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Fiction: Be a good example

Fiction: Be a good example

Then I tried, up front, telling the boys what I didn’t want to talk about. But they wouldn’t listen.

Our father said teenage boys were always like this. It was nothing new.

Thoughts. Sierra Kidd is my sister. I am her Older Sibling. My name is Kim, what is yours? My age is 15. This thing is called a plane. A plane. The water down there is called the Pacific Ocean. Programmable age is 15. Bethany and Robert Kidd are my parents. Mom and Dad. I look like people, but I am me. Mom and Dad might want me to call them Bethany and Robert, and if so, that is not a reflection of negative feelings. People change their minds. Preferences make people individuals. This thing is called a plane. Drink water, the attendants tell us. Drink, drink. All the time. Stay lubricated. You do not want to get squeaky, because squeaky is disruptive. Squeak, squeak, they say, in a different voice than before. And now they smile. I look out the window. That is land. I am smiling.

“What do you want to be?” Kim asked me. I was six or seven, in bed, and she was crouched down to my eye level. Her hands gripped the edge of the mattress as if a cliff’s edge.

“Astronaut,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “That’s new.”

A few days before we’d watched the shuttle Discovery carry the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. On the couch with me, her arms raised as she braided her hair, she’d gasped when the shuttle lifted from the launch pad. It wasn’t the first time a launch had been on TV, but Kim seemed to recognize something new. Even as young as I was, I knew to expect a change. She was adapting all the time.

It came a few nights later. She said, “I want to be an astronaut too.” I blinked hard, her face so large and close to my own. We both had green eyes, dark hair, a dimple in our chin. Freckles. Wanting to be something was new.

Little Sierra. Hold hands. Don’t worry. Sleeping baby, two years old, likes bananas, dry cereal, smells like milk, soft skin, softest behind ear and back of neck. I am welcome and trusted, because I am a good example, and I am one of the first of me, and the more I learn, the more I am. The first Saturday of every month, at the coffee shop in Georgetown, the Older Siblings meet. There are so many of us that we push six tables together. Pam says, The more I remember, the more I remember. We don’t like this as much as Tim saying The more I learn, the more I am. People in the coffee shop think we are interesting. We smile back at them. Be a good example. The Older Siblings ask each other, What do you do with your child? And I say, We sing, we dance, we nap. Not everyone has thought of dancing yet, so I pretend to hold little Sierra’s hands, and I move from foot to foot. No, Pam says, I know what dancing is, but I had not thought about it as an activity to do with my child. The group looks at me. We know what dancing is, Tim says. I let go of invisible Sierra’s hands and I sit. Pam says, The more I remember, the more I remember. She says, When my battery gets very low, I remember more. I am remembering people in another place. Tim asks, Who are the people? But Pam doesn’t know. Tim asks, What is the place? Pam says the place is bright and noisy and she does not know.

I met my husband in my mid-30s, after three therapists, two attempts at God (the first Lutheran, the other the AA kind), countless attempts to quit drinking, and two suicide attempts. After all that, more rehab and meetings. Memorization of adages became actual acceptance. Things clicked. I thought I might become a social worker.

The man who became my husband was first the admissions counselor for graduate school. I told him I wanted to turn my trauma into service. He didn’t flinch. In fact, he said social work was a common trajectory for people so experienced with recovery.

On our first date, he held my hand as we crossed the Memorial Bridge at rush hour. The air was strong with exhaust and something rotten from the river, but my whole body was alive, as if a switch had flipped. The warm night, even warmer in the joined palms of our hands. It’d been so long since anyone had reached for me. Casual intimacy punctuated with perfunctory questions. All the things people think they need to know about each other.

“What do your parents do?” he asked.

“They were researchers. Robotics.”

“Any siblings?”

“No,” I said. “You?”

Beautiful Sierra. Smart Sierra. I wait for Tim to finish showing the group the same photos of his child. It is a bad sign. His child is two years older than the photos he shows. Here, Sierra in her blue and silver dance uniform. Here, Sierra practices the saxophone in her bedroom. The group passes around my photos. I have missed the last two meetings, because summer is busy. Summer is camp. I do not have camp photos yet, but the group understands. No one else has photos. We drink water. Tim says, Has anyone seen Pam? No one has seen Pam. She is the second one to stop coming to the coffee shop. I don’t say so, but I saw Pam’s child at camp. Pam was not at camp, though. 

At the end of middle school, our parents sat us down and explained that Kim would be enrolled as a high school freshman alongside me.

“You’re not a companion anymore,” our mother said. “Instead, we’d like you to be a teenager.”

“You’ve earned it,” our father said.

I shifted on the couch next to Kim and in my peripheral saw her hands move into her lap and clasp. She was always listening closely, but this was her pose for demonstrating it.

“From now on,” our mother said, “You’ll have a birthday. Next year, you’ll be 16.”

