We lie, wide awake, spooning in bed and listen with frustrated envy to our younger neighbours putting their mattress to work on the other side of the wall. It’s not lost on me how ironic it is that their lovemaking intrudes on our own. The sounds are so distracting that I feel physically exhausted just listening and suddenly the wild night we’d both planned doesn’t feel so appealing anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I sigh hugging Santi’s arms wrapped around my soft middle, “I just…can’t. Not with that in the background.”
Santi’s chin nudges my tensed shoulder with understanding. He yawns unexpectedly and we both start to giggle.
“They’re like rabbits,” He sniggers. And then adds: Do you think she’s pregnant yet? His question is totally innocent, of course. I know he means no harm. But it stings all the same.
I draw in a sharp breath, willing myself to get a grip and not get emotional. But Santi feels it, he realises his mistake. And without words, he immediately pulls me in deeper, close enough for me to feel his steady heart against my bareback.
“One day," his promise is a whisper, a gentle breeze through my hair.
“Yes," I sigh sadly and allow my disheartened chest to rise and fall in time with his.
I guide his hands from my middle up to my own heart until his warm reassuring touch calms it down again. We somehow, despite the racket, fall asleep and remain rooted to each other all night. Because when I wake up the next morning, Santi and I are still entwined - yet our double bed has remarkably shifted several inches away from the wall.
I met Santi nine years ago. I was a student graduating three years late. I had almost stopped believing it would finally happen, the road to recovery had been far from smooth or timely.
The psychologist had always told us it would take time.
“It’s a process,” she used to tell us over and over again until I got sick and tired of seeing her rosy withered face every week and stopped going to her sessions the year I became an adult and could choose my own path.
My sister, however, didn’t follow me out of Dr Marion’s office that day. I can’t quite believe that it’s been over twenty years since she entered our lives. I can’t quite believe it’s been over twenty years since that fateful day when everything changed forever.
I told Santi about my parents on our second date. I knew, from the moment I spotted him bolting out of his taxi to avoid the rainstorm and arriving apologetically shielding a beautiful bouquet of flowers like a mother hen shields her chicks that he was going to be in my life forever.
I wanted the man I could envision spending my days with to know everything about me, including that very detail that had chased away many in the past. If he truly wanted me, he had to know about the baggage I was still carrying, the things I was still navigating.
When we met nine years ago, my life was just beginning again. It had been on pause since that fateful day when my sister and I lost our parents.
I had been so nervous to tell him, afraid I would lose the first potentially good thing in years. But Santi had listened. And when I had shared everything, he quietly took my hand and told me how fortunate he felt and would love to meet the other piece of my complicating puzzle, my sister.
I will never forget how my sister had sat at the furthest table at our wedding, alone with the other bridesmaids’ handbags and high heels, watching us all dance and cheer. I had made sure to catch her eye as Santi spun me around during our first dance waltz, just so she knew I was still with her, that I was always thinking of her. But she just stared back at me, her eyes were glazed and troubled. Dr Marion had insisted she attend my wedding.
“Good for the process,” she had advised. But how much longer did this “process” go on? Should a woman still be as broken after all these years?...
Santi and I had made some crucial wedding decisions. We completely avoided having our celebration in the month of July. And the 15th date of any month. For obvious reasons. Santi understood that it was off-limits. It was that one detail that I still navigating, that I was determined to overcome completely, one day.
One day, July 15th would not control me.
We also decided to exclude the traditional Mother/Son and Father/Daughter dances. I had dutifully asked my sister beforehand to give me away but that request had triggered her and she had had one of the worst meltdowns I can recall in living memory. And so, as not to further upset her fragile nature, I was forced to walk the aisle alone and watch my new husband forgo an intimate dance with his mother with the yolk of guilt heavy on my shoulders.
“You’re my wife,” Santi had assured me during our first dance, “We are one. From now on, whatever you do, I’ll do too.”
“Babe –“I’d motioned over to where my sister was slumped in her seat, her fingers destroying her delicate up-do “I don’t know what to do. I’m worried about her.”
Santi pressed his face into my turned cheek.
“You’ve got me now. You’re not in this alone anymore. We can do this together. You’ll be okay, she’ll be okay. Okay?”
I had nodded trying not to cry on the dancefloor with all the watching eyes.
“I love you so much” I’d exploded in sharp gasps. “Gosh, Santiago Rey, my parents would’ve absolutely loved you too.”
When I resurfaced from our kiss, I heard a door bang somewhere over the muted cooing and soft violins and noticed my sister was gone.
