans to visit Paris and some of London’s outlying towns, I reach out to others who have mentioned going, and ask them to come with me, but I get no takers. After enough blank looks and hesitant “Um…sure”s, I retreat. Perhaps it’s the age difference–after all, most of these people are barely twenty–but I’m not clicking with anyone on this trip. Even my roommate seems slightly terrified of having to share a bathroom with me. On the bright side, that means I can feel free to do what I want, when I want. Hanging out with only my inner monologue and a journal for company may not be the healthiest option, socially speaking, but it’s the devil I know.
Start – ride to KCI with Cameron, his wife, and A—–. Cameron’s wife has never driven K-10 before. Or much of anywhere, really. She’s on a student visa from China. I grip the armrest as casually as I possibly can, and try to appear nonchalant as she weaves from lane to lane, discovering new blind spots, encouraging vehicles to pass her on the right, and simultaneously arguing with her husband about how she’ll find her way back home. The sky threatens snow. Once she pulls up in the drop-off lane, A—– and I scurry out of the car so they can say goodbye.
Once inside the airport, we wait just outside the security checkpoint until the last minute, as food prices will soar and available bathrooms disappear once we hand our ticket and ID to the first TSA screener. One of the London Review guys starts teaching a few of the girls how to play poker while we wait for the stragglers. It’s rainy in Chicago when we land, and we have nowhere to be thanks to an unexpected four-hour layover. While a few of the students resume their game of high-stakes poker and trade Snapchat handles, four of us scout for a decent restaurant and wi-fi and report back within a few minutes. Guacamole and chips duly inhaled. Mango-lime juice “corrected” with tequila behind a row of potted palms. What. Every door handle smells like someone smeared poop on it. I wash my hands every few minutes, and consider investing in a package of aloe-infused toddler bum-wipes. My hands are practically cracking apart, they’re so dry. After hunting through every available kiosk, I pay too much for a small bottle of lotion. Sated, inebriated, and moisturized, I sit down to read Oscar Wilde on my fancy new space-phone. However, the low-battery icon flashes immediately. I scour the lounge baseboards, hunting desperately for an electrical outlet at the airport, but every one of them seems to have been ripped out for scrap copper – I finally ask at the information desk and the attendant points right behind me to a bank of chairs with a power station at the end of each armrest. Trying to stay in the moment, reflect on the trip so far. For once, I didn’t get pulled aside for an extra pat down during my screening. I have finally learned how to take off my belt and put my laptop in its own bin, and it only took me a decade. I count my blessings.
Just in time for my phone to be fully charged and powered down, we finally board. I have an aisle seat, and the man sitting beside me doesn’t want to talk. More unexpected blessings. I’m used to Southwest Airline’s idea of plane food, so I’ve smuggled a half-pound bag of roasted almonds in my purse. United Airlines has a different idea of what constitutes lunch. I nearly weep over the freshly-warmed butterscotch brownie. I’m ruined. I read a horror story about a woman my age dying on an overnight trip because she mixed alcohol and Valium, so I wait an extra two hours to let the tequila burn off before I slam a Klonopin and pray for sleep. No dice. My nervous metabolism treats the pill like so much hairspray before the lighter, burning through it so quickly that my eyes barely go swimmy before they pop back open, riveted to the seatback video screen as a small plane millimeters its way across a wide blue swath. I didn’t turn on the screen. Who turned on the screen? I turn to my seatmate, but he’s lightly snoring, having fully wrapped his complimentary blanket around his head.For a brief moment, I wonder what the screen shows when the plane’s in free-fall.
Once a green fingertip of land appears on the right side of the video screen, I start to doze. By my body-clock, it’s nearing midnight, but the lights flick back on as a pleasant British voice informs me that the local time is 4:55 a.m. Rise and shine, biscuit. My eyes burn from sleep deprivation as I plod my way through a fruit cup and jam croissant, while the flight attendants run one last trolley service before landing. Bleary-eyed, we shuffle off the plane and navigate Heathrow’s maze until we reach a coffee shop, where we wait for the hotel’s shuttle. I’m dying of thirst. I borrow some money from one of my classmates and buy a bottle of water, counting out the foreign coins as carefully as any proud kindergartner. I keep refilling my bottle from the bathroom tap, hoping nobody pays attention. Several of my classmates decide to power through and pretend we didn’t just lose twelve hours, somehow. One of the girls pops her morning meds.
“What are you taking?”
She doesn’t hesitate. “Ecstasy. No, I didn’t bring enough to share. Actually, yes I did. But I took it all on the plane. Nine-day rave.”
“That’s a lot of glow-sticks.”
