Authors: Kristina Riggle
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life
The Life You’ve Imagined
To my parents, who always helped me “go confidently”
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.
(MIS)QUOTED FROM HENRY DAVID THOREAU’S
he taxicab exhaust curls up around me like a fist. I turn toward the departing cab and raise my hand, my mouth forming around the word
. Then my dad comes out of the house and I know that actually, yes, this is the right place.
He remains on the porch, crossing his arms and leaning in the doorframe. For a blink before that, I could have sworn he looked happy and was leaning forward expectantly. But now he’s propped up like he’s always standing there and I just happened to catch him.
The house . . . Paint the color of dried blood has begun to peel. One front window shutter is missing and the other is leaning sideways as if trying to escape. The porch sags like a slackened jump rope.
This house was never the Taj Mahal, no.
I stride across the scruffy, weedy lawn and skip a step going up the porch.
“Like what you’ve done with the place,” I tell him, not looking him in the eye as I pass, though I tense up without meaning to.
“You watch your smart mouth.” He cracks his knuckles.
The inside smells as if an old folks’ home were in a bar: old sweat, piss, and the unmistakable aroma of beer. A regiment of brown bottles lines the kitchen table, a few of them fallen.
“Your room’s the same place it’s always been.”
First door on the right, across from the bathroom, and there it is. A small square with one small window overlooking the neighbors’ car, up on blocks in the gravel driveway. It’s a different car, at least, from the one I remember seeing.
I can feel him standing behind me. I can almost hear the toothpick he’s chewing, something he does in the morning before he starts cracking open beers.
“You get here all right?” he asks, then coughs hard.
“No, I was in a terrible accident and couldn’t make it.”
He slams my bedroom door so hard the only thing hanging on the wall rattles down to the dirty beige carpet.
I pick up the brown wooden frame and blow the dust off the glass, which has gone foggy with some sticky filth of unknown origin. So I scrub the film off with the hem of my shirt, adjusting my glasses to get a proper look.
There’s me, with my hair in pigtails—I always hated to sit still so long to get those dumb braids—looking scrawnier than ever. This, I think, is my last picture without glasses. There’s Trent, too, giving the camera a thin smile. As I remember, my dad fought with him over what kind of smile he was going to give, and finally Trent produced this effort to keep the fight from getting worse. For Mom’s sake.
My mother, in the center, looks like me. Her face is a little fuller and she wouldn’t wear her glasses, so she’s got these wrinkles by her eyes from squinting all the time. Her smile is relaxed, and to me she looks relieved that we can finally get the picture and there will be no more arguing.
But maybe I’m just projecting back. Maybe we didn’t fight at that moment. It’s hard to remember because this picture is twenty years old and my mom is long dead.
I drop my bag on the bed, and the bedsprings squeak. I wish I’d been able to bring my queen-size, but it’s not as if I could have stashed it in the luggage area of the Greyhound bus.
I sit yoga-fashion in an old bowl-shaped chair in the corner, with a cushion so thinned by the years that the canes of the chair imprint themselves on my back. I hesitate for a moment before dialing, but I did promise.
“Hey, Steve. It’s me.”
He’s at home. I can tell from the pattern of traffic outside and the way it echoes off the wood floors.
“Hi. So you made it okay.”
What is it with men and stating the obvious? I bite down my sarcasm for Steve, though. “Yes. The ride was fine. I had a fascinating conversation with a pothead about the best ways to smoke in public without getting caught. He showed me a pipe that looks just like a cigarette.”
He doesn’t reply, and the silence is like a slap.
“Look, you told me to call.”
“I know. I’m glad you made it okay.”
Now it’s my turn to be silent, fingering the ends of my hair and pushing my glasses around on the bridge of my nose.
“I’ll make it right,” I offer.
I stand up suddenly, as if he can see me and it matters. “How do you know what I can’t do? I’ll be tutoring again in the fall and I’ll get a job here this summer.”
