When I get home from school, my mother, a flight attendant, is standing in the kitchen, still in heels and her starchy dress, waving a stapled pile of paper at me and yelling, “Dios mio! Astrid Morales Bird.”
I’ve just walked half a mile from the bus stop, and it’s January—black ice shone between the slush clumps on the sidewalks, and the wind stabbed like pins. I drop my backpack and take off my hat. I’m confused.
My mom sees this confusion, but she must think I’m faking it. Her arm lowers. Her wrist rolls, as if warming up for a punch, and she fans her face with the papers. I know I’m red in the face, and she is, too, but instead of just patches, just cheeks, for her it’s the forehead, temples, nose, chin, neck. Even the triangle of caramel-colored skin between the folds of her collar has gone pink—a uniform blush beneath her gold cross on its slender chain. She looks the way she used to when she came home from cleaning other people’s houses, except then she wasn’t wearing a dress and heels, or yelling at me. Things have changed a lot since she started this job.
My sister, for example, who has been lying in bed now for four days. Her life has changed the most, maybe more than my mother’s, though to be fair I have no idea what my mom’s life is like when she’s gone. Right now my mother doesn’t seem to know that her older daughter is one room away, sleeping. Of course I don’t know that either, since I’ve been gone all day, but I do know it, the way I know that I have done nothing wrong and that my mother is crazy.
My crazy mother yells my name again, still gripping the papers. I still don’t understand. Then she says, “Ludd-win-uh? Really?”
I can’t decode this strange word at first, but then I realize she’s mispronounced a name I do know, Ludwina, the patron saint I chose for Confirmation. My mother has just killed all the joy in the name I’ve come to love, deadened the middle syllable at the very heart of it, even though her first language is Spanish, and she should favor hard vowels. I correct her, affecting the slight accent I’ve learned but not inherited from her. If this is what she’s mad about, she will get over it.
“Whatever!” She dismisses my correction. The issue here, of course, is just how insignificant Saint Ludwina is. “You chose the patron saint of ice skating? At least you could have pretended that it meant something to you. But no, it’s one big joke, isn’t it. Does your sister know about this?”
“Why would Ana care?”
“Your sister is supposed to tell me what you’re doing when I’m not here.”
I can’t help laughing at the irony of her statement, or the thought of my 19-year-old sister caring enough to spy. “You think she would go through my stuff and read my papers without my permission?”
“No. I assumed you would talk about your decisions. The big decisions in your lives.”
My mother is both right and wrong. Ana (with me, sometimes) has had bigger things to talk about than saints and ice skating. But sadly, to me, choosing my patron saint was sort of a big decision. At sixteen, there aren’t many I get to make for myself.
* * *
For Confirmation class, back in November, our first assignment was to choose a patron saint and explain our choice. Stapled to the assignment was a list of all the saints and their associations—there were sports, natural disasters, illnesses, careers, and all sorts of abstract nouns to choose from. Some of the names were Italian-sounding, but mostly they were strange or stodgy: Louise, Bernadine, Dymphna. I enjoyed playing around with this second middle name that I got to choose for myself, listening for harmonies or something magical, spiritual, in the syllables. If I did not believe in Jesus, I could at least use this opportunity to express my belief in the ocean or reading or—I wasn’t sure what else I believed in. The patron saint of swimming was Adjutor. Astrid Adjutor Morales Bird. Or was it Astrid Morales Adjutor Bird? Either way, I could do better.
There was a patron saint of scholars, but when I thought about my essay, and how I would connect my love of reading to religion, I felt the sharp stab of sacrilege—not for Jesus, but for books. Stories from the Bible, about fish multiplying or sinning children instantly forgiven, only made me cynical. It’s just that nothing in CCD resonated, and yet everything else seemed to. Elizabeth Bennett had annoying sisters; Harry Potter missed his parents; the artist as a young man never seemed to know what to believe in, either.
I wasn’t really searching, though the list of saints was still in my hand, when one name floated forward, bounding up like a fat buzzing fly: Ludwina, the patron saint of figure skating.