The shuttle pulls up and we pile on, groggily staring out the window as the driver ushers us through London traffic. Rain streaks the windows, bringing the outside world into soft focus. I want to take pictures of everything, because it all looks different. We barrel down the wrong side of the road and every right turn into oncoming traffic leaves my heart in my throat. I can’t handle this. I make up my mind, then and there, to only walk or take the subway. We wind our way through ever-narrowing streets, until we pull up alongside a stately-looking block of incredibly old buildings. We’re in Kensington, and this building belongs to the Queen of England’s grandfather. One of these royal rooms will be mine for the next nine days. I walk up a short flight of stairs and into the foyer, where I’m greeted by a large picture of the Earl of Strathmore, resplendent in his frills and nipples and six-pack-what-the-hell. How old is this picture? This changes everything.
Mary, our professor/mentor/handler, herds us into the hotel lobby. Some of the students promptly fall asleep on the scattered sofas. I snag a seat by the window, but I can’t help staring in amazement at the grillwork pattern of the radiator cover. I know it’s only fascinating because I’m exhausted and slightly dehydrated. Mary convinces the concierge to let us eat breakfast for free, though technically we won’t be checked in until this afternoon. Last order of business is to assign ourselves rooms. It dawns on me that I haven’t met one person in this class so far who seems like a ready-made partner in crime. Several of the girls already know each other from sororities and squeal out their preferred groupings ahead of anyone else, leaving the rest of us oddballs and the guys. A—– and I end up sharing a room, more from a lack of options than any particular desire. We store our luggage in the adjoining library, stacking duffels and suitcases anywhere they’ll fit, trying not to bump into the furniture that looks ancient and expensive to replace. Before we troop down the hall toward the dining room, I make a mental note to come back later and ransack Mr. Nipples Akimbo’s shelves for reading material. God only knows what I might find, judging from his avant-garde attire.
We’re on our own until check-in, so everyone scatters. I decide to get my bearings and walk around the neighborhood while everyone else decides to go find pubs or go shopping. I decide the only proper way to go about this is to pretend I’ve gone into hiding, so I stop by the post office for a street map and withdraw cash from the ATM. One of my favorite things to do in Lawrence is walk down alleys, and London has its own version, called Mews. I worry about trespassing but keep seeing signs for public right-of-ways through housing blocks. Emboldened, I wander through gates and squares until I’ve worn out my camera batteries and developed a pressing need for the bathroom. I walk to the last gate to let myself out–and it’s locked. I check around, maybe there’s a different latch to get out. Nope. I check every other gate in the housing block to no avail. Great, now I have to panic-pee. I consider scaling the six-foot-high fence, but it’s expressly built for keeping Out and In things permanently separated. While deliberating on how quickly I can yank my pants up before I’m arrested for public indecency in the Queen’s cousin’s back garden, and what kind of a lecture I’ll get from Mary, I see a trim-looking gent walking his dog. I swallow my pride and paste an appropriately sheepish look on my face. I got turned around trying to find Gloucester Road, I explain, and I’m certainly not about to wet my pants or do something terrible to his azaleas. Looking slightly put out, he opens the gate for the big-eyed, bumbling, American girl and lets me out. I thank him profusely and scoot back to the hotel, where I get turned around in the downstairs maze of corridors and can’t find the public ladies’ room, only the mens’. To hell with what’s left of my pride–I’ll play so dumb it’ll make their head spin. I bolt the stall door and pray nobody walks in to use the urinal. No male would mistake the green-painted toes encased in dainty ballet flats for a guy’s, not even in this part of town.
After my daring escape from the mens’ room, I study the street map and discover a couple of museums within walking distance. After wandering through the Victoria & Albert art museum and the British Science museum (worse than Union Station on a rainy Saturday afternoon), I try my luck at the Tube. I have an unlimited Oyster pass and enough experience with Chicago’s El to feel like I have the general gist of things, and I want to see part of the Roman wall from when London was called Londinium. According to my Tube map, Tower Hill is a straight shot east from Gloucester Road. I listen carefully to the announcements, watching the display for arrival times. I get on the train–and hop off at the next stop. Somehow I got turned around. I race up the stairs and over to the eastbound platform. I breathe a sigh of relief as a crisp British voice announces, “Tower Hill.”
After seeing the ancient Londinium wall, the gilded Tower Bridge, and giving directions to and taking pictures for German and Japanese tourists, I take the Tube back to Gloucester Road, feeling much more intelligent than earlier in the day. As the train rollicks along, angling through corners, I reflect on how far removed I am from the last time I traveled extensively. At age seventeen, I ran away from home and hitchhiked all over America. Telling my story usually makes people see me as some sort of intrepid daredevil. They don’t know, and I don’t tell them, that my experience was more frightening than adventurous, that I cowered under the fists of a drunken asshat until fear for my newborn’s life gave me the courage to put an end to the miserable nonsense. Ever since, I’ve wanted to travel somewhere at least once and do things my way. No one else’s schedule to follow, just doing what I want, when I want.
