Chapter 12 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

auGust 1983– ovember 1983

Durı G the Fırst te days of William’s hospitalization, the nurses and doctors all believed that Sylvie was William’s wife. Sylvie

had claimed that she was, after all, the day William tried to kill himself. She never used those words again, but neither she nor Kent corrected the mistake either. As a spouse, Sylvie was privy to information about William’s medical care. Doctors and nurses treated her with respect and showed her William’s chart, and Sylvie told Kent everything they said.

A few days after William was transferred to the second hospital, though, Sylvie told Dr. Dembia the truth. The aim in this unit was to treat William’s diagnosed severe depression, and when Sylvie heard Dr. Dembia tell William, “I need you to be ruthlessly honest,” she was immediately swamped with guilt. She felt like she had been caught lying during confession at St. Procopius. Sylvie followed the doctor into the hall and struggled to explain how she’d ended up in this situation. She was grateful that Dr. Dembia was a woman; Sylvie tried, while she talked, to pretend that the intense doctor with short gray hair was one of her sisters.

“William told my sister Julia that their marriage was over right before he tried to kill himself. So Julia didn’t want to come to the hospital when it happened, and William’s parents…I don’t know what the issue is there, but they have nothing to do with him. Kent couldn’t claim to be William’s brother, for obvious reasons, and someone

needed to advocate for William while he was unconscious. The ambulance driver assumed I was his wife, and I didn’t correct him. So that’s how this happened.” Sylvie shrugged, feeling slightly dizzy at the contents of the paragraph leaving her mouth.

Dr. Dembia raised her eyebrows. “It sounds like you did the right thing,” she said. “I’ll change your designation to sister-in-law on the visitors’ sheet. Thank you for letting me know.”

If Sylvie’s sisters had heard any of this, they would have been surprised; Sylvie was surprised too. She felt like a stranger to herself. She had been changed by the night and day she’d spent running through the city streets with William’s friends. That time had been different from any other set of hours in Sylvie’s life—the exertion, the company, the fear, the sleeplessness. She would never forget it; she felt marked by the experience, as if she’d gotten a tattoo.

Sylvie told herself that she continued to visit William for two reasons: First, because William was still physically unwell and unable to take charge of his own medical care, so it helped to have someone there to speak to the doctor. Kent couldn’t do it, because he’d had to return to medical school. And second, because Julia had asked Sylvie to find out if she had to come to the hospital, if she still had to be a wife. “Do I need to do something?” Julia had asked when Sylvie visited. Sylvie had already disappointed her sister once, by leaving her to search for William, and she didn’t want to disappoint her again. Sylvie waited by William’s bedside for him to become alert enough to talk.

The many hours William spent in the lake had temporarily affected his eyesight, his electrolyte levels, and his thyroid. He had a hard time staying awake, and Sylvie read a favorite collection of poems while he slept. Poems suited her fractured attention span, but she also chose them to feel closer to her father. Charlie was almost always on Sylvie’s mind while she sat beside the sleeping patient. Her father had understood her, and she knew he would have

recognized William’s brokenness too. Sylvie knew with all her heart that if Charlie had been alive, he would also be in this hospital room, able, like his middle daughter, to follow the inner journey of the man in the bed.

One afternoon, William blinked awake and pulled himself up to a seated position, and Sylvie put her book down. Her body became fretful beneath her, and she knew it was time. She could almost feel Julia fretful in her own apartment across town. Did William mean what he had written in the note? Did he really not want Julia to be his wife? When William said—in a flat, clear voice—that, no, he didn’t want Julia to visit, and he didn’t want Alice either, and he was giving both of them up more completely than Sylvie or Julia or the twins would have considered possible, Sylvie looked at his turned-away face, his long body in the bed, the white sky out the window, and felt her body gather and release into silent sobs.

It turned out that she had needed that answer too. Sylvie was composed of question marks and feelings that she didn’t know what to do with, as if her hands were full and she was wearing pants with no pockets. Sylvie was going through something herself in this hospital room. She missed her sister, but if Julia showed up at the hospital, there would no longer be a place for Sylvie beside William’s bed. And if Julia and her husband reunited, Sylvie knew she would fit nowhere; their apartment and this room would somehow no longer hold space for her. Sylvie felt like she’d checked into this hospital room alongside William, and she needed more time. She wasn’t sick, but she wasn’t well either.

