My big sister’s always had a certain power over me. When we were really little, she’d play this game with my hands. My right hand was “Gristy,” the ugly, evil one, and my left was “Cindy Relley,” the beautiful princess who was sometimes duped by Gristy, but who always won out in the end. “See how beautiful she is? Look at her dimples,” she would say, bending my left hand back at the fingers and flexing my wrist. We’d play this game for hours, and to this day, my left hand is a lot more flexible than my right. It took me a long time to make the connection that my sister was left-handed and regularly “corrected” for it, or that her name began with a “G” and mine with a “C.”
So she had this pull on me, having convinced herself, and me, that I was the favored child, and she had every right to exhort a price for my stealing away the security she’d felt before I arrived. It was understood. I always had to at least try to do what she asked, even when I knew it was wrong. Like the time she lured me to the stink pond deep in the woods, by teasing me about my being afraid of that crazy boy, Peter Harris, who hung out there, and then ran away and left me alone to deal with him when he showed up. Or, years later, the night she goaded me into picking up a hitchhiker, who pulled a knife on us and stole all our money before demanding—thank god—to be left off about a mile farther down the road.
You might say I’ve learned the hard way to take what she says with a grain of salt. We live far apart now, and it isn’t exactly that I dread her calls, it’s that I’m a little bit wary as soon as I hear her voice. This time she’s called to say that her husband’s walked out on her.
“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” she tells me. “I got home from work tonight to find all of Bengie’s things gone. I mean even that hideous abstract painting he hung in the living room over my dead body. He took it right off the wall. And left a note saying ‘Think I need a break.’ I feel like shit. Carley, you’ve got to come out here. I really need you.”
* * *
Holding her in my arms at the airport and reassuring her, I realize how bone thin she is.
“Hey! Hey! What’s going on with you? You starving yourself to death?” I ask, trying to assess just how frail she is.
“I weigh the same as always.”
I’m used to this. It’s her standard response. She’s been bulimic for years and in deep denial.
“Let’s grab some lunch.” I point her to the nearest restaurant.
She slides into the booth opposite me, slips out of her trench coat, and says, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t live without him.”
“Whoa! Slow down. I didn’t hear you say it was over. I thought you said he needed a break. What’s going on?”
“He’s seeing another woman. I followed them to her apartment after work last Thursday. He said he had a late night meeting, and I was suspicious.”
“Did you confront him? What’d he say?”
“No. I just let it slide. It’s not the first time.”
The waitress arrives, interrupting us at this critical moment, and I’m hanging on what she’s about to say. But I’m starving, and I quickly order a BLT on wheat toast with fries on the side. My favorite. Gloria claims she’s not hungry, but she orders a BLT too and a Diet Coke. “Hold the fries,” she says. The waitress nods and disappears.
“You’re kidding. This isn’t the first time?” I prompt.
“I’m not kidding. But he always comes back to me when he gets tired of whatever bimbo he’s been hooking up with. I’m used to it. This time it’s different though. I can tell when we’re having sex. He’s not there. He’s actually got feelings for this one.”
“I don’t get it, Gloria. Don’t you care that he’s a chronic cheater? What kind of a marriage do you have?”
“It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just the way it is. You wouldn’t understand. You always get what you want from people.”
I’m not going to touch that one. Luckily I don’t have to. Our food arrives, and she dives into it as if she hasn’t eaten for days. She reaches across the table and grabs a handful of my fries. I know she’ll duck into the ladies’ room later and force herself to throw it up, but it’s good to see her eating.
“Do you want me to talk to Bengie?” I ask delicately, picking up my sandwich. I’ve known him as long as she has. We grew up in the same crowd. I wait for her to answer. I’m always walking a fine line with Gloria. She wants my help, but on her terms.
“Let me think about it.”
“Have you told Mom?”
“Please don’t go there,” she says, looking up in a panic. “I’ll tell her when I have to.”
* * *
We arrive at Gloria’s condo, a luxury penthouse just off Rittenhouse Square. She’s given me the silent treatment in the elevator, and she dumps her coat and stuff in the foyer as soon as we get inside. She’s in the powder room now, and I know what she’s up to, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it. When I walk into the living room, the first thing I see is the bare spot on the wall where the enormous abstract oil Gloria and I both thought looked like an angry uterus had hung since Bengie bought it, over her loud protests, at an auction on Nantucket several summers ago. We were vacationing there together, my then fiancé Peter and I with Gloria and Bengie in what had turned out to be a very stressful weekend for the four of us. I’ve always thought of it as the beginning of the end for Peter and me, though they had gone on, as they always did. I remember looking at her marriage that weekend and wondering if this was what I had to look forward to with Peter. At the time, I’d reassured myself that my life would be better. By now I’m not so sure.
She comes back into the living room looking pale. I don’t have it in me to get into it with her, so I ignore it and say, “Should we talk about what’s going on? Do you want to tell me what you’re planning to do?”
Gloria’s been weirdly silent since her outburst in the restaurant.
“What’re my choices?” she says. “Let’s see—there’s groveling, murder, or suicide. I don’t like any of them.”
