By David Hansen
With my sister, a lean, hard girl who looks like our mother, I discuss my trouble. When I’ve said it all, we talk about money.
“Just let me help,” I say.
“You are helping,” says my sister. “Let me help more,” I say.
Now my sister fishes a roach out of a tiny bowl from which I, as a little girl, ate ice cream, and says, “You’ve changed the subject.”
“Have I?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “We were talking about you. Whenever we talk about you, you try to talk about me instead.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I say. “But very well. What about me?” She asks me whether I will do a certain thing about my trouble. “Oh, I don’t know,” I say.
In truth I will not do this thing, but I will come close. I will come so close that I cannot speak of this thing, even now.
My sister lights the roach and draws a gentle breath from it, leading it back into this life. Then she offers the roach to me.
“But should I?” I say. “Probably not,” says my sister.
“I must warn you,” I say, accepting the roach, “that this will make me a mite dreamy.”
When we are both afloat my sister tells me of the business with her landlord, a bad situation she has only made worse by taking him to bed. I ask her how much she pays now. She tells me.
“For this?!” I say, but in truth, I adore this little place, with its seasoned hardwood and its hideous angels sculpted into the cornices.
Now my sister reaches for something—a magazine, I think—and from the side of my eye I see up the armhole of the yellow sweatshirt that she has cut into a loose tank top. I see the pink band of her bra running over her ribs. Not so long ago, it occurs to me, we had no need for bras. We were as lithe as boys, and we abhorred womanhood as boys do.
“I worry about you,” I say.
“Worry about yourself,” says my sister. “I worry about myself, too,” I say.
My sister grooms the roach’s cherry with a fingernail. “It’s rude,” she says, “to worry about me from your position.”
“My position!” I say. “What’s the matter with my position?” My sister looks at me in this way she has of looking at me.
“Oh!” I say. I laugh and laugh and laugh. “Sister, give me a little more credit.” “You know a lot,” says my sister. “But this is something I know.”
It’s true. My sister once had this trouble, but she didn’t do what I will do. She did something else. I don’t hold it against her, but our mother did.
“No daughter of mine,” said our mother to me.
“Then whose?” I said. And on that day I became my sister’s sister.
“Maybe you know this trouble,” I say to my sister, “but you don’t know me.”
“I know you,” says my sister.
But what my sister knows is herself, and when she thinks of me, she thinks of everything she is not. I say some of this, but not all of it.
“And what am I not?” says my sister.
“You’re not rich,” I say, “and you’re not a coward.”
My sister says something I don’t quite hear, but it has the timbre of an unkind utterance.
I tell my sister I am too stoned to say more and she crosses the room and turns on the TV. The soles of her feet are filthy, except the arches, which are bright white. On TV, a spaceship is taking off. It falls into the heavens, like a diver’s body.
Now I drift into the future as some drift into the past and see a day when I will bring my daughter into this room. I will carry her in the nook of my arm, as our mother once carried my sister into a room I was in. My daughter will be swaddled in a pink knit blankie.
“Good God,” my sister will say, holding out her hands, “she’s not a sack of sugar!”
Into my sister’s arms I will decant my daughter. Though my daughter weighs little more than a big book, I will feel as light as a ghost without her. My sister will cradle my daughter so gently I will worry my daughter is even more fragile than I know. I will watch my sister put her finger to my daughter’s lips, a touch so light I cannot feel it later, when I try it on myself. I will hear my sister speak words of love so loving I myself feel love, a feeling I had not expected to feel again in this life.
“Do you ever think,” my sister says, returning me to this world, “that our lives got mixed up in the mail?”
As if the answer is not inside me, I look around this room. I imagine myself alone in it, as my sister often is. I imagine a life closing over me, shutting out all avenues of escape.
Then I remember that we once made sugar cookies for our mother. We were very young, my sister and I. We followed a recipe from our mother’s cookbook, which was her mother’s and was in such bad repair that we destroyed it just by opening it. Though we took care, we were naturally careless, and the dough came out claggy. Still, we were proud, of the dough, of ourselves. We dumped the dough from the bowl onto the cutting board, which I had sagely dusted with flour, a step that was not in the recipe but that I had learned from watching our mother make these cookies for us. Being the older girl who had already learned the value of sacrifice, I let my sister use the cookie cutter. The cookie cutter was in the vague likeness of a human body. I watched my sister pressing the cutter into the dough. I thought of myself, and then of my sister, and then of our mother, not as she was but as she once had been, young and beautiful and pregnant with me.
David Hansen’s stories have appeared in Fence, Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, Chicago Review, Fairy Tale Review, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. He has a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis, and he teaches fiction at the University of Rochester, in New York.