“I’m going to marry him,” my sister says, standing in my kitchen. I don’t want her in my kitchen. I wonder if she can feel me not wanting her in my kitchen.
“Do you love him?” I ask.
“He’s wonderful. He loves me so much.”
“That’s not a reason to marry him.”
“No,” she says. “It’s not.” She takes the Lean Cuisine out of its box and tosses the frozen entrée onto the counter. “But that’s not the reason.”
I unwrap my burger, scrape a corner of cheese off the waxy paper and bring it to my mouth. I’ve found a whole system that allows me to eat the things I want and not get fat. I worry. I weigh myself every morning, before coffee, after I go to the bathroom. Sometimes I throw up. I’m underweight by some charts.
She stabs a fork into the plastic for ventilation, presses buttons on the microwave. I want to say, forget that, let’s go out. I want to link my arm through hers and go traipsing down a dark alley, drunk on tequila, but I’m not this person. I thought I could be once, by moving to another city or becoming a Buddhist or doing any number of other things. Try pretending, the books said, act for long enough and eventually you won’t have to act. It’ll just be who you are. I once met a girl who wrote these books, a ghostwriter. Her case studies were her family members; she did her research on the internet.
I use a napkin to remove the excess mayonnaise, leaving a fine layer on the bottom half of the bun. I remove the onions and pickles, a thick pale tomato.
My phone rings. It’s our mother. I hit decline even though it’s the second time she’s called today and she panics when I don’t answer twice in a row—she thinks I might be dead—but I talked to her yesterday and felt bad about myself for an hour, at least. The thing I hate most is how I can never recall what she’s said that upset me so much. I try explaining it to people and I’m the one who sounds like an asshole.
The microwave dings.
“Have you talked to mom today?”
“Yesterday,” she says, “I called her from the airport. I usually call her when I’ve almost gotten to the place I’m going so I can’t talk for long.” She hops up onto the counter with her tray and looks out my window. It’s how I eat when I’m alone. There’s a lot of counter space and the backyard is full of pecan trees and squirrels, neighbors moving behind the slats of my fence. I like to watch the squirrels bury their nuts. I like it when they catch me watching and give me a long hard look like they will fuck me up if they have to. I paid for this house with my divorce money: two bedrooms, two baths, a laundry room. A backyard. A big kitchen and a living room with plenty of light. I still can’t believe it’s mine. I feel like I’m housesitting, like the owner will be back any minute and will be disappointed because the plants are half-dead and there are dirty socks everywhere.
“What should we do later?” I ask.
“I have to meet some people for a drink,” she says. “It won’t take long. You’re welcome to come.”
My sister has more friends in this town than I do. I don’t know how it’s possible, seeing as she’s never lived here. I only know one of them, her freshman year roommate, Leah. We’ve run into each other a few times. She’s tan year-round and wears loose clothes and jangly bracelets.
“That’s okay, I’m pretty tired.”
“What are you going to do?” she asks.
“Watch Mad Men, probably.”
“I haven’t seen it.”
“It’s really good, you should watch it.”
“I’m too busy to get into a series right now,” she says, and sighs like her busyness is something she doesn’t want, though she has always loved creating errands for herself, making plans with too many people in a day so she never has to be alone.
She twists her hair on top of her head and it stays there, a great big knot.
My sister and I are both adopted. She looks like our parents—blond and tall and large-boned. No one would ever know she was adopted; people can’t believe it when they find out. They say, but she has his nose, her mouth. She even walks like them.
My skin is olive; my eyes are shaped like almonds. At thirty-three, I finally like my olive skin—it hasn’t wrinkled like my sister’s. My forehead is smooth and unlined. I only have the tiniest beginnings of one crease on the left side of my mouth. I must smile crooked or something. There are other things: I never had acne; my standardized test scores were always higher. No matter how much smarter I am, though, how much better, I’m the one who doesn’t fit.
“I could eat like four of these,” she says, hopping off the counter and stepping on the trashcan’s pedal. She drops the tray in and opens the refrigerator. “Do you eat every meal out?”
“Not every meal.”
She opens the freezer, closes it, and looks at me. I can’t stop noticing her left hand, which is calling attention to itself in a way it never has before. Her diamond is large, princess cut. As a teenager, she bought wedding magazines at the grocery store, kept them under her bed in great dusty stacks. Sometimes I looked at them with her and we’d pick out dresses and cakes, but I never pictured a man attached to any of it. And then I got married at twenty-two while she went on to get advanced degrees and travel the world, making friends all over. She even taught in South Korea for a year.
