by Catherine Con
Your older sister, Diana, writes about food in New York City. She takes small bites, smelling, looking, poking with her fork. She writes 100-word reviews about escargot and blueberry bergamot and foie gras made from ducks raised on sustainable farms. When she visits you in Boston, where you are doing an internship, you take her to a sushi place in Back Bay. You drink green tea from a cup without a handle, burning your fingers. She arranges sashimi and slices of eel on a plate, brushing them with oil so they gleam. She takes photographs.
“Look at this salmon,” she says, “It’s shiny and buttery. Look at this eel. It’s limp and tired and dry.”
You don’t admit that you can’t tell the difference.
She sighs and pushes the fish to one side of her plate. She picks up rice with her chopsticks and drinks more tea, her pinky sticking out. She asks you to describe your spicy tuna rolls the best you can.
“I don’t know,” you say. “I guess they’re good.”
She smells them. Even without putting one in her mouth, she knows what to say about them. Seeing her do this makes you hungrier. You eat more sushi. The wasabi burns your nose.
“We just did an article on Ken Orringer’s new place,” she says. “They make a great clam ceviche.”
“Clam?” you ask. “I thought ceviche was made with fish.”
“Clam,” she says, scribbling on a notepad. “Clam is the new fish.”
Diana is beautiful because she takes her time with colors. Earlier today, you watched her tracing her eyes with a black pencil, similar to what you did in a charcoal drawing class once. Then she applies three different shades of brown eye shadow. “Smudge and blend,” she says, “just smudge and blend.” Diana can be overwhelming, up close. Blush with gold shimmer on her cheeks, hair blow-dried to perfection, and then, the finishing touch: her shirt ever-so-slightly un-tucked, as if by accident. Her lips, hair, and skin are glossy, like paint that never dries.
A few months ago she said to you, “Really, if you just waxed, it would make a huge difference.” At first you were hurt. Your mom always says you take these things too personally. But then you tried it. You and Diana both came out of the salon with your eyebrows done. She looked rejuvenated and brighter somehow, but yours were too thin and the skin above your eyes was smooth and red and shiny, like the steaks that your father used to buy at the supermarket.
“Hurts like hell,” you said.
“Beauty is pain,” she said.
You still know that she is prettier than you. All your life it has been that way. She’s the pretty one, you’re the smart one. You’re also the nice one. You repeat this to yourself every time you begin to resent her. You remember how once, when you were younger, she told you that if you weren’t sisters, you probably would not be friends. Things are different now, though, because she’s sick.
The next morning you walk her to the station and she complains that it’s cold. She is wearing a skirt meant for summer, with yellow stockings. When you hug, she shivers, and you can feel her backbone beneath her cardigan. And then off she goes, and you lie on your bed and listen to the same song eleven times. At the station, she has probably bought herself a coffee. No cream, no sugar. You know she doesn’t eat in front of people on public transportation, or anywhere. You should have given her something for the trip, though, just because. An apple, a handful of grapes, something.
It was cold and a little damp last night when you and Diana had disappointing chai from that place in Harvard Square. You sat together and watched the last trickle of students make their way to the library, the stars above just barely visible. You didn’t try to explain constellations, no, not you, that would be cliché, show off-y. Both just stretched your necks and stared and stared, knowing that it was starless nights in New York mostly. You sat on the wide columns not saying anything because you didn’t know what to say, and let your feet dangle over the edge, feeling dangerous, feeling like you could see the whole world from there.
The internship is at the Museum of Fine Arts. You wear a name badge that says Ask Me About Art! but usually people ask you where the restrooms are, or when the wing undergoing renovation is going to open. You like it because it’s quiet, and during your lunch break you wander around the galleries.
The other intern is Blake, a cellist. He’s a tall guy with glasses who wears lots of denim and plaid. When you’re in line for lunch he starts talking about the Mendelssohn Trio, Number 1, Opus something. Chromaticism, syncopation. You don’t get it. He hums a few measures of the first movement, pressing his fingers against his bare forearm as if holding down the strings of his cello. Even though he is touching his own arm, you shiver as if you’ve heard it, and feel it on your skin.
“Anyway,” he says, “How’s your sister doing?”
You think about how she ate ten or twelve grains of rice the last time you saw her. You won’t admit this to anyone else, but you suspect that she throws up the food she has to eat for her job.
“She’s okay,” you say.
“I’m really sorry,” he says, and he looks like he really is. He takes your sandwich from your hand and pays for it. When you drop your napkin, he picks it up, throws it away, and gets another. He does not believe in the five-second rule. Not even for paper products.
