A wave of smells hit me as soon as I walked through the door—the smell of spilled wine and perfume, the smell of incense and withered roses. Another, stronger smell penetrated the air as well but I couldn’t identify it, thought it made me think of a woman who had spent many sleepless nights in a crowded room and it made me sad without knowing why.
Sissy hadn’t seen me come in yet. I could see her face illuminated in the mirror light and the silhouette of her slim white shoulders, her curly black hair. No, she didn’t see me yet. She had her lipstick pinched between her fingers and pressed against her small mouth. She did it slowly, and I stood watching her quietly where she couldn’t see me. Always it had amazed me how much time it took for a woman to paint such a small part of her body and I wondered why she ever bothered. When Sissy finished she rubbed her lips together and clicked the lid of the lipstick back on decisively.
Little Noel had the T.V. on in the corner and was sitting in front of it, her legs curled up to her chin as she hugged herself close. Sissy had finally seen me in the mirror. “Hi,” she said, still facing her reflection, still covering her face. “I missed you.”
The sheets and blankets lay twisted up on the bed; I pulled a red corner out and flattened it against the mattress, sat down. I had come here to say something warm and comforting but now I had nothing to say. I just looked down at the red carpet and listened to the quiet voices in the T.V.
“You okay?” I asked. I could ask nothing else.
She slowly lined her eyes with black. “Yes. It’s the best thing.”
I glanced at Noel. She had scooted around so that she faced me and now she grinned with all her little white teeth showing. I grinned back and she shyly buried her face in her knees, still grinning and looking.
“You want to talk?” I asked Sissy.
“Nothing to say,” she said. I knew there wasn’t. She had said everything already, shouting it out in the living room every day of their lives. She finished her makeup and looked dully around the room, then at me. “It’s hot in here,” she said. “I want to smoke. I want to be outside.”
We left Noel with the door cracked. Sissy leaned against the stair rail and looked out over the parking lot where the trees met the sky. The sun hung threateningly low over the branches and a warm dull breeze seemed to fly from that sun. Nothing is worse than a warm breeze; there is no refreshment in it. She sighed, pulled out a cigarette and lit it up.
I slowly settled myself next to Sissy. “Thanks for being here for me,” she said, taking my hand in hers for a moment and squeezing it hard. A faint wisp of smoke drifted up from between lips.
I wouldn’t have missed being here for the world. I had known it would happen for months, and when I got a call yesterday I hadn’t been surprised. Maybe I had even been happy, I don’t know—all I knew was that Sissy had cried and cried as if all the tears she’d been holding in her whole life suddenly opened up. She wasn’t crying now.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
“Not a letter or anything?”
“There was a letter, but he didn’t say.”
Sissy’s face was yellow under the sinking sun, and despite her makeup I could still see the shadows under her eyes. She took another long pull from her cigarette and as she did a mask of ashes fell from the glowing red tip, fluttering down and down into the air below us. Her eyes stared absently at the sun.
“Pretty,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.” The silence grew longer as the sky grew darker. Noel was talking to herself in the bedroom and a cicada shrieked out in the trees, but Sissy and I were as silent as the sun.
Slowly she turned and glanced at me for only a moment. I put my hand on her shoulder and she looked away back to where the sun’s rim glowed faintly in the tree branches, etched black and yellow like spider webs. A moment later the rim was gone. Slowly I lifted my hand from her but quickly she grabbed it and held it like a lost child. Her cigarette was shaking between her fingers and the smoke wavered, but only for a moment. She took another pull from it and let me go.
“Maybe he’ll come back,” I said softly.
“I don’t want him to.”
She paused. “Maybe for Noel I want him, but not for me. It’s too late for me, but Noel deserves more.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She looked at me and opened her lips for a moment as if she planned to speak, but quickly turned away. “It’s not going to be easy on her. I don’t think she’s figured it out yet. He’s been gone before.”
I could hear the advertisements floating out of the room and Noel’s soft childish singing. She’d figure out in a few days that her Dad was gone, and she would cry hard and long but her tears wouldn’t bring him back. But she was young now, and if he never came back it didn’t matter; in a few years she would forget what he looked like except in maybe a few faded photographs and how his face was captured in her own reflection.
I saw in my mind’s eye the moment when I first held Noel in my arms two years ago. Her blond hair was just beginning to curl around like her mother’s, and she smiled for the first time as I made funny faces at her. Something swelled up in my heart, something hot that made my eyes burn. I pulled Sissy close to me and held her head against my chest; her body stiffened for only a moment, bristled, resentful, and I could feel the tension in her shoulders and neck. Then it was if a knot inside of her was untied and everything went loose. If I had let go of her at that moment she would have collapsed but my hands still held her head against my chest.
“If you need me, Cecilia Devonport, I’m here for you. I’ll be there for Noel. If she needs a father, then even though I’ll never be the real thing I’ll be the closest thing possible.”
“James—you don’t have to—“
Something weird and dry came out of my throat, something like laughter. I pulled her head up and looked into her eyes. “Sissy, you know I’m here and there’s no one else.”
For a moment there was silence. Then Sissy squeezed me hard and said in a dazed voice, “Thank you.”
The shades of the sunset darkened and left us in blackness.