• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 31. The Separation

    By Deborah Willis

    There’s great joy in finding a new writer whose short fiction shows both confidence of craft and effortless verisimitude—as with Deborah Willis, whose debut collection, Vanishing, is now on sale. As Alice Munro says, “the emotional range and depth of these stories, their clarity and deftness, is astonishing.” This particular story is also happily, warmly funny—a pleasure to read.

    The year my parents seprated coincided with the year I adored my sister. Claudia was fourteen, and was at the beginning of the long rebellion that would define her life. I was eleven and still looked like a boy: hair that my mom cut too short, legs that I hadn’t started to shave. I wore the same outfit almost every day: jeans with embossed flowers and a green sweater. No wonder I was obsessed with Claudia. She listened to the Dead Kennedys and the Dayglo Abortions. She had purple hair and a fake ID that claimed she was nineteen and from Oshawa. She’d gotten her period, and boys had started to call our house asking for her. Sometimes I answered the phone in the evenings, and there would be a nervous male voice on the line, pleading, “Can I talk to Claudia?”

    “Who’s calling, please?” I desperately needed to know.

    But Claudia was a slave to the telephone and always aware of its ringing. She’d smack the back of my head before I could get any information. “Give it, June. Now.”

    She was cruel and lovely and totally awesome. I snuck into her room to riffle through her shoebox of tapes any chance I got.

    *

    Our parents were awed by the latest catastrophe they’d created. First, two daughters. And now this: The Separation. They talked about it as though it had capital letters, and they both seemed to want to make it as crazy as the parties they liked to throw.

    They didn’t seem to notice that, separated, they were more married than ever. Each obsessed over what the other was doing, or might be doing. They sent messages to each other through Claudia and me: Tell your father/Please inform your mother. These messages were angry or heartbroken or flirtatious. They were articulate, defiant, or funny. Usually, Claudia and I forgot them entirely, or forgot the most important part of them.

    The Separation happened this way: first my mom left, and stayed with one of her sisters for a week. Then she came back and my dad stayed in a hotel for two days. Then he came back because the hotel was expensive—separation was expensive!—so for a few days the house was exactly like before: messy, crowded, loud.

    But one evening, there must have been an argument. Claudia and I didn’t hear it because we were in her bedroom listening to music. It was one of the few times my sister let me hang out in her room, and sometimes I wonder if she was protecting me, if she knew there was a fight going on downstairs. The point is, I never the separation knew what caused The Separation because I was with Claudia, and Mickey DeSadist was singing us a lullaby.

    *

    We were raised on lentils, brown rice, Neil Young, and solstice celebrations. Our mother ran a local grocery co-op and wore skirts made of hemp before hemp was chic. Our dad was a ceramics artist who sold cups and bowls at the local farmers’ market, had lost most of his short-term memory, and never got any of the big commissions that the tourist board gave out.

    As young children, Claudia and I were encouraged to be wild. We were always outside, and often naked. The neighbours complained because our parents never mowed the lawn, believing that children should have high grass to play in and dandelion seeds to blow. There was a picture of us on the fridge: Claudia with ripped overalls and hair that looked like it had never been washed, and me, naked except for a T-shirt that read, I Hate TV. We took vitamins, ate vegetables, and recycled. We’d been humiliated countless times when our parents dragged us to marches against apartheid and solidarity dances for Cuba. One summer, when I was eight, we’d been forced to stand outside the local supermarket and protest the importing of grapes from Chile.

    No wonder Claudia found it difficult to be a teenager. She wanted to rebel, but our parents didn’t make it easy. Her first attempt, the one she undertook the year of The Separation, centred on music. Instead of Crosby, Stills and Nash, she listened to Minor Threat and Bad Brains. She went to concerts in people’s basements and all-ages shows at Little Fernwood. She moshed and stage-dived, and spent so much time thrashing around with other dirty, sweating kids that once she got scabies.

    And one evening, while Mom and I were in the kitchen, she cut herself thick bangs, bleached them, and dyed them purple. I was doing homework, and Mom was drinking tea and reading a book about the Buddhist practice of non-attachment. Then Claudia stomped into the room, with her purple hair and her boots that left marks on the lino. She heaved the fridge door open then slammed it shut.