Sylvie intended to stop visiting after that. She’d met both of her goals: William was well enough to speak to the doctor, and Julia had been given the news she desired. But Sylvie found that she couldn’t stay away. She told herself every morning that she wouldn’t visit that day and then climbed onto the bus that traveled to the hospital. She felt pulled, as if by magnetic force, between the library, the hospital, and her older sister’s apartment. She stamped books, sent out

overdue notices, sat by William’s bed, and ate takeout with her sisters.

What am I doing? she asked herself repeatedly, and she never had a good answer. In the hospital, Sylvie spent hours sitting next to someone who had wanted to be dead. He certainly didn’t seem to be fully alive. Sometimes his eyes were blank when he looked at Sylvie, and she could tell he had to work to remember her name. She sat in silence, a book open in her lap, willing the man in the bed to restitch himself to life’s fabric. Dr. Dembia had talked to her about the stickiness of depression, about the art and science of finding the right mixture and levels of medication. “He’ll need to be on medication for the rest of his life,” Dr. Dembia said. “He won’t be able to manage this depression without it. It’s remarkable he made it this far.”

Sylvie struggled to think of a safe subject to talk to William about as he became more alert. She couldn’t attempt small talk; she couldn’t bear to talk to him about the weather or the terrible hospital food. The idea of chatting with William about nonsense made her mouth so dry she couldn’t say anything at all. Once, out of desperation, she asked him a basketball-related question. This worked and became the solution for conversations that weren’t stilted or awkward. Sylvie recalled a specific player or a piece of basketball history from his book and asked him about it. She felt a wave of relief because of the relief on William’s face when he answered. A light went on behind his eyes in those moments, which made Sylvie think of the pilot light on a stove. She found a basketball encyclopedia in the library and took notes on possible questions she could ask. She wanted to turn that pilot light on again. She wondered whether, if she asked enough questions, it might turn on for good.

sylvıe, cecelıa, a d emelı e left Julia’s apartment one night after a dinner. Julia had looked lighter since hearing that William didn’t want her or Alice. She smiled, and teased her sisters, and gave opinions on the food they were eating, and talked about Alice and Izzy. Sylvie watched her older sister and envied her lightness. Sylvie felt trapped within herself, as if she were snowed in with secrets. Whenever she opened her mouth to speak during dinner, she felt a bleary confusion about what she was free to say and what she wasn’t.

Cecelia had borrowed a car from a sculptor who wanted to date her, so they climbed into his small green sedan. Emeline sat in the back next to a sleepy Izzy, who was buckled into a car seat.

“No speeding,” Emeline said, in warning. When Cecelia drove, she drove fast.

“I don’t think I like Buffalo wings,” Cecelia said. “What chickens have wings that small, anyway? It seems suspicious.”

“And she’s out,” Emeline said, because Izzy had fallen asleep. The little girl’s expression was serious, as if her unconscious mind was contemplating difficult problems: how to optimize budget deficits in a modern economy, perhaps, or whether free will is compatible with determinism.

Sylvie’s muscles were so tight she had struggled to buckle her seatbelt. When the car accelerated after turning a corner, she knew she had to say something or she would be entirely snowed in and unable to speak at all. She coughed and said in a rush, “I have to tell you both something. I’ve been visiting William. Sometimes. I’ve visited him a few times. I don’t want to tell Julia, but I can’t not tell you too.”

Cecelia looked at Sylvie from the driver’s seat. Sylvie could see her sister weighing up what she’d said.

“Oh, I’m glad,” Emeline said, with obvious relief. Sylvie turned to look over her shoulder.

“I’ve been really worried about William,” Emeline said. “He has no family. I know we’re supposed to side with Julia, and I do, of

course”—Emeline’s eyes were wide—“but William isn’t a jerk. He must have been in such terrible pain to do what he did. It’s an awful situation, really. I can’t bear it. I’m so glad you’re visiting him.”

“Oh, Emmie.” Sylvie felt her shoulders relax. She felt how stressed she’d been, carrying this secret. “That’s how I feel.”

Cecelia was bent over the steering wheel. “What?” she said, feeling her sisters’ eyes on her.

“Are you mad at me?” Sylvie said.

“I’m glad you told us,” Cecelia said, “but I’m not going to visit him.”

Sylvie knew Cecelia was angry at William for attempting suicide. “Any of us would have helped him, if he’d asked,” she’d said several times in the days after it happened. Sylvie thought that her sister couldn’t stand the idea that someone she cared about would try to wreck himself in secret. Cecelia operated with honesty and bluntness. She believed that if you were unhappy, you should say so. If you needed help, you should ask for it. William’s silence offended Cecelia as much as his choice to walk into the lake.

