Te days aFter she’d told Emeline and Cecelia her news, Sylvie left the library during her lunch break to buy an ice cream
cone. This was her new habit. Before, she’d believed pretty firmly that ice cream and donuts were only for children, but when she removed all rules and guilt from food, she realized, to her surprise, that those were two of her favorite things to eat. Now she went into the expensive, delicious-smelling bakery every morning for a donut and bought an ice cream cone for lunch. It was a three-block walk from the ice cream store back to the library, blocks that were so familiar to her that they operated as memories more than sidewalks, streets, and stores. She was sitting beside Cecelia on that curb when she found out that her little sister was pregnant with Izzy. The laundromat on the corner used to be the butcher shop where Rose had bartered: a Greek varietal of squash that Rose grew in her garden in exchange for meat. Sylvie passed her first apartment and tipped her head back to look at the windows. She’d loved that apartment, had been naked with a man for the first time there. This memory amused her, because right across the street was a bus stop with an ad for Ernie’s electrician business. It included a photo of Ernie, heavier now, with a mustache, smiling for the camera. She knew Ernie lived nearby with his wife and four sons. The passage of time, and the details that spun some moments into unforgettable
memories and others into thin air, traveled with Sylvie—the swirling atmosphere of her own life—while she walked.
When she walked into the library, she saw Emeline standing with her back to her at the front desk, and she thought, Oh dear. Sylvie was tired, and talking to her sister could only be hard work at the moment. Sylvie braced herself and walked toward Emeline. She hadn’t seen her younger sister in person since she’d told her the news—they’d only texted and spoken on the phone—and she hoped Emeline had had enough time to regain her normal equilibrium. But as Sylvie moved closer, a strange feeling filled her. Emeline didn’t wear silky tops like this, and her hair was slightly wrong too.
The woman turned around, and a static charge filled Sylvie’s entire body.
It was Julia.
The sisters stared at each other. Sylvie felt herself wobble slightly on her feet. She had been imagining her sister for so long that it felt like her own reflection had stepped out of a mirror.
“Is it really you?” she said.
Julia, at forty-eight, looked regal. Her mane of hair—similar to Sylvie’s, but denser, so it had more height—rose away from her face. She was dressed elegantly; Sylvie was dressed for the library, wearing Converse sneakers and a cardigan. The last time she’d been in the same room as Julia—if she was actually in the same room as her now—her sister had been wearing jeans and an old T-shirt. They’d stood in the middle of moving boxes, a baby at their feet, while Julia told her sister that she knew she was keeping secrets from her. Julia had handed Sylvie her divorce papers, and Sylvie never saw her again.
“I suppose it’s me,” Julia said, as if she weren’t sure.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Sylvie said. “The twins told you?” They had promised they wouldn’t, but they must have reconsidered. It must’ve been Emeline, Sylvie thought.
Julia shook her head. “William did.”
“William?” Sylvie said in disbelief. But her voice was faint, and she couldn’t listen for an answer. The static inside her had grown loud. When Sylvie was a child, she’d watched in amazement when friends, upset about a bad day at school or a slight from a boy they had a crush on, burst into tears at the sight of their mother. Their mother was their safe space, and so, with her, they felt every iota of their feelings. Julia had always been that person for Sylvie. Rose was too volatile, and she seemed to have a bone to pick with Sylvie, even when Sylvie was far too young for that to be likely. Because of this, Sylvie had always run past her mother into her own bedroom, where she threw herself into Julia’s arms. She had drenched Julia’s school uniform with tears, vented at her, been hugged by her, too many times to count. If she was ever confused about how she was feeling, her older sister’s presence provided clarity.
Sylvie had been okay, rational, calm, until now. But now she understood, for the first time, that she was dying. She was losing everything she loved. Everyone she loved. And her sister was here
—which was impossible in and of itself—and because of that, Sylvie felt everything.
She closed her eyes and heard a man’s voice say, “Are you Julia Padavano?”
“Yes?” Julia said, in a voice that made it clear she had no idea who he was.
“Thought so. I lived down the street from your family. Your sister Cecelia slept in my room when she was pregnant and I was in rehab.”
“Oh,” Julia said. Sylvie opened her eyes to watch her sister remember the teenage Frank Ceccione, who had walked around their neighborhood on Saturday afternoons in his baseball uniform, looking strong and gorgeous, and how Rose had worn Frank’s discarded gear in her garden after he quit the team. Julia said, “What a surprise.”
“You always zipped around like you knew what you were doing,” Frank said. “Like a bee who knows where the honey is. And you had that tall boyfriend.”
Oh Jesus, Sylvie thought. The tall boyfriend. She hoped that Julia wouldn’t leave because he’d said that, having only just arrived. To Sylvie’s surprise, Julia grinned at the old-looking man. Sylvie felt her own face smile in response. She noticed for the first time that her sister looked tired. There were dark circles under Julia’s eyes.
“What’s the joke?” Frank said, his eyes narrowed.
“Nothing,” Sylvie said to him. “Nothing at all.” She said in a lower voice, to Julia, “Can we go somewhere to talk?”
“Daddy’s favorite bar,” Julia said.
The two women didn’t speak while they maneuvered down the sidewalks. Neither of them could believe they were together. Sylvie wondered what this terrain was doing to her sister’s insides after more than twenty years away. She wondered how William had found the courage to go against her wishes and make a phone call that didn’t serve him at all. They passed Mr. Luis’s flower shop, where the front glass was so crowded with roses that the old man wouldn’t have been able to see, much less recognize, the two sisters. The air was thick with the flowers’ scent.
Sylvie had an interior map of Cecelia’s murals in the neighborhood and spotted one from the corner of her eye, on a side street. Next to her, Julia looked glassy-eyed and overwhelmed and didn’t appear to see it. The painting was of St. Clare of Assisi. Sylvie had seen the mural so often—every day, almost, since Cecelia had painted it—that she felt like the woman was real. More real than the sister next to her, who had appeared out of thin air, who had appeared out of her dreams. The saint felt like an old friend, and Sylvie had the urge to gesture at Julia and whisper to St. Clare: Look who’s here! But she didn’t; she kept walking, wondering if this moment could be true, while the giant woman stared in the sisters’ direction, as if from the dining room wall of their childhood.