TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 4

In Flight

 · Fiction

Somewhere over Indiana, too nauseous and dizzy to look out the window or flip through the SkyMall magazine, Cait begins to wonder what will happen when she arrives. She hasn’t been home in eight years. Excuses rise up in her mind like an audience after a concert, first as individuals, then groups, and finally an undifferentiated mass. Eight years — so why does she still think of it as home?

From the row behind her a child whimpers, reminding Cait of the chilling directive spoken by the voice on the Delta recording just before takeoff: “Infant life vests may be found in an unmarked compartment on the left side of the coach.” The word “may” was horrifying in its ambiguity. Was this a polite way of saying that the passengers were more than welcome to the infant life vests should the need for them arise, or did this word call into question the location and/or existence of these tiny vests?

The man next to Cait patters away on his laptop. Many others are asleep, including a woman across the aisle with an open book, titled Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Energy, draped across her large thighs. Cait is the only passenger staring blankly ahead, alone in this as in everything else. Her choice, of course. Always her choice.

As the pilot announces the descent into Cleveland, she begins to hope, almost to pray. For what, she isn’t sure. She’s been away so long that she doesn’t know what to expect, doesn’t even know what she wants or why she is returning. Just a visit, that’s all. Just the usual post-divorce, self-questioning, crisis-laden return to one’s roots.

Her stomach churns and flips over just before the wheels hit the ground. Then the waiting, followed by the wobbly walk down the jet, the pit stop at the soggy restroom, and getting lost twice on the way to the baggage claim.

Her parents and sister are waiting for her there. She nearly gasps at the change in her parents. They have become elderly — an old woman and man. But they are smiling hugely. Natalie is standing next to their dad, smirking. She is at once beautiful and repulsive; she is Cait five years ago, before the implosion of her marriage and the dwindling of her career.

Natalie is The One Who Stayed. The one who helped Mom through Grandpa Jack’s death and saw to all the funeral arrangements and the will. The one who coached Dad through physical therapy after he fell and broke his wrist. The one who drove to the Flats time after time to retrieve their brother, Robby, from some sports bar and take him back to rehab.

Natalie is not the one who went to college in Washington State and stayed there when she was offered a reporting job at The Seattle Times. And she is not the one who went to the justice of the peace without announcement and married her editor after only a few months of courtship. Peter was fifteen years older than Cait, and she was dazzled by his newsroom experience, professional acumen, and birch-bark skin with its tantalizing rhythm — smooth, rough, smooth, rough. In their marriage, however, he turned out to be a helpless child. At work, she took orders from him; at home, he depended on her for every decision. Should they go out to eat or stay in? What should he wear at the L.A. conference? Should they have a baby now or wait? He exhausted her with his questions. Worse, he insisted that they spend every second of the day together. If she met a friend for coffee, he would want to tag along. If she wanted to go out alone at night — say, to a movie he had no interest in seeing — he would accuse her of having an affair. And God forbid she take a walk by herself. That one really got to her, since walking alone had always been one of her keenest pleasures. Still, she tried with him for years because she loved him. She still loves him.

When she finally broke it off with Peter (oh, the crying and begging, on both sides) she moved out of his apartment and into a much smaller one, resigned from her job at the Times, and took the first gig she could find, as a blogger for a celebrity-gossip website. She still releases her résumé into the polluted atmosphere of journalism employment. No luck yet. There is a recession going on, as everyone keeps reminding her.

Even so, Cait’s sister has managed to hang on to her job as a special education teacher. In this and other aspects of her life, Natalie’s compassion almost equals her boundless cynicism. This latter quality is always mistaken for practicality, but Cait knows better and loves her for it. Natalie shopped around for an appropriate partner before finally purchasing Luke, a loyal, laid-back physical therapist to whom she is now engaged. Like sensible people, they are waiting to marry until they can afford a house.

