Chapter 14 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

december 1983–auGust 1984

The Fı al day ı the hospital, when Sylvie held William’s hand and admitted to herself that she loved him, she’d intended to keep

the realization to herself. She would limit her contact with him. She would work extra hours at the library, take up new hobbies—what exactly, she wasn’t sure—to busy herself, and, starved of oxygen, the feelings inside her would go away. But that plan hadn’t worked. Nothing worked. The feelings seemed to only expand. In the library, Sylvie’s hands shook while she shelved books. She found she was unable to read, because if she turned her imagination on, she entered not the world of the novel but a room inhabited by William. Her eyes met his, and Sylvie and William silently told each other everything that mattered. She made herself go for long walks after leaving work, to tire herself out for sleep, but each night she climbed into bed and felt her invisible seams strain to the point of bursting.

On Christmas Day, when William surveyed every inch of her apartment except where Sylvie was standing, when his gaze surgically cut around her until she felt, again, like a ghost, she’d chased after him in the snow. She was angry. She planned—to the extent that she planned anything during the bus ride—to show up in his dorm and make him look at her. That’s all she intended to do. But in his presence, gazing at his sweet, sad face and the blue eyes that haunted her dreams, she wanted more. She wanted peace and the ability to lie in bed without feeling like she was going to explode. She

wanted to speak the words manacled inside her. She wanted everything, because she could feel the walls they had both erected to hold back their desires, and she could sense the enormous beauty that lay on the far side of those walls.

When they finally kissed, in the middle of William’s tiny living room with snow falling outside, the pressure within Sylvie disappeared. Her body light, she experienced a new kind of joy and meaning. Sylvie thought, This is why we live. She and William held each other and talked: Sylvie into William’s chest and he into her hair. In between sentences and sometimes words, they kissed. Sylvie ran her hands across his shoulders, through his hair. She’d been wanting to touch him for so long that the pleasure almost ached through her, and the closeness of their bodies made it hard for her to concentrate on their conversation. She wanted everything at once. She’d been lonely and fractured since Charlie died. She’d been lying to Julia since she moved out of her and William’s apartment. The evening on the bench had opened William and Sylvie to each other, and she’d tried to run away from that connection, but her efforts to escape had throttled her. In his arms, she was able to breathe deeply for the first time in almost a year.

Neither of them bothered with punctuation, and neither worried that they might offend the other. They simply shared their feelings, which, on some level, each already knew. Sylvie told William how she had felt seen on the bench and had seen him too, in his footnotes, and he told her that he felt an ease with her, a wholeness, that he’d never felt in his life. “We can’t tell anyone,” she whispered, and he agreed. Sylvie told herself that they weren’t breaking the terms of William’s mantra, because there were no secrets between them. Their love and honesty would have to stay inside this room, but this room felt enormous after the confines of Sylvie’s body.

Sylvie imagined her father smiling in approval as she and William sidestepped labels and held each other in the shadows. She returned to his small set of rooms the night after Christmas, and

almost every night after that. With William, Sylvie felt free to unfurl. She showed him the scenes she’d written about her life with her family when she and her sisters were young. She told him about the conversation with Charlie behind the grocer’s shop. She delighted in the fact that she could show and tell William anything that came into her head without worrying that he would misunderstand or think her strange. She recited the terrible jokes a library patron—an old man with Coke-bottle glasses—shared with the librarians every afternoon, and some of them were so ridiculous that she and William laughed until they had tears in their eyes. Sylvie was everything with him: silly, sad, inspired, contented in every cell of her body.

“Our relationship doesn’t feel like a relationship to me, anyway,” she said one evening, while he was watching a Bulls game on his small television. She had been sitting next to him, dipping in and out of a novel. The game was turned low, and the door was double-locked, to give Sylvie time to hide in the bathroom if anyone knocked. She slept in William’s room a few nights a week, which involved leaving before dawn and being quiet so William wouldn’t get in trouble.

“What does it feel like?” he said, without looking away from the screen.

“Like all the walls have been knocked down. Like we’re past needing a roof or doors. They’re irrelevant.”

