Gail was walking in the East 80's when a small shop caught her eye. A sign in the front window advertised hand-crafted objects from around the world. Inside the shop the smell of Jasmine incense drifted in the air. A young woman wearing a purple dress asked her if she wanted some herbal tea. Gail thanked her and the woman poured her a cup. She took the brown and tan ceramic cup in her hands and began to look around the store.
Gail was attracted at first to a collection of brass candle holders. They were hand-made of course, and the abstract contours were meant to suggest the curves of a female nude. As she selected one from the collection, the cool yellow-gold metal felt good in her hand, and it seemed to have a nice heft. She imagined briefly that in addition to its decorative qualities it might also be used as a weapon: A tool of self-defense against unwanted intruders.
Gail was unmarried. She had never even been engaged. There had been a number of men in her life over the years, but none had seemed quite right for her. They all seemed to lack something important, but she had never been able to figure out what that something was. On her fortieth birthday she decided it was time to stop worrying about meeting the right man. If it had been meant to be it would have happened long ago. She knew and respected a number of men and women who had decided that they could be perfectly happy living their lives alone, on their own terms.
Her aunt Sarah had been one such person, a strong woman whose decisions had definitely been nobody else's but her own. Unmarried to the end, her addiction to cigarettes had finally caught up with her and she had been diagnosed with lung cancer ten years ago. The doctors gave her a year to live, possibly more if she stopped smoking. Sarah kept smoking and lived for three more years.
Gail came upon a collection of multi-colored candles. A small card on the table told her they had been hand-made by an artist living in Albany. Although each one was unique, they were similar in design: each stood about a foot high and had two distinct colors of wax flowing together. Every candle in the collection featured a unique, pleasingly complementary color scheme. Gail picked up a pink and brown candle and lifted it to her nose. Apparently the artist had interwoven scents as well as colors. This particular candle smelled like a combination of sandalwood and rose. She picked up a second candle, one in which bright yellow-orange wax streamed and flowed with a deep blue-purple. She wondered what it would smell like.
It smelled vaguely of flowers, possibly violets or lilacs, but there was something else to it too. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeper, but was unable to identify the second aroma. Curious, she kept trying. It reminded her of something, but the elusive connection was just below the threshold of recognition. As she continued to inhale, she grew to realize that whatever the scent was it made her feel peaceful and happy. The candle somehow made her feel good, and she knew she had to have it.
When Gail returned to her hotel room a blinking red light on the phone let her know she had a message. Her first thought was that it was probably one of her assistants from the office calling with some sort of emergency. She felt a brief moment of anger that she was going to be bothered with work in the middle of her vacation. She dialed '0' and a pleasant-sounding young man on duty at the front desk informed her that 'Tracy' had called and wanted her to call back as soon as possible.
"Gail! Thank God you called!" her sister exclaimed when she answered the phone. "I don't know what to do!"
"Calm down," Gail told her, "Take a deep breath and tell me what's going on."
Tracy had been living with her boyfriend Ray for the past year. That afternoon Ray found out that one night when he was out of town Tracy and her ex-boyfriend Larry had gotten drunk and had slept together. Ray wanted her to move out of his apartment immediately. To Gail's mind, Ray's reaction was completely understandable. Tracy's main problem was that she hadn't had a real job for over six months and didn't have any money to get a place of her own. Tracy wanted to know if she could stay with Gail until she got back on her feet. Gail agreed and confirmed that her sister still had a key to the apartment. She then told her sister to "hang in there" until she got back in a few days.
As she hung up the phone, Gail could feel a tightness between her shoulder blades. She really didn't want to share her apartment with Tracy at all, but knew she couldn't exactly turn her back on her baby sister. What else could she do?
Gail lay down on the hotel bed. She reached down beside her and took the tissue-wrapped candle from the paper bag. She peeled back the silver and gold printed paper and held the candle to her nose. The fragrance seemed even stronger in the hotel room than it was in the store. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The candle's wonderful aroma had a surprisingly calming effect and she was able to let go of some of the tension. Perhaps things won't be so bad, she thought. She and her sister had been through so many things together.
"Honey, I just hope you understand that this is only for a little while, until your mother gets herself back on her feet." Sarah said. She put her hand on Gail's arm in an apparent effort to comfort her niece, but she wasn't very successful.
Gail was too nervous and upset to be calmed down easily. This was a big change for a thirteen-year-old. "What's going to happen to us?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, you and Tracy will be just fine. Your problem is you worry too much. Lucille and I decided that the best thing for everybody would be if you two lived here with me for awhile, that's all. Your mother is going to drive up here and visit you every weekend. As soon as she's able to support all three of you you'll all be back together again." Sarah took another drag of her cigarette, then stubbed it out in a large red glass ashtray on the coffee table.