Seeing Natalie now — her not-unkind smirk, her relaxed posture — Cait thinks of her sister’s concerned phone calls and of her own declarations that she is getting on just fine, so obviously fake that Natalie didn’t even bother to call bullshit. She would only sigh and give brief, clinical updates about troubles at home. She would no longer reprimand Cait for her thoughtlessness or urge her to visit. Before the divorce, Natalie would say, “We’ve never even met your husband.” But recently, Natalie seemed to stop trying with Cait, perhaps giving her up for lost. And now Cait just shows up on a few days’ notice, on a whim, and everybody is supposed to welcome her? Natalie has every reason to despise her.

But if she feels this way, she doesn’t let on. She hugs Cait, her laugh reverberating through Cait’s body.

“What’s so funny?” Cait’s voice is muffled by her sister’s shoulder.

“Your terrified face,” Natalie says, stepping back and shaking her head. “Like you thought I was going to kick you.”

Cait is too busy hugging her parents to reply.

“You look so thin,” her mom says. Cait knows this is not exactly true, but commenting on one another’s weight is a family tradition, and her mother must be trying to meet the requirements of this ritual as kindly as possible.

“Where’s Robby?” Cait asks, expecting the worst.

“Work,” her dad says.

“Oh?” Cait cannot remember the last time Robby held down a job for more than a few weeks.

“He’s been working at Chase Records for five months now,” Natalie says. “Didn’t I tell you?”

Cait shakes her head. “You might have.”

“He’s doing so well that they’re already considering promoting him to Assistant Manager,” her mom says.

“That’s wonderful.” So far, everything is better than she could have hoped for. She doesn’t trust this, doesn’t think it will stick.

During the car ride home she is still wary, waiting for the catch. Natalie drives her car, singing along to the oldies station. Beside her in the passenger seat, Cait relaxes and joins in.

“Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie-ie-ie-ie-ie. You were young and so was I-I-I.”

It is a late-summer afternoon. The breeze off Lake Erie, equal parts fresh and fetid, swirls through the open windows and into Cait’s lungs. In the back seat, her parents interrupt each other with news of various births and deaths. Cait can attach about twenty-five percent of these names to faces — a good ratio.

“You and I travel to the beat of a different drum,” she sings with her sister.

No one mentions Peter or the divorce. No one lectures. No one says, “I told you so.”

Home is split-level, lower-middle-class, either suburban-rural or rural-suburban, Cait has never been sure. There have been some changes: on the outside, a new shed, siding painted baby blue instead of white, a bench in the front yard where the big pine tree’s lower branches used to hang; on the inside, new electronics and appliances. Cait’s old bedroom is now an office/all-purpose room, littered with boxes and papers and computers that no longer work. Cait will sleep in Natalie’s room, still carefully preserved despite the fact that Natalie now lives in a downtown apartment.

Robby, who still lives in the basement, comes home from work full of contentment, humility, and scorn for his former behavior. This is a familiar stage — he’d already begun his pattern of recovery and relapse back when Cait was still coming home for Christmas — but she takes it as a good sign that this recovery seems to be lasting longer than the others.

Friday has always been pizza night, so Dad orders a couple of pies. When they arrive, everyone eats together off paper plates at the big round kitchen table, joking and needling one another good-naturedly like in the opening credits of Roseanne. Miraculously, no one crosses the line of offense, even when Cait references a Drunken Robby story from high school. Dad complains as he has always done, pretending to hate his job selling major appliances, while Mom pretends to sympathize, all the while beaming around the table to see all her children together again.

After dinner Cait and Natalie split a bottle of wine with their brother’s approval — “Wine doesn’t tempt me anyway,” Robby insists, sipping a non-alcoholic beer — and the siblings relive Old Times. Since Robby comes between Cait and Natalie in age, he serves as the link between their high school memories. Their laughter becomes louder, more raucous. Cait keeps waiting for their parents, who are in their bedroom, to holler at them to shut up, but the order never comes. They are either sleeping too deeply or making allowances for how long Cait has been away from her brother and sister.

