It is Thanksgiving, the great day of dinner, of Dockers and dress shirts and marshmallow-sweetened squash. This year we are forgoing our standard slow graze on the home front to spend the day with my sister and her boyfriend’s family, meeting them for the first time—on this, a National Holiday. The whole situation has got my parents up in arms. My mother likes to do the cooking herself, and my father has been ranting about the traffic the whole way out to Long Island. I know the truth is that my sister is only home from college for the weekend and my parents would rather we have Carly all to ourselves.
“Help me out on this one, Ellie,” she instructed me over the phone. “I’m having a hard time getting Mom and Dad to say yes. What you should tell them is that if they don’t participate in my life, it’s entirely possible they’ll just get left behind.”
So I told them this. I laid it on thick. And now here we are on the L.I.E. making good time and watching the accidents slip past.
“I just hope she’s not pregnant,” my mother says.
“She’s not pregnant,” I call out from the very back of our station wagon, where I’m stretched out watching the city recede through the tailgate window.
“Really?” my mother asks.
“Such is my belief,” I say. This is something Carly has taught me. She has long advocated the combination of being vague and authoritative. I wait for a response and watch two little girls in the SUV in the next lane wave to me and press their tongues against the glass. I don’t really feel like making faces in return, but I figure I’d better. In an hour or two we might all be stuck together at the same kids’ table. I’m fourteen, so I’m never sure where they’ll put me.
Carly has been pregnant before—her freshman year. This is something my mother knows but my father does not. She has been pregnant once and had scabies twice, both times from a thrift-store pair of pants; both times Wrangler corduroys. She will declare this kind of thing at a party, and because she is beautiful and skinny and resolute, suddenly it is okay to talk about the pictures of seashores taped to the ceiling of Planned Parenthood, and everyone is anxious to tell their tales of infections contracted by way of thrift-store clothes.
I miss her more than I probably should. She goes to college in Portland, Maine, which isn’t so very far but far enough. Besides, she’s busy. She wrote a big paper on the socio-economics of Portland’s tattoo parlors and their correlation to the clinical conventions described by Foucault. Her paper was published, and it earned her lots of funding. “Funding and a boyfriend,” she likes to say. She met Alex at the Painted Lady. They have been going out since July. My parents think it’s premature to be getting the families together, but Carly called the shot, I championed the cause, and now it’s happening. I talked to her on the phone last night, and she warned me to brace myself for the small talk and the Shelbys’ commemorative coin collection. “We’ve just spent an entire day discussing the artistry of the Franklin Mint,” Carly said. “I’m not exaggerating. It’s going to be snooze city for you, Ellie. I’m so sorry, kid.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I’ll bring a magazine.”
“Make it a dirty magazine so you can whip it out at dinner and watch how everyone responds. One small move and you can keep us both amused.”
I thought for a moment about where I might actually be able to find a dirty magazine, but I finally decided I could get Carly rolling with Business Week. It’s my timing she digs, and the fact that I’m always on her side.
“Answer me this,” my father says now. I can hear his sigh all the way from the front seat. “Are these the kind of people who are going to try to make me watch football?”
I don’t answer. I never let on a thing. I just watch the city skyline slip away behind us. We come over a rise and the Empire State and the Chrysler Building are there and then gone, ducking out of sight like two sisters with a secret.
We arrive at the Shelbys’ at a quarter to three, our father pulling down the long, wooded private road that leads to their house. The house is brown and angular, that old kind of modern, the roof spotted with what seems like too many skylights. There are no shutters or balconies or flourishes, just straight wooden planks and huge windows, which come to a peak high among the bald trees. There is a faded croquet set under a bush by the driveway. If it gets boring, I know Carly and I will probably come play out here.
