Chapter 6 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

February 1983–auGust 1983

There was a three-mo th Gap between when Sylvie stopped sleeping at Julia and William’s apartment and when she got her own

place. She’d told Julia that she had an apartment to stay in when she moved out. This wasn’t true, though. She didn’t have anywhere lined up. She’d simply known, the evening she’d forgotten her keys and spoken to William on the bench, that it was time for her to live somewhere else. That was the second time Sylvie had cried since her father’s death; the first was after she’d read William’s manuscript.

She’d been surprised to hear herself talk about how she missed Charlie, and surprised to talk about the stars, and surprised to start crying, and surprised to feel William’s sadness beside her too, as if in answer to her own. It felt like she’d tripped a switch and ended up in a place where she saw her brother-in-law’s true state, and he saw hers. William had recognized the loss she was carrying inside her and spoken it aloud. No one else in Sylvie’s life had identified the specific swirl of her pain; no one had understood her since her father died. That recognition had felt like drawing in giant mouthfuls of air after holding her breath for a long time.

Later that night, lying on the couch while her sister and William slept in their room down the hall, Sylvie decided it was too risky for her to continue to stay there. She felt vulnerable, at risk to her own elements, in William’s company. This didn’t feel like his fault or her

own; it felt as if the amalgamation of her grief over Charlie, plus reading William’s footnotes, plus the handful of minutes when she was too tired to put up boundaries on the bench, had made it impossible for Sylvie to act like a normal person around her brother-in-law. She was also aware that when William had announced they should go inside, she’d almost grabbed his arm and said no. She’d felt seen during those minutes on the bench, and she’d wanted to remain with William in that spot. Sylvie knew it wasn’t appropriate for her to crave more time alone with her sister’s husband; she knew better.

After she moved out, she slept on co-workers’ floors and sofas and several times with Emeline in her single bed. When Head Librarian Elaine went on vacation, she put Sylvie in charge of the library, and on those nights Sylvie slept in the library’s lunch room. The room had a soft yellow couch that functioned well as a bed, and Sylvie used a washcloth to clean herself in the bathroom sink before opening the library’s doors for the day. She often carried her overnight bag to evening classes, because she’d be sleeping in a different location from the night before. The wind off the lake was brutish that spring, and she had to fight for every step.

This transience made Sylvie feel skittish and unfocused—without a home, her movements often felt random. She’d always lived with family, and she hadn’t realized how big a role waking up in the morning to the sounds of her parents, or Julia, played in her feeling like herself. Her family was a mirror in which she recognized her reflection. When she woke up on a co-worker’s couch, not sure where she was for a few moments, she didn’t know who she was either. She was visited by William’s questions: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Who am I?

Sylvie had to come up with tricks to create a sense of continuity and keep track of herself. Wherever she was staying, she went into the bathroom first thing in the morning and studied herself in the mirror. She had never done this before. She’d never been

particularly vain or interested in her appearance, but now she needed to remind the girl standing in front of the mirror that she was roughly the same person day after day. She looked at the state of her hair, which was never negotiable—she accepted whatever crazy angles or cowlicks appeared after a night’s sleep—and noted the green flecks in her brown eyes. She said, “Good morning, Sylvie,” and then brushed her teeth.

She started rereading her father’s copy of Leaves of Grass. Charlie had underlined passages and written in the margin too many times to count: Wonderful! It had been several years since she’d read the collection from start to finish, and this time Sylvie was surprised by how much death was in it. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman listed numerous definitions of grass, but Sylvie’s favorite was the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Sylvie thought of this when she visited her father’s grave. According to the poet, death wasn’t final, because life was tangled into it. Sylvie and her sisters walked the earth because of the man they’d buried. These thoughts, and reading Whitman’s words, made more sense to Sylvie than the polite chatter of the lady in the seat next to her on the bus or the fact that there never seemed to be enough money in her purse.

Rose left for Florida in the middle of that period. Kissing her mother’s cheek goodbye, and then rushing to the hospital to meet baby Alice a few hours later, felt correct to Sylvie—it matched the level of upheaval inside her. Her father was gone, and now her mother and their family home were gone too. Sylvie had seen a photo of the aftermath of a massive earthquake once, and the image had stayed with her. A road split in half lengthwise, revealing the middle of the earth, and how silly humans were to build houses and schools and cars on top and pretend they were safe. Sylvie felt like she spent her days carrying an overnight bag and a book, leaping over that chasm. The morning that Rose left, Sylvie stood in front of the bathroom mirror and said, “Goodbye, Mama. Good morning, Sylvie.”

Head Librarian Elaine made Sylvie’s promotion and new salary official a few weeks before she received the requisite credits for her library-sciences degree. Sylvie had enough money saved by now for a deposit, so she rented a tiny studio around the corner from the library that same day. When the realtor put the key in her hand, Sylvie said, “I’m sorry I’m so emotional.”