That weekend, your dad calls. “I’m organizing the bookcases in the living room,” he says. In the background, you can hear shuffling and then a thud. He’s put you on speakerphone. Since you’ve been in Boston, he’s been taking on home improvement projects: new tiling in the second floor bathroom, wallpaper in the kitchen, and now bookshelves. “Alpha order by genre.”
“Great,” you say.
“Well listen, I don’t want to scare you, but, Diana’s home.”
Diana never goes home except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She gets bored the minute she pulls into the driveway. You realize that this can only mean one thing: This is it. You picture yourself pulling weeds in the front yard, an empty bedroom beside your own. “My God!” neighbors would say softly, and “Terrible.” But you don’t say any of this.
Instead, you ask, “What happened?”
Your father clears his throat even though he doesn’t have to. “Well,” he says, “She fainted the other day. But she seems to be doing much better.”
“Hm,” you say.
He says, “She may have to go in for treatment again.”
Treatment is an entire country away, it seems. It takes just as long to get to California as the UK from where you live. You breathe in, you breathe out. In a magazine, you once read that when you think you’re about to cry, you should think of as many words as possible that start with the same letter, as fast as you can. It’s a distraction technique. You hold the receiver away from your mouth so your father can’t hear you breathing. California, cantaloupe, catharsis, cold, click, calm.
You take a few days off from your internship, writing to your boss with these symptoms: Nausea, starvation, depression, and a diva complex. Then you delete the whole thing and just say you have the flu. At your parents’ home in Western Massachusetts, Diana is waning. She is withering; she is wincing, whining, wallowing. As if to make up for her, you make things: A watercolor painting of the oldest tree in the yard, a tiny elephant made of clay, pencil sketches of your own hands. You make forty-eight Italian wine cookies, molding purple dough into sculptures of people, which you then flatten into imperfect circles, dusting the tops with sugar.
You remember summers on the backyard swing set, and your mother’s voice calling you in after you and Diana caught the first of the fireflies. And now you are painting your family on a large canvas. Your mother with her laughing eyes and apple cheeks. Your father’s quiet gaze and his salt and pepper beard. Diana stands in front of them in her tank top. You paint gold flecks in her green eyes, the way they look when she smiles, her cheeks full and pink, like your mother’s. And of course, you’re beside her, nearly a head shorter, in your denim jacket.
On a magnetic notepad on the refrigerator, your mother records your sister’s lunch: 1 serving of chicken breast and rice. 1 serving of green beans. 1 glass of skim milk. Such food doesn’t sound like anything your sister writes about when she is in New York. When your mother hugs you, the smell of food is on her apron. She has been crying, and she turns away so you can’t see her start again.
Outside, your father mows the lawn. Although he complains about this, you think he must secretly enjoy it, the smell of grass and the solitude, the ritual of it. Later, he comes in for a glass of water and then goes upstairs to watch Argentina play soccer against Real Madrid. When you run up to call him to dinner, you’re surprised to see him looking not at the TV, where Argentina has scored one point and Madrid zero, but down at his hands with his head bowed over his lap. You have never seen your father pray, except at Mass, and even then he will shuffle you all out of the pew one song early so he doesn’t miss a game.
You sit beside him just for a minute and bow your own head, wondering if this will get His attention.
Dinner is pork chops with apples and onions, roasted tomatoes, crusty bread and butter. But Diana won’t eat any of this. She disappears to the bathroom and then comes back to open a can of chicken soup.
At the table, your dad says, “Take that last tomato, Di.”
Diana reaches over and nudges it with her fork. Juice squirts out.
“You can have it,” she says to you.
“No, you eat it.”
She leans towards you. Under the table, she kicks your ankle. “I don’t want it,” she says. You know she can taste it in her mouth already. She knows the ratio of oil to balsamic vinegar, the reason the skin wrinkles when it’s put in the oven. For the first time, you notice the crescent-shaped scar on the back of her hand. You know this means she’s been gagging herself; it’s one of the signs that they tell you to look out for on the internet. You tear your bread into pieces.
“So many Americans don’t get to eat enough vegetables,” your father says. “Mom was working all day in that kitchen.” They are exactly the types of comments the therapist told him to avoid. This has nothing, she had said, absolutely nothing, to do with who eats vegetables or who cooks the food. This is about Diana and Diana only. Your father didn’t agree. Nothing is ever about one person. He swirls the wine in his glass, and a little spills over onto the table. Your mom’s eyes meet yours as she pretends not to notice.
Your father crosses his arms and continues. “I didn’t really eat them when I was a kid. We didn’t have much when I was growing up. They’re expensive.”
Diana says nothing when she gets up to take her dishes to the sink. Her chair scrapes against the floor, and when she runs upstairs to her room, you can hardly hear her steps.