When the wine is gone, they all go to bed. Natalie has drunk too much to drive home, so she decides to room with Cait. They argue over who should sleep in the bed — “It’s your room”; “But you’re the guest” — before they both settle on the floor. Natalie’s body is perpendicular to Cait’s, her head pillowed on Cait’s stomach. They used to lie like this out in the backyard when they were kids, and Natalie seemed so much younger than her, and no one would have thought little Nat would be the one to end up taking care of everyone else. Back then Cait would always say something to make her sister laugh; she loved the vibration of Natalie’s head against her stomach, the way she could take Nat’s laughter into her body and make it her own.

Cait decides to try this again. “Hey, you know what? I’m pretty sure Mom thinks you’re still a virgin.”

Natalie’s laugh gurgles up from a place deep inside her and enters Cait, growing and spreading, lasting until sleep arrives.

* * *

Or maybe it happens like this:

They are all there to greet her, Mom, Dad, Natalie, Robby, and Natalie’s fiancé, Luke. Cait has seen pictures of Luke, but nothing has prepared her for his all-American boy good looks: wavy blond hair, perfect teeth, and just the right amount of muscle. A fine physical specimen.

Natalie’s smile is wide and toothy and utterly unfamiliar. She is tan and fresh-faced, with a pixie haircut straight out of a salon catalogue. If she wasn’t standing right there with the rest of the family, Cait might not have recognized her.

Natalie squeals — a sound Cait has never heard from her sister’s mouth — and traps her in an exuberant embrace.

“It’s so good to see you,” Natalie says.

“It’s good to see you, too.” Cait struggles to free herself from the vice of Natalie’s wiry arms.

Cait hugs the rest of them in turn. Her parents are reserved, while Robby is grimly sober.

“You look so…healthy,” her mom says.

By the time Cait reaches Luke, this statement has taken full effect. Cait sucks in her stomach, churns out a smile, and offers her hand. Luke ignores the hand and hugs her.

“I’ve heard all about you,” he says. His body smells like clean sweat, both tart and sweet.

Seated beside her mother in the back of Natalie’s Subaru, the nausea that began on the plane continues. Her father and Robby are taking another car to the same destination: Natalie’s apartment, where Luke will cook dinner for them. Up front, Natalie and Luke debate the menu for the evening, interrupting and playfully insulting each other as Cait’s sickness grows.

They are stopped at a red light when Luke swivels around in his seat. “I was sorry to hear about your divorce, Cait.” His expression is appropriately mournful.

She swallows something sour that has risen in her throat. “Yeah, me, too.”

But Natalie won’t let her off with a joke, not when Luke is being so earnest. “At least there were no children involved,” she says.

Cait takes a deep breath and checks a harsh reply. After all, Natalie is not being deliberately cruel. It is Cait’s own secrecy that is to blame; she told no one, not even Peter, about the miscarriage she had just before she decided to leave him. He didn’t even know about her pregnancy of only a few weeks, and there was no point in telling him that it had ended. Besides, she was too ashamed of the feeling of relief that complicated and intensified her private grieving.

Even though Natalie doesn’t know all this, Cait cannot keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “Aren’t I the lucky one.”

She is ready to face her sister’s anger and annoyance, but she is not prepared for the knowing look that passes between Natalie and Luke. So kind and sympathetic. So superior. Cait can barely keep down her bile. She breathes deeply again, turns to her mother, and begins an innocuous conversation about a family who used to attend their former church.

When they have exhausted this topic, there is brief silence. Then Natalie begins to narrate her own driving. In order to avoid the pre-ballgame traffic near Progressive Field, she is taking what she calls “the scenic route.” Cait remembers when she was a kid, begging her father to go this way so she could see the “mansions”: old, ivy-covered brick houses that long ago were homes for single families, but even then were mostly segmented into apartment rentals. She can’t believe she once thought they were stately and elegant.

