(Retitled) Separation Anxiety - Five
Riley only took the tiniest bit of everything.
I swallowed back my self-consciousness as I spooned a generous amount of Katie’s delicious sweet potato casserole onto my plate. It was laden with spices and marshmallows—a total, heavenly treat. That’s why, when we had it, I made sure to eat a lot.
“Here,” I passed the pan to Seth, who took a similar-sized helping. He gave it to Avery, who in turn passed it over to Riley. I poked a fork through my food, casting sneaky glances up to watch her. She smiled brightly at Dad as she got the tiniest bit on the end of the serving spoon, plopping it onto your plate.
“You’re allowed to have more than that, honey,” Katie explained as the dish made its way to her. She put hers alongside the ham and garlic-roasted green beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, shredded roast beef and fresh dill butter rolls on her plate. Riley’s smile tightened at the edges.
“Uh…yeah, I know. I’m just—I kind of watch what I eat, you know?”
I set my fork down. Katie nodded her understanding a bit too late.
“Yeah, of course. It’s Christmas, though. We like to eat around Christmas.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong—so do I!” She laughed. Her knuckles were white as she twisted the edge of the tablecloth between her fingers. “I’d just rather spend the calories on Little Debbie cakes, you know?”
Avery raised her eyebrows. “So you’re afraid of food?”
“No! Not at all. Um—no.” She took a bite of the sweet potato casserole. “I’m just kind of a health freak. I worry about what junk does to people’s…hearts…”
I took a bite and chewed. I actually felt sort of ill. But—ugh—it was Christmas. This wasn’t fair.
“Not me,” Avery said after a weighted pause. She took a huge bite of casserole then, just to establish that fact, I guess. Riley shifted in her seat.
“I really like your house,” She offered after a few seconds of forks clinking against plates as we ate. I picked at my food, afraid she’d scrutinize me if I dug in like usual. I glanced directly across the table at Katie—our eyes met, and she offered me a private smile. I returned it.
“Thanks, Riley,” Katie said after a beat. She leaned back against her seat. “It needs some updating, of course, but it’s still in pretty good condition for what it is.”
“Oh, yeah, totally.” Riley nodded, sipping from her glass of diet soda. I’d rolled my eyes at her request for diet earlier—we didn’t buy it, on principle and because it tasted cloyingly sweet. Dad had run out to the store to get it just for her, ready to oblige her every want, I guess.
“It actually used to be a plantation home, way back when,” Katie continued. “When I bought it with my husband we just kind of fell in love. The attention to detail is spectacular.”
“You mean your husband—” Riley suddenly stopped, like she’d realized too late that this might be a sensitive subject. I remembered that about her, then. Riley’s mouth often got away from her. She talked constantly; she was just one of those people who felt awkward if she didn’t.
“Sorry. I don’t want to be nosy.”
“Nah, hon, you’re family.” Katie waved her on. “Consider me your second Mom.”
Riley’s forced smile reappeared. She really was a fantastic actress.
“Well…I just meant with your husband…before my Dad. Right?”
“Just wondered. Did you guys ever want to move after Dad moved in?”
She shook her head. “No. Not particularly. I mean, we talked about it.” She looked to Dad, who nodded. His hand had found its way to her shoulder, massaging gently. “But we decided this was home.”
“It’s really nice,” She said again, back to twisting the tablecloth.
We went back to eating. Gracie sang under her breath, but aside from that, the room was void of speaking. I sat back in my seat with a sudden, aggrieved sigh. Riley jerked her head up from the food she was forking around on her plate instead of eating. When she saw it was me who’d made the noise, her face softened into the most genuine smile I’d seen from her all day, laced with nostalgia.
The sight of even the smallest kindness gave me enough confidence to speak. “So where do you guys live, now?” I took a bite of my green beans. Her expression didn’t falter. “Since I didn’t get to visit last time.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot we moved.” She tucked one elegant leg beneath her on the seat, growing a substantial two or three inches. “Our new house is in this wicked high-rise. It’s a little seventies, but I kind of dig it. Mom had to pay a freaking fortune for it, but she let me do the decorating!”
“Did you really? Mom won’t even let me paint my room.”
“Avery…” Katie twisted her mouth to the side. “Y’all wanted to paint it green and purple diagonal stripes.”