“I don’t think you should visit him,” Sylvie said. “Julia would hate that I’m doing it. We shouldn’t all have something to hide from her.”

Cecelia didn’t seem to be listening. She said, “Emmie’s been hammering me about how much pain William must have been in. She wants me to understand, even though it makes no sense to me.”

Emeline nodded in the back seat.

Sylvie said, “I’m glad you’re not mad at me. I couldn’t bear that.” “That possibility’s not on the table,” Cecelia said, and Sylvie

smiled, because she knew her sister meant it. Cecelia had certain nonnegotiables, and during this time of familial turbulence, she would bend in any necessary direction to support her sisters.

When Cecelia dropped Sylvie off at home, Ernie was waiting outside her apartment door. She hadn’t seen him since the night they’d slept together, and she’d thought of him only rarely, but it made sense that Ernie would appear now. Sylvie had started to tell

the truth—at least some of it, to some people—which meant she could no longer avoid her previous self.

Who do I want to be now? Sylvie thought. Do I have a choice?

“It’s been a while,” Ernie said, and she agreed. They were both clearly nervous about how this would go. Ernie said that the front door of her building was broken and that she should tell her super. Sylvie said that the door been broken for a while now. Ernie was wearing jeans and a bowling shirt, and she noted—as if adding up numbers in a column—that he looked cute. Sylvie smiled, and he smiled back. She allowed him to take her into his arms and allowed him to kiss her neck.

Then she stepped back, her arms by her sides. There was a buzzing sensation in her body, a kind of warning signal. She told Ernie what had happened after she’d last seen him, and it turned out that Ernie had heard about the lake rescue on the radio. He said, “I can’t believe that was your brother-in-law.”

“Yes,” Sylvie said. “I’m busy helping him and my sister now, so I really don’t have any free time.” She paused. I don’t want you, she thought. I wish I did. I wish I was a normal girl who wanted to sleep with the handsome man in front of her.

“Oh…right,” he said, understanding on his face. They were still in the hallway.

“Maybe I’ll see you at the library?”

“Sure thing,” Ernie said, and then he was gone.

Sylvie leaned against the wall. Because she was clear about what she didn’t want, she was alone. She was no longer who she used to be, and she wasn’t yet whoever she was becoming. She was grateful that her father had prepared her for this type of hard, lonely ground. Because of him, Sylvie knew she could exist outside the boundaries of her past and future selves, for a little while, anyway. Even though it hurt. She understood now, though, why her father had tempered the brutal beauty of this kind of life—this kind of honesty—

with alcohol, and why she had always been more comfortable in the library with books than in the world with people.

She was still in the hallway. She wanted to go inside her cozy studio; the scuffed walls and fluorescent lighting of the hall made the scratches of despair inside her deeper, but the discomfort felt necessary. There was a question she needed to ask herself—a question covered with pointy brambles.

What do you want?

Sylvie wouldn’t have asked this question before, because she would have been afraid of the answer, but she wanted to be deeply and truly herself and to experience the world in the deepest and truest way. She’d been compartmentalizing herself for a long time, certainly since her father had died. She was one person with Julia, a slightly more honest person with the twins, and she controlled her own thoughts and feelings, trying to battle herself onto paths she felt like she should be walking. There was only one person Sylvie felt fully herself with: William. She was all of herself with him and even felt there was room for her to become more. When he rested his eyes on her, it was without judgment or expectation, and in that space, Sylvie felt her potential: for bravery, brilliance, kindness, joy. All of these sails rested on the deck of her ship; they were hers, but she hadn’t seen them before. She hadn’t been aware of them prior to the many hours she’d spent in William’s hospital room. Her father’s love had said, Do everything. Be everything. She knew, when she was near William, that she had the capacity to raise these giant, beautiful sails and go.

She thought, I want to be with him, and had to catch her breath at the enormity of this desire. It felt like she’d been holding an umbrella to deny that it was raining, and now the umbrella was gone, and she was standing in a storm. Sylvie was awash in surprise, shame, and sadness because, of course, she couldn’t be with him. Not once he left the hospital, and not in any way that mattered.

o e aFter oo , dr. dembıa stopped Sylvie in the hospital corridor. “I’m trying to piece something together, and you might be able to help. William said you’d been talking to him about basketball.”

Sylvie nodded, pleased that the doctor was asking for her assistance. “He likes to talk about it. He’s…happier when he’s talking about basketball.”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “Why do you think basketball is so important to him?”