“So we’re outside.” He turned his head and smiled at her. It was his new smile, which had appeared after their first kiss. William used to smile rarely, and when he did, the smile looked obedient, like he knew the moment called for a smile and so his face pulled the correct levers to form one. Sylvie wanted to spend the rest of her life causing this new smile. William’s face looked alive, and grateful, and happy. Sylvie knew William was happy with her, knew he was grateful; he whispered his happiness into her skin at night.

He also wanted to keep their relationship secret forever, which to him meant until Sylvie came to her senses and broke up with him.

William didn’t feel like this contradicted his mantra; this secrecy was actually just a delay tactic, a moment of stolen joy before they gathered the strength to walk away from each other. “I don’t deserve this,” he said almost daily, until Sylvie told him to please not say it anymore. But he said it again now, because he couldn’t help himself.

She said, “Do I deserve happiness and wholeness?” “Of course.”

“Then do this for me.”

“Love you for you?” William stood to switch off the TV. Hung above the television was the painting Cecelia had recently dropped off. William had told Sylvie about how Cecelia was flustered when she showed it to him. “I always paint portraits,” she’d said. “But I like a challenge. I’m not sure what this is, but technically something about it works.” Sylvie thought the painting was beautiful. If she hadn’t known her sister painted it, she never would have guessed. It was part landscape, part exploration of light, and rain. Sylvie remembered Cecelia telling her sisters that she wanted to paint rain like Van Gogh painted stars. There was pelting water on the canvas, intermixed with faint light. It was the light that drew your eye.

“I’m going to love you no matter what,” William said. “But I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I couldn’t bear to hurt you, Sylvie. I’m supposed to be alone. What is your family going to say? What about Julia?” He grimaced as he said her name. “Those memories you’re writing down. Most of them are about you and her.”

“Well, of course. They’re about the four of us.”

William shook his head sadly. She could hear him thinking, No bullshit, no secrets. He said, “I can tell how much you miss your sister, when I read your writing.”

Sylvie was annoyed, enough to motivate her to close her book, push her nightgown and toothbrush back into her purse, and leave. She walked through the campus toward the bus stop, the cold air chilling her hot cheeks. She was annoyed at herself for overreacting to what William had said. She would phone him when she got back

to her apartment. He was right, of course. For her, this was about Julia. William wanted them to stay secret so they could walk away from each other without anyone else being pulled into, or even knowing about, their orbit. Sylvie wanted to keep their love secret because of her older sister. When she tried to imagine what it would be like if Julia found out that she and William were in love, Sylvie had to shake her head hard to dispel the images of heartbreak. Julia would hate her; Sylvie was betraying her; the only solution was that no one could know.

It was March, and Julia and Alice had been gone for almost five months. Professor Cooper’s project had been extended, and Julia, without consulting anyone in the family, had decided to stay in New York. “For how long?” Cecelia had asked her on the phone. “We’ll see,” Julia said. “I miss you, but Alice and I are doing well here.” Sylvie had been relieved to hear about the delay. She and her older sister spoke twice a month after Alice was in bed at night; they traded off on initiating the expensive long-distance call. Neither she nor Julia mentioned the tension embedded in their goodbye; they both pretended that hadn’t happened. Julia was always tired from a long day of work, but she was excited too, about the city, about the smart people she worked with, about the clothes the women in New York wore. She sounded shiny, burnished by exhilaration, and more alive than she’d been in a long time. “Tell me about you,” Julia would say to Sylvie when she was done sharing her news. “I miss you. Tell me everything.” And Sylvie would talk about the fringes of her life— her job, the leaky sink in her studio, the last time she’d babysat Izzy

—but leave out what mattered.

“You sound happy,” Julia had said at the end of one call. “So do you.”

“I’m happy for us,” her sister said.

