Chapter 3 – Sylvie‌

Hello Beautiful

auGust 1981–ju e 1982

The loza o library overlooked a three-way intersection in the center of Pilsen. Sylvie loved every inch of the spacious library and

the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that showed whatever light and weather the city had to offer. She loved how the library welcomed everyone and how the librarians dutifully answered every question presented to them, no matter how arcane or ridiculous. Sylvie had been working in the library since she was thirteen; she’d started by shelving books and now, at the age of twenty, she bore the title of librarian’s assistant.

Sylvie was shelving copies of What Color Is Your Parachute? when Ernie, a boy her age with a dimple in his chin, smiled his way into her row. They had gone to high school together, and he sometimes stopped by after his morning session of electrician school. After checking that no one else was in sight, Sylvie stepped into his arms. They kissed for about ninety seconds, making two slow turns down the aisle with his hand on her lower back, and then she tapped him on the shoulder, and he was gone.

Sylvie told Julia she kissed boys to practice for her great love, and that was true. But she also did it because it was fun. She’d waited through her entire childhood, scanning classrooms for her person, her version of Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables. Sylvie hadn’t found him yet, but she enjoyed the thrill that accompanied a boy taking her in his arms. Sylvie was naturally shy

and bookish; she’d blushed when Ernie looked into her eyes. “I’m getting better at kissing,” she told Julia when they returned to the subject at night in their beds. “It’s clearly a learned skill.”

Julia had shaken her head. “People are talking about what you’re doing with those boys. If Mama hears about it…” There was no need to finish this sentence, because they both knew Rose would be furious. And if Sylvie tried to explain that she was practicing for the love of her life, Rose would be bewildered and probably lock Sylvie in her room. Rose had never uttered the word love in front of the girls; they simply knew she loved them because of the furious attention she pinned on them. They also knew, in the same unspoken way, that Rose loved Charlie. It was because she loved him that Rose had been so disappointed by her marriage and why it was essential that her girls grow up strong and educated, able to stand on their own two feet, unbowed by something as tricky and undependable as love.

Julia used to dismiss the idea of love too, but now she was in love with William Waters. Sylvie found it fascinating to watch the person she knew better than anyone succumb to romance. Julia walked through her days smiling, unbothered by things that normally ruffled her: the sight of Charlie pouring a second or third drink; Cecelia sliding into her chair, late for dinner; Emeline playing outside with younger neighborhood kids, when Julia considered her too old to do so. Love had made Julia happier and lighter, but she saw it as part of a well-constructed life, not a reason for living, like Sylvie did.

Julia believed in several direct steps: Education led to a good marriage, which led to a reasonable number of children, to financial security and then real estate. Julia found Sylvie’s behavior in the library distressing because there was a murky abandon implied in allowing boys, plural, to cover Sylvie’s face with kisses, to slide a hand over her sweater and cup her breast, even though Head Librarian Elaine—she insisted everyone address her this way—was only two rows away. “Just date one of them at a time, like a normal

person,” Julia pleaded with Sylvie. She wanted her sister to behave in a way that made sense.

“I have no interest in dating,” Sylvie said. “Dating is about getting dressed up and pretending you’re a pretty girl who thinks about nothing but marriage and babies. I don’t think about those things, and it makes me sad to pretend to be something I’m not. Oh—” She propped herself up on her elbow so she could see her sister in the dim light. “I thought of a metaphor today while I was shelving. Imagine that I’m a house, and when I find my great love, I’ll become the entire world. Our love will show me so much more than I’m able to see on my own.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Julia said, but she smiled while she said it, because she was tender inside her own love story and because she wanted Sylvie to be happy, even if Julia thought her dream was nonsensical.

Sylvie wasn’t entirely impractical. She would earn a degree in English literature, which would allow her to understand some of the mystery and beauty and symmetry in the novels she loved and qualify her for a job in teaching or publishing. She would give her mother whatever money she could spare, to make Rose’s life easier. She and her mother didn’t get along well; they picked small fights with each other all day long. Sylvie didn’t like how Rose left used drinking glasses and dishes all over the house; the twins did this too, but Sylvie excused them because they were the babies of the family. Rose would complain that Sylvie didn’t care about her garden, which was true. Sylvie was the only daughter who insisted that all her chores take place inside the house; she went out back only to hang laundry on the multitiered clothesline. When Rose came upon Sylvie reading a book, she made a face and then gave a noisy sigh. This mystified Sylvie—how could her mother disapprove of her reading, when she had been the one to demand that all four girls go to college? Sylvie had observed that her mother and Julia often shared a peaceful silence at the kitchen table. But when Sylvie and her

mother were together, the air crackled as if filled with static electricity.

