By: Jennifer Watkins
Featured art: Woman and Child by Mary Cassatt
At three years old, you will sit beside me in a rusty Ford as we head south on I-95. The air conditioning will blow lukewarm air, and you will feel hot and sticky. From the carrier in the backseat, our cat will growl long and low. Looking out of the passenger window, you will see stacks of steel lattice speed by, connected by strands of drooping lines. Through the back windshield, a shrinking ribbon of asphalt, lengthening and disappearing into the horizon. After many hours, the dirt will turn from brown to orange.
“I want my daddy,” you will say.
“Daddy’s staying in Maryland,” I will reply.
A few weeks later, after boxes have been unpacked in the Georgia apartment complex called Cherry Tree Hill, a card will arrive in the mail. Tearing open the envelope, you will find a photograph of your father. He’ll be sitting in a leather office chair, smiling for his daughter’s benefit and wearing neatly pressed blues. You will clutch the picture to your chest, pressing your cheek against its sharp edges. You will kiss the photo over and over. I will tell you to stop.
“You’ll ruin it,” I’ll say.
I will hold you as you cry, and you will hear my heart beat as you lie against my chest. At three years old, you will learn: your mother is flesh and blood. Your father is envelopes and stamps.
A few months after moving into Cherry Tree Hill, you’ll be splashing in the shallow end of the complex pool when I meet Mike. He will have big muscles, a big moustache, and a little blonde girl named Courtney. I will like Mike. We will talk and laugh and go dancing on Saturday nights.
One evening, I’ll be talking to Mike on the phone, and you will trap your black cat with an overturned laundry basket. When you are bored of playing pet shop, you’ll go to the bathroom and climb on the counter. A mirrored medicine cabinet will be opened; orange-handled scissors will be removed. After closing the cabinet, you will grasp a chunk of hair and snip it off. Holding it in your hand, you will think how it looks just like the tails on your plastic toy horses. You will place the lock of hair beside you on the counter and cut another one. Then another. Then another. Eventually I will find you. I will try to salvage your hair, but for a long while it will be lopsided and uneven.
When you are four, Mike and I will get married. The ceremony will be right there in the apartment living room. You and Courtney will wear matching white dresses and hold sprigs of daisies. By then, your hair will be long again, and you’ll wear big spiral curls, stiff with hairspray, as a preacher gives a speech of big words. After Mike and I kiss, you’ll all eat cheese straws and petit fours. That night, Mike and Courtney won’t go back to their apartment. Instead, you’ll curl next to Courtney in a shared twin bed, feeling warm and full, your black cat purring between your neck and shoulder. You will realize: my marriage is your marriage, too. Families can disappear and grow back thicker, just like butchered hair.
When I become pregnant with your brother, our family will move to a brick house across town. The backyard will be sectioned off by an ivy-covered fence of red and white lattice. There will be sturdy oak trees and the yard will be thick with dandelions, some yellow and some cottony. I will hang ferns under the wraparound porch, and Mike will assemble a swing set in the backyard. The black cat will become an outside cat, protected by the fence and a flea collar.
On birthdays and holidays, thick stacks of colored envelopes will arrive. You and your sister will jump up and down, laughing, as you realize that gifts are multiplying exponentially. Courtney’s grandmother will sign your birthday cards, “Love, MawMaw.” On trips to Kentucky, she will call you her other granddaughter. Your grandmother will do the same, adding Courtney’s birthdate to the weathered front page of her address book.
When your brother is born, you and Courtney will take turns holding him and kissing his soft forehead. While I nurse him on hot August afternoons, Mike will build a two-story playhouse, robin’s egg blue. It will have a cinderblock foundation and door and two windows with real shutters, and a front porch.
When Mike finishes construction, he’ll give you each a broom, and you’ll sweep out the smoky-smelling sawdust. You’ll wipe dust from the walls with damp cloths. Mike will put a plastic kitchen set downstairs, and you and Courtney will swipe my mason jars and fill them with dandelions for the windowsills. You’ll eat cheese sandwiches on the plywood floor, forgetting to wash your hands first and crunching on dirt from your fingers.
On the second floor, which is only high enough for you to crawl in, you and Courtney will pick scabs and squeeze drops of red from the sores. You will smear blood into each other’s wounds.
“We’re blood brothers,” you will say.
Then: “No. Blood sisters.”
