Nina left the room after I announced my engagement.
Papa already knew because Wes had asked him first, but he smiled and congratulated us just the same. Momma let out a girlish shriek of excitement and ran into the kitchen for that bottle of cider she’d been saving for a special occasion. My brother, Phillip, rose from the sofa to help his very pregnant wife stand and give us hugs. He proceeded to shake Wesley’s hand and give him a crooked smile.
My sister-in-law squeezed my shoulders despite the baby bump between us. “Oh, Bea! That’s wonderful news! I’m so happy for you two!” She released me to take Wesley’s face in her hands and beam up at him. “I knew you were going to stick around! I just knew it!”
Wes smiled around the hands over his cheeks. “Thanks, Opal.”
I turned to smile at my sister, expecting to see her still standing by the floor lamp, waiting for her turn to congratulate me. But she was gone, the screen door closing behind her with a quiet click. I kept the smile on my face despite my disappointment and excused myself before slipping out into the night.
Nina leaned her elbows against the railing and lit the cigarette dangling from her lips. I used to think she looked so cool with a ciggy between her fingers, colored eyelids drooped, long lashes casting shadows across her prominent cheekbones, ruby red lips pouting ever so delicately. Nina was blessed with all the confidence and genes needed to be a choice bit of calico in this decade. The dress of a flapper couldn’t hide my curves and my bob could hardly be contained by a cloche hat. Plus, I’d always been too afraid of Papa’s disapproval to smoke.
I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “What’s eating you, Nina?”
She was too quick to smile. “Everything is Jake, Sweet Bea. I was just craving a smoke.”
I joined her by the railing. “Did I upset you with my announcement?”
Nina blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “Course not. It’s a surprise but not something to be upset about.”
I blinked. “Phillip bringing a woman of color home to meet our parents was a surprise. Wes and I have been going steady for over a year now. It’s only reasonable that the next step for us would be—”
“Julius and I have been seeing each other about the same amount of time and you don’t see me sporting a handcuff.”
I bit my lip and averted my gaze, sliding a hand over my engagement ring. I hated her a little for ruining this night for me. I wanted to say Julius was too much of a coward to get a divorce and would probably never be faithful to Nina even if he did. But I held my tongue.
Nina took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. “I’m sorry, Sweet Bea. I really am happy for you. Wesley is swell. You’re going to be a great wife.”
Now say it like you mean it, I thought. “Thanks…”
Nina scrunched up her face. “But level with me, sis. Are you sure you’re going to be happy having so little? Being a waitress can’t pay much and Wesley’s job at the railroad isn’t exactly a career.”
“I have everything I could possibly want; parents who support me, an honest and hardworking man who’s goofy about me, friends and siblings who care about me, and a steady job. What more is there?”
My sister chuckled and turned back to the Chicago skyline. “Oh, Bea, you’re adorable.”
“What more is there,” I said with a frown, “that matters?”
Nina’s smile grew sadder and slightly less condescending. “You’ve always been so easy to please.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
Nina waved an impatient hand at the house behind us. “You’re content to be a clergyman’s daughter and follow his rules and sit in church every week. You’re happy waiting on customers and wearing our cousins’ hand-me-downs—”
I defensively wrapped my arms around my jumper.
“And being a good housewife and bearing children and serving the same man until you’re old. You’ve never thirsted for something more, something better, in your entire life. You’ve never been the least bit curious about new things or brave enough to voice your opinion.”
I remembered with bitter clarity the last time I had ‘tried something new’ with my sister.
Nina had persuaded Momma to let me spend the night at her place because she was long overdue for a girls’ night. I was under the impression that we’d get dolled up and go out to eat, maybe go to the movies before returning to her flat. The moment I stepped through Nina’s front door, she dragged me to her closet to ask for my opinion on what she should wear.
“Julie’s meeting us downtown and I have to look keen.”
To which I replied, “I thought we were having a girl’s night, Nina Bean.”
My sister huffed. “Don’t call me that! I’m hardly as thin as a string bean anymore. We’re still having a girl’s night. I just want you to meet Julius first.”
So I gave my opinion on Nina’s outfit and squeezed into one of her flapper dresses. I let her do my makeup and wrap a silk scarp around my head, and then we were off. Nina was acting like a schoolgirl, giggling and gushing about her new sheik, while we waited for him outside the speakeasy that masqueraded as a diner. This man, who was the coolest ‘egg’ Nina had ever met, pulled up in a shiny new breezer and honked his horn at us. Nina plastered herself to the side of the car to give the driver a kiss.
