We shall not cease from exploration
As I unpacked boxes, this poem by T.S. Eliot sang its sweet song to me. I’d graduated from UC Berkeley, and was moving into a dusty studio apartment in Napa, the town where I’d grown up. Would I know the place for the first time? Or was I missing Junco? She had printed the entire poem - - not just the first stanza, which was all my mind could recall - - in purple letters against a seashell pink background, and framed it next to her bed. Her parents had insisted she study to be a doctor, and she obediently turned to Biology, but her true love was literature. I’d seen her adjust the frame as a mother would a child’s pigtail ribbon, and on our mornings together, witnessed her reading the poem, body falling into such stillness I was sure her spirit had left it altogether. Surely the poem revealed a secret life, a life she held close, one apart from her parents; surely I was a part of that life, and she would come back to me.
I started work at the library the next day. The reference desk stood in the center of the building; on my far right was the circulation desk and swishing doors, and to my left, rows upon rows of book shelves, dwarfed beneath the church-height ceilings. People sloshed between the two areas like water in a bucket. Whispers, crackling book covers, a stranger’s deep sigh, these sounds lulled me inward, and my thoughts traveled from room to room of memory just as my hands had opened box upon box the night before.
I had two sisters, Heather and Sarah - - eleven and ten years older than I - - I did not know them well. Throughout my childhood, my sisters had lived in their own world. Their conversation flew above my head, up there somewhere, an auditory crossroads like telephone wires. Their interests and concerns were inexplicable. They talked at great length about shampoo. They plastered posters of men wearing make-up on their walls. When the phone rang, the floor thundered with them racing for it. On Saturdays, each sister was assigned the cleaning task of bathroom or kitchen, and I remember those as the most ferocious, and consequently, confusing days. I never had any idea what their arguments were about. They slammed doors, burst into tears, shouted “bitch” or “fuckface” in unrecognizable voices. Their emotions erupted without warning, and since I could not predict when, where, or why one would explode into a red-faced rage - - occasionally they shouted at me too - - I hid in my room. I had my books, after all, and the stories guided me away from that turbulent household like a raft floating downstream.
If my sisters’ raging was particularly terrible, I left the house. My favorite spot was beneath the elm tree in the back yard. Sometimes, I brought a book with me. Or I gazed into the glimmering leaves, inhaled the scent of grass, and felt even my bones soften. I often imagined myself Huck Finn, a kid without a family, but happily basking in peace and quiet of the natural world. By the time I was eight, my fantasy had transformed into sailing around the globe, exploring new lands, a solitary figure on the horizon, alone and happy.
My mother had been a kindergarten teacher before my sisters were born, and continued as a substitute for many years after that. The key, she had said, was “damage control” and that was her approach to my sisters. She hardly looked up from her magazine when one of the girls flew into a rage about someone forgetting to relay a telephone message. I didn’t seek her help when Heather flung Sarah’s cheerleading trophy at her, and nearly hit me, an innocent bystander in the den. And I never told on my sisters smoking cigarettes in the bathroom late at night, hoarsely whispering about boys over the whirring fan. My mother didn’t want to hear it.
“Who says girls are easier to raise than boys?” she had said to me on more than one occasion. “They’re not as good as you are, Kid. That’s for sure.”
My father hardly spoke. Hair covered his bulging forearms, and his green, snake-like eyes never seemed to blink. Drinking Dewars and water in a 16-ounce Oakland Raiders cup, he watched us steadily as if a prison guard. I would look up from my mashed potatoes, and find those green eyes bearing down on me. He never changed expression when I made eye contact. At the dinner table when I was six, Heather said that eating chicken should help Sarah’s “itty bitty B-cup” (as usual, I had no idea what this meant); Sarah slammed her fist against the table, and without a word, my father picked up his plate, and went to the den to finish his meal. He didn’t look like us, talk to us, or want anything to do with us. It was as if he’d awakened one day and discovered himself captive in our four-bedroom house.
My father died of a brain aneurism when I was ten. By that time, Heather and Sarah had gone off to college. My life had finally settled into quiet. For a few months, Mom and I went to Silverado Pines Cemetery every Sunday to place flowers on his grave. But I didn’t miss him. We’d never thrown around a baseball or discussed the birds and bees or watched John Wayne on TV. He was distant, and frankly - - I had no problem admitting it now - - strange.
