The house was still dark as Sally wolfed down her morning ritual, a cinnamon roll and coffee. There was a silence through the bones of the house, as if conversation had faded into the wallpaper and become monastery hushed. When the phone rang, it pierced the
air, seeming out of place and inappropriate. Recovering her senses, Sally glanced at the call monitor and, seeing it was her sister Adele, did nothing. She wasn’t in the mood for Del’s disapproving manner. She imagined her sister’s face as she made the call, half frame glasses part way down her nose, looking like a button-down schoolmarm, as she found the number – she wouldn’t know it by heart and it wouldn’t be on speed dial – and pressed the buttons. She’d be regretting whatever made her feel she had to make that call. Just to stop the picture in Sal’s head, she turned on the TV, but really didn’t watch it. Instead, she stared out the window, barely registering the one puny tree she could see out in front of the house. Its under-watered leaves hung like loose clothes from the limbs, visibly withering away.
“Hey, Sal, give me a call. Wanna tell you something. Should be home around five.”
What was wrong with Adele’s voice? She had a choked sound, very soft, her “something is wrong” voice. Sal’s sister, usually determined and certain, sounded lost. This was so unusual when it came to Del that the irritation brought a flush to Sal’s face. Why didn’t she just spit it out? Did she have to add drama to the intrusion? Sal huffed to the bathroom, deliberately avoiding the message, which blinked insistently from across the living room. Her first response to nearly anything her sister did or said was a resounding “no.” And today would be no exception.
Del and Sal had been dancing their sister dance ever since Sal was born. Del was three at the time and considered this little wrinkled thing an imposition. Mary, their mother, had had very little to offer in the first place, and adding another child to the mix did not improve things. Del ignored and occasionally taunted the little thing, and, as Sal began to realize that the object of her fondest hope, her big sister, had no wish to know her, she learned to act as if she didn’t care and learned how to needle Del to blow up in front of their mother. One time, the needling led to a punch in the nose, bleeding down Sal’s clean little pink t-shirt, ruining it. Their mother, not geared towards creative solutions, said the same thing every time, “Del, you’re the older one and I expect you to act better.” She would then promptly leave the room.
So, as anyone might expect, Sal took her time returning that call. That day, a Sunday, she cleaned the whole house top to bottom, all two bedrooms, living room, bath, and kitchen. Top to bottom was just a figure of speech, since it was a tiny one-story bungalow. She even cleaned the windows, though she couldn’t remember the last time she had, and it showed in the dirty, greasy streaks across them. She had avoided shame about those windows, and every other dirty corner of the house, by gradually reducing the number of visitors she invited in.
Sal hadn’t opened her eyes to really look at that house in much longer than she could remember. As she scoured the sink and toilet, she noticed that the whole place, not just the windows, had taken on a kind of grey tinge. Nothing had been painted since she and her ex first got the house, a few years into her marriage to Stan. They had big plans back then, but after the first kids came and the arguments amped up, none of those hopes and dreams ever moved forward. Half the time she was thinking, “Why would I fix up a house I’m going to have to get rid of when he leaves me?” Then, after he did leave, and all the kids finally grew up, she didn’t care anymore. Looking back, criticizing each other about what the other wasn’t doing had quickly become their favorite hobby.
The tiny North Oakland Craftsman was remodeled in the sixties, before their time, popcorn ceilings and white paint, when the goal of a remodel was to make a house look like it would if it was recently built. If Sal ever thought about the great price they’d gotten on the house, she imagined no one wanted to fuss with the potential mess that might come with trying to fix what had been done to it, or the asbestos that could, very possibly, be involved. People around their neck of the woods liked the houses better if they were “original.” Sal and Stan, later Sal alone, didn’t really care about that; they were too busy with kids, arguments, and bad jobs. Then, after Stan left, Sal resented the house, as if he had left because of it. Even though she got the house in the divorce, she still had to get a job at the nearest coffee shop, Daily Grind, to make ends meet and keep health insurance. It was really the only one she could get since she had little to no work experience. Anyway, why clean up when she was the only one there? What did it matter?