When they reach a street where the houses are smaller but just as old, Natalie slows the car and turns into one of the narrow driveways. Robby parks his car on the street, and they all follow Natalie through the front door and up the stairs to her apartment.

Although Cait has never been here before, the place looks uncannily familiar, like the setting of a dream. She begins to understand why — the living room is filled with treasured objects from their childhood. In front of an armchair is a relic from their parents’ basement — the ottoman they used for jumping contests. On the coffee table is the small brown jug supposedly filled with water from the Fountain of Youth; Robby cried for hours after he managed to pry off the cork and spill a few drops on himself, believing this meant he’d never grow up. There on the end table is Cait’s own desk lamp from high school — she would have recognized the flowered base anywhere. Framed photographs of their grandparents that formerly graced the living room walls at home are now being used as bookends. One bookshelf contains a volume of folktales, Cait’s favorite when she was younger. She actually learned to read by practicing the stories in that book out loud, over and over again, until she could recite each one perfectly.

Cait takes the book from the shelf and flips through its thick, rough-edged pages. Each illustration is so familiar that she doesn’t need to dwell on any one of them for long. Why does she remember so well the shading of a two-dimensional nightingale, but she has already forgotten the contours of Peter’s body? She swallows hard and snaps the book shut.

“Oh, you found that old book of fairy stories,” says Natalie. “It was always my favorite when I was a kid.”

“I didn’t know all this stuff was up for grabs,” Cait says, indicating the book but clearly meaning everything Natalie has taken from their parents’ house.

Natalie flushes beneath her tan. “I didn’t really ‘grab’ anything. Since you’ve been gone so long and I’m the youngest, I ended up with whatever Mom and Dad didn’t want.”

Cait turns her back on Natalie and returns the book to the shelf.

Mom and Dad and Robby drift in from the kitchen, where they have been conferring with Luke about dinner.

“Are you girls fighting already?” Mom says.

Before Cait can speak, Natalie rushes to soothe their mother. “Of course not. We’re just talking, that’s all.”

Luke emerges from the kitchen. “Is lasagna all right with you, Cait?”

She is still sick from the plane and doesn’t think she can possibly eat. “Sounds great,” she says.

Once dinner is baking in the oven, Luke joins them in the living room. He sits next to Natalie on the love seat, draping an arm over her shoulders. With his other arm he reaches across and takes her hand. During a lull in conversation he begins talking about their wedding. He casually mentions that it will take place next August.

Everyone is surprised. “You didn’t tell us you set a date,” Cait’s mom says.

“We just decided today,” Natalie says.

“We wanted to break the news with Cait here.” Luke smiles. “With everyone together.”

“Mmm,” Cait says. “Very thoughtful of you. Indeed.” She is shocked by the force of her own sarcasm. Why is she doing this? Is she really this bitter? Or is she trying to get a rise out of Natalie? To inspire in her sister an emotion other than pity?

If this is her strategy, it does not work. Natalie reddens for a few seconds, then seems to gain strength from the pressure of Luke’s hand on her shoulder. “Oh, God, Cait, I’m sorry. All this talk about marriage. I didn’t think —”

“No, no.” Cait is horrified. This is all wrong. Natalie should be pissed off. “It’s fine. I’m just tired from the plane, that’s all.”

“That’s why I never fly,” Dad says, trying to change the subject.

But Luke’s concern for Cait does not allow this. “We didn’t mean to upstage your big arrival,” he says. “You must have a lot to tell us.” Natalie gives him a warning look, but his kind, mild blue eyes are fixed on Cait. “I’d like to hear about your new job.”

“Babe,” Natalie croons, “she said she’s tired. She doesn’t want to talk about work.”

