Impatiently, I wait. My knees bounce up and down and I gnaw at my thumbnail, until I realize how gross that is for a twenty-five-year-old to do. Well, I’m assuming it is…
My life hasn’t exactly been “normal.”
The inevitable is something that can no longer be, well, ignored. Susie will not look at me—maybe she refuses to from now on—she is in her own mind battle of what to say and how to react. For instance, should she punch me in the face or just break down and cry?
No, seriously—is that what she’s thinking?
“Oh,” she finally says and looks at me with those small, round eyes. Definitely mother’s…“but, it’s not forever…right?”
I sit up on the couch, adjacent from my little sister. “Of course not, sweetie. I just need some time to…explore my options.”
Nearly losing her…
“It’s like when I tell you to keep…drawing. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
Yeah, because she is always doodling one of her MTV werewolves on any pieces of paper that lie around the house. Lately, she has been obsessed with that Stiles kid because of the Maze Runner (she begged and begged me to take her to see it—it was pretty good, like the kid who’s playing the new Pennywise). Otherwise, she is coloring in one of those cartoon themed booklets.
“Or, smarter at it.”
YES! Now, she is on the same page.
“Exactly! Going back to college will help me find a better paying job. I’ll make more money…Buy nicer things…Afford a bigger place for us to live…”
Her two brown eyes only avert from me and go straight to the ottoman upon us. It is a nice brown texture design—thank you IKEA!
I know this is difficult. For the both of us. Crap…
“But…” her voice becomes shaky (crap!). “I don’t want to leave, Ana! We live here. I grew up here. This is and always will be home. Our home, forever and ever…”
I know…I know…
“I know sweetie,” I say it as it is, “but I can’t leave you here. You’re a minor. It’s illegal for starters.”
I smile a bit, but she does not. Again, she peers away from me, recoiling into her own mindset. What do seven year olds think of nowadays—the amount of followers they have?
“Auntie Maggie and Uncle Jeremy will look after you,” I reassure her and inch closer.” You can come and visit me every day, if you’d like—”
Her hand jerks away from mine. Shoot…
Now, I really feel like a failed sister…a failed “parent.”
We sit in silence, only the light downpour of rain seems to echo our own inner thoughts; our own inner child…well, maybe just mine.
“Remember the story I told you about mom and dad’s apricot tree,” I finally bring up.
“Yeah. You said it was the only living thing at that house.”
That house…she remembers pieces, but not reels like Tommy and I. Tommy and I…we remember the way they had looked and acted. We saw the worst and…whatever is worse than worst. Mom and dad. Dad was already a drinker by the time he was Tommy’s age; mom was already…going around town, by the time she was my age at Tommy’s age. If, that makes sense?
Tommy is thirteen.
“I never told you my last memory of it…”
Now, Susie looks at me, her eyes widen, alert like a scared kitten creeping through the night. Is that odd, comparing my little sister to a kitten? We’ve never owned one…caring for two is already enough…was enough.
And now, it’s my turn—I look elsewhere, reliving what once was…my life at Susie’s age. “Dad put me on his shoulders, so I could pick off the last apricot from that tree.” This next part is a bitter pill, and I cover my mouth for a moment to reconsider the painful truth. “Want to know where that riddle came from?”
It hits her, but not the kind of reaction where one sits up, all shocked and horrified. No, it is much more than that: a confirmation on her end, like she has always been expecting this particular answer.
“You were saying goodbye…”
Yes, Susie Q. Yes, I was.
“With you…I’m a full grown, round orange apricot. But, sometimes, that seed of an apricot needs to go off and grow elsewhere, on her own. For the best.”
I’m so sorry, Susie…
“I love you, Susie Q. But, if you stay with me, while I’m in school full-time—”
Instead, I feel five stout fingers wrap around my long, slender ones. Mom once said that I had piano hands/dad told her to shut up because I had a baseball player’s hands (whatever that meant—guess he always wanted his first born to be a boy, like most dads do; only, my dad was never like “most dads”). They never agreed on anything…in fact, I don’t think they ever liked each other. Beside…their own inner demons.
“I know,” she says and sighs, trying to accept what will become our new reality. “You won’t have time to look after me. You barely do now.”
“I’m sorry, Susie…”
And I push my hands down onto the red couch cushions, but her small squeaky voice pulls me to a stop, as she demands, “No.”
Susie has become the adult now, snapping me out of my memories…bad ones…as she sits up and stares me dead in the eyes. Mine sting with the first sign of tears. I don’t think she’s ever seen me cry. Ever.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Really. You’ve done a lot, ever since they left us.”
“Mom and dad…”
She does remember, more than I’d ever wanted her to know. I…I failed her too.
“To me, they never were.”
My eyes shoot over to her. I can feel my bottom lip ajar from my top. My look of “shock” and “horror”—ironic, right?
“I’m not stupid, Ana. I know mom and dad didn’t want us. They never cared about us—”
“No,” she says with her finger up (oh, damn, so now she is a mind reader too). “I know about their illnesses. The drugs. You’re my mom, Ana. You always have been and will be. Thank you.”
And for the first time…in a while, she gives me a smile. A small, tender, and genuine one. No B.S. behind it. No fake sugarcoated one. It is real. This moment…all real, raw, yet beautiful all wrapped up into one.
I reach for her, because there is no other way around this. Her short, stout arms can barely lock around my thin frame. Our hug is still tight. We hold on for dear life. Holding on, until it is time to say…goodbye. For a while.
Four years to be precise.
“You’re the reason why I keep going each day. Thank you for never losing hope in us, Susie. I love you.”
“I love you too, Ana.” And she looks up at me with that same smile. We’re okay; I hope.
And then, she starts singing that riddle. “Apricots/Apricots/I love you/Yes/I/Do.”
We pull apart. Susie sings the rest to me. I smile back, regardless if the riddle was something that mom and dad sang to Tommy and I, as children. No, the sweet, sweet, joyful tone in Susie’s voice brings much, much more to it. Her confirmation that she will be okay; Tommy will be okay and soon be out of juvie, and off to a better life (back with Jeremy and Maggie who I owe everything to—they’ve been there for us since day one); and I…I’ll be okay.
I am not a failure, as society says we would be—children who have to grow up faster than most of the “normal ones.” No, we are here and alive. Susie and I, and even Tommy, are not nor ever destined to repeat the sins of our father and mother. And neither are the rest of you.
“Apricots/Apricots/I love you/Yes/I do.”
I pull Susie into my arms and, simultaneously, we lean back into the red sofa. We sit there in silence for a bit longer, hopeful and more than okay. We’ve survived.
We’ve survived what has yet to come.
# # #
Natalie Rodriguez is a writer and filmmaker from Southern, CA. In 2014, she received her Bachelor of Arts in TV-Film from Cal State Fullerton. Her work has been featured on the first Studio 4 (LA) master class, “Sex Scenes,” taught by James Franco; Zooey Deschanel’s HelloGiggles; AXS; Defeat the Stigma Project; FlockU; Short Kid Stories;Thought Catalog; and Winamop Poetry. Read more here: https://twitter.com/NatChrisRod
Copyright © 2016 by Natalie Rodriguez
Photo credit: C. M. Chapman