But that Sunday, Sal got everything spic and span, and it felt pretty good, after all, to look around at the clean formica counter and the dusted table and the clean sheets on the bed, rose colored like she liked. Even with the uncorrectable dingy paint, it did look better after a little elbow grease. And besides, in the background of her mind was the sense that she had won the latest round with Del by not returning her call.
The next day, Sal woke up tired and glum. All the pep of the day before, along with an unusual sense of accomplishment, had vanished like a dream. She pulled herself out of bed and picked clothes that felt as much like pajamas as she thought she could get away with. She went to work in the morning and tried her best to blur through the day, barely conscious. She never once looked out the window to see that it was a bright, crisp day, blue as the sea and smelling like spring. By the time she got home at three, she had pretty much given up on the day. She turned the TV on and watched Real Housewives shows for the rest of the night. Didn’t really matter which town. Was it New Jersey or Orange County? It didn’t once cross her mind to call Adele. Or, to be more truthful, she was thinking about it but did not consider actually doing it.
What Sal was loath to admit was her jealousy of her sister. Del had a great husband who made plenty of money, two kids who adored her – unlike Sal’s three who actively avoided her, and the
fourth, Chloe, whom she actively avoided – and a good group of friends. Plus she had always been the pretty one, by everyone’s estimation. Their parents didn’t try to protect her feelings by keeping that opinion to themselves. So to think about her sister was to feel bad about herself, one and the same, which she needed no help in doing. They might talk at most four times a year, even though they lived a couple miles apart.
It was getting late and Adele’s message was still lighting up the machine, but Sal wasn’t looking. The little red indicator cast a faint shadow on the still grey wall behind it, the glow nearly ominous. Sal had just begun to drift off, the TV blaring loud enough for the neighbors to hear, most likely, when the phone rang again, and again Sal jumped, startled out of her reverie. But this time, before she had time to think about it, she’d picked it up.
“Sally, I’m glad I got you.”
“I was just falling asleep, Del. What’s up?” Sal hoped Del would take the hint that she really wasn’t in the mood for a talk, as if she ever was. Del seemed to ignore that.
“You talked with Chloe lately?”
“Del, you know we don’t talk.” Sal heard the bitter edge to her voice, as if this was Del’s fault and she should be embarrassed to bring it up. Would she never leave Sal alone about that girl? Would she never understand why Sal just couldn’t have Chloe in her life?
“Well, Sal, I don’t know if I should be telling you this, if she’d want me to, I mean, but she had a doctor’s appointment the other day, and they found something. It’s not good, Sally.”
At that moment, it was as if the room collapsed and all Sal saw was the phone book, sitting across from her, with all her mostly out of date numbers in it. The gold writing on the cover and the brown, worn out leather, sitting on the little old table that belonged to their grandmother. Sal insisted she should have it when she died, along with the chair Grandma had needle pointed and the little toothpick cup. Sal just stared at first and didn’t say a damned thing.
Finally, she said, “What are you telling me? I don’t get it.”
“Damn, Sally, I’m telling you Chloe is really sick. She has breast cancer and it’s not the easy kind, whatever that is.” Sal took a breath, stunned into silence again, but minus the resentful, obstinate feeling of a few moments ago.
“Are you still there? Should I have told you?”
How was Sal going to answer that? Should she have told her? Would Sal ever have known if she hadn’t? Would one of the kids have called, or Chloe, or that woman she tried to call her wife? Would Sal have answered the phone?
“I have to get off the phone now, Del,” Sal said quickly and slammed the phone on the hook, way harder than she’d intended. Her antiquated phone, still requiring a dial to use, could actually slam. She stunned herself with the noise. My first born has cancer, Sal heard in her head, my first born has cancer. Repeating, over and over, until she recognized that she hadn’t called her that for years, since that day she invited Sal to lunch to tell her she was with a woman. “My first born...” It
hit her like a tank. “Chloe is my first born.” The air went out of her and she stood there for a minute, watching the landscape of her life shift, like the tectonic plates they talked about after an earthquake.
Just because Sal was going to go crazy if she stood there anymore, she started to clean again, going over the same spots she’d covered just a day ago, but with added fury, rubbing the wood, running the vacuum over the floor three, four times. Anybody watching would have thought she thoroughly liked to clean. She couldn’t stop.