My mother opens the tailgate door for me, letting in the cool air, the smell of suburbs, cold grass, and fireplaces. She offers her hand, but I slide out on my own. “Do you need some help with the pears?” she asks. We have brought a tower of foil-wrapped Harry & David pears, as if to offer up something pure to compensate for my sister’s blemished past. My mother is always a little apologetic, as if it’s her fault that Carly does things like have sex, get pregnant, and write papers on tattoos. She will never bring bottles of wine to these kinds of functions. Just fruit or a book. These pears are arranged on a foam stand spray-painted a refracting silver, which crumbles a little as I slide the thing out.
“All our glory is falling to pieces,” I say. There are tiny foil bits all over the back of the car, catching the light outside and making rainbows on all the other junk in there—beach towels and magazines, my old flip-flops, and Carly’s tennis racket. It’s like a clubhouse we’ve abandoned, the disco ball taking one last spin.
Mr. Shelby comes out to greet us. “Welcome! Welcome, one and all!” He is not wearing shoes, and his big white feet and their yellowing toes are poking out from his khakis.
“Hello,” my mother says. She has bright gray eyes and high, round cheekbones, which keep her looking young from the front, though in profile you can see how her skin hangs soft and defeated on the sides. She reaches a hand out to Mr. Shelby.
“Come in! Come in!” He booms like he is P. T. Barnum and we are his circus—my mother walking tiny, tightrope steps through the gravel, my father approaching like the strong man with his golden tower of pears, and me crawling out of the tailgate like a clown from an overstuffed car. I hate the Shelbys already.
Mrs. Shelby meets us in the foyer, which is skylit and has a big mirror in a heavy wood frame, tucked into which are about a hundred family photos. And there I am with my parents reflected smack in the center. The house smells like things have been cooking for a week solid. Everything is wood, the walls and the floors and the exposed rafters and beams, all of it porous and holding the smell of turkey and apples, baking citrus and celery. I’m sure my mother’s having chef envy. We have not had a normal Thanksgiving in so long. Last year Carly was spending a semester in San Francisco, and we did the whole dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” says Mrs. Shelby. She has brown spots on her cheek and tissues poking out of her rust-colored sweater sleeve. She is old, which shouldn’t surprise me. Alex is eight years older than Carly, who is eight years older than me. It sounds like the start of a logic problem on a standardized test. If we all keep moving at a steady pace, how long will it take to catch up to one another. “This must be Ellie.” She smiles at me, hands folded in front of her, tissue catching the thin leather band of her watch.
My mother is standing behind me, her hand resting on my shoulder, guarding my breastbone. I can see it in the mirror pressing where she couldn’t if I actually had breasts. She combs a finger lightly through my wimpy hair. I am so plain I can’t even look at myself. I am not going to ask for my sister, even though I haven’t seen her in months. I am not going to scramble after her. I know that if I can hold out, Carly will come to me, but I can’t help myself. “Where’s Carly?” I ask Mrs. Shelby, and then my sister appears, summoned by my own eagerness, it seems.
She is standing in the archway that connects the foyer to the rest of the bright, woodsy house. Her skinny arms are crossed over her stomach so she can scratch at either side of her back. Her hair is dyed a bluish black, and the ends are poking out beneath her bony elbows. She’s wearing jeans and a cool Indian blouse.
“How’s tricks?” she asks me. There’s a quiet in her voice no matter what volume she’s speaking at. It’s the register designed for me to understand, a layer of sarcasm, or innuendo, or mockery. I can excavate the meaning without trying. She’s telling me it’s boring here.
“I’m very excited about my new dress,” I say. I bite my lip as I turn in a slow circle, wrists flexed. My dress is a purple and beige plaid sort of pinafore that my mother bought for me to wear over a turtleneck. I’m in loafers and slouching socks. I look like a Catholic school girl.
“It’s lovely. You’re a lovely princess,” Carly says.
Mrs. Shelby is beaming at us, but my mother knows better. She knows that in one isolated moment we have managed to make fun of everything in this room, the whole occasion of being here instead of at home, all of us in the kitchen cooking together in shorts and socks.
