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My sister has always insisted that in her past life she was an anarchist, and I agree. She despises order. When we went running, she always talked about the lawns: the fertilizer, the way the grass was cut very low and close to the ground. “Why?” she would ask me, breathing hard. “Why are so many things in the world square?”
She will visit soon, home from college in Chicago. She hates Chicago, too. Sometimes she will try to help me understand why she hates it: capitalism, consumerism, anger. I never understand.
I check my e-mail the day before she comes, and read a message that warns me she has cut her hair. I wonder how short. I don't remember what her hair looked like her last visit.
I do remember her cooking, hovering over the curry, adding spices and sniffing happily. Wisps of hair hung in her face. She swiped them away. With her other hand she kept stirring, counter-clockwise, coating the cauliflower with cumin. Her knuckles were white against the wooden spoon from some strong feeling I didn't recognize.
My mother and Sean and I are waiting for her now at an Amtrak station. It is three in the morning. Most of the people waiting are asleep, but I am not. I am the observer, crouching, huddling in my blanket as I watch a man sleep. He has a full beard, and something that looks like snot on his nose. The young girl across from him is bleached blonde. Long, smooth legs stretch out before her. She looks distracted, her eyes shifting from side to side.
My sister comes now; I see her as she enters.
She is here.
She looks tired. Her eyes are sleepy, glazed over, unaware. We hug.
“Welcome home, Leah.”
“Oh, Sean, what's with the shirt?”
“What do you mean?”
“I'm so glad you're home,” I say.
We talk about her school as we drive home. Somehow in this awkward dialogue, we love her. We don't know who she is, what she is. Not yet.
We arrive home. We cleaned the house before she came. It smells of bleach, of dusting spray. I am embarrassed. It is as if she is a guest. She is not returning home, she is visiting from her real home in Chicago.
We separate, going to our rooms in the darkness of early morning. I watch her, the way she walks. Up the stairs, pulling off her shoes. I see her bare toes, the muscles defined by each step. I follow her to the top, and she hugs me. I hug her back. She is home. I see the crack of light underneath her door, and I watch how it disappears as she turns off her light.
I imagine, as I lie in bed, the things we will do. Running, cooking, speaking, laughing. I imagine I'll be able, from these few weeks I will live with her, to discover who she is, who she has become.
And she is changed, I can sense it. But how? Is it the way she walks when she comes downstairs? The way she smiles when she sees we have made her breakfast? Is it the way she speaks, hesitant?
She smiles as my brother takes yet another pancake, and I wish that I knew how to say what I want to say. What do I want to say? I've already said all that I'm supposed to. Welcome home. We love you, we missed you. Good night, Leah, sweet dreams. Good morning, Leah, happy Saturday.
My mother certainly isn't at a loss for words. She speaks, talking of the weather, of her stories, of her friends, of Leah. She has gotten out of bed for the occasion. She has pneumonia or bronchitis, or bronchial pneumonia, I haven't kept up. She doesn't like getting out of bed, she likes lying there, fantasizing about writing. My mother hasn't written a word in five years, and probably isn't going to in the next five. Ever since Sean announced he is leaving for New York City to go to Juilliard, she hasn't gotten out of bed. At least not when we see her. When I come home from school the Raisin Bran box seems a little lighter, or the level of ice cream in the tub a bit lower, or the TV remote in a different place.
Sean takes another pancake, drizzles the maple syrup over it in the shape of a smiley face. Adds strawberries for ears. Blueberries for nostrils. Smashed raspberries for the hair.
Sometimes I hear him practicing his violin softly in his room, grunting and muttering when he makes mistakes. His hair is long, curly, dark, and afro-like, and he wears large '80s glasses and leg warmers. After breakfast he retreats into the room that nobody has tried to enter since he was my age.
Leah and I look at each other as our mother leaves, also retreating to her room, coughing and wheezing falsely. We don't need the show.
As we prepare to wash the dishes, I wait for her to say something. To say anything. I wash the first plate, lined with silver and a bit of maple syrup beginning to dry on the edges. Leah remarks on the unusual May cold spell.
Leah and I hear the sound of violin and fake coughing as we climb the stairs. We pass Sean's room; his violin grunts and squeaks, and he grunts in return.
Leah's room is white and full of dead roses. We sit on her bed, and I touch the tangled Slinky. Sunlight illuminates a single rose in the glass vase beside the window, and dust, floating in the air.
We talk. I tell her about my singing, and she nods and pretends she's listening. She tells me about her school in Chicago, and I look over her shoulder to the window, glad she is filling the silence.
There is silence during supper after the usual remarks. Thank you for making dinner, Leah. Delicious, Leah. My mother talks until she can't talk anymore. I watch Leah.
I mutter something about having to use the bathroom and escape as my mother starts to tell the same story. Her stories. She'll start one tonight. Her agent is mistreating her. She feels like no one takes her seriously.
Instead of walking to the bathroom I go up the stairs. They creak, but nobody notices because Sean is performing the explosive speech that follows my mother's writing talk. “Mom, I'm tired of hearing that,” he says. “I don't want to hear it anymore. Shut up.”
I wonder what it's like to tell the truth, to never lie. I wonder as I find myself in Leah's room. I don't turn the light on. I want to rifle around in the darkness.
I'm not looking for anything. I wander. I touch her dried roses, her silk dresses, the free paint sample taped on her wall. Her paintings of girls, of skeletons, of wings. I touch the diaries, open one; the page splits and dust scatters. I touch her handwriting, the things she wrote when she was my age.
I lie on her bed and close my eyes. I smell the Leah smell. I lie there, and almost fall asleep.
“Anna,” Leah shouts, “Anna, it's raining outside.”
I open my eyes. The bed and floor creak as I tiptoe out of her room. I run down the stairs. She greets me at the landing. We look outside, as if we are little girls again, peering over the couch and through the window as the lightning flashes in the distance. She looks at me, and we stare at each other. My heart is pounding, and I wonder if hers is too.
I'm going to do it, I decide. I run outside, the screen door clattering behind me as Leah follows. I run past the safety of the porch. Rain beats upon my skin.
Leah comes, too, shrieking with delight. We spin and we spin, around and around. Raindrops blur, everything blurs. I grab on to Leah's hands and my eyes close.
I don't know her, not yet.