Rose smoothed Emeline’s and Cecelia’s hair and bossed them around like they were still young children, and the girls accepted it. They did most of the weeding in the garden and helped Rose fold laundry. The twins had always seemed to need only each other, and they often seemed pleasantly surprised by the affection their parents and older sisters showered on them. Emeline, in particular, looked startled when another member of the family joined a conversation she was having with Cecelia, as if she’d forgotten that other people lived in the house. The twins had their own made-up language, which they’d spoken until the end of elementary school, and they still used some of the vocabulary when they were alone.

Sylvie closed her eyes, a book in her hands, so she could relive Ernie’s kiss. The people who called her easy, or a slut, were lazy thinkers. She had never done more than make out with Ernie, or Miles, or the man in the suit with the thick eyebrows. These young men seemed happy to kiss her, and the ninety-second limit meant nothing serious could develop, which suited Sylvie perfectly. If a steady boyfriend or sluttiness were the two available doors, she had found and opened a third. What made her most excited about her future was the idea of finding more third doors. Her soulmate would qualify; he would be more than a boyfriend or a husband. He would see Sylvie, as if through a pane of clear glass, and not want to change any aspect of her. Sylvie watched her mother try to change her father every day, and now she could see Julia lovingly nudging William into the shape of her ideal future husband. Sylvie would love differently. She would celebrate whoever her beloved happened to be; she would be curious about his distinctiveness and sink into a love that was unblinkingly honest.

My heart is open, she thought, and then wondered at the phrase. Was it a line from a poem? Had she heard her father recite those words in the house? She shared her father’s affection for Whitman.

When Charlie recited his poems, she pictured the bearded poet standing on the back balcony of a steam train—the words, the beauty he saw in the world, bringing tears to his eyes.

When Sylvie emerged from the row with her cart, she saw Julia and William sitting at the table they favored. It was partially hidden from the front of the library by a structural beam, so they had a little privacy, though Sylvie had never seen them do more than hold hands. They were leaning toward each other now, eyes locked. Sylvie understood her sister’s laser focus. She knew that Julia had gone all in on William Waters; he would be her husband, the structural beam of her future. Julia was willful, and her formidable engine was powering her and William forward. “I know why you like him so much,” Cecelia had teased her older sister. “Because he does whatever you tell him to.”

Sylvie didn’t know William as well as she knew her sister, of course, but she did sense some kind of fear in him, though he presented as steady and calm. He was holding on to Julia like a life raft, and Sylvie wondered why. She wasn’t prone to gossip, but she liked to understand the whole arc of a story, especially when it came in the shape of a six-foot-seven man her beloved sister had brought into their family.

She pushed her cart up to their table, and they both smiled hello at her.

“You’re so good about studying.” Sylvie stared hungrily at the spread of books that covered their tabletop. She’d had to drop out of community college when Charlie took another pay cut. She now worked as many shifts at the library as were available, saving money so she could re-enroll.

“I’m not as smart as your sister,” William said. “I have to study a lot, or my grades will drop and I won’t be able to play basketball.”

“You’ll be back in college soon,” Julia said to Sylvie.

Sylvie shrugged and felt her cheeks grow warm. She didn’t want to discuss her financial issues in front of her future brother-in-law.

“How’s wedding planning going?” she asked. “It will be nice to meet your family, William.”

A strange look crossed his face, and Sylvie wondered if she’d said something wrong.

“Actually,” Julia said quickly, “his parents aren’t coming to the wedding. They don’t want to.”

Sylvie tilted her head to the side and tried to make sense of this. People don’t want to exercise, or eat salads, or wake up early. Saying your own parents don’t want to attend your wedding sounded like a mistake. “I don’t understand,” she said.

William looked tired; something in him faded, to match his faded blue eyes. “I don’t think you or your sister can understand,” he said. “Your family loves one another. I don’t think my parents love me.”

He looked surprised by what he’d just revealed, and Sylvie was surprised too. She sat down in the empty seat at their table. Julia put her hand over William’s. She said, in her most determined voice, “Our wedding will be wonderful without them.”

“Of course it will!” Sylvie said. “I’m sorry I asked…. I didn’t know.” “They’re not bad people,” William said. “You’re just lucky to have

Rose and Charlie as your parents.”

