Her name was Annalee.
I say was because she’s no longer with us but you should know she was my Aunt Annalee and was forever saying strange things to me like, “you’ll never understand what’s sitting inside or outside the ocean, so the best you can do is try.”
“Yes, Aunt Annalee,” I’d reply, unsure if there was any other answer to give.
Every Thursday after school, my mother used to make me sit on the plastic-covered couch of Annalee – the kind with the green swirls of floral designs underneath its glossy coating – and eat Aunt Annalee’s three-day-stale sugar cookies as if I had nothing better to do.
In elementary school I rebelled, warning my mom of weird smells and a sticky couch that made my thighs red when I tried to escape its plastic grasp. Despite the smells and the couch, she insisted I visit her sister each Thursday of the week.
In middle school I grew wiser, and explained how Aunt Annalee smoked in my face; terrible, curly plumes from her long cigarette that shaded the whole room a gauzy grey. I spoke about how in between puffs she’d curse at me with prickly words I’d only heard the tallest and fattest eighth graders utter underneath their breath.
“Very nice,” said my mom in that distracted way moms can say it, appeasing my unending tales of Annalee. And on the very next Thursday after school, she pushed me out the door of her blue Honda toward the crooked front steps of her sister’s house.
In high school – wiser still – I described how Aunt Annalee drank an entire bottle of gin on Thursdays, and how, as I pretended to read her half-torn coupon booklet, she threw up then threw up again into the stained bottom of her porcelain kitchen sink.
“I don’t care,” said my mom, defiant, and dropped me off at Aunt Annalee’s the next Thursday like some matronly Japanese bullet train with a mission to run precisely on schedule as the years of my life ticked by.
So time wore itself out … high school, stay-at-home community college, a part-time job at Ralph’s Grocery. And each week while I grew from girl to real woman, I visited Annalee, greeted by the plastic couch and the gin and the cursing and the old sugar cookies and the smoke and the coupon book that must have been ten years out of date.
I’d taken to expertly counting down the minutes until my two-something hours with Annalee were up, and almost enjoyed the way I’d leave her house to the sound of a new Annalee nonsensical. She’d never say goodbye and instead spoke small spurts of words at me, pieces from some complex doctrine of Annalee truths only she could understand.
“I worry about you with a camera,” she once said when I heard the Honda honk outside her door. “If you don’t do it right, you’ll see life in only photographs and live for some depth-of-field moment that can’t be found.”
“Profound, Aunt Annalee,” I told her, already halfway to the car, the faint smell of vomit slinking its rank scent around her hallway and onto the sidewalk beyond.
“Don’t you smell that?” I asked my mother, who doled out a few uncaring “mhmms,” from behind the wheel of her Honda before turning onto the next street.
Sometimes I’d ask my mother why she never went inside Annalee’s house. Did she ever see her sister outside of a Thursday glance toward her door or was it just me left to suffer the antics of Annalee?
My mother’s answer was always the same, down to the way she stretched out the word ‘fight,’ as if the word with its proper syllables wouldn’t be enough to explain. “We had a fiiiight years ago. I’ve told you this before. I know she still wants to see you but she wouldn’t want to see me. This is the arrangement I worked out between us.”
When I was in the tenth grade, I gave up any attempts to break her fortress of an excuse and stopped asking about her relationship with Annalee. (If not a Japanese bullet train, my mother was some samurai warrior – unrelenting and bold – and I knew the only details I’d ever get were those I was given.) Explanation or not, my Annalee meetings forged on and on, forming some snaking gin-laden, sugar-cookied trail of Thursday encounters marked by outdated coupons and cigarettes; a calculated maze of madness without any escape.
I know I haven’t described Annalee, so it might be hard for you to get any kind of accurate picture of this smoking, cursing, vomiting Aunt of mine but I have my reason: She is, without any doubt, one of the most innocuous-looking people I’ve ever seen. It’s the truth. I visited her for years and the instant I left, I would forget what she looked like. Isn’t that odd?
Maybe her hair was brown, or else it was a blonde tinged with gray and maybe her nose was short and stout, or it might have dribbled down her face, long and wobbly as a nose can come.
I once asked Annalee if she thought herself beautiful.
“Oh maybe once upon a time,” she said, answering me minutes before I left that Thursday afternoon. “Remember the stars are always shining, even if the stupid lights of a city make heavenly liars out of those suckers in the sky.”
Do you see what I mean? Nonsense. Or, the closest I can come to telling you anything real about Annalee. In these bits of dictums I was doled, I tried to discover meaning – mostly during the drive home in the Honda – even if it seemed no meaning could be found.
I know what you’re thinking: How unfair is it to come down on Aunt Annalee when I haven’t described myself at all, not even a name or an age or the color painted to my toenails. But this story was never about me, was it? So, let’s just carry on.
I had a reason to start with my tale of Annalee, partly because she died last week and mostly because yesterday I had a new conversation with my mother, all about Annalee.
“She’s not your aunt,” she said with warrior-like coolness. “She’s not my sister either.”
My mother had been washing the dishes and I had been reading The Sunday Times.
“Annalee. She’s not even related to you.”
I had nothing much to say. It was as if I always knew.
Finally, I spoke. “So who is she?”
Here my mother paused, and in that silence I heard everything.
“A friend. Well, she was a friend. Sort of. She was a lonely woman and I owed her something of my life. When you were five years old, I promised her you would visit every week because I was certain I couldn’t see her again. Yes, she was a little … different. But she was kind. Although maybe it was a mistake for you to visit her so often. Looking back on your Thursdays, I’m sorry you had to endure Annalee for so long.”
My mother said something else, a few contrite murmuring things I couldn’t hear. I was too busy standing outside by our tiny driveway, next to her blue Honda, looking upward toward dim city stars and thanking them for bringing me Annalee.