Suddenly, I was excited to write, a feeling I used to have often but had almost forgotten—I was so obsessed with my English teacher, Mr. O’Neal, that my infatuation pretty much paralyzed me. But now, there was so much inspiration (and, let’s be honest, so little pressure). The exotic-nerdy randomness of the name itself. The opportunity for my own epic, even Shakespearean, extended metaphor. Images of glorious triple salchows and terrible falls from grace—spandex and velvet plummeting to hell, smacked still by a plane of ice. And one of my favorite mythical tales of morality—that of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, which I knew right away I’d compare to my sister and me. This was in the autumn, like I said; when my mom first started her job, Ana and I did not get along.
I was pretty proud of my essay, but I wondered if my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Higgins, would even read it—it was seven pages long. The kind of old lady who looks defeated and bewildered by the modern world, Mrs. Higgins’s features seemed to have shrunk into her wide, doughy face, and her feet in their all-black Velcro sneakers always shuffled anxiously beneath her. Could she be trusted to sit in one place and read for ten minutes? Probably not, and besides, she had no sense of humor. When our class dressed up in ’80s outfits the week of Halloween, in honor of the vintage Catechism movies that we watched every week, she didn’t seem to notice. So, nervous though I was, I decided to give Mr. O’Neal a copy, one Saturday night when I went over to babysit Braden. My mom would never need to know about it.
* * *
Now, I cannot believe that my mother has read my paper without asking, that she’s mad at me, that she thinks she’s discovered some kind of darkness in me, when she is still so clueless about Ana. She wants me to write another essay by next week.
“Why did you read it? I never see you reading anything.”
“You left it on the table.”
My face warms with surprise, and with shame. I had imagined her hunting through the room I share with Ana, our desk drawers, our trash can, where I swore I remembered tossing it after Mr. O’Neal said nothing about it. Was it possible that I left it in a stack on the table? Still.
“Wasn’t it underneath an essay on The Aeneid? Did you read that one too?”
“It was not underneath anything. I was not going through your papers. I was interested in your decision, that’s all.”
“If you’re so interested, why didn’t you just ask?”
“I…” she stammers. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Exactly!” I scream, hoping the intensity of my voice comes across victorious. But I know my voice is shrill and frustrated instead—I’ve crossed over from logos to pathos, not my arena.
I try to explain that I wasn’t really comparing Catholicism to recreational ice skating, despite all the parallels I unfurl, paragraph by paragraph, like a swindler selling trinkets: my infrequency of practice, my unease and unnatural feeling when I do, the bland yet nice-sounding music that does nothing but encourage me to float on thinking my own thoughts. I wasn’t trying to be rebellious or disrespectful, I tell her. I’d have to feel something, take issue with something, if I wanted to rebel. Which I don’t, on all counts. At this her face falls into her hands, then she reaches for her cross and grips it between two fingers.
“It wasn’t really a comparison, Mom. It was an experiment. Does that make sense?”
“This thing makes no sense!” She’d dropped the essay onto the counter and now picks it up again and shakes it.
“Not the essay. The fact that it’s an experiment. I haven’t even turned it in at Sunday school”—a harmless lie—“I only showed it, I only tried to show it, to Mr. O’Neal.” Voicing my disappointment about Mr. O’Neal turns my indignation into tears. They do not, however, inspire mercy. If my mother thinks she’s won, she still hasn’t finished.
“Either way, I am mortified. You brought the family into it, Astrid.”
I had forsaken the first person for one sentence, to avoid overusing “I,” to say that my family attends church about as often as I go ice skating: approximately twice each year. Although only once, last year—Ana was missing on Easter morning. She didn’t come home the night of Holy Saturday, so my mother and I drove around in our pajamas looking for her. As it turned out, she and Jonas had fallen asleep in his car.
“What family?” I spit.
“Who are you, Astrid.” She states, not asks, with dispirited wonder. “Is this really how I’ve raised you?”
She waves a hand at my wet, splotchy face, as if I am my own contradictory evidence.
“And this weekend… this weekend with Mr. O’Neal.” She pronounces my teacher’s name as if it is some code word for sinister deeds. In reality, Mr. O’Neal simply asked me to babysit overnight while he and his wife go to her niece’s wedding. “No way, Astrid. No way.”
As a coda, she adds, “End of the conversation,” and bends down to unbuckle one of her navy-blue pumps.
