By Molly Bruce Jacobs
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Molly Bruce Jacobs
All rights reserved.
The day I first met my sister Anne, twelve years ago, is stitched into the lining of my memory as clearly as my name. When I left the house that Sunday it was chilly outside and great gray clouds hung low in the November sky. I laid the presents I'd wrapped for Anne in the backseat of the Jeep, then pulled out of the driveway. The car was frigid as an icebox inside, so I turned the heat on full blast, and by the time I was on the expressway, heading south toward Baltimore, I'd begun to warm up. I drove fast — more out of habit than anything else — as the clouds were darkening, quickly, into a gun-metal shade of gray that matched the road.
Anne was thirty-five years old. I was thirty-eight. Though she lived only a half-hour from my house, I'd never seen her before — not even in a photograph. I'd never touched her hand, never heard her voice. I didn't even know the color of her eyes, but I imagined them to be green like mine. All my life, Anne had been a family secret, and I'd pretended she did not exist.
What would she be like? I wondered over and over as I took the Northern Parkway exit and headed toward Belvedere Avenue. Fumbling for cigarettes in the small, worn knapsack that accompanied me everywhere, I drove by Gilman School, the private school my older son attended, and then through Roland Park, one of Baltimore's exclusive neighborhoods where stoic mansions were the norm, immaculate gardens the rule.
The smell in the air smacked familiarly of old money and blue-blooded gentility. Although I had grown up outside of Baltimore, in the country, the atmosphere there was just as rarefied as in Roland Park. Our house, a large Victorian, dated back to the turn of the century and sat like a dowager atop a hill overlooking a vast sweep of valley. The closest neighbor lived half a mile away. Stern-faced box bushes fronted the house, and flower gardens were everywhere. With rose bushes lining the long driveway, a wraparound porch that comfortably accommodated a hundred guests at summer cocktail parties, a living room the size of a ballroom (and more fireplaces and rooms than a family of four could ever use), the house evoked a Gatsby-like era. But the air inside whispered of the civilized restraint and discipline my mother still believes come from good breeding and good boarding schools. A place where human smells were largely absent, home felt like a museum to me.
Anne, too, spent her childhood outside of Baltimore, in a secluded country setting, but behind the barred windows of Rosewood State Hospital, a mental institution. At the age of twenty-three, she was transferred to a supervised group home run by the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, or BARC, and that's where I was headed.
The closer I got to where Anne lived, the more uneasy I became about meeting her. What on earth would we talk about? What would we do all afternoon? I couldn't imagine. Rolling down the window to let in some air, I continued down Northern Parkway and crossed Belvedere, passing sullen-looking row houses, each with four or five steps out front. Small churches seemed to crop up every couple of blocks. Every now and then, a store or small business interrupted the residential flow. There was a pawnshop on a corner, a shoe store going out of business, a brightly lit laundromat, a movie theater with an art deco marquee that must have dated back to the 1950s, a deli, and a smattering of windowless bars.
The high-ceilinged grandeur of Roland Park now seemed a million miles away. In comparison, this neighborhood, while unpretentious, felt harsh, almost brittle, and just as uninviting. That such incongruous worlds continued to coexist as they had for decades, each on its own terms, without one swallowing the other up, was typical of Baltimore.
I wasn't entirely unaccustomed to the area. My sons, Connor and Garrit, ages nine and four, and living mostly with me since my husband and I split up, skated at an ice rink about five miles farther down Northern Parkway. And I vividly remembered my father driving me into this very neighborhood when I was twelve. We were going to buy tickets for a Beatles' concert from someone who lived on a side street off Northern Parkway. I remembered thinking it was like a maze here. The houses all looked the same, and I wondered how we'd find the right one. But we did.
Back then, I was as enamored with Paul McCartney as I was with my father, or "Dice," as I called him. I'd coined the name for him when I was one, and he, a skeptic when it came to tradition, had found the name refreshing. And so he became Dice to all of us: to me, sometimes even to my mother, and to my sister Laura — Anne's "normal" twin who, following in Dice's footsteps, would grow up to become a journalist. It was only Anne, I was soon to find out, who called him Daddy whenever she spoke of him. But then, why wouldn't she? He existed largely in her imagination. She'd rarely seen him and, wanting to be like everybody else, wouldn't she naturally think of him as Daddy?
I'd forgotten where Anne's supervisor, a social worker named Nora, told me to turn after crossing Belvedere. I'm lost already, I thought, panicking, then pulled into a gas station, where I parked in an empty space by the restrooms and studied the piece of paper on which I'd scribbled Nora's directions. I wasn't lost after all, I discovered. Anne lived only ten minutes away. Wound up tight as a top, I swallowed coffee from the thermos beside me, then lit another cigarette.
