Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
In the winter of Nina's 15th year, her sister Mary fell ill. Mary was 17, tall, normally robust and sharp-tongued. Her not feeling well at first took the form of exhaustion. Her tongue became silent, and she spent her time confined to her room. The family assumed she had suffered some heartbreak caused by a boy, but there was no boy valuable enough to cause her that sort of harm. Mary was the rejecter, not the rejected.
Now, in Mary's vulnerable state, Nina might enter her room and not be instantly ordered out. Mary lay with her eyes closed, sometimes asleep, sometimes not, while Nina stood and watched her.
The moment the word leukemia was spoken, Nina knew she had suspected it all along. Nina had entertained some thought of studying medicine and was often fascinated by the body's tricks. Medicine had to play a better trick, that was all. Only it couldn't, in Mary's case. No bone marrow match could be found quickly. She had a rare blood type. She was not equipped for survival. That's how Nina perceived her fate. The words put a cold distance between her and her sister's approaching death.
Her mother implored God to intercede. God did not. Her father looked ashen. Sometimes his hands shook, though he wasn't a drinking man. That he didn't become one then, Nina assumed, was a sign of strength. Or fear that once begun, the habit would take hold forever.
Mary died easily. At least, it looked easy. She'd been comatose for the past day. Nina sat with her at the hospice. Then her mother sat, then her father. Sometimes all three sat. Sometimes all three left her alone for a few minutes so they could walk and up down the hall and remember the world was still there. Her mother no longer wept, only stared. In the beginning, she brought her Bible into the room and read, her lips moving. The Bible hadn't come for a while. The lips still moved. Whether they formed words, and whether those words were connected to cogent thoughts, Nina didn't know. Mary died when she stopped breathing. That was all. She just failed to draw breath. She'd exhaled, slowly, softly, and didn't inhale. Just like that.
Nina didn't remember the funeral, though she'd declined the tranquilizers she'd been offered by their family doctor. Nina's mother took the tranquilizers; her father did not. Mary died at the end of summer, just at the time when she would have been preparing for college. Before her diagnosis, she'd applied and been accepted to Yale.
At school that fall, Mary's old school, Mary's shadow was wide and deep. The students were, by and large, children of people who taught at the same university Nina's father did. This made for a small community not necessarily kind or close-knit, only overly aware of one another and their various catastrophes. Before Mary there had been David and his broken neck. Jumped into the quarry without looking. Without gauging the depth. Without that essential calculation beforehand, the reckoning, the figuring, all the adding up.
Nina had done her share of adding up. Mary's life and death and funeral ran into the thousands and thousands of dollars. This David, who lay in a body cast in a silver hospital bed, was expensive, too. His affliction was paid for with insurance. Professors had good benefits. It wasn't clear if he'd regain the use of his legs, but it was hoped. Cards and gifts and flowers filled up his room. That didn't happen when Mary was dying. Nina's parents kept the news close. No one knew, not even her friends. When they called, excuses were made about why she couldn't come to the phone. The friends didn't come to the house. In truth, Mary had had few friends. Her air of superiority had been difficult. Now that she was gone, everyone seemed to know. Sad looks followed Nina down the hall. Strangers said hello. Teachers who had had Mary in class watched her, waiting for a resemblance—though they looked nothing alike—a similarity of speech perhaps (Mary had been fond of saying, Oh, yeah? Well tough rockaroonies!), or for the quick, wasting death to come her way, too. What would they say then? There goes the other one?
Nina followed a strict routine. Up at seven-thirty, even on weekends. Out the door at eight-fifteen on school days. Walk along the north side of Foster Street for three blocks, turn left onto McNeil Avenue for two more blocks, follow the round-about from the right side and bear off onto Gleason, which led straight into the high school's north parking lot, to enter the building at exactly eight forty-seven. More or less. There were often small variations that couldn't be avoided, such as the day a traffic light went out and a police officer came and ushered cars and pedestrians through the intersection in large batches, not as neatly and regularly as the light would have done.
At day's end she followed the same path in reverse, to arrive home at approximately three thirty-two p.m., unless someone stopped her after the bell rang and wanted to talk. This was usually Mrs. Thomas, Nina's guidance counselor. Mrs. Thomas was a joke. She was old and out of touch. She had Nina do toe-touches in her office to avoid stress and relieve tension. Nina stated calmly she was neither stressed nor tense, but she touched her toes, anyway. An old woman like Mrs. Thomas needed to be humored, or her kindness would flow even faster in Nina's direction, and that would be terrible.
