ASHLEY MURPHY - TWIN CITIES
Rain hits the pavement outside of my window. I only know because of the way it hits the windowsill even louder, making me aware of its presence. I grab my sweater off the bed and open my patio door. I breathe in the earthy smell and embrace the dampness that comes with a downpour. The air is crisp, but not cold. After a few refreshing minutes, I find my way back inside but leave the patio door open and let the weather play out its satisfying background noise. I wander into the kitchen, desperately hoping it hasn’t passed the two-hour mark for my pot of coffee to go off. I’m delighted to see the green light illuminated before I even make it close enough to grab the pot. My favorite mug sits on the counter, half full from this morning’s discarded cup. I pick it up and dump its cold remains before refilling it for a cup I’ll be sure to finish. I debate the contents of my fridge: hazelnut or coconut creamer and choose the latter. I watch the liquid immediately lighten and create fanciful swirls as I reach for my designated “coffee spoon” to swirl the light and dark liquid until it creates my ideal even tone.
This is why I love it here. I’m reminded of that each time my patio door hangs open; a luxury afforded in a place where you don’t have to worry about your electric bill. I take a sip of my coffee, savoring the flavor and the warmth that contrasts the cool air flowing into the room. I check the time on the microwave clock, though I know I have nothing to be late for. Not today, anyway. I stroll leisurely into my living room and light the two candles that sit opposite each other on the entertainment center, though I won’t turn on the TV. The sounds of nature are too good to ignore or drown out by some show that will pull me in to another time and place. I only want to be here, now. It’s a new feeling for me, this one of presence. I used to not be this girl; the live in the moment, smell the roses (or the rain) kind of girl. I was on a fast track to anywhere and everywhere. But living like that eventually catches up with you and I’m glad I decided to slow down right before it did. I say slow down… others may describe it more so as blowing up my life.
There I was, engaged to the perfect man. You know, the one who smiles at all of your friends and family and somehow always knows the perfect thing to say to effortlessly fall into everyone’s good graces, but doesn’t quite love you in the way romance movies made you think you’d be loved. But that’s why they’re movies, right? In the morning, after waking up promptly at 4:45am, next to the man of my dreams, I’d step into a steaming hot shower and get dressed in the half-light that seeped from the bathroom into the bedroom. A pencil skirt. Button-down blouse with a fun print; playful, but professional. Black pumps. Pearls from some ancient anniversary with Brandon. I was on my way to becoming the woman I’d always dreamed I’d be: an estate attorney in a high-rise building with perfectly curled blonde hair and a rock on my finger that was incredibly distracting in meetings.
I think of myself now, sitting in my apartment with strands of dark-brown hair falling loosely and sporadically out of my low bun. I don’t even own an alarm clock and I have to laugh at the way we try to plan out our lives. The reason I don’t quite agree with those who think I blew up my life is because nothing happened; nothing changed. Except me, I suppose. But even then, I think it always would’ve come to this; I always would’ve come to this.
It was a chilly September morning on the west coast. I awoke as usual at 4:45am, but this time, I didn’t get up. I snuggled in tight next to Brandon who didn’t give the slightest signal that he was awake. I knew he wouldn’t be up until well after 7am. Brandon had worked at his father’s company for over 5 years now. As many heirs do, he rejected the idea of falling into a predetermined life at first, but after years of entry-level sales roles, he had a change of heart. I can’t say I blame him. Brandon’s father was a good man. It had been his own father that had started Jefferson’s Bakery in 1953 and now, you couldn’t take a trip along the west coast without stopping in one. They were on every corner, yet still provided the quality of that original Jefferson’s in the heart of Oakland. When grandpa Jefferson passed, Brandon’s father, Tom stepped up, no questions asked to continue his old man’s dream. Tom was a gentle, yet strong man. He made me wish I still felt for Brandon the way I used to. I just wasn’t sure we were what either of us wanted anymore. I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. So, I left.
I don’t know what it was. My best friend from law school, Sharon claims it was a phone call that pulled me north and never brought me back to her. My distant, but overbearing mother says it was my lack of ambition that would rip me from a job I worked so hard to get. Brandon told me it was fear; of the way my life was turning out, of what it meant to stay. Tom told me it was just me. I’ve always liked that explanation best.
“Hi. Is this Natalie Clu-ette?”
“It’s Clu-it, but this is she.”
“My apologies, Ms. Cluett. This is Fred Armstrong from Emelle’s Catering. I’m calling on behalf of Mrs. Carlie Price. You were her emergency contact.”
“Carlie…” I haven’t heard the name in years, but the urgency in the man’s voice forces me to gather my thoughts. “Is she okay?”
“I was hoping you would have some insight on that. We haven’t seen her in a few days. It’s very much unlike her to not show up to her shift, but I’m embarrassed to say with it being our busy time of the year, we kind of let the matter blow over until things settled down. We’ve tried reaching her on her cell, but thought it was time we reach out to a close friend.”
“Wow… okay. Unfortunately, we aren’t all that close. In fact, it’s been years since we last spoke. I’m not sure I can be of much help…” I think back to him calling her a ‘Mrs.’ “Have you tried um.. Mr. Price?” The name feels foreign in my mouth. I can’t conjure up an image of the man I’m inquiring about.
“He doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere in her file and it seems Carlie’s address is an old one. If you’re her emergency contact, I’m surprised to hear you aren’t close.” There’s a brief pause and then he picks back up before I can respond, letting his professional demeanor slip a little. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business. I’m just disappointed we aren’t any closer to finding her… And it’s 6am,” he says as if he’s just now realizing. “Sorry! Again.”
“It’s okay. I’m up anyway. Listen, I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. I’m not quite sure why Carlie would have listed me, but I hope you can find her… Maybe she’s just sick or something.”
“Yeah, maybe….” He trails off and we sit in silence for a solid minute. I wonder if this is a coworker of Carlie’s who had more of a connection with her than he’s letting on. Or maybe just a concerned supervisor. He seems more distraught than the average employee would be. “Anyway, I am wasting your time!” He jokes awkwardly. “My apologies. Have a great rest of your day and sorry to bother you.”
“Would it be helpful if I came there?” I blurt out. Even I’m surprised by this question.
“Oh, we’re not a restaurant, just…”
“I mean to Vancouver,” I clarify.
“Oh! Uh... This is an American phone number, is it not?”
“It is…. California. Bay area. Oakland… if you’ve heard of it.”
“…I have. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to give you that advice. If you think it would help find your friend, then sure. But I’m not sure it’s necessary until we get more information.”
“Right. Thanks, Fred! I’ll talk to you later.” I hang up the phone, so energized by this sudden sense of purpose that I don’t even realize my mistake in telling Fred I’d talk to him later. Like when your waiter says, “enjoy your meal” and you awkwardly mumble “you too” before you realize they aren’t eating.
I look at my alarm clock once more. Bright red lines form the numbers 6:22 and I race to my closet, not even considering waking Brandon. I grab the only luggage we keep in our bedroom closet: a Nike duffle bag that Brandon takes to the gym on the rare occasion that he has time to go and fill it with the few outfits I have that don’t consist of a pencil skirt and a blouse. I grab my toothbrush off of our bathroom sink and toss it in the side pocket, along with a travel-size toothpaste and my phone charger. I quickly realize I’m getting ahead of myself and open B’s laptop that lay charging on his nightstand. I type “Oakland to Vancouver” into the search bar of Google and click on the first listed flight.
6:55 and I almost walk out of the house in my pajamas. “Shit.” I whisper and run back into our bathroom to quickly change into an outfit I randomly pick from my duffle bag. I throw my pajamas in in their place and walk out the door. A Lyft is waiting out front to take me to the airport, and it’s not until I’m on the plane that I pause enough to reflect on the last few hours of the morning.
I check my phone. 8:38. We’re ascending now so I won’t know if Brandon has texted me until I land in nearly 4 hours, and the anticipation is almost enough to drive my body through the aisle and into the cockpit to tell the pilot to turn the plane around. Instead, I order a mimosa and let the champagne and dwindling adrenaline lull me to sleep.
I awake to incessant beeping and a speaker from overhead imploring us to fasten our seatbelts for the remainder of the ride. This must mean we’re no more than 30 minutes from our destination, and I feel the anticipation rising up into my chest again. He probably will just assume you’re at work. It is a Thursday, after all. I reassure myself that Brandon won’t suspect anything is off, but I don’t dare question what I’m doing or when I plan on going back. I’m afraid of my answer and that’s definitely a part of it, but it also feels good to be here: in this seat that I bought, in clothes that don’t make any sense together; thrown on hastily in the dark. It feels good to not know where I’ll be tomorrow, when normally I’d know I’d be at… WORK. My faint smile that I hadn’t even felt form evaporates and my brain enters panic mode as if it never left. I didn’t even consider calling the firm to take a sick day and now it’s far too late. I push my body back against my seat and try to force myself to relax. But my mind is full of meetings that I never cancelled and lunch plans that I won’t show up to. I close my eyes, trying too hard to sleep for anything to actually happen until I finally feel the wheels of the plain touch the ground with a roughness. The Vancouver ground. What. The. Fuck?
I bring myself back with the realization that I can now take my phone off airplane mode. Texts slowly pile in – two from my boss. “Hey lady. Just makin sure you’re good. Call when you can.” And “A little worried. Please call.” One from my 9:00 meeting “Hey, I’m at your office. Guessing you’re running behind. I’ll wait for you here!” And one from B. No missed calls, which is a good sign, but I’m afraid to open it. We begin deboarding and I decide to wait for that final message. I want to be available for whatever lengthy response (or potential phone call) will have to happen.
