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Sisterlove, a short story

illustration sisterlove

Sisterlove, a short story

            I was teaching my sister to drive that year.  We had bought a weird old ’66 Barracuda, silvery-mauve color, and we’d spent weekends compounding the surface, getting ready to give it a coat of wax that would make it really shine.  Vickie and I used the car to cruise the strip and troll for boys.  My sister loved the boys.  The boys loved my sister.

            She had long hair, golden brown, with blonde ends.  It turned green when she went swimming, then we’d cut the green parts off with nail scissors, her sitting on the toilet, me catching the hair in an ancient orange beach bucket.  We’d leave the hair on the compost pile for the birds to line their nests with.

            Vickie had gone crazy about this guy Michel she’d met over spring break, and all she could talk about was getting up to Canada to visit him.  It might as well have been China.  She was still a virgin, but crazy over the idea of sex.  I pretended I didn’t care about boys in the slightest, but I did, maybe more than she did.  I’d never had a real boyfriend, just a few short flings.  Vickie was always falling in love, which made me sick to my stomach.

            I was two years older.  I was named Edna for my great-grandmother, but everyone called me Jessie, because for some reason that had been her nickname, too.  I always wondered how they got Jessie out of Edna, but I was glad they had.  Mom got really crabby whenever I asked her about the family history, she never showed old pictures, though we knew where they were, stuffed on the highest shelf of her closet, over the old college dresses she’d kept. 

            My mother was completely hippied out — she didn’t shave her legs or under her arms, and the compost pile was her altar.  She didn’t pay much attention to us unless we were sick and then she was the most wonderful nurse in the world — even though she was a strict vegetarian she’d make us chicken broth with little stars, mostly stars so that it was more of a chicken pudding, a glob of butter oozing on the top.  She’d spoon it into our open mouths like a mother bird.

            Vickie and I liked to sneak into Mom’s room while she was at work, and dress up in her old clothes and look at her old pictures.  She’d been married before she married our dad, straight out of college, and so we always tried to guess who he was from the pictures.  Our favorite was the one of her going into a dance, frothy skirt and strapless bodice, her sharp collarbones like exclamation points underneath her satiny, satiny skin.  She wouldn’t say, but we figured she’d had a pretty wild career, before we were born.

            Neither of us were as pretty as Mom, though.  We’d play all day with her makeup, trying and trying to get her look.  It was no good — Vickie had her chin, I had her eyebrows, but there was too much of our dad in both of us, and this was unfortunate, because he was homely.  Since Mom was drop-dead gorgeous, we came out average-looking. 

            Not that we didn’t get plenty of attention in our own way.  We’d get in the Barracuda and drive up and down the beach road, honking at cute boys.  Once in a while they’d motion us over, and we’d park, take our sandals off and hop across the burning sand to find out where they were from.  Most were from Boston, a few from New York.  We liked the Canadians best, they loved the sun so much they’d fry themselves, joyous to turn red and peel — they thought it looked so healthy.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented, we mixed iodine with baby oil and slathered it on.

            Vickie and I had good skin, the kind that never burned, so we looked like Indians, and I’m not talking the American kind but the Hindus.  Our brown legs shone — they were our best feature by far, all the boys said so.  We learned to kiss from those sunburned Canucks.  The ones from French Canada were the best, but they’d never write to you once they left.  The other Canadian boys were all earnest and geeky and would write us millions of letters, which eventually we stopped even opening.  Instead, we’d take them to the beach, put them in empty juice bottles, then cap them and throw them in the surf.

            So, Vickie went more than a little nuts this time, started calling Michel in Montreal every night after Mom was asleep, and when the phone bill came she was put on restriction for a month.  Mom yanked our bedroom phone out of the wall.  I laughed, but Vickie cried, she was really serious about him.  “Love isn’t real,” I told her.  “Do you think this guy would ever, ever cry over you?”

            “Michel loves me,” she said.  “But now he’ll think I don’t love him and he’ll go back to his girlfriend.”

            What had caught her eye first about Michel were the brilliant red scars on his back, streaky and painful-looking.  We thought he’d been wounded playing hockey or something.  His English was so bad, at first we thought he was kidding when we pointed to his back and asked what happened.

            “My girlfriend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.  We were so dense, we didn’t know what he was talking about for days, until Vickie came across this ratty copy of the Joy of Sex while she was babysitting for our best client, a lady who danced Polynesian-style at a big tourist restaurant downtown.

            “Scratches are given during the throes of passion,” she whispered over the phone.