The man my sister is going to marry isn’t good enough for her. He seems like a guy you might pick up at Target, the kind that took a break from shopping to sit in a plastic booth and eat a hot dog. It’s not that she’s gorgeous or anything, but she’s magnetic. Is she were on a TV show and America had to vote, she’d win. She’s got star quality, they’d say. She’s got that “it” factor.
“You should come with us,” she says. “These girls are really nice—they could be your friends.”
“I know Leah.”
“Yeah, Leah likes you. Y’all could be friends.”
“I have friends.” I wonder why she’s here, why she’s come. If I asked her, though, she’d act confused. She’d say she missed me. She’d say she wanted to see my house, which is so lovely.
My sister lives in an apartment. She complains about the girls who live above her—they wear their high heels inside, their dogs cry every time they’re left alone. I’ve never been to her apartment, never seen these girls, but I can picture them. They’re blond, like her, a few years younger. Their voices can be heard from the parking lot. When she marries, she’ll break her lease and move into her husband’s house, same as I did, but no matter what happens she’ll stay married. She’ll get pregnant and won’t miscarry and the baby will look like them.
I look around the room, which is bright and large. The sun makes angles on the walls and I think, all of this is mine.
After my sister leaves, I take the bottle of vodka out of the freezer and pour some into a cup with lots of ice and a little bit of cranberry juice. My anxiety can usually be tamed with a cheeseburger and fries but I wasn’t able to enjoy my food like I normally do, not like I do when I’m alone. I take my drink outside to the picnic table. From here I can see everything—my house and driveway, my car and lawnmower and trashcans: one for recycling and one for garbage. I can never remember what days the trash comes so I have to watch my neighbors, wheel the cans out to the curb when they do. I’ve met a few of them but I’m bad with names so I write them down on the notepad next to the refrigerator: Nicole and Shane; Ellie and Bill White; Mr. Gorrell. I like to hold up a hand and smile as I call their names from a distance, as if we might be neighborly. Some guys I haven’t met live in the house on the corner. When they have band practice, I sit outside and listen. They’re the only ones I might want to know.
When my drink is gone, I go inside and make another, walk around looking at my things as if I’m seeing them through my sister’s eyes. When I drink, I can’t do anything but wander my house, wondering how people live. What they do with themselves. There are paintings on the walls, not just prints. The kitchen is full of wedding loot—nice dishes and Calphalon pots, an espresso machine, a KitchenAid mixer—everything a person might want. In the foyer, there are family photographs on the table spanning generations of people who aren’t mine. The earliest photograph I have of myself was taken the day I was adopted. I was three. My father is holding me and I look tired and rumpled in a lace dress and leather shoes—all white like I’m about to be baptized. My sister was adopted a year later, as a newborn. The nurse took her from her birth mother and placed her in my mother’s arms and my parents cried so hard I thought something was wrong with her but we were going to have to keep her anyway.
I used to tell people I was adopted from an orphanage, that I would save paper napkins from meals and make bows for my hair so that when the couples came on Sunday afternoons, I’d look like I wanted it more than the others. I’d tell them they lined us up like they do at whorehouses, and we’d put on different personas, try different tactics to make them choose us. The truth is I don’t remember my life before. My memories begin with my sister.
When my mother placed her in my arms, she was sleeping. This is your sister, Elizabeth, my father said. Now our family is complete, my mother said. And then it was Christmas.
I curl up on the couch and the cat situates herself on my legs. She closes her eyes and I close mine. When I open them and check my phone, two hours have passed. I wish my sister was here, or I’d gone with her, but then I hear the key in the lock and she comes in calling my name, followed by Leah and two girls I’ve never seen before.
“We were at a bar, like, three blocks from here,” my sister says, “and we decided you had to come with us.”
The pretty dark-haired girl is wearing a low-cut shirt; my eyes stop at her breasts.
“Come with us,” Leah says.
“You’re coming,” my sister says. “Get dressed, we’re going downtown.”
The air is full of perfume and energy and I don’t want to go but they act like I don’t have a choice and this is what I need in order to be motivated. Now there are five of us, and we could all be traipsing drunkenly down the alley, holding each other up, laughing.
In my room, the cat is curled on my pillow. I didn’t see her move from the couch. She looks up at me with her big eyes and meows.
“What do you want, Kitty?” I ask. She continues meowing so I go through the list—food, water, litter box. I only know these three things. “I won’t be gone long. And I won’t get drunk, I promise.” She doesn’t like it when I’m drunk. Perhaps, if I were drunk more often, she wouldn’t like it if I were sober. She’s a nice cat, and even though she follows me around and lies on my legs at night, I still imagine her clawing my face in my sleep.