The smell of bacon catches the attention of our neighbours’ dog. Santi and I grimace at each other through our matching sunglasses as we sit at the patio table. We are having an alfresco lunch, to make up for the night’s failed romance.
“Can’t we do anything without the intrusion of others?” Santi tuts, his ankle bobbing up and down over his knee. The sun is white in the sky, the hot weather is unexpected on this spring Bank holiday weekend. “Maybe we just need to escape and take a long excursion?”
My ears prick.
“Really?” I lower my own glasses.
Santi tilts his head.
“Why not? Where do you wanna go?”
I grin back, imagining. We haven’t been away together in a long time.
We’d spent the last few years saving up to buy a family home; a pretty three-bed away from the city to start a new chapter in our lives. Our first place was a maisonette with no rooom to swing a cat let alone raise a child. Santi was convinced that the commuting and grind of our jobs were contributing to my heightened stress levels and subsequent hormonal imbalances.
"There’s nothing medically wrong," a private GP had informed me "you’re healthy and very fertile, even at thirty-three. Just keep taking your vitamins, manage your workload, handle your relationships and look after your body."
It all sounded so simple and yet we had been trying for five years with no success.
And so once again, I started believing it wouldn’t happen. Just like how I believed I would never finish university. Or eventually, break free of my tragic childhood.
I rest my overthinking head against the deckchair as a wave of anxiety floods my mind. But Santi is right next to me instantly, his calm poising to fight alongside me.
“This could be good for us. A chance to really get away and enjoy ourselves…”
“Hmm. That really does sound like bliss”
So I allow Santi to grab his laptop. We cuddle and amuse ourselves gasping over last-minute deals of lengthy trips to luxury retreats and backpacking tours.
Until the memory of my other covenant relationship leashes me back down from my high.
“But, what about her?” I ask, helpless to the diehard habit of worrying about my sister.
Our move from London had been no less than emotionally exhausting. My sister had cried for days, mourning as if I was joining our parents in the grave. She hadn’t let me go without drama – she’d even gone on a hunger strike and called my phone non-stop until I was forced to contact the unshakeable Dr Marion to intervene. I couldn’t even stomach visiting her in her home after the wahala. Moving away felt like fresh air but it hadn’t fixed the duty I still felt complied to give.
We would always be sisters, united by a shared loss. I couldn’t remove that attachment even if I wanted or tried. She wouldn’t let me forget, she wouldn’t let me forget her. Since our parents’ passing, my sister and I lived like celestial bodies in a predestined orbit. I had even turned down my dream of studying at Edinburgh just to be near her. Just to make sure she remembered how to survive. She had always needed someone – usually me or Dr Marion - to remind her to keep fighting, to keep wanting to live, even when she couldn’t find reasons to anymore.
It had been her idea to remember our parents’ passing. She was the youngest, our mother’s twin and the apple of their eyes. Their death had understandably hit her hardest, she had been only nine years old.
One year on the anniversary of our parents’ death, we stood by their grave together and she turned to me in a heavy black pea coat despite the summer heat. She had started to laugh and I had looked across at her with such shock I almost lost my footing on the uneven grass. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her laugh.
“Have you seen that film?”
She rotated the peony flower stem between her fingers – my mum’s favourite flower.
“It’s about today,” she said.
I noticed our foster father in my peripheral vision watching us beadily from his Corsa. My sister instructed him not to get out of the car. Everybody was terrified of her, her grief was like a battle-axe when provoked.
When I didn’t reply, she took a big breath as though mustering up the courage to speak the forbidden words.
“July 15th” she breathed shakily, “Today. It’s about today. It’s about two friends and their lives every July 15th after they meet.”
I recalled seeing a movie poster the previous year. One Day.
“Odd,” I managed. Because it was eerily odd that this fictional story held such truthful significance for us.
“We should do that,” my sister insisted “We should do something together, like the friends in the film, to remember Mum and Dad. Every year, every July 15th-“
My insides twisted.
“Listen, Nina…” I started, readying to remind her to live in the present.
But my sister snapped.
“No, Stephanie, no”. And suddenly there it was. The tears. Her face started to contort, to crumble. I had this perception that I had power over her. Just the sound of my voice reduced her to tears. I watched her sob until I felt faint and sick at the sight of her shaking and gasping for air.
“Stop” I pleaded. I couldn’t bear another meltdown. I was exhausted.
