Chapter 15 – Julia

Hello Beautiful

october 1984–september 1988

Emeli e visited julia whe alice was eighteen months old and the mother and daughter had been living in New York for a year. The

move had been intense for Julia. From the moment she and Alice boarded the flight to New York—the first of Julia’s life, and traveling alone with a baby—each day had felt challenging and brand-new. Not in a bad way, necessarily. New was a relief; Julia had rushed away from her home city because she needed new and different. Manhattan delivered, though, at a volume and scale that she couldn’t have anticipated. The city pounded with noise, and people rushed everywhere; Julia found herself speed-walking down sidewalks, trying to keep up, even when she wasn’t sure she was headed in the right direction.

She started her job with Professor Cooper—where every person and task she encountered was unfamiliar—and tried to make a temporary home with her baby. “Six months,” she sang to Alice, when she was trying to put the baby to sleep. “We can do this for six months.” She and Alice were staying in an apartment temporarily vacated by one of Rose’s Florida friends. In lieu of rent, all Julia had to do was water Mrs. Laven’s extensive collection of plants. She traveled the length of the apartment at the end of each day with a watering can in her hand and then collapsed into bed to sleep. Julia had never tried to conduct life, much less one with this many demands, on her own before. She’d always had the help of her

sisters, her mother, or William. Now Julia carried a stroller in one arm and a baby in the other while she climbed steps up from the subway. She felt like she was always sweating and endeavoring to look presentable at the same time. She was responsible for everything: the daycare having enough diapers for Alice, paying bills, the presence of baby food and milk in the kitchen, and the laundry. Alice generated so much laundry. Still, Julia felt a deep gratitude to Manhattan, both for demanding all of her attention and for offering no reminders of her old life.

She had a brief respite when Rose bought tickets for Julia and Alice to visit her in Florida for Christmas. Julia was the first of Rose’s daughters to travel to Miami, and Rose showed off her daughter and granddaughter to her friends with visible pride. When Julia had declined to fight for her marriage, Rose was vocal with her disappointment, but now Rose seemed swept up in the excitement of Julia’s new life. “My daughter works for a very important business consultant in the center of Manhattan. My husband always said that Julia had brains and moxie. And isn’t her baby gorgeous?” Julia was struck by how her mother had rewritten the story of her eldest daughter and her own husband: Julia was no longer a failure, and Charlie’s opinion was to be respected. Still, it felt good to have her mother’s approval, and she was happy to open presents for the eight-month-old Alice beside Rose’s Christmas tree. In the afternoon, she and Rose phoned Sylvie’s apartment to wish the rest of the family a happy holiday. Izzy got on the phone and babbled importantly for several minutes, while the women listening in Florida and Chicago laughed.

When Professor Cooper’s project with the communications company was extended in the spring, he asked Julia if she wanted to return to Chicago. “I love working with you,” he said. “And I’m going to start taking on additional clients here, so I’ll be staying for a while. But I know you have family in Chicago. I completely understand if you want to go back.”

Julia took a deep breath at this news; it wasn’t a complete surprise, since she’d known the client was thrilled with Professor Cooper’s work and the project wasn’t finished, but she’d been living inside a six-month calendar ever since she moved. During difficult days, she missed her sisters terribly, missed being in a city that she could navigate without a second thought. She also wanted Alice to have the chance to play with her cousin and be doted on by her aunts. “Can I think about it overnight?” she asked, and Professor Cooper said of course.

She walked the thirty blocks from the office to Alice’s daycare that evening and knew her answer by the end of the commute. In Manhattan, Julia felt like she was on a path to fulfilling her potential; she was the clear-eyed, powerful woman who had emerged with her daughter’s birth. When Julia pictured herself back in Chicago, that version of herself was weighed down with worry. She had been a wife there; she had misunderstood her husband there; she had made bad decisions there. And it felt complicated to consider being back in the same city as her ex-husband. William had legally given Alice up, and the surname Waters had been removed from Julia’s and Alice’s official documents, but what if William came to a Chicago playground where the baby was, to watch her? What if Julia and Alice happened to walk past him on the street? What if he changed his mind?

Julia hadn’t figured out how she would explain any of this to her daughter, once Alice was old enough to understand. She knew she still had time to figure it out, so she avoided thinking about it with any seriousness. After all, what were her options to say to Alice? You technically have a father, but he gave you up? Your father just doesn’t want you in his life? He’s so sick he couldn’t be a parent? Part of the complication was that Julia didn’t understand, even though she was grateful for William’s decision. Alice was a bright-eyed, smiling, chubby-cheeked one-year-old. The sight of her turned strangers on the sidewalk into clowns—they made faces, stuck out

their tongues, endeavored to make the toddler giggle. She was, Julia believed, the most wonderful child in the world, with Izzy running a close second. How could anyone not want Alice in their life? The confusion embedded in this question, and in William’s choice, reminded Julia of the swampiness of the end of her marriage. The bottom line, Julia decided, was that she liked herself in New York and wanted to stay longer.