I grab my Nike bag from overhead and thank the flight attendants as I exit the plane and walk down a long hallway into the Vancouver airport. Yep, Nat. Cool. You’re in fucking Vancouver. I grab the nearest seat at a gate full of people anxiously awaiting their departure and open my phone. I take a deep breath and slide open Brandon’s message. “House is a little messy. Oversleep? Please pick up when you get home. – B”
I have to stop myself from laughing out loud, but a wide grin makes its way across my face regardless of my best efforts. Of course Brandon didn’t notice anything was amiss. He’s only concerned about the mess I made that puts a damper on his otherwise perfect morning. I begin typing my response but pause before deciding against it and exiting my messages altogether. I call the only number I know in Vancouver.
“Emelle’s Catering. How can we help you?”
“Oh hi! Is this Fred?” I ask nervously, when clearly, a woman answered the phone.
“Um no, this is Lisa. Fred is not in at the moment, but I’m sure I can help you. Do you have an event number?”
“I- no. I was just wondering where you’re located. I’d love to try the food!” I lie.
“Oh, we actually don’t have a restaurant. We just cater events. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Yes, it’s Nat… Natalie Cluett.” I imagine how strange this is sounding on the other end of the phone and decide to come clean. “I’m sorry. Fred called me this morning. I know Carlie… I’m…” Here comes a statement I haven’t said in years. “I’m her sister.”
“Oh!” Lisa calls out to someone in the background. “It’s someone for Carlie!! It’s someone for Carlie!!” Her voice comes back into my ear, full volume. “Great! I’m so glad you called! Is she okay?”
I realize instantly that my explanation wasn’t nearly good enough considering the circumstances, and I brace for Lisa’s disappointment as I say, “Oh no… I’m so sorry. I don’t actually know where Carlie is. I spoke with Fred earlier this morning and he told me she was missing…” Before I know it, I’m oversharing to delay her disappointment. “She- I’m Natalie. And Carlie and I, well, truthfully, we aren’t very close. She left our family years ago - about 8 years ago now and I haven’t really talked to her since… well aside from a birthday text here and there, but even that stopped some years ago now.” I could kick myself to get to the chase. “So anyway, I’m in Vancouver now! I just came up from California this morning and I thought…” I trail off because I don’t know what I thought. How could this possibly be helpful? How is this beneficial at all for her beloved coworkers – people who actually know her… have a relationship with her… much more than I do?
Though her voice drops an octave, Lisa is too nice to let me feel how I should in this moment. “No, no! Thank you, Natalie! That’s great. Maybe we can all work together and find her. Our office is at 177 W 7th Ave. Just knock when you get here, and I’ll let you in. Thank you for reaching out to us.”
“Thank you, Lisa. I’ll see you soon.” I hang up and am flooded with embarrassment over the whole call. I rush through the airport until I find the public transit and buy a bus ticket, then confirm with the driver (much to his annoyance) that this bus is going near W 7th street. When I arrive at Emelle’s, I’m surprised at how beautiful it is. Tall glass windows display beautiful hardwood countertops with matching barstools and as I walk toward the door, I see who I assume is Lisa walking toward me to meet me from the other side. She opens the door for me before I’m even able to knock and flashes a bright smile so big that her red ponytail swings in unison with her head. “You must be Natalie!”
“I am… and Lisa?”
“Yes, hi! Welcome to Emelle’s. Come on in… This is Justin, Marco and Steph.” She draws her hand out to display three people in white shirts and black ties huddled over a document on a table. They each look up briefly to wave as they hear their names. “You know Fred, though he’s not here at the moment.”
“Hi,” I say shyly, feeling more and more ridiculous with each passing moment. My nervous feelings turn into word vomit to fill in the silence. “I don’t know why I’m here. This is really embarrassing. You guys clearly have work to do. You can’t just put your day on hold because my estranged sister is missing. I’m so sorry.”
Lisa places her hand on my arm, and I instantly feel calmer. “Carlie is our favorite. She’s kind and bright and dedicated to her job here, to all of us. Nothing is more important to us than making sure she’s okay.” She walks around the counter before continuing. “You are right in that we still have work to do. Unfortunately, this is a very busy time of year and we have a lot of commitments we can’t afford to break. However, we’ve worked out a plan, and I’m going to take the rest of the day off to see what I can find out. If you’d like to come with me, you’re welcome to do so.”
“Sure,” I say, unsure of where I’d go otherwise. “Where are you headed?”
“My coworkers and I talked it over and we’re pretty sure Carlie once mentioned her husband working at a bank downtown. She didn’t talk about him much. She’s very open and kind, but pretty private about her personal life.”
I think about how Fred didn’t know who I was or realize that we were estranged. “That makes sense.”
“But Justin remembers her mentioning Canadian Western, but I swear she said HSBC. Totally different, right? It’s funny how memory works.” We climb into Lisa’s car and she starts the ignition and begins to back out. “We’ll head to Canadian Western and hit HSBC on the way. Any requests?” Lisa asks turning up the radio and flashing me with another bright smile.
I get the feeling that Lisa is a generally positive person and it calms me down to feel that energy radiating off of her. “I’m good with whatever,” I say, and it feels genuine.
I let my mind drift as Lisa sings along to what I can only imagine is some current pop song. Carlie and I had been Irish twins – less than a year apart and we used to joke that there was a special telepathy between us, even stronger than true twins. Yet somehow, we ended up here. I look over at Lisa and see a life Carlie built without our family, without mom and I, without me. She had friends, fell in love, got engaged, and we never heard a word. There was a wedding, probably filled with love and laughter if she’s still the same Carlie I knew, and we missed it. I missed it. And here I am, on my way to meet her husband. Even being nearly married myself, it feels strange to acknowledge that she’s married; grown up. She has a new best friend, has for years, and it’s not me.
We arrive at HSBC, and Lisa cuts off the engine and rushes around the car to open the door for me.
“Ah, thank you,” I smile at her, self-conscious that mine could never match the brightness of hers.
“Of course, m’lady,” Lisa jokes and walks toward two large glass doors. We enter the building and see a sharp-looking woman in glasses sitting at the front desk. Lisa takes control, and I’m glad. Her cheeriness is what we need right now.
“Hi! My colleague and I are looking for a Mr. Price. He’s the husband of a dear friend of ours, and his wife said we could find him here.” She lowers her voice like she’s letting the receptionist in on a secret. “She wants to surprise him for lunch. We’re thinking bun in the oven, but mum’s the word.” She places her finger over her lips and the lady behind the desk is not amused.
I’m surprised at how swiftly someone so kind can lie through their teeth. The receptionist glances over at me, as if to confirm this random woman’s story. I just smile and nod, hoping I’m half as convincing as Lisa and watch as she picks up the phone.
“There’s someone here to see Price… Okay… Understood, I’ll let them know.” She places the phone back on the receiver and looks up at us with a wry smile. “He’s in a meeting at the moment.”
Apparently, she hopes this is enough to deter us, but she’s not quite so lucky. “Oh, of course! We’ll wait here.” Lisa smiles at her and turns to sit on tan leather couches that wrap around a short coffee table with a hideous blue and white patterned rug beneath it. As we wait, I remember my boss’s urgent texts and how worried she must be about me. I debate stepping outside to make a quick phone call to let her know I’m okay but figure it’s best to truly disappear for the day. I’ll explain tomorrow. Whenever tomorrow may be.
It’s about an hour before the receptionist unhappily waves us back over to her desk. “Mr. Price will see you now. He’s on the third floor. Office number 315. His assistant will see you in.”
Lisa mumbles a “thank you” and grabs my arm to rush us over to the elevators. “I knew it was HSBC! I can’t wait to rub it in Justin’s face.” We enter the elevator and press the 3 and Lisa turns to me. “I’m sure she’s okay, right? Surely, her husband wouldn’t just be at his office as per usual if that wasn’t the case.”
“I’m sure,” I reply, though I’m not sure at all. I have no idea who this man is or what he’s like with Carlie. I imagine what B would do if I went missing and feel a shudder run through my body at the realization that I essentially went missing today and he’s likely at the office, annoyed by the messy house he left this morning. I try to comfort myself with the thought that if I were gone multiple days, surely, he would be more concerned. But I can’t seem to fully convince myself before we arrive on the third floor.
As soon as the doors open, we can see Mr. Price’s office, two doors down on the right. Through the glass, only a woman with black, chopped hair and a smart suit is within view. We walk in and she greets us warmly. “You must be the two women here to see Mr. Price! Something about a secret lunch I hear?” She winks at us. “You can go on into his office. He’s expecting you.”
We step into Mr. Price’s office, and I’m shocked at how well-decorated it is. Pictures of this man and my sister line his desk and a name tag that merely reads “Pie” sits in the center. Even his desk essentials: printer, stapler, a cup holding pens are all color-coordinated. Not what you would expect from a man working in a bank in Vancouver. His suit is cleanly pressed, and he wears a bright pink tie unironically, with a matching pocket square. I finally make my way up to his face and he’s undeniably handsome, but not in the way that’s so perfect, it’s boring. His nose is a little too large for his face and that thing they say about symmetry being what constitutes beauty is certainly not true for him. His eyebrows are a little bushy and his hair falls in front of his face a little, though it’s apparent he’s tried to keep it in place with a generous amount of product. Yet, these small flaws only add to his intriguing beauty.
He motions at his assistant to shut his door and she does so, immediately. When he finally speaks, his voice glides like butter, and I’m uncomfortable at how much I’m instantly attracted to him. “So, I hear my wife wants to meet me for lunch.” Lisa and I nod, but exchange looks briefly. “That’s why I had to see you two as soon as my meeting was done. My wife isn’t here, so that can’t be possible. Who are you?”
Lisa introduces herself and he instantly recognizes her name, probably from countless work stories and nights out and then, it’s my turn. Mr. Price, Vancouver banker, husband of my estranged sister and I lock eyes and it’s him who speaks first. “…Nat?”