    Mom looked up from her book. “Hey,” she said. “Great hair.”

    Claudia froze. She stood in front of the fridge for about three seconds. Then she stomped out of the kitchen.

    Mom sipped her camomile. “Did I say something wrong?”

    “I think she hoped her hair would annoy you.”

    “But I think it’s cute. I think it suits her.”

    I twirled my pencil through my own hair, which had almost reached my chin, and wondered if Claudia had any of that purple dye left.

    “It’s oppressive,” I said, trying out a word I’d heard Claudia use.

    “What is?”

    “How much you love us.”

    Mom set down her clay cup, one that Dad had made. “Do you have any idea what motherhood is like? It’s like taking an endless multiple-choice exam, and none of the available answers are
    correct.” She added, “Your father never understood that.”

    I’d never taken a multiple-choice exam. My homework still consisted of memorizing how to spell difficult words, like friend and people. Mom was always forgetting how young I was.
    the separation

    “Claudia Sky!” she yelled toward the other room. “Get back here, young lady! We need to talk about that stuff in your hair!”

    Then, quietly, to me, “How was that?”

    “Great.” My pencil was completely tangled in my hair and I wondered if I’d have to cut it out. “Very convincing.”

    *

    Dad went as far away as he could on fifty dollars. He took the Greyhound up-island, as far north as it would go. Then, from a payphone, he called us. Had my mom answered the phone, he probably would have spoken triumphantly: “I’m in Port Hardy. I bet you don’t even know where that is.”

    Instead, because I thought it might be a boy calling for Claudia, I ran to the phone, almost tripped over the cord, and grabbed it before anyone else could. The sound of my young voice over the line really did him in. “I’m in Port Hardy,” he said. “I bet you don’t even know where that is.” Then he burst into tears.

    “Hold on, okay?” I put my hand over the mouthpiece and screamed, “Mom! It’s Dad! He’s crying again!”

    She took the phone from me. “Where are you? Port what? I don’t even know where that is.”

    When she got off the phone with Dad, she called her sisters, her friends at the veggie co-op, and her Amnesty letter-writing group. That was one thing Claudia hated about The Separation: she’d lost her tyranny of the telephone. Mom was always talking to her sisters, women friends, and anyone else who was up for a little schadenfreude. Even her friend who lived in a tree stump in Beacon Hill Park found a way to call.

    “Breaking news,” Mom said each time someone phoned that night. “He’s now sleeping in a bus depot in Port Hardy. I bet you don’t even know where that is.”

    *

    Claudia’s teenage rebellion was awkward, an adolescent flail. In her twenties, she came to understand how to really get to our parents, and her techniques became much more sophisticated. But when I was eleven, I didn’t understand how young and stupid she was, so I copied everything she did. I ripped my jeans the way she ripped hers. I coloured my hair with markers from school, so that my head looked and smelled like blueberries. I made mixtapes and listened to them until they unravelled. I took the music seriously—more seriously, it turned out, than Claudia ever did. It started as imitation, but in the end, it stuck.

    *

    “On a scale of one to ten, how much do you think your father and I have messed you girls up?” This was the kind of question Mom started asking over dinner. “A moderate amount? Or more than average?”

    “You’re so weird, Mom.” Claudia brushed her fork over the quinoa on her plate.

    “Yeah.” I tried to copy Claudia’s nonchalance, her way of averting her eyes from our mother’s.

    “You’re weird.”

    “We always tried to make sure you were happy.” Mom covered her face with her hands. “We tried so hard.”

    It was sweet of Mom to worry, but I knew that, for Claudia, The Separation had its advantages. She had been the only one of her friends who lived in a two-parent home, and that had embarrassed her. And, bonus: she’d been able to fake tears—my parents are getting divorced, etc., etc.—to get out of gym class.

    There was one thing I liked about it too. It meant that, every month, Claudia and I got to visit our dad in Port Hardy. This was farther from home than I’d ever been, and I loved the bus trip. On the first Friday of each month we caught the Greyhound at 5:45 in the morning. Claudia liked it because it meant we got to miss a day of school. I liked it because it meant a whole day—ten hours, including stops—with Claudia.

