Introduction by Emily Nemens
Leigh Newman is a queen of detail. Not motes-in-the-air kind of details (though I’m sure she could describe a dust cloud and make it sparkle like rubies and emeralds), but the assemblage-of-particularities-and-peculiarities sorts of details that jump off the page and burrow into your brain. The first we encounter in “Valley of the Moon” is on the city bus, the delightfully (and truly) named People Mover of Anchorage. The narrator’s erstwhile neighbor “smells of poop and woodsmoke and sticky raspberry brandy.” Not a great list of smells, I’ll admit, but evocative, both of the smeller and the smelled—and important for our purposes. When we learn the smeller, our viscerally self-aware and self-deprecating narrator, Becca, is an experienced drinker (riding the bus because of her revoked license, owing to a “wet and reckless” the previous year), who’s had to clean up quite a few messes made by herself and her mother, suddenly the more subtle corners of that description billow out from a one-liner into something with a second and third dimension.
That variety of slight and slanted character development, her elegant and unsettling world-building, shows up again and again across “Valley of the Moon.” The next scene opens in Anchorage’s version of a schmancy wine bar, which was in a former life a dentist’s office and still has that vibe; the entry hall is lined in rent-a-plants and the bar shares a bathroom (the key tethered by a piece of forget-me-not driftwood) with a podiatrist’s office. Not the most ambiance, but perhaps the most this corner of the world, known for many things but not its French bistros, can offer. Here two sisters—one with a do-not-serve on her ID, one with a hugely pregnant belly—order a bottle of very expensive wine from the world’s most (rightly) skeptical waitress. From there, decades of lived experience, resentment and disaster and love, pour out of Becca, the glass of red and dozen raw oysters (“hunks of dead lung on a shell,” for the record) and the waitress’s scar all acting a bit madeleine-ish.
It’s a creeping suspicion at first, that there’s some architecture and intention to these wild, wily details, the weave of present and past, but as time and the story march on, you come to realize that while Newman’s descriptions may be presented casually, often seeming to be off-handed oh-by-the-ways, they are the opposite of chockablock. You’ll have to get to the end of “Valley of the Moon” to understand why it’s absolutely elegant, and a bit heartbreaking, that the story starts on public transit and that these sisters reunite in a French-ish bar, but Newman’s route through strange smells and vivid memories and delicately rendered disaster is worth every turn.
– Emily Nemens
Author of The Cactus League
Exit Strategies for Alaskan Wine Bars
“Valley of the Moon” by Leigh Newman
My sister is in town and wants to meet. I pick Suite 100 for its wide selection of French varietals and its convenient location on the B55 People Mover. The People Mover pulls up late as usual. The seats are filled, the aisles blocked with crutches, broken sacks of clothing, and for the first time, a dog.
It’s a big dog, with a big craggy head resting like a boulder of teeth on the mat. How it got past the bus driver, I have no idea. The girl holding on to him is not blind but seems to have achieved a dazzling chemical distance from the rest of our fellow passengers. Despite her painful-looking dreads, she leans against the window, bewitched by the starless purple sky and the bright palaces of commerce that line Dimond Boulevard.
I sit down next to her, just to be closer to the dog. He is the mottled color of tortoiseshell. A strand of frothy drool dangles from his lower lip. The girl nods off and a few stops later, rests her head on my shoulder. She smells of poop and woodsmoke and sticky raspberry brandy. I breathe through my mouth and try to straighten up a little, to keep her head from lolling back and whiplashing her awake.
Her eyelids flutter. The whites are ragged with broken red.
Fred Meyer’s slides by. Then Alaskan Reindeer Sausage Factory. Las Margaritas with its thatched roof and neon FAJITAS! FAJITAS! sign. The girl smiles faintly through an opioid-flavored dream. The dog pants on my ankles. I sneak a pet on his head. A gust of diesel heat blows down the aisle. Then a silver gum wrapper.
October is a snowless month in Anchorage, but colder than anyone ever expects. People use the People Mover as a floating motel until service ends at nine p.m., which I did not know until I lost my license for a wet and reckless the previous summer. This was a lucky turn of events, Dad says, considering the current proclivity of local judiciaries to declare cases such as mine as DUIs with mandated jail time. A wet and reckless in 2014 is just not was it was back in the day, when guys used to cruise down Northern Lights Boulevard with a twelve-pack in their cab, tossing beers to promising young ladies at stoplights.
Most of the luck, however, was fabricated by his rabidly diligent lawyers. I don’t mind not having a car, not really. There is something almost cozy about being driven where you need to go, with no other responsibility except to hold up a girl’s head and push the button to get off. I would not mind staying here. It is almost tempting to. I’m a little afraid of my sister. At the old shut-down Borders I look in my purse, but there is no money—I’m not allowed money—only Mom’s Amex. I stick it in the girl’s pocket. Maybe she will find it and use it to buy herself dinner. And a bag of kibble.
Suite 100 is located in a boxy, low-rise complex next to a vision clinic and a podiatrist practice. The windows are tinted and the entrance is a hallway lined with rent-a-plants and a framed listing of professional tenants. I click past all this—pleased as always by the official sound of my heels on the tile—and pull open the door. Other than the missing treasure chest and the receptionist’s desk, the decor of the wine bar still looks like the dentist office it formerly was: a muted assortment of chairs and tables, inoffensive lighting. A few men wait at the bar peering into voluminous glasses of cabernet, as though an ancient Highlights crossword might surface from the depths.