In September, on the first night of my mother’s first overnight shift, Ana’s boyfriend of two years, Jonas, came over to watch a movie and never went home. The two of them were on their way into my mom’s room—I could hear their footsteps and whispers, just as I’d heard their noises on the couch—when I got out of bed, in short boxers and no bra under my T-shirt, and tried to yell at them in the hall. They laughed at me. All I could bring myself to say was, “In Mom’s room? Really?”
Ana just kept laughing. Finally, she said, “Why don’t you go in there, then?”
I suppose I could have told on her, but I never did. My mom knew I slept in her bed while she was gone, but she never asked why. It seemed to make sense to her that I would, like a liquid or gas, float without hesitation or intention into open space. And it was nice, sleeping on the diagonal in a queen-sized bed. Soon I even got used to having Jonas around—it was a relief to have a buffer, an actual male, in the apartment, someone who made jokes and watched sports and never joined in on our whining and complaining. Ana and I fought a lot over food, chores, bathroom time, and when we weren’t fighting, the only things we agreed on were the undesirable qualities possessed by our mom.
For months we existed like this, two different families of three, taking turns living in one home. But then, three days ago, on the first day of our mom’s last shift, Ana told me she was pregnant, and was going to get “sort of an abortion.”
She asked me to come with her, on a Tuesday after school. This surprised me—where was Jonas?—but I knew better than to voice this feeling, which, actually, was more like disappointment. I had begun to like Jonas, and it had crossed my mind that he might someday become a real part of our family.
Ana and I took the bus to downtown Brent. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to drive home. The clinic was a two-block walk from the commuter rail station, past a closed Brazilian bakery, a Dollar Store, and a Drive-Thru Dunkin Donuts.
While I waited in the lobby with a book, I kept expecting to see Jonas. His hand in his slicked-back hair. His face, so pale it seemed gray, taut with worry and regret. I kept looking through the window for his truck.
I was sad, obviously, as I sat there. Mainly for Ana, and the simple cell mass inside her about to die its chemical death. But also because of Jonas. That he could be the type to brush this off—an abortion, even if it wasn’t the surgical kind—felt as disappointing to me as the first time I prayed to God for something I really wanted. I was seven, and I wanted my grandmother to survive liver cancer.
Jonas was supposed to be a good guy. He moved here when he was ten from El Salvador and did well in school, but couldn’t afford college because he wasn’t a citizen. So he worked for his uncle, a plumber, and made good money. He spent just enough of it on Ana to seem caring and indulgent rather than reckless or suspect, and he gave me presents too from time to time. Smoothies, candy or takeout, young adult novels from Waldenbooks I would never read but could at least exchange for better ones. There may have been ulterior movies or urging from Ana behind these gifts—both of them knew that, at any time, I could tell my mom what was really going on—but still, the gifts were sweet. Why wasn’t he here?
When Ana returned to the lobby, holding a stack of papers and a plastic shopping bag, the nurse asked how we were getting home.
“I called a cab,” I said, feeling warmed by a strange surge of pride. Something about being there, taking care of her, gratified me—as if I were her number one again, like when we were kids, and best friends, and we’d draw and dance through afternoons and long summer days.
Though I felt flooded with emotions—sadness, worry, this weird pride and a resultant shame it induced—as soon as we got in the cab, I found myself incapable of communicating them to Ana. I wanted to touch her arm or her shoulder or her hair, but the empty middle seat felt like a canyon between us. Instead I asked three times if she was okay. The cab radio was blaring commercials, and a light snow had begun to fall on the lines of cars that inched between stoplights. The appointment was so short that we’d both arrived and left during rush hour.
Ana lost her patience. “Astrid,” she said. “Seriously, this isn’t a very big deal. It would help a lot if you believed me, or at least acted like you do.”
“Oh,” I said. If I agreed, I would be a terrible person, the least supportive sister in the world. “It is a big deal, Ana.” I meant to sound honest and concerned, but I sounded argumentative.
“It’s just a shot and a pill.”
“Why do you have three prescriptions then?”
“For the possible side effects of the one pill that matters.” She held up a brown paper bag creased at the top and stapled. “This is the only one I need.”
“So is this, like, the same as Plan B?”
“The difference is instead of swallowing it you put it up inside you.”
I nodded. She was looking at me, so she knew I understood.
But she continued. “Like a tampon. And then, what happens is, you get your period.”