Beneath the heavy-limbed trees of the campus, Sylvie imagined her older sister shaking her head at her now. You can’t pull this off forever, the imagined Julia said. You have to make a choice. Sylvie’s

older sister was part of her, in a way her younger sisters were not; the two older Padavano girls had been woven together as children. Perhaps because of this—or perhaps because Sylvie knew there were no boundaries, which meant Julia was part of her—she carried her sister with her, even though she’d left Chicago. Julia walked down the street beside Sylvie, sat across the table from her in restaurants, and stood by her side staring into bathroom mirrors. Sylvie was grateful for this version of her sister’s company. Recently something had come up in conversation, something about Julia, and Emeline had said, “You must miss her.” And Sylvie said, “Yes, but not too much.” And this was true, but in a way no one else could understand except perhaps Julia herself.

ke t Fou d out Fırst. He and Nicole—an upbeat young woman with a grin to rival Kent’s—came to visit William in early April, and Kent knew immediately that something had happened. William tried to ask about their engagement and admired Nicole’s ring, which used to belong to Kent’s beloved grandmother, but Kent just stared at him and said, “Tell me what’s going on. You look completely different.”

“I don’t look different,” William said. “I’m in slightly less terrible shape, maybe. I can run three miles now.”

Kent shook his head.

“Maybe it’s a girl,” Nicole suggested, studying William like he was a patient who’d come into her clinic.

Kent started to shake his head again, because that was impossible, but something changed in William’s face with those words, so he stopped. He stared at his friend. “A girl? Who is it?” Kent knew everyone in William’s small life, everyone involved in Northwestern basketball, everyone from the hospital.

William watched his friend comb through the possibilities and then said, in a quiet voice, “Sylvie.”

There was a pause while Kent took the pieces that had been handed to him and fit them together. The lakefront scene, the ambulance ride to the hospital, Sylvie seated by William’s bedside. “Of course!” he said, and tackled William with a hug, which made Nicole laugh with pleasure.

“Careful—don’t hurt him, Kent,” she said, because Kent weighed fifty pounds more than William.

Kent phoned Sylvie at the library and told her she needed to come over right away. He hugged her too, tightly, and she could feel his relief in the embrace. “This is wonderful,” he said. “I should have seen it coming. I’m a little disappointed in myself.” He looked at both of them. “I can see the inherent complications, though.”

Sylvie felt awkward in front of Nicole, who was beautiful, and whom she’d just met for the first time. She wondered if this young woman thought she was a terrible person for falling in love with her sister’s husband. This was the first time Sylvie had considered what the opinion of strangers might be, and she felt naked, lacking, under Nicole’s gaze. She could tell William had been rendered almost unconscious by sharing the news. He sat on the red couch with a stupefied expression on his face. Sylvie squeezed his hand to remind him she was here. To keep him from sinking beneath the water inside himself.

“This isn’t going to continue. We’re going to break up soon,” William said. “For Sylvie.”

Kent looked at Sylvie, and she shook her head.

“We need to keep this a secret, though,” she said. She’d been running the math and thought it was okay that Kent and Nicole knew. They weren’t in contact with the twins or Julia. They lived in Milwaukee. Their knowing simply meant that the tiny dorm room that William and Sylvie’s love inhabited had grown a little bigger. Sylvie thought this might be nice; she and William could, perhaps, go out to

dinner with Kent and his girlfriend. A double date, like a normal couple. She and William could engineer a small, controlled expansion of their secret life. William would be able to talk to his best friend.

Kent paced in front of them. “You love each other?”

They moved their heads up and down. William reluctant; Sylvie bold.

“Wonderful. This is wonderful. But the secrecy has to stop. Immediately. It’s not healthy, and your health is the top priority, William. You know the drill.”

Sylvie put her hands over her eyes. She felt like a three-year-old on the verge of a tantrum, flushed with annoyance and embarrassment. Kent was directing his attention at William, to remind Sylvie that he was the fragile leg of the table. To remind her that if William weakened, everything would fall to the floor.

“Have you told your therapist?” Kent studied his friend’s face. “No? That’s no good. You have to tell everyone. That’s crucial.” Crucial for William to survive, Kent’s expression said. “You can’t hide love,” he said, and Sylvie, her hands still over her face, wondered, Is that true?