Hours later, the scabs will still burn. You won’t care. You’ll figure Courtney’s blood is mingling with yours, sister cells dancing together in your veins.
That summer, armed with acrylic paint sets, you and your sister will climb the ladder to the second floor. Your brother Kenneth will still be a newborn, but you’ll both chatter about him joining you in the playhouse. Hunching on your knees, you’ll brush color on wooden beams: Three Musketeers ’89.
When you are nine, I will pick you up from Smoky Mountain Summer Camp. Courtney will be visiting family in Kentucky. You’ll climb into the car, all tanned and glowy, smelling of bug-spray and damp dirt. The vinyl will be hot, and you’ll tuck your heels under your thighs to avoid touching the seats. As cool air blows, you’ll tell me about your week—the hikes and bonfires and canoe trips. Charred hot dogs and s’mores and cups of cold Kool-Aid.
You’ll be scratching mosquito bites on your left arm when I tell you that Mike and I are getting a divorce. You will be speechless, then breathless, then livid. You’ll want to get away from me, but we’re speeding down the highway at seventy miles per hour. So instead you’ll distance yourself as much as you can, pressing your forehead to the passenger window, wedging your body against the passenger door. You will remember hearing friends talk about “custody” on the playground. Who will stake a claim on your sister? You will scratch the mosquito bites until they’re raw and oozing red. After miles of silence, you will ask:
“What about Courtney?”
“What about Courtney?” I will say.
Through puffy eyes, you will look at me and understand: families are disposable, like red Dixie cups. They are collapsible like camping tents. They are temporary like summer tans.
You will come home to a half-empty bedroom. There will be a rectangle of dust on the hardwood floor where the other twin bed used to be. There will be tack holes in the pink plaster where posters once hung, and one dresser instead of two, and bare bookshelves. Running down the middle of the room, there will be a line of masking tape. Shortly after creating the boundary, you’d tiptoed over it in the middle of the night and climbed into bed beside your sister, frightened after watching A Christmas Carol. You were certain that a ghost would appear in the middle of the night to whisk you away.
Soon Mike will bring Courtney to retrieve forgotten VHS tapes. You will both kneel in front of the shelves of movies, trying to remember who got which tape for which holiday. When you can’t remember, the two of you will be generous, taking turns deferring to the other. The last time you do this—when you tell Courtney, “You can have The Parent Trap, I don’t mind”—your stepfather will leave the room quickly, but not before you see him wiping away tears. Looking at Courtney, you will realize that my divorce is your divorce, too.
That night, you will stare at the empty side of your bedroom. You will walk the chafed masking tape like a tightrope. You will realize that you didn’t know Courtney’s last night here would be her last night here. You will think to yourself that it’s probably only a matter of time before your brother disappears, too. You will realize: families are ephemeral, like ghosts. They are consolidated and then divided like VHS tapes. They are fleeting, here one minute and gone the next.
After the divorce, daycare will be too expensive, so you will become a latchkey kid. One afternoon, Courtney will ride the bus home with you. As you walk down the gravel driveway, you’ll realize you’ve forgotten your house key. Taking a loose gray brick from the landscaping, you’ll break a glass pane and reach through to unlock the door. Courtney will think that’s impressive. You’ll shake dry food into the bowl on the back steps for your black cat. By now, he’ll be skinny with some sort of skin disease, and there will be bald patches in his black fur. Courtney will refuse to pet him but you’ll still scratch his head.
On brown carpet, the two of you will lie on your stomachs, staring up at a squat television set and watching reruns of Bewitched. You will eat Doritos and suck orange powder from your fingertips. Courtney will crinkle her nose like Samantha, trying to manifest a hot cheese pizza. As you watch, you will furrow your brow when Darrin appears. You will notice that he’s not as handsome as he once was. He’s more sarcastic. And not nearly as funny. Samantha and Esmerelda don’t seem to notice. Neither does Courtney. But you notice.
“That’s a different Darrin,” you’ll say.
“No, it’s not,” Courtney will shoot back.
Suddenly, you’ll be fighting about everything—television shows and juice boxes, about how she sings when you do your homework. You’ll fight over clothes, and you’ll accuse her of taking your favorite embroidered vest when she moved. You’ll war over obscure movie facts and who gets which seat on the sofa and whether barbecue potato chips are better than plain.
