Care

 

There they were, loose in our yard. The son's mushroom cap of hair lifting, electric in the wind, the wife without her shoes. I listened to her shout, Max. Max! Sun caught her stockings and made them glisten. I'd never seen the son off his leash before. They were perfect: husband, wife, son. She was a cellist, the wife. I saw her leave the house sometimes with the case, sheets of music fluttering in the breeze. I didn't know what the husband did. I imagined something wonderful. Lion tamer.

They had nothing to do with us.

We were having breakfast.

Amelia patted butter into her socks. She was fantastic at it. She didn't have to look down. She made perfect eye contact with our mother, nodding. Yes. And, Interesting. Her hand all this time down her sock, smearing.

My mother was saying, "It doesn't matter as much when it's summer. No one does anything when it's summer."

She meant the plans Amelia and I hadn't managed. Dr. Feingold said, Absolutely, Amelia needs to have summer plans. He also said Amelia would die if she stayed out of the hospital. Maybe not today, he'd said, leaning forward, fingers steepled exactly.

He was just a regular doctor—he still tried to give us lollipops, even Amelia. We were asking too much of him, he said. And my parents said, yes, they knew. But now they were trying an at home approach.

My father passed me the milk. It poured out close to clear.

"This tastes like water," I said. Amelia kicked me under the table.

"So strange," I said. I kicked her back.

"I'm sure it's fine," my father said. He knocked a fist to his lips.

I cut into the stack of pancakes my mother had set out for everyone.

No one laughed. "Mom," I said. I waved my fork, syrup a sticky line down my wrist.

"Good," my mother said, vaguely. "It's good to see you girls eating."

I knocked back my chair, slammed it three times to the wall, indenting already-indentations. The family was gone. The wife had captured the son somehow while I wasn't watching. She'd brought him back inside. And there they would eat a careless breakfast of cereal, standing up. Over the sink.

My father put his hands on my shoulders. Pressed. "I love you," he said.

He kissed me just above my head. I felt it on my spine. My mother was with Amelia, telling her goodbye, and then they switched, my mother's kiss smudging onto my cheek, my father's hands on Amelia's bones.

We love you too, we told them.

And then they were gone, and I was here, so watching her. Watching her! She was my older sister. I missed the way it used to be, when she lived in the eating disorder unit of the hospital, and we came to her as visitors. She'd seemed like a kind of ambassador then, introducing me to the world she lived in so easily, her paper gown fluttering around her like a cape. And even though the other girls, with their caved-in faces, seemed related to her, I was the only one who was actually her sister.

"Hey," she said. "Look at this."

She unzipped the sweatshirt she wore as a regular shirt—she was always so cold!— and there were her ribs, misplaced wings broken free. She danced her fingers underneath. There was a diamond dip I could press my thumb inside where her chest gave way to the ribs.

"Neat," I said.

She re-zipped herself. I hated her fingers. They'd turned at some point to scales. She told me she was going running. I watched her try to hold her smile down.

"So go running," I said.

I went to my room and parted the curtains.

***

It was so easy to get into that house. I asked Lilly, did she need a babysitter, and she tilted her chin and said, How much did I charge an hour? Just like that. I left Amelia lunch in the mornings, and threw it out at night before our parents got home. I told them, Yes, she's eating. She drank pounds in water before stepping on the scale for my mother, and everything was balanced at fine. We were taking a homecare approach, I listened to my parents say, over and over, sometimes to no one.

I didn't find out the husband's name right away. He was never there. Every day, I waited for him, or at least her mention of him—that he was the love of her life, maybe something more secret, but all she'd said to me were pleasantries like "Thanks" and "Good morning" and "Have a good night." I mostly didn't even see her. She practiced her cello in the basement, a room without windows.

The way I found out the husband's name, finally, was less exciting than I'd hoped. Lilly said to me, "George has been away on business," and I said, "Who?" just to make sure.

"George," Lilly said. She let some seconds go by as she looked at me. She walked past me, to the front hall closet, and I didn't know if I was supposed to follow her or not. She came back with Max's leash just as I was standing to follow her. I sat back down.

"You two should get out of the house, go on a walk," she said, almost like a suggestion, except I knew I had to do it.

I nodded, and she called for Max. He stepped carefully down the stairs, as if there were a rod in his spine. There was something more wrong with him than I'd thought, I could see that now that I'd spent time with him. His eyes only seemed to focus, and the smile on his lips wasn't actually a smile, but an accident of facial arrangement.

