London Paris Rome
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
I had one sister, four years older than me. Her name was Ruth, but everybody called her Ruthie. She and I had always occupied different worlds. She stayed in her world (in her upstairs room) and I stayed in mine. I can’t say I really disliked her, but the truth was I didn’t feel much of anything when it came to her. If she went far away, I’d like to know that she was all right, but if I didn’t see her again for a long time—or ever—it wouldn’t bother me much.
When Ruthie graduated from high school, she got married right away to her long-time boyfriend. His name was Lonnie Turkle. He wasn’t good-looking or smart. He wouldn’t, as the saying goes, go far in life, but, as Ruthie would have been the first to point out, nobody cared what I thought.
Within a year of her marriage, Ruthie became a mother to a daughter she named Eulalie. She found out, soon enough, that being a parent was lot of work and almost a constant bother, not nearly as much fun as she thought it would be. She didn’t have nearly as much time, anymore, for going to movies, experimenting with different hair styles and reading romance novels.
Right away she regretted marrying Lonnie. She found him dull and uninspiring. He never read a book. He didn’t have an enquiring mind. As soon as he came home from his job as a sewer worker with the city street department, he installed himself in front of the television and watched one idiotic program after another. The shows he liked best were the reality shows with trashy people in them who were just like him.
By the time I was a senior in high school, Ruthie and Lonnie Turkle were “separated,” meaning that Ruthie was living back home with us. She hadn’t officially filed for divorce, mostly because she didn’t have the money for such an undertaking. She installed herself in her upstairs bedroom and things were just as they were before she got married, except that now she had an extra person in the room with her, her daughter Eulalie, not quite three years old. I liked Eulalie well enough, but she screamed all the time and caused my ears to ache. She was just another squawking female, with which my life abounded.
In March right before my birthday, my English teacher gave me a brochure about a student trip to Europe in the summer. I read the brochure from front to back, indulging in the fantasy that I just might be able to go on the trip if I could get my mother to sign off on the idea. She was the boss. Her word was law.
I gave my mother the brochure when I came home from school and told her I’d really like to see Europe. I figured she’d laugh at me and give me the old razzmatazz about not being the son of a millionaire, but she was surprisingly receptive to the idea. She began figuring how we might manage the “outrageous” (I thought it was reasonable) expense of the trip. She talked it over with grandma and grandma said she would kick in whatever amount I was lacking. After a couple of phone calls and a fifty-dollar deposit, I was “on my way” on what would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I would remember to my dying day. It was all so much easier than I thought it would be.
I began telling everybody that I would be going to Europe in the summer. People were mostly happy for me, or, if they weren’t happy, they pretended to be. The one exception was my sister, Ruthie.
At the dinner table, mother wanted to talk about the trip. There were dozens of little details that needed to be considered. The tour people sent a list of things I should have. I would need a new suit for graduation, which came first. The graduation suit would also have to do for the trip. I would also need a new raincoat.
“He gets a new suit and a raincoat and everything?” Ruthie said. When I looked at her, I thought she looked sick. She wasn’t sick, though. Just jealous.
“What’s the matter with you?” mother asked. “Are you having your period?”
“No, it’s not that! I’m just wondering why Mr. Prissypants is getting all this attention, is all!”
“What are you talking about?” mother asked.
“He gets a new suit! He gets a new coat! He gets to go to Europe! Why doesn’t it ever occur to any of you that I might like to go to Europe, too?”
“It’s a student trip,” I said. “You’re not a student.”
“Oh, you make me sick!”
“I thought you would be happy for me.”
“Why should I be happy for you?”
“Aren’t you happy that your brother has a chance to go to Europe?” mother said. “Things like that don’t happen every day of the week.”
“If it had been me instead of him, I’m just wondering if you would have made all this fuss! I already know the answer. You would have said we can’t afford it and that would have been the end of it!”
“We would have done the same for you.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“Jealousy is a very ugly thing coming from you,” mother said. “I never would have expected it from one of my children. You’re better than that!”
“No, I’m not!”
“I can arrange for you to talk to Father Davis, if you think that would help.”