Of all the many things I dislike about my sister, it’s her self-pitying that I dislike most. “What can I do to help?” I ask.
“You don’t get it, do you? I told you. This time’s different. She’s a young law associate from his firm. Everyone’s talking about it. I was the last to find out.”
“Okay, so it’s embarrassing. But you’ve got to talk to him. Want me to set it up?”
“I know where he’s staying. It’s not with her. He’s rented a furnished apartment in Society Hill. I’ve driven past it, but I haven’t had the nerve to stop. What if she’s there?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Gloria, stop being such a baby. Call him. Get it over with, for better or worse.”
At this point, she bursts into tears, runs out of the room, and slams the door to her bedroom. I’ve gone too far.
* * *
It feels weird to be back in Philly after all these years. When I left home for college, I went to California, to get as far away from my family as I could, and I’ve never looked back. It’s not that I don’t love them. It’s that I wanted to get some perspective. I knew there was a world out there beyond what I had grown up with. And I knew I would never see it if I stayed here with them. Gloria stayed home, like most of the kids in our group, eventually marrying the local boy and settling into what looked like a placeholder for our parents’ lifestyle. She may not have been their favorite, but she turned out to be the one they were stuck with.
So what if I was their pet—the one they doted on—I was also the one who got away. I stayed in California after I graduated, chose to attend a law school out there, found a decent job in environmental law in San Francisco, a West Coast boy to fall in love with, and a new way of life. I come back once or twice a year, but it’s understood that I’m not coming back for good, even though I didn’t marry that California boy. My parents aren’t happy about it. They’d like me to settle down closer to home, marry someone from our crowd, and give them grandchildren to dote on in addition to me. They’ve kind of accepted that this isn’t going to happen, but that doesn’t make them happy about it.
I’m alone in the living room looking at the enormous space the abstract oil Bengie removed once filled. My mind jumps back to that Nantucket weekend three summers ago. Peter couldn’t stand their bickering and my sister’s manipulation. He wanted us to get away on our own for at least a few hours, but I insisted we were here for that weekend only, and I didn’t get to see my sister all that often, so it wasn’t as big a deal as he was making it. I knew he was right. I just couldn’t bear to let her down.
When we got back to San Francisco, our relationship took a nosedive. I’d waited till we were home to tell Peter I’d lost my job in the law firm that had employed both of us. In fact I waited till we were about to go to bed on our first night back. I had to tell him then. He’d have found out anyway at work the next day and never forgiven me.
“Christ, Carley, you waited till now to tell me?”
“I wanted to tell you,” I said. “I just didn’t want to spoil the weekend. That’s all.”
Then I made it worse by refusing to let him comfort me.
He put his arms around me, looked at me searchingly, and said something like, “These are the things we’ve got to talk about. I want you to know I’ve got your back. Anything you need.”
We’d had quite a few similar conversations before this evening’s about my exaggerated need to be self-sufficient and how I was never willing to share my feelings with him.
I broke away from him. “Okay. I’ve got it. Let’s not get corny. I’m a big girl. I’ll find another job. No big deal.”
We broke up about six months later when I thought things were getting back to normal. I’ll admit it. I had a hard time for a while. But I fought my way into a competing law firm. I was sure Peter would be proud of me when I told him. And he was.
“Jeez, Carley, that’s great,” he said.
I guess I should have known something was wrong when he didn’t give me a hug and spin me around till I was dizzy or do some other goofy, loving thing like he usually did.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Come to think of it, he hadn’t done anything like that lately. I’d been too preoccupied to notice, I guess.
“Maybe this is a good time to talk about us,” he said.
“Sure. What’s up?” I asked.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” he said. “I’ve met someone else. I didn’t go looking. It just happened.”
I backed away from him. “Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. Can we talk about it? Can we go to counseling?”
“I don’t think so. I’m sorry. It’s pretty much a done deal. I didn’t want to tell you while you were so down. It’s been going on for a couple of months. I’m tired of sneaking around.”
I didn’t make a fuss. I even agreed to let him keep the apartment. I just needed a little time to find one of my own before I moved out. It was all very civilized, very un-Gloria-like. I didn’t let him see me cry. But for weeks I hugged my body to my pillow and sobbed into it. On our last morning together, he had tears in his eyes when we said good-bye. I didn’t get up from the breakfast table, although I had been counting down the days, dreading this moment. I looked up and waved. That was it. I wanted to say something. But that’s not the way I am.
Staring out the huge windows of Gloria’s condo onto the square stories below, I feel suddenly dizzy. I realize how much I don’t want to be here doing this. I’m about to pick up the phone when it rings.
It’s my mom, of course. She knows I’m here and what’s going on. She keeps close tabs on her daughters, even though it’s from a distance in my case.
* * *
“Thank god you’ve brought her home, Carley,” my mother says. “Maybe we can talk some sense into her.” We’ve just walked in the door of the suburban Bryn Mawr house we grew up in, and she’s fussing over me. Gloria’s already run upstairs to her room. “We’ve been worried sick about what people are saying.”