My mother came to life in the absence of family. Instead of hiding behind her magazines or crossword puzzles, she took literature classes at the Napa Community College. She joined a women’s bible study group. She got a manicure every week. She continued with her substitute teaching, but suddenly began inviting some of the other teachers home for lunch.
“Oh, Kid!” she liked to say. “If only those girls had left earlier! What an easy life we’d have had then.”
I had to agree.
One of my earliest memories was being awoken to a loud whap outside my window. From my bed, I peered out, and spotted Heather, sprinting across the front yard in the darkness. She was hunched down as if to hide behind something. A parked car on the street thrummed to life when she touched the door. Headlights off, it slid away from the curb.
Night time was a place where adults lived. I got tucked into bed; they stayed awake. I had no idea what they did. All I knew was that I was excluded from it, and didn’t care unless it was Christmas Eve. Heather must have only been fourteen when I saw her sneaking away from the house. But she personified this secret world, a place I did not belong. Still, I was curious. I tried to stay awake to see her return, thinking it would reveal where she went, and why. But within a half-hour, I fell back to sleep.
I told Heather about this memory a few days after moving into my apartment. Just like a big sister, she had invited herself over to my place to inspect my “new digs.” Now thirty-three, Heather had been married to Tom for eleven years. Her two boys, Brad and Peter, were in third and fourth grade. Like Mom, she looked tired at times.
“I never did that!” She punched my arm. “You must have been dreaming.”
“I wasn’t dreaming. Where did you go?”
“Probably out partying someplace. Anything to get out of that house.”
I smiled to myself; I’d felt the same way, but it was to escape from Heather. Who did she have to run from?
She stood with her hands on her hips. “So this is it. On your own now, Kid?”
Almost six feet tall, she looked straight at me, her green eyes - - a lot like Dad’s, I realized - - glittered with joy. Happiness didn’t soften her presence. Feet firm beneath her wide hips, jaw lifted, Heather reminded me of a statue carved in concrete: love strong and proud and unassailable. I blushed as if I were twelve, unaccustomed to such sure attention; we had always had an agreement to ignore each other. But now I hoped that would change. Junco, the girl I thought I’d marry, had broken up with me two weeks before, and I needed Heather’s solid presence. My first job, my first apartment, I did feel on my own. And for the first time, I didn’t like it.
She called Sarah on her cell phone, and asked if she could come to my place tomorrow, three o’clock. Like Heather, Sarah had settled in Napa. She lived with her husband and their two young girls in one of the new developments where the houses, propped on top of one another, looked like dominos.
“Sarah will be here tomorrow,” Heather announced. “We’ve got to help you with some furniture. No offense, Kid, but this place is fug.”
I nodded. I’d simply hauled old college furniture here. The armchair’s pale blue fabric had faded to gray. My mattress had a rusted-out frame. I hadn’t bought any rugs or pictures, and our voices resounded in the bare room.
“I’m going to pick up Sarah for dinner. Do you want to come?”
“No, I’ve got some other things to do.”
“See you tomorrow then.” She waved, and thumped down the stairs.
I crept toward the phone - - I had to do it; I didn’t know why - - and dialed Junco’s number. She had a private line in her parents’ house in Novato, but I hoped the pink phone in her room rang loudly enough to disturb her mother.
Junco’s voice, soft and hesitant. I wanted to think her uncertainty came from knowing it was me, that I was breaking down the wall she’d built around herself. But she’d always spoken in a cautious whisper. Unless she spoke of her mother. Then her voice flattened into statements, resolute and loud, as if she was on the debate team.
Panting, I smothered the mouthpiece. She said nothing. But I could make her think of me, I could squirm into her life for these few seconds.
I’d called her twice before. Now, once more, I swore I would not again. Not because it was obnoxious and weird, but because every time she hung up, I lost her one more time.
Junco had always come to my apartment in Berkeley late at night, after studying, waking me with soft kisses, her chilled fingers running along my body. We had lost our virginity to one another, and that created a pact between us, our experience untouched by anyone else. She was hungry in bed, urgent. After I met her parents, who kept their arms by their sides as she pecked each on the cheek, I understood why.
Every other weekend, her mother called her home. Mrs. Yamamoto experienced poor health since Junco’s birth, and it seemed her daughter had to account for it by playing nursemaid. I’d find hints of the work she had done: chafed fingertips, puffiness beneath her eyes, tenderness in her lower back. In a hard, matter-of-fact voice, she mentioned giving her mother a bath or preparing her breakfast or administering diabetes shots. She never complained. But her body did. So I served her breakfast in bed. Ran steaming hot baths sprinkled with rose petals. Brushed her hair in long, gentle strokes. Anything for her return to me completely, fingertips soft, eyes clear, back supple, and speak to me in the voice I knew.