The realtor, who had been working in Pilsen for decades, shrugged. “More people cry than you would think. Having your own apartment is a big deal.”

Sylvie owned no furniture, so moving in was simple; Julia and the twins had removed a few items from their childhood home before Rose left, but Sylvie had been homeless and so had taken nothing. She bought a mattress for the floor and paid a neighborhood kid two bucks to help carry a kitchen table she’d found on the street up into the apartment. Because Rose had always spent trash night trawling the neighborhood for treasures other people were throwing away, Sylvie knew where to find what she needed. Bookshelves, a box of dishes, a pot and frying pan. Pretty embroidered pillows and curtains that looked brand-new. She wondered what could make people throw away items in such good condition.

After months of trying to make herself small in other people’s homes, Sylvie slept spread-eagled on the mattress. She kept the window open for the breeze. She invited her sisters and nieces over for eggs, which she cooked in her scavenged pan. She listened to the noises of her apartment and the surrounding streets—children laughing at the playground, the city bus hissing to a stop, the man who ran the bodega downstairs talking in Spanish while he drank endless cups of coffee on the store’s steps. Sylvie started reading novels again and had the giddy pleasure of tipping into new fictional worlds. She was grateful she was steady enough on her feet to do so.

She called her sisters from her own phone line whenever she desired to hear their voices. She was careful to call Julia only when

she knew William was at work, though. She didn’t trust herself on the phone with him. She still thought about their half hour on the bench while she lay in bed at night. She’d memorized their short conversation and played the scene over in her mind. She told herself that it had been no big deal. She was simply a mess, and had been since Charlie died, and so what she wanted or even dwelled on no longer made sense. But Sylvie couldn’t imagine making small talk on the phone with William; the polite words would get stuck in her mouth. She wanted to ask, What is it like to be William Waters? What was your experience on the bench that night?

Sylvie secretly thought it was Julia’s fault that she’d ended up in this odd predicament with her brother-in-law; her sister knew about the footnotes, knew the manuscript included William’s personal thoughts and questions, and she’d asked Sylvie to read it anyway. If Sylvie hadn’t read his manuscript, none of this would have happened. The day after she’d cried on the bench beside William, she lied to her older sister for the first time. She told Julia that her fictional new apartment didn’t have a phone and that, no, Julia couldn’t visit her there, because it was too small and messy. “I’m fine,” Sylvie had insisted to Julia over and over during those three months, even though she knew her sister could tell she was lying. That lie chipped away at both of them every time Sylvie uttered it.

Sylvie’s college graduation took place in the stuffy community college auditorium on a Tuesday morning in June. She told her sisters not to come, because the ceremony would be hot and boring. And anti-climactic, she thought, when she threw her cardboard mortarboard in a garbage can on her walk home. Sylvie was now a college graduate, which was what her mother had always wanted, but her mother no longer cared. Sylvie didn’t even tell Rose that she’d officially graduated. She didn’t want to hear her mother sigh at the news; Sylvie knew Rose had lost faith, and perhaps interest, in the finish line she’d set for her daughters when they were young.

Three months after Sylvie moved into her studio, on an August afternoon, Ernie walked into the library and into the row where she was shelving young-adult literature.

Sylvie stared; she hadn’t seen him since Charlie’s wake. She hadn’t seen any of her boys since then. She’d been walking the library rows alone for all this time. She managed to say, “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said. “Been busy. I just graduated—I’m officially an electrician.”

“Congratulations. I graduated too.”

They smiled at each other, and she took in his wavy hair and the dimple in his chin. They’d known each other since elementary school; she’d watched him grow from a skinny boy into a thickset young man. Sylvie inventoried what was inside her: She’d wanted this boy in her arms once upon a time, but she was no longer sure she did. She wasn’t the girl she used to be; that girl had a father and a mother and dreams for her future. Now Sylvie was a librarian struggling to make her own home. Her fantasies had gone on hold when her father died, the third doors had sealed shut, and the only man she thought about was the one married to her sister.

Sylvie shook her head, trying to clear away those thoughts, and said, “Are you going to kiss me or what?”

Ernie’s smile deepened and they each took a step forward, till their bodies met. Her hands on the back of his neck, his arms around her waist. Sylvie felt her body issue a silent moan of relief. It felt nice, like it used to. Thank goodness. She wondered over the synchronicity of Ernie showing up now, when her apartment key was sitting in her hip pocket, when she needed to be distracted. Maybe this was a chance for Sylvie to start over. Maybe this version of her would date Ernie, like her sisters had wanted her to.

