Cimone borrows a car for the drive to the airport, an old green Chevy that belongs to a friend, even though it has been more than a year since she has been behind the wheel. A familiar song comes on the jittery FM radio, and she resists the urge to sing along: bronchitis, laryngitis, and the gig on Friday. At the gas station where she stops to put twenty in the tank, she picks up a magazine, turns a few pages, considers buying a pack of cigarettes. Her sister, Elsa, might enjoy one after an hour and a half on the plane from St. Louis. She might not. Cimone buys the cigarettes and puts the magazine back on the rack. Outside, a thick man on a metal ladder changes the tall numbers on the yellow plastic sign by hand.
When she arrives at O’Hare, she searches in vain for a parking spot. As bad as downtown, though why, late on a Wednesday night, is anybody’s guess. She wedges the Chevy into the space between the last two untenanted yellow lines on level four, managing to do so without scratching either neighbor too badly, a stunning success, more or less. Several flights of stairs later, with the help of a black woman cop brandishing an unbelievably effective whistle, Cimone makes her way across the wide white-latticed crosswalk and six lanes of traffic.
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Excuse me, she says, just outside of the automatic doors when she bumps against a man wearing a checkered shirt. He looks at Cimone with disdain and then interest as he notes the way her top pushes together her small boobs in the semblance of cleavage, and then again at the sound of a nasal voice honking from the opposite side of the cart, his wife, perhaps, judging by the tone, who calls for him to hurry. The sweat has pooled in his armpits and all along his back. Must be the heat, or the humidity, or the effort of pushing the baggage cart, which is stacked as high and heavy as any she has ever seen, or remembers seeing, ever, except in movies about crossing the Atlantic by steamboat.
Cimone is still trying to discern the destination of this tremendous accumulation when the chocolate-stained face of a little boy appears beside the mountain of luggage, the trappings of a Hershey’s bar clutched in his hands. Cimone smiles at him, gives a little wave, receives a smile in return. But an arm snakes out like the cane in a vaudeville show to pull the boy away. A head peeks out, the woman’s, small and angular, canvassed by displeasure, but disappears again almost as soon. The family moves toward the next vestibule down: him, huffing and puffing with exertion, the woman glancing over her shoulder, fraught with jealousy. Cimone watches them go, and pushes ahead.
The baggage carousel where Cimone has arranged to meet Elsa is nearly empty when she arrives. A suitcase with a black strap crisscrossing its crimson leather rests against an old brown number from the flight before. These keep Cimone company as she waits for the plane to land. She counts the number of times that each bag passes a point she has chosen on the moving track; she counts by fives.
She loses count in the flashing lights and blaring loudness that announce the arrival of Elsa’s flight. Bags begin to drop, thudding onto the carriage, surely to the detriment of dozens of trinkets, souvenirs. Cimone spots Elsa coming down the gangplank, takes a step towards the door, but stops when the scratch in the back of her throat demands a cough, then another, and then a whole fit. Knowing how people are in airports, she covers her mouth and doubles over.
—You all right?
—I’m fine, I’ll be fine. Just give me a second.
Cimone stands, chest heaving, and wipes her hands on the thighs of her jeans. She looks at Elsa to see how she has changed since the last visit. More makeup, slightly darker hair, but lacking the expected glow of a girl of eighteen freshly finished with high school. They embrace.
—I lost my I.D.
—Your fake? We can get you a new one, downtown, I’ll have to call someone to find out about a place…
—My driver’s license.
—The real one.
—I’m not going to be able to fly back.
—Of course you will. There are lots of people who don’t have driver’s licenses.
Elsa points out her suitcase, which Cimone grabs with a heave and insists on carrying.
—But I don’t have anything with a picture on it.
—What about a birth certificate?
—Mom doesn’t have one.
—I’m sure that you and dad can go get a copy.
—Dad’s working the whole time I’m here.
—How do you know that?
—I called the house to talk to dad, but he wasn’t home and so I got Susan instead. She says he’s busy.
