Jan/Feb 2017  •   Fiction

Fear of Heights

by Lyn Stevens

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

This is the story of my sister, Geneva, and her struggles with love. All the fantasies and the confusion. The highs and the lows. The reason I'm telling you her story is because I'm trying to understand what the big deal is.

Geneva met Guy #1 at a party in a dive bar in the east village. Like Geneva, everyone there was a mid-to-late 20-something. Geneva is a model, model tall, with a magic mix of Asian black crescent eyes, Irish skin, and silky burnt orange hair. I, the younger sister, am the pudgy polar opposite. Pug nose, frizzy hair, a thunderstorm of freckles and little Asian hands and feet, which happens in families more often than you would think. That night at the bar, I was barely nineteen. Geneva hated bars for reasons that would bother any model, but Gary, our brother, the promotor, said he needed bodies and would give her and her friends free drinks if she brought "some chicks." (Gary turned out completely Asian-looking, a math genius who generally pimped himself out in heavy jewelry and unbuttoned shirts.)

Guy #1 knew one of the rappers Gary had hired, and Geneva's friends knew a friend of his from high school. Soon after they arrived, the two groups of friends feathered in towards each together. According to Geneva, NYC public high school is six degrees of separation. Me, I'd been sent away for high school my senior year to Tradewinds, a residential boarding school for troubled teens / boot camp in Maine (the liberal) state, definitely a smart move on my parent's part. Except for one thing: Tradewinds supplied me with a lethal combination of carbs and meds. And with that kind of weight gain, my girls parts, boobs and waist that is, had disappeared. Anyway, it was way too scary to be a girl when you're screwed up and everyone around you is also screwed up. So I started calling myself Glenn and insisted other people do the same. My mother claimed I didn't know how to differentiate between gender identity and sexual preference. She insisted it was just a phase, which made it all the more confusing, so I stopped wearing extra-large black T-shirts, let my crew cut grow out, and simply gave up.

I may not be destined for a bright future, but I had a good side view of Guy #1 from my perch six stools away and made him immediately—backwards sunglasses, Converse, L train rider, computer techie/musician. Your basic hipster. It took a while trying to grab her attention away from her friends, but he was tenacious. I saw Geneva's face go from annoyed to cool to interested, the layers peeling away. I watched him get drinks and hand her hers first, how when they were facing each their bodies froze like primates fixated on each other. Then the bar got too crowded for me to see shit.

At 5:30 AM there were a half dozen hard core drinkers left and a few band members in the corner packing up their instruments. I was still glued on the same stool stirring my third ginger ale. Gary's hassling over numbers with the owner, and Guy #1 wanders over, hops up to the stage, and all of us prick up our ears. He's on the electric keyboard singing a Sam Smith style song about how he's got to see Geneva tonight, tomorrow, and the day after that, it's neither or all. Neither or all, neither or all, he croons, and Geneva is smiling her face off. Before the song ended I could tell she was going to go to his shitty apartment in Williamsburg and they were going to stand on the fire escape naming constellations until the sun rose. Sure enough, Geneva stuck me in an Uber and paid the driver extra to make sure he watched me get in the door.

Some background: Geneva was started on ballet lessons when she was 11 years old while I was started on meds at four, my mother too old to have had me, too impatient for my tantrums and learning disabilities. We were never close. As children, we hated each other. By the time they let me out of Tradewinds, Geneva had signed with IMG Model Management (3rd highest rated agency in NYC) and moved out of the house. Success softened her because after my short stint at a sober house, she let me move into her apartment, mainly I think to keep our parents from freaking out. She also came with me to church when I found Jesus (I lost him a few months later) and flirted with the manager at Bed, Bath & Beyond on Sixth Avenue to get me a job. Now that I'm back in the city and reformed, I spend an inordinate amount of time staring over someone else's Candy Crush game on the subway, wrapped up in my own head.

So I was right about Williamsburg but wrong about the job. Guy #1 dressed store windows for Ralph Lauren, which meant he had taste, despite the sunglasses-on-the-back-of-his-head thing. He drove her around the city on his scooter, she in a miniskirt, her orangey spun-gold hair flying out of the helmet like a TV ad. He was, Geneva's words, not mine, beguiling, but the relationship was a soap opera: fighting, making up, fighting, making up, fighting. The whole apartment shook when she argued with him. What did they fight about? Him showing up at a runway show in flip flops, her refusal to go hiking (ticks), her refusal to go swimming (sharks), his lack of ambition about his music career, our mother, the weather, politics, religion. She fell deep into the passion well until one day about one year into the relationship, they had the ultimate bomb exploding fight and he told her to go fuck a duck.