I’m taken aback by the look of disbelief on his face, by the fact that he’s even heard of me or recognizes me at all so many years from when any photos of Carlie and I would have been taken. “…Yes,” I manage to say. “You recognize me?”
“I do! Of course. I know you and Carlie don’t talk much, if at all these days, but she keeps up with everything you guys do. Always showing me photos on Facebook and whatnot. Sorry, this must be weird for you and where are my manners? I’m Daniel Price,” he says, looking at both of us, “but people call me “Pie” and you’re welcome to do the same!” He extends his hand, likely out of habit to shake ours and his touch is warm and inviting, somehow. “Childhood nickname that stuck around,” He explains. “Everyone used to call me “Price,” but my little nephew couldn’t quite say it and it seems “Uncle Pie” shortened to “Pie” over the years.” My eyes shift back to the name plate on his desk, and I imagine how easy it would be to fall in love with a man like Pie.
I just smile in response, filled with delight at the thought that Carlie still checks up on me, followed by guilt that I never really did the same for her. Both of these feelings get pressed down with a quickness when I’m brought back to the crushing reason we’re here. Thankfully, Lisa saves me from drowning in my own thoughts.
“You mentioned that your wife isn’t here. That’s actually the reason we came. She’s been missing for days. She hasn’t showed up at work, and Natalie here was listed as her only emergency contact. We only found you by chance because my coworker and I remembered Carlie once mentioning you work in a bank downtown. Do you know where she is?” It all flows out of Lisa, almost as one sentence and I realize how close she must be to Carlie and how truly devastating this is for her, behind her shiny disposition.
“It’s nearly 2pm. Are you ladies hungry at all? How about that lunch?”
We walk out of the building with Mr. Pr… Pie and onto the street. “There’s an Italian place just up the road. We’ll go there.” We stop at a place called La Pentola and once we’re seated, Lisa and I are practically bursting with anticipation to hear what Pie has to say. Why take us to eat if the story isn’t a long one?
“I woke up three mornings ago, and Car was gone. I figured she had to work early and just forgot to tell me. I know it’s a busy time of year for you all,” he motions to Lisa, still in her catering attire. “It was only when I found a note from her on the kitchen counter that I realized that wasn’t the case.” I’m embarrassed by the wave of relief that washes over me that even Mr. Perfect Pie, who calls Carlie “Car” and probably makes her breakfast every morning, wasn’t concerned at her unusual absence. He takes a pause, but it’s clear Lisa doesn’t wish to wait for him to continue on his own.
“What did the note say?” She asks.
“It said to know that she was happy.” Worry mixed with sadness flashes across his face, knitting his bushy brows together momentarily. “That she would be back, but life isn’t meant to be like this. That she couldn’t live selfishly anymore. That was pretty much it. I’m unsure what to think of it all, if I’m being honest. I’ve tried calling, far too many times, but her phone is off.”
In this moment, I feel for Mr. Pie. He seems like the kind of guy whose only fault was loving his wife wholeheartedly. I feel compelled to comfort him, to hold him while he cries. He needs his wife in a way that B never needs me.
“I guess I’m only okay because she did say she’ll be back and it’s unlike Car to not stick to her word. I’m just getting concerned as the days pass, and I’m unable to reach her.” He angles his body toward me. “That’s why I’m so glad you’re here, Nat! This must be a sign that all will be okay. You, in Vancouver. All the way from Mobile!”
“I actually live in California now. Bay area.”
“That’s right… Oakland. But this is great! You know Car better than anyone. The Irish twin telepathy thing. Surely, you have some idea of where she might go in a time like this.”
I almost break down right here in the restaurant as our waiter walks over with our food. The faith Pie has in me shakes me to my core. I don’t know my sister better than anyone. I don’t even know her better than the people at this table. She left, and I never looked back. She made sure I was okay and happy, and I didn’t do the same for her. I didn’t know she was married. I don’t know who she is or where she’d go to get away from it all. I left a man this morning who’s only ever been kind to me and didn’t tell him where I was going, abandoned a job that I love and left an empty seat across from my best friend at lunch.
Pie, being the perfect human that he is, must be able to sense my despair because he’s quick to atone. “I don’t mean to put all of this pressure on you! We can all find her together, I’m sure of it. I guess she needs some space, and that’s okay. I just want to know she’s okay.”
We pretty much finish our food in silence and walk Pie back to HSBC. We make a plan to meet again tomorrow morning and go from there. When we’re back in Lisa’s car, she grabs my hand.
“That was a lot. I’m not sure I should have suggested you come with me, and I apologize for that.”
“No way, Lisa! You’ve truly made this day bearable. If I’m being honest, I didn’t really leave home in the best of conditions…” Her face twists up in curiosity, and I carefully add “No one knows I’m here.”
“Oh…” We’re silent for a moment, and once again, I’m embarrassed. Lisa is probably realizing that she’s in the car with a stranger who is getting more and more strange as the day goes on. “I’m assuming you have nowhere to stay then. Want to stay at mine?” She looks at me with pleading eyes, as if it would mean more to her than to me if I say yes.
“That would be wonderful, but I don’t want to impose…”
“It’s no problem! I live alone. Not even a pet! You can stay with me until you figure out your next move.”
I lean back in the passenger seat and truly let my body relax for the first time today. “I bet Carlie loves you,” I say and let the radio wash over me as we head back to Lisa’s.
She pulls a blow-up mattress and air pump out of the closet, and the hum fills the cramped space as it inflates. A couple minutes later it’s done, and Lisa covers it with a sheet, a beautiful floral, navy comforter and two pillows. “It’s not much,” she says, looking at it flatly. “Sorry. I only have one bedroom here. Vancouver rent on a caterer’s budget isn’t easy.” She laughs, and I smile.
“It’s perfect. Just what I needed. Thank you, again. For letting me stay here and just for today. Everything, really.”
Lisa flashes her bright smile and says “It’s no problem. Really. Goodnight.”
I quietly brush my teeth in Lisa’s only bathroom and slip into the pajamas I almost walked out of the house in this morning. This morning. It’s crazy to think of the day I’ve had. I pile my blonde hair into a messy bun on top of my head and splash some water onto my face, relieved to feel somewhat cleaner after a day of travelling. I flip the switch and walk into the living room, laying down on my bed for the night. I can’t remember the last time I slept on an air mattress, but tonight, it may as well be a California King.
I close my eyes and Carlie’s letter pops into my head. Pie said she talked about wanting to not live selfishly. I apply that to my own life: how selfish I’ve been today, alone, but really over the past 8 years. I never checked on Carlie when she left. I was hurt and confused, but I had my own life. I was in college at Berkeley and happy to leave my past in Mobile, Alabama. We had grown up there, and it was great for a while. Sometimes I miss the quaint, small-town feel; stopping in a bakery and seeing your coworkers and friends getting their morning coffee, the whole town joining together for church on Sundays. That was when our family felt close-knit, and we could somewhat ignore the fact that our mom had never really wanted kids. She did her best raising us alone. She had a brief relationship with our dad that she thought at one time would end in marriage. But once she unexpectedly got pregnant with their second child, she knew it would be too much for him before she even showed him the test.
It took me a while to get over the fact that he left us, but now, I don’t even think of him. Instead I think of my mom; abandoned with two kids she never truly wanted and yet, raising us, nonetheless. I’m grateful to her for giving us a family life in Mobile and keeping up the façade that she was content with that, even if her mask did slip on occasion.
Once Carlie and I were 18, she was constantly out of town. Travelling to tropical islands with various suitors or working a job she conveniently found in a neighboring city. Sometimes, I’d come home from Berkeley in the summers, missing the Alabama heat, and my mom wouldn’t even show up to our childhood home until days before I had to leave again. Being 29 now, I don’t blame her. She at least had the decency to wait until we were 18 to live out her most selfish dreams.
Selfish. That’s what I’d been since 18, pretty much. Life in Berkeley started to overtake my life in Mobile, and I slowly stopped coming home for holidays or in the summers. My last year there, I met Brandon. He was studying business and psychology, trying hard to escape his family’s legacy and make something of his own, and I could relate to that. I thought it made him bold, exciting and brave, but really he was selfish, just like me. Just like all 20-somethings. Carlie never went to college. She stayed in our house in Mobile until she was 21. Since our mother was rarely there, she practically owned the place. We saw each other less and less in those days before she left. Mom called me in hysterics one day saying Carlie had all of her bags packed and was leaving for Canada in a few days. She begged me to come home to tell her goodbye, and I never did. I couldn’t deal with her dramatics and her sudden desire to pretend she cared whether either of us were ever in that empty house or not. In a way, I think she blames me for Carlie leaving. Like I could’ve stopped her had I just skipped my classes and come home for a week. I never really knew why she left. I just knew she never visited or reached out to either of us. Mom would call me crying every week for the next few months, until I would come to Mobile to console her.
But after some years passed, it became our new normal. I was deep into a long-term relationship with Brandon, and his family became my new one. Tom, the loving, advice-doling father I never had and his mother, Betty the present, but calm mother I never knew. A therapist would probably tell me they were the real reason I stuck it out with B for so long, but I really loved him. Love him. Love is just a little emptier than I thought it would be.
My thoughts are interrupted by my phone buzzing loudly next to my pillow and I grab it, subconsciously checking the screen. A “B” with a heart emoji next to it appears, and I almost don’t answer. The excitement of today, no traces of my real life to be found. This version of Nat in Vancouver is nearly too good to let go of. Besides, Brandon is probably just wondering why I haven’t been home to clean yet. I slide my finger across the screen to answer the call, but say nothing.
“Babe?” His voice is desperate, searching. “Nat?”
“Where are you?” His voice isn’t angry, just exhausted, defeated.