On a hook by the hostess hangs a key attached to an awkward hunk of driftwood—presumably meant to keep you from misplacing it on the journey to the restroom. The hostess is missing and the tables mostly are empty, save for a few women with tasteful sunsets of eye shadow over each eye. They sit by the fireplace, bronzed in the clingy light. At least one is familiar to me: High school? Cotillion? Girl Scouts? Katie? Kirsten? Carleen? There is something familiar about her spray-on tan, her charm bracelet, her hesitant way of crossing her legs.
The most reassuring part of dropping out of the Anchorage elite is that you no longer have to remember who is who or the last time you forgot it. You can just smile and nod slightly, as if you are on your way to pick up your free bouquet of flowers on the other side of the room. This is my method, and tonight is easier than most. I am swaddled, head to heels, in creamy beige cashmere, stolen from my stepmother’s latest Neiman Marcus mail-order shipment.
Jamie waves me over. She has taken an expansive leather booth for six or more all for herself. She does this everywhere we meet, but this time she has a reason. She is pregnant, indisputably so, overflowing onto the table.
“Don’t get up,” I say and slide in next to her. She smells of cocoa butter and the faintest whiff of morning sickness. I can’t help it; I reach for her stomach. It is so warm, so firm. As if on command, a dense lump of baby heaves up under her skin, the size and shape of a tiny head. I follow it with my hand and meet my sister’s hand and when all three of us are stacked up like this—me, Jamie, baby—the whole world seems to go quiet, beautiful, glazed with the kind of understanding we used to have, back when we could look at each other and know, without a word or a peek into each other’s cupped fingers, that we had both chosen identical butterscotch candies from the bowl on the bank lady’s desk.
“You are amazing,” I say. “You’re going to be a mom.”
“I’m already a mom,” says Jamie, which is true but slightly painful. Her three-year-old daughter, Jude, lives with her and her wife, Flora, in Portland, Oregon. I have never met them or seen their blue bungalow covered in wild sea roses, except on Instagram. Jamie refuses to bring her family up to Anchorage and I can’t leave Mom by herself more than a few hours.
We let go hands, and Jamie begins to cry. Her tears are loose, silent, runny. They go on for a while. She doesn’t even rub them off with her napkin. According to my memory, which is not always the most reliable, Jamie doesn’t cry in front of other people. She also doesn’t eat pineapple, sleep on her stomach, or talk to Mom, except in the presence of Dad. And even then, she won’t look at her.
“I can come back,” says the waitress. She is older than us, with a faint white scar down her cheek that I like to think is from a tabby cat who did not mean to scratch her, but that is so clean, so precise on its edges it implies only a knife. My sister and I had a babysitter with a similar scar on her face. Her name was Fern. When I think of Fern, I think of Mom. When I think of Mom, I worry that she is trying to do something ambitious. Like trying to make popcorn on the stove instead of the microwave. We have an agreement about this, but it’s not as if I’m exactly stringent about rules.
“A bottle of Stag’s Leap. Nineteen ninety-seven,” says my sister, still crying. “The Cask 23.”
The waitress glances at her baby bump. “We have tests in the restroom. Free of charge.” This is the most recent idea of a local city councilman, who retrofitted the tampon machines in local bars to dispense two-minute pregnancy sticks. A record-setting number of babies are born in our state with fetal alcohol syndrome. Drunk women are supposed to go into a stall, pee, and if a plus sign pops up, stop drinking.
There are potent mysteries in this logic. Such as: what women do when panicked. I am not the genius in our family—Dad and Jamie vie for that—but I do have a terrible feeling that if you were to graph the number of Jäger shots against the number of positive pee sticks on the bathroom floor, you might end up with a data set of rapidly escalating birth defects.
“The wine is for her,” my sister says, pointing at me. “I’m not drinking.”
I look at her—again, confused. My sister never lets me drink, and besides, my license has a Do-Not-Serve line through it. One of the unavoidable downsides of a wet and reckless.
Over by the fireplace: laughter, more laughter. The waitress glances at the Sunsets, as I name the group with the eye shadow. The woman next to the woman whose name I can’t remember mouths silently to the waitress: crab cakes. Then holds up her empty glass. Merlot.
“Anything else?” says the waitress to my sister.
“Just the bottle.” She blows her nose. “And why the fuck not? A dozen oysters.”
A few things for the record that might explain how the night unfolds: The first one took place long ago, when our mother did not drink except at parties and left the house regularly for groceries and trips to stores and offices and other grown-up places. Even then, however, she pulled Jamie and I from school for “snuggle days,” during which we never changed out of nightgowns and read picture books in bed. The Velveteen Rabbit mostly. Or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
Mom was a loving, wonderful parent, even when she started disappearing in the afternoons. She hired a girl named Fern to babysit us. Fern was nineteen and soft in a plump, bewildered way as if she expected you to throw a can of soda at her. She had the scar, plus braces and limp, feathery hair that smelled of hot oil treatments—a ritual she completed each week with a magical little vial she heated in the microwave.
That summer, Fern also had a boyfriend named Buck, who worked at the strip mall carnival in the back lot of Fred Meyer’s. The strip mall carnival had been on our radar for most of our lives. Out it sprang each July—suddenly there on the asphalt like a little toothpick city against the mass of the mountains, each teetering, aging ride pierced with tatters of falling screams.