One afternoon in March, as the guy downstairs practiced scales on his oboe, I slathered oil on her back, and massaged the muscles sheathed beneath her pale, bluish skin. My thumbs pressed into the tightness along her spine; she moaned into the pillow. My hands worked her like clay, relieved her pain, re-created her.
“You make me feel real,” I whispered.
“You make me feel happy.”
Yes. That was what I wanted. For Junco to be happy.
Graduation week, Berkeley sank into a heat wave. I joined the Yamamotos at Tacos La Playita for dinner. I’d seen them dozens of times - - visiting Junco in Novato over the summer, spending birthdays with her family. Her mother gave me a silver key ring for graduation; her father asked after my mother’s health. As usual, Junco addressed them as “mother” and “father,” head tipped downward. Was her mother comfortable? Was her father not hungry? Shall we order something else? “I doubt anything else would be much better,” her mother snapped, and poked the enchiladas on her plate with a fork. Junco said nothing, back straight, hands clutched in her lap; she pinched the skin between her thumb and forefinger, hard. Then she did it again. And again. I laid my hand over hers. Everything would be all right as soon as her parents left, and it was just the two of us.
She didn’t look at me when we said goodbye, but I figured she was nervous about asking them if we could live together. She didn’t return my phone calls the next day; she didn’t come to my apartment. The following morning, I squatted outside her building like a homeless guy until finally, she appeared, black hair flowing and radiant in the afternoon sun.
She greeted me coldly. I followed her upstairs to the two bedroom she shared with another Biology major. She knocked at Alison’s door to make sure she wasn’t home, and a feeling of dread sank me into the sofa.
“We can’t be together, Jeff. Not from your behavior the other night.” It was her other voice speaking, hard and cold. “You were terribly rude to my mother.”
“How was I rude?”
“You rolled your eyes when she commented on her eczema. I saw you! Thank God she didn’t.”
“Junco, your mother always has some kind of medical condition, and she always complains about it. On your birthday, it was her knee. At Christmas, her migraines. Before that, a hernia. Before that –“
“Shut up! My mother’s ill, and you make fun of her? She’s almost sixty years old!”
My heart beat so fast I could hardly catch my breath. “You know what she does to you isn’t fair. You’re like a slave in that house—“
She covered her ears. “Shut up! Shut up! I won’t listen to you!”
“Please, Junco.” My voice quivered. I’d known that if I told her the truth, she might leave me. But now there was no going back. “Please. I can take care of you. You don’t have to live like that.”
Her hands dropped. “I’m sorry. It wouldn’t work. You can’t respect my mother’s feelings, and I can’t live with that.”
“Why should I respect her? She makes you miserable.”
“You make a big assumption there, Jeff.”
She hadn’t even admitted it to herself. I reached for her; she swiped her hand away. “Junco!”
“No.” Her dark eyes were glassy, a doll’s eyes. “If you at least felt sorry then I might have forgiven you. But you haven’t even apologized.”
I would do anything for her to love me again. “I’m sorry.”
She turned away from my tears, and left me standing in the living room alone.
I called her the following day, and apologized again.
“I take care of my mother because she’s sick,” she said. “For whatever reason, you think that’s wrong. You can hardly love me if you see me as a ‘slave.’ Which I’m not.”
She hung up on me for the next three days. All day long, all night long, I re-played what had happened with what should have happened: Junco falling into my arms, allowing me to care for her when she needed me most. Junco allowing me back into her life, despite my feelings about her mother. Our imagined reconciliation pulled me through my last days on campus, half-convinced me that it would happen if I thought about it hard enough.
Now, when I called her from Napa, I could say nothing; it had all been said. But keeping in touch gave her the opportunity to jump into the silence, pour out her heart to me, return to my side. She couldn’t be happy with her mother. She couldn’t.
The following day, waiting for Heather and Sarah to pick me up to go shopping, I dialed Junco’s number again. This time, the answering machine came on: You have reached Junco Yamamoto. Sorry I’m not here to take your call… She’d changed it to such a formal announcement, I knew she must be expecting calls from prospective employers. I hated the idea of her life moving forward, further away from me. Where was Junco, my Junco? The beep resounded in my ears. I paused, cleared my throat. Yes, I’m still here. Then hung up.
