Happy birthday, Roberta Allen! Celebrate by reading “A Way to Go,” which we published in 2019!
I see my sister, Eugenie. She’s just a child. I’m a child too, three years older. We’re escaping Poland. It’s wartime. There I am, tripping over a wire, twisting my ankle. My ankle hurts. I’m crying but we have to keep moving. Running, I clutch Trudy, my favorite doll. I hear planes overhead, explosions behind us, the air, full of ash, hiding us. “Mama!” I call out. She’s dragging me along.
How old am I when we finally arrive here? Seven? Eight?
I see Mama. She favors Eugenie though I’m the pretty one—a beauty, well, maybe not a beauty just yet but I will become one in a few years. I am the smarter one too, but Eugenie gets better grades. I see Eugenie at home, always studying. She’s the teacher’s pet, so serious. She never lets herself have any fun—just like Mama.
My mind is a train rushing past so many stations. Why does my train slow down, even stop when I wish it would keep on going?
We’re growing up fast—Eugenie and I. What a figure I have! I think Eugenie is envious. I’m the one sought after by the boys at school. They even follow me home. I love to flirt, to laugh, to have a good time—not like Eugenie. She’s still the serious one, always judging me, like Mama. Maybe Mama is envious of me too. Eugenie is plain like Mama. Poppa is handsome. I don’t see much of him. He’s always working. I don’t know what he sees in Mama.
Eugenie marries first. She learns to laugh, to enjoy herself. Her husband has a lot to do with that. But I don’t think her husband has anything to do with her big mouth. All of a sudden Eugenie has a big mouth. She says everything out loud that comes into her head, no matter who hears her, no matter who she hurts.
I marry later. Would I have married that cheating son of a bitch if he hadn’t been so handsome? I hear Eugenie say, “I told you not to marry him! But you always know better!”
Do I have to stop here?
Eugenie’s husband is good, faithful, loving—not like mine! That cheating son of a bitch left me nothing but two kids, so I have to work. Eugenie’s husband is a successful lawyer, a good provider. She has a maid, a penthouse uptown, a nice house in the country. They take vacations in the Bahamas. Her children are smart, talented. They’ll make something of themselves—not like my children. I see my schizophrenic son. He’s only nineteen. I see my daughter. How she suffers from his outbursts, his violence, his hallucinations! And me! What a toll his illness is taking on me! How much older I look. Finally, I find a state-run home that will take him.
Must I see the worst parts of my life? Why can’t I choose where my train stops? Don’t I deserve a reprieve?
Not yet I guess. My train stops at my second marriage. I am married to a bum! Mercifully, before I know it, my train is moving again. But not for long. I see my son, dead from pills. No one knows how he got them. My daughter is an alcoholic. This stop too is mercifully brief.
Eugenie’s husband has died. Fifty years they were together. Of course she misses him terribly. But I see how happy her grandchildren make her. That’s why she’s decided to have open-heart surgery at her age! I don’t envy her doing that! But again she’s lucky. She says she wants to live to see her great grandchildren.
Finally, I stop at a good place! I, who was always scared of dogs and thought they were dirty and foul, have come to love little dogs in my old age. I see myself bending down on the street to pet them and tell them how cute they are even though it hurts my back and the owners aren’t always crazy about my attention. Maybe I’ve changed because my closest friend Florence died recently. So I take home a tiny white poodle from the animal rescue. I name her Florence. She’s seven pounds and trained to go on a wee-wee pad, so I don’t have to walk her in bad weather.
I see Eugenie’s shock when I tell her I have a dog. She’s even more shocked that I went to a shelter. “Ava, how you’ve changed!” she says. “You were so angry, so bitter for so many years. Suddenly, you love a dog!” I ask Eugenie if I go first, will one of her children take Florence. She nods, agrees to give Florence to one of her daughters.
I go first.