Chapter 1: Amber
The Atlantic is the deepest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. It always reminds me of the Titanic. That image of all those bodies floating in the blue fighting to stay warm, to live. The Atlantic is cold, rough, and full of seaweed. It’s a dark ocean and I always knew that’s where my life would begin and end. I’ve always wondered about the lives she took, the vessels she’s crushed and beaten into submission. The “lost” items that lay on her floor, crushed under her strength, and rendered motionless by her waves. She terrifies me. On more than one occasion she’s chewed me up and spat me back out. I remember tumbling under waves onto corse sand as a child. My lungs filled with saltwater, unable to cry or breathe. I just sat there on the shore, my swimsuit filled with grains of sand as if to render me motionless waiting to come back to life. I was bested by the ocean. Silenced. Or maybe she was saying it wasn’t my time yet. That I still had some onshore business to attend to. Desires and aspirations of the earth and the sun that would die underwater.
I stare out from a yellow-tinted window as the boat leaves the dock. I’ve traveled far to get here it feels like days. The smell of old hotdogs and rust wafts through the cabin. I’m alone, finally. I sit back and remember the days of hot cocoa and goldfish at the snack bar. The times when I was excited to be on a boat bound for a mystical island. I watch the land sink into the distance and flick through my iPod. It starts to rain. I spend most of my time alone these days wishing I was with someone or that I was someone else. I guess that would make me lonely. I always thought that older people were lonely, not twenty-six-year-olds. Twenty six-year-olds have lives and friends. We go to parties and move in with tons of people and pretend we’re still twenty-three because that’s the age where things were just starting to click. The age before problems became issues. I close my eyes trying to remember twenty-three but instead, I get a series of noises and smells none of which seem familiar to me. I hear the engines stop and the boat bounces off the rubber that covers the wooden dock. I hear the cars start their engines on the deck below. I put on my sunglasses, take a breath, and I walk to the exit.
Portset Island is grey and volatile. It reminded me off the moors in Wuthering Heights although I’ve never been there. The beaches are eroding and the concrete has cracks in it where weeds and other little flowers pop out. My sunglasses aren’t necessary, the sunny season is long gone but I keep them on anyway. I like to think it gives me an air of mystery. The ocean stays with me to my left a dark blue crashing violently onto the shore. I inhale the sea-spray mixed with the smell of rain and wet sand. To my right are the New England houses towering white and grey with their ornate decorations and empty porches. People pass by smiling, the brave ones say a passive greeting but I can’t muster up a response. It starts to drizzle and the wind picks up ripping through my loosely curled afro. I turn onto Lane street and reach into my purse for a cigarette. I don’t light it but I slip it behind my ear for good luck. I step off the curb without looking, cars don’t usually come down this street. With each step, the rain gets heavier.
Eventually, I fish out an umbrella from my bag about two minutes away from the house. It’s silent. All the other houses I pass creak in the wind and snap back as the rain pellets down. But this house, my house, seemed dead. In the growing darkness of the evening, it takes on a dark purple color very different from the vibrant white I remembered as a child. The paint on the porch is chipping away and the windows are covered in a heavy layer of dirt. There’s not a single piece of furniture on the porch. I drag my suitcase to the front door. I don’t need to knock. My footsteps have already awakened a cacophony of sound from inside. The lights flash on and in the doorway, a dark silhouette of a petite woman comes into view.
“Welcome home,” she says and stretches her small arms out to me. They were awkward and stiff as if it was something she was told to do. I don’t move. “Amber!” a slightly higher voice yells out. A child around eight pushes past the older woman and straight into my stomach squeezing her tiny arms around me. “They said you were coming tomorrow. We would’ve met you at the ferry,” she says as she squeezes. The older woman pulls her off me as gently as she can and smiles down at the girl.
“You know she likes to walk,” the woman says to the child.
“I do. But I could’ve walked with you,” she reminds me of someone but I can’t put my finger on it. She has curly hair like her mother but the eyes of her father a gift and a curse as she’ll soon find out.
“Let’s go inside,” the woman says gently.
“Good idea, I’ll make you some tea,” the little girl bounces into the house. I hand my suitcase to the woman and follow. It smells just like I remember it. Old and dusty with a slight tinge of mothballs. The floor creaks under me as I walk through the corridor towards the kitchen. The light hits me first and then some shapes come into view. I shake the lingering droplets from my hair. My oldest sister, Syd, is hunched over the stove assisting the little girl with a silver kettle. Mel is behind her at the sink helping another child wash their hands. I feel small in their presence and my hand itches for the cigarette behind my ear. The odd woman, from before, coughs loudly and Syd turns towards me. She looks like mom for a brief moment. Everything about her radiates warmth. Her hair seems longer than I remember it and there are lines on her face that seem deeper than before. But that smile, it’s exactly the same. She speaks but I don’t really hear her because Mel is towering over me. She could’ve been in the WNBA if she was a “team player” or just nice.