“Yes,” Sylvie said. Sunlight was boring into the library through the spread of windows. They were all caught up in its shine for a moment—they blinked, put hands up to shield their eyes—until a cloud moved or the sun sank a degree and normal color returned to the room around them.

Head Librarian Elaine made a loud tutting noise from somewhere, and Sylvie stood.

“Are you hiding a boy in one of these stacks?” Julia said.

“Not right now,” Sylvie said. “It’s just me and a thousand books.”

a mo th later, sylvie was back in college, thanks to her sister. Julia sat in the Lozano Library one afternoon and paid close attention to the regular patrons. One older man, who came in at lunchtime and read Sylvie her horoscope from the newspaper, happened to work in the neighborhood bank. Julia beelined for him, and when she explained the situation Sylvie was in, he said he’d be delighted to help. That same afternoon, he arranged for Sylvie to get a small student loan. “Can’t have a light like you buried under a bushel,” he said, when he handed Sylvie the papers.

This generosity—from the man and her sister—made Sylvie teary, even though she rarely cried. Head Librarian Elaine tutted at the sight of her pink face and streaming eyes and said, “Well, I suppose you’ll want to rework your schedule around your classes again.”

“Yes, please, ma’am.”

Her sisters baked her a cake, and Cecelia drew a banner that said, Congratulations, Sylvie! She hung the banner in Sylvie and Julia’s tiny bedroom, though, so the sight of it wouldn’t hurt Charlie’s feelings. He had been ignoring the fact that Sylvie was out of college

—because it was his fault—and so would prefer to ignore that she’d had to re-enroll. The four girls ate the cake on the floor of the bedroom, cross-legged and talking over one another.

“This cake is for you too.” Sylvie nodded at her older sister. “I wouldn’t be going back if it weren’t for you.”

Julia swallowed a bite and said, “You should have thought of this solution yourself, you know. Everyone in that library adores you. If they’d known you needed help, you would have had it earlier.”

Voices erupted outside the door, from the direction of the living room, and the four girls went silent to listen. Rose’s voice climbed to a pitch that meant she was unhappy, then Charlie responded, and Rose’s voice leveled. What at first sounded like a marital fight subsided into a conversation, and the girls relaxed.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” Julia said.

“Oh, goodie,” Cecelia said, and Emeline put down her fork in anticipation. The twins had just turned seventeen and started their senior year of high school. Sylvie was twenty, and Julia twenty-one. They were getting too old to play this game, which had started in early childhood, but they hadn’t been able to give it up. Julia ran the game and told each of them their future. She picked up an invisible fortune-teller’s ball and shook it like a snow globe to find different answers for the four girls each time. When they were in elementary school, she’d gone through an animal-loving phase in which she would be a veterinarian and Sylvie her assistant. Julia couldn’t bear to give the animals their shots, so she needed an assistant to take on that responsibility. In this future vision, Emeline and Cecelia would be zookeepers. There had been myriad professions and husbands since then, a kaleidoscope view of the years ahead.

“Sylvie will meet a tall, dark-eyed stranger named Balthazar on a train and commence the great love affair of her life. She’ll also write the great American novel and be awarded the Pulitzer Prize before she’s thirty.”

Sylvie pushed her bare foot against her sister’s thigh in appreciation, her mouth filled with sugary icing.

“I’ll marry William next summer and we’ll have two perfect children. We’ll live in a genteel single-family house with a proper yard—probably in Forest Glen—and you three will come over every Sunday, at least, for dinner. And I’ll run the school board at my children’s school and be the perfect faculty wife.”

“What if he makes it into the basketball league?” Emeline said. “Isn’t that what he really wants to do?”

Julia pushed her curls away from her face. “Being an athlete isn’t a career—it’s something you do during school.”

“So you’ll run everything,” Cecelia said, wanting Julia to move on. “Yes. And you, Emmie, will marry a Scottish doctor and have

three sets of twins. You’ll live on a farm next to a moor.”

One of the futures always featured a moor—the girls were collectively fascinated by the idea of that mysterious landscape, which featured in nearly all the English novels they loved.

“Ooooh,” Emeline said, and fell back on the bed in delight. Her greatest wish was to be a mother, a role she’d been practicing for her entire life. Ever since she was a toddler, she’d carried snacks and Band-Aids in a little purse, to minister to her sisters whenever they were hungry or hurt. The younger children on their block waddled after Emeline like baby ducks, basking in the attention she gave them. She was the most sought-after babysitter on their side of Pilsen and, as a result, had an impressive bankroll stored under her mattress.

