On a mission to find a literary agent and hurting inside for someone to read my fiction, I’m starting a series called “Short Story Thursdays.” The first installment entitled, “The Sisters”, tells the story of Leigh and Claire…
Leigh watched the blurry form of her husband, Ted, over the rim of her plum colored glasses. Five months ago, he announced their family of five would be moving from Washington to Chicago to pursue his marketing career. The words “advance”, “considerable pay increase” and “smart move”, still stung Leigh’s heart as she watched this stranger in khakis and a golf shirt move boxes into the rented moving truck.
Staring at the steam rising off her coffee, Leigh sighed, feeling helpless and silently cursed herself for rolling over and not putting up a fight to stay on the West Coast. Ten years ago, she and Ted were 22, oozing with imagination and grounded in a mindset that nothing would stop them from following their dreams. Ted was an artist, with a tiny studio on the back porch of their one bedroom flat. Leigh was a student, scattered in her interests but willing to try anything from horseback riding to debate classes, and was in a constant state of discovering her likes and dislikes. Leigh enjoyed being busy and not standing in one place for too long. She was a little on the loud side, especially when she had too much to drink.
But in spite of a tendency to embarrass herself in public, Ted found Leigh to be insightful and appreciated her desire to be on the move. But the tables had turned. Leigh not only found stability and comfort in the tiny town of Puyallup, Washington, she created their family roots there. Their three children, Caroline, Eben and little Lola were born gazing at the mountains.
After 5 years of marriage, Leigh became pregnant with Eben and Ted changed. It was more than a year after she gave birth that Leigh noticed Ted had stopped drawing. Consumed with herself and their new baby, Leigh was racked with guilt as she realized she had been ignoring her husband. As Leigh changed diapers and swallowed anti-depressants, Ted went hunting for “real” jobs to provide financial stability for his family. Abandoning his art, Ted forced his soul into a workday casual corporate marketing position. Raise after raise, year after year, Ted was convinced their life was better without his interests.
And now here they stood, on opposite ends of the house, ignoring each other. A wounded Leigh thought it was too convenient that Ted was offered a position the second she had a moment to follow her dream. Since Eben had started school full-time, Leigh had worked nights and weekends to become a yoga instructor. Finally, she was good at something and her heart wanted to stay around long enough to make a career out of this lifestyle.
When Ted and Leigh had been arguing about money a few months ago, he reminded her that his money helped her get certified to teach. That one comment was enough for Leigh to tell him to go fuck himself and open up her own checking account. She worked hard to save her pay in the hopes of opening up her own studio and 2 weeks before Leigh was going to announce that she had found a space to call her own, Ted made the decision to move them to Chicago. Since Leigh had been so secretive about her plan, Ted dismissed her idea and informed her that she could teach yoga anywhere.
On top of being crushed, Leigh was moving back to the one place she had run away from 14 years ago. The suburbs of Chicago. Flat, boring and judgmental.
Scoffing, Leigh looked down at her full sleeve tattoos. “Yeah, I will blend in,” she thought.
Leigh stared at the ceiling in Eben’s new bedroom, sighing at the time consuming ritual of putting her 5-year-old to bed but happy they were no longer sleeping in hotel rooms. “Snuggling” really meant lying next to him for an hour while he hopped around the blankets. Leigh, eyes closed, figured out long ago if she faked sleeping, Eben would eventually get bored and just go to sleep. A few times when he was 2, she tried to hug him tightly until he gave up and passed out, but he just screamed and struggled and never got tired.
As the minutes passed, Leigh cracked an eye open to check the clock. 8:02 it read, in multicolored numbers. A smilie face and the time 6:00 written in red Sharpie marker on a post-it hung next to the clock, reminding her son to stay in bed until the numbers read, “six, zero, zero”.
Leigh could not bring herself to smile in the morning any more. She used to be a happy early riser, but year after year, her three kids sucked the rested state and upbeat attitude right out of her. Coffee was her only friend in the morning. That and a 700 calorie orange scone.
Resisting the urge to fall asleep herself, Leigh begrudgingly reviewed her nightly to-do list that she mentally made while reading “Goodnight Moon” to her infant daughter, Lola, an hour earlier. The last three days had flown by, as all five of them drove from Washington to Chicago together. Ted in the moving van and Leigh in their SUV with all 3 kids. Leigh turned over on her side to get a better look at Eben, who has now snuggled up next to her, his face buried in his tattered, once white blanket.
Reaching up the back of her sweaty neck, Leigh combed her fingers through her tangled hair. Stuck in the damp dark blonde knots, she tore her fingers through the snarls, not caring one bit that she removed a clump of split ends into her hand. Fluttering her fingertips over the side of the bunk bed, Leigh watched as the wad of hair drifted to the hardwood floor below.
