We go shopping for our mother’s birthday present and I drive because Abby has been drinking. It’s a week or so after New Years and New Jersey’s Willowbrook Mall still smells of pine and log cabin candles. Paper stars and red streamers hang from the ceiling. The store windows are littered with what’s left of winter clothes and bright yellow signs: Clearance!
Abby has recently dyed her hair one shade darker than white. It is paler than her skin. I’ve tried to convince her I like it. She pretends like she is convinced.
Our mother insisted that we go do something together, to cultivate a loving sister relationship. Our father passed away when I was three and Abby was two. We’re all Mom has. Abby is still reeling since her boyfriend Dean died in a car accident a few months ago. My mother thinks it’s my job to pick her back up.
We go to Macy’s first. I can see the long, flowered dresses from the main aisle. My mother loves long, flowered dresses.
The many walled mirrors make Macy’s look twice as big with twice as many people. I dread department stores. The lights are hazy green. Everyone looks pasty and sick. The clothes are dark blue, dark red, black and patterned. I look forward to the summer season, bathing suits, the smell of sunscreen when you pass an old lady. It smells now like linoleum floors.
Abby touches every dress. She acts as though each is the most beautiful she’s ever seen. This is the one thing I can’t stand about her drinking: the exaggeration.
“Ma would look beautiful in this, don’t you think?” She takes a short, bright red dress off the rack and holds it up to her body. She hooks the hanger behind her neck, swings it around. She has to take a few side steps to hold her balance. The neck scoops low, a playful tease.
“It’s not really her style,” I say.
“Well maybe it should be her style,” Abby says, pouting her lips. “Think of all the men she would pick up.”
Our mother is the most virginal woman I know. She blushes at the word sex. When people kiss on T.V. she yells eek and changes the channel. “This is why we shouldn’t have a T.V.” she’ll say. “This is why no good reformed family has a T.V!” When Abby was ten, she cut all her hair off because our mother refused to let her watch Cops. “Nobody loves me!” she shrieked as we listened to the snips coming from behind the door. My mother looked at me and said, “Do something about this.”
I am the older sister, the responsible sister, the one who always cleans up Abby’s mess.
Abby hangs the red dress back up and it takes her two tries to get the hanger on the rail. She runs her fingers through the dresses on the rack. She parts the dresses and puts one foot into the rack and then the other until she is submerged by women’s clothing. How easy it has always been for her to disappear.
When she and I were young and on vacation, we would stay up late and draw the freakish animals in Revelation. A leopard with bear’s feet, an animal with seven heads and horns and crowns, lions with wings like eagles. Those passages frightened me. Not Abby. She had convinced me that she saw these animals in her dreams. These creatures existed in worlds that I didn’t have access to.
We pass the perfume station. The lights glare off the glass. Pretty women with shoulder pads spray us with perfume as we walk by.
Abby stops and tells them how wonderful that smells. When she talks to strangers, her voice trembles. I worry they might smell liquor on her, might notice how her left eye lid swells and droops.
“What is that?” she asks. “Roses?”
“Euphoria,” they tell her in one voice. The blonde takes hold of Abby’s wrist and pulls her over to the counter. She shows her the bottle, purple and shaped like a flower.
“Exotic!” Abby squeaks.
“No,” the woman says, “Euphoria.”
Another woman walks up behind us from the make-up section. She has lipsticks in hand, waiting for the perfume lady to release my sister from Euphoria. She will try to sell us lipsticks with names like Forbidden, Coral Crush and Kiss of Fire. Her life will depend on it. Paying commission is the cruelest thing you can do to a person.
“Usually, the perfume goes for about one-hundred sixteen dollars, but we’re selling it today for eighty.”
“Oh wow, that seems reasonable,” Abby says, two octaves too high. She can never say no. She bites her fingers, tosses her almost white hair. Her clothes are from Plato’s Closet, a consignment shop. She has black baggy pants and a tight, purple button down. Her big square earrings are perpetually swaying. Her style is strange enough to seem expensive.
I put my hand on Abby’s shoulder. “Do you have any perfumes that aren’t so cheap?”
The woman’s eyes light up. “Well what were you looking to spend?”
Abby chuckles under my hand. So, I keep going.
“We don’t have a budget really, just looking for that extra special something for our mother.”
“We have this Coco Chanel for one-hundred and fifty dollars.” She tilts the bottle back and forth in the light, to make sure we see the remarkable reflection of the glass. She sprays a piece of paper and lets us smell it.
“Smells cheap,” I lie. It is the most amazing thing I have ever smelled.