“So? I’m expressing myself!”
Katie raised her eyebrows. Riley laughed.
“Sorry, honey, but I can’t do that to your beautiful wallpaper.”
“Beautiful? It has flowers!”
“I put wallpaper up in our apartment,” Riley tried. Avery didn’t falter.
“I hate flowers.”
“How can anybody hate flowers?” Seth demanded, speaking for the first time that evening. “I’m a guy, and even I don’t hate flowers.”
“Well, that’s probably because you’re ga—”
“Avery!” Katie chided.
“I agree with Seth,” Dad injected, but it was lost on everyone except me. This actually reminded me of the old days, back when we’d sit around the dinner table and were the only two who couldn’t keep up. Katie’s husband must have been spirited, because this family of theirs could go on at about a hundred miles per hour.
“I am not!” Seth crumpled up his paper napkin in his lanky hand. “Avery, seriously—get over yourself. So you can’t paint your room some ugly color—”
“Seth said ugly! Seth said ugly!” Gracie chimed.
“You just said ugly, genius,” he snapped at her.
She stuck her tongue out. “You said ugly first!”
“And you just said it again.”
“Ugly!” Bennett yelled, and promptly burst into uncontrollable giggles.
I buried my face in my hands. I could hear Riley laughing across the table, Katie telling them to stop firmly, Dad approaching it in his quiet but considerably less effective way.
“You guys are both saying ugly,” Avery pointed out, taking on her role as the peacemaker, even though she’d been the one to ignite the fire. “So why don’t you both stop, and then you both win?”
“Win? What are you talking about?”
"He said ugly!"
“Gracie! I’m fourteen. And ugly isn’t even remotely close to being a cuss word.”
“Uh-huh ugly is!” Gracie exclaimed, personally offended by his lack of class. “Ugly is the worst word! The meanest word!”
“Then why are you saying it?”
"Because you said it!"
"And I'll say it again: ugly, ugly, ugly, super ugly."
“Mom! He said it!”
“Ugly,” Bennett added.
I tried to stifle my sudden outburst of laughter. It came out as a snort.
Riley’s hiccuping giggles started up again, a sound I remembered from childhood. I glanced up at her to find her shaking with laughter, hunched forward on herself, just watching everyone with such unguarded joy in her eyes I felt almost sorry for her. The sympathy felt misplaced. I cleared my throat to ward it off.
“Maybe we should clear the table?” Dad suggested, standing up. And just like that, it had ended.
“Yes, sir,” Seth grumbled, standing up. He grabbed his plate and one of the empty dishes, heading for the kitchen. Gracie got up and shot behind him, forgetting her plate in her hurry to chide him about the way he was shuffling his feet against the floor because Momma said not to do that. You’re gonna get splinters!
Riley took one last bite of her barely-touched food and stood up, tucking her plate in the crook of her elbow. She followed that with three empty glasses, a huge dish, and a handful of forks.
“Oh,” Katie squeaked, plainly fearing for her antique china. Riley glanced up.
“Did you want me to get more?”
She shook her head. “No, actually—hon, let me get some of that. You’re doing too much.”
“Nah!” Riley waved her away with one hand, momentarily letting the huge casserole dish balance on top of the other precariously placed items without any support. “I’m the best waitress at Hugo’s. It’s this wicked-busy black-tie-only restaurant, but the food is so groovy. And I’m in ballet.”
“How do you do all that?” I asked, grabbing my own plate and glass. I trailed her into the kitchen, feeling inferior in comparison to The Great and Well-Balanced Riley.
“Do all what?” She asked, setting her plate in the sink. She flipped on the faucet and turned the plate beneath it. Seth had already made himself scarce, like he always did around cleanup time. I stepped up next to her and held my hand out.
“You rinse. I’ll load.”
“You mean you have a dishwasher?” She glanced down, at the one positioned beneath the counter. “Oh.”
“Of course. It’s too hard not to. Do ya’ll not?”
“Nah.” She finished cleaning the dish and handed it to me. I opened the dishwasher, keeping my eyes on her as I placed it on the lower rack.
“Dishwashers are expensive, and we’re stretched right. I do the hand-washing. And make dinner, so it’s kind of fun.”