I put on the dress and sweater I wear when I need to put on something in a hurry. The dress makes my waist look small and my breasts look large and the sweater is soft and comfortable.
My sister finds me in the bathroom. “You look nice,” she says, touching a sleeve.
“Do I need blush?”
“Mascara,” she says.
“I don’t like mascara. I can feel my eyelashes when I wear it.” I apply lipstick while she watches. I’ve only recently begun to wear makeup and a little bit of jewelry. They don’t feel ridiculous on me like they used to, like I was a girl trying to be a woman.
“Your cat isn’t very friendly,” she says.
“She’s friendly with me.”
“I didn’t know you liked cats.”
“So why’d you get one?”
“I wanted a pet and a dog seemed like too big a commitment.”
“But dogs are so much better,” she says, turning off the light. “Dogs come when you call them.”
“That’s the allure of a cat,” I say, which is what I’ve heard cat people say. I still don’t understand how cats work. You can’t yell at them or punish them like you can with a dog. When I’m swinging my Kettlebells, she doesn’t move out of the way. Once I knocked her in the head and her eye puffed up. I thought I might have cracked a socket.
I follow my sister into the kitchen where the girls are opening cabinets, peering out the windows into the dark.
Leah bends down to pet my cat, bracelets jangling. “I like him,” she says. “He’s nice.”
“She’s a sweetie. Aren’t you a sweetie?”
“Let’s go,” my sister says.
I turn on the porch light, lock the door, and we pile into a small, yellow car. Leah is on one side of me and a girl named Jenna is on the other. I can feel myself becoming more and more uncomfortable but my sister catches my eye in the mirror and smiles and I think, everything is fine, everything is just fine. I try to convince myself this is fun, that this is what people do—they go out and drink with their girlfriends and have fun. They meet men. They take shots and lose themselves in the night. But then the cars on the interstate come to a standstill and my breathing becomes more and more labored and I can’t see whether it’s a wreck or what. I don’t know why I had to be in the middle, my arms and legs touching people.
By the time we park, my heart’s beating so fast I can feel it all over my body.
At the door, I show the guy my license and follow them inside. It’s hard to make out faces. My sister and her friends slip into a booth and I walk over to the bar and squeeze between two guys. The bar is busy and the men talk over me. I can feel them checking me out, assessing my body. I wait, holding up my credit card, as they talk about a model one of them used to date. I could turn to the fat one and grab him by the neck. I could reach into my purse for my mace and test it out, as I’ve been wanting to do for so long. If I had a gun, it’d be the same thing. I’d want to shoot somebody. Something would need to happen. I glance over at my sister and her friends and they’re all hair and eyes and teeth. One of the guys swivels on his stool, brushing his arm against my chest, and I turn and walk out. I don’t look at the door guy. I stand at the curb and lift my arm; my sweater slips down, exposing a slim wrist. I’ve never been so thin, not even as a teenager. I can see how bones could become a problem. They knock so pleasantly against counters, dig into the mattress while you sleep.
I’m nervous that my sister will find me before a cab pulls up, that the door guy is wondering what’s wrong with me, but then a cab pulls up and I’m settling into the backseat. I feel so much relief I want to tell the man to take me somewhere other than home, but I give him my address and ask him questions, engage him in the conversation he seems so desperate to have. He’s from Ghana. His family is still at home. He sends money, visits once every three years because the flight is so expensive. Hearing about his life makes me want to appreciate mine. He’s alone in a foreign country, speaking a foreign tongue, having the same conversation over and over with people who don’t care.
When he pulls up to my house, I tip him ten dollars and he gives me his card, which I leave on the backseat.
From bed, with my cat on my legs, I call my mother. She picks up on the first ring. As soon as I hear her voice, I regret calling.
“I was worried about you,” she says.
“Did you think I might be dead?”
“No, of course not. Why would I think that? Is everything okay?”
“How are things with Beth?” she asks.
“They’re fine,” I say, wondering whether my sister has talked to her, what she’s said. They talk all the time. My sister only pretends like our mother gets on her nerves. It’s one of the things that make her likeable; she always acts like she can relate. And now they have a wedding to plan. It’ll be a destination wedding, I bet, and a flight will be required. The last time I flew, I was seated next to an obese woman who spilled over onto my side. Her arms were covered in some kind of scabs. She was very nice, asking me questions and offering me things so I wouldn’t complain, and I didn’t, but when I got up to use the bathroom, I found another seat. After a few minutes, the woman turned to look for me. She squinted her eyes and pointed like I had wronged her horribly.