Some of my most treasured times from the Great North American Tour were moments spent alone–wandering, people-watching, scribbling in my journal for companionship or a second opinion, reading cross-legged on the floors of second-hand bookstores. At first, I was a little miffed that nobody jumped out as a likely comrade on this class trip. Now that I’ve had to time to consider, I see the advantage to this situation. I sketch out the rest of my week. Nobody else managed to sign up in time for the rail trip to Paris or to Bath, so I’ll be doing those on my own, as well. Fine, I think. Exiting the station, I run into a group of girls getting ready to meet up at a pub they passed on the way. When asked about my day, I reply that I got a “little turned around but that everything worked itself out.” We get drinks at the Bunch of Grapes pub: a Fuller’s ESB for me, a Guinness for each of them. On this side of the ocean, they’re legal-age and pretty jazzed about it. A small part of me envies their chance to have this experience while young and in college, without bills and family needs pressing on them. Then I let it go. Goddamn it, I think, I’ve earned this trip. I’ll probably get more out of this than they will.
When we collapse in bed later that evening, I have a chance to chat with my roomie, a twenty-year-old Chinese student from Malaysia. She had to have Mary run interference because her parents wouldn’t stop calling and texting her on this trip. We compare lives and find a few similarities: intelligence, parents who like to hit, but the similarities end there. We start playing the game of Who Had It Worse, trading stories of injustice, missed opportunities, aborted dreams. She’s treated like a second-class citizen in Malaysia because she’s ethnically Chinese, and couldn’t get a scholarship for school there, though KU saw her test scores and gave her a full ride. In a few weeks, she’ll be twenty-one. A few weeks after that, she’ll graduate and start on a Master’s. She doesn’t know anyone else on this trip, but that’s okay. She has places she wants to see, places her parents wouldn’t let her go if they knew. She’s afraid to go by herself. She doesn’t like London. It’s too noisy and seems dangerous. I tell her that’s exactly what I’m doing, going everywhere by myself. She’ll be fine. She excuses herself to the bathroom and throws up quietly, with only a little splash, a practiced bulimic.
I’m worried about my roommate’s tendency to throw up dessert, and I discuss my fears with Mary. I don’t want to acknowledge the bulimia because my roomie will just stress out and it’ll become the weird thing we don’t talk about. She’ll stop eating around me. I know this from dealing with my sister. But I’ll be damned if I get stuck with a room bill for a clogged toilet or a roomie who passes out from straining and hits her head on the tub. Mary assures me she’s dealt with this before. Most overachieving college girls use it to deal with life. Just let her be, she says, and say something if you see any really dangerous behavior. Am I a horrible person for being more annoyed than genuinely concerned? No, there’s no need for me to babysit. At least she’s not a cutter. I walk back upstairs and decide to read in bed. The roomie’s a little horrified by my undressing without locking myself in the closet of a bathroom. If she’s going to barf after every meal, I decide, then she can handle me sitting around in my underwear like I don’t give a fuck. Maybe my stretch marks will help her chuck up that last bit of cake.
Without even meaning to, I develop a reputation as one of Mary’s “independent women.” Me, A—–, and another girl consistently go off on our own adventures, but not together. Not so much by choice, I think. I’ve picked up on the fact that we’re all loners by necessity. I’m pretty sure the third girl is gay, but she’s not talking about it. Despite all of us being in the same class, we three are worlds apart. Me being a good fifteen years older and all of us having disparate interests isn’t helping things. I travel to Paris by myself, visiting museums, buying candy and eating it all on the train home, getting lost on the way back to Gare du Nord and being saved by an adorable French guy whose name I never catch. I take pictures, but all of my Paris memories are mine alone.
For a little while, I pretend my friend Leota can see what’s going on. Part of the reason I wanted to come to Europe was to live a little for the both of us. She ran away with me, but I sent her back home after a few weeks, when things got scary. I never saw her face again, and now she’s in a grave in our hometown. So Leota travels on my shoulder as I walk the streets of Paris and London and Bath. We eavesdrop and people-watch, and I carry on an inner dialogue with her ghost. See all the shit you’re missing, sweetheart, I murmur as I lean against the Pont Saint-Michel and watch a tour boat motor past. I pick out the specter of the Eiffel Tower through the river fog. I’m starting to miss people again. I wish my husband was here, seeing all the crazy stacked buildings, the model-pretty counter girls in the butcher shops, the Latin Quarter booksellers. A ghost isn’t enough.
