My Favorite Siblings
Lorena and Iris were gathered around the computer screen, each vying for sole control of the keyboard while trading their opinions of the photos and short bursts of autobiographical information that appeared on the Myspace pages of girls they knew from school. I was sitting at the sticky dining room table nearby, tutoring their younger sister, Maria, and from time to time I looked up from the book we were reading together and I caught glimpses of the images on the computer screen. To me, the teenagers in the pictures looked near identical to the two teenagers with me in the room, and it made me sort of sad, the strong pull of conformity, as well as the instinct in females for comparison, the way Lorena and Iris were comparing themselves and each other to these other young women. But then I corrected myself. For starters, the middle school they attended required them to wear a uniform; you had to wear either a gray polo shirt or sweatshirt, and navy blue pants or skirt. This explained why they looked so similar, I told myself. Still, the girls all wore their hair the same way. They flat-ironed it straight, and parted it dramatically along one side of their faces, their severely straightened bangs halving their blemished foreheads – why make adolescence any more grotesque and lonely than it has to be already?, I asked myself whenever I was struck by the severity and aggressive declaration of aloofness intended by this popular hairstyle.
I had to remind myself, when the girls’ MySpace session was beginning to irritate me, that Lorena and Iris, and each girl whose image they were scrutinizing, was an individual, with a past and a self-awareness and most likely thirsty, undertended, at the mercy of brash actions they had no time to think out beforehand, just acted on. Self righteously, I’d just forgiven all teenaged girls their self-absorption. But in particular, I could forgive Iris and Lorena anything, because they were clever and compassionate and tough, and they did me the kindness of treating me more like one of their own than like a grown up.
I was a single, 30 year old woman, raised an only child.
I think it’s probably abnormal to be this young and so genuinely uninterested in living.
It was the time of day for the ice cream truck to begin its daily routine, its several circles around the block and then its idling in front of the apartment building for up to an hour sometimes, playing its never ending recording, a music-box tinkle robotically humming the melody of the song “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
“Ooh, Sammie, it’s your ice cream stud”, Lorena teased me, “Go say hi.” This teasing was the result of me having glimpsed the teenaged boy who drove the ice cream truck one day, and telling the girls, mostly just to have something relatable to say to them, that I was surprised at how handsome he was. It’s true. He almost looked like Johnny Depp, except he had the cowboy sideburns of Johnny Knoxville. That’s what I said to the girls, thinking that these celebrities were people they would have heard of, but Iris immediately demanded, “Who are they?”
“Go talk to him,” the girls excitedly encouraged. “Pleeeease. We’ll watch from the window. You have to!!!” I usually smoked a bowl in my car before starting my tutoring sessions, so my inhibitions were low as they made this request. “Maria and I were just in the middle of diagramming the plot of Amelia Bedelia,” I weakly protested, but Maria had already closed the book and was giggling, expectantly, knowing her every request was my pleasure and that I was about to step outside to talk to the young ice cream man.
“Okay, dorks, I’ll go out there, but when I get back inside, you need to turn the TV down, or off; I have a headache,” I said, stalling. Then, I walked to the window of the opened metallic shutters of the ice-cream truck, wheat-pasted with bright cardboard pictures of Good Humor ice cream bars, Eskimo Pies, Astro Pops and Moon Pies. I called in to the boy inside, not sounding like a sexual being or like a customer either.
“Hola,” I said, in my white urban twang.
“Hi,” he replied. “I like your earrings, they match your eyes.” I didn’t expect we would actually flirt; I was planning on just pretending for the sake of my onlookers that I was having a conversation with him while actually just standing there looking at the rows of candy like jewels, squishy tamarind suckers like amber wrapped in cellophane and the little dented freezer inside. He surprised me with his sweetness. So much so that I said, “Thank you,” already forgetting he’d complimented me, just thanking him for the attention.
“Are they a gift from a boyfriend”
“Aw, that’s too bad. Where is he right now?”
“I don’t know, he gave them to me five years ago, and we broke up later that month,” I smiled. “I tutor the littlest girl who lives in the apartment behind us.”
“Oh yeah? So you’re smart, huh. That’s nice, that’s nice.”
“Mmm hmm,” was all I could think to respond with, but I’ve always enjoyed humming that particular phrase of assent. The noises are soothing. Mmm. Hmmm.
