“Come back here!” cooed Hosanna in the most aggressively affectionate tone I’ve literally ever heard.
“No,” spat back Sophia with a laugh. “I’m taking these to the car.”
She didn’t get far. Her cheery face and black hair disappeared behind Hosanna’s sweater as the big sister devoured the younger one in an octopus hug. There was a struggle.
My own sister and I watched the tousle a safe, respectful distance from the tangled wrestlers and from each other.
“I feel like we should hug or something,” I said making tentative eye-contact with her.
“No,” said Sarah flatly.
Sisters were part of the reason I came home. Both the ones I’m related to by blood and the ones who’ve adopted me over the course of many, many years. They’re part of what made coming home worthwhile. Even the unaffectionate ones.
“Shotgun!” I called, dragging blankets and thermoses of tea out to the truck. Sophia and Sarah piled into the back, begrudgingly giving me command of the iPod as Hosanna took the wheel.
Sarah and Sophia are a lot alike. Very stable. Very practical. Very capable. Very void of touch-feely.
Hosanna and I are a lot alike. Adventuresome, soul-searching sojourners who need a little Practical in our lives from time to time.
And that’s what this evening was. The sister reunion, the reconnection of yin and yang, the defragmenting session we all needed.
Nine o’clock hung over us like a cape, flapping in the wind, driving us onward into the far side of San Diego County. The sticks. The boondocks. Pine Valley.
The drive was about forty-five minutes, but between the power struggle over the song selection and my solo performance of Hakuna Matata, it went quickly.
“I think that’s it,” Sophia said, several minutes after passing the last house-light in the valley and crossing over a cow gate. She pointed to a spit of dirt just off the road and Hosanna followed her finger, steering the big, black truck into the narrow space.
We tumbled out of the car, taking our blankets, tea and a box of animal crackers with us. In the dark, we arranged everything neatly in the bed of the truck before piling in on top of the cushy mess.
“We didn’t pick a great night for star-gazing,” I said, noting the full moon smiling above us.
“Yeah, but at least it’s not freezing cold like last time,” quipped Sarah.
Our last trip was a mid-December disaster in which we spent twenty minutes shivering in the back of the truck before heading home to sleep in warm beds. This time we brought blankets.
“That was a terrifying experience,” said Hosanna, patting down the folds of a silky sleeping bag. “I don’t think I could do this again in pitch darkness like that.”
“I think you should all just be grateful that I got us out here at all,” said Sophia with insistence, cashing in on her initiative in organizing the night. “You’re welcome.”
“Thank you, Sophia,” we all chimed in, various levels of obligation flaring up in our pitch.
We spent a lot of time tossing and turning. Shift weight or stretch, we all ended up uncomfortable for most of the evening.
“Next time we’re bringing pillows,” I said as Hosanna distributed the tea. “And more snacks.”
“We have animal crackers and carrots,” said Sarah with a distinct crunch. “What more could you need?”
“Yeah, whenever you feel bad about the animal crackers, just eat a carrot,” said Hosanna. “It’s a balanced diet.”
“What’s the ratio?” I asked. “One carrot to every two crackers?”
“It’s whatever your conscience tells you,” Sarah affirmed, giving the cracker box a motherly pat.
Our voices lowered and the steady munching joined the chorus of the universe above us – a universe which, on this particular night, in this particular part of the world, consisted of about four stars and a very visible moon.
“At least we have that helicopter,” said Sophia, snapping a lion cracker in half with her front teeth.
I hugged my camera to make sure it was still there and then settled deep into the folds of a sleeping bag as Sarah began questioning Hosanna about her summer.
Hosanna left for Europe a few weeks before I came home from it. I needed her here this summer. I needed her positivity and encouragement. Mostly I just needed to know she was there, that I had someone to come home to. But I also knew she needed this trip. Just like I’ve needed mine. We are wanderers.
Hosanna’s face lit up, making the moon look modest and unassuming in comparison. I had heard most of her adventures before, but Hosanna knows how to string a yarn and I found myself thoroughly roped in and we followed the sound of her voice across the farmlands of France, through the streets of Berlin and into the heart of the Netherlands.
It’s been a long time since the four of us were all together. Eightteen months, give or take. However long ago the wedding was, when the four of us were standing in the hotel lounge. Sarah and Hosanna were halfway into several glasses of wine they had found abandoned at a table and Sophia and I were wringing the water out of our dresses by the fire, having led the charge into the hotel pool, post-reception.
Eightteen months is a long time. To me, it seems like another lifetime ago. But being in the back of this truck was helping me readjust again.