By Saturday morning, I’m in a real snit. We’re all supposed to go shopping on Portobello Road, but I’m all out of give-a-fuck. Ann saves the day. She’s roughly my age or a few years younger. I took her Brit Lit class last semester and she encouraged me to apply for the London Review. Earlier in the week, we’d visited the Museum of London and afterwards, she and I had afternoon tea in the crypt of St. Paul’s cathedral. We’d spent some time in Oxford, but both of us were worried we’d hold the other back, so we didn’t hang out for long. It’s been cold and drizzly all week, and after a while we scramble for a dry seat in a tea shop. We chat for an hour or so, and I start to feel normal again. We join up again later in the day, while Ann practices giving a Shakespeare tour, and I finally feel human enough to joke around with the other students and smile for pictures.
By the end of the trip, I’m an old hand at navigating London. I patiently give directions to other visitors and feel a quiet sense of belonging as I jostle along on the Tube. Saturday night, after the last group meal, I ride the District line back to the hotel by myself. The car I choose happens to have nobody else on it. All week, the cars have been jam-packed with people, and this of all nights. I take a picture of the empty car. It captures something I can’t explain in words. I’m alone, but I’m neither scared nor lonely. This can be home, too.
All week, A—– and I have made stern promises that we’ll go to bed early, but we stay up late every night, just talking. Everyone else is eager to enjoy London nightlife, but the novelty wore off long ago for me, and A—– doesn’t feel comfortable around people getting drunk. She tells me things I don’t think she’s ever shared with anyone. By the last night, after packing everything but what we’re wearing in the morning, she looks around the room and declares an intent to move to London someday. She’s not so scared of the city, of being by herself, of her disapproving parents. Maybe London could be her home. She’ll clam up again once we touch down in the States, but for now she’s unguardedly optimistic. Myself, I’m starting to realize that going it alone is fun, but only in measured doses. I’m already planning to bring Nick over here. It’s a start.
The autumn sun warmed the shop windows. She waited patient and quiet as the farmer in front of her dug through his pockets for folding money to pay for his latte. She looked around for a place to sit with her books and saw the young man. He sat hunched in a chair behind her and made faces over the textbook in front of him. She leaned in while keeping one foot in line.
Hey. Hey. I know you. You’re the guy from upstairs.
Yeah. I didnt know you were taking classes too.
The farmer continued to make small talk at the counter. She placed her order and turned back to the young man.
I like coming here. It’s quieter than downtown. I come here to get away from everyone.
Yeah. Me too.
Okay. I’m going to sit over there. I just wanted to say hi.
Have fun studying.
Actually I do.
So do I.
And she walked to the opposite corner and he returned to making faces at his textbook and each understood the joy of being alone together.
The weak winter sun had disappeared behind clouds. The bare maples whipped and beat at the snowflakes falling. She hurried through the lobby and ran to catch the elevator door before it closed. He reached out from inside and triggered the sensor. The elevator door shook indignant at the interruption of its duty. She laughed and thanked him and they both looked at opposite corners while the elevator trundled upward. She spoke first and directly to the floor.
You going to the thing tonight?
I’ll save you a spot. You bringing anyone?
I dont think so. Are you?
Good. I mean I’ll see you.
Alright. I’ll see you later.
She stepped out of the elevator and remained quiet but parsed inward every conversation prior for the rest of the day.
The sun moved between clouds and peeked out every so often. They sat side by side on the fescue and he picked at the brown edges while she took the Guinness brownie from the pocket of her hooded pullover and split it exactly down the middle. She handed him one of the halves.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Does your boss know you’re out here?
No. I didnt have anything to do today anyway. I cant believe these have beer in them.
It’s stout. You look sad. Is she still giving you trouble?
Yeah. She keeps calling.
You keep answering. You’re a stormchaser. You complain about these messes and then you chase after them and let them complicate your life. You need to get away from this. She wont take no for an answer. Change your number.
You need to.
It’s just complicated.
What’s complicated about it. You broke up a year ago. She cant move on. That’s not your problem.
I wish it was that easy.
You’re leaving in August. She’ll have to move on.
They sat quiet again.
Do I complicate your life like that? She appeared to ask the brownie.
No. He continued to pick at the fescue. I complicate my own life.
Let me know if I start to.
No. That’s actually it. I don’t have many uncomplicated friendships with girls. I like ours.
What am I going to do when you’re not around to sneak away with me?
I was just fine with leaving until I met you.
She turned away and beamed and then frowned at the fescue and he stared at her crossed legs and then at the back of her as she got up and walked away and then at the door after she’d gone through it and into the building.
