When our daughter was four, she pushed half a turquoise crayon so far up her nose that Paul had to take her to the pediatrician, who removed it with tweezers. For a while the story was good for cocktail parties and playground conversations, but I’d forgotten about it for years, until I got the phone call about my sister.
When I hung up the phone, Paul paused from stirring the penang laksa on the stove and held out the spoon.
“You’re not going to believe this,” I said.
He drank the spoonful himself and wiped his hands on a dish towel. “Try me.”
The call had been from a hospital administrator in Sarasota, Florida, where my sister Laura lived. Apparently Laura had been admitted to the hospital for swallowing no fewer than nine foreign bodies.
“What do you mean, foreign bodies?”
“I was getting to that.” He knows I hate to be interrupted. “Stuff you shouldn’t swallow.”
“Like a crayon?”
“Or like staples, nail files, batteries, and small knives. All of which Laura swallowed.”
“What the fuck?” said Paul, then he looked around to make sure our children hadn’t heard.
The nine foreign bodies were in her stomach and digestive tract. The doctors were going to remove the sharpest ones, and the battery, tomorrow—endoscopically.
“Endoscopy is when they stick a tube down your throat and pull the objects out,” I said before he could ask. “If they can’t retrieve any that way, they’ll have to perform surgery.”
Paul sat down next to me. He had a slight beard tan line where he had recently shaved. He smelled like ginger and kaffir lime. “Why would anyone do that?”
I didn’t have an answer. And the worst part was, according to the hospital, this wasn’t the first time Laura had done such a thing. She’d been admitted to the hospital for swallowing foreign bodies six times in the past two years. On the hospital forms, she had listed me as her next of kin, but she had written down the wrong phone number. Only now, on her sixth visit, had she mentioned that her brother lived in Santa Fe, and when they inquired about me, she boasted that I was a lawyer and showed them my business card. The woman on the phone wanted to know if she had ever had a therapist. Laura was resisting all psychiatric care.
I hadn’t seen Laura since our mother’s funeral two years ago. Sure, she had seemed sad, but hadn’t we all?
We were supposed to go on vacation next week, to Mexico, Paul, me, and the kids. I’d been working too much. The kids were on summer break. Paul and I needed some time together. We hadn’t been abroad in years, since China, when we endured that nightmarish maze of international adoption. Paul had wanted to go to southeast Asia—he’d been talking about some crazy kite festival in Bali—but I could only take a week off, and frankly, all I wanted to do was a lie on a beach with a bottomless margarita.
“What should I do?”
“You could always go to Florida,” said Paul, “and then meet me and the kids in Cancun.”
After Paul went to bed I held a pen in front of my face. I didn’t see how it was feasible to swallow. I stuck it in my mouth, but I just gagged. So I googled it. You have to lean your head back when you open your mouth, creating a straight channel from your mouth down your throat. I leaned my head back and tried again. The pen did slide right down my throat. I yanked it out, suddenly fearful it would drop. I thought about swallowing something smaller and more benign, like a coin, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead I carried a phantom pen around inside of me until I fell asleep.Three days later when I stepped out of the Tampa airport at dusk, the humidity engulfed me. I preferred the dryness of New Mexico; no matter how hot it was during the day, when the sun went down, the air cooled. Back in Florida, I was struck by the tackiness of the palm trees—palm trees and concrete always seemed a depressing combination. By the time I got my rental car and reached the outskirts of Sarasota, clouds had gathered. When I pulled into my sister’s driveway, lightning dissected the sky.
Laura’s apartment complex was a ramshackle affair on the edge of an abandoned lot. I couldn’t see the ocean, but I could smell it—a salty smell, the odor of rotting seaweed. When Laura opened the door and unlocked the chain, she looked the same. I don’t know why I expected her to look different—crazier, perhaps? She was tan but not what we used to call “extra crispy”, wearing a peach housedress with her hair in a lazy french twist.
“Petey,” she said, throwing her arms around me. She was stronger than she looked. “I’m so glad you’re here. How was your flight?”
