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i would just like to state for the record that I tried to say no. In fact, I did say no. But my sister, as usual, refused to hear it. And then she dragged my credit rating, ten years of pent-up guilt and my ex-boyfriend into it, so what was I to do?
This was late June in Florence and I was holed up in a narrow-halled hotel near the Piazza del Duomo. Skye and I were thirty minutes into a intercontinental AT&T marathon. Between the crackling overseas connection and her wet, honking noseblows, details were sketchy. But all signs seemed to indicate trouble on the marital front.
"Mitzi!" she shrieked. "Her name is fucking Mitzi!"
My brother-in-law had a long history of dallying with poodle-named women. Before he married Skye, there had been a Brandi, a Lulu, and even, if the rumors can be believed, a Kiki.
"Mitzi, huh?" I said. "That cuts like a knife."
I did not point out that since Bob, ruddy-cheeked and shifty-eyed, had left his second wife for her after a few illicit trysts in a pickup truck, this situation was not quite the Stonehengian coincidence she was making it out to be.
My sigh stirred up a flurry of dust motes on the windowsill. This was not new territory for us. I turned back to the laptop perched on the hotel's spindly legged end table and put my Big Sister voice on autopilot while I started to proofread my latest attempt at a travel article. "Sweetie, I know you're upset right now -- "
"I think that there should be laws against calling your children bad seventies porn star names!" she sobbed. "The rule should be: What if your daughter wants to grow up and be a senator? Who's going to vote for Senator Mitzi?"
"Okay, just calm -- "
"What am I going to do? Bob is the love of my life! How could he dump me like this? No one ever dumps me." She paused. "Now I finally understand how you felt all those times."
I held my breath, counted to ten and tried to ignore the hot prickling in my chest.
"Faith? Are you even listening? I'm totally serious. I'm killing myself!"
This was my cue.
"Suck it up, Skye. Come on," I barked like a sergeant demanding six A.M. push-ups. "This isn't the spirit that won the West. You're not going to kill yourself over some chick named Mitzi and your jackass husband. First of all, you know you can do better. By your own admission, that guy Lars or whoever has been panting after you for weeks."
Ragged breathing over the line, but I thought I could hear a smile creep in.
"Second of all, have some dignity. My God. Don't give the whole town something else to talk about. Our family has already provided enough scandal for one generation, don't you think?"
A feeble cough.
"Third, this phone call is costing you about a million dollars and if you kill yourself, I'll have to pay for it." This was pretty much a done deal, regardless. My family had always had amnesia in matters of the heart and outstanding debt.
The note of hysteria in her voice melted into playground pleading. "But I need you."
I scrolled down to the next page of the draft for my article on Italian gelato. "Keep your shirt on, dude. I just need to double-check a few facts for this article, and then I'm flying back to California."
Since I moved to Los Angeles after high school, I had noticed some alarming changes in my diction. Along with a San Fernando slide-whistle lilt, the word "dude" had crept into my vocabulary, supplanting nouns, verbs, and exclamation points. I realized that this cut my subjective I.Q. in half, as effectively as snapping a wad of sugarless gum all day would do. But it had displaced the earnest Midwest intonations of my childhood, and I couldn't say that I was broken up about it.
"Look, Faithie, I need you to come to back home for a few weeks. I can't deal with this all by myself. I can't."
"No." I made my stand. "I live in California now. If you need me, you know you're always welcome there. But I am not going back to Minnesota."
"Come on! You haven't been home in years." I could hear Kleenex rustling against the earpiece.
"I really need you. I don't know where Bob went, and I think that -- " cough, cough " -- the bar might be having a little bit of trouble. Moneywise."
I stopped proofreading. If Skye was willing to admit financial glitches, I knew we were looking at ten pounds of trouble in a one-pound bag. "Define 'trouble'."
"Um, I'm not really sure."
"Well, you better get sure right now. What kind of trouble? Exactly how poor am I going to be?" I closed my eyes, once again cursing my own weakness. Three years ago, Skye, in the throes of her first divorce at the tender age of twenty-one, had suckered me into handing over all my worldly assets to help her buy and refurbish a ramshackle backwoods tavern, which she dubbed "The Roof Rat" and immediately turned over to Bob's management. That was back when I still co-owned a juice bar in Santa Monica (long story), before I gave it all up to travel the world and write "Street Food," a tiny little column in a tiny little food magazine for which I earned a tiny little salary. I started out writing about fresh produce and juice in California, then progressed to hot dogs and pretzels in Manhattan and beignets in New Orleans. Now we were into the European fare -- gelato in Florence, crepes in Paris -- you get the idea.
Why, one might well ask, would I give up regular income and stability for jet lag and isolation?
Well. Family life and stability had never been my strong point. Exhibit A: the conversation currently in progress.
