I haven’t been posting poetry as I’ve been writing new material and editing for my poetry collection, but here’s a quick short story I wrote as an exercise for my Art and Craft of Fiction class.
“You have another letter from your sister,” your mother says as I close the door behind me. She hands me a beige envelope, her eyes glazed, and I go to my room with it, glancing at the front of it as I do so. Postmark says it’s come from Berlin, over a thousand miles from your last letter. No return address.
Your mother’s been baking banana bread in the kitchen, and I can still smell it even with my bedroom door shut. I wonder if you miss banana bread. Surely you must. You made your mother make it for you all the time way back when, and you were the worst at baking, so making it for yourself is out of the question. It’s not like they sell the stuff in stores, not your mother’s kind anyway – you’d make quips about the amount of cinnamon that your mother uses in her baking. You’d say that if you went to the border with it, you’d get stopped for trying to smuggle spices. Maybe that’s why you didn’t take any with you when you went off to the train station that night. Well, maybe.
I have not opened your letter yet. It took me three days to open the last one, trying to prolong it for as much as possible. Your mother has turned on the radio in the kitchen and I can hear her singing off-key to that Sinatra song she loves so much. If you were here, you’d turn it off or change the station to some incomprehensible rave music, or whatever that weird electronic stuff that you like is. I’ve never been good with music, but I still have all those CDs you left.
But I haven’t got as much self-control this time.
Max, you have scrawled in your gigantic loopy writing. Everything has been a whirlwind. How’s Mum doing? Wait, don’t answer that. Not that you can. I tried spätzle today. It had sausage and lentils with it – tasted like ass. I can see why we don’t eat German food more often. Aaron said it was brilliant but he’s a tool.
If he’s such a tool, leave him.
We’ve got a couple of other places planned. Say hi to the old fart for me, will you? I know he doesn’t want to hear from me but it’d make me feel better to know that I can still piss him off.
Love you. Savannah xx
Short and simple like always. I toss it on my desk and sit down on the corner of my bed. I think about what Dad’s face would be like if I could tell him that his step-daughter had sent her regards. I keep a picture of you and me and him on my desk, when I was ten and you were twelve and Dad was less angry. You still have scabby knees and pigtails.
I try to imagine your face as you wrote this letter. Your writing wobbles at times, German almost illegible, and I see you sitting on a bus, huddled in your winter coat as you lean on your backpack and scrawl the letter with a biro. Maybe you posted it on your way to the airport, with Aaron by your side, wittering on as he always does. I wonder if he still has that stupid goatee. I bet he does.
Your mother sticks her head around the door.
“I made banana bread,” she says, like I don’t know this already. But that’s not why she’s here. “How is Savannah?”
“She’s fine. Like always.”
“No address this time?” your mother says hopefully, approaching my desk. Her fingers are inching towards your letter. If she was smarter she’d have steamed it open before I got home, or she could even have just read it herself and never given it to me. I twitch it out of her reach, not trying to hide that I don’t want her hands on it.
“She’s always on the move.” I pick the envelope up and shut it in my drawer. There’s a slight slam as it closes, and your mother blinks.
“Well. I wish you’d be a bit nicer, Max,” she says, her pale eyes watering a little. She doesn’t look like you. You’re prettier than her. “We’ve only got each other now.”
She leaves the room before I can tell her, I never asked to have you.
I didn’t ask for her eight years ago and I didn’t ask to be left with her when you boarded a midnight train. I didn’t ask to spend the rest of my college years in a cramped apartment because I can’t afford to move out after I quit my job at the drive-thru and I let your mother use half my college fund to pay the medical bills. I did it for him, not her.
I did it because you weren’t here and you should have been.
I yank open the drawer again now that your mother’s gone back to her Sinatra, and flick through the envelopes I’ve put there. You write often, I can’t fault that. My fingers skim over faded postmarks. Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, France, Russia, Australia. You always said you’d be an explorer but I thought you’d take me with you. But you ran away with a rich boy who stole from his parents to fund your great escape, and you left me behind.
You never got on with Dad, I know. He wasn’t yours and you weren’t his, and your mother wasn’t mine and I wasn’t hers. But they loved each other for some inexplicable reason, and we were friends and that made perfect sense. I knew it was his fault, he got so mad at you and Aaron after you stayed out half an hour past your curfew even when you called to say you’d be late. And it was the last straw for you, wasn’t it, you slammed the door behind you with the finality of I’m never coming back.
But that was over a year ago now, and you weren’t here when Dad got cancer of the bile duct, and I know you’d think it as stupid as I did, but stupid diseases with stupid names take lives too and you didn’t have to quit your job and comfort your step-mother while your father wasted away. And I could never let you know that he asked for you nineteen times (I counted) in his last week because you never leave a damn address, you never stay in the same place. You don’t even know he’s dead and I can’t tell you because you won’t let me.
The door opens.
“Here you are,” my step-mother says, and hands me a plate of banana bread. It’s still warm, fresh from the oven, smells like cinnamon. She shuts the door behind her so quickly that the draught ruffles my hair.
I look at the picture of you and me and Dad. I close my drawer again. I pick up a piece of the banana bread.
I eat it.