Ha, who was I kidding? Because my sister had a much stronger power over me. The same power a baby has when they cry for their caregiver, knowing they’ll get whatever they want if they just screwed up their face and cry. She could do that to me. She was my younger sister. I had a duty of care to her. And there was nothing I could do to change that.
Our foster father came running over, looking like Santa on vacation in cargo shorts and hiker boots. But his approach only agitated us.
“What did you say?” He barked at me, he wasn’t a nice man. He wasn’t our father and he didn’t care about us. He pretended to pity my sister but I snatched her arm away from him. Don’t touch her.
Only after he retreated, I cleaned her snotty face with a Kleenex and stood her square in front of me We blinked at each other, comrades again, united against the rest of the interfering world.
“They would’ve wanted us to,” Nina pressed. She couldn’t have possibly known what our parents would have wanted but I didn’t have any more strength to argue. So I agreed. It was an immature idea and I imagined our future lives would gradually heal our desire to hold onto the past.
But I was wrong.
At least for Nina, the tradition became her whole life.
Santi had never asked me in detail about what we did together every July 15th. The date would creep up on us every year and we had this understanding that I would be apart from him, spending immeasurable hours doing whatever my sister wanted us to do.
He never wanted to intrude.
But I wished he would, I wished he would tell me it was time.
I wanted the process to be over, I wanted the stronghold to be broken.
I needed Santi to save me.
We finally find the perfect last-minute deal. A two week trip to Florida, the birthplace and childhood home of my Mexican-American husband.
Fourteen days; I think as my whole body tingles with pleasure in the heat, aching for more of this liquid gold remedy.
“Mrs Rey, I cannot wait to finally show you my world” Santi kisses my hand. He hasn’t been back since he left to make it as a financier in the Square Mile.
We navigate the webpage together. Our hands clasp the mouse, moving it in sync as we select our room, board basis and duration. But as we progress to the dates, I feel our unified movement stutter. Santi’s gentle lead becomes hesitant as we hoover over the last available dates – July or September. He is my husband and we are one, I know what he’s thinking.
“When is Independence Day?” I say, pushing my sunglasses upwards onto my hairline.
He is confused.
“Uh, 4th. July”
I peer at the July calendar. There’s an outbound flight on the 2nd.
It returns on the 16th.
My heart flutters and the heat inside of me shifts to a strange but calming tingle.
As if by miracle, here before us stands an open door. Beckoning.
“We should book that one” my mouth decides before my mind can catch up and I tap the screen with determination to not back down “Just imagine watching the fireworks on the beach or at the Disneyworld resort…”
“Wait” Santi shots forwards and I almost topple off his knee. His expression is a question. His eyes penetrate mine as if digging deep inside of my mind to find the reason as to why and how this is happening now. But he can’t figure it out. “Listen, I understand. We can postpone until September. You don’t want to miss it…”
He is squeezing my hand tight, pulling me back towards him to sit upright again.
He is my rock; so sturdy, sacrificial, and supportive.
“Don’t I?” I ask.
Now he is truly perplexed.
“But what about her? What about them?”
I shudder. These are my words. It feels haunting hearing the same fears I’ve allowed to control our marriage and happiness after all this time repeat back to me.
Suddenly it dawns on me that I have spent years telling my sister to live in the present and yet somehow have forgotten to apply the advice to myself. I may not be consumed like her but I am not free. Not yet.
I have a duty to my younger sister that will never change. But as the oldest, I must now make a stand for both of our sakes. I know my parents would’ve wanted that.
“What about us?” I’m not in this alone anymore. We can do this together. She’ll be okay, we’ll be okay. Okay?”
Santi’s face glows at the familiarity of my resolve. His words, his vows to me. He’s been right all along.
And he allows me to slip my hand underneath his, take control of the mouse and set the wheels in motion for our first holiday alone in years. Doctors' orders.
My adult life, up until this point, has always had a depressing “One Day” prefix. Well, why can’t that one day be today?
With a set mind, I tell Santi as we close down the laptop that I am going to drive down to London to visit my sister and set the record straight.
She is my blood, but Santi is my priority now. He is my family and we deserve a chance to create our own new familiar traditions. I can finally envision a future. The holiday is just the beginning of happier memories to supersede the ones we manufactured to keep the real issues at bay.
Weeks later, we are on the Florida shore watching the light display surrounded by Santi’s loved ones. And I am crying, as I watch my husband lift his now very elderly mother from her wheelchair and spin her around on the sand.
"Happy Independence," we all cheer. The Mother/Son dance is overdue but we’ll remember this night because we are all alive, happy, liberated and finally living in the present.