Comfort & Joy
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The thought of spending money on myself should make me happy; it’s not something we high school librarians do a lot.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I turn into my neighborhood.
Madrona Lane is a pretty name for a pretty street in a not-so-pretty suburb of Bakersfield. I’ve always appreciated the irony of living on a street named for a tree that doesn’t grow here; especially in view of the fact that the developers cut down every green thing that dared to grow on the block. When my husband and I first saw the house it was run down and neglected, the only home on the cul-de-sac with grass that needed cutting and a fence in need of paint. The realtor had seen all these as possibilities for a young couple such as us. “The previous owners,” she’d whispered to me as I stepped through a patch of dry-rotted floor in the bathroom, “went through a terrible divorce. A real War of the Roses thing.”
We’d all laughed at that. Of course, it turned out not to be so funny.
I am almost to my house when I see Stacey standing in my driveway, all by herself.
I slam on the brakes.
We stare at each other through the windshield. The minute she sees me, she starts to cry. It is all I can do not to follow suit.
She’s come to tell you it’s over with Thom. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for, but now that it’s here, I don’t know what to do. Without forgiveness, there’s no future between Stacey and me, but how can I forgive a sister who slept with my husband?
I ease my foot back onto the accelerator and pull into the driveway. Then I get out of the car.
Stacey stands there, looking at me, clutching her ski coat around her. Tears glisten on her cheeks.
It’s the first time we’ve really looked at each other since this nightmare began, and instead of anger, I feel an unexpected longing. I remember a dozen things about her, about us, just then, like our famous family road trip through the desert states. Hell in a Volkswagen bus with my mom singing Helen Reddy songs at the top of her lungs and smoking Eve cigarettes one after another.
I approach her slowly. As always, looking at my younger sister is like looking in a mirror. Irish twins; that’s what our mom called us. We’re less than twelve months apart in age and have the same curly copper-red hair, pale, freckled skin, and blue eyes. No wonder Thom fell for her; she’s the younger, smiling version of me.
She takes one step toward me and starts to talk.
I’m leaving him.
It’s a moment before I realize that that’s not what she said. “What?” I say, stepping back, frowning.
“We can’t go on like this,” she says. “Not now. It’s Christmas.”
I feel upended somehow, confused. “I should forgive you because it’s Christmas?”
“I know you won’t forgive me, but it was over between you and Thom . . .”
“We were having problems . . .” I don’t even know how to finish, what to say. None of this feels right.
Stacey bites her lower lip—a sign of nervousness from way back—then hands me a piece of thick white paper. I can tell instantly what it is.
A wedding invitation. The blessed event is set to take place on June sixth.
It hits me like a right hook to the jaw. “Y-you’re kidding me, right? You should be breaking up with him . . . not marrying him.”
Slowly, she opens her coat. She is dressed for the holidays in red velvet pants and a white knit top with Rudolph stitched in sequins on the front. “I’m pregnant,” she says, touching a belly that’s flatter than mine.
And there it is, finally, after months of pretending to be okay, the thing I can’t handle. For five years, I have dreamed of having a baby; I used to beg Thom to start our family. He was never “ready.” Now I know why. It was me. He didn’t want to have a child with me.
She’s crying harder now. “I’m sorry, Joy. I know how much you want a baby.”
I want to scream at her, to shriek my pain, maybe even smack her, but I can’t seem to breathe. Tears are blurring my vision; they’re not ordinary tears, either. They actually hurt. I can’t believe she’d do this to me. To us. How can two girls who used to be peas in a pod have come to this?
“I never wanted to hurt you . . .”
I can’t listen anymore. One more blow and I’m afraid I’ll go to my knees, right here in my driveway, and I’ve spent every day of the last year just trying to stand. I turn away from my sister and run to my car. A part of me can hear her yelling my name, calling out to me, but I don’t care. The words are elongated somehow, stretched into meaningless sounds and syllables. Nothing makes sense.
I get into my car, start the engine and barrel backward, into the empty street.
I have no idea where I’m going and I don’t care. All that matters is putting miles between me and that wedding invitation in my driveway and the baby growing in my sister’s womb.
When I see the exit for the airport, it seems natural to turn off. Maybe even a destiny-at-work kind of thing. I park and go into the terminal.
It’s small, but busy on this Friday. Lots of people obviously want to put miles between the heres and theres of their lives in the holiday season.
I look up at the departures board.
A shiver goes through me; the word looks so out of place on the list, tucked as it is between ordinary cities like Spokane and Portland. I blink and look again, just in case I’ve gone slightly mad and imagined it.
Hope remains. It’s in British Columbia, apparently. Canada.
