On May 1, a week after my seventeenth birthday, my mother makes an announcement that sends my world spinning.
“We’re leaving San Francisco,” she says while we sit in the breakfast nook of our Pacific Heights condo, the home in which I’ve lived for the last fifteen years. She splashes cream into her coffee, then eyes me, charily, over the top of her reading glasses. My jaw might as well be resting on the tabletop. She winces, then a slew of words comes rushing out of her mouth. “Oh, Elise. Before you get upset, let me explain.”
“I don’t need you to explain,” I say, my voice lifting in both volume and pitch. Because I’m already upset—I’m extremely upset. “We can’t leave San Francisco. Junior year’s almost done, and next year—next year’s my senior year!”
“I know. And I understand—I do. But, Lissy … Audrey and Janie. They need us.”
Audrey, my sister-in-law, and Janie, her three-year-old daughter. The list of things I wouldn’t do for them is very short.
“Audrey would never ask for help,” Mom goes on. “She’s too strong. Too proud. But let me tell you: Single parenthood’s not easy. Work and school and Janie … She’s got so much on her plate, and I miss her. I miss them both, so much.”
My icy heart thaws, just a little. “I miss them, too.”
“They’re only a couple of hours south,” she reminds me, spreading cream cheese over her bagel, then mine. Cleverly, she’s stretching out the quiet, allowing time for the space behind my ribs to continue warming with sympathy. After another few moments, she says, “Of course you can come back to visit, to see your Pacific Heights friends. And after your senior year, you’ll be back in the city anyway, at the San Francisco Art Institute.”
Her declarations are flawed at best. Yes, Audrey and Janie live a few hours south, in a tiny coastal village called Cypress Beach, but they might as well be on Saturn—that’s how different their town is from my city. Also, my mom knows good and well that I don’t have much in the way of Pacific Heights friends; I did a superb job of isolating myself three years ago, after my big brother died. And anyway, I haven’t even applied to the San Francisco Art Institute yet, let alone gotten in. What if I don’t? What if I never make it back to this city I love?
None of that matters, though. Nor do my absolutely opposing feelings on the subject of changing high schools a year before graduation.
If Audrey and Janie need us in Cypress Beach, we have to go.
I sigh, a resigned sound, and bite into my bagel.
It tastes like cream-cheese-slathered cardboard.
* * *
During the next couple of weeks, Mom advertises our condo as available for sublet, collects a mountain of empty boxes from the neighborhood grocery store, and begins to fill them with our earthly treasures. I finish my junior year in a haze of packing paper and Bubble Wrap, dreading the day we’re slated to leave.
I love my sister-in-law and niece with astonishing intensity, but I do not want to move.
I was born in Manhattan, but we left when I was two, immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11. My dad was (and still is) a workaholic, so consumed by his finance career he was apparently immune to the rising fear that seized New York City after the Twin Towers fell. Mom was not. But they were married and we were a family, so we made the cross-country move as a quartet: Dad, Mom, Nick, and me. Turns out, my dad isn’t a fan of the West Coast. He bailed on California (and us) after less than a year.
For me, San Francisco has always been home. It’s the city where my brother and I spent countless hours exploring steeply pitched streets, and where I mastered the fundamentals of photography. I conquered public transportation here and came to appreciate the quiet beauty of art museums and to crave soup served in crusty sourdough bowls. I had my first kiss in Lafayette Park.
San Francisco is the city of my heart.
As far as I know, Cypress Beach doesn’t have public transportation. It doesn’t have art museums. It doesn’t have high-rises, or all-night Thai restaurants, or Fisherman’s Wharf and its rich chowder, ladled into warm, hollowed-out bread. It doesn’t have bustle and midnight sirens and air scented like exhaust and garlic and, sometimes, sewage. It certainly doesn’t have memories of Nick.
But Cypress Beach has Audrey and Janie, and so it will have Mom and me.
We roll out of town the day after school lets out.
Copyright © 2018 by Katy Upperman