22 January 2007

Sister Strangers
Three months after her daughter was born, my younger sister, Deidre, married the father. Just before she walked down the aisle, Mom whispered to her, “You don’t have to marry him just because you have his kid.” Their relationship has been on thin ice ever since. That’s what happens in my family—tell the truth and get burned. The truth is something we don’t want to hear. It ruins our perception of things.
At the wedding, I was the Maid of Honor and all I thought about as I stood with my sister at the alter was whether or not my feet were going to swell because of the heels she made me buy. My future brother-in-law cried as he said his vows, leading me to conclude he was sobbing because he was getting married. It never occurred to me what a phenomenal moment that wedding was, what a big deal—the first of the three of us girls to go off on her own, braving our family’s checkered past, to begin her own family.
At the time of Deidre’s wedding I was dating a boy I thought I loved, but who treated me like a sex doll and cheated on me with other women. I never told my family anything about our relationship, but April, my youngest sister, had suspicions. Deidre, on the other hand, didn’t have time to care. Namely because, I now realize, she was dealing with similar problems, only she couldn’t just break-up. She was married.
Of course, I can’t prove my brother-in-law has ever cheated on my sister. I can’t prove he’s ever hit her or threatened to hit her. All I have are the following observations: At family gatherings he calls her Retard; Deidre’s called Mom on more than one occasion, asking if she and the girls can move in, only to have the phone ripped from the wall; I’ve heard my brother-in-law say, “If she ever divorces me she won’t get shit. This is my house. Those are my kids. I make the money”; he calls April That Bitch Sister, and me That Lesbian Sister and when their oldest daughter was six years old she said to me, “I don’t want to go to college like you, Auntie, because it makes you too smart for your own good.” That same daughter calls Deidre Retard.
But my sister married this man, not me, and it was her conscious choice. All I can do is reflect on myself with my college boyfriend and suspect that my sister is married because she’s a little like me—afraid of not being loved. I tell her these things, but she yells at me and insists I’m crazy, that I shouldn’t project my relationships onto hers. That her life’s normal. Maybe I’m the one who’s screwed up.
April copied Deidre’s family plan to the letter—baby at eighteen and married the next year. Except April’s husband is likable—he tells fart jokes at the dinner table and calls April by her name. A typical conversation between April and me goes something like this:
Her: Have you heard from Deidre?
Me: No, she’s not talking to me because I called her husband an asshole.
Her: God, she’d never talk to me if she couldn’t get over that. I’m sure she’ll call in a few days. Anyway, they just got a new [fill in the blank with any high-priced useless gadget].
Me: What did they get that for?
Her: Because it’s expensive.
(We both sigh.)
Me: She’s on me about kids again.
Her: That’s all she ever thinks about. She really needs a life.
(We both sigh again.)
We’re awful. We think because we work and juggle family that we have a life. We think just because we’re united in our disdain for her husband and not afraid to talk about it that we’ve got love so much better than Deidre. Really neither one of us knows how she passes her time when her oldest is at school and the youngest is napping. Really, we have no idea about her husband’s capacity to love her. Recently, my stepfather said to me, “Oh give Deidre a break. She has so many damned crosses to bear.” My initial reaction to this comment was that everyone in our family has a cross, and if her’s is so much worse than the rest of ours then she’s kept herself nailed to it.
When we were kids, I liked April more than Deidre. She was glowing and tough; Deidre was dark and dainty. Deidre also didn’t look anything like us. She had brown-black hair that was as thick as a horse’s mane; we had wispy blonde locks. Her nose was smaller, button-like, and April and I had bulbous noses like Mom. Deidre was always wetting the bed, whining, carrying around a doll and playing in a corner. April rode her hobby horse like it was a bucking bronco. Even though nearly a four-year gap separated our ages, there was no contest which one I’d choose to build a fort with. It was April who always hugged my legs and hid behind me in front of strangers. Deidre just side-squeezed me, as if a handshake would be more comfortable.
