Well, we get to Aunt Carol’s and go right up to the gate at the front of her compound on the side road that leads off from the main road, up by the big curve I remember so well, and I guess she’s home since her ancient Ford is parked by the house. I can’t believe she still has that car. It was already old when I was half my age now, but she loves it too much to part with it, the way she’s painted it funny colors and has fuzzy things hanging from the rear-view mirror. It’s her baby.
I pay the cabbie and give him a decent tip for coming all the way out here without arguing or anything – it’s Sid’s money anyway, and I know he can afford it – and the guy is appreciative, not thinking too badly of this odd American girl. So it’s kind of hearts-and-minds money, is how I see it. Not that it much matters except the guy will be able to buy a little more food for his family or a little more petrol with it.
I get out with my carry-on bag and manage to open the gate and go inside the compound and walk up toward the main house. Even in the middle of winter there are flowers, big red and pink and white roses, blooming in my aunt’s garden, and it all looks so familiar, so much as I remembered it, I’m almost in tears by the time I reach the front door. But I don’t want Aunt Carol to think I’m sad or teary or the prodigal niece coming home after tending pigs in some foreign land. I want her to see me as strong and self-sufficient, a woman with her own purpose, just as she is. I can try, anyway, can’t I?
I pull in a few deep breaths, drawing in the familiar scent of my aunt’s homestead along with the thin winter air, pulling up with it every bit of courage I can muster and telling my stomach butterflies to chill, and then I knock on the door, loudly it seems, rattling it, in the Monday mid-day quiet.
I think how I would have come back by now from the thicket behind my aunt’s house, settling down to my home-schooling lessons with her at the dining room table, when I was last here. I’d go up to that thicket almost every day, for it was there, in a special tree I found, that I would commune with the African spirits, ask them the questions I needed to ask. And it was there that I decided I needed to get away from home, to run off with Sid, to do whatever it took to make that happen. And guess what? I did make it happen. And now four years later I’m back here at my aunt’s house, back in sight of the thicket, not far from the place where I communed with those spirits, and where they led the way onto my current path.
I hear a stirring inside, hear the familiar heavy steps my Aunt Carol makes on the crooked wooden floor, and then see her peering through the curtains at the door. Even as she peers past the curtains and the glass I can see her eyes open wide, as wide as saucers, and the door bursts open.
“Oh, my, god. Lizzy. My little Lizzy. Is it really you or have I gone daft in my old age?”
I might have mentioned to you that my aunt likes to call me Lizzy. My middle name is Elisabeth, spelled the English way, and so is hers, so it’s a name we share in common.
“It’s really me, Auntie. Your little Lizzy is here at your door. The troublemaker is back. Are you surprised to see me?”
Little troublemaker is another name my aunt has used for me, too. Affectionately, of course. I think so, anyway.
“Oh, oh, I’m speechless. You’re going to give your old aunt a heart attack. Come here, my sweet darling, come to me.”
With that my aunt wraps her prodigious arms around me, pulling me in to her substantial body, and she practically crushes li’l ol’ me in the bear hug she gives me, the bear hug she gives me, and holds me in, and won’t let me out of. I guess I was expecting a warm welcome, but this is even way more than I anticipated. At least I’m still wanted after all this time and my aunt hasn’t disowned me. Not that I ever thought she would.
“My god, Lizzy. Let me look at you. You’ve grown so much. You’re a young woman now, not the little girl any more.”
I’m touched, really I’m touched, by my aunt’s warm welcome. It’s all I can do to hold back the tears.
“Your little Lizzy is still pretty small, Auntie. But she’s glad you think she’s grown. And she has, you know, in lots of ways. Though I don’t think she was such a little girl last time you saw her, either.”
“My sweetheart, come in, come in. I just can’t believe it.”
We step inside my aunt’s house, the house I’m so familiar with from the time I spent here as a child. It not only looks the same, but it smells the same, too, the scent of antiquity, of old wood and cloth and dust, combined with the warm aromas of my aunt’s cooking and the flowers she sets out about the house. And my aunt’s own unique scent. That hasn’t changed, either, and I’m grateful for that, even tinged as it is with Marlboro smoke.
“To what can I attribute the honor of your visit, dear Lizzy? And will you be staying with us long?”
Two questions I would just as soon put off. But that’s my aunt. She gets right to the heart of the matter, not one to put things off, she’s not.
“Would you believe, Auntie, that I was just passing through the neighborhood and thought I’d stop in?”
Aunt Carol still has her hands on my shoulders, and she holds me away so she can look directly into my eyes.
“No, I won’t believe that. You know I won’t. So try another story, Lizzy. How about the true one?”
“You’re such a stickler for detail, Auntie. Look, I just got here, and I’ll explain everything to you, but can it wait a little while? Please? I’m just so happy to see you again.”
“Of course it can. And I’m so happy to see you, too. Happy is hardly even the word for how I feel.”
We hug again, this time more of a mutual hug, and I sense we both share a relief to be in each other’s company once more.
“I don’t suppose we’ll be calling your folks to let them know you’re here and okay, will we?”
“No, Auntie. This has nothing to do with them. I’m here to see you, and only you. Well, and Michelle, too, of course. But it has nothing to do with my parents. Nothing’s changed there.”
“They’ve been worried sick about you, you know. I’ve reassured them as best I can, tell them I hear from you sometimes and you’re okay, but that doesn’t satisfy them. They don’t understand why you’d run away like that, without so much as a word to them, either before or since.”
