"Or liken me to a shoe
Blackened and spit-shined through
Kicking back home to you
Smiling back home
Singing back home to you
Laughing back home to you
Dragging back home to you."
(Shawn Colvin, "Polaroids," 1992)
The heavy ocean air breathes me. I am a grain of salt dissolved in wind, both less and more than when I first stepped onto this strand. Before then, I had never been to a beach or much of anywhere really. I had never been drunk on my own power or aware of my ultimate insignificance. I moved through a life that was only half mine. It's like landing on a planet light years away. The air has substance; I can wrap my arms around it or spread them wide and let it lift me off the ground as it sings my name, Elena. The birds call out in a language that strips away all pretense. They are in charge here, creatures of air and water, ordering the pitiful flightless humans to do their bidding. Even the ground has a will and desire of its own, shifting and sucking my feet until I tire of fighting it and collapse into its warm embrace. The horizon stretches into a silk thread and falls away just beyond my imagination. I am inconsequential under the burnished sky, and at the same time the secret me inside rises up with the tide, authentic, suddenly whole and real and more than what I was before.
Every afternoon for three weeks poor tortured Finn was there beside me, but not really with me as he stared expressionlessly out at the water, waiting for it to quell the flames licking at his head and heart. I should hate him for the things he's done. I should thank him for things he's done. But our past feels like nothing more than a weathered shell that has no purpose anymore. If he'd just let me, I would help him. I would reach inside, find the source of his agony, and extract every shard and ember. All it would take is a touch. I reach for his hand again and again, but he pulls away every time. Maybe his torment is too much a part of him to be without it; maybe I get that more than I'd like to admit.
Downstairs the door opens and bangs shut, pulling me back to the present. I get out of the tub and wrap the towel around myself as Ethan climbs heavily up the stairs. I got back from Florida this morning and begged off the museum excursion that my house-mates, my twin brother, Ethan, and bestie, Sage, had planned. Of course, I missed them over the three weeks I was away, but I wasn't ready to struggle with where I fit in this world that dances to Sage and Ethan's beat. I wanted to have a few more hours to be Elena alone and simple, just me.
I am about to open the bathroom door, but Ethan beats me to it. I know by the inward curve of his shoulders, the tremor in his chin, and the lines creasing his brow what happened, so I don't ask. I touch his hand, but he won't lift his gaze. I close the door behind him. Not so long ago he would have reached out to me for comfort, asked me to help him get sorted out. Now he will suffer the humiliation, angry and alone as he changes out of his wet clothes. It is a bitter pill that I can heal anyone I touch, except the one person I am most connected to, the one person who needs my healing gift the most.
Voices drift up from the living-room. Sage is not alone. I dress quickly and sprint down the stairs. Jo is standing at the bottom of the stairway like she's thinking about coming up. I leap into her open arms from a few steps up and wrap myself around her, almost toppling her onto the sofa. Luckily I'm tiny and she's strong. She laughs low before kissing me and putting me carefully down. I run my fingers through her short dark hair, while she twirls one of my shoulder length curls, and I close my eyes to imagine holding her kiss much longer, savoring it like the last bite of a dark chocolate mousse.
"You're blonder," Jo says smiling her approval. Sage drifts in uncomfortably through the archway from the kitchen. Jo drops her hand, and I follow her lead.
Jo and Sage have known each other beyond forever, but I came into the picture as Jo took a brief hiatus from Sage. When she came back, I had taken her place in Sage's life. It would make sense for her to resent me, but our mutual attraction to Sage and then each other dissolved that potential energy and a much more complicated dynamic has emerged.
"What a fab surprise." I can't stop smiling.
"Wild horses couldn't keep her away," Sage says. Jo shifts away from me a little.
"Guess we aren't celebrating tonight," I say to distract from the awkwardness. I look up at the stairs where Ethan went.
"It was my fault. I forgot how long it would take to get home during rush hour even in a car. At least we weren't on the bus or in the museum." Sage says.
"He had a great day, though. And even when he . . . you know . . . lost it, he didn't lose it completely like he used to. You know what I mean?" Jo says.
I have to smile despite the sadness of the subject, but I don't prolong the conversation because Ethan is descending the stairs, head down with a handful of ink pens in different colors clutched in his hand. He doesn't look at any of us as he makes his way through the room. We follow him into the kitchen where he takes the chart off the refrigerator. He was so excited to show it to me this morning when I got home. "30 days," he had said. "If I make today, I will have a whole month with no daytime accidents." At nineteen this is a huge accomplishment for my precious and problematic twin, who spent fifteen years of his life as a four year old, living and reliving the trauma of the fire that took our mother and sent our father on the run. Now he looks at the chart like it has betrayed him. For half a second I think he is going to rip it up or crumple it. Instead he sits at the table and begins to draw on it.