“No, Nat, it’s okay.” Cait sits up straighter and looks Luke directly in the eye. “I exploit the private miseries of famous people, reporting thirdhand misinformation so that a bunch of bottom-feeders can feel better about their pointless lives.”

Luke’s eyes widen. Natalie looks at the floor, Robby out the window. Her mother begins twisting her hands together.

Her father, bless him, decides to treat it as a joke. “If only we were all so honest about what we do for a living,” he chuckles.

“I need to go check on dinner.” Luke makes a quick exit into the kitchen.

Cait smiles at Natalie, daring her, willing her, to show anger. Natalie must interpret this smile as one of brave self-mockery, however, because she says softly, “I’m sorry, Cait. I never told him much about your new job. He really didn’t know any better.”

Natalie is apologizing — actually apologizing. Again. Cait has lost the battle, probably even the war. It is clear that her little sister no longer regards her as an equal. She gives up and laughs. “It’s fine,” she says. “I was trying to be funny, and it backfired as usual.” She knows that no one believes this, least of all Natalie.

After that, Cait is quiet for most of the evening. The lasagna is so damn good that she manages to choke some of it down despite her queasiness. At dinner Luke asks Robby how his twelve-step program is going. Apparently, Luke and Robby are such good buddies that Luke can just ask him that. Robby talks seriously about his personal relationship with God and how Natalie’s ongoing support saved his life. Mom, Dad, Natalie, and Luke are all beaming. Cait tries to beam, too, but can’t remember how. Instead she lets out a tiny belch, which is either ignored or unheard. Luke promises to help Robby find a job when he’s ready.

Luke and Natalie begin to talk about their wedding again. With furtive glances at Cait, Natalie describes her ideal of a simple church wedding, just family and close friends in attendance, with an outdoor barbecue reception.

“It will be so good to finally see one of my daughters get married,” Mom says. Realizing her mistake, she covers her mouth with a napkin and looks at Cait.

They are all looking at her, expecting her to say or do something. Cait raises her glass of ginger ale and says, “A toast to Luke and Nat. May their marriage last much longer than mine did.” Cait laughs, signaling that everyone else should do the same. They all take their cue, but it is a kind of laughter without smiling. When did they all become so serious, so polite with one another?

Must have happened sometime in the last eight years.

It has been decided that Cait will stay with her sister because Natalie has room and Cait will of course be better situated to do whatever she likes downtown instead of being stuck out in the country. Cait does not protest. She has begun to believe that her family, these well-adjusted strangers who might as well be her personal team of therapists, really do know what’s best for her.

Complaining of headache, which is actually true by now, Cait retires with her baggage to Natalie’s second bedroom, which is basically an office with a spare mattress on the floor. Luke and Natalie whisper as they clean up the remains of dinner. She does not need to listen for the content to know they are talking about her. An hour later she hears the rhythmic creaking of Natalie’s bed and her soft, stifled cries of pleasure. Cait’s hand travels down to her loins. She bites her lip to keep from laughing out loud at herself. Really, she is too ridiculous, too pathetic, to be tragic.

Sleep finds her when she is finished.

* * *

Or maybe this:

Natalie is waiting near the baggage claim with their father. Cait is shocked at the change in her sister. Natalie’s pale forehead is deeply lined, and her eyes do not smile when her mouth does. She looks older than Cait, although she is five years younger.

Cait’s father limps forward — why is he limping? — and gives her a hearty slap on the back. Natalie manages somehow to hug her without much touching, arms wide, fingers lightly grazing Cait’s shoulder blades.

“Where’s everyone else?” Cait says as they walk toward the parking lot.

“Your mother’s at home, making your favorite meal,” her dad says.

“Killing the fatted calf.” Natalie’s voice is so listless that Cait cannot tell if this is a joke or an insult.

“That doesn’t seem like her.” Cait wonders what her favorite meal is supposed to be, but is afraid to ask.

