You were sitting in her 1989 cherry-red, rusted Cavalier when she told you. And you were not prepared to respond.
You’d already skipped first-period religion twice this semester. Both times were with her and Snoop and Dre, the tinny stereo in the car always bumping “Gin and Juice,” the interiors reeking of the Marlboros she smoked with her delicate, yellowing fingers. Those were the same cigarettes you’d tried for the first time the week before when you’d decided that the two of you were sisters again, a decision you or she would reverse every other week, depending on how much hurt one had inflicted upon the other. Because in fifth grade, she’d spun you around at the school dance and sprayed you in the eyes with Binaca. In eighth grade, you’d punched her kidney with a Precious Moments figurine in your fist. One for one, you went on like this, leveling the playing ground.
And now, she’d just told you this. To hurt you? You felt hurt somehow, even though it had nothing to do with you. Not really.
You had the same shit-brown eyes as hers. You looked into them, asked her to repeat exactly what she’d said to see if this was just one of her stupid jokes, but she couldn’t, just stuffed the Bacon Egg McMuffin in her mouth, chewed with the teeth that were too big for her mousy jaw, yours having ample space for the Chiclets you called teeth.
She said, Mom knows...
You said, What did she say, but you really meant, Everyone knows but me.
She said, She’s the one who took me to the clinic.
She rolled down the window, lit another cigarette, eyes welling up, long mascaraed lashes leaving trails like crow’s feet. She was only one year and twenty days older than you, but you were always the baby, protected. When you looked at the clock that was set five minutes fast so she’d always be a little less late for school, you knew Sister Charlita was calling out your name, and again, you wouldn’t be answering. Until this year, you were nearly perfect.
You said, I want to get to school, but that was untrue. You were talking about Kevorkian this week in religion, how Jesus would be in charge of forgiving him but you were charged with the punishment. Your Polack-Lithuanian grandma had told you, People who won’t let you die have never been close to death, we should thank him, and then you’d thought about death all the time, and Grandma had said, That’s okay. That’s natural. But none of the girls in your class thought about it like you did. They had boyfriends and cats they dressed up in their mothers’ jewelry.
You really want to sit in religion class? Fine, she said, flicking her cigarette with the finger she broke two years ago, punching through the bathroom door to get to you, holding that bottle of off-brand Windex that she sprayed into your eyes. Why was she always spraying things in your eyes?
She started the car and pulled out of the McDonald’s parking lot. Oppressive fall clouds crowded the morning. Dew wetted the newly paved roads. They’d lay them down again next summer after the snow cleared and revealed the holes and cracks, the wet ground swallowing everything. You knew you would someday leave Michigan; the mosquitoes just liked you too much, and the people didn’t like you at all.
I didn’t have to tell you, but I did, she said, and you told her you wished that she hadn’t. Because you thought differently of her now. Now, even after you’d watched her beat her boyfriend with a shovel in the driveway when he’d brought her a pizza to apologize for cheating, now after she’d broken her leg on your only childhood vacation to the beach and you had to sit in the hospital all night and help her ease onto the toilet through the whole summer. Now after she’d invited her boyfriends over for a party when your grandma was gone and got drunk and lay in the twin bed next to yours while you were sleeping and let that boy she hardly knew finger her and say, I bet your sister’s totally jealous. After all of that, and now you felt differently. But why?
Because you were told it was wrong.
You ran your finger along the hem of your skirt, the one you’d let her alter the night before, because you’d complained that your torso was short and legs too long, and a hemline at your knees made you look fat, even though the prospect of having to kneel in front of your vice-principal while he placed a yardstick to your leg terrified you. She’d gotten away with it, so why couldn’t you? At least, that’s what you’d thought the night before. But now your plaid skirt felt dangerous, like an invitation to a party you never wanted to go to, and you wanted to rip out the hem, but she’d stitched it tight like your grandma had taught her that summer she didn’t have friends and busied herself making nachos and decorative pillows for all your Barbies.
She put the right blinker on and turned into the cemetery.
This isn’t the right way, you said.
Ugh. Sometimes I hate you, she said.
Sometimes you would think a detour like this was wild, because it was another one of those things she did that you would never think of doing. But this was not one of those times.
She sped by modest gravestones and synthetic forever flowers and said, I know you like rules, but sometimes Catholics don’t know shit about the real world.
