“Keep an eye on her,” my mother warned, after asking me to pick up my second cousin, Diane, from the bus station. “She’s a strange one.”
I arrived at the station just as Diane was climbing down the bus steps, her large straw hat blowing in the wind, bell bottom jeans flapping around her ankles. She stood with other passengers, hugging a Be Happy tote, as they waited for the driver to open the baggage compartment. I sat in my car, ready to wave her over as soon as she collected her luggage. But when she grabbed two, overstuffed suitcases, she headed inside, not hearing me honk and call her name over the idling engine and whiny exhaust system.
“Diane,” I followed her inside.
She looked back at me like I was a stranger.
“Hey,” I thought Charlene was picking me up.
“No, they’re still on vacation.
“So where am I staying?” she stepped back.
“With me. Didn’t my mother call you?”
“No,” she relaxed, and we headed for my car.
I reached for one of her suitcases, but she pushed my hand away.
At the car she insisted on lugging the heavy bags into the trunk. Sweat beads slid down the side of her face as she struggled. She let out a loud, exhausted breath and then collapsed in the front passenger seat. I rolled the windows down for her, and she took off her hat, exposing thick patches of frizzy, gray hair.
“Phew,” she exhaled, cool air filling the car.
“How was the trip?” I asked.
“Like riding a bus for three days,” she griped. “Glad I’m off that bus.”
“Are you excited to be here?”
“I’ve been here before,” she stared out the window. “That’s new,” she pointed at the two-level health food store. “Has its own parking lot too?”
“Yeah, remember the Wellness Market?”
“By the railroad tracks.”
“This is it now,” I said, her mouth opening wide.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
I left her wrestling with her suitcases while I opened my front door and moved the shoe rack from behind the door.
“You sure you don’t want help?” I asked when I returned.
“Nope. Show me where I’ll be sleeping. That’s all I need to know.”
I showed her to the extra room, a small dresser and air mattress the only furniture.
“Nice,” she said, sliding one suitcase into the closet at a time. “Hangers too?”
“It’s not much,” I shied. “I’m still working on it.
“I got a bed and somewhere to put my clothes,” she looked around the room. “Thank you.”
“Are you hungry? I can make us something.”
“I’d appreciate that,” she put her hands together.
“Do you have any preferences?”
“I like everything,” she sat on the air mattress and took her shoes off. “Anything you make, I’ll eat,” she laughed, rubbing her feet. “But first, let me wash up.”
I made chicken alfredo, warmed up a can of green beans, and filled a glass pitcher with water, dropping in a few pieces of fruit for flavor. Diane came to the table dressed in baggy sweatpants and a sleeveless t-shirt.
“Looks good, cousin,” she reached for the alfredo and then the green beans, piling one on top of the other.
“Is there anything you want to do this weekend?”
“You don’t have to worry about me cousin,” she took a bite. “I can entertain myself. “
“I just thought you might want to do something together,” I pressed, thinking about my mother’s stern warning.
“That’s okay,” she gulped her water. “Today I’m going to sleep.”
She finished eating and did just that–slept–her snores long, angry. I cleaned the kitchen and cozied up with the couch, deciding to watch Orange is the New Black again. For hours, I shared the characters’ sadness, rooted for them, and punched couch pillows when their foolproof plans didn’t work. I fell asleep between episode four and five. I woke up to the Are you still watching message and an empty guest room.
“Diane,” I stepped outside, looking around, still sleep drunk. “Diane.”
“Are you looking for the woman wearing a big hat?” my neighbor asked. “She went that way,” she pointed east.
I grabbed my keys and took two water bottles out of the refrigerator.
“Where could she be?” I said as I drove east on Pacific. “Come on, come on,” I looked for her big floppy hat.
Five blocks in, I thought she couldn’t have gone that far, but I drove another block and then another. Ten blocks in, I wondered why I had to keep an eye on her.
“She’s a grown woman,” I complained. “She seems fine to me…is someone going to kidnap her?”
Fifteen blocks in, I looked out at the water, the ducks and birds flying in clusters, excited by something as they dove towards the sidewalk and back into the water. I stared, squinted until I saw the brim of her hat rising and falling in the wind. The cars behind me began to honk, so I drove up another block and made a U-turn. On the way back, I pulled into the parking lot, choosing a spot where I could see her, but she couldn’t see me. I felt like a detective, a stalker. She reached inside a bag of bird feed, and I wondered how she had gotten it. I watched her throw handfuls up in the air, a smile across her face as they flocked to her and ate the seeds.
On the bench behind her was a stack of comic books, a bag of chicharrones de harina, and a lattice quilt she had spread on the bench.
“How long was I asleep?”
She whistled Stairway to Heaven, lost inside her own world, just the way she liked it. I thought about going over, asking her about her whereabouts, using language to contain her, box her in so my mother felt safer. But I didn’t.
I left her there to feed the birds, free from my critical gaze.