You Can’t Get There from Here
by Lyralen Kaye
Chapter One: 2012
Erin stood in the school hallway, shaken out of the six years of her life in Spain, France, and Japan by her mother’s voice. She could feel the moment like a snapshot, a stilled image before everything began to shift away from her toward an end she couldn’t see. Until now, Erin had told herself it was easy to endure her mother’s hostility on her yearly visits, easy to stay with friends and find rides to see her sister, and easy, always, to leap again onto the wide sweep of road she’d taken to get away from home.
But in the beginning of December, the secretary at the language institute in Madrid where Erin taught English came into an empty classroom and handed her a message. Erin stood dumbfounded at first, blonde eyelashes shading her pale blue eyes, almost too shocked to recognize her mother’s name. She looked at the secretary’s dark skin, into her darker eyes, before turning to the classroom window. Fumes from the cars blew up from the street; the gray Madrid sky shifted so a brief glimpse of light slipped through as if by mistake. She opened the note. It said to call, whenever she could. Now.
The secretary waited. Erin extended her lower lip and exhaled, blowing up the bangs that hung over her forehead. She spoke in her native American.
“Shit,” she said. “What does she want?” She stuffed the note in the pocket of her Oxford shirt and spun so fast her long red gold braid flew over her shoulder with a soft thud.
Halfway out the door she stopped and turned around. The white-blue of her attention washed over the secretary, bathed her and held her up as Erin smiled an apology, her face changing from bone-hard to a gentle mirth, as if she and the secretary shared a secret, as if they were the only people in the world. The secretary smiled back. People usually did.
Erin walked around with the message in the pockets of different pants for almost a week. She didn’t have a cell phone, she would tell her mother, and didn’t plan to get one. This was more or less true—she didn’t have a phone, but thought about getting one all the time as long as her parents never got the number—but the message sent stitches of cold threading through Erin’s stomach. She could borrow a friend’s phone; she just didn’t want to call.
On Friday, she finally asked one of the other teachers, an American who had an internationally cell plan, if she could borrow his phone. It was her short day at work, so she’d changed into what she joked was her post-Catholic-school uniform: men’s white T-shirt, jeans, leather jacket, worn black boots, so she could hit the bars afterward. She dialed the number, listened to it ring in Maine, hoped against hope her little sister would answer the phone. She imagined her mother, who worried about money until her bones showed through the translucent skin of her face, who’d never given Erin a dollar toward school or travel; she felt a shutter snap close, each detail of the house in Maine grow in her imagination—the wooden floors, the white cabinets, the single bed with its window over a winter marsh. Erin closed her eyes. She didn’t want to remember, today or any other day, what she’d left.
The phone clicked; she heard her mother’s voice, soft, its usual edge almost inaudible.
“I have news,” Janet said.
“Yeah?” Erin answered. She shifted her leather jacket back on her shoulders and leaned against the hallway wall, scuffing her boot back and forth on the floor.
“I asked your father to leave.”
Erin’s body snapped up in one single motion. “You did what?”
“Your father has moved out. I wanted you to know, so you could come home and stay here with Beth and me.”
“I can’t believe it. How? Why did you? I mean, good for you.”
“You think so?” Janet’s voice came through the line high and uncertain, young.
“Yes, Mom. This should have happened a long time ago.”
Erin could see the long porch on the front of the house, feel the cold air whistling through, and her father standing with his legs apart, his hands on either side of the beer belly that hung over his belt. She could hear his unsteady feet climbing the porch stairs, the curses he muttered under his breath. She tried not to remember when those curses had been about her.
“I’m not putting you through school so you can study some stupid liberal arts subject that won’t get you anywhere,” he’d said the last time she’d spoken to him, when she was still in high school.
“I don’t need you to,” she’d answered. “I have scholarship offers. Three of them.”
Now, Erin crouched down, sat on the floor. Behind her, the hum of classes in session rose and fell. “What happened, Mom?”
“I was volunteering at church. A woman told me she’d gotten her marriage annulled and she took me to one of the priests. He said I should leave, Erin.”