I made myself keep my eyes on her face, on the shiny patch of skin above and between her eyebrows.
“They say it takes just about three hours, maybe up to five.”
I’d only had my period three times, though I was sixteen, and each time the cramps had been painful and distracting. “It would be nice to be asleep for that. Wouldn’t it? We should have pulled an all-nighter last night.” We’d done that once, on New Year’s Eve Y2K, playing BopIt and listening to Juanes. The next day, we slept and slept.
I thought this was a conscientious comment—at least I had some idea to offer, if only hypothetical and impossible—but Ana gave me a look that said my attempt at support had failed.
I added, feeling like all was already lost, “Or we can just watch movies.”
Of course, because Ana was cavalier, the side effects hit her hard. Nausea, vomiting, fatigue, cramps, a fever and chills, depression. Jonas came over once, and I heard her crying, then he left in less than twenty minutes. Ana stayed in bed, day after day, and when I asked her about school—it was only a few weeks into her second semester—she said she’d go back when she was ready, that she’d applied for a dean’s leave for medical reasons, and that everything would be fine. “Won’t Mom find out?” I asked.
“I’m an adult, Astrid,” she said. “With confidentiality rights. Even if my mother pays my bills.”
Ana and I don’t have a TV in our shared bedroom, so her on-and-off napping is all the more painful to witness. I can tell when she’s sleeping, and I can’t stand to be in the room when she’s just lying there thinking. After I fight with my mom on the phone, I’m relieved to see Ana’s awake. In fact, she’s sitting up, her back propped against a pillow.
“You can’t spend the night at Mr. O’Neal’s?” she asks me. She knows how excited I was to have earned his trust, and she knows I would have made $100.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and she looks like means it, which amazes me. I wonder if being sorry for yourself makes feeling sorry in general come more easily.
“Thanks for not telling mom,” she adds.
“You know, about me.”
I’m stunned. The shock I feel is hot, sour—I’ve been accused. “Of course not.”
“It must have been tempting though. You know, put things in perspective for her.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“I’m just impressed, that’s all,” she says. “It’s hard keeping secrets.”
“Yeah. Thanks. Hey, would you mind putting your headphones in?” This is what we do for each other when we talk on the phone. “I’m going to call Mr. O’Neal.”
She complies, and lies back down, and immediately I forgive her. At the thought of talking to Mr. O’Neal, my anger has dissolved into nervousness—that tight, shallow, good kind of nervous.
When he answers, he sounds out of breath. I ask him what he’s been up to, imagining him bouncing on the trampoline with Braden, his shirt billowing up and revealing the strip of gray elastic on his boxers, which sometimes shows when he writes on the top of the white board. Braden O’ Neal is nine, bigger than me, and autistic. He needs exercise, and the O’Neals’ house, garage, and yard are stocked with child-friendly cardio contraptions: scooters, a reclining stationary bike, a huge trampoline encircled by a tethered net. When I babysit, we’re supposed to spend half our time exercising and half our time with books, educational games, or puzzles. The first day, Braden collapsed on the trampoline and refused to move or speak for an hour. I had to call Ana and Jonas to help carry him inside. After we managed to get him in the house, Jonas played two games of Parcheesi with Braden, and painted their names in watercolor. Braden fell in love.
“What’s going on with you, Astrid?”
Just hearing Mr. O’Neal’s voice improves my mood. I hate to have to disappoint him. “Mr. O’Neal, that weekend, you know, that you wanted me to babysit?”
“I’m really sorry, but my mom won’t let me go.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. O’Neal.”
“It’s really alright, Astrid. Well…” He’s about to say goodbye, but this is not why I called—I want to know if he’s read my essay yet.
“Well anyway, I wanted to ask, since it’s been a while, what do you think about the ice skating thing?”
“Oh.” That one syllable lingers, languishing, and then he pauses, and I know that this essay is terrible, foolish, more immature than Chelsea MacKay’s essay about how growing out her bangs changed her life, which she volunteered to read aloud in class. I didn’t even bother to find out whether the O’Neals are religious. I want to hang up, or interrupt him with something like, “Never mind! That was the wrong version.” But some little hope, a surviving fleck of vanity, keeps me quiet.
