"The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways; I to die, and you to live. Which is better? Only God knows."
Dr. Hawthorn thinks this progress journal will help. I've never been one for writing in diaries. But for Mom, I'll try…
They say that it's bad luck to break a mirror. I thought of this as I gazed into the side zipper pocket of my black messenger bag. My palm-sized mirror stared back, cracked into millions of pieces and consequently slicing my reflected face into broken shards. My already too thick lips looked gigantic and my forehead too broad. The image bothered me and I zipped the pocket closed again.
"Something wrong?" my aunt asked from beside me. I glanced up at her as a baby screamed somewhere behind us.
"No, my mirror just broke during the flight," I told her with a little sigh and crossed my arms protectively around the bag. The pilot switched on the fasten seat belt sign as the plane began to descend in altitude but I'd never unbuckled my safety belt at all so it didn't matter.
"That's a shame. You know what they say about broken mirrors." My aunt forced a little smile in my direction as her hands gripped the arm rests on either side of her until her knuckles turned white from tension. She hates descents and take-offs.
I didn't answer her but silently I wondered how my life could get any unluckier than it already was. Aunt Linda was doing a very impressive job of pretending that the past two years hadn't happened. Even though we'd been through it together, now that it was over it didn't feel that way. It was like there was this wall between us, forcing a distance that made all of our encounters uncomfortable. I'd decided that this wall had been built either by our different viewpoints on what had happened or because of her guilt for what was happening to me now.
A calm, deep, male voice came over the intercom with a cheerful bing. It was the pilot and he proceeded to speak over the wailing baby and gentle chatter of the other passengers to inform us of the time and the temperature at our destination. The gray strip of runway below came into view. I had to crane my neck to see out of the window since Aunt Linda and I were stuck in a middle aisle. The baby behind us had made the ride especially unpleasant and the man sitting beside me took up more than his share of the armrest while working on a New York Times crossword puzzle.
The clanking of glass bottles on the drink carts signaled our dip. Aunt Linda drew in a quick snap of breath, her eyes squeezing shut and her body lifting itself up in her seat. Her shoulders drew up around her ears. I knew I should do something to comfort her but nothing came to mind and I opted to watch the little orange garbed men in small vehicles driving along the runway instead. The Crossword Man beside me clicked shut his black ballpoint pen, stuck it professionally into his breast pocket, and adjusted his gray sport jacket. He inhaled loudly through his nostrils as he removed his glasses from the bridge of his nose and pocketed them as well, his head lifting straight and high as the wheels touched the runway for the first time.
Color began to return to Aunt Linda's knuckles and her eyes fluttered open. She flashed me a confident smile as if I had been the one fearing for our lives just a few seconds earlier. I didn't return the grin as we waited for the plane to come to a full stop. The baby's incessant whines were growing tiresome after two hours. Finally the fasten seat belt light extinguished itself and a hostess's controlled voice told us it was now acceptable to stand and exit the aircraft.
"Thank you for flying Delta," she said and signed off with one last resolute bing.
Shifting, jostling movement and chatter began as all of the passengers stood and opened the overhead compartments to retrieve their belongings. Aunt Linda unloaded my bag for me since she didn't have any of her own and the two of us forced ourselves into the impatient crowd headed for the exits. The baby was hugged to its frantic and sleep-deprived mother's chest across the aisle in the second, identical line. When I caught its wide-eyed gaze I stuck my tongue out at it…
And it giggled.
I rolled my eyes, realized that it was pointless, and focused on the slow but steady advance of the line. What was wrong with me that I was mocking a baby? Finally, I passed the smiling hostess and stepped onto the extendible hallway leading back into the main airport. Aunt Linda slowed down until I was forced to match her gait and the two of us headed for baggage claim together.
"She doesn't live too far from here," Aunt Linda began conversationally with her eyes focused on the circling tread for my bags. "I'm sure you're tired."
I just shrugged and watched as two girls, arm-in-arm, came over and plucked a dark purple duffel off the round-about before stepping out of the large glass sliding doors of the airport and into the blinding sunlight. I saw another young woman throw herself into the arms of a young man as he came out of the entry gate and they began kissing fiercely. I suddenly felt self-conscious and ashamed for witnessing such an open act of affection and then I wondered why that was.
