Chapter 26 – Julia

Hello Beautiful

october 2008

Julia Felt u steady o the sidewalk beside her sister; she had the odd sensation of being part of everything she saw. In New York,

she walked on the sidewalks; here, she was scattered, like pollen, across the concrete. The hardware store; the small, crummy supermarket; Mr. Luis’s flower shop. The familiar cut of the buildings against the sky. Old ladies, who looked like her mother, pushing shopping carts down the sidewalk. She remembered the girl and the young woman she’d been when she lived in Pilsen; she’d been in such a hurry to succeed, which she’d believed required an ambitious husband and a house that she owned outright. She’d raced toward adulthood, because she’d always wanted to be in charge. Julia could remember her pleasure, as a young girl, in making her sisters line up in height order and follow her around the house.

Julia noticed one of Cecelia’s murals in her peripheral vision. It was a painting of Cecelia’s saint; Julia had first seen the image on Alice’s dorm room wall. The giant woman stared in Julia’s direction, and she sped up her gait. She didn’t want anyone peering into her soul. She didn’t know what was in there; she felt disrupted in every way. She led Sylvie into the Irish bar, which hadn’t changed except for the bartender, who looked impossibly young. The bartenders who had served Charlie had either retired or died. Julia ordered a Scotch and Sylvie ordered a Diet Coke, and they sat in a booth.

“I can’t drink alcohol on my medication,” Sylvie said in an apologetic tone. She looked older, but she still looked like Sylvie. The scattering of freckles, the slight green tint to her brown eyes. Julia felt boulders shift inside her. Looking at Sylvie was like looking in a mirror, and yet not at herself. This was the other part of her, the part that had been hidden for twenty-five years.

“I wasn’t planning to come here,” Julia said. “I told William I wasn’t going to.”

“I thought you hated me,” Sylvie said. “I never would have bothered you. I feel like I should apologize for William calling you.”

“No,” Julia said. “You should apologize for marrying him.”

Sylvie froze for a second, then said, “You’re right. I’m so sorry. I had no other choice.”

Julia took a long sip of the drink, which had been Charlie’s favorite. She wasn’t much of a drinker; when she drank, she usually chose white wine. The Scotch tasted like colors: red and orange and gold and white. She’d made many choices in her life. She believed in choices, if she believed in anything. Set a goal, and then work your ass off to get it. She hadn’t accepted that Sylvie had no other choice when Emeline said so decades earlier, and she didn’t accept it now. But she wasn’t angry about it either. She didn’t know what she was.

After William’s phone call, Julia had stopped being able to sleep. She cobbled together only a couple of hours per night. She gave taxi drivers the wrong address twice on her way to work. She also had the strange sense, from the minute she hung up the phone with William, that her shadow had gotten a mind of its own; a few times she caught it pulling away from her, as if it were trying to escape. After a week of sleeplessness, Julia felt like a Picasso painting—her eyes didn’t match, and her shoulders were at different heights. She did her best to act like herself, but she got so tired that she forgot what she was like. She forgot how to act and called in sick to work. She texted with Alice but didn’t speak to her on the phone, because she had lost faith in her voice.

“I didn’t want to go to work this morning,” Julia said. “So I got into a cab and went to the airport. I only have my purse. I thought, at three a.m., that maybe if I saw you, like William wanted me to, I could go back to feeling normal.”

Sylvie nodded, like this made sense.

“It’s only a two-hour flight,” Julia said. “And please don’t act like what I’m saying is reasonable. I know it’s not.”

“Oh please,” Sylvie said, and for a second Julia saw the Sylvie she used to know, the sister who wasn’t afraid to speak to her, who wasn’t cloaked in guilt. “What’s reasonable? I’m dying, for God’s sake.”

It occurred to Julia that maybe she felt terrible because Sylvie felt terrible. Was it possible that she was falling apart in New York because her sister was dying in Chicago? That there were invisible threads that connected them, which she had been unable to see and therefore unable to sever? Julia felt so confused and fatigued and out of her body right now that when she asked, “How do you feel?” it was like she was asking after herself.

Sylvie spread her hands and looked at them. “I thought I felt pretty good, until I saw you. I have headaches sometimes. I go to sleep at seven some nights.” She leaned forward. “Julia. Are you really here? Maybe I’m hallucinating because of my medication. I’ve imagined you with me for years, but this feels much more real.”

The bar had a low hum—it was midafternoon on a weekday, and the people in here were professional drinkers. No one was messy or loud. It was mostly older men, some of whom might have known Charlie. Every single person looked tired. The act of living had exhausted them. They didn’t know that Sylvie, who was middle-aged but looked younger, wouldn’t have the chance to tire of anything.

“I wish you were hallucinating,” Julia said. “My being here makes no sense.”

Sylvie looked around them, as if assessing what might be real and what might not. “I love this hallucination. Nothing this wonderful

has happened to me in a long time.”