The young man stopped the organizing and counting he’d been at while we’d been speaking, and he said, “You want some meth?”
“What? No!” My feelings were hurt, but I wasn’t shocked. I forced myself to believe in Existentialism when I was in college, and now nothing shocks me.
“No,” I reiterated, “Of course not. You don’t sell drugs to little kids, do you?”
I was asking more out of curiosity than outrage, but his expression changed quickly to one of pure hatred. “Of course not. How old are you, though, in your thirties, right? Why else would you come to this truck? You want an Eskimo Pie?” I was speechless.
“What?” he demanded, and I turned around to walk back to the apartment, pretending for the girls that I’d just had a funny conversation with him. I felt so ugly and old and hopeless, at that moment, but then, I heard him addressing my back and what he said was, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Lo siento. I think you’re pretty,” and my gratefulness at his graceful ending to our horrific exchange registered immediately on my face, and I think the girls, as they watched me, thought he’d just said something exciting, something flattering in a normal way, like, “See you tomorrow?”
This all transpired a couple weeks earlier, and the girls were now teasing me about him, but looking through the apartment window, I could see that he had been replaced by a much older man.
“He’s not in the truck today, girls. Look, it’s an old man. Hey, what time is it, anyway?” I stayed for sessions of 2 hours. An extra half hour had passed. “I don’t know, “Lorena said. At 14 (the oldest of the sisters) she was constantly angry with her parents, and now she complained of them, “God, they’re always late. But you can go home now if you want; you don’t have to wait for them. It’s okay for me to be in charge.” I didn’t want to leave them, though, and it had nothing to do with believing Lorena incapable of holding down the fort. I was concerned that her parents hadn’t warned me that they were going to be late. Despite Lorena’s complaint about them, they seemed to me prompt and responsible, and it was uncharacteristic of them to not be home by now. But I did leave, reassuring myself first by asking Iris, “Your parents let your Lorena babysit you guys, right?” and she said, “Yeah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Here, you can finish the crackers.” Ever since Maria first asked if I wanted to share her snack with her, Ritz Crackers, I’d been eating them compulsively, trying to sneak them out of their plastic packaging so it wasn’t noticeable how greedy I could be sometimes. “Thanks,” I smiled, only slightly abashed at the immaturity required to eat snacks offered by children. But I loved it, the taste and texture of the buttery crackers dissolving in my mouth.
“Okay, I’m going to leave now, alright? But, like… are you guys scared? I’ll stay until they get home if you’re scared, not that there’s anything to be scared of; I’m sure it’s just traffic” – the husband and wife worked at the same company, an airplane parts manufacturing plant in Westchester, and commuted to work together. I directed this question to Maria, I think because I knew she found my over-solicitousness amusing, but of course it was Lorena, the one in charge, who answered: “Don’t worry, we’re fine.”
By 8:30 that night, I’d already had my third shot of the vodka I kept in the freezer, its bottle frosted like Christmastime windows in old movies. I drank standing at my filthy kitchen counter, in purple underwear and an oversized sweatshirt from my Alma Mater, its cuffs riddled with little holes because I nibble at the fabric of my cuffs during times of nervousness. “Fuck it,” was a phrase I was saying to myself, my toast, before each quick gulp of the cold, bitter syrup.
What was I giving up on, stealing significance from, as I repeated this mantra, “Fuck it”? Fuck what? Well, I meant it as an undercutting of my existence. Because I am an insignificant person, with no proof to the contrary. So, “Fuck it,” and I swallowed a 4th shot.
Who do I consider significant? People who do something passionately enough to make them famous, and mothers, mothers like lionesses, martyrs more real than Christ.
The phone rang, and it was Maria. “Maria? It’s 9:30. Are you allowed to be up this late? I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
She was crying. “My parents didn’t come home yet, Ms. Samantha. What do I do?”
“Shit!” I said, and she giggled at the swearword, against her better judgment in light of the serious situation. “And also, Iris got mad at Lorena for bossing us, so she left. I think she went to her boyfriend’s place but we can’t call her because she left her phone here.” Then Lorena must have taken the phone from her hands, and now I was asking Lorena, “What’s happening there? Where are they? Do you think Iris is going to come back tonight?”
