Pulling back the living room curtain revealed the surreal scene outside: a bright orange orb floating in a dark, gray sky. The air out there is horrible, she thought to herself, feeling trapped another day inside. Lori Michaels had often contemplated moving away from Northern California but she had been there so many years it seemed hard to pull away.
But now, what with the fire season growing longer and wider every year for the past decade, she looked around the small Oakland bungalow she shared with her husband Bryan of fourteen years, its walls sealing her in for days on end, and felt something entirely different.
Fires burning up and down the state had forced the couple inside, save the necessary grocery store run which was mostly Bryan’s responsibility, respirator mask over nose and mouth, sunglasses covering his eyes, the new tools of a futuristic war with nature firmly in place. Thank goodness we don’t have a dog right now, she thought, picturing Zosha, their former Labrador mix needing walks and constant outdoor stimulation.
She had been pining for a new dog this past year but felt relieved today that they had not made that decision yet.
“I’m really starting to wonder about things, Bryan. I mean, the cost of living here is something we’ve been talking about escaping for a while now and I just don’t know how much longer I can take this captivity. You?” Lori posed, glass of wine in her hand, her third that evening.
“I know, I know. We need to revisit the idea. I know you’re waiting for me, I’m sorry. You’re lucky you can work remotely from anywhere but I don’t think management will go for that 100% of the time just yet and we need to check job markets and housing markets…and, well, we need to figure out where we want to go, anyway, right?” Bryan volleyed back to her.
Anywhere. Anywhere but here, is what Lori was thinking as she tipped her glass back, draining the last of her Cab.
“Where, Bryan? Where the air is clear, my love,” she replied.
Setting her glass down, she disappeared into the bathroom and began to draw a bath, dropping essential oils of eucalyptus and lavender into the rising waters of the tub.
“Beware! The air is BAD in there,” Lori said when Robin came walking up onto the porch, returning from dropping her kids off at school followed by a spin class. Finding her sister-in-law sitting on the porch swing gazing out on the pond with a joint in her hand, a tiny swirl of smoke rising above her head, Robin stopped in her tracks.
“What’s going on?” Robin asked.
“Oh, you know. The usual. Those two can’t stay out of anyone’s business. Bryan is all in with your sisters right now and I had to withdraw my cards from the game,” she said, taking a last hit on her joint before pinching it and depositing it back into its small case to revisit later.
“Stakes are too high,” she added, blowing out a small amount of residual smoke into the breeze in the opposite direction from where Robin stood.
“Look, Robin, I know you try to keep the peace and you keep hoping they will change one day but now that your mother is gone? I can’t do it anymore,” Lori added.
Ada Michaels, the matriarch of the family, had passed six months ago, leaving a legacy fraught with unresolved feuds and buried secrets. She hadn’t spoken to her own brother for decades and it seemed the next generation was poised for playing out a similar drama.
“Your miracle just isn’t going to happen, Robin. You can’t change the spots on a leopard. It’s in their DNA to be the way they are and they are just…just…c’mon we all know it, it’s time someone said it out loud…they are unbearable!”
She paused to take in a deep and dramatic breath, then exhaled emphatically, releasing an accumulation of tension from years of toeing the line. She had wanted to use a different word but loved Robin too much to hurt her feelings.
“I’m sorry to have to be so blunt but it’s time to clear the air, quit with the ‘not saying it” charade. They are toxic. Like the air in California right now that grays the skies and poisons us all a little bit at a time. It makes us feel ill, it creates separation from loved ones. Makes us feel alone and sad and desperate for clarity. That air out there is nothing compared to what’s inside your house right now! Somebody needs to finally do something about it,” Lori finished, returning her gaze to the tranquility of the pond, the ducks, the pristine blue sky.
Lori and Bryan had gotten on a plane to his younger sister Robin’s East Coast home two days ago to get out of the smoke and haze, to spend whatever time was needed for California to restore itself and for them to reflect and make some clear choices.