Julia sighed. “It’ll become real when you tell William and the twins that you saw me.”

“That’s true.” Sylvie appeared to consider this. “But I don’t usually tell them about my dreams and visions. I’ll keep this one to myself, for a little while. Will you tell Alice that you came here?”

“God, no.” Sylvie didn’t know about the lie Julia had told, and Julia didn’t feel inclined to explain. She remembered, with her sister in front of her, that part of the reason she’d killed William off was that she’d been scared that Alice would leave Julia to live in Chicago, because Alice would love Sylvie more than her own mother. That had been a ridiculous concern; Julia knew that now. But the younger Julia had felt like it was possible, because she had always loved Sylvie more than she loved everyone else. Julia loved her now, across the wooden table. She had closed a door on Sylvie long ago and triple-locked it, and that had worked until William’s phone call. Now, with her sister in the same room, Julia was aware of how badly she’d missed her.

This wasn’t a hallucination, Julia thought, but at the same time, no one in her life knew she was in Chicago. This wasn’t on her calendar, which meant this moment could exist as a barnacle on the outside of her real life. She was here and yet not here, in a state of quantum uncertainty. “Look,” she said, “I’m glad you feel bad about what happened. But you probably did me a favor by visiting William in the hospital. I wondered why his doctor didn’t ask for more from me than a single phone call, but that was because you were there. If you’d left him alone like I wanted you to, eventually I would have had to help him. Mama would have made me. Or someone would have needed to sign some paperwork. But you stepped in, and that let me leave. I’m grateful for that.”

Sylvie looked at her, and Julia could see the years of their separation on her face. Julia could no longer read Sylvie perfectly. She didn’t know what her sister was thinking right now. Julia

remembered how frantic she’d felt the last time she saw Sylvie. Her husband had left her, then tried to kill himself, then left her again, and Julia had accepted a job far away from her sisters and home. That collection of weeks had pulled her life out from under her like a rug. Julia had devoted herself to not losing control of her circumstances like that ever again, and she hadn’t, until recently.

“Tell me about New York,” Sylvie said. “Tell me about Alice.” “Alice,” she said, and paused.

Her sister was beaming at her from across the table. Julia remembered Sylvie holding baby Alice in her arms. There was a photograph of the two of them together, in Julia’s bedside drawer. Julia could see now, on Sylvie’s face, a truth she had overlooked. Sylvie had loved Alice with all her heart. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to Julia that she’d separated the two of them when she left Chicago. She’d worried about the possibility of Alice loving Sylvie, but only as a future risk, not as something that had already happened. But Sylvie was lit up and longing to hear news about the baby girl to whom she’d whispered, I love you, every time she saw her.

“She’s great,” Julia said. “Well, not great, maybe, but good. She graduated cum laude from college, which was fantastic. She has a decent job as a copy editor. Let’s see. She’s a runner; she runs in Prospect Park every morning.” Julia felt Sylvie’s quizzical gaze and remembered lying next to her sister in the dark, in the bedroom where they never told each other anything but the truth. They might twist words for other people, but not for each other. Julia said, “I’m afraid I messed her up, though.” She told her sister about how careful her daughter’s smile was, how deliberately engineered her carefree demeanor was, how uneventful Alice’s life was. Julia told her something Rose had said recently: that Alice lived like a cat who refused to leave its cardboard box.

Sylvie smiled at this. “She’s still a baby,” she said. “Do you remember how young we were when we were twenty-five? If there’s something wrong, you have time to fix it.”

Fix it, Julia thought. Could she fix it? In her sister’s company, she felt brave enough to consider this possibility. She had a sense of what it would take. Julia would have to leap off a cliff, without knowing if she could survive the fall.

“We haven’t touched each other,” Sylvie said. “You and I. Do you realize that? We haven’t hugged. Which makes sense if this isn’t real. Ghosts don’t hug, because they would pass through each other. Ghosts just enjoy each other’s company.”

Julia smiled at her sister’s whimsy. Sylvie was part of her, and in their separation, Julia had missed these kinds of thoughts. Sylvie was the part of her who walked out of the pages of a novel, who kissed boys for ninety seconds for fun, who talked about third doors and ghosts as easily as she made a grocery list. Maybe she and her sister were ghosts, or hallucinations, or maybe it didn’t matter. Julia was aware that she felt better—happier, more relaxed—than she had in a long time. She was supposed to be in a different city. She was with Sylvie, whom she’d excised from her life a quarter of a century earlier. Julia felt a shot of joy rise through her like bubbles to the surface of a glass. She was free of her real self, of her real life, for a few hours, and when Julia left for the airport a little while later, she and Sylvie both knew—although neither spoke the words out loud— that Julia would return. They’d found a loophole, which allowed them to be together without anyone’s knowledge, which meant this time meant nothing, which meant everything.

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