The cassette case for Doggystyle was down by your feet, and you covered up that sexy cartoon lady dog with your shoe. She played that tape every day, it was the first thing she’d bought with her own money, and the first thing you’d bought with your own money was the cassingle for Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking” from the Pretty Woman sound track. And a stuffed bunny rabbit.
The car ground to a halt, skidding on the wet pavement. She smiled at you, lipstick on her teeth, pulled over to the grass, tire dangerously close to a marker. She got out of the car, said, Let’s go see Great-Grandma.
You stayed inside the car. She wasn’t funny. She was always trying to be funny, and it was always at your expense. Your window fogged up in the cold, and you wiped it off to watch her walk through a neat line of plots until she stopped at one, bent down, and plucked one of the flowers from a vase beside the tombstone and placed it in her hair. You wanted to skip this part. She was committed to the joke, wasn’t coming back.
You got out of the car and walked to her, your legs freezing in the cold, your stupid idea to hem your pleated skirt. Your legs were so disproportionately long that you looked like you were on stilts, and of course you had forgotten to shave the soft black hairs on your thighs, of course.
You stopped at the grave marker, and she smiled up to you like nothing had happened, and you looked at the tombstone and said, Who’s that?
She turned to you and said, Are you fucking kidding me? That’s our great- grandma Julia, and you said, How am I supposed to know? She took the flower from her hair, broke the long stem off, placed it back behind her ear.
She said, Jesus, how old are you? Sometimes it’s like... it’s like you’re playing dumb on purpose or something. She licked her lipsticked teeth. Maybe we don’t tell you anything, because you’re too goddamned sensitive, she said, and you didn’t have anything to say in return, because she was right.
Is it really her? you said. She lifted her face, peering into your eyes, searching, and you could see the yellow and gold strings in her irises. How can all those colors amount to shit brown?
Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we’re related, she said.
You slapped her arm, hard, your response to everything, a razor-whip lash to replace your words. But you felt it, too. You felt the tenuous string of your connected lifeline, pulling in opposite directions, the tension mounting until the string between you could only be severed or rebounded, the latter catapulting you toward one another to meet in the middle for only a second before you pulled away in opposite directions again. You used to be inseparable. You used to be mistaken for twins.
Was your great-grandma really buried there? She could have been. In eighth grade, you’d been asked to draw a family tree and had gotten as far as the trunk before you realized the only limbs you knew were she, your mother, and your one grandmother who raised you, and even then—you idiot—you’d forgotten to put yourself. You thought if you were supposed to know, then they’d tell you, but they didn’t. You once watched a baby bird fall from a branch and hit the pavement in front of your house; he never once tried to move a wing.
You hugged yourself in the cold of the cemetery, which seemed colder than everywhere else. She bowed her head, whispered a prayer, and placed one hand on the gravestone, before rising, turning to you, slapping one of your exposed thighs hard enough to leave a tiny red handprint, and saying, Would you have babysat? her nose running into that big, open smile, with the raisin-colored lip liner that was too dark for the lipstick.
That moment when the Binaca hit your eyes years ago, it wasn’t the chemicals that hurt; it was her laughter. It was her never saying only one thing but too many things at once, so much you couldn’t sort out when all you wanted her to do was take care of you like she had when you were small and that babysitter Kendra let her boyfriend in the house, and he didn’t want you, only wanted her, and your grandma found the two of you hiding in the neighbor’s bushes when she finally came home. You were wearing newspaper hats that she had made for you from the Sunday paper on the neighbor’s porch to keep you from crying, because it was cold, and she wouldn’t let you go back in the house. You were scared, peed your pants, and she took off both her socks and yours, you both put them on your hands and pretended for hours that you were kittens with paws. You gnawed on some weeds, because she told you they were rhubarb, but you didn’t find out until years later that she had lied. They were just weeds.
She stood up slowly, facing you. This was your role, an unworthy opponent in a game of chicken that never seemed to end.
You didn’t answer me, she said. Would you have babysat?
She waited. You said, It would be too sad. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were thinking until you said it out loud, and even then it didn’t make sense.
You were back in the car, pulling into the school parking lot. She fixed her lipstick in the mirror, rewound the tape one time to hear that part where Snoop says, Don’t cry, dry your eye, but she wasn’t laughing like she had when you heard this song driving to the beach at three A.M., was breathing deeply, as deeply as the Marlboros would let her, like this was her inspirational affirmation.
