by Isabelle Stillman
When I was in high school, my mother started to tell us about the jeweler. He was a small man with a little grey cap and he had a store in the strip mall next to Ocean Life Hot Massage.
“But it wasn’t a strip mall kind of place,” our mother would say in the kitchen at breakfast. “It was a very luxurious, very beautiful place.” She’d pause, looking without seeing at Sally on the couch and me at the table. “Very luxurious place.” Leaning forward, as if the jeweler’s image appeared before her like a deity: “His little grey cap –” she’d tap her head in demonstration, her face dreamy – “he had his little grey cap.”
My mother was a therapist. She’d spent years working in a pastel green office in downtown Syracuse with a white noise machine at the foot of her door that was meant to keep patients’ voices from drifting into the waiting room. Years before she left her practice, the machine broke so that every few minutes the soft mush of noise turned into a string of stunted clicks, like a wind-up toy hitting a wall, after which followed a moment of silence. From the waiting room you could hear, “I’m alone” click-click-click-click “sad” click-click-click-click – my mother then – “When do you feel less alone?” Click-click-click-click. The clicking like a clock counting down her decline.
My sister Sally and I spent many afternoons in that waiting room growing up. We attended school down the street, Sally in elementary then, and I, four years but only three grades above, in middle school. When school was out, we’d walk to our mother’s office and wait for her to take us home. I always liked those afternoons: the pastel green chairs, palm fronds painted soothingly across the white walls. Stacks of magazines with white-teethed, relaxed-looking people on the covers. Sally would sit next to me, wriggling in her chair, while I tried to hear my mother’s patients through the broken machine, to piece together their stories from the flecks of voice I could catch. “I’m alone” click-click-click-click. Was it a lost love? A dead father? A spiritual crisis? Sally fidgeted while I listened for clues.
It was in that office, I realize now, that it all began. As Sally swung her legs around the chair monkey-like or put a magazine spine-up on her head to play Witch Hat, I tuned her out, stilling her limbs with an older-brotherly hand, so I could collect the facts of life that rolled like precious marbles, one by one, from under our mother’s door.
It was in that office, too, I would see later, that it all ended.
“It was too much,” our father would say of the hours Sally and I spent in that waiting room, those pastel chairs, those painted palms, when we could have been at soccer practice or studying in the comfort of our rooms. “It was too much for you. It was too much for her. It was good for your mother to step back.”
Our father was a necktied, world-certain money man, who spoke as if from notecards, carefully pre-planned, and he was as assured as he’d ever been of anything that, when I began high school and Sally neared the end of elementary, our mother should stop working.
“Too much for you. Too much for her.”
I didn’t realize then that the broken noise machine must have factored into his thinking. That our father must have noticed that our mother’s mind was going, even then.
But it wasn’t just the machine. It was also the jeweler.
“His wife was my client,” our mother would say of the jeweler in the years after she left work, leaning against the counter at breakfast. “Saadia – isn’t that a beautiful name? Saadia.”
I’d nod from across the table. By the time I was a senior and Sally was a freshmen, we’d heard the story dozens of times: Bart the jeweler had inherited Bart’s Jewelers from his father, Bart, who had passed years ago. The current Bart owned the shop, but it was run day-to-day by his wife Saadia, who was not from our town – Syracuse. She was a small crouched woman with dark skin and a tiny bun on top of her head and the rest of her long dark hair falling like a veil down her back. A nervous woman, standing behind the jewelry counter stiff and wide-eyed as if expecting a robbery.
“A soft self inside that woman needed love,” our mother would explain, and then, so as not to be perceived as violating any confidentiality clauses, “A soft self inside every woman needs love.”
Saadia saw my mother every Tuesday at noon, and every Tuesday at one, Bart came to pick her up. Each time, he carried with him, as a form of payment, a piece of jewelry.
“Paid in jewels! All those hours! Would you believe that!” our mother would say, lurching forward from the counter in awe, her gaze soaring loosely over the couch, the table, us. “I mean – the most delicate silver chain, perfect gold studs, big, bright bangles – everything – ” She’d gesture flappily as she spoke, until she lost her train of thought.
Sally, fourteen by then, delighted in the story each time, jiggling a crossed leg on the old brown couch cushions as she listened, half-eaten Pop-Tart in her hand. She was smarter than her age, but when it came to my mother, it seemed she lost all sense. She behaved every time like she’d never heard the story, took in my mother’s performance as if she were front-row at a pop star concert. “Everything!” she’d echo, and her excitement seemed to increase that of my mother.
“He had the most wonderful things,” she’d continue, arms going wild again.
Our father, at the table next to me, focused on his newspaper as long as he could.
“The most wonderful things,” and around this time, I’d stand and reach for the coffee cup in her hand. While Sally urged her on and my father tried to ignore it, I stayed in tune with what our mother needed: I was good with clues, with knowing before it happened that, lost in the story as she was, the coffee cup would soon drop. “Anything you can imagine –” I’d carve the cup from her palm – “there’d he’d come, walking into my office to find his wife –” place it far back on the counter – “little man with his little grey cap –” sit back down – “with a shining gold necklace or a magnificent pair of –”
And invariably, then: “Valeria, please.” My father would speak quietly, jaw set, eyes calm.
She’d look at him, and her face would shut. “Oh, Bill,” she’d say, turning to grab the coffee cup and slam it into the sink. “You don’t know anything.”
Our father would look back at his newspaper. From the unwavering nature of his demeanor, I picked up that he actually did know something: that he knew Bart wasn’t innocent, and, perhaps, that our mother wasn’t either. Though I didn’t have enough clues to deduce it on my own, my father’s assuredness was clue enough, and so, through high school and after, I believed him – about our mother’s illness, her possible affair – and I copied his behavior: a restrained presence, a diverted attention.
