by Priscilla Mainardi
“What did you think of her?” I said to my brother. We had just started up the trail, wide enough here at the beginning so we could walk side by side.
“Nice,” Jake pronounced. “A little nervous, but who wouldn’t be?” He stopped and turned to me. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
“I hope I didn’t laugh. I thought Mom was kidding at first. I thought she meant Becca was like a daughter to her, not an actual daughter.” I stepped around a rock that stuck up in the middle of the trail. “Amazing that we never knew, or even suspected.”
“Mom didn’t even know anything about her. Until recently, that is,” Jake said.
Becca had gotten in touch with our mother in late February, and they met for the first time a few days later at a halfway point in New Hampshire. My mother didn’t tell me any of this when she called me last week to confirm Sunday brunch with Jake, something we had done every few weeks since I moved back from California. She just said, “I have something important to tell you and your brother.”
Becca, our new-found sister, was the important thing she had to tell us.
Jake and I began to ascend a steeper part of the trail. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees. I unzipped my jacket, loosened my scarf. Becca had complimented the scarf when I arrived at brunch this morning. My college friend Elvira always compliments people when she first meets them, to get them to like her. Was that what Becca was doing? I wished I’d thought of it myself.
“What happens now?” I asked Jake. “Is she going to be, like, part of the family?”
“If she wants to be. And if Mom wants her to be. I don’t think it’s so much about us.”
But it is about us, I wanted to say. Jake’s calm made my natural reaction — surprise, confusion, resentment at just learning about Becca now — seem somehow irrational. “I wonder if Dad knows about her,” I said. Our father left when I was in third grade. “And what do we know about her father?”
Jake held up a hand. “Wait, Lydia. Are you forgetting we have a nephew now too?”
I laughed. “Right,” I said. “Andrew. How could we have made it this far without knowing anything about them?”
“Think how it must be for Becca to find out about us, after all these years,” Jake said. “Or how it was for Mom, having the baby taken away from her. Imagine how she feels.”
“Okay, Mr. Empathy.” Sometimes Jake was a little too nice. He lumped everyone together and acted like they were all the same, when they clearly weren’t.
We hiked in single file until we came to a fork. I described the route I’d taken once before, to the top of the ridge, then down along the stream that ran through the gorge. We’d end up a quarter mile down the road from the parking lot.
“Sure we won’t need crampons?” Jake said.
More snow appeared in the woods as we climbed but the trail was dry. “I doubt it,” I said.
Jake checked the time on his phone. “Just think,” he said, “two hours ago, we were sitting down meeting Becca.”
“Three hours ago, I didn’t even know I had a sister.”
“How did you find us?” I asked Becca. “I mean, find out my mother was . . . find out who your mother was?” I stopped, took a breath. I was trying to play it cool, a cool I didn’t really feel. Mangling my sentences wasn’t helping.
Becca gave a wide smile. She had her answer ready. But then she’d known about us, whereas we’d just learned about her. Maybe this explained her calm. Or maybe she came by it naturally. “Andrew fainted on the basketball court,” she said, “and when I took him to the doctor, they were worried that he might have a heart condition, and wanted me to check with his closest relatives.” We must have look alarmed at this, because she held up a hand, smooth and pale, with pink nails. “I asked my parents, and they gave me the name of the adoption agency. My lawyer wrote to the agency and told them the situation, and they gave me your mother’s name.”
“But Andrew — is he okay?” I said.
“Oh, yes, he’s fine. They decided he was probably just dehydrated.”
“Well,” said my mother, at her cheeriest, “we’re glad he’s okay, and so glad you found us.”
We were in her dining room, eating quiche and sausages and out of season strawberries. Sunlight poured in through the tall windows. My mother seemed a little too happy, her cheeks flushed an unusual pink color, her eyes bright. She kept jumping up for things she’d forgotten in the kitchen, a pitcher of orange juice, bread and butter. We usually ate bagels and cream cheese or French toast at the kitchen table, watching the birds come and go from the bird feeder outside the window. Brunch wasn’t usually this varied and complex.
Becca told us she’d grown up in Portsmouth, where she still lived and worked as a florist. She was forty-four and divorced, and Andrew was in eighth grade. She was tall and blond with little resemblance to either Jake, who was stocky and strong and dark, or me, of average height with medium-brown hair. She looked like she’d never done the things I’d done: put white powder up my nose, slept in a park wrapped in all my clothes, snuck out of a restaurant without paying, taken off my clothes in front of a camera.