My mother asks what we’ve done, who we’ve seen—questions that are simple and unobtrusive and yet I don’t want to answer them. I feel like a child, hiding in my bedroom and hating everyone from behind my closed door. I had no reason to hate them; my family always went way out of their way to make sure I felt included. They let me decide where we went for dinner, what movies we rented, but these things only made me feel like more of a stranger.
“Do you need me to come out there?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Why would I need you to come out here?”
“To help you get settled.”
“I am settled.”
“I could help you decorate.”
“I already did that, mom. You know I already did that.”
“I just miss you, is all,” she says, after a pause, and I tell her I miss her, too. I tell her she’s welcome to visit, but I don’t need her help. The cat climbs up my chest and peers into my face. She has such big pretty eyes: bright green, too close together. She begins to purr, a low rumble that grows louder and louder. I scratch her head, the place where her tail meets her body. Her hair comes out in tufts.
“How’s dad?” I ask. My father is on a weight loss diet through the hospital. He has two shakes a day and a small dinner at night and the food comes in boxes and powders.
“He’s lost twenty-four pounds,” she says. “The doctor took him off some of his medication.”
“He’s looking so good. He only cheats when we go to the movie.”
“That’s great,” I say again, and it is. My father is doing something that none of us thought he could do. He’s changing his life long after he seemed to have given up. Even he thought he would fail.
“I have to go,” I say. “There’s someone at the door.”
“Look through the peephole first,” my mother warns.
“I will. Beth probably forgot her key.”
We hang up and I try to rearrange myself without disturbing the cat. If I move too much, she’ll leave. I take off her collar, pulling apart the clasp, so she doesn’t jangle all night and keep me awake. She paws at it lazily as I place it on the table. Then I close my eyes and pray, which is something I do every night. It’s a habit, like so many things, but mostly I keep praying because something bad will happen if I stop. I say “Hail Mary” after “Hail Mary,” which I prefer to the “Our Father.” I remember the Protestants growing up, how they accused me of worshipping a false God. I would explain that I wasn’t praying to Mary, but asking her to intercede on my behalf, though I wasn’t sure I knew what the difference was.
The cat slips under the bed and I’m alone. I get on the floor and try to pull her out by a paw, but she swipes at me with the other so I slide out one of the boxes instead. There are two of them, full of pictures. I flip through a stack: I’m twenty-three, twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty-one; we’re at a brewery, his mother’s house, Disney World. We’re in Las Vegas, Aruba. Having drinks at a T.G.I. Friday’s somewhere in Florida. There isn’t a single place I’d want to return to, not a single place that interests me at all. I used to research these vacations for months only to end up in the most obvious locations.
I study the framed photograph of the two of us that used to sit on our dresser: my hair was thicker and my teeth were whiter and I was wearing a navy blue bikini I don’t have any more. I think about calling him but he won’t answer. The last time he picked up, he said, do you want me to have to change my number? Is that what you want?
I hear my sister unlock the door, heels clicking on the hardwood. She opens my door and I can feel her standing there, but I don’t turn.
She sits next to me and takes the framed photograph out of my hand.
“I was prettier then.”
“You weren’t prettier,” she says. “Only younger. I think you’re prettier now.”
I take the picture and put it in the box, push the box under the bed.
“Why’d you leave?” she asks. “I was worried.”
“You must not have been too worried, you didn’t call.”
We sit there for a while, not saying anything, while I use the fish on a stick, bounce it around. Its diamond-shaped eyes sparkle.
“I was having a panic attack. That’s why I left.”
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she says, “I’m really not, but it’s always something. It’s always something with you.”
She’s right. It is always something. I try to remember a time in my life when there wasn’t something. When things were good and I was happy. I never think of it this way—I only think of today—that there is this thing I’m dealing with right now and once I get a handle on it everything will be fine—but it seems there has always been a thing and that these things have eaten up my whole life.
“Hey,” she says. “Look at me.” She takes my hand, squeezes it.
After a while, she stands and leaves the room, closes the door behind her. I use my crooked finger to try and lure the cat out: redrum, redrum. The cat spends a lot of time under my bed. Once, I pulled the mattress off, taking the top off her world, and she was mad at me for days. I don’t know why I want to fuck with her; sometimes I just get the urge. I don’t do anything that terrible. I just pet her too roughly or make her play with me when she doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes I switch her food for no reason. You are adopted, I tell her. I have saved you from the cruel, indifferent world but there is always a cost. Nothing in this life is free.
Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer vintagecat