I squatted down in front of him the way I'd seen mothers sometimes do. Immediately, he reached for my hair and tugged. I'd spent an hour that morning arranging my hair in the perfect messy bun. The point of the bun was for it to look like I hadn't tried, and this required mousse and bobby pins and hanging my head upside down for a while before flipping it over again. Max pulled my hair harder. I bit my lip so as not to hate him. I guided my fingers over his and pulled them out of my hair like a stuck comb. Then I stood so he couldn't reach my hair.

"Max is having a bad day," Lilly said, either to me or to Max, I wasn't sure.

"Oh no," I said, trying and failing to sound dramatic and fun-loving.

"Be good, OK?" Lilly said. She cupped Max's head.

Max wiggled away from her hand.

"Here's the child-safety harness," Lilly said.

She showed me how to clip the leash to a loop in Max's jeans, and then to wrap it twice around my wrist for a good grip. "You can take him to the park," she said. "For a few hours?"

I hated it when people didn't give exact measurements for time: a few hours could mean anything; all I knew was she meant more than one. "Like two hours? I said.

She looked at her watch. "Would three hours be too much?"

"Sounds great," I said. She could have told me to do anything, and I would have said it sounded great. I didn't know how we'd pass three hours at the park. The only one nearby didn't even have regular swings, only the buckets. Also, even if Lilly spent the entire time I was at her house downstairs, there was always that chance she might come up. At the park, there would be no chance.

I thought Max might refuse to walk, but once I tugged on the leash, he followed me without protest. At the door I turned to say goodbye to Lilly, but she was already downstairs, the basement door closed.

I didn't make eye contact with Max because what was the point. I wanted to have called in sick today, if only so Lilly would have been forced to speak to me, to sigh into the phone and say, "Oh Karin, I don't know how we'll manage without you."

I saw Amelia's shadow in the window as we crossed from their lawn onto mine to reach the street. I thought of how long three hours in the park was.

"Hey Max, how about if we skip the park today?" My voice was flat and loud, and it made me afraid of myself.

If Lilly were watching at the window, she would have seen and shook her head. The park, she would tell me. But she was downstairs, and she wasn't watching us from there.

***

In my house I swung the door shut hard, because I lived there and could. Amelia didn't come down, so I slammed the door again.

"What's your problem?" she called. Her voice was faint, floating from I couldn't tell where.

"I brought the kid over."

She didn't answer me. It was improbable that she was dead. If she were dead, it would have happened so suddenly that this would be the story I would tell for the rest of my life: "She said 'What's your problem?' and then she died!"

I unclipped Max's leash. He wandered over to the front hall closet. He sat in front of the shoes as if there were something moving for him to watch.

Amelia came down the stairs. She'd taken on a smell I recognized from nursing homes.

"I was supposed to take him to the park," I told her.

"Now you can baby-sit us both." She smiled with her lips together.

"We can have lunch together," I said to Amelia.

"We could've had lunch, but I already ate," Amelia said. She sat on one of the kitchen chairs, her knees pulled to her chin. The knobs of her spine were visible through her sweatshirt. I covered her spine with my hand. It felt like my mother's strand of black pearls, which she wore to dinner parties. It made me dizzy, touching my sister's bones.

I went to the fridge and saw the sandwich I'd made her, the apple and Ensure and energy bar tucked neatly beside it.

"I ate something else," she said, and it made me want to thank her, for pretending, for once, for me.

I washed off the apple and called Max into the kitchen. I'd seen him eat apples before. He held the apple by its stem.

I put Amelia's sandwich on a plate. The bread was smashed and soft. I picked up one half of the sandwich and squeezed it between my fingers.

"I already ate," Amelia said, again. She tapped her fingers over her collar bone. She did this absentmindedly, the way pregnant women reach for their stomachs.

"What did you eat?" I said.

"I had cheesecake," she said. "Coated in chocolate."

Sometimes, if I looked at just at my sister's eyes, I could imagine her as delicate instead of ugly. "Deep-fried in butter cream icing," I said.

***


We had still had to pass a little over two hours with Max.

"He doesn't really talk," Amelia said.

"There's something wrong with him." It felt like heartburn, saying this in front of Max, but I also liked the way it felt. Here I was, a girl with her sister.