You opened your doors at the exact same time, and it was weird like those times when you’re walking down the hallway in perfect sync with someone else’s legs, and you tried to remember if that synchronicity had ever happened in your dreams, if two doors had ever opened simultaneously at night.
She weaved through the parked cars, saying nothing. You followed her, the note in your hand with your mother’s forged signature, something about doctors, something that would hopefully be good enough for your teachers to accept, because they questioned you and your sister constantly anyhow, were looking for ways to punish you, because you were scholarship kids with knockoff Umbros and Air Jordans for gym glass, and you looked down at your risen hem and thought maybe the forged note coupled with your skirt was too much, but when she left you in the hallway to get to her class, she pleaded with shit-brown eyes, and you couldn’t for the life of you understand what she wanted from you.
Don’t be like you, she said.
Sister Charlita said nothing when you walked in the classroom. You wished she had. It was worse when the nuns were quiet. One of your sister’s boyfriends told you it was because they were silently discussing your behavior with God. In sixth grade you’d once said in class that maybe Dr. Kevorkian wasn’t so bad, could have been doing God’s work, because we don’t know the pain those people were in, and you had exactly one friend after that, the one with premature breasts and blond hair and a too-old boyfriend who called her baby, and the nuns never trusted you again. All of them except Sister Charlita.
Sister had already wiped the slate clean from religion class, and now there were long chalked equations on the board running the length of her heavy wooden desk.
Take out your homework, she said.
You didn’t have your homework. When you were small and everyone said you couldn’t read well, they’d sent you to Sister Charlita’s office for lessons, but it wasn’t that you couldn’t read. You were told to write a story, and you named your characters Cyndi and Starr, because that’s how your mom’s friends from the bar spelled their names, but your first-grade teacher told your grandma you were slow, and Sister had gifted you pink plastic–beaded rosaries, one for every successful lesson. All of them were successful. You could read pretty well, after all. But Sister thought it was because of her divine intervention, and you felt bad for her. She was old. You wanted to be good for her. You wanted to be perfect. But you’d already skipped half of class and you didn’t have your homework.
What had happened to you this year? Who had you become?
You sat behind Lindsay, the popular girl you went to school with your whole life who ditched you the second she found defrizzing hair products, even though her mom still really liked you and used to slip you brownies when she saw you at school. Lindsay gave you mono the year before when for the first time in years, she said something nice to you, offered you a sip of her coffee, and then you were in the hospital, your liver doubled. You still had never kissed a boy.
Sister Charlita paced with her limp from her diabetes.
Your grandma told you Sister Charlita had taught your mom at this school when she was a kid, but your mom didn’t like to talk about it. Grandma said she was smart, that she could look at something and draw it exactly. One time when your mom came home from the bar, she drew all the pages from your Dr. Seuss books on the wall and let you color them in until Grandma came home and yelled and painted it all up with white again. Your grandma said your mom could have been an artist, but she had babies instead.
The class was settling, their notebooks and homework open on their desks.
The truth was you had no idea what you were doing in trigonometry, had barely passed algebra, secretly incapable of writing the numbers 3 and 5, which gave you anxiety, because who doesn’t know how to write numbers? It was more like sketching to you, a skill you had to master. You once spelled them out in every instance on your homework, and your teacher told you to stop being funny, but you’d never been accused of having a sense of humor before. In your lucid dreams, where you are half awake, you still cannot write 3 and 5. Also, your mother’s address, where you’d just moved in with her, was 33 W. 5th Street, #5. So there was that.
And pass them forward, please, she said.
You turned left and then right and saw white papers torn from notebooks, passed from one sweaty palm to another to the front of the classroom. Josh Schmidtt tapped you on the shoulder, shoving his paper into your hand.
Come on, he said. Get it together.
There was something in his voice, exasperation. Not even meanness, just the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands. You valued invisibility. You couldn’t bear people mirroring how they saw you. You couldn’t stomach the eye rolls and stifled laughter, or worse, the bowed head of shame.
You thought of your grandma, how she would hold up your chin with the long bright red fingernails she used to click the buttons on her new VCR and say, Your dreams are real because you’re special. But half your dreams were nightmares, and most of them starred Freddy Krueger with painted red blades. You’ll be the good one, she always said. Just be good.
