It was 7:32 a.m., my hair was getting frizzy, the fog outside my car window was limiting my vision to a few scrawny bushes, and my stomach was churning.
“Hey,” my dad called from the front seat, “you OK, Pade?”
“Yup,” I lied, because it wasn’t really a question, but conversation. He was satisfied and turned around. I turned up the volume of the song I was listening to on my iPod and turned around too. I stared out the window, making out the faint silhouette of pine trees in the distance. Distracting myself from the thoughts building up in my mind, I nibbled my ham-and-cheese sandwich. I wasn’t hungry.
Suddenly, snap! The thought in the back of my mind popped out at me. All I could think about was, what would happen next? It was like in a cartoon when someone opens a closet full of junk and everything falls on the character. Suddenly I was drowning in questions. The only problem was that there was no way to gasp for air. My mind was spinning and the new plastic smell of the car made me nauseous. In the distance I could see a Hogwarts-type campus approaching. It was my sister’s. She was entering her first year of college at Vassar College. Emma (my sister) smiled at me from the front seat but I could tell it was a fake smile.
“You OK?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, with the same tone I had lied to my dad with. We both knew she was thinking about something, but I didn’t know what it was.
“Can I help you with something?” I said. I was trying to sound helpful, but I ended up sounding like that obnoxious teenager who works at Duane Reade right before you ask her where the Band-Aids are.
Emma clearly didn’t notice and just replied with, “Nope, why?”
She didn’t expect an answer (even though it was a question) so I just said, “Nothing.”
Emma turned her head towards the window and so did I, but my eyes widened when I realized that Vassar was right in front of us! The car slowed and I paused my song. I could hear college girls screaming, “Honk if you love Vassar!”
There was an old brick building glaring at me through the car window. Surrounding it were small bushes and skinny sidewalks that seemed to twist and curve in unnecessary ways. The sky was the color of a slimy unwashed windshield. Cold droplets of dew clung to blades of grass and mist floated through the air aimlessly.
I took my time getting out of the car, slowly stretching, making sure not to go too fast. My dad seemed happy but his eyes were anxious. This is it, I thought to myself while I exited the car. Rain dribbled onto my shoulder and I pouted. Bearing a smile I suggested we go unpack Emma’s stuff. I didn’t know that I would need to carry anything.
I ended up unpacking some of Emma’s pictures, and I found a picture of us in the rain when I was five and she was twelve. We both had brightly colored jackets on, left over from past visitors who had probably forgotten their jackets and my mom was making use of them.
“Oh I remember that day!” Emma reminisced. She was sitting on her bed now, observing her room. I almost giggled, remembering playing in the rain and dirt that day. When it rained, worms would come up to the surface of the ground and you could find them and play with them anywhere. Emma taught me that. The weather in the picture was exactly the same as it was outside, but my face showed a totally different emotion than in the picture. I despised and loved that picture. Obviously I was happy then, I had nothing to worry about. I was naive but I guess in a good way because I was happy. I wished I was still naive and that’s what got under my skin. I knew about life and change.
Later during lunch I sat down, being hungry for the first time since we had gotten to Vassar. As icy wet September air lingered through the blue-gray cafeteria a couple of unhappy college kids sulked around the cafeteria. A few lone professors sat together and nibbled salads but didn’t speak.
I had gotten a pastry earlier and now had it out on my plate. It had French-vanilla buttercream frosting that tasted almost like perfume. It had chocolate sprinkles on top which were done so artfully that each sprinkle looked like it was meant to be there. Emma eyed me warily, hoping I wouldn’t notice. I felt a tinge of satisfaction knowing this. I caught a glimpse of her phone and I suggested an idea of mine.
“Hey, Em?” I asked.
“Yeah?” she replied.
“So I was wondering if we could do this thing I just thought of,” and I explained to her what it was. “So we make a list of promises we’ll never break as sisters.” The minute I said it I realized how dumb it sounded. “You don’t have to agree to it, it was just an idea,” I added with caution. I didn’t want to get into an argument on our last day together just because we were all anxious.
“Mm... OK, let’s do it!” Emma nodded approvingly and started to type our silly ideas.
“How about, ‘Stay on top of your homework.’” I was going into fourth grade and nervous about it. Then we got into more “emotional” ideas. In just a few minutes we were laughing and shouting like monkeys.
“Oo! Oo! How about… ‘Stick together!’” I stuck out two thumbs up to fake enthusiasm at my idea. We giggled stupidly and then, noticing people were staring, Emma stopped. So did I.
I felt uncomfortable for the rest of the day. When we finally got in the car to go back home, and after we said our goodbyes, I noticed that the box next to me in the back seat had the same picture that I had found when I was unpacking Emma’s stuff. My dad had put the heat on and I could feel the artificial heat seeping in through my chest. It smelled dry and leathery. My thighs (still cold) stuck to the plastic seat and my knuckles were white from the cold. Strangely enough though, it felt good. I looked at the picture with the jackets and umbrella and almost sobbed. I chewed on some Cracker Jacks and stared out the window, only to see Emma waving goodbye. I smiled and waved. Our Subaru revved up and that was it.
Later, when we all got home, I walked into my room and brushed against a corner. My room was silent and now there was a tiny pile of chipped paint where I had bumped. I was holding the picture of Emma and me in my hand; my palms were sweaty from holding it the whole way. I pinned the picture up on my blue pin-up board, which was now hard with age. I stepped back into my empty room to observe my placing of the picture. Content, I flopped down onto my bed and closed my eyes. I could feel the emptiness but I didn’t mind it. I needed it.
I thought about my day, how weird it had been. My mind was so full I didn’t know what I was thinking about. I fluttered my eyes open and looked at the picture. In it I was smiling at the ground and Emma was crouching down over me with an umbrella in her hand. The leftover brightly colored rain jackets filled up the frame. The rain still dribbled in the picture and outside, but it was warming up.
Then I remembered before, when I first noticed the picture, Emma had said, “Oh yeah, I love that picture.” I knew from the way she said it that it brought back good memories for her, and I knew she wished for more memories. I realized that I thought I knew about change but I didn’t. If I had, I would have known that these thing pass and I didn’t need to worry. Now I knew we’d always stick together, be there for each other, and always own that five-year-old-and-twelve-year-old-together-in-the-rain relationship.