They rode back from the show in comfortable silence and she watched out the passenger window as the May dusk blurred into night. He pulled the sedan up next to her truck and watched her fish keys out of her bag. They both got out and stood on the sidewalk. Sodium arc lights cast long shadows across his face. She reached up and rubbed the stubble on his jaw until he batted her hand away.
Okay. You like doing that?
Scratchy face. Okay. I have to get home. Did you like the show?
Yeah. Are they doing one next month?
Yeah. It’s June sixth. Give me a hug goodnight. I’ll see you tomorrow.
They hugged and he held her tight and then tighter. He leaned in and kissed her and complicated the friendship. They stood quiet for a minute. She reached up and rubbed the stubble on his jaw and this time he let her. She took her hand away and got in her truck and started the engine while she watched him walk up the stairs to his apartment door. She waited until he opened the door and then he waited until she pulled out of the parking lot and drove home.
The following day she paced back and forth in the office. She made a decision. She cornered him in the connecting skywalk where they each had discovered the other would go to be alone.
Did that happen?
He laughed. Maybe. You dont remember? It must not have been any good if you dont remember.
No. I dont trust my memory all the time.
Well maybe it didnt then.
It did. I was there. I dont know what to do about it.
You dont have to do anything. It’s whatever you want it to be.
You’re leaving in August.
I know. I know. I dont know.
It’s the right thing to do. You know that. If you stay here you’ll be miserable. You need to get away from her and your family and figure out who you are somewhere else. The person you are up there will be the person you really are. You know that. You’re like me.
You need to be somewhere green and quiet so you can get your head right. You need to find a place that’s not-here. This place was the not-here for me but you have to find your own.
I have to get back to work. What am I going to do when you’re not here to talk to every day?
He reached out and grabbed her hand. They hugged for a long time and then each went their separate way back to their work.
They sat crosslegged on the floor in front of his couch in his apartment among all of the halfpacked boxes of books. He sniffed each book before assigning it to a pile of what to keep and what to leave behind. Two tumblers of whiskey balanced on the carpet before them. She broke the quiet.
Even though you’re leaving I’m glad we became friends.
We didnt ruin it with sex.
No. That wouldnt be good.
You got something on your mind.
I want us to be uncomplicated again.
She sucked in her breath. Traced the rim of the whiskey glass. Spoke slowly and evenly.
Why did you start it?
I dont know.
I changed my mind. You’re not the stormchaser. You’re the storm.
I should’ve never said Hi that day. I wish I hadnt.
No. Dont say that.
I’m sorry. It’s all mixed up. I feel everything at once right now. It’s loud.
She tugged at his shirt and he fell over and onto and into her outstretched arms and lay his head on her stomach. He listened to her heartbeat and spoke muffled words into the fabric of her shirt.
What did you say?
You’re so kind.
Yes. You’re kind to me. You’re so warm and kind. I dont know. What am I doing? He moved to sit up.
Dont get up. Just stay here. Please. This is all we get. You know it’ll be different even if you come back to visit. This is what we get right now.
And they lay still there for a little while and then she sat up and grabbed her bag and keys and did the leaving. He listened to the truck’s motor fade into the night sounds. He stared at the piles of books and poured the rest of her whiskey into his glass.
They had agreed to have one last drink at the cafe. He set down his glass and then tilted it back and then placed it carefully on the bar again in a studied manner.
Alright. I need to get going. I’m staying at my parents’ house tonight and it’s a long drive back.
Cool. It’ll be fine. You’re going to love Seattle.
And then he stood up to leave and then her face crumpled and she buried her sobs in his shirt. He hugged her tight and then tighter. She whispered muffled words into the fabric of his shirt: You are loved.
She sobbed and soaked his shirt pocket and he held her. He stepped back and released her. He held her at arms length and studied her face. Memorizing. She studied his jawline and couldnt meet his eyes.
No. I’m happy. This is good. We’re friends. You’ll call me.
I’ll call when I’m on the road tomorrow.
I’ll be back to visit.
Not if you’re smart.
I’ll be back in December. It’ll be no time. We can hang out then. It’s not goodbye.
He squeezed her hands and let go and put his head down and walked out of the shop with determination. He felt the lie in his mouth. He felt everything at once. It was loud. He stopped on the sidewalk halfway down the block. He punched words into his phone and sent them and got into the sedan and drove away.
She waited until he passed by the window and then she sat back down and put her head in her arms. The barista swiped at the counter with a damp rag before he picked up the empty glass. Her phone buzzed. She read the message: You are loved. She read the message again and then deleted his number from her phone. She stared quiet at the dull gleam of rows of copper mugs hanging over the bar. She tested the word with her tongue: Goodbye.