There’s no line at the counter. I walk there slowly, still somehow waiting to wake up, but when I get there, a woman looks up at me.
“May I help you?”
“The flight to Hope . . . is there a seat?”
She frowns. “It’s a charter. Just a second.” She looks down at her computer screen. Fingernails click on the keys. “There are seats, but they were purchased in bulk.” She glances around, catches sight of a heavy-set man dressed in camouflage fatigues. “Go talk to him.”
Now, I’m not the kind of woman who strolls easily up to strange men, especially when they look like Burl Ives on a big game hunt, but this is no time for caution. I’m desperate. One more second in this town and I might start screaming. For all I know, Stacey is still in my driveway, waiting for me to return so we can “talk” more. I clutch my purse under my arm and go to him.
“Excuse me,” I say, trying—without much success—to smile. “I need Hope.”
He grins at this. “There isn’t a whole lot up there. For a city girl, I mean.”
“Sometimes just getting away is enough.”
“You don’t have to tell me that twice. Well, we’ve got an extra seat, if you want it. Say one hundred dollars? But I can’t promise you a way to get back. We’re a play-it-by-ear bunch.”
“Me, too.” Normally, I’d laugh at that, it’s so far from the truth, but just now it feels right. Besides, I’m not even sure I need a way to get back. Who knows? This is a tear in the fabric of my ordinary life. All I have to do is step through. And I have my Christmas money with me. “Do I need a passport?”
“Nope. Just your driver’s license.”
I can leave here, make a quick stop and plane change in Seattle, show my identification, go through customs, and be in Hope by midnight. I make a decision to leave my own country in less time than it usually takes me to decide between packages of meat at my local Von’s.
I whip out my wallet and find the cash. “I’m in.”
A n hour later, I am at the gate, holding a ticket to Hope. All around me, men are talking, laughing. There is an inordinate amount of high-fiving going on. They are trophy hunters I discover, the kind of guys who decorate with hooves. This is their big hunt, away from kids and wives, and it’s clear that the party starts before the plane takes off. They’re completely uninterested in the quiet, tired-looking woman in their midst. I sit down in one of the empty seats. Beside me is a magazine. Hunting and Fishing News. A librarian will read anything, so I pick it up and flip through the pages. An article on duck blinds leaves me cold, as does a series of how-to taxidermy photographs. Finally, I turn the page and find a pretty picture of an old-fashioned resort. It’s called the Comfort Fishing Lodge and it welcomes me to come and stay awhile.
It’s a lovely thought. I fold the flimsy magazine in half and shove it into my bag. When I get home, I’ll file the article alongside my other dreams, alphabetically. Someday, I’d like to visit the Comfort Lodge. As I’m fitting the magazine in the cluttered bag, I feel the pebbled leather of my camera case. My fingers close around it, pulling it out of my purse.
No newfangled digital camera for me. This is the real thing. A heavy black and silver Canon SLR. I take it out of the case, slip the strap around my neck, and remove the lens cap.
If I’m finally taking a trip into the unknown; there ought to be photographs to document the momentous event.
I focus and snap on the gate, on the other passengers, on the view of the runway through the dirty windows. I even try to take a picture of myself. All of it occupies my mind for a while, but then the real world creeps back into my thoughts.
Stacey is going to marry Thom and have his child.
It hurts almost more than I can bear. Tears sting my eyes again; I wipe them away impatiently. I am so tired of crying, so tired of feeling like half a person, but I don’t know how to change things. All I know is that for more than three decades, my sister has been the bedrock of my life, and now I’m standing on sand. I have never felt so lost and alone. If I could simply blink my eyes and say a prayer to disappear, I would.
They call my flight over the loudspeaker; men surge forward like a flannel-clad centipede, legs all moving at once. I follow quietly behind them.
On the plane, I find an empty seat in the last row. My armrest practically touches the restroom door, it’s so close. I try not to see a metaphor in this placement. Instead, I sit down, strap myself in, and peer out the tiny oval window at the falling night. The men are all in the front of the plane, laughing and talking. In no time, we’re cleared for flight and up we go, into the now black sky.
I flip through the hunting and fishing magazine again. An article on the Olympic rainforest grabs my attention. It’s in Washington State, apparently tucked in between hundreds of miles of coastline and a jagged mountain range. The trees are gigantic, primeval, the greens absolute and somehow soothing. A woman could get lost in a place like that. I could take hundreds of glorious photographs, maybe even—
“You okay back here all by yourself?”
I look up.
It’s Burl Ives again. He smiles at me: the movement bunches up his cattle-sweeper moustache and shows off a row of oversized dentures.