"Sadie," my aunt stole my attention away from observing the others in the airport and concentrated it back on the baggage claim. "Which one is yours?"
A new group of rolling suitcases was coming around and I took hold of a boring black Samson model with a yellow scarf tied securely around the leather handle. The scarf had been Aunt Linda's idea. She'd heard from a close friend who traveled to Europe often for business that some distinguishing factor on your suitcase for baggage claim was helpful and sensible. And that was Aunt Linda if nothing else- sensible.
"Are we ready then?" she asked but she was already heading for the automatic glass doors, sliding a pair of fashionably oversized sunglasses over her eyes.
I followed, dragging my luggage awkwardly behind me. The sunlight was searing white against my half-closed lids. Aunt Linda, I noticed, had a very purposeful walk, almost like a strut. It was the same self-assured gait I'd followed in and out of St. Mark's Hospital for the past two years. Compared to the sharp black heels she would normally be wearing, her well-worn sneakers were virtually silent on the concrete outside.
I felt like I was in a walking trance, like in a dream that I should be waking up from any moment now. I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds, the bright spots from the sun popping in the near darkness. But when I opened them again I was still there, outside of the airport, in the South, in a state let alone a city that I'd never been to. I inhaled deeply, trying to soothe myself.
It had been like this for the last month during the preparations. I sat unblinking on Aunt Linda's Pottery Barn couch as everyone rushed around me, making the necessary plans. But I couldn't even get my mind to function correctly. Then, before I knew it I had packed my things and was sitting in the stiff blue upholstered airplane chair beside Aunt Linda on the way to my new life.
Aunt Linda had signaled a cab now and I scooted into the sticky brown leather seat beside her. Idly I began to pull out the yellow tuffs of stuffing issuing from the tearing seams of the chair. The cab fishtailed slightly in a sharp U-turn, taking us away from the airport.
"534 Second Street," my aunt informed the cab driver.
The air smelled stale and heat was unbearable. My thighs stuck to the leather and I had to lift my legs every now and then to get the skin to peel off. Aunt Linda had warned me it was hotter down here, particularly in the summers, but this was ridiculous. Mom and I had always lived in New England and I couldn't imagine trying to adjust to the South. It seemed a lifetime away only because Mom and I never were much for traveling. As we saw it, we had everything we needed right at home. Why go anywhere else?
I watched the landscape whipping past the window and pressed my sweating forehead to the glass pane. Just barely I could see the outline of my face reflected in the glass. My dark brown hair looked frizzy due to the humidity and seemed tangled, disgruntled. Deep circles marked the underside of my green eyes and my pale face was splotchy with red. My lips were in a grimace.
Suddenly I felt Aunt Linda's tiny, fragile hand pressed to the middle of my spine, making me jump from shock. She rubbed my back, trying to be comforting.
"I know your upset with me, Sadie," she cooed softly.
I didn't respond. Honestly though, I wasn't. Mad, that is. I used to think that after Mom died I would hate everything and everyone. But maybe whenever we expect to feel a certain way or experience something in particular it never is how we imagine it will be. I could never have imagined this emotion only because it was not really an emotion at all. It was a simple and complete detachment from everything, even anger.
"I don't want you to think I'm abandoning you." She took my silence as my consent that I did, in fact, think she was abandoning me. "It just isn't realistic for me to even try to keep you."
I nodded stiffly.
"What with the boys…" Aunt Linda sighed. "I'm sure you understand." Then, feeling content that she'd patched up whatever this dark hole was between us, Aunt Linda dropped her hands to her lap and focused her sharp attention out the window as well.
And I did understand that she couldn't keep me. Not that that made this whole ordeal any more enjoyable. She had a family of her own- a busy husband, a steady job, and three growing sons. She didn't have the time or resources to take me on as well. But this whole talk had made me feel even more the essence of being like an unwanted fruitcake on Christmas that keeps being passed from family member to family member before finally getting landed top-down in the trash can. Aunt Linda found someone to pass me off to but now they were stuck with me.