Once out on the sidewalk, Julius wrapped an arm around my tall, slender sister and walked over. His head barely reached her breast, but he spoke loudly enough to be noticed by all. His dark hair was sleeked back under his maroon homburg. He sported a gray pinstriped suit with a maroon vest to match his hat, and black and white lace up oxfords. He called Nina ‘smarty’ and complimented her dress before he even noticed me.
“Julie, this is my sister, Beatrice. Bea, this is my Julius,” Nina said.
Julius vigorously shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, doll.”
“Oh, you’re such a charmer!” Nina exclaimed before turning to me. “Isn’t he a charmer?”
“Sure,” I said, not that she heard me.
“Let’s go inside. I’m dying for a lap.” Nina led the way, arm-in-arm with Julius. She spared me a glance over her shoulder when she’d reached the door. “Don’t look so terrified, Sweet Bea. This juice joint is hip to the jive! It’ll be fun!”
With great trepidation, I followed them into the basement. Three drinks, four songs played entirely too loud and fast, and two dances later, I was being groped by a man I didn’t know and had no intention of knowing. The lovebirds I was tagging along with magically reappeared from wherever they had slipped off to. Julius slugged the stranger in the stomach while Nina dragged me outside and away from the ruckus. We reached the alley in time for me to throw up all over the pavement and Nina’s dress.
“Oh, Bea! I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” Nina tugged a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at my face.
I let out a moan and sank back against the wall. “I want to go home.”
Nina sighed. “I can’t bring you to Momma like this. Let’s just go back to my place, all right?”
Julius emerged then, looking angrier than a swarm of bees. “That futz-face won’t be coming around this place again. How’s your sister?”
“She’s fine, Julie, but I really think I ought to put her in bed. Could you take us home?”
I crossed my arms now, mentally channeled this memory to my sister, and waited for her to remember.
Nina cast me a sideways glance. “The night you met Julius doesn’t count.”
“Why not? It was the first time I’d ever been to a sp…”
A burst of laughter from inside the house reminded me there was only a screen door and several footsteps between us and the rest of our family.
I lowered my voice. “It was the first time I’d ever done something illegal before. And what about my hair?”
Nina shrugged. “What about it?”
“You shamed me into getting it cut this way because you were so certain it would make me look fashionable! ‘All your life it’s been long,’ you said, ‘and wouldn’t it be nice to have it styled differently for a change?’ Maybe if I’d been ‘brave enough to voice my opinion’ and said no right away, I wouldn’t look like I have a crow’s nest on the top of my head!”
Nina coughed and sputtered out a laugh.
I self-consciously patted my curls and scowled at her. “I know Wesley hates it, but he’s too much of a gentleman to say anything. It’s a good thing we’re waiting until the spring to get married, otherwise I’d have to…”
Nina rolled her eyes. “It looks fine. You’re being ridiculous.”
“Speaking of ridiculous, just what is wrong with being a housewife and having children?” I demanded.
My sister blew out a stream of smoke and flicked the cigarette butt into the grass. “Nothing, of course. Why would you do anything different? It’s all women are good for.”
I gritted my teeth to keep from swearing. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Just because I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life with the man I love doesn’t mean I’m ignorant or stupid.”
Nina cast me an annoyed glance. “I never said you were.”
“Then stop insinuating that your way is best! Not all of us want to be vamps who drink until they vomit and dance with strangers. Some of us actually want to grow up.”
Nina’s jaw dropped. “Bea…”
“Tonight was supposed to be a celebration!” My voice cracked. “Why couldn’t you just be happy for me?” I spun on my heel and marched into the house, blinking away tears.
Wes climbed the tree by my bay window and tapped the glass with his knuckles. I rolled out of bed and threw on a robe before shuffling over.
“Were you sleeping?” he asked once I’d opened the window.
I sat on the cushioned bench and hugged my knees. “You know I can’t sleep after I’ve had a fight.”
Wes shifted on the branch, most likely to get into a more comfortable position. Leaves came loose with an audible shuffle before they flitted to the ground. Wes flinched and looked down at my parents’ window. He let out a sigh of relief when the light stayed off. Then he turned those soft green eyes on me. “What happened tonight, Bea?”
I swallowed the lump of anger and self-pity as best I could. “Oh, it was just Nina being Nina. I’m not dating a married man and twisting the night away like she is so, naturally, I’m a boring dud.”
Wes frowned. “She wasn’t happy for you?”
“Marriage apparently was designed to belittle and enslave women all around the world. Ugh! She drives me crazy!”
“Did she say those words exactly?” Wes asked.
