I rode the train to Midway Airport, praying it was going to work this time. It hadn’t worked last time. Cindy was too timid, too needy. But when I saw my older sister laughing as she pulled her baby blue suitcase off the baggage belt, I was more optimistic. There was no sign of the beaten-down blonde I put on a bus 16 months ago. She looked taller and blonder, and when I told her that she said she loved my new Dutch cut.
We took turns carrying the suitcase and were hungry as hell by the time we got to my place. I whipped up Cindy’s favorite, tuna on rye, and Cindy was still chewing when she said, “Christy, remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Blaise, and how she would mix up our names and call me Christy sometimes?”
Cindy loves to remind me where we came from, and she always begins with Mrs. Blaise. Cindy loved Mrs. Blaise. I didn’t. She was my second-grade reading teacher that year, and she kept giving me books that were harder and harder, hoping I would ask her for help. I never did.
“Remember how every morning I would stop at her desk and take a tissue from her Kleenex box and then hide it in my desk and hold it in my hand while Mrs. Blaise wrote on the blackboard?” Cindy asked.
“Cindy, how could I remember? I was in the second grade, and your class was way down the hall.”
“Christy, you know because I’ve told you this story at least fifty times.”
“That’s right, Cindy, but that’s enough don’t you think? Let’s move on.”
“I can’t. I still have those nightmares.”
Her first day of school in fourth grade, she stopped by Mrs. Blaise’s classroom, and the teacher at her desk told her Mrs. Blaise had died of cancer. So Cindy dreamed her back to life. The saddest dream was the one where Cindy was in her classroom, looking out the window, watching Mrs. Blaise arrive in a taxi and push her crutches out the door then stand up. When she saw Cindy she waved to her, and Cindy waved back, and the dream ended there.
I liked school—it was our neighborhood I hated and the three women my mother, Jean, drank with. Mom’s friend Mrs. Drury was the worst. I’ll never forget the night she came banging on our door, bleeding, and said, “Jean, you’ve got to help me. I just called the police and told them I’d been raped.”
Mom knew right away what to do. She called her old friend Captain Whitcome and got him to cancel the complaint. It was the third time Mrs. Drury had done it, and Jean could hear the Captain giggling as he thanked her for calling.
Today Cindy came home from work with a birthday cake to celebrate our being back together for a year, and we sat down and ate the whole thing. “Remember your first week in Chicago and how Sal kept calling you?” I said.
“I loved the way he’d call and apologize for having the wrong number, and then say ‘So what’s up, Cindy? How’s things?’”
Sal said he was trying to call his dentist and punched in a 9 instead of a 7. Anyway, that’s how it started.
“Christy, guess what? He wants to meet me, you know, somewhere where we can talk,” she said as I came through the door.
“Where you can talk? That’s all you do is talk,” I said.
“That’s not funny. He says this is getting serious and we have to meet.”
“Ok, let’s just stop a minute. Let’s figure this out. How many times has he called?”
“Maybe ten,” Cindy said.
“So, what do we know about him?” I asked. “Maybe he’s calling you from jail.”
“I know he’s not in jail because yesterday he told me he had just picked up cigarettes and milk from the store,” Cindy said.
“The milk could be for his kids, but how about work? Does he ever jump in his car to go to work?”
“He must have a job. He wants to take me to dinner,” she said.
The next night I came home from work and found a note from Cindy on the kitchen table that said, “He called at 6:30 and asked if I could meet him at 8:00. See you later.”
She came home at 8:15, and I didn’t have to ask how it went. “I went to the restaurant, but he didn’t show up,” she said and collapsed on the sofa.
“How long did you wait?” I asked.
“Christy,” she said, glaring at me, “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t you dare say it.”
“Well? Did you go, or didn’t you?” I asked.
“I went,” she said, getting a little angry and teary at the same. “It was a fancy restaurant, and it gave me goose bumps when I saw our names on the reservation list, and so I left at 7:30.”
Cindy is a great kid, a lot nicer than me, but she’s never had a boyfriend. When something happens, she either runs or turns her back on it. I know why. It’s because she’s afraid. I am, too, but I don’t run. I fight. One night when I was seven and Cindy was eight, Jean dropped us off at her friend Margo’s place. Cindy was in the bathroom, and Margo’s boyfriend came into the room, grabbed me, and tried to drag me off with him. I bit him and fought so hard I broke my wrist. But I didn’t scream because I wanted Cindy to be safe.
