The Beginner's Goodbye(2)


by Anne Tyler

My sister said Dorothy was too old for me, but that was just because I had foolishly told the truth when I was asked. Even though she was eight years my senior—forty-three when she died—she seemed younger, because of that good strong Hispanic skin. Plus, she had enough padding to fill out any lines. You wouldn’t really think about age at all, with Dorothy.

My sister also said she was too short for me, and it is undeniable that when Dorothy and I hugged, all the wrong parts of us met. I am six-feet-four. Dorothy was not quite five-one. If you saw us walking down the street together, my sister said, you would take us for a father and child heading off to grammar school.

And too professional, my sister said. Ha! There’s a novel objection. Dorothy was a doctor. I work as an editor in my family’s publishing firm. Not all that great a disparity, right? What Nandina meant was, too intent upon her profession. Too work-obsessed. She left for her office early, stayed late, didn’t greet me with my slippers in the evening, barely knew how to boil an egg. Fine with me.

But not with Nandina, evidently.

Maybe it was just a long, long way to travel, and that’s why it took Dorothy all those months to come back.

Or maybe she had first tried to do without me, the way I had first tried to do without her—to “get over” my loss, “find closure,” “move on,” all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable. But eventually, she had faced the fact that we simply missed each other too much. She had given in and returned.

That’s what I liked to believe.

• • •

I’ve made my sister out to be a tyrant, but she really wasn’t. She just wanted the best for me, is why she was so critical. She saw the best in me. When a neighbor kid called me Frankenstein, after I got so tall, Nandina told me I resembled Abraham Lincoln. (I pretended to take heart from this, although Abraham Lincoln was not the look I’d been aiming for.) When I admitted to a case of nerves before inviting Tiffy Preveau to the freshman prom, Nandina rehearsed with me for hours, throwing herself into the role of Tiffy so convincingly that I all but lost my tongue around her. “Could—could—could—” I stammered.

“Start with an H word,” Nandina advised, slipping out of character for a moment.

“How—how would you like—to go to the prom with me?” I asked.

“Why, I’d love to, Aaron!” she said in a burbly, false voice. “But tell me: are you able to dance?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Because I really do love to dance, you know. And I’m talking fast-dance. I like to go crazy!”

“I can fast-dance,” I said.

And I could. Nandina had taught me. Nandina was not exactly a teen success story herself (she stood nearly six feet tall even after shucking off her long banana shoes, and had reached her senior year without attending a single one of her own proms), but she steered me through a series of passable-looking moves. She showed me how to bite my lower lip as if transported by the beat of “Pump Up the Volume,” and she positioned my right arm so it seemed less like a broken wing and more like a banner, raised triumphantly as high as she could force it. It worked in my favor that nobody was dancing in that walking-embrace style anymore. I wouldn’t need to clasp my partner two-handed or anything like that.

And I should learn to do without all those C words, Nandina said. It seemed to her I was piling them on deliberately—“can” and “could,” every chance I got.

“That might not be entirely coincidental,” I told her. (I spoke almost without a hitch, since she was merely my sister again.)

“See what I mean? You could just as well have used ‘accidental’ there,” she said.

Tiffy turned down my invitation, as it happened. She said she’d already made plans. But still, it was kind of Nandina to offer her help.

I was wrong to use the word “handicaps” earlier. “Differences” would have been more accurate. Really I’m not handicapped in the least.

I may be different from other people but I’m no unluckier. I believe that. Or I’m unluckier but no unhappier. That is probably closer to the truth.

Sometimes I think I am unluckier than other people but much, much happier.

But there I suppose I’m fooling myself, because probably everyone thinks he has some unique claim on happiness.

The weird thing is that, although I have been this way for as long as I can remember, I feel myself to be exactly like everyone else. Staring out through the windows of my eyes, I imagine my back to be straight, my neck upright, and my arms of a matching diameter. In actuality, though, since my right foot and calf are

pretty much deadweight I have to drag my right leg behind me, and I lean away from that side to counterbalance it, which throws my spine askew. When I’m seated, you might not guess, but then I stand up and I’m listing.

I own a cane, but I keep leaving it places.

And although I have trained myself to let my right arm hang as loosely as possible, it insists on reverting to a tucked position with the hand bent inward, folded sharply at the wrist as if I were a stroke victim. Maybe I am a stroke victim; I don’t know. I was a perfectly normal two-year-old; then I came down with the flu. After that I wasn’t normal anymore.

But I’ll bet I would have been left-handed in any case, because I have excellent penmanship and I didn’t need to struggle for it. So in that respect I am not so unlucky, wouldn’t you agree? And I play a wicked game of racquetball, and I can swim well enough to stay afloat, at least, and I drive a car much better than most if I do say so myself. My car has modified foot pedals. For steering and shifting, though, I get along fine with the standard hand controls. New passengers tend to look anxious at first; then, after we’ve gone a few miles, they forget all about it.

I daydream of switching to standard pedals, but the Motor Vehicle people have these absurd regulations.

It occurred to me at the beginning that Dorothy might have come back on some special assignment. She’d been permitted to return just long enough to tell me something, perhaps, after which she would be on her way. (I have to say right now that who had permitted her was not something I cared to dwell on. I am an atheist. Having her here in the first place had already shaken up more preconceptions than I could easily absorb.)

You would think that I would be eager to know what this assignment was. But remember the corollary: once she’d completed it, she would leave. And I didn’t think I could bear that.