The Circles We Live In

by Kari Volkmann-Carlsen

The Tuesday ladies, so named because they meet every Tuesday of the month, are two sixty-something friends who sit facing so that their graying bobs of hair seem to reflect each other. They always sit by the window alongside the flower bed, perhaps so that their view is a little more like an English garden and a little less like the urban Starbucks I am sitting in. I know that the woman with the British accent is called Gwyneth because she has a tendency to insert her own name into anecdotes: “And I said to myself, ‘Gwyneth, I simply don’t understand how you’ve developed such a green thumb!’ ? Rarely a minute goes by in which neither of them speaks, though it is really Gwyneth who ensures the constant flow of words, her friend listening attentively. Her friend has become fairly adept at properly inserting laughter and, when it seems fitting, wrinkling her eyebrow in a furrow of disbelief. Gwyneth appreciates this silent input, and it encourages her to push on, full steam, with another equally mundane story.

Most days I watch Gwyneth because she demands attention in a way that is almost exhausting. Today, I am more interested in the listener who never seems to tire of her friend. It’s clear the listener is a lover of purple, for she is clad in it every Tuesday from head to toe. Trying to hide the fact that I am watching her, I avert my gaze every so often to the artwork behind the British lady—a garish digital print of a large-eyed youth—but it is difficult to pull my eyes away from the listener’s violets and amethysts and plums. She is wearing no other color, aside from the white rubber soles of her purple Keds. I have never met anyone so fond of this color, besides myself aged six and, of course, my almost-step-sister of the same age; but society doesn’t scorn monochromatic attire if you still pick your nose in public and eat popsicles so fast that your brain freezes for a week.

Our invested interest in purple, which included clothing, lunchboxes, backpacks, winter coats, and whatever else we could manage to color purple with the help of Crayola, was not all that unlike other Barbie-crazed girls of our age. Nevertheless, in the same way the body purges excess vitamin C, so had my body discovered a clever way to rid itself of purple. The year we were six, my almost-step-sister and I celebrated the only Christmas we would have together. We were given the same t-shirts by our parents, which, through some miraculous chemistry, changed colors in the sun. Inside the kindergarten classroom the shirt was pink, but at recess it turned into a bright and lovely violet. At least that is what her shirt did. I had been given one that changed from orange to yellow and everyone agreed that it was significantly less cool. I decided that the proper way to save face was to boycott pink and purple. And I stuck to it until I got home, where my mom stomped out any ideas of reform. With only the enemy colors in my wardrobe, there was little I could wear besides a hand-me-down Hooters t-shirt, and that would not be accompanying me to school the next day.

I didn’t have that sister long, because shortly after Christmas, my mom kicked her dad out. He took my almost-step-sister with him, back to Florida. For a while I got letters from her telling me things that made me jealous. She said she threw away her winter coat because it was so warm down there, and that her new friend was from Texas and taught her how to do “hook-‘em-horns.? I didn’t know what this was, but I wished that I did. The snow melted in Minnesota, and with it, it seemed, so had Danielle’s desire to write to me. That spring, my mom and I moved in with a man she had met, and by the time I started first grade in the new town, I had nearly forgotten about my almost-step-sister. I wore a purple dress for the first day of school, and I rode the bus alone.

It wasn’t until third grade that I dug the memory of her out of the cobwebbed portions of my brain. Her grandmother had sent a letter to my mom inviting us to visit them. For whatever reason, my mom thought she would take up the invitation, and we found ourselves in Florida the winter I turned nine. We spent only four days there, in a hotel down the street from Danielle and her grandma. She didn’t live with her dad anymore because her grandma wouldn’t allow it. Nobody told me why, but I didn’t wonder too much because I didn’t live with my dad either.

I was timid when I met Danielle again; I no longer considered her my almost-step-sister. My mom and her grandma left us alone to play while they talked, and Danielle taught me how to do “hook-‘em-horns.? She folded down her three middle fingers, leaving the thumb and pinky sticking straight out, and shook her hand back and forth. I thought it wasn’t as cool as she made it sound in her letter, but I didn’t say that. She gave me her school picture and when my mom and I returned to Minnesota I taped it on my binder at school, along with the rows of other classmates’ pictures. All of my friends wondered who she was. I told them she was my sister, and the boys’ eyes stared unblinkingly at the tiny squared-in face.

A single human being really doesn’t take up that much space. I imagine circles drawn on the floor of the coffee shop, representing the area around each person. All circles considered, relatively little room is actually occupied. Yet many people are looking around for empty seats, wondering whether it is okay to sit at a table with someone they don’t know. The circles are moving precariously, and one is taking small steps closer to me where there is an empty seat. I smile to let the young, suited man with a laptop know that he is welcome to sit with me. I know that he will not expect conversation, as he seems to be here for business, so I turn my attention back to the Tuesday ladies. Their circles almost overlap. They seem as comfortable with each other as two would-be sisters once were.

I haven’t seen Danielle since I was nine, and the last I heard of her was in a letter her grandma sent when I was 16. Danielle was pregnant, and her grandma was asking my mom for advice in dealing with it. I guess she felt that my mom would know what to do because she was raising a young girl of the same age. I try to imagine Danielle with a baby, but I know that her child is now five and too large to cradle in her arms. I don’t even know if she had a boy or a girl. All that my imagination will allow is a little pig-tailed kindergartener with a purple dress, anxiously holding her mother’s hand as she waits for the school bus. I see their two circles side by side, one much smaller than the other, creating the image of a short snowman. I feel bad, almost judgmental, but I cannot conjure the image of a third and larger circle.

Once, I asked my mother why she didn’t have any more kids. She said I was already enough trouble for her. As she laughed at her joke, her eyes searched for that which was irrecoverable. It didn’t occur to me until I was older that when I lost my almost-step-sister, my mom lost her almost-step-daughter.

My memory shoots back to being six, walking off the bus to where my mom sits waiting, me carrying my backpack on one shoulder like I saw the older kids at school doing. Through the mist of my breath, I can see her strained smile. Years later, when I leave home, she will smile like this again: it is an upward twist of the right side, lips stretched to capacity without showing teeth, eyes squinting with the weight of the tears she is holding back. Now, in the bitter cold of winter, she greets me from the bus with a tender hug, a warm kiss on the cheek, and up close I glimpse the bluish-purple outlines of a hand upon her skin. Even at six I know that isn’t supposed to happen.

We, the one-time almost-step-sisters, know nothing of each other—who we have become, or how we got here. Perhaps, had we not so easily adapted to our separate lives, as children can so quickly do—had we not forgotten we were sisters—we might now be as the Tuesday ladies are, circles overlapping, conversations delightfully commonplace.

I lift my coffee to take a drink. It is cold from the lengthy memories between each sip, from trying to imagine what my memories might have been—me greeting a smiling Danielle, a proud mother holding her child’s hand. Where my cup sat is a coffee stain, a watercolor ring encircling marginal scribbles: “I am a forgotten aunt.?

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This page contains a single entry by Department of English published on April 25, 2008 10:08 AM.

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