“Well, he’s played it since he was a kid. He was on his college team.” Sylvie thought about this. “Have you asked Kent?”

“He said that basketball was William’s first language. That he dribbled a ball more than he spoke when he was a kid.”

“His first language,” Sylvie repeated. That made sense. She had stumbled into speaking William’s first language with him, perhaps the only language he spoke fluently. That was why his pilot light had turned on.

“I do think that’s part of it.” The doctor nodded at a patient walking by but kept her eyes on Sylvie.

“He told me once that his parents didn’t love him,” Sylvie said. “I think they barely spoke to him when he was young.” Hearing the sentence out loud shocked her a little. Rose and Charlie had never stopped speaking to their girls when they were children. Sylvie tried to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in a home with no affection or laughter and envisioned a cold, echoing space. She saw a little boy dribbling a basketball in order to make a comforting, repetitive sound. Sylvie had the sensation she often had when she was reading a good novel and the story came together suddenly inside her, accompanied by a new understanding.

She said, “Basketball was the first thing in William’s life that loved him back. The only thing that loved him, for a long time.”

“Yes,” Dr. Dembia said, her eyes bright. She was a scientist, and Sylvie had just handed her a useful part of an equation. “That’s it. Yes.”

the day wıllıam asked Sylvie to write down his secrets, she left his room and noticed that her hands were shaking. What had happened in that room was how she’d always thought church should feel. The air seemed to break open, and what passed between them felt sacred.

Sylvie usually caught the bus right in front of the hospital, but that afternoon she walked to the library. She wanted to feel the wind on her skin. She broke into a jog a few times, because her body craved motion, and she liked that mid-stride both of her feet were off the ground for a split second. That night at Julia’s apartment, she whispered to Emeline and Cecelia that she needed to talk to them. They understood that she meant without Julia, so when they got into the sculptor’s car after a meal of curry and samosas, Cecelia drove a few blocks away and then pulled over. Mrs. Ceccione was watching Izzy; it was just the three sisters in the car. Sylvie and Cecelia turned their bodies so they could both see Emeline in the back seat.

“What is it?” Emeline said. “Is William okay?”

Sylvie told them everything William had told her. The only thing she left out was his comment that he wouldn’t have been able to share his secrets with anyone other than her. That sentence warmed Sylvie’s insides and belonged to her alone.

“Oh my heavens,” Emeline said, when Sylvie was done. She was quiet for a minute. “That was so brave of him.”

“I can’t believe he had a sister,” Cecelia said.

The three women looked at one another with shared wonder. A hidden, lost sister was momentous. Sylvie said, “The doctor, who I really like, told him that to be well, he couldn’t keep these things

inside him anymore. She gave him a mantra: No bullshit and no secrets.”

“I have to tell you something.” The words burst out of Emeline as if from a blocked tap. “Part of why I’ve felt so bad for William,” she said, “is that I’ve been depressed sometimes. Over the last few years. I’ve even had those kinds of thoughts.”

The car windows were closed. It was a gusty October night; the wind rattled branches above their heads, making it sound like the trees were clapping. “No, you haven’t.” Cecelia’s voice was sharp. “Don’t say that. It isn’t true.”

“I wouldn’t have done anything,” Emeline said. “I promise.”

“Why would you hide that from us?” Sylvie said. “Why wouldn’t you tell us you felt sad?”

Emeline turned her face toward the car window. “I’ve been afraid to tell you. But William’s doctor is right. We shouldn’t have any secrets.”

Cecelia studied her twin’s profile. She was clearly surprised to hear that there were any secrets between them. “Emmie, you can tell us anything.”

“I have a crush on someone. A big crush.”

Sylvie and Cecelia both brought their hands to their chests, which was what Rose did when she was told big news. Julia did this too.

Emeline’s eyes were closed now. Her head was still turned away, as if she feared a physical blow. “It’s not a man, though. It’s Josie, the woman who works with me in the daycare.”

“Josie?” Cecelia said.

“I was sure I was wrong and that how I felt just meant I really liked her, because I do. We work wonderfully together, and she makes me laugh. The babies follow her around. But my heart beats faster when I’m near her, and I want to kiss her so badly.”

Sylvie’s body was stiff with surprise. She tried to think of what to say.

“I know,” Emeline said, with sorrow.

Sylvie had never known a lesbian personally. There was a lady who rode her bicycle around the neighborhood wearing a baseball cap, and it was rumored that she lived with another woman, but she never came into the library, so Sylvie had never seen her up close. She thought of lesbians as being somehow hard and manly, and Emeline was the opposite of that. She was the sweetest and softest of the sisters.