“No, I don’t want to talk to Father Davis! I hate Father Davis!”
“You’re just overwrought now and you’ll say anything to inflict pain. I’d like to believe that I raised my daughter to be bigger than that.”
“Oh, mother, you don’t even know what you’re talking about! You just talk so you don’t have to hear the echo chamber inside your own head!”
“Well, you don’t have to be so insulting!” mother said.
“I’m sorry you’re feeling jealous, Ruthie,” I said.
“No, you’re not! Every time I look at you, you’re gloating because you get to go to Europe and I don’t.”
“I don’t gloat,” I said, trying to keep from laughing. “I don’t even know what it means.”
“I don’t know how much the trip is costing, but I’m sure it’s plenty. When you arrive at a final figure, I think you should sit down and make out a check to me for the same amount.”
“Oh, Ruthie!” mother said. “Why would I do that?”
“Because it’s only fair! If he deserves to go to Europe, then I deserve an equal amount in cash.”
“You’re being so unreasonable!”
“I think she needs to go for some therapy,” I said.
“You shut up! Nobody asked you!”
“Ruthie, there’s no reason for you to be so rude!” mother said.
“If I had that much money, I could get my divorce and get away from this hell hole, out on my own, and my life would start to make some sense!”
“Well, I never thought you’d think of your home as a hell hole,” mother said. “We graciously let you move back home without asking how long you might be staying. You’re no longer a child, you know. A person as old as you are should be out on your own! You have a husband and a family and a home of your own.”
I could tell Ruthie was about to explode. She got up and left the room as if the house was on fire and she needed to escape.
“Are you going to give her the money?” I asked.
“No,” mother said.
“Are you going to tell her she’s washed up here?”
“Good. I’ll help her pack.”
“I don’t know when both of my children turned into such smart-asses!” she said.
Ruthie left that night without saying anything to mother or me. She took Eulalie with her, of course. Mother was afraid for Eulalie’s safety. She was afraid she might never see her again.
After a few days, mother called Ruthie at what had previously been her home. Lonnie answered. He sounded drunk.
“She ain’t here!” he said. “I haven’t seen her and I don’t know where she is.”
“If you see her…”
“I won’t! Every day I expect to be served with the divorce papers. I’m through with marriage, I tell you! I’ve had enough and I want out!”
My graduation came and went and we saw nothing of Ruthie. She was supposed to be there on the front row, cheering me on. Mother thought I would be disappointed that my one sister in the world didn’t see me graduate from high school, but it was all right with me that she wasn’t there. There were lots of other people there.
In June I left to go to Europe. My suitcase was so heavy I could hardly carry it, even though I had been careful not to include any unnecessary items. If I bought any souvenirs of the countries I visited, I didn’t know where I was going to put them.
Ruthie didn’t call to tell me goodbye. It was as if I no longer existed for her. She probably hoped the plane I was in would crash into the sea and no bodies found. I knew her and I knew the way she thought.
The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more. I had never been out of the country and had never even flown on a plane before. We spent three nights in New York at a hotel across the street from Central Park before flying on to London. I discovered right away what a sheltered life I had led.
I climbed partway up the steps of the Eiffel Tower until I couldn’t go any higher. I saw the Louvre Museum, the Tower of London, the Sistine Chapel, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s home (and grave) at Stratford-on-Avon, Mozart’s home, the fairy-tale castle of the Mad King of Bavaria, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Versailles, the ruins at Pompeii, the Roman Forum and Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the Tyrolean Alps, and so much more. On the way back to the U.S., we stopped for refueling in Iceland late at night.
I sent postcards home and mother wrote me brief letters, mostly to tell me that everything was fine and that my cat missed me. There was no mention in any of her letters of Ruthie.
In August, after I had been home from the trip for about two weeks, mother heard from one of her church friends that Ruthie and Lonnie got back together and were moving to Alaska. Mother immediately thought of Eulalie. What kind of upbringing was that child going to have with a couple of loonies like Ruthie and Lonnie? She got on the phone right away to her lawyer and began looking into ways she might gain custody of her only grandchild. That’s a different story, though.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp