I woke up the next morning in silence. No yelling or slamming, just blue skies and a bird outside my window, idyllic and rare. It was the day that we were meeting Robbie at the airport. Since we had chatted a little back and forth while he was away on deployment, I thought it was safe to say that we were friends. He was only a couple of years older than I and every bit as good looking as Celeste and Zella preached, but I was nervous about meeting him face-to-face. I was even more nervous about the severity of his injuries. I didn’t really like stuff like that, and if there was massive head trauma or loss of limbs, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
Celeste and Zella picked me up about an hour before his arrival. I was just finishing my makeup when they came up to my room. The first thing I noticed was Zella – wearing a sundress! I’d never seen her in anything even half-way girly well, maybe half-way, but still, a sundress was almost freakish. I couldn’t help but stare.
“You like it?” Celeste smiled. Ahh. That made more sense, this was her doing.
“I…I’m not sure,” I looked her over and put my finger on my chin. I mean, she looked beautiful, it just, it didn’t seem the right look for her. This was the girl who up until recently had worn her hair in a rainbow pompom with sneakers and always ripped jeans.
“I feel like a goat in lipstick,” Zella humphed and dropped her shoulders to indicate defeat.
I laughed, “Well, I can assure you, you don’t look like a goat.”
“I think she looks amazing!” Celeste twirled her around. “I mean look at her! She has to show off her new figure.”
“I prefer tees and chucks.” She looked down at her feet.
I couldn’t help but gasp, “Oh my gosh! You are totally wearing wedges!”
It seemed strange to see her recently manicured feet at a slant. Ever since she’d been dressing herself, she’d worn either flip flops or chucks depending on the weather. She’d even sworn on our recent beach trip that she didn’t care what people thought, on her wedding day she was wearing black chucks under her dress. Celeste had tried to convince her to at least find some with sparkles. To which Zella laughed and said, “Sparkles? Are you serious? I think Chuck Taylor would roll over in his grave!” I agreed. I have seen them, but they are ridiculous.
Zella closed her eyes, clicked the toes of her shoes together and chanted, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, “Nope. Still here, and –“ she pulled out the skirt of the dress again, “still wearing a dress.”
Celeste pouted, “Hey!”
I stood in front of her, finger still on my chin, head to the side and looked at her again, “It might grow on you.”
“Sheah, like some kind of fungus.”
I laughed, but I could tell that Celeste was not at all amused. “Sorry, Celeste, but it just takes some getting used to. You at least have to agree on that.”
Zella interrupted, “Actually, for her? No. She’s been picturing me like this forever. This is her dream come true.”
Celeste still pouting, asked, “Why is it that my dream come true is your nightmare?”
Zella put her arm around her best friend, “Awww…Celle, not my nightmare exactly. It’s just, I don’t know…” She paused looking for the right word.
I filled it in, “Too frou-frou.”
“Bingo!” She said pointing to me and putting her finger on her nose.
Celeste put her hand on her hip, resolved and determined, “Well, I like it!”
Zella and I laughed and said at the same time, “We know!”
As we were heading out the door a few minutes later my mom called for me to come and see her, startling me from my utopic belief that she wasn’t home. I rolled my eyes and headed down the hall to her bedroom. Her and Dad had not shared a room or section of the house for several years. Mom’s side of the house was cold and dark. I hated walking to her room, it was like a prisoner headed for sentencing…only the judge was a bitter witch with no remorse.
“Yes. We are walking out the door,” I answered before she could ask.
“Where are you going?” she questioned.
“What do you care?” I said appearing in her door and slowly turning around to walk away again.
“Answer me!” She insisted too loudly.
I was pretty sure she had already been drinking, which was embarrassing. I whispered so my friends couldn’t hear, “Holy crap, mom, you’re drunk.” I walked to the side of the bed where she was struggling to stand up, “Please, don’t get so loud.”
She stumbled and pushed my hands away, “Well, Oona, if you would answer me instead of making this into a cat fight I wouldn’t have to!”
I conceded. She wasn’t going to get quiet. I dropped my voice, “Fine. I’m going to the airport.” I was so tired of her I’m your mother I care about you, and I just want to know where you are going to be routine. She must have thought I was stupid, like I didn’t see the difference between the way she said it and the way other parents said it. Somehow her voice always came off accusatory and suspicious. Deep down I wanted to believe she cared, but deeper down I just knew that it was all some sort of social etiquette game and the booze talking.