“I’ve taken leave of them for good. It’s you and Bryan who need to face this tragic saga without me,” Lori stated definitively, looking again at Robin for a tell-tale sign of agreement.
“What does that mean, Lori? We’re family. What are we supposed to do exactly?”
“Well, they may be family, Robin, but they are just people and you have a choice to include them in your life or not, it’s as simple or as hard as you want it to be,” Lori posited matter-of-factly, so resolute in her own recent decision she wanted others to be so, also.
“I learned this thing on one of my retreats a couple of years ago. It’s called Pratyahara and it finally came into play for me, like an actual real thing, not just some esoteric scrawl in an ancient text,” Lori began.
Robin blinked, waiting for more.
“It’s a teaching in the Sutras that is part of the Eight-Fold Path to enlightenment and it has many meanings, really, but one of the things it suggests we do is to engage in sensory withdrawal from that which may harm us.”
Robin set her shoulder bag down and sat on the top step, looking towards Lori expectantly for further explanation. She wasn’t one to explore her inner world in that way but she was always open to hearing about it. Lori loved that about Robin, her endearing and open heart, her receptivity, her gentle and sweet nature. She was always a breath of fresh air in a turbid world.
“Remember when you got into a heated discussion with your old high school friend Brenda last month over some political thing and you finally just told her, ‘We either don’t talk politics or we can’t be friends’? And she said, no, you had to keep the dialogue going or else your friendship wasn’t meaningful or whatever. That you could learn from each other by talking about stuff, remember?” Lori asked as Robin nodded, yes.
“Well, what did you do? You decided that you didn’t need to learn anything from her, that her views were so extreme and disturbing that the best thing for you to do was to just end your friendship with her. To excommunicate her from your life. It’s like that, Pratyahara is. Like, ‘kill your TV’ or whatever. Quit smoking. Don’t eat junk food. Don’t go for a run outside when there is dangerous fire smoke in the air. Stop polluting your internal space, you know what I mean?” Lori asked, squinting her eyes a little at Robin to see if she could grok her metaphors.
“What about that joint, then, Lori?” Robin probed, but with a wink and a grin to soften the criticism. She wasn’t one to judge, her sisters did enough of that for the whole family.
“We all have our contradictions, don’t we. In my defense, it’s one or two hits every couple of weeks to take the edge off, open my perspective a bit, manage the stress. It’s therapeutic,” she said. “Let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we?”
Robin knew she was going to have to go inside her house and face the music, however cacophonous it might be. For now, she was content to hear Lori’s perspective under the influence of her “therapeutic dose” for a few minutes longer.
“Here’s the thing, Robin. For years I’ve navigated the storm of those two as best I can because it’s important to Bryan and to please your mother. And I’m the first one to say let’s find common ground instead of mining the sludge of our ugly differences. And I was happy to keep the peace for your mother’s sake, but your mother is gone now. And after so many years of putting up with it, I have to actively practice self-care and remove them completely from my life so I can breathe free again. Do you understand? Clear the air.”
She leaned forward towards Robin.
“You and Bryan have to figure things out for yourself, that’s not up to me to decide for you or even to participate in anymore.”
Robin glanced towards the closed front door of her home, seeing in her mind’s eye what was brewing on the other side of it. Her brother Bryan was in there with them, battling something out. Them. Why is it always Us and Them, she thought.
The older sisters were identical twins. Twin sisters. Though they were often referred to as “the Sin Twisters,” a turn of phrase that was an apt moniker. Bryan and Robin often spoke of their suddenly announced and unwelcome visitations as a “Twinvasion.” Somehow, endless puns applied well to them, momentarily taking the edge off and providing succor for the rest of the family.
Bryan called the twin sisters an echo chamber – when one of them got an idea, no matter how dangerous or outrageous, the other would validate it and they were off to the races. Like a wild scirocco, they would sweep across the landscape leaving nothing but detritus behind, unaware themselves of the messes they left for others to clean up. They were strongly opinionated, aggressive and disruptive. And some would say those were their better qualities.