    *

    The bus had gray seats with little footrests that flipped down, and wide windows that didn’t open. Claudia and I always took a seat close to the back, because we knew from riding the school bus that this was where the cool kids sat. My sister always took the window seat and put the armrest down between us.

    I can’t speak for Claudia—she’s still mysterious to me—but I can be almost sure that what we both loved most about those trips was the freedom. It’s true that we were limited. Really, how much cool stuff can you do on a bus? When all you had was the ten bucks that your mom had given you to buy lunch? But still, when the door was sealed shut, we were fully separated from our parents—and this hardly ever happened, since school was full of parental replacements. That bus was our territory. Who cares that its seats made me lose all feeling in my ass? Or that the air that shot from the vents above our heads smelled like old carpets? Or that the sun poured in the windows and made us sweat? Our only responsibility was to call our parents from Campbell River, because they both insisted, separately, that we check in. Other than that, we could do or eat or say whatever we wanted. For ten hours, between Victoria and Port Hardy, we travelled fast, suspended above the road and outside supervision.

    Of course, it turned out that when we were left on our own, we didn’t usually feel like doing anything wild. I’d read adventure novels—Mom’s old Trixie Beldens, or a Famous Five. Claudia would arrange herself so her sneakers were against the seat in front of her. She always brought a pillow, which she propped against the window. She listened to her Walkman and either slept or pretended to sleep. And I sat beside her, which was my favourite part. For once, she couldn’t kick me out of her room, slam the door, or tell me to go somewhere and die.

    *

    There was one bus trip that was different. It was September, and it would be our last trip up-island, but we didn’t know that yet. Things started out wrong: after Mom dropped us at the depot, Claudia waited until she had driven away—so I couldn’t run and tell on her—then insisted that we sit in separate seats. As we dragged our backpacks through the parking lot toward our bus, Claudia said, “I’m not sitting beside you. I feel like being by myself.”

    “Yeah, right. Mom says some guy will sit beside us and fondle us if we don’t stick together.”

    “Oh my God.” Claudia stepped onto the bus and showed the driver her ticket. “You’re such a crybaby.”

    Another thing that went wrong was that the last seats of the bus were already taken by people who were obviously cooler than us. So Claudia chose a seat in the middle. She sat near the window, and put her legs up so I couldn’t sit down. “I’m not kidding,” she said. “You’re not sitting here.”

    I sat directly behind her. “You’re such a bitch.” I spoke through the space between the back of her seat and the window. “I hope you do get fondled.”

    *

    In Port Hardy, our dad moved from place to place, and finally ended up renting a room in a house where people like him—people without luck or money—ended up. It was a big, rumbling house by the water. The wind coming off the ocean was so loud that when Claudia and I stayed there, I couldn’t sleep at night. There was a smokehouse in the back, but Dad didn’t know how to use it and had almost burned it down accidentally. After that, the other tenants teased him by calling him White Man, even though most of them were white too.

    Living there for less than a year had aged our dad. Maybe it was all that wind battering his skin. His hair was always tangled, and he wore clothes I’d never seen before: fraying plaid shirts, jeans that were too big for him, rubber boots.

    He spent a lot of time with one of his neighbours, a woman named Laura. She had a tattoo of an eagle on her back and a baby named Roger that she carried in a Snugli. She was pretty, with shiny dark hair and a round face. I liked her because she gave us jujubes and other petroleum products that we weren’t allowed to eat at home. Claudia liked her because Laura shared her makeup.

    And she would let us take turns holding Roger, teaching us the right way to carry him. His soft baby breathing even calmed Claudia’s hormonal rages.

    Mom was convinced that Laura was Dad’s girlfriend, but I was never sure. I think Laura just felt sorry for him, and for us. But when Mom found out about her, her hands and her voice got shaky. With a new urgency, she phoned everyone she knew.

    “Breaking news,” she said. “He’s now dating Pocahontas.” She paused. “Not that I don’t respect the Salish people and their culture.”

    Then she inhaled and exhaled, deeply and calmly, the way she’d learned to do from a book.

    *

    One good thing about being separated from Claudia was that I got a window seat. I was able to look out at deer munching broom on the side of the road. I saw birds in their flight. I had views of the vast and untamed ocean.

