The bus is about the last place you want to be right now, but Jane was your ride, and she’s probably halfway back to Boulder. You look out the window and think about how wrong the weather forecast was. It’s not that Mandy -- as in “This is Mandy from Channel 4 news” -- called for sun, and now it’s raining instead. As you gaze up at the sky, squinting to protect your eyes, you struggle to find so much as a single wisp of cloud in the vast blue. It’s the meaning she put behind the forecast that bothers you. Standing in her pencil skirt and jacket, Mandy put on a lip-stick smile nearly as thick as her foundation and announced that we should:
“Get ready for clear skies on this brilliant summer day. A pleasant breeze and lovely temperatures in the mid 70s make for a great time to get outside and enjoy yourself at the beach or in the backyard with the family.”
Like the bright, sunny weather dictates the success of the day’s events.
The weather patterns drifting slowly across the country on the TV screen reminded you of Jane’s room... or how she used to have it before she left to do some kind of work-study program on a farm in Spain, and your parents turned it into a guest room. She used to have patterned tapestries hung all over her walls and ceiling. The swirling storms on the TV looked how you imagine the tapestries probably did to Jane after she’d filled her lungs with smoke. Back then, much to your parent’s dismay, one whiff in any part of the house would have someone thinking you had a family of skunks for roommates.
After Jane had been gone for a couple years, your parents had mostly managed to get the smell out of the furniture. You’re sure that’s part of the reason they didn’t invite her back to visit and why when she finally did come for the first and only time before you graduated, they made her stay in the basement on the futon instead of in her old room. You never understood why she’d been gone so long, but after the events of today’s barbecue, you are aware that the smell was only a small part of the reason.
Jane’s new apartment in Boulder smells like weed, but so does the rest of the city. You’re supposed to be spending tonight there, although you fear you may arrive to find a locked door. You’re not the reason she left the family barbecue early, but sometimes her upset has a wide girth.
The bus is headed to Boulder. You don’t really have anywhere else to go, and in reality you expect to be greeted with a cloud of smoke and curse words: a familiar, comforting atmosphere when coming from Jane.
Your parents have never found the same joy as you do in Jane’s ability to turn ugly words into masterpieces. Today in the backyard, the whole family got to witness her craft in action. You found all the build-up moments to be enthralling in that nasty, Quinton Terintino, gore for the fun of it kind of way, but none were so cinematic as the chips and plastic cups of sparkling water and spring-themed paper napkins cascading into the air.
From the time you showed up, parking by the curb in Jane’s VW bug, your parents were throwing snide remarks at her like lit molotov cocktails.
Mom, upon seeing Jane’s white, linen, dress and old leather-strap shoes: “This is a barbecue not a cult meeting.”
Dad, when he realized you arrived early to help set up without even being asked: “Thank you for being on time. I know you don’t like to conform, but I’m glad to see you haven’t sworn clocks off yet.”
Mom: “Your new place is in a nice neighborhood. Does that mean you finally found a real job?”
Dad: “Are you still a vegetarian? Because this is a barbecue. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t harass our guests for eating.”
Both of them anytime Jane said pretty much anything: “That’s...different.” “Jane, not right now.” “That’s really not something our family talks about.”
You listened with your head bowed as you set out plates and situated drinks in the cooler. At every comment, you had a refute:
I’ve been wearing the same t-shirt and jeans for four days straight. What’s it to you?
Clocks aren’t one of the systems oppressing innocent people in this country.
Jane does have a job.
Factory farming is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, but you don’t know that because Jane never harasses people for their own diet choices, even if they are harmful.
But you bit your tongue and focused on the feeling of your stomach roiling as you watched Jane struggle to do the same. You hadn’t noticed that these were the only words either of them spoke to Jane, nor that they barely looked at her to say them.
The bus screeches to a stop and the woman beside you gets off. You stretch out your legs into the newly-empty seat beside you and lean back against the window.
When you were younger --probably thirteen-- and Jane was smaller, --a very petite junior in high school-- the two of you would hole up in her room in the evenings. Sometimes you’d lay on your backs and find faces in her ceiling tapestries like clouds while she talked politics you didn’t really understand. Other times, after she brought home another C+ report card or potted plant or oddly scented candle and your parents yelled at her for bringing “shame” or “dirt” or “another scent to plague the air” into the house, she would paint your nails and rant into the yellow light and remnant haze of her room.