The shrill ring interrupts my lazy Sunday afternoon. I almost let it go to voicemail, since the caller ID shows a hospital extension, and I don’t want another weekend Oncology shift. It’s the first glorious Sunday in May, I don’t want to give up what’s left of the day. But I’m a powerful self-guilt-tripper, so I pick up.
“Tanya?” A broken and small voice, but I recognize my sister, older than me by a decade.
“Yeah … ? Lisa?” She goes by LJ now, but I can’t bring myself to use a stranger’s name.
“She left meeee . . .” and the rest of the word becomes high-pitched keening. I hear another voice, a soothing Cambodian lilt, in the background, and someone takes the phone from my sister.
“Is this Tanya?” asks one of the hospital’s social workers. “This is H_____. I have your sister with me. She asked for you. She needs a family member. Would you be able to come to the hospital?” She explains a little over the phone. My sister’s girlfriend announced a renewed interest in men. Lisa waved a gun, threatened to shoot herself, peeled out of the driveway in her truck. The police pulled her over on the highway into town, confiscated the gun, and brought her to the ER for a psych eval. If I don’t come get her, she’ll be transferred to the state hospital. They don’t have room. They never have room. I hear my sister in the background, muffled choking sobs. The overwhelming dread, the inversion. Everything tilts for a second as the adrenaline kicks in. I have to be the adult. I can’t duck out of this.
“Yeah,” I sigh, and immediately berate myself for sounding so inconvenienced. I know this social worker from working at the hospital. She’s a saint. She doesn’t know how many times or ways my sister has attempted to die, plowing headlong into trees with her car, overdosing on the entire gamut of prescription medications. Silvery healed scar tissue works an intricate design over Lisa’s face and body, where ER doctors have stitched and glued her back together on countless occasions. “I actually live right across the street. I can walk over. Do I need to bring anything?”
It takes four minutes to walk from my back door to the ER’s main entrance. Once inside, I explain the situation and a nurse leads me back to one of the holding rooms for psychiatric cases. Not ten years ago, my sister worked as an intake nurse in this very department. Entering the small room, I still have trouble recognizing my sister right away: this grizzled, middle-aged woman with leathery, over-tanned skin, bleached hair buzz-cut into gelled spikes, men’s jean shorts, a racerback bra and a Big Dawg tank top, oversized Nikes. This outer persona goes by LJ, but it’s my sister Lisa who hunches over in a plastic chair so that her tears drip audibly onto the hospital linoleum during a brief moment of silence.
She’s created this heavy odor in the room, an upset-human smell you can almost taste. I recoil inwardly, slightly nauseated. I hate myself for this reaction, but she smells like our mother when she cries. Instead of feeling whatever one’s supposed to feel, and I know it’s not what’s racing through me at this moment, I have a momentary surge of anger. How can you continually fuck this up? I want to yell. You can’t even kill yourself right. I’m tired of this nonsense. I’m a monster for thinking this. I feel older than I want to be. I look at the social worker, who offers my sister a fresh ear to hear the story, new eyes to see the scars. I don’t want her to hear the wearied tone in my voice and think less of me.
I sit down beside Lisa and hug her close. Taller than me, outweighing me by 30 pounds, she nevertheless curves into my body, her tears and snot soaking my chest. As our brother jokes with regularity, and because he knows it chafes, I’m “the maternal one” in our family. He’s let all of his children be adopted by other men, his “summer kids” we call them — “some are” here, “some are” there — and my sister’s children have been in and out of her custody since they were toddlers. Myself, I’ve spent half my life as a warning to girls considering teenage motherhood, scraping by at low-paying jobs and working on a college degree that threatens to be merely symbolic by the time I finish. But I never gave my children away, chose a partner over them, or lost them to the state. This makes me, the baby of the family, positively matriarchal.
I never set out to be a mother, and whatever maternal drive I may have is more practical than precious, a learned behavior. Mine is a love that manifests — not in convulsive delight and curated baby books — but in changing diapers and nursing wounds. It does the right thing, what should have been done. I bend to her, hold her closer, grip tightly. She needs to feel secure. I’m not aware of the social worker’s words. She leaves us in the now-darkened room.
Another sunny spring day. I scream relentlessly from colic, a red-faced and genuinely unlikeable wad of infant distress, the result of an unplanned ten-month-long pregnancy that refuses to stop punishing my mother. Not quite 10 and 7, their skinny limbs encased in dirty shirts and cut-off shorts, my sister and brother bounce in and out of the trailer’s front door that stands open to the warm breeze. My mother puts me on her bed in the back bedroom, shuts the door, and returns to the front room where she sits in the recliner and continues her own crying. The next time my sister pops through the front door, our mother’s gone, the trailer too quiet.