“No,” I murmured, “but she was awfully upstage about the whole thing. I don’t understand how she came to hate marriage so much. My parents have a wonderful relationship. It’s not perfect, never has been, but they’ve found happiness in whatever situation they’ve encountered because they have each other and God between them. Opal practically saved Phillip after he came back from the war! True love and commitment are so medicinal to the soul. Why can’t Nina see that?”
Wes chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment. “Could it be that she’s jealous?”
“Free-spirited, sophisticated Nina jealous of me?” I scoffed. “Unlikely.”
“Well,” Wes said carefully, “her younger sister is getting married before her. Despite what she thinks about marriage, the fact that she hasn’t been asked yet says something about her.”
I shook my head. “Even if she was asked, she’d just say no. The thought of depending on or being under anyone’s rule is too horrible. Why do you think she left home so soon after finishing high school? Momma and Papa were willing to go into debt to pay for higher education, but she wouldn’t have it. She worked herself to the bone paying for college and rent all so that she could be free.”
Wes reached out to take my hand. “You shouldn’t let this bother you so much, Bea. We’re still getting married.”
I half smiled when I noticed the leaf caught in his hair. I sat up and ran my fingers through his golden locks to remove it. He was right. Of course, he was right. I didn’t need Nina’s approval. It was only…
My smile faded. “I’ve always been able to talk to Nina about anything. I was looking forward to planning the wedding with her and Momma and Opal. I wanted to ask Nina to be my maid of honor. I don’t think any of that is going to happen now.” My eyes stung with the coming of new tears. “The more we grow, the less we have in common and I feel…Oh, Wes, I feel like I’m losing her.”
“That could never happen,” Wes said with confidence. “She’s your sister. She’ll come around to supporting our wedding when she realizes how much her involvement means to you. You’ll see.”
Nina never apologized for what happened that night.
I extended an invitation through Momma when I was going to try on wedding dresses several weeks later, and Nina brought her biggest smile. She gave her honest opinion on every dress I tried, and gushed about flowers and lace. She held her new nephew and complimented Opal on making such a beautiful boy. She didn’t even complain when the child spit up on her. My sister graciously agreed to be my maid of honor and be as involved as I needed her to be.
The months flew by. The day came. Nina stood behind me while I tied the knot with Wesley. She smiled for the pictures, she made a toast, and she joined the rest of the bridal party into tying cans to the back of Wes’s car. She threw the rice and waved goodbye. I saw very little of her after that. Married life proved to be more hectic than I expected, but even when I tried to reach out to her, there was always a good reason why we couldn’t get together. Then Christmas time came around and Momma told me Nina had promised to come home for dinner. As excited as I was to finally be in the same room with my big sister, I quickly realized nothing had changed.
Nina arrived with Julius, wearing a fur trimmed coat and suede slippers. She was cordial to Wes, but only spoke to him when she absolutely had to. She talked about her gossip column at the newspaper and the new friends she’d made at a publishing house. She was writing a book and, by golly, it was going to get published. Julius’ car sales business was booming. He and Nina had gotten a place together, bigger and more impressive than Nina’s old flat. But he was still married. His wife came to the house halfway through our gift exchange, forcing Julius to hurriedly retreat. I watched Nina strike up conversation with Phillip while her sheik and his wife argued outside. That plastic smile of hers did little to hide her unhappiness. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snagged her arm and led her upstairs to my old room.
“Bea, what in the world?” Nina said as I shut the door behind us.
“How can you possibly be happy with him?” I demanded. “You’ve been together for two years and he’s still with his wife!”
Nina rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “Ours is a complicated relationship, one I hardly expect you to understand.”
“Hooey!” I said with barely controlled fury. “You’re giving him the freedom to switch from her bed to yours whenever he feels like it. And why? Because he buys you nice presents and pays for your new apartment?”
“Stop judging me!” Nina snapped. “Not all of us are happy to live in rags!”
I threw my hands in the air. “When have you ever lived in rags?”
Nina laughed harshly. “All throughout college, and a year or so after that while I was looking for a job.”
That was the first I’d ever heard of it. I sputtered in disbelief before I found my voice. “If you needed help, why didn’t you come home and let our parents take care of you?”
Nina waved my words away, lip curled in disgust. “Papa and Phillip both tried to talk me out of leaving, but I was sure I was ready to be on my own. I would rather starve than prove them right.”
I made a sound of pity and disbelief at the back of my throat. “You’re a dumbbell if you think either of them would ever say ‘I told you so.’”
Nina ran a hand through her hair. “Am I such a terrible person for wanting some security, some luxury?”
“Of course not,” I said. “But you’re going about it all wrong.”