“Ice skating,” he says, cautiously. “It’s a great idea, really, it is. A little risky.”
“Right,” I say.
His voice picks up. “But great! Really. I think Braden will like it. Do you want to take him, say, Saturday evening?”
Stunned, I say yes and thank him—I thank him for the chance to take his huge, autistic son to a public ice skating rink.
To cry in front of Ana about something like this feels pathetic—immature, my mom would say—but it can’t be helped. Ana, at least, seems glad for the distraction. She removes her headphones and pats the space beside her. I tell her I can’t do it. I can’t bring Braden to an ice skating rink. And yet, the thought of calling Mr. O’Neal back and telling him I can’t, which would mean I have to explain what I was really asking, is mortifying.
Ana touches my hair, as if softening me for a blow, I think. Preparing me for much-needed tough love: I expect her to tell me to pick my phone back up. But instead, she says casually, as if she hasn’t been lying in bed for four days, “I’ll come with you.”
Neither of us mentions Jonas, although he would be the real savior, since Braden is obsessed with him.
“Yeah,” she adds. “It’ll be good to go somewhere, get out of the apartment.”
“Are you sure you can… skate?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “Why not. This must be what those extra pills are for.”
On Saturday we’re late to the O’Neals, because our mom is gone, Ana doesn’t know where she left her keys, and we both forgot we’d need to scrape her car. Mr. and Mrs. O’Neal run out right away; they’re seeing a movie at the new indie theater in Carver, and they don’t want to miss the previews.
Braden refuses to get in Ana’s car. “Where is Jonas?” he demands, looking at Ana.
He asks three times before I find the courage to say, “He’s not here.”
Braden turns and walks back toward the house.
Ana shouts, “He’ll meet us there, okay? Inside, once we’re skating.” Braden turns back.
I look at Ana, elated. I’m happy for my own sake, though I expect her to look happy, too. She hasn’t seen Jonas in days. But she’s shaking her head and mouthing “no.” Of course Jonas isn’t coming, and he shouldn’t—it wouldn’t be right for Ana to cave just for my sake. She should be strong. This is the right thing, though we could use his help.
The rink, at least, is large and relatively empty—Ana drives us to Brent State’s, rather than the more popular public rink by the high school.
The rink’s entryway is shaped like a T, with two exits to the parking lot. Between them stands a wooden trophy case, its shelves full of tiny golden hockey players and photographs of the twisted bodies of figure skaters. Where this hallway meets a perpendicular one, which leads to the rink and bleachers, an acne-scarred college student in a yellow-and-black polo stands behind a ticket booth and skate rental stand. Braden barrels past the student before Ana can buy our wristbands and rent our skates. I chase him, in a panic, but when he reaches the rink he just presses his face against the Plexiglas. He seems content to stare at the five skaters—two pairs, one person alone—who glide with their knees bent and arms swinging slightly.
We watch the five skaters make several loops. Something must be wrong; Ana is still standing at the ticket booth. I walk toward her and keep Braden in my view.
“I swiped it on both scanners, okay?” The attendant’s voice is laced with exasperation. “You’re not in the system.”
“Then there’s something wrong with the scanners. What does it matter? I have my BSC ID.”
“I’m not trying to be rude, but like, do you pay your tuition bills?”
Ana bites her lip. There’s no way my mother could have messed that up. Those bills are the reason my mom became a flight attendant.
A repeated rattling thump makes us turn our heads toward the rink. Braden’s kicking the base of the wall that surrounds the ice. “Can we go?” he asks, knowing we’re looking, though he’s still facing the ice. “Can we go?”
“Look,” Ana says. “This is my sister, and she’s babysitting for an autistic kid, trying to take him skating for the first time…”
The attendant interrupts. “We don’t do lessons. This isn’t a great place for that.”
“He’s been skating before,” I say.
“You know what? Fine,” the attendant says. “You can go, even though you’re not a currently enrolled student. Ten dollars each. Including you.”
“Fine.” Ana opens her bag. She has a twenty, which I gave her, from Mr. O’Neal.
“Does this have something to do with your medical leave?” I ask, handing her another twenty, one of my own.
“Um, yeah, probably.” She keeps my change. Then she says she’s going to go call Jonas, from the lobby.
“Really?” I try not to sound as hopeful as I feel.