Inside, Laura’s paintings of surreal landscapes dominated the walls. Scattered amongst her rattan furniture and braided rugs were some items from our late parents’ house—the faded leather loveseat, our mother’s collection of porcelain cats. I gave Laura a small wreath of dried red chilies I’d bought at the Santa Fe airport gift shop. Her eyes widened with surprise. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” she said, smiling as though I had just given her a million bucks or one of my kidneys. She draped it around a long-necked porcelain Siamese. “It’s so beautiful.”
She served me sweet tea and offered me a cigarette, which I declined for a full five minutes before I caved. I hadn’t smoked in almost a decade—not since Paul and I adopted the kids—but I felt as though I had entered a time warp, walked back into an earlier version of myself. Laura had given me my first cigarette when she was sixteen and I was twelve. She opened the window wider and together we smoked as rain pummeled the house.
She asked about the kids. She always sent them a birthday card, but sometimes she got their ages wrong, and sometimes she forgot to get a card, just sent a twenty dollar bill and a post-it note with a heart. I told her that Kendall liked her gymnastics class. She wanted a gymnastics-themed party for her tenth birthday. We weren’t sure what that entailed—everyone in leotards? Fake gold medal party favors? Kyle seemed to have a penchant for science. Paul and I had given him a microscope for Christmas, and we had feared he would abandon it after a few days, but every day he found something new to dissect, from a cactus pear to a carpet fiber.
“And Paul?” she asked. “How’s that hunk of a house husband?”
I told her he was good. He played a lot of tennis, lucky bastard. He wanted to visit southeast Asia, but since we couldn’t actually go, he’d been cooking up a banquet of cuisines from all over the region. Every day I’d come home to an odd-looking fruit nestled in between the apples and pears: a lychee, or a durian, or a mangosteen.
“Why can’t you go?” Laura had tucked her knees into her chest, her feet on the chair. Smoke curled around her. She always managed to look wistful.
I told her I couldn’t get enough time off work, that the airfare alone was a fortune, that we had to think about the kids’ college funds.
Laura stood and produced a bottle of vodka from the freezer. She poured some into our tumblers of sweet tea. “Paul’s been talking about Southeast Asia for years. I remember one Thanksgiving when he was trying to convince Dad that going to Vietnam was a good idea.” She pursed her lips. The rain stopped—it had been one of those fleeting summer storms. “If you want to go, you should go. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
I wondered what Dad would think of this situation, if he were still alive. I pictured his stern face, Mom’s quiet tears. I looked at Laura as though I had x-ray vision, imagining the outline of a pen or a small pair of scissors glowing under her skin.
“And how are you?” I asked, trying to sound upbeat. I helped myself to another cigarette. “How’s the insurance business?”
Laura held up her arms and laughed. “It pays for this little piece of paradise.” She boasted that she had sold some of her paintings to a local motel. Honeymooners-on-a-budget might be consummating their marriage under her abstract depictions of a sandpiper or a sunset.
“Hey,” she said, looking at me intently. “You should let me paint you.”
I shook my head and asked her how the procedure at the hospital had gone.
“Fine,” she said, her face suddenly slack. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her why she did it. When she was seventeen, she had eloped with her high school boyfriend and six months later came sulking back to complete her GED. Dad offered to pay for college but not art school, so her next boyfriend, a much older man who owned a questionable car dealership, footed the bill. She was twice-divorced by twenty-five. If she couldn’t find someone to support her, she found work, but she changed jobs whenever she got bored or got fired. Twenty-odd years later, she still hadn’t settled down. In our generous moods, we had described her as artsy, bohemian, otherwise just plain wild. Had we been oblivious—had my sister been suffering from mental illness her entire life?
We drank vodka and sweet tea out of our parents’ old mugs and watched the local news, mocking the weather forecaster and her obvious cleavage. The next day was Monday. I had made appointments with three different therapists. I planned to get my sister’s future treatment sorted, spend one more quality evening here, and then find my ass parked next to the Mexican surf in a lounge chair—or maybe a hammock—by Tuesday afternoon.
Before going to bed, I scanned the kitchen counter. A bottle opener, a chopstick, the sharp tab of a soda can—everything was a threat. I hugged Laura close. I asked, “Are you okay?”