A heating vent fluttered a poster of a monkey with a meter stick, a speech bubble by his mouth reading, My favorite number is a prime 8, with a little cartoon boy beside him saying, Silly monkey, 8 isn’t even a prime number. Beside the poster was a crucifix, and beside the crucifix Sister Charlita’s hamster, which was old and dying and smelled of feces.
Lindsay turned around in her seat, her silky blond hair bouncing with her movements.
I need the papers, she said.
When you passed her the ones Josh had handed you, she counted them and looked back at you, rolling her eyes.
Sister! she said. She doesn’t have her homework.
The nun moved as quickly as she could, but her swollen feet dragged like cement blocks across the floor.
Who doesn’t have their homework? she said.
Her, Lindsay said.
Sister looked at you and shook her head. We’ll talk about this later, she said, and you knew she was blaming herself, her divinity in question.
But she doesn’t have her homework, Lindsay said. All of us have to have our homework.
I said I will speak with her later, she said, returning to the front of the class.
People accommodated you. You could see the twinge in their faces when they realized how weak you were, but still they wanted to poke you, like the boy correcting that poor monkey. You wondered if Sister Charlita really thought you were slow. You wondered if she was only nice to you because God told her she had to be and if she were just a regular person if she would have wanted to crush you under her thumb.
You took a deep breath, your face bright red. Everyone turned back to Sister again, everyone but Lindsay, who stared you down, her pale skin almost glowing under the fluorescent lights. She wouldn’t look away and let you disappear again. She saw you, and it frightened you, and you saw immediately why she didn’t want to be your friend anymore. You were an incurable idiot.
Wash your fucking hair, she said. You stink.
And before you could send the correct messages from your brain to your limbs, you reached out and slapped her. Hard. Across the shoulder.
It was louder than you thought it was. All eyes turned to you. Lindsay closed her notebook with gusto, shoving her metal desk two feet forward.
You raised your hand, and you knew it was ridiculous, knew that you could easily just talk, that they were all expecting you to talk—to apologize—but you didn’t feel sorry at all.
Two quick knocks came from the door, and the school secretary entered the room, her frame petite, hair dyed black and coiffed, clothing from the Gap’s last fall season, something she probably borrowed from her daughter, who was a year ahead of you in school and rumored to have given much head.
The secretary clicked her way to the front of the classroom. I’m here for that one, she said, pointing at you.
You stood up quickly, almost grateful, leaving your books and bag, but she said, You better bring those with you, and you had one of those moments where you knew everyone was peeking at you from under their puffy bangs, wondering what else, and then she said, Shortened skirts are mandatory detention.
It wasn’t what she said that unscrewed your brain. It was the context. Because there were numerous variables attached to the type of intonation she could have chosen, but she chose the one that said, You’re a slut, and we’re not like you. And with that intonation in a room of dense uncertainty, all logic was displaced from your brain. People don’t talk to you like that. They talk to your sister.
In the hallway, you tried to trail behind her, but she pushed you in front, tsk-tsking the gumption you had to alter school property, and what you wanted to say was that your skirt couldn’t be school property if you had to work your after-school job to pay for what they wanted you to wear. But the actuality was you were renting it, and you had altered it. It wasn’t yours to change.
The secretary made you wait in a black plastic bucket chair, where you were forced to sit with that short skirt and see the brazen nakedness of your legs.
You’ll have a buddy soon when the VP comes back with your sister, she said.
You’d gone to Catholic school your whole life, had worked hard memorizing spelling words and Bible passages and had won scholarships for you and your sister, even though she didn’t have to do the nerd work, just had to be captain of the cheerleading team, the flier they tossed into the air, caught in a human basket. They were pretty good, you had conceded, but they all knew how to hot-wire cars, and your sister had taught them. She’d said to you once when she’d broken up with a boy who was so nice and had brought her flowers: One good apple spoils the hump. You sat in that chair and had just then gotten the joke, and it made you mad.
The secretary led you into the vice-principal’s office. He was tall, dark hair, pudgy Polish face, had once mentioned to you in the hallway that you did great in that choir performance where you sang “On My Own” from Les Misérables to old people at the church on Christmas. You, in fact, did not do great, and you’d wished that maybe nobody from school would show up, but he had and had said, erroneously, that you did great. Also, why would you want to sing a song called “On My Own” from a musical translated to mean “The Miserables” to old people at Christmas?
