I can remember our wedding, the thrill I felt at being Adam's wife, his only, forever happily ever. And I remember the shock and agony when I realized that with him, 'happily' and 'forever' were not even remotely possible.
The divorce final, I sold the house and my lawyer sent Adam his half of the proceeds. Bought as a ramshackle fixer-upper, and then repaired and renovated to be a neat, solid little house, we sold the property quickly and for a good price. The mortgage had been paid off, what with two people working full time and socking so much extra into the payments for nearly eight years. So I received plenty of bucks to help me find a new place.
New place, new town, new life.
My realtor found me a bargain that had not even been listed yet; people eager to sell quickly in order to move out of state had called her, she called me, and we went to see the house, warts and all, packing paper and boxes littering the floors and furniture. The one-story house wasn't even old enough to have many warts; a couple smudgy little handprints on a wall, some stains on the flooring in the kitchen. I could have bought a brand-new house in one of the many new developments sprouting around the Valley, but this house on Carmel Road would get me the most floor space for my money, and the street wasn't busy, and big windows looked out on all sides, and I just couldn't find any grains of enthusiasm in me at all. Suitable house. Time to get away from Charles' and Nanny's sympathy and find my own cave in which to not keep a stiff upper lip. And maybe it wasn't smelly-building-materials new, but this was the newest new house I'd ever lived in; so new that the original unestablished uninspired landscape besmirched the front and nothing clothed the back yard but dying sod. Good. A blank canvas. A new coloring book. Perhaps some day I will even care.
The town, Riverton, was quite small and very quiet. No industry, no traffic. One small grocery store, a plethora of protestant churches, and a little Catholic parish for me, maybe, some day. I wasn't ready to be part of a church community. (I still was barely speaking to God, still just sitting at the foot of His cross in my rocking chair, with no words other than "I'm here. Don't hurt me any more.") There was a little Mexican restaurant in the tiny downtown, a hardware store, an Italian restaurant where better-dressed people went in and out at lunch and dinner, a bar (only one), two take-out pizza places, a dog grooming business, and four beauty parlors. Oh, good, people here just eat and have nice hair and nails, sounds like a peaceful enough place to rest, and try to get on with a shattered life. Looking at a future of building a new, but emptier life.
My new house was on the outskirts of the town, on a dead-end street that would someday lead to other new houses, but not yet. The opposite side of the street was all orchards, almonds rather than fruit; significant only in that harvesting would be done by machines rather than by migrant workers, thereby keeping undesirables out of the somewhat snooty little neighborhood. Well, it looked snooty, at first glance. No kids' bikes on lawns. No overgrown shrubs. No cars in driveways. The hell with neighborhood snobbery; I'm just here because it's quiet and because no one here knows me as Sully the Amazing Discarded Woman.
The house itself was too large for me, four bedrooms in all, but I planned on bringing my nieces and nephew to visit as often as possible. And I decided I wanted a sewing room like my mother once had -- a place that can be messed up with patterns and material and trims and cleaned only once or twice a year if I wanted. My brother-in-law Charles and my sister paid for the cost of the house that was left over after my down payment, telling me that I could pay them back with no interest, that's what family is for, and made me weep.
Yellow was the predominant color in the dream, unusual for me because yellow is probably my least favorite color. But the walls of the kitchen and hallway were yellow, dirty, streaked. I was standing in the family room doorway to the kitchen, with right hand extended towards my sister in the tiny galley kitchen, but keeping a wary eye on our mother, who was in the family room. I wasn't really warning her off, but I was definitely blocking her way, keeping her from Jesse, who was about twelve years old and ill and tottering, unsteady on her feet. She fell, and I caught her before she hit the ground.We both sank to the floor.
I got my arms under hers at the armpits, and dragged her out the other doorway of the kitchen, the one above the stairs. At the head of the stairs, I lowered her to the ground again, and pulled her feet around towards the steps, rolled her onto her belly so that she could use her knees and hands. "Feel the steps, Jesse, we can get down them, I promise."
We started down the steps, Jesse lying on the risers and treads, me over her guiding her legs and hips. She was disoriented, and writhed from side to side, nearly turning so that her head was pointed down the steep stairs. I had to exert all my strength to keep her faced in the safest direction, but I did it, feeling a small gust of pride and hope each time.
At the bottom of the steps, I pulled Jesse onto my lap, and kissed her pale cheek, and told her that I loved her, and held her tightly, willing my joy and happiness into her heart. She was detached, unresponsive, but as I looked at her I could see that she was part of my life, a creation woven from the same threads and yarns that I was, a wonder of coincidence, and a kindred miracle of life.
Waking, I lay still and listened to the painful hooks of the dream, the colors of the dream, the symbols of the dream. My stance between my sister and my mother. The struggle away from ugly yellow. Lying back in the dim morning light, I concluded that the dream was largely formed by the painful lack of interaction between me and my sister years ago. But all dream images are of one's self; and so I was helping Me, Ill, to get away from Me, an Ugly Color, to get to a spot where I could love Me, unassailed. But still, a tender reflection, holding my sister and kissing her cheek, using my fingers to untangle her thick, dark hair.