A few nights after the eruption, Geneva's two best friends, a model with scary black lipstick and a New School sociology major, like G, came over to cheer her up and got shitfaced in our living room. They told her it was time to get on with her life. We'll make you a great dating profile, they said, and they went online. Splayed out on the couch with her amazing model legs, barely conscious from too many tequilas, she didn't protest. They were coy with her profile, dropping in words like witty, adventurous, fearless, and clever and places like Cutting Room, Mercury Lounge, Underland. A few photos was all it took before replies flooded in.

Guy #2: 35, ambitious, competitive and hard-driven to succeed. Guy #2 was as slick as a salesman. Turns out he was a salesman. He wanted to settle down. He wanted a house with a pool, a fire pit, and a gazebo in the backyard. After her first date, G told me everything I needed to know. "He isn't an asshole," she said. "He's kind, and he adores me." I could tell the primal fixation stance had been missing when she told me her love could grow if she let it. Then she added, "He wants babies. I want babies!" and her eyes were luminous.

Things heated up quickly with Guy #2. Apparently, he wasn't adventurous or witty or fearless or clever, but neither was Geneva. So much for online truth. Once they discovered that about each other, it brought them closer. Guy #2 knew things about her no one else knew, not just things like she was afraid of heights, but that she was afraid of cunnilingus because some jerk had once sucked on her a little too hard down there.

She said it wasn't infatuation or lust. The feelings were simple and pure. They wandered around Ethan Allen looking at furniture, went to the theater, the Philharmonic, the ballet, ate at Bobby Flays and drank at the Boathouse—mature things, things that made her feel like Princess Kate. She brought him to her photo shoots on Seventh Avenue, and he took her to tag sales in Elmsford. What treasures she found! Here was an authentic adult.

Then Guy #1 returned. At first it was just a whole lot of texts. Then emails. When she finally agreed to talk to him on the phone, he told her he hadn't really meant to break up with her. Could he see her just once, go for a walk, that's all. So polite and understanding.

This was when Geneva's adulterous adult phase began. That is to say, she was dating both of them at the same time. I'd been the insomniac in the family, but when she, too, started wandering the apartment at three AM, I knew it was tearing her up.

I've heard people don't like stories with bars in them. Unfortunately, this one has two because a couple of days later, I'd just walked in from work when Geneva asked me to go out with her to have a drink.

"Please. I've got to get out of this house. I need to talk to someone, and you're the most un-judgmental person I know. Everybody else is taking sides."

"Is it Guy #1 or Guy #2?"

"It's both," she said, gravely. "Please, Gwen."

I shed my BB&B apron and dropped a stack of 20-percent-off coupons on the table in our foyer. "Drinking screws up my meds. And I don't eat Mexican because the doctor says I shouldn't eat spicy food. I've learned how to take care of myself."

"Well, then, have a ginger ale," said Geneva.

We trekked over to Greystones a few blocks away. All the booths were taken. Geneva wanted to leave since guys would be hitting on her if we sat at the bar, but the only other place around us was a Mesa-something-or-other one block east and Casa-something-or-other one block west, so I talked her into staying. Geneva ordered a Cobb salad and martini. I went for the double bacon cheeseburger, well done fries and ginger ale.

"It's not like we're exclusive," said Geneva. I couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement, or whether she was talking to me or herself. "Guy #1 is so opinionated, and we're so misaligned."


"And Guy #2 is so transparent. All he talks about is his job. He's the kind of man who's going to have to mow his lawn every Saturday or he'll go crazy."


The drinks arrived the same time as some jerk with a Jesus beard tried cozying up to Geneva.

"Do you have a map? I'm getting lost in your eyes," he said.

"Can't you see we're in the middle of something really important!" I shouted.

She sucked down her martini and turned to me, those black eyes blurred with tears. This was more than despondency. Geneva was being tortured. Geneva, Diva I sometimes call her, but still... She's always been the more stable sister.

My big fat burger arrived on a bed of greens, with two half sour pickles, a Barbie-sized pot of coleslaw and plump, greasy fries. It's a good thing my mouth isn't as small as my hands and feet.

