Aunt Carol and I catch up on as much as we can catch up on without me actually telling her most of what I’ve really been up to, so she does a lot of the talking. And a couple hours later Michelle gets home.
I might be the strange little changeling of the family, but Michelle is the gypsy. Really, she is. Her mother abandoned her as a baby in a horse wagon on the road near Aunt Carol’s house, and my aunt found her and couldn’t just leave her there. So she wound up adopting her, naming her Michelle – I’m not sure why, except she liked the name – deciding her birthday which, as things turned out, is a day after mine, and now here she is, almost nineteen years later, as much a part of the family as me.
That’s my cousin Michelle. We don’t really have a lot in common, other than my Aunt Carol, who is Mum to Michelle. We don’t look alike, of course – for one thing, she towers over me, even more so now – and we’ve never gotten along all that well. I think Michelle thinks I’m jealous of her, but really, I think it’s the other way around. I know I have a way of driving her crazy, and after all this, I can’t imagine that won’t be even more true now.
My carry-on is still by the door when Michelle gets home. Now that she’s out of school and not in uni, my aunt has told me, she’s taken a job in the city and is commuting back and forth each day. A long trip, for sure. My aunt told me she doesn’t know how long that will last, and besides, Michelle has a boyfriend she seems serious about, so maybe they’ll get married, or not, and anyway she’ll move out and they’ll find a place to live in Joburg. I can sense my aunt is not crazy about living by herself as she tells me this, just as I know she’ll accept whatever Michelle decides to do.
Michelle is not one to miss a clue, I’ll say that much for her, and of course she notices my bag the second she walks in the door.
“Mum, is someone visiting?”
She calls from the front door before she’s even taken off her coat. Aunt Carol doesn’t answer, just gives me a look, probably figuring Michelle will stomp the few steps into the kitchen, where we’ve been sitting as the daylight grew dim, and see for herself who the visitor is. And of course she does. And she stops dead at the doorway to the kitchen as I turn and she realizes it’s me.
“Rosie? Is that really you?”
What am I supposed to say? No, it’s Britney Spears. Who else would it be? Okay, I’m being catty. I suppose it’s a reasonable enough question to ask after four years.
“Yup, Michelle, it’s really me. Are you surprised?”
I know, that’s a dumb question, too. What else could I say?
“Well, wonders will never cease. Stand up, girl, and let me see you.”
I don’t have much choice since she’s rushed over and practically yanked me out of my seat. I’m trying to figure out if she’s more happy to see me or more chastising me in a round-about way for my absence or if she’s just too flabbergasted to know what she’s feeling or what to think. I decide it’s probably the last one.
“My lord, it really is you. Mum, I told you she’d be back sometime, didn’t I? And here she is.”
“Yes, Michelle, here I am. I never intended to disappear altogether. And Auntie knows I’ve stayed in touch with her.”
“If you count a call on Christmas or her birthday as staying in touch, you did. Well, it’s better than nothing, we’ll grant. So what brings you here to us now, Rosie?”
I don’t miss her use of “we” and “us,” as if she’s authorized to speak on behalf of my aunt, too, and I can hear an edge of disapproval in her words, already curt in Michelle’s clipped South African way of speaking, never what I’d describe as warm and fuzzy anyway. I’m tempted to answer her in the same sort of sarcastic way, but for my aunt’s sake I don’t. See, I can be a good girl when I need to be.
“I’ve told Auntie all about it, and we’ve been catching up on things. And before you ask, since I know you will, I can only stay a few days, until Thursday. And if you want to know more, you’ll just have to wait until later. Okay, Michelle? I’m still alive and still love you both and I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth and I’m very, very happy to be here. So there.”
I think even Michelle gets the message to back off, and she does, letting go of me and even allowing her otherwise stern face to relax a bit. Somehow I get the feeling my aunt has a younger heart and more carefree spirit than her 19-year-old adopted daughter.
“Well, welcome, cuz. Welcome back to the old homestead. Hasn’t changed much, has it?”
“No, thank goodness, it hasn’t. It still feels like home. The flowers blooming in the garden. Even how it smells, that lovely familiar aroma I remember so well. And that of Auntie’s wonderful cooking lingering in the air. I don’t know how much either of you realize how happy I am to be here.”
I can tell my aunt is pleased to hear this from me, judging by her gentle smile, and my cousin has to be pleased at that. It surprises me a bit, but for once in a long time I feel at home, and I don’t have to think about Sid. At least that.
“Michelle, darling, why don’t you bring Lizzy up to your room so she can get settled a bit while I put on dinner and we’ll have something to eat, okay?”
“Yes, of course, Mum. I’ll be happy to.”
Michelle leads me up the creaking stairs and down the hall with its old squeaking boards to her room, which is where I’ll be staying, sharing it with her, as I always do when I’m here. There are separate beds, not next to each other, and it all feels and looks and smells so familiar as we make our way there.
I sense that as soon as we’re past the door to the room Michelle is going to start with the hundred questions, so I decide a preemptive strike is in order. We’re barely in the room when I launch it.
“So tell me, Michelle, what you’ve been up to. Auntie tells me you’ll have a lot to tell me. What’s been going on with you?”
“What I’ve been up to? And she hasn’t told you?”
“No, not really. Just that you’re out of school now and working in Joburg and you have a boyfriend. But I got the impression there is more to tell than that and she was leaving it up to you to say.”