I took a bite of quiche and gazed out the window. Most of the snow had melted from the grass, though there was still a little patch on the north side of every tree. Jake was describing his programming job, his girlfriend who worked as a physical therapist, the apartment they’d moved into together in Burlington. I had met his girlfriend, but hadn’t seen their new apartment yet. When did people stop seeing the places where their siblings lived? Twenty-six seemed too young. You think you’ll always be as close as when your rooms are next door to each other, and you kick each other every night for space on the family room couch.
We hadn’t even talked since the last brunch. And Jake hadn’t seen my place either. I told Becca about the tiny cabin I lived in, that I chopped my own wood and worked at the general store. This sounded homey, like the store carried maple syrup and maybe bolts of calico, but I mostly sold hotdogs and lottery tickets. Becca didn’t need to know every little thing about me, and I broad-stroked it, hoping “I spent a few years on the West Coast” sounded intriguing rather than secretive. And who knew what Becca wasn’t telling us? It was our first meeting after all.
“Slow down,” Jake said. “I can hardly keep up with you.”
I slowed my pace and glanced down the valley where the sun lit up the tops of the bare trees. “You know, Mom used to say that to me all the time. Talk smaller steps. She was always criticizing me for something. Remember how she used to move my hair out from behind my ears all the time?” Becca’s hair was a perfect blond coif that curled in to cover her ears. “After awhile I started to think I might as well go ahead and actually do something wrong.”
Jake laughed. “Maybe she wasn’t criticizing, maybe she just couldn’t keep up with you. And maybe your hair did look better covering your ears.”
“You sound just like her.”
I meant it as a mild putdown but Jake just laughed again.
“What about my job?” I said. “She’s always after me to get a better job.”
“We all know you could be doing more with yourself than selling scratch-offs.”
“Can’t she just be happy I moved home?”
“She’s glad you’re rid of what’s-his-name,” he said.
He means Jimmy, my old boyfriend, who I followed to California so he could make movies.
“Still, maybe this explains a few things,” I said. “Maybe Mom was always measuring me up against some invisible ideal daughter.”
“I think you’ll have to let that one go, Lydia. Becca’s just another flawed human being like the rest of us.”
Later we would go to one of Andrew’s basketball games and I would see that this was true. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, went without makeup, chewed her nails in the stands, joined in when the other parents booed the referee to protest a foul call.
“Was Mom upset about it all her life, do you think,” I said, “or did she just forget about the baby and move on?”
“I’m sure she never forgot,” Jake said.
“So she got pregnant and gave the baby away. Couldn’t she have had an abortion?”
“Not back then.”
“But still,” I persisted, “she kept it a secret all these years. Even though she knew this day might come.”
“Give her a break, will ya? This has been hard on her too. Hardest.”
He sounded like Elvira, who used to say to always err on the side of kindness and generosity. Or was it forgiveness and generosity? I could never remember. “Okay, sure, a break,” I said.
We’d been climbing steadily and stopped to catch our breath and take a drink of water. Jake seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Maybe this was because he hadn’t spent the whole brunch comparing himself to Becca in every little detail — hairstyle, make-up, clothes, the way she spoke, held herself, had a worthwhile career.
But now that I thought about it, Jake hadn’t even looked all that surprised when Mom told us who Becca was. Maybe there was another reason he was so calm. I turned to him. “How long have you known?”
Jake held up a hand. “Hear that, Lydia?” he said. “That sort of rushing sound?”
I stood still and listened. All I heard was the rustle and creak of tree branches. “The wind?”
“More like water. Is there a stream?”
“I think we cross a creek soon,” I said.
We resumed walking. Soon we came to the source of the sound. The creek had widened and gouged out a new course down the side of the mountain, carrying away rocks, uprooting trees.
“Last time I was here this was a trickle,” I said.
“Think we can get across?”
We were almost to the top of the ridge, so it didn’t make sense to turn around and go back the way we had come. I climbed up on a rock and looked for a place to cross. “How about there?” I said, pointing downstream where some fallen trees formed a makeshift bridge.
