My sister has turned into a bag lady. There's no getting around it. That's how she looks as she gets off the plane, dressed in an old knit hat pulled down to the tops of her eyeglasses, a too-big man's coat and orthopedic shoes. She gives me a tight hug, hurting my neck with her stiff-armed grip, and heads for the baggage pickup area. She has no time for idle chitchat. There's a suitcase to retrieve. For this, I used up one of my sick days from work.
We get in the car, and I turn on the radio as soon as we're rolling. Susie's lips begin to move, and I crank up the sound a little. I don't like to listen to her talk to herself. I don't like to hear the strange things she says, and, I suppose, she's entitled to her privacy.
It's an hour to the retirement center where Mom lives now. I turn off the engine before Susie expects it, and her monologue runs over. ...sack of shit, I hear her say.
Mom is so happy to see her. She hugs Suzie and tries to find a place for us to sit. All the chairs in Mom's little room are covered with stacks of magazines, mostly supermarket tabloids or celebrity gossip rags. Mom can't read any more, but she likes the pictures.
Susie removes her coat and hat. Her hair is dirty, and she wears it in a braid down her back. Her plaid shirt clashes with her striped pants. Mom asks her, as she always does, why she doesn't wash her hair more often. I don't say anything. Mom's trousers are on backwards. The two of them are starting to be a matched set. I would kill for a Coke.
We try to have conversation, exchange personal news. There really isn't any; we talk to each other at least once a week. But it's too early to go to lunch.
"Do you remember John Sparks?" Susie asks mom. "He's in my group at school. Do you remember him? You danced with him at the last Family Weekend." Susie peers at Mom through her thick glasses. The frames are cheap-looking. We have to replace them so often, we don't get the good kind any more. The Voices keep telling her to throw them out.
"John who?" my mother asks.
"You danced with him, remember? He had a limp."
"Did you go to a dance? When was that, Honey?"
"No, Mom, you danced—last year at the Family Weekend."
"Whose family? When was that?"
"Last year, Mom. Anyway, he had surgery on his hip."
"Surgery? When did you have surgery?"
"Oh, never mind."
Maybe it's not too early to go to lunch.
We sit in the corner booth at Applebee's. She reads over every word in the menu and finally orders, as I knew she would, the Veggie Patch pizza and a milkshake. She always orders the same thing. She says the food at school is OK, but there's not enough pizza. We call it her School, like she's going to college or something, but it's really a group home for schizophrenics. Mom orders spaghetti and when it comes tries to eat it with her spoon. I take the spoon away and give her the fork, making sure the tines are turned the right way. Susie sits stiffly, staring at nothing, her eyes dilated and her lips moving. She eats mechanically, wiping her mouth with her napkin between each bite.
I wipe spaghetti sauce off Mom's hand and sleeve and ask Susie what she's been up to. She shrugs and says she's too tired to do much.
"I just stay in my room and watch my videos. And write."
"What do you write?" Mom asks. Don't ask, I silently beg her, you know what she writes. Susie's face clicks shut.
"How about dessert?" I say brightly, and they perk up. They both order ice cream sundaes, despite the fact Susie has already had a milkshake. She has an insatiable void she keeps trying to fill.
"I'm getting married in August," Susie announces. "To Tony Poletti."
"Tony Poletti who goes to my church?" I ask. "Don't you think that will be quite a surprise to his wife?"
"She isn't really his wife."
"Whose wife?" Mom asks.
"Tony Poletti's wife," I say. "And what about his five kids?"
"I like kids."
"Whose kids?" Mom asks.
"Tony Poletti's kids," I say. "Is it going to be a white wedding? Can I be the maid of honor?" I shouldn't egg her on this way. Dr. Cavanaugh says when she makes outrageous statements, the best thing is to let them lie, but honestly, sometimes it's so funny I just have to laugh. Besides, I have so few hobbies.
Susie gets pissed. "I am getting married to Tony in August, and then we are going to live on an Indian Reservation in Arizona with my tribe!"
It's interesting how just two or three decibels of sound can take a voice from normal to attention-getting loud. The women at the next table start to snicker.
"Susie," I say in my quiet, slightly sad voice designed to induce guilt. She puts her glasses back on. "It's time to take Mom home." Susie helps wipe Mom's hands and face, solicitously takes her to the Ladies' Room, and waits patiently while I pay the bill.
"What did you say?" Mom asks. We're in the car and Mom always makes me turn off the radio when she's with me. Susie's voice has been soft, but not soft enough. "Are you talking to yourself again?"