Heather honked from the street. The three of us shopped at Target for an armchair, headboard, lamps, bedding, and a few throw rugs. To my astonishment, my sisters insisted on paying, actually fought over it, thrusting their credit cards at the cashier. Our mother had remarried suddenly the year before, and moved to Arizona with her new husband, but I had Heather and Sarah to take care of me. It was a new start for us.
Heather talked to whomever would let her: salespeople, the cashier, other shoppers. As we were leaving, she spotted a former co-worker, and called “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Sarah and I waited for her by the door.
“I think Heather needs to get back to work,” I said. “She doesn’t have enough people to talk to in a day.”
“Tom’s tired of her working,” Sarah whispered even though Heather was out of earshot. “She was always entertaining clients, and then came home smashed.”
“There’s a lot of drinking in Marketing. It’s good she’s away.” She smiled, skin crinkling beneath her eyes. Sarah had the same corn-yellow hair as Heather, also cut in a straight line at the shoulders. But she folded her thin arms, and leaned away from me; so unlike Heather’s open stance, direct gaze.
Heather approached. I must have had a funny look on my face, because she said, “Don’t worry. You’ll pay us back.”
The three of us lugged all of the stuff into Heather’s glossy black Suburban. As usual, I climbed into the back. It began when I was small, and could squeeze into the back seat of Mom’s Toyota more easily than my sisters.
Just as Heather swerved the truck onto Imola Avenue, Sarah said, “Remember our apartment in Davis, Heather? We never had any of this.” She motioned to the trunk full of furniture. “We were so broke!”
“You two lived together at college?” I asked.
“Mom probably didn’t tell you,” Sarah said. “A studio infested with cockroaches. She wanted to save money. Heather had to work part time.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
Heather kept her eyes straight ahead.
“Well, there are a lot of things you don’t know.” Sarah laughed. “We ate Ramen Pride half the time!”
“We drank all of our money,” Heather said.
“I didn’t. You did.”
“I did not.”
“Yes, Heather. You did. You had parties without even telling me. As if I didn’t live there.”
“Oh God, not this again.”
“I’m just telling you what happened. That’s all.”
I knew the routine. Now, if Heather said something - - even if it was under her breath - - Sarah would shriek the same lines she had as a teenager: No one listens to me. I don’t have a say in anything. I hate you. To my relief, Heather chose to remain silent. I had no idea what had held my sisters together for so long. Heather drank beer, Sarah, wine. Heather played softball, Sarah, tennis. Heather’s husband worked for PG&E, Sarah’s for Merrill Lynch. I could see them in their college apartment: Heather watching softball on television, Coors in hand; Sarah furiously vacuuming around her feet.
“I can’t believe her,” Heather shouted after dropping Sarah home. “She bails out of helping us carry all this stuff?”
She had parked in a handicapped spot, but I dared not say anything when she was in a mood like this. She’d tell me I was ungrateful and peal off in her truck. And secretly, I was relieved that Sarah went home. She made me uneasy.
We hauled the furniture first. Heather was quite strong, and it didn’t take much time to get everything inside, if not unpacked. She fell onto my beat-up chair to catch her breath.
“Do you have anything to drink? You should offer guests something to drink, Jeff.”
“I’m sorry.” I walked over to the refrigerator even though I knew it was bare. “How about some water?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll go to PJ’s across the street, pick up a six pack. Do you want anything?”
She ran downstairs, actually skipping steps. From the bay window, I watched her cross the street. My heavy-set sister, in shorts and sneakers, half jogging to pick up beer. She looked like she did in high school.
Six pack in hand, she returned to my beat-up chair. I unpacked the new furniture; she directed where each piece should go. Her words grew slurred after the fourth beer. Did she usually drink this much? Would she be able to drive? I wanted to call Sarah, but heat emanated from her when we dropped her off, and her goodbye was clipped. Now, if I called her, she’d blame me for allowing Heather to get like this. But what was I supposed to do?
My apartment now actually appeared inhabitable. The lamps gave the room a golden warmth, the rugs softened the floor; I relaxed into my new armchair. I imagined Junco seated on my bed, legs curled under her. She belonged here; she belonged with me. How could she be so stubborn? So foolish?
“Thanks so much, Heather. For all of this. I actually don’t mind being here.”
“No problem, Kid. Anytime.” She gazed out the window. It was growing dark outside. “Have you met your neighbors?”
“Not really. Just know their faces.”