    It turned out that I got bored of that pretty quick. By the time we hit Ladysmith, it was all I could do not to lean over Claudia’s seat and start smacking her head with my book.

    The only reason I didn’t do that was because there was a stranger beside me—an overweight woman with a winter coat, despite the fact that it was hot in the bus. She sat next to me, purse on the floor, coat spread over her legs like a blanket. She turned on the little light above her seat and started to read a novel.

    The book’s cover had a picture of a dark man in a feather headdress, holding a pale woman in his muscular arms. The woman looked like she’d swooned or died or had low blood sugar. Her eighteenth-century dress was slipping off one shoulder. The man in the headdress looked like some of the guys my dad hung out with at the Legion, except a lot less hunched and exhausted.

    He had huge pecs and there was a forest behind him. I could tell from the cover and the tag line—In the wilderness of New America, she found a wild stranger—that this book was full of sex. From Victoria to Nanaimo, I kept trying to read over the fat woman’s shoulder.

    *

    Each visit to our dad’s was pretty much the same. After we arrived on Friday night, he’d take us to the Legion. All the guys there recognized us and said, “Hey, little ladies. How are the princesses this evening?” They asked us about school and we told them stories. Usually Claudia and I invented some adventure about the bus trip, some fantastic thing that involved several near-death experiences.

    Then, on Saturday, Dad always wanted us to do something in nature. We went hiking or fishing, and after, we’d usually hang out with Laura and Roger. And at least once over the weekend, Dad would cry.

    Usually, it started like this: “Do you girls want me to come home? I mean, if you do, then I will. You know I love you like crazy. Just say the word.”

    Sure we wanted him to come home. But we’d been raised to let people go on their own journeys, to allow others to grow and change. So we just stood there with our hands dangling at our sides. Anyway, we figured that Dad would sort it out on his own, since he was our dad, since he was a grown-up.

    “If you want to come home,” I said, “why don’t you just say so?”

    “That’s very sweet, June. But life is more complicated than that.”

    “No, it’s not.”

    That’s when the tears started. “I just need to know that you girls are okay.” He knelt down so he was at our level. “I hate to think of you being harmed by The Separation. I hate to think that my children have been damaged.”

    “Hey!” I said, suddenly remembering a message I was supposed to pass on. “Mom says you should pay for therapy for us.”

    “She said what?”

    “Dad, you’re the one who’s damaged if you think I’m still a child.” Claudia was good at ending these sorts of conversations.

    She understood something that our parents didn’t get: that they could never really damage us. That we transcended them, lived outside of them. They were them and we were us. We had our own concerns: Claudia had her period and boys who called her on the phone, and I was growing out my hair and memorizing the lyrics from 13 Flavours of Doom. What our parents didn’t understand was that we were busy.

    *

    When we stopped in Nanaimo, a stranger got on and sat beside Claudia. He must have been a young guy, but he seemed old to me at the time. I could easily tell a ten-year-old from an eleven-year-old, but everyone over twenty seemed vague and dangerous. He carried a backpack and wore a toque. He said, “Is anyone sitting here?”

    Claudia said, “Nope. Go for it,” despite the fact that I should have been sitting there, that I was her sister, that I was stuck next to a woman who wouldn’t share her sexy book. Mark put his backpack on the shelf above the seat and sat down beside Claudia. I knew his name because, once he was seated, he turned to my sister and said, “How’s it going? I’m Mark.”

    He asked my sister where she was headed and she said, “Port Hardy,” which was the truth. Then she added, “To visit some friends,” which was a lie.

    Mark said that he was going to Port McNeill, the stop before hers. “I work in Nanaimo. But I go back to Port on weekends.”

    “Cool,” said my sister, as though it really was. “What do you do? When you work?”

    “Construction. I’m an industrial welder. You?”

    “That’s so cool.” Claudia sounded fascinated, intrigued, amazed—I’d never heard her exhibit so much interest in anything in my life. “I don’t really work. I’m a student.”

    “Oh, yeah? At the college?”

    I could feel Claudia’s elation in the air. I could almost inhale it.

    She might have told the truth: that she was only fourteen and attended Vic High. But the purple bangs and the makeup had paid off, and she was going to cash in. “Kind of,” she said. “At the
    university.”