She takes out more bottles, lets us smell each perfume. Abby and I pretend to be more and more dissatisfied.
We’ve never been allowed these kinds of pleasures. When Ma’s oven door broke she asked Opa if it was time to get a new oven. “Bent je gek?” I could hear him scream through the phone. He came over and nailed a block of wood to the wall to hold up the oven door. There was another piece of wood that slid between the wood nailed to the wall and the oven, so that my mother could open and close the door. Not only was our oven so old it was a fire hazard, but now we had a chunk of wood nailed to our beige wallpaper. They were proud of it. My grandfather pointed to the oven with his hammer and said something to me in Dutch that I didn’t understand.
The sole of my black boot came off recently. I reattached it with a roll of electrical tape. I walk around like this and feel the same kind of pride. It scares me to be like my mother. She is not as happy as she pretends to be. Ma has been talking with me a lot about helping the family. What she means is get your sister sober. She thinks it’s my fault. She doesn’t say this, but it’s probably true.
Everyone knows I was in the car when the accident happened. They know that Dean’s mustang didn’t have airbags. They know, from the significant bruising down the left side of my body, that I was lying in his lap. They know I won’t talk about it. That’s just as well. Who would believe me anyway?
The blonde goes behind the shiny glass and the next perfume she brings out is locked in a safe under the cabinet. Abby raises her eyebrows at me.
She holds out a black square bottle with a gold lid and gold lettering.
“Rose d’Arabie, Giorgio Armani,” she says as she lifts the lid and puts the bottle under Abby’s nose, careful not to let it go. Abby leans in and sniffs. I can hear the exaggerated flow of air into her nostrils, and then a sigh as she breathes out. I sniff without making a noise as if to say to the woman, not all of us are drunk, not all of us have lost our minds. “Smells like the desert, like a melody,” the blonde says. It smells like a rotting shrub.
“How much is that one?” Abby asks.
Abby catches a sound in her mouth. A laugh bubbles in my throat.
“That one smells very beautiful. What else do you have like it?” I ask.
Abby snorts. When we tell our mother and Opa about this they will laugh too, shake their heads. Some people are so spoiled. Some people have soft hands that have never seen a hard day’s work.
She doesn’t answer. Abby is still giggling.
The blonde’s eyes stare blankly. Right then, I want to leave.
“Thank you for your time,” I tell her. “We’ll come back after we’ve thought about it.”
“I look forward to seeing you two again!” She smiles so big I almost believe her.
I drag Abby out of the store by her arm.
“What are you doing?” she asks. “We could have kept going!”
My jaw clenches and I walk on. I never talk about the important things.
The way the blonde looked at us reminds me of when Ma saw me and Dean sitting at a restaurant together, touching knees. “You better tell your sister,” she said. But I didn’t. Doesn’t matter in retrospect. My body feels heavy now. Abby is almost skipping and I have to hold her arm to keep her still as we walk towards Bloomingdale’s. Abby squirms in my grasp like a child.
* * *
Two years ago Abby and I had thrown a party. Our mother had gone on a mission’s trip. We decorated our small house with red, blue and white paper lanterns for the Fourth of July. Abby had been with Dean for a few weeks and I was going to meet him. “You will love him,” she told me, “everybody loves him.”
I saw him before I knew who he was. He was sitting on our living room couch. In his lap, he held my old guitar. I stared at his fingers as he strummed and sang Hallelujah. He was a terrible singer. People around him were smiling. I leaned against the wall and listened, allowed myself to smile too.
“And love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken…” he stopped strumming and pointed at me. His finger begged me to join in. When I remained silent he said, “You, you must have a high voice.”
“On the contrary,” I said.
“Try it: hallelujah,” he sang in a voice that was not good, but it was high. Everyone laughed and then looked at me. “Go on,” he coaxed. They turned to me, waited. Their faces dropped. How quickly I had brought everyone down. I took a swig of beer and slipped away. I must have looked like a cowering dog.
But, I was drunk and the night went on in a daze.
Later, he found me to apologize. He grabbed my arm lightly from behind and turned me around.
“Next time we will have to work on our duet.”
“Don’t you know not to put a girl on the spot?” I asked.
“You seem like you’re quick on your feet.”
“That’s the second time tonight you have overestimated me.”
As we stood watching each other, waiting for the other’s move, I noticed he was leaning towards me, his arm almost touching mine. He was searching my eyes for something. He was smiling. I couldn’t help but smile too. And then, like slipping into a hot tub on a snowy day, something in me had changed. Perhaps something in him had changed.
Abby found us and swung her arms around our necks. “My favorite people have met!” She screamed. This was when her drunkenness was playful, when the smell of it on her wasn’t weighted with grief.