"Hey, Mouse, tell Elena what we saw today," Sage urges, trying to bring him back to us.
"Later." He doesn't look up.
I take a step forward to see what he's drawing, but he shields it with his arm like a kid taking a test in school. Jo comes up behind me and slips her hand into mine. Her touch is magical in the corniest of ways. I just want to take her upstairs and close the bedroom door.
"Who's cooking tonight?" I ask absently.
Ethan looks up at Sage, and I wonder if he's communicating with her telepathically, the way he and I used to but rarely do anymore.
"No one," Sage says. "We're going out to dinner tonight to celebrate your home coming."
I raise my eyebrows. "You sure you're up for that, little brother?" I ask, putting my hand on his shoulder.
He shrugs it away. "Why not?" His voice has an edge that I've never heard before. It stings like a sharp flick to the temple.
I let it go. "Is Jo coming?" I ask.
"Sorry, sweety," she says. "I'm just the taxi service today. I have music stuff, rehearsal, you know, big performance coming up. Next time for sure." She motions with her head toward the door.
I walk Jo out to the car, stopping to look in the back window to see how much damage Ethan did to her upholstery.
"You gotta love leather seats," she says reading my concern. "Sage cleaned it up, no worries."
"Thanks for being such a good sport." I shuffle a bit closer to her.
"What am I gonna do? Be mad? It's Ethan. How could I be mad at an angel?" Her eyes go soft as she talks about him.
"Sage should've made him wear a diaper." I shake my head.
"Controlling Ethan's not Sage's gig."
"I see," I say half insulted, "That's my gig."
"Hey, if the fiddle fits . . ." She flashes her adorable tough girl smile.
I stand on my toes and kiss her. "When do I get to see you?" I try not to sound as desperate as I feel.
"As soon as I can get my shit together. Promise." She looks into my eyes until I have to look away.
"Tomorrow?" I ask.
"I'll do my best," she says, and then she's in the car, backing down the driveway. I could have done with one more kiss, but Jo's not there yet.
Back in the kitchen, Sage is putting dishes from the sink into the dishwasher. Ethan and his pens are gone.
"Check it out," Sage motions toward the chart on the fridge.
I take it down to examine it. There in the box labeled with today's date is a tiny picture of a boy with curly hair, a sad face, a dark spot on the crotch, and a puddle on the ground. I bust out laughing. "At least he's developing a sense of humor about it," I say. "That's good, right?"
"Maybe. It's a way to deal with his embarrassment and disappointment at least," Sage says.
Ethan comes into the kitchen. He takes the paper out of my hand, holds my eyes for a beat, and puts the chart back on the fridge. "Let's go eat. I'm starving," he announces. Then he whispers in Sage's ear. Sage grins like a chimp.
"Whisper. Whisper," I mock.
"Don't get your panties in a twist, sister. We have some surprises for you." Sage laughs.
Ethan hands Sage the keys and her purse, then bolts out the door ahead of us. Sage locks the house then makes a great show of sauntering to the driver's side of the old Volvo we share. She's swinging the keys in spiral on her finger. Just before she opens the car door, she lets the keys fly in a high arch over the roof of the car. Ethan plucks them from the air with one hand. I hold my breath as the two of them circle around the car like a Chinese fire-drill and take each other's places. Ethan slides into the driver's seat. Sage looks at me over the top of the car, and I mouth, "Have you lost your fucking mind?" She shrugs and drops into the seat next to Ethan. I get in the back hesitantly and fasten the safety belt with exaggerated care.
Ethan turns the engine over, checks the rearview mirror, and backs out of the driveway. My mouth is catching flies, no doubt, but I have temporarily lost control of the muscles that might close it.
On the way to the restaurant Sage patiently coaches Ethan through the intersections and on and off the highway ramps. It's clear that this not his first time on the road. He is calm and adept in a way I would have never imagined. Even his parking is smooth and accurate. "Wow," I say when he turns off the engine. He smiles brightly, confidently, maybe the happiest I've ever seen him. He puts up his hand for a high five that Sage returns along with a little hipster fist bump. I can only shake my head. On the way into the restaurant I grab Sage by the upper arm to let Ethan go in ahead of us. "What in the name of hell and all its manifestations made you think it would be a good idea to teach Ethan to drive?" I demand when he's out of earshot.
Sage stares me down. "He's a teenage boy. What do normal teenage boys love almost as much as girls in tiny bikinis?"
"Cars," I say quietly.
"Ethan needs to feel normal to be normal."