Cimone nods at the helpful policewoman for a second time as they cross back toward the parking structure. Susan is their father’s new wife, a real estate developer, Leigh’s mother, not theirs. Cimone has never figured out what it is that draws her father to such a hellion of a woman, one who smokes and drinks with friends who are, invariably, lawyers, who never eats at home, who takes vacations without him. In her favor, the woman did give birth to their stepsister, whom both Cimone and Elsa adore.
—Leigh’s away at school then?
—Sounds like it. Do you think they’ll let me fly back? I don’t. Not without an I.D.
Cimone begins to respond, making it halfway through her placation and almost all the way to the car before she realizes that Elsa is hyperventilating. She puts down the suitcase and braces Elsa’s slim frame against the car while she rummages through her purse. She finds a little bag; Elsa presses it around her mouth. A minute or so later, Elsa’s breathing slows.
—I’m… sorry… about that.
—What a pair, huh? You and me, falling apart, the both of us. What are you so worked up about? That stupid I.D.? Forget about it. I’ll take care of it. I don’t care if I have to break into City Hall myself. Okay?
On the drive home, the radio in the Chevy ceases to function. The drive is very quiet.
Cimone cooks pasta for supper, with a vodka sauce, which she serves in great steaming portions out of flat black bowls. Elsa eats ravenously; Cimone picks at her food.
—You like it? I think I overdid the sauce.
—Why aren’t you eating?
—My throat has been bothering me… the steam is nice.
—Are you sick?
—Yeah. I’m not sure what it is though. I haven’t had it checked out. There’s this joke that we have, in the band, we always say “When we’re signed…” and then a whole long list of things, like paying rent, or buying a car, or getting health insurance. Some day, maybe. I’ll be fine by the show on Friday.
But Elsa is not listening. She’s spotted something. She pushes back her chair, gets up from the table, and walks across the kitchen to the grey wastebasket, where she salvages a note attached to a bouquet of flowers.
—“Cimone, last night was indescribable. Call me. Tommy.” Nice flowers, bad handwriting. Is that the new boyfriend?
—So, nothing. Not a boyfriend. Just some guy.
Elsa’s eyes go wide. Cimone is fairly sure that Elsa has never had a one-night stand, or a several-night stand. Or slept with anyone, for that matter. But now that Elsa lives in St. Louis with their mother, she can’t be sure.
—What was it like?
—Are you going to call him back? He left his number.
—Do you love him?
—Look, Elsa, it’s different when you’re older. Sometimes there’s a body next to me, but I’m still sleeping alone, you know?
—Does he love you?
—I don’t know. No. Maybe.
They do the dishes together, and afterward Cimone offers Elsa a cigarette from the pack she bought at the gas station.
—Maybe that’s why you’re coughing so much.
—I don’t smoke. They’re for you.
—Do you have a light?
—It’s fine, I’ll use the stove.
Elsa bends over the range, too close, singes a few stray strands near her wrist. When she walks into the living room, Cimone holds a movie in each hand.
—I thought that we could watch Sixteen Candles. Or, if you’re not feeling an oldie, I rented this new one, I think it’s in French. It’s supposed to be good.
—Do you have Gilmore Girls?
—That television show where they talk like auctioneers?
—Yeah, it’s my favorite.
—Maybe on the DVR.
They sit together under a blanket on the couch and watch half of the third season. Elsa laughs in great big gulps and mouths the lines before they leave the actor’s lips. Cimone’s attention wavers, split between the screen and her sister, who barely notices her stare. After a fashion, Cimone’s eyelids start to droop. She sleeps.
The next morning is spent at the art museum, looking at paintings; the afternoon at the aquarium, looking at fish. Cimone gets an Italian ice from a cart. Elsa smokes. They walk together by the lake, where Cimone runs into a friend, who takes off her headphones and wipes the sweat from her forehead with a Nike wristband that matches her shoes, her shirt, her iPod.
—Hey, Kristin, I’d like you to meet my sister.
—Hi, it’s nice to meet you. Your sister talks about you all the time.
Elsa gazes at the water for a long, quiet beat before turning back to the friend.
—Only good things, I promise.
Cimone looks at Elsa, back to Kristin, but says nothing.
—It’s my pleasure Rory. I’m just kidding — I didn’t even know Cimone had a younger sister. Are you in college?