The bittersweet part of that decision, of course, was her sisters. At least once a day, Julia thought she saw Sylvie climbing into a taxi or crossing the street, and there was a woman in Julia’s apartment building whose laughter sounded like Cecelia’s. During every phone call, Julia asked her sisters to visit. “No. Come home,” Cecelia would respond. She was the only one who resisted the idea entirely. Cecelia seemed rooted in Chicago with a stubbornness that was surprising in someone so independent in other ways. Sylvie appeared open to the idea, though she was always vague about timing. And Emeline worried over the details: the cost of visiting, her fear of planes, not having the right shoes. “People will laugh at me there,” she said. “Everyone in Manhattan is so stylish.”

Having made the decision to stay in the city, though, Julia woke up every morning excited. She and Alice started a nightly dance party in their kitchen; the toddler wiggled her butt with great earnestness, to do her part. Mrs. Laven was returning to Manhattan from Miami, but it turned out that she was the head of the building’s co-op board, and she helped Julia rent a cute two-bedroom apartment in the same Upper East Side building. Julia loved having her own place and loved the shape of her days in this new, open-ended calendar. She dropped Alice off at daycare, then commuted on the downtown bus to 42nd Street, where she entered a glass office building that reflected the magnificence of Grand Central Terminal in its windows; on a high floor overlooking the city, she attended meetings with Professor Cooper.

When Emeline announced that she was going to overcome her fears and visit in October, Julia was thrilled. She could barely sleep with excitement, leading up to Emeline’s arrival. Julia hadn’t had time to make friends in New York, but she also had no idea how to do so. Her sisters had always been her best friends; in Chicago, there had never been a need for anyone else in her life. She and Sylvie and the twins knew every version, every age, every mood of one another; Julia couldn’t comprehend how to form an intimate friendship with a stranger. Sometimes she would see a mother at Alice’s daycare whose style she admired or who seemed to have a full-time job, like Julia did, and she considered approaching the woman. But the gulf between her and the total stranger was oceanic, and Julia had no idea how to cross it. Was it possible that a friendship could start from asking someone for their name? Surely they would have to move in together to truly know each other, and that made no practical sense.

Julia took the week off from work so she could spend every minute with Emeline. The two sisters went for long walks, with Julia leading Emeline by the hand across streets, because her sister peered upward at skyscrapers instead of at the cars around her. They spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a place they knew from movies and books—and pretended, as they walked through the rooms, that they were in a movie themselves. They stayed up late every night, talking. Julia had been starved for this closeness, starved for easy, silly conversation. She’d been lonely. They discussed Rose—as if their mother were still the sun they orbited—and how haughty she was with all of them from her perch in Florida. Emeline was great with small children, of course, and she sat on the floor playing with Alice for hours.

“You’re the finest Alice in the world,” Emeline said to the little girl. They were playing with blocks on the floor, while Julia sat in the armchair, watching.

“Anemie,” Alice said, with careful concentration. She was trying to say Aunt Emeline.

“Very good!” Emeline clapped.

Alice grinned, showing all her teeth. The little girl had pudgy cheeks, and her hair was straight and golden. Her blue eyes were unmistakably her father’s.

“She does look like William,” Emeline said. “But her eyes twinkle like Daddy’s. And I bet her hair gets curlier as she gets older. In pictures, my hair was straighter when I was a toddler. And at the daycare, I see lots of little kids transform from looking like one parent to looking like the other.”

“I hope she ends up looking at least a tiny bit like me,” Julia said. The two sisters regarded Alice with shared adoration. “But really, as long as she doesn’t have his darkness,” Julia said, speaking her secret fear out loud, “I don’t mind what she looks like.”

Emeline blinked in surprise, but she said, “Of course. You’re right.”