"Sage, he's not 'normal,'" I remind her.
Sage looks away and then back at me. "You need to let go of that, Elena. Let him grow up already."
A part of me knows she's right, but she's wrong too. She can't make him into something she wants him to be. Her expectations are too high.
Ethan comes back out of the restaurant. "What's taking you guys so long? I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry, Mouse!" Sage says as she slips her arm around his waist, and they put their foreheads together.
Inside the restaurant I pull back and watch them. Sage gives the hostess her name and asks for a booth. Ethan hides behind her, like a little boy. What's new is that when the hostess says hi, he responds in kind, making eye contact albeit briefly, and he shows no sign of the terror that would have consumed him in a situation like this a year ago. I'm sure he appears shy to her, but maybe not abnormally so.
After we're seated, there is no avoiding Ethan's elation. "What do you think, Lanie? I can drive a real car!" He throws his head back and laughs like a little kid. "By next month I'll be ready to take the test if I want."
"Really?" I say shaking my head at Sage.
"Sage says I'm good enough." A small flash of anger colors his cheeks and tone.
"You drove amazingly well, E. I'm really impressed. . ."
Sage signals me with her eyes to not continue the 'but' phrase that was set to follow. I bite my tongue and leave it at that. We will have to talk about it later, but I can let him have this moment.
I let my eyes scan the restaurant. We come here to this little roadside Italian dive a lot. It's usually pretty empty, and the tables are oceans apart, so Ethan doesn't feel crowded. Repetition and routine are the keys to success when it comes to my brother. I'm not sure if Sage has internalized the rules.
A group of girls a couple years younger than we are comes in. They look sweaty and happy like they've just won a soccer game. Every one of them slows as they pass our booth to gaze at my brother. They stare in hungry admiration as he holds hands with Sage and she whispers in his ear. They don't see him though. They see the pretty wrapper: the golden surfer-boy curls carelessly framing his gentle face, the bright red lips shaped into an angelic pout, the intense gray eyes with impossibly long blond lashes, and the turned up nose that makes him look much younger than he is. What they don't see is that he's gripping Sage's hand for dear life because their attention is making him panic, and she's whispering words not of love, but of comfort to assuage his anxiety so he doesn't freak out, start crying or worse. If those girls knew the truth about this boy, their stares would be quite different. Not normal, not close.
Ethan and Sage have one more surprise for me. When the waitress finally graces us with her presence, Sage nudges him gently. Ethan swallows and looks down at the menu. He points to the chicken Marsala and mumbles his order without looking up. The waitress writes it down on her pad completely unaware that she is witnessing a milestone, a miracle. I let it sink in. Ethan ordered a meal in a restaurant. It's a small thing for most people, but for a boy who never left the house for six years and hid in his room anytime anyone new came through the door, this small act is earth-shattering. I am so thrown that I almost forget about the news that I have carried from Florida. Almost.
I have had a week to mull it all over, and I am still a bit flummoxed by the development I have yet to impart. I have no idea how Ethan and Sage will take it. I plan to break it to them slowly, give them enough information to figure it out for themselves, so there's no killing of the messenger if that's the upshot. It could really go either way, though. I know I'm taking a big chance throwing this at Ethan in a public place, but what the hell. If he can drive a car and order a meal, this should be easy. I hope. When the food arrives and silence settles over us, I edge off the cliff.
"How long have your mom and our dad been living together?" I ask Sage.
"Rachel and Jesse?" Sage answers, "Six months I guess, about as long as we've been in the apartment."
I pause for a few seconds. "How old is Rachel?"
"Ask weird questions much, Elena?" Sage is looking at me kind of funny, and I think she might guess my news.
"Just answer the question," I say.
"Forty-five," Ethan says, happily joining the game.
I wink at him.
"Sage, do you think of us as family, like siblings?"
"Really, Elena, enough with the disconnected questions." Sage puts her fork down in annoyance.
"Yes or no, please," I insist calmly.
"Of course, I do," she says looking nervously from Ethan to me. "Where are you going with this?"
"Well . . . in about six months we're going to be related for real."
"What the hell are you taking about? Rachel would never ever ever get married again, even to Jesse. Besides he can't marry legally; that would put him back on the grid." Sage is shaking her head like I've lost my marbles, but Ethan's eyes are growing huge with the realization that he stole from my mind. 'Cheater,' I think, but he doesn't care.
"A baby?" he thinks. "I'm going to have a brother?"
"Or another sister, if you're very very lucky," I respond in my head.
The smile spreads across his face slowly as his imagination goes to work on the idea of a baby in the family.
