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She’s Still My Sister MAG
There is this snapshot that I have, of my sister and me shortly before she graduated high school. We are eighteen and seventeen, respectively, and standing on the back porch of some guy’s house. I remember that afternoon – how she’d dragged me along to the house party. I remember sitting in a lawn chair, staring at the grass at my feet while she went gallivanting off with a tall, shaggy-haired boy. I think he was her boyfriend.
In the photo, she is captured in a burst of sunlight, illuminated by a glow that reflects off her face and captures the gold of her hair. She’s laughing, face angled upward to look at something just out of the frame, and she’s wearing this tiny little flowered dress. I am off to the side, in the shadow cast by the tree. My face is obscured, but there’s just enough detail to catch an idea of my expression – painfully serious, unsmiling. I’m wearing one of my mother’s old sweaters, and my hair is pulled into a low ponytail the color of wet hay.
Whenever people ask me about her, this photo is what comes to mind. It is only a single, frozen moment in time, but it explains everything so perfectly. This was our adolescence: Margot, performing for the camera. Margot, the golden-haired sister, laughing. Margot drenched in sunlight. And me, the other. Present, but just barely.
• • •
I get the call as I’m speeding along the highway in my father’s old Volvo, my hand tapping out the beat of the car radio against the steering wheel. It’s mid-afternoon; I’m on my way to anthropology class. The day is unusually warm. I’ve opened the windows, letting a muggy breeze play around my ears.
It’s here, in this moment as I am mulling over anthropology and the breeze and the car radio, that my phone buzzes in the cup holder.
Her voice is muffled, so I don’t recognize it at first. A gasp, on the other line, audibly thrilled. “Freddie! It’s you! Thank goodness! I didn’t know … I can’t … Listen, I need your help. I need you to come here right now, okay?”
I pause, barely comprehending the situation. “Margot?”
“Yes, of course? Who else?”
“Margot, is this urgent? I have a class in ten minutes.”
She lowers her voice. “Something’s happened. I need you to come. It’zz verrra bad.”
I squint at the phone. “Are you okay?”
“No! That’s what I’m telling you! It’zzz …” she pauses, “terrible.”
I’m clutching the steering wheel, hard. “Are you drunk?”
“Hmm … let me think. No … no, I haven’t had anything to drink. I did have some of those … what were they called? Hmm …” She fades into silence.
I clench my teeth. “Margot, what’s happening? Are you okay?”
“Yes! Yes, I’m fine! I’m a little woozy.” Here, she breaks off into hysterical laughter, then suddenly draws herself together with a little gasp-hiccup. “But I did something terrible. Terrraable! I need you to come here, help me fix it. ”
There is something bitter and raw festering away at the pit of my stomach. I’m merging into the exit lane, even as I’m asking, helplessly, “Can you call Mom? I really have to get to this class ….”
“No!” The shriek on the other line is piercing, terrified. “I can’t. I need you, my little sister. Freddie, my wonderful little sister. Please, please.”
“Okay, okay. I’m coming right now.”
“Oh, thank god.” I hear her exhale a puff of relief. “Promise you won’t call Mom, okay?”
“I won’t,” I reply, monotone. I’ve resigned myself, at this point.
“No, you have to promise. You have to crozzz your heart.”
“Okay, cross my heart I won’t call Mom.”
There is a muffled mumbling on the other line, sing-songy like she’s talking to herself. “… can’t know. Because if they know, they’ll realizze they’ve got a situation. The sizzuation is much worse than they thought.”
There is more muffled talking, indecipherable, and then, very loudly, “F***.” The line goes dead.
• • •
Eleven months earlier: a different phone call, from my mother. It’s nighttime, almost midnight. Her voice is faint, laced with static and fatigue.
I’m sitting with my feet up on my desk, cracking pistachios. I’m trying to finish a term paper. Gnawing on the taste of salt.
“She’s in the hospital again.”
I stop cold, fingers ashy with pistachio dust.
“Well, long story short, there was a problem with the medication. But she’s stabilized, and the doctors are going to switch her onto some new ones. I just thought you should know.”
“What kind of problem? Is she okay?”
“Yes, she’s fine. No one’s hurt. But there was an incident ….”
The next part is cut off by a long burst of static. I first hear a jumble of nonsense – and then something about garden shears.
• • •
I pull into the driveway of my parents’ house, down the long, curving pathway and past my mother’s garden ornaments. As I turn off the engine, I pause to glance up at the sprawling residence, four stories high, dotted with arches and balconies. It’s beautiful, even though all the windows are dark. As I’m climbing out of the car, I realize I haven’t been here since Christmas.
The house seems intact, which I take to be a good sign. I step inside the front door and look around. All the lights are off.
“Margot?” I call. There’s no reply. I walk into the living room, warily, half expecting to see some horrible wreckage – broken lamps, tables, chairs, pottery strewn across the floor, cabinets torn off their hinges, Margot, hanging from the rafters. But the house is untouched, and she is nowhere to be seen.
“Margot?” I call again and listen to my voice echo back. I walk into the kitchen. It’s dark, silent, spotless. Nothing here, except – wait. A bottle of my father’s muscle relaxers, open on the counter.
A scene flickers briefly through my mind: holiday season, my mother, standing on a neighbor’s porch, holding a brown bag filled with wine bottles. I remember how the bottle necks poked out in a festive array of colored glass, like strange, fragile wind chimes. When the door opened, she smiled and presented them like an offering, along with a sprig of holly.
So of course the muscle relaxers. We don’t have anything else.
“Margot?” I call again. No reply, but I hear a muffled thump from above. I run up the stairs. It’s dark, but there – to my left – a closed bathroom door, and a sliver of light sneaking out from underneath.
