Sarah was not ready for morning. She sat in the bathroom, leaning on her elbows, willing herself not to fall asleep on the toilet. She lifted her head and stared at the monkey shower curtain in front of her, moving her eyes from one monkey to the next as they swung across the green vinyl. Eventually, her eyes faced the window and its banana colored curtains, and she winced at the sunshine outside.
The whole bathroom had a jungle theme, as did Nateʼs bedroom, all greens and browns, with an actual tree climbing from the ﬂoor to the leaf-covered ceiling. She didnʼt know whether Nate really wanted his room this way or if her sister had planted the idea in his head. He always seemed a little sad, Sarah thought, sitting on his leopard skin rug playing with his trucks or stuffed animals, trying to ignore the wild jungle around him. Or maybe that was just what Sarah was trying to do.
She had decided to sleep in his room last night, after vetoing the couch and its sweaty, sticky faux leather. Karen probably expected her to sleep in her room, with the California King and skylights and wall to wall carpeting, all the things Karen thought of as luxurious. She probably had set it up for her, with the bed turned down like a hotel, but Sarah hadnʼt even bothered going in there.
“What you need is a nice rest,” Karen had said to her on the phone last week. “Think of it as a vacation for you. Watch some cable, take a nice bath….”
Sarah got uncomfortable and cut her off, asking for feeding instructions and the vetʼs phone number, even though she knew everything would be written out for her in detail, waiting for her in the kitchen next to the color-coded calendar that took up an entire wall. Sometimes she wondered if her sister was managing a family or a political campaign.
“You know we really appreciate it, but I also think this will be good for you, Sarah,” she could hear the breath catch in her sisterʼs throat, the quiet tic of worry.
“Please,” Karen said, “Enjoy yourself.”
She thought about Karenʼs advice when she wandered into Nateʼs room last night, ﬁngering the canopy of plastic leaves coming down from the ceiling. In the dark, it seemed like an almost plausible vacation spot, not somewhere real, but maybe a hotel room in Vegas or Disneyland. The twin bed was surprisingly comfortable, but still she couldnʼt sleep. The room smelled vaguely of plastic and when she tried to imagine herself on vacation all she could think of were the vacations she spent as a child. She kept trying to remember the details, the sagging cots she would share with Karen, the hours in the pool inventing new worlds. She couldnʼt invent anything any more. Her brain felt like quicksand, thoughts would come to her and then slowly sink till she could no longer reach them.
The doorbell rang and she jumped up, her thighs and elbows numb from sitting on the toilet for so long. She shook the tingles out of her leg as she rushed out of the bathroom, and ended up stubbing her toe on the box in the hallway. Karen and her sunscreen, she thought. Karen had bought a whole pharmacy worth of sunscreen to prepare for their trip, only to get rid of most of it after reading an article about some ingredient in sunscreen that is linked to skin cancer. All of the offending bottles were sitting in a box in the hallway, where, knowing Karen, they would sit for quite some time while she wafﬂed back and forth between the guilt of throwing away brand new bottles and the possibility of giving someone cancer by putting them back out into the world.
Sarah slumped down in the hallway, clutching her toe. She thought about ignoring the doorbell, wasnʼt she supposed to be on vacation too? But Snowball was already up and barking and throwing himself with abandon against the window and she knew the only way to get him to calm down was to open the door.
Once she got to the entrance way, she had no choice. The top of the door was all window, and as she was pulling up her pajama pants, she saw the tall, blond man waiting on the porch. The minute she opened the door, Snowball nosed past her legs to greet him, all jumping and excitement, and then within seconds lost interest and started snifﬁng the potted plants.
“I have a delivery for you,” the man said. “Well, not really, it was already sitting here on the doorstep.” He handed Karen a package addressed to Nate and decorated with balloons.
“Who needs presents when youʼre at the beach, huh?”
Sarah nodded absentmindedly, still staring at the big loopy handwriting on the box.
“I apologize, Iʼm Ken from down the street. You must be Karenʼs sister,” he smiled and extended his hand to her. She avoided it by bending down and dragging Snowball back inside. She threw the package into the entryway before closing the door, almost hitting Snowball in the face.
“Sorry. Sorry about the dog.” she stuttered.
