Chapter 18 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

september 1989–december 2003

Cecelia had adopted william’s ma tra for parenting: No bullshit and no secrets. If Izzy asked a question, no matter what it

was, Cecelia answered honestly. Sylvie and Emeline both happened to be in Cecelia’s kitchen one evening when the six-year-old Izzy asked where babies came from.

Sylvie ate with her sisters a few days a week, when William was at Northwestern for late practices. She and William had been together for almost six years and had married the year before. They’d recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment not far from where the twins lived, and William was about to start a job for the Chicago Bulls. The franchise had created a new position for him, with responsibilities both in player development and as a physio. The Bulls were flush with optimism and eager to expand their staff. They hadn’t yet won a championship, but with Michael Jordan on the roster, the trophy seemed inevitable. William’s job description stipulated that he wouldn’t travel with the team; he would be based in Chicago, and he would use his specialized program to try to target areas where young players needed assistance. William probably would have chosen to stay at Northwestern out of loyalty to Arash and the university, despite the flattering offer from the Bulls, but Arash was retiring, and the head coach was leaving for another job, so Sylvie convinced William that he should move on too. “We have to keep growing,” she said, “or we don’t live.” He’d smiled at her,

because she’d avoided saying the word die. He knew Sylvie was invested in keeping him away from even the thought of that word.

“A baby is made by a man and a woman having sex,” Cecelia said.

Izzy nodded, and her dark curls bobbed around her intent face. “And what is sex?”

Emeline and Sylvie blushed furiously while Cecelia drew pictures of various sexual positions on a sketch pad. Izzy paid close attention and then said, “How do Aunt Emmie and Aunt Josie do it?”

“Oh my God,” Emeline said, and left the kitchen while Cecelia drew pictures to illustrate that too. Sylvie laughed helplessly in the corner. She missed Alice suddenly, a feeling that always came at her as if from around a corner, when she didn’t expect it. She had the feeling that Alice belonged in this kitchen right now, in this ridiculous scene. She was meant to be here, seated beside her cousin. Sylvie carried Julia with her, but she ached for the baby girl who had left the family with her mother.

This was one of the unexpected sorrows that trailed in the wake of losing Julia. Sylvie knew in her heart that her sister was flourishing in New York. Julia had sounded excited and alive when Sylvie spoke to her during her first year in the city, when she was building her new self and new life. Julia was the rocket their father had known she could be, with nothing to hold her back. But Sylvie had only known Alice when she was a baby; she was in the unusual position of loving her but not knowing her at all, and Sylvie was unable to shake the feeling that the girl belonged with the rest of them in Pilsen. Sylvie imagined Alice playing chess with Izzy in the library, their blond and brunette heads bent toward each other. And she played, as if on a video loop, a scene in which she walked down the street with Alice’s hand in her own. The child was half William, after all, and half Julia, which made her Sylvie’s heart.

But Sylvie had broken Julia’s heart, which meant she had no right to Alice. And William had not only given his daughter up legally, he’d

somehow managed to remove the thought of her from his mind. This removal seemed almost surgical in nature; Sylvie watched him carefully and saw no sign that he ever considered the existence of his daughter. There were paintings of Alice in Cecelia’s house, and Sylvie watched William avert his eyes from each one as he walked down the halls, an obstacle course so ingrained that he wasn’t even aware he was running it. When he joined Sylvie for dinner at the twins’ house, he would talk to Izzy about the history she was learning at school. He seemed to have forgotten his own history, though, and the fact that Alice had entered the world on Izzy’s heels. He’d forgotten that there had once been two little girls in his universe, and not one. Sylvie never mentioned Alice within William’s hearing. The further they traveled from her husband’s suicide attempt, the more grateful she was for his steadiness and his obvious contentment. She had watched him put down roots in this life, watched him fill the breaks inside himself with love and meaningful work. Sylvie accepted William’s choice to stay away from his daughter; she accepted all of him, every day, and he did the same for her.

i 1993, whe izzy was ten years old, Emeline and Josie bought the house next door to the one Cecelia had purchased. Josie, a warm, auburn-haired woman with a business degree, was savvy with money. She’d negotiated the purchase of the daycare where she and Emeline had met; shortly after that, she bought another local daycare. The twins decided to share the two homes; after all, they’d been living together their entire lives. They knocked down the fence separating the houses, and the family spent the summer renovating and cleaning up the new house. Sylvie, after a few years of a regular schedule, enjoyed the disruption and the way her family once again gathered and labored together in all their free time.