Of course, we were dying to go. Dying! Fern wouldn’t let us. We fought her and crushed her and hopped in the back of Buck’s eagle-hooded car for an afternoon of all-free rides and all-free games, the last of which was when Buck tried to take me into a Porta Potti and show me how to wipe his dick. I was seven. Jamie was thirteen. Jamie banged on the door, yelling she was going to puke on his boots, she was going to call the troopers. When he opened up, she grabbed my hand and ran with me to the popcorn cart, where we hid until we heard Fern calling for us.
“Guys?” she said in her helpless voice. “Come on, you guys. I’m going to tell your mom on you.”
She didn’t tell. We didn’t either. Instead Jamie made Fern make us sloppy joes every night for dinner and give us home perms in the guest bathroom. By the end of the summer, Buck was arrested for aggravated assault and rape. His victim was a sixty-five-year-old Native lady walking home from a picnic. Six months later, when Fern tried to steal Mom’s Mikimoto pearls to pay for Buck’s bail and bungled the effort, Mom fired her, then arranged a job for her as a receptionist at our father’s office. Then paid for computer classes so Dad wouldn’t fire her either.
“Imagine,” Mom told us. “Being so alone in this world.” She smiled as if a sad, old-fashioned song had just come on the radio and only she could hear it.
At the time, Dad may have applauded her efforts. No one in our family was ever denied the opportunity to self-improve. Like most people in Alaska, we had come from dirt and sorry circumstance, as he described it. Even our house was constantly being gutted and redone, with all new carpet or crown molding. He still lives there with our stepmother, though even I can hardly recognize it under the stonework and marble and acres of fastidiously painted white decking that, in the winter when Diamond Lake freezes, makes it look like a cruise ship doing a deep final dive into the Arctic sea.
A shiny flotsam of airplanes and speedboats and snow machines washes up by the dock, depending on the season. The old family Beaver changes from skis to floats and back to skis. It is an enormous plane painted the same electric green as the tractor Dad drove as a boy growing up on a dirt-floor farm in Minnesota. He bought it to fly Jamie and me out to the wilderness to fish and hunt and not turn into spoiled lake kids. To reinforce the message, he drew up homemade contracts we both had to sign: I will go to college, learn to fly, shoot a caribou, and vote in every election. Signed, Jamie (age eleven) and Becca (age six).
The order in which we were to accomplish all this was at our discretion.
Dad is an orthopedic surgeon, but only when he’s not starting corporations and shell companies in the Caribbean. He brought the first MRI to Anchorage and developed what many in the town call a medical monopoly, which includes various surgery robots and DNA centrifuges and other then-visionary diagnostic devices. He housed them in a for-profit clinic, where the majority of patients proceeded to pay their bills using an in-state subsidiary of a larger out-of-state HMO on whose board he silently serves. Some of this success was accomplished while he was sober—but not much.
Or so I’ve heard. I am too young to remember the details of parties that neighbors and various strangers bring up, still dumbfounded and nostalgic about the night in the backyard with Danny Bob: the time Danny Bob sculpted a king salmon out of ice using an electric turkey carving knife, the time he drew a drill bit for ACL reconstruction on a cocktail napkin that would go on to be patented and render all other models obsolete, the time he shot his compound bow off the roof of the house and hit a watermelon in a canoe floating in the middle of Diamond Lake.
Then there was the glacier bear, about which these people always say, “Did Danny Bob ever get that blue bear back?”
Mom has the bear, as of a week ago. Dad showed up at the door and gave it to her. She was so happy to see him and made a huge, sloppy fuss about my putting it in the living room, by the window. She asked him to stay for dinner, which at our house means take-out Siam Cuisine, a handful of Klonopin, and a vodka-blue berry smoothie. He was very kind about declining and very kind about the rotting piles of newspapers, which Mom stacks up and uses to cut out paper snowflakes. They are very worried-looking snowflakes. And there are a lot of them.
Dad picked one up and looked at me through intricate, shaky slits. Then said in a tender voice, which took me by surprise, “It wasn’t all shit and shenanigans, sweetheart. At the end of the day, we managed to end up with you.”
I stood there, letting all the little quiet bubbles of happiness fizz through me, but also wishing in a secret, terrible way that Jamie had been there to hear him say this.
I’m still not sure how memory works. Sometimes I can remember the silky rush of Mom’s dress as she walked by and the bright electric bits that sparkled off her, between the pantyhose and fabric. I can remember looking at Jamie to see if she had seen these magical fireworks and confirming by the bright brown gasp in her eyes that she had. I can remember sitting on Dad’s lap as he flew us in the Beaver, and his pointing to the sky ahead and telling me to pick a cloud, any cloud—and my believing, at this time, that they were his to give.
No one can ever understand the particulars of another person’s loneliness, but it still seems so confusing that it was Dad’s best friend that Mom fell for. Jamie says this happened the summer with Buck and the carnival, which explains why Mom was never around. She was across the lake at Will Bartlett’s “getting her rocks off,” as Jamie describes it.