    “Sweet.”

    “Yeah. It’s all right.”

    Then they didn’t talk for about twenty minutes. Mark didn’t get out a book or anything, and I imagined that he was sitting there with his legs spread wide, staring at the seat in front of him. When we’d passed Wellington, my sister took out her Walkman and Mark said, “What are you listening to?”

    “D.O.A. They’re this band from Vancouver.” Mark didn’t say anything, so my sister, her voice full of hope, asked, “What kind of music do you like?”

    “I like tons of stuff. I listen to pretty much everything.”

    And it became official: I hated him. I was only eleven, and my musical snobbery was in its embryo stage, but still I knew a fraud when I heard one. Everything. The only people who claim to listen to everything are the ones who know nothing, who are happy to swallow whatever the radio feeds them.

    “Totally,” said my Judas of a sister. “Me too.”

    *

    Claudia and Mark talked for the next three hours. She let him listen to her tapes and gave him the kind of musical education some people pay money for. He told her how his girlfriend had cheated on him when she went on a three-week tour of Europe, and Claudia seemed to feel real sympathy for him. “That totally sucks.”

    He said that, since the breakup, he’d just focused on work. “You’re pretty much the first girl I’ve talked to since then.”

    He showed her pictures of his two dogs, and at one point they both held up their hands to compare them. Next to his the separation workman’s hands, Claudia’s looked like they belonged to a child.

    Which they did.

    Between Bowser and Courtenay, I couldn’t hear what they were saying because they started talking more quietly. I couldn’t make out words, but I could hear their soft voices and Claudia’s laughter. They leaned close to each other, and in the space between their seats, I could see that their heads almost touched.

    *

    When we hit Campbell River, where we had a forty-minute stop, they acted like best friends. They got off the bus together and my sister didn’t wait for me, didn’t even turn around to look at me.

    I followed her into the depot’s bathroom, which had only two stalls, an empty soap dispenser, and an overflowing garbage.

    Names and life stories had been penned onto the walls, and usually Claudia and I hung out in there and made fun of people who wrote things like Linds B. wuz here and I wanna do Kris 4ever.

    “Thanks for waiting.” I kicked the door of the stall Claudia was in, but she didn’t say anything back. I heard her peeing, and I said, “That guy you were talking to was such a loser.”

    Claudia flushed the toilet and came out of the stall. She didn’t answer me or look at me. She turned on the faucet and ran water over her hands.

    “And the woman beside me is so fat. And she’s reading this sickening book.”

    “Shut up!” Claudia slammed her wet hand against the mirror, against the image of her own face. “Who cares? Who cares if she’s fat? Who cares what she’s reading?”

    “What’s your problem?”

    “You are. I don’t want you to talk to me anymore.”

    “I have to talk to you. Mom gave you the money, and I’m hungry.”

    “Here.” Claudia took a five-dollar bill from her pocket and threw it at me. “Take this and leave me alone. Don’t look at me. Don’t breathe on me. And every time you want to talk to me, just remind yourself that you don’t even know me.”

    *

    Usually, in Campbell River, we bought chips and pop from the vending machine and ate them while sitting on the depot’s row of plastic seats. We weren’t used to carbonated beverages, so they made us hyperactive and strange. We jumped from seat to seat, and competed to see who could jump the farthest. Claudia always won because she could leap over four seats at a time. I’d been hoping to break her record.

    But instead, I sat in one of those seats alone. The hard plastic dug into my neck. I bought a bag of chips and ate them by myself. Actually, I didn’t eat them. I licked the dill pickle flavour off them and left them in a wet pile on the seat beside me. But even that was no fun without my sister to tell me I was disgusting. I used some of the change to phone our parents, since Claudia seemed to have forgotten that we were supposed to do that. When Mom picked up, she said, “Is that you, Juney-looney?”

    “Yeah.”

    “That’s great—you’re ahead of schedule.”

    “Yeah.”

    “Is everything okay?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Did you have lunch?”

    “Yeah.”

    “What did you have?”

    “Sandwiches.”

    When I called our dad, he said, “Hey, June-bug!” He spoke in his ultra-happy voice, the one he used when he was trying to convince us that he was ultra-happy in his new life. “You in C.R.?”

