My sister June and I can feel change coming the way some people can smell snow before it falls. When you’re about to leave a place, the electricity of impending change zaps around it. Things you never noticed before seem precious and things that you use every day have to prove themselves worthy of the space they’d take up in a box.
We have moved 23 times in the 18 years since I came along. That is how Dad always says it, like I was just passing through and decided to stay. “Before you came along, Mom and I used to sleep between sand dunes in Santa Cruz.”
As the older child, I was the original infiltrator, but sometimes he includes June. “Before you girls came along, I only ever needed a blanket, a beer, and your mom singing me to sleep.”
Then he’ll wink at me and say, “But that was the 80’s, now we’re raising modern women and I hear y’all require 4 walls and a roof.” I’ll roll my eyes and make myself busy with something before he can get too nostalgic.
We came to Maine three years ago so Dad could create a calendar of moose photos and this is the longest we’ve stayed in one place. Turns out moose are hard to photograph and then Mom got sick.
Last week I noticed Dad throwing away takeout menus. I heard the rasp of the stiff, water-stained papers being shuffled and when I came into the kitchen I saw the red and white Panda Garden menu sitting on top of the trash. Dumplings=bad/scallion pancakes=good was scrawled across the smiling panda bear’s belly in Mom’s loopy cursive. I carefully picked it up, folded it into a tiny square, and put it in my pocket.
June and I are not surprised when Dad announces at breakfast that we are going to move to Taos, where he will sell crystals to hippies.
He goes over his new plan while adding spoon after spoon of sugar to his coffee, stirring it faster and faster. I look across the table to catch June’s eye but she is looking to the other end of the table where our mom’s chair sits empty. I watch drops of coffee splash over the rim of dad’s mug and on to the floral embroidered placemats, where there is already a row of daises stained blue from the food dye that I used to make cake icing for June’s 16th birthday last month.
The last time I was sure that we were about to move, I went to see our landlord Babette. She gives advice from behind the counter of the Stop-N-Go convenience store, which conveniently sits right underneath our apartment. Babette told me that June and I will be fine wherever we go because I am more adaptable than a cockroach and June is brighter than sunshine on a Sunday. We each think that we got the better side of that compliment.
Whenever we used to get cranky about sharing beds and backseats and home-school lessons and clothes, Mom would say that we were lucky to have each other. She had been an only child and her insistence that we appreciate each other was annoying. We’ve mostly always had a good time though.
When we were little Dad would wake us up in the middle of the night and say “Time for an adventure!” He would be leaning over studying a map spread out on the hood of the car, using a flashlight and a yellow highlighter to create a route from Columbus, Ohio to the gulf coast of Florida or from Virginia Beach to Memphis, Tennessee. The wood-paneled station wagon would already be packed with cardboard boxes worn soft from reuse. June and I would pile in the way back and snuggle into a nest of blankets. Before stopping at a highway diner, the two of us would whisper negotiations over who would get chocolate chip pancakes and who would get a cheese omelet so we could share sweet and savory bites.
At the diners, I always wanted to sit at the counter so I could listen for people ordering their “usual”. I was enthralled by the people who had made themselves into regulars. I knew the way we moved a lot wasn’t exactly normal, but I could tell we had more fun than most people. I didn’t want to “be a square” as Dad called it, but I did long to be a regular somewhere.
This move comes as quickly as they ever did. By lunch time the next day, Dad is packing everything from the refrigerator into a cooler. June walks through the living room, contemplating each knick-knack and framed photo before wrapping it in a dish towel and dropping it into a box. I walk over to where she is crouched down wiping dust out of the inside of a crystal ashtray that we use to hold bobby pins.
June realizes that I’m standing behind her and looks up at me.
“Have we been to New Mexico before?” she asks.
“Not really, but we drove through on the way to Texas.”
June and I share a patchwork memory bank. I keep meticulous lists of places we go, how long it takes to get there, names of campsites and addresses of houses we rent. I write in the smallest print possible so it can all fit in one notebook. June writes poems on scraps of paper and leaves them wherever she finishes writing, to be kept or thrown away by whoever may find them. She remembers that we once sat at the edge of a blue-green lake and shared a burstingly ripe pear that tasted like cinnamon-dipped roses, but she couldn’t tell you what state it was in.
“I wonder what it will be like” June says.
I think it will be too hot.
We won’t know what to order for takeout.
Dad will expect us to help drive because we have licenses now.
Because Mom is gone now.
I realize June is waiting for me to say something. Something about New Mexico or the drive or what I think will happen next. If she still feels a sense of adventure, I don’t want to ruin it.
I say “I’m going down to the Stop-N-Go for more trash bags.”
The throw rugs are all rolled up and the words echo too loudly off the walls.
“Get me a snack!” she replies as I’m already walking toward the door.
Our apartment and the Stop-N-Go sit on the main road, but behind it is a seemingly endless sprawl of pine trees. I stop and breathe deeply, letting the cool air sink into my skin before making my way down the staircase that winds around to the front.
When we arrived here, Babette was the first person we met. She was exactly the opposite of who you would expect to see behind the counter of a convenience store in Maine. She wore gauzy chiffon robes she layered over a sequined dress that stretched across her broad chest and a platinum wig festooned with flowers. We felt we as if we had received a blessing from a queen when she agreed to rent us this place.
When I enter today, her face is fixed in a scowl as she watches the TV that hangs in the corner. But when the door chimes, she looks over and smiles at me. Then she reaches one perfectly manicured hand beneath the register and brings up a bag of peanut M&Ms. She twists around to the deli counter behind her and uses a pair of tongs to lift a fat dill pickle onto a piece of wax paper.
“Your regular, mon cherie”