Read an Excerpt
The Language of Sisters
• • •
At first, we had not known anything was wrong with Jenny. She had been such a stunning baby—much prettier than I ever was. When I was three and Jenny was a newborn, my mother took us to a small park in our neighborhood, where I could climb on the jungle gym while she held court and allowed other mothers to croon over her perfect second daughter.
Jenny came out of the womb with dark brown hair and skin creamy as milk splashed with brushstrokes of rosy peach. Her eyes were a deep, viscous indigo, huge and round in her tiny baby head, framed by rows of lashes so lush you longed to touch them to see if they were real. She was the human embodiment of a porcelain doll.
“She’s just perfect!” the women would exclaim as my mother sat straight and proud on the park bench, cradling Jenny as though she might shatter if she were jiggled the wrong way.
Mom would smile the small, secret smile of a mother who knew the exceptional beauty of her child. She’d gently brush a curl from Jenny’s forehead. “Isn’t she? She’s an angel, too. Slept through the night the first week she was home.”
There would be a collective gasp from the women, followed by several comments about their own children’s nightmarish first-year sleeping habits.
“Oh, don’t feel bad,” my mother would assure them. “That’s my first girl, Nicky,” and she would gesture toward me as I proceeded to do something the exact opposite of perfect, like pour sand down the front of my dress or stick a lollipop into my matted red curls. “She didn’t sleep more than two hours straight until she was fifteen months. I figure I was due for an angel baby.”
An angel baby. I wondered later what that made me: Jenny’s demon counterpart? I was definitely strong-willed where my sister was complacent. Our mother could leave her in her crib for hours at a time and Jenny would sleep, wake up and bat playfully at her mobile, then sleep again until someone came to get her. She rarely cried. I, however, ran like holy hell through our house until I finally collapsed on the floor and someone dragged me, usually kicking and screaming, to bed.
When Jenny was still an infant, I used to poke at her as she lay quietly on the floor to see if I could get her to cry. She might whimper at too tight a pinch, but mostly she just stared at me with her enormous, dark eyes, cooing softly. We spent hours on the floor together. I became fascinated with her eyes, and through them, I heard her voice long before she ever spoke.
At thirteen months, Jenny was still not sitting up all the way; instead, she slumped forward at almost a forty-five-degree angle, using the muscles in her neck to lift her head to look at you. She couldn’t walk yet, either, but managed a sort of combat crawl, her arms pulling her thin body across the floor. While our father insisted on believing that Jenny was simply a slow starter, our mother had begun to worry.
It was around this time that Jenny said her first word, and my mother’s fears were temporarily quelled. It was a dark and blustery northwest winter afternoon, unfit for outside play, so Jenny and I were lying on our bellies in the living room looking at our family photo album. Heavy gusts of wind propelled drops of rain against our house like bullets from a gun. There was a thick white towel beneath the upper part of Jenny’s body to protect the gray shag carpet from the saliva that ran at a constant drip from her mouth. Mom was in the kitchen trying to get dinner ready before Dad got home from work; the rich aroma of roasted chicken and freshly baked yeast rolls laced the air around us. I explained the pictures to Jenny as she batted at the pages, trying to turn them herself.
“This is a cow, Jenny,” I said, my four-year-old ego bursting at the seams as I showed her the shots my father had taken during our family’s recent trip to the Evergreen State Fair. “A cow says, ‘Moo-o-o-o.’”
Jenny stared hard at the page, her eyes seeming to suck up the image into her brain.
“This is me standing next to the cow,” I continued. “Do you see me? I’m almost touching her leg.”
Jenny swung her gaze sideways to look at me, then back to the page. “Nic,” she said suddenly, the one syllable sounding more like a cough in the back of her throat than my name.
I stared dumbly at her for a moment, not believing what I’d heard. She had been making nonsensical noise for months, but never had her intent been so clear. The sound came again, more pronounced this time. “Nic.” Her entire face blossomed with pride. She blinked several times, rapidly, her thick lashes brushing the apples of her cheeks.
