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When I was four and Cass was six, she whacked me across the face with a plastic shovel at our neighborhood park. We were in the sandbox, and it was winter: In the pictures, we're in matching coats and hats and mittens. My mother loved to dress us alike, like twins, since we were only two years apart. We did look alike, with the same round face and dark eyes and the same brown hair. But we weren't the same, even then.
The story goes like this: Cass had the shovel and I wanted it. My mother was sitting watching us on a bench with Boo, who had her camera and was snapping pictures. This was at Commons Park, the small grassy area in the center of our neighborhood, Lakeview. Besides the sandboxes it also had a swing set, one of those circular things you push real fast and then jump ona kind of manual merry-go-roundand enough grass to play baseball or kickball. Cass and I spent most of the afternoons of our childhood at Commons Park, but the shovel incident is what we both always remembered.
Not that we ourselves recalled it that well. We had just heard the story recounted so many times over the years that it was easy to take the details and fold them into our own sparse memories, embellishing here or there to fill in the blanks.
It is said that I reached for the shovel and Cass wouldn't give it to me, so I grabbed her hand and tried to yank it away. A struggle ensued, which must have looked harmless until Cass somehow scraped one hard plastic edge across my temple and it began to bleed.
Thismoment, the moment, we have documented in one of Boo's photos. There is one picture of Cass and me playing happily, another of the struggle over the shovel (I'm wailing, my mouth a perfect O, while Cass looks stubborn and determined, always a fighter), and finally, a shot of her arm extended, the shovel against my face, and a blur in the left corner, which I know is my mother, jumping to her feet and running to the sandbox to pull us apart.
Apparently, there was a lot of blood. My mother ran through the winding sidewalks of Lakeview with me in her arms, shrieking, then took me to the hospital where I received five tiny stitches. Cass got to stay at Boo and Stewart's, eat ice cream, and watch TV until we got home.
The shovel was destroyed. My mother, already a nervous case, wouldn't let us leave the house or play with anything not plush or stuffed for about six months. And I grew up with a scar over my eye, small enough that hardly anyone ever noticed it, except for me. And Cass.
As we grew older, I'd sometimes look up to find her peering very closely at my face, finding the scar with her eyes before reaching up with one hand to trace it with her finger. She always said it made her feel horrible to look at it, even though we both knew it wasn't really her fault. It was just one more thing we had in common, like our faces, our gestures, and our initials.
When Cass was born my mother still wasn't sure what to name her. My mother had suffered terrible morning sickness, and Boo, who had moved in next door during the fourth month or so, spent a lot of time making herbal tea and rubbing my mother's feet, trying to make her force down the occasional saltine cracker. Boo was the one who suggested Cassandra.
"In Greek mythology she was a seer, a prophet," she told my mother, whose tendencies leaned more toward Alice or Mary. "Of course she came to a horrible end, but in Greek mythology, who doesn't? Besides, what more could you want for your daughter than to be able to see her own future?"
So Cassandra it was. By the time I came along, my mom and Boo were best friends. Boo's real name was Katherine, but she hated it, so I was named Caitlin, the Irish version. Cass's name was always cooler, but to be named for Boo was something special, so I never complained. Her name was just one thing I envied about Cass. Even with all our similarities, it was the things we didn't have in common that I was always most aware of.
My sister wasn't a seer or a prophet, at least not at eighteen. What she was, was student body president two years running, star right wing of the girls' soccer team (State Champs her junior and senior year), and Homecoming Queen. She volunteered chopping vegetables at the homeless shelter for soup night every Thursday, had been skydiving twice, and was famous in our high school for staging a sit-in to protest the firing of a popular English teacher for assigning "questionable reading material"Toni Morrison's Beloved. She made the local news for that one, speaking clearly and angrily to a local reporter, her eyes blazing, with half the school framed in the shot cheering behind her. My father, in his recliner, just sat there and grinned.
There were only two times I can remember ever seeing Cass really depressed. One was after the soccer State Championship sophomore year, when she missed the goal that could have won it all. She locked herself in her room for a full day. She never talked about it again, instead just focusing on the next season, when she rectified the loss by scoring the only two goals of the championship game.
The second time was at the end of her junior year, when her first real boyfriend, Jason Packer, dumped her so he could "see other people" and "enjoy his freedom" in his last summer before college. Cass cried for a week straight, sitting on her bed in her bathrobe and staring out the window, refusing to go anywhere.
She drew back from everyone a bit, spending a lot of time next door with Boo where they drank tea, discussed Zen Buddhism, and read dream books together. This was when Cass became so spiritual, scanning the world around her for signs and symbols, sure that there had to be a message for her somewhere.
She got into three out of the four schools she applied to, and ended up choosing Yale. My parents were ecstatic and threw a party to celebrate. We all applauded and cheered as she bent over to slice a big cake that read WATCH OUT YALE: HERE COMES CASS! which my mother had ordered special from a bakery in town.
But Cass wasn't herself. She smiled and accepted all the pats on the back, rolling her eyes now and then at my parents' pride and excitement. But it seemed to me that she was just going through the motions. I wondered if she was looking for a sign, something she couldn't find with us or even at Yale.
