My sister’s postcards are as good a place to start as any.
When the first few came, my mother stood in the kitchen and read them aloud. She hung them on the fridge with heavy magnets from my dad’s insurance agency. There, Annie’s postcards from Big Sur and Venice Beach clung to one another beside my school papers and tests, all with big A’s circled in red. But the longer my sister stayed gone, the postcards found a new place at the bottom of the garbage, buried beneath uneaten beef stroganoff and wasted fruit gone bad. My mother would scan the mail for them like expired coupons and away they went. She paced in our kitchen, took up baking, and soon all of our clothes smelled of confectionary sugar and homemade chocolate.
My mother didn’t know my father had taken to fishing the postcards out of the trash each night. He hid them under my books or beneath my pillow but I always found them in the morning, took them and read them, tracing a pen over my sister’s uneven cursive, wishing I could write in the same daydream script. In my closet a poster board lay heavy with a constellation of her adventures down the coastline. I had copied a map from a road atlas and tacked Annie’s notes to their spot on the trail, tracing her trip, the big journey southward she had said. Annie was aiming for South America, headed for the penguins, but the way the postcards kept stacking up over Los Angeles, she sure was taking her time getting there.
The night before Annie left, we sat in the bathroom together. On the floor I rubbed my hands over my legs, the small prickles of hair like impractical secrets not meant for keeping. I readied to shave my legs but Annie slapped the razor away and laughed, “You’re too young to be doing that.”
I disagreed but put my hands in my lap. Annie had taken a lamp from the living room, balanced it just so on the toilet so a soft yellow glow warmed the room while she told me quick, harried stories about California. She talked of poolside mermaids who sunbathed and combed their hair in the wind, girls who sipped on drinks with umbrellas and pineapples, girls who never once felt the chill of the Montana Hi-Line across their cheeks. She poured Morton’s salt into the bathwater and pretended the ocean splashed at her cherry-painted toenails. Annie arched her back, eyes faraway but looking nowhere, and held her long hair to the top of her head with only a few soft curls pulling loose. Those that did cascaded down her back and I ran a hand through my own hair, wishing it longer, and reached across the floor for the razor again. Annie turned to me then with her crooked smile and asked me to unclasp her bra so she could go for a swim. The back of my sister’s neck had smelled ripe and dirty like a wild animal in spring.
I kissed a lot of boys after she left.
Vice Principal Miss Grapenthin caught me at it once in the school parking lot. She yanked my arm from Eli’s neck and pulled me inside by the elbow. Her tight little mouth stayed small as she pulled my hair into a braid, determination threaded her face that hovered just above my shoulder in the mirror. Overnight it seemed I had grown as tall as the adults.
“What book are you reading for English now?” she asked.
Miss Grapenthin dropped the heavy braid down my back only to turn me around so we faced one another.
“We’re on the Greeks,” I said.
Her eyes softened and even the steep tension through her jaw fell loose. I saw then Miss Grapenthin was my dad’s age and probably knew both my parents from high school. The adults never seemed to move from here. They had barbecues with one another in the summer months and looked at us with the expectation as the next ones, those to follow. Kissing on boys was kind of dumb on my part since our families had probably been kissing on each other for decades but I didn’t think too hard on that. Eli wasn’t all that special anyway but he filled my time with dull thrusts and reaching, groping hands that didn’t make much sense when they strayed over my body. Without much of a chest yet, the more we kissed the more I sensed this might become a problem.
Miss Grapenthin took my copy of the The Odyssey off the sink and wiped a smudge from the bottom corner.
“Reading the classics always brings a lot up,” she said, “Does that make sense?”
I nodded and sassed, “Would of if you had told me in French.”
Miss Grapenthin eyes turned to slits, not angry just focused. She said nothing and I wondered what she had been like when she was my age. I wondered if she kissed boys in parking lots and missed people who left any time they pleased. But then I thought about my mom being my age and that led nowhere except red, teary eyes. I felt her hand on my arm and the heat from her small body branded me there. She told me to breathe and said, “Nothing is going to disappear if you take a minute.”
I brushed my hair out of the braid and shook off the little-girl crying. Annie would have laughed at me standing there wailing to the Vice Principal but only Miss Grapenthin saw me crying that day. Between 5th and 6th period I felt Eli saddle up to me in the hallway: his spaghetti arms reaching over me again. I pushed him off and told him to give a girl some space, just like my mother had said to do when boys started getting a little too familiar.
That year each postcard was a step to somewhere else: one from the coast where people ate sea oysters and one from a place in the dessert where fish, dead, washed ashore on account of the salt. One came from Chateau Marmont: a white castle that erupted from the cement and green shrubs, Sunset Boulevard took off like a skating rink down the side of the mountain, and a yellow sun highlighted in the clouds above. Even through a coffee spill that wreaked havoc with her messy words, there in the stains, Annie missed me and wanted me to swim with the girls we had talked about that night in the bathroom. She wanted us to be sisters again.
The poster board was not easy to fold down but I made it as small as I could and shoved the road map in my backpack. My sister had traveled very light the night she had left for the bus depot, her room and closet practically untouched with only a few bathing suits and jeans taken. I did pack a few schoolbooks since, as I saw it, Annie had been at the end of her education and I was still in my first year of high school.
The front porch creaked beneath my weight as if for the first time: a thunder strike in the distance. I didn’t want to look around, I didn’t want to say goodbye to my mother’s tattered wicker furniture or my dad’s wilted basil plant. But there in that moment, I heard the trucks barrel down highway, I heard teenagers yelling at houses over and airplanes cut through the clouds, their exhaust streaks stitched the sky like bottom hems on party dresses. I heard the front door click behind my father too as he walked outside. His heavy after-shave settled in the dusk
He asked, “Where’s the train Caddie?”
I felt then what I imagined my sister had fought as she took off beyond our familiar, small world when she traveled beyond the state line. The same pressure must have built around the spaces in her lungs and though my sister had been able to burst through this clear sheath we wore, unknown to us, I couldn’t bear to push past my father and mother the same way. Not then, with his breath going white in the cold and my mother baking brownies in the kitchen just beyond where we stood.
The end of my nose stung with a sad, saline tinge, tears coming through on their own accord. It hurt too much to think that she had been able to just keep going. My dad handed me a new postcard from Annie and we sat down together, reading her sloppy script about margaritas and how long her hair was getting. My dad rolled his hands together and said, “You’ll be out there soon enough.”
As little as I believed him then, I had never known my father to be a liar.
Kit Hamlen currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Montana and hopes to return west, or at the very least, write stories that take her there. Contact her here: http://kitchamlen.tumblr.com