BY LUCY SILBAUGH
Abington Friends School, ’16
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors List
Sophie and Lily’s mother is the kind who wears pressed khaki capris and blouses with pearl buttons. All her jewelry is silver, even the wedding band, because she prefers that to gold, likes the classy sheen of it, the subtlety. Sophie thinks that her mother is beautiful. She suspects that she herself will be a gold-jewelry woman; she does not have the taste and sophistication, the porcelain patience, to be a silver woman.
Bread is baking when they come inside, from their new Boston school to their new Boston house. The wind stirs the elm leaves outside, and bread bakes. Their mother loves making bread.
How was school? their mother asks, and Sophie says, Fine, no math class today, and Lily rubs a hand across her milky knee, exposed because she’s wearing a short dress. My art teacher loves my drawings, she says. No matter what I draw, he loves it.
I always liked math best, their mother says. All the way through, it was my favorite.
Of course he loves your drawings, Sophie says. Teachers don’t love her the way they love Lily.
I wish you wouldn’t wear such short dresses, their mother says, and Lily says, I hate math. The curves are too exact. Have you ever seen a perfect circle, I mean in real life, really?
What’s the art teacher’s name anyway? Sophie asks. What does he look like?
Their words cross over each other, wings brushing. A lattice.
At the counter, Lily has taken out her sketchbook and a plastic sleeve of markers. She blocks the page cleanly: a rusty streak down the middle, a long blue trapezoid that Sophie suspects will be the sky. She wonders how it will turn out.
Back in Seattle, when they were younger, they used to play with chalk on the driveway. Sometimes it would stay there for days, a vibrant patchwork, fading and overlapped by tire tracks. Then one day, inevitably, rain would wash it all away, and Sophie and Lily would sit with their palms on the windowpane, transfixed by the way the colors puddled and ran together until nothing was definite anymore.
Their mother turns, sees Lily with her markers and her sketchbook. Something subtle registers in her eyes. Don’t you have any homework to do?
4. To Do
There are lists all over the house; their mother is the queen of lists. They flutter, white, like wings without birds. Tucked beneath lamps, on the edge of the counter, magneted to the fridge. 1. Broccoli, 2. Peanut butter, 3. Dish soap, or 1. Unpack pictures, 2. Call Janice, 3. Laundry.
She keeps a pink pad on the kitchen desk. This is where she writes her lists, bent over at the waist, fingers drumming as she thinks. There are twelve lines on each sheet of paper, so when a list reaches thirteen she starts a new one. Numbers stacked up like bricks, a blue ballpoint ladder climbing them, rungs crossing through as the day goes on.
For Sophie, this is the ultimate marker of time passing: her mother’s to do-lists, the way they start unmarked in the morning and get crossed out as the hours roll by. To Do: Tomorrow. Completed: Yesterday. In between, another day passing.
The timer reads ten more minutes for the bread, and their mother turns the kitchen radio on. “–itten by Felix Mendelssohn,” the announcer says, and then the music takes off like a kite. Years of playing the violin so now Sophie gets a strange feeling when she hears the instrument, as if it is her child or something.
She doesn’t know the song but she likes it, rich and plum-colored, the edges softened with static. Sophie looks out of the window into their neighbors’ yard, where a hawk circles over the September-yellow trees. It’s only been a few weeks, and the house has just begun to feel like theirs, but the neighborhood has not, the city has not, the state especially has not. Massachusetts — it is a word like a tough steak, difficult to chew. The air feels too dry here, like it has been skinned of everything important and left only the sharp white bones of itself.
Sophie listens to the music and to Lily’s blue marker moving. She traces her finger in a line across the counter and thinks of blue lines: pen marks and veins, highways and horizons, the thin and yet critical capillaries of maps, states, coastlines.
Lily is bent over her paper. Sophie looks at her silhouette, pretty against the yellow afternoon — forehead, nose, chin, all drawn in concentration. Lily’s hand moves slowly, shading. She blinks, and Sophie thinks how Lily, older than her by a year, is sort of like a seashell. Turned by the ocean, moved coast to coast, weathered and strong and still somehow breakable.
Quit, Lily says, and Sophie says, What?
Looking at me that way.
I’m not looking at you.
You were. What were you looking at?
They are sisters, and they can tell when looking is more than just looking. With Lily, there is a flattened mouth, usually, and then Sophie knows that she is being studied scrupulously: that Lily is peeling her layer by layer, searching for the curved line of her soul. She is checking to make sure that the shadows bend away from the light there, that every shape is shaded and proportional.
Your eyeliner is smudged, Sophie lies.
So you were looking! I knew it.
The picture is nearly finished. It is an autumn tree, singed with color, oval leaves drifting down. The leaves are pointed at the bottoms, almost like tears, and wait a minute! Sophie leans closer. They are tears, and look, there in the tree is a face, a brow stretched subtly between branches, a lip, a nose, a cheekbone.
Lily covers the drawing with her forearm. She scowls. Don’t look at that either.
