Song is hanging on my arm, afraid I’m going to slip onto the bus and out of her life as quickly as I made the decision to go. I step back, allowing other passengers to board, trying to keep our good-bye upbeat, trying not to feel like the lousiest sister on the planet.
Those in line near us stare. We’re used to it. Song’s bald head and skinny body always produce curiosity and contorted, sympathetic expressions. We’re like a sappy Lifetime movie wherever we go.
Usually, I see faces of allies. Today I feel as if those faces are judging me.
“Please don’t hate me,” I say to Song.
“Of course she doesn’t hate you,” my mother says, stepping closer.
I keep my eyes locked on my little sister. It’s hard for our family to remember she’s thirteen. She’s been through more than most, and although she tries to portray a kick-ass attitude with her holey jeans and punk T-shirts, she still looks like a scrawny little kid.
She won’t look me in the eye. Instead, she launches into haiku—a language we’ve used since she learned the form in third grade:
“Off to a reserve
Anyone for lawn bowling?
I’ll stay here and puke”
She means “resort,” but I don’t correct her. My reply:
“Hey, I’ll be working.
‘Can I get you anything else?’
Just a lowly wench”
We’ve had lots of practice turning onlookers into an audience. Makes it easier to deal. Especially today. Especially when saying good-bye seems impossible.
“Caviar and cake—”
She stops herself, unable or unwilling to go on. And then she moves closer. “Don’t forget your promise,” she whispers.
“Of course not,” I say.
She wraps her arms around me—more stronghold than hug.
I hold her for as long as I can take. Then I wiggle out, quickly kiss my mom, and climb onto the bus—picking up the free headphones, though my own are hanging around my neck. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think, I repeat, sliding into a window seat.
A large woman follows, choosing the seat next to mine. I’ve barely plopped down before she starts packing garbage bags all around me. They’re stuffed with clothes, I hope.
“Visiting my brother in Brewer,” she says. “No one would see him if I didn’t get on a bus once a year. You know?”
I nod and tell her I’m going to Rocky Cove, Maine.
“Near Bucks Harbor,” I say.
“There’s nothing near Bucks Harbor, honey.”
Should I tell her about my job? Nah, I don’t have the energy. I look out the window to locate Mom and Song but catch a glimpse of my still-surprising reflection instead. I cut my hair off yesterday. Not like Song—I didn’t shave my head the way the seventh-grade boys did when they heard doctors had found another tumor. No, I waited until yesterday and then had my long hair cut into a short, crazy bob. I even said yes to red streaks.
“You don’t even look like you,” my mother cried.
Mission accomplished. Of course, if I’d had any sense, I would have waited until I got to Maine.
I lean back and glance at a girl about my age, with the long hair I used to have, across the aisle. She catches my eye and smiles.
I smile back.
The woman next to me pulls an open pack of Life Savers from her purse, flicks tobacco off the top one, and offers it to me.
“I’m good,” I say.
The girl giggles.
We share a roll of the eyes, and then I turn to the window. We’re pulling out of South Station. Good-bye, Boston. Mom is waving one arm, throwing kisses with the other.
Song bends her arm at the elbow and raises her hand as if she were taking an oath—or saying, Stop. My breath catches.
I want to yell, No, wait! and run off the bus and into the arms of my little sister, back into the family cocoon where everyone is waiting, dreading, watching with one eye open at all times. Ready to push back fear—to push back fear and doubt and …
But I can’t. I need to say, Yes. Not yes to another round of Scrabble or yes to Halloween III again or yes to “I’ll stay home tonight and make sure Song’s temp doesn’t spike,” but yes to—to what? A break.
That’s all. Just a break. Two and a half months to see what it would feel like to be, well, me.
Here’s what saying yes feels like. Like I’m a total coward and courageous at the same time.
“I know he has to work,” the woman continues. “I don’t expect him to lose hours to pick me up.”
I place my hand on the glass and whisper as I’ve done a thousand times before, Be strong, Song.
© 2010 Jennifer Richard Jacobson