She was equally strict about the color of the clothing she wore each day. Mondays were green. Tuesdays were white. Wednesdays, red. Thursdays, green again, and Fridays were pink. It bothered a lot that she had to repeat green, but that was the fault of her wardrobe. Mary's clothes still hung in her closet, and for one, wild moment while her heart beat rapidly, almost to the point of making her sick, Nina thought of going into that closet and choosing something else to wear.
She never crossed the threshold. The room gathered dust. The door stayed closed. The door to her parent's room stayed closed, too. Her mother spent most of her time on the other side of it, on the bed, with her eyes closed, fully awake. Nina thought maybe she was trying to conjure the experience of death, or at least the motionless part of it.
Nina's aunt Lorrie came to visit. Lorrie was her father's older sister. She still lived in their hometown of Urbana, Illinois, where she painted strange landscapes with barns and silos, all done is a quasi-Van Gogh style of quivering, anxious outlines and folded, bunched-up skies. She was a widow. Her twin sons lived in Florida. Nina didn't really know them. They were fifteen years older than she. News of Mary's death elicited only a card from them, which both signed below the heavily embossed gold lettering saying, Our Deepest Condolences on Your Loss. That card bothered Nina. It was impersonal, generic, and shallow, but then so was death, she supposed. Except when it happened to someone you knew.
Nina couldn't tell if she missed Mary or not. What she did know was as time passed, she remembered all the time she was gone, not just in random moments of shock and surprise. Lorrie's goal, it seemed, was to get the whole family to that point, too. She cleaned out Mary's room and said it would make a fine study for Nina's father, if he wanted it. He didn't want it. The clothes were bundled off to charity, with the exception of a green corduroy jacket, which she gave to Nina, saying it suited her. Nina didn't care to take it, but Lorrie insisted. The tags were still clipped to the right cuff. It was too big and made her look tough, capable of doing harm. The jacket went back on its hanger, but in Nina's closet, not Mary's.
Lorrie decided to stay on for a while, occupying Mary's former room. Nina's mother wasn't happy about the arrangement, both because she couldn't bear seeing anyone come and go from a place with such agonizing memories, and also because she couldn't stand Lorrie. Lorrie was tall, broad, with a dull mind to match, said Nina's mother. That Nina's mother was a snob was no secret. Mary had inherited that tendency, and with Mary gone, Nina's mother was the only snob left in the house. As long as Nina could remember, her mother set herself several rungs above other people. She looked down on most of the human race as a bird might a colony of ants—as something both oddly fascinating and a source of nourishment. Nina's mother ate people up. She consumed their petty desires and traits, their lowborn ideals and meager ambitions. Then she spit them back out. She hated just about everyone.
Lorrie was oblivious. She cooked and cleaned. She played checkers with Nina's father, who was surprisingly good at it. She insisted Nina's mother present herself at table for meals. When she was too morose to get up, a tray was brought with a green ceramic bud vase holding a single flower, a carnation, maybe, or a limp, wilted rose Lorrie had cut from the garden and forgot to get in water fast enough. Lorrie didn't seem to notice that on these occasions Nina's mother broke the neck of the flower and returned its head drooping, or severed altogether. Nina concluded grief can make one very childish.
Lorrie stayed through the winter. The holidays were a study in tiresome activities, like choosing, installing, and decorating a tree. Stockings were hung. Gifts were wrapped. Then Nina's mother announced that she'd bought a necklace for Mary almost a year before and had kept it hidden on the shelf in her closet. She produced a small box trimmed in black velvet that held a fourteen karat gold chain with a pattern of X's and O's.
Mary wasn't the kind of girl who enjoyed jewelry. She never wore any, in fact. Nina didn't understand why her mother would have gotten something both inappropriate and expensive, when she prided herself on always knowing the right thing to do. But they'd had a fight, Mary and her mother. Nina remembered that then. A loud, raucous fight, the kind she imagined other families often had, but never hers. They had disagreed about Mary getting a license. Nina's mother felt she wasn't ready to handle the responsibility of safe driving. Mary's reckless streak came into the discussion quickly—the time she flipped her bike, her skateboarding phase ending with a badly sprained ankle, the dislocated shoulder that could have been avoided if she hadn't tried a ski trail she knew was too hard for her. Ugly words were said. Nina's mother, usually so distant and calm, cynical and sneering, shouted like a city cab driver at rush hour. And Mary, always defiant and sure she'd get the upper hand, was cowed.