“Oh, Emmie,” Cecelia said. “Are you sure?”

Emeline’s eyes filled with tears. Sylvie reached into the back seat to touch her younger sister’s knee. “We love you,” she said. “This is just…unexpected, that’s all.”

“I have no idea if Josie likes me in that way,” Emeline said. “She probably doesn’t.”

“Mom would be horrified,” Cecelia said. This was undoubtedly true; Rose was Catholic all the way to her bones and had said several disparaging or insulting things about gay people in front of the girls over the course of their lives. A terrible new disease that seemed to afflict mostly gay men had been identified recently, and this news story disgusted and fascinated Rose in equal measure.

“I know. It’s the first time I’ve been happy that she moved away.” The relief in Emeline’s eyes made the other women laugh.

“I thought if I told you, you would hate me. But William told you awful things, and I only feel sympathy for him.” She hesitated. “I won’t be able to have babies, though,” she whispered. “I won’t be able to be a mother.”

Sylvie and Cecelia traded the quickest of glances, to share their surprise at what they’d just learned and their grief at the last statement. William didn’t want to be a father, and Emeline couldn’t have what she most wanted, to be a mother. “You can adopt, maybe?” Sylvie said. She felt another small fissure inside herself; another piece of life was separating the sisters from the dreams they’d once held for themselves and one another.

Emeline shook her head. “I wonder how William feels. I feel better.” Her face was brighter; she sat taller. “Now you have to tell me a truth from your lives,” she said. “Your turns. In honor of William.”

This reminded Sylvie of the future-predicting game they used to play. Even though they’d just left Julia, Sylvie missed her sister, a sensation like a painful stab in her side. She could see that her sisters had also remembered the game, and there was a crease between Emeline’s eyebrows that meant she regretted how she’d phrased the request. They had recently learned that Julia was leaving them for six months. The departure had struck each of them as a mistake. “The timing is awful,” Cecelia said. “She’s running away,” Emeline said. But Sylvie suspected her sister was running toward something. A new life. Julia wanted to reimagine herself, and it was hard to do that in the presence of people who had known her since she was a small girl. Sylvie worried, though, that Julia had sensed Sylvie was keeping something secret from her, and that secret had opened space for Julia to leave. If Sylvie and Julia had stayed close-knit, and stayed honest, the older sister wouldn’t have considered departure a possibility. Deep inside herself, Sylvie believed it was her fault that Julia would soon be gone.

“I’ll go first,” Cecelia said. “I wish I could have sex. I’ve only had it once.”

Emeline must have known this, but Sylvie was surprised. She had assumed that Cecelia had bedded many lovers on a painter’s tarp, before or after a project. She felt like Cecelia had pulled on the fabric of adulthood more easily than the rest of them. She moved with a confidence that Sylvie lacked and seemed unfazed by other people’s expectations. When Cecelia was with Izzy, they both laughed a great deal; they visibly delighted each other. Sylvie had assumed that her sister had cherry-picked men to delight her physically too.

“I know I make it look like everything is great,” Cecelia said, to answer Sylvie’s expression. “And it’s really good, but not great. The guy who owns this car would happily have sex with me, but he’s a billion years old, and sleazy. I have bills to pay, and the boys anywhere near my age are so immature I can’t stand it.”

“Sylvie?” Emeline said.

“Oh,” Sylvie said, and the syllable came out like a little moan. It was warm in the car now, and the windows were fogged up. Sylvie had become a secret. She was changing in ways she couldn’t keep track of, much less explain. Would she tell them that she thought about William all the time and missed him as soon as she left his room? That sometimes, when he was sleeping in the hospital bed, Sylvie wanted to lie down next to him in the hope that he might mistake her for his wife and hold her? Instead, she said, “I’m writing something.”

Her sisters’ faces opened with pleasure. Of course, Sylvie saw them think.

“No,” she said, “it’s not like you’re thinking. It’s not a book. I’m having trouble sleeping, so when I get home at night, I write something about our childhood. It’s only scenes. Last night I wrote about the birthday party where that boy dared Julia to hold her breath for as long as she could, and she held it for so long she passed out.”

“Our ninth birthday,” Cecelia said. “The one with the terrible cake.”

“Bright-yellow icing,” Emeline said. “Sylvie! How wonderful. I’m so glad you’re doing that.”