“She didn’t tell you about America? New York?”
Now this really hits me by surprise and, like I said, not much surprises me any more. Here I was thinking I was the only one in the family to run off to New York.
“No, not at all. What’s that about?”
“Well, when I graduated high school and turned 18 I decided I wanted to try to make a modeling career for myself in New York. So I worked awhile and saved some money, and off I went. You see, you’re not the only one to go to New York.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. No, I had no idea. Even on the phone Auntie never let on you were gone. You left her by herself? When did you go? How long did you stay? And why did you come back?”
My plan is working and now I’m the one with the hundred questions. Knowing Michelle’s ego, she’ll be only to happy to go on about all this. And actually, I am curious to know more.
“Well, it was last year. I wasn’t sure about leaving Mum, but she said I should go, that it’s best to do these things when you’re young. So I did. I went when it was winter there, and I knew it would be cold, but I wasn’t expecting how cold it would be. I wound up living in Brooklyn with this girl I met, and she was trying to be a model, too. It wasn’t easy, and then Andrew – that’s my boyfriend, you know – Andrew came over and we were both in New York together for about six months, living together in the apartment with my girlfriend. I got a few modeling gigs, but what I made barely paid the bills.”
I know Michelle wants to use this as a way to introduce her boyfriend, and that she used his name twice and said he was her boyfriend, all in the same sentence, confirms that. But I’m not taking the bait.
“So how long did you stay? And you never thought to get in touch with me while you were in America?”
“Now how exactly would I have done that, Rosie? You know you keep your whereabouts secret and block your numbers. I didn’t even know you were really there. You could have been anywhere.”
“Well, yeah, but if I knew you were in New York Auntie could have given me your number and I would have called you.”
“Water under the bridge. And to what end? Too late now, anyway. I was there almost a year and then decided I wasn’t going to be a famous model, and here I am back home again. But it was fun while it lasted.”
“Sounds it. You stayed a year longer than I did in New York. So that’s something.”
I’m sure there’s more to this story, I can see it in how Michelle seems to be sizing me up, and then she goes for it.
“You’ll never believe how I got the visa to go to the States.”
“Oh, do tell, dear cuz. I’m sure it’s a good story.”
Here it comes, I just know it.
“It is. One I’m sure you’ll appreciate. In truth, I wasn’t sure I’d get the visa, and when I went for my interview I could tell the American officer was looking me up, so we went in his office and he closed the door and I wound up giving him a blowie under his desk. And he gave me the visa, just like that. Are you scandalized I’d do such a thing?”
I’m not sure I do appreciate Michelle’s insinuation that this would be something I’d do, which is what’s encrypted in there, even if it might be. She’s not supposed to know that part and I wonder why she makes that assumption about me.
“No, I’m not particularly scandalized. You’re a big girl now. So it worked, huh? That’s good. Why do you think I’d appreciate that?”
“Oh, cuz, I don’t think you’re the innocent little girl any more, despite the myths Mum seems intent on preserving about you. Am I wrong?”
“As they say, cuz, I can neither confirm nor deny. So you’ll just have to wonder.”
I can’t imagine my aunt preserving any myths about me, anyway. Aunt Carol is anything but naive. Rather, I sense this is another of Michelle’s ploys to get me to divulge something about myself that I have no intent of divulging, and she goes on to prove me right.
“Now I’ve told you about my misdeed. It’s only fair you tell me about yours. At least one.”
“That’s because you consider it a misdeed, Michelle. You got what you needed so, uh, job well done. I don’t consider that a misdeed, so there’s nothing I need to tell you. You’re free to imagine what you like about me, of course. You will, anyway.”
I know this is going to put my cousin on a slow boil inside.
“Can I unpack a bit now and freshen up before dinner? I’m sure we’ll have lots more questions for each other by the time I leave. Nice story, though.”
By now I can almost see steam coming from my cousin’s ears. I know I’m a rotten person, but I just love taunting her like this. No one forces her to take the bait, but she does it so wonderfully every freaking time.
“Well, I’m glad you liked it. Lucky you don’t need any visas to come here. I wonder what you’d do to get them.”
“Probably the same thing you did. But as you say, I don’t have to. Maybe I’d do it anyway, just for the fun of it. What’s the big deal, Michelle? So you gave the guy a blow job. Maybe you needed to give some more of those and you’d be a famous model now. Who knows, right?”
That was assuming, of course, that she didn’t do that while she was in New York and they didn’t lead to the intended result. I can see more steam practically shooting out of her ears.
“You do know how infuriating you can be, Rosie, don’t you? You’re just goading me. I know that’s what you’re doing. Well, I won’t let you.”
Well, I’m thinking, you already have, cuz. But she goes on.
“Do your unpacking and powder your little nose and then come down and join us for dinner.”
With that she spins around and heads for the door, but before she reaches it she stops and looks back at me.
“You’re not going to tell Mum about how I got my visa, are you, Rosie?”
“What? Of course not. She doesn’t need to hear that stuff.”
“Thank you, cuz. I’ll owe you one.”
“Forget it. It’s for her, not you. Just stop giving me shit, okay? I’m doing what I have to do. That’s all you need to know.”
“Am I doing that? All right. As you wish. I’ll stop. See you downstairs in a few.”
With that Michelle is out the door and I’m left in her bedroom hoping our new-found truce, as shaky as it is, will hold at least until I’m gone on Thursday.