Opposites Attract - Three
After some deliberating, Dad and I decided that just we would go to pick Riley up from the airport. It was Christmas Day, afterall, and it would have taken brute force to pull the kids away from their new toys. I also didn’t want them to wreak havoc while my sister and I were trying to get reaquainted with each other, as they were known to do. That wouldn’t make a very good first impression after almost two years.
They were mildly curious about Riley, in an offhand way. Avery asked what she looked like, and Gracie wanted to know if she’d play with her. I said probably, although I had no idea myself. Was Riley one of those people who thought she was above kid things? I hoped not, or else she was going to have a lousy time here.
“Good luck,” Katie said as she pulled me in for a goodbye hug. It was an odd sentiment, but not exactly ill-fitting. I should have applied whatever luck reserve I had toward something more substantial—getting into the college of my choice or finding a really good job. But right now, I just wanted to connect with my sister again. Everything else was pushed to the recesses of my mind.
“See you in a couple hours,” I replied, burying my head in her shoulder for a nanosecond. We both let go at the same time. She smoothed down my hair as Dad ducked out the door.
Seth glanced up from his new tablet. “Yeah, good luck.”
I smiled. That meant a lot, coming from Seth. Out of all the kids, he’d taken the longest to warm up to me. He was the only one who really had good memories of his father, and the fact that Katie brought in a live-in boyfriend—and not only that, but a girl who was older than him, the oldest kid—made him angry.
There had been a lot of fights in those days. Between us, mostly. Seth was a grenade that sporadically went off without warning—the most haunting occasion happening we were eating dinner, and Katie and Dad and I were laughing about something. That was before they were married, and even though I was mad, too, back in those days, I still couldn’t help but giggle when Dad made a funny joke. Anyway, Katie leaned into him and he kissed her hair, the way he did sometimes. Seth, who’d been silently picking at his food, stood up. His chair scraped against the floor.
“Seth,” Katie said, straightening. “Sit down, please.”
He folded his arms across his scrawny chest. My heart rate picked up.
“Seth,” Katie pressed. She pointed to the empty chair with her fork. “Sit down.”
He glared at her.
“Seth, you heard Katie,” Dad added gently, when it became clear he wasn’t going to listen.
He turned his abhoring stare to Dad. “No.”
Katie took a sip of water. I saw, when she set it down, her hand was shaking the tiniest bit. Avery danced a piece of garlic bread across her place, oblivious. Her long blonde hair fell in curtains around her face, concealing her view of the brewing storm. I wished I could be six again.
“Well,” She breathed at last, maintaining her collected calm, “then go to your room.”
“No. I’m not going to do what you say anymore.”
“Yes you are, Seth, I’m your mother.” I could see she was getting flustered. He wasn’t usually so disrespectful. A vomit-like kneading took up in the pit of my stomach. I set down my fork, unable to eat.
“Are you her mother?” He asked, and I tried not to cringe.
“Stella is sitting right across from you, so you will speak to her like she’s in the room.”
“She has a mother,” He continued. I looked up. I begged him with my eyes to stop.
Katie glanced at Avery. She made the garlic bread talk.
“Seth, I’m not doing this with you. Either sit down and join us or go upstairs.”
“I have a Dad.”
She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Of course you do, honey. I don’t know what this is about, all right? Just sit down, please. Don’t make me ask you again.”
Seth plopped into his chair. “I don’t want him here.”
“Or her. He’s not my Dad. They have a Mom. They should be with her, not here.”
Dad picked up his plate. “Come on, Stella, let’s take a walk.”
I could barely unstick my legs from the back of the chair. I trailed him into the kitchen and handed him my plate. He rinsed it off.
We went back through the living room, keeping our heads high, and I tried to tune out the distinctive sound of sobbing in the next room.
“Shh, baby, it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay,” Katie kept saying, over and over.
“Stop crying,” Avery commanded in her petite little voice. I stumbled out the door.
Dad opened the car door for me, then, and I climbed in. I didn’t even remember coming outside, so wrapped up in my thoughts I’d been. I did that sometimes. Autopilot was my default mode.
“Do you remember that time Seth got upset at the dinner table a couple months after we’d moved here?” I asked as Dad buckled his seatbelt. He nodded.
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Nothing. I was just—I was just thinking about it.”
“Hm.” He turned on the car, flicking on the air condition. “It’s too hot. Riley’s going to feel like she’s walking into a furnace, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, forcing a smile. “Probably.”
“What do you want to listen to?”
I shrugged. “You pick.”
“Wow. I feel special. Stella is turning over control of the radio to me.”
“Dad.” I tipped my chin toward him. “Please. I never get to pick what I listen to.”
“You do when we’re in the car together.”