Julia pinned back Emeline’s hair in the mornings, both of them looking at their similar faces in the mirror. I need you, Julia thought, knowing that you meant more than just this one sister, but the need was so great that she couldn’t be picky. She couldn’t let Emeline leave without knowing when and how she would see her again. By the end of Emeline’s first day in New York, Julia had launched a campaign to convince her sister and Josie to move to her city. Transplanting her sister here would be a perfect solution. There were Manhattan daycares that would clamor for women with Emeline and Josie’s work experience, and no one cared if a person was gay here. Julia had discovered, after moving to New York, that Professor Cooper had been living with a man for thirty years. His boyfriend, Donny, was lovely; he wore beautifully tailored suits, and he’d helped Julia pick out rugs—the rug market had turned out to be secretly very expensive and confusing—for her apartment.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere but Chicago,” Emeline said when Julia raised the topic. But she was so admiring of the city, and so happy with Alice in her arms, that Julia felt confident that over the

course of a few months she would be able to convince her. She planned to speak to Mrs. Laven about her sister renting an apartment in their building. Julia pictured Alice running back and forth between the two apartments, at home in more than one space. And the prospect of sharing her exciting workdays with Emeline over a glass of wine every evening made Julia shiver with pleasure. It felt like she’d been sipping air through a straw since she left Chicago, and suddenly she was able to take big gulps of oxygen. In Emeline’s presence, she laughed for very little reason and was pleased that Alice threw her little head back and laughed too. Julia thought, I’m better with my sisters.

“How is Sylvie?” she asked. It was Emeline’s last day in the city. Alice was down the hall with Mrs. Laven, so the two sisters could spend a few hours alone together. They were drinking coffee in the kitchen. Emeline had told her all about Cecelia’s art and the Italian jazz musician she was dating. She’d heard about how the two-year-old Izzy had recently discovered a tube of strong glue in Cecelia’s studio and created a skyscraper by gluing together all the canned vegetables and beans she found in their kitchen. But Emeline had barely mentioned Sylvie.

“You’re the only one who didn’t seem upset by my loving Josie,” Emeline said. “Sylvie and Cecelia tried to hide it, but the truth was that they were shocked at first. I mean, I understand. I was shocked too. And I expected Mama to lose her mind, which she did. But you just seemed happy for me.”

“I am happy for you. I wish you’d brought Josie with you so I could meet her.”

“I didn’t want to love Josie,” Emeline said. She stared down into her coffee cup. “It was hard for me to accept the fact that we don’t choose who we love, because who you love changes everything.”

They had talked about Josie a fair amount during Emeline’s visit, because the two women had decided to move in together and Rose

had thrown a long-distance fit. Julia turned to look at her sister and felt a welling of affection for her.

Emeline said, “Do you agree that we can’t choose who we love?” “I guess. Why?”

“I want you to know that I was upset about this at first, and I guess I still am. But…” Emeline closed her eyes. “Sylvie and William are in love.”

Julia shook her head, in disbelief and refusal. She lowered herself into the nearest chair, in case Emeline’s sentence doubled back on her.

“Cecelia was mad at Sylvie. I was too. It had gotten peaceful after you left. Everyone was okay. You were far away, but you were going to come back. I understand now, though. How could I not? Julia, they didn’t have a choice.”

The shock of this cleared a space inside Julia, and she remembered how Sylvie had somehow known that William needed to be searched for and saved. She remembered her and Sylvie’s strained goodbye. The two sisters’ phone calls, since Julia had moved, had been filled with facts and logistics, as if they were sharing their weekly calendars with each other. Sylvie, in particular, had never spoken about her feelings or what she was wondering or thinking, even though that was all the younger versions of Sylvie and Julia had spoken about while they lay side by side in their twin beds at night. Julia should have known something was going on; perhaps she had known but had averted her eyes and not allowed those thoughts to rise to the surface. She’d done the same thing, she knew, with William’s depression. Sylvie had been the one to tell Julia that her husband had tried to kill himself and then, later, that her husband didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to be married or a father anymore. Only now did Julia realize how strange it was that Sylvie had delivered all that news. William should have told her himself, even if it was over the phone. But his voice had gone through Sylvie. Whenever Julia studied her face in the mirror, she thought: Sylvie

has freckles in that spot too, but they’re lighter. Sylvie’s hair is more obedient than mine. Julia thought about her sister as naturally as she thought about herself: Sylvie was part of Julia. And William had lain beside Julia in bed at night. He was the only man she’d ever been naked with. The two people Julia had been closest to had chosen each other.

Julia stood and walked to the sink. Her chest contracted, an oversized motion as if it were trying to clear a blocked pipe, and she inhaled too much air. She made a loud gasping sound. Emeline rubbed her back, the way the sisters had always rubbed one another’s backs when they were unwell.

“They love each other?” Julia said, when she could speak. The word love tugged at her throat on the way out.

Emeline rested her cheek on Julia’s shoulder blade. She nodded, and Julia felt the movement on her skin. Julia pictured Sylvie standing behind the desk in the library and thought, How could you do this? I would never do this to you.

“I’m sorry, Julia,” Emeline whispered.