    “Yeah.”

    “You’re ahead of schedule!”

    “I know.”

    “Is your sister behaving?”

    Through the bus depot’s dirty window, I could see Claudia and Mark. They sat in a sunny part of the parking lot. She’d taken off her hoodie and wore just her Converse, jeans, and a black tank top. One of the straps had slipped off her shoulder, and Mark kept looking at it. And she kept looking up at him, through her purple bangs.

    “No,” I said.

    Dad laughed. “You keep her in line, then. You lay down the law.”

    For the rest of the stop, I leaned against the payphone and watched my sister and Mark. They talked and laughed as they shared fries and a cigarette. If our parents had found out, Claudia would have been so dead. It was one thing to smoke weed that the neighbours grew. But to support the big tobacco companies was out of the question.

    *

    When they got back on the bus, they acted awkward, like strangers. All the way to Sayward they didn’t talk. Mark slept with his face turned toward my sister. If I had leaned forward, I would have smelled his cigarette breath coming at me from between their seats. He’d taken off his toque and exposed his blond hair. I don’t know what my sister liked about him. maybe it was that he looked as vulnerable as a baby: pale skin, wet lips, fly-away hair.

    She listened to her Walkman, and I could hear the tape rewind, play, rewind again. I wanted to ask her which song she was listening to, but I didn’t dare. I tried to read my book, but it seemed boring and childish now that I’d seen the kind of book I could be reading.

    As we passed Woss, Mark woke up from what I imagined to be dreams about fondling my sister. He jerked awake, and his twitch made him and my sister laugh. Just like that, they were friends again. They started swapping party stories.

    I’d had no idea that Claudia had ever been drunk. Our parents had always said that they didn’t mind if we experimented with alcohol as long as we did it in their house. They’d rather we tried
    that kind of thing at home, where they knew we were safe. Every time they said this, Claudia crossed her arms. “I don’t drink anyway,” she’d say. “I’m pretty much straight-edge.”

    But she had some good stories. About throwing up off a balcony. About passing out then waking up beside her friend’s hamster cage with the hamster kicking wood chips into her face.

    About eating mushrooms and walking down Government Street to watch the tourists’ faces melt. After a while, I realized that her stories sounded familiar. They belonged to our parents.

    “That’s fucked.” Mark laughed. “That’s awesome.”

    He told about the times he dropped acid, went skinny-dipping in Duncan, and lost a pair of shoes in Vancouver. Then he said, “We should hang out sometime. How long are you in Hardy for?”

    “Just the weekend.”

    “Maybe you and your friends could come down and party with us.”

    “Yeah. Maybe.”

    “Or you could just get off with me at the McNeill stop today and the two of us could hang out tonight.”

    “Really?”

    He said this after we’d passed Nimpkish. This far north, it was visibly colder. Some muddy snow was scattered along the side of the highway. It looked like it had been left behind, forgotten, though it must have been the first snowfall of the year. We were ten minutes away from Mark’s stop, from the town on the edge of the ocean where he lived, from the place where I was going to be separated from my sister forever.

    “You could stay at my place for the night. It looks out over the water. You’d like it.”

    “I don’t know. My friend’s sort of expecting me.”

    “You can call her. And I’ll give you a ride up to Port Hardy tomorrow.”

    Claudia must have understood how easy it would be to go with him. She knew she’d get away with it because I’d never betray her.

    I’d tell Dad that she’d stayed in Victoria for an extra day, for volleyball practice or something, and that she’d arrive tomorrow. Dad was so disoriented and absent lately that he’d believe anything.

    “You have a car?” she said. “That’s really cool.”

    I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even kick the back of her seat to remind her of me, of us, of the secret and unspoken pact we’d had since we were too young to speak. A pact to stick together, to be sisters, no matter how much we hated each other. I didn’t say anything because part of me wanted her to do it. I wanted to see that it could be done. I wanted to watch my sister grab her backpack and strut away. I wanted to watch her hop off the bus and into the arms of a wild stranger, or anyone else she chose. I wanted to know that separation was possible. That we could cut ties, break free.