According to Jamie—and Jamie is the only person who will tell me about what happened—everything came out at Dad’s annual Christmas-in-July party. I do not remember everyone leaving or Dad banging Mom’s head over and over against the edge of the mahogany credenza or Mom dragging herself and me and Jamie through the kitchen and down into the crawl space to hide. I do remember the smell, though. Most of the newish houses on Diamond Lake are built on stilts in case of flooding. Once you have spent a few hours squatting in dank salmon-smelling clay, your mother’s hand over your mouth to keep you quiet, you can’t walk across a living room—even one lined in glossy white Italian stone—without feeling at least somewhat disconcerted about what lurks underneath.
A few days later, Mom loaded up Dad’s cream-colored Coup DeVille and drove us down the unpaved Alcan to British Columbia. Two thousand two hundred miles of potholes and radio static and great lush Canadian trees rushed by, as Jamie and I lay in the backseat—bickering and a little afraid. Mom refused to wear sunglasses and walked right into whatever little roadside store we happened upon with her bashed-in eyes like two burned-out lightbulbs in the center of her face.
Mom is a delicate, overly patient woman who speaks as if she is reading a good-night book while asking you to take out the garbage or go see if a man is hiding in the bushes at the end of the drive, her voice rising up at the end of every sentence the way kindergarten teachers’ do when they’re about to turn the page. Not once has she ever yelled at us. But there was a flinty, fearsome resolve she displayed during those two long weeks that I have never forgotten and never seen since. She had a plan and the plan was not what we expected from a woman who had never been outside of Alaska, except for a honeymoon to Hawaii and the tiny factory town in Ohio where she had been raised.
The plan, she told us at the steering wheel, was Montreal. They spoke French there, she said. She had always wanted to learn French. It was the language of diplomacy. And art. And culture. Jamie, to my surprise, was all for it. She wanted to see a ballet. A real one with toe shoes. Like in the movies.
We spent six hours in the suburbs of Montreal, before Mom turned the Coup DeVille around and drove us straight back to Alaska. My sister was the one who walked into our house and found it stripped empty, save for Dad’s blue bear. Everything we had owned was gone and so were most of the walls and appliances. Upstairs, she found our soon-to-be stepmother—Fern—with some tile and wallpaper catalogues.
I was asleep in the car, but I can picture it from what Jamie later described in lavish detail. Fern’s disco shorts. Her bangle bracelets. Her plastic slip-on heels. She had dropped the weight and gotten highlights and now spoke in an airy tone, with which she still addressed me as a bunny. For example: “You poor bunny, sit down and let me get you a glass of Evian.”
Meanwhile, our mother was having a nervous breakdown in the driveway, from which she was never to fully recover. I say all of this only because this is where my memory fizzles out and I feel terrible for Jamie and need to recognize some of the hardships she endured. It was Jamie who drove Mom to the hospital and forced Dad to buy the crappy rancher next door for the three of us to live in after Mom was released. It was Jamie who made Dad sign a homemade contract that somehow held up in court, stipulating that he pay for a working vehicle for Mom, plus heat and electric, as well as any living expenses Mom might incur as long she provided itemized receipts.
Jamie was fifteen by then. Nobody knew it but me, but she still had the ballet tickets. She hid them in her jewelry box. Under the lining in the back of the top compartment. Les Grands Ballets. Orchestre. L33, M33, S36.
Even now, I wonder which one of us would have had to sit alone.
As it stands, Mom and I still live in that rancher. Jamie moved out a few weeks after we got settled and, without a word to either of us, moved in with Dad and Fern. For the next few years, she was either running around in a bikini with Fern across all that new white decking or racing down to the dock to jump in the Beaver with Dad and whatever captain of industry he was flying out to the wilderness to fish and cut another deal by the campfire. There were no parties. But sometimes Fern or Dad invited me over to dinner, where a chef named Ernesta made all the food—sushi hand rolls mostly. Afterward, Jamie took me upstairs to her room and told me all the old stories, over and over, plus new ones: how Fern had spent sixty thousand dollars on an opal necklace, how she drank pineapple juice to make her twat taste better, how she didn’t let Dad near any booze and he went along with it, because it turned out, “Dad was a total fucking pushover” when it came to women.
The whole time, Jamie was brushing her hair and throwing clothes at me to try on—sweaters and sequins and leg warmers. “You should move in,” she said. “We could share a room.”
I went home to Mom. Those were the years when we were reading all the James Herriot novels about his veterinary practice in the English countryside. Or playing Boggle. Mom only drank the little bottles of vodka then, and only three or four at sitting. She just didn’t like to leave the house very much. And it wasn’t that hard for me to buy what we needed or just sneak over and take it out of Dad and Fern’s cabinets.
Meanwhile, Jamie got her degree at MIT paid for and her pilot’s license. Then her PhD in biomedical engineering. She shot a bighorn sheep with Dad in Arizona and got her nose touched up with Fern in Argentina. On a random research trip to Portland, she fell in love with a kindergarten teacher named Flora. She stayed there and invented a smart-foam pad you insert in the bottoms of running shoes, which reduces your chance of knee injury by 40 percent. Despite the offers from Adidas and Nike, she produced the insert herself and it is now sold around the world, in every pharmacy and big box store on the planet. Ten percent of her profits, she donates to abused women shelters.
As soon as the oysters arrive, Jamie wipes her face, leans over and tells me that my snuggle days with Mom are over. I don’t know what she’s talking about exactly, but the oysters look like what oysters always look like—hunks of dead lung on a shell.