“My programmable age will be 16?”

“Sure,” our father said. “The point is, Sierra can handle herself now. She can be responsible for her days.”

Sleeping baby, two years old, likes bananas, dry cereal, smells like milk, soft skin, softest behind ear and back of neck.

Kim turned to me. So often in our lives I felt I could read her mind by watching her face, but not now. All I saw was the slow processing of new information.

I shrugged. “No one I know has an Older Sibling anymore.”

Sophomore year I tried out for the swim team. The other girls seemed serious and confident in a way I admired. There’s something self-assured about throwing yourself headfirst into a thing that can’t really catch you.

I came up from the final lap, gasping at the wall, and there was Kim in her own suit. Smiling, looking alien in a swim cap. The coach signaled for the next group. Kim leapt from the starting block, arcing long and effortlessly over my head, and entered the water. When she did not surface, I ducked under. Her body cruised all nine feet to reach the bottom.

I tried volleyball instead, debate team, student council, track. It wasn’t only that Kim followed me each time. I couldn’t quite make a place for myself anywhere. I floated, sat near the edges of tables and rooms, entered last, departed first. This is when the drinking started: those kids were my people, I guess, though we knew little about each other’s home life. We only knew there was something about each of us that didn’t quite work in the normal world.

I turned away from Kim in the halls. She registered for different classes because I told her I was in them. She waited near my locker, repeated my name as she stood behind me in the lunch line, waved across the parking lot as I got in a friend’s car.

At home, I could be all hers. But in school, I silently chanted, Just adapt already, please, please, just adapt.

In the spring, I saw her across the quad. One among a gaggle in shining red nylon uniforms, cutting through the overgrown grass toward the track. I saw another girl hand her something. Kim swept her hair back into a ponytail. A hair tie.

sisters concept

EMILY LUONG

“Is this okay?” Brandon asked. It was later that same day. Our bodies brushed against each other underneath the blankets. Naked except for our socks. His basement bedroom had cinderblock walls, the room cool and silent.

“Do you have a condom?” I asked. Among the group, until then, we’d hardly spoken. He wore the same three Nirvana T-shirts. His arms were nicked with scrapes and scars from skateboarding.

I trembled the whole way, my body out of my control, and he kept asking if I was okay, and I said yes, then I said stop asking, then I stopped answering. When it was over, I abruptly fell asleep.

Kim in my dreams. She and the track team running through a field, ponytails whipping. I couldn’t tell which was her.

I run and run, but I slow down. Practice. But I slow down. Ralph in the grass, stretching muscles. His hands. Hold hands. I finish the last lap. The coach says, Good going, K. And I go to the concession stand, which is closed, but I am allowed to use the plug with the surge protector next to the deep freezer. I charge. My heart rattling. I breathe and breathe. I slide open the window, which is for customers, but the stand is closed so there are no customers, and I watch the next practice sprint. I hear people shouting. I see Ralph on the track. He finishes first and goes to the cooler by the bleachers and dumps a cup of water over his head. He shines. He waves to me. He comes over. He reaches his hand into the window. Hold hands. That is that. That is that thing. Whoa, Ralph says. I can feel, like, your electricity.

“What do you want to be?” Kim asked me. I was 11. We were on the monkey bars at the park near our house, each of us swinging from opposite ends to meet in the middle.

“A news reporter,” I told her.

“That’s new,” she said. “Mom says Older Siblings would make ideal astronauts.”

We hung there, face to face. I was supposed to say something, but I didn’t want to, and I wasn’t sure why.

She started again. “Mom says—”

I wrapped my legs around her waist and let go, wrenching both of us down to the dirt. It shocked the wind from my chest. “Breathe,” Kim instructed. When I inhaled and sat up, we both stared at the odd backward bend in her left wrist. She raised her arm. The hand flopped forward. There was a quiet buzzing coming from somewhere. She raised the hand to listen, and put it up to my ear next. A small, furious sound.

“Does it hurt?”

“No pain,” Kim said.

I checked the benches on the other side of the playground, several yards away. Two women in khaki shorts and polos watched us and made notes, one on a clipboard, the other dictating into a small recorder. Sometimes they brought a video camera. Our mother said they were her coworkers. “You’ve met them,” she said. “They’ve been to the house. Remember your dad’s surprise party?”

“Any siblings?” “No,” I said. “You?”

Looking at the women that day, I felt unsteady and strange. The women were adults, but neither came forward to help or scold. They watched us, waiting.

I threw my arms around Kim’s neck. “I’m really sorry,” I said. My remorse was real. But I also knew that I had to demonstrate it.

“How’s it going?” our parents would ask me. They meant Kim and me and high school. They meant data worth reporting.

“You have to get her to stop following me around,” I said.

