“I had a good day,” Michelle says to me on the phone. “For once.”
It’s always the little things: the funny guy at the coffee shop, the warm bagel, getting to the bus stop on time. I wonder briefly, stupidly, how long the stages of grief typically last. What was this, acceptance? What comes before that?
A year before this, she called unexpectedly. We spent the first minute not speaking; we couldn’t. When she finally choked out a few words, I misheard her. Didn’t I? I had to have misheard her. She cried some more. I cried. We hung up. Did I dream this? I couldn’t go downstairs and relay the message because it wasn’t true and wouldn’t that be just an awful story to make up? What did she say, then?
The day before the funeral we sat together at her kitchen table. The doorbell kept ringing; family and friends kept arriving, kept sobbing, kept smiling. She smiled gently, offered them food, gave them drinks. She washed dishes. I crawled under the stairs to cry on the phone while she put her mom to bed. In the cafe at Walmart she told me very matter-of-factly that her dad was the one who had pushed, who had motivated her, who had believed in her, as if he were the only one. She didn’t know where to go from here, and I didn’t know what to tell her. I just held her hand.
Sometimes, on days when I don’t even talk to her, I’ll get a flash of something and feel the familiar sting at the corners of my eyes. Someone will speak with his accent or say, “Sorry about the mess,” and it’ll set off a silent montage. The navy hat he used to wear, that sly little smile, his silly Halloween pranks, the way he apologized to me every single day for the clutter on the dining room table that we both knew wasn’t going anywhere. Once he recorded his catch phrases for our friend Julia. “Be cool,” he said. “Stay in school!” I wonder if she still has that old phone, if maybe we could hear his voice today. Then I wonder if we’d want to. Would it send Michelle back to square one? Would it help?
She and her sisters have called me their own since we first met, and it’s always been true, but when I go home for holidays I still get to hear my dad laughing in the next room. I get that warm, safe hug. He checks the tires on my car. He makes pancakes and tells the same jokes he’s been telling me my whole life. So we’re sisters until we remember that we’re not, that we don’t have to suffer the same fate. We’re sisters until some chasm opens up and separates us. I can’t cross over, can’t be in her place, can’t bear that pain for her.
What can I do, then? I’ve tried all I can think of. I wrote poems and letters, sent flowers, flew to Atlanta, drove to DC, drank and ate and sang. I came to visit when she was alone. I came to celebrate when all her sisters were together. I asked how her mom was doing. Last spring I would have skipped the entire first week of class if it would have helped. Ten hours on a bus was nothing. Holding her hand at the cemetery didn’t seem like enough. I wanted so badly to fix it. I wanted so badly to make her better. But if there’s anything that can accomplish that task it isn’t me. It’s just time.
I’ve been waiting for today’s call for eleven and a half months. I’ve been waiting to hear her smile. When we’d hang up after a discussion of alternate realities, or a movie about a dead four-year-old, when I’d curl up under my blankets and feel so small and far away, I was always waiting for this. The next call had to be the one. The next day had to be good.
Sarah Karpovich recently graduated from Loyola Maryland with a B.A. in Spanish and Writing. She lives in Baltimore and works at a cafe, writing mostly latté orders and daily specials. She has published electronically in The Journal and The Hunt.