Tara?a, Your name is on the receipt, “Served By,” but the fifth letter has rubbed off. I kept the receipt as a bookmark. The fifth letter is probably N. Tarana is a popular name in Hindu countries. It means Born During the Daytime. I brought 082 (Purple Nights) to your register. Wasn’t I interested in buy-one-get-two free-sale? You escorted me to the nail polish display even though a line of customers waited with travel-sized toiletries, fussy infants on hips. It’s fine, no problem, you said. Together we picked out 012 (Soul Session) and 054 (Trust Me). Important to treat the self, you said as you swiped the polish through the scanner.
Usually, when I buy anything nice for myself, I ask the salesclerk to wrap it, saying, It’s a gift for my sister. As you ran my credit card, what I was thinking was, see, people like having me around. I’m a good listener; I ask questions. I’m not a bother, not a disaster waiting to happen.
Who’s she couch crashing on this time?, my brother-in-law says. My sister’s house uses an open floor plan, sounds amplified in random corners, muffled in others. Without trying, I hear office gossip, household accounting. His brassy complaints. Thomas is originally British. Ella used to say he was “Big fish.” A boorish top-heavy man, it’s like he’s moving furniture when he’s only crossing a room. Back in college, he’d fetch Johanna at our off-campus apartment, whistling “Eleanor Rigby” in the corridor. I’m giving the girls a home pedicure on the summer porch.
Thomas continued, What a disaster waiting to happen. Johanna murmured. He continued, They’ll be changing nappies and trying to get a decent two hours sleep, and your sister will be perched on the sofa and wondering, Wouldn’t they like to see the local sites. Ella’s cheeks flushed as she stared into her library book. Cassandra can tune out other people’s feelings. As sisters go, Ella and Cassandra seldom squabble, which is unusual. Girls, I’ve said, you’ll always have each other.
I fixed a spot on Cassandra’s big toe with Happy4U. The protective plastic jacket of Ella’s book crackled. The wicker porch furniture creaked.
I’m a school teacher, fourth and fifth grade art. My summer travel plans included heading to California to visit my college roommate and her husband Pierre in San Francisco—they’d just had a baby. Marcus and his new wife were back from their honeymoon and live in Berkeley, a manageable train ride. I’d met Stephanie on a flight and kept her info on my plane ticket—a guestroom in Berkeley, if I could tolerate the dust from kitchen renovation.
Very pretty, Johanna turns Cassandra’s ankle to look. She’s brought a glass of wine and is wearing a bathrobe over black tights and only one pearl earring. Cassandra’s feet are clones of my sister’s, with narrow, high arches and long toes, how Botticelli drew feet. You can tell a lot about an artist by how the feet are painted, though the more lyrical painters don’t bother to include the feet. Honestly, no one has to make a fuss, I intercom. To communicate with my brother-in-law, I practically have to shout. I can sleep on the couch, I shout. I’m as easy as a houseplant. My sister twists the cap back onto the topcoat polish, Not everyone’s good with houseplants.
He’s a perfectionist, isn’t he, our Tommy? Aunt Polly glances over her tea mug at Geoffrey who shakes his newspaper. Thomas had campaigned against my Coventry visit. Aunt Polly’s sciatic nerve and Uncle Geoffrey’s hip replacement—Aunt Polly will insist that you take their bedroom and that they sleep on army cots in the parlor—Their last houseguest set them back health-wise for six months. We’re sitting in their backyard with its garden gnomes, concrete angels and fairies. The modern kitchen, designed by Thomas, was a glass barnacle on their brick row house. Geoffrey had driven me to see Shakespeare’s house and insisted on waiting in the hot car. Geoffrey’s face flushed. He had insisted I take the new lawn chair instead of the wobbly one. It’s as though Geoffrey’s a boy cartwheeling across a lawn during a birthday party. His feet rotate in the air as he goes over the back deck, a look of shock on his face. I’m alright! I’m alright, Polly!, he cries from the ground. After robotic adjustments, he stands and sets the lawn chair upright, his face flustered, but he seemed alright.
Is everything alright? I asked after a boarding call announcement. She covered the phone to tell Thomas his red tie was at the dry cleaner’s. The firm is dispatching him to Brussels. We had tickets to the Cyclones game. At the Boots pharmacy across the terminal lobby, you were accepting the credit card of a Scandinavian-looking man with a baby strapped to his chest. I’ll go purchase British nail polish for the girls. After a minute, How did your visit with Thomas’ aunt and uncle go?
Several months earlier, within sight of the shrine, my little sister tells me she conducted an experiment in listening. I nod. I watch the other person’s body language, Johanna explains. Nine times out of ten, the longer you listen, the more they glance at the buffet table or the elevator, eventually deciding best to end matters, nice meeting you, without asking a single question. Most people see it as a sign of weakness if someone listens, Johanna reaches for a patterned ankle sock under the coffee table. Usually, it’s like a hotel minibar. I return whichever book to its exact spot before Johanna enters the room. Johanna tidies the throw pillows, It’s good we have each other, at least. I glance at the framed picture of ourparents in their twenties and wallet-sized photos of their villages. It’s an arrangement like at a Chinese restaurant with an offering of uneaten fruit and the incense for silence.
Alexandria Peary serves as New Hampshire Poet Laureate and is the author of nine books, most recently, Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak. Her work has received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship and the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Southern Humanities Review, and in Rooted 2: Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. Her fiction was shortlisted for the Aesthetica 2024 Creative Writing Award. She specializes in mindful writing, the topic of her TEDx talk, "How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write."