Darlene and I were childhood friends. We hooked up on Facebook after a twenty-year hiatus. She mentioned coming by to visit, but I always dismissed the idea. After all, we both have family obligations that seem to disrupt any concept of meaningful reunions. But, here I was, waiting at the airport to pick her up. I knew what she looked like through her social media photos. She is classically pretty and her polished style suits her demure frame. Darlene comes from old money but was never one to show off.
"Hello, Layne," she said softly. "Darlene, I am so happy to see you." We embraced and I envied at how time seemed to have stood still for her. "Let's get your bags." On the drive home, she looked at me with the same innocent-looking green eyes I still remembered after all this time. "Thank you, Layne, for having me in your home. I've been thinking of you a lot lately. I brought some old photographs for our trip down memory lane." I patted her hand and reassured her that my family and I were more than happy to have her as our guest.
Our house wasn't much for someone of Darlene's caliber. We lived in a small, but comfortable, three-bedroom bungalow. Justin's salary as an English professor at the community college and my part-time gig as a freelance writer were just enough for our family to get by. Lani, our precocious pre-teen, didn't ask for much. She was happy hanging out with her friends and painting. "Herzlich Willkommen," I said as we pulled into the driveway. Darlene and I took German lessons at school. We were both in love with Jens, a classmate who had moved to our little town from Koeln. "Danke sehr," she replied smiling.
Justin and Lani came out to greet us. "Hello, everyone, I'm Darlene." Lani gave her a hug and asked her questions about what I was like when I was young. "Who are you calling old?," I asked a little dismayed. "Sorry, mom." Justin held out his hand and I couldn't help notice a slight blush on his face when he first saw her. "Boys will be boys," I thought to myself.
"Your house is just lovely," exclaimed Darlene. I knew she was being polite. I've spent enough time with her to know the kind of lifestyle in which she was accustomed. Still, I was proud of our humble home and I thanked her. Justin showed her the guest room and she seemed rather pleased. The guest room was downstairs. Our rooms were upstairs, so there was enough privacy for all of us. "You must be hungry," I said. "I'll start dinner." Darlene insisted on helping prepare the meal. "Sure thing. We can chat while we cook," I said happily.
Later, as we sat around the dinner table, Darlene thanked us all for welcoming her to our home. She planned to stay for one week. "I just needed to get away for a little while," she admitted. "My husband and I are in the midst of a divorce. I'm thankful we don't have children involved." We all sat listening but not really knowing what to say. Lani broke the ice by showing some of her artwork to Darlene.
After dinner, Justin and Lani said goodnight and headed off to grade papers and Facetime, respectively. Darlene and I sat out in the porch drinking in the night air. A blanket of stars enveloped the late evening as we reminisced about our high school days. "I'm sorry things didn't work out in your marriage," I said. She looked at me warmly and said, "I'm glad we're alone now. I have something to tell you." I looked at her curiously and knew this was the point of our reunion. After all, who makes such effort to get reacquainted with someone after twenty odd years? We were both strangers now. And I knew instinctively she was not one who was lonely. People always orbited around Darlene's world.
"What I'm about to say will shake up your world, I'm afraid, but you need to know the truth," she said while looking at the sky. A firefly appeared and whirled about. I picked up my glass of tea. "I'm listening," I said. She began:
Do you remember how close our parents were when we were growing up? They used to hang out almost every weekend playing cards and having parties. Well, before my father passed, he told me his secret that he kept from my mother and from your father. Layne, I am your sister. My father disclosed this to me just before he died. It was his final confession. He asked if I could forgive him. Well, as you can imagine, I was stunned. After my father and your mother's affair, they agreed to remain friends and to keep their relationship secret. But they also wanted to ensure the two of us stay close while we were kids. He made sure your mom was financially comfortable enough to provide you with a little more than the necessities. They kept this up all of our lives, Layne. After doing some research, I know for sure you are my biological sister. This is the reason for my visit. I am sorry you have to hear this from me. I am sorry our parents did not have the courage to be honest with us.
I sat unable to move or talk. I did not know what was happening or why. All I knew was that my world was indeed shaken up. Darlene didn't say another word. She got up and went to her room, leaving me alone to soak up what I just heard. I sat there, under the stars, feeling like a stranger to myself. "I have a sister and never even knew," I thought. My mother, who I loved and trusted more than anyone else on earth, lied to me all my life. I wondered if their affair continued after I was born. Did they love each other? What about my dad? Did he know about all this, too? Was he a part of this big lie? I felt a chill run through my body. "What the hell just happened?," I asked myself. The firefly was still whirling around. I took one last sip of tea and went to bed without sleeping.
The next day, an awkward silence befell Darlene and I. I didn't know what to say or how to act. Justin and Lani had already left for work and school. I told Darlene I needed to go to the supermarket and would be back soon. She stared at me and understood. "Layne, don't worry about me here. I will go out for a walk and then come back for my bags." I nodded and left. After grocery shopping, I went to the park and sat down. Hours went by and I didn't even notice. I didn't care. I just wanted to be left alone.
I finally got up and drove home. Justin's car was in the driveway. I figured he was home for lunch. I opened the front door and it was strangely quiet. Justin was probably in a conference call in the bedroom. I unpacked the groceries and heard muffling noises from Darlene's room. "Guess she's packing her bags and preparing to leave," I thought. I made a few sandwiches for her to take on the road. I went to her room to check on her, and she was making the bed. "Oh, I didn't hear you come home," she said. I told her I can make the bed for her and she needn't worry. As I glanced down, I saw Justin's sock between blankets. "No," I whispered. Darlene looked down and realized their mistake, "Layne." "Get out," I said without looking at her. "Now."
It seemed like hours before the taxi came to pick her up. Before she left, she said, "I'm sorry." I looked at her and asked, "how could you do this to me?" She looked down and then stared directly at me, unwilling to let go of the emptiness in my eyes. "I guess it's in the genes," she replied and went into the cab. I was numb. I went upstairs to see Justin. He was in the middle of a conference call. I held up his sock without saying a word. "Layne, please let me explain." He remembered he was still in a call and quickly shut it down. "I don't think there are any words that can undo what you just did," I stated. He simply nodded. "Pack your bags and get out," I said. "I don't want to see you again until I'm ready." Justin knew there was no point in talking. He packed his things and left without saying a word. He didn't even look back.
Lani called and told me she was going to a friend's house after school for a homework session. I was grateful for the time alone. I sat in the porch staring at the garden I had worked so hard to cultivate, in front of the home I thought was the one place in the world safe from drama and controversy. I thought I knew who I was. A stranger came into my life and made my identity an illusion. My husband, my mother, my best friend from another time were now just blurs of a dream that I had awaken from. I had been asleep the entire time. My breathing turned shallow. How can everything I believed in disappear in two days? I spent a lifetime building a foundation for my family and myself. I wanted us to feel safe. Now, I realize how fragile the world is. All that has helped shape who I am today-my home, my family, my childhood-has lost its light. Tonight, the moon hid behind the clouds and it was especially dark. Solitude was a cloak I wore in the night air. The chill seemed to come from within me and projected outward. A firefly whirled around, as if searching. For a moment, I was grateful for its temporary flicker of light.