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What My Hands Have Built
“Mom! Hurry up,” Jenna whisper-yells, her voice shrill and too loud in the dark auditorium. I could have told you that we’d be late and that it’d be all of our faults combined. Originally I held blame because I dropped a glass of juice (thank goodness it’d been plastic or we might not have come altogether). It was then Jenna’s fault because she’d spent too long changing outfits or sitting about or something. This annoyed Mom because she was ready when Jenna was not, so she started making dinner. Then Jenna ushered me out to the car, which was locked. So, Jenna went back inside to get the car keys and I suppose she must’ve said something stupid to Mom because Mom took another five minutes. Jenna stewed in the driver’s seat until Mom came outside. From Jenna’s perspective, I suppose it was ultimately Mom’s fault. I’m a bit more ambivalent, generally.
We had all pretended nothing was wrong when Jenna started driving. I’d been thoroughly coached to not distract Jenna while she was driving. It was nice when Jenna drove, generally. And if my attentions weren’t strictly on the road, I’d hardly notice all the swerving. The sharp breaks are a bit harder to miss, and the way Mom would occasionally clutch the seatbelt. Pros and cons, always.
Mom’s butt bumps into an older woman as we politely force people to tuck their legs in. I notice the rapid look of distaste flash across her wrinkles before it disappears with my mother’s apology. We sit in the middle of the row. I notice the way she’s scratching her arms. I hand her a playbill. She points out Jamie’s name as Dorothy.
Jamie, our stepsister, Jenna always calls ‘the favorite.’ I used to think she was just being petty, especially with how she treated Jamie, but now I think she might be right. She meant Mom’s favorite but I mean God’s favorite. Jamie has everything.
She has a dad. Her father was widowed, not divorced. This, I think, is what I’m most jealous of. I often wish my dad was dead. There’s a lot more pity for widowers than divorcees too, which played a part in how I was raised. I was raised in a double-wide trailer, curtains tightly closed to keep in the shame. Jenna is most jealous that Jamie is pretty and thin. I know from the way that Jenna tugs on her hips that she’s worried she’ll be big and look just like Mom but without her pretty face.
We watch in accordance with the rest of the viewers, a close hand on our silence/laughter switch. I like it well enough, but I’m not particularly interested in plays. Especially ones put on by fifth graders. I suppose most of the appeal is familial pride and I only buy into that so much for Jamie. Not that I don’t love her, I just don’t like paying attention to her for too long. Jenna’s feelings are the same, but stronger.
Which is not to say that I approve of how Jenna treats Jamie. Jenna and I have different fears. I fear that I’ll be like our cold, calculating, cruel father. Jenna fears she’ll be used and abused like our mother. I’m not sure if I should make Jenna see who she actually seems like.
We watch the play, we give Jamie flowers, we drive home. Jamie’s dad gets home late, apologizes profusely for missing an event he was already excused from. He’ll go to the second run tomorrow so there’s not even really a need to apologize. For them, I guess, it’s different though.
We eat spaghetti and meatballs together, as a family. Jamie tells a funny story about the boy playing the Tin Man. Her father laughs and laughs and when dinner’s over he washes the dishes and kisses our mother. Jenna and I are now practiced in believing this makes sense, even when we don’t quite know what we should be doing, and where we fit in. Most of the time family dinner feels slightly stilted, out of place. We weren’t used to have food in the pantry or having someone available to drive us to school when it was raining. We weren’t used to not being starved, in so many ways, that we still were.
Mom is still figuring this out too. She told me once, about a year ago, that Jamie’s father was too good to be true. And she believed that still, I’m sure.
Jenna doesn’t do anything until the next Tuesday. I can never tell if she’s consciously waiting or if it’s something else. That would be the difference between controlled and uncontrolled, cruel or crazy. And I don’t know.
“I told you you can’t borrow my hair straightener! Didn’t I tell you that? Didn’t I?” I turn up the volume on my iPod. They always pick fights when the parents aren’t home.
“Jenna, come on! We can both use it! You don’t have to be so f***ing selfish!” Jamie doesn’t usually fight back so hard, I think to myself. Maybe that’s good.
“F*** you, you little f***ing b****! You don’t get to talk to me that way!”
I hear a slam, glass displaced. I get up.
“Jenna, what did you do?” I yell, my blood running cold. I wrench open the bathroom door. Jenna’s standing there, the straightener in her hand. A foot away, Jamie’s on the floor.
“Did you burn her? What the hell did you do?”
Jenna drops the straightener into the sink and we both go over to Jamie. Jamie sits up slowly. Jenna starts babbling, explaining that she hadn’t hit Jamie with the straightener, she was just pretending that she would, and Jamie freaked out and tripped and hit her head on the side of the tub.
“Shut up, Jenna. God, my head kills. God,” Jamie moans, wrapping her arms around her legs. I check the back of her head to see if she’s bleeding. She isn’t. Jenna shuts up.
“I think you might have given her a concussion,” I say slowly.
“Jamie, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Jenna sobs, trying to hug Jamie. Jamie shrugs her off.
“Stop crying. We need to do something.”
“You don’t need to call 911. I’m pretty sure I’m fine.”
I make her look at me and follow my finger with her eyes. She can do it. I ask her math questions and she answers them.
“Mom and Willie are going to be home in an hour,” I say. “Jenna, go get an ice pack.”
She goes, quietly.
“Don’t tell. Willie might break up with Mom.”
“If I don’t tell, Jenna can’t get mad at me, anymore, right? I can, you know, black mail her with this.”
“Okay, I won’t tell.”
“You know, it’s not Jenna’s fault she’s like this. Our dad…” I trail off, knowing Jamie does know. She nods. Jenna comes back and Jamie lets her hold the ice pack to her head.
Jamie and I could be similar. We’re smart. Jenna’s not. I don’t really know Jamie that well though. I give Jamie a pat on the shoulder, which is about my upper limit of physicality.
“We’re going to have each other’s backs, from now on, okay?”
I nod, a knot in my throat. We face the prospect of a lie together, the first time we are together. I feel sure. I won't let this bridge collapse; I have the strength to hold it together.