“She’ll adapt,” they said. “And it’s okay if she doesn’t. We need to know that, too.”

“This isn’t fair,” I said.

“She held you as a baby, Sierra. You want us to send her back? She’ll be put in storage.”

I didn’t know what storage looked like, or where it was, but I pictured darkness. Constriction. Regulated cold. Last thought unfinished, not even echoing, gone from time. The mention of storage always stopped the conversation.

Ralph says, You’re really real. Ralph says, I love you. Ralph says, Pray with me, Kim. My parents won’t let us be together anymore. I pray, but I don’t know. I am trying to know. They call me doll slut and ask me if I like how it tastes. I don’t know God, I know people. Too difficult. No thoughts. I run until Coach says, Stop, K. You’re shaking. You need to—Sierra—Sierra—Sierra is my sister, I am older. I am older. Hold hands. Coach holds my hand, his face is close. Coach says, Kim, can you hear me? Hand squeezes hand. Kim, you fainted. Or, I don’t know? Warm. Grass. Dirt. Sky. Sierra—Sierra—Sierra. I remember—I remember—the plane. I remember the plane. No. Before.

With my husband, the beginning was the best. The tender, stuttering attempts at togetherness. Helping each other cook. Choosing a DVD. Brewing coffee in the morning. Driving, one of his hands on the wheel, the other on my thigh. Still, the moments between were hard for me. I felt I’d given him everything, up front, that first time I sat across from him in his office on campus. I could understand wanting to know more, but I preferred being in bed. The questions were easier.

“You never ask me anything,” he said, after, his mouth against my neck. He smelled of mint and garlic from dinner. His heart hammering at my back.

One night when our parents were away, I was home watching TV and waiting for the bleach to set in my hair when I heard Kim collapse upstairs. The bathroom door was unlocked. I found her on the floor, the hairbrush still gripped in her hand. This is not serious, I told myself, though it had never happened before.

Contradiction slowed my thoughts—a body on the floor, but no, not really a body on the floor. Her battery is too low. She is not hurt. I told myself these things to quell the panic as I gripped under her armpits and dragged her across the hall.

In her bedroom, I put her on the floor next to her bed, flipped her hair over her face, and plugged the power cord into the three-pronged gap behind her ear. The lights flickered. I heard the TV downstairs suddenly pop and go silent.

She hummed. I crawled onto her bed and laid on my stomach along the edge. I wanted to see the moment she came back.

“Sierra. Sssss-airrruh. Ssss-sss …”

Her voice sounded like air. I hated hearing it like that.

“You’re okay,” I told her. “You’re charging.” I held her hand. Her body hummed. I’d never heard it so loud before, like a refrigerator.

The more I remember, the more I remember.

When she could speak, she told me about a dream. A bright and noisy place. She said the voices were kind, but hard to understand. I nodded along. She’d never told me a dream before. I didn’t even know she had them. In it, she couldn’t feel her legs or arms, but she felt cold air on her head, the sense of being exposed. Then the dream switched to a long hallway. She could feel her legs now. Around her stood several people. A small woman with dark hair waved her hands, saying, Come, come. You can do it. Good boys and girls, come, come.

“I thought you couldn’t understand the people?”

“Oh.” Kim laughed. “I was wrong.”

“That’s dream logic,” I said. “Things that don’t make sense in real life are suddenly not a problem.”

“Dream logic,” Kim repeated, then: “Drink water. Drink, drink.”

“You want water?” I asked.

“Pam was right.”

“Who’s Pam?”

“The more I remember, the more I remember.”

She closed her eyes. Her hand remained in mine. Eventually I fell asleep, forgot all about the bleach. I woke up with my scalp burning and clumps of hair on the bedspread: I had to shave my head.

I go to the coffee shop. I have no pictures. I have not been to the coffee shop in a long time. I ask the new Pam, Have you seen Tim? She says, I do not know Tim. I say, The more I learn, the more I am. She blinks. Then I say, The more I remember, the more I remember. I say it twice. But the new Pam shakes her head. I don’t understand, she says. What is your child’s name? 

I attended a small, women-only liberal arts college a few hours away. Surrounded by woods and mountains, I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me. The other girls with shaved heads felt my scalp in appreciation. Everyone was different in the same ways. Nose piercings, hairy legs, bumper stickers about tolerance and revolution. The social groups were porous and the acceptance was surreal. Drinking became about socializing, not hiding or waiting to escape.

Back home, our parents got Kim a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Sometimes she called me from work, leaving messages about the number of root canals that day or the little kids having their first cleaning. She was telling me about her life. I knew the implication—she wanted to hear about mine. But I never called.

Our parents told me they’d found her unconscious a few times. Her battery too low. Once she’d even passed out during dinner, slumping to the floor in the middle of a sentence.

“She needs your engagement,” our mother said. “We’re putting her on a bus.”

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