As you scream at each other, you’ll want to tell Courtney how you feel invisible, how you and I have been eating microwave dinners that are always cold in the middle. But instead you will yell, “I hate you.” You will slap her. After that, you will no longer ride the bus home together.
At school the next day, you’ll climb the jungle gym with Ginny Benjamin. Ginny—braces, freckles, and wide forehead—will mention Courtney.
“Your sister just made show choir,” Ginny will say, sliding in and out of the rusty grid. She’ll push a lock of damp hair from her forehead and look at you expectantly, beads of sweat above her upper lip. Remembering your pink room, half-empty, you’ll say:
“She’s not my sister.”
“Then what is she?” Ginny will ask. And for the first time, you’ll say the word ex-stepsister, blinking and swallowing hard. Climbing higher on the iron rods, you’ll want to tell Ginny: families rotate like actors on a sitcom. Principal characters change without notifying the audience. There is nothing you can do about this, so there’s no use crying on the playground.
The year of the divorce, you will stop receiving cards from Courtney’s side of the family. On your birthday, there will be two envelopes in the mailbox, one pink and one purple. From your father and your grandmother. Courtney’s family will still send cards and gifts to your brother. You will never see or hear from those people again, though your own grandmother will check on Courtney for the rest of her life.
Looking at the two birthday cards, you will think back to summers in the playhouse. You will think about burning sores and bright red blood. You will think how stupid you both were, how you can’t just decide to be sisters. DNA, you’ll think, doesn’t work that way.
For two years, Mike and Courtney will live in a dingy duplex across town. When I get a new boyfriend, Mike will decide to move to Kentucky.
“What about Kenneth?” you will say.
“Boys need their fathers more than their mothers,” I will say. And you’ll help Kenneth box up his toys and empty his drawers. You will cross-stitch a pillow for him and let him take your favorite blue sleeping bag. I will cry when the red truck with Mike, Courtney, and Kenneth pulls away. You will just stand there. A long time ago you’ll have figured out that once families start to fall apart, separation spreads like a virus. It’s only a matter of time before members fall away, one by one.
One day you will shake food into the bowl on the back stoop, but your black cat won’t come. The yard will be overgrown with black speckled V’s, grass reaching your calves. The playhouse roof will be covered in pine straw. Brown thrashers will fly from the corner of its porch to an oak tree and back, covering the entryway in white and gray droppings.
You will walk around to the side of the house, to the little garden between the east wall and the fence. The space will be lush with clover and prickly white buds. You will call for your cat. Pacing the garden, you will find him lying on his side, stiff and bloated.
Mike will have taken the shovel and the garden hoe when he left. So I will wrap the cat in newspaper and place him in the rolling wastebin by the curb. The next morning, when it’s still dark and you’re still sleeping, the garbage truck will carry him away.
The next time you see Courtney, she will be seventeen. During one of your brother’s drop-offs, she will come with Mike and you will come with me. You and Courtney will embrace, standing to the side talking while Mike transfers Kenneth’s suitcases to my trunk. You will think that Courtney looks too thin and too pale. Her loose, teal crop top will reveal a concave stomach, and her eyes will be rimmed with old mascara. You will see that she has a tattoo of a unicorn on her ankle.
You will say: “How are you?”
She will say: “I’ve had a rough few months.”
She will say: “There was going to be a baby.”
Looking at her flat abdomen, you won’t be able to imagine it round with child. You will picture her curling in a twin bed alone. You will tell her: “I’m sorry.”
This is how it will feel: like a bone that breaks and heals and breaks again. It will feel like the lessons you learn are the only truth that matters. Those truths will feel definite and unyielding. But those truths are mine. Just mine. Not yours.
When you have children of your own, you will mail their photographs to your father. You will wonder if he kisses the pictures, whether they’re crumpled and creased from holding them to his heart. Sometimes your son and your daughter will flank you on either side and close in on you in a hug, yelling Mommy Sandwich, and you’ll think of cheese sandwiches in humid playhouses and bread stuck to the roof of your mouth. You’ll forgive me, because loss has made you tender, and you’ll phone your father on Monday nights. You’ll attend out-of-state funerals and text your brother on his birthday. Because you’ll think of your black cat, your half-empty bedroom, and you’ll know: things fall away.
Jennifer Watkins, MFA, is an essayist with work appearing in Tampa Review, Chattahoochee Review, and SFWP Quarterly, among other publications. She teaches English in Milledgeville, Georgia.