When they stepped apart and glanced around for patrons or Head Librarian Elaine, Sylvie said, “Did you know that I got my own apartment?”

He shook his head. “No way. That’s amazing.”

It was amazing that she had her own place. Most of the kids they’d gone to school with either still lived with their parents or had, like Julia, moved directly from their father’s house into their married home. Sylvie appreciated that she was unusual. Cecelia was even more unusual, of course, with her fatherless baby and apartment with Emeline. Julia was the only one toeing the traditional line. Looking at Ernie, with the key in her pocket, Sylvie felt hopeful. She was back in her own life, on her own terms.

She said, “Would you like to see it? My apartment?” Ernie tilted his head to the side, then said, “Sure.”

They made a plan, and when he left the library, she walked to the empty desk in the back corner and picked up the phone. She knew William might be home at this hour, so she dialed her other sisters.

Emeline answered the phone. “Padavano sisters’ residence.” Sylvie laughed. “Why are you answering the phone like that?” “For some reason it amuses Izzy. Are you at the library?”

“I just needed to tell someone that Ernie came back. Today. He found me in the stacks.”

“Oh, thank goodness!” All the sisters knew that Sylvie’s boys had evaporated when Charlie died. They’d discussed, numerous times, why this might be the case. “Did he say why he’d stayed away?”

“Emmie, I invited him to my apartment tonight.”

There was a silence. Then Emeline said, “Wo-o-o-o-w.”

Sylvie could hear her sister smiling and Izzy burbling somewhere near the phone line.

“I’m going to be the only one of us who’s still a virgin,” Emeline said. “You have to call me after and tell me everything.”

“Do you want me to ask him if he has a nice friend to set you up with?”

“Heavens, no.” Emeline said this cheerfully. “I’m too busy with classes and work. But this is so exciting, Syl! Don’t forget to shave your legs. Look at your body and try to see it like a stranger.”

“He’s not a stranger. I’ve known him my whole life.” “You know what I mean.”

Sylvie looked down at her jeans and tennis shoes. She tried to remember which pair of underwear she had put on that morning.

Emeline said, “You told Julia he came by, right?” When Sylvie didn’t respond right away, she said, “You have to call her, Sylvie. She’ll be hurt if you don’t tell her.”

Sylvie sighed. By the complicated math that tied the sisters together, Emeline was correct. There were four of them, but inside the four there were two pairs: Sylvie and Julia, and Emeline and Cecelia.

“You’re in your own place now,” Emeline said. She meant: It was excusable for you to be weird with Julia while you were homeless and sleeping next to me at night, but now you’re settled, so you need to do better.

“God damn it, Emeline,” Sylvie said. She knew Emeline didn’t like it when she swore. “Why do you have to be so wise?”

“I’m the only one without my own personal life, so I have time to watch you all.”

“I have to go back to work,” Sylvie said, and hung up. She told herself to call Julia whenever there was a lull at the library, but she didn’t, and the next thing she knew, it was time to close up.

er ie arrived at eiGht on the dot, and Sylvie suspected he had been walking around the block until the exact time arrived. He wasn’t wearing his usual uniform of a white T-shirt and dark pants with pockets designed to hold tools. He had on a button-down shirt, and his hair was combed. He held a bottle of red wine.

“Do you like wine?” he asked.

Sylvie nodded, though she wondered if she would be able to drink. She was so nervous she was finding it hard to swallow. She

looked around her tiny apartment and tried to see it through his eyes. Did it look worn and sad in the lamplight?

Ernie touched her cheek and said, “I can go if you want. We don’t need to do this, whatever this is.”

“Yes, we do,” she said. This was her new life, her life, whether she was ready for it or not. “Kiss me. That will make me feel better.”

Kissing did make her feel better. They had been kissing for years, after all. They never opened the wine. They didn’t have to step apart after ninety seconds or think about patrons or Head Librarian Elaine. Sylvie put her fingers in Ernie’s hair. When he unbuttoned her shirt and gently moved her bra aside to kiss her breast, Sylvie thought she might die from pleasure.

He rose up to check her face and said, “You like this?” She said, “Oh yes.”

More kisses, and then they were tugging clothes off each other. Sylvie couldn’t believe that her body could feel this much. She couldn’t believe anything could feel this good. With her eyes closed, she saw warm colors: reds and oranges. They spoke, but Sylvie barely paid attention to her own words. Her body was responding to his body, her mouth to his mouth.

Afterward, though, when they were lying in each other’s arms, panic tickled the back of Sylvie’s neck. She heard herself say, in a voice that sounded too loud to her own ears, “Just so you know, I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”

“Okay.” Ernie’s stubble rubbed against her shoulder. “What are you looking for?”

Sylvie pictured William sitting on the bench and squeezed her eyes shut to make the image go away. “I’m not sure.”

