There’s a lullaby on her grandmother’s lips, something quiet and timeless, as she ushers Jan into the waiting car. There’s crying in the background; probably her sister, still sitting in her mother’s arms on the front porch, but the sound is so indistinct and raw that it could be a bird settled high on a tree branch. She can see the shimmer of her mother’s tears from the backseat through the rear view window, her forearm clutched along the toddler’s chest as she pleads with silent words. But her grandmother shakes her head, another part of this mute conversation, slinging her sister over her shoulder despite her protests.
Her mother’s shoulders slump, bringing a shaky hand to her lips and lighting the cigarette clasped between her fingers, a long, thin trail of smoke curling into the predawn light and hiding her face partially from view behind a hazy, gray mask.
Her Gamma straps her sister into the car seat with a fake reassuring smile, ignoring the whimpers and the baffled expression on Jan’s face, as she slips behind the wheel of her 1970 Renault. She adjusts the rearview mirror and sighs heavily, even though the angle of the narrow reflection doesn’t catch the porch’s image or Jan’s mother crumpled there.
Times had been tough. Mom couldn’t find work that could feed them all since her father left a year ago to chase his abstract dreams, and her grandmother had warned that she would take them away to live with her, but it was a distant threat. Like saying there wouldn’t be any Christmas if they didn’t behave.
But yet she’s watching her mother disappear, shrinking like a sponge in the sun as her face grows wet. The little house they rent and the sidewalk where she’d learned to ride a bike and her best friend’s house whips around the corner too.
The new light throws pastel swirls across the trunk of the car, the branches overhead tickling the reflection. The sun is rising, bringing the light she’s missed and revealing a different world since it had gone down the night before.
1986, West Virginia
The sky is white, clouds merely a thin, gauzy screen over the expanse of it. The forecast is calling for snow, but Jan stands outside, barefoot, as she watches her sister shove her belongings into the backseat and then some.
“How long will you be gone?” she whispers, because her grandmother is still asleep in the bedroom above them, and voices in suburbs tend to carry at 7am on a Sunday morning. Especially days like today, where the air is so crisp that sound cuts like razors, no muggy barrier for the words to get tangled in and die unheard.
Her sister shrugs, her long blonde pony tail swishing side to side like the mane of a stubborn horse and her ripped jeans cocking her hips to the side, her hand resting heavy on the car door propped open.
Cindy had always been more rebellious of the two, the one to take risks. She’d been the first to try the high dive (even though she was shorter and had only been taking swimming lessons for a week), the first the get her ears pierced (even though she was younger) and the first to get a boyfriend (even though Jan was prettier. Her grandmother said that Jan was just intimidating to the boys at school). Sometimes Jan envied her, but then she remembered that time favors the responsible, the decisive.
She nods, and even though she isn’t smiling she can see the glint in her eyes, shining back hope and possibility and… recklessness.
“Yeah. I should go before the old bat wakes up.”
Jan purses her lips, rubbing her hands together for warmth and them up and down the length of her arms.
They don’t hug; the Levinson’s aren’t exactly known for their affection.
“You should come and visit me sometime,” Cindy calls out the window, pausing a second with the window rolled down. “When this shithole starts to bore you.”
Jan nods, waving as the car recedes and crossing one foot over the other before her toes turn blue. She glances at the sky as it begins to snow, thinking of desert and warmth and starting over.
There are some things that just aren’t meant for her.
She grins into her reflection, her eyes shifting between focusing on her mirror image and the sky beyond the window, hand gripped tight into the padding of her chair.
This is it. She’s made it. The crotchety old man that had interviewed her at corporate had called yesterday afternoon, rambling through minutes of boring small talk before congratulating her on her new position.
Stamford was all well and good, but being Regional Manager could only last so long before the stoutness of the building and the stranglehold of the town surrounding it would suffocate her. Sales are a thing of the past, and this management level would be soon as well, letting her rise on to do bigger and better things.
She’d come in early this morning, before the sun even rose, to pack her things in this cardboard box that was far too large. Her coffee mug and photo of her Grandmother sloshes around freely at the bottom of it, because after examining each item in her office carefully she’d discovered that she really didn’t need any of it. It was exhilarating to dispose of all those knick-knacks and clutter.
She’s already given Josh Porter notice that he will replace her. He’s young but capable, a bit cut throat, but what salesman isn’t? He’ll do fine, she’s sure of it, and she’d never made a decision that she hadn’t believed in 100%.
She gathers the box in her arms, locking the door behind her with a click and letting the wind rip through her hair as the sun sneaks into the sky with a tinge of green in the clouds behind her.
2005, New York
Jan cups the mug in her palms, letting the warm of the coffee steam against her face and make her fingers sweat with condensation. The city is still dark behind her heavy curtains, blocking out the street lamps and the sirens and the little bit of light just beginning to seep into the sky.
The end had been quiet, relatively speaking. In the months prior her and Gould argued and yelled, spitting bitter retorts and threats into the city air.