“I don’t know. How’m I supposed to know? Shit!” She yelled it so loudly I imagined passersby outside (one thing I loved so much about their neighborhood was the way people were always walking around, just strolling on the sidewalk or sitting in groups on steps, like I imagine neighborhoods used to be in some other, better decade) hearing her and wondering what was wrong.
Lorena’s sobs were so quiet they just sounded like deep breaths. I heard Maria, who I secretly considered my best friend, cooing, “It’s okay, LoLo, it’s okay, Pretty." Then Maria took the phone back from Lorena. “Hi,” she said. “Hi,” I responded. “Is there anyone you can think of to go over and get help from?” The neighborhood was one in which most people were acquainted with each other; the elementary school was catty-corner to the residential block, and almost every apartment held a child who attended that school. I was just an outsider in that world but I sensed a network of camaraderie between the parents of those children and I imagined there were neighbors who’d be better able to help the girls than I was. The problem was, and I’d observed enough interactions between Maria and other neighborhood kids to know this, she seemed to harbor a vague sense of rivalry towards each household on the block. Once, a girl her age knocked on the front door, and after some deliberation, Maria opened the door a few inches. “What is it?” she demanded of the girl, who was craning her neck to get a look at me. Her face registered a fascination with who I might be, and then she looked around, took in the whole room, the huge framed poster of a jaguar hanging over the comfortable rust-colored couch, the family photos arranged on top of the television, the stack of DVD’s in the corner of the room.
“What do you want?” Maria asked of the girl, almost wearily, as though the girl was out to drain Maria of what little energy she possessed (she was lethargic and mysterious, my little friend).
“Can I borrow your Finding Nemo DVD?”
“Come on,” the girl whined, “Why not?”
“Because it’s not mine,” Maria snapped, and then she closed the door in the girl’s face and came back to sit next to me, telepathically asking me to leave the subject be, but I couldn’t help myself, I asked her, “Why were you so mean? She seemed like she really wants to be friends with you.”
Like a spurned lover in a sitcom, Maria answered, “She knows why.”
I persisted, because Maria was so considerate to me and her family, it was hard to adjust to this new harshness in her. “Well Jeez-Louise, you didn’t have to be so mean to her. Was she mean to you once?”
“No, not really.”
“Well then why did you just slam the door in her face?”
“Okay, she’s nice outside of school, but in class, she’s a brat.”
Since then, I’d seen her snub adults and other kids her own age, always in the same precociously guarded way, and so I wasn’t surprised when Maria now told me “Nobody here can help us.”
“Do you want me to come over?”
I was slightly drunk as I drove there, and I know that is bad, but it is what I did.
When I arrived at their apartment building, my headlights danced across the familiar face of Iris, temporarily stunned by the light and in disbelief that I was there. She was sitting on a stoop the next apartment building over, with a group of teenagers. None of them were speaking, they were just psychically sharing their boredom or maybe their stoned, far-reaching thoughts, and watching the neighborhood dogs and cats scale roofs and fences like nonchalant acrobats.
“Samantha?” Iris ran to me as I got out of the car, and for the regard she held me in at the moment, I wish I could pay her a hundred dollars or make her immortal, I felt just that validated.
We separated from the group and she grabbed my hands. “Lorena’s being such a bitch. She keeps saying mom and dad are dead, like that they got in an accident. Something weird must’ve just happened at the factory, like a bomb scare and they’re still sitting outside, waiting for their bosses to tell them that they can go home. But Lorena’s running around the apartment making Maria cry. And then she called her gay-ass girlfriend over to comfort her, and when I bitched her out to leave, she grabbed my arm with her busted-ass manicure and made my arm bleed.” On a different day I would have appreciated having the mystery of tough, secretive Lorena’s sexual orientation revealed to me, but now it didn’t matter.
“Let me see your arm where she scratched you,” I said, and she held out her arm but it was a plane of completely unharmed skin. We made eye contact and she just shrugged. She started to cry. We entered the apartment. Lorena and Maria were leaning against each other on the couch, watching TV.