Erin rolled her eyes. Traffic with priests, she thought, our ever-living salvation.
“I thought it would be nice to have a family Christmas,” Janet said.
Erin didn’t answer.
“Just us three girls.”
“I don’t know—”
“You do want to see your little sister, don’t you?” Janet asked. “Or are you so cosmopolitan you don’t care about her any more?”
“Don’t,” Erin said. She stood, walked down the hall to the window at the other end, looked out into the bustle of people around the building’s glass doors that opened out onto the street, a street that led into Madrid’s center, into cobblestone plazas and city parks, a sky far from ocean and Maine.
“Will you come home?”
Erin turned away, leaned against the sill. “I do want to see Bethie,” she said. “But I might have other plans for Christmas. My friend Patti’s expecting me, but I was thinking of staying here. My job’s offered me more money—”
“But you have all that money you earned in Japan, don’t you? You can afford it, Beth told me you could—”
“What is this? You never wanted me around when Dad lived there—”
“Well, he’s gone now. Things are different.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“Erin, I know you think I’ve made mistakes—”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Listen to me. Your father sits out front in his car. At night. I had the locks changed, but I don’t know what he’ll do. Please.”
“Why don’t you call the police? They’re not in another country.”
“I can’t do that. Everyone in town would know.”
“If you want to stop him you’re going to forget about what other people—”
“He’s crazy, which you know as well as I do. And Beth doesn’t say anything, but she comes to my room with nightmares and I know she’s scared. Here, you talk to her.”
“Mom!” Erin said, but Janet slapped the phone down on a table. In the background she called to Beth, asking her to talk to Erin because “she listens to you”.
“Please come home, Erin,” Beth said when she picked up the phone. “I really miss you. If you get here early enough you can come see the Christmas show. I’m the only sixth grader singing a solo and I’m not even scared of everybody looking at me.”
Erin exhaled a round circle of mist onto the glass screen in front of her and closed her eyes.
“Are you there?”
“I’m here, Bethie. I miss you too.”
“Then come home. Mom really wants you to, and you can sleep in your old
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well you can sleep in my room and we can talk a lot and you can tell me everything about Spain and speak funny words if you want and please, Erin, it’s been so long—”
“I came home last year, remember? I just didn’t get to see you much because Mom wouldn’t let you come out with me.” Erin ran a hand through her bangs. “Is everything all right?”
“I’m scared,” Beth whispered.
Erin’s whole body went still. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. “Are you okay?”
“Dad broke the dining room window the day he left. He was yelling and yelling at Mom—”
“Did he hit her?”
“No, just broke stuff. But he was so mad, Erin, and then, after he left she wouldn’t stop crying. Now she cleans all the time. Sometimes she yells, but mostly she doesn’t talk at all. She stays up late and in the morning she looks really tired. I don’t know what to do—”
“Okay,” Erin said, her mind full of her sister’s blonde hair, her freckled cheekbones, the pleading Erin hated to see in her eyes. “Tell her I’ll come.”
“Yeah!” Beth screamed. The receiver snapped down against wood; Erin held the phone away from her ear.
“She’s dancing around the kitchen,” Janet said.
“It will be good to see her,” Erin answered. “But I was thinking about Argentina next, or maybe even Mexico. I want to be warm.”
“I don’t know why you have to keep moving around so much,” Janet said.
“I like it.”
“And this is very difficult for me,” Janet added. “You have no idea what it’s like—”
“I’ll write and tell you when I’m coming.” Erin hung up and stood for a moment, clenching the phone. She had no trouble remembering the chasms of silence in her mother’s kitchen, the times she’d waited at the end of the driveway like a servant, making sure her father had left. The thing was, she didn’t want to think about the white walls of that house, the Maine winter, her mother’s tight face and her father outside in his company car…she shook her head as she walked toward the school office to leave the phone for her friend, trying to ignore the weight in the pit of her stomach, the knowledge that she was making a terrible mistake.
