When you are a younger sister, you are born with an eye not on the horizon, but on the hem of a shirt just ahead, the flash of a ponytail whipping side to side. You learn to hold still and trace the movement of another up the street, into a tree, onto a branch that will -- you can see it before it happens -- give way to a fall that will break her arm so seriously there will be talk of amputation. "They almost chopped it off, and then they didn't," she will say, hacking a line on her cast, triumphantly, already just a little theatrically.
She's good at telling stories, drawing a crowd of neighborhood kids and moving through them, reenacting the fall as if it were all a comedy act. Only you understand how bad it might have been -- that an arm is a thing one doesn't easily live without -- that you have to be careful, you have to be still. You can't just run after some line in the distance and not expect sooner or later to get hit by something: a Mack truck, a tornado, boys playing hockey where they shouldn't.
Your stillness, you believe, holds her back, just enough to keep her alive. There is an invisible cord between you that will break if you do not watch her carefully because you do have an effect. Your eyes can stop her, on a street corner, in conversation, in the nick of time. To everyone else you look like the quiet one, but only you know -- even in your silence and your stair-sitting ways -- you have all the power.
Or you did.
By the second week of kindergarten everyone has adjusted but me. The three girls with the prettiest names -- Hayley, Stephanie, and Claire -- and the longest, straightest hair have formed a friendship that I watch alone, from the outside. They share secrets and jacks and make rules that everyone else obeys. "No drinking from that water fountain in the morning. No drinking from that fountain ever."
Though I try to be invisible, a complicated process that involves walking without letting my toes touch the inside of my shoes, it is hard. Sometimes, they notice me, even so. Once they announce that because I have worn a purple shirt that day, no one is allowed to talk to me. Usually no one does talk to me, but this sounds so final that a wave of terror washes through me and I wet my pants on the spot.
Only I know it has happened because I am sitting in a wooden chair hollowed out for fannies. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, I neither speak nor move. Finally, when a teacher asks if everything is all right, I ask if she could please get my sister. Something in my voice must communicate the urgency because, a few minutes later, Rozzie is standing in front of me, delighted to have been called out from her class. In this room, everyone is younger and watches her and she knows it.
She bends down in front of me, as if she were the mother and has to accommodate an enormous height difference. "What is it?" she says, and I know she is drawing even more attention to herself, that her voice is louder than it needs to be if I am the only person meant to hear. Still, it doesn't matter. I am so grateful to see her, it is all I can do not to cry on the spot and compound my problem.
"I wet my pants," I whisper.
She seems neither put off nor particularly surprised. "Why?" she asks, as if I might have done this for a reason.
"They said my shirt was purple."
"Your shirt is purple."
"I didn't know, though. Now no one can talk to me."
She does what I have been waiting for her to do because she is brave like this: she turns around and stares at the group. "Who said that?" she asks. I point to the triumvirate of girls who are in the corner, trading barrettes. She walks over to them. "Did you tell my sister there's something wrong with her shirt?"
They blink up at her, frightened. She is only two years older, but it seems much more. In this moment, she appears capable of doing anything a teacher might do: delivering a lecture, a warning, a time-out. Instead, she stands in front of them, her hands on her hips. "That's pathetic," she says, using a word I know but have never said out loud. "Making something up just to make someone else feel bad is mean and pathetic."
They are more contrite than any punishment would have made them. All three look down. One -- Stephanie -- starts to cry. In that instant, I love Rozzie more than I have ever loved anyone else my whole life, including my mother. Maybe it will be all right, I think, my stomach loosening, my heart lifting. Rozzie is here.
Later, Rozzie goes out of the room, takes off her own tights, and comes back in. She hands them to me in a tight ball in her fist. As she does this, she leans into my ear. She smells like her shampoo, Clairol Herbal Essence, the way I imagine a jungle must smell. "Clean the chair with your skirt when you stand up," she whispers. This time no one can see her lips move. I do as she tells me, powerless to her spell. And it works. No one sits in the damp chair and figures out the truth. I've miraculously gotten away with a transgression I was sure I'd be paying for the rest of my life.
After Rozzie's visit, I am transformed, no longer invisible. Other kids make overtures with their paste brushes. ("You need this?" they ask. "Okay," I say.) People share their crayons, pinwheels, toilet paper under stall doors. One girl lets me wear her yarn wig for twenty minutes.