She stayed in this funk all the way through graduation. In mid-June she went to stay with her friend Mindy's family at the beach and got a job renting out beach chairs by the boardwalk every day. Three mornings into it she met Adam. He was down at the beach on vacation with some friends from the show, and rented a chair from her. He stayed all day, then asked her out.
I could tell when she called the next morning, her voice so happy and laughing over the line, that our Cass was back. But not, we soon learned, for long.
I don't think any of us knew how much we'd needed Cass until she was gone. All we had was her room, her stories, and the quiet that settled in as we tried in vain to spread ourselves out and fill the space she'd left behind.
Everyone forgot my birthday as our kitchen became mission control, full of ringing phones, loud voices, and panic. My mother refused to leave the phone, positive Cass would call any minute and say it was all a joke, of course she was still going to Yale. Meanwhile my mother's friends from the PTA and Junior League circled through the house making fresh pots of coffee every five minutes, wiping the counters down, and clucking their tongues in packs by the back door. My father shut himself in his office to call everyone who'd ever known Cass, hanging up each time to cross another name off the long list in front of him. She was eighteen, so technically she couldn't be listed as a runaway. She was more like a soldier gone AWOL, still owing some service and on the lam.
They'd already tried Adam's apartment in New York, but the number had been disconnected. Then they called the Lamont Whipper Show, where they kept getting an answering machine encouraging them to leave their experience with this week's topicMy Twin Dresses Like a Slut and I Can't Stand It!so that a staffer could get back to them.
"I can't believe she'd do this," my mother kept saying. "Yale. She's supposed to be at Yale." And all the heads around her would nod, or hand her more coffee, or cluck again.
I went into Cass's room and sat on her bed, looking around at how neatly she'd left everything. In a stack by the bureau was everything she and my mother had bought on endless Saturday trips to Wal-Mart for college: pillowcases, a fan, a little plastic basket to hold her shower stuff, hangers, and her new blue comforter, still in its plastic bag. I wondered how long she'd known she wouldn't use any of this stuffwhen she'd hatched this plan to be with Adam. She'd fooled us all, every one.
She had come home from the beach tanned, gorgeous, and sloppy in love, and proceeded to spend about an hour each night on the phone long-distance with him, spending every bit of the money she'd made that summer.
"I love you," she'd whisper to him, and I'd blush; she didn't even care that I was there. She'd be lying across the bed, twirling and untwirling the cord around her wrist. "No, I love you more. I do. Adam, I do. Okay. Good night. I love you. What? More than anything. Anything. I swear. Okay. I love you too." And when she finally did hang up she'd pull her legs up against her chest, grinning stupidly, and sigh.
"You are pathetic," I told her one night when it was particularly sickening, involving about twenty I love yous and four punkins.
"Oh, Caitlin," she said, sighing again, rolling over on the bed and sitting up to look at me. "Someday this will happen to you."
"God, I hope not," I said. "If I act like that, be sure to put me out of my misery."
"Oh, really," she said, raising one eyebrow. Then, before I could react, she lunged forward and grabbed me around the waist, pulling me down onto the bed with her. I tried to wriggle away but she was strong, laughing in my ear as we fought. "Give," she said in my ear; she had a lock hold on my waist. "Go on. Say it."
"Okay, okay," I said, laughing. "I give." I could feel her breathing against the back of my neck.
"Caitlin, Caitlin," she said in my ear, one arm still thrown over my shoulder, holding me there. She reached up with her finger and traced the scar over my eyebrow, and I closed my eye, breathing in. Cass always smelled like Ivory soap and fresh air. "You're such a pain in the ass," she whispered to me. "But I love you anyway."
"Likewise," I said.
That had been two weeks earlier. She had to have known even then she was leaving.
I walked to her mirror and looked at all the ribbons and pictures she had taped around it: spelling bees, honor roll, shots from the mall photo booth of her friends making faces and laughing, their arms looped around each other. There were a couple of us, too. One from a Christmas when we were kids, both of us in little red dresses and white tights, holding hands, and one from a summer at the lake where we're sitting at the end of a dock, legs dangling over, in our matching blue polka-dot bathing suits, eating Popsicles.
On the other side of the wall, in my room, I had the same bed, the same bureau set, and the same mirror. But on my mirror, I had one picture of my best friend, Rina, my third-place ribbon from horseback riding, and my certificate from the B honor roll. Most people would have been happy with that. But for me, with Cass always blazing the trail ahead, there was nothing to do but pale in comparison.
Okay, so maybe I was jealous, now and then, but I could never have hated Cass. She came to all my competitions, cheering the loudest as I went for the bronze. She was the first one waiting for me when I came off the ice during my only skating competition, after falling on my ass four times in five minutes. She didn't even say anything, just took off her mittens, gave them to me, and helped me back to the dressing rooms where I cried in private as she unlaced my skates, telling knock-knock jokes the whole time.
To be honest, a part of me had been looking forward to Cass going off to Yale at the end of the summer. I thought her leaving might actually give me some growing room, a chance to finally strike out on my own. But this changed everything.
I'd always counted on Cass to lead me. She was out there somewhere, but she'd taken her own route, and for once I couldn't follow. This time, she'd left me to find my own way.
NINE CRAZY IDEAS IN SCIENCE
A Few Might Even Be True
By Robert Ehrlich
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.