Patterns of Migration
At a highway rest stop in New Jersey, the sun heads for the horizon, sinking in an orange blaze. My sister and I pass a cup of chocolate Haagen Dazs back and forth between us as we stand on a patch of grass by the parking lot. It’s December, but the day is mild, and we need the sugar and the air.
Back in the car, we merge onto the highway again and the sun disappears. I fight a yawn and spin the radio dial to the right, sending the volume up like fireworks. I lean heavier on the gas and my soon-to-be-sold Honda Civic speeds over the pavement. We are heading south like migrating birds.
My sister’s name is Erin but I call her Poo. She sits in the passenger seat, the glow from the dash illuminating the slopes of her nose, forehead, and chin. Her hands float up from her lap like marionettes when she talks. She is more than four years younger than I am, but sometimes people mistake us for twins, our mirrored freckles and wispy knotted hair confusing them. As kids, I bossed her, read to her, told her stories, dressed her up. I painted her cheeks and lips with our mom’s red lipstick. We wore matching Easter dresses, danced in the same recitals, and shared a pink-wallpapered bedroom where the knobby ends of our little-girl beds nearly kissed in the middle. We grew up. We became teenagers. We got our own rooms and spent our time locked inside them talking on the phone and playing our CDs on loop. I liked the Goo Goo Dolls and Postal Service. She listened to Dashboard Confessional and Death Cab for Cutie. We mostly avoided each other except for moments when I felt the instinct to mother her. Now, in our 20s, the age gap is eroding — a thing that was that soon will no longer be.
We are making this drive home to Pennsylvania together because I just finished a graduate program in Maine, and Erin came for my graduation. In the past 24 hours I have turned from student to cliché: unemployed and moving back home at 27, another one of those millennials. In the car, the unknown future hangs around like humid air, and I try to clear it by fiddling with the radio again. I find a station playing a Ke$ha song we’ve heard at least four times already and can’t help but like. We bounce in our seats and shout the lyrics loud and free.
“We should go out tonight. Dancing,” I say, somewhere near the end of the turnpike. We are high from the music and delirious from eight hours on the road. Erin’s eyes widen and she says yes.
In three weeks she will move to Vermont to live with her boyfriend. Our lives are intersecting briefly, for this short time over the holidays at our mom’s house. Then she’ll go, and I’ll be left to come up with my own plan. We say things like I wish you didn’t have to go and I wish you could come but mostly we don’t talk about the way our paths are parting like split ends. We are both in the midst of trying to figure something out. She wants to know what will happen if she closes the gap on a long-endured long distance relationship. I want to know if I can start over making a career I might actually enjoy. We are independent and restless. We don’t say stay. We have a tacit agreement to let the other go and feel for next steps in the dark.
The light over the garage flicks on like an alarm when we pull in. The trees in the yard are bare and still. This is the shimmering quiet of suburban Philadelphia where the roads wind and houses crop up on old farmland in equidistant rows.
In the kitchen, we’re greeted with hugs and cheek-kisses from Mom and full-body tail wags from Shelby, the lazy, lighthearted sheltie. Mom stands at the kitchen counter looking at her daughters in a way that’s different now that we’re grown; it’s some combination of pride and relief.
We are tired but determined to keep our grand plan to dance tonight, to keep moving and keep singing. At the bathroom sink, we stand with our hips a few inches apart, bent forward toward the mirror. We stroke black mascara through our eyelashes. We take turns leaning back to look. I grab an elastic band and put my hair up in a messy nest on top of my head. Erin does the same, but then lets it back down. I can’t find the right shoes. Erin points to my old brown boots and I put them on and we go.
The bar has a downstairs room with flashing lights, a DJ booth, and a small dance floor by the bathrooms. The space for dancing is an afterthought, like a dark sewn-in pocket, stitched together for the college kids who skip dinner upstairs and come down here for bottom-shelf vodka in flimsy cups.
We maneuver our way past the bar to the dance floor. A song I don’t recognize plays through large speakers. Half the kids here must have shown their older brother’s or sister’s ID at the door. A few guys skulk around the floor holding drinks and eyeing bodies. Girls sway, their knees and elbows and hips swinging. I feel old, too tired and too awake at the same time. Anxiety stirs like a cat.
You can tell Erin was a dancer by the way she moves. She is the one in the middle of the dance floor. She is the one with rhythm and a smile and hips that everyone watches. She makes fun of the boys who won’t dance and think they’re entitled to stand and stare. She goes to one in a t-shirt and baseball cap and mimics his pose by crossing her arms, scooting her feet into a wide stance, and leaning back against the wall next to him. He looks down over his shoulder at her, and smirks, guilty. Erin mouths, “What?” and smiles as she teases. He unfolds his arms and they laugh as she skips away.
I am the one going to the bar for another drink. I am the one on the edge of the dance floor, moving this way and that, trying to unlock the tension in my joints from holding them at steady angles all day. I am the one whose brain wants to worry: Why are you back home? You don’t have a job. What are you doing? You are unmoored and you are alone.
We do our best with the vodka, the dudes, and the exhaustion. I try to dance my worry away. But after a while, it’s my idea to leave. We scurry to the car with ringing ears, and the hot sweat on our temples cools in the winter air.
At home, the house is still. My bare feet try to step quietly on the carpeted hallway upstairs but the floor creaks in all the old places. In my room, the bed is made with tightly tucked flannel sheets and there’s a piece of white printer paper with “Welcome home, Kelly!” written in my mom’s handwriting. I lay in bed and close my eyes. The last thing I hear is the muted squeal of the floor under Erin’s feet and the click of her door as it closes next to mine.
In the morning, I push open the door to her room.
“Poo?” I say.
She groans from under a pillow.
“Poo!” I say again and get in bed next to her, squirming around on purpose, nudging her awake.
The shades are drawn snug to the windows and we are shielded from the day in the warmth of blankets and sheets. We talk in the same raspy morning voice. When we go downstairs, the kitchen is white with sun. Mom’s making eggs and pork roll. It smells like a holiday.
By early January, when it’s time for Erin to leave, I’ve found a place to go, too. She will move to a hilly town on a lake with sidewalks and chapels and tall, stoic maple trees. I will go to a noisy city between two rivers, a gray, towering place that feels like a country all its own.
We pack up all our things and leave Pennsylvania on the same day, in separate cars. I wear the old brown boots — my best dancing shoes. It is our season, and we are heading north.