* * *
The morning after she arrived in New Hampshire, Erin woke early enough to see the faint pink of the morning sky through the window of her friend Patti’s apartment. She got up off the couch and reached for the jeans she’d worn the night before, which still smelled of smoke and beer from the women’s bar they’d stopped at on the way back from the airport. For a moment, she smiled, because Patti, who she’d known since high school, had kept picking her up in a huge hug, though Erin was taller. Patti’s clumps of dark hair, the heavy flesh of her arms, Erin’s legs brushing against the ground, the clatter of boots and the way they both laughed—this was Christmas, Erin had thought, Patti’s once a year bear hug. Something to count on.
She went to the kitchen, drank half a cup of terrible instant coffee, wishing for café con leche y tostada at one of the standing bars in Madrid with their marble tops. She tossed several handfuls of icy water over her face in the bathroom, then straightened to examine her eyes and the deepening shadows of jet lag underneath them. Standing there, her gaze critical, she tried to see what her mother and sister would find: a tall woman, grown into her mid-twenties, gestures without hesitation, chin tilted forward, eyes narrowed and leached of color as if she had stared too long into a fire so wild it had burnt her to the bone, leaving behind carefully banked embers, the last vestiges of passion. She grinned at herself, thinking, I can do this.
She walked across the apartment and picked up the keys to Patti’s truck—her friend was working second shift this week—and quietly opened the bedroom door. The wide expanse of bed stretched toward her; Patti’s dark head buried in her lover’s shoulder, the down comforter pulled up to her chin. Soundlessly closing the door behind her again, Erin let the two women sleep.
She drove over the bridge into Maine, her hair still matted from sleep, a long peach tangle. Turning down a frozen dirt road, she passed stripped branches of winter trees, then marshlands that in summer smelled of salt and fish. The truck bounced over potholes. Erin punched the brake with her foot, swung into the driveway, and leapt from the truck. The front door opened; Beth ran outside, the wings of her pink robe flapping open over her pajamas.
“I told you, Mom, I told you,” Beth yelled back over her shoulder. “I’m not going to school today.”
Beth always tried to get out of school. She had test anxiety, went blank when she was called to answer questions at the blackboard. The other kids used to make fun of her, but the last time Erin came home, she’d driven Beth to school, strategized with her sister for ways to protect herself. The test anxiety remained, Erin knew, but Beth had friends now. Erin bent to hug her sister, then lifted her up, tried to swing her around.
“You’re too big,” she said, giving Beth a smile that might hold her, as Erin’s arms had been unable to do. Beth had turned eleven, a thin, short eleven, but too big to pick up. Probably, Erin thought with a wince, too big to be treated like a small child. Erin would have to learn her sister all over again—wasn’t it like that every year? Beth’s hair, once white-blonde, had darkened to the color of honey and hung thick around a face like their father’s, one from Ireland’s south—freckles, turned-up nose, crescent eyes that changed expressions in quick mercurial leaps, from sadness to a child’s excitement.
“It’s hard,” Beth said.
Erin nodded. “I came as soon as I could,” she whispered.
Janet stood framed by the dark wood of the doorway, unmoving, her blonde hair gathered back from her face in a gold clip. The sweater she wore gleamed white, its cowl neck falling in folds below her face, a fine gold cross cradled in one of the sweeps of cloth. Erin hadn’t remembered Janet as so small—the crown of her head barely topped Erin’s shoulders. Before, it had always seemed that Janet was the one standing over her. Beth held Erin’s hand as Erin nodded to her mother and walked in the door. Janet didn’t touch her, but she looked up at Erin, really looked, her eyes washing over the shadows in her daughter’s pale skin. Her eyes widened, and Erin saw the whisper of a plea.
“The world traveler,” Janet said, “finally deciding to come home.” She smiled, a slip of warmth in an oval face from an antique cameo, high cheek-boned, clear-skinned, made up with green eye shadow and rouge. She stepped back into the living room’s wide spaces as if an invisible ruler measured her vertebrae. She looked, for a moment, so beautiful, almost the unhappy young woman Erin remembered, the one Erin had studied, trying to learn what combination would unlock that rigid spine, let loose the gentleness that Erin had thought must lie beneath the surface of her mother’s life.