Conversation and jest flitted from one topic to the next and I noticed that it in no way resembled our muddled, giggly gatherings from high school. For starters, the hypothetical questions have decreased substantially. We also just seem to care more about what’s happening with everyone else.
The one thing I will say for age – the longer you live, the more struggles you will face. The more your struggles, the more you approach people with empathy. And empathy makes better listeners of us all.
Eleven o’clock inched closer and the truck had quieted down to a mere ripple of conversation. For a while, and I’m not sure how long, I slept.
I woke up to the hushed and hurried whispers of the girls as they slid out of view of the road beneath the lip of the truck. They buried their faces into the blankets, shushing each other and dimming the lights from their phones.
Without moving, I listened to the grumbling of gravel come closer. Headlights swept over us and the girls shushed each other again.
“What would we even have done if someone had stopped to check the truck?” Sophia whispered when the lights were gone.
“They wouldn’t have checked,” said Hosanna with an air of insider info.
“Are you kidding?” said Sarah, still reeling from the close-call but beginning to peep her head above the lip of the truck. “We could be dead bodies back here for all they know. I totally would have checked!”
At that moment, the headlights reappeared, this time coming from the road behind us. The girls dove once more and I felt someone’s elbow dig into my leg.
“Sarah,” Hosanna whispered over the gravely approach, “No one is going to check the back of a truck that’s pulled up along a dirt road. Haven’t you ever listened to country songs?”
As realization washed over Sarah, the headlights washed over us before disappearing one last time down the road.
We waited in silence for a moment and then the girls straightened back up to their sitting positions. Sarah was the only one brave enough to allow her head to peek out over the edge of the truck bed (“Someone has to keep a look out!”).
“What was it we were so scared of last time?” asked Hosanna, checking her watch. We had far outdone our last trip’s record. “Remember we were out here for a little while and then we went straight home?”
“Mountain lions,” said Sophia.
“Indecent gentlemen?” I suggested.
“Zombies,” Sarah said. “It was definitely zombies. And guys, if they come, I’m still the only one keeping watch!”
“Forget it, Sarah,” Hosanna said from her nest of blankets in the corner of the trunk. “I’m nice and warm here. I’m not moving.”
“Neither am I,” I muttered from my half-comatose state.
“Well, you are all going to die when they do come.”
“I wouldn’t last the zombie apocalypse very long anyway,” I said sadly.
“We need to stop talking about zombies,” said Sophia. “It’s making me nervous.”
She and I giggled mostly to disguise how certain we actually were that the night might end in bloodshed and I clutched my camera. If the zombies do come, I’m definitely getting it on film.
“Wait,” said Hosanna, sucking in her breath, ears pricking up and eyes flashing. “Do you hear gr-”
Sarah, Sophia and I jumped up – “WHAT?”
“Gravel?” she said again.
“Am I the only one who thought she said ‘growling’?” asked Sophia. “Like, seriously?”
“Yeah, I did too,” I said.
“Maybe it’s time to head home before we scare ourselves out of ever coming back,” said Hosanna.
We all know that will never happen. The scare is half the fun. I think it’s the scare we’ve been waiting for before heading home again. And when we’re ready for another one, we’ll troop back out.
The girls pulled the blankets out of the back and stuffed them into the spaces between our seats. I reached for my camera. Might as well get some of these stars. We don’t have many, but gosh darn it, why not? They are ours, after all.
On the most sensitive settings, I was surprised to find, many more stars appear in the sky than we can see with just our eyes. I jiggled around a bit with the ISO and the aperture, getting different results. The girls eventually knocked on the windows and I got inside the truck.
The ride home was quiet. No one complained when I played “Geronimo” twice in a row. These songs that are old news to everyone else are all new to me still.
Sarah and I helped the girls bring our gear back into the house before saying our ‘goodbyes.’ At some point, and for reasons unknown, Hosanna tackled Sofia in another person-enveloping hug.
“Don’t even think about it,” Sarah told me with a smirk.
She loves me.
I’m still adjusting to life back home. I’m still discovering people who’ve changed and it reminds me how much I’ve changed. I suppose that will be true for the rest of life. Our little spot on the side of the road may still be there, but we won’t be the same people we were the last time we visited.
And at some point, that call for adventure or purpose or a good scare will beckon me away from my sisters out onto a path lit only by the knowledge that God made it mine.
But even in this transition from girl to slightly-older girl to whatever-comes-next, animal crackers are still good, zombies are still scary and there’s no one I’d rather star-gaze with than you.