“I just have to,” she says. “And I might have to go pick him up. I’ll be back.”
* * *
It takes twenty minutes to find the right size skates for Braden, get them on his feet, and lace them. When I lead him onto the ice by the elbows, he steps on, emits a small squeak, and falls. Luckily, the very thickness of his body seems to have cushioned his fall. He doesn’t cry or scream, but he won’t respond either. He settles his back against the wall, his butt and legs resting on the chalky ice.
His body will melt the icy powder, and soon he will be miserable and cold. I explain this to him, but I have no bribes at my disposal—no candy, no TV, no Jonas. I’m getting cold, too.
I decide to leave my charge inside the rink’s curving perimeter, and choose a bleacher with a view of his body. The few people who pass eye him curiously for one or two laps and then seem to get used to him. The wall shields him from the attendant, who I can’t see either. I imagine him playing some game on his phone behind the table.
To my dismay, my backpack holds nothing but my wallet and extra socks. This afternoon—not thinking I’d have any time alone—I forgot to pack a book.
Without the turning of pages to mark the passing of time, I have no idea how long it’s been when, with a groan, Braden rolls away from the wall and lies flat on his back on the ice. He’s tied his hood over his woolen cap so tightly that his face is hidden inside a scrunched circle. The pink tip of nose and his lips, shiny with spit, are all that shows. I call Ana twice but she doesn’t pick up. I walk down the steps and over to Braden, cautious on the ice, and bend to touch his shoulder. He hits me with a fist, in the shin. I lose my balance and fall.
I crouch beside him and we stay that way for a while. I study his red nose, the wet edges of his jeans—he’s going to get sick. All of my muscles—even my eyes—are stiff and tense with cold. I think of telling Braden that Ana and Jonas are waiting in the parking lot, to get him to move, but what if she’s not there? At least in here there are benches, and no breeze, though it is freezing.
I might as well skate, to lure Braden by example or at least warm myself up. I take a few cautious steps. No sound or stir from Braden. “I’m going to go skate,” I tell his lips and nose. “You should come join me.” I count to sixty. Still no response.
For the first lap, I hold onto the rail and push off the same foot on each stride. My skates are stiff. Their tops cut into my ankles. So far, skating is just as I described it in my essay, like sitting in church for the first time in months—all I can think is that humans weren’t really made for this.
When my hand finally drifts off the rail, and both of my feet seem capable of doing the necessary work to propel my weight without buckling behind me, twin sounds on either side of me make me jump and nearly fall—two guys just winged past me like swooping rockets, swallowing me in symmetrical paths before converging and braking right in front of me.
“You alright?” they ask, as I wobble toward them.
“I’m fine,” I say, though I’m shaking, still cold and now spooked. One guy is looking at me strangely, with eyes that shine so many shades lighter than his mask of stubble.
“Do you need some help?” he asks. He points to Braden, whose back is visibly wet now, like his jeans. “Is that your brother? Where’s your mom?”
I tell him she’s not in town.
“You’re here alone?” He sounds incredulous. “How can we help?”
The two men offer to exchange their skates for boots and carry Braden off the ice. I thank them and ask them to watch him for a minute instead. It’s been thirty minutes since Ana left—she must be back, or close.
As I get my phone from my bag, the attendant shouts “Hey!” and waves me over. “Are you looking for your sister?” he asks, quieter now. “Cause she’s in the lobby fighting with some guy.”
“Thanks,” I say. I should wait, I should give them the time they need, but I can’t—Braden will get sick. I take off my skates and walk toward the foyer in my socks. The floor, as far as the attendant’s table, is covered by large squares of rubbery foam that link at the corners like puzzle pieces. The foam is damp, cold, so I leap from toe to toe. Before I reach the tile, where the hallway splits at the trophy case, I hear Jonas’s voice, clear as glass but not loud, not strained. They must be standing a few feet from me, hidden by the corner of the wall.
“I told you I could pay, Ana. One semester off, maybe, then we could have made it work…” Jonas pauses briefly, and says, “hold on,” as if Ana tried to interrupt him. “Possibly, okay? We could have discussed it.”
“I’m in college.”
“You were in college.”
He pauses again, as if giving me a window in which to jump in and stop eavesdropping—but I let it pass, and inch closer to the wall instead.
