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If You Were Here

Chapter Two

That was five years ago. Life since then has been sucky but tolerable. The years have assumed a predictable sameness some might find eyeball-bleedingly dull, but in which I take a certain comfort. September through June, Tabitha and I spend our weeks attempting to navigate the halls and classrooms of Whitman while incurring as little physical and psychic injury as possible. Weekends, we vegetate in Tabitha’s bedroom, eating trans fats, allowing Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Michael Schoeffling to temporarily suspend our disbelief in the possibility of high school romance, and dreading the arrival of Monday.

Every July and August, I escape the claustrophobia, physical unpleasantness, and barely repressed rage that characterize both summer in New York City and my life in general for my grandmother’s mountain cabin in Maine. The cabin is straight-up rustic—no Internet, no phone, no TV—and the nearest town is twenty minutes down the mountain. For two months I have no contact with anyone or anything from what I think of as my real life.

I love it.

The cabin is where I learned to swim, swallowing coppery lake water and thrashing my legs until suddenly, magically, I was propelling myself through a new element. It’s where I learned to make scrambled eggs, melting an obscene amount of butter in the heavy cast-iron pan, then swirling the eggs with a dented fork as my grandmother stood behind me, one hand on my shoulder.

It’s where I am my most peaceful self—not exactly happy, but calm. The air smells like unbaked pine needles and line-dried pillowcases, and when you wake up in the morning, all you hear are the calls of the jays echoing off the mountains.

When I was really little, my mom used to come to the cabin with me, and my memories of those summers are tinged with sadness, a scrim of cloud over the sunny afternoons I can’t quite explain or define. As soon as I got old enough to take the train by myself, I’ve been coming alone. I float around on a raft in the lake, stay up late trying to beat my grandmother at Hearts, and lie on the porch swing eating potato chips and staring at the sky, wondering what the love of my life, Jake Boyle, is doing.

The best part of being at my grandmother’s cabin is how well I sleep. Night after night of deep, black sleep.

The second best part of being at my grandmother’s is not having to pretend. Not having to pretend to my parents that I have friends besides Tabitha, that I like school, that I am not a hideous social misfit. Not having to pretend to everyone else that my mom is fine, fine!

It’s not that I talk honestly about these things with my grandmother. It’s that she’s never asked.


One night, after sweeping my side of the table clean of the pretzels we use instead of money, my grandma started shuffling for a new hand of cards, then put down the deck and closed her eyes. She got very quiet, and her breath became fast and shallow, like a dog’s. I could see her eyes moving under the lids and her chest rising and falling with each breath. After a few moments she licked her lips and opened her eyes again.

“How’s school?” she asked.

“Fine. What did you see?”

“Track is still going well?”

“Track is fine,” I said, impatiently. “What did you see?”

“Is everything okay with Tabitha? You’re still friends?”

No matter how hot the day is, it gets cold in the mountains at night, but all of a sudden the kitchen felt overheated, stifling and close. “Tell me what you saw,” I said.

“Let’s make coffee.”

“After you tell.”

“I’m not sure what it is yet.” She got up to put the kettle on.

When the water boiled, she poured it into the battered silver coffee press that my great-grandmother brought from Turkey a hundred years ago, took a cigarette from the pack she keeps in the cabinet above the sink, and laid it on the table with a pack of matches. I got down the tiny porcelain cups with the yellow roses painted on the sides, and the tiny matching saucers, and the tiny silver spoons and set them carefully on the table. The tea set is my grandmother’s most precious possession—the only thing at the cabin that’s not dented, rusty, or chipped. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been terrified of dropping a piece.

My grandmother claims to have the gift of sight—to be able to see the future. She says that in Turkey lots of people have this gift. My father, whose own mother is from Queens, says my grandmother is a kook.

It’s true that some of her interpretations of “sight” are pretty loose, like the time she claimed she saw “water, water everywhere.”

I got all worried that a pipe had burst in our apartment, or the upstairs neighbors’ bathtub had overflowed and their floor had fallen through our ceiling. I made her drive me to town so I could call my dad. Nothing happened, I told my grandma. She kept asking questions until my dad said he had gone swimming at the gym that day. See, she said, with a triumphant look on her face.

