Sisterland(6) by Curtis Sittenfeld

“At three o’clock, at a Starbucks in Creve Coeur. Not too far off 270, I believe. Vi said I’m welcome to come in and sit at another table, but I’ll just bring the paper and make myself comfortable in the car.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun for you.” My father had also said nothing to suggest that Vi had revealed the gender of her date to him. It was so like my sister to have our almost-seventy-four-year-old father drive her, even to be okay with him following her inside, yet not to bother explaining to him either online dating or her nascent lesbianism. (The first I’d ever heard of Vi being involved with a woman was two summers before, when she’d met someone named Cindy at a spirituality conference in Illinois. Cindy was our age but wore a long gray-and-green batik skirt with a matching flowing shirt and the kind of sandals you’d go river rafting in, and thirty seconds after meeting me, she said in a faux-sympathetic tone, “You give off a very, very tired energy, and you need to make more time for yourself.” When of course I was tired—I had a six-month-old baby! Vi hadn’t introduced Cindy to our father, and a few weeks later, Vi had told me she and Cindy were no longer on speaking terms. Since then, Vi hadn’t, to my knowledge, dated anyone.)

I said to my father, “I have a question for you about tomorrow. It’s just as easy for Jeremy to grill salmon or steak, and since it’s your birthday, you should decide.”

“Oh, heavens, I’m not picky.” He was quiet before adding, “Vi seems well these days, doesn’t she? She’s come into her own.”

My father tended to speak in code, which had to do, I believed, with his midwestern decorum, a discretion so extreme that it precluded direct mention of a wide range of topics. Perhaps the worst thing Jeremy had ever said to me, when we’d been together about six months, was that my father was cold. Jeremy had made this remark after we’d invited my father to hear the symphony and he’d declined without giving any reason, and the way Jeremy had said it had been as if this view was a shared understanding we had instead of a scathing observation on his part. “Well, I’ve never heard him say ‘I love you,’ ” Jeremy had added. “I’ve never heard him give you a compliment.” When I began to cry, I think Jeremy was shocked. But to me, my father had always been the kind, warm parent. He was reticent, yes, but he wasn’t cold.

In this moment, however, I truly had no idea what my father was talking about when he said Vi was doing well: Her job, which I had long assumed was as much a source of discomfort for him as it was for me? The fact that she had a date?

I said, “I guess she does seem good.” That she and I had had a fight wasn’t worth burdening my father with. “All right,” I added. “So Jeremy will get you tomorrow at five o’clock.”

Back in the living room, I said, “My dad is driving Vi to her date, but I don’t even think Vi’s told him it’s a woman.” The night before, I had recounted to Jeremy my disagreement with Vi at Hacienda, including the part where she’d declared that children were a problem people created then congratulated themselves for solving, at which point Jeremy had laughed and said, “She’s right.”

I said, “I assumed the woman was picking her up, but they’re meeting this afternoon at a Starbucks in Creve Coeur.”

“How romantic,” Jeremy said.

“I know, right?” Even though I wasn’t exactly rooting for a thriving lesbian romance for my sister, she’d be better off meeting the IT consultant at night for a drink. How could you possibly fall in love off Interstate 270, on a Thursday afternoon? As I dropped to my knees and began picking up blocks that were strewn across the rug, I said, “So I think for his birthday dinner, my dad wants steak.”

A few minutes after twelve, Rosie pounded on the Wheelings’ door while I unfastened the various harnesses keeping Owen strapped into his half of the double stroller. From the porch, I could hear the television in their living room, which was never on in the middle of the day. Hank had an odd expression—both perplexed and amused—as he held open the door. “So do you know or do you not know that your sister was just on Channel 5?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do you ever feel like there are only six people in St. Louis?” Hank said. “And we’re either married or related to half of them?”

“If you think that, try having grown up here. Why was Vi on TV?” Although Hank didn’t seem perturbed, my pulse had quickened. Please let it just be a man-on-the-street interview, I thought. Something about the Cardinals or the Highway 40 construction. I followed Rosie inside with Owen in my arms.