Comfort & Joy
Bruce Springsteen is singing. “Baby, I Was Born to Run.” I change stations, find a nice, soothing Elton John ballad.
No more dreams for me. I toss the bag of clothes on top of my bureau and go back to work, stripping the pictures from my wall. When I’m finished, and my butter yellow walls are a desert of tiny gray pin holes, I cram everything into grocery bags and take them out to the garbage can in my garage.
Everything goes in the trash.
* * *
A ticket to Seattle.
A white bag full of ruined clothes.
For the next week, these two items—along with the memories they represent—sit on my dresser.
I look at them every time I walk past, but I don’t touch.
Until my memories of Daniel and Bobby have faded completely, I will ignore the ticket and the bag. By the time I finally reach for them, they will be cold, their power stripped by the passage of days. Someday I will pay the change fee and use my first-class ticket to fly to some other destination. Maybe Florida or Hawaii.
I am studiously ignoring the bag when the phone rings.
I answer quickly, turning my back on my dresser. “Hello?”
I wince at the name and all that it implies. Perhaps, my summer project will be to return to my maiden name. “Yes?”
“This is Ann Morford. How are you?”
“Fine,” I say to my realtor. “You want to renew the listing?”
“Actually, I’m calling with good news. We have an offer on your house. Two hundred ninety two thousand five hundred dollars. I guess when you survived the crash, your house changed from bad luck to good luck.”
“Wow.” I sit on my bed, stunned.
“Do you want to make a counter offer? See if they’ll come up to full price?”
It takes less than ten seconds to make up my mind. I know a second chance when I see one. “No. I’ll take the deal.”
The realtor and I talk for a few more minutes about details. Earnest monies and closing dates and the like. I tell her I can be out of this house by Friday if they’d like, and I mean it. At the realization that I finally can leave, I’m desperate to get going. She faxes me the paperwork, which I sign immediately and re-send.
As soon as I’m done with that, I head for the kitchen to pour myself a celebratory glass of wine. I don’t make it past my dresser, though.
This time, I’m caught. The sale of my house and the prospect of moving has changed things somehow. I’m finally moving, changing my direction. The idea of it makes me feel indestructible.
I grab the bag and carry it to the bed where I sit, staring down at it. Then, very slowly, I open it.
The first thing I see is my left shoe. Just the one. I pick it up. The black-and-white Keds tennis shoe is in perfect condition. No stains or rips or mud.
My sweater has a few dark stains that I know could be either mud or blood or a mixture of both. It isn’t ruined, though. A normal person, looking at this sweater would never guess its history. There’s something oddly comforting in that.
Then I pull out my jeans.
The right leg has been cut and ripped from hem to waist. Dried blood makes the material stiff and discolored.
I reach into the front left pocket and pull out a wadded up Von’s grocery store receipt, an airport parking stub, and seven dollars in cash. In two back pockets I find some spare change and a paper clip. Exactly the things I expected to find.
In the other front pocket, I feel something odd. I reach in farther, find something cold and hard. I pull it out and stare down at my hand.
In my palm is a small, white arrowhead.
I close my eyes and count to ten. When I look down again, the arrowhead is still there.
It can’t be. You know it can’t.
You didn’t walk away from the crash.
Yet I’m holding this arrowhead. With everything I am, everything I think and feel, I believe this.
Of course, I’ve believed lots of crazy things . . .
I walk over to my bathroom and hold my hand up to the mirror.
There it is: small and white against my palm, like the tip of a Christmas tree.
I need help. Closing my hand tightly around the arrowhead, I head out of my room. As I pass the bureau, I see the airline ticket and glance at my clock. The daily flight to Seattle leaves in just under three hours.
Once again those two small words infuse my world with hope and possibility. I can’t push them away, can’t stop the swell of longing this time.
Shoving the ticket in my purse, I leave the house that already feels as if it belongs to someone else and go to my garage, where I limp past the file cabinets of my dreams and get into my Volvo. Behind me, the door lifts open.
Before I start the car, I look down at the thing in my hand.
It’s still there.
Slowly, keeping my foot on the brake, I back out of my garage and down the driveway. All the way to my sister’s house, I clutch the arrowhead and pray it’s real.
I don’t think my fragile mind can handle another delusion.
Still praying, I park in Stacey’s driveway, grab my cane, and go to the front door, where I ring the bell repeatedly.
It isn’t until I hear footsteps that I remember who else lives here and think: This could be bad.
I stare at him, this man who held my heart for so many years and slept beside me and sometimes remembered to kiss me good night. It is the first time in months I’ve been this close to him, and I feel . . .
Nostalgic and nothing more. Here is my past, my youth, staring down at me. He looks remarkably like he did on the night I met him, all those years ago. Back when we were kids.