When he told us she wasn’t going to work anymore, I didn’t ask questions.
Home seemed a better place for our mother anyway: afternoons in the backyard instead of the office, with Sally instead of patients. The two of them finger-painted or strung leaves from the large oak tree with fishing wire to weave into their hair, a boom box tossed in the grass nearby. They’d dance around the yard like the founding members of a two-person free-to-be commune, until my mother, hit by a force from within her own body, would suddenly stop. She’d sit on the grass, her face stiff, a fuse blown in her mind. Sally would sit beside her, petting her hair, humming.
Sometimes I’d overhear them through my upstairs window. As I filled in college applications or finished calculus homework, their laughter would come ruffling through the branches of the tree, and then, in the space of a moment, evaporate into a hole of silence: something in my mother’s mind was broken as the white noise machine. Occasionally, in her moments of blankness, my mother would speak: “Saadia,” I’d hear through the window. “Such a soft self inside.”
She showed it to us once – the jewelry. Sally came bounding into my room one evening at the end of my senior year, fishing wire spiraled about her legs and arms, like an unlit Christmas tree, yelling, “Charlie! Come see it! Come see!”
Our mother took us into her closet and opened a large cabinet. Inside was the door of a safe. I remember, as my mother’s fingers smoothly spun the lock to each exact number, wondering what exactly her sickness entailed. And then she opened it.
Inside, rings pooled in a cluster like some ocean-floor moss next to stacks of necklaces sliced away in thick velvet boxes. Bracelets tangled together like they weren’t worth hundreds of dollars. As I stared, a surprising anger rose inside me. Her fingers tinkled softly over the pieces as if they were piano keys she didn’t want to sound, and as I watched, I began to feel the shamelessness of this gesture, the shamelessness of her repetition of the story, of her very being. The jewelry laid plain seemed to confirm my father’s theories: the diamonds as blatant as a naked body, amulets as enigmatic as dementia.
I blurted: “But what about us?” What I meant, I think now, was What do I do with this information?
But my mother only laughed. “It’s all for you,” she said as if what I’d said were a joke we were all in on.
Sally had been peering into the safe, nose to a blue-gemmed cuff, but at this she stood back and looked at our mother. “It’s for us?” she said.
Our mother seemed delighted at our lack of understanding. She took Sally’s young face in her hands. “I’m saving it,” she said as if bestowing a blessing. “For you.” She looked over at me then. “For both of you.”
“Why?” I said.
And her bright face darkened again. “In case!” she said, her hands gripping hard on Sally’s face, her arms rattling in emphasis. “In case you lose everything!”
They say sons fall for women like their mothers. But years of my father’s example had taught me to keep a quiet distance from unpredictability, from hints of the unstable.
Emily was nothing like my mother. She was of generational Boston stock, born and bred in a loud-talking middle class family who prided themselves on their what-you-see-is-what-you-get way of being. Her father was a callused-hands man with a loud voice and a louder laugh, and the only person Emily respected more than him was her mother.
“She lets you know exactly who she is,” she said on our first date in a run-down bar near our small New Hampshire college. “And never lets you forget it.” I remember the pride in her eyes: it was that sense of selfhood, that unapologetic strength, that I wanted.
I met Emily’s parents, Jimmy and Josie, several times – Parents Weekend our sophomore year, just after we’d gotten together, again the next year, and again at graduation. Each time I saw them, I became more certain that Emily was the person I wanted to be with and that her family was the one I wanted to join: they were brash, boisterous, secret-less. With everything on the table, there were things I could join in on, be part of. It was a great relief after years of listening through the machine or through the window.
There is a picture of the four of us from graduation, Emily and I packed snuggly between Jimmy and Josie in our blue-black robes, Josie holding a cigarette at the hip of her Marshalls jeans, Jimmy’s hand firm on my shoulder. Their smiles big and unyielding. Emily’s long brown hair fluttering across my chest. And there is a picture in my memory of the other side of the camera: my father standing stiff, his tie neat. My mother at his elbow, her eyes not on us, but the sun in the trees above our heads, her face long. Sally holding the point-and-shoot between our two families, telling everyone to smile.
Sally remained that connector. When I left for college, still uncertain of what to do with the information the jewelry had exposed, I didn’t know how to talk to my father or my mother. My father was so practiced, so prepared – it made you nervous just to stand before him; it made you nervous to have any questions, any holes, when he was so answered, so cohered. And my mother – she had so many holes you didn’t know which one to address first: so many holes that I feared, I think now, they might have been contagious. So I kept away. I wondered silently. Of him – What are you doing? Of her – what did you do?
But Sally was untroubled by it all. Where I remembered the waiting room as the before time – before, when our mother was fine – Sally remembered it as a friendly after-school activity. Where I remembered the kitchen counter and the story of the jeweler as a conflict – my mother burning in her own sick world, my father scorched against her – Sally remembered it as amusing family lore. To her, she and our mother in the yard was how it had always been. The jewels, the broken machine, the leaf dancing, our mother’s lost moments: these were the facts of her childhood, rather than the shocking changes in it. And with this definition of home in her mind, she could never understand why I left.
“Is that really the right place for you, so far away?” she said to me over the phone three weeks before my college graduation. Emily and I were planning to move to Los Angeles: she wanted to make it in the movie industry, and I wanted to be wherever she was. We’d found an apartment online and leased it without seeing, planning to pack up whatever we could fit in Emily’s parents’ old Taurus and drive cross-country the day after graduation. “Is it really the right thing for you and Emily?” Sally’s voice broke with the staticky cell reception in our kitchen at home.
“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You know Emily and you know me. This is right.”