Then her fury hit her, boiling her blood and bringing a fierce tension to every muscle! She’s ruined her life and now she’s gonna go and die, Sal thought. She’s gonna run out of time to make this right! She robbed me of my child and now I can’t get her back! It’s not fair!
Later, Sal would be embarrassed to admit that’s how she’d felt, but in that moment, the rage consumed her, leaving no room inside for anything else. She had been thinking that Chloe’s life was designed to hurt her for so long that, even at a moment like this, she couldn’t give it up. She was going to go down believing that Chloe had destroyed her life by going in the wrong direction. She didn’t even question why she thought so. It just seemed obvious.
If Sal were being honest with herself, she’d say that none of her kids had lived exactly as she wanted. Chase, number two, lived in a little basement studio and did odd jobs. Candice got pregnant very young and stayed married to the guy until the previous year, when she finally admitted to herself what a loser he was. So now she had two little kids, Josie and Ralphy, and a pile of bills and a boring job. Then there was Grant. He started off good, going to college on scholarship and even graduate school but he just couldn’t finish it. Adele called him a perpetual student and Sal had to admit Del was right about that.
That night, when she ran down her list of the offenses her children had committed against her, there was only one item on Chloe’s list. She was a homosexual. She had told Sal lesbian was the word she preferred, but Sal could never bring herself to say that. It always sounded so nasty. Now Sal noticed that she knew so little about Chloe, other than that one fact. She hadn’t allowed anyone to talk about her and she didn’t do her own research, even though she had a Facebook account and could have looked; Chloe wouldn’t have known. But Sal had created a vacuum where Chloe used to be. Now a crushing pain suddenly filled that cavern inside. Sal’s baby was sick.
Sal wasn’t sure how many times Adele called that week, but when she looked back on it later, she had to admit that was nice of her. Sal didn’t go near the phone or call her back. In fact, she didn’t go anywhere, just called in sick and stayed in bed, feeling sorry for herself. She never once thought that maybe she had made a bad choice or that she should try to make things right with Chloe. She was still blaming Chloe for the mess she believed Chloe had made between them and, out of habit or stubbornness, was sticking to her guns. She was sure not going to call her and lower herself.
Though she ached for Chloe now with every cell in her body, she was not going to make the first move.
How long did Sal stay like that, suspended between a terrible past and a worse future? There was a trip to the store for cat food about a week in. She might have ignored that little calico if she hadn’t been yowling in a thoroughly unacceptable tone. Otherwise, it was just an endless stream of reality shows and every bit of ice cream she had in the freezer, which was not a little bit. A few glasses of wine, too, and once all the glasses were dirty, Sal swigged out of the bottle. It was the lowest she’d been since Stan walked out.
It would be hard to say, in retrospect, how she began to inch back towards living. First, she looked at her checkbook and acknowledged that she was close to the bottom of the barrel. She dragged herself to Daily Grind and stood at the counter, usually taking orders, sometimes making drinks. At first, it felt like a big imposition when someone ordered their skinny extra strong triple pump latte with whipped cream, but after a few days, it began to comfort her to do familiar things. She knew how to make a drink. She knew how to say good morning, four dollars and fifteen cents please, have a good day. She knew how to wipe the counter, count the tips. Life resembled an ordinary pattern. She didn’t have to drag herself around as she had when Del first told her about Chloe.
At that point, the nights became unbearable. Sal added extra shifts just to stay occupied. A few nights she drank herself to sleep, even though she’d never been much of a drinker. She finished off the pain pills left over from a sprained ankle and was lucky there were not more. She might have tried to end it if there had been enough. She had never been good at reaching out when something was wrong and avoided it even more now. In fact, right then, she truly believed that she was entirely alone in the world, that no one cared if she lived or died.
What preyed on her mind was that no one would really notice if she never came out of this. Adele continued to call now and then and leave a message like everything was normal. If she’d been dead, there would have been no way for Del to know it. Sal didn’t call back, just the same as always. After that one time, she kept her guard up, prepared for Del to call, so that without much effort, she didn’t pick up the phone. She even wondered if she should have it disconnected. Waste of money, she thought. But she never did. It would be quite a while before she admitted to herself that she kept it for only one reason. Chloe had that number.