“Ana, I don’t understand. You said you wanted this, and I did too. But still it wasn’t a hard decision, not even a little? You could just make it yourself.”
“I do want it, Jonas. Someday.”
“Well it’s not all up to you. I don’t know if I do anymore.”
A silence spreads like poison gas through the lobby. Another opportunity to speak up, which I let pass. “Does Astrid even need help, or did you lie about that too?”
“She does,” Ana says. “She’s called me three times.” Her voice is choked and clotted.
“I’m going to help her, then,” he says.
After a silence, Ana finally says, “Go.”
Jonas almost runs into me, where I’m standing behind the wall. Before I speak, he says sorry. Tears sparkle in his eyes, which have turned just barely pink. He keeps walking, and I follow him at a distance, feeling ashamed of my behavior, and thankful that Ana isn’t following us.
Jonas pays the attendant and puts his skates on quickly. I sit on a bleacher and take my time with mine, only putting them on to warm my feet.
Then I sit back and watch Jonas, down on the ice, as he crouches like a catcher beside Braden, who finally moves: he rolls into a seated position. Jonas and one of the two men lift Braden by the arms, and Jonas shakes hands with both men. I expect Jonas to lead Braden off the ice, so we can all go home, our separate ways, but instead he takes Braden’s hand and guides him toward the wall, in the opposite direction of the gate.
They start skating together, slowly, gripping hands like lovers on a sinking ship. Braden’s back is soaked. I wonder when it will dry, whether I’ll have to tell Mr. O’Neal how the night really went, how much time his son spent lying on the ice. I wonder, too, if someday Mr. O’Neal will find my essay in a pile in his house. I hope he doesn’t; I hope it’s already in the trash.
To draw a parallel between my sister and I now feels foolish, but I can’t help it—something about Ana’s fight with Jonas has helped me see where I went wrong in choosing my saint. I didn’t take the decision seriously. At the time I thought this made me independent, original, but I realize now I was trying to be the wrong kind of independent. This was Ana’s mistake, too. She didn’t tell Jonas what she’d done—or that she was pregnant—until it was over.
Suddenly Ana sits next to me, surprising me. I didn’t hear her approach. I want to tell her that I know what she did, that I think I understand. I think I’ve figured out what happened with her ID too: she never applied for any medical leave. She’s been kicked out, or suspended, or something, for not showing up for so long. And when she found that out, the person she had to call—still—was Jonas. I want to tell her that she can tell me—I want to tell her all of this—but I really don’t want her to know I was eavesdropping. Anyway, I doubt I’d be able to find the right words. So we sit in silence, arms crossed, watching Braden and Jonas shuffle forward at the edge of the rink. The arena’s domed ceiling stretches like a bubble above us, and scratchy music, which I hadn’t noticed until now, echoes in the emptiness. I want to untangle my arms and touch my sister—hug her, maybe—but I’m cold, and my backpack sits between us.
Finally I ask her, “You want to go skate?”
She laughs. “Skating is hard,” she says. “It’s been, like, ten years.”
“I know,” I say.
“What the hell.”
I wait for Ana while she puts on her skates, and we step onto the ice together, both of us wobbling on our blades. I grab the wall; Ana puts a hand on my shoulder.
“If I go down…” she says, teasing me, but then her voice catches and she stops.
I pause before responding, “I know.” I want her to know that I know, but I’m not sure she’s heard me. Her head is turned away; she’s watching Jonas and Braden across the rink. “I know!” I say again, louder, lifting my arm off the wall and sliding closer to her. In my excitement, I slip and fall. Again. Instantly my wrist and tailbone hurt, enough that for a moment I forget about Ana’s troubles and feel purely angry—at my mother, for not letting me choose Saint Ludwina (maybe the saint could have helped me out right now?), at Mr. O’Neal, for misunderstanding me, and at Ana, too, for messing things up with Jonas. I’m going to miss him.
Ana’s laughter brings me back to the moment. She’s laughing at me. I haven’t heard her laugh in weeks. Her laugh is deep and full, with the thick warmth of a salty sea breeze, not muffled at all though her hands are cupped around her mouth. She stands there, upper body bobbling with laughter, knees bent and blades steady on the ice, until finally she reaches down to grab my hand.