            “Bring the book home,” I said.  Later that night, we snuck out of the bedroom window and went driving.  I let her drive and held the book on my lap, reading it to her while we went up and down A-1-A, bending down and swigging our beer at the stoplights.

            “His girlfriend scratched hell out of his back, and he let her do it,” I said.  “He seemed happy about it, even.”

            “He was,” she said.  “Let’s drive to Canada.”  She put her foot down hard on the gas and passed a couple of cars.

            “No way,” I said.  “We’d get caught before we got out of Florida.”

            “I’m going,” she said.  “I want to see him again.  You can come if you want to.”

            “This is insane,” I said.  “You don’t even have your license.”

            “There’s only one first time,” she said.  “I want mine to be with Michel.”

            “You’ve been loony over a dozen boys this past year,” I said.  “How is this different?  What makes you think this’ll last more than a week?”

            “So what if it doesn’t?” she said, and the look in her eyes was fierce.  “You’re missing the point.”

            “The point is, we’ll be in jail,” I said.

            “Where do you want me to let you out?” she said.  She swerved over to the side of the road and slowed way down.  Her hair rippled over her face like a million tiny whips.  I knew I couldn’t let her go alone.

            “God damn you,” I said, and she threw her head back and laughed.

            “Hijacked by your baby sister,” she said.

            “Hijacked by a victim of raging hormones,” I said.

            “Damn right,” she said.  “And deep down, you’re not any different.”

            “Oh, yes I am,” I said.  “I’d never drive to fucking Canada to lose my virginity.”

            “I feel sorry for you, then,” she said.

            “Shut up and drive,” I said.  “The farther we get tonight, the better.”

            “Mom is going to be so pissed,” she said.

            I felt my stomach twirling with fear and excitement.  “I would say Mom is the least of your problems.”


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After the Shortcut, a short story

illustration after the short cut

After the Short Cut

I’m a pretty woman, at least so the men tell me. “Andrea, you are some woman,” they say. They say that, and then I don’t know if I ever want to see them again. Anybody who would think I’m something special must have a hole in his head. I’m spreading a little in the rear now, after two kids — I’ve got a bit of cellulite on my thighs. It’s all gravy, that’s what I say.

Since I was 14, my life’s been one big bowl of gravy. I’ve tried to learn a little bit about a lot of things — I’ve tried to learn about learning, about how it’s done. It doesn’t matter what fate dishes out to me to go with it, whether I get the tough meat or the tender, the fat or the lean, my life all tastes better because of that gravy. My mom will tell you I blame her for every mistake I’ve ever made, but I don’t, not really. I don’t blame her any more than I blame myself. I blame Katie. I remember Katie in her perfection, the last moment before she got hit, the smile on her lips, and the sparkle in her eyes. That’s how she’ll live forever in heaven. It was her idea, all of it, the boy, the interstate, everything. I blame her, but she paid for her mistake. Sometimes I think she got the easy way out.

I believe everybody’s religion is a way to get to God. I don’t get nervous about having the right one. Why would God shut people out that way? The notion of original sin seems like the most fundamental sort of self-hatred. How is a newborn human baby any more sinful than a kitten? I was in the hospital the morning after my daughter Barbara was born, watching her sleep in her clear plastic bassinet, and I felt like we were both innocent, both trying as hard as we could to do the right thing.

I don’t believe in sin, I believe only in foolishly going against God’s tide, but nobody can keep that up forever, God’s too strong. I try to think right — feelings are another thing, there are no such things as right feelings, or wrong ones. God won’t give up; He’ll pull you up to Heaven no matter how badly you think you want to stay out. Can salmon keep from getting called upstream? Do you think the salmon that get caught by bears along the way are failures? Of course not. Katie and I were like salmon going upstream, going to meet this boy at his house, this boy she had a crush on, the kind of boy that made her heart beat faster — I didn’t get there, neither did she, but she got to see God before I did. I’m waiting for my time. Will he look like my first lover? Is that what Katie saw first and last, the boy she loved, the boy with the brown eyes that made both of us dizzy but gave Katie the most specific intentions?

I sure as Hell didn’t want to cross the interstate on foot. It was Katie’s idea. Do you think that makes me feel any better about what actually happened? I wonder how I’d feel if it had been my idea. Would I feel better, or worse? I suffer when I think about how dumb it was. We acted foolishly, and we’ve both ended up paying. She was brave, I was a coward. I lived, though, I found uncertainty, never knowing which way to go after that moment — I found both cowardice and bravery while she found certainty and sudden death. After I saw her get hit, nothing much mattered until my daughter Barbara was born four years later.

