Esmy and I sit in a coffee shop. A few blocks away our mother lies in a hospital room, waiting to die. Esmy sings softly. I stare into my latte and think, “Isn’t it funny how arms get so tangled?” Despite everything that is happening with our mother, I keep recalling the time my ex-boyfriend said that. We were trying to find a comfortable position while lying naked on an unmade bed. I thought about his comment then said, “It is. It’s funny.”
It’s not just funny that arms get so tangled, it’s true. It is true. It must happen to everyone. Awkward things in beautiful moments, and when you really need those arms, more arms, it seems like you never have enough.
Esmy kicks me under the table. Awakens me to the coffee shop scents and murmurs. The realization that I’m not lying in his bed, entangled in each other’s arms. Awakens me to the realization that we’ll never be in tangles again.
“What are you thinking about?” she says.
“Don’t kick me.”
“It’s the only way to bring you back.”
It’s true. It’s been hard for me to stay focussed since all this started happening. The deaths and diseases, the endings of things. It’s all become too hard.
I sip my latte, something I never drank before he up and left me when I finally needed him, right in the middle of my mother’s deteriorating health. We were raised on tea, but now, in the wettest, coldest May in decades, my mother’s days being counted down like our heights were being chalked up on the bathroom door frame, I need a different taste in my mouth. A violent kick into my bloodstream, to keep me going.
I move my legs out from under the table and cross them.
“You really want to know what I’m thinking about?”
Esmy shrugs. Fans out her hands as if to say, “I’m ready.”
“I was thinking about how awkward human arms can be . . . but . . . if I were a centipede, just think of all the ways those arms could help.”
Esmy scrunches her face and mouths, ew, ew, ew.
“Not just that, Esmy. If I were a centipede, I could hang onto all the straws I attempt to grasp every single day.”
I flitter my fingers as if there were hundreds of them.
The women next to us exchange glances and whisper.
Esmy is unaffected by strangers’ judgements. Those women are like the rising mist from our hot drinks.
“It’s legs that centipedes have. You know that right? Not arms.”
“But if I were a centipede,” I whisper, “I would use my legs as arms. I would hold onto everything that matters to me. I’d be able to complete all my tasks. All my tasks.”
“That’s so confusing. You’re contradicting yourself.”
“No, I’m not. Arms for Mom, arms for work, for chores . . . for you.”
“What do you want? Your arms out of the way, or more arms, or do you really mean hands? Do you want more hands?”
“If I were a centipede—”
“O.K., I get it, figuratively, but, if you were a centipede, you’d have a shitload of legs that would just help you to keep running from your “tasks,” and faster than you do now.”
I glance at the women next to us. They don’t care about that, how Esmy shut me down. Fine, I think. But if I had more arms, maybe he never would have left, maybe Mom would be healthier.
It’s not raining outside, but to me it feels and looks like it is.
I ask Esmy what she sees beyond the pane.
“What do you mean?”
“Out there. What’s catching your eye?”
“That man over there, standing by the traffic light.”
“What about him?”
“Well, you asked.”
“So, the whole time we’ve been talking you’ve been watching him?”
Esmy tilts her head from one side to the other.
“And listening. Does he look suspicious to you? He’s been there for ages. Not even in a waiting-for-a-bus-or-an-Uber way. You know?”
The man Esmy points toward is standing on the corner, close to the stoplight. Not moving. Pedestrians walk around him, some stop to look at him, some wait in case he wants to cross the road before them, or needs a hand. Then they move on. Certain people turn back to look at him. Esmy’s right. It appears odd.
“Maybe he’s thinking.”
“I have no idea, Esmy. You’re the one who’s watching him.”
She sighs. Sighs like she’s disappointed I don’t have all the answers. The burden an older sibling bears.
“Do you see the rain?” I ask.
Esmy takes a breath. Her eyes sparkle behind the shield of her horn-rimmed glasses and she says, “Yes. Yes, I see the rain.”
The two women next to us look out the window. “The rain?” one of them whispers.
Esmy stretches her hand across the table and squeezes mine. She moves to music that isn’t playing, a little groove that she does every now and then. She is a blues singer, by birth, but she doesn’t sing for anyone other than me and herself. She dances though. Goes swing dancing every week back home. Swing dancing in this day and age, which is why I believe she also sees the rain, when to everyone else it isn’t raining.
“We’ll get through this,” Esmy says. “Like we do.”
Like we do. When has Esmy ever helped me get through family hardships? She peers through her glasses, releases her hair from the bun she’d rolled on top of her head after her little groove, and pushes it behind her ears. She has beautiful auburn hair that bounces when she lets it down. She doesn’t think she has wonderful hair. She doesn’t realize how beautiful she is at all. If she did, she may not have left when things weren’t going her way, when our parents needed us.
“I believe,” she looks down, then up, “he would have left sooner if you had way more arms, if you were a goddamn centipede.”
