"I don't like his teeth."
"His teeth, Maggie? What does that matter?"
"You have to be picky in the beginning, because after you fall in love, you don't care anymore."
"So? Then you're happy, and together."
"God, Sarah. You don't stay that way."
We shared a cubby-sized room with one narrow bed, which was all Sarah could get on short notice. That night, after dinner and a mixer that I sat out, Sarah read a book with her back to me as I lay there, sleepless, watching the light bulb burn so steadily for something so fragile.
The first morning, we disembarked for a day at the beach. A suited boy carried around a sign with a bell on it that said, "Remember Sunscreen!" Sarah emerged from the room with a pink straw hat and a cotton dress, the kind with the waist all the way down by the hips. She stopped when she saw my bikini top.
"You're just wearing that?" she asked. "Your belly button ring, Maggie. I mean, this is a conservative environment. There are Republicans everywhere."
I went back for a T-shirt.
The beaches were so beautiful that they looked fake. All truly beautiful things look fake. I had been to Alaska -- fake. Greece -- fake, fake. They look like reproductions of themselves.
Sarah and I lay on our beach towels and slapped lotion on each other's backs. I felt strange doing that. I realized that I hadn't touched my sister since I was a kid, when we used to play with each other's hair or pick each other's scabs. Now, her skin felt strangely familiar, yet not. Her body had changed in ways that felt like a betrayal. Her thighs had gotten enormous, with puffs of cellulite puckering the backs. The tops of her arms wobbled. We were in our early thirties. I wanted to blow a whistle and make her do pushups.
"This is fun. Isn't it?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah." I watched the ocean.
"I wish we did more sister stuff together."
"What is sister stuff?"
"You know what I was thinking yesterday? I was thinking that we have such different memories of each other, growing up. Like, what I remember, you don't, and vice versa. So when bad stuff happens, the other person doesn't learn from it, they just move on, and you're the one who's left sad or mad or whatever." Sarah picked her tooth with a pinky nail, then looked at the opaque peach polish for chips.
"Are you mad at me for something?" I asked.
"I a little bit resent the way you used to hide my Raggedy Ann doll."
"I didn't do that."
Sarah was quiet for a minute, then said, "But you beat up that boy who was making fun of my glasses. You were my hero."
I felt suddenly sick. I rolled over and stared at a plastic bucket until it came into slow focus.
It's not true what they say, that when you lose family, you cling to what remains. No, you weed out the desire. You attack the need for family. It's not a physical need. You replace it, like smoking, with something else, like carrots, or jogging, or even sex.
Still, there is this way of being sisters. There's this way that you laugh at each other's jokes, even when they're stupid. This way of knowing not just what the person is saying, but every single thing underneath it; understanding the placement of the strings on the piano you're playing. I can tolerate it for about ten minutes, and the rest is torture.
On a cruise, there are many, many husbands. I know how to get the husbands. First, there's the look. Like you don't care, which you don't. Shiny clothes help. Men are like crows -- they like to pick up shiny things, take them back to their nests and poke at them with their beaks.
You can play the klutz: "Oh, I'm sorry, I bumped into you, is that tie ruined? Let me take care of the dry cleaning, no, I insist, give it to me, you can get a new one in your room, oh, what a nice, nice room, nice bed..." Or the concerned neighbor: "Is your wife really seasick? I have the perfect seasick medicine in my room, it's all herbal..." Or anything, really, anything at all. They meet you halfway, and walk you home.
Copyright © 2001 by Erika Krouse
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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