“I’m…” I think twice about telling him my location, though a quick scan of his search history would take care of that. “I had to take a trip. My sister’s missing. I’m trying to help find her.”
“Okay. You scared me. Carlie?” He asks as if I have another sister.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story.”
“You guys haven’t spoken in years. Do you think she’s okay?”
“I think so. I don’t really know, B. It’s a little scary, but I just felt that I had to be here.”
“Where is here? Why didn’t you tell me? Where are you?”
“I don’t want to say. I need to be here, right now. I’ll let you know if I find out anything or… if I need you.”
I can tell he’s hurt by this because he doesn’t speak for a few moments.
“Okay… well, I love you. I mean, this is just weird. You’re kind of scaring me. And your boss called today. It’s so unlike you to miss work, unannounced.”
I don’t say anything because I’m not entirely sure that it is unlike me. It’s unlike the version of me that Brandon knows, that’s for sure.
“Are you okay?” He says it so low, it’s almost a whisper. I can feel his concern for me, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s the first time I’ve felt anything from him in a while.
“I am,” I breathe.
“I hope she’s okay, babe. I’m going to keep checking in on you every night. I’ll talk to your boss for you, don’t worry.” I’m reminded of what made me fall in love with Brandon. It wasn’t just that he was on a mission to pave his own path in life, but that he was kind. He never pried, he didn’t need all of the answers and he never cared for platitudes. He was genuine through and through.
“I love you.” I hang up before I have time to hear his response, wanting this feeling to linger well into the night and carry me to sleep.
I awake to dust dancing around the room in rays of sunlight and the sound of running water and dishes clinking in the kitchen.
“Good morning, sleepy head!” Lisa sings from behind me.
I prop myself up on one elbow and squint into one of the sun’s rays seeping through the blinds. “What time is it?”
“Oh,” I say and let my elbow drop as I plop back on to the air mattress. “Do you work today?”
“Nope, Friday’s are my days off.”
I tilt my head back to look at her, fully dressed for the day, beautiful, red hair falling down in waves over her shoulders. She must notice my glance because she adds “I can’t really sleep in anymore. What do they call it? Occupational hazard?”
She walks over to me and hands me a cup of coffee. “But, we do have a very important meeting today! Pie will be expecting us soon. We’re meeting outside of his office, remember? You’re welcome to grab a shower.”
“Ah, yes. Pie,” I say and take a long swig of my coffee. It’s black, which isn’t usually how I take it, but I savor it, nonetheless. “I think I’ll take you up on that!”
I grab my Nike duffle and head into the bathroom. I let the water get hot and then let my hair fall down my back as I step under the steady stream. The water feels amazing and it feels great to shower again after having gone a couple of days without one. I reach for Lisa’s Garnier strawberry-scented shampoo and realize I didn’t pack myself any real toiletries. Maybe today I could find a local store and pick some up. She’s already opened her place up to me, the least I could do is not use all of her products. My stomach growls, and I realize the only thing I’ve eaten in Vancouver has been the Italian food from yesterday. I secretly hope Lisa is a breakfast person as I finish washing my hair and body and step out of the shower into a steam-filled room. I grab my brush out of my bag and my hand hits something solid. “Ow,” I say to myself, searching for the culprit. It’s my ring box I slid off of the counter when I grabbed my toothbrush. I look at my ring finger – a 3-carat Emerald cut diamond surrounded by 18K gold. My dream ring. I slip it off of my finger and place it in the box. In Oakland, I’m soon-to-be Mrs. Natalie Jefferson; the Jefferson’s Bakery Jeffersons. In Vancouver, I feel so detached from her. I’m Natalie Cluett from Mobile, searching for my long-lost sister, Carlie Clue… Price.
I pull clothes out of my bag and it’s the first time I get a good look at what I brought with me: three tshirts from various vacations B and I have taken together, a long sleeve causal blouse, a pair of trusty jeans, one pair of black leggings, some tennis shoes I used to run in, a pair of Converse and some brown ankle boots. I slip on a faded Navy tee that reads “Boulder, Colorado” on the front with mountains in the background – a faded memory of a ski trip B and I took 4 years ago and my trusty jeans and converse. I walk out of the bathroom, not quite matching Lisa’s stylish skinny jeans and polka-dot top but feeling more comfortable than I’ve felt in forever.
“Ready to go?” Lisa asks, cheerily. I nod enthusiastically and grab my purse. My stomach growls once more. “Don’t worry,” Lisa says, rubbing her own stomach. “We’re going to see if Pie would be up to treating us again.” She smirks at me and we’re out the door, on our way back to HSBC.
We meet Pie in the parking lot and today, he’s much more casual, helping me feel even more comfortable. I smile to myself. The ever-considerate Perfect Pie. He’s in jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “UBC Thunder.” Somehow, he looks even more attractive today; all casual with his hair set free. He combs his fingers through it. “Good morning, my friends! Shall we get on with our day?”
“Yes sir!” Lisa chimes. “Though we have one request… food. Please.”
Pie smiles, and I’m almost positive his teeth actually sparkle. “You get me,” he says, placing his hand on his chest.
We pile into Pie’s car, a black SUV with a car seat in the back, and I realize I don’t know anything about Pie and Car. Car and Pie. The perfect parents. He must catch me staring at it, working out the possibilities in my head because he says “For my niece. My brother and sister-in-law live here, and Car and I watch their kids for them all the time.”
“Gotcha,” I say, embarrassed that I let myself stare long enough for him to notice. I begin to fantasize about Car…lie and Pie’s life together. Her catering some evenings and weekends, him working 9-5 at a bank. Not dream jobs from an outside perspective, but they live comfortably and enjoy what they do. I imagine their house… apartment? House. A little older, but unique with wood paneling, like most of the houses I’ve seen in this city so far. I bet they hold hands during nightly strolls through their neighborhood where they occasionally see a friendly face and wave at one another. I bet they lay on a pallet on their living room floor they made just for a movie night and muse about their future together. They watch their niece and nephew on weekends when they’re both off work and look at each other happily, content knowing that one day, they’ll have little runts of their own. And they’ll be perfect parents. Car and Pie. Pie and Car.
We pull up to a cute and quaint café called Le Petit Belge. “Most people rave about Café Medina, but this is really the best breakfast in town,” Pie tells me.
We get a table inside and the cozy environment reminds me of Mobile, and I feel a pang of nostalgia. We order our food; Lisa and Pie going with breakfast classics and me, the tourist, trying the famous Belgian waffles.
“So,” Pie starts. “I’m not sure what we’ll get out of these meetings, but I say we have them once a day until we find out more information about where Car may be.”
“I can work with that,” Lisa adds.
“I definitely can,” I say, knowing I have nothing else to do with my time here.
“Has anyone thought of anything further since we met yesterday?” Lisa asks.
I surprise myself by being the first to speak. “I was really focusing in on the fact that she said she wanted to live less selfishly in her note to you, Pie. I can relate to that more than I’d like to admit. But, I was wondering if you had any more insight on what it may mean to her.”
Pie gives a dumbfounded look and says “I have no idea. I mean, she’s one of the most selfless people I know. She’s always giving her time to others whether it’s picking up a shift at Emelle’s or offering to babysit my niece and nephew even when I tell her it’s okay to say ‘no.’”
“I second that,” Lisa says. “She’s covered for me one too many times at work when I couldn’t make it in or even when I just didn’t want to. I can’t think of a single time she’s been selfish. No one would describe her as that.”
I look at both Lisa and Pie and wish anyone in my life would talk about me this way if I were missing. I’m not so sure they would be able to say the same things about me. I think hard about any time I have considered Carlie selfish, and I can only think of her leaving us. But I’m not even sure that was the bad kind of selfishness, and I’m not sure it’d be good to bring up now. Her loved ones in her current life have a beautiful image of Carlie, and I don’t want to taint it with my bitter image of who she used to be. Or even worse, who I made her out to be.
That night, back at Lisa’s, I snuggle into my bed and doze off early this time, no racing thoughts. I’m awoken around 11pm by my phone buzzing again.
“Hello?” I pick up mindlessly, without even checking to see who it is, my voice strained with sleep. I’m suddenly aware that I’m in Vancouver, and I’ve abandoned most people who would be trying to call me.
“Hey babe. Did I wake you?”
B. I sigh, relieved. “I’m awake. I’m okay. No further news today,” I say, quickly relaying all of the information I’m sure he’s calling for.
“Okay…” He lingers, and I’m unsure why. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. Going to be a weird weekend without you.”
I just say “yeah,” and he pauses for a moment. “Do you remember Senior year at Berkeley? When I would text you at 8pm to come give me a goodnight kiss because we lived in the same apartment complex?”
I smile at the thought of me, 21 years old, running across the complex without even taking the time to respond to the text. “I do,” I say. “Your roommate didn’t love that.”
He laughs. “That, he did not… but I did.”
“Me too. A goodnight kiss would always turn into a few hours at least…”
“Spending the night, at most,” he finishes. “I’ve just been thinking of you. What did you do today?”
I realize he’s not wanting to get off of the phone any time soon, so I lean in. I tell him all about meeting Lisa at the place where Carlie works, her peppiness and ponytail and a man named Pie who married my sister. He laughs and says how pompous it is to insist someone you just met call you a familiar nickname. I agree with him, and we laugh. But I tell him Pie is actually a really cool guy and seemingly, the perfect match for this version of Carlie I don’t know. I ask how he’s been, how the bakery is, but he knows I’m just being polite so he brushes over it and says nothing much has changed.
“Sorry about the house… I know I left it in quite the mess.”