“Thanks so much for having us,” our mother says to Mrs. Shelby. “What a lovely place.”
They stand in the foyer talking about the exposed beams and the way the area is booming since the New York Times real estate column sent the city people in.
“Come, Princess,” says my sister. “Let’s get Alex and we’ll give you the tour.”
Carly takes me by the hand; nobody else is invited.
“I brought you something,” I say, stopping her in the middle of a skylit hallway. I tug her into a bathroom, flip on the light and the fan. Tucked into my skirt pocket are four Popsicle sticks, each one topped with a laminated photo of one of the members of our family. “If you miss us when you’re back at school, you can just have a little puppet show.”
I demonstrate holding the Popsicle stick head of my dad and having him say, “Well, well Carly, answer me this: Must we stay through the whole meal, or can we just say hello and then leave?” Then our mother: “You’re not pregnant. You promised you’d never get pregnant again—unless it’s time. Unless I’m ready.”
Carly laughs. She likes weird things, and I try hard to accommodate. She puts her hair up into a bun and pokes our family swizzle sticks into the knot. I can see my puppet face, winking, just behind her ear.
“Thanks,” she says. “And thanks for coming.”
“Can you explain to me about Mr. Shelby’s feet?”
“I believe it’s a Depression-era hosting tradition,” she says. “When there’s not enough food, ruin the appetite of the guests.”
“I miss you,” I say.
“No, you don’t,” she corrects me. She lifts the earring dangling from my left ear and inspects it. “Did Mom get you these?”
“Oh.” It’s unclear if this is an endorsement or a condemnation. “Let’s go find Alex. He’s probably giving Dad a lecture on body art and tribal branding.” Carly rolls her eyes.
“How fascinating,” I say, taking her hand. “He sounds absolutely fascinating.”
We find Alex standing with dad by the living room bookshelves, expounding on the wonders of the tiny Bose speakers set in with all the old hardcovers about modern art and war. Alex is skinny and several inches taller than our father; he has to hunch over to look Dad in the eye. He has dark, messy hair, but he’s wearing a crisp, white button-down and spanking new black jeans—what Carly has always called the aging-hipster tuxedo. Under that shirt, I know Alex has Bruce Lee tattooed on one bicep and Patrick Ewing on the other, but now he has his sleeves rolled down, and I wonder for a minute if he’s hiding everything from my parents or his own. He nods a lot as he moves books aside, showing my dad some hidden wiring. He’s so lanky and quick, he’s like a bobblehead doll.
“Hey, Alex,” Carly calls softly, but it’s like his ears are trained for her voice. He looks up, forgetting my dad and the bookcase and the high-end audio. “This is Ellie.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he says, and I believe him. His face cracks into an enormous smile, and he starts nodding now in my direction. “What happened to the pink hair? In all the photos you had that pink hair?”
“I got rid of it.” My stomach is sort of winding up with something. For the first time I’m nervous that he won’t like me. He has a great square chin with a dimple in the middle, and I can picture Carly kissing it. I can’t stop thinking of myself kissing it. I try to remember certain things Carly has taught me: if you want to be a little scary, she says, speak slowly and look the guy right in the eye. “The thing about having pink hair,” I tell him, “is that—even after the fact—all anyone wants to talk about is your pink hair.”
“I’m impressed.” He gives my parents an amused little smile. “I was practically eighteen before I did anything I couldn’t seem to put behind me.”
Everyone titters, even Mr. Shelby, everyone but me. I’m unsure if Alex is making fun of me or himself, but I don’t really have time to think about it. Mrs. Shelby claps her hands. “Sit. Sit. Everyone sit.”
The adults all position themselves on the two plaid couches, which face each other across a coffee table. Just beyond them is a wall of sliding glass doors, two sets looking out to the Shelbys’ backyard, a hilly stretch of patchy lawn, and then the woods, which have got us surrounded.