When Jean picked us up the next morning, I told her that I had to go to the hospital, and on the way I cried my way through everything that had happened. I told her about seeing slashes of blood in my eyes and thinking that I was going to be murdered, and she said, “That’s nothing, Christy. Forget about it.”
I wanted to kill her when she said that because I knew then that something was broken in her, that she was no good at being a mother, and that it was up to me to keep Cindy and me safe.
I was suspicious of Sal at first, but he won me over when he invited Cindy back to the same restaurant and made sure the reservation was in the book again. She wanted to go early, but I wouldn’t let her, and of course the first thing she did when she got there was check the book, and there it was, a table for two with Sal’s name next to it. Then Mr. Wallace came over and introduced himself and walked her to the table. There were five people standing there, and they all clapped when Mr. Wallace pulled out the chair for her and she sat down. Then Sal appeared wearing a tux, and he gave her a rose, and that’s how they met.
Sal had invited Cindy to the restaurant where he worked. Mr. Wallace, the owner, paid for the meal, and Sal’s five friends had come just to see him in a tux, but when they saw Cindy, that’s when they applauded.
I hate sweet men, guys who smile before they kiss you. The only man I’ve ever loved was Jigger Reed, a singer in a metal band who had to shout his songs because he couldn’t sing. His way of showing me he loved me was to pick me up and carry me off to get matching tattoos. The night he did that I told him I’d rip out his eyes if he didn’t put me down, so he did. He took me out for pizza instead.
I loved taking care of him. I made the bartender give me his keys after he poured his third drink. I was so into him I forgot to worry about me. Half the time I ended up waking up in the back room of the bar the next morning with Jigger’s keys still in my pocket.
“Christy, remember the night Jigger dropped you off just before dawn and you made pancakes, and after we finished eating you realized that the red sneakers you were wearing weren’t yours?” Cindy asked.
“I never did figure it out, and I never found out who the little kid was.”
“The little kid who had gone into the back room to change her clothes. She’d left a pair of tiny flip-flops, her sun-suit, and matching hat, and she never came back to get them.”
“We were both idiots back then,” Cindy said.
“That’s for sure. One night Jigger and I were doing shots at his place. I carried a glass of water to bed with me and must have forgotten to drink it because I woke up soaked, and when I jumped out of bed I stepped on the broken glass.”
“And the following week Jean died, and the entire next year was…” Cindy said, but I didn’t let her finish.
I hate talking about bad times, and so I asked Cindy to tell me again how she got her job.
“Sal and Mr. Wallace arranged the whole thing. Sal called me one night and asked me to work for him because he was rebuilding a restaurant in Bucktown for Mr. Wallace and it had to be done in three weeks.”
“I was so proud of you, Cindy. You didn’t see Sal for three weeks, but you kept busy, memorizing the menu and learning what wines went with what foods.”
A month later Cindy was waiting the VIP tables, and Sal was the assistant manager of the new restaurant. They both loved their jobs. The only problem was that they both had to work weekends.
She and Sal had Mondays off, and most Mondays I’d hang out with them after work. The first night I met Sal he asked me why I didn’t like Mrs. Blaise, and I told him and Cindy I didn’t trust her.
“That’s because you didn’t know her. You never heard the sweet things she said to our class as we walked to the pond for nature class. She sounded just like a mother should sound. She loved us all.”
I opened my mouth and then stopped myself. I didn’t tell Cindy that Mrs. Blaise wasn’t dead. Jean had told me she had been fired and was teaching in a prison now. But I had no right to say that, and neither did Jean.
“Sal, maybe it’s a little crazy, but ever since she died I know she’s looking after me. She’s my guardian angel,” Cindy said.
Those Monday nights were great, and funny, especially when Sal and Cindy decided to find a boyfriend for me. Sal talked me through a dozen of his friends, and then it occurred to me I should find a guy, so I did. His name was Robert—not Bob, not Rob, but Robert.
“Remember when I got that free trial for a month at the fitness place across the street? And I told you about the instructor who kept pestering me about my fitness goals,” I said.
“The one who followed you around with a clipboard?” Cindy asked.
“Right, that was him, but he’s got a new job. He sells surprises—flowers, chocolates, tickets to the mystery theater, that kind of stuff.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“He likes it, and he seemed more relaxed than before, so I gave him my number.”