If that's all it takes, why didn't I give it to her before, Nina had thought. Mary had often been harsh with Nina, unkind and pushy. Just needed a taste of her own medicine. Nina thought her mother had scored a great victory by finally putting Mary in her place, but she now understood her mother had felt like a failure. She'd lost her composure and caused Mary a deep upset. Mary had spent a long time sulking after that, feeling sorry for herself, obviously, but also perhaps genuinely hurt at having been called an irresponsible, selfish idiot.
Nina didn't understand why her mother hadn't given the guilt necklace to Mary right away, why she saved it for Christmas. Maybe she wanted time to pass, so that the gift would be taken in a happy spirit, not as payment for being yelled at.
Nina's mother didn't know what to do with the necklace. Lorrie said Nina might enjoy having it. Nina would not enjoy having it. The sight of it made her deeply angry, because not once in her entire life had her mother ever spent that kind of money on her. Were she to say so, her mother might point out she'd never raised her voice to her as she'd done to Mary that day so long ago. To which Nina would think, So what? Doesn't mean you love me. You never loved me the way you loved her, and you know it. The necklace was put in Lorrie's care. She'd keep it, and decide, at some point, what should be done with it.
The weather changed from winter to spring, from cold to less cold, from barren fields around their small college town to greening trees in bud. Nina adhered to her routines, despite Lorrie's attempts to alter them.
Lighten up, Lorrie said, with no awareness of the barbarity of her words. Live a little. Her blue eyes were as blank as ever as she spoke, her round, doughy face just as bland and simple as before. No guile there, Nina thought, proud of herself for her improving vocabulary. She was studying to take the SAT exam. She studied every single day for at least thirty minutes. Sometimes she thought it was too bad she'd never studied a musical instrument, since she clearly had the discipline and drive to succeed. Mary had had violin lessons, and her toneless screeching had driven her mother batty. The lessons were quickly terminated, and the violin returned to the music store.
Nina had one friend, Debbie, who lived one block over. Her father was a researcher at the university where Nina's father taught history. Debbie was an only child and felt she understood the two-against-one dynamic far better than Nina did. In Debbie's mind, the death of Nina's sister had had the obvious result of making Nina an only child who would unwittingly become the target of her parents' attention. Nina said it wasn't that way at all. The only one at home who paid any attention to her was Lorrie, and that attention was insipid (another vocabulary word) at best.
Debbie thought Nina should look for some connection, preferably with people her own age. Debbie was popular, perhaps because she was stupid. Nina found stupid people often attracted others because their limited intellect posed no challenge or conflict to whatever nonsense someone might express. Of course, stupidity in itself was only a necessary condition for friendship, not a sufficient one. You had to have a good nature and be easy-going. It also helped to be pretty. Nina was pretty but not easy-going. And she certainly wasn't stupid. Debbie felt Nina should "join in" more.
Joining in entailed accepting the attention of a group of boys, one of whom had recently gotten his driver's license and had the use of his father's car, a restored 1973 Pontiac Le Mans. They liked to get together and drive around with no specific destination. Debbie went on these excursions often. They took place in the early evenings, which was acceptable to Debbie's mother, because the days were longer and darkness much slower to fall. Nina took to walking through the neighborhood at around the same time, not intentionally, though, and she'd see them going down one street and up another. The driver, Terry Marks, was slow and careful, which seemed at odds with the deep red color of his car. Nina could only make out the riders in the front seat, since the car was a two-door and back windows were obscured by racy slats. Debbie was often in the front, always the middle, never by the window, but would lean across whomever was there and call Nina's name. Once or twice the car came alongside her, and she was invited to join them. She didn't, rather continuing her circuit on foot.
The path was simple. She went along her own street, Foster, then bore right around Upland, which curved for a long time to join Franklin. Franklin followed a small ravine, and on the other side of the ravine were homes where the lights came on as Nina sat and watched.