It’s hard not to love someone who won beauty contests like April did when she was a baby. Deidre and I were God’s rejects—the experiments of our parents’ reproductive systems until they could perfect April. She was one of those white-haired angels that women cooed over at the Alpha Beta supermarket, so I thought I had to coo over her too. Each time she won a new ribbon, Mom put it into the curio cabinet where she kept her other prized possessions: her salt and pepper shaker collection. In the few photos of April with our biological father, he’s always holding her in front of the cabinet, showing her the beauty ribbons. She’s laughing at the big blue bows, and he’s smiling with his squinty eyes. April was too young to have any memories of him, though. The man in the pictures with her and the beauty ribbons is a complete stranger.
Of the three of us, Deidre was the closest to our father. He bought her a T-shirt for her fourth birthday that read Daddy’s Girl across the front, although he’d misspelled her name on the back. In our long-abandoned family photo album, Deidre’s always being held by him or sitting in his leather recliner. If I got a new toy the first thing he’d say was, “Remember, you have to share with DeeDee.” She tore the eyes off my teddy bears and pulled off my He-Man’s head. The one time I flushed her Barbie in the toilet, my father whipped me until I fainted. At an early age I learned to fear him, and I suppose I hated Deidre because she didn’t.
So many wrenches have been thrown into the gears of the relationship I have with my sisters it’s a wonder any of the cogs are moving at all. The fact that, when we were kids, our father was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the rape of seven women in Los Angeles County wasn’t the start of our demise, but it certainly didn’t make us any closer. By then I was nine and Deidre was seven and already reserved and distant. Neither one of us knew what rape was, really, but we knew it was something to be ashamed of. We couldn’t even look at each other.
April, on the other hand, was completely oblivious and made it easy to forget about our father. We were boisterous together. I was a big dog on the street because I’d just gotten a boy’s BMX that could haul ass. And April was my mate riding at my side on my tiny old red Schwinn. When I got in trouble she cried.
But as April grew up and began to forge her teenage identity, I left for college. The friendship we built was based on weekend visits and summer vacations spent working in retail stockrooms. I knew less about my sisters than I did about my college pals. Then we got older; I moved further away from my childhood home. Now the only contact I have with my sisters is a week during the Christmas holiday and our telephone conversations. A typical call to Deidre goes something like this:
Her: So have you thought about having a kid yet?
Me: Well, it’s really not a good time. I’m still getting used to my job and I want to publish and travel. Those are a little more important.
Her: You’re not getting any younger. What could be more important than kids?
Me: I have other plans.
Her: Like what? Wait, now you’re moving to Africa, right?
It’s an uncomfortable conversation for me first because I feel guilty for living far away and not being a regular fixture in her life. Second, what I really want to tell her is Just because some people have children doesn’t mean everyone wants them. Some of us want convertibles and quiet nights on porch swings. But I don’t want to devalue the life she has. She made a choice to create a stable environment for her children to grow up in. I imagine her trying to recreate the few years she had with both of our parents in our home, when on the surface we all looked normal.
I cringe. The memories I have of my father I wouldn’t push on my worst enemy, let alone my child. But Deidre and I don’t remember things the same way.
Once I asked her, just after she’d had her first daughter, what she’d tell the baby when she asked about our father. “Why won’t she think our step-dad is her papa?” Deidre said.
“Are you kidding? You don’t even call him dad. Don’t you think she’ll get suspicious?”
“Kids believe what you tell them. She won’t have to know.”
I imagine Deidre in her house, weaving a tale of our father’s existence like Penelope weaving her nightly cloth. I wonder if she unravels it every evening and begins again. Will she be able to tell the same story for twenty years? Will it stave off any truths she’s long forgotten? Will she start to believe it herself?
I have few memories of my father. They’re vague recollections, a fog that becomes less than vapor if I try to hold onto it. But the feeling I have when I think about him is always the same—a cold ball in the pit of my stomach, sweat running down my spine. I envy my sister, her ability to weave and forget.