It was – I was sure. Emily was the right person, and I’d known as much since our first date – we both had. The day before she’d affirmed it again. I’d asked her over dinner if she was nervous. “Not at all,” she’d said, pulling back her dark hair before leaning into a plate of spaghetti. “It’s gonna be a great adventure!”
“You don’t need to worry about me,” I told Sally. “I’m sure this is the right choice.”
She sounded defeated, grumbling. “Well I’m not worried about you,” she said.
“Mom is gonna be okay,” I said. Sally had just finished her freshman year at Syracuse University, which wasn’t more than ten minutes from our house. She’d stayed close to home so she could take care of mom, going home most weekends and driving her to doctor’s appointments when our father was at work. In 2nd grade, Sally got a perfect score on a state-wide examine that enabled her to skip 3rd grade: she’d always been a bit older than she was supposed to be. “She’s on all the right meds, right? You and Dad take good care of her,” I said. “And I know she would want me to pursue life with someone I really love and trust.”
“Charlie – ” Sally started. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew what she was going to say – that I hadn’t always been there – and it was true. It was fair for her to want me to stay closer to home. But I was twenty-two years old. I had career ambitions in investigative work, and relationship ambitions with Emily.
So I interrupted my sister – my smart-beyond-her-years sister. My sister who had been there all along. “Sally – trust me,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”
By the next summer, Emily and I were settled in downtown LA. Our first year together had been perfect. We woke up early and went to our respective workplaces, saw friends on the weekends, and didn’t get sick of each other, even in our 300 square-foot apartment. We fit a double bed in the corner with enough space to open the door to the bathroom and the door to Emily’s closet. I kept my clothes in bins under the bed. We had a second-hand futon that served as a couch and a guest bed, and a little bistro table where we ate meals and chopped ingredients when the counter was crowded with drying dishes. The picture from graduation sat on the small window sill above the narrow kitchen counter, my makeshift family of four filling the hole my mother and her threatening coffee cup left empty.
We were tight on money, as most young couples in LA are. I’d found work interning at a small private investigation company, and Emily was job-to-job on any set that would take her, but we were still scrimping. It was the type of situation – jerry-rigged clotheslines, poster corners peeling off the walls – that we’d look back on in twenty years and think of as romantic: how little privacy, how much love. But I knew this kind of living couldn’t last long. Emily worked hard, but her industry was tough: it could take her years of entry level work to make real money. I knew she wouldn’t want to wait that long to have a bigger place, nicer things – a wedding, a child. My company had possibilities for promotion, but if I wanted to make enough for two, I’d need something else. I know I shouldn’t have, but in the back of my mind, like the shameful story itself, I kept the thought of the jewelry. In case.
Sally came to visit us at the beginning of June. Her school year was over and she had a week before she started a summer job at a company in downtown Syracuse – something with facts and figures in the non-profit world.
When she first saw our apartment she said, “Isn’t this spacious.” She looked at me sarcastically. “And more expensive than, I don’t know, Syracuse.”
“The things we do for love,” I teased.
We took her to our favorite places that week – the taco stand down the street and the free outdoor movie night in Echo Park. She went to work with Emily several times, joining in the mob of people on the set of a cheap daytime TV show. They came home recounting all the stories Sally told to get behind the ropes – that she was shadowing with a film class and professor was right over there or that she was bringing lunch for that cameraman, no that one, see? Sometimes Josie played the role of a fake higher-up over the phone, hamming it up to a security guard confronting Sally. They’d recount the stories to each other over dinner, laughing harder each time – “Josie in that accent to Bilman in the PCR!” – their two-person language ringing around our apartment, the sound of a real family.
Sally couldn’t come to my workplace – it wasn’t like she could watch as I filed cases of insurance fraud or helped track down a new client’s suspected-of-cheating husband. Only once did my job come up and when it did, Sally shut it down quickly. “You certainly know a lot about these strangers,” she’d said, the implication of my filial abandonment clear.
But it was fine with me – honestly, I thought it was better that way. Sally and Emily needed a chance to get to know each other. They’d met before, but only on occasions with crowds – a college football game or Sally’s high school graduation. During Sally’s graduation party, Emily had spilled ketchup on her shirt and Sally had taken her to her room to borrow a clean one. I remember watching them walk down the hall to Sally’s room from the kitchen, hoping they’d take their time coming back, get to know each other a bit: I wanted Sally on our side of the photograph. And now, that was happening.
One night, we sat on the unfinished roof of our building drinking cheap wine from plastic cups we’d gotten free from college events. Emily told a story about Josie and a stranger who had parked his car in their driveway. Her family had just celebrated Emily’s tenth birthday with a Luau themed party, and Josie, frugal Bostonian that she was, had saved the fake grass skirts, the flower leis, the crepe paper pineapple streamers. When she saw the foreign car in their drive, she’d run fuming into her storage room, pulled out the decoration boxes, and, screaming obscenities for the neighborhood to hear, attacked the car with Hawaiian décor. She knotted the wipers with deflated flamingo bodies, threw handfuls of powdered fruit punch across the windshield, stuffed pink and yellow leis in the tailpipe. Covered the roof of the car with the skirts of sheer plastic green grass.
When the driver came back, she was standing beside her masterpiece, smoking.
Emily doubled over recounting it, her dark brown hair hiding her face. “So she looks at the guy and she says, ‘We didn’t expect you at the party, but we got you some favors anyway.’ And he can’t speak he’s so stunned! He just gets in and drives his little party car down the street.”
Sally laughed, her crisscrossed legs bouncing with joy, like a child playing butterfly at circle time. “Josie is amazing,” she said, and then added, looking knowingly at Emily: “Moms – their own little worlds.”