    “I can’t,” she said. “My friend would shit. We’ve had these plans for practically forever.”

    I didn’t understand why she said that, just like I didn’t understand why our dad came home a couple of months later. Maybe Laura got sick of him, or he was tired of being so poor, or he missed us, or he missed the way Mom swayed heavily through the house in her hemp skirts. He would leave again over the years, and Mom would leave him too––whenever they craved some entertainment––but they always came home.

    I didn’t understand, but I was relieved.

    “Okay. That’s cool. That makes sense.” Mark sounded genuinely disappointed, as though he actually liked my sister. “But maybe I could give you my number? In case you change your mind?”

    “Sure. Yeah. I could call you.”

    Mark wrote on a scrap of paper and handed it to her. “It was awesome meeting you.”

    “You too.” Claudia put the paper in the back pocket of her jeans, and I felt her movement in my knees, which were propped against her seat. “Thanks.”

    What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces. Their humour and neuroses were planted deep in our brains, and we’d inherited their voices, their sayings, their stories. They were our parents. Even when Claudia’s rebellion was complete—when she ditched the punk scene and left that territory to me, when she started wearing brand names and married a stockbroker—even then, they forgave her and loved her and got really high at her wedding.

    *

    A couple of nights before we left for Port Hardy, Claudia listened to Nomeansno in her room and I sat at the kitchen table, using my pastels to draw a picture of Sid Vicious. Mom was in the kitchen too, rolling her evening joint. And I knew that, twelve hours away, Dad was doing the exact same thing. “Juniper?” said Mom. “Why don’t you come sit on my lap?”

    I looked up from Sid’s pretty snarl. “Because I don’t want to.”

    “Why not?”

    “Mom, it’s gross. I’m not a baby anymore.”

    “I know that.” Mom lit the joint and I heard the paper crackle as it burned. “I’m just sad tonight, I guess.”

    The truth was that I did want to sit on her lap. I still liked the way she smelled, of tea and smoke and lemongrass shampoo. And I liked the way she ran her fingers through my hair. It felt soft and ticklish and usually put me into a trance.

    “I’ll sit on your lap for ten seconds,” I said. “As long as you promise not to tell Claudia.”

    Mom smiled in this way that made me think that maybe, in secret, my sister still liked to sit on her lap. Maybe Claudia liked the hair thing too.

    “Okay,” said Mom. “Promise.”

    *

    When Mark got off the bus, I tossed my backpack over onto his seat and said “’Scuse me” to the woman beside me, who had almost finished her novel.

    I sat where Mark had been, and the seat was still warm from his body. For a second I almost understood my sister—why she might want to be close to him, or someone like him. Then I said, “He was so ugly.”

    “Fuck you.”

    Claudia put on her earphones, adjusted her pillow, and closed her eyes. I sat beside her, and I was hugely, oppressively happy. She was my sister and I loved her. I stole one of the buds from her ear, stuck it in my own, and Joey “Shithead” Keithley yelled at us as the afternoon sun poured through the window. I leaned against Claudia as though she was a pillow. “Get off me,” she said, out of habit, without meaning it. I rested my face against her bare arm, and the moisture of our skin stuck us together.

    *

    From Vanishing and Other Stories. © 2009 by Deborah Willis.

    Vanishing can be found here . . .

    Read a bit more from the book here . . .

    And Deborah can be found here!



    5 Comments

    1. Adkgoblue on August 18, 2010 :

      Might be one of my favorite sister stories. This really captured the relationship between sisters at that age and I love the parents.

    2. Editor on August 20, 2010 :

      […] Short story: 'The Separation' by Deborah Willis […]

      http://www.berfrois.com/

    3. Jcdelong on November 15, 2010 :

      will have my 14 year old friend read this story. Should open up discussion!

    4. Bezicne bubice on June 29, 2011 :

      Superb story, i have a sister also and i love here so much!

    5. hamster cages on October 29, 2011 :

      You will also want to provide your hamster with toys for stimulation. These can be as simple as empty cardboard tubes, such as those from paper towel, wrapping paper, or toilet paper rolls. You can also purchase elaborate plastic tubes for your hamster to explore. If you have a Chinese dwarf hamster, you especially need to ensure that it has lots of places to hide.

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