I watch him and think, 'one more reason for you to grow up fast, little boy. Let's see if you can get out of diapers before the baby does.' It's a cruel thought, but it's there before I can stop it, and Ethan reads it. In an instant his smile vanishes, replaced by the creases in his brow and tilt of his chin that signal the peculiar pain of shame. I might as well have punched him. Ethan starts to bring his thumb up to his mouth, but I reach out and catch his hand in time. He pulls away and sits on his hand scowling at me. 'I didn't mean it, Mouse. I'm sorry,' I think as loudly as I can. I don't know if he hears me.
All this drama goes on without Sage. She is still trying to add up the sums.
I finally spell it out for her. "Rachel's pregnant, you big idiot!"
Sage's mouth falls open, and her eyes go blank for a second. Then in typical Sage fashion, she explodes. "No fucking way! Rachel's too old! I can NOT believe this! Great timing, Madre mio! All those years I begged for a sister and now that you decide to give me one, I have to share her! Really, Mother!"
"Ah yes, I forgot. It's all about Sage." I lean over and give her a playful punch in the arm. She looks at Ethan for support, but he's lost in his own thoughts. His eyes are sparkling with the tears he's fighting thanks to my unfortunate mean streak. That's new too, Ethan fighting back tears and not just melting into them. He succeeds in regaining control of himself, and picks up his fork. I watch him push the food around his plate. He glances at me because I'm staring, and manages a fairly vicious return glare. I look away, completely chastised by the thought he directs at me. 'At least I'm trying; I don't see any charts on the refrigerator dedicated to your little problem.'
"Who are you?" I say out loud. He turns away from me, frowning.
The rest of dinner is a combination of Sage's restless self-centered energy, Ethan's barely concealed disappoint with me or himself or both, and me desperately jumping through hoops to make everything seem fine. On the way out of the restaurant Ethan turns the keys over to Sage and gets in the back seat, where he curls into himself and immediately begins sucking his thumb. I give up trying, and Sage drives us home in silence, each of us lost in the reality of what it could mean to be a sibling, or for some of us what it already means. On the way through the kitchen Sage grabs Ethan's chart off the fridge while he heads upstairs to get ready for bed.
"What do you need that for?" I ask.
"Ammunition," she explains. "He's going to expect me to sleep in his bed with him."
"Right. Because of your magical motivation intervention in my absence," I say.
"Hey, it worked. Didn't it? 29 days without an accident is a record I think," she says.
"But he didn't make it today, so no reward tonight, right?" I ask. I want Sage with me.
She nods. "That doesn't mean he won't try to negotiate anyway."
"I think I'll just stay down here while you guys work that out." I collapse onto the sofa.
"Suit yourself, but you'll need to go up and spend some time with him before bed. He missed you like crazy." Sage stands over me.
"Sure," I say, but I'm not sure. "You go first and I'll be like the clean-up crew that follows the elephants. I'll get all the shit that follows."
"Very funny. You can go up first if you want to," Sage offers.
"I'll take it." I jump up with an enthusiasm I don't really feel.
"Sold to the highest bidder," Sage drops into my place, and takes Finn's letter out of her pocket.
"You haven't read it yet?" I delivered Finn's letter to her this morning as soon as I got home.
"I haven't memorized it yet." She smiles sadly. A year and half is a long time to not talk to someone that you're in love with. I'm sure that letter is small comfort.
"Better get to it then," I say and begin the long climb to Ethan's room, completely unprepared for who or what might be lurking around the next psychic bend in the labyrinth of my twin's mind and heart.
He meets me in the hall, ready for bed.
"Where you going?" I ask half-smiling, hoping he's forgotten my nasty comment.
"Downstairs to hang with Sage," he says without returning any of my good will.
"E," I put my hand on his arm to force the connection. "I am so sorry for being so mean at the restaurant. I don't want you to be mad at me. I missed you. Didn't you miss me too?"
He looks down at his feet and nods. I take his hand and lead him back into the bedroom. His room in our little rental house near the university is tiny with barely enough space for the bed, dresser, and small desk. Sage and I share a slightly bigger room, so that the third bedroom, the largest, can be used for Ethan's art studio. A gallery in town sells his haunting paintings. While it's hard for lots of people to imagine, Ethan brings more money into this house than Sage and I combined. Ethan sits on the edge of the bed while I fiddle with the stuff on his desk -- sketches, notes, and elaborate math problems with symbols I don't understand worked out in perfect miniature print that fills three or four pages front and back. "What's this?" I ask, holding up a page.
"Don't mess those up!" He jumps off the bed and grabs the paper from me. He organizes it back into the pile while I look over his shoulder.
"Sorry," I mumble.