“Tell me about it,” Emily said, taking a sip from a Spring Fling 2006 cup. “That’ll be us one day.”
“We’re well on our way,” Sally said and clinked her cup in response.
Sally and I talked about Mom only once during that week she was visiting. It wasn’t that the topic was off-limits, but I was nervous that if I brought it up, we’d only revisit the same unproductive tension about my leaving home. One day, Emily had a pre-dawn call, so Sally and I had breakfast, the two of us, she on the futon, legs fidgeting, me at the sink, pouring mugs of coffee.
“Does Emily know about mom?” Sally asked. Sally wore a faded Syracuse Orangemen t-shirt and had her legs tucked under a fleece Red Sox blanket Josie had given us when we left – her form of a blessing. I found this perfectly right – an element from each of my lives merged into one story.
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
“Like – everything?” she said.
I took a sip from a mug and looked at her. “Everything,” I said. I shrugged to show her there was nothing loaded in this – what was mine was Emily’s. We didn’t have secrets.
Sally face was focused, pondering. I could see the 2nd grader, her neat scratch paper, her accurate bubble-filling.
She adjusted herself on the futon, took a careful breath and said, “Do you ever wonder if you know everything about Emily?”
She had stilled under the blanket. If there’s one thing you learn in investigative work, it’s to study body language: Sally’s stillness was a clue. Sally was never still.
I waited for a moment, then I said, “No. Why would you say that?” My voice was calm but purposeful. I thought of my father at the kitchen table, his newspaper, his proverbial notecards.
Sally’s stillness broke. She wove her fingers through her hair as she looked over our apartment: the alarm clock on the floor, the laundry bag hung over the closed door of Emily’s closet. She reached for her phone and spun it in circles against the surface of the futon. Her voice came out nervously.
“Well you know what mom would say,” she said. “Every woman has a soft self inside.” She smiled nostalgically, as if we were sharing a happy memory together. The mug felt suddenly familiar in my hands. “Emily. . . ” Sally trailed off like our mother, eyes floating around the apartment, and, as I set the mug down on the counter so I wouldn’t drop it in shock, I realized the scene of our adolescence was replaying. The soft self, the kitchen counter. Except one character had changed.
“Emily isn’t Saadia,” I said, and at the same time, Sally finished her thought: “She’s no different,” she said.
We looked at each other for a moment. Then Sally cleared her throat. One of her legs began to jiggle.
I reached for the mug again, my hand still shaking. “Emily,” I repeated. “Isn’t Saadia.” I was still trying to grasp what my sister was saying. Did she know something about Emily that I didn’t? Sure, they’d spent time together this week, but Emily had been mine for years. Emily wasn’t Saadia, wasn’t some fearful woman with a secret inner self: that’s what I’d always loved about her. Besides, we shared 300 square-feet of space – there wasn’t any room for secrets. She and Sally might have begun to make their “own little world,” but it couldn’t be anything like the world Emily and I had.
And then the clues hit me: Sally was looking at her phone, away from me. She was nervous: she was bluffing. There was nothing I didn’t know about Emily, but I did know that Sally resented my apartment, my job, my leaving her and our mother at home. She didn’t know any secrets, but she wanted me to believe they existed. To doubt Emily. To drive a wedge and get me back home.
I took a calm breath in and out. “Sally,” I said, and when I spoke it was my father’s voice. “I know you’ve always been against my moving here. I know you want me to be home with you and mom and dad. But it’s not fair for you to make things up to get what you want.” I looked at her square, feeling his necktie encircle me, challenging Sally to question, to find a hole.
When she looked up at me, she was smiling. Her old entertained self. Her battle attempted and lost, she could be my little sister again. She laughed. “Okay, Charlie,” she said. Her leg shook.
I’d learned in the waiting room of my mother’s office how to listen. How to get the deeper story from the surface-level clues, how to see behavior as information rather that grounds for judgment. I used these skills in my work every day, and, now I used them on my sister.
I had no grudge against Sally. I understood that she was lonely at home, that she was tired from years of managing our mother’s sickness. In all that time, she hadn’t had a significant other, a partner, even many friends. She wasn’t malicious – she just wanted her older brother to come home.
Even so, I felt strange after she left. Emily talked on and on about how much fun they’d had, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what Sally had done behind her back, how my sister had besmirched her new friend, wielded her like a shiny new weapon in a years-long family fight.
“I’m glad you two became so close,” I said after Emily played a new song over our little speaker, telling me that Sally had shown her the artist.
I was working on a case at the time – a new one that had our whole office, a small firm with little reputation, involved. Some Hollywood CEO claimed he’d been conned by a mail-order bride company, that he’d sent money overseas and the woman who arrived wasn’t what he’d ordered – she neither resembled the pictures nor behaved as he expected. He’d hired investigators to try to prove that she’d scammed him, and chosen our firm specifically because the whole thing – ordering a wife, getting what he called a “dud” in return – wasn’t a good look for him, and he didn’t want anyone to catch wind that one of the big firms was working for him.
I found the whole thing fascinating – the twisted concept of marriage that some people have, the idea that you can buy a relationship – and I was surprised and honored when my boss asked me to take shifts tailing the CEO. Our best people were on the wife, but we were suspicious of this guy – the fact that he’d come to our company was red flag enough. And I have to say, I had that feeling too: the feeling that he was the culprit. That he realized he’d made a mistake in his marriage and wanted us to fall for his story and get him his money back.
I thought the case would be a good entry – a way to reset between Sally and me what hadn’t been the sweetest parting.
I called her from my car as I sat outside the CEO’s office. It was noon and the street was mostly quiet. There were palm trees and sunshine and it smelled alternately of flowers and germy air. Women walked past in shiny high heels with matching purses and I thought of Emily’s closet at home: muted colors, worn jeans. I was overwhelmed with gratitude daily for everything she was.