“Mom!” I yelled, jumping up from the floor and leaping excitedly onto the couch by the front window. “Come here! Jenny just said my name!”
Our mother walked in from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a white dish towel, looking harried. Her willowy frame was clad in blue jeans and a red sweater, both dusted generously with flour. Her pale, angled cheeks were flushed from the heat of the kitchen, and the muscles of her slender, heart-shaped face drooped with fatigue. Her dark brown waves hung loose around slightly sloping shoulders. With a bent wrist, she brushed a thin strand back from her face, frowning at me. “Please don’t jump on the couch, Nicky.”
“Nic!” Jenny exclaimed again, twisting her head to look at our mother.
Mom’s pale green eyes, slanted like a cat’s, glowed electric with surprise. I jumped gleefully on the cushions. “See? I told you! Yay, Jenny!” I yelled.
Mom went to Jenny, helping her to sit up. She held her younger daughter tightly, rocking her, not saying a word. I caught my sister’s gaze with my own, and though neither of us made a sound, I remember hearing my name over and over again in the endless blue of her eyes.
Jenny quickly acquired a few more words: “Mama” being the next, then “kitty.” But after our initial excitement it didn’t take long for her to stop speaking entirely. She lost interest in most everything, often gazing off into space with a vacant stare.
What most disturbed my parents, though, was that Jenny stopped looking them in the eye. If they tried catching her glance, even using their hands to direct her gaze back at them, Jenny would twist her head and avert her eyes, as though the visual contact caused her some great internal pain. “Come on, sweetie,” my mother would plead with her, trying over and over to get her attention. “You can do it. I know you can.” The heavy ache in my mother’s voice stung my heart, and I, too, did everything my child mind could come up with to make Jenny respond. Nothing worked.
Profoundly retarded. Two words that loom in the back of a parent’s mind like the threat of a diabolical storm. My father exploded at the news. “Not my child,” he thundered at my mother, his sapphire eyes flashing. His freckled face burned scarlet, and his carrot-colored curls stood out from his head in wild disarray. He looked like a lit match.
“My child is not retarded,” he insisted. “The doctor is wrong.” Then he pressed both his rough carpenter’s hands flat over his face as though they could restrain his grief. It was the only time I ever remember seeing him cry. From the very beginning, Daddy took Jenny’s disabilities as a personal affront, as though she were somehow offending him for being an imperfect child. He stood his long, thin body up straight and defied her disease, daring it to change his life in any way.
My mother took on the diagnosis as a challenge, a problem to be solved. It immediately became her mission to find a name for the monster that was robbing her beautiful child of a normal life.
For me, Jenny simply remained my sister. At five, all I knew was my instinct to protect her, to get her to laugh, and to love her. It took longer for me to realize her differences and then, later, to finally try to escape them.
• • •
In less than twenty-four hours my life in San Francisco was pretty well wrapped up, which made me ponder for a moment just how much of a life it actually was. I wasn’t a terribly social person, so there were few friends to call. The weekend baker was more than happy to pick up my shifts while I was away. Barry had promised to take over my daily food deliveries to the park near the bakery, where I had recently befriended a homeless family; I simply could not stand the idea of their little girl going hungry. Shane would take care of my three-legged dog, Moochie, whom I had adopted from the shelter where I sporadically volunteered. I left a detailed feeding-and-walk schedule taped to the refrigerator, still a little fearful that the poor pup would starve to death while I was away. I left a message on my mother’s answering machine, telling her I’d be arriving late that night. I was unsure whether she wasn’t home because she’d gone to work or because she’d gone to Wellman to be with Jenny, but I hoped for the latter.
My biggest challenge had been in deciding what size suitcase to fill: a small one would say my visit would be short; a larger one might say I was planning to stick around. I finally settled on a medium-size black duffel bag that I’d found stuffed into the back of the closet; I hoped it would simply keep its mouth shut.
As I packed, I tried not to give in to the sense of trepidation I felt swelling within me. Everything in my mind screamed for me not to go, to stay in San Francisco, where it was safe, where I knew the boundaries of my life. Grabbing a handful of underwear from my dresser and shoving it into my bag, I tried to keep my thoughts focused on Jenny, what she must be feeling, how traumatized she must be.