“Which is hardly ever anymore.” I leaned against the window, propping my head up. I felt like I should’ve been more nervous, but now the sound of Seth crying was playing in my head, over and over and over again. I let out a frustrated breath.
“Are you too cold?”
“Sorry.” Dad and I, always perpetually apologizing. “It’s just that you have goosebumps.”
I glanced down at my arm. “Oh.”
“Are you nervous, then? You don’t need to be nervous. It’s just your sister.”
“I know, Dad.”
“Then what?” He had a way of pressing someone for answers without being annoying. “You’re not telling me something.”
I brought my shoulders up and down. “I just have Seth on the brain.”
“Yeah, because of that one time—”
“—when he threw a fit at dinner. I know. Why?”
“It just kind of popped into my head.”
“Well, try not to think about it anymore. That was a long time ago, Stell. Things are different now.”
“I know.” I put my feet up on the dashboard, wiggling my toes. I’d painted them the night before, apple red. My favorite color. “But I was thinking about what he said—she has a Mom, I have a Dad. That’s kind of how I feel about me and Riley. Like there’s just you and me, and her and Mom.”
“That’s not true, Stella.” His mantra.
“Then don’t say things you can’t take back. Huh?” He reached out to flick my nose. “Right?”
“Anyway—” He shifted lanes, glancing over his shoulder. “Hey, is that Monty?”
“In the green car.”
I watched as the one next to ours passed. “Nope. Some lady.”
“Huh.” Dad scratched his cheek. “I could have sworn…”
“Yeah. What were you saying?”
“Maybe it’s his girlfriend.”
“Yeah?” Our twin eyes met.
“What were you saying?”
“Not much, Stell. Just that I really want you to be open. I know that you shut down sometimes…let’s face it, we’re not the most receptive people, but your sister deserves a chance.”
“Y’all probably have more in common than you think.”
I thought back to the other day, to her laughing at my y’all. “Yeah.”
“If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at me. I’m the one who took you from her.” He sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if that was the right choice. To separate you two.”
“I wanted to go with you, Dad.”
“But you guys were supposed to see each other so much more than you ended up doing…”
“You had good intentions. That’s all that matters.”
“It’s in the past,” I said brusquely. I really didn’t want to open this whole, involved can of worms. Parent guilt. It was a subject we’d managed to avoid thus far, which shocked me, but I wanted to keep it that way.
“You’re right. You’re very right, in fact. And wise.” He smiled at me. “I’m proud of you.”
“Dad.” I buried my head in my knees.
“Now’s not the time to be shy.” He twisted to scan the seats behind him. “Did you remember Riley’s gifts?”
“Yeah. They’re in the back.”
“Grab them when we get there, okay?”
“Fine. But do you really think she’s going to want to have to open gifts right away? Won’t she want to settle down first?”
“I think you’re thinking of you, Stell.”
We rode the next half-hour to the airport in silence. I texted Steven a little bit, who had Merry Christmas wishes for me. We’d never had the chance to meet up to exchange presents. After announcing her visit, we’d been cleaning the house in anticipation of Riley for the past forty-eight hours. And there was a lot of it to do—dusting, wiping, mopping, sweeping. Katie had divided the jobs up among us and we’d gone to work, all except for Gracie and Bennett.
When the sign for the Atlanta International Airport came into view, I tucked my phone into my pocket. This was it. The moment of truth.
We turned on an exit and joined a long line of cars awaiting entry into the parking lot. Dad adjusted his hands on the wheel. I saw his throat move as he swallowed.
“Nervous?” I taunted. He shook his head.
“Sorry.” I pulled out my phone again, scanned it for texts. I wasn’t one of those kids who were constantly absorbed in their cells, but I was at a loss for anything to do. I was afraid if I talked to Dad, something telling would slip out. Like, oh, I don’t know—I wish she wasn’t coming. Or why do I have to keep apologizing? Or very simply—I don’t consider her my sister anymore.
I had a feeling none of those would go over very well.
“I’m going to let you off here,” Dad said, pulling up to the curb. “Run in and get her, okay?”
He nodded, unlocking the car. “Be quick if you can.”
“Why aren’t you coming in?”
“Because I don’t want to deal with parking.”
I scanned the hundreds of cars congested on the black tar and reached for my seatbelt with a frown of resignation. “Okay.”
“It’ll be fine.”
I swung the door open and stepped down. “I will.”
Inside the lobby, the cool air was cranked on high. I searched the expansive space until I saw the sign for arrivals. It was a few minutes past ten—Riley was probably already there, waiting on me. I picked up the pace, with Dad’s hurry up still ringing in my ears.