“Three boys and three girls,” Julia said, before Emeline could ask.

The girl nodded, satisfied. “My turn!” Cecelia said.

“You’ll go to art school and become a famous painter. You can’t be too far from Emeline for too long—”

“Or we’ll die,” Emeline said.

“—so you’ll keep an apartment in Paris and one in Scotland near her farm, which makes sense because you love the rain.”

“Yes,” Cecelia said. “I’d like to paint the rain in the same way Van Gogh painted the night sky.”

Emeline nodded. “I’ll hang your paintings all over my farmhouse.” Sylvie had to force herself to swallow her next bite of cake, because the taste was suddenly laced with bitterness. She almost said something unkind, like None of this will ever happen. But she stopped herself. The game was no longer fun for her, and she could tell that Julia had to feign enthusiasm for it as well. Sylvie had never admitted, even to herself, that writing a novel was a dream. But her sister had snaked the truth out of her and said it in front of everyone, and—even though Sylvie knew Julia had meant well—that felt painfully, strangely, like a loss. The dream was now in the air, at risk

of the elements, beyond her grasp.

o julia’s weddi G day, Rose woke the four girls at dawn.

“What’s wrong, Mama?” Emeline said, in response to Rose’s frantic expression.

The girls rubbed their eyes and yawned their way into a panicked silence, awaiting the worst. William had died, or run away, or the church had burned down, or Charlie was too drunk to make it to the wedding. Or perhaps something terrible had happened to the garden: a flash flood or an army of killer ants.

“There’s. So much. To do,” Rose said, winded by having to speak the words. “Get up!”

Julia was already standing, smoothing her hair. She followed her mother into the kitchen, narrating her own to-do list aloud. “We need to make sure there’s a chair for William—separate from the ones for the old people. He can’t stand for long because of his knee. Sylvie will get the flowers from Mr. Luis. The cookies?”

“Are ready to go into the ovens.”

The four houses up and down from theirs had offered their kitchens to Rose and were poised to bake their portions of the five hundred cookies needed for the reception. At ten o’clock, Emeline was due to run from house to house and shout, Now! The cookies would be slid into the ovens simultaneously.

The wedding would be at St. Procopius at noon, and then a wine-and-cookies reception would be held in the church’s side yard. Julia’s dress had been made by an Italian seamstress two streets over. Rose had been laundering the seamstress’s dresses and fabrics for free for months in exchange for the wedding gown. Rose was a world-class barterer. In the back left corner of her garden, she grew a specific varietal of squash only because the local butcher missed it terribly from his childhood in Greece; she gave him the entire crop each year in exchange for cuts of chicken and beef for her family. She’d orchestrated everything they needed for the

wedding except the wine. Charlie was drinking buddies with the owners of the four liquor stores within walking distance, and Rose insisted that after all the business he’d given them, the least they could do was donate a case each for the wedding of his eldest daughter.

“Sylvie, you’re not going to marry and leave me, are you?” Charlie was in his armchair in the living room, wearing an old white T-shirt. He held a mug of coffee with both hands.

“Oh, Daddy.” Sylvie crossed the room and kissed the top of his head. “No matter what,” she said, “I wouldn’t leave you.”

“Emmie? Cece?”

“Don’t be silly, Daddy,” one of the girls called from their bedroom. “Of course we’re going to get married. Someday.”

Charlie leaned back in his chair. He looked older than Sylvie had ever seen him. He turned toward the window, which was just beginning to show the first light of day, and nodded. “You’ll all set sail, as you should, and leave your mother and me here. It’s a tale as old as time.”

After breakfast, Sylvie walked to the florist, which was six blocks away. Mr. Luis, a tiny Ecuadorian, sniffed at her from behind the counter and told her that the flowers would be delivered to the church on time. He was insulted that she had checked on him. “Surely you have something better to do with yourself on a day like this. Do your hair, put on lipstick. Do something to make yourself look special, child.”

Sylvie frowned. Did she look that bad? She was the maid of honor, which meant she would stand at the front of the church next to her sister during the ceremony. She wanted to look pleasing for Julia, but that required one of those magical good-hair days; Sylvie was never able to convince her own hair to look presentable. She hadn’t checked in the mirror this morning, but Mr. Luis seemed to suggest that she wasn’t in luck. Sylvie thanked him and left the shop.

She counted how many steps she had to travel away from the door before she could no longer smell roses: thirteen.