“I had a tough week.” She pushed me off and fussed with the sheet and pillows on the pull-out couch bed. The ceiling fan was broken, so she gave me her box fan. “Anything else you need?”
After she went to bed, I continued to look up personality disorders on my phone. According to all the sources I could find, these patients were notoriously difficult to treat. Nearly all diagnosed patients were women. Nearly all suffered from early childhood trauma.
I remembered my childhood as happy, at least as happy as a gay kid growing up in the Redneck Riviera could be. Our parents moved to Pensacola when Laura was a toddler and my mom was pregnant with me. Our father worked on the naval air station, and our mother was a substitute teacher. They were stern but loving and very forgiving that neither of their children turned out the way they had imagined them to be. I remember riding bikes and catching lizards and watching Saturday morning cartoons. Before Pensacola, my family had lived on Whidbey Island, Washington, the opposite end of the country, where my father had worked on another navy base. Our parents didn’t talk about it much except to complain about the winters. They seemed grateful to be on the warm shores of the gulf. Had something happened to my sister in Washington? Or had something happened in Pensacola, right under my nose?
As I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, the box fan hummed. I remembered playing with Laura as a child, kneeling behind a fan and speaking slowly, pretending to be Darth Vader. I shivered as I remembered her favorite line. You underestimate the power of the dark side.
At the first therapist’s office, I flipped through an issue of Men’s Health, occasionally checking my work email and feeling sorry for myself. My mouth still felt ashy from the cigarettes the night before. Paul texted a photo of the kids at the hotel’s breakfast buffet; their glasses of orange juice had cocktail umbrellas. I wondered how long their happiness could remain so simple. I wondered how long I could shield them from the world. I looked sideways at the other people in the waiting room, wondering what was wrong with them. Were they simply depressed, or could there be a psychopath among them?
When Laura came into the waiting room she smiled weakly and brushed past me.
In the parking lot she trembled as she lit a cigarette. “He didn’t like me.”
I leaned against the rental car. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
“He spoke to me as if I were a child. He acted like I was mentally handicapped. Do I give that impression?”
I shook my head. In her slacks and sleeveless blouse, she looked like a fully functioning adult. I reminded her that we had two more appointments, that we’d find a better fit. I didn’t tell her how hard it was to get those appointments on such short notice, the legal jargon I had to throw around to convince the receptionists to squeeze us in.
It was a clear day; there was no sign of the previous night’s storm. We drove down palm-lined streets, past strip malls and parking garages. All the buildings were white. There was a lot of glass, floor-to-ceiling windows, reflecting more white buildings, more palm trees. The sun hurt my eyes.
We drove out to Siesta Key for lunch. As we ate hamburgers, Laura stared vacantly across the room, blinking when the waitress asked her if she wanted a refill on her coke. Afterwards we got ice cream cones and walked out to the beach. I started to take off my shoes, but Laura stopped me. “The sand’s too hot.”
I asked her if she wanted to try my mint chip, and she smiled. “You just want to try my black raspberry. You never could make up your mind.” We sampled each other’s ice creams and walked along the water’s edge. According to Laura, Sarasota was a tourist trap in the winter, but for the most part only the locals braved the summer climate. A handful of people were out sunbathing, and a couple of kids squealed and splashed each other in the water. Across the gulf, in Mexico, my children were frolicking in the same body of water, although Paul would have probably gotten them to do something more organized like snorkeling or stand-up paddle boarding.
Laura seemed more relaxed. The bright sun dulled all the colors except the lustrous blue of the ocean. The heat seemed to stifle all sounds: the lazy shush of the tide seemed a million miles away. We walked as if in a dream.
We paused at the stone pilings of a washed-away pier. I cleared my throat. “You know, you can talk to me.” Laura nodded and let her eyes drift to the horizon. I walked to the water’s edge and kicked at the wet sand, unearthing sand crabs that frantically burrowed back down again.
“Did something happen when you were a kid?” I asked. Laura continued to stare out across the water. “Did something happen on Whidbey Island?”
She bent over to pluck a shell from the sand. She held it up, a pink and white clamshell. “I don’t remember anything before Pensacola. I told you, I was having a bad week.” She squinted and held her hands over her eyes to examine the shell.