Barbara’s ten now, and she’s got the same powers I have, she can see what’s wrong with people without even talking to them. She can feel where they suffer; she can feel the pins and needles in her own hand when she passes it over their sorest places. She can hear me in her head; I can hear her in mine, without either of us saying anything out loud. Everybody can speak without using their mouth, but very few of us can hear what they say. I run into a few, now and then.

Katie and I were crossing the interstate on foot. We wanted to go to this boy’s house from the mall, and it was a short cut. Without the crossing, it would take 45 minutes to walk there, with the crossing it would take 15 minutes. We wanted to get there faster. We didn’t know we would never make it. If we had known, we would have taken the long way around. We thought that long walk would be boring. We were so impatient, so full of life, giddy with the thought of kisses. We wanted to see that boy — rather, Katie wanted to see him and I wanted to watch them watching each other. But no one could come pick us up from the mall; everyone was too busy to give us a ride. It was wintertime, dark early. That night was so dark, even the sky was clouded over so you couldn’t see the stars. The pavement was like black velvet from the side of the road, an endless ribbon of black velvet and the cars going by were like jeweled bugs, busy on their secret business, their buggy errands.

I had on a jacket. As soon as I saw her get hit I tore it off my body, I used the jacket like a signal flag to wave over her body to try and stop the oncoming cars. I knew she was already dead, I felt her spirit go through me, entering the top of my head, leaving through the soles of my feet. I saw her draw her last breath — even with all the noise, all the cars zipping by on the other side of the road and around us, the wind and the fear and the hiss of burning tires and brake linings, I heard her last gasp, through her cracked ribs, I heard the air leaking through her perforated lungs, I heard the last breath bubbling through her blood. I saw her laying there, her black hair spread over the road like a wet curtain, and I knew.

I rode in the ambulance; they worked and worked on her body, probably just to comfort me. I knew she was dead, but they wouldn’t actually tell me until my mom got to the hospital. My mom, who was even at a moment like that more interested in her bottle of Scotch and her dying friend and her rising fever than in me. She wanted to know why we hadn’t called her. Did she forget we did? We did call, all we got, all we ever got was the machine, and she was in bed nursing her hangover, nursing her sorrows, nursing her case of the flu.

Mom wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t a total screw-up either. She’ll never forgive herself. Thank God we were supposed to be in the care of Katie’s mom. Katie was an only child then. Her mom had another child after Katie died, a boy — she didn’t want another daughter, that would have been too painful. That second child was an accident — just like my oldest — Katie’s mom was so grief stricken for a while she’d go out to bars and pick up strange men, and forget to wear her diaphragm. Or maybe it was the pills she forgot to take. Either way, we were both on the same train after Katie.

Does Katie see me now? Does she forgive me? Will she help me forgive myself? Katie was in love with that boy — she sat behind him in math class. She worshipped him from afar, she was obsessed. After my friend died, I slept with him, for her. He never knew why I came on to him or why I broke it off — I never told him. One time after we’d made love I asked him to tell me about her, he didn’t know anything. I felt sorrier for that than for anything. Katie died a virgin; I’ve made up for her in that way. The joy of knowing what is true can be dampened by the pain of knowing you’re not going to be able to live in the truth, yourself. I don’t care, it’s all gravy now.

Since I was 14, it’s been gravy. I’m not any better or worse than Katie. I say that to myself, but I don’t really believe it. She was good, she died. I lived. Clear enough? When I feel like I haven’t gotten what there was to get out of my life, when I feel how much I’ve missed from inattention or carelessness, Katie comes back to me with a still wind, rushing through my ears like she did the night she died. I’m waiting for my time to come.

Hope it’s not on the interstate. Not like that, not with my hair spread out on the wet pavement like a pretty, pretty fan. Not with my ribs sounding like popcorn when I breathe. The driver of the car cried for days. I suppose his situation might have been the worst of all. Thinking he could have stopped in time. But he couldn’t have. I wonder if it made him a better father to his own kids. I tell my own daughter, Barbara, honey, don’t ever be afraid to take the long, safe way to wherever it is you’re going. You’ll get there, even though you don’t think you will and you’ll see things you never would have seen otherwise. I don’t want her to miss out; I don’t want her to have to live off gravy for the rest of her life like me. Please, God, anything but that. Patience, I tell her when I kiss her goodnight, smelling the hair right in front of her ears, the place she can never manage to reach with the shampoo, the place that smells of sweat and tears and dreams, just like mine did. Patience, my beautiful girl — I tell her every chance I get — patience is a virtue.


Filed under short stories