Chapter 29 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

ovember 2008

Sylvie a d julia walked dow the sidewalk, past a rickety diner and a taqueria. This was Julia’s second visit, which took place only

ten days after her first. She sighed and said, “I did something.”

Sylvie noticed that her sister still looked tired but also calmer, like a knot had unraveled under her skin. “That’s exciting,” she said.

“Sure,” Julia said in a dry tone. “Very exciting. I did something to try to fix the situation with Alice. I had to mess everything up, though, in order to do it, and now she’s angry at me. She might be too angry to ever forgive me.”

Sylvie said, “She knows you love her.” “More than anything.”

“Then it will probably work out.”

Julia made a sour face. “I’ve always hated the word probably.” She looked upward, as if checking the street signs, then said, “I had everything under control while Alice was young. I mean it. Everything. It was beautiful. I wasn’t prepared for Alice to grow up, though. I don’t know why.”

Sylvie stopped walking. They were across the street from an old movie theater they’d frequented as children, where they’d seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Star Wars, and the Buster Keaton films their father had loved. “Hey, let’s see a movie,” she said.

Julia squinted at the list of titles on the marquee. “I haven’t seen a movie in a theater in years,” she said. “I never have time.”

The movie that was about to start was one neither of them had heard of, but they purchased two tickets anyway. They bought giant tubs of popcorn with extra butter and two massive sodas. Once they were settled in their plush seats, Sylvie looked down and wondered what the popcorn would taste like. Food and drink were beginning to switch up their flavor profiles in her mouth. A donut might taste bitter, even though it was glazed with sugar. Her coffee that morning had tasted like it was doused with maple syrup, even though she hadn’t added any sweetener. Sylvie placed one piece of popcorn in her mouth, tentatively, and was relieved to find that it tasted the same as it had her entire life. Salty and crunchy. This was because she was with Julia, she decided, in this time outside both their real lives. Sylvie’s headaches had recently become more frequent and intense, but she hadn’t had one with Julia by her side; it made sense that with her sister she would also briefly be allowed her normal taste buds.

Sylvie knew she should tell William that she had been reunited with Julia, and she would tell him, soon. These visits with Julia reminded her, though, of the weeks when Sylvie and William’s love had been confined to his dorm room, before Kent found them out. At that time, Sylvie and William had assured each other that what they were doing was less a secret than a delay—a few precious stolen moments—before real life, with its inherent complications, intervened. During those private weeks, she and William had breathed air dense with every molecule of their love and their joy at having found each other. Sylvie felt all of these emotions, this magical alchemy, with her sister now. Sylvie had experienced two great loves in her life, after all: her sisters first, and then William. Sylvie could feel something significant happening inside herself now: She was tying together who she’d been in the first half of her life with who she had become. She was stitching her life and heart together, and she wanted to keep it all before her: a beautiful whole.

Next week, Sylvie thought. I’ll tell him next week. She knew this delay and her reasons were technically both bullshit and secrets by

the terms of her husband’s mantra, but she told herself that the mantra was for the living. She was dying, which meant she could sit next to Julia right now and lie in William’s arms tonight.

The movie turned out to be about car racing and was clearly intended for teenagers. Sylvie laughed whenever a car was about to flip over, while the people around her gasped. She had the realization that she could respond to any stimulus however she wanted. If something sad happened, she didn’t have to cry. In the midst of a climactic scene involving a ten-car pileup, she reached over and held Julia’s hand. They hadn’t touched until now. They’d both been careful not to, because it felt like a parameter that kept them in this liminal place where they got to see each other without it counting. It was the bumpers on the strange bowling lane they were playing within. But Sylvie was running out of time, and she was no longer interested in parameters and rules—even the ones she’d made up.

She felt Julia stiffen for a split second, then relax. She didn’t pull away, and in the dark of the movie theater, the two sisters were ageless. They were ten, and thirteen, and in their forties. Julia was absolutely confident that she could design her own destiny, and Sylvie opened herself to books and the boys who came into the library. There were so many moments, piled on top of one another, and the long period when they had turned away from each other, for better and for worse.

Sylvie thought, This is worth dying for.

A driver with a firm jawline and shocking blue eyes drove in a neat figure eight to avoid an accident. The teenagers in the audience hooted, Sylvie smiled, and Julia held on to her hand. Sylvie thought of the novel she had just started—a classic she’d put off for years, but she no longer had time to put anything off—in which the main character fell asleep while reading, and when he woke, with his brain still foggy, he thought he was what he had been reading about: a horse, or the rivalry between two kings, or a chalet. Sylvie liked this

idea, and since she’d read the line, she had been reimagining herself. She was Julia’s wild hair, she was the lake her husband had once been carried out of, and no matter what happened next, she was love.

aFter her diaG osis, sylvie had started accompanying Cecelia and Emeline on their biweekly trips to the big box store to buy the enormous amounts of toilet paper, paper towels, ziplock bags, baby formula, and seltzer water needed at the super-duplex. Cecelia owned a car now, a lemon-yellow sedan, so they no longer had to borrow a neighbor’s vehicle for their drives. Sylvie didn’t need anything from the store, of course; she and William didn’t require tremendous amounts of anything for their two-person household. But she liked to ride with her sisters; it reminded her of when they were young and the three of them would drive home from Julia’s apartment and talk. She liked looking out the window and watching her city hurry by. She brought a book and read in the car while the twins shopped, and on the return trip she shared the back seat with paper products. She felt no guilt for not telling her younger sisters that she had seen Julia. They would have plenty of time with their older sister after Sylvie was gone. She also didn’t think they would be upset at having been left out—not much, anyway. They would understand what Sylvie had needed and be pleased that she’d been lucky enough to reconcile her heart.

On the way home from the store, Cecelia always drove past the playground where the portraits of Alice and Caroline were painted. The sisters stayed in the car; the sedan slowed, and they looked out the windows at the artwork. Sylvie loved the mural, loved that William had asked Cecelia to paint his sister into existence. On their way back to Pilsen late one afternoon, Sylvie almost told Cecelia not to take that route, because she could feel a headache coming on

and wanted to get home. But she didn’t say anything, and Cecelia drove into North Lawndale, slowing the car in its usual spot. Sylvie turned to look out the window and inhaled deeply, because William was in the playground. Her tall, fair-haired husband was seated on a bench in front of the mural. Only the back of his head and shoulders were visible, but it was unmistakably him.

“Is that…?” Emeline said.

Sylvie nodded; Cecelia had recognized him too, and the car inched to a halt. The three sisters watched William take in Caroline and Alice. He was sitting very still on the bench, and the mild slope of his shoulders told Sylvie that he was calm.

When happiness came at Sylvie these days, it took over her whole body, and she felt flushed with pleasure now to be sitting with her sisters, in front of this view. She didn’t want William to see her, and in a minute or two she would tell Cecelia to drive away. But the pinch of worry that had existed in Sylvie’s heart ever since she’d found out she was sick started, for the first time, to ease. She was leaving William, but he had this park, this bench, this painting, and his presence here meant that he was no longer looking away from the babies he’d walked away from. He was contemplating the two girls, which meant the doors that had long been closed inside him might be opening, which meant William might be okay without his wife. He was gaining ground, not just losing it.

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