“So wait…” I stood up, leaning against the counter, and crossed my arms. “You go to school, perform in plays, do ballet, work a job, make dinner and do the dishes. Like, everyday?”
“Well, ballet is three times a week—plus sometimes recitals on weekends. And I work about four days a week, so I don’t cook dinner then. And I’m also in art, so, you know, it’s not too bad.”
“What?” She glanced at me, curious.
“I just don’t do much compared to y’all, that’s all.”
She shrugged. “Looks good on college applications. I’m applying to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts next fall, so I need to have a killer application.”
She passed me a glass. “Do you think you’ll get in?”
Her shoulders came up and dropped again. “I don’t know. Maybe.” She glanced over at me and forced a smile when she saw I was looking. “How about you? Applying anywhere special?”
“Not yet. I don’t know what I want to do.”
“What do you like to do?”
“Um…” I tried to ignore the fact that she was asking me this, my very own sister. It’s not like she would know. I mean, my interests weren’t exactly playing vet with stuffed animals and making dollhouses out of craft paper like they were when I was eleven.
“Well, I like to bake,” I said at last, unable to come up with anything else. “So I bake a lot.”
“There’s this awesome vegan bakery down the street from where we live,” Riley said, nodding. “They do coconut flour and almond flour. Their organic strawberry cupcakes are to die for. They just, like, melt in your mouth. And they’re this big.” She stopped to curl her pointer finger and thumb into a painfully small circle. “So only fifty calories and they taste like the real thing.”
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
“So what do you bake? Anything special?”
“Um…not really. Just your standard cakes and cupcakes.”
“Have you tried almond flour?”
“No. I mean, this is the south. It’s all about butter.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Have you tried olive oil?”
“Olive oil? No,” I scoffed.
“Why? What’s wrong with olive oil?”
“Nothing. Katie uses it in pasta all the time. It would taste awful in cupcakes, though.”
“Actually…” I could see it in the set of her jaw, that she was getting annoyed.
“Girls, you don’t have to do that!”
We both turned toward Katie, who was standing in the kitchen doorway.
“It’s fine,” Riley said, back to her usually bubbly self. “I wanted to.”
“And that’s so sweet. But we have some presents to open!”
“Oh. Well, I can do this while you guys can open your gifts.”
“No, hon, there’s some for you, too!”
Lord, she said oh a lot. If she thought y’all was annoying, she should try listening to herself.
Stella, shut up, I chided myself. Quit being mean. There really was no excuse for it. So what if we were different? Riley and I were sisters. It was supposed to be that way. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking rude things about me.
I needed to get a serious grip. And be kinder.
- - -
“Do you need me to show you how to work the bath?”
It was late—nearly twelve—and Riley was digging clothes out of her bag after announcing she was going to need a shower. We’d just finished helping Katie polish off the rest of the dishes after our late-night present-opening session. Or, it was mostly a late-night Riley opening-presents session. Katie and Dad gave the rest of us small things they’d held back that morning—headphones and notebooks, socks and shirts—just to help Riley not to feel awkward, I guess. Anyway.
She’d faked her way through the opening of a generous four presents—a bag Katie thought she might like, a pair of earrings from Dad (set with her birthstone), a pretty real-leather journal “from” the kids, and a little rope-woven key chain to hang on her duffel with her name embroidered on a piece of hanging fabric. It was the only thing I could tell she really liked. The rest of my family had brought presents I would have loved to received, obviously not knowing her taste.
Katie’s choice of a rhinestone peach bag was in one of my favorite colors, but Riley carried a repurposed burlap feed sack for a purse, so I knew her smile and exclamations of thanks were all dredged up from the most grueling place in her acting ability. Dad’s earrings would have perfect for me, but they were a bit too understated for Riley, who preferred hoops that brushed against her shoulders, or long, elaborately-strung beads that didn’t mesh together.
To make things considerably worse, she’d been unable to hold back the, “So this is real leather? Like, they killed a cow for it?” when presented with her journal.
The relief in her eyes had been immense upon opening my gift. “Aw, Stella, I love it. Thank you!”
She turned to me now, with an earnestness in her eyes. “I really love that keychain. Seriously.”
