Chapter no 43

If He Had Been with Me

My mother may have to go back to the hospital. Aunt Angelina is on the phone with the doctors. My mother is crying in the kitchen. I’m sitting on the stairs. My father is at work, but he’ll come home as soon as possible.

I’m not allowed in the kitchen. I’m not supposed to know. But really, I’m always the first to know. My laundry starts to appear outside my door in a basket instead of already folded in my drawers. There are frozen pre- chopped vegetables in the freezer instead of whole heads of fresh cauliflower and bright yellow peppers and squash. She leaves a few dishes in the sink overnight. She isn’t wearing makeup when I come home in the afternoon.

And I’ve learned that if I try to warn anyone, they laugh. They don’t see that her tension and perfection are the only things holding her together. Even Aunt Angelina will frown and say that if my mother is learning to cut a few corners, it’ll be good for her, that perhaps she is learning to relax a little.

Aunt Angelina hangs up. I hear the chair scrape against the floor. Her voice is low as she talks with my mother. My mother’s voice answers shrilly, then quiets.

Finny and I loved to hear the story of how they met because it was never the same. Aunt Angelina told us my mother had rescued her from a blizzard or that they had been trapped at the top of a Ferris wheel together and had to climb down the spokes. They saved each other from drowning, met backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, and got shoved into the same locker

on the first day of high school and were friends by the time they were rescued by the janitor.

My mother said they sat next to each other in math class in eighth grade.

Once, she said it was seventh grade.

My mother’s sobs are softer now. Even though I’ve never seen them in one of my mother’s crises, I can imagine it clearly enough. My mother has her head in her arms on the table. Aunt Angelina strokes her hair.

They’ve loved each other nearly their whole lives, yet are not in love. They are passionate and devoted. They are bound to and balanced by each other—the outer chaos of Angelina’s life and my mother’s inner darkness, Angelina’s strength and my mother’s will.

I imagine Angelina’s fingers twine in her hair and rest there. “I love you,” she says. She always will.


My father comes in the front door. He has his briefcase in one hand. He’s here sooner than I expected. He started dating my mother their freshman year in high school, just like me and Jamie. I don’t know what binds them together.

“Hi, Autumn,” he says. “Hi, Dad,” I say.

“Rough day, huh?” he says. I’m not sure if he’s referring to me, Mom, or all of us.

“She’s in the kitchen,” I say. He nods. He looks at me. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say. I always am. Comparatively.

I cannot imagine not wanting to live. I cannot imagine not believing that it will be better someday. I cannot imagine that there is nothing left to see, that there is nothing to tie me to Earth. As long as I want to live, then I must be fine.

My father goes in. Aunt Angelina comes out.

“Hey, kiddo,” she says. I don’t say anything.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she says. I know that. Everything is fine already. It’s always fine. Everything is fine, fine, fine.

I nod.

“Do you want me to call Finny?” she says. I might flinch; I’m not sure. Her face changes in reaction to me though, so I must have done something. “Okay,” she says.

“It’s not what you think,” I say. I do want him. I want him here, and I want Jamie and I want Sasha and Angie and Noah and Brooke and my grandmother who died all those years ago. I want Mom. I want Mom to be okay, really okay. What other people mean when they say okay.

Aunt Angelina nods. One corner of her mouth twitches up, just for a moment.

“Love is complex,” she says.

I nod again. And then I lay my head on my knees and I do not cry.

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