by Jennifer Lai
We moved to a new city the year my sister Gigi entered high school. For the sixth time in her life, she would have to start anew. But Gigi was always good at drawing a crowd. She’d regale classmates with tales of our family’s encounters with colorful exotic creatures while scuba diving off the coast of Kosrae or Yap or some other tiny country in the western Pacific rim, or of our family’s climbing excursions in the Italian Dolomites, each of us snuggled in zero degree sleeping bags on portaledges strung up on cliff faces thousands of feet above ground, tethered by personal anchors to keep us from falling to our deaths.
Of course, these were lies. Mirrored from documentaries we’d watched when our parents thought us asleep. But her classmates ate them up because, well, kids believed anything. At least at that age. And Gigi had a knack for storytelling beyond her years, setting the atmosphere so intricately vivid with details that even had me convinced I’d been there.
Because of our ten-year age difference, Gigi and I never attended school together, though I saw her there every day. The demands of our parents’ work meant that I’d become her unofficial babysitter charged with, among other things, picking her up after school. It was on those occasions I eavesdropped while she spoke at length, her hands animated like a mime, to throngs of children seated cross-legged on the grass, forearms on knees, eyes wide and anticipatory.
Sure, our parents didn’t have jobs that generated stories worth holding a breath over—Dad, a farm equipment mechanic and Mom, a waitress at some diner in whatever hodunk town we settled in—but we always had fun road tripping on the weekends across rural Arkansas or Kentucky or any state within half a day’s drive. We’d challenge each other to see who could recite the alphabet backwards the fastest (I always won, of course), spot the most out-of-town license plates in a five-mile stretch (she’d sometimes win, but only when I let her), or hold our breath the longest whenever a fetid stench mysteriously found its way to the back seat.
Now, as a freshman, I feared that Gigi’s extravagant tales would backfire. That she’d be ridiculed when the truth eventually surfaced. In this new, large and boisterous city, there was bound to be someone who knew someone who experienced these adventures firsthand, and my worry for her tinged with anxiety. What did she really know about scuba diving? Climbing?
One day I finally asked her why she told those stories. My question came out harsher than intended and, after leaving my mouth, I immediately regretted saying it. I was about to take it back when Gigi cocked her head and said, rather matter-of-factly, “But we could.”
Hearing her words felt like listening to her speak for the first time.
Up till then, it’d never occurred to me that Gigi had any desires to venture beyond our humble life. Wasn’t she playing with Barbie dolls just yesterday? Begging me to sleep with her because she swore there were ghosts in her closet? I always figured recounting stories gave her the attention she so desperately craved from our parents. A feeling I understood all too well.
As we stood outside the front entrance of her new school, thunder struck suddenly—a booming thud followed by heavy drops that pelted my head, my arms, my brown leather purse. Where had these clouds come from? I could’ve sworn it sunny a minute ago.
Fast as lightening, Gigi snapped open an umbrella. Clear and dome-shaped, it shielded us in a bubble and the noise around quieted. We should have started walking then—to the car, the front office, the cafeteria where students amassed on particle board tables under glaring fluorescent lights. Anywhere.
Instead, we stayed put, as if fettered by chains, gazing at our ominous surroundings. In the pavement’s puddles, concentric rings distorted reflections of the surrounding trees. A light breeze blew, and my skin pricked with goosebumps as my clothes clung like static electricity. Although cold, I remained still, hooking an arm around Gigi’s bent elbow, waiting. There’d eventually be a rainbow, I told myself, and I didn’t want to miss it.
Photo by Ben Mack via pexels.com