I look at the water glass, the little bubble of fabric where the tablecloth has bunched up. The wine is not here. Where is the wine? Jamie gives me a patronizing smile. “Miss,” she says to the waitress. “My sister needs her bottle. Right now.”
Off the waitress whisks, as people so often do around her, suddenly electrified with the desire to serve. “Have an oyster,” says Jamie. “They’re a delicacy.”
“I need to check on Mom,” I say but don’t leave.
“Look,” she says. “You’re in trouble. Do you understand that yet?”
The idea has occurred to me. I am not the best with email or voicemail or mail-mail or meter readers or people that come to the door and ring the bell.
“I’ve been telling you this day would come,” says Jamie. “Dad and Fern are overextended. He’s aging and made some risky moves that didn’t pan out. She’s spending the way she always has and won’t listen. Last year, I offered to take over Mom’s mortgage, plus both your expenses. But the more I thought about it . . .” Her voice slows, silkens. “I just feel that the situation isn’t healthy. Not for you. Or Mom.”
She stops. She looks at the oyster but doesn’t eat one. She loves oysters. For a minute, I think she’s trying to prove to me how disciplined she is—unlike my slovenly, wet and reckless self—then I remember that pregnant people can’t eat shellfish.
“And so,” she says, “I came to a decision. I will continue to pay for the house. I will get Mom a professional caretaker. Under the condition that you move out—and get a job. “
I eat an oyster. I eat another one. They taste like what oysters taste like: chilled death. I eat another. I wonder what Mom would do, but I know what she would do, make a vodka-blueberry smoothie and forget to put the top on the blender and tell me I’m her “magical baby girl” for cleaning the splatter off the ceiling.
Taking care of Mom, as much as I love her, is a lot of work.
Down in Portland, Jamie’s life is one long farmers’ market, with her and Flora and Jude running around in matching sneakers and licking Popsicles. They throw sticks for their golden retriever. They grow kale in their backyard. I see it all on the Instragram, when Flora posts the pictures.
What this makes me hope is that one day all this happiness will make Jamie happy. Last year, she tried to start proceedings to put Mom in some kind of facility. I didn’t know that a social worker could deem you unfit for wanting to stay in your own home, cut snowflakes, and drink vodka-blueberry smoothies, but as it turns out, if you are an agoraphobic alcoholic with a caretaker who occasionally takes your antianxiety meds and one night drives into a Papa John’s pizzeria, the state can mandate certain at-home visits. It has been six months since Mom and I finally got rid of Miss Caroline and her preprinted self-care checklists.
I look down at my hands. They are shaking. “Where is Flora?” I say. “Why didn’t Flora come?”
“She’s busy transitioning Jude into a toddler bed.”
I swallow the last of my oyster. The wine comes. The poor waitress doesn’t even know how to present it and improvises with a few flourishes and some clumsy drama involving a napkin. Due to the vintage, it has to breathe in a carafe for twenty minutes, during which I watch the dense velvety liquid behind the swoop of glass—along with the reflection of my stunned, stupefied face. “I thought Dad and you don’t talk anymore,” I finally say.
“We don’t. We negotiate.”
“I know how to negotiate,” I say.
“Great. I’m open. We’re at the table. What do you want?”
This takes me a minute. I want so many things. “A dog?” I say.
“Go get one,” says Jamie. “You’re not really the fuck-up in this situation. You’ll see. Once we get you away from Mom and her more-helpless-than-thou power trip.” On she goes: Mom is the problem. Mom let the world run over her and dragged me under with her. When was the last time I showered the shit off her when she messed herself? Last night? Tonight?
Though this last situation happens more regularly than I’d prefer, it’s not as if Mom does it on purpose. She always cries. She always tells me to just go ahead and leave her like Jamie did.
The only thing I know how to do when my sister is talking like this is to go into the little home movie I have in my mind of her cutting oranges on a beach. So much of my memories are gone but not this one: Jamie has a little knife. Dad is downriver fishing. Mom is lying on a blanket reading a book. Jamie takes the slice of orange and peels off all the white stringy yuck and feeds it to me—with the tips of her fingers. “You be the baby eagle,” she says. “And I’ll be the eagle.”
Even then, I thought, I want to be the eagle. But at the time, I thought the game was only going to last for the afternoon. And besides, she wanted to be the eagle so bad.
The Cab, of course, is not ready. I sit up all the same and pour myself a glass—that first sip glittering through me like melted ruby slippers. I take it with me when I leave the table. Jamie is still talking. I may be passive, as she says. And self-harming, as she says. And willfully loving to those who cannot love, as she says.
But I am not beyond self-defense.
Over at the bar, the men perk up—aware all too quickly that a woman in her late twenties is headed their way, clutching booze. They are useless to me, unrelated Jamie and what might upset her. I swerve over to the Sunsets. As I suspected, I do actually know them.
“Becca,” says the one I noticed when I entered. She smells like every scented candle in the world. The whole delicious gamut: toasted almond to Zanzibar.
“I meant to come over earlier.” I gesture vaguely, as if sweeping aside the pesky crumbs of time. We clink glasses. A name sizzles through me, as sometimes happens: Kirsten. Kristen. I mumble out some version of the two.
And her friends? Stacey, Michelle, and Dina. Which, like Mark, John, and Dave are really all the same name. All four are plastered on wine by the glass—a purchasing habit that incenses Jamie. Not just because it costs double, but because women have to stop lying to themselves about their desire to get drunk and just order a bottle.