“Let’s meet some of them.” She stood.
“Heather, no. I’m not like you. I don’t want a party here every night.”
She glanced at her watch. “Shit. I’ve got to go pick up my kids anyway. Dullsville. I’m taking these.” She held up the remaining two cans of beer.
“Be careful driving.”
“Oh God, don’t worry about me.” She glanced around. “Much better. Much!” and she was gone.
I thought about calling Sarah again, but wasn’t sure what I’d say. Heather was an adult. She could take care of herself. Dialing Junco’s number, I actually felt hopeful. You have reached the answering machine of Junco Yamamoto…
“Junco. It’s me,” I said. “I know you’d love it here in Napa. I have my apartment all set up. And you belong here. I know you do. Remember you said I made you happy? Well, I can do it again, I’m sure of it. Please call me.”
I left my new phone number, and hung up.
Three weeks passed in stultifying silence. Junco couldn’t even lift the phone to talk to me; I was that small in her life. I droned through my days at the library, amazed how much I could get done while suffocating from depression. One night, Heather invited me out to dinner, and I gratefully accepted. I was dying to talk about Junco. But the pizza place she chose was so crowded I could smell the man’s cologne at the neighboring table. And before we’d even sat down, Heather rushed to the bar to order a beer. Threads hung from the hem of her jean shorts, and her blonde hair was brown-at-the-roots dirty. My sister had never cared about her appearance, but what I’d seen as independence of spirit now struck me as sad. It was as if she were an orphan. She downed her first beer at the bar, ordered another. God, I thought. I’d be better off in my apartment, reading a good book.
The waitress hurried to our table, hair mussed as if she’d been tossed between tables all day. Heather detained her with small talk. I see you’ve got a new menu. Who designed them anyway? Is that firm here in town?
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Heather, she’s got fifteen other tables to work. Let’s just order.”
She shrugged. She’d had three beers at that point, and was too high-spirited to argue. After the waitress fled, she asked, “How’s the library?”
“I’ve been adopted.” I shouted in the loud room. “My co-workers at the reference desk bring me apples to supplement my tuna fish sandwiches, and adjust the collars on my shirts.”
Heather beamed. Once again, I felt my sister’s proud, unassailable love wrapping its arms around me, and I almost reached out to touch her dirty, unkempt hair, gently push it back from her face. Then her eyes drifted, and the moment was gone.
Our pizza came. If I talked to her about Junco, would she even listen? Heather hadn’t asked if I missed Berkeley (which I did), or if I’d kept in touch with anyone from school (which I didn’t). Now, her eyes darted around the bustling restaurant searching for someone else. Where’s Tom? I wanted to ask her. Did you leave your kids at home tonight? What am I doing here? I gobbled down three slices of pizza, anxious to get away.
A week later, Heather dropped by the library, announced she was having a birthday party.
“Next Saturday.” She flung her arm into the air. “Seven o’clock.”
It was a quiet night so I could talk to her without any problems. On her previous visits, if my boss was near, or if there was a line of patrons at the reference desk, she positioned her hand like a telephone at her ear. She never checked out any books or videos. She came by to chat. At first I was flattered she paid this much attention to me. But lately, I’d felt a strange pressure when I saw her, like stage fright. For one thing, I wasn’t always in the mood to talk. Even though most of my time at the reference desk was spent talking to patrons, it was a straightforward question and answer exchange. They didn’t care who I was; they only expected me to be polite and efficient. I helped them find what they were looking for, they thanked me warmly, and I felt satisfied, even happy.
But I wasn’t sure what Heather wanted from me. It seemed I had very little to do with her visits; she had nothing better to do, nowhere to be.
“I’m going to be thirty-four years old,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
No, I couldn’t. Every day she made her rounds about town as if a kid on summer break. She hung out at the Green Lantern; she wandered the mall in Fairfield for hours; she went to the movies with anyone who’d go; she and Sarah had lunch downtown every other day. I answered my phone less and less, knowing it was her, desperately seeking company and distraction.
But she could always find me at work, and I had no excuse not to go to her party. “Should I bring anything?” I said.
“Were you going to whip something up in the kitchen, Kid?” She laughed hoarsely. A few patrons turned their heads, and I resisted the urge to tell her to keep her voice down.
“Heather, I can cook you know. I’m not a moron.”
“Don’t get so defensive! Jeez, you sound like Sarah.” She smiled as if this was funny. “Why don’t you bring soda? Nothing caffeinated. I don’t want the kids going ballistic.”