Lisa runs barefoot down the short length of the trailer, long brown hair whipping behind, to see if our mother’s gone somewhere, perhaps out the back door, and left us alone again. The bedroom door’s still closed, but she can hear movement. She opens the door and switches on the light, startles our mother in the act of pulling a pillow back from my face. I’m finally quiet, but too still. My sister looks at our mother, trying to comprehend the scene. Eyes wide, our mother explains that she just now ran back to check on me and found me not breathing. I must have rolled under a pillow. It’s what happens to SIDS babies, she says, standing helpless and relieved. All Lisa can do is stare, but something about the tilt of her head pushes my mother into action. She pinches my nose shut and puffs air into my chest. Eventually I sputter back to life, and commence wailing.
Years later, our mother will confess to her psychiatrist what actually happened, but in the meantime my sister unofficially takes over my care. She’s already lost her older sister, and she won’t watch me die, too. She picks me up and takes me outside to where my brother is holding matchbox car races in the pinworm-infested dirt, and I become her full-time after-school-and-weekends job for the next three years. She will feed me, diaper me, potty-train me, teach me how to read, and stand between us children and our mother’s unpredictable rages and my father’s predatory impulses.
Of the three who survive, my sister is the only one of us children who still willingly speaks to our mother. I feel dismay when she relays these conversations, like she’s still trying to be picked first for a losing team. I drew a line around myself and my children long ago, tired of our mother’s hypochondria, the suicide attempts, the general hysteria. All of us fled to far corners of the continent before our 18th birthdays, eager to put the past in our rear-view mirrors. But Lisa can’t help glancing back. John also comes when he’s called, but he’s a doctor and feels obligated to fly in and review our mother’s charts whenever she’s hospitalized, even though she won’t even eat in the same room with him.
For a brief while, my sister and I become typical siblings and less mother and child. As I grow up and into a person worth having a conversation with, she mentors my cultural tastes. We live in foster care some of the time, but attend the same small schools, though grades apart, and love the same books, the dusty reads little-loved by other children in our factory town. I haunt the school libraries, looking for her signature of approval on the sparsely filled check-out cards. I feel so close to her in these moments, double-blessed if I see my brother’s name scrawled below hers.
After she elopes with a guy she’s known seven days, only to see him arrested and thrown in jail the night before her 19th birthday, Lisa moves back home while Brian serves out his sentence. The next summer, she delivers a little girl and I move into her and Brian’s one-bedroom apartment until school starts. I sleep next to Nikki’s crib in the living-room, bringing her to Lisa for nursing during the night, eventually fixing bottles and feeding her myself. I go headlong into the role of aunt, eager to prove my worth. I feel pangs of envy when our mother dotes on Nikki, but I almost understand. Unlike me, Nikki is beautiful, the spitting image of our oldest sister, Diana, the one who didn’t live. Nikki has a chance.
In early 1987, my father sells some of his Chrysler employee-shares and we move into a real house, complete with stairs and a basement. Lisa buys the fully furnished trailer from my dad for a song, and proceeds to toss everything harvest gold and pea soup green, appliances and carpet, ripping the walls down to studs. Two years later, she takes Nikki and runs away to California, to live with Lisa’s real father. They return to Brian after a few months, and a year later we welcome my nephew Zach.
Our parent’s religion orders us to shun her for running away, but I refuse. Lisa drops by the junior high and picks me up just before school ends. We sit in her third-hand Olds Cutlass, and I luxuriate in the heater’s roar against the cold vinyl seats, the heady scent of Lady Stetson, the whisper of exhaust leaking in through the rusty floor, the faint tell of old cigarettes blunted by the chill. We chat while she drives, until she lets me out a block before home. I’m the only person who talks to her for months, until finally she’s reinstated to the church.
During the time I have her to myself, we become real friends, instead of just sisters. I tell her about bullies, and she shows up to straighten them out. Even after she gets her old church friends back, I stay a part of her group. Whenever our mother is hospitalized for her latest suicide attempt, I head straight to Lisa’s trailer — the old family home now a whitewash of Mary Kay pink and dusty blue — carrying only my toothbrush, needing nothing else. Under the pretense of helping with the children, of course, but Lisa recently warned me about my father. With her help, I’ll never be alone in the house with him.
Lisa and I now wear the same size, and I love borrowing her things, using her shampoo, wearing her makeup. After I run away from home the first time, she miraculously convinces our mother to let me move into the trailer for good, babysitting my niece and nephew while I homeschool myself. Lisa’s husband has issues of his own, though, and I must move back to the house for my own safety. Lisa also moves out, and the kids end up in foster care. Oddly enough to me, it’s Brian who files for divorce and gets custody of the kids while Lisa must couch-surf. She stops by the house periodically, and I funnel groceries, toilet paper, and soap her way. She slowly shrinks before my eyes, now 104 pounds as she proudly tells me, lighter than myself. Every time I feed her, she excuses herself to the bathroom because the food never sits right. She develops a tic, a guttural hard swallow. She forgets her keys, and breaks through windows and doors with her fists to retrieve them. She punches through walls to finish arguments. One car accident after another, until her insurance drops her.