Jane didn’t smoke at your parent’s house that afternoon during the barbecue. She also didn’t bring up politics, take off her shoes, or dance to the music. Your parents once found you and Jane dancing in the basement to a Grateful Dead song. Jane had her eyes closed, and her arms up to the ceiling. As her bare feet stepped back and forth to the music, her body followed like leaves in a summer breeze. You weren’t nearly as graceful, and you were both laughing when your parents shut off the music. Your mom told you both you looked like you were having seizures. Your dad said that anyone listening to that music would have to be. Jane grabbed the stereo and stomped past them up the stairs. Once she was gone, your parents told you that only girls dance like that and that you shouldn’t let your sister “make a fool of you.” You went upstairs and cried on your own bed, listening to Jane’s music through the wall. You longed to be in her room, but unwilling to risk passing your parents in the hallway, you stayed behind.
You look down at your folded hands in your lap. There’s dirt under your nails, and you miss the days that Jane would paint polish over the imperfections. After she left, you looked for her polish, but your parents had thrown out all of her stuff. You’d worried she’d be upset when she came home, but after today, you understand today why your parents hadn’t been.
Jane still doesn’t have many belongings. She has neither a couch nor a bed to spare. While you’ve been visiting, you’ve slept on her carpeted floor. She sleeps on the only futon. Her car is 18 years old, used, and running on over 280,000 miles. The dress she wore to the barbecue is one of only a few she owns. On your way over, she told you it was an occasion for her best.
The bus screeches to a stop once more and a man in a suit gets on. He stops in the aisle, and you swing your legs off the bench to make room for him. The man’s stiff jacket and shiny shoes make you wonder if he’s some kind of businessman or lawyer. He looks how you imagine a lot of the people Jane works with nowadays must look. She recently got a job as an assistant/intern at a prestigious law firm.
She got the job a few months ago. She called you on the phone right before and after the interview. Both conversations were made up almost entirely of strings of curse-words. The first conversation was stressed; the second was excited.
You’re the only one she told. When you asked why not tell mom and dad, she shrugged off the question. Today, on your way to the barbecue, she told you she was going to tell the family. Seeing her bright-eyed excitement, you encouraged her with a hand on her shoulder, which she made fun of you for.
You lean your head against the bus window. The warm glass feels nice compared to the frigid A/C. It was warm in the yard earlier that afternoon, just as Mandy from Channel 4 News had promised, but the atmosphere of the party was frigid.
The grill puffed out smoke. All the drinks dripped rings of condensation onto the tablecloths. You sat at a table in the corner of the yard, sipping on a lemonade and watching everyone mill about with their drinks and polite laughter, all extra saturated in the sun. Jane stared across the yard at your dad, who stood at the grill in his khaki shorts and button-down shirt, and moved her lips in a silent monologue that you assumed was practice for her announcement.
Your dad called for everyone to “come and get it” and a line formed beside the grill. Once everyone was served and seated, your parents stood to say how appreciative they were to be with everyone on this “absolutely gorgeous” day. You noticed Jane trying to catch eyes with your parents as they spoke but neither looked over.
Some aunts and uncles followed, standing to congratulate others on varyingly recent weddings and graduations and births that they’d missed for whatever reason. When any were particularly outdated, you nudged Jane with one eyebrow raised, hoping to make silent fun of these people who were supposed to be family. She never cracked so much as half a smile.
You were congratulated a few times on graduating even though you’re in your third year of college by now. Your parents were wished a happy anniversary even though it was seven months ago. Not one of the speeches mentioned Jane. She just moved back to Colorado one month ago, but no one welcomed her. Before that, in New York, she’d gotten an interview in the New York Times about an art show she’d co-organized, but no one congratulated her. Before that, she’d been out of the country for an entire year, but not a single person asked how her trip was.
Out the window, you finally spot a cloud. You wish that it would start dumping rain. Just the single little, fluffy cloud in the sky that’s so bright you can barely stand to look at it, up and deciding that “screw you Mandy from Channel 4 News” it was going to storm anyway. Maybe if it had begun to rain earlier, the toasts wouldn’t have gone on for so long.
Jane stared forward at your parents who never looked her way. Until finally, after listening to pointless story after pointless story, she stood. “I’ve got something.”
Your mom still didn’t look over at her. Your dad said, “Now is not the time, Jane.”
“I have an announcement,” Jane said.
Your mother sighed an “oh goodness gracious” to the sky, loud enough for anyone to hear. Jane certainly did.
She looked down and smoothed out her dress. “I have a new job in Boulder.”
“That’s awfully close,” your dad interrupted. “What was wrong with New York?”
Jane licked her bottom lip and continued on as if he hadn’t said anything. “I have a job as an executive assistant at a law firm that specializes in environmental justice cases.”
You beamed at her achievement.
“So you’re a secretary,” your dad said. “At a law firm that doesn’t even deal in anything important.”