Oh, yes, they had some positive attributes, but they often got buried under the chaos of the more dominant and damaging traits.
Robin knew Lori had come from an easy family and had struggled for years with how the twins talked to and treated others, that she coped by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, keeping her opinions about them to herself in an effort to keep her sanity intact. Until recently, anyway. Yep, the tide was turning.
Lori mostly didn’t even think about the twin sisters but then, suddenly, there they would be out of the blue, on the doorstep expecting to be hosted for days. Or weeks. They were stray cats that no one really wanted to be responsible for. Once you put that saucer of milk down, there was no getting rid of them. Lori had grown tired of the imposition, the entitlement, the narcissistic and manipulative ways in which they operated.
As she had gotten older and bolder, she began to voice her thoughts freely to Bryan to the point of putting pressure on their marriage. She’d hoped it would not cause resentment or irreversible damage but, for her, the necessary reward of sharing her feelings with him had become greater than the risk of losing him.
Lori just didn’t understand why there were so many enablers in the family and repeatedly encouraged Bryan and Robin to at last be honest about the effect their sisters had on everyone around them. Much to her chagrin, when the twins had learned of Bryan and Lori’s plans to visit Robin, they swooped in to make plans to visit, too. Lori was crestfallen when Bryan got the nerve to tell her on the plane and she told him then and there, if that was the scenario ahead, then it might be high time for a reckoning. He had just shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, gone back to his book.
Robin sat quietly on the steps for a moment letting Lori’s words sink in. She recalled the time of a recent family reunion when the three of them had made a pact the day before the twins arrived to not get into any arguments. It was a conscious effort to honor their mother’s wishes for a peaceful family time together. If one of the twins went right, they would go left. Like masterful Aikido practitioners, they would turn the conversation. Deflect and redirect. Avoid the bait and change the subject.
It had worked well for their mother that weekend, she seemed happier than they had seen her in a long time, but for the three of them, they were left to end each day around the table drinking bottle after bottle of red wine after everyone else had gone to bed, recapping and kvetching into the wee hours about the twins’ tireless efforts to pollute things once again. It was a tired routine and they knew it, but they had vowed to keep the peace for their mother in case it was their last reunion together, and it had been.
But now things had turned a corner and some truth-telling was needed. Robin knew Lori would not be part of that, now.
From their front porch proximity, the two women could hear voices getting louder on the other side of the door. A shouting match was well underway. Robin sighed, stood up, picked up her shoulder bag and cast a worried expression towards Lori just before slipping inside the door of her house, leaving her to breathe the deliciously fresh air of western Massachusetts in silence. Content in her comfort zone, Lori sat contemplating what might be happening inside while a refreshing sense of relief brushed over her, so happy to have retreated from the front lines finally.
Earlier that morning, she had laid it all out to them. She told them in no uncertain terms she was done with them for good.
“I seek relationships that are expansive, joyful, nourishing, mutually respectful and reciprocal. I seek friends who are emotionally intelligent, loving, fun, buoyant, insightful and full of light that reflects inwardly and outwardly,” she had recited her dissertation with confidence to their complete shock and dismay.
“I seek experiences that uplift and illuminate and create space to grow. I can no longer allow people or scenarios into my orbit that create discontent, subtract positive energy, breed disharmony or degradation. Why anyone would want to bring that to bear on another person is beyond me. Why anyone would choose to be the person who brings havoc, conflict or distress to another person’s life is incomprehensible.”
She’d walked out the front door, not interested in their rebuttal, and taken up residence on the front porch swing, where Robin had found her just one hour later.
She had always felt the twin sisters possessed an affliction or mental condition on some spectrum that did not allow them to be self-reflective, apologetic, filtered or rueful. They were not willing to see their mistakes. Like hamsters on a wheel, they were caught in a cycle of repeating their transgressions without regret in utter perpetuity. The notion of an existing, though professionally undiagnosed, mental condition had helped Lori exercise more compassion towards them over the years and get through the worst of times in their presence. But it wasn’t a sustainable method any longer.