I pushed away thoughts of seeing my mother again, facing the house where I grew up, having to deal with everything that happened within its walls. Jenny, I thought as I added two pairs of jeans to the messy pile in my bag. Jenny, I thought again, creating a chant out of her name. I counted the letters in her name, over and over again, keeping the image of my mother’s face out of my mind. It was Jenny who needed me, Jenny I was going home to see. No matter the depth of my fear, nothing else mattered. I wouldn’t let it.
By nine p.m. I was at the airport, alone. Shane had been appropriately horrified at the news of Jenny’s rape but was waiting on a verdict for the case he had just wrapped up that morning. He didn’t think he could make it out of the courthouse in time to see me off. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see his tall, athletic figure striding toward me at the gate, his black trench coat flapping furiously around his long legs as he waved his briefcase in the air to catch my eye. I noticed the airline attendant stand up straighter behind her desk when she saw him heading in our direction. Then she was smoothing her platinum blond pageboy and smiling wide with bloodred lips. Shane had this effect on most women. Even in his sharp Armani suit, he had the look of that boy in junior high whose simple touch made you swear to your friends that you’d never again wash whatever body part had come in contact with him. So when he rushed up to me and dropped his briefcase to the floor for an enthusiastic embrace, the attendant lost her smile and looked away, probably amazed that a man as handsome as Shane was attracted to a short, slightly plump redhead like me. Most days it amazed me, as well.
Returning his hug, I smashed my face into the middle of his broad chest. “I thought you couldn’t make it,” I said accusingly, looking up to him and digging the sharp point of my chin into his breastbone.
He leaned down and kissed me soundly on the lips, then on the nose and both cheeks. “Mmm. Your freckles taste like cinnamon.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “What about the jury?”
He grinned. “They came back sooner than I thought they would.”
“And?” I prodded a bit impatiently, jiggling my arms around his waist, knowing he’d need to tell me his news before we could move on to the subject of my leaving.
“And you’re looking at the only assistant D.A. to win five consecutive murder cases. I thought the boss would piss his pants, he was so happy with me.”
I smiled wryly. “Wow.”
“How are you doing?” he finally asked, tilting his chin down and looking up at me from under his eyebrows.
“I don’t really know.” I shrugged, my ambivalence punishing him a little for not asking me right away. “I’m more worried about how Jenny is doing.” I was terrified, in fact, to think what she must have gone through, how she must have felt when that bastard climbed on top of her…. I shook my head, trying to erase the horrifying image from my mind.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” He hugged me again and I basked in the security I felt in his arms, not knowing when I might feel it again.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, smothering his face into my neck, the roughness of his slight five o’clock shadow sending electric shivers zipping through my body.
“Me, too,” I said, swallowing a sharp lump in my throat. I waited for him to say he’d go with me, caseload be damned. He’d pack up himself and Moochie and come to Seattle. I waited for him to ask me to stay, to let my mother deal with the situation. But our good-bye was cut short by the final call for my flight. After promising to call him the next day from my mother’s house, I boarded the plane. My stomach lurched as we ascended into the black night sky, and I gripped the plastic armrests with cold fingers.
“Not a good flier, I take it?” the man in the seat next to me asked good-naturedly.
I shook my head. “Something like that.” I wasn’t about to explain to a complete stranger the real reason I was so shaky.
He lifted a substantial flask from his inside jacket pocket and wiggled it at me. “Me, neither.”
I smiled politely but turned my head away and continued my attempt to hold myself steady. Jenny, I said to myself, making a little rhyme: One-two-three-four-five, J-e-n-n-y. A moment later, a flight attendant strolled by my seat, interrupting my internal chant.
“Ma’am?” she inquired. “You’re more than welcome to take your seat belt off.”
I nodded sharply to acknowledge that I’d heard her but did not release my grasp. After she went down the aisle, I kept my seat belt on, wearing it tight, checking its security again and again for the entire flight home.