We moved down the rocky creek bank. There was more snow here, a thin coating with deeper patches here and there. The rocks on the hillside were unstable, and shifted uneasily when I stepped on them. I told myself that it didn’t matter who had learned about Becca first, now that we had both met her. Or that it shouldn’t matter. But still I was curious. “So how long?” I said.
“Only a little while,” Jake said. “I heard Mom on the phone one day when I was over there. It was soon after Becca had gotten in touch with her. She seemed upset when she hung up. I asked her what was wrong and she told me the whole thing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It wasn’t mine to tell. But I know Mom wanted to. She just wanted to find the right time. Not have you learn accidentally, like I did.”
“Why didn’t she just tell me sometime when we were alone, like she did with you? Why spring Becca on me at a brunch? She hardly ever even calls me.”
“She’s just trying to give you some space.”
We skirted a massive fallen tree, then angled upward to get back to the log bridge and the trail. Here the terrain was so steep there was no underbrush, no thorny bushes to impede us, and we climbed steadily. Finally we got back to the creek, and crossed it on the fallen logs.
We stopped to take another drink, then we were climbing again. Clouds moved past the sun. A chilly breeze blew and the tree branches scraped and rubbed against each other. We plunged into a pine forest. Tall trees darkened the trail, filling me a feeling of gloom.
Jake stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “What happened here?”
A section of the hillside had collapsed, leaving a steep cone of dirt and pebbles with old tree roots sticking up from it. A foot wide path was all that was left of the trail.
“Now I wish I did have my crampons,” Jake said, sizing up the narrow path. Then he shrugged and started across. I hesitated for a moment, looking for a safe place to step.
“You coming?” Jake said, and when he turned to look at me, his foot slipped off the edge. He reached for a handhold, but there was nothing to grasp on the rock wall, and he started sliding down the steep hillside. He grabbed one of the roots to stop his fall but it snapped. He bent his knees and went down, sliding on his back to the bottom.
He landed in a tangle of rocks and fallen branches. “Jake,” I called. “Jacob.”
His voice rose up to me. “Damn. Fuck. Son of a. . . ”
“Anything broken?” I shouted. “Are you bleeding?”
“No blood. But I wrenched my ankle. I don’t think I can climb back up.”
“Don’t move. I’m on my way.”
I went down the trail a few yards and looked for a way to climb down to him. “Don’t,” Jake called. “It’s too dangerous.”
I had only gone a few feet when I dislodged a good-sized rock, which clattered down the hillside.
There was a deathly silence after it fell. Heart racing, I called out, “Still there?”
“Yo,” came Jake’s reply. “You should probably go get some help.”
I climbed back up to stabler ground. “Can you call someone?”
“No service,” he called back up after a moment.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t get hypothermia while I’m gone.”
I went back along the trail a few yards, then climbed the steep hill and picked my way through the underbrush until I reached the top of the ridge. Here the trail descended through the gorge. It was the shortest way back.
The woods were clasped in dim light, and the temperature was dropping. I half-walked, half-ran down the trail, wishing I hadn’t left my phone in the car. But who would I call, even if I did have service? Mom? But I wouldn’t want to worry her. Becca had given me her number, but I didn’t think a forest rescue was what she had in mind.
The trail leveled off and narrowed to a thin ledge. To the left was the rocky drop-off into the stream, to the right the steep side of the mountain. A little creek splashed down the mountain, and the water had dripped onto the ledge and coated it with a thick layer of ice. Crossing it looked very risky. I could end up dashed on the rocks below. Instead I could go back up to the top of the ridge, and hike down the way we had come. But then I thought of the fallen tree I would have to get around, the make-shift log bridge to cross in the dark. Even if I could find the trail, it would be hours before I returned to Jake.
I had only taken two small steps across the ice when my feet started to slide. I held my breath, fighting for balance. Everything will be okay, I told myself, retreating. I just have to find a way to get across. Everything will be okay. It was the same thing Jimmy told me when we were running out of money in Oakland, the same thing my mother told me when she came to visit me in the hospital when I got back to New York. I left Jimmy after we made the porno, with just enough money for the bus ride east. I felt nauseous and dizzy on the bus and blamed it on the diesel fumes and the stress of moving back home broke. But my period was late too and I thought I might be pregnant. I planned to borrow money from Elvira for an abortion.