“Oh, no problem. I just wanted to give you a heads up on this afternoon. Or did Karen already tell you?”
Sarah grimaced. She hoped it wasnʼt some kind of social gathering.
“Well, no problem. My daughters and I have been shooting a little movie, and today weʼre doing a scene in that tree out front,” he turned and pointed at the old oak in the front yard. “Itʼs a little strange because weʼll be putting our cat up there for a while, but donʼt worry, weʼll get her back down.”
“Youʼre putting a cat in a tree on purpose?”
“Yeah, I know. Whatʼs a movie without some action, right? Actually, Karen was the one who gave us the idea.”
Sarah found this hard to believe, since most of Karenʼs ideas lately involved worrying about things going wrong.
“And she didnʼt want you to sign a legal waiver or something?” Sarah said.
Ken laughed. “Wouldnʼt that be funny. Well, thanks, weʼll be out there in an hour or so, shouldnʼt take too long.”
He turned to go, stopping by the tree on his way down the path. He put his hands on his hips and arched his head up towards the sky. “Itʼs a beautiful tree,” he said before waving goodbye.
Sarah sat on the porch swing and let her eyes adjust to the sun. It was warmer outside than she thought it would be. She rested her bare feet along the smooth wood railing. The heat felt good.
Two women in t-shirts and striped workout pants walked by the house. One of them saw Sarah and waved. She lifted her hand back in acknowledgment. They probably found it strange for her to be sitting on the front porch like this, wearing wrinkled pajamas, her hair still dreadlocked from a bad nights sleep. So intimate, she thought, for a neighborhood that preferred staying on the surface of things.
Sarah remembered when Karen ﬁrst moved into the house, just before Nate was born. Karen raved about the front porch. She had always dreamed of one with a swing and an old, shady tree rustling in the wind. Sarah helped her repaint the living room, and afterward, they sat out on the porch in the dark, drinking too much wine and giggling like school girls. Karen kept shushing Sarah, afraid of waking the neighbors. Eventually, Sarah curled up with her head on Karenʼs lap and they just rocked back and forth, listening to the creaking of the wood and the nighttime hum of sleep and electricity.
“I canʼt believe this is my house,” Karen whispered.
“I guess youʼre an adult now,” Sarah said as she fell asleep, Karen slowly smoothing the hair from her face.
Sarah doubted that Karen still used the front porch. Every time she came over now, after Nate was put to bed, all Karen wanted to do was clean the kitchen and curl up on the couch and watch a movie. Sarah didnʼt mind though, thatʼs usually all she was up for too. Most often, Karen would fall asleep halfway through the night and Sarah would cover her with a blanket and let herself out.
Sarah stretched her legs one more time against the railing and went back inside. Snowball saw her and immediately ran to the cabinet in the kitchen where his food was kept. He moved his head impatiently back and forth between Sarah and the cabinet door. She had missed his breakfast time by a few hours.
“Ok, I get it, buddy,” Sarah said, picking up his food bowl. She gave him a few extra scoops out of guilt and then sat at the kitchen table and watched him inhale his food. She couldnʼt imagine ever being that hungry.
Bits of cardboard were scattered across the ﬂoor by her chair. She picked one up. It was damp with ripped edges. She looked up and saw the package for Nate on Snowballʼs bed. The damage wasnʼt too bad, it was just the shipping box that had been ripped at one corner. Sarah tore off the rest of the cardboard box, hoping the contents were gift wrapped. They werenʼt. Inside was a card in a bright blue envelope and a box of jungle themed legos. Poor Nate, Sarah thought. She looked at the picture on the front of the box. There were hippos drinking from a plastic pond with an alligator lurching out of the water. In the background, monkeys played in the branches of plastic lego trees.
Snowball was done with his breakfast and was now whining at something out the window. Sarah could hear a light, twinkling sound coming from outside. She stood next to Snowball and watched as two girls in sundresses skipped across the lawn, giggling hysterically. Ken was a few houses behind, carrying a ladder and bags ﬁlled with camera equipment and props. They were early.
“Girls! Wait!” Ken shouted.
They seemed oblivious. One of the girls, the taller one with wispy blond hair, was cradling a small cat in her arms, trying to lift its face to the other girls ear, as if to share a secret. The other girl screamed with laughter at whatever the cat said and started running in circles around the base of the tree.