"The strategist would know what to do," I said, reaching for the ketchup.

"Mom? Mom would tell me to have as much sex as I could with both of them and then say good riddance. She'd say never commit to anyone."

"Yep, that sounds just like mom." The chink in my armor, no pun intended.

Once when we were about 7, 14, and 19, we piled in the car to go to Grandma Sun's in Fort Lee for Thanksgiving, and I had to pee real badly, but mom kept telling me to hold it. With traffic so bad, my bladder turned into a golden Buddha. Maybe it was seeing all that water under the GW, but somewhere on Route 4, I decided to pee in my pants just to get back at her. It was Geneva who offered to run into 7-11 to buy baby wipes and help clean me up. Daughter #1: Angel of Mercy. Daughter #2: Pee girl. I wore a sweater wrapped around my waist with nothing underneath that Thanksgiving dinner. It was also the day I discovered how awesome it felt it touch myself down there.

"Hey, what about Daddy?" I said to Geneva.

Our parents divorced when I was five, so I don't remember any of that, but Geneva took it very hard. Daddy is an EMT, and he fell in love with a burn victim. Luckily for Geneva, that relationship faded years ago. Now the three of us visit him on all major holidays.

"Daddy will only tell me to follow my heart. The thing is, I could never live with Guy #1. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor. His roommates smoke pot. Last week Ralph Lauren fired him."

"Ralph Lauren, the person?"

"No, you idiot, the company."


"Anyway, he couldn't care less about money, but worst of all, he won't commit to anything."

I looked down at my plate. The cheeseburger was so humongous, it was hard to bite into it without everything oozing out, but that didn't stop me from trying or Geneva from talking.

"My two best friends are in serious relationships. One of them is engaged. People are moving out of the city."

And I just moved back, I thought. But I kept my mouth stuffed with french fries. As I've told you, this isn't about me. Why bother with either of them? I thought.

"Hey, how's the sex? That could be a deciding factor. Tell me everything, G," I said.

She lowered her voice and leaned towards me. "Guy #2 loves kissing me. We make out like teenagers. The first time I got into bed and got naked, he starts touching me, moving his hands over my body, but I couldn't do it. And I don't know if it was because of Guy #1 or because Guy #2 wasn't really Mr. Right."

Clasping my ginger ale, I leaned towards her. "And now?"

"Now we make love all the time," she said, sat up straight and clinked her glass on mine.

My french fries had vanished. I gained a lot of weight at the residence for troubled teens in Maine-the-liberal-state. I still can't get used to eating healthy, but I think it's more important to work on being sociable and making myself appealing to people.

"What do you want me to say?" Geneva continued. "He's okay. They're both okay."

"Head banging okay? I asked.

"No, it's not like that at all," she leaned in again. "Guy #1 loves my tits and Guy #2 loves my tongue," whispered Geneva.

Suddenly it felt like a lightbulb was under my sweats, glowing in my snatch.

I turned to face her. "Do they both make you creamy?" I whispered.

Geneva sat up straight and stuck out her tongue. "I'm trying to be serious. Guy #1 loves sex. I mean what guy doesn't, but with him it's the talking that's more passionate. He makes me laugh. He says things like the 'the elbows are the frontier of romance.'"

I pictured Geneva naked, sliding around on satin sheets at the Pierre and discreetly slid my hand down the front of my sweats. This talk was getting more interesting.

"Did you have to undress him? Did you take off his belt and pull down his pants, get down on your knees?"

I used to sleep with anyone who would give me pills, though I never got off with other people. I'm on the fence about sex but could topple over to either the man or woman side, if one of them could catch me. Now listening to her I was getting that sensation like maybe I could get off. I took a bite out of my burger and felt the ketchup run down my chin. I brushed my hand across my lightbulb.

"Stop that," she snapped at me and pulled my hand out of my pants.

"Your sex life makes me so hot," I said.

"You are a total pervert," she said, baring her teeth at me.

We sat in silence for about a minute. My burger had vanished, and so had my chances of a climax. Geneva waved her hand at the bartender and ordered her second martini.

Another jerk sidled up next to Geneva, and I heard him say, "Are you a parking ticket? 'Cause you've got fine written all over you."

I shoved Geneva forward in her chair, leaned back and turned to face him. An older guy, Hispanic, well-groomed mustache.