Carly and Alex lean together on the bookcase, their long, bony bodies side by side. Alex gives my sister’s waist a squeeze, and I can suddenly picture him coming with us to the beach, rubbing sunblock under Carly’s bikini strings. I don’t know if the adults are also imagining Alex and my sister nearly naked together at the beach, but an enormous silence has fallen over the room just at the sight of the two of them standing so close. It’s impressive—you can feel the secrets surging between them. I can tell my mother is freaking out from the way she keeps recomposing herself, rearranging her hem and her hands in her lap. I smile at Carly and she smiles back. We float up and over the discomfort in the room. It’s the first time ever I’ve seen my parents act like Carly’s life is none of their business.
“So, Ellie,” Mrs. Shelby says. “Why don’t you tell us a little about you.” She leans over her lap toward me to prove she’s interested, and suddenly I’m the center of everyone’s attention. They want to know what I study, what I like to do after school, and how I feel about growing up in the city. Mrs. Shelby wants to know if I’ve always been tall or if I had one big growth spurt. Mr. Shelby has a million questions about prep classes for the PSAT. I’m standing at the front of the room, against the glass doors, like I’m in school giving a presentation. No one’s even offered me a soda. They can ask anything, I realize—I’m a child and I’m theirs. Carly pulls the Popsicle sticks out of her hair and mimics me, bouncing up and down the puppet with my head on it. Mr. Shelby scratches at one foot with the other and asks what they teach in the private schools in eighth-grade bio, like he’s trying to figure out if I know about sex yet or not. I would put up with this for nobody else but my sister.
Finally, I say, “I think I need Carly to show me the bathroom.”
“She’s very cute,” Mrs. Shelby tells my mother as Carly and I walk down the hall.
“I’ll pay you back,” Carly promises. “When it’s your turn to bring the big boyfriend around.”
“You better,” I say, though by the time I’m in college, who knows where she’ll be?
Once we manage our escape, Alex decides to take us on a house tour. He starts by showing Carly and me a picture of himself that’s hanging in the hall. It’s from his boarding school days, when he looked rumpled and naughty, his dark hair a little too long. He looks bigger and broader now, but he’s still so thin, and he still stands like a boy with his shoulders hunched and fists in his pockets like he’s hiding a handful of dope in there. I can’t figure out what it is that makes a person finally look like a certifiable grown-up. He should already. He turned twenty-nine this year.
He shows us a million uninteresting things. He points out a wooden beam in the ceiling that’s from an antique whaling boat. He shows us the place on the staircase where as a kid he once got his head caught between the slats. “And this is the kitchen,” he says as he pushes a swinging door into the bright and spacious room where copper pots are simmering on a yellow stove. There is the smell of turkey, wine, and warm, bready stuffing. A noise comes from the oven, the drizzle and hiss of fat falling away. On the butcher block there is a set of old wood-handled carving tools, which look worn and exhausted; they almost look like Mrs. Shelby, waiting, tired but patient, for company to come and then go.
In the past I’ve had lots of fun hanging out with Carly and her boyfriends. More often than not, it becomes two against one. John Giacometti, for example. One summer when Carly was in high school and we had a rental on the Cape, she and I spent a whole Saturday trying to see how many times we could get him to take us to 7-Eleven. “I’ve forgotten my Chapstick,” she’d said. “I’m going to have to go back.”
I’ve forgotten my licorice, my bubblegum, my Geritol. I kept my eye on the odometer; we put on almost thirty miles. He was so whipped on Carly he would have driven back and forth to the moon without question.
“Listen, Alex,” I say. “I don’t so much need a tour.”