My stomach twisted. So this was Dean. I had just felt something very deeply for my sister’s boyfriend. Or perhaps my stomach turned because the three of us were now heading for heartbreak and something in my soul knew this.
The next time I saw him was after my Aunt Susie had died. She was drunk and fell off the deck at a party. At the funeral, I watched my mother’s trembling hands. It kept my mind off of my own shaking body. I was standing in my kitchen alone when the fact of her death hit me. It felt as though the air was sucked out of the room. I sat on my kitchen floor in my dress and cried. The tile felt good on my skin.
That’s when Dean walked in, looking for Abby.
I didn’t move. I only sat there, wishing myself invisible. Instead of asking me what the hell I was doing, he scooped me up like a child and brought me to the couch. I could not catch my breath. I could not stop my body from shaking. As he tried to leave, I wrapped my legs around him and gripped onto his shirt. It felt good to have something solid to hold on to.
I can’t help but think of these things—his hands around my knees, around my shoulders, his hand on my hair.
When I had caught my breath again, I lay quite limply under his arm. I said, “Don’t you know that if you talk a woman down from a panic attack, she will forever be in your debt?”
He said, “I didn’t talk.”
But he had. I should have said that. He was always speaking to me even when he wasn’t.
Some things stick in you, like when you pick blackberries and get thorns lodged into your skin. Or when you spend the day bringing in wood for the wood burning stove and splinters find their way into your palms. You don’t notice until you move a certain way or you are touched in a certain place and then you think of nothing else. You try to pick it out, squeeze it out, scratch them it, but it’s no use. You have to wait until you forget, hope you don’t dream of all the things beneath your skin that shouldn’t be there.
* * *
When we walk into Bloomingdale’s, Abby has the same reaction she did when we were in Macy’s. “Aren’t these dresses to die for!”
“They are certainly better than Macy’s,” I say.
The floors in Bloomingdale’s are black and white checkers. When Abby walks she keeps her feet in the black squares. White Christmas trees are still up, gold mannequins posing for us. The oversized bulbs around the mirrors remind me of a carnival.
“Lydia, look.” She grabs a floor length dress. She holds it up to her neck and for a second, I confuse her for our mother. The dress is a light shade of purple, almost gray. There are small black and pale yellow flowers in a dense and old fashioned pattern. The sleeves are long, the neck line is conservative and yet the looseness of the bottom is youthful, pretty.
I smile at her. “Try it on, you’re about Ma’s size.”
We walk through the aisles until we find the glowing sign: Dressing Room. It’s empty. Clothes lie on the floor beneath the rack. There is no one to give us number tags and so we walk into the handicapped room. The lights in here are extra bright.
I sit on the couch while Abby undresses, stumbling over her shoelace. I’m not sure where to look because there are six mirrors in the room. I look at my feet, at the ceiling. I see the pale pink of my sister’s skin, the dark spots of her tattoos out of the corner of my eye. She shimmies into the dress. When I look at her, she is so beautiful. Her hair looks gray in this light. I see her as an old lady, like she has outlived us all.
“Ma would love this,” I say.
My sister is enamored, too. She looks at herself in every angle, memorizing.
“Abby,” I say. “Do you think about Dean?”
She looks at my reflection the mirror.
“Of course I do. It’s been five months.”
“You’ve been drinking a lot.”
“Like I said, Lydia. Five months.”
She stares into her reflection and suddenly she looks spectral. I look at myself, my own eyes have sunken in, too.
“We’ve never really talked.”
“Nothing to talk about anymore, sis.”
She pretends to straighten out the dress. She sways so lightly while avoiding my stare.
I say, “I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
“Well, it was fucked up.”
“I can’t help but think your drinking is my fault.”
She laughs at this, a frightening laugh. “Feeling guilty about my drinking?”
“Among many things, yes.”
“Everything is always about Lydia. Always about you. Poor Lydia.”
“I lost him too, you know.”
“Oh, shut up. We’re not having this conversation. If you wanted to have this conversation, you should have had it with me five months ago. Or better yet, when you started fucking Dean.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you. We were going to tell you. We were just scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“Breaking your heart, I guess.”
“Ha, ha,” she says, keeping her eyes on her dress. “Always trying to protect me. Never really works out though, does it?”
“We didn’t know—”
“Stop saying ‘we.’ There was never a ‘we.’ There was me and him. It was always me and him. And then the accident happened and out of the blue you two were a ‘we?’ Fuck that.”
I want to tell her to fuck off. I swallow it. She is drunk. I think about Ma.