“It’s okay. You had good reason.” What he doesn’t say is that I didn’t, really. My sister’s nearly 30. She didn’t show up to work for a few days, but she wasn’t kidnapped, she left of her own free will and promised her husband she’d be back. I should be at home, picking up the pieces I left my life in and leaving the amateur sleuthing to people who actually know Carlie, who have actually cared about her in the past eight years.
A couple of weeks go by of daily meetings with Pie and Lisa, not finding out much more information, but learning a lot about each other. Lisa is 25 and has been working at Emelle’s for 4 years. She bonded with Carlie over never having really cared about school and skipping college altogether. She grew up in Vancouver and her parents still live here. She’s close with them, more like friends than parents in the way every kid dreams their parents would be. She has dinner with them regularly and they never nag her about getting married or getting a “real job.”
Pie is 34 and grew up in a suburb outside of Montreal called Pointe-Calumet and is fluent in French and English... because of course he is. He moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia for college, where he studied Accounting. He immediately got the job at HSBC upon leaving school and hasn’t left Vancouver since. He told us he misses the vibrant culture in Montreal and the plethora of French-speakers but loves the chill atmosphere and scenery of Vancouver. Besides, his brother is here, and he loves being near family, though his parents still reside in his hometown. He met Carlie three years ago when she catered a holiday party for his bank. He describes their love as a whirlwind romance, and I’ll say because they eloped within six months of knowing each other and haven’t looked back. I smile at the thought of this as much as the fact that there was no engagement, no wedding to be missed.
One day, when Lisa is in the restroom at one of our many restaurant meet-ups, I work up the courage to ask Pie why Carlie chose Vancouver of all places. Her sudden departure and lack of communication means I never really knew about her life here and why she chose it. A smile spreads wide across his face and he says “She wanted a change of scenery, change of pace. She took a quiz online of where she should live and got Vancouver, and she left three days later. Can you believe that? I mean, who does that?!” He laughed as if he himself was hearing this for the first time. “That’s my adventurous, electric Car.” His smile remains, but a flash of sadness makes its way across his face and tears fight to escape his eyes.
It’s enough to make my own tears fall and I apologize before excusing myself to the restroom. It’s the first time I break down since stepping off of the plane, letting everything I’ve suppressed come flooding out of me. Where was my sister? I was initially reassured by her note, but her absence was beginning to scare me. What if she had been kidnapped? Anything is possible. I mourn the loss of the Carlie I once knew and the one I never got to know. I reprimand myself for never checking on her, for forgetting to care about her. And truthfully - the feeling I’m least proud of - I resent her for stumbling into the life I had tried so hard to mold for myself: a loving husband and a beautiful life in a beautiful city with coworkers who are so much more than that. Lisa must have walked out of the bathroom while I was still in a stall, and I’m thankful she never has to know the blubbering mess in there was me. Though, I’m sure she assumes.
Brandon calls me every night, exactly at 11pm. We stay on the phone for hours some nights, chatting in a way we haven’t since college; about life, about what it means to forge your own path in the world when society tries so hard to shape that for you, about dogs, about TV shows, about anything but us. It’s a subject we’re avoiding for the time being, but neither of us push it, because we’re having a great time doing it.
One night, into week three of Vancouver life, my phone rings at 2am. I assume Brandon can’t sleep and open my phone thoughtlessly.
“Hello?” I say, ripped fully out of my sleep now that I realize it’s a woman on the other end. “Sharon?” I suddenly feel awful for never letting my best friend in on what I’m doing.
“It’s Carlie… How are you?”
I sit up straight in my bed on Lisa’s floor and force my sleep-fogged brain to focus. Carlie?! “Carlie?! Oh my gosh are you okay?!”
“I’m fine. I heard you’re in Vancouver and I had to see it, or I guess hear it, to believe it.”
“Yes! Where are you?!”
“I don’t want to say just yet but know I’m okay. So, you met Pie, huh?” Her voice drops an octave, as if everything is normal and we’re gossiping just like we used to. There are so many things I want to say to her, but I let them fall aside for now because this sister moment feels too good.
“I did. Great job,” I say, and we laugh.
“Thanks,” She says, then her tone gets more somber. “Listen, I never meant to hurt you and mom when I left. It was selfish, I know that now. But I really did need to get away. I don’t regret leaving, but I wish I had reached out sooner.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Well, you know… One year. I needed one year away from mom and the life she abandoned, just to be somewhere new and make it my own. One year away from Mobile… away from you,” she says softly, apologetically. “It’s just… you know mom. She was never there, but then would come back and try to control us, and I was hurt, traumatized really, by the way she left us so easily and for so long. A small part of me wanted to hurt her, but more than anything I just wanted to get away. Get away from resenting her every day, even. It was exhausting.”
“I get it,” I say, thinking of my own escape to Berkeley.
“Then you were never there, anyway. Then, you met Brandon and I knew I’d likely never see you again unless I came to visit you.” The truth in her words stings, but I don’t say anything, willing her to continue. “So, I could’ve stayed in touch and I know that, but I didn’t want to at first. I wanted a clean break and to see who I could be without either of your opinions or input. And I won’t lie, I loved the person I’d become without you both. I was independent and savvy and free and for years, I thought that was because I left. But now, I see it’s who I’ve always been. I only needed to be alone for a little while to see it. But you know, one year turned into three and three turned into five…”
“And five into eight,” I finish.
“Exactly,” she says solemnly. “And I was happy! I really was. I am. But a couple of years ago, I started to realize that my happiness was at the expense of my family and that wasn’t okay or right. It took me a long time to face that within myself. So here I am, trying to correct that.”
“Through this phone call?” I say, a little bit of the anger I’ve felt towards her rising back up.
“Through this phone call, through… my trip. Hopefully, through rebuilding a relationship with you.”
“Okay…” I say, unable to focus on the huge elephant that is rebuilding a relationship with my estranged sister in the space of a phone call. “And you won’t tell me where you are?”
“Not yet. Not even Pie knows.” Not even Pie.
“You really love him, don’t you? You guys are good?”
“That’s a strange thing to ask. But, I get it. And I do. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
I smile, but don’t say anything. It’s sweet to hear, but it hurts a little knowing I’m probably not on that list for her. The Best Things That Have Ever Happened to Carlie Price probably don’t include Nat.
“And Nat… you are, too. I just wouldn’t let myself really know that, feel that until recently.”
My smile widens and tears spring up from behind my eyes. “Right back at ya.”
We aren’t quite chummy yet. We don’t slip into childhood stories or reminisce on Mobile nostalgia, but I can feel that we’re going to be close again. And that’s enough for me.
“So, can I tell people where you are? Well, I guess I don’t even know. But that you’re okay and will be back… soon?”
“Sure! I’m not on the run, Nat,” she jokes. “I didn’t even mean to scare anyone, I just had to do something for myself and planning a scheduled vacation to do it just wouldn’t have worked. Though I do feel bad about leaving work with such a mess.”
“I think I get that feeling,” I say, looking around at Lisa’s apartment, my refuge for the past three weeks.
“Headed back to Oakland any time soon? I’d love to come out and see you one day.”
“That’d be nice,” I say. “But I’m not quite ready to go back yet. I think I may stay in Vancouver a little while longer. At least until I know you’re coming back for sure. Besides, I kind of like this uncharted territory of life.”
“I get that,” Carlie says, and I can hear her smiling. My Irish twin.
The next morning, I’m awoken by Lisa’s usual routine; a fresh pot of coffee with eggs on toast. I check my phone screen: 5:00am.
“It’s early, hi,” I say. “Work today?”
“Yep, it’s a big one,” Lisa says. “I likely won’t be home until past 10 o’clock. Think you’ll be okay on your own for the day?”
“Definitely. Oh!” I say, remembering that I have huge news. I wonder if this revelation will make Lisa’s day ahead better or worse and ultimately decide I’ll tell her later.
“What is it?” She asks when I don’t say anything else.
“I think I’ll meet with Pie today,” I say.
“That’s a good idea! No need to give up on our daily meetings just because I can’t make it.”
She takes two bites of her eggs on toast and is out the door before I can even say bye. I’m awake far too early, having gotten off the phone with Carlie at nearly 3am, but I keep replaying the conversation in my head and know I won’t be able to sleep. I make my “bed” and hop in the shower, letting the hot water wake me up for the day. I check the weather on my phone and throw on the only long-sleeve shirt I brought with me and my trusty jeans and brown ankle boots. On about day six of Vancouver life, Lisa opened up her closet to me when she realized I’d pretty much cycled through everything I brought, but it still felt weird to go through her clothes without her here.
I text Pie “Bagels at Solly’s?” and almost feel like a local. Realizing it’s definitely still the wee hours in the morning on a Saturday, I look up markets near me to replenish my toiletries and get myself a few snacks while I wait for his response. I walk around the corner to a nearby Save-On-Foods and grab the essentials: shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, protein bars, bread, cheese, meat, crackers. I splurge for some ice cream and wine since Lisa will likely have a long night. I’m trying to use my money sparingly so I don’t have to touch Brandon and I’s shared account, though I know he wouldn’t mind. I check out and am surprised to already see a message from Pie: “See you there at 7:30?” I reply, “Sounds good!” and walk the short distance back to Lisa’s to drop off the groceries.
I make it to Solly’s by 7:25 and Pie is already there. He calls out to me from the line “I was going to just grab you a coffee with room for cream – sound good?” Ever the gentleman.
“Yep, I’ll take a croissant too,” I say, clasping my hands together pleadingly. He winks at me, and I’m reminded once again of why my sister loves this man. He comes over to a table I’ve claimed for us, balancing my croissant on the lid of my coffee cup.
“Thank you!” I say. “So, I have big news.”
He looks at me, as if to say, “go on,” so I continue. “Carlie called me last night.”