"But who's going to take care of Tracy?" Gail demanded. "She's just a little baby. You've never had any kids of your own. How are we going to know what to do?"
"Don't worry about it so much. You're a big girl now and you and I will just take turns watching her. It'll be okay."
"But I'm going away to camp next week…." Gail started to say.
"Well, I'm afraid you're not going to be able to go to camp this year. Maybe next year, sweetheart."
When Gail walked in the front door of her apartment she knew her worst fears had come true. Although Tracy had only been there four days, she'd already made her mark. Gail's apartment didn't feel like her own. Tracy was a slob as a child and she'd apparently gotten worse over the years. Gail felt a twinge of indignation as she stepped into the living room, where her sister had been sleeping on the couch. The room was cluttered with Tracy's things. Gail's reading chair was occupied by a large green and white overnight bag and there were piles of dirty laundry lying on the floor. A stack of rented videotapes, a half eaten burrito and a twenty ounce bottle of diet soda crowded the coffee table.
"Welcome home!" Tracy said, appearing from apparently nowhere. She put her arms around her sister and squeezed. The hug was made a little awkward by the fact that Gail hadn't taken off her heavy winter coat and was still holding her suitcase.
"I'm glad to see you've settled in," Gail said without a hint of sarcasm. Then she thought about the reason for her sister's presence. "How are you doing, anyway?"
Tracy plopped down on the couch and reached for her soda. "I've been better," she replied with a sigh.
"Let me get something to drink and then you can tell me all about it," Gail said. She took off her coat and hung it up neatly in the hall closet. Then she went into her kitchen. She tried to ignore the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, but it was hard. Taking out a clean glass from the cupboard, she poured herself some water from a bottle in the refrigerator. I need to pick up some fresh oranges at the store, she thought. Then she took a deep breath and walked back to the living room, taking her place on the couch beside her sister.
"Ray doesn't want to have anything to do with me," Tracy began. "I think I've really screwed things up this time."
"Maybe you just need to give him some time." Gail said, taking her sister's hand in her own. "If you look at it from his point of view, he's probably still feeling very hurt by what you did."
"Look, I can't do anything about what happened," Tracy said. "Ray doesn't seem to be able to accept the fact that what happened between me and Larry just happened, you know? It was just one of those ‘spur of the moment' kinds of things. It didn't mean anything, really."
"Ray obviously thinks it meant something," Gail offered, looking into her sister's eyes for a small hint of responsibility.
"Well, that's his problem, right?" Tracy asked, looking to her sister for validation.
"No," Gail said firmly. "I would say that it's your problem. Let me ask you something. Do you want to get back together with Ray?"
"I don't know anymore," Tracy said, shaking her head. "I just don't know how I feel about anything right now. It's like all of a sudden my life has become some kind of roller coaster and I'm too dizzy from the ride to think straight."
Several possible responses to that particular statement went through Gail's head, but she realized if she said them out loud her sister would be hurt, and she didn't want to come off as a bully. Besides, tough love was the last thing Tracy needed right then. After a brief pause she said, "Honey, what you need to do is take a little time and figure out what it is you want. In the meantime you can stay here."
"Thanks," Tracy said, giving her sister another hug. "I really appreciate it."
Gail set the candle on her bedside table. In the week she'd been in New York, it was the only souvenir she'd bought. She lay down on her bed and held her hands to her face. They had the wonderful, mysterious smell on them. She thought briefly about lighting the candle but decided against it. She was tired from the trip and had told her sister that she wanted to unpack and read for a little while. Looking over at her dresser, she saw a small framed picture. The picture showed a very young version of herself holding her eight-month-old sister. It had been taken that first summer at Aunt Sarah's house.
Lucille's promise to drive up every weekend had lasted only a month. Although her mother still called about once a week, Gail couldn't help but wonder how long it was going to be before she stopped doing even that. Things at her aunt's house were settling into a routine. She and Sarah had split up responsibilities for Tracy just like they said they would. This allowed her to get out of the house and "do her own thing" on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights.
It was after nine o'clock on a Tuesday night when Gail got back from the public library. Walking in the front door, she was surprised by the fact that her aunt wasn't in the living room watching TV as usual. The total absence of sound in a house usually full of noise was unnerving. She also noticed a strange smell that seemed to hang in the air. Aunt Sarah's house usually reeked from cigarette smoke, but this odor was something different.
Gail heard a cry from her sister's room and went to check on her. Tracy was sitting up in her baby bed. She stopped crying when Gail entered. Figuring she'd check the most obvious cause of her sister's wailing first, Gail reached two fingers down the front of Tracy's diaper and discovered it was damp. She changed the diaper quickly by the soft glow of the night light.
After putting her sister down for what she hoped was the rest of the night, Gail started walking around the house, searching for her aunt. She found her the first place she looked: in her bedroom, lying in her bed, sound asleep.