“So he was the one who sent the flowers?”
“And the chocolates,” I said, and then she gave me a low-down-rotten look because she hadn’t seen the chocolates, and that meant that I’d hidden them. I promised her I had eaten only one and that we would share. Then I told her about our first date. I had to meet him at this secret address and ask for Lonie Walker, and the address turned out to be the Underground Wonder Bar, and Lonie, the owner and star singer, seated us at table ten feet from her and dedicated her opening song to me.
“So what’s he really like?” Cindy asked
I told her it was impossible to talk so close to the band but that we had a good time. Then I asked her what was up with her because she had told me she was going to sleep at Sal’s, but I had heard her come home at ten after two. She’d had a nightmare and was so upset that she was shaking and couldn’t go back to sleep.
“I was a little kid,” she said, “exploring a beach, and all up and down the beach there were birds with broken wings.”
“Did you tell Sal about it?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I woke him up so he could drive me home, and he was really upset about it because my bad dreams started after he asked me to marry him last weekend.”
“Cindy, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know what to say.”
“You didn’t turn him down, did you?”
“Not exactly,” she said, “I told him I loved him, and maybe we could start saving up to get married.”
That’s what she said, but I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking she couldn’t leave me.
That got me thinking. There was something about Robby I didn’t like. He never talked about his family or asked me about my family. It also bugged me that he kept sending me chocolates. It was like he was sending me his extra inventory.
I also began calling him Robby because I didn’t like the “Robert” thing. Even Robert Kennedy was called Bobby by his friends.
Yesterday evening he picked me up at work, and we stopped by his apartment so that he could change his pants and put on his dancing shoes. As we walked through the door, he lowered the lights and used his remote to put on soft music. I walked out of the kitchen into the living room carrying a glass of water, and he walked over to me, took my glass of water, set it on his coffee table, and asked me to take off my clothes.
I looked at him and shook my head, and asked him what kind of a person he was, and what kind of person did he think I was as I headed for the door.
“No, Christy, please don’t. I’m sorry. I was just kidding,” he said.
“No, you weren’t. You weren’t kidding. You had it all planned because everything about you is phony, like your phony name and your gimmick dates. You had it all figured out step by step.”
“No, I didn’t. I saw it in a movie, and I thought…”
“You thought you were so smooth, but you’re not. You’re just a pitiful piece of crap.” I said.
When I told Cindy what I had said, she just looked at me, and I don’t blame her.
He apologized and asked if he could please take me to dinner. I should have just left.
Twenty minutes later we were eating bread in an Indian restaurant, and he was still apologizing, telling me that his greatest fault was that he didn’t know how to be honest with women.
“Please, Christy, tell me what I can do to make it up to you.”
“There is one thing you could do, Robert.”
“What is it? I’ll do anything you say.”
“Stand up and take off your clothes,” I said and left.
I was still twisted in knots a couple of days later when Cindy came over after work to tell me that she and Sal had just had their first fight. He told her he wanted to get married and have kids right away, and she told him Christy had to get married and have a child first.
I told her it didn’t matter who went first as long as our kids got to play together.
“Maybe we could live in a duplex, Sal and me on one side, and you and Mr. X on the other, with one set of swings and one sandbox for our kids to share.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Then Cindy said, “Christy, I’m afraid.”
“So am I,” I said.
Five days later Cindy lost her job.
The restaurant in Bucktown didn’t catch on, and so Mr. Wallace gave Sal his old job back and let Cindy go. Sal didn’t go for that. He insisted on splitting it with her. Then a terrible thing happened: Mr. Wallace found jobs for both Sal and Cindy working for his brother in Seattle. They both tried to find new jobs in Chicago and couldn’t, so they went off to work in the restaurant in Seattle.
The first week they lived in a guest apartment attached to the other Mr. Wallace’s home, and now they’re living in a duplex that has a room waiting for me. The first three weeks without her have been misery. She calls when she can, but they’re busy settling in and working extra hours as they learn the ropes. I’m like a dog left in an empty room. I walk in circles and then lie down and chew on myself. I called Robby to apologize. He didn’t pick up so I left a message. He called yesterday and asked if I would go home with him to say goodbye to his dying father in Kentucky. At first I thought he just wanted help driving. Then he said, “Please, Christy, please say yes.”
He needed me, so I said I would go with him.
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