With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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We lived in a small yellow three-bedroom ranch on a dead-end street with no circle to turn around in: the street just ended. I had my own room, and my younger sister, Jody, had hers. There were big bay windows in front and a deck off the back, and my father built the house himself.
“I built this house for you,” he’d whisper to me at night when he was in my bed. “That’s how much I love you.” I could feel the heat of his breath in my ear and the stubble of his cheek against mine.
He started with me when I was twelve. And then, three years later, for no reason that I could tell, he stopped. Whatever, I said to myself. I wasn’t one to dwell. I just began losing weight and getting into shape. I went on a totally fat-free, cholesterol-free, sugar-free diet and stuck to a high-aerobic exercise routine. I brushed my teeth three times a day for four minutes each time, and I timed myself at everything with a white oven timer I’d bought at a yard sale. Even when I wasn’t doing anything, like if I was just sitting at dinner or in class, I would hold my breath to expand my lung capacity, or I’d squeeze my stomach muscles tight and count, One-two-three, until I couldn’t hold it anymore. Basically I was always improving.
I also wanted fuller lips, so I was training my mouth by pushing my lips forward, and people started to notice. They kept asking what I was doing differently, and a teacher once called on me when I didn’t even have my hand raised because she said it looked like I was about to say something. So I was pretty sure my lip thing was working. But what I really wanted was a smaller nose, and the only way I knew to get that was first to break the one I had. Sometimes at dinner I would imagine just flinging my head forward and smashing my face into my plate. I would hear a voice inside my head telling me to do it, but I never did. Our living room had sliding glass doors to the deck, and I was thinking I could accidentally run into them. I knew I’d have to be running because I’d once seen my father’s friend Mr. O’Malley just walk into them, and the only thing that happened was he dropped his drink. Vodka and tonic went everywhere, and somehow the lime shot across the room and landed in front of the TV.
Sometimes I’d be sitting on the couch watching reruns with my mother, and my heart would begin to race; my palms would sweat as I looked across the room at the glass doors. I’d hear the voice again: There they are. Come on, you can do it. Just get up and do it. And I would imagine myself running across the room in slow motion, my nightgown and long brown hair flowing behind me. I wondered whether I should scream. I probably should, I thought. So I pictured myself screaming, my mouth opening, exposing my perfectly clean white teeth, the veins bulging in my neck. Then all of a sudden, Boom! I hit the glass. Blood goes flying everywhere. I fall backwards to the floor. My sister, my mother, and father rush to huddle around me. They slowly come into focus as I come to. With their hands on their knees, they bend over me, and I hear my mother say, “Oh God, she’s broken her nose,” and I breathe a great, satisfied sigh. I’d imagine that moment lying on my back with my broken nose as the happiest moment of my life.
While I was improving myself, my sister Jody seemed to be doing the opposite. It appeared her goal was to get as fat as possible. And she complained about everything, even the usual stuff like the pile of empty Budweiser cans in the pantry, the smell of our cat Henry’s litter, and Mom’s drinking, smoking, and swearing like a guy. Eat and complain, eat and complain, that’s all my sister ever did.
It wasn’t like my mother swore that much, or like our house was never cleaned. It’s just that my mother used only the broom to do it. She claimed a good broom was all you ever needed. You could sweep a rug just as well as you could vacuum it. She killed bugs and flies with the broom. She used it as a fan when she burnt food, and it was good for reaching and dislodging things. I saw her once standing over the toilet, using the handle as a plunger. She looked up briefly and said to me, “Something’s stuck,” then continued shoving it madly into the bowl.
But once a year, in early spring, she got up on a Saturday and proclaimed it “spring-cleaning day.” She pulled out the Pine-Sol and Soft Scrub. She used a mop and a dust rag and dragged the Hoover up from the basement. The cat’s litter was changed and the empty Bud cans were returned for the deposits that we always thought would make us rich but never did.
One year there were so many cans that we ran out of space in the car for them. My father said not to worry. He filled up three giant clear plastic bags. He hung one bag out each back window and rolled the windows up on them. He then took the third bag and closed the trunk on it so it hung out like a tail. “It’s a Budweiser float!” we shouted. My father was so impressed with his own ingenuity that he made the three of us — my mother, my sister, and me — sit on the hood of the car, wave, and say, Cheese! as he snapped a picture. We thought it was the funniest thing. We laughed and laughed and for the longest time, we couldn’t stop.
But Jody never laughed anymore. It didn’t matter what we were doing; she just always managed to find something wrong. Like one day we were standing out on the deck while my mother smoked a cigarette. “Come have a cigarette with your old lady” was how she used to ask us. It was mid-July and it had just started to rain. There was fog everywhere and it roamed the yard in clumps. We huddled together under the small roof overhang. Only half of my sister fit underneath it. The other half hung out and got wet.