It’s only when he doesn’t react that I realize I was hoping for a big reaction out of him. He must sense the disappointment in my face because he scrunches up his own and says “I have some news, too… I’ve actually been texting her for the last few days.” He rushes to add, “I wanted to tell you and Lisa! I just had to make sure it’s what she wanted first.”
“Wow,” I act playfully offended. “Here I was, thinking I was special.”
“Hey, you got the call. I’ve only received texts,” he plays along. “Have you told Lisa?”
“Not yet. She has a big day at work today, so I figured I would let her do that first. She’s used to a world where Carlie is missing,” I explain, “but not one where we’ve heard from her and she’s fine, but have no idea where she is.”
I think for a moment. “At least… I still have no idea where she is. Anything you’re not telling me, Pie?” I slip him a sly smile and feel myself flirting a bit, which I quickly reign in. Sister’s husband. You may not be wearing a ring, but you’re still very much engaged.
He raises his hands in innocence. “Nothing, officer, I swear it.”
It feels good to be light, playful now that we know Carlie’s okay. “I do have some ideas though,” he adds.
“Me too!” I say, excited to discuss our theories.
“Ooo, you first.”
I take a big bite out of my croissant and wash it down with warm coffee, the cream added to perfection by Pie. “I’m thinking Gulf Shores! We used to vacation there as kids. Our mom couldn’t really afford to take us anywhere we couldn’t drive to, and Carlie was always the one who insisted on going back! Maybe she’d go there to clear her head… to reconnect with who she once was.”
Pie seems to consider this for a minute, then adds “hmmm. Nice guess, but a little amateur if you ask me.” He smiles at me playfully. Is he flirting with me too?
“Okay what do you have, husband Pie?!”
“Is that what you call me in your head? Husband Pie? I can’t say I hate it.” Definitely flirting, I think to myself. “I was thinking maybe she’s gone to see your Mom.”
“In Mobile? No way.”
“Hey, just a theory. She did say she’d like to live less selfishly, and what’s more selfless than reconnecting with an estranged parent?”
“Or sister…” I say, more to myself than Pie.
“Right… I’m sorry. It’s rude of me to pretend I know anything about your family.”
“Well, you probably know more than I do about Carlie,” I admit.
“In the meantime,” he says, changing the subject. “What should we do with the rest of our day?”
I feel my palms get warm at the mention of “our day,” and I wonder if I’m treading dangerous water here. Pie seems like a kind, loyal guy, but I’m clearly attracted to him and not-so-clearly engaged. Out of sight, out of mind may not be good for either of us right now. I weigh the options of my day without Lisa and imagine myself sitting alone in her apartment versus walking around the rainy streets of Vancouver with Pie.
“I’m up for whatever!”
“Should we go the beach?”
I try to gauge if he’s joking or not. “But… it’s raining.”
“So what, California girl? It’s Vancouver.” He stands up and holds out his elbow for me to link my arm through it. We walk out of the café and I let myself pretend, just for a moment, that Carlie’s life is my own. I work at Emelle’s,but am off today. I walk down the streets of Vancouver day in and day out. I go to cool restaurants and cafes with my friends. I’m married to Mr. Perfect Pie. I slide into the passenger seat of his car and let myself live out this fantasy all the way to the beach.
We arrive at the beach and Pie was right. It is beautiful here. The rain has subsided for now, but it’s definitely far from beach weather. At least by California standards. But I let myself embrace this new place and we sit on the sand side by side and talk for the next few hours. We mostly talk about Carlie, which is a nice reminder that this is not my life, it’s hers. We bond over loving our college experiences and choosing to stay in the places we attended college.
“That’s one thing Carlie and I don’t have in common. She doesn’t quite get why I loved college so much or the way I long for those days, sometimes.”
“That’s the unfortunate thing about skipping college,” I say. “You’re just thrust into adulthood and don’t get to experience that particular freedom you can never get back.”
“Definitely. Nail on the head,” Pie agrees.
“But which is better?” I ask. “Never experiencing a perfect time, free of responsibility or always longing for it and never being able to get it back?”
Pie looks at me, just long enough to make me turn my head back toward the ocean. We both don’t say anything, but I think we know the answer. This moment feels a lot like college, my life of responsibility somewhere far away. It’s reckless of me to be here in my current state, at the beach with my sister’s handsome, perfect husband. As if reading my thoughts, feeling my reluctance, Pie wraps his arm around my shoulders and brings my head to his chest. This is okay, isn’t it? I ask myself, but don’t dare say out loud in case the answer isn’t what I hope for. I let myself relax against him and stare out at the beach. It’s taking everything I have in me to not tilt my head up toward Pie. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if I did. I turn my head slightly and hear Pie’s heartbeat; steady, calm. Not fast and uncontrollable like mine, and I feel a little ridiculous. What am I, a teenager?
I sit up straight, inching away from him and spit out words, breaking apart the silence. “I’m glad we know Carlie’s okay.”
“Me too,” Pie says, clearly not sensing my discomfort.
“Should we head back?” I pull Pie out of his tranquil state, and I’m sorry for it, but I know staying here into the evening with him isn’t a good idea. Not for me, anyway.
“Sure, if that’s what you want.” He smiles, and I know I have to get out of here. I should really call my fiancé.
“Yeah, just a little while now until Lisa’s off, and I should be there when she gets home.”
“Okay,” Pie says. “Would you want to grab dinner first? I know breakfast pastries aren’t holding me together, I don’t know about you.”
“Sure,” I say.
We find a place near the beach and Pie parks and opens the door for me. I can’t shake how much this feels like a date; a date Brandon hasn’t taken me on in years. Not anything this nice anyway, this spontaneous.
We get a table for two and the hostess seats us.
“You seem tense,” Pie says. “Everything okay in Natalie land?”
“All is good here!” I rush to say.
He gives me a look, imploring me to be honest, but what can I say? I’m in a relationship that hasn’t felt alive in 4 years and you being kind and taking me to the beach and dinner is so exciting, I’m beginning to fantasize that you’re my husband and deeply considering betraying my estranged, missing sister.
“I just… feel different here, that’s all,” I say.
“Different good? Different bad?” He tries to will my eyes to meet his.
“Just different. It’s weird. You’re so kind and warm and seem to enjoy my company.” I pause, debating if I should say this second part. “I’m just not so sure you would feel the same way if you knew Oakland, lawyer Natalie.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, playing a part. “I was under the impression that you were Oakland, lawyer Natalie.”
I laugh half-heartedly. “I am,” I say. “I’m just, I don’t know… different. At home, I’m more uptight and structured and frankly, selfish. It feels good to be light here and feel free and… exciting.”
“Well,” he starts, getting more serious. “You can be whoever you choose. And I know I don’t know you, but these past few weeks have felt very authentic and I like Natalie, whoever she is.”
“You know, I think I get it now.”
“What Carlie sees in you,” I say, feeling bold and playful and desperately trying to lighten the mood and take the attention off of me.
A smile erupts across his face. “Oh, just now, huh?” We both laugh, and I’m relieved to change the subject.
“Shall we have a drink?”
He checks his watch and looks at me quizzically. “Shouldn’t you be getting home to Lisa?”
“Ha-ha,” I say. “We still have time!” I raise my hand to get the waiter’s attention. “I’ll have a tequila sunrise, please and…” I gesture towards Pie.
“Donald Sutherland, please.” He waits until our waiter leaves and then locks eyes with me. “See… You’re far more exciting than you think.”
We talk a little more about our respective jobs. Now we’re really reaching dating territory, I think to myself. But one cocktail in and I’m back in California, on the beach with Brandon. He’s telling me how I have a habit of never finishing drinks, leaving just a little bit at the bottom, and I’m adamantly detesting, even though I know it’s true. We’re almost to the point of tears laughing so hard trying to get the other to admit we’re right. I’m in his white button-down shirt that he lent me as a bathing suit cover for the bar, and he’s in swim trunks and his undershirt.
“May I ask you something?” Pie asks, pulling me back to reality.
“You may,” I say, playing with the straw of my drink.
“You’re engaged…” He stops.
“That’s not a question,” I tease.
“Well, I noticed you haven’t worn your ring. Not since I first met you, anyway.”
“Still no question in there, but I’m assuming you’re wondering why…”
“I don’t mean to pry! Just an observation, I guess. And yes, I admit, I’m curious…”
“It has to do with the whole dual Natalie thing. I guess it was just a symbol of the life I’ve left behind for nearly a month now, and I didn’t want the reminder.”
He seems to consider this answer before speaking. “Do you think you’ll go back soon?”
“Do you want me gone?” I ask, half-jokingly.
“Not at all. I’ve actually really enjoyed you being here,” he says, and I’m pulled back into his charm. He looks down at the table. “Especially with Car being gone. I know she’s coming back. I know that. Even if she hadn’t said it, I would’ve known. But I see some of her in you… and vice versa. It’s been… nice.”
I snap out of my dream state in the harshest of ways. Of course Pie likes me. He’s married to my flesh and blood and hasn’t seen her in a month. It’s not me. It’s Carlie. I see him ache for her in dozens of fleeting moments, and yet I still thought somehow, he may be flirting with me because he wanted me. I feel foolish and embarrassment cascades down my body, emboldened by the alcohol. But more than white hot shame, I feel sad. Sad for Pie who misses his wife and sad for me: a woman who hates her own life so much she’s momentarily stepped into her sister’s and is kidding herself if she thinks this at all resembles reality.
“Pie,” I start. “Thank you for everything. Today, tonight. But I have to go. Maybe back to Oakland, but definitely back to Lisa’s.” I kiss him on the cheek and search my purse for some money to leave him with.
He waves away my efforts and throws enough money on the table to cover the bill, plus a generous tip. Mr. Perfect Pie. “Let me drive you. We’re pretty far out from Lisa’s and a cab could run you a hefty bill.” I nearly laugh at myself thinking I could leave this restaurant when he brought us hear and silently accept his offer.
