A few days later, Kirsten complained for the hundredth time about the sweat dripping down her back as we unloaded the car outside yet another motel room. After three days of driving, we were now in some flat, oppressively hot place in the middle of Indiana. She pulled me aside as our parents disappeared into the room.
“Giselle, tell me you were kidding when you said the humidity was not that bad. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.”
“Trust me, it may not seem like it now, but you’ll adjust.” Or maybe she wouldn’t. How could I know how uncomfortable she really was?
“How can I, when each day we drive takes me further from Charlie?” She shouldered past me through the door. “Great. Another dump,” she said to no one in particular, plopping her bag in the middle of the bed closest to the door.
“Frank, do something,” Mom said. “I’ve had it up to here with Kirsten’s attitude.”
“As if I care,” Kirsten snapped.
I busied myself with my bags, hoping not to get involved.
“Watch your tone, young lady,” Daddy said. He rarely intervened between them, but after three long days on the road, I think all our nerves were frayed. “Your mother and I are entitled to your respect.”
“Then how ‘bout you show me some? I told you two hours ago that I was hungry, but you drove on like you could care less.”
Daddy heaved a big sigh. “No one forced you to be a vegetarian. We’re not always going to be able to stop at a place with salads, nor would I want to. There are four of us on this trip, and in this family, majority rules.”
“Maybe if you stopped at the farmer’s market we passed this morning like I asked—”
Mom talked over her. “You’re going to have to get used to compromise if you’re going to get along with a roommate.”
“Whatever. I know Lisa will be cool. She called me last week, remember? We’re going to get along fine. Even if we don’t, anything would be better than living under the same roof with you.” The intensity of Kirsten’s glare matched her vehement tone.
“For the last time, you are not to speak about or to your mother that way. If you even so much as roll your eyes at her one more time— “
“What are you going to do, Dad, spank me? Huh? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that? I’m eighteen, an adult.”
“Don’t I wish,” Daddy said. “It’s times like this I wish I’d never listened to your mother when she went in for all this positive discipline malarkey. Maybe then you’d know how to act like the adult you claim to be.”
“Maybe if you let me make my own decisions, I’d know how.” She sounded bitter.
Maybe that was the root of her resentment. She had applied to Elk River on her own, but it was our parents who wouldn’t let her change her mind after she got engaged to Charlie.
The argument continued to escalate to name-calling. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.
“Stop it! Just stop it!” I sprung to my feet, hands balled in fists. Kirsten looked at me as though she were shocked I could be so loud. “Have a little consideration. I can’t stand to hear you all being so hateful to each other.”
Kirsten scoffed. "Get over it. That’s what being a part of this family means,” she snapped, and stormed out of the room into the humid night.
Mom started to cry into Daddy’s chest. I slipped out of the room and left them wrapped in their own little world of worry.
Ahead of me, Kirsten stalked over to a bench bolted to the sidewalk outside the entrance of a Denny’s across the parking lot from the motel.
Scenes like this had been going on all summer. As soon as the ring was on her finger, Kirsten had started her campaign to convince Mom and Daddy to let her live at home and go to community college while she waited to transfer to UC Berkeley to be with Charlie. Yet somehow, they managed to convince her to stick with the original plan and go to Elk River—that the temporary separation would be worth it. Didn’t she want a real college experience of her own, like me? I hated to be used as the bar of comparison, but there it was.
Kirsten once told me that she had only applied to Elk River in the first place because the enthusiastic letters and emails I sent her last year had made the tiny school sound so appealing. The timing of Oma’s death probably had something to do with it too.
I did hope she would come to share my deep appreciation for the friendly community of students and lovely campus—its tidy ivy-covered brick academic buildings, the picturesque rolling hills. Growing up in Southern California, we kids had always wondered together what it would be like to live through real seasons, and I wanted her to share the gorgeous fall colors, crisp late autumn air, the hush of falling snow and the glory of a new spring day in person with me.
I decided I had better go out and talk to her. She was turned away from the motel and didn’t seem to notice me sit next to her. I cleared my throat to get her attention, ducking my head with a wry smile when she looked my way. “So, you gonna sleep out here or what?”
“I just need to cool down a bit.”
“There’s air conditioning in the room, you know. Or maybe we could go for a swim …” Okay, it was a lame joke, but it made her laugh.