Where was their love? Could it be hidden? Sylvie saw love coming out of William’s face when he looked at her, like light streaming through cracks in a wall. Sylvie’s love for him was as much a part of her as her own hands, her face. She never would have chosen to love William; she never would have chosen to sweep her sister’s husband into her own heart. It wasn’t a feeling she and William gave each other, though; they were their love. Sylvie felt that if she walked away from him, she would end. She would no longer be Sylvie; she would be a shell of who she had been, moving through days that meant nothing.

Kent said, “To be clear, you have to either break up or tell everyone.” He looked at Sylvie. “Those are the only two options.”

A fog inside Sylvie cleared. She knew that William’s survival required him to live his life on his own terms. Lying to himself, and lying to others, was a departure from solid ground, and Sylvie couldn’t be party to that. William had been right, since their first kiss, that this secret needed to be temporary, and Sylvie had known, since their first kiss, that she couldn’t go back to living without William. He had become oxygen that she needed to breathe. Sylvie just hadn’t been able to merge those truths, until now.

Kent was still walking the floor. “You’ll tell your doctor, William. I’ll tell Arash. Don’t worry, I’ll be casual about it. And he’ll be thrilled—he loves Sylvie. That will take care of the people you spend your days around. Sylvie.” Kent looked at her, to chart her progress. He nodded, seeing that she had caught up. “You have to tell everyone else.”

Sylvie nodded and said, “Yes, Captain.”

she told the twı s together. She called them to her apartment on a sunny May afternoon. The window was open, and the air traveling inside smelled of spring.

Cecelia was wearing painting clothes—a pair of olive-colored overalls with many pockets for brushes and rags. She was working on a mural on Loomis Street almost around the clock. She would paint during the day but then leave her house again at two o’clock in the morning—Izzy safe with Emeline—and work on the wall until she wanted to sleep again. This was the first mural commission she’d received, from a local arts council, for which she could paint whatever she wanted. Sylvie stopped by to visit her sister on her way to and from the library each day. She knew Cecelia didn’t like to talk about a painting while it was in progress, so she just watched. The outline of a woman’s face and shoulders had appeared on the wall first. In the past week, as the woman was filled in, she’d begun to

seem familiar to Sylvie. She looked proud and fierce. Sylvie wondered if the woman was Cecelia herself, or perhaps Emeline or Julia. Today she’d felt a shiver of worry that her sister might be painting her. Cecelia might be revealing Sylvie’s own true self on the wall. If the woman on the wall was Sylvie, then her love and unfurling would be on display for everyone to see. It was this possibility that had made Sylvie stop procrastinating, made her call her sisters and ask them to come over. The idea of being revealed by Cecelia’s brush was unacceptable; she needed to reveal herself.

“We knew something was coming,” Emeline said, “because you’ve been acting weird.” She’d come from the daycare, which meant she looked slightly sticky with jelly and Play-Doh.

“Are you gay too?” Cecelia said with a smile. She sat down next to her sister at Sylvie’s small kitchen table.

Sylvie shook her head. She thought, I wish that was my news. “Would you like water? Or”—she tried to think what she had in her cupboards—“crackers?”

“Spill it,” Cecelia said. “Em has a class tonight and Mrs. Ceccione is watching Iz, so I need to get home soon.”

Sylvie took a deep, gathering breath, as if she were about to dive underwater, and told them the contents of her heart. She started with taking William’s hand by the side of the lake and explained that she was alive with him, a whole circle with him, her whole messy self with him. “When we hold hands…” she said, but she hadn’t been able to finish that sentence with William, and she couldn’t now. Sometimes words were like pebbles thrown against a window, and what she was reaching for was the window itself.

Her sisters were quiet when she was done. There was faint traffic noise from outside. The squealing brakes of a bus.

“Oh, Sylvie.” Cecelia looked tired from lack of sleep, from holding her world together by herself. Izzy had discovered the word no, and the toddler woke up in the morning yelling it from her crib.