“Hi, Charlie,” Sally said when she picked up. She sounded normal. “How are you?” Something clattered in the background and I heard our mother’s voice. “Hang on.”
It was a Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon, and Sally was home.
“You’re not working?” I asked when she came back on the phone. I hadn’t thought before I spoke and my voice came out sharply, accusing – what was she doing there?
“Yeah, I just took today off,” she said. She seemed not to have heard any kind of tone in my voice and instead lowered hers. “Dad said she wasn’t doing well and wants her on some new medication,” she said, and I could hear her eye roll. “So I guess I’m taking her to another appointment.” She said appointment like I knew what she meant.
“Okay. Well. Keep me posted,” I said. I didn’t understand what Sally thought her role was. Our mother needed a doctor, not a soon-to-be-unemployed daughter. Maybe I’d missed the last years, but I was there when it all started: I knew enough. “And listen to Dad.”
“Okay, Charlie,” she said flatly. She turned to say something to mom in the background again. If there hadn’t been tension when she picked up, there was now. I took a breath as she dealt with whatever our mother was doing. Muffled voices, the swishing of a blanket or towel. Sally’s laughter, sweet and clear. I didn’t want to be mad at my sister. I resolved not to push it any further: I’d go back to my original plan.
When she came back on the phone, I told her the work story. The CEO, the mysterious wife. No names, no specific facts, just the broad strokes. That I had a hunch it was him.
“Wow,” Sally said, her voice easy again. “Sounds familiar.” She laughed.
For a moment, I thought she was making another dig at Emily and me. “It does?” I said, ready to stay measured this time.
But my sister surprised me. “Reminds you of Bart, doesn’t it,” she said.
The image of the jeweler came back to me: the little grey cap, the waiting room of the office. Something shining from his hand. It occurred to me that, though I’d never seen him in that waiting room, I could picture him there clear as memory. “I never thought of it like that.”
“Like what?” Sally laughed as if I’d meant to be funny.
“I guess I – ” I started to say.
“Charlie,” she said teasingly scolding, then paused, waiting for me to take it back, to say that I’d known whatever it was. “Saadia was a mail-order bride,” she said gently, as if breaking bad news to a child. “Bart wasn’t ‘happy’ with her. That’s why she was so sad. That’s why she went to mom.”
Someone came out of the office building then. I sat up in the driver’s seat to see and realized as I shifted in my shirt that I’d been sweating.
“Of course,” Sally said, her logical self again, “he barely knew her at all.”
People were pouring out of the office now. It must have been lunch time, or else I hadn’t noticed them before.
It seemed now that I may not have noticed anything at all.
“I’ve gotta go, Sal,” I said. “My guy is coming.”
“Good luck!” she said. “And tell Emily I say hi and hope she’s doing well with everything, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. I was now in a full sweat. The sidewalk seemed suddenly to overflow with blurry faces. The CEO must have come out, and I must have missed him, even though I’d been watching the whole time. Where could he have gone?
And what was ‘everything’?
“Love you,” Sally said.
“You too,” I said.
I drove around the block, trying to spot him among the faces I’d missed. Nowhere. He could have left the office hours ago, I realized, and I wouldn’t have known. I pulled over again and took out my phone to call Sally. Maybe she knew where he was, if she knew so much. If she knew everything.
But I couldn’t call. I couldn’t admit to her that she might be right – that she might know something I didn’t.
Instead, after a few minutes, I pulled away from the curb. Emily was working on a shoot at a studio nearby, and I thought maybe I’d bring her lunch and surprise her. But as I drove in her direction, I realized I wasn’t stopping for lunch. I wasn’t looking around for cafes or taco trucks. I was just going to her office, pulling in the parking lot, and circling to find her car. Wondering what she was doing inside. Wondering if she was there at all.
“She’s wearing it,” Sally said over the phone a week later. “She’s taken it all out of her closet and is wearing it all at once.”
She was laughing, that tone of amusement that her voice, I was beginning to notice, often had. Had she always been so entertained by the world? So unconcerned?
“What?” I said. I was in my car again, outside a restaurant this time. It was a fancy Italian place with a patio shaded by an ivy-covered trellis. The patrons had shiny hair and sat in groups of two and three, and above them little white lights dripped from sprawls of ivy like tiny stars. It was lunchtime. Garlic and tomato wafted through my cracked window.
“The jewelry,” Sally said emphatically.
“What?” I said again.
“She’s having so much fun, you should see her. She’s taken it all out of the safe and is dancing around in it.” There was music in the background, something with a xylophone and a low smooth voice. “Yeah, mom!” Sally said. I could picture them in the backyard, boom box on its back in the grass, oak leaves on wire woven in their hair, and jewelry, hundreds of dollars of jewelry, flung onto paint palettes, lost in a leaf pile.
“Sally, are you serious? That stuff is – valuable.” I had stopped myself from saying what I meant – ours. That stuff is ours. In the past months, the jewelry had been on my mind more and more. Emily was working so hard and making so little. In the mornings, she left for work without saying anything, too tired to talk. At night, she stress-cleaned, organizing and re-organizing kitchen cabinets, bathroom shelves, her closet, shifting our tiny table six inches to the right, six inches back to the left. She called Josie frequently, saying hello in a sweetly quiet voice, stepping outside to talk. I could tell she was tired of our tiny space, tired of entry-level work, and I needed to relieve her stress, to make her happy. I needed to provide. “Where’s Dad?” I said.
“She’s so happy!” Sally laughed again, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Was this her way of trying to get me home again? Was this carelessness with valuable things another manipulation? She cheered for our mom again. “So, how’s the case?”