Puzzled and hungry, Gail went to the kitchen to fix a sandwich. She was disappointed to discover her aunt had eaten all the potato chips and the last of the spinach and sour cream dip was gone. Taking her snack into the living room, she sat down on the couch and looked through the stack of magazines on the coffee table, looking for something interesting to read.
That was when she noticed what was left of a marijuana joint in her aunt's red glass ashtray.
It was late evening by the time Gail got home. She had been working late at the office, something she'd been doing more and more in the two months since Tracy had moved in with her. It was as if her sister had taken over the apartment, and Gail resented it. But she still couldn't bring herself to ask her baby sister to move out. Tracy was working part time at a book store near Drake University but still hadn't saved up enough money to get a place of her own. Gail seriously wondered if her sister was even trying to save her money. It certainly didn't seem to be her top priority. Tracy had apparently gotten over Ray and was dating a man named Eric, a graduate student at Drake. Gail had met Eric once when he'd come by the house to pick up her sister. She considered herself to be a good judge of character. She didn't think too much of Eric.
The apartment was dark and Gail turned on the light in the hallway. She smelled cigarette smoke and wondered if Tracy had started smoking again. She also smelled something else, something like perfume. Gail walked past the living room and down the hall to her bedroom door. When she opened the door the soft glow from her candle illuminated the couple well enough that she could see exactly what was going on. She stepped quickly back into the hallway and shut the door.
Gail never told her aunt she knew about her marijuana habit, even though Sarah did little to conceal it from her. Even at thirteen she knew there were worse drugs her aunt could be using than pot.
What had her spooked was a story she'd heard the previous year on the school playground: In the story, a teenage girl was baby-sitting for a young couple one night. She got bored and decided to relieve her boredom by taking LSD. Tripping badly, she mistook the baby girl she was watching for a frozen turkey. When the parents came home from their night on the town they found the babysitter lying on the floor, stoned out of her mind. Frantically they searched the house for their daughter. In the end they finally found her… in the oven. Gail's friend Becky swore it was a true story.
The problem was, Gail simply didn't know how much she could trust her aunt when she was stoned. As a result, she stopped going out on her "free" evenings and made sure she was always around when her aunt was responsible for Tracy. She told her aunt she'd just gotten bored with spending her nights at the library and she'd rather spend them reading in her room.
After awhile, Gail saw some patterns to Sarah's pot smoking: weekends were usually the times her aunt indulged, but the weekend right after she got paid was a sure bet. Once Gail came to know the patterns, she could generally predict when she really needed to be around.
"You're not being fair!" Tracy cried. Gail sat in her reading chair, her arms folded across her chest. Tracy sat across from her on the couch. The coffee table stood between them. An empty wine bottle and two half-filled glasses gave Gail a clear picture of what had happened earlier. Thankfully, Eric had left quickly and as discreetly as possible, under the circumstances.
"I'm sorry, but this is my apartment and this is the way it's going to be!" Gail barked, raising her voice more than she meant to.
"Why are you making such a big deal out of this? It was just a lousy candle!" her sister whined.
"Are you kidding? This isn't about the damn candle!" Gail retorted, less than convincingly. "Look, I'm trying to keep my temper and not get too emotional. It's not like I'm kicking you out on the street. You're welcome to stay here tonight, but tomorrow you're going to have to find yourself another place to live."
"Where am I supposed to go?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry, but I just don't. I'm sure you're smart enough to figure that out tomorrow."
"Why are you doing this to me all of a sudden? I'm your sister! I love you! How can you do this to me?" Tracy buried her face in her hands and started sobbing loudly.
Gail no longer had any patience for her sister's tears. "Quit crying, dammit! It's not the end of the world. All you have to do is go find a God-damned apartment! What's the matter with you? Why can't you just take care of yourself? You're twenty-nine years old, for God's sake!"
Tracy pulled her hands away from her face suddenly and spun toward her sister, suddenly more angry than hurt. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she asked.
"I'm just saying that most people your age have figured out how to… function in real life."
"What? ‘Function in real life?' What kind of shit is that? Is that what you really think of me?"
"I'm sorry. Maybe I'm being too hard. It's late and we're both mad at each other." Gail realized she had blurted out something she didn't mean to say and wanted to cool things down a degree or two.
"No, Gail, I really want to know! Is that the way you see me? Do you see me as someone who can't handle real life? Is that what you're telling me? Is that really how you feel about your own sister?"
Gail couldn't answer without lying or causing further pain, so she kept her mouth shut. When Tracy realized no reply was forthcoming, her face twisted into an ugly grimace.
"Fuck you!" Tracy screamed, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, "I just came here because I needed some time to get my shit together. That's all!"
"Well," Gail said, "I don't see that happening any time soon. What do you want me to do, let you live here with me until you grow up?"
With that, Tracy's face became hard, a mask of cold hatred. She stood up and started throwing her clothes into a pile on the couch.