"My life is falling apart!" Skye gasped. "How can you complain about money at a time like this?"
"I can complain about money because I have to pay my rent." "That bar is my only investment, and I'm not expecting to make untold millions, but I warned you about Bob -- "
"Stop yelling!" she yelled. "God. It's only been two months since I sent you the last check."
"This deal was your idea, Skye -- you're supposed to send me $2,000 a month. The last two months have netted me negative $4,000 and some strongly worded letters from Visa. I understand you're going through a rough time right now, but again I ask you: What has the bar done for me lately?"
She whimpered. "This isn't my fault! Bob took a lot of cash with him."
"Well..." I threw my hands up and looked toward the ceiling, searching for divine intervention or at least a modicum of patience. "I thought you guys were talking to a financial counselor. What happened to that?"
"Bob said we couldn't afford to pay someone else to manage our money."
I closed my eyes. "Jesus H. Christ on a Popsicle stick. Skye, I swear..."
"Don't be like this, Faith, I can't take it. Bob always handled the money and the vendors and everything, and now he's gone. I don't know what to do about the bar. I'm in deep trouble." She started crying again, big heaving chokes.
I fought the urge to remind her that I was not on the Academy Awards nomination committee and gritted my teeth. "I'll try to help you out with the bar. But you know I am not going back to Minnesota."
I remembered the time she'd worn her new red galoshes out to recess in first grade. She'd waded into a puddle of mud and gotten stuck in the thick brown sludge. Squirming and squalling, she'd refused help from her teacher and the principal. Finally, they'd had to call me out of a spelling test so I could lift her out of her boots and carry her to the asphalt. She'd wrapped her arms and legs around me like a koala learning to scale a eucalyptus tree.
I thought about Skye as a ringletted six-year-old. I thought about my credit rating.
But then I thought about all the reasons I'd had to leave Minnesota in the first place, and I held my ground. "Listen. We'll work something out, okay? Don't go Lady of Shalott on me."
"Lady of who?"
"Never mind. I'll fix this when I get back to L.A."
The broken wailing resumed. "Everything's falling part, and I'm all alone, and the memories, Faith, the memories..."
I rolled my eyes. "Listen. I head back to California next week. Send me all the legal documents and financial accounts for the bar, and we'll take it from there."
"And, what should I do about Lars?"
I blinked. "Nothing. Listen. Skye, are you listening to me?"
"I don't care if it's raining men. Wait until we find Bob and get this whole Mitzi situation sorted out before you get the next victim lined up. I'm begging you."
"But -- "
I dropped my head into my hands. "Begging you."
She paused. "Okay. But I really think you should try to get out here, because -- "
"For a week!"
"Bye, now. Say hi to Mom." I hung up the phone, leaned back in my chair, and tried not to drown in my sister's anxiety and fatigue. She was a grown woman. She had to learn to clean up her own messes. I couldn't just keep dropping everything to bail her out every time she made a mistake. She knew she was asking for too much this time. I was perfectly justified in drawing the line at the Minnesota state line.
I shut down my computer, rubbed my temples, and grabbed my hotel key off the table. Maybe a walk and some gelato would clear my head. And my conscience.
Florence in the summer smells like a backwoods bar. If you close your eyes and plug your ears against the mosquito whine of motorini, you can smell the ripe melange of smoke and sweat charged with emotion. So it was not surprising that I spent much of my time there thinking about my hometown, finding familiar pieces of my past in a language and culture I didn't understand.
I was wandering through the Piazza della Republica, trying to stay out of the tourists' photo ops, when my cell phone rang. This was highly unususal -- hardly anyone called my cell when I was on the road, which I almost always was. I dug the phone out of my leather tote bag and frowned at the unfamiliar number blinking on the little blue display: 612? That was Minneapolis. No one in the 612 area code ever called me. No one in that area code even had my number...except all the legal and medical forms on which Skye had listed me as the "person to contact in case of emergency."
Oh God. My shaking fingers fumbled with the phone, and I had to swallow hard before I said, "Hello?"
"Faith." The male voice on the other end of the line was tense and determined.
The deep timbre of that voice resonated through my memory. This was not some anonymous E.R. orderly. I closed my eyes, and through the static connecting us all the way across the Atlantic, I knew it was him. I still recognized his voice, but I couldn't say anything at all.
He cleared his throat. "This is Patrick Flynn."
I took a deep breath. "I know."
Ten years' worth of silence stretched out between us, both of us thinking things we would never give words to.
"Yeah, I'm here." I pressed the phone against my ear. "Well, I'm in Florence, I mean, but..."
"I know. I won't keep you." He sounded neutral now. Brusque. "I just wanted to let you know what's going on with Skye."
I frowned. "She told me."
