At Penelope’s house, Louise created a sanctuary of sorts in the spacious room her older sister had designated for her use. Although the two were just a few years apart, they had grown up in different worlds. Their mother had died when Penelope was sixteen and Louise was thirteen. Penelope responded by venturing out into the world, making herself and her life as big as possible.
Louise tried to take care of their father, whose grief calcified into a stultifying depression. No matter what she attempted, the entire continuum from perfect behavior to out and out rebellion, her father stayed behind his wall of grief. His heart gave out when Louise turned twenty-one, and she found herself on the verge of having a life of her own.
This turned out to be even more terrifying than the endless battle with her father’s depression. Louise spent her twenties lost in one relationship after another, searching for herself, finding, mostly, one bottle after another. A marriage or two landed in this phase of her life, until finally she gave up on the idea of finding any other person who could tolerate her, resigning herself to a long-term relationship with alcohol, until her liver had other ideas, and helped her meet some doctors with tickets to rehab.
By the time she came to live with Penelope, Louise was five years sober, and ready to focus on learning to love herself. As corny as that sounds, she pondered, it’s precisely what I need to do. She began by accepting her sister’s offer of a place to stay, indefinitely, and by arranging the room in her sister’s house to hold some of her favorite things.
A cozy blanket she’d managed to keep with her since her mother died, that had lain on her parents’ bed;
A small painting of a quail standing in front of deep green grape leaves, gazing somberly past his topknot at some undefined object of his desire;
A tall glass candle holder with a quote from the Willie Nelson song: Little things I could have said and done, I just never took the time.
This last one always made her smile, wryly. She’d purchased it in a little shop off Pine Street, her housewarming gift to herself, feeling as if it was the story of her life up until now.
Louise presented the opposite of Penelope in many ways. She was practical, where her sister was dramatic; she was quiet, where Penelope was loud, and she was reticent, where the elder girl would blurt out just about any thought that came into her head.
“I’ve cultivated it, I must admit,” Louise said to Douglas on one of their walks. “I knew from a very young age that there was no room for me in Penelope’s shadow. If I tried to be like her, I’d be a second-rate version. So I carved out a different kind of territory.”
Douglas nodded. He could easily imagine the two girls, Penelope bursting with energy and drama, Louise thoughtful and studious.
“But don’t get me wrong. I have my own demons. I simply express them differently than my big sister does.”
“Demons?” Douglas felt his curiosity pique. “We all have them. I’m curious to know yours, if you want to share.”
“Alcohol, for one. Truthfully, it’s not in and of itself my demon. It’s what I used for years to try to medicate my demons into the kind of quiet I strove to project.”
Douglas held silence, respecting Louise’s revelation. They walked on for a while, stomping snow off their boots when they encountered a clearing on the sidewalk. After a few more blocks, he ventured a question. “And now? This quiet? Is it a projection?”
Louise kept a steady pace, but turned her face to him. “Now that is not at all the question I expected, Douglas. Most people would ask if I’m sober now, or would offer some sort of platitude. But you go right to the heart of the matter. And, as a matter of fact, every bit of quiet for me holds a kernel of struggle, still. There is always a pinprick of fear that in the silence, I will be discovered to be lacking something essential. I feel that pinprick now. That I haven’t answered your question to your liking, that you will find me too damaged for our friendship to sustain.”
“Ah, well. From one damaged creature to another, Louise, I offer only my intention to sustain this friendship for as long as we both desire it.” Douglas wanted very much to take her gloved hand in his, but restrained himself, unsure as to why he felt the desire and why he resisted it.