A phone is ringing in the distance. I don't want to wake up yet. I am having a wonderful dream about a large apartment where everything is white, the whitest of whites. Music filters into my consciousness and I open my eyes. The digital clock glows greenly at me. I am listening to light music. The letters glow 7:48 which means it is really 7:18. My clock is a half hour fast in the hopes that seeing the later time when I am not fully awake will propel me into action. It hasn't yet.
For a moment, I achieve consciousness and sum up the situation. It is my birthday. I am thirty-two. I am listening to light music, my boyfriend is commitment phobic and I'm going to be late for work again.
Pounding on the snooze button I flip over, disappearing into sleep.
Seven minutes later, the phone rings again, insistently. I try to ignore it but it doesn't stop.
I stumble over my dresser and grab at it, rubbing what will soon be a bruise on my thigh.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you ..."
It's my older sister Bette. I am thirty-two years old.
"Stop, stop," I cry. "Listen, have I reached the age where I have to start whiting-out my age on my passport, like Zsa Zsa Gabor?"
"The sooner the better."
"I think I'll make this birthday the last one."
"Just remember ..."
"I know, I know, all of life's problems can be solved by a hot milky drink."
My sister is writing her dissertation on nurturing in the English novel. Lately, she has taken to eating only the food in Barbara Pym novels, and she is forever inviting me over for a nice cup of tea or a boiled egg on toast.
"Don't you think all this food is a little bland?" I asked her the other night, over a meatloaf-like thing she insists on calling mince.
"That's the whole point, it's nonthreatening."
My sister and I cling to each other, like survivors of an unbelievable, strange event, an event that we don't have the words to describe. That event was our childhood.
Our childhood wasn't strange in the way other people's were. We weren't abused or tortured or locked in a basement. We had parents who were successful and intelligent, but completely out of our reach. If we had a problem, they were the last people we would turn to. We see each other frequently, although sometimes the last person you need to see is someone who has gone through what you have. We are different from other people, lacking in certain qualities, overflowing in others.
My sister and I weren't always close. There was a time when the five-year age difference between us was an enormous barrier. I used to look at her and see a distant emissary from the land of cool. In high school, she had a brown suede jacket with fringe that I wanted more than anything. Later, we started to confide in each other. When I broke up with Charles, she was the only one I could talk to about it. Now, when I look at her, I see myself, but different. I know that if she is OK, then I could be.
My sister is happy in her job. I've never had a job I liked. When I started my current job as a legal secretary, there were all these procedures to rememberclient codes, computer codes, legal terminology. Now that I know what I'm doing, I think my job is easy, my knowledge useless. This is what I believe: Everything I know how to do well is useless. Everything that I don't know is impossible.
My sister sits in an ivory tower eating baked beans on toast. She has even persuaded her distinguished university to add it to the menu. I imagine her growing thin on a diet of Jane Austen and George Eliot. She believes (although she won't admit it) that she has had her one great love and all that kind of thing must be avoided from now on. She trusts novels not life. In novels, things work out according to plan; in life the plot is entirely unmanageable. I want to shake my sister into action. I want her to fall in love.
Hanging up the phone, I try to trace the origin of our dilemma. My sister and I grew up believing that our parents knew everything and everything they didn't know was irrelevant. They dismissed the ordinary as ridiculous, the spiritual as unnecessary. They were communists in their youth. They hid people, secret people. When we tried to pin them down, the stories evaporated. They would become impatient, changed the subject. When I heard about them hiding people, I imagined an underground railroad like the one we learned about in middle school, with trapdoors and trick panels and slaves singing freedom songs.
In Westchester, having achieved tenure and membership in the heavily chlorinated community swimming pool, my parents drank two vodka and tonics every night and were your basic liberals. My mother is a professor at Columbia; my father teaches group psychology at NYU. Of all the people I know, they are the most open-minded. The only thing they truly abhor is the ordinary.