“It’s not good.” Sylvie tried to impress this upon them with her eyes. She needed her sisters to understand. “It’s not about making it good.” She had gotten the idea, the possibility, from reading William’s book, of course. And from Whitman too. Sylvie had always thought that when, if, she wrote, it would have to be perfect. A beautifully crafted novel, ready to hand to the world. But William had

shown her she could write for, and to, herself. And Whitman had rewritten, expanded, cut, and reimagined his poems across his life. He’d created not one beautiful book but different attempts at excellence and beauty as he aged and loved and reconsidered everything.

Sylvie found inhabiting herself in the present difficult; her skin had felt uncomfortably tight ever since William was rescued. She was aware that she was writing about her childhood in an attempt to make a third door; she needed to take a sledgehammer to a wall to find a way out of the here and now. When Sylvie did sleep, she was stricken on the beach, watching men carry a dead William out of the lake. And an ache ran through her, because Julia was leaving Chicago and she had no idea of the pain and longing Sylvie carried inside her. Every night, Sylvie sat at her tiny desk by the window, overlooking Pilsen, remembering and trying to re-create the times when her family was whole. When Charlie was alive, Rose in her garden, the twins giggling in their bedroom, Julia striding around the house doling out plans like gifts. Every moment Sylvie captured on the page couldn’t be lost.

sylvıe Felt exhausted by her desire for honesty but also drawn to it, as if the quality were a magnet. She loved that she could see a fuller version of Emeline now, after she’d told Sylvie and Cecelia her truth. Sylvie had stopped by the daycare one afternoon, because she wanted to meet Josie; she wanted to smile at the young auburn-haired woman who held her sister’s heart. Emeline was flushed and shooting off sparks of happiness in her work setting, surrounded by babies, with Josie nearby. Seeing the breadth of Emeline excited Sylvie, even though her sister hadn’t yet confessed her feelings to Josie and didn’t know if they would be reciprocated.

Sylvie appreciated that William’s healing was built on truthfulness. She remembered Dr. Dembia telling William that she wanted him to be relentlessly honest. The problem was that in her new state of heightened awareness, Sylvie had spotted a glaring dishonesty in William’s behavior, and it bothered her. She kept her mouth shut, because it was none of her business, and William was under the care of Dr. Dembia, not her. Surely the doctor would see what Sylvie saw and fix it? But nothing seemed to change, and it felt to Sylvie like William was building his new life on a rickety foundation.

One afternoon, William said, “You seem grumpy. Is something wrong?”

“I’m not grumpy,” Sylvie said, though she could feel herself scowling.

“If you say so,” he said.

“Well,” she said. “There is one thing that’s bothering me. William, of course you can do whatever you want, and I’m not judging your choice. Really.” She hesitated. “But I know your mantra, and I think you’re lying to yourself about something important.”

He looked at her, and she knew he could see her fear. He could see her concern that she might say something that could set his recovery back. “Don’t worry,” William said. “I’m all right. Just say it.”

“It’s about Alice.”

He flinched, but almost imperceptibly; this was the first time either of them had mentioned the baby.

Sylvie said, “You gave her up because you think you’d hurt her, but that’s wrong. You wouldn’t hurt Alice. I know you wouldn’t.”

William was quiet for a minute. “Dr. Dembia thinks the decision to give up custody is bullshit too.” His face looked worn, as if he had been alive for all of time and had seen every possible heartbreak. “I disagree, though, and I can’t take that chance. Alice is better off with Julia.”

Sylvie felt her shoulders relax. William had spoken to Dr. Dembia; he’d given the subject thought and made a careful decision. She still thought he was wrong, but it wasn’t her decision to make, and it occurred to Sylvie that perhaps the truth was more complicated for William because of his past. Now that she knew about his lost sister

—a baby girl who had died—it made sense to Sylvie that his worry over his daughter might be heightened. Perhaps the two babies shared space inside him, and the right thing for him was to step away. She could see this possibility and the way grief and depression tangled inside him; Sylvie found that she could accept his choice even if she didn’t fully understand.

William leaned forward and said, “Do you have any concern, any concern at all, that Julia won’t take excellent care of Alice?”

Sylvie didn’t even have to think about this. “No.”

He nodded. “I’m the risk factor,” he said. “That’s why I removed myself.”

julıa dıd ’t wa t a group goodbye; she said it would be too painful. She asked Sylvie to come over the morning before her flight to New York. Sylvie found her sister and Alice in a small clearing in the middle of stacks of boxes in the living room.

“I can’t actually do this,” Julia said, without looking at Sylvie. “I can’t say goodbye.”