"Fuck off," I said, baring my teeth, and he, too, vanished.

Geneva looked at me with that model's half smile of hers.

"I think I need another martini," she said.

"If only you could smush your two guys together," I said, crunching on a piece of ice.

"If only," said Geneva.


She broke up with Guy #1 in a Turkish restaurant, told me the smell of the lamb and garlic was incredible, the bread like manna from heaven. During the first course she reminded him she was dating other men.

"I'm dating," she said.

"I know," he said. "You've been telling me that for weeks. Has Mr. Right met your mom? Because until then I still want to see you," he told her.

Nothing she said was working. She was beside herself. Finally they were eating some honey-soaked pastry and she went all desperado. She told Guy #1 that Guy #2 had asked her to marry him, and she was giving it serious thought. A total lie, and my sister never lies.

"What did he say?" I wanted to know.

He told me I could pay the check and to go fuck the duck again and stomped out into the pouring rain.

"I don't know. I feel a little relieved," she added. She didn't look relieved. She looked like she'd been run over by a truck.

Believe it or not, Guy #2 asked her to marry him on her 27th birthday. Guy #2 had actually called me and asked what I thought, if she would say yes. He also called Gary, my mother, and Daddy. That's the kind of good egg he was. We all said the same thing. "Ask her, you moron." I advised him to make the proposal splashy. "Surprise her!" Maybe I was secretly hoping that would turn her off since Geneva hates surprises. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't jealous. G's got to live her own life. I'd be fine on my own, thank you. I have enough to concentrate on just staying sober and getting off at the right subway stop without getting mixed up in someone else's Candy Crush.

It happened at the Highline Ballroom (yes, another freakin' bar). Gary had set the thing up. Apparently Guy #2 got on stage, grabbed a mic, and proposed. "Yes! Yes!" she screamed, flying up to the stage and nearly tripping in her stilettos, blinded by a ring the size of an ashtray. Maybe she was worn out from sharing her apartment with me or putting up with Guy #1 and his shitty Williamsburg walk-up. Who really knows? My theory: underneath those exotic looks and glamorous career, Geneva was as conventional as American cheese. She wanted a ring the size of an ashtray and a house with a fire pit in the backyard, preferably in Larchmont or Scarsdale. I pictured her future: identical twin girls called Daisy and Maisie or Ann and Jan and me, Auntie Gwen, the doting mental nutcase. I pictured it all the way through the affair and the MyDivorce.com application, but I hugged her just the same when she burst forth with the wonderful news.

We were in the bridal suite, mom on a chair fidgeting with Geneva's crown of tiny flowers, Geneva standing in front of a three-way mirror pondering her fate, Scary Black Lipstick (Bridesmaid #1) and Sociology Major (Bridesmaid #2) flitting around her. I, being Bridesmaid #3, was seated on the loveseat diagonally behind them while Geneva's agent balanced thoughtfully on the armrest, leg's crossed. He was named either Peter or Paul, extremely gay, a Guy/Girl, if you will.

The wedding dress had a low cut bodice and a skirt as full as a moon. A giant satin bow wrapped around her size zero waist, hugging her back. Some famous designer made it, and our mother willingly paid a famous designer price. Suddenly my simple red chiffon shift/slip type dress started to itch under my arms. Oh, don't think for a moment I was jealous. A dress like Geneva's was as good as a straight jacket on me.

"Do you think there's such a thing as a soulmate?" I asked no one in particular, trying to forget about the itch. "I mean if someone seems right for you, but you're not sure they're your soulmate, what do you do? Do you just keep looking? What if there's no such thing as a soulmate?"

"Not now, Gwendolyn," said my mom. I began to yank on the zipper, trying to get the dress off, which was when Gary, her manager, and Daddy walked in, all of them with glasses of champagne in their hands. Despite Gary's chains, they all looked so swag, decked out in black, collarless shirts and black tuxes.

Geneva rushed into Daddy's arms. She was always yearning for his approval. All she ever wanted to be was Daddy's girl.

"Whoa," he said. "This is expensive champagne," and opened his arms to receive her hug.

After more hugs and nods to Mom and the agent, Daddy and Gary lit up cigars and my mother went all Tiger Mom on us.

To Daddy: "Brian, put out those disgusting cigars this instance!"

To me: "Take your hand out of your armpit and grow up, Gwendolyn!"