Jane clenches her fists by her sides. “They hold companies accountable for a sustainable future. I’d say that’s worth something.”
Your mother makes a “hmph” sound and rounds her stare on Jane. “If you’d gone to college maybe you could’ve been the lawyer instead of running around for coffee and pretending that’s success.”
“Maybe if you’d supported me in what I wanted to do, then I’d be a little further along by now.” Jane’s words came out sharp.
“What you wanted to ‘do’ was ridiculous,” your mother said, nearly laughing in a way that felt like drowning to death in syrup to listen to.
“What’s ridiculous,” Jane said, “is that you kicked your seventeen year old daughter out of the house just because you fuckwits couldn’t accept that maybe you didn’t know what was best for me.”
Your dad stood then. “Jane! This is not the time or place.”
“You just wanted to live out your college life, career path wet dreams through me because you never succeeded at them.” Jane was almost shouting at that point. She didn’t seem to notice every guest that had been avoiding her gaze all day was staring at her now, forks half raised to open mouths.
You understand why they were frozen. You had to close your own mouth. Your parents had kicked Jane out. She’d had to scramble to make arrangements and hop on a plane without packing her stuff. They hadn’t invited her back to visit. You realized they hadn’t invited her to the barbecue either. You’d told them casually on the phone that you were staying with her, assuming she’d been invited, and they’d said, “You could’ve just stayed with us, honey. Have her drop you off tomorrow.” Drop off. As if she wasn’t meant to stay.
“We did not raise you to be so disrespectful,” your mom hissed. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
You could see what would become tears if Jane weren’t so stubborn starting to form in her eyes. “You didn’t raise me. That’s what went wrong.”
“I think it would be best if you left,” your mother replied, taking her seat.
At her lead, everyone else looked down at their plates or their hands. Leaning over to tend to their children as if there had been nothing to see.
Jane shook her head. “Of course you do.”
She turned and took her bag from her chair. As she passed your parent’s table, head held high, your father leaned over and said, “It might’ve been nice to have you here if you hadn’t ruined it.” To which your mother added, “Not that it’s a surprise. There’s a reason we didn’t invite you.”
Jane straightened. Without a word, she shoved the refreshment table into the grass, drinks and chips flying.
She left without waiting to hear your mother’s gasp or witness people lean close to murmur their disapproval or see you stand from your seat in the corner, finger pointed dead at your parents.
The bus driver announces your stop, and you walk down the aisle. The air outside is still warm, and the sun, though beginning to set, is still bright and unobscured by clouds. The sky is orange and pink and gold plated, and it’s far too beautiful to be the same one that oversaw the events of the afternoon.
You walk from the bus station toward Jane’s apartment. If Jane had stayed at the barbecue just a few moments longer, she would know what you did.
“Fuck you,” you said. It wasn’t what you’d been planning on saying as you stood, but you hadn’t planned on standing at all mere seconds before.
Your parents looked shocked. Your mother’s make-up was a little patchy in the summer heat, but you’re pretty sure the pink on her cheeks wasn’t rouge. Your father’s thick brows pushed his narrow eyes into slits.
“You let me believe she left on her own. But she didn’t,” you shouted. “You kicked her to the curb.”
“Honey, you don’t understand the whole-”
“Jane is one of the most incredible people, and you ruined your chance of being in her life. You couldn’t even be decent to her. So, excuse my language, but she was right. You’re both fuckwits for cutting her out.”
As you walk down the sidewalk, your heart pounding, no feelings of remorse sneak up through you. Only the nerves buzzing in your fingertips remain as you mount the steps and knock on Jane’s door.
You wait. When there’s nothing, you knock again. The blinds on the front window are drawn. The air smells of dryer sheets from the laundry room downstairs. The deadbolt clicks, and the door opens. Nothing comes rushing from the apartment. Not smoke. Not rock music. Not Jane’s curse word poetry.
Jane stands barefoot in the doorframe. Her face is blotchy, her eyes heavy. She can barely look up at you.
“I said ‘fuck you’ to mom and dad,” you say.
Jane hugs you. It feels like holding the sun in your chest. Comforting in the knowledge that you can rely on it to rise again. Hot and wild in its power.
“I didn’t know they cut you out,” you tell her. “I’m sorry.”
Jane shakes her head against you. Without easing her grip, she says, “It’s not your fault that our parents are priest-fondling nut-fuckers.”
You almost laugh.
She steps back. “‘Fuck you’ was really the best you could do?”
“We’ll work on it for next time.” Jane smiles. “I think there’s a family reunion in the fall that just might need to be crashed.”