I knock on the bathroom door. “Margot?” I put my ear against the wood. I’m met with silence. I test the door knob, cautiously. It’s unlocked. I take a deep breath, swallow, and push.
The room is drenched in a warm yellow glow cast by the overhead bulb. It’s silent, except for a steady drip of water from a faucet, and there, in the bathtub, adrift on her own private island, is Margot. As soon as she hears the door open, she turns to look at me, sending water droplets zinging into the stratosphere. Her face breaks into a lopsided grin. “Darling!” she exclaims, throwing her arms over her head.
I blink, trying to comprehend the scene.
She’s up to her shoulders in bubbles, legs dangling over the sides of the tub. Her makeup is smeared, twin mascara trails tracing down her cheeks. And she’s wearing her senior prom dress, the deep red one – now covered in soap and drenched to a wet pulp.
“Hey, Margot,” I say softly. “What’s this?”
She smirks, blue eyes crinkling mischievously. “I was verrry cold. Very cold and I thought, the bath, to be warm. And look – so many bubbles!” She throws her head back with a strange, hyena laugh I don’t recognize.
“Why are you wearing your prom dress?”
She swings her head back and forth, lolling, thinking. When she looks back at me, her eyes are enormous. “I wanted to be beeeuuwtiful.”
“Margot, why did you call me? What did you do that was so terrible?”
“Oh!” She gasps, hands flying to her mouth. “Shhh, you can’t say. You can’t tell anyone.”
“I’m not telling anyone,” I reply, trying to keep my voice low and steady. “What is it?”
Her eyes are bottomless pools. She puts her finger to her mouth, gently, then turns her head to the side so I can where she’s taken her long, golden hair and hacked it off.
I suck in a breath. I try to think of something to say. Something comforting? Something cruel? I want to ask her why, what she was thinking, but the words catch in my throat. She turns to me, my half-bald sister, and her expression is horribly, painfully lost. She reaches a dripping hand to clutch at my arm, imploring me through words thick like syrup, “Can you fix it?”
• • •
Two and a half years earlier: Margot, my mother, and I are standing in the fitting room at the downtown tailor’s. The shop is small but lavishly decorated with velvet curtains and a chandelier. Margot is standing in the center of the room, decked out in a shimmering, floor-length dress the color of burnt roses. She’s surrounded by mirrors, reflected onto the walls over and over. She keeps looking over her shoulder, craning to catch a glimpse of herself from odd angles, and then twirling around just enough to send the dress spinning in a gossamer fray of cloth.
I lounge on a bench against the wall, listening to the faint elevator music and trying not to fall asleep.
My mother is across the room talking to the tailor. Suddenly, a snippet of conversation catches my attention. My mother’s voice: “… brought this one for my younger daughter to try on while we’re here.”
I whip my head around. My mother is holding a hanger with a plastic dress bag on it. I send her a seething, smoldering glance. “There is no way you are getting me to put that on.”
My mother sighs.“Winifred, it’s a beautiful dress. Your sister looked lovely in it last year.”
“I’m not going to prom.”
“There’s the anniversary party coming up.”
“I’m not wearing it.”
My mother holds my gaze, steely eyed. “You have to wear something. Just try it on.”
“It’ll just look awful and be a horrible waste of time. Why don’t I burn it and go stark naked?”
At this point, Margot turns around on her majestic pedestal to fix me with a long, eternally wise expression. “Freddie, don’t be brutal.”
I march into the dressing room, pulling the curtain behind me. I pause for a moment, listening to the dull thump of my heartbeat.
The dress is absolutely stunning. It’s a deep, royal blue, with intricate lace detail on the front and sequins glittering along the belt line. I strip down to my underwear and slip the cold, silky fabric on. I pause, reveling in the feel of it, then turn to look at myself in the mirror.
My stomach clenches. What did I expect to see? Another Margot? Had I dared to hope? Perhaps. Instead, what I see is only myself, masquerading laughably in a dress far too glamorous for my pale, gangly frame. It hangs off me in the front, swallows me whole in a burst of overpowering color.
I shuffle out, toward my mom and sister, seething and wanting to disintegrate right into the plush carpeting. They watch me silently. The pause is agony.
Margot breaks the silence. “You know, it’s not so bad. Maybe if you wore cutlets in your bra, to fill out the front a little ….”
My mother: “Your sister’s right. You’d look quite pretty in it.”
I drag my gaze away from the floor, to implore my mother with my eyes. “Can I change back into my clothes now?”
As we pay, the lady at the checkout counter chats with us. She asks my mother, “Are these your daughters? They’re beautiful girls.” And then, in the strange, maniacal utterings of a madwoman, “They look so alike.”
• • •
Here, in this moment, I am trying to prop up my wilted sack of a sister, as she lies brining in the tub. She pulls me down next to her so she can whisper in a half-sob in my ear, “I didn’t mean to, you understand. It must have been an accident.”
I instruct her to tilt her head to the side as I reach for my father’s electric razor. Strangely numb, I watch her hair fall to the bathroom floor in a flurry of golden waves. As she sobs about something enormous, unnameable, out of reach, I narrate a series of truths to myself.
The first truth is strictly rational. On the third of October, one year after she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, my sister Margot hacked off a majority of her hair with a pair of safety scissors. My mother had left her alone for two hours while she went grocery shopping.
The second truth is observational. As I cradle her bald head, tracing my fingers around her ears, it occurs to me how familiar she is. How this soggy dress fits her the same as it did three years ago, when she wore pearls and golden heels, and flirted with the photographer. My beautiful sister, this strange, alien prom queen, no longer completely of this world.
And as I sit here with her, in the bathroom, on this island adrift in our darkened house, I am struck by the most jarring truth of all: at its roots, her hair is brown just like mine.