Nina smirked. “Says who? Momma and Papa?”
I frowned. “Says me. You and Julius are just using each other for your own means. You want to be pampered? You want to be provided for? Find a respectable man with a good career and an even better heart, fall in love with him, wait until he loves you enough to deny all other women, and say yes when he asks you to marry him.”
Nina chuckled. “Not all of us can have the same perfect, happy ending as you, Bea. Julius and I work for now. Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“Because. It’s. Wrong. Why is this so hard for you to understand?”
Nina rolled her eyes yet again, marched over to the bay window, and wrenched it open. She dug around her new purse for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, suddenly tired.
“What can they do?” Nina asked around her ciggy. “I don’t live under their roof anymore. I’m not a child.”
You could’ve fooled me…
I knew it was wrong the moment I thought it. Nina was never like this when we were girls. As a young lady, she was stubborn but brave. She knew what she wanted and went for it. She didn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams and she held onto her convictions no matter what. She always stood up for her shy, self-conscious, little sister. We used to whisper and giggle at all hours of the night until Momma would pound on the wall, remind us what time it was, and tell us to go to sleep or else. We used to be inseparable.
Nina took a drag and glanced at me out of the corner of those dark eyes. Exhaustion and sympathy tugged at her face. “Don’t cry, Sweet Bea. I don’t hate you. We’re just different, that’s all.”
I wiped my face.
Nina abandoned her place by the window and approached me. “We’ll always be sisters.”
I chuckled bitterly. “Sisters who only see each other on holidays? Sisters who argue because they don’t have anything in common?”
Nina brought the cigarette back to her lips, hand trembling. But she didn’t take another puff. Instead, she croaked, “I love you, Bea.”
I wrapped my arms around her and buried my face in her shoulder. She was so thin. So fragile. Suddenly, I wanted to take her someplace far away where she’d be safe from her world of smoke and gray areas and warped priorities. “I love you too, Nina Bean.”
She stroked my hair with her free hand. “I’m so proud of you. Have I ever told you that?”
I shook my head.
I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “You have a sweet attitude and such simple needs. You’re so…happy with your lot in life. Sometimes I wish I could be more like you.”
I laughed into the beaded swirls of her dress. “Sometimes I wish you were more like you and less like the 20s.”
Nina pulled away. “It’s the world we live in, Sweet Bea. I’m just trying to survive in it.”
I didn’t see Nina for two years. I only heard little snippets of news from Momma. I often prayed for my sister and wished her well. I missed her all the time, but whenever I found the courage to write to her, the words escaped me. I’d sit at my desk and stare at the empty page, pen poised, head empty. I’d get so sad and so angry; I’d just end up crumpling up the page and tossing it across the room.
Then my daughter was born. She came early. Phillip and Opal were out of town visiting her folks, but Momma and Papa were on their way to the hospital. Wes was getting a bite to eat in the cafeteria. The door to my room opened and I looked up from my baby girl’s face to see my sister enter.
Her hair was still short, but she wore less makeup. Her dress still ended below the knee, but it was a wrap around with quarter sleeves and made of cotton. There was no fringe or beading. A short string of pearls hung from her neck and black pumps decorated her feet. She carried a small box wrapped in bright pink paper. She gave me a sheepish smile. “Hello, new Momma.”
I smiled back. “Hello, Aunt Nina.”
She slowly approached, like I was a skittish horse that might run away if she came too quickly. “What’s her name?”
I watched my girl’s sleepy little face for a moment. “I can’t decide between Eleanor or Elaine.”
Nina placed her parcel on the bed beside me and leaned in to take a peek at the babe in my arms. “She’s definitely an Eleanor. She’s beautiful, Bea. A perfect little doll.”
“Thanks.” I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. “You look good.”
Nina placed a hand on my shoulder. “Considering you just gave birth to another human being, you’re not looking so bad yourself.”
I laughed and held the child out to her. “Would you like to hold her?”
Nina took Eleanor in her arms, brow wrinkled in uncertainty. But the more she held that baby, the more relaxed she became. I made room for her on the bed and patted the spot beside me.
I playfully nudged her once she had settled in. “So what have you been up to?”
We reconnected in that hospital room. We talked and laughed like we did when we were girls, as if the past few years had never happened. Nina was still Nina; fearless and stubborn. But she was an older and more weathered version of my sister, one created by years of wandering this city and figuring out this life on her own. Different though we still were, it was suddenly all right because these versions of ourselves, like the ones that came before, were temporary. Necessary phases. Parts of our history. Pieces of a puzzle not yet whole.