Her meditation teacher, Martin, had once told her to approach the twin sisters as a gift, as an opportunity for spiritual practice.
“It is the difficult people and situations in our lives that are our best teachers. They can awaken our spirit and help us grow,” he had said.
That helped her for a few years but deeper inquiry eventually took her towards something else – the yogic principles of Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truth) and especially, Pratyahara – as she had shared with Robin – the movement away from unnecessary sensory toxins. She had decided this was the better path.
“I don’t need teachers like that,” she had informed Martin one day after class when he inquired about her progress with the particular dilemma.
“I am not interested in anyone who causes such unhappiness. I need only those who teach by example how to live honestly and harmoniously through kindness, generosity of spirit and love.” she revealed with absolute resolve.
Martin nodded and smiled, “I understand you perfectly,” he said.
“The twins have asked me – well, they asked us, but I’m sure it’s out of the question for you – to move into their new house for the next year or two,” Bryan suddenly dropped his news. He was sitting on the edge of the bed with Lori in their upstairs bedroom the next evening after the big blow out he’d had with the twin sisters.
“Uh. What?” she said, taken quite off guard, standing and turning to look at him more directly.
The sisters had decided to buy a property in Gunnison, Colorado, he began, but were not yet ready to make the move themselves and give up their active lives in Los Angeles. They had proposed the idea to Bryan last night after the flames of their heated arguments had died down. Would he and Lori like to rent their house for a while until they were ready to move, they had asked Bryan, much to his surprise.
Bryan explained further to Lori about the proposition, how the rent would be well below market value and give them an immediate option to leave Oakland sooner than later, hassle-free.
“My god, Bryan, did they not hear me yesterday after breakfast when I told them I can’t have them in my life anymore? I mean, short term memory is one thing but this is complete denial. Or worse, like I didn’t even speak,” Lori inquired, incredulous at this new development. She was in disbelief that Bryan would even consider sharing such a nonsensical idea with her. Maybe he isn’t hearing me either, she thought.
“Well, I know. But. I think they are really asking me to do it. With or without you,” Bryan said, with a look of distress on his face.
“I mean, I don’t know. But we have been talking about getting out of California, right? So couldn’t we do this? Together? And maybe, just maybe you can resolve your differences with them and…”
Lori marched out of the room, stopped and pivoted, returning to where Bryan sat on the bed. Throwing up her arms, she looked at him and said, “I can’t believe this. I don’t have ‘differences’ with them Bryan, they are incorrigible! They are irredeemable. Impossible to co-exist with! Don’t you see, If I agree to do it, if I agree to this, they will hold that over me, use it against me later. I can just hear it now, ‘How dare she dot, dot, dot after all we’ve done for her’, or some other twisted turn on the truth!”
Lori made her case.
Bryan stared at her, unable to take in all the grief. He was always turning away from anything unpleasant, never able to address things head on when the going got rough.
“And then,” Lori continued, “Then, I am forever trapped with them in my life. They will have invalidated me and my right to choose to live my life, our lives together, without being under the thumb of their influence. You know they will be coming to that house two, maybe three times a year, knowing all the while how I feel and that they just erased those feelings from existence. Stripped me of my power, my voice. I’ll be like that…that… tangle of dust on the rug over there, do you understand? This is their way of cleaving us apart, don’t you see that? How could you even consider this? We don’t need their help in leaving California. Let’s make our own plans, Bryan.” Lori had reached her limit, she could feel the heat rising.
Bryan sat looking at the floor, silent. Unable to meet her eye, now.
“They are my family, Lori,” he said in a low voice, continuing his downward gaze.
“WE are family, Bryan. You and me. Doesn’t that count for something?” Lori asked.
“They’re blood, Lori,” Bryan replied, looking up at her now as though he didn’t understand how she could not see that simple truth. “Blood is thicker than water.”