I wanted to poke her, the way we did when we were kids on a road trip to Savannah or Daytona Beach, until Mom yelled no touching! and then I would hover my hand a half inch above her arms or legs, a half inch in front of her face. Not touching, can’t get mad, not touching, can’t get mad I would chant, and she would exhibit zen-like patience until the moment she didn’t, lashing out to slap my hand away or pinch my arm. One time she elbowed me in the eye. I had a black eye for a week.
I wanted her to to hurt me and not herself.
“A bad week? You have a bad week, and you swallow a couple of batteries?”
She shrugged. “It was only one battery.”
The sea looked impossibly big, and this was only the gulf. I couldn’t imagine how the old explorers embarked on a journey across the Atlantic, not sure what they would find on the other side, not sure they would find the other side at all.
I sighed, loudly, the way our father would have. “But they said you’d been to the hospital six times in the past two years.”
Laura frowned. “They must have gotten me mixed up with someone else. There’s no way I went six times.”
“How many times?”
She bent again, producing another clamshell, what could have been the first’s other half. She held them together, but they didn’t quite fit.
“I should tell you something. My car’s not in the shop.”
“What do you mean? Where is it?”
“It got totaled. It was the other driver’s fault, but I can’t prove it, and the police were no help, and I was behind on my insurance payments.”
“But you work for an insurance company.”
“What do you mean?”
“Carol in HR always had it out for me.”
“Why would Carol in HR have it out for you?”
She shrugged. “She was always harassing me for this form or that form. I think she had a thing for Dale in the cubicle next to me. Dale and I were just friends.”
“You don’t have a car or a job.” I digested the information as I said the words aloud. “How are you paying your bills?” By the time I finished the question, I knew the answer. Our parents had been hard workers, but they had not invested wisely, and our inheritance wasn’t much. “How much do you have left?”
“I’m good until the end of the month.”
“Oh Laura.” I grabbed her hand and squeezed. “Why didn’t you let me know sooner that you were in trouble?”
She shook her head. “You know me, I always land on my feet.”
I tried to look her in the eye, but she kept looking down, fiddling with the shells. “The last time I saw you was at the funeral,” I said. “We were all grieving. I’m sorry if I didn’t notice something I should have noticed.”
She turned her gaze back to the sea. When she was younger, she used to have auburn hair to her waist. Now her shoulder-length hair was brittle, and her roots were graying. She was slim, but the skin at the edge of her jaw was starting to fold. How did we get from point A to point B, from being young to being old? From being siblings to being strangers?
“I miss Mom,” she said. A white sailboat appeared a few hundred meters from shore, but there was no breeze. How had the boat gotten there? Laura tossed the clamshells into the water. “Now that she’s gone, how can I win her approval?”
I frowned. She laughed. “Jesus, can’t you take a joke?”
I grabbed her shoulders. Her eyes were glassy. “You could have died. Six times in two years, you could have died. So at this moment, no, I cannot take a joke.”
“Oh Petey,” she said, putting my face in her hands. “You worry too much. You always did.”
On the way to therapist number two, I told Laura I’d give her the money for next month’s rent. That night, I’d get her started on looking for a new job. I told her she could come visit whenever she wanted. The kids could bunk together, and she could have Kendall’s room. But the most important thing was to get treatment. I made her promise me that she’d give it a chance.
At the second therapist’s office, I thought about Mom and Dad. Had they known something? Was there a long-lost uncle or babysitter on Whidbey Island, and the truth was so ugly they thought it best to ignore? Or was Laura just wired differently—had they been bewildered by their daughter’s mood swings, her reckless choices? I flipped through a months-old issue of the Economist, dismayed at the international disasters I’d failed to observe at the time. Earthquakes, hostile takeovers, spiraling debt. Horrible events were unfolding all the time, out of sight, out of mind.
I shut the magazine. I wanted a cigarette. I stood and got some water from the cooler, finishing the little plastic cupful in one swig and pouring another. For the prices this therapist charged, you would think she could afford real glasses.
Paul texted another photo—the kids on the beach, their wet hair plastered to their heads, their arms slung around each other. I knew there were pictures of me and Laura like that, before she grew haughty and I self-conscious. I hoped our children would continue to be close when they grew up. So what if they weren’t tied together by blood?