I’m not sure where she’s staying, the grey January afternoon she comes over to the house. Her wrinkled, shearling-lined denim coat smells like car exhaust, perfume, smoke. I invite her to stay and watch movies with me and my friend Erin, but Lisa says she can’t. “Well, alright. I gotta go. I love you, baby girl,” she says, squeezing me hard as we hug goodbye.
Erin notices the flashing lights first, as they sweep across the dining-room wall. I pause the movie and run to the window, open the drapes further to look out. An ambulance takes up most of the driveway, blocking my view. I run through the kitchen, out the back porch steps and onto the driveway while a firefighter breaks down the side garage door and another uses a prybar to yank open the front. Exhaust pours from the garage bay as the door raises up on the scene, and paramedics duck under to pull my sister from the car. I’m ordered to get back, and I scream as loud as I can, loud enough to hear nothing but a train’s roar in my own head. But Erin says later that I don’t make a sound, that I stand at the back porch storm-door and quietly watch the men work to restore Lisa’s heartbeat.
They put her on a stretcher and take her away in the ambulance. After a few days we visit Lisa in 4-East, the psychiatric ward at Swedish-American Hospital, a place I could draw a map of with eyes closed. I’m the one person in my family for two generations to only be a visitor. Across the table from me, Lisa sits, jittery, eyes bulging. We learn that a worried friend dialed 911 after Lisa called her to say goodbye. Perhaps the meds, or the oxygen deprivation, but she’s changed, like her own skin doesn’t fit right. Her long, permed hair suddenly brittle, the make-up harsh under these lights. But I’m her sister. Ignoring our mother’s berating voice, I reach across the table and take Lisa’s hand, grip tightly as I steady her for the both of us. I can be the strong one for a little while.
The sharp surprise of cilantro in a Mexican taco. Naturally red hair. The flash of a dimpled grin from a cute stranger. The smell of a bookstore. A sideways glance. The green-yellow opalescence of a summer thunderstorm. Spirea blooms. Thumb-sized bumblebees. A murmuration of swallows, riding the river thermals at dusk. Cornering a Tacoma hill and stumbling onto a view of the Puget Sound, framed by a riot of fuchsia rhododendrons and ferns the size of cars. The hushed, quiet glory of evergreen cathedrals in White Pines State Park. The jolting blue of an October sky. The opening bass riff of the Breeder’s “Cannonball” on the car radio on a summer morning. Singing along to Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero” as the watery winter-morning light snakes around passing buildings and beams periodically through the car windows.
Sitting around a campfire, drinking beer and poking sparks out of the embers. Watching the Red Green show on the couch, windows open to catch the summer breeze, while the rest of the world does a Saturday night properly. The peachy-pink of a spring sunrise. Lens flare. Walking through overgrown pioneer cemeteries. Watching a mountain thunderstorm roll out, only to be replaced by a rainbow that spans the valley and ends somewhere in the treetops on either side. Purple Arizona sunsets. Finding the spot where the Gulf of Mexico blue becomes Atlantic Ocean green. Black dolphins arcing through the water on their way to paradise. Lighthouses standing sentry on Minnesota cliffs. Blood-red harvest moons, rising over the prairie.
Foxes that leap across the railroad tracks and leave a blaze of red as they lope through the snow. Wheeling eagles, circling over the treetops. Herons gliding towards the river. Walking the alleys of Old West Lawrence when the honeysuckle’s in bloom. Hexagonal bathroom tile. Faded advertisements on the sides of buildings. Mennonite bake sales. Robin eggs in surprise nests. The crooked tail of a Siamese cat. The wavy glass of old house windows. Deep front porches. The rubbery smell of bowling shoes and rented skates. Riding the Paratrooper at the county fair. The stomach-flipping, suspension-testing hills only found on two-lane highways. Exploring abandoned buildings. Ghost towns. Old high school yearbooks. Flowers growing up through sidewalk cracks.
Cityscape photos from the early 20th-century. Drinking coffee out of an ancient, chipped, Devil’s Lake State Park mug. Sea otters. River otters. A beady-eyed old buddy, chosen from a long-ago Kmart shelf. An old truth in a new song. The tiny knock of a baby bird’s heart, warm fluff in the palm of a tender hand. A deafening sing-along of 3,000 new friends. Fireflies throwing sparks in the summer thunder’s heat.