“And you can gamble some more and win it back? Sure.”
I can feel him holding his temper back, like yanking on the reins of a barely tamed horse. I’ve seen it in his face any number of times. “It was . . . It was a loan you were never supposed to know about. You were giving me very favorable terms. Big of you, actually.”
“Ha,” is the only thing he says. He lets his retort hang there and I know we’re both going back over it, his discovery and my admission and the sordid week that followed.
“So are you going to call me later, or what?” I ask him.
“I don’t think I’d better.”
Now I sink back down to the edge of the bowl chair. The position feels precarious, and I tense up to keep from falling. “So you don’t want me to call you, either?”
“I don’t know.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
“I’ve gotta go. I’ve got another call, Cami. Take care.”
I turn the phone over in my hand, again and again, until I look down and realize that’s exactly what I do with a hand of cards.
s my daughter steps across the threshold, dragging her wheeled suitcase behind her, the word that floats through my mind is
Maybe she senses it, too, and maybe that’s why she won’t let me hug her tight.
“Hi, honey,” I say. “I’m so glad to see you.” I bathe her in my smile, loving her from across the waxy countertop of this convenience store that’s been my business and home for nearly as long as I’ve been Anna’s mother.
If only I’d known back in her baby days, during all those long nights of feeding and burping and rocking, that my years hugging my daughter would be counted on one hand . . . Well, I wouldn’t have looked so forward to her sleeping through the night.
It’s disorienting, thinking of her baby days as she stands before me, with her penny-colored hair pulled up tight into a bun on the back of her head and a prim fashionable black suit. Her lawyer gear, she calls it.
Sally bursts in from the alleyway door, where she’d snuck off to have a smoke. The vapor follows her in and she shouts, “Well, isn’t this a regular Geneva convention!”
She doesn’t wait for permission and wraps her arms right around Anna, who allows it and waits until Sally isn’t looking to sigh and send me a look that says,
Geez, that same old joke.
Will she ever give it a rest?
No, of course she won’t. Why would Anna expect anything to change at the Nee Nance Store?
“Will you still make that joke if I get married, Aunt Sal?” Anna says when Sally finally releases her. She wheels her suitcase to the stairway behind the beer cooler, which leads to the upstairs apartment. “Because I won’t be a Geneva anymore, then.”
“Look, doll,” Sally retorts, her hand resting on her hip. “You’ll always be a Geneva. You can’t escape us!”
Sally’s black seventies-era-Cher wig is askew, giving her the effect of looking slightly sideways, and with that lopsided huge grin, she could be a maniac. Anna pats her on the shoulder indulgently and begins bumping the suitcase up the narrow stairs.
I could escape being a Geneva, technically. Sally, being my wayward husband’s sister, is biologically a Geneva, as is my Anna, of course. But me? I married into the name and with some paperwork could prune myself right off the family tree.
Carla lumbers in to the store and jars me back to reality by asking for some Virginia Slims. It’s not until that moment I realize I’ve been fingering my wedding ring, which is hanging from a chain and normally hangs inside my shirt, unseen.
Anna clomps back down in her heels, hurriedly, as if she has somewhere critical to be. She takes up the mop that I left leaning against the potato chip rack, where I was interrupted by her homecoming.
“Honey, you don’t have to do that. You’ll get mop water all over those nice shoes.”
She shrugs lightly. “I’ll be careful,” she says, and then of course mop water sloshes all over them. I know better than to say a word, though, and anyway, she’s had a rough time of it, I gather.
I wait until Carla leaves to broach the subject. In the old days, we talked about nearly anything in front of the customers. When you live upstairs from your place of business, the line between personal and private gets pretty fuzzy. It was easy to forget they had ears, especially since most of them discreetly pretended there was nothing unusual about a redheaded mother and daughter having a red-faced fight right in front of them.
But since she left town for college and then her Chicago job, she’s gotten awfully fussy about that kind of thing. All kinds of things.