—She just graduated. High school.
—Oh, how exciting! Do you know where you’ll be going?
—I wanted to stay close to Lane, my best friend, and my mom. Cambridge is too far. Grandpa wanted me to go to Yale, like he did, so I turned down Harvard.
—Must have been nice to have options. What do you want to do?
—I’m going to write for the News. It’s going to be great.
—Well, I wish you the best of luck.
Cimone and the friend chat briefly about mutual friends. She departs with the promise of a lunch, or coffee, and a wave.
—What the fuck was that?
Elsa doesn’t say anything.
—Seriously, Elsa. I don’t know what your deal is, but cut it out. You can’t go around lying to people like that.
—Can we get something to eat?
Something rouses Cimone from her dreams. She looks at the clock, groans, tries to go back to sleep, fails, decides to get a glass of water from the refrigerator, rolls out of bed.
She finds Elsa sitting on the living room floor. Around her: green. A sponge, a throw pillow, a box of junior mints, all of the broccoli and lettuce from the fridge, a pile of coasters embossed with the logo of a local Irish pub, a comforter, a liter-sized bottle of shampoo, a folder, some pens, four coffee mugs with green printing, a package of tri-color rotini, canned food, plates and bowls, tiny scraps of crepe paper an inch deep.
—What the hell?
—I’m getting rid of jealousy.
—Look at this mess.
—It’s like when Rory tries to get over Dean without wallowing. I’m going to throw it all away.
—Would you shut up about that fucking show? These are my things, you can’t throw them away.
Cimone moves to clean up, doesn’t know where to begin… the vegetables. She picks up a few stalks, stops.
—Go to the bathroom and wash up. You’ll sleep in my bed.
Elsa is still in the bathroom when Cimone finishes undoing her mess, which takes the better part of a half-hour. They talk through the door.
—Are you okay in there?
—I can’t pee.
—They’ll hear me.
—Brian and Kyle. Kids from school.
—What are you talking about?
—I keep trying, but I can’t do it.
—How in the world would anybody be able to hear you pee? I can’t hear you pee, and I’m in the next room.
—But what if they do? Kyle is in my Spanish class; Brian is in my Spanish class and my History class.
—Nobody can hear you.
—I just can’t.
The bathroom opens and Elsa walks past Cimone without making eye contact, heads straight into Cimone’s room and falls into the bed. Cimone stands at the doorway until she is sure that Elsa sleeps, pulls the door to and settles onto the couch with a telephone. She dials, waits.
—Cimone, is that you? Why are you up?
—Look, I’m fine, but I’m not sure about Elsa. She’s been acting strange. I think it would be good for her to see you. Things have been hard for her since you split with Mom.
—Are you alright? You don’t sound good.
—I have a cough. This is serious. I have a show tomorrow night at a bar, it’s going to be 21 and older. I won’t be able to get Elsa in.
—Tomorrow? I can’t. I have to be on a plane to Hamburg in… four and a half hours. This visit wasn’t scheduled.
—She shouldn’t be here by herself.
— … I’ll ask Susan what she’s doing.
The line clicks. In the window Cimone can see the murky blue dawn pushing against night.
Both girls do not mention the incident at breakfast, or the used bookstore, or the afternoon matinee. They stop at a drugstore to get some spray for Cimone’s throat.
—I want to come to your show.
—They’re not going to let you in.
—But I’m your sister and you’re in the band.
—It doesn’t matter, they’re strict at these places. Stand to lose a lot. Not worth it to them to screw around.
—So what am I going to do?
—Susan offered to come pick you up. Something about cocktails at one of her friend’s.
—I’ll just stay at your place.
—I think you should go. It will be good for you. She’s trying.
—You think it will be okay?
—Yes. It could even be fun.
Neither believes the lie.
At the venue, Cimone sweats beneath the lights. The club is packed nearly to capacity, and the temperature soars. In her hand, the microphone is at once a tool and a toy. The band is in a groove. A thousand eyes, all on her. She dances from one end of the proscenium to the other, reveling.