My parents met at a playground. They were young, athletic, Jewish and communist. They believed only in the rational. In a rather conventional series of events, they courted and got married. I know all this because I've seen their wedding album, which I found on top of a pile of psychology books in the attic. It's a sugary white photo album where they are young and beautiful, idealistic, and in love. There is a heart-shaped portrait of them gazing into each other's eyes, another picture in the shape of a candle where they are cutting the cake. I am always mesmerized by the last picture. The picture is in the shape of a keyhole. My father has my mother in his arms and they are waving goodbye, as if they are disappearing behind a door. I would go over this picture in secret, tracing around the keyhole with my finger, and look at my mother's white dress, in its tissue paper mausoleum. I tried to peer inside the keyhole, learn the secret that would make me understand these strange, powerful people, but they were always waving good-bye, shutting me out behind that closing door.
During my childhood, I was convinced I was going mad. I heard noises in my head, mostly a high-pitched buzzing sound. When I was twenty, a doctor told me this was not uncommon, something to do with the bones developing in the inner ear, but at the time I was too worried about my sanity to tell anyone. My parents collected objects with strange faces, masks, gargoyles, African sculptures. Before I went to sleep, the gargoyle heads on the banister outside my room would make faces at me in the half-light. I couldn't close my door because I was afraid of the dark but if I left it open, the gargoyle heads would see me.
I can't remember my childhood as a whole but I do remember specific incidents. I remember a snowy day in March when I was in second grade. My brother and sister were sitting around the kitchen table listening to the radio announce schools that were closed. I remember praying for mine, and my brother grinning evilly at me, with the knowledge that his school started a half hour later than mine did and I had to leave first.
I asked my father, "Do I really have to go?" knowing the answer, as I pulled on my green rubber boots and zipped up my parka with the fuzzy white hood. We were only allowed to stay home in three specific instances: if we threw up, had a fever, or the radio said our school was closed.
Pulling on my mittens, I walked outside to the familiar path I took every day. Except that day, there was no path, only an endless blurry snowscape.
At first, I felt exhilarated. Everything looked magical and new and I played in the snow, touching it to my tongue, watching my feet make deep impressions in the untouched surface. But the further I got down the hill, the more strange everything seemed to get. The woods were unnaturally quiet, quiet and unfamiliar. It was still snowing and I was starting to get cold. When I got down to the bottom of the hill, I didn't know which way to go. The snow was so deep I couldn't distinguish any familiar landmarks. My house was out of sight and snow was seeping into my boots. The trees, which moments ago had looked magnificent and glittering, were now taking on a more threatening appearance; their snow-colored limbs seemed to be trying to grab at me, and in the tree trunks, I saw the hideous grinning faces of gargoyles.
I kept walking faster, feeling like I was going in circles. My mittens were wet, my hood was wet, and my feet were nearly soaked. At one point I tripped and fell, and I felt like lying there and crying, but I knew I had to get up or I'd end up frozen in the snow for eternity.
Finally, I emerged out of the woods into a clearing and saw something familiar, a buildingKingsley Elementary School, my school. I was so happy I ran as fast as I could to the main door, longing for school as I never had before, but when I opened the heavy door, it was quiet except for the sound of my boots dripping on the floor. I was the only one stupid enough to come to school in the snow. I heard a shuffling noise from deep within the school and I ran outside, not waiting to see who or what it was. It had stopped snowing, so I could make out my footprints and I followed them back, as fast as I could, all the way up the hill to home.
When I finally got back to the house, I opened the door and heard laughter. It was as if they hadn't even known I was gone. They were drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen, all of them, my parents and my brother and sister, as if nothing had happened. My father was at the stove, taking a survey as to who wanted matzo brei and who wanted fried salami and eggs.
"Well, liza, I guess you know the good news. It's a snow day for all of us," said my mother, standing at the stove.
"Yeah, Kingsley came on the radio just after you left." My brother looked smug.
"You better get out of those wet clothes," said my father.
I refused the hot chocolate and all offers of food, as if denying myself would show them, and stomped up to my room, crying violently into my white parka. I barricaded the door with books and pillows but after a little while, I realized no one was going to come get me.
Just then, a knock on the door startled me. It was my sister. She had come up to see me.
She pushed at the door, but it was still barricaded.
"Liza, let me in."
"Okay, but just you."
She had brought me some hot chocolate. Unbarricading the door, I let her in.
My therapist says my entire name when I enter the room, Eliza Ferber. I think it's to make me feel like I exist. "Eliza Ferber," she says, and I lie down on the couch, mesmerized. When she says my name I start to like my name, a name that I have always found strange. My sister's name is Bette. Both of our names are diminutives of Elizabeth. It is as if we are the broken parts of one perfect Elizabeth.
