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When we were both quite young, she told me that she had found her favorite quote. At the time, I was certain that she was showing off because she was older and because I could not yet read books worth quoting. It was from The Great Gatsby, so you can see why I believed her to be merely pretentious. She wrote it on her books, on our bedroom door, and on my arm. She would pin me down, Sharpie in hand, and write in small, crooked letters, “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Then she’d stand up and say triumphantly, “It’s for your own damn good.”
We were like sisters.
No, actually, we were sisters.
Then she left Indiana, taking a very pink suitcase with her. It was our mother’s, from her Playboy years. She was very sad that we had not known our mother before her reformation, or as my sister put it, “Mom’s pre-bible-fucking days.”
She hitchhiked to the Haight-Ashbury district, where she wrote letters saying that she would send me a bus ticket to come and see her. She said I’d have a blast roller-skating on acid along the boardwalk with her and all of her new friends.
I wrote back reminding her that I was on crutches for the summer, that this was a product of my part-time, Skatin’ Betty’s Burgers waitressing gig. I wrote back to tell her for the third time that I had rolled right into the town’s sole Cadillac. I wrote back saying that I might have some trouble roller-skating along the boardwalk on acid.
She wrote and said that I always had to ruin everything for her. And that, fine, she was just gonna buy drugs with my roller-skate fund!
I wrote back informing her that I was not aware of the existence of a roller-skate fund.
And that’s when she stopped writing.
I was sixteen and she was twenty, and she had dropped out of school six months before graduation. “It was time for me to go,” she would tell me. “I just had to go.”
It was time for me to go too, but she’d said no. She said that I would cramp her style. I hated her for leaving me there with them. But she couldn’t hear me, and so I stayed.
My mother immediately declared her “dead to me.” She then blamed Rock ’n’ Roll, the Devil, and Powdered Jell-O Pudding, specifically the pistachio kind.
My father – having only ever paid attention to the neighbors’ sons, as he did not have any of his own – simply asked, “When is your sister coming back from college?” She’d left in the summer when you couldn’t walk through town without hearing at least one dumb bumpkin shout, “We put a man on the moon, a goddamn man on the moon.” My father continued to ask this until the start of the Reagan Era.
The neighbors’ sons were Timmy and Tommy Robbins, and my father never missed their little league games. He once beat up another kid’s dad – right there in the bleachers – because the guy had said that Timmy threw like a girl.
Somehow, it just seemed like it was meant for Timmy to take me to prom senior year. My father even let him drive the Hudson. He gave Timmy the keys, patted him on the back, and shed a single tear when Timmy started the car and shifted gears.
My mother was ecstatic because his family was loaded and, more importantly, because they were good midwestern folk. Their father’s great-great-grandfather had founded the first Piggly Wiggly. Timmy and Tommy Robbins’ mother was a partner at the only law firm in town, and my mother raised an eyebrow at this, before saying, “But she’s a real respectable woman, a true lady. I know this because she always serves tea. And only a true lady knows to serve tea to company.” Every local girl would have been honored to become Mrs. Piggly Wiggly.
I waited for that bus ticket, the one that she was supposed to have sent by now.
That summer after high school graduation came. The Virginia Slims cigarette ads on TV said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It was, after all, the start of a new era.
“Go into pharmacy,” my mother said, “It’s practical, and you’re suited for boring monotony.”
So I did, because she told me to, and because it meant my father would pay.
“Why does she have to go to school if she’s gonna marry Timmy?” my father groaned.
“I don’t want Lillian Robbins to think she’s some unrefined.” My mother glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, then folded her hands in her lap and sighed. She was providing me with an escape clause, should I ever need it.
I’d given up on bus tickets and her calls, when I finally heard from her at the end of that summer. She spoke quickly, and her tone was all panicked excitement.
“I’m gonna take you to a rally,” she said. “Come visit me and I’ll take you.”
“Can I call you on this number?” I asked.
“No. This is Lars and Juan Pedro’s number. They’re letting me use it while I crash on their couch.”
“I don’t want to be a pharmacist.”
“What? I can’t hear you. Lars and Juan Pedro are doing it in the kitchen. This house is so micro-suburban. It’s giving me bad vibes. I’ll call you later.”
“Wait. You don’t think I’m boring, do you?”
“Come visit me in a few months, and I’ll take you to a Dead concert. You can crash on Lars and Juan Pedro’s couch with me. You’ll like them. They’re, like, super-offended every time I call them The Kaiser and Martinez, though. Pff, what’s up with that?”
Then she hung up.
My mother picked the school out. It was one of only two universities in Indiana that had a pharmacy program. “Six years and you’ll graduate with a PhD,” they told us at orientation. It reminded me of an advertisement for soap flakes.