“You’re welcome.” I pulled one of my nightshirts out, a hand-me-down from Dad that Katie had been prepared to throw away. The shirt was ancient, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. He’d worn it so many times that it was embedded with the smell of his cologne, the old kind Mom had bought him every Christmas, without fail. Katie had gifted him with only one bottle of cologne so far in their five-year marriage, and it was a scent completely opposite from the kind Mom had chosen.
I pressed it to my nose, then, and inhaled deeply. Riley was babbling away like she usually did whenever she felt uncomfortable, but I only heard half of what she was saying—something about a shop down the street that sold keychains just like this, and she had almost bought one last week. Wasn’t it funny?
“Do you remember that cologne Mom used to buy Dad?” I blurted abruptly.
Riley, who’d been interrupted right in the middle of her spiel, appeared effortlessly unfazed. “Of course. He always made such a big deal about it, remember? Like he was really surprised at what she was getting.”
I stuck the shirt out to her. “Smell.”
She furrowed her eyebrows and leaned over, sniffing delicately. “Oh, hey.”
“I know, right? Katie wanted to throw it away but I couldn’t.”
“That brings back memories.” She grinned, taking the shirt from me. “You know what, I actually think I gave him this shirt. For his birthday. When I was like…seven?”
My stomach dropped. “Do you want it?”
She frowned, shaking her head. “No way. Why would I?” She held it out to me. “Here.”
“I wear it to sleep in.”
“Nah, I don’t need any more pajamas than I already have.” She held up the silky pair in her hands. “Mom got these for my birthday. Victoria’s Secret. Organic cotton. They’re so luscious. I take them with me everywhere!”
I nodded, balling the shirt up beneath my arm. “Are you sure about the bath?”
“No. I can figure it out.” She started for the door, then stopped. “Is it, like, one of those showers that you pull out to turn on or twist? Because this one time—”
“It’s a bath,” I interrupted. “Not a shower.”
“Oh. Like, an actual bath?”
“You guys never installed a shower?”
“No. We have Gracie and Bennett and stuff, you know?”
“Don’t you feel…dirty? Just sitting there in your own dirt water?”
“Riley, we’re not rolling around in the mud all day. That’s not what living in Georgia entails.”
“I never said that.”
We stared at each other. I forced my defensiveness away, trying to see it from her perspective. I mean, she’d already been bombarded with little kids and food she obviously didn’t like, gifts she mostly hated, and a sister who just didn’t get her anymore. The bath was probably the icing on the cake.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, crossing my arm over my waist. “That was rude.”
There was a second of silence. “Nah. It was me. I’m sorry. I’m just tired, you know?”
“Oh!” She bent over and rifled back through her bag, pulling out a little box wrapped in metallic paper. “Here.” She shoved it out at me. “This is from Mom.
I forgot to give it to you.”
“Um. Thanks.” I took it. The awkwardness was palpable. “Sure you don’t want me to show you the tub?”
“I can figure it out.” She spun toward the door, loping out. “Be back in a few!”
I changed while she was gone and went to climb under my sheets. If I went to sleep before she got back, then we wouldn’t have to force chitchat. But the present, which I’d laid, unopened, on my dresser—that was tempting me. I wondered what Mom had chosen for me in my teenage years after only a few phone conversations for reference.
I got up and padded over to the package, deftly flicking the wrapper open with my fingernail. The box was dark brown and wood, very pretty. I lifted it. A rose necklace winked up at me, all ceramic and shiny. I swallowed and took it out, holding it up in the light. The chain sparkled
I kind of loved it.
I wished I had hated it.
- - -
Riley crept back into the room later that night. She stopped to turn on the overhead in the doorway, and I rolled onto my back to look at her. “What are you doing?”
“Why are you sleeping on the floor?”
I sat up, bracing my hands against the nylon of my sleeping back. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because you have a bed right there…” She pointed over to my twin.
“Didn’t we already have this conversation?”
She smiled at me, rubbing the sides of her arms. It was no wonder—she was dressed in a delicate pink tanktop and shorts to match. “Yeah, but…I don’t know. I just kind of feel weird, coming here and taking over your room and bed and Christmas celebration.”
I flopped back against my pillows. “They’re yours, too. It’s all yours.”
The room went dark. I waited a few seconds to speak again until the old bed creaked as she laid down.
“Tell Mom I liked her gift. No, actually, loved it.”
“Cool. I’ll text her in the morning.”