In the morning, you go to Mass with your father. Sunlight streams through the stained glass windows, and you breathe in the smell of incense, the pipe organ so grand that you feel the bass chords in your chest. You expect to feel calm when you enter. Instead, your stomach flutters [with discomfort?]. You don’t know what to do with your hands when everyone is saying the Angelus. The woman beside you extends her hand during the Nicene Creed, eyes closed, and you find yourself wishing you were moved in the same way. Going up for Communion, you think about how your sister refuses to eat bread. You wonder if she would make an exception for the Body of Christ. Your father spends a long time on his knees, his head bent over the pew in front of you.
On the drive home, he mutters, “Why didn’t she do anything to catch herself?”
The night before, your sister had fainted again. Although it happened fast, you saw the moment like a how-to video. She was wearing her glasses and dark blue pajamas, shiny like silk, and did not put her hands out in front of herself to break her fall.
“I don’t know,” you say, but you’re not sure he can hear you with the windows down.
“Eight months, and she hasn’t gotten much better,” he says. “And He knows, I’ve done the best I can.”
Back in Boston, Blake picks you up from the train station. The car radio is turned on low, and he doesn’t bug you when you don’t say anything for the entire ride. Once at home, he begins tuning right there in your living room. All you know is that as he plays, the sound is warm and mellow. Mexico, muffin, milk, moose, mustache, Massachusetts, melt, melancholy. He stops playing and you let out a breath. You don’t clap.
“Well,” he says.
“Magnifying glass,” you say. You meant to say “magnificent,” but the words were coming too fast.
He smiles. “That was the prelude from the Bach Suite in G Major.”
You like the idea of a pre- anything, especially the beginning of something sweet and major.
For dinner, you and Blake walk to Chinatown, which smells of sewers and garlic and things being fried, even after ten at night. You sit in a near-empty restaurant and order. Your nose runs from the spice. Everything is greasy but good, and the woman who brings your food is loud and rude and small, setting each plate down with a clatter and something not unlike a yell. You pick up pan-fried noodles with your chopsticks and get broccoli stuck in your teeth. A steamed whole fish sits in sauce and you pull meat off the tiny bones with chopsticks. When that gets tricky, you go at it with your hands. Afterwards you drink tea in cups without handles and talk about your sister.
You estimate that you’ve eaten more tonight than she has in half a year. You talk about her grace and her poise, her good taste in clothes and food and everything else, but also her habits that haven’t changed since you were in high school: She still carries eyeliner in her purse and reapplies at lunch. She always makes a reservation and insists on being fifteen minutes early. She calls her friends “babe” and your dad “pops.” You never thought you would, but you miss the way she used to stop you at the door to readjust your hair.
Diana goes to treatment. And you worry, and you call your mother, and you pray, not that you mean to but it comes out by accident, scribbled lines in your journal. Please God please, and why God why, and so forth.
You visit Diana when she’s back in New York. She looks better, less sallow–but maybe that’s just foundation. Her roommates throw a party at her place in Brooklyn, and in the kitchen, a table is littered with bottles of wine and baking cups. Diana made cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, and you watch as she takes a single bite–so delicious the corners of her mouth turn up–then gives you the rest.
She licks frosting from her fingers. Want to light a sparkler?” She hands you a lighter. “Let’s go out on the roof.”
Before you can answer, she turns, the heels of her boots smacking the floor. You follow her up the graffiti-covered stairwell.
She pushes the door open against the wind and steps onto concrete. “It’s chilly out here, isn’t it?” she says, taking a few steps towards the view.
You reach out to put your hand on her back, just lightly, but she doesn’t feel it through her coat.
“I’m going to light it now. Ready?” you say.
The sparkler hisses and sputters, a tiny fire against the gleam of skyscraper windows. White pinpricks stud the air, then all is dark again.
She frowns, her lips the color of raspberries. “That was short. Must have been a cheap one.”
“Do you know what makes the sparks silver?” you ask.
For once, you don’t think, I’m the smart one, I’m the smart one. She rests a hand on your head, the first time she’s touched you in months. “Nerd,” she calls you, then, “Look. You can see Manhattan from here.”
The smell of burnt charcoal clings to the air. Other people are climbing the stairs now. You hear them pointing out skyscrapers and comparing the city to glitter, and strands of Christmas tree lights, and jewels. It’s a starless night in Brooklyn, of course, but still you know they are there, and you look and look into the night sky and trace the constellations with your eyes.
Catherine Con received her MFA in fiction from Boston University, where she currently works as a lecturer and program coordinator. She has published poems in HOOT Literary Review and The Behemoth, and fiction in Two Cities Review. This summer, she’ll be attending the Kundiman Retreat as a fiction fellow.