Maybe she is, I think to myself. My father’s been checked out of the family melodrama for years. “What are people saying?” I ask.
“The usual. Look, I’m not claiming your sister’s perfect. Far from it. But Bengie’s a total shit. He’s screwing one of the young lawyers in his own firm. Gloria’s got to get tough with him. Move out. Stick him with the monthly condo fees.”
“Too late for that, Ma. He’s already done it.” Apparently, she doesn’t know as much as she thinks.
“Oh, now this is serious.”
“Gloria’s pretty devastated. I’m really worried about her.”
“Please. You’re worried about her, Ms. California? How do you think we feel? We’ve been dealing with this crap for years. Did she tell you that she followed them to her place—the girl’s, I mean—and made a scene in the lobby?” She reads my expression. “I didn’t think so.”
“What exactly happened?”
“She threatened suicide if Bengie didn’t come home. Apparently, he took her. That’s the last thing I heard.”
* * *
That night at dinner, we’re seated around the table as a family—just the four of us—for the first time in years. My mom’s made quite a fuss. She’s prepared a butternut squash soup with yogurt, Moroccan chicken, one of her specialties, and a pecan pie. My father’s at the head of the table carving the chicken when the phone rings.
“Do you want me to answer it?” I ask. At my place, I would leave it unanswered until after dinner, but they do things differently here.
“If you don’t mind, dear,” my mother responds.
I go through the swinging door into the kitchen. “Hello?” Silence. She must have left her cell phone upstairs, and he’s trying to reach her, I think to myself. What a selfish prick. “Hello?
Bengie?” I say. Then I call out, “No one there,” re-entering the dining room and taking my place at the table.
“It was him,” Gloria says. She gets up.
“Sit down,” my father says. “Don’t ruin your mother’s dinner.”
Gloria storms out of the room and up the stairs.
“Don’t go after her,” my father says. “I’ve had enough of their cockamamie relationship. Make up your damned minds.” He raises his voice so she’ll hear him. “SHIT OR GET OFF THE POT.”
I sit there for a few horrified seconds, and then follow my sister to her room. Through the closed door, I can hear her sobbing.
“Gloria? It’s me. Do you want to talk?”
She doesn’t answer. She’s still sobbing, and I can hear that she’s talking to someone on her cell phone. I knock again and try the door. Not surprisingly, it’s unlocked. There’s no resistance as I cross the room and take her in my arms. She feels small and vulnerable. Not at all like the bullying big sister I remember.
“Bengie’s asked me to forgive him, and he wants to come back home,” she tells me through hiccups and mascaraed tears. “We’ve been talking on and off all afternoon.”
“Are you going to agree to that?” I already know the answer.
“What else am I supposed to do? Look, I know it’s far from a perfect marriage, but I’m almost thirty-two. I think it’s time for us to start having kids, and I think that’s what he wants. I know it’s what Mom and Dad are expecting.”
“I don’t think they want you to be with a man who runs around behind your back and publicly humiliates you,” I say. “I know Mom’s really pissed.” I look at Gloria as she lies crumbled in my arms. “Don’t sell yourself short. Fight for something better.”
“He’s promised he won’t see her anymore.”
“Will he ask her to leave the firm?”
“He can’t do that. He’s afraid she’ll sue for sexual harassment.”
“There are ways around that. He can offer her a settlement. Find her another job. My point is that if she stays on, this will flare up again, I guarantee it. Want me to talk to him?”
“Do what you want,” she says. “I’ve got to go. Bengie’s picking me up in a few minutes.” She gets up and starts fixing her makeup.
* * *
I go back down to the table. Our parents are eating dinner as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on.
I’m thinking about what to say when my father makes it easy for me.
“She’s no picnic, you know,” he says. “Over thirty and afraid to have a baby… afraid she’ll get fat. I don’t blame the guy.”
“That’s not fair, Mark.” My mother rushes to her daughter’s defense. “You have no idea how hard it is to lose all that baby weight. I picked up ten to fifteen pounds with each of them.”
“Bengie’s coming to pick her up in a few minutes,” I say. “Leave them be. They’ll figure it out.”
“Easy for you to say. You don’t live with it night and day the way we do,” my mother says.
When Bengie blows the horn a few minutes later, we don’t leave the table. We watch Gloria rush down the stairs and out the door.
“See you later, guys,” she calls out to us. “Thanks, Mom … Dad. Oh, and Carley, catch you later. You can stop by anytime tomorrow after five thirty to pick up your stuff.” I’ve left my suitcase at the condo thinking we’d go back there after dinner. She smiles manically—frozen in the doorway for a split second—and slams the door behind her.
* * *
Hours later, I’m lying awake in my canopied four-poster bed, staring at the Springsteen, Van Halen, and U2 posters still hanging on the walls. It’s not only that I’m still on California time; it’s already four in the morning on the digital clock. I’m thinking about Cindy Relley and Gristy and wondering what went wrong. I raise my arms and look up at my hands. Then I flex my left hand backward, pushing hard with my right, and I lie there staring at the dimples. Not even California’s far enough if you take it with you. There’s got to be some other way.