I glanced into the rearview mirror. My face was pale, my lips drawn, and my eyes had a frightened look about them. I was worried about how things would go with Anne, but also about meeting Nora. Reading over her directions had reminded me of our telephone conversation, and her voice was reverberating like an alarm in my head.
I'd called her two days ago, on Friday, introduced myself as Anne's sister, and asked if I could visit.
"Are you the twin?" she asked in a nonchalant tone.
"No, I'm Anne's older sister."
"I didn't know she had an older sister," she said abruptly, as if she didn't believe me.
In the pause that followed, I imagined a host of accusations spinning through her mind: Where have you been all these years? Why are you suddenly interested in Anne? Is this a token visit? After seeing her, then what? Will you come back, or will you ignore her like your parents do?
"I'd like to see her," I said as evenly as I could. "When would be a good time?"
"Sunday afternoon. I bring the ladies home from church at noon."
"How about if I come by afterward?"
"You going to take her out to lunch?"
Another pause. I'd never considered taking Anne to lunch. Where would we go? How would she act? Would I be able to handle her?
"She'd like to go out," Nora said with a sigh.
I took the note of resignation in her voice to mean that she'd already sized me up and wasn't counting on me for much.
"I'll take her somewhere the next time," I said, trying to appease Nora, and to soften the sting of fresh guilt her words had provoked in me. "I'd rather meet her first."
When I asked if two o'clock on Sunday would be all right, she said yes, but there was a coolness to her tone that sounded to me like barely disguised hostility. Still, given the decades of my indifference toward Anne, Nora had good reason to be wary of me, I told myself.
At the end of our conversation, I mentioned that I wanted to bring Anne a present and asked what she'd like. She could use a new dress, Nora told me. She wears size 10; her favorite color is red.
Stubbing out my cigarette in the glass jar I kept in the glove compartment, I glanced at my watch. It was only one o'clock. There was still time to buy Anne a dress. I'd already bought her a box of chocolates and a pair of red sweatpants and wrapped them in paper left over from Connor's birthday last week. That was probably enough, but Nora had said Anne needed a dress. What harm would another present do?
I left the gas station and continued down Northern Parkway toward Loch Raven Boulevard, where Nora's directions said to turn right. I was looking for a clothing store that was open on Sunday and was about to give up when, on my left, I noticed a small shopping center, its parking lot buzzing with cars and shoppers. As I turned into the lot, a Talbot's with its brass-handled red door caught my eye.
Talbot's was crowded, mostly with women who radiated an easy self-confidence and a brisk manner. They were the kind of women whose hair and smiles are always in place, whose clothes are clean and pressed even on weekends, and whose well-mannered children trot along obediently beside them. But in those women's eyes I recognized a driven look, and, beneath their makeup, a kind of frozenness.
There was a time when I tried to emulate women like these. An associate with a large law firm in Baltimore, I'd aimed for success in a pinstriped, glittery world where I felt like a stranger. In those days, I shopped for dull, tailored suits at a Talbot's closer to home, rattled on about mergers and corporate takeovers, and drank myself into a stupor every night after putting Connor to bed. One day at lunchtime, as I was drinking scotch in my car, concealed in the shadows of the underground parking lot, I decided I couldn't stand it any longer. What I really wanted was to be home with Connor, to have another baby, and to write. My husband, Warren, would be livid, I knew — after all, I'd be giving up the prestige and salary that came with my job — but I didn't care. Putting Warren out of my mind, I stowed my bottle under the seat and drove home, never once looking back.
Now, wishing I'd never set foot inside this store, it surprised me to think that six years had gone by since I'd quit practicing law, but that I still cringed when I recalled that time in my life. Turning my attention to the racks of dresses, I looked for something red. There were maroon silky shirtwaists with belts to match, brick-colored corduroy jumpers, bright red cotton shifts, striped suits in mauvy pinks, and skimpy evening dresses with a ruby shine. Nothing seemed right. A vague panicky feeling came over me then. What was I doing? How could I shop for a sister I'd never laid eyes on? I know almost nothing about her, I thought. Only paltry, meaningless facts like her dress size and her favorite color. What's the point?
It was during a therapy session, three days before, when I made the decision to visit Anne. The hour was almost over, and I'd run out of things to talk about. The silence in the room felt huge, and it was growing bigger. Dr. Bergman was waiting for me to say something, I could tell. And that's when I blurted it out. I told him that I'd known about Anne since I was thirteen, but had never gone to see her. I explained that my parents rarely spoke of Anne and had minimal contact with her. She lived her life, and we lived ours. When I finished, the expression on Dr. Bergman's face was the picture of disbelief.