Once in the spring of my kindergarten year I got off the bus only to find our house in the middle of the desert empty. This was before Latch-Key-Kid America and Mom always stayed home. She never had a reason to go anywhere, to hear my father tell it. But today she wasn’t there. I went around to the back of the house, swinging my book bag at the green tumbleweeds coming up around our foundation. I played on the swing set for a while, then tried the garage door only to find it locked. I was in trouble, I knew, because I needed to use the bathroom. I never used the one at school because it was off a dark corridor behind the classrooms. Every day I’d get off the bus, throw my bag in my room, and head for the toilet. Today I didn’t know what to do.
I scanned our neighborhood. Each house sat on its own acre. Some yards were like ours, bare save for tumbleweeds and toys, others were fenced and manicured. From the backyard I could tell the Deitmeyers were home because their barn door was open. Mom’s friend, Rhonda, who lived at the end of our road was home too. But the closer houses, ones whose bathrooms I could make, were deserted.
I opted to do my business in the tumbleweeds behind the house. They grew the thickest under the kitchen window, and with my notebook paper in hand I was finished in no time. What to do with the evidence? I picked it up with more notebook paper and tossed it all into the back field. It was then that Mom’s Ford sedan came down the road fast, the tires jiggling on the ruts.
The second she got out of the car I told her what I’d done and started to cry—I knew I should be ashamed. I kept blubbering, “I could’ve waited. I’m sorry.” April started bawling too. Deidre tumbled out of the car, gaping from me to Mom. Then she said, “You took a dump?”
Before we went into the house Mom made sure I’d thrown all the used notebook paper into the trash can. We combed the field looking for my other evidence, but couldn’t find it. By the time we were done, Mom was crying too, looking across the acres at the other houses and cursing herself. She hugged me while April twisted around my legs and Deidre sat in a swing.
We went into the house and Mom unloaded the groceries she’d been out buying while I was home alone. She started dinner and I changed into a clean pair of pants. Just before my father was due home Mom sat us down on the couch like she was going to take our picture, April between the two of us. But instead of pointing a camera she squatted down and said to the three of us, “Don’t tell your father about this. Don’t say anything. It was nobody’s fault. Okay? It’s just there’s some things that we shouldn’t talk about.” She looked us each in the eyes. “This is bathroom stuff. It’s not funny. It’s a secret. Got it?” We all nodded and in the pit of my stomach I knew that to tell would be a bad thing.
I thought she gave the warning for me, so my father wouldn’t add insult to my embarrassment. But after dinner that night, when my father took Deidre onto his lap and asked what her day had been like, Mom interrupted, “Hey you two, come and get it. I made DeeDee’s favorite dessert, strawberry shortcake!”
April knows about the poop story because I’ve told her about it a thousand times, not because she remembers it firsthand. “It was the only secret we had from him,” I’d tell her. “And how stupid was it? But we did it. He never knew I had to shit in the yard.” We laugh, but the cold ball in my stomach returns when I think about what he might have done to me, to Mom, if any of the neighbors had seen me squatting in the tumbleweeds.
April also knows about the scar on the back of my head. A few years before she was born, when we were still living in an apartment and Deidre was just learning to walk, I’d been playing in the small square courtyard off our front door. Somehow I tripped into the wall separating the courtyard from the parking garage and gashed the back of my head open. How I fell was never determined, only that I needed stitches and that my father had been with me at the time.
Knowing these things April still attempted to have an epistolary relationship with our father when she was thirteen. The letters would come to the house stamped GENERATED FROM FEDERAL PRISON on the front and back of the envelopes. I’d hide them if a friend was coming by—I never told anyone about my jailed father. All of my friends at my high school, a high school I transferred to in order to get away from everyone who knew the truth, thought he was dead. That’s what I told them and they had no reason not to believe me. Subsequently I didn’t invite them over to my house where any minute my sister could prove I was a liar. I never knew why she wrote the letters, but I like to imagine it was to put a life with the pictures of the man holding her in front of her beauty ribbons.
She only talked to me about them once. “He asks about you,” she said, as we were sitting at the dining table doing homework.
I lit a cigarette and tried to finish my last trigonometry problem. “I don’t give a shit.”