The last time I remember doing that with Jesse in real life was when she was about four, and was not allowed to go out with me and my friend to wade in the creek. She was crying, and I wished that she were older and could come with us. Mom would never be convinced I would be responsible enough for Jesse's safety, though, and as time passed, our mother kept us quite separate most of the time. "Leave your sister alone, Jesse, she has homework to do. No, I don't want Jesse hanging around with kids that much older than she is. Oh, of course not, Mrs. Bysline, I never expect Solange to babysit Jesse, she has better things to do with her time!"
Why hadn't I been there for help when Jesse first got her period? I had no idea who her first boyfriend had been. Did she ever ask for a pet dog or cat and get the same irrationally berserko tirade about putting animals before people that I did when I was seven? Why had we grown up so walled-off from each other? Why had I thought that such an arrangement was normal?
Friends that I had were plagued by younger siblings when I would get to visit their houses. Younger brothers would stare at me in awe because I spoke to them politely, and then they would reply politely and in an admiring way, prompting their older sisters to pinch them and send them off howling. Younger sisters would try to hang around us, wanting to find out if all older females were horrible, or was it just her who was such a witch? Mom always found something else for Jesse to do so that she couldn't be even a sniffle, let alone a plague, sent her off to clean her room, made her help sort laundry, see what Dad was doing, don't pester your sister!.
To tell the truth, as soon as I was old enough to escape from the yard, I was gone every possible moment, with no thought about keeping Little Sister company. There was a little woodland between the dairy pastures to the east and our street, and I was drawn there as though I were a sailor hearing the Siren. Quiet, except for birdsong. Thick with rampant growth in summer, black raspberries and nettles and jewelweed and honeysuckle; grey and brown and crackling with dried twigs in winter. On the crest of a small hill was my Lookout; from there I could see all around and survey all the paths that ran between the trees from wheatfields on the north, the cows on the east, and the little stream to the south. In summer, I avoided the Lookout, because the growth was too thick, and roaming ganglets of Older Kids might sneak up and do me harm. But in spring, and late fall, and winter, the paths and hill belonged to me, a haven of peace and solitude. All quiet, no accusations, no blaming, no acrimony.
My father worried about me spending so much time there alone, and admonished me on a regular basis to keep an eye out and listen all the time, advice which I heeded, honing my observation, evasion, and escape skills by pretending that Mother was trying to follow me and make me come back to the house.
The first time I had ventured along the paths through the woods the whole way to the pastures took a long time, listening and watching all the way, noting the locations of celebrations of new plants and rocks I passed, for a return trip to worship at them later. When I trotted back on the same track, still wary of the woods, but elated and making good speed, having stopped on the Lookout to make sure no one else was moving through the area, I found my father sitting on the bit of ruined stone wall that sat at the edge of the woodland, waiting for me. I expected a reprimand; I hadn't asked permission to go that far, knowing that I would be told by Mother, "NO! What do you want to do that for!"
"Did you get as far as the cows?" Dad asked.
"Yes. They really stink. I couldn't even wade across the creek because there was so much cow poop in it." I checked my sneakers to make sure I hadn't stepped in any. Not today, but one day I would tell him that I'd skirted the cow pasture on the north side of the creek, and followed the fence line all the way to the dirt road that linked the Randolph farm and their apple orchards, two pastures beyond the smelly cows.
Dad chuckled. "Your mom frets when you go off exploring on your own, Sul," he said. "Today she just assumed you were playing with Debbie again all afternoon. I don't want you lying to your mother, but just maybe you ought not to mention cows. Just always make sure you're not followed, and know where your bolt holes are."
At eleven, sometimes your bolt holes are the woods. When we got back to the yard, Jesse crawled out from under the forsythia bush beside the house, and looked at me with an accusing, red-rimmed eye. She'd tried to follow me, had been caught by our mother, and paddled. My heart ached for her, but sorry, kiddo, all you can do is run for the boltholes and hope you make it. Better you than me, Jesse, I felt. And felt ashamed.
I still feel ashamed for deserting my little sister while I went roaming about the woods and town. She had to have been as caged-up and desperate for freedom as I had been, but I didn't know a solution then, and even now I cannot conceive of a strategy that would have worked for both of us. Should I have stayed home and shared Jesse's fate as the target of our mother's apprehensions, or did my flight into the world inspire her to dream of her own path to escape?
Fantasy builds a perfect world in which older sisters find a way to bring to their sibling gifts of the outside world, and those gifts sustain the Younger until one day, the sisters can laugh and fly together. The Elder teaches her litttle sister the best bank on which wild violets can be picked in the spring, and they fill the windowsills of their house with vases of them. The little sister brings to her elder a feather from a cardinal that she found in the yard, and the elder sister folds it carefully into the pages of a book about birds on the bookshelf. Oh, but all fantasy.
I couldn't bring myself to stay in the house for one more tirade, one more lecture, one more criticism than was absolutely unavoidable. Run! Run! Save yourself! At persecuted eleven, and twelve, and sixteen, "What Family Is For" meant "Family Is For Making You Believe That Living on a Mountainside in Colorado in a Tent All Alone Is a Real Good Life." Run while you can.