“I’ll do what I can,” Erin said without volition. Then she clamped her mouth down hard, knowing the danger of such offerings. She followed Janet down the hall, past the formal rooms they never used. The house was as Erin remembered: the floors stretched long in the lines of its planks, refinished trunks still used for end tables. But on the walls her mother had hung antique tools—small hoes, scythes, long-bladed shears—the dark wood and metal sheen of their bodies polished like ice.
“Can’t you mess this up a bit?” Erin bent down, whispering to Beth, who giggled.
“Don’t give her any ideas,” Janet said, smiling over her shoulder at Beth. “She’s got enough of her own, believe me.”
Erin looked up, but Janet kept walking, her plaid wool skirt pulled flat against the backs of her legs. “Excuse me,” Erin muttered. “I think I must have come to the wrong house. Or maybe this is the twilight zone?”
Beth nudged her. Erin wanted to say she’d never heard Janet tease anyone. Jokes, teasing were her father’s province. He was the one who had stood at the center of their lives, with his stories and laughter, his anger and drunkenness, pushing at all their corners and walls.
Janet made popovers and boiled apples for breakfast. The popovers, Erin noticed, had improved—they were only slightly deflated. Erin ate quickly. When she yawned during the meal, covering her mouth with her hand, she smelled cigarettes on her skin from the bar the night before. Beth did most of the talking, twining her legs around the legs of one of the caned blue and white chairs at the kitchen table. Erin listened as her eyes moved over the new stenciling, blue flowers rimming the ceiling and doors. Janet had been busy.
Janet looked at Erin and smiled tentatively. “When your sister was a baby,” she said to Beth, “she used to run down the road whenever we took her outside. I remember one day when she was about four I turned around to get something I’d forgotten, and when I looked back, she was out of sight. I found her at the neighbors talking away, asking them all kind of personal questions. After that, we had to get special locks for the doors, ones too high for her to reach. We had to make sure she didn’t pull a chair over to sneak out.”
Erin crossed her arms over her chest.
“Was I like that too?” Beth asked.
“Erin?” Janet said.
“I don’t remember.” Erin slumped further in her chair, blowing up her bangs. “But I read some book about a girl who used to do that. Her mother got a dog leash and tied her to the porch railing.”
Janet’s lips disappeared into a white line. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stood up. “Beth, go get ready for school. Your sister obviously doesn’t care to be civilized this morning.”
“Mooommmm,” Beth said.
Erin looked at Janet. “I didn’t mean—”
Janet pulled Beth’s chair back. “Now,” she told Beth. “No arguments.”
Beth followed Janet out of the room, stopping to stick her tongue out, her small nose wrinkled, eyes crossed. Erin heard sounds of footsteps on the hardwood floors, Janet’s voice gone shrill, drawers opening and closing. She put her head down on the table. She heard Beth protesting, over and over, even as Beth clumped back down the stairs, even as her sister walked slowly to the front door.
Janet came back, standing in the doorway for a moment, her gaze so taut Erin felt the temperature of her body drop a few degrees.
“Can you try to make things easier for once?” Janet asked.
Erin shrugged, bent her long legs first one way, then another, stretching them under the small table. As Janet sat down, Erin’s feet seemed especially large. Janet wore low-heeled pumps on feet that were narrow, elegant. Looking at the row of copper pans hung like a string of harvest moons, Erin imagined beaches, stretches of tropical water, islands full of coconut trees and villages where no one spoke English. She imagined herself anywhere but here.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Erin leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, blew up her bangs with a sigh. Janet’s mouth thinned to a white line; Erin waited, tense, one leg twisting back and forth until finally, Janet’s face and mouth relaxed. Erin stopped a sigh mid-breath as Janet looked at her. Erin could see, as her mother began to talk about the parish priests, that she didn’t want to fight. Janet’s face flushed pink when she told Erin how Father Michael had been so helpful.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” Janet said. “And he knows all about you. He says you’re a free spirit and told me soon you’d be working in Alaska teaching Spanish to huskies.”