“Okay. Thanks.” My eyes slid shut and I rolled over, turning my back to her. Moonlight filtered in through my windows, illuminating the room. Georgia nights were so beautiful. Way back when, I’d been angry when plans to buy me all-new curtains fell through when a school trip came up that Avery wanted to go to. They’d spent the two-hundred dollars on that instead. It’d been a year or so into their marriage, and I was furious. I remembered calling Mom, actually, and crying over the phone about it. She offered to pay for the curtains, but that did little to curb my sense of unjust.
Now I was glad that I’d never followed through with my plan to install them. Kind of like I found myself glad Dad had chosen to take me with him, way back when. I couldn’t imagine New York. Or living beneath the same roof as Riley for more than a few days at a time.
“Stella?” She asked timidly. Her voice was the softest I’d heard it in years. “You awake?”
I forced my eyes open, popping my lips to revive myself. “Uh-huh.”
“It’s wigged-out I’m here. Isn’t it?”
“Shouldn’t we like…I don’t know…get to know each other?”
“I always stay up until one or two.”
“Even with school?”
“Yep. I think I maybe have insomnia.”
I let the crickets chirping outside mull that one over for a little bit. Finally, I yawned. “Okay, shoot?”
“Shoot what? You don’t go hunting too, do you?”
“No! I mean shoot. Ask me a question.”
“Oh.” The bed protested again as she sat up, looking small in the darkness. “I’m going to get a Little Debbie. You want one?”
I followed her with my eyes, in mild disbelief, as she plodded across the room and rooted through her duffle bag. The crinkle of cellophane burst into the air, and she pulled a couple of them out.
“Care if I eat it on the bed?” She asked, hesitating before she crossed back over. .
I shook my head.
A minute later she was biting into one, sitting hunched over on the bed, cross-legged. She had really horrible posture. Mom used to always get on her for that.
“So what’s your favorite subject in school?” She asked around a mouthful of chocolate cupcake. “Like, the non-extracurricular kind.”
“English, I guess.”
“Mine’s chemistry. It’s fun.”
“Yeah. It’s all right. I don’t really like anything mathematic.”
“Really? You were always good at math when we were kids.”
“No. Definitely not.”
“You definitely were. I remember you helping me with mine.”
“No, that was you. Helping me with mine.”
“Oh.” She chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Really?”
“It just seemed like you should have been helping me. Being older and everything. You know?”
I felt a hardness in my chest, a lingering bitterness left over from a childhood of injustice. People always assumed Riley was the older one—taller, smarter, more talented, more beautiful. I should have been over that by now, but I bit my lip and dared the ceiling to come crashing down on us, anyway.
“Okay, your turn,” She announced abruptly, tearing into the second package.
I took a second to breathe. I didn’t want a tremor in my voice when I spoke to her. That would just be too embarrassing. The only protection I had now was the cover of night. “What’s the last play you were in?”
“Oh, and it has to be a question we both can answer.”
I considered my options. There weren’t many.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Me?” She laughed. “No. No guys like me.”
“Dunno. My friend Angela says I intimidate them.”
“What do you think?”
“Honestly? I think she’s full of it.”
I laughed then, unable to help myself, and Riley joined in. It took a moment for our giggles to settle down, but when they did, the sound continued to echo in my ears. I wondered fleetingly if it did for her, too.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
The corners of my mouth turned up. Any mention of Steven, and they always did. “Yeah.”
“Are you serious? Really?”
“That’s awesome! What’s his name?”
I told her. She clapped.
“Do you guys have a pet name yet? Like Stellven, or Stevella?”
“Well, now you do. I officially christen you Stevella!”
“Don’t sound so excited.” I watched as she polished off the last of her second cupcake. “Will I get to meet him?”
The thought of Riley and Steven worried me, actually. I mean, what if he liked her? And she liked him? It was ridiculous, but I couldn’t help the thought.
“Okay, my turn,” Riley began in singsong. “What’s your—”
“Actually, can we stop? I’m getting really tired.”
“Oh. Yeah.” The disappointment was plain as day in her voice. “Totally.”
“We can do this again tomorrow night,” I said, hoping to soften my rudeness. “It was really fun.”
“Sure. Whatever you want.”
She slid beneath the covers. I rolled back over onto my stomach.
She didn’t reply.