Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
When I leave san diego to visit my sister in Charleston I am orange, the by-product of a really bad spray tan. I have a seven hour flight and I pray that it will magically fade before I reach the Atlantic.
The guy sitting next to me might be on speed. He smells gamey, like he has been camping for weeks and covered himself in animal pellets to stay warm. He shuffles around in his seat a lot and keeps bumping into my knees. I wish that I didn’t have the aisle seat because he keeps getting up to use the bathroom. I consider asking if he wants to switch seats but realize that it would be better not to engage him in a conversation. I am reading the New Moon, a hand-me down book from my friend Shannon. I don't want people to see what I am reading so I keep the cover neatly folded underneath its pages. The smelly dude next to me is reading over my shoulder. It is annoying. I slant the book sideways so I don't have to feel his breath on my face. He sighs.
When Michelle fetches me at the airport the first words out of her mouth are "Holy mother you are tan."
"Orange." I tell her. "Just get me out in the sun tomorrow and you'll see."
When we arrive at her brand new suburban home with wood floors and a collection of antiques, her husband Brian says "Wow, You are tan!"
For the rest of the weekend when Michelle’s friends or coworkers say "You two are sisters!?" I have to explain that I am also butt white despite my Native American looking skin. My sister asks if I am going to have fake boobs next time I visit. "Fake tan today, fake boobs tomorrow, afterall you do live in San diego." she laughs. I am not amused.
Michelle gives me a tour of her new home. Everything is freshly painted. They have leather couches and a big fury cat. Brian tells me about the popcorn ceiling that he painstakingly removed and how the dining room is painted to match their Lenox china.
My sister drives a pale blue Audi with leather interior. We meet her friends for dinner. They have expensive purses and talk about the recent pay freeze at their companies. My sister no longer binge drinks and passes out at the bar like usual. She orders just one white wine. She has morphed into a responsible grown up who pays her water bill on time. This is all new.
Her coworkers tell me how serious she is at work and how shocked they are when she retells stories of hitch hiking to Grateful Dead shows and getting kicked out of our highschool's homecoming dance for bringing a flask in. They can't picture it.
"Michelle was a hippie, nonconformist, cheerleader with a 4.0 grade point average" I tell them "She has always been a contradiction"
On Friday Michelle and I spend the day in downtown Charleston. We view local art and walk past rainbow row. We attend a comedy show with a bunch of elderly people and are the only two who laugh hysterically at everything inappropriate. I laugh so hard that the woman in front of me turns around to give me a long disgusted glare. “We are so trashy.” Michelle whispers.
We eat southern food, grits and lobster at the famous King Street Café. We are serenaded during brunch by a woman in a straw hat and a floral dress. She sings psalms while we awkwardly stare down at our plates. We go on a buggy ride and learn the inside facts on Charleston, that it was named the best mannered city in the U.S and that it boosts the largest suspension bridge in the united states. The driver’s southern drawl is so relaxing that I can barely understand the words coming out of his mouth. I feel like I could take nap. The heat is so thick and heavy that it feels good. There is something unmistakably enchanted and drowsy about South Carolina that I can picture myself here minus the perfectly coiffed hair and pale pink lipstick.
Saturday night Michelle invites her friends over for a barbeque. We go to the grocery store to pick up supplies. When I open her car door a cockroach the size of my fist scurries onto my seat. We scream and carry on until a man pushing carts comes over to help.
“There is a cockroach somewhere in there,” I say motioning to my side of the car.
He looks at me quizzically for a moment and then says,
“you mean a palmetto bug?”
Only in the South would they give a cockroach a dignified name. After a few minutes he manages to fish it out.
When Michelle’s guests arrive we drink firefly vodka with crystal light and talk about kids, marriage, home improvement projects, and work, always work. Everyone is so Southern. They are neatly pressed and have good manners. The men make plans to go to the country club for a round of golf in the morning while the ladies discuss spending the following day relaxing at the pool. I look at my sister and raise an eyebrow; I want to ask what the hell they have done to her! Golfing, Crystal Lite, antiques? I pray to god she draws the line at uttering the word ya’ll.
It’s amazing what a change of location can do to a person. I look down at my orange stained arms and realize that it’s not only her. Just this morning Brian commented on my overuse of the word dude. The two of us have changed so much.
Early Sunday morning at around 1 a.m., we watch Michelle’s wedding video, the one my brother shot with a hand held digital camera. The whole family is in it. I watch my sons eating Buford boil with their aunt Desiree, my daughter in her crisp flower girl dress, my mom smiling, and Michelle kissing her husband.
I watch my dad in his pale linen pants walking my sister down the aisle. It knocks the breath right out of me. I want to reach inside the T.V and touch his face. It’s the first time I have heard his voice since he passed away. The camera zooms onto him and I can hear his laugh. It takes all of my will power to hold the tears back. I feel a sudden rage so quick and sharp that I have to look away. I feel like a four-year-old on the brink of a tantrum. Michelle's voice is even and steady. She had always been the strong one. She laughs remembering how dad refused to wear seersucker pants and how he jokingly told Brian at the alter "I changed my mind; you cannot marry my daughter." She goes on, happily recounting other funny moments from her wedding weekend. It’s hard to believe it’s only been one year since her wedding. She looks into my face briefly and smiles, the way she always does, the only person in the world capable of understanding just how heavy my sadness is. She turns it around, soon I am laughing too over our dad's wayward eyebrows and the crazy way his hair grew back from the chemo. I love my sister.
At the end of the weekend, riding to the airport I ask her if she ever thinks of dad's illness as a gift. "What do you mean?" she asks. "I don't know," I shrug "I just feel like part of his sickness was blessing. We loved him so completely and appreciated him more than we would of otherwise. We are all so much closer because of it. It's kind of like Stockholm syndrome or something, only cancer syndrome where we are crazily tight knit now. It was a backwards gift that all of us hated but when we looked at it from a distance there was something remarkable about it."
"I think your right." she says.
I know I am.