"Yes, Mom," Susie says tiredly. "I do that." Mom asks her again what she said and Susie refuses to reply. I reach over and press Mom's hand and she shuts up, but she fidgets restlessly when we hear the soft hiss of Susie's whispers.
We take Mom back to her room. It's time for Suzie's medicine, and I watch her take the pills—orange, green, pink. Anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, anti-convulsant. I have another Coke, my own drug of choice. Susie is restless, not interested in the photo albums Mom wants to show us. I wish Mom would put them away. It depresses me to see the old pictures of Susie as a cheerleader, a high school graduate, with her first car. Susie reminds me I promised to take her to the mall to get more notebooks.
"What you need to get," Mom admonishes her, "is some clothes. There's plenty of money in your account. You should buy yourself some nice things. Get some pretty Spring clothes while you're here." Susie's bottom lip thrusts out, and I intervene.
"Well, there's lots of stores to choose from at the mall, Mom. I'm sure Susie can find whatever she wants." I peek at Susie from under my bangs. She half-smiles back. It's the old game of Us vs. Authority. When we get to the store, Susie buys Native American music and videos. I buy her a pair of silver and turquoise earrings as a gift. Susie's most prevalent delusion is she is a Cherokee native. I don't know why.
In the electronics section, her attention is pulled to a box with a picture of a CD player. The box is brightly colored in a geometric pattern, and she stares at it. We stand there for almost 10 minutes. I pretend I'm looking for some elusive cassette. Her lips move, and she suddenly laughs loudly. "Susie!" I whisper harshly, and she turns towards me. Her expression is flat, but she behaves, and we walk over to the stationery supplies. She loads up on notebooks, the 5-subject kind only, and buys dozens of pens. A woman goes by with a baby in her shopping cart, and Susie looks after her, eyes suddenly filled with tears. Concerned, I touch her arm.
"It's not true," she whispers. "I'm not a whore, like she says."
"That woman didn't say anything, Suze." I pat her arm. Sometimes I can't stand the things the Voices say to her. "I know you're a good person."
Susie slowly pushes the cart. She rests her elbows and forearms on the handle and hunches her shoulders. Gradually she works her way into her CP walk, hands twisted and curled, one foot dragging. She doesn't really have cerebral palsy, and it irritates me when she does this.
"If you're too tired, we should go home," I warn her. She straightens up. Hurrying now, she throws M&Ms, caramel corn and soft drinks into the cart. We're almost done. One last item, henna rinse, and we can go to the checkout stand. I look at my manicure with regret; it will be ruined by tonight's haircoloring job.
My husband is already home when we get there. He has started dinner for me and has gotten the kids to set the table. I must be looking a little wild-eyed by now—he's overly hearty in his greetings to Susie. All the shopping bags go to her room with her, and I know she won't come out again until she's called. My husband offers me an aspirin.
We finish fixing dinner, and I put away laundry while the children play outside. When I walk past her room, I can hear Susie talking loudly. You look so gorgeous! she says, but not to me.
Susie has two helpings of everything at dinner and three glasses of iced tea. My older daughter begins wiping her mouth with her napkin after every bite, and my younger daughter begins to snicker.
I give them a fierce look, and they giggle at each other. I can't make them stop without drawing their behavior to Susie's notice. I can feel the anger turn white behind my eyeballs. God, when I think of all those times on the junior high school bus, when some stupid kid would be giving me a hard time, and Susie would stand up for me, and now I can't even protect her from being mocked by my own children.
"Leave the table!" I mouth at them, and they sober up. Sometimes, I hate kids.
Susie's eyes gleam, and she has an enormous smile on her face. I often picture her Voices as being like someone standing right behind her shoulder, whispering in her ear. When she smiles like this, I think one of the Voices must be telling her in-jokes, like having your own private David Letterman. She laughs out loud, and the kids stare at her and then at me.
Sometimes I hate Susie.
It's bedtime, and I'm exhausted. Susie spent most of the evening in my bedroom with the door shut, watching her new videos on my TV. This makes my husband antsy, but it's better than trying to make conversation with her. I tell him about the Tony Poletti story.
"What do you think she'll do when August comes?" he asks. I just shrug. Susie always finds a reason why these fantasies don't come true. My husband leaves, and I clean up the mess from the henna rinse. Susie comes into the kitchen, admiring her newly darkened hair in a hand mirror.