“So you’re still in town,” says Kristen.
“Only when I’m tipsy,” I say.
“I heard that,” she says, in a kind voice. “Is there anything I can do?”
It is true that my arrest—but not the settlement with Papa John’s—made the papers. But something else lumps in the back of my mind, a crude and reptilian understanding that makes more sense as soon as Kristen looks over at Jamie.
Jamie looks down at the oysters. Because—of course as I must have known without really knowing—they were sweethearts way back when, hanging out upstairs on her white canopy bed in Dad’s all-white house, supposedly studying for a Mathtastic match.
Kristen raises her glass. Jamie nods and saunters over—as only she can do while eight months pregnant. “Are you hitting on my baby sister?” she says. Cool as mountain stream.
“I heard you were in town,” say Kristen. “Jerry and I wanted to have you over.” She looks at me. “We’d love to have to you too. I mean it’s silly, you and me living so close by and us not getting together.”
I nod, listen, weep internally for her as she continues: Jerry and her live across the lake from me and Mom. Jerry and her have two girls. Jerry and her have a chocolate Lab. Jerry loves double espressos with foam. Jerry is doing so well at Exxon. In public relations.
“Wow,” says Jamie. “Public relations.”
Luckily, one of the drunk, lonely guys at the bar comes over. “Hey, ladies,” he says, thickly. “Calamari?” He is holding a half-finished basket. I am so anxious for Kristen, for being so obviously still hung up on my sister, so anxious about whether or not my sister is about to do something cruel or kind or terrible to her. Or to me. Or worse, cheat on sweet, absent Flora back at home transitioning their toddler into a toddler bed, that I grab hold of a calamari and pop it in my mouth.
All five glossily highlighted female heads turn toward me—horrified. I have accepted something from Drunk and Lonely and because of that the odds are that Drunk and Lonely will now think that he and I are destined to leave the wine bar together. I try to spit the piece out. But it is too late. Drunk and Lonely has friends—a table full of them—they cheer him.
“Thatta a girl,” says Drunk and Lonely. He puts his arm around me. He gives me a nice big squeeze, heavy on the shoulder.
I look at my sister. She looks away.
“Excuse me,” says Stacey. “Not to be rude, but my husband is in the state legislature.”
“We’re all just getting along,” he says. “We’re eating some seafood.” He sniffs my glass. “We’re having a nice glass of old-vine Cab.”
Everybody knows—with all the fear and familiarity of women in a bar alone in Alaska—where this is going. Drunk and Lonely’s friends start moving over to our table so they can try to meet all of us and we can all just get along.
The waitress shows up to try and help. “Is everybody comfortable?” she says to our table, glancing at our neighbors. “How about a crème brûlée on the house? Five spoons?”
“One more bottle of whatever she’s drinking,” says the guy, and lets his finger brush across my nipple.
“Are you sure?” says the waitress. “It’s quite pricey.”
“I can cover it.”
“It’s two seventy-five.”
He smiles, recovers. “Why not?” he says. “Worth the investment.”
It is time to leave. And it is time not to make a scene. We all laugh. Then Michelle and Dina go off to pee and never come back. A few minutes pass, during which Stacey orders a round of shots and pretends to get a call on her cell——then she goes out in the hall to pick it up. We all toss back our shots, whereupon Kristen recognizes an old friend who is really a random busboy who walks her out. I eat another calamari. And another.
Jamie looks a little bewildered now that we are alone with the guy. And his table of friends. I am not exactly sure what to do about her. She needs to get up on her swollen feet and find some excuse to leave. Except that maybe she has been in Portland for a little too long and forgotten about the sexual assault situation in our hometown, which clocks in as the second highest in the nation—and not in a roofied and raped kind of way, a bash-the-girl-and-drag-her into-the-woods-behind-the-strip-mall kind of way.
“Please,” I say to her. “If you’re going to puke, don’t do it on my cashmere.”
“Oh,” she says. “Right! I’m morning sick.” And lumbers out of there.
“I think—” I say.
“If you’re going to run off,” says Drunk and Lonely. “Run off. You don’t have to be so mean about it.” His face is hurt, puzzled.
“I’m not mean,” I say. “Do you think I’m mean?”
“Yes,” he says—in a voice so thick with hate, you can feel the spit beneath it.
I get up.
He gets up.
“Hang on, buddy,” says the bartender. “Let’s settle up for that bottle before we rush out.”
We have about three minutes to make a plan. None of the Sunsets drove. As it turns out, Stacey’s husband really is a state legislator and drops the three of them off on Fridays and picks them up at midnight. Jamie took a taxi from the hotel; her rental car won’t be dropped off until tomorrow morning. “It’s not even nine o’clock,” says Michelle. “We should go back in and enjoy our evening.”
“We could go downtown,” says Kristen, looking at Jamie. “The Captain Cook is open.” The Captain Cook is a bar. And a hotel. With the obvious hotel rooms upstairs.
“Can’t somebody call us a taxi?” says Jamie.
I am feeling a little anxious. So are Stacey, Michelle, and Dina by the looks of how they are scanning the parking lot—which is dark and full of landscaping bushes and too far from an intersection and if Drunk and Lonely and his band of merry friends shows up, it’s going to get tense and ugly quite fast. “We can always take the People Mover,” I say.
Laughter all around. Understandable. There are about four People Movers in the whole city. And in their world, who doesn’t own a car?