Erin sat straight up in her chair. “That’s not funny, Mom.”
Janet frowned. “You’re so sensitive, Erin. He just meant no one can predict what you’ll do next.”
“Don’t go telling him stuff if he’s just going to make fun of me.”
“Do you really think you can tell me who to talk to?”
Erin crossed her arms over her chest.
“He makes me laugh.” Her fingers tapped on the table. “And he recommended a lawyer for me.”
“Don’t be sarcastic.” Janet paused. “Look at me, Erin.”
Their eyes met. Erin saw the high color on her mother’s cheekbones, the flat surface of her eyes. “Sorry,” she said.
Janet lifted her head, touched her shining cap of hair with narrow fingers, explaining she’d needed the priests, and Erin should understand how hard it would have been without them. The women at church gossiped about her now; she said, re-clipping her barrette, some even blamed her, and thought she should have kept the marriage. They didn’t know about Thomas’ temper, about the drinking and the lying. Janet’s eyes dropped suddenly, green glass locked tight against storms.
“I haven’t loved him for years,” she told Erin. “If I ever did.”
“Where is he?” Erin asked.
Janet shrugged mildly, a ladylike gesture. “He has an apartment in Portsmouth, I think. Right in the center of things.” She looked at Erin. “You’re not thinking of going to see him.”
“I never think of that.”
Janet nodded, a simple acknowledgment. “He has lots of friends, of course,” Janet said. “Everyone loves him.”
Erin frowned, crossed her arms over her chest. “Do we have to talk about him?”
“He’s your father. You don’t have to see him, but you can hardly forget he exists.” Janet watched Erin without moving. “Especially since he’ll probably be sitting outside watching you tonight.”
“Still?” Erin asked. “Does he come every night?”
“I was going to stay at Patti’s.”
“But Beth needs you!”
“He got worse, he drank more, he didn’t come home, hardly spent any time with Beth. He wasn’t like that to you—”
“Give me a break—”
“Why do you think I asked you here? So you can just keep traveling around the world having the time of your life as if you have no obligation to anyone, not even to say where you are half the time and no phone, no way to get in touch with you, not even the people who raised you, not even your sister—”
“I said I can’t talk about him.”
Janet’s thin hands came down hard on the table. “What about me?”
Erin stared, her shoulders bunching up near her ears.
“I said, what about me? He does all these things and you just don’t want to talk about it. Isn’t that wonderful. Isn’t that a luxury you get to have, all by yourself.”
“Talk to the priests, Mom.” Erin stood and took a few steps toward the back door. “Sue them if they break the silence of the confessional.”
“You’re so funny, aren’t you?” Janet stood up, a plate in her hand. She took a step forward. Erin flinched. “Erin! You promised you’d help.”
Silence filled the space between them. Erin could hear her heart, pumping without mercy beneath the bones of her chest. As if from a distance, she noted for the first time the changes in her mother: the almost imperceptible thickening at her waist, the lines not even make-up could hide around her eyes and mouth, the gray roots growing along the white edge that separated her shining hair. Janet’s body seemed to be battling gravity; her tight posture looked harder to maintain. As Erin watched, her mother’s head dropped toward the white cowl over her chest.
“I’m so tired,” Janet said. “And he just won’t go away.”
Erin’s voice grew gentle. “You’ve got to make some friends, Mom.”
Janet turned away, carried the plate to the sink, where she put it down with a sharp crack. “I can’t trust anyone,” she answered, without looking at Erin. “Your father always gets there first.”
“That will change. They’ll get to know him.”
Janet kept her back turned.
“I’ll be back later,” Erin said, taking the last steps to the door. “When Beth gets home. And I’ll sleep here, if that will really make you feel better.”
“It will, Erin.” Janet said. “I knew I could count on you,” she added shyly.
“Don’t,” Erin muttered, as she stepped quickly outside. Closing the back door firmly, she stepped into the icy air of Maine, breathing cold as if it could alert her cells to the common danger of family.