“Take them sunglasses off in the house,” Mel says as she tears the glasses off my face. My cigarette magically stays in place but I now I can fully take in her face. Mel looked like my Uncle Henry. He was a mean drunk but had a gorgeous face. The face of a fallen angel is what my mother used to say. Mel was the same. Tragically beautiful, in a way that made even the most beautiful of women afraid.
“Amber!” Syd says as she weasels her way between Mel and I, “How was your trip?” She hugs me awkwardly. She smells like cookies and perfume. It lasts a brief moment before Mel comes back and snatches the cigarette from behind my ear.
“And why do you have a cigarette behind your ear? You know we got children here.”
“I thought you were coming tomorrow,” Syd says as she dries my face with her kitchen towel.
“I told her Ma,” the little one screams from some unknown space.
“Go help your brother,” Syd screams back. “Now, let me look at you,” Syd holds me at an arms distance as if she’s inspecting a painting. Every once in awhile Mel chips in with an exasperated sigh. I feel like I’m fourteen again on my way to my first date with Nick DeCanter. Syd tucks a piece of my hair behind my ear and pats my cheek. Her eyes swell up and in that moment I feel safe. It passes just as quickly as it began and she returns to the sink.
“You meet the Nanny?” she asks over the roar of the running water.
“Yeah, when did you get a Nanny?” I ask.
“When I had another kid. There’s two of them now and I’m working. Selling my bread.”
“Ah! The bread,” I say.
Mel sits in the chair in the corner just staring at me. Her size seems to make the room feel smaller. Just behind her are the stairs that she pushed me down when I was eight. Two of my teeth fell out. Syd was the one who cleaned me up and told me I was lucky they came out when they did. To the right was the door to Ma’s room. I would sneak in there after dinner and sing to her and hang my pictures on the walls. The door’s painted purple now and the glass is grey and faded. Something rips through me. An emotion I don’t recognize. Mel sees it whatever it was and I do my best to suppress it.
“Some of us have actual jobs you know,” Mel says. Without missing a beat Syd walks over to me and hands me a sandwich and a glass of water.
“Trust. This was not how I imagined my life,” she says.
“Not that any of us had much choice,” Mel adds.
They speak in the way that only sisters could. The knowledge of unspoken concepts, rules, and dreams that I hadn’t thought about in nearly a decade.
The teapot hisses and the little girl flies in from the next room. She sloppily pours hot water into a cup, places in a tea bag, and places the cup on a saucer.
“She’s obsessed with tea at the moment. Making it and setting it on the table,” Syd says as she pats the child on the head with a kiss.
I sit down at the counter and the girl shakily brings me the tea as she smiles. I look for the first time at the kitchen, a place I always felt safe in. A place that seemed, bigger and brighter than the sun at some point, but now it echoes with the sound of rain. The countertops look faded and the blue finishing looks dull.
“You’re leaving after this right? After, the funeral,” Mel asks.
“The girl just flew across the world, Mel. Let her rest,” Syd shoots Mel the ‘shut up and mind yo’ business look’ that only a woman with a certain level of wisdom and experience can wield correctly.
“Yeah,” the little girl pipped in.
“You too, leave the grown folk to talk grown folk business,” Syd says as she swats at the girl with the dishtowel. Syd sits down next to me. I love the way she looks at me. It’s like the past five years never happened like I’m just out of college, living in her basement, working at Macy’s again. Full of potential and possibilities.
“I’m glad you came back, Amber. It wasn’t the same without you.”
“Yeah, it was quieter.”
“It was different. I’m glad you made it home. Most girls your age come back for weddings or baby showers but you. This is something I never saw coming.”
She’s lying we all saw it coming. We were just too self-absorbed to care. My hand itches again for the cigarette I see in Mel’s hands and my mind starts to race. Weddings and baby showers were all reasons to come back but death is something that’s deemed inappropriate. Now, I remember why I hate it here. That judgment, the passive aggressiveness, the look on Syd’s face as she goes on to tell me about the funeral arrangements and where I’m expected to be at what time. This false sense of familiarity in a house I barely recognize. Where’s the music that used to fill every crevice of this house? What happened to the colors and the joy that used to live in this room? Even the sandwich looks sad and moldy compared to the food Ma used to make. Now, we talk in brief short sentences to each other with quiet hostility. Before there was adventure, wit, and love. You couldn’t be in the house for more than a second without the radiance of it confining you to its light. I feel my heart begin to race and I see my hands shake. I bolt off to the bathroom just around the corner and plunge my head into the toilet.
“She’s fucking high,” I hear Mel say when I come back up for air.
“She seemed alright to me.”
“From one addict to another.”
“That’s enough!” Syd whispers. The rest blurs into the background. I sit there on the floor feeling the tiles press into my thighs. I haven’t even said her name. Her laugh, her voice, her smile, all those things have been on a constant loop in my head since I found out she was gone but I haven’t said her name. My best friend. The only person who understood me when nothing else made sense and I’m not even brave enough to say her name. I wash my mouth out, splash some water on my face, and head back into the kitchen. I snatch my cigarette from Mel, walk onto the porch, and sit on the front steps staring at the rain and smoking hoping that this might bring something back.