Max didn't appear to notice either of us. He walked in slow circles around the kitchen. And then I noticed the dark splotch on his pants. I'd forgotten to take him to the bathroom. I'd forgotten to stand patiently outside, listening to the sound of his pee, and then the flush. Extra air floated in front of my eyes. I thought I might pass out or cry.

I laughed.

I was just his babysitter.

"I bet you have some pants he can change into," I said to Amelia. "I bet you have pants that are too small for him!"

Sometimes, when she thought I wasn't watching, I saw Amelia wrap her hands around the string of her bicep, forefinger to thumb.

She folded her arms across her chest. "We could wash his pants."

"You don't even know how to do laundry," I said. I was smiling, smiling, smiling.

Amelia bent over Max and tried to unzip his pants, but he squirmed away from her. I should have told her that she needed to hold him tightly at the shoulders.

"Max," Amelia said. "Hey, Max." He wouldn't look at her because he wouldn't look at anyone. I didn't go over to help Amelia.

She wrapped one arm around his shoulders as if someone had taught her how. With the other hand she undid his fly. Her fingers were chapped and torn, but tender in the ways they moved.

I walked over to them and held Max's arms to his sides so my sister could help him step out of his pants, and then his underwear. She tied a towel around his waist. He shimmied out of it almost immediately.

We let him run naked around the house, as if we were parents and this was a decision ours to make. Amelia smoothed the pants over her legs before placing them into the washing machine. I watched her shake detergent into the little box in the corner of the washing machine. I'd never done laundry before, and I'd never watched my mother. Amelia was my older sister, and she possessed life skills I didn't yet have. I wanted to take this moment and carry it between my palms like water.

"Do you think you'll have kids?" I asked her.

She thrummed her collarbone. "I haven't had my period since I was younger than you."

I nodded. The washing machine filled with soap. "I probably won't get married."

"Yes, you will." She lowered herself to the floor and sat on her hands.

***

I lifted my key to Lily's lock, now that three hours were gone, and the door opened for me. Magic, I thought. But it was only a man. George. I'd never seen him this close before, and he looked even better than I'd thought, like some kind of rapist. I let the key drop into my pocket.

"The babysitter," he said.

"I'm the babysitter," I echoed, like an immigrant fresh off some boat.

He passed a palm quickly over Max's hair, as if someone had told him to. Max swatted the hand away, and ran down the stairs to the basement, but then he ran up again. And down again.

"Do you need to be taken home?"

I leaned back on the heels of my sneakers.

The man shook his head. "How obtuse of me. You live close by; my wife did tell me that."

I let my feet fall forward. "You're not away on business?"

He smiled at me slowly, like I'd asked him what my own name was.

"Business canceled." He smiled again. "So you live right around here?"

I was hurt that he didn't realize I lived across the street from him, that at night, he had never, as I'd hoped he had, watched me. I'd imagined him and Lilly peering into my room—my own curtains parted for them—and imagining a daughter, me as their perfect daughter.

It wasn't time for me to leave, and anyway, I didn't want to walk across the street and be home. I wanted him to drive me somewhere far, for us to sit side by side, him asking me questions like what grade was I going into and what was my favorite subject; did I know what I wanted to be when I grew up? I thought of the farthest place from my house I knew the way to.

"I actually need a ride to the hospital," I said. "My sister, you know."

George nodded, but I could tell he didn't know. I wondered what he thought when he saw my sister. Even if he didn't see me, he would have had to see Amelia, jogging around the block, her back like the shell of an otherworldly insect when she bent, bones fanning her sides.

"She has cancer," I said. It's not like she has cancer! my mother said once to my father, when I was young enough to think what she meant by this was relief.

George raised his eyebrows and stepped back, as if our fingers had touched in a bolt of static electricity.

Cancer. I held the word on my tongue like melting chocolate. I loved Amelia just then, Amelia with cancer. Now, the dinner table with Amelia slipping food to me beneath the table, my parents watching her, but not me, as I ate, and the nights my father ordered in pizza and ate it alone in front of the TV, the rest of us referring to him distantly, as if he were away on some trip, this could be easily explained: my sister was unfairly stricken, a martyr, weathering the burdens of her illness with uncommon grace. Cancer of the kidneys, I could tell George, because it was true her kidneys was failing, her skin the understated yellow of diluted urine. Cancer of the liver, the pancreas, the stomach.

"Cancer of the bones," I said.

"So you need a ride?" he asked, as if I'd presented him with a confusing logistical problem.