“I thought we could talk. Move past it. Be there for each other.”
“Ma put you up to this?”
My silence says yes, yes, she did.
“Okay, fine,” she says. Abby sits next to me with her pants on and the dress bunched around her waist. She raises one eyebrow, waiting for me to entertain her. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Damn it, Abby, I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you start by getting off your fucking high horse. I haven’t seen you cry. And you want to talk to me about how I am fucked up?”
“You don’t have to be such a bitch.”
Her face calms from anger into something worse. She bites her lips and looks down.
“You know something, Lydia. I’m going to sober up. One day, I’ll do it. But you, you’ll always be a fucking liar. There’s no cure for that.”
She looks at me, squints as though she’s trying to see me better.
“You have nothing else to say?”
Tell her, I think. Tell her about his hands around your shoulders, his hands around your knees. Tell her how he spoke to you without words. Tell her about how he died. Tell her you remember his body in the dark, blood pouring like oil from wounds you couldn’t see. What a relief it would be for one other person to know.
But these memories are lodged only in me, and the words get caught in my throat.
She turns away from me and slips her arms out of the dress and into the shirt. She is determined not to be naked in front of me again. When she makes the quick slip, taking her head out of the dress and into the shirt with one swift motion, something goes wrong. There is so much dress that it gets caught around her head and extra fabric is coming out of her shirt. She begins to pull the dress out of the shirt but it is stuck.
Her head is swallowed up by the dress and I chuckle.
I grab the dress and pull too. It’s coming slowly, but at least it is coming. Abby pulls backwards, as hard as she can.
The dress finally pulls through the shirt, accompanied by a sharp ripping sound. Abby falls backward, flailing her arms. She lands on her ass. She sits a moment. I laugh. I laugh so hard my eyes tear up. I know I must look hysterical. I’m getting quite used to feeling like a mad woman. When Abby puts her hair back, she is not laughing. Big tears roll down her cheeks.
“Shit, Abby.” I reach for her arm.
A Bloomingdale’s woman walks in with her name tag swinging at the end of her breast. She swirls around the number tags on her finger.
“So sorry I wasn’t here ladies! How many?”
We look up at her. She is wearing a black skirt and rolled up sleeves, name tag still swinging.
“Oh sweetie,” she says, “Are you okay? Do you need a bigger size?”
“No,” Abby says. The Bloomingdale’s lady looks at the dress on the floor, the tear up the middle of the skirt. “You have to pay for that, you know.”
“Right-o,” Abby says with exaggerated cheer.
“Thank you for shopping,” the lady yells after us as we walk to the counter to buy the dress. Abby looks down and keeps her feet in the black tiles. I keep mine in the white tiles. If it weren’t for our swollen eyes, you might think we were happy.
* * *
I went out into the ocean once as a child, and was dragged under by waves. I was tossed around and raked through the sand before the ocean spat me out. I coughed up water; my nose felt both hollow and full. My throat burned.
This is what I felt like when Dean died, my throat burned with salt water.
I don’t know who to tell this to.
I look at Abby as we drive home. She is still chipping her black nail polish off, flakes falling into my car. Those of us left behind don’t know what to do with ourselves.
She had been tossed by the ocean once too, so badly that her stomach was bleeding from crashing against the sand. Ma rushed to her but Abby shook her away. While hacking up water and laughing she said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” She touched her bleeding stomach with her hand and wiped it on my arm. “Blood sisters,” she said as she winked at me. I was too afraid to go back in the water to wash it off.
I have been afraid of so many things for so long. How many people I’ve ruined because of it.
I drop her off at Valleybrooke to meet friends for a drink, like she has asked me too. When she gets out of my car, she mumbles something I don’t quite catch and slams the door. The snow is falling heavy. She puts her hands out, looks to the sky and spins. I watch her walk in. She is all white and black.
I pull the dress out of the bag. Rub the black and yellow petals and patterns between my fingers. I think of giving it to my mother after I have sewn the rip. How happy she will be for a moment. I think of Abby who was once wild and happy and brave, and me, who always looked at her sister with curious and careful eyes. But we are something different now. I fold the dress and put it back in the bag, knowing I cannot give my mother what she really wants.
Heather De Bel is a writer from New Jersey. She earned her BA from Ramapo College in Literature and Creative Writing and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. There she was awarded the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award for her collection The Hunting Ground and Other Stories. Her short story, “Listening to Birds” won honorable mention in the AWP Intro Journals Project and second place in Salamander’s 2018 Fiction Contest. She currently teaches writing courses at William Paterson University, Rutgers University and Ramapo College.