“Hey, Thom,” I say, surprised at how easy it now is to say his name.
“Joy.” His normally strong voice is a whisper. I can see him wondering what to say.
“It’s funny how things work out,” I say, giving him time to think.
“I’m sorry, Joy.”
I’m surprised by how deeply his words affect me. I hadn’t known until just now that I needed to hear them. “Me, too.”
After that, silence falls between us. Neither knows where our words should go. We stare at each other; he looks as sad as I feel. Finally, he says, “Is Stacey expecting you?”
He glances toward the stairs and yells, “Stace. Your sister’s here.”
Stacey comes down the stairs, looking panicked. She looks worriedly at Thom, then turns to me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m better than okay, actually.” I grab her sleeve and pull her into the hallway. I should wait for more privacy, maybe take her to a room, but I’m too nervous and excited to be sensible. “I found this in the pants I was wearing on the plane.” I lift my hand and slowly unfurl my fingers.
Stacey stares down at my palm.
I can see it as plain as day—a small white arrowhead.
Please . . . I don’t even know how to finish my prayer. I just know that if my hand is empty, I’m lost. I’ll need—as they say—a long vacation in a rubber room. It takes every scrap of courage I possess to ask her: “Do you see it?”
White hot wonder suffuses me; with it, I can see how cold and empty I was before. “You see it,” I say. “It’s really there.”
“It’s an arrowhead, I think. What does it mean?”
“It means I’m going north.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, but I’m using my plane ticket.”
That stops her. “Are you sure?”
“One hundred percent.”
I see how her face creases at that, how her eyes fill with fear and worry. It’s the crash. Like me, she’ll battle those memories for a long time. “It won’t happen again,” I say gently.
“I’m going with you.”
I touch her arm. “I know it sounds crazy, but I think I need to do it just like I did before. Alone. Looking for hope.”
“I’m driving you to the airport, then. Don’t even think about arguing with me about it.” She runs past me and goes upstairs. I can hear her moving down the hallway overhead. I return to the living room, where Thom is waiting. We stare at each other.
“Take good care of her,” I say at last. “She really loves you.”
“I love her, too, Joy.” I hear the throatiness in his voice and know he means it.
I feel a pinch at that, a phantom pain, but it’s gone quickly. “Good.”
A few minutes later, Stacey reappears. Grabbing her keys from the copper bowl on the entry table, she kisses Thom good-bye, then leads the way to the garage. While she’s starting the van, I get my purse and the ticket. Then I climb into the passenger seat and slam the door shut.
My sister looks at me. “Are you sure about this?”
“Okay, then. We’re off.”
Thirty-five minutes later, we are at the airport. We pull up to the curb and park, then get out of the minivan.
On the sidewalk, she pulls me into her arms and holds me so fiercely I can hardly breathe. “Don’t you vanish on me.”
“I’ll call you when I get there,” I promise.
“Wherever there is.” Stacey draws back. “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again.”
“How can I disappear? I have a wedding to go to in June.”
Stacey draws in a sharp breath. “You’ll come?”
“We’re sisters,” I say simply.
I can see the impact of my words. Stacey smiles, but its watery and weak. “I love you, Joy.”
And I know then: no matter what I find or don’t find in Washington State, I will always have a place where I belong. It has taken us a long time, but Stacey and I have finally returned to the beginning. We’re sisters again, two little girls in the back of a hot VW bus, experiencing our lives through each other, holding hands when we’re scared.
“I love you, too, Stace.”
It takes almost forty minutes to get to my gate, and then another twenty minutes before they call my flight.
I get in to line.
To my left, through the dirty bank of windows, I see my plane.
Can I do it? Suddenly, I don’t know. I can feel my heart beat and the sweat popping out on my forehead.
I reach into my pocket, coil my fingers around the arrowhead.
Promise you’ll come back, Joy.
Head injury insane.
But I believe.
It’s that simple, really.
Crazy or not, I believe.
Breathing carefully, moving slowly, I enter the aircraft and go to seat 2A.
There, I pull the seat belt tightly across my lap and check where the exit row is.
Then I pray.
I scream when we touch down in Seattle. The sound horrifies me, as does the obvious disapproval of my fellow passengers and the flight attendants, but I can’t contain my fear until we’ve landed.
I am still shaking as I follow the crowd of my fellow passengers off the airplane and through the busy beige bowels of SeaTac airport. Silvery fish inlaid in the tile lead me to the baggage claim area, where I rent a sensible car and get a map of western Washington.
Outside, I finally see the famous landmarks that have become so familiar. The distant snow-capped mountains and bright blue waters of Puget Sound. Mount Rainier rises out of the mist.