"Remember the time I cut your hair?" she asks. I laugh. It had been a classically botched job. Susie holds one lock of her hair up at an angle and smirks at me. I laugh again, then snort accidentally. We both crack up, and I remind her of the time the family was on a trip, and she kept farting so bad, we all had to roll down the car windows, despite a driving rain. We're laughing so hard, my husband comes to see what's the matter. Just as he walks in, Susie cuts a fart—a real cheek-slapper—and we practically fall down on the floor, crying with laughter. My husband just shakes his head and walks out of the room.
"Oh brother," I say, "those were the good old days, weren't they?" We hug each other goodnight. I am still giggling a little as I go down the hall. When I look back, Susie is staring at herself in the hall mirror. Her lips are moving. I stop laughing.
A family friend has offered to have Susie spend Saturday with her. I gratefully accept, and Susie is happy to go. I do my usual Saturday chores—laundry, cleaning, shopping. I remember to get Mom's drycleaning and her special diet soda. I pay the bills. I write checks for Mom's bills out of her account, and I write checks for Susie's bills out of a special trust account.
Susie comes home all happy and excited. Our friend, Loretta, has had an idea. What about taking Susie to the beach this summer? I explain Susie's school offers trips to various places, but Susie always declines.
"That's because she doesn't want to go with the others at the school. She wants to go with her family! Why don't you just rent a cottage for a week? You could bring your Mother, too." I stare at Loretta. Have you lost your mind? Then I remember, Loretta's the one who had the hot idea of the henna rinse two years ago, and now every time Susie comes home, I have to go through the whole mess.
"It would be great!" Susie enthuses. She squeezes my son around his shoulders. "I could play on the beach and help you guys make sandcastles. I have enough money," she suddenly pleads with me. "I could pay my own way."
I stare at her. I think maybe I have died and gone to hell. How can I tell her no? But how can I tell her yes? I remember other times, trips that turned into fiascos. The time Susie locked herself in the gas station bathroom and wouldn't come out for two hours. The poor guy in Toronto she accused of raping her.
I give a dirty look to Loretta. "I don't think Mom could go. Can you just see her trying to walk on the beach with her cane?" Loretta looks back at me blandly.
"Well, just take your sister," she concedes.
"Thanks for having Suze over," I say and take Loretta's elbow, guiding her to the door. She smiles at me, and I pinch her arm and give her a fierce look. "Sorry you can't stay," I say, and I refrain from pushing her down the steps.
I turn back to Susie. She still has her arm around my son's shoulders. He makes a comic face at me, and she grins smugly. The dryer buzzer sounds and I go to the laundry room, where I pull clothes out of the machine like I'm pulling hair. Damn it, damn, damn, damn.
"I can cut it myself!"
Mom grabs the knife from Susie and starts sawing away at her steak. It would seem more defiant if she didn't have the blade turned wrong side up. Susie sighs loudly and frowns at her soft drink. I look out the window.
"That was a pretty good movie," Susie says. "I liked the actor who played the boyfriend."
"Now which one was the boyfriend again?" Mom asks. The blonde one, I tell her.
"I thought the blonde was a girl."
"That was the other blonde. Geez, Mom, the blonde with the deep voice was the boyfriend."
Susie grins at me. I roll my eyes, and we both laugh a little. Mom slept through most of the movie anyway—there is no way to fill her in on the whole thing now. We finish our meal and take Mom home. As we turn to go, Mom hugs Susie tightly.
"Have a safe trip," she murmurs into Susie's neck. "See you in August." We walk down the hall and turn back to look at Mom in the doorway of her room. She looks small and crumpled.
We get in the car, and I ask Susie how Mom seems to her.
"Pretty good, considering." Susie reaches to turn the radio on, but I stop her. Does she see much change in Mom?
"Yes, of course I do. What do you want me to say?" She reaches for the radio again, and I allow her to turn it on. Her voice whispers and mutters just below comprehension level. When I stop at a red light, I hear hate her and I wonder whether she's talking about me or Mom. Or God knows whom.
We walk into the darkened house. Susie asks for something cold to drink, and I pour it for her.
"I could get married, you know," she says, her eyes flickering over at me. "I have money, and I could get married and move into Mom's old house."
I lean against the counter and fold my arms. I look her straight in the eye and ask if Tony Poletti is still her man.
She shrugs and pouts. "I just want a family. You have one. Why can't you understand I want one. I can take care of kids." She looks at me slyly. "I know how to make a man happy. You think I don't."
Zing! The blood jumps inside me.
"I could help with Mom," she whines. "Let me move home, and I'll take care of her. She wouldn't have to live at the retirement center any more, and you wouldn't have to sell the house."