“Well, you’re not really getting one.” He opens the door next to the brown fridge, and it takes me a second to realize it’s the garage we’re heading for. There is no car and not a lot of stuff around—not like the garages of the summer houses we’ve rented. There are no bags of clothes waiting to go to the Salvation Army, no broken skis and wooden tennis rackets, no abandoned easels, dart boards, and potter’s wheels. This garage has been through its final purging. The Shelbys seem to be people who have figured out where to put their past—they’ve gotten rid of it. Our house is in limbo. We keep everything. Carly’s room is still perfectly intact, as if ready and waiting for her to move back home. The one change is that my father set up a fax machine on Carly’s desk, and sometimes I’ll find him searching for paper clips or scissors in her mess. Every surface is covered with rubber spiders and old mannequin parts she found in front of Saks and a slew of old teapots she once potted with aloe. It has never occurred to me until this very second that holding on to all that clutter might just be a phase.
Here in the Shelbys’ garage there is just a hose coiled on a hook, a standing fan for the summertime, a washer/dryer setup, and Windex, Fast Orange, and Mr. Clean lined up on a shelf by the window, catching the weak sunlight like stained glass. The concrete floor has been painted a slate gray, perfect and new but for a work-boot footprint by the door. The dryer is going, inflicting rhythm on us, pumping humidity and fabric softener out into the room.
Carly hops up onto it, her feet banging against the metal. She sort of undulates her body like she’s put a quarter in the thing and is going for a ride. Alex passes her a cigarette, which she passes to me. She pats the washer beside her, and I jump up onto it, my loafers louder than I’ll ever be as they bang against the steel. Alex misses a beat before giving Carly a look like he’s not about to contribute to the delinquency of a minor.
“It’s okay, Chancellor. She can smoke.” Carly tugs him by the belt loop of his jeans.
“You smoke a lot?” he asks.
I don’t answer. I don’t say anything. I just take a light off Carly’s match, breathe in, and exhale. Carly always says I’m scariest when I say nothing.
“You were great in there,” she says. “Who knew you’d be the frontline between me and the third degree.” She pinches at the side of my butt; the joke is always that I don’t have one. “You’ve become a fabulous decoy.”
I shrug, like it’s no big deal, though everyone knows I love making her proud. She wanted a brother or sister for years while our parents kept trying and trying, and I guess she must have absorbed some of their urgency as her own. She has always taken care of me. The story goes that on one of the first cold days I was alive, she wrapped my entire body in yarn to try and make me a sweater. My mother was terrified she’d asphyxiate me.
“So when are you going to come visit us in Portland?” asks Alex.
“Well, when are you going to invite me?”
“You’re always invited,” he says, like there is an allegiance between himself and Carly that might be bigger than our own.
I press my hip against Carly’s and laugh. “I know I’m always invited.”
Alex shrugs, like he’s too shy to take it, instead of a tattooed guy more than twice my age. Carly doesn’t laugh with me. She reaches for him, tugging him by his sleeve until he leans low enough for her to kiss his ear. She pulls him close and leans her head on his chest as she talks to me, as if this will make him part of the conversation. I can tell by the way he gives in to playing headrest that he probably wants to marry her. Everyone has always wanted to marry her. In high school Carly read to a blind lady who lived in our building, and suddenly everyone at her school was after the Community Service office to find blind ladies who needed to be read to. Watch, if Carly came up with some philosophical thing against tattoos, Alex would probably volunteer to get his own skin removed.
He stands to the side of our conversation and starts brushing hair from Carly’s neck so he can plant a bunch of little kisses there. I expect her to roll her eyes at this behavior, but she doesn’t. She directs one of her arms back to rub at Alex’s leg. The other is holding her burning cigarette directed at me. She’s like a single star trying to be in two constellations.
“So what’s new at home?” she asks me. Her tooth is chipped. I hadn’t noticed before, and I wonder if my parents know. It’s the right one in front, a tiny triangle of it missing, snapped off like a page in a book that’s been dog-eared too many times.
“The only big news at home is the DVD player,” I say. “One of Dad’s students gave it to him, and now you can get him to watch anything, as long as you’ll watch it in a foreign language. He’ll even watch Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—as long as you’re willing to watch it in French.”
The two of them laugh, holding hands.
“Bon matin, Monsieur Petit Déjeuner,” I say, quoting Pee-wee.