He's disgusted, I thought, staring at the white rug on the floor between us. At me, and at the way my family has treated Anne. I found myself telling him the bits and pieces that I knew about my sister, and I couldn't have been more surprised when, at the end of the session, I suddenly announced I was going to see her.
Now, feeling lost in a sea of dresses that were all beginning to look alike, I was having second thoughts about meeting Anne. Wouldn't it be easier just to leave things as they were, to go on pretending she didn't exist? Perhaps my parents were right. Maybe she was better off not knowing her family. Maybe dropping presents off for her on special occasions is enough, I thought, remembering one Easter afternoon long ago when I caught Dice leaving the house with an enormous stuffed animal in his arms, a white bear with a red ribbon around its neck. "For Anne," he told me. He loaded the bear into the car and drove off without another word. Years went by before her name came up again.
I glanced through some nightgowns, listlessly fingering their nappy white cottons. Frustrated, I turned away from them and, just then, happened to see myself in the mirror. My brown hair, usually down, was pinned up. My dress, a silky thing that hung a few inches below my knees, dated back to when I was a lawyer, as did the pearl stud earrings, and the navy shoes that had high heels as businesslike as a Brooks Brothers suit. I looked prim as a pincushion, and normal as a nun. My mother would like to see me now, I thought. You look perfect, I could hear her saying, the way she used to when I was dressed up for dancing class in the outfits she chose for me. Suddenly I wished I'd worn jeans.
Just then, I noticed a pair of bright red sneakers among the shoes on display in a corner of the store. It was as if they'd been left there just for Anne. Right away, I made up my mind to get them. I didn't know Anne's shoe size and decided she probably wore the same as Laura.
A saleswoman in a tight purple dress that crinkled like crepe paper when she walked came up to me. She was all smiles, but didn't think she had any of those sneakers left. "They're Reeboks, hon. Very popular, you know." I didn't know, or much care, but nodded as if I did.
While she looked for them in the back, I sat down and glanced at my watch. It was one-thirty. I'd be with Anne in half an hour. I took a deep breath and waited, trying to relax. Women were milling all around. Some of them appeared to be in a trance — a shopping trance. I could tell from their glassy stares and the blank expressions on their faces. Others, more animated, fondled leather belts and caressed high-heeled shoes and pocketbooks, exclaiming to whoever happened to walk by, Isn't this adorable? I can't resist it. I could imagine them hosting one of those home shopping programs on television.
I'd had enough of that store. I had to get out. Looking around for the lady in purple, I saw to my horror someone I recognized from the law firm. It was Liz Friedman, one of the partners I used to work for.
I wanted to make myself invisible. But she'd already seen me. With a tentative smile on her face, she was coming toward me. Wearing a white tailored shirt tucked inside loose khakis, her white sneakers spotless, Liz still had a runner's body, taut and muscular. She probably still jogs every morning before work, I thought.
"Brucie! It's been ages," she said gaily, her teeth gleaming like an ad for Rembrandt toothpaste.
She was carrying two large white Talbot's shopping bags bulging with clothes. She's finished shopping, I thought, relieved. She won't talk long. I remembered how Liz had always seemed to be so at home in the legal world. She'd mingled easily with clients, even the slick investment bankers who turned my stomach. And yet, there was also something about her that I'd liked. Maybe it was just that she talked about novels she read. A small thing, but in an office full of people who got excited about reading accountants' reports during their spare time, this was nice.
"Liz! What a surprise." My voice sounded strained.
There was an uncomfortable pause during which we just looked at each other, our polite expressions in place. Her fingernails, trimmed short, were polished a pale pink that matched her lipstick, just as I remembered from before.
"You look great," she said. "Shoe shopping today?"
I said "yes" and, quickly changing the subject, asked her about work. Liz talked for a while, and then the saleswoman reappeared, triumphantly waving a shoebox in her hand. Motioning for me to sit, she whisked the red sneakers from the box. "You're in luck! This is the last pair in your size."
I could feel my face flush as I told the saleswoman that the sneakers weren't for me. "They're for someone else."
"That's fine, hon. A gift?"
"Sort of," I said, acutely aware that Liz was listening. I felt awkward, as if I were carrying out some surreptitious mission, and trying to hide it from her, which in a way was the truth.
"Lovely. I'll wrap them for you."
Purple dress rustling, the saleswoman bent over, returned the sneakers to their box, and gently patted tissue paper all around them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Secret Girl by Molly Bruce Jacobs. Copyright © 2006 Molly Bruce Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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