“The floor needs to be washed,” Leigh reminded herself and mentally added “wash floor” to her list. Her thoughts drifted back to the hair that was now swirling around in the dust on the floor. Leigh tried to recall the last time she actually spent more than 10 minutes on her appearance. Her hair, always in need of a touch up, had been the same color for four years. Leigh used to change her look every few months before she had kids, a solid believer of constant reinvention and unpredictability that kept her life interesting amid the jobs the hated. She loved her children with all her heart but as her fingers moved around her almond shaped eye and she felt her deep crows feet, Leigh wondered when she would be able to take care of herself again.
Finally asleep, Eben was still next to her and lost in thought, Leigh descended from the top bunk and retreated to her bathroom. She dug out a tattered file folder from the bathroom cabinet where she kept old photos of her past hairstyles. Leigh seriously considered a makeover, especially since her two eyebrows were almost touching. The static hum of the baby monitor interrupted her moment of mental freedom. Quickly switching off the device before anything else could break her thoughts, Leigh climbed into the wobbly sink of the bathroom and arranged pictures on top of the toilet tank.
She stared at a picture of her 20-year-old body. Rested, tan and stretch mark-free, her youthful smile stared back at her. Leigh looked at her reflection in the mirror. Dark circles under her eyes reminded her of the last 3 nights of a mere few hours of sleep, each one of her children waking at different times. A lost pacifier here, a bad dream there, Leigh waking on her own account, sweating through three and four t-shirts a night as her hormonal body returned to its “normal” state after childbirth.
Leigh rummaged through her travel bag, found her bronze tweezers, and combed through her eyebrow with the metal tip. Staring at the hopelessness of her reflection, Leigh realized she would be better off getting her whole body waxed. Tossing the tweezers into the sink, she gave up and crawled into bed fully clothed, her bra still on. The to-do list could wait. She was tired and had been up since 4:00 that morning. Not bothering to say goodnight to Ted, Leigh closed her eyes.
The soft beep of the coffee maker sounded three times, waking Leigh. Blinking away the last surreal scene of a fading dream, she scowled at Ted, jealous he could not hear every waking noise during the night like the baby sneezing. As she rubbed the crusty boogers out of her eyes, all Leigh could think about is how quickly she could sneak downstairs and enjoy a few more moments of peace before everyone in the house woke for the day.
Her desperate need for private time in the daylight hours brought Leigh to her feet and across the bedroom. Still lingering in a half-asleep fog, she groped her way to the closet, and in the darkness, found her robe. She’d left the warmth of her body under the heavy quilt her mother had made for Leigh and Ted as a wedding present. Shivering, her cold skin welcomed the soft chenille fabric.
Leigh’s long slender fingers reached out for the light switch just beyond the closet in their new bedroom, and tripping over an open cardboard box, Leigh remembered they had moved. She needed just a few moments of solitude before the demands of the day started. The never-ending unpacking, the laundry washing, the scolding, the breastfeeding, the dog walking, the boo-boo kissing… Not to mention venturing out into the city she grew up in. It was barely six o’clock in the morning and Leigh was already looking forward to her evening glass of wine after the kids’ nightly bath and bedtime ritual.
That is all she longed for after five years of being on demand, her family using their mental remote control to change her movements according to their own personal needs. Blindly feeling down the dark hallway, Leigh’s hand crept like a fleshy spider down the wall to find an unfamiliar oak railing. A broken bracket in the middle of the rail made the long pole bow as Leigh applied her tired body weight to its less-than-sturdy structure. Leading herself down the creaking steps, Leigh’s knee popped loudly. Flinching, she paused mid-step at the sound of Lola stirring in her crib.
Cursing in her mind, Leigh realized she had mere moments before the tranquility of her day was over. Taking the steps two at a time, Leigh found the pitch black kitchen and was beckoned by the tiny beacon of red light from the coffee maker.
Steadying her over weight post-pregnant body on the white granite countertop, Leigh’s right hand was lead by the heat of the coffee carafe. Her left hand rose knowingly to the cabinet above where she had unpacked the dishes the night before, her fingertips discovering her favorite; the one with the chip on the rim. Finally, the glorious sound of liquid splashing into the waiting porcelain mug made Leigh smile.
Adding cream and sugar, Leigh’s cup overflowed and searching for a ready dish towel, she instead, found a baby blanket. Not interested in finding a more appropriate absorbent cloth for mopping, Leigh dropped the blanket into the pool of hot coffee and indulged in her first morning sip. Startled by the sudden sound of the upstairs toilet seat dropping, Leigh was alerted to the depressing fact that her moment of peace was coming to an end.
Without warning, the bright light of a kitchen pendant hit Leigh’s face like an interrogation light. Exposing the pathetic scene, Leigh accepted that she had reached an exhaustive low as Ted stared wide eyed at her, sucking the morning coffee blend out of the corner of a blue baby blanket, not wanting a single drop to go to waste.
Grinning, Leigh felt no shame in her actions. This moment of serenity meant so much more to her than a shallow jolt of caffeine. It woke her memory and reminded Leigh to appreciate the small amount of good humor she had left to laugh at herself amid the chaos of her day, which resuscitate the passionate voice that still lived on inside her.
Silently enjoying her fuel for the day, Leigh was sick of the pity party she was having. Vowing to make a change, she said goodbye to being pathetic and went to the pantry for an orange scone.