She passed the library, which was just about to open, and waved through the window at the girls behind the desk. She felt an urge to duck inside and work a shift. To spend this day within the library’s cool stacks. The wedding, the sunlight, the mandatory smiling—it all seemed exhausting to her. She knew it was a strange contradiction, but despite her interest in love, weddings made her uncomfortable. They were too showy, too public. Deep love between two people was a private, wordless endeavor, and to place the lovers in fancy clothes in front of a crowd seemed antithetical to the nature of the thing. No one could see love—this was what Sylvie believed, anyway. It was an internal state. Watching that moment between two lovers felt wrong to her, almost blasphemous.

Sylvie was happy for Julia and William, but still, she would have to pretend the kind of girlish joy that she knew weddings were supposed to elicit in her. She would be kissed by all the old women in the neighborhood. You’re next would be said to her again and again, and this would make her feel melancholy too, because her true love hadn’t yet appeared, and what were the odds of him showing up at the Lozano Library, where she spent most of her time? What if she never found him?

Sylvie almost tripped over Cecelia, who was sitting on the curb just beyond the library. “What are you doing here?” she asked, surprised. Had Rose built time into the schedule for sitting on curbs, staring into space?

“Oh,” Cecelia said. “I’m waiting for Emeline. She went into the pharmacy.”

Sylvie sat down on the concrete, next to her sister. If there was time built into the schedule for this, she wanted part of it. She could use a quiet moment before reentering the manic energy of their house.

“I’m Beth today,” Cecelia said.

Sylvie nodded. This was from a long-running conversation between the four Padavano sisters. When Julia had first read Little Women, she told her sisters about the four fictional sisters in the book, and they began to argue over which of them was which March girl. Julia and Sylvie both saw themselves as the feisty Jo, and they were both right, Sylvie thought. They had Jo divided between them. Julia had Jo March’s exuberance and passion, and Sylvie had her independence and literary leaning. Emeline and Cecelia passed the identities of Meg and Amy back and forth between them, but whenever any of the sisters was sick or forlorn, she’d declare herself Beth. One of us will be the first to die, they would take turns telling one another, and all four girls shuddered at the thought.

“What’s wrong? Do you not feel well?”

“I have a secret,” Cecelia said. “You can’t tell Julia. I’ll tell her after her honeymoon. Maybe.”

Sylvie waited. The neighborhood streamed around them. Loud teenagers jostled each other as they walked; a kid bounced a basketball, waiting to cross the street; a row of Hasidic men turned the corner. People with ancestors from every part of the world headed in every direction. It was a Saturday, and a beautiful June morning, so everyone looked a touch happier than normal, a touch more free.

“I’m pregnant.”

A breath caught in Sylvie’s throat, and she coughed. She thought, But I haven’t even had sex yet. She said, “No, you can’t be. You’re seventeen. You’re wrong.”

Cecelia shrugged. She and Emeline had just graduated from high school, an event that was overshadowed by Julia’s college graduation and wedding. Charlie had looked older this morning; Cecelia did now too. “It was a boy in my class who I’ve always liked. I drank too much at Laurie Genovese’s party. He doesn’t know. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

Sylvie’s second reaction was anger. She had been so careful, only kissing boys, only allowing herself moments of risk-free pleasure. Julia had been planning and executing her life with military precision since grade school. Neither of them had left room for any surprises. Sylvie could see now that they’d believed their sheer example would keep Emeline and Cecelia safe, following directly behind them on the path to adulthood. Keep them careful. But that had been lazy on Sylvie’s part. She knew about third doors. If she and Julia had been marching in and out the same door, of course there was a chance that Emeline and Cecelia would find another exit. Cecelia was adorable: small and curvy. She had a generous laugh and drew portraits of her many friends for their birthdays. Boys had swarmed to her, and her older sisters hadn’t told her how and why to fend those boys off. As Charlie had said this morning, it was a tale as old as time.

Sylvie felt welded to the curb. Even when she stood up, when she walked home with her two little sisters, when she let Rose bustle her into her pink maid of honor dress and tried to improve her unruly hair, she felt like she was on that curb, watching life rush past. The library to her back, Cecelia a walking time bomb, Julia so happy she appeared to be shooting off sparks, William on the cusp of joining a new family, Rose and Charlie unaware that a new generation was already on its way. When the sun was high overhead, and Sylvie was standing at the altar—a smile affixed to her face—she was still sitting on that curb, trying to figure out if she was too late to pull everyone back.

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