"I live across the street," I said. "I don't need a ride there."

He squinted at me. "I'll just let Lilly know." He and Max took the stairs together, and I wondered if George thought his son was following him on purpose.

I wanted, more than I wanted most things, to go with them down the stairs. I wanted to see Lilly at her cello. I wanted to watch her play. No, I wanted her to play for me. I didn't go downstairs, though, because if I did, there would be a family gathered around a cello, and also me, too tall to be a child of theirs.

I didn't know if it would be better for me to sit or stand, but I decided that if I sat, Lilly and George might think I was trying to stay for longer than I was supposed to stay, and so I stood.

The basement door opened, and Lilly emerged, Max squirming on her hip. He was smiling his sort-of smile. George was behind them, to catch them, I imagined, if Lilly fell from Max's weight.

"His business was canceled," Lilly said to me. She was looking at George. They were standing close to each other, but not touching. Her fists curled in and then out.

"Sometime business gets canceled," George said.

"Business—and women—can be so capricious, can't they?" Lily said.

"You need a ride to the hospital?" Lilly said to me, still looking at him. She swallowed the way I sometimes saw my mother swallow.

"Because my sister has cancer," I said.


***

If just Lilly, or just George, were driving me, I'd sit in front, next to one of them, and they'd ask me to adjust the radio or the air conditioning. Instead, I had to sit with Max, in the back. Max had a car seat even though he was old. Lilly asked me to strap him in. I missed the buckle twice, almost gave up, then got it.

I asked Lilly and George if they worked together. I was sure they'd tell me, in fact, yes, they did work together! and then tell me how they met.

"No," George said. He asked me for directions, and I told him the regular directions, and the shortcut directions, to show I'd been to the hospital more times than a person whose sister was not often gravely ill.

"I don't suppose you listen to much cello playing, Carol?" he said.

I was embarrassed of the way I must have mumbled when I'd introduced myself. Karin. Carol. "I love the cello," I said.

"Do you play?" Lilly asked. Her voice was thin, paper worn to tissue in a palm.

The worst possible answer I could give to her question was yes, and when I heard myself say it, I felt as if I were equally capable of jumping in front of a train, or smothering Max, or telling my parents, no, Amelia wasn't eating: all these things I was not supposed to do.

"Well," Lilly said. "Maybe you and I could play together sometime."

"That would be really fun," I said. And then I didn't have anything else to say, but I kept talking. "I don't get to play as much as I'd like because my sister's so sick. We had to sell my cello. To pay for treatment."

George looked at me in the rearview mirror. "That's enough," he said, like a father, though not mine.

We pulled up at the hospital, and I started to unbuckle my seatbelt, then stopped. I didn't want to go to the hospital. I didn't want to walk through florescent hallways and see trays of individually packaged sliced bread, cans of Ensure, IVs and blood pressure machines, nurses in cartoon-patterned scrubs, doctors with their lab coats open, and lines of girls, all of whom would not be my sister.

"I forgot," I said. "My sister already died."

"She already died," George repeated.

I knew I should've felt bad about lying, but I felt sort of terrific, because though there were limits involved in being the sister of a sick sister, the possibilities were boundless for sisters of dead sisters, sisters who were forced, in conversation, to say, I don't have a sister.

"I need a dress for the funeral," I said. "Can you take me to buy a dress?"

"Your sister's not dead," George said.

"Ask anybody." My heart knocked against my ribcage. "Ask any doctor in the whole hospital. Ask a nurse. Ask the receptionist, or the other patients, or their visitors."

Lilly held the head-rest and turned around. "I might have a dress for you," she said. "Black, right?"

"Lilly," George said, but at the same time, I said, "Yes." She turned around so she was facing the window, but she left her hand where it was, and though I would have grown uncomfortable with my hand that way, she kept hers there, the diamond glinting.


***

We pulled into the driveway and Lilly turned fully in her seat. She reached toward Max, her fingers sweeping his cheeks. "We're home," she said. "You're home." Max didn't answer, and I wondered how it was that Lilly continued to talk to him, knowing he'd never say anything back.

George parked the car. He didn't look at any of us, just went inside and shut the door as if we wouldn't be following him within seconds. Lilly unstrapped Max, which I should have thought to do. Max tried to bite her wrists, but she pulled them away in time. I would've thought there was a better trick than that. Max smiled his strange smile. Maybe, inside his mind, he saw something wonderful, and his smile was directed there.