I give my aunt one of my own looks, and she knows what that means. My parents know damned well why I ran away. No matter they pretend they don’t. Just like them, always pretending instead of facing the truth they’d rather not admit.
“Okay, let’s drop that subject, too. Come in, dear Lizzy, and let’s sit and chat. I’ve missed our chats so.”
“Me, too, Auntie. You’re the only person in the whole world who understands me, you know. Who even cares to.”
“I understand you? You think so. Don’t flatter yourself, or me. If I understood you that would be a real accomplishment.”
“You understand more than you let on, Auntie. After all, as I’ve always said, we’re a lot alike. You do know that.”
“Well, I used to believe that, until you did your little disappearing act. Now I don’t know what I believe any more, dear Lizzy. I just don’t.”
“I did what I had to do, Auntie. Just like you did. Maybe not the same as you did, but you know how sometimes you just have to do what you have to do, no matter what anyone else thinks or says. I know you understand that. Well, that’s all I did.”
“All you did? Well, if you put it that way, maybe. But was it that terrible? You’re still a child, though I know you don’t believe that. But you are. And you have so much ahead of you.”
“Some child, Auntie. Don’t go all sentimental on me. And I still have a lot ahead of me. I haven’t dropped off the earth or died or given up on myself. Do I look like I’m starving or living on the street or I’m on drugs or anything?”
“No, I can’t say you do. You look quite wonderful, actually. Can I say I’m amazed?”
“You can. But don’t be. I’m still me, Auntie. And I’m fine. Really I am. And I’m still your little Lizzy. Am I still your little gogga, too?”
“Oh, posh. You remember that. You were such a sweet, strange little child.”
“Of course I remember it, Auntie. How could I forget?”
“Yes, you’re still my little gogga. That little changeling who used to look after the tiny bugs and lived in her own world, whatever it was. My little Lizzy, my little gogga.”
Now I can’t hold back the tears any more, and they just start to flow, running down my cheeks, but they are tears of joy. I still have my Aunt Carol, I love her so much, and I reach out and give her the biggest hug I can muster. I think she’s surprised at how emotional I still can be.
“Oh, now who’s being sentimental? But you’re entitled. We both are. It’s been too long, my darling niece. Far too long.”
My aunt puts some water on for tea and brings out a plate of sweet biscuits. I haven’t even put away my stuff, my carry-on still stands by the front door, but neither of us care about that. There will be time for that later. Now it’s time to just be together, to catch up as best we can on the past four years.
“Your cousin will be home a bit later – she’s done with school now, you know? – so why don’t you tell me whatever you want to tell me so we don’t have to involve her in all that. She’ll be curious enough, I’m sure, but you can tell her whatever you like. She has a lot to tell you, too, I’m sure.”
My aunt knows I have a love-hate relationship with Michelle, and while she is my cousin, if not by birth, she’s still my cousin, and I love her for that, there is a lot I don’t like to share with her and I doubt she’d understand or appreciate, anyway. Kind of that “need-to-know” thing, and the less Michelle knows the better, as far as I’m concerned.
“Auntie, I know it’s asking a lot, but you’ve just got to trust me. I told you I’ve been taken in by that sweet young couple in Arkansas after I hitchhiked there from California, and they’ve been very good to me. You said it yourself, I’m not starving or abused or anything. And I’m learning a lot. They’re even having me learn how to be a pastry chef, and it’s something I’ve always – well, maybe not always, but for a long time – wanted to learn.”
“Assuming, for the sake of argument, Lizzy, I believe that story, what brings you here now? How did you get here? It’s a long way from Arkansas.”
Now it’s really getting tricky and I have to be careful how I say things. Remember that part about believing your own lies? Well, my aunt is every bit as savvy as an immigration officer – more savvy than most, I’d say – and she can see a lie in my eyes from across the room. So I have trained myself to believe what I’m telling her, not that I see any signs that she’s believing it, despite my best efforts.
“They had some business to tend to in Mozambique, he’s in import-export, so they brought me along and gave me some money and let me come visit you. They know how much I miss you, Auntie, they both do, and how you’re the only person in the whole world I really, really wanted to see. So here I am.”
“I’ll say one thing for you, Lizzy. You still have a formidable imagination. I’m almost convinced by your little story. But the key word here is ‘almost.’ It is a good little tale, though, I’ll say that much for it. Have you rehearsed it long, Lizzy?”
Just like my aunt to see through things. Well, part of the story is true, even you can see that. I just changed the names of the innocent to protect the guilty, is all. Mostly.
“Pretty long, Auntie. I thought it was pretty good.”
My aunt laughs at this, and I think she sincerely thinks it’s funny. I still have the ability to amuse her.
“And how long will you be staying with us, my little story-spinning gogga?”
“Just ’til Thursday morning, Auntie. Then I have to go meet them so we can fly back to Arkansas. But that’ll give us almost three whole days, Auntie. That seems like a lifetime to me, after all this time.”
My aunt frowns at this. Three days don’t seem a lifetime to her, that’s for sure. Then her face relaxes a bit.
“I suppose three days are better than no days. I wish you’d change your mind and stay awhile. You can always go back later if you wish, Lizzy. The time just seems so short, already.”
I reach over and hug my aunt again. Somehow the time with Aunt Carol always seems so short. Too short. No matter how many or how few days it is. As much as I’d like to stay, I know that’s just not possible, even if I can’t tell her why.
And I can’t. As much as I wish I could, I just can’t.