“Thank you.” She flipped her hair and sat back down again like she was in control, “Just be sure and mind your manners.”
Mind my manners? What was I six? “Whatever.” I turned to leave.
“And, don’t embarrass me in front of your church friends” she yelled back as I closed her door.
Me, embarrass you? I thought. Ugh. I hated the way that she always referred to them as “church friends” like I had joined some kind of cult that she was intimidated by. But I just ignored that comment and joined the girls who were already outside. Besides, she embarrassed herself plenty while we were at the beach!
When we finally got in my car, Zella looked at me and gave me that you-poor-thing look. I knew she meant well, but I hated pity. It was like I was that kid and everyone knew that my mom was a mean lush and my dad was unavailable and everyone felt sorry for me. But, I wasn’t a kid, I was eighteen years old. If I got along fine without parents before, I would surely get along fine without them from now on. I thought eventually I would get over it, that I would lose that deep desire to have them approve of me and to take pride in me. I looked down at my scarred wrist, “Yeah, right.”
“Did you say something?” Celeste asked from the driver’s seat.
“Oh no…just…thinking,” I quickly looked away from my wrists so as not to be forced into that conversation.
“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” Zella turned her green sorrowful eyes toward me.
I couldn’t bear it; I changed the subject, “I was just thinking about how good it will be to see Robbie, you know, face-to-face.”
“Yeah.” Celeste was trying to get excited, I could tell, but the mystery and fear of the unknown had us all a little conflicted.
Zella, the eternal optimist, piped up, “It’s gonna be just fine, I know it. Don’t you think?”
I wasn’t sure which of us she was talking to so I answered honestly, “I want to think so.”
Celeste, who just minutes ago was as unsure as I felt, got defensive. “What?! You think he’s bad off, lost a leg or something, relegated to a wheelchair for life!?”
I was confused, “Uh, no. I didn’t say that.”
“Well, that’s the vibe I’m getting.”
“Well, that’s not what I intended.” I decided to leave it at that. Celeste was unpredictable. She’d come a long way since her whole conversion experience, but she still had a biting tongue that would slice you in half if you didn’t know better! I should know, my tongue could do the same, not as much lately.
It was only about ten minutes later when we arrived at the airport. Celeste jumped out of the car and urged us all to hurry so she could lock the doors. I stepped out of the car the minute we heard the loud roar of an approaching plane. Celeste squealed, and Zella was all smiles, while I was feeling less and less confident by the minute.
“Come on! That’s him!” Celeste grabbed mine and Zella’s hands. We were unable to protest as she rushed us through the doors. My heart was pounding, my hands were sweating, and I was begging my breath to remain steady, all the while wondering why in the world I was so nervous?
We were met by a hoard of people at once: Zella’s mom and dad, Celeste’s mom and her dad, and Stephen Clark, the youth pastor. It was strange to me. Stephen and Jackson Cooper, Celeste’s biological dad, were friends, and yet, they loved the same woman. It was so obvious; anyone with half a brain could see that. Granted, he had made the choice to leave her when Celeste and Robbie were kids to attempt to clean up his own life, or drown his sorrows, and he seemed to understand his choice had lost him some treasures. As I watched Celeste hug and kiss them all, I thought for the millionth time how lucky they all were. Here she had two men in her life that loved and cared for her, that considered her their own. Then, I looked over at Zella, her mom running her fingers through her hair, mindlessly plating it while she whispered something with smiles and laughs. Then there was me, the odd one out, alone with a mom drunk in the bedroom probably arranging to be gone for the evening, a dad caught up in his work, abandoning my needs so he didn’t have to deal with the unmet emotional needs of his wife. Why was I there again?
I didn’t have a moment to figure that out because just then the airport personnel announced that Robbie’s plane had landed and was now de-boarding at such and such gate. The excitement of the group only intensified as we moved toward the gate. My mouth felt dry, and as I looked at the balloons and banners and phone cameras focused in on the empty space where he would appear soon, I wondered if he would be prepared for all of it.
The moment we saw him, there was a collective pause. No one wanted to gasp, or sigh, or any such thing. We all instinctively knew that any reaction could be taken the wrong way so we all smiled and waited. The lady pushing the wheelchair, led him straight to us. I couldn’t read the look on his face though I wanted to; I really wanted to know exactly what and how he was feeling.
“I suppose this is your family?” She had a thick Southern accent.