“She hasn’t seen you in so long that she thinks she needs to impress you,” Natalie says. The insult is unmistakable this time. Then, as if to apologize for her tone, Natalie quickly offers more information. “Luke is working.” Her shoulders slump. “He’s always working.”

“Well, you should be glad he’s not lazy,” Cait says.

“It’s not his choice. He has to work extra hours so we can save up enough to buy a house and get married.”

She waits for Natalie to explain why they’re so short on money, but her sister lapses into silence. “And what about Robby?” Cait says. “What’s he up to?”

Dad and Natalie exchange a look. “We don’t know,” says Dad.

Natalie shakes her head, and Cait understands that nothing will be gained from further discussion of Robby.

Cait stows her baggage in the trunk of her sister’s car and is just grasping the handle of the passenger-side door when Natalie, keys in hand, gawks at her across the Subaru’s roof. “Are you serious right now?” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you really going to make your elderly father, who is just recovering from surgery, sit in the back seat?”

Heat rises to her face. “I’m not making anyone do anything. I just went to the front of the car without thinking, that’s all. And I didn’t know he was recovering from surgery.”

“I told you he had surgery on his foot.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did.”

“Surgery or no, I’m hardly elderly,” their father says. “And I don’t mind sitting in the back seat.”

“No, I’ll sit in back,” Cait says.

“No, stay up there,” her dad says. “I’m practically sitting down already. You don’t want to force an elderly man to get up again, do you?” His snorting laughter does not stop his daughters from glaring at each other.

The ride home is silent save for the newscaster on the radio, whose smooth voice recounts all manner of horrors both natural and man-made. A tsunami. A firebombing. Genocide. Human trafficking. Back when Cait was reporting this kind of news, she had a neutral, objective reaction to these types of catastrophes. Now she tries to imagine the scale of their devastation, willing her own problems to shrink in comparison. Instead her troubles seem of a piece with everything else — small contributions to an enormous pile of global waste.

From a certain softening of Natalie’s features, Cait guesses that she is beginning to regret her bout of self-righteousness. Cait’s own anger is starting to wear off with her shame. But she is wary of making a move that might upset her sister, and Natalie can’t or won’t make her own gesture of apology or forgiveness. When did she become this high-strung?

Much is still familiar about the city, but nothing inspires emotion of any kind. She might as well be riding through any city in the U.S.

Their house is more dilapidated than she remembers. The gutters are filthy, the white paint is flaking from the siding, and the two big pine trees in the front yard have all but swallowed up the house. Inside, the first thing is the smell of burnt meat; the second, sun-lit clouds of smoke hanging in the air; the third, her mother sitting on the couch, twisting her hands together and staring into space.

Natalie groans softly.

Cait approaches with caution, trying to recognize her mother in the dazed old woman on the couch. “Hi, Mom.”

Her mother looks at her. “I fucked it up,” she says. “I fucked up your dinner.”

Cait has never before heard her mother say fuck. “It’s okay. I’m not that hungry anyway.”

“I’ll go get us some sandwiches,” her dad says, as usual pretending that nothing is wrong. He touches his wife on the shoulder. “Why don’t you come with me and let the girls deal with this mess?” She nods and follows him out the door.

Natalie is already busy in the kitchen, opening windows and turning on the fan above the stove. On the counter, next to a disabled smoke alarm, is a pan of meat too blackened to be identified.

Cait sniffs. “I think it’s lamb. Just because I once told her about some lamb I really liked in Ireland, she thinks she has to go and cook me lamb.”

Natalie does not answer. She is washing dishes. Cait takes a dish towel from a drawer and grabs a wet plate from the drainer.

Natalie slaps the surface of the dish water, spraying Cait. “I don’t need your help!” She is crying.

Cait does not know how to comfort her sister, and for this she wants to punch her. “After everything I’ve been through, you could cut me some slack.”