"What do you think you're doing?" Gail asked.
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm packing!" Tracy grabbed her overnight bag and struggled with the zipper.
"Look, calm down," Gail said. "I told you that you could stay here tonight."
Tracy kept packing.
"Where are you going to go at this hour?" Gail asked.
"Like you care."
Gail always left the door to the attic open so she could hear her baby sister's cries when she awoke from her nap. She walked up the stairs carefully, to minimize the creaking from the old wooden steps. It was summer and the heat and humidity made the attic feel like a sauna. She opened the east window, which was located directly above her aunt's lilac bushes in the back yard. A cool breeze carried the fruity smell of the lilac bushes into the hot musty room.
Sarah had collected a lot of things over the years, and whenever she "got tired of looking at something," she stored it in the attic. There was old furniture, probably antiques, although Gail couldn't tell. There were also hundreds of colorful dresses her aunt had bought over the years. Small cloth hand-sewn bags filled with mothballs hung on several of the hangers.
Gail went immediately to a small cedar chest. She carefully lifted a pile of clothes from its lid and opened it. Inside was an old wooden cigar box, sealed with a large red rubber band. As she had many times in the past, Gail carefully took the rubber band off and opened the box, releasing the faint smell of cherry tobacco.
Waiting inside was a small stack of seventeen letters. It was a romantic correspondence spanning a summer in which Sarah had attended college in Kearney, Nebraska. She and a student named George Haley, an education major, had been madly in love with each other. Gail wondered again why it was that Sarah had both her letters and George's as well. It was a question she imagined someday asking her aunt, but that would have to wait until she was much older. In the meantime, she knew her aunt would disapprove if she ever discovered Gail's secret ritual.
Reading the letters during Tracy's afternoon nap had become a daily occurrence for Gail, at least on weekdays while her aunt was working. Her responsibilities for Tracy – and for her aunt, as it turned out -- had made it impossible for her to make any friends in town. The letters filled a void.
In the tradition of lovers throughout history, the stationery still retained the sweet smell of young love: Sarah's letters had been scented with an orange blossom perfume, George's with a musk more suited to a cowboy than to a school teacher. Holding one of his letters up to her nose, Gail tried to picture what he had looked like from the cologne he wore.
The content of the letters alternated between attempts at poetry and sexually explicit descriptions of what the two young lovers wanted to do when they were alone together. When Gail had discovered the letters she was shocked by them at first and found herself unable to look her aunt in the eye for a couple of days. It took some time before she was able to come to terms with the idea that her aunt had ever been the woman who could write about things like that. Gail wondered if the passion from the letters was still alive inside her aunt somewhere. If it was there it must be buried deeply. She'd certainly never seen any evidence of it, not really.
She loved to read the love letters again and again, and not just for the erotic thrill and the way it made her feel a part of something adult. There was something about her visits to the attic that touched her in a very special way, but she didn't know exactly what it was. There were so many different little facets to the experience, not just one single thing: The flow of the words, the way George described Sarah's breasts. The expressive twist of her aunt's handwriting, so similar in many ways to her own. The feel of the twenty year old stationery against her soft fingertips. There was also something about the way the secrecy of what she was doing made her feel. All these things combined, adding up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It transported her, taking her far away from her aunt's house and responsibilities she knew she couldn't just walk away from.
As Gail sat reading the letters, she thought about the future that lay ahead. In her mind's eye she tried to imagine an older version of herself, having the kind of adult relationship described in the letters. She fantasized about the man she'd meet someday and what he'd look like. What feats would he perform to demonstrate his love for her? How would she, in turn, express her love for him? As she looked at her thirteen-year-old face in a dusty oak-framed mirror, Gail asked herself, When I'm Aunt Sarah's age, am I going to have a box of love letters like this? More than anything, Gail wondered if she would ever be capable of the kind of passion the letters showed her was possible.
Gail carried a set of clean sheets and a blanket into her bedroom and switched on the light. She pulled the sheets off her bed and threw and them into the clothes hamper. Then she put the fresh set on. Going into the bathroom, she took her contact lenses out and put on her wire-rimmed glasses. Her eyes were dry and sore from the long day. She looked at her wrinkled forty-three-year old face in the mirror.
Back in her bedroom, she changed into her nightgown. The cool blue-purple fabric felt good against her skin. She looked over at the candle on her bedside table and saw it hadn't burned down all the way. A book of matches from a local tavern lay beside it. She lit the candle without ceremony, turned off the bedroom light and climbed into bed, pulling the comforter up to her chest. She tried to push vague feelings of guilt out of her mind. It was hard at first, but slowly a sense of calm serenity overtook her.
Once again, she thought about the fragrance of the candle. She knew it reminded her of something, but she wasn't quite sure what.
Copyright (C) 1999 Terran Boylan