Present Day – New York City
I roll over, groaning out loud at the sound of my alarm cutting through the wonderful silence of the morning. And although waking up is on my list of most hated things, I still somehow have hope that today will be the morning I’ve been waiting twelve years for.
I pull my phone from the nightstand, turning off the alarm and immediately opening my email. It’s the same routine every morning. Turn off the alarm, check my email, check Facebook and hope that today is the day I will find that message. The one I’ve been waiting to receive for over a decade. All the other things that come through are insignificant. I don’t care about a twenty percent off sale at the Gap or the countless status updates from my “friends” about their cats, kids, food or significant others.
But every day, just like the one before it, there is nothing of importance.
My head falls back against the pillow, my eyes watching the ceiling fan as it whirs above my head, dizzying and mindless.
The anniversary of the day I met Elliot is nearing and it will be twelve years since that life-changing moment happened. In three days, I will have been searching for him for twelve years. Twelve long years and I’m still not any closer to finding him.
I look down at my arm and run my fingers over his words.
write what you love tattooed on my arm in all lowercase letters, in his handwriting; a reminder of what I lost.
The first thing I did when I got home after that trip to San Diego was head into Alice’s favorite tattoo shop and have the tattoo artist ink Elliot’s words onto my arm. The ink from the pen was fading, but still visible enough to use and I was grateful for the fact that I didn’t have time to shower before rushing to catch my plane.
A permanent reminder of Elliot, of what we had and of my dreams of becoming a writer, all of it shared with him in the quiet stillness of that night on the beach, but all of it lost in an instant.
I often wonder if absence warps the mind, makes us remember things differently, romanticizes all the beauty and exaggerates the pain felt; maybe it even minimizes all the defects that were probably present all along. I never dwell on this thought very long, because what I feel is real. A connection to Elliot, a need to find him, to right what I was unable to at the time and know if what I felt between us in that moment was really an undying love brought upon by fate.
I climb out of bed and trudge into the kitchen, starting my day the way I do every morning with a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal.
When I hit the living room, I find Alice asleep on my couch, her face soft and peaceful, her hair a disastrous mess of ratty brown curls spilling out over my expensive Pottery Barn throw pillows. I don’t know why she insists on sleeping on my couch when I have a perfectly nice extra bedroom available for her to use. Sometimes I think she just likes to push my buttons. Knowing how much I hate it when she crashes on the couch, but she still does it.
She must have come in last night after I went to bed. Her life is still a cluttered mess of bad decisions and far too much drama, and although I’m wary of her choices and her lifestyle, she is my sister.
I settle myself at the table as Alice begins to stir, stretching her arms above her head and groaning as she rubs at her eyes. Mascara from the night before smears across her face and I cringe at the thought of it tainting my perfectly clean pillows.
“So how many days until you start your stupid quest again?” she asks, her voice hoarse as if she’d spent the night sucking back too much alcohol and at least a pack of cigarettes.
“Three,” I answer back with a sharp edge to my voice. I know where she’s heading with this.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you give up this shit? It’s been fucking forever and I’m beginning to think you’re crazy,” she says, flopping down in the chair next to me reeking of smoke and hard liquor.
“Listen, you sleep on my couch, you eat my food, you’ve been married twice and you’re only thirty-two years old. I’m not sure you’re the person to be giving advice,” I respond, completely annoyed with Alice already and it’s only six-thirty in the morning.
“Settle down, judgy wudgy,” Alice says, holding her hands up as if she meant no harm. “I thought maybe I could help you this time.”
I’m pretty sure my mouth is hanging open as I stare at her.
“What?” I ask, wondering if I’ve even heard her correctly.
The only time Alice helped me with my search was when I called her the minute my plane landed and begged her to go back to the frat house and find out if anyone knew Elliot.
It was a ten-minute argument with her, where she told me she couldn’t go back there because she’d slept with a guy who lived there and she never wanted to see him again. Eventually she caved and I’m still not sure why. She’s always thought the whole idea of falling for someone after just meeting them was a joke.
She called me an hour later to tell me no one knew Elliot, and I wasn’t all that surprised. The party was huge and for all I know he came with friends or happened upon it while walking by. I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but I had to try.
“I want to help you,” she says firmly, adding a quick nod of her head like I should be proud of her for not being her usual selfish self.
“You lost your job, didn’t you?” I ask and Alice rolls her eyes.
“Why do you always think I have ulterior motives?”
I give her a sideways glance, but she looks away and nods her head. Letting out an exasperated sigh, I figure there’s no point in lecturing her on responsibility. It’s never worked in the past.
“Guess you’re not sleeping with your boss anymore either then, which explains why you’re shacked up on my couch,” I say, matter-of-factly. There’s no animosity in my words, this is just what it is. “How long are you staying?”
“How long can I stay?” Alice asks, but something about her words seems almost embarrassed.
“As long as you need,” I say, suddenly feeling sorry for her and the fact that she still can’t seem to get her life together. “But can you please sleep in my guest room? You’re ruining my pillows.”
“Thanks,” she responds giving a small nod of her head, but I can tell by the tone in her voice even her lifestyle is starting to wear thin.
We sit silently for a few minutes before Alice turns to me and smiles weakly.
“Do you write what you love?” she asks me, looking down at my arm.
“What do you think?” I ask back.
Alice shakes her head knowing this is not where I expected to find myself. It wasn’t like I didn’t try to become a writer. I did, but it proved far more difficult than I thought and I eventually took a job writing descriptions of items for a well known website and catalog company that sells high-end cookware. I’m still there today.