“They had a rally here against unwed mothers,” my mother said. “So I know this school has good morals and old-fashioned values.”
Four years passed. Timmy had, by then, become an expert at sneaking into my dorm. He paid the RA a dollar to look the other way.
“I don’t feel like it,” I would tell him.
“C’mon,” he said, as he stroked my hair. “I can break your neck. You know I can do it.”
I always gave in.
“Timmy’s a real good guy,” my father, who barely ever spoke to me, said. “I’m real proud of you, Hon.”
Before she left, she taught me things. She taught me the difference between good weed and the playground shit. She taught me how to unlock bedroom doors with hairclips and car doors with coat-hangers. She taught me that I should always buy bathing suits one size too small because they expand in water.
But she never taught me that he’s supposed to pull out. Not that it would’ve mattered with Timmy anyway. The morning sickness started when I was finishing my fifth year. And who was I supposed to tell?
When I came home for the summer, my mother said, “Your sister ruined everything. She could have had a nice life, a good respectable life, like the one that you’re going to have.”
“I’m taking dad’s car,” I said. “I’m going to go buy some milk, and maybe some eggs.”
“Ooh,” she said. “Go to Piggly Wiggly. They’ve been giving us a discount there.”
I took the I-80 West. Normally, it takes a few days, but I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t sleep, so I got there in a little over a day. She wasn’t hard to find, and I made sure to bring the drug samples that they had given us in Advanced Pharmacology. Hippies will talk to you when you have drug samples.
She was sitting in an outdoor café, where she was making a very lethargic group of people laugh.
I embraced her and said, despite myself, “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been here, of course.” She neglected to look me in the eye.
I made a motion to leave, but instead she plopped herself back down into her chair. Reluctantly I joined her troupe.
Her friends were in awe at my small town quirks and asked if I was aware of the political implications of cotton farming. I was not aware of the political implications of cotton farming. They asked me if I understood how significant I could be to the country’s political schema. I did not know how significant I could be to the country’s political schema. I asked them if there was a bathroom nearby. They did not know if there was a bathroom nearby, so I ended up vomiting on the floor. Most of it got on this one guy’s shoes.
“Hey man,” he said, “I didn’t say I wanted to ball you. In fact, I really don’t think I want to anymore.”
A guy sitting next to him smiled at me in a way that made me want to cry.
Something about these guys depressed me. They knew that none of it mattered, but still they insisted on pretending that it did. They were dumb, but they probably knew more things than I ever would, and the snickers in their eyes told me so.
I wanted to do what they did. I wanted her life. I wanted to pick up and leave mine behind.
“We’re going now,” she said. “You have to see where I live.”
The house was, in fact, very micro suburban.
“This is Martinez and this, here, this man is The Kaiser.” She moved her hand to each, as she said their names.
“I hate that name, and please stop telling people I’m Mexican,” Juan Pedro said.
“I am, in fact, German,” Lars said, and smiled. Irrelevant as it may be, you really should know that Lars had great teeth.
“Ha ha, damn foreigners always say the darndest things.” She laughed, and playfully punched Lars on the shoulder. Juan Pedro rolled his eyes. Lars smiled and said that he and Juan Pedro were going to go make strudel now.
“I’m pregnant,” I told her.
“I’ve discovered that alcohol is a bourgeois device.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Tennis is also a bourgeois device.”
Finally, she said, “He sounds like a nice guy. He sounds perfectly normal. Isn’t that a good thing?”
I stared at her, mouth agape. She asked me if I wanted to get churros. Then she changed her mind and said that she wanted to go to the beach. She asked if I had money.
When I said nothing, she turned away from me and yelled, “Yo Kaiser, you got any bread. I’m fuckin’ broke, man.” Juan Pedro came into the living room, and gave her a few bills. Then she left, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Lars popped his head out of the kitchen and shouted after her, “But, the strudel.”
Juan Pedro crossed his arms and watched her go. Then he turned to me and said, “She’s not coming home tonight. You can sleep on the couch.”
I left the next morning. Lars gave me some strudel to take home and said that he was sorry that she had not come back.
We had to have the wedding done and over with quickly. It was okay though, because I got to wear a pretty dress and his mother hated it. That night, Timmy said, “You’re mine now. You’ll always be mine now.”
I had her in ’76, when I was twenty-four years old. They named her Lilly, after his mother. And I knew that she would never really be mine. I graduated that year and started working at a nursing home where seventy-five percent of the medications were insulin.
I called. I called to tell her about Lilly. But Lars picked up and said, “We have no idea as to where she is, but Juan Pedro says to try Santa Monica.”