Alex rolls up his sleeves and reveals the veiny insides of his forearms. They are a wash of color, scaly fish, blue and orange. They must be koi, like in Japan. They look like the back of the kimono Carly uses as a bathrobe, and I wonder if that’s where Alex got the idea. I get a little nervous watching them, together, watching me. I go on. “And Aunt Carol comes over Friday nights to watch Iron Chef with Mom. These days everything in the house is dubbed.”
I do my Kitchen Stadium routine, and then a little Star Wars in Spanish, a little Italian Cool Hand Luke. I do every bit I know. I see the two of them laughing together, and it’s hardly different from performing for the grown-ups in the living room. I’m the one all alone, rattling on and on, their big fat stupid clown. I can’t seem to stop myself. “What happened to your tooth?” I ask abruptly. All I want is for her to have to answer me.
My sister and Alex look at each other and laugh, like they both know what happened, but they’re not telling. He kisses the top of her head, and I don’t get an answer at all.
“So what about you?” Alex asks. He squeezes my sister’s hand. “Do you have a boyfriend? If we come visit, do we get to meet your special someone?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m fourteen.”
“Come on,” Carly says. “There’s no shame to be had about a little sumpin’ sumpin’.”
I look up at the row of Mr. Clean and Windex, looking to the colors and the light for some kind of rescue. I don’t know what the right response is. I just wish I could rewind the whole conversation back to the part where Alex asks if I’ll come visit. Yes, I would say. Thanks very much. Or if I could roll back time even further, I would take my parents’ side that we should have the holiday alone, that we don’t get Carly enough—for just one day can’t we have her all to ourselves?
“What about Kenji? How’s Kenji?” Carly prompts. She reaches over to go for my butt again, but I jump away to the floor.
“Kenji is my friend,” I say. I am wondering what’s going on in the house. I am wondering exactly how late we’ll have to stay here. I start making my way back and forth across the empty garage, pretending I’m walking on the balance beam, umbrella steps, stag leaps, tour jeté. I start talking fast. “Eric Shumaker, on the other hand, is a whole other story. Every girl in school loved him—deeply—until field day. He was wearing those shorts with the built-in lining, and one of his testicles popped out when he was running hurdles. No one can look at him now. I’m back to my crush on the Rebel Records guy. He never steps out from behind that counter, so even if he pops out of his pants, at least I’ll never have to see.”
Alex stubs his cigarette out on the ground. “Better make sure it’s out,” I say. “You know your dad’s got that thing about shoes.”
Alex smiles at me, a long, weird smile, and I don’t look away. It feels like if I can just stare at him hard enough, he’ll manage to recognize the might Carly thinks I have inside. Instead he takes my sister’s chin, tilts her face toward his, and kisses her. They kiss. I can see his tongue bridging their mouths, and I can hear their teeth clack together. I go through the ballet positions doing pliés; I haven’t done ballet since I was in the third grade. They’re still at it. From the side it looks like Alex is swallowing my sister whole. Her eyes are not open; they are not looking for me. I hate him. I really do. I slip back into the kitchen, where my mother and Mrs. Shelby are peering in on the bird.
I sneak by, toward the foyer where we first came in. I grab my mother’s long wool coat from the rack, and I head out the front door.
Outside, it is biting with cold. My legs are bare, pale and flaky; I’ve forgotten how awful they are in winter. It’s barely even four o’clock, but the light has gone thin and a little bit green, like the air itself isn’t feeling too well. Our car is parked parallel to the house, and I walk to the far side of it, making big, weird steps to feel my mother’s satin lining catching on my goosebumped skin and the leg hair she still won’t let me shave. I sit down on the pebbled driveway, leaning back against the driver’s side hub. I pick up a handful of stones and throw them at the leafless bushes, but nothing happens, not even a noise. I feel like such a moron.
