The Memory of Us(15)

by Camille Di Maio

“I will do that.”

He watched me with an intense gaze, looked away, and returned with a more carefree expression in his eyes. “He’s a good chap, though. Really. I hope that you get along well with him.”

It sounded like the rain was stopping, but it only paused and then pounded again. The rafters of the barn seemed to shake, but nothing was leaking. I was beginning to feel a little warmer.

“So tell me about your brother,” he said.

For an awful moment, I didn’t know what he was talking about. The word brother was foreign to me on someone else’s tongue, and barely an acquaintance on my own.

“Oh, Charles?”

“Do you have another brother?”

“No, no I don’t. It’s just that, well, I never get to talk about Charles to anyone.”

“Why not? You don’t seem to be ashamed of him. In fact, it’s quite remarkable that you come to see him so often. You know, not many people come out to visit the residents.”

I swallowed the guilt that gripped me, not wanting to admit that the most recent visits had little to do with Charles. “Well, you know how it is at those kinds of places. Even Bootle Home. The family is devastated when they realize that their child is not all that they expected. And they send them off to someplace that will take responsibility for them. It’s like storing them in a cupboard, only to be dusted off when it’s convenient. And sometimes it never is. Like with my family.”

Kyle seemed taken aback. “With your family? I’m sorry. What do you mean?”

“Kyle—” I liked the feel of his name on my lips. The throaty groan that began in the back of my throat, finishing with the delicate sweep of my tongue across my teeth. If he noticed the hesitation in my voice, he didn’t say anything, and I rushed my next words to make up for it. “Kyle—have you ever seen my parents? At Bootle, I mean?”

He paused, trying to remember. “I suppose I haven’t. Maybe they come during the week.”

“No, they don’t. They never come. I don’t know if they’ve ever been there since they dropped him off so many years ago.”

“Wow.” He frowned, the depth of my brother’s isolation sinking in. “How old were you?”

“The same. He’s my twin. One they discarded, and the other they’re trying to hold to an impossible standard of perfection, as if to compensate.”

I surprised myself with my own vehemence. I had not admitted these things to anyone, not even to Lucille. Perhaps not even to myself. Kyle had a way of making me feel as if I could confess anything.

But I wasn’t finished. I was unable to stop now that I had unplugged the hole in the well-guarded dam. “And that’s not all. Father became obsessed with his business, and I’m convinced that it drove Mother to drink. The perfect lady had an imperfect child. And the remaining one has been making up for it ever since.”

I sniffed, holding back tears, and shook my head in determination. I would not cry in front of him. I had already said more than I ever planned to.

“How did you find out about Charles?” he asked.

“I was”—oh, bollocks: Why not just let it all go?—“I was in Mother’s dressing room a couple of years ago rummaging through her drawers for some rouge. She said I wasn’t old enough to wear it yet, but I just wanted to try it.”

I knew I was procrastinating. “Anyway. The bottom flap of the drawer was loose, and I thought that she would appreciate it being set straight. But it moved easily and I saw that there were some papers underneath. I found a photograph of two babies, side by side. One was plump and smiling. The other looked somewhat lifeless, with slanted eyes and a blank stare. I turned it over and read, ‘Charles and Julianne—July 1919.’”

“I can’t imagine. What did you think?”

“I didn’t have to think. The other paperwork contained a birth certificate and letters from Bootle. So the next week, I decided to take a look for myself. And I’ve been coming back ever since, making one excuse or another for my absence.”

I was exhausted by the sudden release of this burden. Kyle sighed deeply, from what I couldn’t say. Maybe he was thinking that this was what it was going to be like to be a priest. To hear a confession and choose between condemnation and forgiveness. The latter really seemed to fit him best, although I feared that I had strained the thin thread of friendship that we had begun. My family’s secrets made me feel like a pariah in disguise as a princess.

He was a good listener, and it made me see him in a different way. The way I should see him. I could almost understand why he wanted to be a priest, and I knew that he’d be an exceptional one. That brought me some peace, and I almost found it easier to accept this die he’d cast. Almost.

“Is that why you want to be a nurse?”

We had scooted in closer to each other without realizing it, and I could have reached out to touch him if I’d dared.

“Partially. There’s no doubt that my time at Bootle Home has been an inspiration. Or that it will be a useful skill if we end up in another war. But it’s a good question. Why do I want to study nursing?” I looked up at the rafters. It was not an uncommon question. To my mother’s friends, I answered, “So that I can give back, like Mother does,” which was followed by airy approval, if not understanding. To my father’s friends, I answered, “Oh, I don’t have a head for business. But I need to do something useful.” To which they responded with the smug acknowledgment that women, of course, were not cut out for a man’s work. I supposed what I’d just suggested to Kyle was true—I’d first thought of it after meeting Charles. But to Kyle I could tell the darkest part of the truth, regardless of what he would think of me.

“To do something different than what is planned out for me.”

There. That would seal the deal. I wasn’t a selfless heroine, a Clara Barton for the ages.

He pursed his lips and nodded. “I can’t say that I blame you.”

I must have looked startled. I certainly felt it.

He continued. “It can be suffocating to live on a pedestal, to live according to someone else’s expectations.” His voice trailed off, and I wondered if we were even talking about me anymore. Just as well. I was tired of talking about me.

“So what’s your story?” I asked.