“I can’t either.” Sylvie gave her attention to Alice, who was sitting on the small blanket on the floor. Julia had clipped a pink bow into the baby’s scant blond hair, and Alice looked tremendously pleased about this development. Sylvie felt slightly breathless. She’d been missing her sister since William had been hospitalized, and now Julia was leaving. It felt like compounded loss. And this beautiful baby, who was beaming up at her mother and aunt, was going to disappear too. Sylvie loved Alice so much, and six months was such

a long time in a baby’s life. Alice would be one year old the next time Sylvie saw her. She might be walking. She might have forgotten the sight of her three adoring aunts.

“Bah,” Alice said with delight, and Sylvie leaned down to kiss her cheek.

Julia was wearing jeans and an old T-shirt. She seemed over-caffeinated, jittery. “I never thought I would leave Chicago. But I never thought Daddy would die. And I never thought Mama would move away.” She paused and then said, “I never thought you would visit my husband in the hospital every day.”

Shocked, Sylvie took the words like a punch to the stomach. She had been on her knees, to be close to the baby, but now she rose to her feet. “Not every day,” she managed.

Julia nodded. “I wasn’t sure you were visiting him at all.”

Sylvie looked at her sister directly for the first time. She could feel the distance that had grown between them over the last few months. “You didn’t have to trick me,” she said. “You could have just asked.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d tell the truth.”

Sylvie took this in. “He has no one else,” she said. “I feel bad for him.”

Julia left the clearing of boxes and came back holding a folder. “These are the divorce and custody papers,” she said. “Please give them to William the next time you see him.”

Sylvie felt despair. She felt her sister cutting at the threads that connected them. Was this Sylvie’s fault? Or was Julia lashing out because otherwise she couldn’t bear to leave? “I love you,” Sylvie said.

Julia pushed her hair off her face. She shook her head at the same time, as if annoyed, as if this sentiment were not the point. But she said, “I love you too.”

sylvıe showed up early on the cold November morning that William was due to be checked out. She knew Kent was coming, as was Arash. Dr. Dembia would probably be on hand. Sylvie could tell that the doctor cared about William as a person and would miss her time with him. Cecelia, whose antagonism toward William had been extinguished with the revelation that Emeline had also been depressed, was going to meet them at his new Northwestern apartment to judge whether the walls would benefit from colorful paint. When Sylvie stepped out of the elevator on the psych-unit floor, she found herself glancing around for Julia. Her sister was gone, eight hundred miles gone, but still Sylvie half-believed she would find Julia here, her jaw set, ready to organize her husband back into her life.

William was standing by the window when Sylvie got to his room. He barely had anything to pack. He hadn’t wanted to ask Julia for any of his belongings when he first arrived in the hospital. He had been adamant about this, although he needed clothes, and he was so tall he couldn’t wear anything from the hospital’s lost-and-found bin. Hearing this, his friends from the basketball team had dropped off clothes from their own closets. William was wearing a pair of khaki pants, worn sneakers, and a Northwestern sweatshirt. He had signed the divorce and custody papers, and Sylvie had mailed them to the lawyer. When she left Chicago, Julia had arranged for his possessions to be put in a storage locker for him. As of the day he was leaving the hospital, William was no longer married and no longer a father.

“Big day,” she said.

“Sylvie,” he said. He looked down at his hands. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I’ve been selfish. I should have told you to stop coming, but I liked when you were here. I hope you know that when I leave the hospital, you don’t have to worry about me anymore. Please know

that. I have my medication”—he gave a trace of a smile—“and my mantra. I’ll try to help Arash.” He paused. “Everyone has been so kind to me. I’m not going to waste their kindness.”

These words hit Sylvie strangely. It felt like William had put together sentences that took aim at what was inside her. She could tell, intellectually, that he’d said a nice thing, something she agreed with. William was healthier. He was telling her she could walk away, but she knew—the knowledge sharp, like pain—that she didn’t want to, that she might not be able to. This was her real secret, the one no one could know. Sylvie’s eyes smarted, and she had a flash of worry that she might cry. She said, “Did you know that I searched for you for that whole night with Kent and the other guys?”

William squinted, as if there was light in the room that hurt his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Kent told me.”

Why am I thinking about this? Why am I talking about it? She said, “When they carried you out of the water, I thought you were dead.” She couldn’t stop herself from picturing it now: the tall, tired young men bearing William’s limp body. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t help move you, but I wanted to do something to help. So I held your hand while Kent and Gus carried you to the ambulance. And in the ambulance too.”