“Yeah,” he barely whispered but with a smile.
“Alrighty then, I’ll letcha be. And sir?” at that she got his attention, “Thank ya kindly for your service to our country.”
For a moment I wondered if she would curtsy or something, but instead she offered her hand to shake. Robbie reached out and squeezed it, “And thank you, for assisting me.”
I don’t know what it was. The way he gently grasped her hand, the blush in her cheeks, or the smile as he turned back toward his family, but I instantly liked him. I mean, we’d talked and stuff, but that… and the way he…well, he was more than I expected. I told myself to snap out of it. There he was in a wheelchair, for God’s sake! Well, not for God’s sake exactly, though he’d have argued it. He was there for the sake of the call, the call of duty.
Celeste was the first to rush in, arms wide, tears streaming, love beaming. “You’re here! You’re here! And you’re…you’re…” I wondered what she would say, all in one piece? not deformed? still have a head? But instead she just buried her head in his chest and said, “Home.”
He just held her to him. Holding her tight, like if he loosened his grip she might disappear, or like he was making up for lost time or remembering his fear he might not see her again, whatever it was, it was very touching and it appeared everyone held it sacred. Zella drew closer to me and put her arm around me. She does that. Other people are getting emotional, and she’ll just reach out and hug the person next to her. For the most part she isn’t a blubberer, but that day I figured she might blubber a little. Robbie was just like a brother to her, too. But, she stood beside me, stroking my arm.
I looked at her hand as it moved up and down and whispered, “I’m fine. You don’t have to pet me.”
She laughed and gripped me tighter. I was older than her but she was stronger…in many ways. “I’m just loving you, Oona.”
I rolled my eyes, loving me? I still had trouble with that.
During our dialogue Robbie had continued being hugged and greeted and pounded, but when he got to his dad, Mr. Cooper couldn’t hold it together. He dropped down on his knees and grabbed his son. He wept and thanked God over and over again. Both men hugging and smiling, and I felt like an intruder. I looked around; it was a little embarrassing. Zella saw me and clucked her tongue. I looked at her as if to say, “What?” But she shook her head and looked back at father and son. Apparently, openly public displays of affection and vulnerabilities were acceptable in airports, for families, from churches, with veterans. Who knew?
Zella’s dad had gotten Robbie’s luggage, so we all headed to the van. Zella was pushing the wheelchair, while Celeste chatted about this that and the other. I kind of lost interest. I was still wondering what had him in the wheelchair. His leg was elevated and extended with a cast, he wasn’t wearing a uniform but he did have some kind of knee stabilizer thing, but other than that, he didn’t have any bandages. It was perplexing. What exactly was wrong?
“Torn ACL.” I saw his lips move as I thought it.
“Huh?” Celeste stopped.
“It’s a torn ACL. It happened unloading an ammo truck. Stupid yes, but true. A torn ACL, and I’m released and discharged from duty.” Then he looked at me, “Crazy, huh?”
It was the glint in his eye; it took me by surprise. It was like he was sharing something with me. Like he was really looking at me to see what I thought. I just stood there, looking stunned. Everyone else jumped into the conversation, and he carried it on with them, answering their questions, responding to their reactions, but not before he winked. I hope I didn’t blush when he did it, but I saw it. It was as clear as day. He winked at me. A million times I told myself I’d imagined it, and a million times I couldn’t deny what I saw.
We followed the van to the house. On the drive Celeste and Zella chatted about how relieved they were and how good God was and how they had been so scared for nothing. I listened and wondered as I drove, but I kept my mouth shut. What could I say? I felt the same…mostly. Robbie’s wheelchair had been unloaded, and he was waiting for us in the driveway when we got there. He was handsome, with the sun shining in his eyes and the stubble on his face. Chair or no chair, he was nice to look at. We got out of the car and walked over to him.
His head was cocked to the side, “I was thinking, I must be hallucinating, sis.”
Celeste smiled, “Why’s that, brother?”
“Well, do you see it?”
Immediately I looked around, wondering what he was seeing?
Celeste answered, “No.” She must have been confused, too.
Zella laughed loudly, “HA! Thanks a lot!”
Robbie smiled big, “On second thought…maybe it’s not too out of the ordinary.”
Zella swatted him, “Yes! Yes it is! Me in a sundress, and these?” She pointed down to her shoes, “My chucks are calling my name.”
Robbie teased in a high voice, “Zella! Please, don’t abandon us! Does our brand mean nothing to you? Converse! Converse with us!”
At that, they both laughed. Celeste rolled her eyes and smiled while I just listened. It was a great sound. Careless, carefree laughter. I didn’t have that. I don’t think I ever had. Can you laugh and pretend like you don’t care how it sounds or how it comes off? And yet, every one of Zella’s laughs had that kind of feel to them, and then I realized, Robbie’s did, too.
We moved into the house, where everyone was waiting. Zella held my arm while Celeste pushed Robbie ahead of us in the wheelchair. Mr. Cooper and Stephen had created a makeshift ramp, but it took all three of us to push him up that last bit of lip into the house. Immediately, it was an atmosphere of chatter. Everyone talking at the same time, asking questions, laughing – it could be overwhelming, and was most of the time. Funny thing about this bunch; they made me feel uncomfortable and accepted at the same time. The thought alone scared me, but I was really starting to feel something that might be called love for them all. Even Mr. Cooper, Celeste’s estranged dad, grabbed me up in a hug every time he saw me; I was not used to that. My own dad didn’t respond to me so affectionately, and Mr. Cooper barely knew me and told me he loved me! The first time he said it was at my graduation. I was in shock. I questioned his motives, “Umm…How is that possible? You don’t know the first thing about me.” He just laughed and said something like, “I’m just reflecting what God feels.” Christians – they spoke in riddles, with love that was impossible to understand. I found it a little ridiculous.
Most the time I played the role of spectator. I took it all in, every look, every nuance, every word – both what was being said and what wasn’t. My life had taught me that…that words aren’t always what they seem. At the age of eighteen, I knew good and well that actions spoke volumes louder than any words. So I watched. They surprised me. They weren’t a shallow lot. And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, you could believe what they said was very much how they felt., and that both comforted and bothered me. I found myself listening intently to every word, wondering, wishing, and dismissing because as much as I felt that they were honest and up front, my past reminded me that couldn’t be true.
“So, how’s it feel to be out of school?”
His question surprised me. There he was in the middle of his adoring public and he was talking to me. “Umm…I just graduated and it’s summer so…no different. Yet.” Did that sound stupid? In my head it sounded way stupid.
“Whatcha gonna do now?” It was at that point that I realized everyone was looking at me, waiting for my answer to Robbie’s question.
“I…” Zella looked at me smiling, waiting. What would I say? I had the offer to work for my dad, college was a possibility, maybe travel? I decided honesty would be the best answer, “I don’t know.” I waited for an acknowledged look of disappointment that I didn’t have a directed future, that I was clueless as to the next step of my life, but it never came.
Karen Storm, Zella’s mom, put her arm around me and squeezed, “It’s the summer. There’s plenty of time to decide.”
I cannot explain what went through my head and body in that moment. It was a complete, total soul sigh. Relief. It wasn’t a feeling I was accustomed to. They weren’t disappointed, and yet they obviously cared. So I did what I do when I don’t know how to deal, when I get jealous and frustrated about what I don’t have from my own family, I stiffened and planned my escape, “I gotta go.”
Everyone looked at me with a confused look, but I turned away. That was enough of their fairy tale world. Life wasn’t like this – these plastic people for Jesus. One day, I figured, they would break the facade and the truth would come out, but I had had enough. It was too much. It wasn’t fair. I needed to go back home, to my room, to my private, cold life where feeling wasn’t required or at least not encouraged.
“Won’t you stay for some food? Stephen’s gonna grill some burgers.” Ms. Olivia, Celeste’s mom, nudged him as if to assure me it was happening soon.
Celeste nudged my shoulder, “Come on! Don’t be silly.”
I wasn’t being silly. I was the sensible one, the smart one, the wise one. Didn’t they see this game was getting old. I wasn’t a freakin’ pet! I was a person with a heart, with feelings, with wants and desires. As the thoughts got stronger, my desperation to leave mounted. I looked at Zella, willing her to let me go, and she came through.
“Leave her alone, Celle. She has things to do.” I hoped my frantic eyes managed a thank you because I was genuinely grateful for her understanding. She walked me to the door and waved, “Call me later.”
“‘K.” And I left.
The closer I got to my house, the darker my world felt, but that was strangely comforting, familiar. It only took me ten minutes, to drive home and enter my house and acclimate myself to the accustomed silence. Mom was gone. The house was vacant at last. I sighed, “This we can handle.”