“Cut it out. You know what I mean,” she said.
After a bit of silence, Kirsten stood and said, "Actually, I was thinking about going in Denny’s to get something to eat. Want to join me?"
We sisters settled into a booth. Kirsten ordered a salad and I asked for apple pie. Neither of us said much as we ate.
“What was all that about back there?” I asked as we lingered over empty plates.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me. I’m not as perfect as you think.”
The waitress brought back change for my twenty, and I stood as if to go. Kirsten patted the seat next to her. “I really don’t want to go back to the room until I’m sure Mom and Daddy are asleep. Can you stick around?”
“Sure. But only if you tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Kirsten sighed and looked away. “I don’t know what's wrong exactly. I’m so confused—”
I interrupted. “Wait, I have a guess.”
“You do?” Kirsten looked terrified and grateful all at once.
“Sure, it’s probably just nerves … you’re worried about being in a strange place on your own, right? So was I. But I’ll be there.”
“I guess that could be part of it. But I don’t want to be the tagalong baby sister this time.”
“I’m sure everyone will love you. I mean, it’s a given that the guys will fall all over you. They always do.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “I’m with Charlie, remember?”
“Never mind. The point is, you’ll be fine.” I patted her leg. “You know what you should do. Come to CSF with me.”
She murmured an agreement, staring out the window to the highway in the distance. We headed back across the parking lot.
Kirsten stopped me just as I was about to slide the card key in the motel room door. “Giselle, can I ask you something?”
"Do you ever, you know, have sexual thoughts?”
I froze. "Why do you ask?” I wasn’t as perfect as she thought, but I wasn’t ready to talk about this now.
But you need to.
I needed to? Before I could process where that voice came from, Kirsten was talking again.
I needed to? Before I could process where that voice came from, Kirsten was talking again.
“Well, we can’t control them right? But they don’t have to mean anything either, right?”
“That sounds right. Um, what’s that Luther saying? You can’t stop a bird from flying past but you don’t have to build it a nest.” I again ignored a strange impulse to tell her about my own struggles with “bird nests.”
“Ok, I guess that’s all I wanted to know. Thanks.”
“What are big sisters for?” I gave her a hug. “Can we go inside now? Mosquitoes are eating us alive out here. Mom and Daddy were getting ready for bed when I left. I bet they’re asleep already.”
We stayed up whispering excitedly about what the next day would hold, giggling softly late into the night as we had when we shared a room as children. The last thing Kirsten said before she drifted off to sleep was how much she was looking forward to our arrival on campus the next day.
We left Terre Haute at nine. Our talk seemed to have done nothing to improve Kirsten’s disposition. If anything, she was more surly. Kirsten and Mom spent the morning bickering over how long it should take to get ready and where to eat breakfast. Daddy and I rolled our eyes at each other when they weren’t looking. I was glad when Kirsten decided to give Mom the silent treatment. Tense quiet was far preferable to the alternative.
We stopped for lunch in Columbus. We all seemed more relaxed with food in our bellies, and spent the last hour of the trip in easy conversation. I told story after story from last year and what Kirsten could look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see my friends again.
We all helped Kirsten settle into her room in Warner Hall. I was glad we were both on the East Hill. We were about done unpacking when Lisa and her parents showed up. We quickly got out of their way. I led my family on a tour of campus, starting with my room in the German program house. After a dinner in Paxton Dining Hall, Kirsten and I walked our parents back to the van.
Mom walked over to Kirsten, arms open for a hug.
Kirsten backed away, refusing contact. “Bye Mom, bye Daddy. You better get going if you’re going to make it back to Terre Haute tonight.”
Mom looked sadly at Daddy and dropped her arms. “Bye sweetie. Have a wonderful semester. We’ll see you girls at Christmas.”
Kirsten and I stood in silence for a moment, watching the tail lights shrink then disappear over the hill at the campus entrance. She told me she was late for a freshman orientation meeting in the dorm and hurried off.
She turned back when she heard me call, “What time do you want to meet for breakfast tomorrow?”
“Who said we were meeting for breakfast?” She kept walking backwards. “You don’t have to babysit me, Giselle. Just pretend I’m not here, okay?”
With that, she turned and ran up the steps of Warner Hall.