“I love the bus,” says Jamie, suddenly. “Why not?” The Sunsets giddy up, her and Kristen bringing up the rear. It goes without saying my sister was student government president and general king of school and that everybody saw her on the cover of Wired.
The bus lunges up. It’s empty. Save for the driver and the dog. The dog is tied to the last seat and has managed to slink underneath it, leaving only his whippet tail exposed. This is maybe why the driver has not noticed him. Either that or the driver is too afraid of getting bit. I sit next to the poor guy and try to hide him with my legs.
Dina, Stacey, Michelle come down the aisle.
“A doggie!” says Dina.
I put a finger over my mouth.
“Got it,” she says and winks.
There is a whine of machinery. The driver is lowering the handicap ramp for Jamie, who apparently looks too pregnant to mount the steps. Kristen helps her down the aisle to our seats, which is when my sister whips open her maternity jacket and pulls out the carafe of Cab.
“Party bus,” says Michelle.
Around the wine goes. Around it goes again.
Kristen turns it down. “I guess you know about Jerry,” she says, but mostly to Jamie. The other Sunsets circle around. Hugs. Toasts. Jerry is selfish. Jerry is a fucker. Jerry is having an affair with a woman who runs a natural food store. She is ten years older than Kristen, which should make it better but only makes it more humiliating.
“Well,” says Jamie. “My wife kicked me out of the house last week.”
We all swivel our heads, even the dog.
Jamie waddles over, takes a glug off the carafe. It happens so quickly, it’s almost as if she forgot she is pregnant. Then she takes another glug. Then she starts to cry. Loudly. “She says I stifle her. She says I’m overbearing.”
“I just don’t know,” says Stacey, the wife of the state legislator, “if I’m okay with this.”
“You guys are so—so American,” I say—me, whose one trip out of the country was our six-hour stay in Montreal. “It’s perfectly fine for a pregnant woman to have wine.”
They all look at me.
“It’s red,” I say, “an antioxidant.”
“I’m out of here,” says Stacey. She waves at the driver as if he is the chauffeur. And with a small, exquisite smile he ignores her. She sits back down, punches into her phone for a taxi and there is nothing but fluorescent, rattled silence until the next stop. The door heaves open, Stacey flounces toward it, Michelle and Dina follow. Then Dina hurries back. She kneels down in front of me and hands me a card. Darn Yarns, it says.
Her store, apparently.
“If you need a job,” she says, “call me. My mom always told me how your mom made her all that caribou stew when she got cancer.”
I must look confused. She brushes the bangs out of my face and says, “I was in seventh grade. You were still pretty much of a baby.”
“Of course,” says Jamie, “love on my sister. Like everybody else.”
There is so much I could say to this, but why bother? My sister is a jerk. My sister is a bag of toxic vagina. The bus lurches off. Kristen and Jamie start whispering. And I lean on the window making breath fog on the glass, until the empty carafe rolls down the aisle and hits the fare counter. The bus pulls over. The driver leans down and toes the carafe. “Off,” he says. “Use the back exit and don’t try to pretend you’re passed out.”
The dog looks at me. I don’t have a knife and I don’t know knots, I tell him with my eyes. My sister strides in and undoes the rope with the assurance of a person who has tied up a lot of turbo floatplanes and speedboats in her life. “Well,” she says. “You got what you wanted at least.”
She hands him over. He looks up at me. He has a quizzical, uncooperative look to him. This is not the dog I wanted. I wanted a golden retriever or one of those fluffy, pillow-sized dogs that sleep in your lap while you watch TV until three in the morning, Mom rambling beside you about a totally unrelated episode from Falcon Crest circa 1989. But that is my problem, isn’t it? I didn’t ask for what I wanted. Because I don’t know what I want—except not to leave Mom alone or do anything Jamie wants me to do—and so I asked in the general category of what I thought I could get.
The doors fold open and we step into the night. It is foggy. Something in the trees smells like lighter fluid and swamp. A park service sign looms by a parking bollard.
“Holy fuck,” says Jamie.
“Oh,” I say. “This is perfect.”
“Valley of the Moon!” says Kristen, with an awe that endears her to me for the rest of our lives. Valley of the Moon being a playground that every kindergarten teacher in town takes her class to on field trips, which for me transcended even the joy of visiting the downtown art museum (where we got to carve a bar of Ivory soap into a Native sculpture of a guy in a kayak) or the mile-long walk to a Quik Stop (where we all got a free pack of Twizzlers).
I can almost taste the tipsy, wrecked half-planet made of metal bars you can climb up to reign as Lord of the Universe. Or the creaky spinning wheel where you lie down—your friends running, gathering speed, jumping on at the last minute, the sky whizzing by in a puffy, peaceful vomit of clouds.
Best of all is the rocket-ship slide, which requires you to climb a rusty ladder so high up you want to climb back down but can’t— not with everyone watching—then force yourself to dive into the dark of the endless metal tunnel, at the end of which a series of painful screws erupt from the metal, followed by a pile-on of kids that try to block your high-speed exit with their bodies.
And yet, when Jamie, Kristen, and I break out of the trees that shelter the entrance, we find that everything has been replaced. There is still a planet, a spinning wheel, and a rocket-ship slide. But they are the plastic versions of the old equipment—all with the soft, molded feel of crayons. The moonlight makes them glow a little. Dully.