I studied the photo. They seemed happy, but how could we know for sure? The first months of their lives must have been traumatic for them to arrive at a Chinese orphanage. What if they were suppressing a horrible experience—how might that affect them for the rest of their lives?
I switched the Economist out for a People magazine and wasted the next twenty minutes of my life looking at celebrities caught wearing sweatpants or walking their dogs, things that normal people do everyday without such derision or praise.
When Laura emerged from this session, she was smiling.
“This one was better?”
She shrugged. I knew that look, that guilty smirk. The therapist—Serena, she’d insisted on being called—appeared in the doorway, frowning. She walked over to us.
“Peter Wilks? This is your sister?” She crossed her arms. She wore a baggy blazer and olive pants. Static electricity caused one strand of her hair to hover an inch in front of the rest. I suddenly felt bad for my sister. I wouldn’t want to tell this person my problems.
Serena sighed. “Your sister just swallowed my pen. A Montblanc. That’s a three-hundred dollar pen.”
Laura shrugged. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
Serena did not look serene. She put her hands on her hips. “My pen was sitting on my desk, in plain view. I went to the window to open the blinds, and when I turn around, Laura is standing over my desk, and the pen is gone.”
“Maybe you misplaced it,” said Laura. “I’m always misplacing my keys, even if I’m sure I put them back.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said to Serena. “You didn’t see her swallow your pen?”
Serena bit her lip. “When you’re ready to admit you have a problem, you can begin to make progress.”
In the parking lot, we leaned against the rental car, smoking, careful not to let our bare arms touch the hot car.
“Why’d you do it?”
“I didn’t think it was possible,” said Laura, “but she was even worse than the first one.”
“Do you know how ridiculous this seems? You can’t keep doing this.”
Laura frowned. “It’s like she pretended to be my friend. I don’t need to pay someone to be my friend.”
“You’re right,” I said. “You don’t have to. I paid her.”
She took one more drag then tossed her cigarette to the ground. She got into the passenger seat. I finished my cigarette, picked up her cigarette butt, and deposited them both in a trash can at the edge of the lot. When I got back to the car, Laura grimaced.
“Peter?” she said. “I don’t feel so good.”
When we finally got back to Laura’s place, I stayed outside to call Paul and the kids. I was reluctant to leave her alone, but even if Laura swallowed something else, they’d take another x-ray in the morning. Tonight clouds loomed, swollen, but there was no lightning, no thunder. Somewhere nearby, cicadas were buzzing.
First I talked to the kids. Kendall told me about kayaking in the mangroves, about one place where the overlapping branches made a tunnel. Kyle described the turtle they saw underwater, how it swam along beside them. Did I know that turtles had been around since the time of the dinosaurs? At home I always felt like I was nagging them to stop playing computer games, to eat their vegetables, to use inside voices. It was nice to hear them so free and lighthearted. I wished I could be there with them.
Then I filled Paul in. After the incident at the therapist’s office, we had gone to the hospital, and an x-ray had revealed, in addition to the pen, a toothbrush, two nails, and three safety pins. The hospital staff was polite but brusque. The doctor on call explained that the psychiatric staff couldn’t diagnose her without more careful monitoring—perhaps in dialogue with a therapist that she saw regularly—but if she continued to be a danger to herself, we should consider full-time residential care.
I apologized to Paul for missing more of our vacation. I wasn’t going to make my morning flight if I stuck around for Laura’s next procedure.
“This is not a legal case you have to solve. This is your sister.” Paul came from a big midwestern family of Norwegian descent. At Christmas, our mantle was covered with photos of blonde, strong-jawed children. I had expected him to laugh about the three-hundred dollar pen, but he was completely somber. “Take all the time you need.”
I told him she was out of money. I asked him if he thought it was a coincidence that she gave them my real phone number now. Was this a cry for help, or a cry for financial help?
“Don’t be so cynical. It’s not attractive.” I hated when Paul scolded me. “I think she did it this time so that you would have to stay. She needs you.”
“I need a vacation.”
“I know,” said Paul. “But this is more important.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re on vacation all the time.”
Paul was silent.