I got off the escalator and paused for a moment to catch my bearings, but a gruff Pardon me from behind sent me stepping to the side. And then I was lost. There were people all around—grabbing their just-returned loved ones in a hug, some chatting animatedly, others more subdued—and I didn’t see her. There were so many blondes. I searched their faces, but none of them were here. I wondered if maybe she’d changed her hair color. That wasn’t so far out of the realm of possibility, was it?
I was brimming on upset when I finally caught sight of a familiar bag up ahead—an abused purple duffel, swelling with its contents. Whoever carried it was obscured by a group. They weren’t moving, probably searching the room for their own sister who may or may not have changed her hair color, too.
The purple duffel bag dated back to a time when we were nine, about to visit our grandparents in Nevada for the first time. They lived on the outskirts of Las Vegas—they were huge gamblers, but were taking the week of the slots to host us in their gated community. We were lured there with a promise of fun and lots of ice cream cones.
Mom declared we were going to need luggage, and we went shopping to pick them out. In New York, it was kind of difficult, because there were just so many places to choose from. We started at Everything Kids Emporium, where I found an adorable vinyl fruit suitcase with hot pink rollers. Riley wasn’t satisfied with anything, even this sparkly blue one that I’d been tempted to take for myself.
We looked around for a couple of hours, but my sister was impossible to satisfy. Exasperated, Mom ducked into a Sporting Goods store to get a new yoga mat, claiming she needed to treat herself after the headache Riley had brought on, and we perused the aisles of bike gloves and athletic wear while she decided between foam or rubber.
“Look,” Riley gasped suddenly, squeezing my arm so hard her nails dug in.
I searched for the person that was getting beheaded, or the famous celebrity trying on Nikes, or whatever exciting thing she had spotted. “Yeah?”
She pointed up, to a shelf way above our heads, that housed a lone purple duffel bag. It was a dark, wine-tinted magneta, a really horrible color, if you asked me. I wrinkled my nose.
“What about it?”
“It’s perfect!” She whirled around in search of Mom. “I want it.”
“It’s fifty dollars!”
“So! That’s not that much!”
“Mine was only thirty.”
I pressed my lips together and decided to let this play out for itself. Riley, at eight, couldn’t be swayed by anything. In fact, she and Avery were a lot alike, minus the sporty side. She preferred the dramatics, even back then. In fact, she brought out every trick in the book in order to convince Mom, who kept trying to tell her it was to carry bike helmets and spare ties. The thing was huge. Riley didn’t care.
She got it. Back then, it had been the length of two thirds of her body, a monstrosity she struggled to carry. On our way to the departures in the airport, I’d walked several feet ahead of my family, embarrassed to be seen with her. As far as anybody knew, I was just the normal girl with the cute suitcase.
Until Dad called me back because I was too far away.
Now I blinked again just to be sure it was her and, indeed, it was. The duffel had made its return.
I started forward slowly, taking deep breaths to steady myself. The group of people were still chattering away, and I scooted past them. Riley’s face lit up when she saw me.
“Hi!” She exclaimed, starting forward. My face had slipped into the neutral place between frown and smile, but I couldn’t help but grin when she reached out to hug me, a kneejerk reaction.
“Good to see you,” I said, giving her a quick squeeze.
“You too. After two years!” She pulled away, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Oh my gosh, Stella, you look so different.”
“You…you too.” I didn’t want to be one of those judgemental girls, so I tried not to notice how she was thin in all the places I wasn’t. I wasn’t extremely curvy—I had a waist, and hips—but they were kind of one-dimensional. She was almost built like a model. Her shoulders were narrow, her ribcage delicate to match. I pulled my eyes away from her shapely legs so she wouldn’t think I was staring.
She laughed, adjusting the duffel on her shoulder. “Where’s Dad?”
“Waiting in the car. He didn’t want to bother with parking.”
“Should we go then?” She swept her hand around the space. “Unless you wanted to stay here?”
A thin smile twisted on my lips. “Not really.”
She started forward with a spring in her step. She was wearing rainbow Keds and tan shorts with suspenders that crossed in the back. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, pulled back from her forehead with a polka dot headband. It was eclectic, but adorable. I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.
“Does this place have a starbucks?” She asked as we took the elevator down to the main floor.
“Let’s get a coffee! I’m dying for some caffeine.”
“Oh, no. I’m okay.”
She ran a hand through her hair. It fell back against her shoulder in perfect waves. “You don’t drink coffee?”
I shook my head. “Just iced tea.”
“You really have become southern.” There was an edge in her voice impossible to miss. I glanced away.
She found a Starbucks and ordered a triple-shot espresso that even I (with my acute lack of knowledge on coffee) knew was strong. She drank it all in a few sips and tossed the cup into the trash on our way out the door.