The bleeding started in the middle of Pennsylvania. Elvira met me at Port Authority and instead of taking me to her place on Rivington Street, we took a cab to Bellevue.
It was an ectopic pregnancy, and I had to have surgery and stay in the hospital for three days. I wasn’t on the maternity ward, but on a wing with other would-be moms who had had some kind of trouble. My mother came, Jake came, Elvira. I was out of it for a day or two right after the surgery and when I came back to myself, I could hear a girl down the hall crying for her daughter. She called her name, Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, over and over all day long.
Was it like that for my mother? Did she feel that desperate and bereft when they took Becca away from her? At the time, while I was recovering, I just wanted the girl to shut up.
Kindness and generosity. And forgiveness too. I repeated the words like a mantra, the way I did when I thought about my father, who’d left us so long ago. I thought of him dropping to the ground to crawl on his belly to retrieve Jake’s baseball when it rolled under the back fence. I must have been six or seven. The army crawl, he called it, for tight places. It was from his Vietnam days.
I lay down on my stomach and inched across the ice. When I no longer felt ice under my hands, I crawled a few more feet, then stood and walked. The trail blended in with the forest floor, disappearing and reappearing in the fading light. I forced myself to keep going.
The darkness was nearly complete now. I never even saw the second icy ledge.
I landed in a snowbank. I stood up carefully, and moved my arms and legs. Nothing hurt. I brushed snow and ice and old leaves from my clothes and looked around to see where I was. I called Jake’s name, waited, called again. All I heard was the rushing of the stream. I made my way to the bank. Here there was less underbrush, and what little light was left in the sky came through the break in the trees above the stream bed.
It was too much to hope that Jake and I were at the bottom of the same ravine. I tried to picture the geography, but though I knew the trails, the map in my head was pretty fuzzy. I headed downstream for a few minutes, through a level wooded area, then back to the stream. I wandered toward the whitish glow of another snowbank. But when I came to it, I saw that it was the same one, the shape of my body still imprinted on it.
I sat down on a rock. The woods were eerily silent and black and I tried not to think about what other living things might be lurking out there in the trees. I was starting to feel hungry, and went through my jacket pockets. Old ticket stubs, matches from a Brattleboro restaurant, tissues. I thought of brunch, of eggs beaten and baked into a crust, of warm sausages and bread and butter and strawberries.
This morning I had followed into the kitchen my mother when she returned for the bread she had forgotten. “Any other siblings out there I should know about?” I said, only half kidding. I unwrapped the stick of butter she’d set out on the counter.
She turned, holding out the bread knife. “I’m sure there are things in your life you’d like to forget. That you’re happy we’re not bringing up today.”
But you’ve always known,” I said, “and never said anything. That’s what I don’t get.”
My mother took her time arranging the slices of bread on a plate. I could tell I had wounded her though I hadn’t meant too. Finally she held the plate out to me. It was the plate with the pinecone design that she used to serve cookies on when I was little. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we just take it from here?”
I looked at her hand holding the plate, the familiar long fingers, the trim nails. Even the veins in her hand were familiar to me. My mother had a life before me, before Jake, before our father came and went. My mother had a Jimmy.
It was too cold to sit still. I had find Jake, get us out of here, call my mother, tell her I was going to look for a new job. Then I would drive up and see Jake’s new place, and together we’d go visit Becca. And Andrew, too. Meet our new nephew.
It couldn’t have been much past six o’clock, and I could only hope that we were close to the road or the main trail that led up the gorge and that somebody, anybody, would happen by, close enough to hear us, or see us even, if we could manage to light a fire. I walked back to the stream. The moon appeared over the edge of the ravine, round and bright and so low in the sky it appeared extra large.
“Jake,” I called.
I heard a sound, a faint reply from far away that carried above the sound of the water, that might have been a squirrel or the wind moving through the trees. I went a little further along the stream and called again, then a little further.
“Lydia?” I heard my name again a few minutes later, more distinctly this time but still far away. Jake was on the other side of the stream. I found a narrow place and tried to jump across but landed with both feet in the shallow water. I moved along the bank, water squelching from my boots, calling his name and hearing my own in reply, over and over again, until I found him.
Priscilla Mainardi attended the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pulse – Voices from the Heart of Medicine, the Examined Life Journal, and BioStories. She teaches writing at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and serves on the editorial board of the online journal, The Intima.