You sat in another black bucket chair, waited for him to say anything, but his mouth just puckered while he looked at you, and you were happy that he was looking at your face and not your legs... you thought. Wait, no, you really felt that way.
He was a young guy, a former priest who’d fallen in love with a parishioner, at least that’s what the rumor was, but you wouldn’t doubt its truth, because he spoke to you like the other priests, only with less alcohol on his breath.
He said, Kneel for me.
You looked behind you, the secretary pretending not to watch through the glass windows, and you stood, pushing the chair out a little on the berber carpet to make room for your legs. Over the loudspeaker, you heard the bell ring, and you knew you’d be late for third period, which was French class, the only class you liked, because it was all girls, only six of you, so it was possible to run for VP of the French club and actually win. Only four of you wanted club positions anyway, and you would have taken treasurer if that’s all that was left.
When your knees bent, you felt the tick of joints as they brushed past one another, too close for comfort. The carpet here was new, from a remodel paid for by church donations. It was rust and green, with tightly woven knits that dug into your knees, and you knew it would leave a mark. You had a skin connectivity issue called urticaria that left raised marks wherever anything or anyone touched you. You woke up one morning to a feeling on your head, and when you looked in the mirror, you saw your sister had lightly scratched the word dump on your forehead with one of her yellowed nails, and it didn’t disappear until second period. She was right. You were too sensitive.
The vice-principal took a wooden yardstick that hung on the wall below a gold crucifix with a dried palm tucked behind Jesus’s head. Your sister told you it wasn’t a big deal. This is what happens all the time. But it was. It was a big deal, because it didn’t happen to you. You weren’t funny or cool or daring or slutty like her. You didn’t know what it felt like to be pregnant and then to not be pregnant. You were so far away from her and too scared to close the distance.
With that yardstick, he looked like the monkey in that poster. That’s what he really was, anyway. They said you weren’t, but you knew it was possible, because you felt more animal than human, anyway. You didn’t know why 8 wasn’t a prime number, and you didn’t know why you had to, and that’s what was really making you mad. He was lining up the yardstick with your leg, pinching your plaid skirt to your hip, measuring the distance between the carpet and the hem, because that was the only number that mattered to him, to anyone at this school, even though both of you could clearly see—so fucking obviously—that it was shorter than they wanted it to be. That’s the number that mattered, not how many years you had gone without multiplied by the growing angle of loneliness and disconnect of all sides until they were no longer a shape but flat lines floating apart in space.
All you had was that dot at the other end of the lifeline, the one with the shit-brown eyes.
You looked behind you again, the school secretary not looking at you now but looking at her daughter, who’d just arrived in the office, gaping her mouth open in laughter, the two of them, mother and daughter, sharing a laugh in the middle of the day, like best fucking friends.
You looked back at the vice-principal, who was lifting the stick with words ready on his tongue, and before you even had time to calculate, you whimpered loudly, like a dying dog.
She called me a slut!
And you cried. And that solidified it.
On your way out of the office, the secretary was smug, but you knew it wouldn’t last for long. You had calculated the slope of truth. For the first time in your life, you realized how good lying could feel, because you knew then that the truth was merely a variable dependent upon any number of signifiers, and at first this had terrified you, because the surface area of that revelation could blanket every moment of you that had lived present, future, and before. She hadn’t called you a slut, but she had implied it, and that word—implied—would become one of your favorites, because you knew it was the closest to truth that any word had ever gotten, closer even than the word truth itself.
You walked down the hallway, and it was empty, and the green-and-black marbled floors outside the girls’ bathroom reflected the blinking fluorescent light that still no one had changed in the two weeks since it’d gone out, and even though your hall pass gave you only five minutes to get to class, you pushed the heavy door open and stared into the bathroom mirror, using water from the faucet to wet down the sides of your hair that flew out like wings.
Your sister was probably in the vice-principal’s office right then, kneeling for him, thinking to herself what bullshit it was to bow down to a guy who was really underneath it all just some guy. Nobody important in the real world. Just some guy. And you wished you could feel like she did, but you didn’t.
When the bell rang again, you could hear hoots and hollers in the hallway, and you looked at yourself in the mirror and watched the fine black hairs on your upper lip sway in motion with your breath. The faucet dripped in the sink, and you counted them out, waiting there through the next bell and the bell after that on the simple off-chance she would wander in and take care of you again.