But, I repeated to myself for the umpteenth time, making a sad attempt at being optimistic, I'll be eighteen in only a few short months. Then, I'll be no one's responsibility. Summer will end, school will start up again, I'll turn eighteen in November, and then I can get my own place and finish up my senior year. If I focus hard enough maybe I can make up for my poor grades over the last two years of my high school education and get into a college up North. Then this whole experience will just seem like a bad dream. A dream. That's all.
Our cab pulled off the interstate and into town. The downtown area wasn't exactly busy or a metropolis but it wasn't small either. There were glass paned, 10 story buildings in the Business District and galleries lining the Art District. Black lampposts were placed periodically in the sidewalks and matching benches sat beside them. A corner café was filled with the afternoon rush and live jazz music drifted out from a pool hall. It was the type of place I might get to like if I wasn't being forced against my will to stay.
The cab slowed to a stop at a red light. Just outside my window on the sidewalk stood three teenagers that looked just about my age. A girl with a pretty red short skirt and a yellow T-shirt that was so off it looked right was talking animatedly. The other two were guys. One with red hair had his back to the cab and was facing the girl. The second stood beside her in shorts and a T-shirt. I tried not to stare at him too much but it was one of those moments that was impossible to control. He was attractive, and I was stuck at a stoplight with nothing else to look at. He responded to something the girl said and she laughed so loudly that I could hear her through the closed cab window.
At that moment, the boy looked toward the road and his eyes landed on the cab. More specifically, his eyes landed on me. He stared at me through the cab window for a couple of seconds and then he began to smile. My face erupted in a blush and I pushed myself down into the cab seat until the light changed and the cab moved on.
We turned down a number of twisted residential streets along the West End area. All the homes were large and old. The heart of downtown was within walking distance. Baby saplings just a bit taller than the cab passed by, casting weak shadows over my face and the window.
Finally we slowed.
A pale green house was built into a hill just in front of my window. A white fence surrounded the slanted front yard and matching white paint trimmed the windows, doors, and shingles of the roof. Pointed gables accented the house along with the gingerbread style woodwork. The front porch wrapped around the back and a rusty swinging bench swayed back and forth lazily in the breeze.
Aunt Linda paid the cab driver and we both clamored out, me pulling my rolling suitcase as well. The house could almost pass for one of the New England houses in my old neighborhood. That should have comforted me a little but I didn't feel any internal shift even with the realization.
"Now, your grandmother said that your father wouldn't be coming until next week. That way you can get used to the town first. She thought it best that all these changes be introduced slowly. She seems like a sensible woman," Aunt Linda explained and brushed her short hair behind her ear as if it were a nuisance.
There was that word again, sensible. I was so tired of sensible I could scream.
It was hard for me to hear Aunt Linda call the woman I was about to meet my grandmother. She and my father had not been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. Mom said that Steven, my father, was there when I was born but that was hardly enough. The only other evidence I ever had of his existence was a child support check we got in the mail by court order.
Apparently my grandmother, Steven's mother, had made a bit more of an effort. She had also been at St. Mark's Hospital the night I was born. Ironic, I realized when I thought of this. I was born in the same hospital that my mother died in. But the thought was so horribly morbid that I couldn't focus on it for long. My grandmother had come up and visited when I was a baby and even watched me during one of Mom's scarce business trips when I was a toddler. But my memories of it were very vague. I remembered her presence, I suppose, but nothing specifically about her.
Aunt Linda climbed the rickety white steps leading up to the wrap-around porch and I followed. The wood seemed uneven and unstable, each step prompting an elongated creak. We reached the dark wood front door with an artistically designed glass window and Aunt Linda rung the doorbell. Neither of us heard anything so she rang again.
"Must be busted," I muttered as she stubbornly tried for a third time.
She grunted her dissatisfaction with this and knocked firmly on the door. We waited. And waited. She knocked again. By this time I was getting both nervous and reluctant. Maybe this was a sign. There had to be somewhere else I could go to live. But I did legally belong to my father and he instructed I go live in his mother's house until he got there.
Finally I saw a dark shape moving in the window and the door made a few groans of resistance before opening. If Aunt Linda had thought my grandmother was sensible before, she certainly didn't now.
"Sadie?" My grandmother's voice was dramatically overblown in emotion as she took a shaky step onto the porch and engulfed me in a surprisingly strong hug for a 67-year-old. "I'm so sorry."