“Sometimes life gets in the way of the things you love and you have no other option but to give in,” I tell her, my voice sullen.
“Is that why you’re still trying to find him?” she asks, but this time there’s no insinuation in her tone, no judgment.
“I really do want to help you,” Alice adds and I smile at her, but it doesn’t reach my eyes. Discussing it out loud, not just the situation with Elliot but also my job has made my life sound far more depressing than it should be.
“Because everyone needs something to believe in and right now, I have nothing,” she says and it breaks my heart.
“That’s not true, Alice,” I say trying to ease her fears and my own, but I know it’s a lie.
“It is true. You said it yourself, I’m thirty-two years old, sleeping on your couch; I can’t keep a job and I’ve had a string of bad marriages. Sounds like a stellar life so far.” She stops and runs her hand through her hair, looking at me, she shakes her head and says, “I want to help you because I feel like if you’ve held out this long, there’s still some hope out there.”
“Or I’ve lost my fucking mind.”
The three days go by in a blink and before I know it, Alice and I are on our way out of New York heading back to Boston.
“So how does this work?” she asks, already bothering me with her obsessive need to touch everything in my car. Her hands paw at the radio and flip the vents open and close as the air conditioning blasts too high for my liking but any lower causes complaints from Alice.
“How does what work?” I question back, wondering what the hell she’s even referring to. With Alice only god knows what’s going on in her head.
“This whole operation Find Elliot thing you’ve got going on,” she says casually, shrugging her shoulders. “You’ve never really told me what you do during this time.”
I guess I’ve never really discussed it with anyone. I worry about the judgment it will bring when I explain the ludicrousness of what I’m doing, what I’ve been doing for almost twelve years. Or maybe I just realize how embarrassing it is to admit it out loud.
For all I know Elliot has long since forgotten me. He’s probably married with a beautiful wife and kids, living in the suburbs of San Diego enjoying his life. All things I probably should have done myself.
It’s not like I didn’t have options. I was engaged once, several years ago to a perfectly acceptable man, but he was just that, acceptable. And I felt like I was not only lying to him, but to myself by marrying him knowing I was still harboring feelings for Elliot.
I tried moving on, yet something about each new guy I met felt wrong, like I was cheating myself out of something great.
I take a deep breath, figuring we have a few hours till we hit Boston, I might as well fill her in since she’s opted to join me on this idiotic quest for something that probably no longer exists.
“I stop off at Dad’s and stay for a day or two, hanging out with him and making dinner. Then I drive across the country following any leads the PI I hired has found in hopes of finding Elliot.” I say it like it’s completely normal, like it doesn’t sound stalkerish or borderline crazy.
Lucky for me, Alice is as crazy as they come and while I’m sure she’s secretly judging me in her head, she acts like nothing I’ve said seems at all off.
“Sounds good,” she replies. “Can we stop at Kane’s?”
I laugh out loud wondering if this is the real reason she’s decided to join me.
“Of course. I’ll pay you in donuts for your help.”
“Yes,” Alice says cheerfully, tossing a hand up in the air.
The car falls silent and I ask the one question I know she’s been waiting for, but doesn’t want to answer.
“When was the last time you were home?”
“I don’t know,” she says, but I know that isn’t true. She knows exactly when the last time was, because it was the time our father finally told her he was done supporting her. While I truly believe he had her best interests at heart, he crushed her and she left bitter and angry.
“That’s bullshit,” I tell her, flatly.
“It was five years ago.”
I didn’t realize it had been that long. Whenever I’d visit my dad, he’d ask how Alice was, and I was always vague in my answers. I knew he didn’t want to know that while I had created a life for myself in New York, Alice was still out “finding herself.” I know he blames himself for enabling her for all those years and the guilt was even worse when he eventually called it quits.
Alice begins to fidget in the seat, picking at the skin around her fingernails, kicking off her shoes and changing positions multiple times before letting out a long huff.
“He’ll forgive you, Alice. He’s our dad.”
“I know. But he shouldn’t.”
A few hours later we pull into the driveway of the home we both grew up in. The home where we lost our mother, the home where Alice was told she was no longer welcome, and I know by bringing her with me, it can go one of two ways. I’m hoping today we find our father ready to forgive her.
He steps out onto the front porch, a smile on his face, wearing a Boston Red Sox t-shirt and holding two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a tradition we started when I was finally old enough to drink.
“The game’s on,” he calls. “Bottom of the third.”
I find everything about him comforting: his lazy smile, his disheveled hair, his obsessive love for the Red Sox, but most of all, his love for me.
I watch his smile fade as Alice steps out of the car, and I can’t decide if he’s angry or shocked at what I’ve done.
“Hi, Dad,” she says, giving him a slight wave and a feeble smile.
He waits momentarily before saying, “Why don’t you girls come inside? I’ll order a pizza.” And I know everything’s going to be all right.
Alice links arms with me, smiling bigger than I’ve seen her smile in years as we head up toward the house.
Families are a funny thing, and if they’re done right, the passage of time means nothing. All the bad decisions and the arguments, the things left unsaid and the time spent apart dissipate.
By the time we go to bed, it’s like Alice hasn’t been missing for the last five years and by looking at her face, the stress is gone. She looks years younger, calmer, almost at peace with herself.
While this wasn’t my intention to bring normalcy back our family, I’m glad I did. But I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t part of the reason Alice agreed to join me. I fall asleep feeling lighter, at ease, but I know it will only last so long. Tomorrow, I’ll set off to find Elliot, almost resigned to the fact that nothing will happen, yet I still can’t bring myself to give up.