My sister had one relationship, one very long relationship, a marriage, that ended, so now she believes that this avenue of endeavors, relationships, is permanently closed to her. How can you do something you have failed at? How can you try again? These are the concepts she and I have trouble with. I tell my sister she needs to meet someone.
"A nerd," I tell her over dinner that night at my favorite Italian restaurant, "or at least someone who was a nerd in high school and then blossomed later. They make the best boyfriends. They're so grateful to have a girlfriend at all."
Gregor, who is sitting next to me, shakes his head. "No, I don't think she should go for a nerd, she needs to play the field a little."
Gregor is my boyfriend. Actually his real name is Gregory, but he thinks Gregor is better for an actor, more unusual. We have been seeing each other for two years. He has blond curly hair and isn't my type at all. I used to go for all these tall, dark, foreign guys who never understood me. Gregor's more like me, grew up in the suburbs, reads books, thinks about things. Things are fine between us, but whenever I mention living together, he closes up like an oyster.
My sister doesn't like the idea of the nerd kind of guy either. I can tell by her expression, as she picks at her spaghetti bolognese, a food that all English people eat when they go abroad. If she ever did like anyone, I imagine it would be someone with an air of mystery, someone dangerous, someone with secrets.
I compose a plan in my head of how I would meet someone if it came to that. I would take classes, exude an air of availability. But why would I have to? I glare over at Gregor as if he has already done something that has forced me into this course of action. Or would it be better to give up on this idea of togetherness, this happily ever after, once and for all? Why try to convince Bette of something I'm not sure I believe in? Maybe she is happier alone. She certainly looks happy, chatting with Gregor about desserts. She is describing a British dessert to him, jam roly-polies.
Before I get to order dessert, the waiters bring out a miniature chocolate cake for me, lit with two tiny pink candles. I feel like crying.
Do you think you would have your primary residence here or abroad?" I ask my sister a few days later. I am at her apartment and we are playing one of our favorite games: if I won Lotto.
She pauses from sniffing my small vial of peppermint oil, the latest in my series of attempts to lose ten pounds.
"Definitely abroad, do you think this works?"
"Yes, smell is intimately connected with hunger."
My sister and I are watching a British show about a monk named Cadfael who cures people with herbs and solves mysteries. I take a small piece of pizza to see if the peppermint oil is working.
"I would definitely live in Italy, Siena, in a small villa with dogs," I say with authority, biting into my pizza. It tastes so good I almost forget my job problem and my weight problem and my Gregor problem.
"With Gregor?" asks my sister.
"That is yet to be determined."
After we finish eating, my sister makes tea. She makes it carefully, using real tea, not tea bags, warming the pot, covering the whole thing with a tea cozy. Pouring out the Earl Grey into delicate china teacups, I continue with my Lotto scenario: "I would start the Eliza fund, scholarships for hopeless underachievers."
I walk the short block home to my apartment, picking up a rejection letter from a small poetry magazine called Output and various credit card bills. The only good mail I get is a belated birthday card from my friend Elinor, who, after a string of horrible relationships, has left New York to start over in Boston.
Inside, I sink down on my maroon velvet couch I got at the Salvation Army. I look at the letter from Output more carefully. It's a form letter. Thank you for submitting to Output, but your poem doesn't meet our current editorial needs. We are moving away from a traditional narrative structure. Editorial needs? Narrative structure? Who needs them anyway!
I think of calling Gregor, but he is at acting class. Lately, he is always at acting class when I want to talk to him. I am convinced he will be a huge success, although he has only recently quit his corporate job to pursue this new career. I, on the other hand, will end up a large failure, although I have been writing poetry for years, even had a few things published in obscure yet prestigious literary journals.
I picture us at the Academy Awards, Gregor in a dazzling tuxedo, me in a figure-flattering black dress. We are spilling out of a limousine, or at least Gregor is spilling, or rather emerging from the limousine onto the arms of beautiful spokesmodels. I try to emerge gracefully from the limo but catch my high heel on a loose thread and tumble out to an ominous ripping sound. Luckily, the photographers have gone on ahead. Gregor looks back at me, concerned, but he is whisked away by thin women with cleavage.