As the weather changed, Sal began to perk up just a little. In what might have seemed an odd thing to an outsider, as winter came to her neighborhood, with its California rain and cloudy days, she started to cheer up. The weather matched her state of mind and that was oddly reassuring. Life took on a pattern, however vacant, of home and work. Work and home. Grocery store. Drugstore. Home and work.
Sal hardly noticed when the thought began to plague her mind, you’ve got to talk to someone. Such an unusual thought for her, the loner chick, the “needs nobody” lady. But there it was. You’ve
got to talk to someone. At first, it would pop into her mind occasionally, at odd moments, unbidden. She shooed it away as if it was nothing. Sal just wasn’t the type to need stuff from other folks. Her ex, Stan, used to say he felt a little useless, just standing there while Sal dominated everything. The way he said it was mean, but he wasn’t wrong. That made it a real shocker when once, while Sal was working, she had the most overpowering urge to say to a regular customer, “I haven’t seen my oldest child in ten years and she has cancer.” It was as if the force of the universe wanted to come through her mouth and it took a tremendous act of will not to say it. Was it the softness of her eyes, or the way she said, “thank you,” as if this simple cup of coffee and the person who delivered it made a real difference in her life? Whatever it was, Sal couldn’t shake the voice, you’ve got to talk to someone, and it started seeming like that had something to do with this woman she didn’t even know.
After that first time, Sal took extra effort to chat with her in the mornings about little nothings, really. Did she live in the neighborhood? Did she want a muffin or a breakfast sandwich? When she ordered her coffee, Sal would take the effort to smile though she was usually all business. She knew her name, Kim, since she wrote it on her latte cup every morning, and found herself reaching out.
“How are you this morning, Kim? I know I’m weird, but I’m enjoying the rain.” Responding to this new warmth, Kim asked about Sal. “Do you have children?” “Yes, four.” There was a shock through Sal’s body when that number erupted from her lips.
After she’d told Chloe she was dead to her, she always told anyone who asked she had three children. Yes, two boys and a girl. She’d been telling that lie so long it seemed like the truth. But somehow, she couldn’t pretend with this stranger.
She was working up to ask Kim what she did for a living. By the time she did ask, she’d told Kim more about herself than she told her friends. About loneliness, and old friends who were gone, and not seeing much of her children or grandchildren. Nothing about Chloe, of course.
When it happened, it seemed so natural. “What do you do for a living?” How did Sal know it was an important question? But she’d been afraid to ask, knowing that it was.
“Do you work near here?” “Right around the corner.” “Oh. What do you do?” How had she managed to sound so casual? “I’m a counselor.”
“Oh, that sounds like interesting work.”
That’s all she could manage right then. Kim smiled and moved to a one-person high table, pulled out a computer, and began to do something on it. In Sal’s imagination, Kim was solving someone’s problem, completely and forever, right there in Daily Grind. She imagined the person on the other end, grateful to receive the warmth and care this kind woman offered.
That was a Friday and Kim didn’t come in when Sal worked the next day. No surprise, since Sal had found out she didn’t live near the shop. Sal was building up her courage, for what, she couldn’t say. She just knew that she’d need it for what came next.
Monday was sunny, incongruous with Sal’s state of mind. Her insides were swirling and her knees felt weak. For no reason that was clear to her, Sal still felt like something big was about to happen. She walked to work instead of taking the car, putting off getting there. The line was out the door by the time she arrived. They’d be charging up the Monday morning hordes heading to work. All those long lines of folks tanking up on their caffeine. Daily Grind addiction, they’d joke in the back room.
Sal almost thought Kim wasn’t going to show up. Why did she care? Sal couldn’t understand herself because she didn’t believe in therapy, counseling, whatever you want to call it. She had been quick to offer the opinion, whenever the subject came up, that people who went to therapy were a bunch of navel gazing into themselves entitled bitches. But she was imagining herself asking, how much does it cost? Can I come talk to you? I need to talk to someone. The persistent ring of her own voice in her ears was louder every day.
Finally, Sal saw Kim walking towards the door. She took a deep breath and got ready. There she was.