There’s an odd caw overhead, and I’m not sure why, but it starts me crying. I slide down to lie on my back, wrap myself tight in the coat, and imagine falling asleep here, my father finding me stretched out blocking his door. In my mother’s pocket are her standard stash of plastic baggies for picking up after the dog, her keys, and her cell phone, which I turn on, watching it glow blue and greet me.
Kenji’s mother answers on the first ring, before I can even decide if it’s all right to call and intrude on their family dinner. Kenji said they’re having quite a crowd. He is my best friend—a boy, but he is not a boy I really like. We just do stupid things and laugh about them. Last week we went up to 101st and Columbus to try buying pot. We stood on the street waving forty bucks around until a man came over and said, “You looking for herb?”
“Yes,” Kenji said. “Yes, we are.”
I knew we were done for, that minute.
The guy took our money and headed north. “He’s not coming back,” I said.
“I was just thinking that,” Kenji said. “What’s so funny?”
I was laughing. I felt oddly very good. I had the rare feeling of earning some firsthand wisdom. I could hear myself telling the story at a party, like Carly, relating something that she’d never ever let happen again. Kenji and I stood there making fun of ourselves as the northern Manhattan sky got chalky and pink. Thanks for your help, Sir. How very sweet of you to ask. That’s exactly what we want—herb. Herb, indeed!
“Hello. It’s Ellie,” I say to Kenji’s mom. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“We’ve got a number of people over,” she says. She doesn’t like me very much anymore. She thinks we’re up to no good. She caught us lying together on Kenji’s bed—fully clothed. Every song on the radio that day talked about spooning, and we were curious what the big deal was about. I can’t imagine how anyone could actually fall asleep that way; my breath sounded so loud, it alone could have kept me awake. “Isn’t your family spending the day together?”
“We are. We’re with my sister’s boyfriend’s family on the Island. Actually, it’s her fiancé.” I dig the heel of my shoe into the driveway gravel until small bits of rock and dirt slip in. “We’re spending the day with her fiancé.”
I’m not exactly sure why I say this; I just know it’s something Kenji’s mom will find great delight in. “Oh! I didn’t realize your sister was getting married.”
“I guess she is.” I wonder if it’s possible that she’s married already. I wonder if she’d do that without telling me.
“How wonderful! Congratulate your family for me!”
“Okay,” I say, and she goes off to get Kenji. I can hear her calling him.
“What’s up?” he asks. “How was the bird?”
“I haven’t even seen it yet. I don’t think we’ll ever get home.”
“Call me when you walk the dog and I’ll come down. We can smoke a smoke.”
“My uncle is here from Atlanta,” Kenji says. “We’ve spent the last two hours talking about how Coca-Cola has the technology to project its logo on the moon. The only holdup is that it’ll interfere with air traffic. He’s so fucked up, but he gave me a tin of Nat Sherman’s while my mother wasn’t looking, so we’ll smoke up.”
“Okay.” I slip my shoes off and spill out the rocks, my mother’s phone pressed to my ear.
“I gotta go,” he says.
I don’t exactly know what I want to say. I don’t feel anything romantic like Carly wants to believe. I just feel like it’s urgent that he be my friend forever. Sometimes I look at him and think: We’re in this together. Remember, we’re in this together. It’s the way Carly used to look at me. I fill up my shoes with those cold little rocks again. “I’ll just see you later,” I say.
I hang up and lie on the gravel for a while longer. It’s aching to get dark. Every bush and tree looks like it’s slipping on another layer, something a little warmer and gray. I am hoping that Carly will come looking for me, that she alone will find me on the far side of the car. She’ll say: What are you doing, you freak!
And as my teeth chatter and my neck catches all kinds of draft, I’ll point to the big, white cheek of the moon and say, Look.
Amazing, she’ll say. She’ll lie down next to me. We’ll spread out our mother’s coat, her arm in one sleeve, mine in the other, and with our bare arms in the center we’ll pass a cigarette back and forth and watch the moon glow enormous in the still-light sky, rising as it darkens, shifting from something mammoth and spectacular to just regular old moon by the time anyone else comes by. But I only wait about two more minutes. It’s cold, and I know she’s not coming.