A breeze picked up. My mother went through five matches, cupping her hand around the flame and dropping each one on the ground as it went out. When she finally got her cigarette lit, she took a deep inhale, and before she was even finished blowing the smoke out, my sister started complaining.
“All Dad does is drink beer and watch TV. How can you stand it, Mom?”
She was watching him through the glass doors. I turned and looked at him too. He sat in the dim yellow light of our living room. His thin mouth opened as he laughed at something on TV. He sipped his beer. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair. He was a handsome man, small and quiet. He never yelled at us. He never complained about anything, and sometimes he made us laugh. And he did — he built this house himself.
“God knows,” my mother said, then she sucked in a lungful of smoke. “I must love the poor bastard.” Smoke trailed from her mouth as she said this, then she blew the rest out at the end.
My father was a bricklayer, and once in a while on Sundays when we were little, my mother made us dress up like we were going to church or something. We’d drive through the rich neighborhoods so my father could point out a walkway or wall he’d built. “Look, girls. Look at what your father has done,” my mother would say, tearfully clasping her hands. She was so proud of him.
“You’re always swearing, Mom,” Jody said.
“What? Bastard? Bastard’s not a swear,” my mother said.
“It is too.”
“No, it’s not. It’s in the dictionary.”
“So is fuck,” my sister said.
“Then fuck’s not a swear either,” my mother said, taking another drag off her cigarette.
“All words are in the dictionary, whether they’re swear words or not,” my sister said.
“Who cares?” I said.
“That’s right,” my mother said, flicking her butt into the yard with her middle finger and thumb. “Who cares? Fuck, bastard, fuck, bastard. Maybe we should all say them together.”
My mother lit another cigarette. My sister looked at her feet and began to cry.
“Oh, come on,” my mother said. “What the hell difference does it make? So your mother swears sometimes, and your father’s not perfect.” She dropped her cigarette and put it out with the ball of her foot. “Come here, you two.” She pulled our heads into her chest and hugged us. “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
I worried she was going to launch into her speech about how much we meant to her, how she wouldn’t know what to do without us, et cetera, but she didn’t. Thank God. She wasn’t drunk enough, so instead she let us go.
Jody went straight to her room and slammed the door behind her. She came out a few minutes later carrying a can of Lysol and wearing a white surgical mask, like they do at the dentist.
“Oh, please,” my mother muttered.
My sister walked around the house spritzing Lysol. My father didn’t seem to notice and only briefly leaned to the side when she walked in front of the TV. She moved across the room and into the kitchen, where she disappeared into the pantry. There was a crashing sound. Empty beer cans rolled out in every direction. The cat hissed and ran for the basement. When my sister finally emerged she was carrying the litter box, her fleshy arms outstretched in front of her like a zombie’s. She walked straight to the front door, balanced the box on her knee, flicked on the outside light, and opened the door. The drizzle had turned to pouring rain. Thick clouds had darkened the sky. There was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder, but Jody walked straight out and into the storm. I watched from the window as she took big, deliberate steps to the end of the walkway where she dumped the box onto the street. She turned to walk back. Her surgical mask was beginning to fall. Her long red hair was plastered like seaweed around her neck. Wind and rain battered the trees. The clouds churned. A bolt of lightning split the sky and flashed on the white of her mask.
My father turned up the volume as the audience laughed at a joke. My mother sighed. She walked over, eased the door closed, and shut off the outside light, leaving my sister in the dark.
“Come on,” my mother said as she walked by me. “Come have another cigarette with your old lady.” But I didn’t. I walked over to the door. I turned on the light and pulled the door open. Finally I could see my sister clearly.
She was now twelve. I turned and looked at my father, then looked back at her. I had always thought that all she needed was to get in shape like me. But that night in the rain her shorts and T-shirt clung to her. I could see her body underneath them. Her hips were getting wider, her breasts were getting bigger. But I was trying not to notice that. I was trying not to dwell.
Fifty reps of power squats and lunges and one hundred sit-ups later, I was feeling better. Then, halfway through my running-in-place routine, my mother knocked on my bedroom door and walked in.
“I know you’re in the middle of your workout, honey, but do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” I panted, focusing hard on my breath. I’d read in a magazine that it was good for your cardiovascular situation to breathe hard and fast. It promoted blood circulation which unclogged your arteries and I was feeling totally clogged up.
“It’s Jody,” my mother said. “Have you noticed she’s acting a little weird?”
“She’s just fat,” I huffed, trying not to think about it. I picked up the pace a little bit. I had eaten a cookie that day, which meant I really had to push it, and I’d probably need to brush my teeth for twice the usual time.
My mother pulled out a cigarette.
“Do you mind?” I asked.
“Oh. Right,” she said. She put the cigarette back in the package. “I’m sorry, honey. I just don’t know what to do with you girls.” She flopped backward on my bed and rolled over on her side. “You have no idea how much I fucking love you.” Then she did it. She launched into her speech. My mouth became dry, and I suddenly felt enormous amounts of plaque building up on my teeth.