William was quiet for a moment, then said, “I didn’t know that. I don’t remember most of that day. Sylvie, I’m really sorry you had to go through that. It must have been very frightening.”

When Sylvie lay in bed at night, she recalled, over and over again, Kent calling her name and her running across the sand. She remembered the shards of panic and grief in her chest because William was gone. She remembered when she reached out and took William’s ice-cold hand. She didn’t want William to be alone, even if he was no longer alive. And yet, in that moment, she had never felt so alone.

She heard herself say, “Can I hold your hand again, for one second?”

William crossed the room to stand in front of her. He held his hand out, palm facing up. His skin was soft and warm, so different from that day. A wave of feelings ran through Sylvie. A radio dial spun inside her, the volume loud. I love you, she thought, and the words—impossible now to deny—brought her both desolation and deep joy. William was her one. He was her heart. He had changed all the molecules inside her. Sylvie had known love would come for her with the force of a tsunami. She’d dreamed of this ever since she was a little girl, and her dream had actually come true. But she hadn’t known her love would be impossible, a dead end, unspeakable, because he had been married to her sister.

She thought, I’m in so much trouble. The thought made her laugh.

“Are you okay?” William asked.

She didn’t want him to worry, so she said, “I’m okay.”

She and William held hands for a few more seconds, until there was a noise in the hall, and they stepped apart.

Kent arrived, bouncy with excitement as if he were showing up at a playoff game, ready to celebrate a win. “You’re out of here!” he said, and gave William a big hug. Normally, only one visitor was permitted at a time, but because William was checking out, the rule had been waived.

Arash walked in, took one look at Kent’s face, and said, “You’ll always be a damn fool.” But he was grinning too.

William opened his mouth to speak and then closed it. He gave a small shake of his head. Kent, understanding that his friend wanted to say thank you, or even I love you, but was unable to say the words without starting to cry, slapped William on the back, and the four people in the room just smiled at one another.

sylvıe walked out oF the hospital with those three men an hour later, the hand William had held tingling at her side. The November sky was gray, and the forecast predicted the first snowfall of the year that night. They walked beneath a canopy of leafless trees on the way to Kent’s car, and Sylvie thought about the memory she’d written down at her small desk the night before. She wasn’t writing her family history in any particular order, though the recollections did seem to lap into one another like waves. Last night she’d found herself remembering the time when Mrs. Ceccione’s mean, yippy dog had chased Emeline up a tree. Even after the dog was put away, the eight-year-old girl had refused to come down. Julia, Sylvie, and Cecelia stood at the bottom of the tree for an hour, coaxing Emeline with snacks and promises to braid her hair—she loved to have her hair played with—to no avail. I can’t live without you, Cecelia said at one point, as if in warning. Don’t be ridiculous, Julia said. None of us can live without each other. Rose was alerted, and she yelled at her daughter to get her little bippy down on the ground immediately. No, thank you, Emeline said, gripping the tree branch. I have a nice view. I can’t come down. Kids from the neighborhood gathered around the trunk too, wanting to see how the story would end. Sylvie remembered that her neck had ached from gazing upward for so long. Cecelia started to cry, which made Emeline cry too, but she now seemed rooted in the tree, unable to leave her perch. It was hard for her sisters to imagine her returning to them as the sun set and darkness began to fall. When Charlie got home from work, he joined the crowd at the bottom of the tree, still wearing his white short-sleeved shirt and tie. He didn’t speak. He gazed up at his daughter, like a tractor beam sending love. Emeline didn’t say a word either, but she climbed down into his arms.

Sylvie had avoided thinking about what her life would look like after William checked out of the hospital. She’d kept her head down and showed up in his room, knowing that that was where she belonged. She’d hoped, at first, that his release from the hospital

would return her to her former self. But now she felt like she was seated on the tree branch beside the small Emeline, not wanting to get down. Her previous life was the ground beneath her. She saw Ernie, with his dimpled chin and jovial expression. Her solo commute from her studio to the library. Her co-workers chatting about quirky patrons, the weather, their weekend plans. But there was no tractor-beam gaze from Charlie, because there was no Charlie, and there was no Julia either. She would see William less, or perhaps not at all, because the crisis was over, and it would be dangerous for her to spend time with him. She might reach for his hand or be unable to silence her feelings. Sylvie scooched closer to Emeline’s small body and held tight to the branch. There was no way she could go back to that heartbroken, lonely ground, where the sisters, who’d believed they would die if they were separated, had separated.

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