Maria was awful at reading comprehension, the subject I was tutoring her in. Whenever I brought a book for us to study, I did an exercise in which, before we actually read the book, we looked at the illustrations on each page, and based on what the picture showed, she predicted how the plot was going to develop, and then we turned the page to see what the next picture showed. Without fail, her guesses at a logical course of events was always incredibly off the mark. We read one book where a postman delivers mail to different fairy tale characters, stopping to chat with each character before moving on to the next. The postman climbed up a beanstalk to bring the giant who lived above the clouds a letter from his tiny antagonist, Jack, and the giant poured the postman a huge mug of tea as a gesture of kindness; the postman then trekked to the house of Cinderella’s bitter stepfamily, delivering a wedding invitation for the wedding of Cinderella to Prince Charming, and the women tried to engage him in a conversation about their resentment regarding Cinderella’s good luck; next, he brought three kind, rural bears a letter of apology from Goldilocks, and the bears invited him to stay for dinner. When he delivered a catalogue for witch supplies to the witch from Hansel and Gretel, I asked Maria, “What do you think is going to happen next?”
“I think the witch is going to get mad at him for bothering her, and as punishment, she’s going to put a curse on him to take his voice away, like the witch does to Ariel in The Little Mermaid.”
I used to let her failure at reading comprehension frustrate me. I use to get irritated that she had such little regard for, or maybe it was an understanding of, plot, of how events are most likely to shake out. Of course the smug, paranoid, house-proud pig who builds his house out of bricks will be prepared when the inevitable predator finally arrives at the door. Of course everything will work out in the end for Snow White, while karma catches up with her stepmother, the wicked woman who suffers from debilitating vanity. Maria had no interest in outcomes. Whenever I asked her to define “reading comprehension” for me, which I did at least once at the beginning and end of each tutoring session, she had a different wrong answer, from “Um…a poem?” to “The pictures in the story.” After four or five sessions of trying hard to teach her, though, I became charmed at the way she always included me, my favorite animal, my favorite color, in the writing exercises I gave her. Once I asked her to write a five sentence story with a cohesive beginning, middle and end, and this is what she wrote: “Once upon a time there was a girl named Ms. Samantha. She visited a girl named Maria twice a week. Maria was ten years old. Ms. Samantha was pretty and funny. Sometimes she got confused, and when she did they both thought it was funny and laughed.” I could have taught her about using pronouns carefully, but I loved the way I couldn’t tell from the story whether she was saying that Ms. Samantha got confused, or whether it was the little girl who had the fits of funny confusion. Gradually, we began speaking to each other as peers, in a pidgin language of simple words and roundabout summaries for serious problems. Once, when Lorena absentmindedly pushed her sleeves up, Maria and I simultaneously noticed a maze of cuts that Lorena kept hidden under the cuff of her long sleeves. “I think my sister’s pretty sad, or mad or something,” Maria whispered once Lorena’d closed her bedroom door behind her.
“I think you’re right,” I said.
“I hope she stops hurting her arm.”
“Me too. If she doesn’t and you feel like talking to me about it, maybe I can help. Maybe I can ask her to stop, or ask her what’s wrong.”
“Thanks,” she said, handing me a Gummi Bear. She wore her hair in a Pageboy cut her mom trimmed every month or so. Sometimes when I was teasing her about something, I tousled her hair, and it was so soft it felt like touching mist. She liked to have the images that decorated her clothing commented on; if she was wearing her t-shirt that advertised a summer camp called Wood Valley (she hadn’t been to the camp, but had chosen the shirt at the Goodwill), for instance, I’d say I liked the eagle that was depicted on the shirt’s design, or the waterfall, and a comment like this would make her smile and talk about how much she liked eagles or waterfalls. Now, as we waited for her parents to come home, she sat next to me on the couch in a matching pajama top and pants with a repeating pattern of ladybugs, and I said, “I love ladybugs,” and she said, “Me too. One time a real ladybug landed on me when I was wearing this shirt.” She was crying though. So were Lorena and Iris. “Who should I call, you guys?” I asked. My chest felt tight with panic, but I was also still drunk, and my thoughts were muddied. I didn’t think about calling the police or any of the girls’ relatives. Lorena said she just wanted to watch TV, so that was what we did.
“Will you stay tonight, until they get home?” Maria asked.
“Of course I’ll stay. I’ll stay as long as you guys want.” I flipped through the channels and settled on Nickelodeon. Something awful was surely going on. I was in the midst of a tragedy, probably. But I couldn’t help it, it felt good, to finally be a significant person.