Sylvie was now the head librarian at the Lozano Library, so she could set her own hours. She’d been slightly surprised to find that she enjoyed running the library; the decision-making the position entailed was satisfying, and she liked being the person who had the final say on issues big and small. Sylvie now knew not only all the regular patrons but, in the case of many of them, their parents and children too. Frank Ceccione, who had grown up two doors down from the Padavanos, read the newspaper at a table by the front windows each day. He’d struggled with addiction for much of his adult life, and she thought they both took comfort in greeting each other every morning. To Sylvie’s delight, Izzy loved the library almost as much as Sylvie did and often walked there after school. Nothing made Sylvie happier than watching her niece play chess or read at one of the tables while she worked behind the desk.

Izzy and Sylvie spent the first few weeks of the summer painting the walls of one of the bedrooms a deep-blue color. “I’m going to sleep in here when my mom has a boyfriend,” she told Sylvie.

“Sounds nice,” Sylvie said. “I would have liked to have my own room to go to, to read, when I was growing up.”

“Tell me stories from then.” Izzy had been saying these words since she learned how to talk. She loved hearing about when her mother and her sisters were young.

Izzy already knew most of the stories because of her mother’s policy of holding nothing back. But during the hot summer evenings they spent painting the room the color of a midnight sky, Sylvie told the stories in chronological order. She stood at the top of the ladder, painting near the ceiling’s edge, and tried to remember all the details that she could. She started with their childhood, which of course included the story that, for some reason, delighted Izzy most, about the time when Rose’s garden was being systemically destroyed by a mysterious animal that no one ever laid eyes on. The animal was mauling the food, splitting tomatoes in half, and gnawing at the leaves and stems of everything in the garden. Furious, Rose

assigned her family members shifts, during which they had to sit in a lawn chair in the middle of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs and keep guard around the clock. Rose and Charlie split the night shift, though Rose always ended up taking over, because Charlie kept getting distracted. He would chat with a neighbor over the fence or fall asleep in the lawn chair. The girls would come down to breakfast in the morning and see their mother through the back window: her hair wild, a baseball bat in her hand, glaring at the earth around her. “What are you going to do when you catch the animal?” Sylvie had asked, and Rose said calmly, “I’ll kill it.” The animal wisely never showed itself—the Padavanos never knew if it was a rodent or a bird or a ghost—but the ravaging of the greenery stopped under their vigilance. Eventually, Rose declared herself triumphant and went back to sleeping in her bed.

After a time, Sylvie’s narrative reached Cecelia’s pregnancy, then Julia’s, and then Charlie’s death. How Rose had given Izzy and her mother up, how Uncle William had been hospitalized and married two of her aunts, and how Izzy had a cousin her own age whom she would never meet. Emeline wandered in and out of the room while the stories were being told, carrying lamps or books, and she shook her head in what looked like amazement. “Heavens,” she said under her breath. A few times she called Josie in to listen. “I know I’ve told you some of this,” she said, “but Sylvie’s the best storyteller.”

“I wish I’d met Charlie,” Josie said once, after listening for a while. “He sounds wonderful.”

The stories and the people in them did sound remarkable, Sylvie thought, when spoken aloud. She and the twins had rarely talked about what happened. They’d lived through it, after all, and the loss of Julia had made them quiet. But Josie’s wonder at the stories, and Izzy’s clear enjoyment of what she saw as a soap opera in which she played a small role, took the sting out of the grief woven through those times. When Sylvie spoke their family history into the air, all she heard was love.