"All of it?"
I sat down on a wrought-iron bench and listened as hard as I could. "Well, yeah, I guess. She told me about Bob and the bar, and she wants me to come to Minnesota."
"But you're not coming." This was a statement, rather than a question.
"Um." I winced. "No."
"Why am I not surprised?" Cold seeped into his voice.
It was pointless to try to defend myself to him, so I just said, "There's nothing I can do there that I can't do from Los Angeles."
"Is that where you're living these days?"
"Didn't Skye tell you?"
"I didn't ask." He shoots, he scores.
"Oh." I desperately wanted to ask why he'd finally tracked me down now, after all these years, but at the same time I was afraid to know. To know where he'd gone and who he'd become without me. "Listen, Flynn -- "
He cut me off before I could finish saying his name. "Did she tell you about the baby?"
I jerked the phone receiver away from my ear, stared at it, and then slapped it back against my head. "The what?"
"Left that little tidbit out, did she?" He gave me a second to absorb this, then forged ahead. "Here's the deal: she has no idea where Bob is, she's about to default on the bar mortgage, the creditors are threatening legal action if she doesn't pay up in thirty days, and she's pregnant."
I wrapped my fingers around the cool metal of the bench. "Are you sure?"
"I would never call you unless it were a dire emergency."
Touché. "Okay, I get it. Message received. You're mad at me -- "
"I took her to get a blood test at the clinic. She's definitely pregnant. I can help her with the financial aspects, but for the Bob situation and the pregnancy, she needs you."
"I don't think I'm really the right person to -- "
"She doesn't have anybody else. She's too ashamed to tell you, but she needs you."
Actually, she did tell me, but I rolled my eyes and blew her off.
I watched the afternoon sunlight filtering through the plaza and tried to discern the sound of his breathing. I heard nothing but static. Slow, muted minutes stretched out between us.
Finally, he spoke up. "Don't give up on her when she needs you most."
I winced at the pointed emphasis in his voice. "Listen, Flynn, there are a lot of things I wanted to tell you."
Both of us lapsed into silence again, and when I opened my mouth, nothing spilled out except a soft sigh.
"Do what you want. I have nothing else to say." He clicked off the line.
I closed my eyes, listening to the growling hum of passing traffic, and my memory rewound to the days when we couldn't say enough to each other. To the day when I was just learning to drive and ran head-on into a gnarled ash tree. After my father had made and broken a year's worth of promises to give me lessons in his pickup truck, Flynn agreed to supervise me. That winter, my senior year of high school, we had commandeered my parents' new Ford for parallel parking practice and extended, window-fogging make-out sessions on the vinyl bench seat that still smelled of the dealership.
The weather had been mild, by Minnesota standards, so I had not been expecting ice on the slushy back roads. The bare trees were black against the heavy beige sky, but my spirits were soaring -- I came, I saw, I conquered the Ford Ranger. Distracted by Flynn's hand on my thigh and giddy with my newfound prowess with the stick shift, I had loosened my death grip on the steering wheel and turned to give him a kiss on the cheek. At which point, of course, all hell broke loose, in the form of a vast patch of ice dusted lightly with snow and a cat streaking across the asphalt.
In the grand tradition of neophyte teenage drivers, I hyperventilated, stomped on the brakes, and spun off the road. We slammed into a tree to the sound of screeching metal and a dull clunk, which turned out to be the front bumper of my father's new truck wrenching off and hitting the ground.
I did the only thing I could: I succumbed to hysterics. I started to cry, and then Flynn started to laugh, and we fell into each other until we calmed down, kissing and whispering under the freezing, desolate twilight.
When we finally returned to my house, Flynn insisted that he be the one to face my parents' wrath, telling my father, "Well, Mike, the bad news is that we messed up your new truck, but the good news is that your bumper is the same color as the duct tape we used to fix it."
Now, staring down at sun-bleached cobblestones half a world away, my throat closed up. I hadn't thought about that accident in years. The snow and the wind screaming away outside the truck's cab. The damp heat inside next to Flynn. That must have been about six months before our high school graduation; the two teenagers curled up against each other in that Ford didn't know how bad things were about to get. How hidden hazards could send you spinning even when the summer sun was shining.
I knew now. I knew because I had finally stopped spinning. I could feel, really feel, the force of gravity pulling my body to the ground. The faces-and-places kaleidoscope of the last few years finally stopped churning.
I had to go home. I wasn't sure if I could help Skye any more than she could help herself. I wasn't sure that I wouldn't make everything ten times worse. But I had to try.
The time had come to stick a toe back into the murky, shark-laden waters of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And, God help us, the next installment of "Street Food" would feature fried cheese curds and walleye-on-a-stick.
Copyright © 2004 by Beth Lavin