“Oh, brother. Blood,” she said flatly. “Blood is thicker than water. Well, yes, yes, I guess it is. But blood dries up and gets hard and scabby until you either pick it away or allow it to heal naturally. I don’t see much healing happening around here, so that leaves you with that icky scab, doesn’t it. Water, on the other hand, flows and cleanses and washes clean the unwanted debris,” she elaborated.
“Ya know, you could just be more supportive, just deal with them in support of me,” Bryan said.
“Oh, shit, are you kidding? I’ve been supportive to you for so many years, so tolerant, compassionate, understanding. How about you think about being supportive of me in this situation. Instead of letting them tell you what perspective to have, maybe you finally see the light and support me in this? The air would be much clearer that way, in my view,” she said, knowing that she was talking to a wall. He could be as stubborn as the twins.
“It seems you are at a crossroads with this thing and, look, Bryan. I can’t go along with this unhealthy, unresolved relationship you have with them anymore. It’s them,” she paused for a moment before committing to her thought. “Or me.”
On the verge of resting her case, now, she prepared for her closing statement.
“I’m afraid you’ve allowed it to come to this. I don’t know what else to say. Except. Your choice, buddy, your life,” she said, and she was down the stairs and out of sight of him in seconds flat.
Lori lay sprawled across the king-sized bed in her hotel room, reading the morning news on her phone. It was another Spare the Air day back in Oakland, the twelfth day in a row.
“Good God, what am I going to do. I am so over that,” she said softly to herself.
She had gone back upstairs after Bryan had gone to bed last night, packed her bag in the dark, booked a room at the Best Western across town and called an Uber. Realizing she was gone the next morning, he’d sent her several texts early.
She had responded right away, explaining to him that she could never agree to moving to his sisters’ house, not for a month, a week, not even a day. That she would not be rendered mute, her words and feelings ignored because it was inconvenient for others, would not accept being back in their clutches again, ever again. Bryan had asked her to come back to Robin’s and work things out but she told him she could not.
“You might as well be telling me you want to teach me trigonometry, Bryan. I’ll never understand it as hard as you try. Just like you will never understand or fully accept my point of view and what I must do for myself.”
Bryan stood on Robin’s front porch that morning, coffee mug in hand staring out across the tranquil pond, mulling over the sound of finality in his wife’s words. Robin came out to join him, asking about Lori. When he told her what was happening, she rubbed his back and smiled softly, her head tipped to one side, coaxing his gaze into her warm, brown eyes.
“Listen, Bryan. You need to make this right. Whatever way that is, you can’t let this fester,” she said.
Though she was three years younger, she often seemed wiser when it came to matters of the heart.
“Decide what you want your life to be, where you want your love to go. To Lori? Or to them,” she said nodding her head towards the screened in sun porch where the twin sisters were indulging in a big breakfast, courtesy of Robin’s unwavering largess.
“Why do I have to choose?” Bryan asked.
“Maybe you don’t actually have to choose. But. You do have to let Lori stand on her own ground, let her choose what’s best for her. In her eyes, that’s what’s best for you both, you see? She’s not trying to tear away at the fabric of this family. The twins do enough of that,” she smirked.
“No, Lori is trying to preserve the fabric of your marriage without compromising her own well-being. She’s telling them they can’t be in her life, she’s not telling them not to be in yours. You can have a relationship with them forever and ever (so help you god!),” and she laughed out loud to lighten things up a bit.
“In whatever way you want. As defined by you.”
“But, Bryan,” Robin continued, “There are new parameters to your life with Lori now and you have to respect that. Respect your wife,” Robin said with a nod.
“I do. I respect her, understand her. And I can still figure out how to have my own relationship with the twins regardless. You can too. It might be more work, but you just might find it is actually less work, when it comes right down to it.”
“But that’s going to be hard, how will I spend time with them without her, with them knowing….”
“Bryan. That’s not Lori’s job. It’s yours and the twins to figure out.” Robin said.
