The Story of Us: Excerpt
I found out something about myself as all those boxes piled up: I hated change. Hated it, and was bad at it. I suppose I got my feelings about change through some genetic line, because my mother, Daisy Shine, had left two husbands-to-be at the Sea-Tac Airport in order to avoid it. Imagine the spinning baggage carousel going round and round, the roaring liftoff of planes. The landings. The comings and goings. And some guy with his dreams in a suitcase, and my mother nowhere in sight.
Far as I knew, there were no airports on Bishop Rock, which was a lucky thing for Dan Jax. For all of us. I loved Dan, and this was one wedding that I . . . Well, I hoped she married the guy, I really did. The other ones were assholes, and she was right to leave them. But you got to wondering. You know, if she could do it. Maybe some people just had trouble with forever.
Outside, Ben beeped the horn of his truck. My brother was always on time. And, change? Whatever. He was fine with it. Jupiter—her, too. She’d see her leash and your car keys in hand, and her little butt would start swiveling in circles of joy. She didn’t know if she was going to Gram’s or to Taco Time, or if she’d land at the vet getting shots, but still there was the hopping around and the yay, yay, yay dog dance. She loved the ride anyway, no matter where she ended up.
But not me. What’s to love about uncertainty? Nothing. It’s scary—a big black hole of possible outcomes. Change requires bravery, and I don’t even like to walk into creepy basements alone. Sometimes I’ve even wished there was a human pause button, where you could choose some point in your life where you could stay always. Here’s the time I’d pick: my sophomore year of high school, when Janssen and I were crazy in love and my stupid brother still lived at home, and we’d all have those breakfasts on Sunday. Janssen would walk down the road and knock on the door, and Mom would be up early, and we’d have bacon and French toast, and Jupiter would sit by the table being her best self for a dropped crust. Sure, maybe things could get better than that, but things could get worse, too. I’d take it because I knew where I was then. I knew where home was. Things were sure.
Obviously I have my own troubles with forever, and what I did to Janssen proved that.
I heard my mother breathing hard, her suitcase bashing and banging into the walls as she brought it down the stairs. I could just see it—my mother, tripping and tumbling, broken leg, broken arm, no wedding. I listened for the crash. Janssen once said I was always listening for the crash.
"Be careful!" I called, but she was already safe. The bag thudded to the floor, and she sighed. She must not have heard me because a second later she was yelling up the stairwell.
Ready? I guess that was the question. Were either of us ready? For the last few weeks our house was a maze of cardboard cartons and mixed emotions. You could barely walk in there, and every stupid thing was a memory. Boxes were stacked up wherever you looked; stacked up and labeled in fat, black pen (or crayon or eyeliner or whatever was closest). kitchen. attic. ben’s stuff. fragile! Clumps of newspaper were strewn around, and so were the odd piles of things no one knew what to do with. A CD that belonged to one of Mom’s friends and needed returning, manuals to varied appliances, mystery keys.
What do you keep hold of? What is meant to go? One thing was clear—I’d had a childhood marked by Disney movies. Cricket, you want to keep your and Ben’s old Lion King game? How about these Princess Jasmine slippers? Cricket, look what I found in the garage. Remember this? Beauty and the Beast magicmirror-
When you were moving, every little object was a decision.That seventh-grade report on the Industrial Revolution—keep or toss? Christmas sweater knit by Great-Grandma Shine? On one hand—obviously I’d never wear it. On the other—she was dead, and putting it in the Goodwill bag made me feel like she’d be looking down, getting her feelings hurt. I couldn’t break hearts in heaven, I just couldn’t. Here on earth was bad enough.
My mother was worse than I was about all that stuff. Of course, she was happy, too. Really happy. Whenever Dan Jax would call or come over with a homemade something (Dan Jax was a great cook), she was giddy. I’d never seen her like that. But then came the sorting and the packing of our old baby clothes, tiny shirts yellowed with spit-up, miniature sweatshirts with trains and bears that she was supposed to be getting rid of, but that she only solemnly folded back up and returned to the box. She did better with our baby toys, but she was still weepy and sullen with each teething ring and stack of plastic doughnuts (largest to smallest, in rainbow colors) that she decided to part with.
"You can be happy and sad, too," I had told her, which was a joke between all of us, because that was a line in Monkey M. Monkey Goes on Vacation, one of her most popular kiddie books. "Monkey M. Monkey was happy to go, but sad, too. He knew he would miss Otto and Willa and the others."
"Do you want this for college?" she had answered, holding up a plastic yellow toy telephone. When I was four, I’d swung that at Ben once and gave him a bloody nose.
"Ha," I’d said. "If I ever need to call home . . ."
Finally she found a solution—she kept a few of the toys and then spread the rest out on the floor and took photos of them. She even crouched for close-ups. My crib-side Busy Box got more poses than I did for my senior pictures. Hopefully she’d order wallet sizes so it could pass some to its friends, the shape sorter and the Fisher-Price garage.
Was that what I should have done with everything that was mine and Janssen’s too? Taken pictures, so that I could leave it all behind, if leaving it behind was what I was going to do? Hundreds of pictures, it would be. Dried flowers and stacks of sweet notes and the scarf he tried to knit me once but which ended up about two inches long. Pictures of pictures, too, I’d have to take. That one of him on Moon Point, where his hair is catching the sun and it’s a curly mess, and he’s grinning like mad, his arms out, as if he’s trying to hug the moment. He’s the cutest, he is. God. That’s a great picture of him.
Mom was down there with her bag, and in the driveway outside Ben leaned on the horn. He was ready a long time ago. He had this enviable ability not to linger over feelings. Get a move on, let’s go. I loved that. Maybe it was a guy thing. I wished I had it.
"Bus is leaving!" Mom yelled.
"Coming!" I yelled back.
"Jupiter!" Mom called.
From the doorway of my room, I could see Jupiter get up from her pillow. She stretched one thin beagle leg out behind her and then the other—oh, the old girl had to get the kinks out lately, before she could get the whole body moving. She clomped down the stairs, front paws and then back end, in a little hop. She’d already had a big day. A bath that morning, where she’d sat, miserable, in the tub with flat, drenched hair, until she was finally out and free to roll around on the carpet, smelling like strawberry shampoo and wet dog. Now she was fluffy as she made her way down. Some dogs—they’re just sweet; you can feel their kindness in their soulful eyes, and that was Jupiter. I snagged her bed and her favorite ragged blankie, too, and Rabbit, that flat stuffed-animal roadkill she loved.
"Don’t forget these," I said to Mom.
"Thanks. Stinky dog bed . . . check. Deflated old Easter bunny."
"This was one of ours?" We used to get a stuffed rabbit every year in our baskets.
"Yours, I think. Didn’t you give it to her?"
I felt a pang of something sad and bittersweet as I looked at that dreary, matted used-to-be fur. Even a stupid smelly dog toy had its stories. Stuffed toy glory days, long gone, but still, Jupiter kept on loving that flat old rabbit. It kind of choked me up. God! That, right there—that was evidence of the mess, the knotted, impossible, stuck mess I was in. Sentimental feelings about something that disgusting . . . I don’t know. That thing
We hauled the gathered luggage to the porch. Ben hopped out of his truck, headed over to help with the bags. Jupiter had already tangled herself on her leash around the front hedge. Mom shut the front door and then locked it. The door seemed huge all of a sudden. Years and years huge. We’d moved to that house when I was ten years old and Ben was twelve, after our parents got divorced.
"Well," my mom said. Her voice was wavery.
"I know," I said.
"It’s not the last time. We’ll be back. We’ll have to check to see if the movers left anything behind . . . ," Ben said.
"Still," I said. "Let’s hurry."
"Good idea," Mom said. "I hate good-byes."
But we didn’t exactly hurry. Even Ben didn’t. He set down the bags he held. We all stood on that wide, wide lawn in front of our old Victorian house in Nine Mile Falls, my mother’s arm around our waists, mine and Ben’s. Behind that door—no, wait, on that lawn and up that drive and behind that door and everywhere else on that property—there was what felt like a lifetime full of memories. Middle school angst and Christmases, the huge blanket of maple leaves every fall, our creek out back, the sound of it—soft and trickling, or rushing with too much rain as the boulders tumbled underneath. My father with his car idling out front, picking us up for the weekend; Jon Jakes and his rotten kids who lived under our roof for two years; Ben and me—fighting and laughing and more laughing. Ben and me and Mom and Jupiter. Home.
And Janssen, of course. My very own Janssen Tucker. Who right then did not belong either to my past or my future, which was all my stupid doing. I’d put him in some waiting place of in-between, and he’d just made it clear he wasn’t going to stay there much longer. Could you blame him? Me and my Janssen, our clock was ticking. You gotta figure this one out on your own, he told me. You gotta decide. I loved, love, that boy. That’s the first part of this story that you need to know.
"Smell," Mom said.
"What?" Ben said.
"Blackberries ripening. Along the creek. Smells like summer."
"It does," I said.
"Summer was great here," Ben said. "Except for cutting this goddamn lawn."
"How many lawn mowers did this lawn kill?" I asked. The lawn was huge. The first cut of the spring—the grass was ankle high and so thick and hard to mow that it took a couple of days to do the job. I fought the lawn, and the . . . lawn won, Mom would sing, after taking a long drink of water out of the hose.
"Three," Mom said.
"Two Weedwackers," Ben said.
"And what about winter," Mom said.
"Yeah," I said. The wind would blow so hard that tree branches would crack loose, and the power would go out for days.
"Here . . . ," she said. Her voice was soft.
"What?" I asked.
"So much of our story is here."
I didn’t want to cry. I hated to cry. All three of us were the same that way. She kissed the tops of our heads. Ben cleared his throat.
"Look at that crazy dog," Mom said.
We did. She had about four inches of leash left and was now bound tight to the lilac bush. She had given up. Lain down right there and set her chin on her paws. She sighed through her nose.
It was great comic timing. That’s part of what made them so great, right? The mess, the barking, the trouble—one reason you put up with it all was for the relief of ridiculous dogs during big moments. Ben laughed. "Oh, poor you," Mom said to her. "Poor defeated baby."
I went to untangle her leash. Ben picked the bags back up, and Mom put her house key in the pocket of her jeans. All this past and all this future and all this unknowing, and there was only one thing we could do about it. One choice, and so we did it. We got into Ben’s truck to see what would happen next.