Back inside, Mom, Dad, and Carly are all sitting together on one couch in the darkening living room. The only light is coming from the glass doors behind them. Sitting so close, they look like the silhouette of a mountain range. They are in the middle of some conversation. A Miles Davis disc is still playing, the nursery school taunt of “So What.” I don’t know where Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are, and I’m surprised Alex isn’t hanging off my sister like a sidecar.
“Where have you been?” my mother asks.
“I can feel the cold coming off you,” my father says. He holds out an afghan like it’s a towel and I’m a toddler emerging naked from a bath.
“It’s okay,” I say, walking past all of them to the glass doors to look at the backyard again, its thickening tree line about an acre away. The wind picks up, and the naked trees are swaying slowly around the edge of the grass, like dancers skirting a stage. Last year, when we did Thanksgiving in San Francisco, Carly snuck me out of the hotel and into a peep show in North Beach. She was writing a paper on gender roles and subverting the traditional power dynamic. I couldn’t believe she got me in.
We stood close together, giggling, in a dark, tiny booth. Don’t touch anything, she told me; I kept my hands balled up in my sleeves. As long as Carly kept putting in quarters, the electronic shade stayed up to display a bunch of swaying girls, naked, bored, waiting for something to happen. That’s what I’m thinking about as I look out on the Shelbys’ backyard, how last Thanksgiving Carly and I were running around North Beach and, at one in the morning, drinking flavored sodas at an Italian café.
“So we’re talking about visiting your sister in the spring,” my mother says. “How would you like a spring weekend in Maine?” I don’t even turn around. The sky is bleeding the color out of itself; even the silhouettes are starting to disappear.
“It sounds like a terrific time, Ellie,” my father says. “There’s roller derby in Portland now. Carly will probably try and get us all out on the floor.”
Carly laughs, the laugh that makes Dad feel like he’s still a young and dangerous guy. Then she says to me: “What’s with you, Miss Grumpy-Poo?”
“Nothing,” I say and sit down close to my mom. I know Carly will think I’m sulking like a baby, and I know I’ll be embarrassed about it later, but she can’t see my face, and I can’t see hers. It’s dark enough I can hardly see the furniture. This used to happen all the time, summers at the beach. We’ve spent a million nights talking after dinner as a room went dark, and no one would think to turn on the lights. The change was slow, and our eyes could adjust; we never lost sight of each other. Out the window now, I can make out Venus and the still-huge moon, but I don’t point it out. I just watch it and half listen to the plans they’re all making.
“Why are you all sitting here in the dark?” Alex steps into the room and snaps on the light. It’s a shock he wields, a disruption. My whole family is sitting close together on one couch looking at him, a nest of newborn chicks blinking. Carly smiles, not at Alex or at us but to herself. I have no idea at all what she’s thinking.
We all follow Mrs. Shelby into the dining room. She has lit candles, and the light off the tablecloth is kicking up an orange glow. Or maybe that’s coming off the bird, a beautiful golden brown, or the tangerine salad, bruising with beets.
“Oh.” My mother rests her hand at the base of her throat. “It couldn’t be more beautiful.”
Everyone nods, reaching to pull out chairs and take their seats, but all I can think is: Yes, it could. It could absolutely be more beautiful. I think about the four of us trudging up and down the ridiculous hills last year in San Francisco. Carly and I ran ahead of our parents to the top of Twin Peaks. The city spread out on all sides below us, and Carly directed my attention beyond the Victorians to the bridges and beaches, to her favorite café and where she rode her bike in the afternoons. There was so much wind, I could hardly see. Carly held my hair back in a ponytail with her hand to keep it out of my eyes. She stood behind me like that, and we laughed as she turned us in circles, like we were one person, to see the whole view. As we looked, she rested her cheek on the top of my head, and even through the breeze, I could feel the warmth of her undivided affections.