“Besides, how could it be any harder than anything else you’ve had to endure with them, I ask you!”
They both laughed and hugged each other deeply. And the twins were suddenly bursting out of the front door to disrupt their sweet moment, asking what all the lovey-dovey stuff was, where was Lori and here is what’s on the agenda today and everyone be ready in one hour. The usual routine.
“Twins. Lori is not here but I am going to get her. And then the two of us are going to do whatever we want to do today.” Bryan stated firmly. He walked past them and through the front door, taking the stairs two at a time up to their bedroom to call her.
“What’s THAT all about!” the twins said in unison.
Robin just shook her head and went inside.
Bryan returned from his hike with Lori to find the twin sisters sitting in Robin’s sun porch again, drinking wine and indulging on an elaborate array of gourmet snacks Robin had laid out for them. Robin’s kids were in the living room putting a jigsaw puzzle together, oblivious to the goings on of the past few days.
“Where’s Robin?” he asked the twins.
“Picking Jim up at the airport,” one of them said.
Jim, Robin’s husband, had been away on business and Bryan knew he would not be happy to come back to the chaos going down in his home, that he would quickly retreat to his office after a quick hello. Everyone has their own brand of coping with my sisters, Bryan thought, as he watched the two wolfing down the snacks, without offering him a glass or a plate, not even so much as a chair to join them. They were lost in their private reverie.
“We’re not interested,” he said bluntly.
“Not interested in what, Bry-Bry?” one of them said without looking up from her plate, licking her fingers after dropping another goat cheese stuffed olive into her mouth.
“Lori and I are not interested in moving into your new house, to be your caretakers until you’re ready to move in yourself. We’re going to make our own plans,” he announced.
“In fact, you shouldn’t even have asked me given that she told you she didn’t want anything more to do with you two. I mean, what the hell, didn’t you catch that drift? Weren’t you listening?”
Within minutes, the climate in the room changed. A wind whipped up, heavy with accusation and blame. An orange glow from a late afternoon sun filled the room with a strange light. The air between them became suddenly so laden with tar and treacle you could cut it with a knife. Bryan could hear the kids shuffling about and scurrying up the stairs to their rooms, saving themselves from the approaching tidal wave of unfiltered emotions.
After spending the day with Lori, hiking under blue skies and gentle breezes, it was obvious to him that the weather was just better with her, the air scented sweet with pine duff, the euphonious birdsong delightful in his ears, the views across an endless horizon as clear as a bell. He could see forever with her. Unobstructed, not a cloud in the sky.
He could barely hear the twin sisters now, it was just noise in his ears, though he had so much to say himself, to share with them, his difficult, controlling, intractable sisters. He knew the day of reckoning had arrived, just as Lori predicted. He walked into the kitchen to grab a wine glass, their voices lifting ever more loudly, following his every movement.
“Don’t walk away from us, get back here,” one of them said.
Returning to the sun porch, he lifted the bottle of red wine from the table and poured himself a hearty glassful. He raised his glass to take in the ruby red color against the light, swirled it, took in its fragrance then pressed it to his lips and tasted the bounty of this beautiful grape. Waiting for the twin sisters to come up for air, he found his opportunity to gain entry, to speak his mind, finally, to set things straight once and for all. To air all his dirty laundry.
As the Uber arrived and drove the twin sisters away from him, he stood with his fists jammed tightly into his pockets in reluctant anger. But slowly, he released the tension in his hands, withdrawing them from his pockets and shaking them out. He knew this was just the first phase of redefining relationships. All of his relationships. His heart began to soften, his senses slowly let go of the foul energy that just moments before had surrounded him; the smell, the taste, the sound of his anger dissipated from his being. He would text his wife and give her the “all clear” to come back to Robin’s. That night, he knew, they would begin a new conversation. The one about where they would move to and begin again. Somewhere. Anywhere. Where the air was clear.
© 2020, Mary Corbin
Where the Air is Clear is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Edge to Edge” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.