At the end of the show, she sticks around to talk with her fans. Her throat doesn’t even hurt. She signs a few autographs, tries to sell some t-shirts, makes new friends. One girl, maybe 15 years old, waits around, leaning against a column, too afraid to approach. Cimone calls her over.
—Hey, how are you?
—Did you enjoy the show?
—It was amazing. You’re incredible.
—That’s too kind, thank you. Thank you for coming out. It was a great crowd.
—You were great.
—Did you want me to sign that CD?
—Sure. Who should I make it out to?
—Could you make it out to Leigh?
—That’s my stepsister’s name. It’s a good one.
—Oh, it’s not mine. This is for a friend, I’ve already got a copy at home. My name is Rory.
Cimone balks, recovers, and scrawls her signature across the face of it. She says goodbye to the girl and begs off everyone else, instead returning to the green room. When she turns on her phone, she has twenty-seven missed calls.
I don’t want her to go, but she goes. She’s left me with them, just up and left to go play with her band and left me to suffer at the hands of these… women. Oh, Lane and her band. It’s been like this ever since she took up with that guitarist, every time we have plans. But these women. It’s like being on “The View,” if all the chatterboxes were armed with cocktails and Parliament Lights instead of lapel microphones. I want to kill them all. They must want me to do it, too —
NO, I DON’T WANT A DRINK
I’M SURE, THANKS
I DON’T HAVE A BOYFRIEND
WELL, I’VE HAD A FEW
THEIR NAMES?… DEAN. AND JESS.
HAVE WE EVER WHAT?
I MEAN, YEAH, OF COURSE WE HAVE…
YES, I MEAN: SOMETIMES THERE’S A BODY NEXT TO
BUT YOU’RE STILL SLEEPING ALONE
I LIKE MY HAIR THE WAY IT IS
SOMETIMES A BODY NEXT TO YOU SLEEPS ALONE
ALONE NEXT TO A HAIRCUT YOU SLEEP
WHERE AM I?
Y’R NT MKNG SNS
At the hospital, up on the fifth floor, Cimone sits in a chair next to the bed where Elsa is propped up by a pillow, catatonic. Her eyes are barely open. An orderly tries, with some struggle, to spoon some sort of hospital gruel into Elsa’s mouth. She doesn’t respond, so the orderly turns a dial that increases the drip flow of the bag that holds a mixture of medications and sedatives.
The messages were all from her father. He had fielded a call from a hysterical Susan, who hadn’t been able to reach anyone, and had to call 911 because she didn’t know what to do. Earlier, she had picked up Elsa, who reluctantly accompanied her to a friend’s apartment on the gold coast. The host mixed drinks and invited everyone out to the patio to drink and talk. In the middle of it, Elsa excused herself to go to the bathroom. When Susan finally realized an hour later that Elsa hadn’t come back and went looking for her, all she found was a locked door. There was no response to any of the yelling or pounding, and the women were forced to call a neighbor to break down the door. A few solid blows later, they were through.
Elsa sat in the bath, naked from the waist down, in water up to her neck, humming a song and playing games with the bath soaps. She barely noticed Susan enter, barely noticed when her pants were slipped back over her knees and hips, barely noticed when the neighbor carried her to a couch, barely noticed when the paramedics arrived and rolled the gurney into the ambulance. She actually invited them all to join her — water’s fine.
At the hospital, Cimone takes over the feeding duties from the orderly, who looks grateful. She is just about to attempt another spoonful when Elsa makes a gagging noise and vomits what little she has eaten, the bile trailing slowly out of the corner of her mouth. Cimone dabs at it with a cloth from the bedside table. This is not surprising: The doctors said in the beginning that severe nausea would be a side effect of the anti-psychotic medications.
She is at Elsa’s bedside almost continuously, leaving only to play a few half-hearted shows for fans that can sense somehow, the show is different, sadder. She sings to packed houses, the band gets signed. She sings beautiful lies about hope in the world, even as she has none. At the end of each set she stands in front of the lights and weeps. Some of the people in the front cry, too. Her performance has never been better.
In the dark of her bedroom, Cimone lies on her back and peers into the void. A hair in her ear canal gives up the ghost, dying with a high-pitched ring.
The loss of a frequency.