“You don’t understand.”
“If anything, you should want to be a squid. They’re supposed to be incredibly intelligent.”
Esmy shrugs and looks out at the man on the corner. She gets up and says, “I’ll be right back.” She grabs her coat, puts up her hood because she knows I also see rain out there. She stops at the counter and orders something. Strides onto the street with a rhythmic step, a swing step, a little sway in her hips, in her hair. I imagine she’s singing out loud. Maybe that song she sang in the car on our way to the hospital, “You Are the Best Thing,” by Ray LaMontagne, she informed me.
It’s been a long day,
Things ain’t been going my way.
You know I need you here
To clear my mind
all the time.
And, baby . . .
She’s probably singing out loud as beautifully as she did in the car, because the man on the corner turns around, and other people do too, and smile. She stops in front of the man, shakes his hand. “I’m Esmy,” she must have said. His shoulders quake a little, like he’s chuckling. She points toward the coffee shop. He looks over, nods, then shakes his head and points across the road. She nods in that way she does, and I imagine she’s saying, “Cool, cool, just wanted to make sure you’re O.K. You can totally join me and my sister if you want to get in from the rain.” She hands him the cup. He stares at her. He shakes his head and she drops hers. Shoot, I hope she didn’t really say he should come in from the rain. He won’t understand, or maybe she said, “Hey, come inside. My sister and I aren’t all that conventional either. I mean, who stands on a street corner the way you are for this long. But we’re cool with that. My sister wishes she was a centipede so her arms can be more flexible and she can hold this dude that she likes everywhere, so every part of him is held, and so she can balance all the other things in her life, too. She feels the need for extra hands, for the things she can’t get a grip on, you know? Oh, and she sees rain when it isn’t raining.
His lips move. She nods. Then she waves. He watches her as she walks back to the coffee shop with the drink she bought. He smiles, goes to wave. Drops his arm, his head, turns around and crosses the road. Finally.
Esmy stomps her feet when she reaches our table.
“Well, that was interesting.”
“Where’s the coffee?”
I glance outside.
“Oh.” She giggles, bounces her hair when she sits. “It was chamomile tea. I gave it to the guy begging outside the door.”
I touch her hand.
“He wanted money, so he wasn’t that happy with the tea.”
Esmy takes off her coat. Shakes it, like she’s shaking off the rain only I can see. People watch her and look down. There are no puddles under her boots. She doesn’t notice the others noticing. She glances out the window. Ever since our mother was admitted, it hasn’t stopped raining.
The two women next to us whisper. I want to tell them to mind their business. Esmy doesn’t give a damn, so I try to ignore them.
“What, what is it?”
“Shit,” she says, “Jim, where the hell is Jim?”
“Yeah, the dude on the corner. His name is Jim.”
“He crossed the road.”
She slaps her forehead.
“No? Awesome. Awesome.”
She shakes her head again, like her hair is wet, exhales, giggles, does her little dance move to music that isn’t playing.
When we left our mother earlier, Esmy had come to terms with her wanting to leave this world to join our father. “I can’t live without him. I just want to die. For all this to be over.” She waited for our response. Esmy said, “It’s O.K., Mom, we understand if you have to go.” No, we don’t. I glared at my sister. “He’s waiting for me, you know. He can’t move on without me.” For days I have been talking to Dad in the backyard, looking up to the sky, asking him what we should do. Asking him for help and is it true that he’s coming for Mom like she believes. Esmy is good at letting go. Dad hasn’t answered. I told Mom he needs to get more settled where he is. He’s not ready for her quite yet. It takes time adjusting to his new way of being. She needs to be strong, to fight the disease. She can’t give up.
“It’s only been two years since he left,” I said. “He wants you to stay with us a bit longer, Mom.”
“Did he tell you that?” she said.
“Well, not exactly . . .”
“Right, so stay out of it.”
Esmy looked at me when she said that. In her Mom-doesn’t-mean-it way. The way our mother speaks to me differently when other people are around. That is why I see rain through the coffee shop window. Why it feels damp and cold and there’s no groove in me. I’m trying my best, trying to do everything. Unlike Esmy, I don’t hear music right now. I’m keeping the space between my ears quiet in case Dad tries to tell me something. In case he finally responds to all the messages I’ve left. I close my eyes for a minute and picture myself with many, many arms, hands. All the things I could do at one time.
“It’s not a centipede you want to be. I think you mean a millipede.”
“It’s actually Jim”—she points outside to the now vacant spot where the man, Jim, had stopped by the traffic light—“who said, ‘Centipedes are venomous to people. She should probably wish to be a millipede, especially if she wants to get back together with the dude.’ ”
“You did tell him.”
She shrugs, smiles, and does her little blues move.
“He went to break up with a girl.”
“He was waiting for a sign. Something to tell him to just go, just do it.”
