***Subscribers, thanks for reading! If you missed them, I've dropped a few excerpts of this new book along the way- it's a road trip book about adult sisters who are working out the pain of their past- when they were young, their third sister died from cancer, followed by their parents' divorce, their dad's descent into alcoholism, and their mom abandoning them. Now it's 30 years later, their dad has just died and the eldest, Tamara, who stayed behind to take care of him and the family's competitive equine business (McConnell's) has driven from Kentucky to Wyoming to visit her sister, Rachel, now an OBGYN with a 6 y/o daughter, Kiki. They're getting to know each other as adults and reflecting on their childhoods and they hear from their mom, Carol. At this point in the story, Rachel, Tamara, and Kiki are traveling from Wyoming to Northern California to see her for the first time in decades. (Also, I'll be taking a little time off to focus on writing more of this book and being with my family and stuff, so if you notice I'm MIA in your inbox or on social media, don't be alarmed. It's intentional and I'll be back).
Tamara watched the browns and reds of Nevada fly by outside the passenger window. Rachel was driving, moving her head in time to her music coming through the radio, and Kiki hadn’t made any noise from the backseat for a while, so was either sleeping or deeply involved in something on her iPad. Tamara couldn’t get the conversation that she and Rachel had about Justin out of her head. It had been days ago, and since then all they’d been focusing on was Carol; whether to visit her, what it would be like to see her for the first time in three decades, and the logistics of the trip, but Tamara’s mind kept going back to Justin. She hadn’t known that Rachel didn’t like him, in fact she’d always thought everyone had liked Justin. Nick had, which, in retrospect, probably should have been a red flag instead of a coupe.
Justin had first caught her attention at a horse show. Tamara had just helped one of her riders mount her pony and called something corrective as the girl and pony walked into the arena. Justin, leaning against the fence a few paces away said, “She’ll keep her heels down now for sure. Shit, I’m keeping my heels down now after that.”
Tamara remembered feeling embarrassed and worrying that she’d been too curt with the rider until she saw his grin and realized this tall, handsome guy was teasing her. It turned out that he was a new trainer and had just moved to the area, was looking for a permanent barn to call home. They’d married less than a year later and he’d taken up a position at McConnell’s.
“He didn’t love you right,” Rachel had said. That phrase kept running through Tamara’s head. What did she mean? How could Rachel possibly gauge the quality of his love? Or what Tamara deserved? Stewing, Tamara reached down for a snack at her feet and found nothing but healthy- no M & M- trail mix and fruit. What she wouldn’t give for one of those gas station crusty fruit pies right now. Lemon. No, cherry. Her mouth watered. Those things must be 99% chemicals; they lasted forever. Apocalypse food, as Justin used to say.
Hadn’t he loved her well? He’d shown up. He’d been there...until he wasn’t. What if he never really cared? Or, as Rachel implied, what if the whole time Tamara had needed more, deserved more, but just settled for what she got? After their encounter after the funeral where she’d all but thrown herself at him and he’d pushed her away so easily, she wondered if they’d always been like that. Had she been fooling herself the whole time? Chasing him while he withheld? She could think of nothing more mortifying that having unrequited love for a spouse. Surely, he must have loved her for her heart to get so fucking broken when he left. Wasn’t that how it worked?
Tamara leaned against the passenger window, her knees tucked in front of her, while her mind drifted. The reflection in the side mirror showed a tense, small woman, tucked into a ball, blond hair pulled back hard into a ponytail over a tense, creased face. She forced her jaw to relax and tried a smile, but it gave way to a smirk. When she’d first gotten to Rachel’s house, they’d looked through a photo album and one picture stuck out; baby Rachel, Hazel, and Tamara in some sort of a pretend sailing vessel, on a playground or at a fair. It was before Hazel was bald from chemo, so they must have been about two, five, and eight, respectively. They were all in summer dresses, Rachel in Tamara’s arms and Hazel leaning into her side. All three of them had brilliant, huge grins on their faces and Tamara had smiled involuntarily when she saw the joy of it all. She didn’t remember ever smiling that completely, but there was proof. Is that how her mom remembered her? What would Carol think when she saw how Tamara looked now; twisted, bitter, etched with grief?
It didn’t matter what Carol thought, she reminded herself. Carol was part of the reason Tamara was ruined. Shaking herself free of these thoughts, she leaned over to offer Rachel some of the terrible trail mix. Rachel was singing along to the music, but gave her an easy, appreciative grin as she reached for a handful. How had Rachel kept that smile? Through everything, how was it that her smile still worked? Tamara looked back out the window, her reflection a little less troubled. She took a little credit for Rachel’s smile.
The song Rachel sang along to was something with a country twang that Tamara didn’t recognize. It was catchy and she found herself humming along. She wasn’t a fan, but one thing Tamara could say for country music is that the vocals were king, and the lyrics told a poetic story. For anyone in a broken-hearted sort of place, they scratched an itch.
Rachel noticed that Tamara was listening and humming along, and she turned it up so they could listen together. It went:
“It took feeling the best
I’ve felt in too long
To realize how bad it’s been.