My mother went on and on. It was a longer speech than usual: She loved us. She’d do anything for us. And did we know? It’s not easy being a mother. In the middle of all this my white oven timer went off, but she didn’t even notice. And I’m not sure why, but I broke into these really fast jumping jacks. It wasn’t a part of my regular routine. But it was great. I was really pushing myself.
My mother had worked herself up into a tizzy, so when she pulled out a cigarette again, I didn’t say anything. She sat on the edge of the bed, lit up, took in a big suck, and blew the smoke out.
“If anything ever happened to you kids, I would die,” she said. “Literally. I would just die!”
I was waiting for it. I knew it was coming. The part of her speech that always made me sick. I started going faster: Jumping, jumping, jumping. Jacks, jacks, jacks. Faster, faster, faster.
“And if anybody ever laid a hand on you girls, I would kill them. You know that, don’t you? Don’t you?”
It came to me in a flash. Now was the time to do it. I could just run over to the mirror on the back of my door and with an instant snap of my neck smash my face into it and break my nose. It would be over like that. Do it! the voice said to me. And for once I felt ready. I took a step toward the mirror. I saw my mother’s mouth open to say something else, then all of a sudden her head zoomed back and fell out of focus. That was the last thing I remembered because apparently I fainted. According to my sister, my mother screamed at the top of her lungs, my sister rushed into my room, and my father appeared with, for some reason, the broom.
“Did I break it?” I asked as I came to, touching my nose and breathless.
“No, honey, nothing’s broken,” my mother said.
It was all I really wanted. I thought for sure this time I’d get it. I’d wake up in some hospital room with a new life and a cuter nose. Instead what I had was them. My sister, my mother, my father were bending over me exactly as I’d imagined.
My mother stroked my forehead. My father held one hand. My sister held the other. I told them I was OK. I just needed to lie still for a while. So they got up. My mother brought me a glass of water. My father brought me the aspirin, and my sister rushed around opening the windows. The storm was nearly gone. The heat had finally broken. The room began to cool so my sister got her jacket and covered me with blankets.
My mother said she didn’t understand how this could happen, then my father left and said he’d be right back. There was a big clamor in the kitchen, and the next thing I knew he’d popped a big bag of popcorn and wheeled the TV into my room. It was kind of like a party. And for a while it was easy to forget that anything had happened.
Some things went back to normal that night. My father rolled the TV back to the living room, and my mother went outside for a smoke. But my sister didn’t move. She sat cross-legged beside me doing nothing. Then from the pocket of her puffy down jacket she pulled out a Snickers.
“Want some?” she asked, holding it over my face.
“No, thanks,” I said. I listened to her chewing and the crinkle of the wrapper as she peeled it off the bar. Night fell, and the light in my room shifted from deep purple to darkness. My sister nodded off, her head resting on the shapeless mound of her jacket.
“Good night, girls,” my mother said on her way to bed.
“Jody,” I whispered, tugging on her sleeve, “we should go to bed.”
“Right,” she said. And as if it were something she always did, she got up off the floor and climbed into bed with me. We sat up, hugged our knees into our chests, and looked out the window. The sky was almost clear. The moon hung high and bright. Clouds rushed by, one after another — on their way, we decided, to another job.
We whispered together for hours, talking about things we’d never talked about before, like where we wanted to go and what we wanted to be when we got older. We imagined the house we’d live in — two stories high and big. She pictured it green with purple shutters. I imagined blue and red, but we both agreed it would sit high on a hill on a road that met up with many other roads.
We were in the middle of discussing where we would put the pool when we heard it — the sound of my parents’ bedroom door opening, then closing. There were footsteps down the hall, then inside the bathroom. The seat went up or down, then the toilet flushed. We listened and waited. Maybe that was it. But then the floorboards began to creak, and step by step, the sound got closer. In the dark we huddled together, my skinny body and her round one. I held my breath. My sister squeezed my hand. Then the door slowly opened, and a shadow of a figure appeared.
“Hey,” my mother whispered as she stepped into the room.
I let my breath out. My sister dropped my hand.
“Hey,” we whispered back.
My mother sat down, leaned into us, grabbed our hands, and held them.
“Do you know how much I love you?” she said to us. By this time she wasn’t drunk anymore, and when she wasn’t drunk, she expected us to tell her: Yes, of course — we know how much you love us.
“Huh? Do you?” she repeated.
I held my breath. One-two-three, I counted. My sister looked at me. I looked back at her. My mother waited for her answer, but this time we said nothing.
Annie Weatherwax’s story “Do You Know How Much I Love You?” [January 2011] finds a delicate way to deal with the tough subject of incest. I am ordering a gift subscription for my sister because of it.