Sometimes a person would traipse aimlessly by a curtain-less window. One house was home to a small black dog released into the yard every evening about eight. One of the residences belonged to a man who used to teach at her elementary school, Mr. Hicks. Mr. Hicks was retired. His wife had died tragically. A car accident, a drunken driver, Mrs. Hicks' Buick a tangle of torn metal. Nina wondered if his loss was worse than hers, or if loss was loss, equally terrible, regrettable, and destined to slowly destroy those left behind.
Nina quickly learned Mr. Hicks kept very regular ours. His dinner was always at seven. He ate on a television tray set in front of a small set with the old-style rabbit ear antennae. Nina couldn't tell what he watched, but it looked like the news. After dinner he went into his kitchen and washed his dishes. To observe him there, Nina had to change her vantage point by a few feet. She felt lucky the rooms he spent time in were the ones facing the ravine. After he did the dishes, he sat and read in the same room in which he had eaten.
As the season progressed and the trees came into full leaf, Nina crept closer and closer to Mr. Hicks' house. The foliage obscured her, she hoped. Not that it mattered. Mr. Hicks never looked out of the window. Nina noticed her mother didn't look out of the windows, either. She tried to remember if she had before Mary died, and she recalled an incident where a blue jay had swooped low into their yard, his sapphire feathers catching the light in a brilliant display. Oh! her mother had said.
Nina's father, on the other hand, stared through whatever glass he found himself near, and his expression suggested he wasn't taking anything in but was surveying some private landscape of his own. He looked at Nina as if she were a window onto a dream-in-progress. One in full swing.
Lorrie said it was good to see Nina take the air on a regular basis. Exercise was good for the mind and body, both. To that end, Lorrie pressed Nina's mother to get up and go out more. Lorrie took her to the grocery store, the hair salon, and to lunch three times a week, where Nina was certain the conversation was entirely one-sided. And then one day, Lorrie had had enough. No more sullen souls who refused to move on with life. No more lifting dreary hearts. Every man for himself, she seemed to say. She made friends through the art classes she took. Sometimes the friends came to the house, but Lorrie put an end to that. Instead, she went to theirs. She confided in Nina that while she understood the agony of losing a child, there still had to come a time when those who remained alive had some value.
With Lorrie gone so much, Nina's mother emerged from her room. She was still silent, but she sat on the couch rather than lie on her bed. Sometimes she read a magazine. Sometimes she watched television. Once, Nina heard her laugh. It was a short, sharp sound, like a bark. Nina's father sat with her in the evenings after a while, and they both watched the news. They assumed a strict routine a lot like the one Mr. Hicks had. Dinner always at six, always before the television. Dishes always done at seven. In bed every night by nine-thirty.
Nina continued her own system of walking and spying on Mr. Hicks. Nothing changed in his home, and nothing changed in hers. The air stopped moving. The thick late-spring leaves never rose or fell. They'd been buried alive, and only after years of slowly suffocating would they be allowed to die. She wished for hollow bones and the smallest puff of wind to carry her up and away.
One night she didn't pass by Mr. Hicks' home, but took a route bending through a small shopping district. She wore Mary's old jacket, and she was grateful for the strong breeze blowing up from the lake because the fabric was heavy and made her sweat. She glanced at items for sale in windows: bright clothes, flowers, painted furniture. She'd forgotten it was spring.
Suddenly, somebody called her name. The Le Mans had stopped alongside her. The driver's eyes were warm with glee. He grinned at something a passenger in the back seat had just said. Debbie sat next to him, her hair windblown, her face fresh. Debbie told the boy on her other side to get out and go in the back. The boy crawled over the back seat, swinging his long legs near Debbie's head. Debbie squealed. The boy settled down with a number of bounces.
Debbie told Nina to get in. Nina felt the breeze on her skin. There was a scent of lilac in the air. Lilacs had been Mary's favorite flower. Nina opened the door and got in. The car smelled of French fries. Nina was suddenly hungry, and she couldn't remember if she'd eaten dinner or not. The driver pulled into traffic. Everyone talked, except Nina. Their voices were quick and loud. Nina didn't follow what they were saying. She didn't know she was crying until Debbie asked her what was wrong. The driver nudged Debbie hard with his elbow. Debbie fell silent. Everyone else did, too, except Nina, who went on crying as they drove up and down through the beautiful spring night.