“Is the medicine not working?” I said. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind – my mother, tangled in leaves, dancing with her eyes closed, dropping a pendant necklace, my future with Emily, stepping on it. Our in case crushed.
In the background our mother said, “Who is that?”
“It’s Charlie, Mom,” Sally said. “I told him you’re dancing.”
“What does Charlie know about dancing!” Her voice had drifted away, back across the yard. I wondered which pieces she was wearing. Maybe it wasn’t all of them. Maybe only the cheap ones.
“Sally,” I said, “the medicine. It’s not working?”
“What?” Sally said. She’d called to our mother again, drowning out my words. Then she said, “I wish you guys could see her. She was playing Witch Hat earlier. Emily would love this.”
The music got louder then and Sally seemed to forget about me. I thought again about the circumstances of her calling – the type of situation she’d wanted me to see, the reality of our mother’s illness laid out, again attempting to pull me home. But then, the joy in her voice. She sounded like Mom describing the jewels at the kitchen counter: overtaken by her own dreaminess.
“I’m sure she would,” I said. Sally didn’t need to know that I had no handle on what Emily would love anymore. “I’m sure she would.”
I looked out my car window. A waiter in a crisp white button-down walked across the restaurant’s patio, four bowls of pasta cradled in his arms. He presented them to a table of bright-blonde girls.
Sally laughed again, and I scanned the patio. Blonde, old, male.
Emily must have been seated inside.
I shouldn’t have kept following her but I did. To studios where she worked and to lunch and dinner breaks. She went to restaurants for most meals, I learned, and I wondered what she ate and how she paid. If she stuck to small appetizers to save money, if she was hungry after the meal. I snuck protein bars into her purse in the mornings and found them there still wrapped the next day. In early July, I followed her to the beach on a Friday afternoon. She was meant to work all night, which wasn’t unusual. The project, she’d said, was big and exciting – it might be her ‘break,’ she said, and I wondered, because I had started to wonder at everything about her, if people in the real movie business actually said that – if they actually referred to their ‘break.’ Or if, perhaps, her work, her industry, were all a lie. When she talked to Sally, did she call it that? When she talked to Sally, did she talk about her job at all? About me? About mom?
That Friday, she sat at the beach in her car, alone. She never got out and she only rolled the windows down a crack. The waves crashed rhythmically, a white noise machine, unbroken, unclicking. If she was waiting for someone, I didn’t know. If she came because she liked to see the ocean, to watch the waves through her windshield, I didn’t know.
Once I’d seen the jeweler at the grocery store in our town. He was guiding a six-pack down the conveyor belt, unsmiling. The grey cap was pushed up his head and a red line from its elastic bisected his forehead. I could picture my mother’s hand miming on her own head – “his little grey cap.” I was leaving the store when I saw him, and when I got out to the parking lot, I saw Saadia, sitting alone in a turned-off car, waiting.
At home, Emily was stressed. In between organizing and re-organizing, she consumed herself in emails and job postings, cross-legged and bent-backed on our bed. She’d sigh heavily as she lifted her clothes off the rack yet again, then laugh at herself, shrugging off her anxious behavior as she began to rearrange her clothes by color instead of occasion. She called Josie often, checking in, clearly homesick. I tried to suggest plans outside of the house – tacos or movies or a cheap bottle of wine – tried to remind her that everything we were doing, even the hard parts, were part of the “great adventure” she had envisioned. She’d smile and nod and go back to her clothes, worrying over them as if tasked with packing for a month-long vacation. I didn’t ask her if going to the beach would help her unwind, didn’t say we could even stay in our cars and just watch. I ran out of things to say at all. I longed for my father’s notecards, for his advice. But I didn’t know how to ask him for help, didn’t want to show him the holes that had formed in my plans.
On the phone one night, Sally said our mother had started writing postcards. I didn’t ask about the jewelry: I didn’t want to sound worried. I was at the tiny table, the phone on speaker while I chopped an onion.
Emily sat on our bed, bent over her screen. “Oh, write me one!” she said into the phone.
“Of course,” Sally said. “You’re on the list. We’re collaging them so we’ll put some movie stars on yours.”
“You know me well,” Emily said. “Josie too?”
“Yes, of course,” Sally said, her voice softer. “Baseball for her.”
Emily sighed. “Thanks,” she said.
I looked up to meet Emily’s eyes. I wanted to say since when are you all on postcard terms? I wanted to say how can I make you stop sighing? But she didn’t look back. Instead I asked Sally, “Who else is she writing?”
“Oh, you know, all the gals. Here, she can tell you.”
And then the phone was on speaker and my mother’s voice came through. It was wiry and high, taut with joy, and I realized how long it had been since I’d heard it. Months. Many of them.
“Hi, Ma,” I said. “How are you? You’re making postcards?”
“Charlie!” she said, loudly, in a way that I could tell she was in motion, reaching for glue or a magazine and scissors. “We’re making postcards.”
My knife stilled. My mother on the phone – she sounded happy and young, like a child. “Who are you writing, Ma?” I asked.
“Sally and Emily and Josie,” she said. And then, she paused, and I could see her in my memory slumping down to the backyard grass. Her voice came small but lovingly. “Saadia.”
The conversation paused.
Then Sally said, “All the gals,” and clicked the phone off speaker and before I knew it the call was over.
I hadn’t gotten to ask. To say, Saadia? I hadn’t gotten a moment to realize before Sally hung up that, in her illness, my mother’s fixation on the jeweler and the jeweler’s wife must not only have persisted, but evidently deepened. It was one thing to repeat the story of a woman whose husband you’d slept with, but to write her a letter? To make her a collage? I wanted to say, Sally: the meds, the treatment – where? The onion stung. I told Emily I was going outside to clear my eyes.