And then one day one of the triumvirate invites me to join their jacks circle at recess. It's Hayley, the same one Rozzie yelled at, and I know it isn't me she wants, but my sister. The scorn has sat with her, festered into a clawing ache, a dark need. I am a pathway to my sister's approval. All I need to do is accept this role, as easy as breathing, forever and ever, amen. And I do.
"Okay," I say, taking the smooth rubber ball in my hand, the spiny metal jacks. I am not good at jacks, but this time is different, I am not myself, not the crybaby who gets homesick an hour into school. I am a bridge -- a tangible connection between these girls and Rozzie. As such, I make it, no problem, to foursies. I hand the jacks away.
Everything is going to be all right.
Then I look up and see Rozzie on the far side of the playground, flying around on the rings. She is good at this and can make it around five times without stopping. The other girls look up and see this, too. They draw a line with their eyes, so that it's not invisible anymore, this force that connects us. Others see it, too, and in that instant, I believe I can travel back and forth, switch bodies on the spot and be her for a while, feel what it's like to move unafraid, to fly in a circle, my dress hiked up, my underwear showing. To be watched all the time and want that.
I also know how dangerous this is. That underwear, like belly buttons and family secrets, shouldn't show.
There will be a price to pay for joining this jacks circle, turning my caution watch into a ticket for popularity. It means no one is watching either one of us. It means anyone, at any minute, could fall.
At the hospital the only difference between night and day is the number of nurses on duty. Night shift loses three, half the floor staff. So the ones on are thinner and move faster; they are also quirkier -- women who've made the choice to be awake while everyone else sleeps. Though they have more to do, they sometimes talk longer; occasionally I will hear a whole life story: "Married one man I didn't love, another that I did. You want to know the difference in the end? Not much. Swear to God, not much."
One woman tells me, "I have a sister, too." For a long time she doesn't say any more, as if she is trying to decide which part to tell me. Finally she goes on, "Older, too. Like yours."
My sister lies between us, asleep finally, her face mostly obscured by bandages.
"Beautiful like her."
I smile and think: Don't start, please. Tell me anything else, just don't tell me this. And my face must show my inability to hear about other people's sisters because she stops and, for a long time, says nothing. Then she chooses the obvious, the standard: "My brother loves her. Has for years," nodding at Rozzie, changing whatever bag is dangling in the darkness above her.
"You want to know what your problem is?" Rozzie says to me, as if, lying here in this hospital room, she has no problems herself. She is eating her lunch, struggling with some applesauce, which she keeps missing as if the spoon has a mind of its own.
"Not really," I say. "But go ahead and tell me."
"Your problem is you don't know how to talk about yourself. You always deflect conversation away to other things."
I smile. "I don't want to talk about that."
I've gotten to know one nurse more than the others. Her name
is Paula; she is tall, with short hair and big arms and, in the dark, can look like a man. She is the only one who can take Rozzie's vitals
at night without waking her. Often she'll write the stats she gets -- temperature, blood pressure -- on the back of her hand. "Forgot my damn sheets," she'll say.
Once I ask, "Do you have to keep track of all this?"
Even in the dark, I can see her roll her eyes. "Oh yeah. Everything that goes in, everything that comes out. We got a whole file of this crap back there."
Later that night I run into her off duty by the vending machines. She has a cup of coffee in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other.
"That's a surprise," I say, pointing to the cigarettes.
I ask her if I can have one and she looks pleased, shakes two loose, and holds out the pack. I appreciate Paula because I've never once seen her hover with a piteous expression on her face, never felt her eyes on me in search of clues. She must not realize who Rozzie is, must think of her only as another patient on a floor of many. To Paula we're paperwork, vital stats to lose track of, nothing more. To the rest, we're a story they're telling at home -- not an unkind one, but weighted just the same. She's so nice, I can hear them tell their families. You wouldn't believe how sweet she is.
Paula doesn't care one way or another. She lights my cigarette and then looks around for something to talk about. She points to a Time magazine with a cover story on children shooting their classmates: "Can you believe that shit?"
Sitting beside her reminds me we are still a part of the world at large, that we should read these stories and have opinions on them. Many people have written to Rozzie or sent care packages -- boxes of food I open and, for the most part, eat myself -- giving me the impression that we are the only people in the news, which of course isn't true.
Halfway through our cigarettes, Paula asks how long we've lived in Minnesota.
"We don't live here. We just came for the treatment."
"No kidding." Paula seems shocked. "But you've got the accent."
I wonder if this is true. We have always sounded like one another, our voices indistinguishable on the phone. Are we both, in an effort to blend, starting to sound like the nurses around us?