Their mother prepares things for when their father arrives home. He doesn’t ask for it, not explicitly, and yet she prepares everything just how he likes it. Vivaldi on the stereo, volume to 3, wine on the counter, crackers out because he’s usually hungry when he comes home from work. After eleven years, Sophie thinks, it’s natural that she knows — that he likes asparagus with lemon, basketball instead of football. He prefers to vacation in cold places. He likes her in her blue dress, with her hair up. He likes chicken better than pork.
And yet something about it makes Sophie’s stomach hurt. Especially when she imagines the three of them, she and her mother and Lily, in their separate houses some day off in the future. Doing dishes at the same time, maybe, or making the beds or talking on the phone or setting out the wine, music, crackers. All at the same time without even realizing it. Forgetting themselves, somehow.
Monogamy and domesticity and patriarchy — these are long, latinate words to describe concepts that, Sophie thinks, can really be found in smaller things. A checked apron, a wooden spoon; a T.V. buzzing in the next room over, crackers set out by invisible hands, the glinting windows of a parked sedan.
So no homework? their mother asks Lily again. She runs a sponge over the counter.
No. Lily’s voice is sharp, irritated. It’s the first week of school; they don’t do that.
Really? Their mother pulls the box of crackers from the pantry, shakes some into a blue china bowl.
Yes, Mom, why would I lie?
Don’t be sharp with me, Lily! I was just asking. How about you, Sophie?
A little French.
Okay. And you’ll do that? There is still half an hour before he arrives home, but already she is looking out the window for his car.
Yes, Mom, yes.
Lily’s eyes skip up. Hey! Nothing about her sharpness?
Their mother sighs. Already Sophie feels the spaces between the three of them stretching, things tightening. Pulling and slackening. Taking sides and changing sides — that’s what it is all about. Not out in the open, of course, but slight and simultaneous, like shifting weight or sighing.
The phone rings and their mother picks it up.
Hi, she says, and Sophie can tell just from the way she says the h that it is their father on the line. Girlish, quiet, falling out between her lips like an exhale. Thirty minutes? Did something happen? She drums her fingers, agitated. I don’t see why she couldn’t have taken the train. There’s one at every quarter hour. There is another pause, and Sophie hears her own heart beating — loud, like a clock, like a timer. I’m not angry, she says. Of course I’m not angry.
She hangs up the phone, takes a breath. She goes to the sink, washes her hands. She pats her hair into place and says, I’m going upstairs. I’ll be down in a moment.
The sink is dripping a thread of water, so Sophie gets up and turns it off.
Their mother was a pediatric surgeon before the girls were born, and even now she is clinical. She has three bottles of dish soap — yellow, green, and blue — lined by the kitchen window. There are latex gloves under the sink, ready in case she should need to adjust a pipe or scrub at a spot of mildew. She washes her hands obsessively and has five different pairs of tweezers, each for its own purpose, standing at attention in the caddy in her bathroom.
She makes cuts in fruits neat and long, as if she plans to suture them later.
Lily has started another drawing, using her shoulder, her black hair as a shield.
There was a boy this summer, Sophie senses, a boy when Lily went to visit their aunt in California while their parents packed boxes. Sophie herself was at music camp all summer; she didn’t see Lily until late August. Her skin was darker, her hair longer, and she said her “l”s differently — longer, more fluid. Sophie could almost smell the change on her, that new tissue layer of experience.
Then, on one of their last days in Seattle, an envelope dropped through the mail slot for Lily. Long and white, business size, with the address penciled on the front in handwriting that was clean and masculine. She wondered why he hadn’t used a pen, whoever he was. You should always address envelopes in ink, her mother had told her, long ago. Makes it easier for the mailmen to read. But something else caught Sophie about the pencil; she couldn’t name it. There was something about it that was so ephemeral, fleeting.
Sophie wondered what could possibly be in the envelope. She wondered who had written it; she wondered why he hadn’t just e-mailed or something. It was terrible, the urge, but she knew the rip would show and so she’d turned away, she had not opened it. She hoped it was a love note.
It was not, she found later, a love note. On the drive cross-country and for weeks afterwards, Lily had been even more sulky than usual. All three thousand one hundred and seventeen miles, she had looked out the window, sniffled, and complained that her allergies were terrible. What allergies? Sophie had asked, and Lily gave her a scathing look. Shut up, she said, her words like sparks, and then, Doesn’t anybody have some goddamn Claritin?
The bread is burning in the oven.
Someone conducted a survey, once, and Sophie read about it. One thousand people from countries all across the world, children and adults and teenagers and grandparents. What’s the best smell? Coffee, people said. Chanel 5, sea spray, rosemary. But bread won out. A 40% lead. Bread baking, that’s the best smell.
And the worst smell is burning bread. It must be. Through the glass window on the oven door, it is black and crusted.
Their mother’s feet pad quickly down the stairs. Sugar! she says– her version of an expletive. She yanks on her red quilted mitten and pulls the loaf out of the oven, slams the door shut. She looks at it for a second, presses the back of her hand against her eye.
In all of the times she’s made bread, the dozens of loaves, she has never burned one. The bag in the trashcan crinkles as the bread goes in.
Their mother hands them apples as if this has been her plan all along. Do we have any pears? Sophie asks. The apple is too red today, too polished and cold.
I need a new razor, Lily reflects, looking at her knees.
Their mother gives a sigh like silk. Dad should be home in ten minutes, she says.