“So we can just have fun together,” Ernie said, and rolled her over.

Can we do that? Sylvie thought. This certainly was fun. She’d never been this close to a man’s chest. It was so different from her own. Hairy. She ran her finger down the rivulet in the center of his

abdomen. He ran his finger down the center of hers. He had to wiggle his finger slightly to fit between her breasts.

Kiss them, Sylvie thought, and somehow he knew, and did.

“I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything normal,” Ernie said finally, “from the girl who siren-called me to kiss her.”

He stopped touching her for a moment, and Sylvie almost yelled at him to resume. Her body arched toward his. “I siren-called you?”

He smiled at her body’s eagerness and pressed his cheek to the side of her breast. “A couple years ago,” he said, into her skin. “I was in the library. To write a paper for Mrs. Brewster. You came out of a row of books and gave me a look. No one had ever looked at me like that. I looked back. Then I pushed my chair back and followed you.”

“And we kissed.” Sylvie liked this story; she liked what he was doing to her body; she liked the girl she used to be.

“Mmm-hmm. Even when my life was terrible,” Ernie said, “I knew I could go to the library and kiss you.” He pulled back a little, looked at her. “Although one time I went there and you were kissing another guy.”

Sylvie blushed. “I didn’t see you.”

Ernie lowered back down with his sturdy body. She held on to his upper arms. “I was angry,” he said. “At first. But I had no right to be, you know? We weren’t dating. When you asked me to come over here, I thought of that other guy, though. I wondered—I wonder—if he was here first.”

“You’re the first.” Sylvie suddenly felt sad, and her voice sounded sad too—was there some basic human truth that if you were naked, you couldn’t control the tone of your voice? Like, her voice was naked too? She said, as evenly as she could, “There’s been no one else.”

But she was relieved when Ernie said he had to be at work early the next morning and needed to go home. “Maybe we can see each other tomorrow night?” he asked, and she made a noise that even she didn’t recognize as a yes or a no.

Sylvie waved to him awkwardly while he let himself out of the studio. Alone in bed, she covered her face with her hands. She felt a jumble of emotions at the same time: embarrassed, pleased with how great sex was, uncomfortable about Ernie. He’d said they could just have fun, and she found herself repeating the word fun inside her head. She didn’t think there was anything morally wrong with having sex with someone she liked but didn’t love, but a new loneliness had arrived deep inside her. She was aware that if her mother heard what Sylvie had done, Rose would drag her to St. Procopius and leave her there on her knees. But Rose lived on a beach in Florida now, and that felt like a punishment too. Sylvie curled into a ball under her covers and pushed herself into sleep.

The phone rang next to Sylvie’s mattress early the next morning, and she rolled over to answer it. She squinted at the sky through the window: pale light striped with pink clouds. Dawn.

“I hope it’s not too early,” Julia said. “Alice was up, and I know you wake up early.”

Sylvie yawned. “Are you all right?”

“I think so.” Julia paused. “But something strange happened.”

Her sister’s tone made Sylvie sit up, and she realized she was still naked. She’d never slept naked before. She thought, In a minute, when it’s my turn, I’ll tell Julia the strange thing that happened to me. She said, “What is it?”

“I called the history department to ask William a question yesterday. I don’t remember what the question was. And the department secretary, when she found out I was his wife, said he hadn’t shown up for over a week and that he’d missed teaching three classes. She said she’d overheard a professor saying that he might be put on probation. I think she told me because she felt bad for me.”

Sylvie tugged the covers closer; her sister’s words had given her goosebumps.

“I was mad when I hung up, because I thought she must be wrong. I thought she was confused and it was irresponsible to tell

someone’s wife such nonsense.”

“That sounds wrong to me too,” Sylvie said.

“Yes,” Julia said thoughtfully. “But the woman was correct, and I just didn’t know William as well as I thought I did.”

Part of Sylvie’s brain noted that her sister had used the past tense. She remembered the footnote from William’s book: This is terrible, I’m terrible. She leaned forward, trying to understand what Julia’s words meant.

“Last night I asked William how his day was, and he told me about a class he taught, what one of the students said, and who he ate lunch with in the faculty cafeteria. I told him that I’d called and spoken to the secretary in the department. I told him what she’d said, and he got very pale.” Julia hesitated. “And then he left me.”

“What do you mean, he left you?”

“He gave me a note and a check and walked out.”

Something was terribly wrong. This knowledge broke over Sylvie like a wave. “I’ll get dressed and be there as soon as I can,” she said. “We’ll figure this out, Julia. Don’t worry.”

“There’s nothing to figure out.” Her sister’s voice was calm. “William has been lying for a week, at least. And he doesn’t want to be married to me anymore.”

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