“I’m so glad I decided to move here,” she said. “It’s the smartest thing I ever did.”

Julia realized, her hands pushed against the kitchen counter, that Emeline had come to New York to tell her this news. Sylvie hadn’t been home when Julia called her over the last few weeks, and Julia had assumed her sister was simply out, busy. But Sylvie hadn’t answered the phone because she knew Emeline was on her way here. And Emeline would never move to New York; that possibility had been entirely in Julia’s imagination. She had been an idiot, and she was barely able to look at her younger sister in the remaining hours before Emeline’s flight back to Chicago.

For the next few weeks, every morning when Julia went into Alice’s room and lifted her out of her crib, Alice said, “Anemie?” in a hopeful voice, and Julia shook her head. She hated to disappoint her daughter, and she was angry at herself for being foolish, again. She

had forgotten that her best self was independent and ambitious. During Emeline’s visit, Julia had started to place her happiness in someone else’s hands, which was a remnant of her Chicago self. Julia didn’t want to be that person anymore. In Chicago, she was part of the paper chain of Padavano sisters; they had never operated independently, and if one of them had a problem, they all had a problem. The fact that Sylvie had done something terrible and dispatched the sweetest sister, Emeline, to deliver the damage to Julia was an example of how Julia could no longer afford to live. She alone would make Alice happy, and she would never disappoint her.

At night, after the toddler fell asleep, Julia lay on her bed and stared at the wall. She felt hollowed out. She remembered Sylvie kissing boys at the library and dismissing the idea of a boyfriend, because she was waiting for her great love. Julia had thought the dream was sweet but impractical and at some point Sylvie would realize that relationships were a matter of compromise. How was it that Sylvie’s great love had turned out to be her sister’s husband? That didn’t feel destined or romantic. It felt like a brutal choice. Sylvie had chosen to betray her sister, and the twins apparently thought that was acceptable. Emeline had bought a plane ticket and traveled to the East Coast to pass on the news as if it were a pedestrian piece of gossip.

Late one night, upset, Julia called Rose. “What do you think of all this?” she said. “How could Sylvie…” She found she couldn’t finish the sentence.

“It’s unbelievable,” Rose said. “One of my daughters is a lesbian, one is a divorcée, and I don’t even know what to call Sylvie. Oh, and I forgot about the daughter who gave birth as a teenager, out of wedlock.” She gave a hard laugh. “Thank God I left Pilsen when I did! The amount of gossip going on in the neighborhood about our family is obscene.”

“Are you okay with this, in any way?” Julia asked. She wanted to say, What Sylvie and William did was cruel. I’m in pain. Help me,


“No, I’m not okay with it, but who cares what I think?” Rose sighed. “I know you feel like the victim, Julia, but the truth is that you shoved your sister in front of William by never going to the hospital and then leaving Chicago. And now Sylvie has shoved you out of Chicago by dating William.” She made a harrumphing noise. “Sylvie falling in love with him is ridiculous, obviously. I can’t even tell my closest friends here about that—it’s the stuff of soap operas! Two of my daughters choosing the same man. And it’s not like William’s a Kennedy, or…or Cary Grant, for goodness’ sake.”

I am the victim, Julia thought. My sisters have given me up and given up Alice too. Forever. Sylvie and William had woven their lives together, and now Julia had to stay away from not only her ex-husband but her closest sister. When she did sleep, Julia had a recurrent nightmare in which an eight- or nine-year-old Alice asked if she could meet her father, and that meeting somehow happened. In the dream, Sylvie stood beside William in the doorway of a nice house, and little Alice ran into Sylvie’s open arms. The scene was so vivid it felt like a memory, and it made Julia want to throw up. The image was a perverse version of the life she’d run away from, with Sylvie standing in Julia’s place. Please, Alice said in the dream, can I go live with my dad and Aunt Sylvie? They’re a normal family, with a mom and a dad. I’d like to be with them.

Julia heard herself say, “I’m going to tell Alice that William’s dead.”

“What?” Rose almost choked on the word. “What in the world are you talking about?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense. He wants nothing to do with her, and I don’t want to tell her that. She’ll think there’s something wrong with her, and there obviously isn’t. She’s perfect. And he is dead, as far as I’m concerned. We’re not going back to Chicago, ever. This way everything will be cleaner.” This idea had occurred to Julia before, but it had seemed too extreme. Now it no longer did. It

made sense. She and Alice would be safe in Manhattan, alone in their tiny family. No one would be able to hurt them again.

“William and Sylvie will probably break up. Sylvie’s like your father, which means she lacks follow-through. You should just live your life in New York for a little while, and let’s see where the cards fall.”