Several times, Izzy shook her head and said, “Adults are idiots.

My goal is to grow up and not be an idiot.”

“Excellent goal,” Sylvie said, thinking that it would be amazing if Izzy made her way through life with no heartbreak. Was that possible? Then something occurred to Sylvie, and she said, “Iz, I’ve actually been writing these stories down. For years. They’re kind of messy, but maybe you’d like to read them?”

Izzy stared at her. She had her own version of the Padavano curls—hers were darker and tighter. Her face was round and serious. For all her questions about her mother’s family, she’d shown no interest in learning about her biological father. When asked, Izzy said that she had more than enough grown-ups raising her already, thank you very much, and besides, if her mom didn’t want that guy in her life, then she didn’t either.

“Are you kidding?” Izzy said. “That would be my dream!”

Sylvie laughed, caught off guard by the child’s enthusiasm. She’d written roughly three hundred pages; she had them bound at the copy shop the next afternoon and gave the manuscript to her niece. Izzy read it and then gave the book to Cecelia and Emeline.

“It’s really good. You could publish this, you know,” Cecelia said, but when Sylvie said she was writing it just for herself and their family, Cecelia nodded. She often painted pieces she had no intention of selling, so this made sense to her. Josie read the manuscript more than once; she was an only child and was now as all in on the Padavano family history as Izzy was.

Working in the disheveled house that summer, with stories filling all the nooks and crannies, the sisters found themselves remembering more of their family history. They shared memories while organizing closets or putting away pots and pans in the kitchen. Sometimes, when Sylvie, Emeline, or Cecelia retold an anecdote over dinner, Izzy or Josie would add details or dialogue, as if they had been there when it happened too.

They were eating pizzas one night on the living room floor when Emeline said, “Hearing all those stories again has made me remember myself, in a way. I know they mostly happened to you two and Julia”—she nodded at her sisters—“but I remember how I felt at every point.”

Sylvie and Cecelia smiled, to encourage her to go on. Emeline rarely spoke about herself; she focused her attention on the people around her. She brought toddlers home from daycare most afternoons, and the children would wait on her lap for their parents to pick them up. She remained a homebody, happiest on the couch with Josie in the evenings. The larger spread of the super-duplex— this was what Izzy had named the two houses—made perfect sense for Emeline; home now contained more rooms, more space, and the people she loved.

“What did you feel?” Izzy asked Emeline. She and William were playing chess on the couch, in between bites of pizza. William was the only grown-up in the family who would play her favorite game with her. Izzy was a terrible loser, but she worked to control herself with her uncle, and he liked the challenge of chess. Determining a strategy that involved two teams and a campaign for space reminded him of basketball.

“It made me remember how badly I wanted to be a mother,” Emeline said. “How that was all I ever wanted.”

William hesitated and started to stand up to leave the room; Sylvie knew he thought the conversation was getting too personal. He was always careful to allow the sisters space and, if they chose, secrets from him.

Emeline shook her head at him, though, so he sat back down. “Josie and I talked about all of this last night.” Her face was bright. “And we’re going to apply to foster newborns. There’s a need for that, and there are babies who need love.”

Josie squeezed Emeline’s shoulder. “Practically speaking,” she said, “we would take care of babies that have been born to drug-

addicted mothers or young teens for two or three months, and then the foster agency would return the baby to his or her biological mother or find a permanent placement. The research shows”—now Josie brightened, because she loved research—“that if a newborn is held whenever he or she cries and is smiled at during their first three months of life, their chance for long-term health and happiness shoots up something like fifty percent.”

“Amazing,” Sylvie said. “Emmie, what a wonderful idea.”

Cecelia beamed at her sister and Josie. “Of course you should do that! We’ll have to get one of those baby swings that Izzy loved when she was tiny.”

“Ahem,” Izzy said, with a dark look on her face. “I hear that newborns cry a lot.”