Now, running away from the blasted-out ruins of what had been my great love story, carrying a cavern where my heart used to be, I get to turn the key, and bring the abyss into the large front room. I set the gaping darkness down, and tell the thing "welcome home, this is where we live together."
When I walked in and looked at the empty rooms, the absence of evidence of life, the dead grass in the back yard, I burst into tears again. Charles, following me through the door, put his arms around me and held me for a few moments, until the tearing sobs subsided a little.
Jesse was back from her dig in Arizona at that time, and already rather large and irritably pregnant with her second set of twins. She paced past us into the kitchen, muttering, "God damn that son of a bitch for this." The two of them had driven down from Port Laughton to keep me company while the movers scrambled my household, and I was both glad of their company and ashamed of my tears. Hadn't I had nearly two years to get used to the loss? Ah, but the acquisition of a property by a woman with a completely different marital status made all the dulled edges sharp and scraping again.
The movers arrived very soon after we did, and we sat in the front room of the place (a formal living room, uh-huh) and drank our breakfast (coffee for me and Charles, orange juice for Jesse) and read aloud the large print on the boxes for the movers to know where to dolly them, as movers will state succinctly they do not know where any particular room is, even if it is labeled.
In honor of her delicate condition (and this time it was delicate; her doctor had insisted after they found out that she was carrying a second set of twins that she stay the hell home for the duration of her pregnancy) we gave Jesse the first chair to come in the door. She wouldn't stay in it for long, though. "God, I'm glad you did this," Jesse said, pacing from window to window, looking caged. "Time for a new start. And this is a beautiful neighborhood." That just about used up her repertoire of sympathetic conversation starters. She might have been comfortable directing a dig team, but she wasn't accustomed to comforting her older sister, especially when she was just plain old glad that Adam was no longer her brother-in-law.
"I think your new house is going to increase in value very rapidly," Charles said. He and Jesse were a good match, after all; he wasn't much good at coming up with soothing words either. "If you decide that this is just a transitional move, you won't lose by it." But he was such a nice man, he'd even invited me to come live with them, and seemed sincere about it too, not a "Please come stay oh God please let her refuse" kind of offer.
"Kind of barren, though. Have you been plotting your decorating scheme?" Jesse smiled a nasty, nose-wrinkled smile. In a way, I could see our mother's influence in her question. Look to a future! Don't just stand there snivelling and hurt! Tears won't help anything!
"Not a lot, yet," I replied, sounding hoarse around my cloggy nose, but trying to rise to the challenge. "The season has been trying to speak to me, so I suppose that the first thing is landscaping. I want to imagine an arboretum, where everywhere you look, you see something interesting. And fruit trees. Hmm, some cherries, a plum, get that started, anyway. It's February, almost too late to plant them, so they'll have to come first." Adam had always insisted on square, symmetrical plants, and a perfect turfy lawn front and back. Fruit trees make a mess. Deciduous trees drop leaves. Flowers have to be in straight lines. Bitterly I pitied the stupid girl he was marrying. She had no idea what was going to happen to her.
Oh, yeah, that was why he finally got around to the legal divorce. He met some young girl of twenty-two and was going to marry her, and so he needed the money from our house to buy her a little prison of her own. Twenty-two. And then he had the gall to tell me about his plan, including that he thought it was time to have some kids and settle down before he was too old. I really didn't need to know that. Guess he figured I wouldn't try to refuse to sign the papers if I knew. What a creep. What. A. Creep. Before he was too old, after I was already too old. How can I be too old already?
Charles looked a little concerned at my dark glare at the back windows. "Would you like to hire a professional landscaper?" he asked me. Only the best for my poor, abused sister-in-law, I could almost hear him say that to himself in his head.
"No, thank you. Don't worry! I won't devalue the property!" More tears welled up, but I didn't sob this time, at least. "But if I'm going to live here, I think I want it to look like My House, not like the other hedge-blighted boring houses on the street." I know that I looked pretty rough, with my red nose and swollen eyes and lips. Not the most convincing speaker. "I'll make it my own, and I'll make it good. I just need a little time, that's all."
"Whatever time you need, you take," Charles said, patting my hand. "You don't need to hurry about anything, do you understand?" Meaning he would bankroll me for as long as I needed. I appreciated the offer, and told him so. I'd left my job at Houston's in Modesto when our little house sold, unable to stand the simpering oh-so-sorry-to-hear of the front desk secretary Jackie and the pitying stares of the rest of the staff. While I was looking for a new job, between Charles and Jesse, and some backup in savings, I had a month or two to find my footing again.
Bless their hearts, Jesse and Charles stayed the night, (first night in a new place is always disconcerting), and we all stayed up late, popping open boxes, running the kitchen stuff through the dishwasher, dragging boxes to the rooms for which they were labelled. The garage started to fill with boxes and garbage bags filled with newspaper. Jesse slept that night on the couch, and Charles roughed it on the floor beside her with most of the pillows. I rolled myself in a blanket and slept against the wall in the big bedroom. Quiet house. My house. Me, about to try to live all alone in a big echoing house.