She managed to scare the living daylights out of all of us.

It's a good thing the agent was there to break the silence.

"Darlings, time to get this show on the road," he said, wrestling the crown of tiny flowers from Mom and placing it on Geneva's gorgeous head.

It may have been a big dress, but it was a small wedding with about 75 guests on the rooftop of 230 Fifth Avenue. Gary had worked out a deal with the owner. In theory it had been a grand idea: the horizon would be glittering with skyscrapers set against a hot pink June sunset. But the night was foggy and damp, not to mention how insane it was to have a wedding on a rooftop, though maybe Geneva was trying to get over all her fears at once.

The procession started with Scary Black Lipstick and Sociology Major walking arm in arm with G's manager and agent. Through the open door, I could see the audience and the minister at the end of a petal-strewn, red carpet runway. The next thing I know, Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" is swelling and Gary takes my hand in his. Fear attacks me from all sides. A riotous mix of danger, panic, and disgust. I looked down at our hands: Gary's with so many rings it looked like he had on brass knuckles, and me with my small white-knuckles, and all I could do was let go, turn, and run.

"Get back here," hissed Geneva.

"Let her go," said Mom, and off I went. Looking for a quick escape route, I got to the elevator and rode down, my ears popping, wishing and praying for some Clonopin or Percocet. Even a Xanax would do. On the ground floor I passed a set of open doors and gathered some kind of rehearsal or TV show after-party was taking place. There was all sorts of fanfare surrounding an actress whose name I couldn't remember. Petite, horsey face, three names. I stared at her for a while trying to conjure her name before I remembered what I was doing on the ground floor, found the ladies room, and darted inside. The first thing I did was rip off the damn dress. Then I sat there at the vanity on some plushy chair with the dress pulled to my waist looking down at the small rolls of flesh under my fancy lace bra, wondering if the bra was the culprit. Meanwhile the cocktail hour was in full swing. My mouth watered, imagining strange, tiny hors d'oeuvres, nothing familiar, everything awesome-tasting. Then I imagined the toasts and first dance, a full orchestral version of "All of Me." Cat Deeley would be proud of Geneva and Guy #2.

It was some time later when Geneva burst in, because rap music was pulsing in my head and people were getting down for the night.

"I've been looking everywhere for you. It's a good thing one of Gary's bouncers said he saw you get in the elevator. Are you okay, Gwen?" she said breathlessly.

"Fine, and you?" I said.

"Great," said Geneva, gathering up her skirts to sit on the velvety chair next to me.

"How's the party?" I said.

"Good. Do you realize you're half naked," she said.

Then her phone dinged. Why she had her phone in the slit pocket of her wedding dress, I have no idea.

"Are you going to look to see who it is?" I asked. She leaned forward and looked at herself in the mirror. I looked, too. There's no truer cliché than to say Geneva was the most beautiful bride I've ever seen. Then her phone started to ring.

"Guy #1, I bet. He's probably worried sick," I told her.

She didn't answer. Instead her voicemail picked up. When the phone started up again I couldn't take it. "Answer it already!"

She rummaged through the skirts, pulled it out and put it to her ear.

"Hello?" said Geneva meekly, and then she clicked it off and burst out sobbing.

"You may have to dye your hair blonde to fit in, but you'll have a pool with a cabana and a closet of jewelry and shoes. You'll be popping out babies just like you wanted. Gary and I will visit you and the babies on all major holidays."

She looked up at me with a bucket of tears streaming down her eyes and nose and smiled softly.

Love was definitely something to snag your mental sweater on, I thought. But whatever it meant, this much was obvious—she needed to get in on the act with someone.

"Sarah Jessica Parker," I blurted.


"Never mind."

"I look like hell," she said, leaning into the mirror, sniffling. Geneva could have green slime on her face and vomit in her hair, and she'd still look better than most people on this planet.

I stood up. "This is your wedding day. You coming, or what?"

She cleaned up her face, expertly, I might add. A dozen tissues later, she took one last look at her phone, gathered her dress, stood, and flashed her white, toothy smile. Then she zipped me up.

I never was one of those sweet little girls who dream of their wedding day. I was too much of a wild girl. But I've finally come to realize it's time to refocus and figure out why no one has ever loved me like that.

Bravely, the two of us glided toward the elevator, Geneva in front, me trailing close behind her, following that big satin wedding bow.