Chapter 33 – Julia

Hello Beautiful

ovember 2008

Julia was i her oFFice when she got the call. It was after six and most of her employees were gone for the day; they’d become

aware over the last few months that Julia’s total attention to her work had wavered. They took advantage of her lapses with longer lunch hours and shorter work days. I’ve noticed, Julia wanted to tell them, but she didn’t know what to say next, so she stayed quiet. She’d continued to play hooky herself, usually to spend the day alone in her apartment. She no longer expected her actions or thoughts to make complete sense. She glanced over her shoulder every day, wondering if the real Julia would catch up with her, her face dark with disappointment. That Julia had worked so hard for this particular kind of success, and this Julia was wondering if it had been worth it.

When her phone rang, she saw on the caller ID that it was a Chicago number. It wasn’t Sylvie’s cellphone, but it was possible her sister was calling her from the library or even from her home. She’d never done this before; Julia had texted Sylvie when she was on the way to the airport for their second visit, and that had been the extent of their communication when they weren’t together. But Julia picked up the phone with a feeling of lightness, a sensation that she was about to be the only version of herself that she could stand these days—the Julia she was with Sylvie—and hear her sister’s voice.

“Hello?” she said.

“It’s Cecelia,” the voice said, and Julia was confused for a moment, because Cecelia sounded like Sylvie and of course was her sister, but she hadn’t spoken to either of the twins for a long time.

“Oh,” Julia said, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. “Hi.

How are—”

Cecelia interrupted her. “I need to tell you something,” she said. “Sylvie was sick. She had a brain tumor.”

“I know.” Julia’s throat tightened around the words. “How do you know? Did she tell you?”

“Why did you say it like that?” Julia didn’t want to say, In the past tense. She listened while Cecelia told her that Sylvie had died suddenly that morning. William had gone out for twenty minutes, and she’d walked into the kitchen and collapsed. When he returned, he found her on the floor.

“I asked him what her expression was,” Cecelia said. “I needed to know if she looked scared. He said she was lying on her side, and she looked like she’d gone to sleep.”

Julia was aware of holding the phone to her ear. She had to concentrate to keep her grip on the receiver. Her earlier conversation, at this same desk, with William, seemed to sit on top of this one in a way that felt claustrophobic. Sylvie is sick. Sylvie is dead.

“It was too fast,” Cecelia said, as if she’d heard her sister’s thoughts. “We were supposed to have more time. I was going to call you when she got really sick and make you come home. I was going to do the same thing with Mom.” She paused. “I called Mom to tell her, right before I called you.”

“Mom,” Julia said, as if she were naming an approaching storm. Rose would return to Chicago now. Sylvie’s death would dislodge her from Florida; they would all be dislodged from everything they’d known before.

Cecelia sighed. “Emmie says I need to keep asking questions to deal with this at all, and she’s probably right, but I spoke to the

doctor at the hospital too, and he said the tumor had pressed against something in her brain—he said the name, I can’t remember what he called it—which meant she would have died in a matter of seconds. She wouldn’t have known what was happening.”

Julia made herself say, “That’s good.”

She thought of the last time she had seen Sylvie, a week ago. They’d held hands while watching a movie. It was the first time they’d touched each other, and the energy that came with that contact, with all the years and selves that lay between them, all the love, had brought tears to Julia’s eyes. It had almost felt like too much, to be holding her sister’s hand while not speaking to her daughter, during an afternoon when she was not where she was supposed to be and yet somehow exactly where she belonged. Had Sylvie known she had only a few days left? Was that why she’d held Julia’s hand and then hugged her when it was time for her to return to the airport? Julia could still feel the hug, the pressure of her sister’s body against her own.

“Thank God Alice is here,” Cecelia said. “I can’t believe the timing, but it’s such a gift to have her with us.”

“Alice?” Julia wondered if she’d misheard. “Alice is in Chicago?” “She got here this afternoon. Julia, she and Izzy loved each other

right away. It was kind of incredible, as if they remembered being babies together.” Cecelia stopped, and then said, “Are you listening to me?”

“I’m listening to you.”

“You have to come home right now and stay with us.”

Julia took a taxi to her apartment and packed a few items of clothing into a small bag. The last thing she added was the wrapped package Sylvie had handed her at the end of their visit. Julia had intended to head straight back to O’Hare after the movie, but Sylvie asked her to come to the library first so she could give her something. “Give it to me next time,” Julia had said. Sylvie seemed to consider this, but she shook her head and said, “I should give it to

you now.” Julia buried the package at the bottom of her bag and returned to the airport. The trip to LaGuardia was familiar and had felt like freedom the two times she’d traveled there during the last month. Julia had unshackled herself from her history and identity and flown to her sister’s side. She’d felt, each time, like she was heading toward herself. In the air between New York and Chicago now, Julia knew that all three of her sisters were parts of her. They had grown up together, and for a long time they beat with one heart. Reunited with Sylvie, Julia had felt more alive, more whole.