“You!” Natalie laughs — a high, false sound — and turns to face Cait. “You had your chance to unload your problems on me. To cry into your phone. You chose not to. Fine. That’s in the past. But this is happening now.”

“What’s happening now? You can’t expect me to know things you’ve never told me. Like about Dad’s foot.”

“I did tell you about Dad’s foot.” Natalie drops her dish rag and swipes at her tears with wet hands, leaving a trail of soap in her hair. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” She laughs again. “You’ll find out everything if you stay here long enough.”

“What’s going on with Mom?”

“What’s going on with Mom is that she’s convinced herself she’s a bad mother, what with Robby’s drinking and your divorce. Then there’s the fact that money was already tight before Dad broke his wrist and all the medical bills for that injury started pouring in. Now there are all the bills for this foot thing, and Luke and I had to pay some of them without Mom and Dad knowing because Dad’s insurance is crap and he’d go bankrupt trying to pay them himself.”

“You didn’t tell me —”

“You knew all of this. Not about me and Luke paying the bills, but everything else.”

This is probably true.

“Anyway, another thing I didn’t tell you, because I didn’t know if she’d appreciate me spreading it around, is that Mom’s so doped up on antidepressants that she’s barely functioning. Then you decide to waltz back into our lives after a decade, adding even more stress to her life.”

Now Cait is the one crying.

“Shit,” Natalie says. She breathes deeply. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you feel unwelcome —”

“You could have fooled me,” Cait sobs. How ugly she must be right now, with her twisted mouth and flaring nostrils. Just like Natalie a minute ago.

“I’m just trying to tell you how it is.”

“Why didn’t you tell me not to come?”

“You already bought your ticket before you told anyone your plans. It’s not my fault you’re so damn secretive.”

“What about you? You just expect me to read between the lines when you give me the bare minimum of information?”

“You’re supposed to ask questions. I hint at things, but you never seem interested.”

Cait has no answer for that.

“So should I leave?” Cait says, choking back another sob.

“God, no. That would just make things worse at this point. Even if Mom’s a mess right now, she really does want you around.”

Cait almost asks, “Do you want me around?” but doesn’t. She goes to the bathroom and washes her face, avoiding the mirror. Then she returns to the kitchen. As she and Natalie finish the dishes, Cait asks more questions about what’s been going on with the family, piecing together the details. Natalie doesn’t talk about herself, but it is clear that her sacrifices have been greater than the sum of money she paid for the medical bills. Cait listens for her sister’s voice to betray a weary self-satisfaction, but the only note she strikes is one of failure. No matter her actual words, she seems to be saying, “If you’ve made a mess of striking out on your own, I’ve done an even worse job of keeping things together here.” Cait’s shame gives way to a sad sense of communion with her sister and, beyond that, with all the failures of the world. They are all unsuccessful martyrs to something. For Cait it is her awful privacy, which she cannot maintain against her contradictory longings, any more than Natalie can protect the family through sheer effort and will.

Her parents return with the sandwiches. The four of them eat, talking of trivial things. No one mentions Robby, or Peter, or the burnt offering of lamb. After dinner, Natalie announces that she is tired and must leave for the night. Cait stays up for a while with her parents, watching an action-adventure movie. Her parents fall asleep on the couch, Mom’s head resting on Dad’s shoulder. Cait goes to bed — Natalie’s bed. Soon she hears water running, her parents’ footsteps in and out of the bathroom. Then their bedroom door closes. Much later she hears a key in the front door, coughing, the refrigerator opening: Robby. She falls asleep thinking of Natalie’s ugly crying face, her hands slapping the soapy water.

* * *

Much as she hates flying, Cait would like to remain at one thousand feet, where all of this is only possibility. The fact is that her visit will be an unknowable blend of these elements, plus more besides. But she is a reporter, although a fallen one, and has dealt in facts for too long. She wants to keep guessing, to keep telling herself stories. The plane begins its final descent, and she leans forward into its momentum, willing herself to be ready.


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