“Just kidding, honey.” I said in the high voice I use when I know he’s mad.
“For chrissake,” I said, “Let’s not fight.”
“Sure. Avoid the problem. It really works for you, doesn’t it?”
I hadn’t avoided Laura. I had taken care of all the details of our mother’s estate. I had made sure Laura got her fair share. She was my big sister, and she rarely contacted me. If our parents never noticed she had a mental health issue, how was I supposed to know?
I hung up and rescheduled my flight and our appointment with the third therapist. Inside, I sat on our parent’s old leather loveseat while Laura and I ate delivery pizza and played Scrabble. I made the longer and more esoteric words, but Laura knew how to game the system, scoring double and triple-point letters and words. She laughed and cheered during her turns and goaded me during mine.
We ran out of sweet tea, so Laura drank vodka directly from the bottle. I said we should take it easy, considering she had to go back to the hospital in the morning. She flashed me a wide smile. “This is taking it easy.”
When she beat me the second time, she clapped her hands together and announced it was time to paint me.
“I’m losing my hair. I’m getting fat.” I took the bottle of vodka and poured some into my tumbler, then went to the freezer for some ice.
“Stop being a baby. Sit.”
I sipped my vodka while she readied her canvas, brushes, and paint. I studied the paintings on her walls—smears of red and smoky orange, the dim outline of a sun, as though the world were on fire.
“Can I move? You know, to ash my cigarette?”
She nodded. “Sure. I just need to get your essence.”
My essence. If I were sober, I might have laughed her off. But suddenly, determining my essence seemed urgent. Who was I? At work I specialized in commercial law, drafting contracts and protecting the business interests of my clients. Sure, I took some satisfaction out of wading through documents, spotting errors and plugging holes, but was that my essence? Anal-retentive-ness?
I was a husband and a father, a provider. But Paul was restless. What was up with his on-again, off-again beard? Who was he trying to impress? I put food on the table, but I had missed all but one of Kendall’s gymnastics meets, and it was Paul who had helped Kyle make the potato battery for his second-place-winning science fair project. When the kids had a bad dream, whose side of the bed did they go to?
Laura perched behind her easel, her brush sweeping the canvas, her tongue poised between her lips. I wondered what she saw in me.
“How’s it going?” I said. “Be kind.”
She frowned. “When I paint, I’m honest.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, then I’m fucked.”
Her hands were splattered with paint; she swept the hair out of her face with her wrist. “What’s wrong?”
I drained my glass, sucked at the ice cubes. I suddenly remembered it was hot.
“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can always tell when you’re lying.”
I refilled my glass. “I’ve been working too much.”
“Your work and home life are out of balance,” she said, nodding.
“Don’t give me any of that new age crap,” I said.
“You’re exhausted,” she continued. “Paul’s feeling neglected. I’ve been through this. It’s awful.”
I couldn’t fathom any of her relationships had been as deep as my connection with Paul, but I didn’t want to offend her.
“It is. It feels like I can never do enough.”
She smiled sympathetically.
I tried to blow smoke rings and managed a few. “Did you see that?”
But she was suddenly focused on my portrait, painting a long slow line then jabbing at the canvas like some kind of martial artist.
I watched the end of my cigarette glow. “And I don’t know what’s up with Southeast Asia. Why doesn’t he want to visit China, where our children are from? Is he afraid, deep down, that our children will never fully belong to us? That if they visit their homeland, they’ll somehow sense the gulf between us more clearly?”
Laura stabbed at the canvas a few more times. “No man is an island,” she said.
“Who said that? What a fucking idiot.” She took back the vodka bottle and took a swig. “We’re all islands.” She put down her brush. The cicadas continued to whine.
“Did you hear about that woman who committed suicide by jumping into an alligator pond?”
I shook my head.
“She was sixty-five. I think that’s rather beautiful. That’s the way to go, if you’re going to go.”
She picked up her brush but held it in the air. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this.”
“You don’t have to,” I said.
“Not that,” she said. “Not the painting.”
She spread her arms and looked up towards the ceiling. The cicadas had gotten louder. Their singing filled the room. “Living.”