I stepped onto the landing outside our door. The air was gummy, the stars distant. Inside, I heard Emily shift on the bed, heard her computer slam closed and her closet door open. I thought about the postcards. I thought about Emily and wondered what kind of adventure she thought we were on. I thought about the case – the man I’d been tailing, the one we’d thought had made up the story of his wife. We’d found instead that his actions were exactly as he’d described. He proceeded through his days normally – home to office to meeting to home – while his wife flitted across the city to places he’d never imagined, places far worse than the ones in the story in his head. While he carried on, oblivious, ignorant, she rewrote every script we had given her, changed every line, scene, and role, until the movie was her own.
Josie died in late September.
She’d been sick for years, since I’d known her, but I guess I never knew the gravity. When Emily told me Jimmy had called to tell her it was time to come say goodbye, I’d said, “Really?”
She’d looked back at me, curious but unsurprised.
I knew I’d messed up. I knew I’d missed the clues that Josie’s lung cancer wasn’t getting any better. I’d overlooked all of Emily’s calls home, all her sighing. I hadn’t asked. In my obsession with figuring out how to Emily happy, I had missed the evidence that told me the reality.
But I thought I could fix it. I thought I could promise her more, do better. I thought she’d want that too.
We went back East the day after Jimmy’s call. I told my boss I needed a week off, and Emily quit the job she was working on. On the plane, she was stiff, a thin sliver of limbs staring blankly out the window. There was a chill in the air in Boston and the leaves had begun to turn. Emily’s dark hair against the orange foliage made such a pretty picture I began to feel guilty I’d ever let her leave the East Coast.
Jimmy and Josie’s house was decorated. Inflated baseballs bats lay on the windowsill next to Josie’s bed and a string of pennants hung between the four-posters. Red Sox balloons grazed the ceiling.
“She wanted to make it through another World Series,” Jimmy said. “So I put out her old decorations.”
In her own home, in the role of caretaker, Emily became someone I didn’t know. She moved silently and swiftly from bedside to kitchen to grocery list to file folders. She completed tasks efficiently and without stopping, and I thought of the row of hangers in the closet, of her gazing through her windshield at the ocean, silent, alone. Seeing her here, in a home, with a family, with her father’s credit card, versus in our tiny studio with her unreliable paycheck, affirmed the decision I’d been weighing for the past months: Emily needed a real life, a real home, a real family.
I was going to propose. And then, I was going to provide.
I had planned to leave one night after Emily was sleeping, drive up to Syracuse, retrieve a ring and the rest of what we’d need to move to a bigger place from the jewelry safe, and be back before she woke up. But when I saw her so focused, so intent, I thought she didn’t need me now, she needed me after this. I didn’t ask her, then or ever, what she needed.
I just left.
I took the rental car up to Syracuse that night, letting Emily know via text that I’d be just a four-hour drive away if anything happened.
I hadn’t been home in eighteen months, since before graduation, when I’d come to say goodbye before we drove out to LA. Sally had come home for dinner that night so we could be together before I left, and I remember her eyes were circled darkly, her face pale, and our father had said proudly, “Your sister is working hard. It’s good for her.”
This time, I arrived while they were sleeping. A light glowed on the porch, but the house was dark. It smelled from the outside like a freshly baked bread loaf, wheaty and sweet, and there was a new car in the driveway – something my father must have bought recently.
The door was open, and I remember wondering, as I pushed it open, how my father could have forgotten to lock it, but I stopped wondering as soon as I stepped inside.
The house looked like an abandoned art class. The kitchen table blossomed with colored construction paper and magazines. A pair of scissors lay open on the floor beneath a chair, and glue sticks lolled in the center of the table like plastic kindling for a fake fire. Dishes sat in the sink, piled high above the counter, and the coffee pot was still full. But the mess was only part.
The old brown couch, where Sally used to sit, wriggling while our mother told about the jeweler, had been covered in a soft pastel green, the color of the chairs in the waiting room. The walls, lit by the moon, were painted with large, soothing palm fronds.
In the middle of the table sat a card covered with glossy-papered baseballs and jerseys. “We love you, Josie,” the back side said. “We are here in case. Love, Sally and Valeria.” The last line like a known, familial sign-off.
I don’t know how long I sat taking it in but at some point I walked down the hall to Sally’s room. I tapped lightly on the door and then opened it, and a figure sat up in bed. The lump of another body lay on the other side.
Sally stood and walked softly to the door. She was rubbing her eyes and pushing her hair out of her face.
“Charlie,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Whose car is that?” I said.
“What?” She blinked and wrapped her arms around her body. “What are you talking about?”
“Whose car is that in the driveway?”
“Mine,” she said.
Sally’s legs were jogging in place as if she were going to run away. Her face bent in discomfort. She looked up at me. “Charlie,” she said.
Over the next few days, I learned what had been going on in our house – the last eighteen months and the last twenty-three years. Sally had moved home a year ago, was taking classes online, had dropped out of Syracuse. School hadn’t been good for her, she said, and when Dad started to see the same things in her that he saw in Mom, he let her transfer. Dad was building a new branch of his company in Long Island, spending at first two nights a week there, now, more and more – a distance Sally said felt both right and unsurprising. She and Mom were happy: the only two members of their same old commune.
“And her medicine?” I said. We were sitting on the back porch the morning after my arrival. Sally had made coffee and was toasting Pop-Tarts. Our mother had hugged me that morning when she woke up and was now digging in the backyard at some rows of herbs.