Emeline looked away from Sylvie. “Pick any other man on earth, and I’ll be happy for you,” she said. “Any other man at all.”

“I know,” Sylvie said. She hadn’t expected her sisters to be pleased, but their sadness was palpable, and it pressed against her like a heavy blanket. “If I could, I would.”

Emeline’s eyes were pleading. Sylvie remembered sitting with Julia and Emeline at Rose’s dining room table, begging their mother not to move away. Sylvie was the one with the unwanted news now. She was the one her sisters wanted to hold back.

“Julia’s been through so much,” Emeline said. “Can’t you just be friends with him?”

“Could you just be friends with Josie?”

Emeline tightened her lips. Shook her head. It had occurred to Sylvie that she and Emeline had made choices with similar stakes. Sylvie was sitting here breaking her sisters’ hearts because she couldn’t imagine life without William, and William couldn’t survive inside a secret. Emeline had muzzled her sexuality—not admitting it even to herself—until she’d met Josie. “I had to tell her I loved her,” Emeline had said. “Even if it killed me. And I thought it might.” This resonated with Sylvie: This moment felt like life and death. She was breaking open, but still breaking.

“How do you know he’s not with you because he misses Julia?” Cecelia watched her sister while she spoke; she always wanted the truth. “You look like her, you know. It’s unhealthy, Sylvie, isn’t it? It’s like you’re getting in bed with her marriage.”

Sylvie had nothing to say to this. In the beginning she did wonder, when she took off her clothes, if William was disappointed that her breasts were smaller than Julia’s, her hips less curvaceous. Had Julia been a better lover? Sylvie never asked William if he had these thoughts, because she didn’t want to hear the answers.

She was surprised to find that she didn’t feel defensive in response to her sisters; she wasn’t inclined to argue. She thought of the woman Cecelia was painting onto the three-story wall a few

blocks away and how the outline was slowly filling with color and detail. Sylvie was filling herself in, discovering and showing her own colors. She could feel the sorrow emanating from her younger sisters like heat off their skin. Sylvie had known this wouldn’t go well. She knew Cecelia and Emeline loved William like a brother; they’d known him since they were in ninth grade. But this was hard news, and they weren’t thinking about William. They were thinking about their personal versions of the gleaming bridge that existed between the three sisters in Chicago and Julia in New York. Sylvie knew that Emeline mailed Julia newspaper clippings about available apartments in Pilsen. Cecelia continued to paint Alice and Izzy together. She took photographs of the canvases and mailed them to Julia, asking her which one she would like. Julia hadn’t chosen one yet.

“But if you do this,” Emeline said, and then paused, as if she were about to dive underwater too, “Julia and Alice will never move back home.”

The sun sank behind a cloud or a building, and the three sisters were draped in shadows. The gleaming bridge was crumbling to dust at their feet. Sylvie thought of her childhood dream and how Julia had complained to Sylvie that the novels she cited as depictions of great love were all tragedies. Sylvie, in her innocence, had insisted that the tragedy part was avoidable. It wasn’t woven into the romance. But she had been wrong.

“I know,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

emelı e a d cecelıa drew back from Sylvie after the news. She knew they were bruised and tender and needed time away from her. She worried they might need forever but pushed that terrible thought away. She felt bruised and tender too. Sylvie continued to visit the mural Cecelia was painting on Loomis but timed her visits for when

her sister wasn’t there. The woman on the wall showed more of herself each day. Sylvie finally recognized her when Cecelia had finished painting the woman’s eyes. It wasn’t one of the Padavano sisters; it was St. Clare of Assisi—the saint Rose had made her daughter carry around as penance. But Cecelia—by painting her over and over again—had made St. Clare into her talisman.