A fresh round of gloppy fog rolls in from the trees. “I can’t believe it,” says Kristen. “We used to get high here in high school.” “I’m doing the rocket ship,” says Jamie.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” says Kristen. “With your size?”
“I’m fine. Pregnant women can go down a slide.” Up Jamie goes, slowly on the plastic steps, as if accentuating the loss of our rusty ladder. Kristen jumps around in the grass, doing spritely dance moves. A leap. A twist. A split.
“Didn’t you used to be a ballerina?” I say.
“I wish,” she says. “Gymnast.”
Jamie is now sitting at the top of the slide. She waves. Kristen cartwheels through the grass. Handspring. Round off. She waves to the crowd, accepts an invisible medal.
“Becca?” says Jamie.
“I’m not going down,” I say. “This is Fern’s cashmere I’m wearing. I may need to sell it.”
“No,” she says. “It’s just—can you come a little closer?”
I come over. I look up. She has her hands gripped on either side of the guardrails. “I’m—” she says. “It’s pretty high up here.” I remember, in a dim, possibly erroneous way, she is afraid of heights. “Just come back down the steps,” I say. “You have a baby inside you.”
“I know,” she says.
“I can’t catch you. I have the dog. And you’re too big.”
“I know you can’t—”
“Then come down—”
“It’ll make me feel better,” she says. “If you’re there, at the bottom. Just in case.” Up at the top of the not-so-high slide, her face is clenched, pale, needy looking even.
This is a story she will later tell us both, I realize. Her story will be funny and self-lacerating and so horrifically precise about our love and fury for each other—that whole diseased seesaw we both dare the other to get off of. At the end, Jamie will have either shot out of the slide, landing on me and the dog and knocking us both over in the mud. Or whizzed off the end, when I stepped back from it, allowing her and her unborn child to land on her fragile, forty-four-year-old tailbone.
There is another story, though. I have almost told it to her every day of my life but haven’t, even now I am unsure as to why.
Back in Montreal, at the hotel Mom checked us into, we had to leave the Coup DeVille in a parking lot in the basement and go to the theater on a train that ran underground. It was called a metro. Metro, I remember saying to myself. Metro.
We went down some stairs and through a metal bar that spun around. Then we stood on a long cement platform, with a bunch of other people. Some of them were kids. My sister and Mom stood together, Jamie hanging on Mom’s shoulder. This was how Jamie was back then. Always trying to get Mom’s attention. Always playing with her necklace or the mole on her chin as if it were a little brown diamond, always the first to find her keys when she lost them, the first to say you’re the best mom in the world.
I was younger, slower, dumb to the race we were in. Most of time I was dawdling off in a corner, unintentionally forgotten. A few feet down from my spot by the column, a woman with long dark hair and two shopping bags waited beside me. Both bags were made of brown paper and filled with what looked like little balls of tissue paper, as if she were moving and had decided to pack up all her glasses and fancy, breakable things and take them with her.
On the top of the bag closest to me, a sliver of shiny red showed through a gap in the tissue. Everything in me longed to reach in and touch it. If only to know if it was a Valentine as I suspected. Or a bit of chocolate foil. Or something else, something mysterious and Canadian.
The cement under my feet began to rumble. The woman moved closer to the yellow line. I had never been on a subway or a train. I moved closer too. She moved another step closer. Me too. Our toes were right on the edge, which is how you got on a subway, I thought. You want to be the first one. You had to be right next to the train to get on.
The headlights roared in.
When I looked back, Mom had her hands over Jamie’s face and Jamie was screaming and everyone was screaming. Except for Mom. She was staring at me. Her eyes were huge green bruise holes. When she came over, she walked dreamily, slowly, as if underwater. I didn’t know where her purse was and I don’t think she knew where it was either or where the Kleenex were inside it, but all the pieces of tissue paper from the woman’s bag were floating by us. Mom plucked one from the air and wiped the blood and sticky other stuff off my cheeks.
Then we went back up the long dark stairs and back to the hotel and got back in the car and drove straight back home. Mom saying the whole time we were all okay. We would figure it out. We would put me in a hot bath and go to school and do our homework. Jamie was crying. “I can’t believe you,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re taking us back. Not to him.” She chanted this over and over all through the vast plains, the lakes, the forests, the cities, the gas stations, the truck stops—that whole endless foreign country speeding by us in the windows.
I was in the backseat, pulling little threads off the edge of my jeans. Mom kept pulling over and shaking me by my shoulders say ing, “Are you all right? Are you hungry? Do you want a hot chocolate? We can stop for hot chocolate if you want.” I was fine. I was tired. I leaned against Jamie, who had just begun not to talk to Mom or to talk to her as if she were a ghost with bad breath.
I was seven years old. I knew nothing, except that I was not upset the way Mom and Jamie were upset and never would be. They had seen the part on the platform that I didn’t see or didn’t remember. And I had seen what they were too busy and far away to see—how peaceful the woman looked, how happy even as a train thundered in and she jumped into the lights with both her bags, the bags exploding into hot white flowers of tissue and shattered glass, as if we might be at the ballet already where Mom and Jamie had told me beautiful, tiny ladies leapt into the air while snow fell and music played, and we all clapped to be polite and show them that we recognized how hard they had worked, how strong they were, how much we wanted them to stay in the air above us and never come down. Bravo, I was told to say. Even if I never got the chance to say it.