Four more summers passed. I began to find that my concealer was not covering the bruises. Timmy said that it really wasn’t his fault. Timmy said it was mine. Timmy said that he could walk right out and get another girl to replace me. Lilly took her first steps.
Timmy’s mother insisted that I visit her, with Lilly of course. We would be sitting down to tea, Lilly in my lap, and she would smile as she stroked her hair, and she would whisper to me, “I can take her away from you if you leave him.”
Lilly would giggle, because those were her first words and because this was her favorite grandma. They referred to each other as, “My Lilly.”
Timmy’s mother only had conversations with people over tea. “She has a small child,” she said one day, her eyes shifting over me as she spoke directly to my husband, “Maybe she shouldn’t keep working.”
Timmy nodded and looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and said, “She’s right, you know.”
I decided that I hated tea.
I found out that night that Timmy did not, in fact, throw like a girl. He stroked my hair and ran his fingers over the fresh bruise on my left cheek.
I grimaced. But I said, instead, “Alright, I’ll stop working.”
I left the next day.
I took the I-80 West again. But this time I couldn’t make it all the way without stopping. Lilly cried in the motel that we spent the night in, “You took me away from my daddy! You took me away from my Lilly!” She was four years old.
I was sure that they had left by now. I was sure that the micro suburban house would now be empty. But they were there. They would always be there.
“This is awful,” said Lars, “We ran out of Strudel yesterday.”
“Do you know where she is,” I asked.
Juan Pedro shook his head.
“That’s okay,” said Lars, “I can always make more strudel.”
I wish I could tell you that it ended there. I wish I could tell you that Lars and Juan Pedro opened an organic pet food company, which catered exclusively to chinchilla owners. I wish I could tell you that the methadone clinic down the street needed a new pharmacist, and that I found this to be a pleasant contrast to the nursing home. I wish I could tell you that Lilly and I lived with them, and that she too called them The Kaiser and Martinez, because none of us could really forget her, and because none of us really wanted to anyway.
For five years, we relished in this fairytale. But Lillian Robinson was not accustomed to breaking promises made over tea. Of course they took her away from me. But like I said, she was never really mine. We were watching the Iran-Contra affair on the news when it happened, November of ’86, two weeks before Lilly’s tenth birthday. There were police officers and social workers. Lilly cried. Juan Pedro and Lars cried. I said nothing. I knew that I couldn’t.
They said that my line of work was hazardous to a child’s health. They said that I was shacked-up with two men of questionable morals. They said that I had abandoned my husband.
Lars and Juan Pedro said that there was no reason for me to leave, that they could help me get her back. But it was time for me to go.
This is not how I wanted to come to California.
I should probably tell you about the unsanitary room now.
I moved to Santa Monica and took a job at yet another methadone clinic. Hey, they were in style back then and popping up faster than Wal-Marts. I waited for her. I knew that if I saw her again, it would be here. But she never came.
Instead, a girl, about seventeen, came up to me in the clinic. She was quivering, and after I gave her the methadone, and after she signed the sheet, she gave me a note. I opened it. It asked me if I remembered the Gatsby quote. It asked me if I would come to the Starz Motel. It said that I would come if I remembered. It said that she was in room 5B.
The room had shag carpeting and mirrors on the ceiling. She lay on the bed, spread out, looking very much like I did when we were children and she was writing on my arm. I made my way slowly toward her.
She lifted her head and said, all groggy yet eager, “Hey, you remembered.”
On the bedside table lay a few bottles, which I knew to be morphine from the colors on the label, and a single syringe.
“So, what finally got you?”
“I’m not really sure what-how to explain it. It’s starting in my legs though. But, it doesn’t matter. It’s time for me to go.”
“I should leave soon. I’m on break,” I said.
“You have a nice job now. You can thank me for that. If I had taken you roller skating on the boardwalk you wouldn’t have had a nice job now.”
“I have to go now. I gotta go order more methadone for the junkies.”
“I did good by you.”
“They really grow on you after a while, though.”
“I gave you a normal life.”
“Every time they come in.”
“I saved you.”
I sat down on the bed and stroked her hair. “Oh yeah, you were a real martyr.”
This was in ’92, the same year Dan Quayle misspelled the word “potato.” When I left, I took care to close the door quietly behind me.
I read that book, long after I was supposed to. That quote is the only part of it that’s any good.
She asked me, in the note, if I remembered. Of course I remembered. I’ve come instead to believe that, even then, she already knew that when you’re a woman, things are meant to happen to you and the best that you can hope for is the ignorance to smile because that is as much as you know.
I can’t tell you if my life is any better now. I can’t tell you what we did and didn’t do right. I can’t tell you how I feel about anything anymore.