The drive home is mostly a silent one. I think he can tell I’m going through a lot, but doesn’t want to press. He reminds me of B in that way. He just wants you to be comfortable and okay more than he wants to know what’s going on. Finally, he breaks the silence.
“If you want to talk about anything, I’m here,” he says. “Just so you know.”
I smile sweetly at him. My sister picked a good one. A good husband. A good life. “Thanks, Pie.” We pull up to Lisa’s and he turns on his hazards to open the door for me. I thank him again and he watches me walk away. Before I get to the steps, I turn back.
“Maybe tomorrow? I can take you up on talking about anything.”
He smiles that brilliant smile. “Sure.” He climbs back into the driver’s seat and gives one last wave before I walk into Lisa’s.
When I get in, Lisa’s already home, much to my surprise.
“Hey!” She chimes when I open the door.
“Hey!” I say back. “I thought you wouldn’t be home until after 10.”
“It’s nearly 10:30,” she responds, gesturing to the clock on the microwave.
“Oh! Wow… I hadn’t realized.” Brandon will be calling soon, and I won’t sound half-asleep, like I usually do on our calls.
“I see that. Where have you been?” Lisa gets up from her small, round kitchen table and flashes me a knowing look as she rinses her plate in the kitchen.
I ignore her look. “I spent the day with Pie. We had breakfast and coffee, then he took me to the beach since I’ve never been to Vancouver before and then, we had dinner there,” I say, brushing over the events of the day, hoping nothing in particular sparks her interest.
“A day out with your sister’s husband… tsk-tsk,” She’s joking, and I try to laugh, but she’s right.
“Oh! I also have news! We’ve heard from Carlie.”
Lisa nearly drops her dishes in the sink. “What really?!” She goes silent, and it takes me a moment to realize she’s crying. I’m unsure of what to do, but I know Lisa is a kind and affectionate person, so I just hug her and let her be overwhelmed by relief for a moment. When she can gather herself again, she wipes her cheeks. “So… where is she?”
Again, with the explanations, Nat. “I don’t know.” Lisa looks confused, and I hurry to continue. “She called last night, and apparently, Pie has been texting her for a few days. We know she’s okay, safe and on a trip she needed to take, but we don’t know where or why yet. But it’s just good to know she’s okay.”
“Yeah, that’s good. So, no idea at all?”
“Well, Pie and I had a few musings today… Maybe our hometown, maybe a place we vacationed as kids, but nothing concrete. I think we’ll wait until she’s ready to give us more information. We decided there’s no point in driving ourselves crazy trying to figure it out.”
There must be a shift in the way I talk about Pie, despite my best efforts to keep it casual because Lisa eyes me for a moment. “I get that… So… you and Pie, you had a good day?”
“Yes,” I say. But she’s not satisfied with that answer, and I can tell. “That’s all it was, I promise. A good day. I mean, he’s my sister’s husband.”
“…and you’re engaged.” Did everyone notice my ring that first day?
“And I’m engaged,” I say. “I’m going to shower.” I slip my arm through my Nike bag and take it to the bathroom. I sit on the toilet seat and let the water get hot while I go over the happenings of the day. I grab my phone and see a text from Sharon. “Hey Nat! I’ve talked to B… I know you’re in Vancouver and need some space. I just wanted to let you know I’m here if you need anything. We miss you on the sunny side of the bay!”
I text back, but keep it brief to keep her from prying. I miss Sharon so much it hurts, but right now I need to focus on the days ahead and what I’ll make of them. “Sharon! I miss you so much. And the sweet sunshine 😊. Love you and I’ll see you soon. Xx” I debate the last sentence, but ultimately decide to send it. “Soon” is a relative term, and I will be home, eventually.
I put my phone down and take off today’s clothes. I step into the shower, making sure there’s no trace of sand left before I get out. I throw on my pajama pants and my Boulder, Colorado tee to sleep in and throw my hair up into another messy bun. I brush my teeth and leave the bathroom. I’m surprised to find Lisa still awake.
“You’re still up. I figured you’d be knocked out after such a long day.”
“I will be soon. Listen, Nat, I really like you. A lot. In fact, I feel almost as close to you as I do to Carlie after all this time together. I just… I hope you understand I have to look out for my friend…” She inhales. “Did anything happen between you and Pie today?”
I smile at Lisa, soft and reassuring. Carlie is so lucky to have a friend like her. I sit down beside her on her couch, so she knows I’m serious. “You’re a good friend,” I say. “Nothing happened at all. In fact, if anything was even felt, it was only in my head. Pie is a great guy, and he loves Carlie. I’m engaged, and I take that very seriously. I’ve just kind of been all over the place this last month. Pie was almost a subject to that mess, but nothing happened.”
Lisa places her hand on my arm, the way she did the first day I met her. “Good. I didn’t mean to imply anything. I just had to ask. I’m going to head to bed. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m good. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” she says and walks to her bedroom. She stops short of the door and turns back to me. “Nat…”
“You can stay as long as you like.” She goes into her room, not awaiting my response and it may be the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a long time.
Brandon calls at 11:13pm tonight, and I’m grateful for the delay. I have time to collect my thoughts and debate what parts of the day I want to share with him. However, the delay proves useless because I end up sharing everything with him about the day, even about the way I felt and the parts of me that wished I was the one married to Pie. I don’t wish to hurt him, but it feels good to be so honest. We talk openly about what today means to me and whether or not I still wish I was living Carlie’s life. I’m surprised to find that I don’t. We talk like old friends, rather than jaded lovers and when we hang up, I miss him so much, I can feel it in my whole body. It’s going to be a rough night, not feeling his body next to mine.
A week passes, and it’s Sunday morning again. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Pie said to me that night at dinner. I can be whatever Natalie I choose. Yesterday, when Lisa had another long day, instead of reaching out to Pie, I had a solo day. I had been frugal enough with my money thus far to afford a small shopping trip. I took a cab to CF Pacific Center and bought a couple pairs of jeans and some tops I could wear out in the city. I went ahead and got myself a new pair of boots and a coat since temperatures were dropping quickly, and I was ill-prepared for a winter in Vancouver. My final purchase was a box dye of dark-brown hair color. Whatever Natalie I choose.
No work for Lisa today and she and I will be meeting with Pie, as per usual. Pie and I have had two moments alone since last weekend and no weird feelings lingered or bubbled up within me. We were buddy-buddy with each other, and it felt good that the movie that played out in my head that day on the beach hadn’t ruined anything between us.
We meet Pie for lunch at Jam Café, which Lisa insists I just have to have before I leave the city. The line outside suggests many other people think so, too. We get a head start in line as we wait for Pie, and he shows up a few minutes late with a pep in his step. He’s always happy-go-lucky, but today rainbows might as well be coming out of his ears.
“Well, hello!” Lisa says, inspired by his cheeriness. “Big news?”
“Big news!!” Pie says. Smart Lisa. I didn’t even think of why he might be so happy. “Carlie is flying home today!”
Lisa cheers and hugs Pie and then me. “Well, that is big news,” I say. I try to match their level of excitement, but in all of my time here, I haven’t actually considered what it would be like to see my sister after eight years apart. And unlike her, I haven’t seen much of her other than a brief glance at photos on Pie’s desk that first day.
Pie gives me a double take now that his news is out. “Love the hair,” he says, picking up a loose ringlet in front of my shoulder and letting it bounce back into place. “Let’s hope Car recognizes you.” He winks at me and looks me over one more time. With my outfit intentional for once and my hair freshly done, I feel good and pretend not to notice his extra looks.
“Thanks,” I say. “Let’s hope so. I’m not the girl she once knew.” I wink back at him and this time, it’s not playful, it’s direct.
After nearly an hour, we’re let into Jam Café, now the people we were jealous of moments ago. I have to admit the food is all it’s cracked up to be, but the wait definitely makes it a one-time stop in my book. We spend the lunch discussing if we should all be together or apart when Carlie arrives, what we’ll say to her when she does, if we should press her about where she’s been or leave it alone. We decide all together, keep it casual and don’t ask.
I get more nervous with each passing hour and wonder what it will be like to see her again. Will it be as if we never missed a beat or will it be as if we barely ever knew each other at all? I think about how Pie and Lisa don’t have to worry about this. It’s only been a month and a half since they’ve seen her. People go on vacations for that long, take trips home for the summer, winter break in college is nearly that long. Eight years and people could have different hair and husbands you never knew about. I think about how close Lisa and Pie and I have gotten, and it makes me sad to think about leaving them. I wonder if Carlie will find it strange that people she left behind in different parts of her life now know each other so intimately. I think about how glad I am that nothing ever happened between Pie and I, that I caught myself before I did anything foolish and embarrassed myself and potentially ruined a relationship I just got back. I think back to one of B and I’s nightly calls.
“Nat… do you still want to get married?” I could tell that it was hard for him to say it, that he had probably been meaning to ask since my first night in Vancouver. I imagine him making a promise with himself each time he clicked my name to call that this time he would ask, no matter what.
“I don’t know,” I say because I don’t, and we’re all about honesty now, B and I. I remember waiting for him to be angry or to demand I come home, especially after my day out with Pie, but instead he just understood.
Now here I was, my brown hair still curled, but done quickly and carelessly this time, not perfectly in place like my blonde hair would’ve been in Oakland. I wear jeans for the tenth day in a row, pencil skirts a stranger to my body. My makeup is almost nonexistent and the little bit I do wear is in natural tones, rather than the bright lips I wear back home to prove I can be a woman in my profession and still be great. I wasn’t trying to prove much of anything anymore, except maybe that I could do anything on my own. I see now why Carlie left. It just took me until 29 to gain wisdom she somehow harbored at 21.