I'm so tired. I go into the living room and lie on the couch. Susie follows me, hammering away at her theme, her fists clenched. "It's not fair!" she shouts. "I'm the oldest. You can't always tell me what to do!"
"Fine," I tell her. "Do what you want. In fact, I'll trade places with you. I'll go to your school and go on all those trips you don't want to make and have someone cook and clean for me. You stay here. You take care of Mom. Fill out all those insurance forms. Take her to all her doctor appointments, do her taxes. Keep the damn house. Just be sure to get the exterminator over there soon—there's an infestation of spiders! And don't forget, you'll need to keep Mom's medicines straight—she takes 14 pills a day." I swing my legs over the edge of the couch and sit up. "And when she dies, you can have the pleasure of doing all the funeral arrangements like I did for Dad. Be my guest!" I spit at her. "Believe me, I'll be happy to go back to my rightful place as the spoiled brat baby sister!"
"Just do me one favor," I yell as I leap to my feet. "Don't be asking me for any help. I've done it for ten years. I'll be fucking glad to let you take the next ten!"
Susie stands there blinking. She opens her mouth, but before she can say anything, my husband comes into the room.
"That's enough!" he yells. "You two just stop it! Just shut the hell up!"
Susie stalks off to her room. I shut myself in the bathroom, waiting to stop shaking. Finally, I climb into bed, and my husband puts his arms around me. "Rebecca, you can't go on like this," he says sharply, but I know his anger is over his inability to help. That is when I start to cry, choking and shuddering until he almost gives up trying to calm me. Finally, I wipe my eyes and try to sleep. I can't sleep, of course, and just stare into the darkness, consumed with grief, guilt and self-pity
Sunday morning, and we go to church. Susie sits up straight and alert. She likes going to Mass. After Mass, several of the parishioners who remember Susie stop to say hello. She basks in the attention, and I watch to see if she gives Tony Poletti a special greeting. He gives her one of his usual bear hugs, and she smiles beatifically at him. If he only knew, I think, and I have to hide my grin.
We have lunch at home, cooking hamburgers on the grill. Susie sits on the swing, gazing at the fields below our house. I'm busy setting the picnic table and helping with the food, but I watch her. Her back is slumped. One foot trails back and forth as the swing moves. She'll never have a normal life. She'll never have a husband or a baby. Her only real friend is the one who whispers in her ear, but it is a fickle friend, quick to turn on her.
"Look at my new baseball glove," my son says and shows her his finest possession.
"I used to play baseball," she tells him. He gives her a skeptical look, and she assures him, "Yes, and I roller-skated and rode my bike. I used to do lots of things." She turns and looks at me, and I find I have to go into the house for a minute.
I drive her to the airport. The radio is on low, and Susie's whispers hiss without pause. She is in high gear once we get there, loping through the airport, checking her luggage, displaying the school-issued identification badge to the gate agent at the counter. She has no driver's license any more, and it used to embarrass her to have to wear her ID on a chain around her neck, but today she flashes it around like a boy with his first moustache.
We have to wait. We arrived too early. She taps her fingers on her purse. I leaf through a magazine.
Finally, I say it. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I know it's hard for you to always have to be away from home."
She looks at me. Her eyes are dilated, and her lips are moving. Then she focuses on me and smiles. She has a very sweet smile.
"It's ok. I know I'm better off at school. It's just sometimes I want things, you know?"
I have no answer. There is no answer. The agent announces the boarding of Susie's flight, and Susie turns to me for a hug. I fumble as I give her the little travel case and drop my purse. Susie picks it up and gently puts the strap back on my shoulder, smoothing my collar. Then we hug, and she trudges off to the plane. I often wonder what her fellow passengers make of her whispering to herself. Maybe they just think she's a white-knuckle flier.
I get into the car to drive home, the radio off, the fresh air sliding through the windows. I think about this morning, cleaning out the room Susie used, the dozens of crumpled pages I fished out of the wastebasket, covered with her deeply slanting scrawl. I love you I will be with you, have a chip on your shoulder, don't you. We will live together and I will be Indian too damned devil worshipper I will cook I will marry an Indian brave we will be married in August there is no reason to blame me, why do you blame me! I can drive I can be good wife grandmother of all...
I know I shouldn't read these letters. They are so filled with a combination of longing and madness, they tear me up. I wonder if they help her to hold it together in public by letting it out in private.
Tomorrow I go back to my nice, orderly office. Susie will return in three months, and we'll have good times and bad times. I try not to mourn for the sister I once had. I deal with the sister I've got, and she, in her own way, deals with me. I guess that's about par for the course.