The woman on the wall looked powerful. She didn’t look like a warning for how not to live. In fact, she radiated from the wall, like an example of the opposite. Studying her, Sylvie remembered that when the girls were little, Rose had used the saints as inspiring examples of accomplished women. She only started using them as warning systems and punishments when Sylvie and her sisters grew older— when sex and marriage and pregnancy were on the table. St. Clare took up three stories of the side of the building. She had bucked the expectations of her family and society by refusing to be a teenage bride, by refusing to give her life away before it had even started. She embodied bravery, and the woman painting her was certainly brave too. Perhaps, Sylvie considered, testing out the thought, all the Padavano sisters were brave. Cecelia had done the equivalent of running away at seventeen and was a single mother whose art was increasingly in demand. Emeline was in a relationship with Josie now and wasn’t hiding that fact. Mrs. Ceccione had almost had a heart attack when Emeline and Josie held hands in front of her, and Emeline had apologized for upsetting her—Cecelia cackling with laughter in the same room—but would not apologize for her love. Julia, when confronted with a husband who needed to be saved, had defied centuries of misogyny that demanded wives prioritize husbands and had chosen to save herself. And Sylvie thought maybe she was brave too, for allowing herself to inhabit a dream so extraordinary, she’d assumed it would pass her by.

Sylvie had believed she would stay single, and safe, with her sisters. Her heart had always belonged to them, after all. The four sisters had beat with one heart for most of their lives. Sylvie

wondered, looking at the mural, if bravery was wedded to loss: You did the unthinkable thing and paid a price. Julia didn’t know Sylvie’s truth yet, but she would soon. Cecelia had said that she and Emeline would break the news; one of the twins would travel to New York to tell Julia in person. Sylvie had been relieved to hear this. The twins would tell Julia gently and try to protect her, while all Sylvie would be able to do was cause pain.

When Sylvie called Julia, she thought, each time, that this might be their last conversation. She didn’t know when Cecelia or Emeline would arrive in New York; she wasn’t privy to their plans. She listened to Julia describe Alice’s daycare and how the baby had said her first word: Mama. Julia told Sylvie how Professor Cooper had asked for her opinion after a meeting and how he valued her thoughts. Sylvie asked questions, to make the call last longer. She tried to memorize her sister’s voice and the sound of her love. Sylvie wouldn’t have believed, as a child, that anything could ever make her cleave her older sister from her life; now, knowing that an ax was about to fall and doing nothing to stop it felt like an exquisite torture. I love you, she thought, down the phone line. I’m sorry.

Resident advisers were required to sleep in the dorm every night, so Sylvie always traveled to Northwestern instead of William coming to Pilsen. She felt like she spent most of her life in the real world, bearing the silence of the twins, waiting for Julia to be told, while William was able to exist in a bubble at the university. She was glad he was in a bubble; she just wished she had one of her own. To her great relief, William had thawed after his initial terror. For a couple of weeks after Kent had found them out, William kept clearing his throat, as if he couldn’t trust his voice to speak. But as the days passed, the sky didn’t fall on him the way he’d anticipated. He told his therapist that he loved Sylvie, and the doctor—who had been urging him to make real connections with other people—deemed the news an overall positive. Kent informed Arash, and he—as predicted

—was delighted. Arash thumped William on the back for a solid two

minutes the first time he saw him after speaking to Kent. Cecelia and Emeline stopped visiting William, but their visits had never been regular, and he was more comfortable with the idea of their absence than their presence.

It was Sylvie who took deep breaths while she walked to the library, who held vigil with St. Clare on the sidewalk a few times a day, and who ate scrambled eggs alone in her studio apartment. She lived in a silence she’d created, and she felt herself deepening into it. She didn’t regret her choice; sometimes when she was with William her face ached, and she realized it was because she hadn’t stopped smiling for hours. She slept pressed against his warm skin at night, and when she jarred awake at four o’clock in the morning, she wrote down memories from her childhood.

Three months into the silence, Sylvie was in the library one August afternoon, pushing a cart of new releases out of the back room, when Emeline appeared by her side. Emeline didn’t speak, she just wrapped her arms around Sylvie. She pressed her head against Sylvie’s shoulder so their curls lay on top of each other. Sylvie held the only parts of Emeline she could reach: her hand, the top of her bent head. The two sisters stood like that for several minutes, in the back corner of the library. When they let go of each other, it felt like a new start. From a place where they were heartbroken and besotted and free.

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