We pile into Pie’s car and head to meet Carlie at the airport. Lisa and I wait in the car while Pie goes in to get her. She deserves that moment with her husband, first and foremost. It’s downright romantic the lengths he would go to for her, and he should be celebrated for it. Some of us would kill for a love like that. Some of us would spend our lives trying to force it.
When she comes out to the car, she hugs Lisa first, and I’m glad because I get a chance to take her in. My big sis and her button nose; still the same. Her hair chopped in a cute, bleach blonde bob that barely reaches the nape of her neck in the back and almost touches her shoulders in the front. She’s the same in so many ways, but she’s different too. She seems wise and secure, confident in her skin. She’s not the desperate seeker, always searching for more that I left behind in Mobile. I smile as she walks toward me because she smells just like she used to. Just like she always has.
“Nat!!!” She gives me a big squeeze, and we don’t let go of each other for a few minutes. I can feel her heaving big sobs over my shoulder and I let tears fall from my own eyes. When we finally let go of our embrace, she holds me close and whispers in my ear “Mom says ‘hi,’” and winks at me - something she surely picked up from Pie. She’s a winker, now. Now that I see them together, everything makes sense. They are perfect, but not perfect people, just perfect for one another. Car and Pie. Pie and Car.
I suppose I should’ve known she’d be seeing mom. After all this time away from her, it makes sense that she’d go back to mend a relationship a lot more delicate than one with a sister. Pie was right.
We pull up to their house, and I get to go inside the place I’ve been imagining for the first time. My sister’s home, and I’ve never been in. Wood floors stretch from the entryway, past the living room and all the way into a large kitchen. The house is cozy and smells of vanilla and firewood. I can see exactly where they might make their movie-night pallet on the living room floor in front of the TV. Carlie pulls open the patio door and inhales the cold outside air. “Vancouver, you have been missed!!” She says to no one. At the sound of her voice, a large dog comes running down the stairs. He’s black, white, brown and fluffy and reminds me of a stuffed animal. He runs straight to Carlie, and she gets on his level to greet him. “And I missed you too, big guy!! How have you been baby bear?”
She looks back at Lisa and I. “Make yourselves at home, please! Pie will whip us all something up to eat,” She says, winking at Pie. A wink that sends a sweet message, their own language. Lisa and I plop down on the beige sofa, and I whistle for the dog, but he won’t leave Carlie’s side.
“His name’s Birch,” Carlie tells me as she walks over to the couch in an effort to get him on the sofa with me. “Our one and only baby, for now.” I rub Birch’s belly, and he’s satisfied enough for the time being to not follow Carlie back into the kitchen. I look over my shoulder to see her wrap her arms around Pie’s waist as he pours over the stove. It’s truly moving to watch her at home. She’s someone else in this space, so in her element.
She turns on the radio and the music plays through a surround sound system I can’t see. “For some background noise,” she shouts over the music. She waltzes back into the living room and sits next to Lisa and me. She grabs my hand, always affectionate and loving. “So… Pie tells me you three have gotten quite close.” She looks at Lisa and I, inquiring more information. I wonder if Pie told her about our beach day.
Lisa shoots me a glance and says, “We really have! It’s been a great solace in these weeks without you.”
“Right,” Carlie says, reminded that she’s the reason we know each other at all. “Listen, I’m not one for mysteries...” Pie shoots her a look that she catches from across the room and she adds, “these last several weeks notwithstanding, obviously!” She laughs, and it’s a radiant laugh, electric and infectious. “So, I’ll tell you guys all about my trip over dinner. For now, I want to hear what you three have been up to,” she looks directly at me, “and how you’re liking our city!”
We tell her all about our daily meetings to discuss new information on where she may be that eventually turned into friends meeting up to hang out. Lisa catches her up on catering wins and woes and I tell her all about Brandon and how we met and how we got to where we are now. I tell her about our nightly chats, too wrapped up in having my sister back to mind Lisa’s presence or worry about Pie overhearing my relationship drama. I get the feeling that Lisa may have overheard many a night’s phone call anyway, and we all three begin chatting about it like we’re in high school. I gush about Vancouver and the way it’s changed me, and the way Lisa’s friendship and kindness has changed me, and Carlie says my brown hair and winter clothes suit me. Pie calls out to us that we have five minutes until dinner is ready and Carlie and I both make the “Thank you, five!” joke from our theater days in high school.
Carlie tells us everything at dinner. About her decision to leave early in the morning before Pie would wake up and her decision to leave a note so he wouldn’t worry. A lot of good that did. She tells us about mom, who hasn’t been back to the Mobile house in a while and is practically living in St. Barts now with a man she met on a cruise. Only our mother. She looks at me when she says it isn’t like it usually is with mom and her suitors, this one seems serious and she’s happy for her. I’m happy for her. She tells us how she spent most of her time away in St. Barts, reconnecting with mom and helping her take care of loose ends back in Mobile. She talks about how freeing it felt to wake up with nothing to do and take a morning dip in the ocean, to live out the rest of the day with salty hair and sunscreen for makeup. She said it felt like being a child again, but with the wisdom 30 years on Earth brings you, and I told her I think I know the feeling. She tells us how in her last few days away, she went back to Mobile to clean up our empty house and help mom put it on the market and how it felt like closure after a bad breakup. Lisa asks why she didn’t just take some time off of work and she tells us how she felt she had to make the decision on a whim, or she wouldn’t have been bold enough to go. And I tell her I get that, too.
After dinner, Lisa says she’d better be getting back for her morning shift, but suggests I stay and catch up.
“I’d better go with Lisa. I don’t want to impose. It’s your first night back together,” I say to Carlie and Pie.
“What if we had a sleepover?!” Carlie gasps, excitedly. “We could make a pallet on the floor and I’ll be back in our bed first thing tomorrow,” she says, turning towards Pie. She clasps her hands together and gives him pleading eyes, the same way I did that day at the café, and I feel our connection more than ever.
“Of course,” Pie says and tells Lisa goodbye as he goes to clean up.
“Oh Lisa! Tell Fred I’ll stop by the office sometime tomorrow. I know he has quite a few bones to pick with me.” She gives an apologetic look, and Lisa promises she’ll tell him. I say bye to Lisa and she says she’ll leave the door unlocked for me in the morning.
A sleepover with my sister. It’s everything I needed and more. She implores about Brandon and I tell her how our relationship has been changing over the course of our phone calls and how much I miss him. I tell her about the bakery his father owns and his grandfather started and how truly great it is. She tells me her version of meeting Pie and their whirlwind romance. She talks about getting Birch as a puppy two years ago, only six months into marriage and how her and Pie fought all the time about how to train him and how long was okay to leave him at home. We talk about our futures and how we both want to stop planning for them. Kids or no kids, a dream job or not, there’s no use in planning any of it out, we decide. We barely get any sleep, talking until we see the sky turns a shade lighter.
“I don’t know when to go back to Oakland,” I say, my eyelids finally getting heavy.
Carlie turns her head towards me. “You don’t have to go back at all.”
And she’s right, I don’t.
It’s Christmastime in Vancouver and Carlie and Lisa help me decorate my apartment.
“Your first Christmas in Vancouver!!” Carlie says. “Now that deserves a special ornament.” She reaches for the hand-painted ornament her and Pie made me for Christmas and places it near the top of the tree.
Lisa strings lights around the tree while Carlie and I sort through a box of childhood ornaments Brandon shipped me from Oakland. Pie is at the office, wrapping things up before the bank closes for the holiday. He’s had his fair share of festivities, though since Carlie insisted the four of us do every Vancouver Christmas staple imaginable this month from lights at Stanley Park to seeing the Nutracker at Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
It took some convincing, but Carlie got her job back at Emelle’s Catering and got me a gig there, too. They needed warm bodies for the busy holiday season and loved Carlie too much to let her go. It was through an event I worked that I got connected with an agent who found out about my law background and handed me her card. I never took agents seriously before, especially in California, but I never did throw away her card. Lisa helped me apartment hunt for something near her own place since I loved the area so much and taught me what renting in the city was like. I got a great place three blocks down from Lisa, and we see each other most nights.
I reach into the top of my hall closet for any more decorations and knock down Brandon’s Nike bag: the only thing I came here with. When I pick it up, I realize my ring is still in it. I open the box and remember the first time I saw it – how surprised I was that somehow, he had picked out the perfect ring for me. I slip it back on my finger and place the bag back overhead.
“Fresh out of decorations,” I say as I walk back into the living area. “I’m afraid that’s all we got.”
Carlie steps back to take in the work we’ve done. “I’d say that’s pretty damn good.” I put the few gifts I’ve bought already underneath the tree and pour us each a glass of champagne before the girls head home. “Anyone working that party tomorrow?”
Lisa and I practically roll our eyes in unison, annoyed at the one company that chose to have their holiday party so close to the actual holiday. “I’ll be there, unfortunately,” Lisa says.
“Me too,” I say.
“Me three,” says Carlie. And we’re all a little better for having to face it together.
On Christmas morning, I’m over at Carlie and Pie’s. I get to meet Pie’s brother and sister-in-law and let me just say, this family only gets more and more good looking. We’re sitting around the kitchen table with the remains of homemade pancakes and pomegranate mimosas when I get a phone call and step outside.
The Vancouver air is unforgiving, and my hands get the worst of it.
“Merry Christmas, babe!”
“Merry Christmas,” I say back.
“I’ve been thinking a lot recently and talking to the old man.”
“Oh yeah? What about?”
“We’ve been discussing what it would take to bring Jefferson’s to Canada. Dad says we could do it. He’s proud of me… says I have the spirit of grandpop.”
“B… are you serious? That would be… great.” I can’t contain the smile that erupts across my face, so wide I think even Lisa would be impressed.