Getting to Sleep
by Sibyl Masquelier
NOVEMBER 16, 2010
The Final winner of Obit-Mag.com’s Autumn of our Years writing contest.
“Now, don’t go thinking I’ve gone all weird on you. I am going to sit on your bed with my back to the headboard. I want you to sit between my legs like we used to do when we were tobogganing.” My weeping, younger, 59-year old sister stopped crying and looked at me as though I had lost my mind. That afternoon I sat with her as a doctor gave her a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in final stage. She had not stopped shaking in the six hours since. And, she had not slept in a week. I am a businesswoman. I don’t know what the hell I am doing. I just know she needs me. Something is moving me to say words without thinking.
Stephi settles in. I intend to imagine soothing meditative scenes, but with my arms around her, and her body touching mine, an entirely different memory invades my speech. When we were growing up in western Pennsylvania, we would sometimes pretend we were actually Southern belles, like our mother. What comes to me is something that happened on a Virginia family vacation. In my best version of our mother’s North Carolina accent I drawl:
“So dahlin’, the story goes like this…”
We look go-o-od. We know it, too. My sister and me, we are fi-i-ine. One of the ways we put our ‘hotness ‘ out there is just walking down the street, attracting admiring glances and an occasional whistle.
Stephi’s 9 and I’m 11. Our whole family is in Newport News to visit Mama’s best friend, Ruby, and her husband, Luther. Aunt Ruby and Mama are always movie-star gorgeous. Mama looks like Lena Horne; Aunt Ruby like Ann Miller. Hotness runs in this family, ooh-la-la!
The section of Newport News where Aunt Ruby lives is called Lee Hall. It borders Fort Eustis Army base. Lots of soldiers come through Lee Hall on their way to Jamestown or Williamsburg. It’s fun to smile at them. They think Stephi and I are older than we are.
This sunny Virginia day, hot, sticky and smelling the musky way bay cities smell, Stephi and I eat one of Aunt Ruby’s fried chicken, fried okra, fried potatoes, fried everything lunches and decide a ‘promenade’ will settle our stomachs. And, that will allow us to shine a little. We put on our best preppie Bobbie Brooks tops with our most flattering pedal pushers and sandals, and off we go for our stroll.
Several cars go by – an old man, a couple – nothing interesting. A jeep with a few soldiers passes us. They honk wildly. We giggle. In a few minutes, we see a new convertible (Stephi interjects, ‘a red ’57 Chevy convertible’) coming from the other direction. In it sits only one soldier. Though we smile, he does not honk. We keep walking and talking. Within a few minutes, we realize the red convertible has turned around and is slowly following us, just a car length away from where we are on the sidewalk. The soldier is blond with sharp angular features. He is not as handsome as he looked going the opposite direction.
“Well, where are you girls going today?”
I said, “We’re just out for a walk. You have a nice day, ya’ hear. Good-BYE.”
He pulls up right beside us. “What are your names?”
I whisper to Stephi, “Let’s walk a little faster.”
That maneuver doesn’t deter him. He pulls ahead of us, stops his car and gets out. Stephi and I are tall, but this guy’s really tall. He looks strong.
In a Southern accent harsher than Mama’s sultry Tar Heel, he says, “Didn’t you hear me? I asked your names.”
Stephi is shaking and grabs my hand. I said, “Turn around. Let’s walk fast back to Aunt Ruby’s.”
In a lightning flash, the soldier is in front of us. He grabs Stephi’s arm and said, “Let’s take a ride!”
I clutch Stephi around her waist. “Let go of her. Go away!” but he pulls harder, with me in tow. Every Stranger, Danger story I ever heard starts to play in my head. Stephi and I are terrified. I wrap myself around her as tightly as I can. I scream, “Daddy, Daddy. Help! Help! Stranger! Stranger!”, over and over.
Doors up and down the quiet street open. Some old ladies come to see. Aunt Ruby’s house is about a block away. I see Daddy and Uncle Luther coming out by our car. My heart leaps when I realize Daddy hears me. He and Luther are running toward us. The soldier sees them and lets go of Stephi. He shoots me a cold glance, hissing, “You little bitch!” Then, he jumps in his car and speeds away.
Uncle Luther’s shouting it’s a Tennessee license plate but he could not read the numbers. Daddy bee-lines to Stephi whose arm is red and bruising.
He hugs her close. Mama and Aunt Ruby take Stephi back to the house. Daddy comes and hugs me. We are safe. I feel tension now going out of Stephi’s body.
Back in my flat-toned Midwestern voice, I whisper: “This cancer is another scary thing we have to tackle, Steph. None of this is easy, but you are not alone. I am still holding on to you.”
I began visualizations of a beach at sunrise, skies all peachy and aqua, with the tide going out, waves ebbing and flowing, agile, hermit crabs dancing with the water’s movement. As I speak, I feel the warmth of her body pressing against the core of me. There has never been a time in my life when she has not been some part of it. She is the longest love of my life. I am going to tell her, but for now, I am going to hold her, because mercifully Stephi’s asleep.
Sibyl Masquelier was a consultant/talent scout/executive recruiter for the Media Industry. She is writing an authorized biography of her former husband, Mike Parker of Linotype. She blogs about the writing process at http://mikeparkerfontgod.blogspot.com