Sally sighed. “Charlie,” she said. “Look around you.” I did: the leaves beginning to fall and pile under the old oak tree. The hem of our mother’s dress dusted with dirt and the refuse of a fall garden. Xylophonic music in the background since we’d woken up, like jovial white noise. “Mom was never on medication. I never took to her those doctors. She’s not crazy.” Sally watched as our mother knelt over a tomato plant. “She just needed. . . ” She gestured to the coffee cup she’d poured for our mother that sat on the table between us. “To hold her own coffee cup,” she said. “To have her soft self loved.” She looked up at me. “As we all do.”
I was beginning to understand who we were. The postcards, the texts. It was all of them. My mother dug the dirt at the base of the plant with care, precision. What had seemed like a lost mind now stood perfectly stable in front of me: all the inner lives I have never known – my mother’s, Sally’s, Saadia’s. Emily and Josie’s. All of the leaves and collages.
“I thought she was –” I started. The word demented seemed now too cruel to say allowed.
“I know,” Sally said.
If Sally was patient with my misjudgement of our mother’s wellness, she was hysterical at my judgement of her relationship with Bart.
“Bart?” she said, choking on the hilarity of the idea. It was the third night of my stay and I’d finally gotten the courage to ask. We were sitting at the kitchen table. The papers had been shoved to one side, and Sally nearly knocked them off gesticulating in shock at my question. “Are you serious? With ‘his little grey cap?’” Her hand perfectly imitated mom’s, and she lost herself in a fit of laugher. “What in the world would make you think she would be attracted to him? You and Dad – my God. A woman talks about a man and you guys,” she trailed off, covering her face in amused disappointment. Then she looked up in realization. “Mom loved Saadia! She would never do that to her!”
From the way she said it now, I could see the hilarity in it too. All those years thinking that story – our mother against the kitchen counter, her eyes flitting through the air, her arms winging with description – was more than it was. I could have been ashamed, indignant. But what I felt was a kind of relief. I’d been fighting some silent, uncertain battle for years – Dad and I versus Sally and Mom – and I didn’t need to fight it anymore. Dad had given it up, gone away. Sally and Mom didn’t need to be contested or controlled anymore.
And then Sally said: “We sent Saadia a package the other day.” She was scrolling through her phone. “Look,” she said, holding up a picture.
It was my mother, standing on a curb. My mother, whom I’d come to learn in the past days was a happy woman who hummed often and listened closely and spoke kindly and clearly. Her voice the same as it had been through the cracks in the noise machine. There she stood on a curb, a hand on her hip, a small smile on her face. I thought of her behind the camera at my graduation, her eyes adrift. Here, she looked straight at the camera. At her feet was a small cardboard box. Above her, the logo of a storefront that came back to me slowly. Ocean Life Hot Massage.
“The jewelry store isn’t there anymore, but we left a box in case Saadia ever goes back,” Sally said.
I felt my relief turn to sudden rage. “A box of jewelry?” I said.
“Yeah,” Sally said, happy, satisfied, as if telling me about a successful prank. “We’ve been giving it away.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. I was leaning toward her in anger, the table pressed into my chest. “That was mine. I needed that. We needed that.”
Sally looked up from the picture, unphased. “Charlie,” she said. “You don’t need anything. We sent it to people who actually might.”
I wanted to ask who. But I realized that I didn’t need to.
So I only said, “How much is left?”
And then, our mother came around the corner from the hallway. She was carrying a vase full of leaves. Her hair was long and loose like a veil down her back.
“The jewelry is gone,” she said.
“No,” I said. “No, it can’t be gone, it’s not gone, please – ”
But my mother interrupted. “Oh, Charlie,” she said. “You don’t know anything.”
I can still feel the curve of my mother’s coffee cup in my hand. Smooth and certain, the key to a story I’d built, written on my notecard, repeated and repeated. My mother heard what was behind the machine; I had gathered only the clues that presented themselves to me through the gaps in the noise. I had spent my life watching through the window of a parked car; she’d spent hers asking questions and listening to the answers.
When I returned to Los Angeles, I did so alone. I did so with new knowledge and the relief and heartache brought. Sally and my mother were right: I didn’t know them and I didn’t know Emily. If my ignorance about Josie’s sickness hadn’t been enough, my leaving Boston in the middle of the night without a word certainly was. Emily was done with me and should have been. When I returned to LA, I did so alone, and I did so to leave. I’d go back home, at long last. I’d understand what had really happened, who my mother and my sister really were. I’d ask.
Josie had died on my fourth day in Syracuse. I’d spoken to Emily and given her my condolences and my love – which was real, the love. Real, if just an outline. She was staying in Boston indefinitely, helping her father with arrangements, with Josie’s frugal Bostonian belongings.
And I suspect that somewhere among those belongings, somewhere in the back of one of Josie’s closets, behind the baseball and luau decorations, was a small cardboard box. I suspect that inside was a small selection of jewelry. A bracelet, a pair or two of earrings. I suspected there was a note that came with it, folded inside one of the velvet boxes, written on a piece of red construction paper or a pretty magazine cover. I suspected as much, and when I returned to LA, my suspicion was confirmed.
In our 300-square-foot studio apartment, I packed my things. My clothes from the bins, the picture of Sally and me from the windowsill. I left the picture from our graduation behind: it wasn’t mine anymore. And before I left, I took a look in the back of Emily’s closet. On a shelf behind all the hangers sat a small carboard box. It was collaged, glistening with cartoon film reels and cutout actors. Inside sat a shining diamond necklace, a thin gold bracelet, a large black and green amulet. And folded underneath the jewels was a small handwritten note: “To Emily. In case you lose everything.”
Isabelle Stillman is a Los Angeles-based writer, teacher, and musician. Her fiction has appeared in The Voices Project and The Dillydoun Review. She is the Prose Editor for december magazine and a high school English teacher. You can listen to her music on any streaming service and follow along with her work on Instagram at @isabellestillman.