“I promise I won’t ever ask you to babysit,” Emeline said. “And the baby will sleep with us, so you won’t hear anything at night.”

“Then you have my approval.”

The foster application went through quickly. The two women had worried that they might be declined—they sometimes got looks at the supermarket, and a family had pulled a child from their daycare because they were gay—but the foster-care system was so overwhelmed that they seemed thrilled to have applicants with Emeline and Josie’s excellent references and background in childcare. By the end of the summer, Emeline was wearing a tiny baby boy in a carrier while she walked through the fully renovated house.

Sylvie would think back on that summer as when her family fully accepted themselves. The super-duplex, with its shared houses and unusual layout, mirrored the unusual layout of the Padavanos, or what was left of them. Sylvie and her sisters and William had built their own lives to suit themselves, to serve the size and shape they occupied. The living space itself shared a backyard and a garden, which was a mixture of food and flowers. Cecelia used the attic in Emeline and Josie’s house as a secondary studio, because she liked

the light in that space. Emeline built a drying cupboard in Cecelia’s house, which both households used to dry herbs and flowers from the garden. Both houses had baby swings and bottles, as well as cribs. William kept his toolbox in Emeline’s laundry room, and he and Sylvie had keys to both homes. The twins’ kitchen utensils and plates were mixed, from eating together outside and trading off on cleanup duty. Izzy had a bedroom in each house, and she moved back and forth whimsically. If she was in the middle of a good book, she stayed at Emeline’s, because her room there had a better bedside light. When her mother was between boyfriends, she slept at Cecelia’s.

With William’s help, Izzy created a workshop in one of the spare bedrooms and built a speaker system that allowed the two side-by-side houses to communicate without using a phone. Both Cecelia and Emeline thought this was ridiculous at first, but they were soon using the invention daily. Emmie, where did you put my favorite brush? Josie, are you home? Can you make me a sandwich? Izzy, what are you doing over there that makes so much noise?

whe ke t Fi ished his residency, he and Nicole moved to Chicago, and he got a job with the Bulls too, as a sports doctor. The two couples met at the Mexican diner for dinner at least once a month, and sometimes Gus and Washington and their wives would join them. This was the only socializing Sylvie and William did, other than seeing the twins. But when Kent and Nicole found themselves struggling to get pregnant, Nicole stopped wanting to go out, and the dinners became less frequent. William and Sylvie were sad for their friends, but they didn’t mind having more nights at home. They were both awkward around strangers. When a new acquaintance asked Sylvie or William how they’d met, they were vague, because the true account was too provocative to tell. Sylvie had read somewhere that

the more times a story was told, the less accurate it became. Humans were prone to exaggeration; they leaned away from the parts of the narrative they found boring and leaned into the exciting spots. Details and timelines changed over years of repetition. The story became more myth and less true. Sylvie thought about how she and William rarely told their story and felt pleased; by not being shared, their love story remained intact.

“You and William are so nice to each other,” Emeline said one afternoon when they were running errands. “I feel like I’m always throwing a baby at Josie or asking her to pick up her socks.”

Sylvie smiled. “Well, we don’t have babies, and we don’t live in a train station like you do.”

“True.” Emeline sighed, even though they both knew she loved living in a place rife with crying babies, and toddlers who hadn’t been picked up from daycare yet, and half-full paint cans, and a child who was liable to walk into the room with a vibrator and say, What is this? Sylvie also knew that her sister was right—she and William were nicer to each other than most couples. She watched William swallow his pills before breakfast and bed and watched his eyes search out hers in a room when he was beginning to feel overwhelmed. She found herself reaching for his hand at the same moment he reached for hers. William made her lunch every morning to bring to work, and she made sure their life stayed quiet at the edges, because he did best that way. He whispered, “I am so lucky,” most nights before they went to sleep, and she knew he was and she was too. Sylvie had almost missed this life with this man, and because of this near miss,

she appreciated their moments together, even as they accumulated.

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