In the house, George was standing at the fridge. He turned around. "Max's dinner?"

"There's a plate. We're doing no wheat now," Lilly said.

George nodded. He closed the fridge. Then, shaking his head, he opened it again. He put Max's plate in the microwave. Max began to bang his head against the wall, as if to a beat. The sound made me want to dance, and I did know that was wrong.

"You need a dress," Lilly said, like she was thinking out loud.

I nodded. She turned to me, and for a moment I wondered if I was supposed to hug her, and then that moment passed, and I couldn't believe I'd even had that thought.

"I have dresses." She was talking to me, but looking at George.

George bent over Max's plate and unpeeled the condensation-beaded saran wrap. He sat at the table, next to the plate. Max continued banging his head. He sounded like a healthy heart, the way my own heart sounded in Dr. Feingold's office, the way my sister's heart hadn't in forever.

"That's not fair," George said, though Lilly hadn't said anything. He stood, and I thought he would leave the room, the way my father would have if, in our house, something was called unfair. But George went over to his son. He placed both palms over Max's ears. He guided Max away from the wall even as he punched and kicked, his jaw working over air.

The room became suddenly silent. They were a family, these people, in this house. I could watch them from my house, or inside theirs, but I would never be a part of this family; room would never be made, the timbres of their silences would never find me across the street, where I lived. George sat beside Max at the table, the little set of shoulders next to the big set, like a model of what might be.

***

It turned out, Lilly did have dresses. She kept them in the basement, as if they went along with the cello.

"These are for my recitals," she said.

I thought of what someone who wasn't me would say in this situation, and I said, "You must play all the time."

She reached for a dress. "This one's black," she said.

They were all black. From a distance, they all looked like the same dress, the color uniform, the length so similar it seemed she'd had them identically hemmed. The sleeves of each were like bat wings. There were details that were different: one dress had, at the collar, a tiny flower, one was velvet, another, silk.

"Have you ever been to a funeral?" I asked her.

She held out a dress, the hanger at her neck, ruffles falling over her knees.

"My sister's not dead," I said, which was not what I meant to say. I meant to comment on the cello, or to tell her she was beautiful, or to ask her about her recitals: when she had started playing, maybe.

"This dress might be a little old for you." Lilly nodded, as if I'd been the one to say this, originally, and she still thought my sister was dead.

"Why don't you try this?" She handed me the dress with the tiny flower.

I took the dress from her. I held it against my body and could tell immediately that it would be too small. Amelia could have worn the dress without unzipping it.

"I should try it on now?"

"We're just women here," Lilly said.

I'd never been called a woman before. I began to sweat. I took off my shirt. Lilly made an arrow with her hands, and I lifted my arms. She slid the dress over my head. My jeans were still on. Lilly zipped me into it as far up as she could zip it. I looked awful.

"This doesn't fit," I said.

Lilly stood behind me and studied my reflection. "I wore that to my first recital, back before Max, before George. My mother bought me that dress. I loved that dress, and that night, I played better than I'd ever played, you know?"

I twisted my neck around so I was looking at her. "Did your mother die?"

Lily stared past me, at the mirror.

"My mother still thinks she's too young to be a grandmother," she said.

I wanted to ask Lilly if she was in love with George, but I didn't need to, because I saw them, at night, when they thought no one did, and I watched them sleep, and sometimes I watched one or both of them wake, and I knew it was for Max. I thought of my mother, hovering in our darkened bedroom at night, sometimes drunk, mistaking our beds and placing a finger beneath my nose.

"Would you play for me?" I said.

Lilly touched the flower at my throat. She brought her fingers to her own throat. "Is there a particular piece?"

I wiped my hands on the dress. In the mirror I watched the way my face didn't change. I looked like a person who never felt anything.

"There isn't a piece," I said.

Lilly walked over to the cello. She positioned herself on a stool, the cello between her legs. She lifted the bow. She rested the cello's neck against her shoulder, her fingers winking over the strings like shadow puppets. With her other hand, she moved the bow. Lilly's face, as she played, seemed to round out and smoothen, shadows disappearing impossibly beneath her eyes. I saw that she couldn't see me, or the room we were in, or herself. She couldn't hear her husband or her son, though they were just above us. And next door, the house where my family lived, that was another country, but a small one, a place and people she didn't have the time to imagine or wonder about.

 

 

 

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