Still, I can’t dismiss her entirely.

After rotating our cups counterclockwise in front of our hearts, we drank our coffee in silence, sipping from the same side of the cup each time. The coffee was maple-syrup-thick and almost as sweet, barely cool enough to drink. When we were done, we put our saucers on top of the cups, turned them over, then put them on the table to cool. My grandmother shifted sideways in her chair and lit her cigarette, exhaling the smoke away from the table so it wouldn’t blow in my face. She caught her ashes in her palm, another thing she said she learned from my great-grandmother. I ate a few pretzels from the bag while we waited.

When my grandmother had smoked the cigarette down to the filter, she got up, ran the stub under the water at the sink, then came back to the table and lifted her cup off the saucer and stared at the grounds. She poked them with one wrinkled finger, muttering to herself. My heart started thrumming from the jolt of caffeine. My grandmother believes in magic. Signs, portents, messages from beyond the grave. I don’t. I find reality frightening enough as it is. But she was starting to freak me out.

“Oh my God, tell me already,” I said.

“Change. Change and loss.”

“Oh.” I wiped the sweat off my lip with the back of my hand.

Probably the next day I would drop a handful of pennies and she would raise her eyebrows at me, tilt her chin significantly. Lost change. I took my own cup off its saucer.

“What about mine?”

My grandmother narrowed her eyes. “Water.”

“Again with the water?” I couldn’t keep the skepticism out of my voice. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact you live by a lake, would it?” You didn’t need to have the gift of sight to predict a swim in my near future. I put another pretzel in my mouth.

She stared at the grounds hard, ignoring me, and her face clouded. “Not a lake.”

“Maybe a pool?” I couldn’t help teasing her.

She frowned. “Yes, I think that’s right. A swimming pool.”

My poor grandmother. She was getting old and forgetful.

“That was last year, remember? My dad had gone swimming at the gym?” I patted her hand. The skin was soft and dry.

“No,” she said sharply. She pointed to the saucer. “This side here”—she tapped her nail against the edge of the saucer near her—“is the past. This is the future.” She tapped the opposite side of the saucer.

I looked at the grounds in her saucer. It was like looking for shapes in clouds. You could see anything you wanted to.

“Do you see it?” She was watching me closely.

“Maybe?” I touched the grounds tentatively with my finger.

“Not really.”

My grandmother gave a little shrug and got up from the table, taking the saucers to the sink and dumping out the grounds. She turned on the water.

“You’re sure everything’s okay at school?” She kept her back to me.

“Ugh,” I said, letting my head drop against the table.

My grandmother turned to look at me, the water still running.

“Something happened.”

“Nothing happened.” I sat up straight. “Everything’s fine. I just hate it, that’s all.”

I expected my grandmother to nod and go back to the dishes—she knows I’m not exactly in the running for prom queen—but she kept looking at me, hard and unsmiling, like she thought I was keeping something from her.

“Did you and Tabitha have a fight?”

“Not that I know of.” I reached up and gave the white streak of hair on the side of my head a little tug.

My grandmother dried her hands on a dishtowel, came back to the table, and took my hands in hers. She looked into my eyes. Her long gray braid, her hand-knit sweaters, and her liner perfume make her seem like a harmless old hippie, but her eyes are something else. For no reason at all I suddenly felt like I might burst into tears.

“Change is not always a bad thing,” she said.

“Did you see something in the coffee grounds you’re not telling me?” I chewed on another pretzel, though my mouth was dry and my stomach was tight.

My grandmother narrowed her eyes. “I’m not sure what it is. But I see change and loss close to you.”

“And you think it has to do with Tabitha?”

“Maybe Tabitha.”

“Or maybe someone else?” The light in the kitchen felt invasive bright. The lingering smoke from the cigarette mixed with the smell of dish soap and clogged my throat.

My grandmother kissed my knuckles, then dropped my hands. We were both thinking the same thing. My mom. I searched her face with my eyes, willing her to say more, but she avoided my gaze and started dealing the cards for another hand.

Excerpted from If You Were Here Copyright © 2017 by Jennie Yabroff and published by F+W Media, Inc./Merit Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

If You Were Here
by by Jennie Yabroff