Ken asked the older girl to come help with the bags and she reluctantly walked towards him, still whispering to the cat and rocking it back and forth in her arms. He surveyed the tree again, and carried the ladder up to the south side, near the house. For a second, Sarah was afraid he would catch sight of her in the window, but his attention was on the ladder and before she knew it, his back was turned to her. Both girls ran up to him asking a question. He nodded and knelt down to talk to them, his hands on each of their shoulders pushing them together. Slowly, each girl gave the cat a kiss on the top of the head, the blond girl bending down to rub her face along his fur before releasing him.
Ken tucked the cat under his arm and started climbing the ladder to the ﬁrst branch of the tree, about ten feet off the ground. The girls ran to the prop bag and put on bright red plastic ﬁremen hats. Sarah laughed as they proceeded to run around the lawn, making siren sounds and holding their arms in front of them like superman, unaware that ﬁlming had not yet begun.
The phone rang from the kitchen behind her. She watched Ken try to shake the cat from his arms onto the branch, and waited for the answering machine to kick on.
“Sarah? Are you there?” It was Karen, her voice crackling with a bad connection. “Sarah?”
Sarah sighed and went to pick up the phone, bringing it back with her to the window.
“Hi,” Sarah said, trying her best to sound perky.
“Oh good. Hi. How are you?”
“Fine, ﬁne. Howʼs your vacation going?”
“Good. Weʼve been exploring a lot.” Karen sounded exhausted.
“Iʼm watching a fake cat rescue in your front yard right now.”
“Your neighborʼs movie. Iʼm surprised you okayʼd this operation.”
“Oh right. Well, it seemed harmless. Except for the cat, I guess. Besides, I canʼt resist those little girls. Theyʼre so sweet.”
“Yeah, they are.”
“What are they doing right now?”
“They seem to have forgotten about the cat in the tree and are performing some sort of dance play instead.”
Karen laughed, a short staccato bark, but Sarah could tell she was distracted.
“What are you doing now?” Sarah asked.
“Trying to the leave the hotel room,” she sighed. “Itʼs gorgeous here.”
Sarah looked outside. The girls were holding on to the porch railing, pretending to be in a ballet studio.
“Hey K, do you still use your porch swing?”
“Why? is there a problem with it?
“No, no, relax, I was just wondering if you still go out there.”
Karen held her breath, the way she normally did when she was thinking. “Not as much as Iʼd like, but, yeah, I go out there. What a weird question.”
“I was just wondering.”
“No, no, I know,” Karen said, her voice softening. “Sometimes if I canʼt sleep in the middle of the night I go out there for a little bit. The air feels good…I bet it would feel even nicer up in that tree.”
Sarah smiled, “Yeah, it would.”
She heard commotion in the background, mufﬂed cries of protest.
“I gotta go, Nateʼs being unbearable. He got a bad sunburn on his legs.”
“I know,” Karen sighed. “Well, I was just checking in.”
“Yup, Iʼm ﬁne.”
“Good. All right. Hey,” Karen said, “Have fun, remember?”
Sarah smiled and lifted her eyebrows. “You too.”
Sarah heard Ken dismantling the ladder outside. This time he saw her through the window. He waved and shrugged, and she responded with the thumbs up sign. She watched the girls skipping back to their house, their ﬁreman hats bobbing on their heads like apples.
Sarah sat at the kitchen table and considered eating something, though she still wasnʼt hungry. She picked up Nateʼs jungle lego box and read the instructions on the back. Maybe she would take the parts out and set them up for Nate in his room, one less mess for Karen to worry about. She unwrapped everything and stuffed the plastic wrappers back into the box.
Slowly, she put all the pieces together, snapping the leaves and branches into place, arranging the tall grasses by the base of the trunk and around the pond. She put the alligator on top of the water, the hippos gossiping to the side, like in the picture. She picked up the monkeys, one in each hand, and before clicking them onto the branches, she played with them for a brief moment. She let them groom each other. She let them sleep. She watched as they climbed from tree to tree, their limbs loose and eager, swinging with the recklessness that comes easy to the loved.
© 2010 Anonymous