She’d thought during her life in New York that she’d become her father’s rocket, but that identity had felt more true when she was sitting across from Sylvie in a Chicago bar, considering how she could help her daughter. Under her sister’s gaze, Julia felt like she had when she’d first arrived in New York City: fizzing with possibility, the panels that held her together shaking with excitement and fear. Now it seemed clear that she’d built a rocket in New York, had burnished and shined the vehicle but kept it on the ground. To be the rocket, she had to be with her sisters, and she had to set her daughter free.

Julia accepted a drink from the flight attendant and tried to imagine Alice in her home city. The idea was perplexing, as if a finished puzzle had been presented with another piece and there was nowhere to fit it in. The image of Alice hovered above the Chicago map in Julia’s mind, not because her daughter was in the wrong place, but because Julia had removed her baby from that scene a long time ago and sealed all the entrances and exits. She felt a sharp relief, though, that Alice knew the truth about her father. Sylvie would have approved of Julia’s honesty, even though it had arrived late. The thought of her sister’s approval fish-hooked Julia’s heart, and she had to close her eyes because of the pain. All of her choices, from now on, would be unknown by Sylvie.

When the plane landed at O’Hare, it was after eleven, and Julia decided to sleep in the airport hotel. She knew the twins were

expecting her, but she felt an almost physical need to stay outside the city, and her past, and Sylvie’s death, for just a few more hours. She texted Cecelia that she would be at their place in the morning and fell asleep with her arms wrapped around herself. In her dreams, she tried to catch up with Sylvie, who was a few steps ahead of her on the streets of Pilsen. In the morning, she drank an enormous coffee during the taxi ride into Chicago. Sylvie had told her about the twins’ double house. It felt now like Sylvie had tried to prepare Julia for the time when coming home wouldn’t be secret. She had re-familiarized Julia with Pilsen—shown her Cecelia’s murals, told her about Izzy, and explained how Sylvie, the twins, and her niece all trafficked through one another’s days to an extent that required knocking down fences and sharing homes. Sylvie had prepared Julia for when she wouldn’t be there but everyone else would.

The twins, Julia knew, had complicated feelings toward her. They’d struggled over the many years with the limits Julia had imposed on their communication. Cecelia and Emeline had started off deeply sympathetic to her when Sylvie and William first fell in love. But they’d clearly expected and wanted Julia to soften her stance over time, and she never had. Emeline and I didn’t do a damn thing wrong, Cecelia had written on a postcard once. Let us see Alice. Let us see you. We could go on vacation somewhere, take a trip together, do something that has nothing to do with Chicago or New York. Julia had read that postcard standing on a street corner, the avenue beside her strangely quiet in a city that was always loud. She remembered beginning to consider this idea, this opening, and then shaking her head no. She felt unable to bear any compromise. She had closed the valve to her past—to her heart, really—and a half-open valve was a broken one.

Julia would see William today too, for the first time since he’d handed her a note and a check and walked out of their apartment. That had taken place in what felt like another lifetime, and Julia had been a different person. When she thought of William now, she

found that she didn’t remember his phone call from a few months earlier or the end of their marriage. She remembered him coming out of the gym after basketball practice, young and healthy and handsome. She remembered tugging his coat lapels in the cold, asking him to kiss her. She remembered their youth and their ignorance of who they were and what they really wanted.

When she knocked on the door of Emeline’s house, her hands were shaking, because she knew Sylvie wouldn’t be on the other side of this door. At their father’s wake, a young paper-factory worker had said, It’s impossible he’s gone. And that man had been right— that had been an impossible loss. Sylvie was an impossible loss too. But perhaps what felt impossible was leaving that person behind. When your love for a person is so profound that it’s part of who you are, then the absence of the person becomes part of your DNA, your bones, and your skin. Charlie’s and Sylvie’s deaths were now part of Julia’s topography; the losses ran like a river inside her. She had been an idiot to stay away for so long, to give up time with her sister. Julia had experienced the beginning and the very end of Sylvie’s life, and that wasn’t enough.

The door opened to reveal Emeline and Cecelia. Her little sisters, who were now in their mid-forties, with fine lines next to their eyes. Julia became breathless at the sight of them. She had tried to do her best, but for the last twenty-five years she’d done it alone, and of course—she realized now—that could never have worked. When she’d told Emeline that she was leaving Chicago, her sister had said: You need us with you. You might not realize that, but you do. We need each other.

She heard herself say, as if it were a greeting, “I’m sorry.” “Oh, baby girl,” Emeline said.

Julia hugged both women at the same time, her face buried in their hair. The sisters held one another, breathing into this three-person structure, trying to find a new kind of stability, even if just for one moment.

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