One little thing out of your control and you flip your fucking lid! How am I supposed to deal with that, Jan?
You knew I wanted children when you slipped that ring on my finger.
Well if I’d known you wouldn’t change your mind I would have slipped a noose around my neck instead.
Why do you always do that? Make everything so dramatic.
Because you’re driving me insane, Jan.
Stop saying Jan like that!
Like what, Jan?
Like you’re Mr. Rogers or daddy explaining why I can’t have two scoops of ice cream. I’m not a child.
Like you would know what a daddy sounds like.
Fuck you, Gould. Fuck. You.
The neighbors kept their distance, since in an upscale apartment building such as their own everyone had their dirty little secrets, and she’d never been so happy that the wealthy tend follow a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
But the final nail in the coffin of Levinson-Gould had been hushed at ten o’clock last night, like sliding into a coma after a major trauma. They’d laid it on the line, the fact that they were reasonable people finally showing through to the surface once love wasn’t involved anymore. She knew that their disagreement over parenthood was only the tip of the iceberg, but it was the simplest, the one that would swallow easily at dinner parties and cocktails and holidays with Gamma.
Her wedding band looks odd sitting there all alone on the table and she studies it over the rim of her coffee cup, taking another scorching mouthful while she squints her eyes at the small gold circle and readjusts her legs under the blanket on the couch. Four years of marriage and this is what it comes down to: a glint in her eye and a tan line on her finger. She knows that this should be a relief, the emptiness of Gould’s closet, the absence of his snore lifting a burden from her shoulders. But instead she feels, for some reason, like this is the beginning of the end.
She lets her hands drift to the curtains, sifting through the fabric until she feels the cold of the glass with her fingers and pulls them back to reveal the street below.
It had been a lovely wedding. The weather had managed to cooperate, the foliage a vibrant flame of oranges and reds and the temperature a perfect set for convertibles. Michael’s mother had patted her on the hand just before the ceremony, giving her a reassuring smile that she’s sure would annoy her if she didn’t feel so uneasy.
She doesn’t regret anything, though. Not one decision. Not divorcing Gould or dating Michael or breaking up with Michael or the pregnancy… she can’t bear to look back now. But she couldn’t shake that feeling as she watched him jiggle his leg at the alter like an impatient child on Christmas morning, wanting to rip off the wrapping paper and play with his toys, that she was about to make a horrible mistake. The remorse burned the back of her throat like acid, and she pressed her hand to her neck in an attempt to keep in all inside.
She observed the ceremony with a floating sense of detachment, letting the speak now or forever hold your peace bit drift on without a word. A memory had struck her just then, as they sometimes do without warning and appearing more random at first than they honestly are, of that night at the airport before boarding a plane to Sandals Jamaica. Michael had been giddy and whispered something like Jan-maican me crazy into her ear, some bloody butchering of several puns mangled together into a phrase, his specialty. But she remembered the feeling, like maybe this could be her re-start, away from Scranton or New York but that under a hot sun and resting on sand with cerulean stretched out before her, she could find something new.
When the officiate told him he could kiss the bride, Jan turned her head to make it seem like she was checking in her purse, but really inside there was only a lipstick and some Nicorrette gum and that foreboding feeling again.
Holly seemed like a nice enough girl, a bit naïve, but so were a lot of people. At the reception she wanted to say something to him. To tell him that a year wasn’t enough time. That it was tacky to invite her in the first place. That he was better off without her. That she wanted him back. But instead she shook his hand and told him: good luck, you’re gonna need it, letting him read whatever he wanted to into it. She hadn’t brought Alice, knowing that Michael would fawn and play with the girl and claw at her own heart, so she grabbed a piece of cake on her way out, not wanting to stay longer than she felt was her duty.
Jan glances out the window, watching the bright, sharp colors of the sky pierce through the trees into her cheap hotel room in Scranton, wishing her daughter was here to make this room feel less empty. But she’s alone and she knows it, knows too that looking into Alice’s eyes that remind her so much of Michael’s would only drive the feeling deeper like a splinter in her chest. Sometimes she fears that she’d had no soul to give her child, because hers had been used up and spit back out before she even thought of conception. But she hadn’t been alone, she reminds herself. Alice wasn’t a thing created from bits of her bone and flesh and molded to merely something different. She was brand new and undamaged and both of theirs.
She surveys the sunrise and knows that there’s really only one thing she should have told him at the ceremony, but couldn’t let the sensation that it was merely a selfish venture permeate within her. The words tickled her throat from the inside, the memory from that supermarket a year ago groping at them and wrenching them toward her tongue, wanting to be spoken aloud.
But that story was concrete now, told to so many and believed so deeply that it was almost as true as the truth (which seemed like an oxymoron but she’d been around long enough not to care). She had wanted him to insist that she was lying then, to give her license to nod and swear it, but his face had fallen instead and she knew that there was no going back.
Jan lights a cigarette, thinks of their daughter as the sky streaks pink, and lets him go.