“And that sign was you?”
“I guess so.”
The rain grows heavier. I think about the girl on the other side of the street that must live in one of the condos lording over the corner of the busy intersection. He must have been staring up the whole time, picturing her inside, practicing what to say, how to say it. What if Esmy wasn’t the sign, and he is breaking off a good thing? What if she altered the course of things and the sign is happening out there now that he’s gone, that Esmy’s gone, looking for him and going, “Oh snap.”
“How do you know breaking up with the girl was the right thing for him to do?”
She takes off her glasses, changes her hair again. Takes the sides and puts them in a small bun on top of her head. “Because he seems so sad, and really, why stay in something when you are sad?”
“But you don’t know him, and you don’t know her at all. I mean maybe they just need to talk.”
“Did you see how long he was standing out there in the rain?”
“He was clearly struggling, didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But, really, is that any reason to stay with someone who makes you sad? I mean everybody out there was noticing him. He must have wanted someone to stop and talk to him.”
Then she says, “You know, like in that documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge?”
I don’t know the one.
“You don’t?” she says. “Oh, it’s amazing.”
She continues to tell me how most people who go to the bridge to commit suicide, to jump, want to be stopped. They actually hope someone will see them and talk them out of it.
“It’s true,” she says.
I wonder if Jim really told Esmy he was sad. I wonder why, when she left Mom, Dad, and me to move to San Francisco, she never helped one of those people waiting to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, waiting for someone like her, a sign. I wonder, when I wasn’t there at the hospital, if she said to Mom, “It’s O.K., Mom, let go. We’ll be fine. Just go, get out of here. Go on, go get Dad. Be happy.” What if Mom has been waiting by her proverbial traffic light, in the rain, for a sign to leave us and join Dad on the other side, and Esmy just said, “Oh go. It’s O.K. Why be sad here without Dad?” What if Mom listened? Took Esmy as the sign, and when we go back to the hospital, the spot where she’s been waiting is empty. I grab my coat. What if she’s been waiting for someone to stop her?
“Where are you going?”
“Back to Mom.”
She sits me back down.
She grabs my hands. “You are a millipede, remember. All your other arms are where they need to be, caressing Mom, holding her, wrapped around the dude, stroking your dogs, cleaning your dishes, mopping your floor. Don’t worry. Everything is covered. And thanks to Jim you will never be venomous to other people.”
“Jim? Jim? Some goddamn heartbroken stranger.”
I grab my head. The ladies next to us shake theirs. Again, I want to tell them to mind their own business, but I don’t have the courage to upset them as much as they are upsetting me.
A grubby man appears at Esmy’s side, rests his dirty hand on her shoulder. The women next to us turn away, plug their noses, and snort like trotting ponies.
“Thank you for the tea.”
The man leaves when the barista shoos him out.
She turns to me.
“Sometimes I hate myself for wanting Mom to move on.”
“Why do you want her to move on?”
Her eyes widen. She scowls. Whispers, “I can’t say it.”
My phone vibrates in my pocket. I look over at Esmy to see if her phone is vibrating too, or is about to. I grab mine. She doesn’t. It’s the hospital. The nurse identifies herself, says there’s been a change in our mother’s breathing, “It’s best you head back as soon as you can,” she says. I tell her, yes, thank you, thank you so much for calling. I hang up. Look at Esmy.
“I told you. We have to go back. Mom’s taken a turn.”
“It’s an act. A way to get us back there.”
“Way to go, Esmy. Look at the rain. It’s a sign.”
When our father passed away, the priest said he was like the rain. I didn’t understand what he meant then, the symbolism lost on me. Drowned out by the pain. He’s come to me in dreams, but not since I’ve been beckoning him from the backyard, asking him about Mom. Maybe he did need more time on his own, alone, a bit of freedom before they reconnect.
Esmy grabs her coat and glasses and skips toward the door. I follow her. Like I’ve wanted to do for years. The thought of my mother’s altered breathing echoes in my chest. I scan the sides of the road for my car. I whisper to my Dad, “What’s happening? Dad? Dad?”
Where the hell is the car? Esmy starts walking along the road with a swing in her step. That groove. The car isn’t here. We walked. I forgot we had walked. Walked from the hospital over to the coffee shop for a change in scenery. Fresh air. We had walked over in the rain. Even though we could have driven and kept dry.
I lift my hands toward the sky. Palms up.
She stops and turns around.
My phone rings again. I sit down on the bench outside the coffee shop.
Esmy runs back to me. She’s on her phone.
“What,” she mouths.
“It’s stopped raining.”
I hold Esmy at arm’s length. Expecting her to say something, something like, “Well at least she’s not suffering anymore” or “See, if we were there she wouldn’t have let go.” She doesn’t. She’s still. No groove, or music emanating from her eyes. She’s crying. I look at my arms.
She says, “They were always enough.”
I float them like wings.