I could smell the alcohol on her breath. She couldn’t go on like this. “Do you think you might go back to work?”
“Tom doesn’t want me to.”
I pretended to know nothing of what Sarah had told me. “Why not?”
“He says I’m not around enough for him. Or the kids. He says I drank too much at those business dinners. Like I can’t drink when I’m not working.” She leaned on the reference desk, hands spread, and spoke to them: “He and the kids are gone all day long. What am I supposed to be doing? Baking cookies?”
“What about working part time?”
She glanced at me. “Not when you’re at my level, Kid. I was Director.”
Heather? Director? I had no idea. I’d seen her as an administrator, answering the phone, designing presentations, sending out a newsletter for the wine club. But not Director. My mother must have known about her job, but she never breathed a word about it. When I called Mom from Berkeley, she spoke of her housekeeper who couldn’t speak English, or the memoir writing class at the senior center. She told me about a seventy-year-old retired pilot who wanted to marry her. She didn’t mention Heather or Sarah at all. And I never thought to ask.
Heather’s house was a four bedroom set against a hillside of scorched grass. Her birthday party was the first occasion I’d had to go to her house since moving back to Napa. The roof was missing shingles. The elm tree in the front yard had been chopped back so much it appeared amputated. Lugging a case of caffeine-free Pepsi, I kicked open the side gate to find Brad and Peter, Heather’s sons, thumping a volleyball along the side of the house.
“Hi, you guys,” I said.
They stopped playing, drew close to each other. “Hi, Uncle Jeff,” one said flatly.
I smiled, anxious to get away from their forlorn faces, and motioned to the soda. “Hope you guys are thirsty!”
In the backyard, Heather was dragging a cooler onto the patio, and when she saw me, shouted, “Perfect timing!” Sarah was already there with her husband, Charles, and their four-year-old twins, spinning into each other and giggling in pink sundresses.
I’d seen Sarah only once since our shopping excursion. Invited by Heather, I’d joined them at The Grill for one of their lunches. “This napkin is dirty,” Sarah announced to the waitress. “I’d like another please.” The waitress apologized. “And my iced tea is way too strong.” After that, she hardly spoke. Heather glanced at me, simmering with laughter; I looked away. Sarah’s behavior wasn’t funny. It was pathetic. I didn’t join them for lunch again.
Now, arms crossed, Sarah greeted me, but didn’t smile. I was relieved when Heather beckoned me to the far side of the yard to show me her vegetable garden. Tiny leaves sprouted in five neat lines, a black hose sputtering water into the darkening dirt. Heather jumped away to play hostess when a few friends wandered in. I looked closely at the seedlings, unable to discern which vegetables she’d planted, and thought about her comment, What am I supposed to do? Stay at home and bake cookies? But she didn’t consider a vegetable garden domestic?
Someone lit the outdoor lights - - white Christmas lights strewn along the trellis hugging the patio. Charles, as I expected, asked about the library, my new apartment, my future. As I spoke, I gazed at the milling group of twenty people - - none of whom I knew - - fidgeting with the painful itch that Junco should have been here with me.
Heather’s husband, Tom, shuffled out of the house. With a half-hearted wave, he greeted Sarah, Charles, and I, who faced him like a wall, then slumped into a lawn chair. He looked cranky and worn. Not his idea for the party, I was sure. Heather dashed around as more friends arrived, getting drinks for everyone. Tom echoed her greetings, attempting to smile.
She pointed to the stack of red plastic cups next to the cooler. “I wanted to get a keg, but Tom didn’t think it was a good idea,” she said.
“Not unless we’re going to drink a ton of beer,” Tom said.
“A quarter keg, honey. It’s three and a half cases.”
“You drink enough as it is.”
Sarah said, “Heather, show me your vegetable garden.”
“I drink enough? What’s this?” she pointed at the beer propped up on his stomach.
“Yes, I’m having a beer. One. I can stop after one.”
“Right. But you can’t pay for it.”
He pulled himself out of the chair and disappeared into the house. After the door slapped shut, Heather said, “Sorry everybody! Marital spat. You know how it goes.”
Some laughed reassuringly. I stood with my back against the fence; Charles looked into his can of soda. A woman in a denim dress approached me. “Jeff?” She ducked her head timidly, and smiled. “I hardly recognized you. You got so big!”
Dark hair waved out from her sky-blue eyes. She only looked vaguely familiar.
“Hi,” I said.