When in doubt, call your sister
Everything was reasonably unpacked. Leigh felt like they had been sprinting around for weeks trying to get the house together and now here they were, finally still. She missed their home in Washington, but as the days wore on Leigh started to like her little faux farm. The kids liked it too. They had new places to roam and explore.
Leigh turned the music on the television louder so she could hear it in the laundry room. The baby followed her, toddling and stumbling from side to side. She sorted the laundry, sprinkling it about the room as Lola danced to the music. Her chubby fingers pulled shoes out of cubbies and tore seed packets from a bucket Leigh intended on planting later that day. The house was quiet except for Leigh, the babbling baby and the sound of Sarah Barielles on Pandora. Ted had taken Eben and Claire to the grocery store to get supplies. Pulling Lola into her arms, Leigh started to dance. Really, really dance.
This burst of youth was starting to peek out of her little by little everyday since they got to Chicago. Now that Ted would be working more than full-time on his career, Leigh felt relief knowing she would be alone with the kids during the day. And even though she left her childhood home years ago with a bad taste in her mouth, she couldn’t help but look forward to seeing what had changed. The farm helped keep her sadness of home in Washington at bay.
The laundry sorted and in the machine, Leigh took a raspberrying Lola outside to get some fresh air. Both barefoot, Leigh held Lola’s hand as her tiny feet scuffled through the grass to the old barn behind the house. She knew Ted had mentioned using this space as a work bench of sorts for home improvement projects, but Leigh had something else in mind. Before they left Washington, she had sketched out a plan of a yoga studio for herself in the barn. After all, Ted said she could teach yoga anywhere…
Leigh scooped up Lola who had been following and drooling on an ant in the dirt. Returning to the laundry room, Leigh’s phone chimed with a new text message:
What kind of beautifying do you need? PS-Welcome home!
Leigh’s sweating had woken her at eleven o’clock last night and getting up to change her soaked shirt, she sent a text message to her younger sister, Claire, asking for her professional services. Claire was a stylist and could always work magic on Leigh’s hair. Another perk of moving back home was that she could finally have beautiful hair again thanks to her sister’s knack for wielding scissors and mixing chemicals. Claire had just purchased a building downtown Chicago to start her own salon, a dream of hers since they were kids. A natural entrepreneur, Leigh was always impressed with her sister’s stubborn drive to make her dreams happen.
They agreed to meet at Claire’s apartment flat the next day, which was conveniently located just above the salon. Thrilled at the idea of resuscitating her old habits of reinventing herself, Leigh looked forward to being spontaneous again. Lola clutched her diaper and whispered “poo poo” just as Eben and Caroline walked through the door. Ted, behind the kids with his arms full of grocery bags, looked at Leigh and said, “BBQ for lunch?”
“Sure,” said Leigh. She knew he was happy with their move and despite the fact that, in Leigh’s opinion, he had sold his soul to corporate devil, a part of her was glad he would be out of the house most of the week and that his travel time would increase.
Leigh drove into Chicago, which took about 45 minutes from their west suburban farm. Her sister was six years younger than she was and at a mere 26, was more focused and determined than Leigh would ever be. Claire refused to tell her the name of the salon and told her to meet her out front so they could walk over the threshold together.
“Call me when you get off the expressway,” Claire messaged her.
Squinting, Leigh could see the sign poking through a large tree but could not read the name of the shop. As she got closer, her eyes fell to the sight of Claire smiling and jumping up and down on the sidewalk. Leigh parked street side and emerged from the car, hugging her sister after 3 years of being apart. Claire pointed to the sign, which read “Cici’s Salon”. Leigh gasped and took Claire’s hand. Their grandma, favorite grandma to be exact, was named Cici.
“Come on in,” said Claire.
As the girls stepped through the front door, Claire explained the history of the building. An old French seamstress lived there in the 1930’s and started her own fashion line catering to the wealthy Chicago elite society.
“You know, Granny lived not too far from here,” added Leigh.
Claire nodded her head and went on with the tour. Leigh watched her sister full of life. Claire’s eyes lit up when she spoke of her new boutique and envying her freedom, Leigh hugged her sister hoping some of her youthful energy would pass through to her tired body.
“I missed you,” Leigh said to Claire, hugging her.
“Me too,” Claire replied.
As the sisters pulled apart, Leigh squeezed Claire’s arm. Flinching, Claire turned and waved Leigh to the back of the room.
“Did I hurt you?” Leigh asked, knowing there was no way her gentle touch could have harmed her sister.
“Oh, no. You tickled me,” said Claire laughing.
“Bullshit,” said Leigh. “You forget I am a mother, so I can tell when someone is lying. Come here.”
Leigh grabbed for Claire’s arm and wrestled her sleeve up her skinny bicep. Gasping, Leigh stared wide-eyed at the brown and yellowish bruised hand print on her sister’s pale skin.
“WHAT IS THAT?” Leigh demanded, almost as if she was speaking to her own child.
Read part 2 of “The Sisters” now.