He turns around to face me, and I feel oddly intimidated. Ethan is nearly a full head taller than I am, though no one would describe him as tall. At 5' 8" he and Sage are actually about the same, but in the last year or so he's put on a little weight, filled out some through the shoulders and chest, so he doesn't seem as small to me. I step back to let him through and notice the sprinkling of blond whiskers over his top lip and on his cheeks and chin, one more thing to add to growing list of changes in him. "So what's the stuff on those papers?"
"Dr Roschan from the university started working with me on Skype a couple weeks ago, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. I forgot Sage set that up. How's that going?"
For a second Ethan forgets his annoyance, and his eyes light up. "He's giving me extra problems and stuff he does with the graduate students. It's way cool." His voice drops at the end.
"Sounds awesome. What's the prob?" Ethan sits in the middle of the bed cross-legged with his head down. After a couple seconds, he looks up halfway.
"He wants me to come to class at the university. He thinks I should be a normal student, but . . . I can't."
"Too scary," I say, and he nods. "Nobody's going to make you go, E."
"I know, but . . ." He doesn't finish. He pulls at the fuzz on the blanket and his eyes cloud over.
"What is it, E?"
He takes a deep breath and looks at me with something akin to desperation. "I don't want to be afraid of everything anymore. I want to be like you and Sage, not like me." Now the tears spill over and I feel him reaching out for me emotionally. I sit next to him on the bed, and he puts his head in my lap, curls in knees to chest and puts his thumb in his mouth. I run my fingers through his tangled hair, trace the lines in his forehead.
"Give it some more time, E. Look at how far you've come in the last six months. Riding the bus, going to museums and restaurants, driving a car." I give him a playful poke, and he manages a fleeting smile. "Who knows, maybe next year you'll be ready. Maybe by next year it won't seem so scary."
"Maybe," he says wistfully, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Gradually, Ethan relaxes and a comfortable silence settles between us. I wonder if he's falling asleep.
"Hey, Lanie. What did they do to you in that place in Florida?" Ethan asks quietly.
I shift a little, and he sits up to face me. His brow is knit in concern. Since when does Ethan worry about me? When he was stuck in time as a four-year old, his selfish concerns and anxieties took all his energy. How old are people when they begin to worry about others? Eight? Ten?
Now that Ethan's unstuck, this age thing is becoming a kind of obsession for me. I ask Rachel, as Ethan's and my therapist, over and over, "So how old do think Ethan is now?"
"Nineteen, same as you," she laughs. "The mental age measurement is not that literal," she explains. "He'll make amazing progress in some areas, like the agoraphobia, and no progress at all in others, like the enuresis."
It's a reasonable explanation, but I still wish I could have an age thermometer so I knew what to expect from him.
"Lanie? You're staring at me that weird way again. Why do you do that all the time?"
I look away. "I don't know, E. I guess I just don't recognize you sometimes."
"You're kind of freaking me out. Can you stop?" He gives me a little grin.
"Freaking you out? You sound like Sage." I reach out and caress his face.
"What did they do?" he asks again, leaning into my hand.
"Actually it was kind of amazing, like something from the future or a movie." Ethan isn't looking at me anymore, so I pause and follow his gaze. Sage is standing in the doorway.
"Mind if I join?" she asks.
I motion her in. "Saves me from having to repeat myself," I say.
She walks around the bed to sit behind Ethan. He immediately relaxes against her, and she wraps her arms around his waist. I envy the easy comfortable way they fit. Before Ethan can put his thumb in his mouth, she gently catches his hand in hers. The way she caresses his thumb has to feel much better than sucking it. She rests her cheek against his head, and they breathe in sync. Sometimes I think that maybe this is how it is meant to be, that Finn was some sort of temporal disturbance in the force that is Ethan and Sage, and all of that is over now. Then I remember the fire in Finn's eyes on the beach and the catch in Sage's voice when she says his name. And I know without a doubt it's not over yet, not by a long shot, and my heart aches for my brother.
"You're doing it again, Lanie," Ethan whines.
"Sorry, little brother," I tease. Sage rolls her eyes, knowingly, waiting for Ethan's indignant response to the moniker, but Ethan's not stuck at four anymore.
"Just tell your story, littler sister," he responds, giving me a mock glare.
I have to smile. "Well played, E," I say. "I'll tell you the story." But the not the whole story, I think. Not the part about Jamie. Not the part about you, Brother.
Ethan's gray eyes lock on mine, and in the back of my head I just make out his thoughts like a voice whispering from across a noisy, crowded room. "I already know the whole story. I knew it before you did. I knew it before it happened."
Chapter One - Back Home
© 2013 by Susan Michalski. All rights reserved.