“Honey! It’s Jeff, Heather and Sarah’s brother!” She turned back to me. “God, the last time I saw you, you were fourteen.”
“Must have been the one of the baby showers.”
“Yes, I think it was.”
A few of the others came over, said how much I’d grown. Where do you work? The library. Where do you live? Third Street, downtown. Close to the bakery? Across from it. I caught glimpses of Heather, face pink in the brash artificial light. She swerved around people, eyes unnaturally focused as if she were blind. At one point, she stumbled, and her beer sloshed out of its cup to a loud splat on the cement. My stomach tightened like a fist. “Woops!” she sang, and breezed by Sarah’s ugly stare.
Tom hadn’t come out of the house. The light from the television flashed against the living room curtain. Maybe I should join him? But who was I? I’d met the guy when I was ten years old; he and Heather got married three years later at some winery in the thick August heat, and I couldn’t wait to leave.
Voices circled as I sat in one of the lawn chairs, drinking my fourth Pepsi. Although it was supposed to be a barbeque, nothing had been prepared to eat, and my stomach sizzled with hunger. Across the yard, Brad and Peter’s volleyball arched into the blue-black air, and plunked into Heather’s vegetable garden, smashing the seedlings. They giggled behind the bushes; I decided to leave. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Heather, who’d protest loudly about my leaving early, and make every effort to detain me. So I grudgingly made my way over to Sarah.
“I’m taking off,” I said.
“Look at her.” She glared at Heather. “She’s making a complete fool of herself.”
Heather stood amidst a group of people, circling her arms. I didn’t care whether or not she looked like a fool, I just wanted to go home.
“I’ll see you later?” I said.
“Where are you going?”
Heather’s voice grew louder, but I pretended not to hear. “Where do you think?” I forced a smile. “To my apartment.”
“Typical,” Sarah said. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to Heather or me.
“Uptight asshole!” Heather shouted toward the blinking window. “And I’m stuck with him - - like a stuck pig. Only he’s the pig!”
She collapsed, sobbing. Her friends instinctively pulled away. Sarah rushed forward, and grabbed her arm, trying to help her stand straight.
“What am I going to do?” Heather moaned. “What am I going to do?”
Sarah hugged her. “It’s all right. I’m here.”
My head spun. It was as if my sisters had read my dreams. Here was the reconciliation that I’d envisioned for Junco and me. Worn out by her mother’s demands, she’d turn to me, and I’d wrap my arms around her and say the words Sarah had said, It’s all right. I’m here.
Sarah guided Heather toward the house. The screen door whapped shut behind them. Two women grabbed their purses and hurried off; the others talked in quiet voices. I couldn’t keep my eyes from the door. What were my sisters saying to each other? Where were they? I’d never imagined what would happen with Junco if we had reconciled. Could we return to how it had been? I rushed toward the house.
Tom sat unmoving in front of a baseball game, his back to me. Had he heard any of it? The television was blaring - - so he may not have. And where were Heather’s kids? Or Sarah’s? Had they seen what happened? To my left, the dark kitchen, and at the far end, the laundry room. Light seeped through the half-opened door, where Sarah and Heather stood face-to-face in the semi-darkness. I tiptoed into the kitchen unseen, just close enough to catch the words.
“Why can’t you get a divorce?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t want a divorce! I can’t live by myself, Sarah. You know that.”
“Can you talk to Tom?”
“He won’t listen! He doesn’t want me to work. Our house is falling apart, and the boys’ college tuition is gone, and he doesn’t care. He’ll leave me if I go back, and I don’t know what I’d do…”
She choked, and began crying. Sarah rubbed her arm, and whispered, “Ssshhhhh. It will be all right.”
I fled. Why, why hadn’t I seen it? Junco would have said the same thing to me: My mother needs me, I can’t leave her. Even if she did take me back, she’d always be the good daughter first. Like Sarah, I could comfort her, massage away her pain, but she’d rush off to Novato as soon as her mother called. Could I have lived with that?
Heather called early the next day. It was Sunday; I didn’t start work until two o’clock, so had the morning to myself. Or so I thought.
“Sarah and I are going to have brunch. Do you want to come?”
“That was quite a party you had last night.”
“Well, you know me. I know how to have a good time.” There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
“Is Sarah there?”
“Yeah. She spent the night last night.”
Of course. I could just see it. Sarah, sending her husband and kids home so she could take care of Heather. Sarah, feeling important for once in her life. Sarah the savior. Just as I’d imagined myself. But I knew something now, something Sarah didn’t. You can’t save someone unless she wants to be saved.