After she went to bed, I studied the painting. My essence was blue and green, a morose ocean swirling in an unfinished face. I wondered if Laura had any friends from her old jobs, if she had spoken to anyone since getting fired. I pictured her moping around inside this apartment for the past month, making these depressing paintings. I wondered how long you could have a pen or knife inside of you before the pain became unbearable. The previous six times Laura had ingested foreign bodies, she had checked herself into the hospital. Then, too, she had complained of abdominal pain, not admitting what she’d done, waiting for the x-ray for the big reveal. I wondered if she craved the attention, the nurses speaking in concerned tones, the doctors taking care of her.
In the morning, after a fitful sleep, I cleaned up the pizza box and greasy plates as Laura got dressed. My head pounded. I drank a pint of water and took some Ibuprofen. Laura put on lipstick, wiped it off, then reapplied a brighter shade. When we got to the car, she slumped in the front seat, her frown a brilliant fuschia.
“I know this is hard for you,” I said. “You’re being really brave.”
I started to drive. The rental car started beeping, at first slowly, and then with an increasingly frenetic tempo. “ Can you put your seatbelt on?” I asked.
She sighed. “Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not patronizing you.”
“Yes you are.”
She buckled up, and we drove the rest of the way to the hospital in silence. When we pulled into the hospital parking lot, she didn’t move.
“Let’s go,” I said. “You can do this.”
“You always patronize me.” She looked at her lap. “You always act like you’re better than me.” She raised her voice. “You’re always bragging about your fancy job and your big fancy house and complaining about your stupid mortgage and college funds. You love to rub it in my face that you are happily married, that a big queer can land a husband better than I can.”
In front of the car, an old man with a walker and his nurse’s aid stopped and peered at us.
She glared at me. “Sometimes I think everyone else is happy, that I’m the only one who’s miserable.” Her nostrils flared. “But then I realized something. No one is happy. It’s all a facade. There’s something wrong with that white picket bullshit life of yours, with your kids that aren’t even yours.”
“We don’t have a white picket fence,” I said, leaning my head back against the headrest. “We have a cactus garden.”
Laura got out of the car. She walked away from the hospital, out the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. I started the car and caught up to her. I drove slowly and opened the window.
“Get in the car,” I said.
She kept walking.
“Get in the car.”
She picked up the pace.
I leaned out the window and yelled, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“We have to go back to the hospital. You can’t walk home.”
“Sure I can. I’ve done it before.”
According to the GPS, it was just over three miles. She walked fast, her elbows jabbing the air with each stride.
At the intersection, I sped up. I wished I’d never come, that I’d gone to Mexico, that I’d gone snorkeling with my children, that I’d gotten to relax with my husband, that I could have time to be the kind of man my family loved, not just the one they needed. I was tired of being the responsible one.
But the further I drove, the more anxious I got. What if Laura did something stupid? There wasn’t an alligator farm in Sarasota, I hoped. I circled around and drove back, but she wasn’t on the same street. I double checked the GPS and followed an alternate route to her house for a mile before I gave up. I phoned the hospital, but she hadn’t shown up there. Where could she be?
I wished that we had that identical twin spidey-sense, that if I thought about her hard enough, I’d sense her presence. I looked up alligator farms and called a place called Sarasota Jungle Gardens. The employee I spoke to assured me the few alligators they had weren’t big enough to kill anyone. Still, I gave him her description, and he promised to call me if she showed up. The only other place I could think of was her old office, the insurance company. I looked it up—it was less than ten blocks from the hospital. If she wasn’t there, I’d call the cops.
The office was in a strip mall, sandwiched between a Wendy’s and a Men’s Wearhouse. When I stepped inside, a bell on the door jingled, but there was no one at reception. On the wall hung a poster of a snow-covered mountain with the caption: “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done.” Somewhere in another room people were yelling. I turned the corner and saw a crowd of office workers with their hands raised. At the center was my sister, her shirt rumpled, her hair wild. All around her on the floor lay file folders and papers. The woman yelling at Laura was bottle-blonde and leathery-tan: extra crispy. Laura was yelling back at almost the exact same pitch—for a moment, it sounded as though they were on the same side, part of a throaty Slavic choir. Around them the other workers continued to flap their arms helplessly.