I finally feel seen,
like I’m worth looking at,
I want to dance again.
I think I might deserve love
But this one ain’t it,
if I reach for what I need
I'll lose all my sh**.
I designed my expectations
Around what you could give.
Learned to never exhale if I wanted to live.
You and I used to dance,
But now our steps are all wrong.
And I know it’s too late,
We’re not even playing
the same song.
After the refrain faded out, Rachel said, “The album is called something like, Dividing Up Our Personalities and Record Collections . It’s all like that- about a long-term relationship falling apart because she realizes she wants more. I think you might like it.”
Tamara realized she'd been clenching her jaw while she listened, loosened it, and nodded in agreement. Rachel checked the rear-view mirror and, apparently satisfied that Kiki wasn’t listening, leaned closer to Tamara and lowered her voice. “So, beyond one-night stands with people who work for me, have you had anything serious since Justin? You ready to dance again?”
Tamara laughed at Rachel’s sly grin. “I’m good dancing alone with the occasional overnight partner. Anything more than that feels like a hassle.”
“And, yeah, that, too,” Tamara sighed. “I'm bad at the trust thing. It was a major stretch to open up to Justin, to let him all the way in like I did, and look how that all went down. When he left, I felt dumb and used, and since then I’ve just kind of let all my trust dry up. I’m practicing with you. That's going pretty well, I think. But as far as men go, seems like too much risk and not enough pay off.”
“Amen.” Rachel raised her juice box in a cheers and Tamara tapped her plastic coffee cup against it making a dull thud. “At least we have each other, right?” Rachel said, smiling at Tamara. “And it is going well. I know you live a million miles away and everything, but I feel really close to you now.” “Me, too.”
“The last few weeks has meant a lot. I’m loving this Golden Girls thing we have going on here," Rachel said, making Tamra grin. “And I’m so glad we’re doing this whole thing together.” She nodded toward the road in front of them.
“Same,” Tamara said. “If it has to happen, I’m glad neither of us are doing it alone." She was silent for a moment, then said, " I’ve been thinking a lot about going back to McConnell’s.”
“Oh, yeah? When are you think-“
“I don’t know. I’m kind of dreading it. I know there’s so much to do there and I feel like I’ve already been gone for too long, but I just…every time I think about the barn, the house, even the road leading there, it makes me…” she finished her thought by putting two fists to her heart and hunching over, grimacing.
“I get it. That’s how I’ve felt about that place for a long time. I’ve wondered how you’ve managed to live there as long as you have.”
“I had to…well, I felt like I had to.”
Rachel nodded, then, chewing on her cheek, asked, “When Justin left it must have felt like a way out?”
“Yes and no,” Tamara said. “He got a great offer, and he was so enthusiastic, so certain about taking it and moving there, but I wasn’t ready to abandon McConnell’s, or dad. So when I told him I wasn’t going to go, I assumed that meant he wasn’t either. I assumed wrong.”
“I mean, I guess, but the whole situation with the business and dad’s health was a lot to ask of someone who’d only married into the family.”
Rachel cringed. “You always let everyone but yourself off the hook. I should have been there.”
“No,” Tamara shook her head vehemently. “That’s not what I’m saying. Again, I’m glad you went on to live your life and freed yourself from that shit show. I would have hated if you'd stayed and wasted away."
"Like you? Is that what you're saying?"
"Maybe. Kind of. But I've been thinking about it a lot and maybe there was a part of me that did want the whole thing to be mine eventually? Maybe I wasn't just martyring myself for the greater good. And, maybe I knew that Justin wasn’t really good for me and that's why I didn't follow him? He thought I was choosing dad over him but maybe in some twisted way I was choosing me? I don’t know. It's possible that’s revisionist history to try to soften the blows and feel like I have any control over anything.”
"It sounds like you’ve been reading some of my self-help books,” Rachel teased.
“Maybe I've been secretly calling your therapist in the barn late at night," Tamara said, making Rachel laugh. "I just…I’ve felt so angry and so stuck for so long, but I don't want to anymore. I'm tired. But I don't blame you. Maybe I should, but I don't blame Justin, either. If anything, I blame dad...or mom? I was there doing her job, dealing with the mess she just skipped away from, never looking back. I get the gut punch they experienced with losing a kid, but man, I would have liked to have felt like I had some support, some choices. ” “I hear that. You're right that you had to carry way too much and were let down by, well, a lot of people. But just so you know, about mom skipping away into the sunset? I don't think that's how it went. I get the impression she’s a pretty sad, lonely person. We’ll see”
Tamara looked back out the window at the rolling desert. “Well, I don’t want that, either.”
They were quiet for a moment and then Kiki’s head popped up between them demanding food. Rachel reached back and squeezed her cheeks, making the girl giggle and bat her hand away. Tamara felt around in the food bags at her feet, and finding only oranges, she said, “How about next time we see an exit, we stop at a gas station. It’s a good time to fill up and I can introduce you to all of my favorite foods. My treat.”
Kiki punched the air in celebration and Rachel groaned. Gas station pies all around!