Julia knew her mother was unable to accept that William had revoked his parental privileges. Her brain couldn’t make sense of a parent giving up a baby. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Rose had said, and that was the end of the idea for her.

“I wouldn’t tell Alice now, obviously,” Julia said. “She’s not even two.”

“Good,” Rose said, with relief in her voice. “You’ll calm down in time. Everything will calm down. I love you, Julia.”

This was how Julia knew her mother felt bad for her. She very rarely said those words out loud. “I love you too,” she said, and they hung up.

Over the following weeks, Julia changed her approach to her job. She’d been so grateful to Professor Cooper for allowing her to join him in New York that she’d dedicated herself to simply being helpful to him. She processed the data he collected in stakeholder interviews and took notes during large meetings where new business processes were debated. She also made coffee runs and spent a lot of time at the Xerox machine. Julia had done everything possible to make sure that Professor Cooper didn’t regret hiring her.

Now, though, Julia recalled the future she’d dreamed about, in which she was behind a boss’s desk, wearing stiletto heels and an expensive suit. She didn’t know if that dream was achievable, but it might be. Sylvie dating William had been impossible, and yet it happened. Clearly, life was more alterable than Julia had thought.

Julia wanted to be promoted. She wanted to earn more money and make her and Alice’s life as stable—and untouchable—as possible. A month after Emeline left, Professor Cooper asked Julia to

sit in on a meeting and take notes. She did, but she also interrupted the meeting to offer a few ideas. Julia enjoyed watching the men’s heads—it was always all men in these meetings—turn in surprise, because her ideas were smart. Six months later, Julia asked Professor Cooper if she could take the initial meeting with a new, smaller client, and he agreed. She prepared for weeks—learning everything about the electronics company that was looking to merge with a competitor, thus duplicating its own staff—and presented a plan to restructure the combined companies that was so elegant the client asked her to be in charge of the entire process. When this call came in, Professor Cooper toasted Julia with champagne. “I’m so proud of you,” he said, and Julia had to excuse herself to cry in a bathroom stall. They were happy tears, and she felt that Charlie was proud of her too, wherever he was. My rocket, he said, with wonder in his voice.

Julia became aware for the first time that men were making signals at her. She simply hadn’t noticed before. There was a nice-looking bearded man who always stood next to her in the office elevator in the mornings. She complimented his cuff links. He asked her out for a drink. While getting dressed for the date—putting on perfume and a darker eyeshadow than she would wear to the office, choosing a dress that showed off her curves—Julia laughed out loud, because she felt like she’d just remembered that she had a physical body for the first time since Alice was born. When she smoothed her hands over her hips, her entire body tingled, as if excited for a better future.

She told the bearded man the same thing she would tell every man she dated: that she wasn’t looking for a boyfriend or a husband, and she would never bring him home to her apartment. She just wanted to have some fun. She and the bearded man drank martinis at a rooftop bar in a rose-colored twilight and then made out on the street, pressed up against a city mailbox. They went on a second date the following weekend; he took her to a Yankees game and

they had sex on the floor of his kitchen because they were unable to make it to the bedroom. It was fun, and Julia felt like she had optimized her life: She had a great job, a perfect daughter, and a sexual life on her own terms. Two years after Emeline’s visit, Professor Cooper announced that Julia would be in charge of the New York City branch of his business consultancy. He and Donny would travel back and forth between Chicago and New York, but Julia would run the New York office.

Julia told her mother and the twins the good news on postcards. She’d started to collect postcards featuring various New York City scenes to correspond with her family. She much preferred postcards to phone calls. There was only a small space to write, so she included one or two highlights from her and Alice’s life, wrote xoxoxo, and sent the card off. Rose hated the postcards and claimed that only a psychopath would communicate with her own mother that way. To appease Rose, Julia mailed her a few photos of Alice every couple of weeks, in addition to the cards. Cecelia and Emeline sent Chicago postcards in return, as if they were entering their city into a postcard competition, and Cecelia and Julia occasionally exchanged photos of Izzy and Alice. Julia and Sylvie never corresponded, in any way.

If Julia was with her daughter when she spotted a colorful postcard in the gray locked mailbox in the foyer of the building, she never let Alice see it. She tucked the postcard in her purse, and after she’d read it, she threw it away in a street garbage can. She threw away the photographs of her niece too. Julia read most of the postcards standing alone on a busy sidewalk, buses and taxis swooshing by. That was how she learned that Emeline, Josie, and Cecelia had moved into a new house together. That was how she found out Sylvie and William had gotten married, in a small ceremony in the back room of the Lozano Library.

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