I stepped in. “Laura,” I said, taking her arm. “Let’s go.”
“Do you know this woman?” said Extra Crispy.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re leaving.” I tugged at Laura, but she resisted, demonstrating that wiry strength that came out of nowhere.
“You still owe me my last week’s wages,” Laura said.
Extra Crispy turned to me. “Can’t you get rid of this crazy bitch?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
Extra Crispy frowned. She was actually wearing blue eye shadow. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Fuck you, Carol,” said Laura. She worked her jaw. The tendons in her throat bulged. “Fuck you forever.”
I held Laura back. I looked at Extra Crispy/Carol, at her watery eyes, her husk of a face. I lifted my hand, and with my index finger I poked her sun-spotted chest. “My sister might be crazy,” I said, “but you’re obviously the bitch.” I lowered my voice.
“She better get that check in the mail,” I said, all business, “unless you want to get sued. I’m her lawyer.”
I led Laura back to reception and out the door. In the car, she grinned at me and pulled a wadded-up piece of paper out of her purse. “Carol’s address,” she said. “I got her file.”
She giggled. “Come on,” she said. “It will be fun.”
“You were always such a goody-goody. Live a little, for Chrissake.”
“We have to get you back.”
“To what?” she said. “To what?”
I thought of the hospital and the kind but exasperated nurses. I thought of the therapists, the veneer of concern that coated every word. I thought of Laura’s apartment, reeking of dead things from the sea, those porcelain cats with their scratched noses and chipped tails.
I punched the address into the GPS, and Laura lit the evidence on fire with the end of her cigarette. The ashes blew out the window.
Later, I’d have a hard time explaining to the police, and maybe even a harder time explaining to Paul, why we’d stopped at the Texaco to buy nine dozen eggs—cleaned them out of eggs. How could I describe the feeling that accompanied the flinging of said eggs—the smack and splatter of yolk that dripped down the front door, the stucco walls, and the windows of Carol’s single-story house in a subdivision called Dolphin Dreams? How could I describe the triumphant arc the toilet paper made as it spiraled through the air, the almost elegant loops it draped around the lone tree in the front yard? We were united. It was as though we had been transported back in time to perform the perfect teenage prank, a simple remedy for all the ways we had been wronged. We heard a siren in the distance, but we couldn’t stop ourselves. We tossed and flung until there was nothing left, and then we lay on the prickly grass of her overgrown lawn, panting, waiting for whatever came next.
“You found me,” said Laura. “You saved me.”
One summer, when we were kids, our neighbors went out of town and lent us their Nintendo. Laura was too old for video games at that point. She was probably off on illicit dates, shoplifting beer and flirting with pregnancy. But I spent the next few months dodging mushrooms and flying turtles, hitting bricks and collecting coins, bouncing through tree tops and charging through castles, helping Mario ascend from one world to the next in order to save the princess. I spent most of my waking hours playing, and when our parents went to bed, I would sneak out of my room and play the game on mute. Even then, I knew I didn’t like girls, and when I thought about saving a princess, the only girl I could fathom wanting to save was my sister.
The night I tried to swallow something sharp, the night I carried the phantom pen inside of me—it did feel strangely reassuring, like a secret that belonged to me and me alone. Maybe Laura was wrong. Maybe we aren’t islands. Maybe she was knowable. Maybe we could rewind, start over. In the video game, no matter how often your character died, you could always begin again. At first, passing each level was difficult, a gauntlet of unforeseen threats. But once you got the hang of it, each world was not so different from the ones that came before.
Overhead, the sun continued to beat cheerfully, mercilessly. Laura flung her arms in the air and hooted with pleasure. I tried to picture the foreign bodies inside her: the overpriced pen, the toothbrush, the nails and safety pins. On the x-ray they had looked ghostly, suspended in space, her own little arsenal perched between her rib cage and pelvis.
But in front of me I could only see my flesh-and-blood sister, laughing so hard she was crying. For the time being, we lay on our backs and high-fived each other, our fingers slick with raw egg. We shared our last cigarette, blowing smoke rings that lasted a few seconds before thinning into the sky as we waited for the cops to come, as we waited for a punishment we knew we could endure.