I see Liz just as I pull the greeting card from the display. She looks exactly as I’ve imagined: as if she’s got a lot of money, and she doesn’t mind spending it on herself. Black pantsuit. Beige trench coat. Hair highlighted in just the right places, so the light catches her and makes you look twice. I’ve imagined this chance meeting so many times, at first I wonder if she’s the extension of a dream. But it’s her — I’m sure of it. I stand there for a moment, holding the greeting card and wondering if I have the energy to deal with my sister face-to-face for the first time in three years. But before I can decide, she sees me, too.
“Lily!” she cries. She sweeps into the aisle and hugs me. “I’m in town on business. Can you believe it? I never come home!”
“Yes,” I say. “I know.”
She doesn’t hear this, or chooses to ignore it. “I never thought I’d be here for work. I’m terrified someone will see me and think I’ve moved back! What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? I live here. Well — not here in the grocery store.” I laugh, but it comes out sounding weak. “I moved back last year. You know that. You sent me a Christmas card.”
“Lily, I’m just teasing you.” But she seems suddenly distracted, as though she’d forgotten that I was back. Someone else must have the tedious job of addressing her holiday envelopes.
“Oh! Of course!” I say, a little too loudly. I laugh again and search for something more to say.
Whenever I imagine this reunion, I’m always a little bit more fabulous than Liz. In my mind, I’m a successful chef. Real estate developer. City commissioner, school board president, soccer mom — something. But not a 35-year-old newlywed who moved back to her boring hometown to take care of her dying mother. Even so, I always imagined that when Liz and I finally saw each other again, my heart would fill with love. She’d apologize for drifting away; I’d wave it off. “What’s a few lost years between sisters?” I’d say, and we’d laugh. That’s all it would take.
Now she’s here in front of me, and what I really want to do is shake her.
“We missed you at the funeral,” I say.
“Oh, God! Nightmare. You know I wanted to be there. But work… well, it’s crazy. They just couldn’t spare me. Can you believe that?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, let me tell you, it’s a tough world out there. You have to do whatever it takes to stay ahead. Oh, it’s so great, though. It’s a shame you never come to New York. What have you been up to?”
“Well, I got married last year. When I was still overseas.”
“Of course. I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it. Tell me everything.”
“Dan and I met in Italy, so — ”
Liz glances at her watch and clutches my arm. “Oh God, Lily, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize the time.” She reaches inside her coat pocket for a business card. “Do you have a pen? Let me give you my home number. Please, call me any time. Well, I’m never there, of course. But leave me a message. I’ll try to get back to you.” I hand her a pen, and she puts her number on the card. “Elizabeth,” she writes underneath.
“Sorry, but I have to run,” she says. “You know, Lily, I used to hate being a twin, but at least I can remember your birthday. I was running in to get a card, but you’ve saved me some time. Now I can just wish you a happy birthday in person. Happy Birthday!” She laughs. “Anyway, call me! Don’t forget!”
She takes off down the aisle, and I realize I’m still holding the greeting card I picked up just before I noticed her. I stand there looking at it until my head clears, pretending I’m trying to make a difficult decision. Finally, I put the card back in its slot. The message peeks out: “Happy Birthday to a Dear Sister.” I push my shopping cart down the aisle and turn the corner.
Mary Caffrey Knapke is a freelance writer and English tutor in Ohio. Her work has appeared in print and online publications, and she is currently at work on a novel. She also blogs about Irish music at http://whilethesunsmiles.blogspot.com.