My sister arrived at my front door with a casserole at seven o’clock this morning. She’d woken me up, though that wouldn’t have occurred to Elizabeth. Waving The San Francisco Chronicle in a free hand, she said: “You got wonderful reviews! Wonderful!”
A landscape painter, I’d had my first solo exhibition, opening at the Fitzgerald Gallery the day before. Although Elizabeth brought good news, I blocked the door, suspicious of her elation. “You’re using your chirpy voice.”
“I’m happy for you!” A Saturday, but she was dressed for work: navy suit with heels, lipstick, coppery hair curled and blow-dried; I wore a nubby pink bathrobe, my dark hair streaked with gray and disheveled. No one would guess we were sisters. “Now let me in.”
“Tell me the date first.”
She glanced at her cradled casserole. “Of course I know what day it is.”
Behind her, the cars swooshed past on California Street, morning fog smearing their movement to a washed-out gray. “It’s March 1st,” I said. “Since you can’t say it, I will.”
“Your show was a great success. Why can’t we enjoy that instead of…”
Her eyes moved away from mine. The traffic’s flow roared in my ears. Rarely was Elizabeth at a loss for words: she was a lawyer–a good one, promoted to partner already at thirty-eight.
“It’s cold out here.” I turned sideways for her to pass, and she took the lead, heels clicking down the hallway.
My two-bedroom was a garden flat. In the kitchen, sliding glass doors framed a tiny patio holding a Japanese red maple. As Elizabeth bustled, I gazed at the tree’s bare branches, black in the dim light, reaching toward sky as fragile and curious as a child. I must have painted the tree a hundred times. Elizabeth had commended my choice of apartment due to its location, size, updated kitchen, but I loved the tree best.
She set the casserole inside the oven. “Broccoli and cheese. Nothing in this dish has ever insulted a cow.” (She hated that I was vegetarian.) ”I’ve set it at two-fifty. Should be ready in an hour. Please. Eat. It. You’ve lost weight again.”
“Do you ever sleep?” The maple tree’s branches had already shifted into a dark purple–how quickly the light changed, how precious every second–my fingers twitched, longing to hold a paint brush. “I’m going to paint something for them today.”
Elizabeth drew close, words pressing against my back: “Zoe, please don’t. You had all the stress from the opening. Give it a few days.”
March 1st, 2002. I was fifteen-years-old; Elizabeth, eighteen. Our parents, driving south on 101; a car cut them off, their car flipped, and they died. Twenty years later, and still it amazes me that such a simple series of events led to the destruction of my childhood. Elizabeth and I referred to it as the Crash. Our lives, divided into Before the Crash and After the Crash.
“They died instantly,” said Aunt Catherine, who became our guardian. She made this assertion frequently, most likely wishing to reassure. I became nearly mute after the Crash–so different from my aunt and sister, who spoke more fiercely, more loudly, railing against civil injustices at dinner, near shouting matches. (Thank God they were always on the same side.) I’d play with my food, imagining myself by a stream, in a meadow, anywhere far away. Eventually, either Catherine or Elizabeth would notice my not eating, and both would subside, waves pulling back from shore.
“I want to paint something for them.” I said again, keeping my eyes out the window. “You don’t need to worry.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I’d freaked out when I tried to paint something last year: not sleeping for forty-eight hours, drinking cheap scotch, crying for seven days straight. A car, swerving, flipping, crashing. Ten seconds, maybe less. How could I express that in a landscape?
Elizabeth, digging into her thousand-dollar purse, was saying: “I brought you something.”
A photograph of our parents? Of our old house?
She extended a bottle of pills. “Here. A few of my Restoril. They’ll take the edge off.”
I ignored her offering. “You don’t get it. I want to feel something.”
She set the bottle on the kitchen counter. “Let me offer you a bit of context, Zoe. So you can see the big picture.” I resisted rolling my eyes. “First: the Crash happened twenty years ago, and second: last night you had your biggest professional success–something many artists never achieve. It’s time to celebrate, not–”
“–sink into the past. That’s what you always say.”
She reached for me, but I spun away. My heart banged inside my skin. We always disagreed. She wanted to forget, I wanted to remember. Elizabeth would never understand, but I longed for her to do so, as hopeless as it was.
A breeze whispered against the sliding glass door, and beyond, the maple tree waved slightly, now a deep, lovely red. I could paint ten seconds in a tree’s life–maybe that would have to be enough.
I said, “We don’t have any idea what it was like for them. At the end.” My eyes filled with tears, blurring my beloved tree. Then I realized that was the only way to paint it: muddled and unclear, a mix of color, bleeding into other colors, other shapes. Undefined.
Behind me, Elizabeth was silent: no reminders of what to eat or vitamins to take, no suggestions of movies to see or what museum to visit. She’d played parent to me since the Crash–much more than Aunt Catherine ever did–but how very lonely it must have been for her, how very exhausting.
Finally, she said, “Maybe you shouldn’t be alone today… with all this.”
When I turned, she was extending a tissue. Her eyes were dry. Wiping away my tears, I said, “I’m an artist, Liz. I spend my days alone with whatever it is.”
“Okay,” she said it like a question at first. Then, nodding: “Okay.”
Within a few minutes, she hugged me and stepped into the brightening day, saying, Call me if you need anything and I’ll check in tomorrow. My sister lived for words but I something she never said: goodbye.