“I’ve lost my bearings,” she said to me, perplexed. She was sitting alone in her room, piles of clothing on the bed and floor around her—the collapsed small tents of abandoned full skirts, the shards of scarves and small mismatched clutterings of shoes.
She had been abandoned in a world that only she lived in, that she knew less about than any of us who tried to visit her there. For her, even changing clothes became an insurmountable obstacle—a challenge that rivaled childbirth, her master’s thesis, an unfaithful husband, an addicted son, an autistic grandson. It rivaled the war she’d staged against her much-younger sister—the power she held over that sister by her rejection of her. It rivaled her efforts to enter the world again as a single woman and to try to win the world over to the fact that it was all his fault. It rivaled her insistence that it was the world that was confused in refusing to go along with all her beliefs and justifications.
She had barely if ever left a word unspoken when it came to an argument. It was so simple, really. She was always right. That everyone in the world, and more particularly her younger sister, refused to believe this was a thorn in her side. The skin on her cheek itched with the irritation over the unfairness of the world. She had worn a path in it, carving out a small trench so that the skin even now was scaly with that road traversed over and over again by one chewed-off fingernail. “Are you she?” She asked me, and when I admitted I was, she added, “Oh, you were always so irritating. Even as a little girl. Why could you never be what anyone else wanted you to be? You were always so, so—yourself!”
It was my chance, finally, for an honest conversation with this sister 11 years older—more a crabby mother always, than a sister. A chance if she could keep on track long enough to remember both who I am and who we both once were.
“So what was wrong with how I was, Betty? With how I am?”
“Oh, you were always so—“ She stopped here, as though struggling for a word or for a memory. I saw her eyes stray to the floor between the door and the dresser. “There’s that little fuzzy thing there,” she said. I could see her eyes chart the progress of this creature invisible to me across the room.
“But me, Betty. What do you find wrong with me?”
Her eyes came back to me and connected, suddenly, with a sort of snap that made me think we were back in the same world again. I tried to keep judgment out of my own gaze—to keep her here with me for long enough to connect on at least this one question.
“You were,” she said, and it was with that dismissive disgusted tone she had so often used with me since I was a very small child. “You were just so mystical!”
I was confused, not sure that the word she had used was the one she meant to use.
“What do you mean by mystical, Betty?” I sat on the bed beside her and reached out for the static wisps of hair that formed a cowlick at the back of her head—evidence of the long naps which had once again taken over her life, after a long interim period of raising kids, running charities and church prayer circles, and patrolling second-hand-stores, traveling to PEO conventions and staying on the good side of a number of eccentric grandchildren.
“Oh, you know. All those mystical experiences! The E.S.P. and all those other stories you told my kids. And Mother. Even Mother believed you.”
Then a haze like a layer of smoke once more seemed to pass over her eyes, dulling her connection to this time and reality and to me.
Her chin trembled and a tear ran down her cheek. She ran one fingernail-chewed index finger over and over the dome of her thumb and her face broke into the crumpled ruin of a child’s face who has just had its heart broken, the entire world of sadness expressed in this one face. I put my arms around her, and for the first time in our lives, she did not pull away. We rocked in comfort to each other, both of us mourning something different, I think. Me mourning a sister who now would never be mine in the way that sisters are meant to be. Her mourning a self that she had not been able to find for a very long time.
“Oh, the names I have been called in my life,” I was thinking.
“Oh, the moonshadows on the table in the corner. What do they mean?” She was thinking.
The last time I gave my sister a fortune cookie, she went to the bathroom and washed it off under the faucet, chuckling as though it was the most clever thing in the world to do. She then hung it on a spare nail on the wall.
When I asked her if she needed to go to the bathroom, she nodded yes, and moved in the direction of the kitchen. Then she looked at the news scroll on the television and asked if those were directions for her. If there was something she was supposed to be doing. And that picture on the wall. What was it telling her she was supposed to do?
In the end, I rubbed her head until she fell asleep, covered her and stole away. I’d fly away the next morning and leave her to her new world as she had left me to mine from the very beginning.