“Could I talk to her?” My hands were shaking.
“Jeff?” Sarah sounded worried. “What is it?”
“Has Heather blacked out that whole scene last night?”
“What ‘whole scene’?”
“The way she was shouting about Tom being an asshole.”
“No, I’m sure she hasn’t. Why?”
“Because it was awful. Heather’s got to do something about her drinking.”
“Heather’s going through a lot of shit right now! She doesn’t need you and Tom huffing down her back.”
“Tell me something. Do you even want her to get better?”
“You know what you are? A fucking brat. You think you know better than everyone else, don’t you? Aw, sweet little Kid – who got to read in his room all day while we cleaned that fucking house! Kid got his own room. Kid got to go to summer camp. You weren’t around when Dad slapped us for spilling food on the floor. So how the fuck would you know what it’s like for Heather and me?”
I couldn’t find my voice.
“No, you wouldn’t understand. And you know what? You never even tried. You were a spoiled brat then, and you’re a spoiled brat now!”
She slammed down the phone.
That afternoon, I hardly paid attention at work. I’d thought Sarah and Heather shared a room because they wanted to. How was I to know they hadn’t gone to Happy Lakes summer camp? I wasn’t even out of the crib. Dad had never hit me. But how could they blame me for his hitting them?
Heather showed up at the reference desk. Her eyes were bloodshot, but I wasn’t sure if it was because she was hung-over or had been crying. I felt tired, so tired I couldn’t feel anything else.
“She didn’t mean it,” she said.
“Of course she did.”
“Sarah was trying to protect me. That’s all. She’s very sorry.”
“Then why isn’t she telling me this?” I searched the empty library, wishing a patron would appear, ask me one of those straightforward questions, something easily handled, and easily resolved.
“Don’t call me that. I’m tired of you calling me that.”
She shrugged. “You have to just let it go. I’m too tired to convince you of anything. You’ll see when you get older. Life gets complicated.”
“Actually Heather, it’s very simple. You’re drinking too much. You love your job. You’re bored out of your mind. You tell Tom, ‘I need to do go back to work’ and do it. If he leaves you, he leaves you. But you’ll have your life back.”
Tears appeared in her eyes. “It seems so easy to you, doesn’t it? You’ve never been close to a single person --”
“That’s not true.”
“- - never needed anyone. I’ve loved Tom since I was twenty-years-old. We have two sons together. I can’t walk away from that.”
I sighed. The great proud love of Heather - - I had needed it at one time, perhaps Tom needed it too. But years from now, she’d still be fighting with him about drinking or money or her job. She’d still be making her rounds about town, desperately trying to escape from herself. And Sarah would be right there with her. She was probably sitting in Heather’s Suburban right now, waiting for the next drama, the next argument, the next mess to clean up. That was what Heather had wanted. For me to say, everything’s all right, even when it wasn’t, for me to bury myself a little bit each day, lying for her sake. But I couldn’t do that. Junco was right. Things would never have worked between us.
“I’ve got to get back to work,” I said. “Better not keep Sarah waiting.”
She walked away without saying goodbye, and I flashed upon my earliest memory of her, fleeing from the house at night. Her escape had seemed so exciting and rich then, promising some kind of adventure, the kind I’d dreamed of as a kid, sailing around the world. But I hadn’t seen her stagger to the front door hours later. I hadn’t seen that she’d gone nowhere. No. I was a child, and I was sleeping.
The next day, when Heather called, I told her I couldn’t bear her drinking. “You’re better than that, Heather. You have so much going for you--“
“Fuck off!” She hung up.
As I expected, two minutes later, the phone rang. But I wasn’t going to answer it; it was Sarah. The answering machine beeped, and she yelled: Who the fuck did you think you are? You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself! I hate your guts, and so does Heather! If I ever see you again, I’ll…
I listened to that voice from across my studio, and felt the same detachment I had as a boy: as if I didn’t know her, would never know her, as if she wasn’t talking to me. My sister, Sarah. My sister, Heather. My mother. My father. And me. We had created our lives around each other, without even realizing it, and for the first time, I sensed this shared history, like a river found in the woods that had been flowing there all along.
copyright © 2006 jennifer kerr
Jennifer Kerr lives in the Napa Valley with her husband and two corgis. She has an MFA from Mills College. You can read more of her writing at JenniferMillsKerr.com.