“Well, he thinks it’s great you’re going to college.”
“How does he know that?” My ears burned suddenly and April looked away. “Are you telling him about my life?”
“No. Not really.” Her voice was tiny and she hid her eyes behind her platinum bangs.
“I don’t want you talking about me. There’s all kinds of stuff you could talk about. Why don’t you ask him why he’s in jail. I’m sure he’s got a lot to say about that.”
For a long time she was silent, moving her pencil over her notebook and staring at her open text. Then she said, “He said he was innocent.”
“And, of course, you believe him.” I scoffed and crushed out my cigarette.
“He said you wouldn’t. That you never liked him.”
I never liked him. Yeah, it was me. I did this to myself, right?” I pulled my hair away from the back of my neck to show April my scar. “You think a father who liked their kid would let this happen?” She was quiet, and tears were pooling in my eyes. I slammed my books closed and I went to my room to smoke.
I heard Deidre through the wall talking on the phone to her best friend. “No you can’t come over. My sisters are fighting right now. Oh,” she said, “Joyce’s is mad,” but she didn’t tell what I was mad about. I ended up getting so angry that night, I punched a hole in the wall between our bedrooms. A few months later April quit writing her letters.
As far as I know, my father never touched the three of us sexually. I think I’d be the authority on it since I’m the oldest, but it’s not something we’ve ever discussed as a family. How could we when the three of us are like strangers? Plus, something of that magnitude would be like poking a dirty finger into a festering wound. The nagging fact that we never received psychological analysis during his trial, and that I’m the only one of us that I know of who’s seen a shrink or suffers from depression, grates on my nerves. There’s no way to know for sure if my sisters were harmed in any other way unless I come out and ask. But something tells me April wouldn’t remember, and Deidre wouldn’t tell me anyway.
I try to recall living in my father’s house, try to conjure the image of him visiting my bed. But the only memory I have of my bedroom was when an intruder popped my screen, climbed through my window, and made his way into the bathroom across the hall to look for prescription drugs. I ran to my parent’s room and my father took a nickel-plated shotgun from the closet and made the man leave. Mom slept with me that night.
No, at least on my part, my father reserved his physical contact for the times when he was angry. He’d trip me for no reason, bruising my knees so badly they were purple for an entire year. He threw a baseball at my mouth and split my lip because I couldn’t ground the ball during T-ball practice. He held me up by the neck against a door jamb until I couldn’t breathe. Strangely enough, it’s his anger I can accept. If he was that mad at me, that repulsed, I know he never touched me.
Among the photos of us, though, there’s one that’s disturbing. We’re all sitting on his lap while he reclines in his favorite leather chair. On the surface, if you don’t know anything about us—if you don’t know that beneath my pink jogging suit I’ve got bruises up and down my legs or that April’s almost choked on a chicken bone that day, or that a few short months from that moment he’s going to be arrested for serial rape—we don’t look like we’re strangers. We look like one of those photos that come standard in 8x10 frames. I’m next to his left knee, smiling so big I’m all mouth. April’s on his knee, laughing so hard she’s as purple as her jumpsuit. Right on my father’s lap is Deidre, wide-open eyes fixed on the camera, her lips pursed. And behind her, peeking out from over her right shoulder, is my father’s grin.
Maybe my step-father is right, Deidre is bearing a great weight. My mind returns again and again to the Daddy’s Girl T-shirt she got when she was four. And to the man she’s married to now. Really, because I feel more like a stranger to Deidre than a sister, I have no reason to like or to dislike her husband. They’re any couple I could meet on any given day at a play or a park where it’s obvious the man is overbearing. I come home and think to myself That woman needs help. Doesn’t she have a family she could go to? The cold ball hits my stomach. I’m so afraid of getting burned by the truth I let our fragile relationship move on. I get so mad at myself for not having the courage to dial Deidre’s number and ask for the truth that I throw the telephone across the room. I wish I wasn’t afraid to ask her what happens during a typical day in her home. I wish a hundred times over that I didn’t believe in secrets.


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