I was seven when my sister was taken to the hospital, screaming, her stomach swollen, like how the yard would get when we ran the sprinkler for too long and the grass turned into a water balloon. She was nine, and she needed a kidney transplant. After this need became understood, my father took me to the hospital cafeteria, and we sat across from each other in plastic chairs, a plate of tacos with broken yellow shells in front of us.
Just before we left to have our food, I could hear my parents talking out of eyeshot.
“It should be something she has to do, Marc,” my mother said.
“And it probably will be, Grace. But we’re giving her the option. You let her decide on church, I’m letting her decide on this.”
My mother was silent after this comment, though I could believe she rolled her eyes, or motioned something similar before returning to my sister’s room. I had never heard my parents say their real names aloud. Before then, these names were only used among friends and family, and always in that pleasant conjugation of: Markie, Gracie.
From my plate, my father took his fork and stabbed into a pinto bean that was buried in my rice. He slipped it between his teeth.
“How did it feel when I did that?”
“Did what?” I asked.
“When I took your food.”
Though this wasn’t a game, I liked this game. I liked answering questions at this age, which were conditioned on me and me alone.
“Honey, you know that Nance is sick, yes?”
I nodded, my face down at the edges of the orange lunch tray we shared.
“She’s very sick. She needs a kidney. Do you know which one that is?”
I stabbed into a pinto bean and held it up, which though my father didn’t smile, I like to think he must have on the inside, because what an absolute genius move for me to make.
“Exactly,” he said, and continued on, “Do you know how many kidneys you have?”
“One,” I said.
“Actually, you have two kidneys. And what’s neat about having two is that you really only need one. Humans need two lungs, two arms, one heart, and one kidney.”
My father pantomimed this list: deep breath, winged stretch, a beat on his chest, another bite of bean off my plate.
“Now, Nance has no kidneys, which is why she’s been so sick—but, as luck would have it, you are a one-in-a-million match to give your sister a kidney to make her better.”
I didn’t show interest.
“That’s pretty cool, huh? One-in-a-million, and you live in the same house.”
“How do I do it?” I asked.
And, like the ever visual-learner he is, my father took his knife and fork, and carved a slit into the border of Styrofoam plate. With his fork, he put the bean into his picnic incision, and that was that.
Even this demonstration, though, proved too graphic for me. I didn’t want to give either kidney to my sister. Call it being a seven-year-old girl, call it fear, call it selfish, call it an inexplicable failure at both math and love, but I wanted my kidneys the same way I didn’t want to be sick like Nance.
For several more minutes, my father lightly tried to convince me, but I didn’t budge. I just sifted the green Jell-O from spoon to mouth.
Back up the hall, my father walked holding my hand to where my mom waited outside the room—back to Grace. We didn’t say a word to her when we made it there. She already knew, probably the same way she knew it shouldn’t even be up for discussion. My mother always had the canny ability to make her hunches come true.
For the next twelve weeks, my sister’s name floated on a list we referred to but never saw. My sister turned pallid and stopped going to school. My father went to church and kept lit a tall red candle of St. Benedict, using a piece of uncooked spaghetti and a match to do so when the wax went low. The television was moved into Nance’s bedroom, and she and my mother would have popcorn nights in there three times a week, like the only place that was safe for Nancy to travel to was Hollywood Video.
My sister eventually survived the list, and the day of her appointment, we all drove over in our Subaru, boxes of board games and water bottles fit between my ankles. She was weak. A dog-hit-by-a-car weak, but the next day, it was all over. We sat on her hospital bed with grape popsicles shamelessly playing Operation, jokingly forcing my sister to remove her spare ribs, which she attempted to do every time by lifting up her gown and placing the metal tweezers against her stitches, while we all yelled and buzzed. We played this game for hours, even after we were home, settled in our beds. I could still hear the faint sound of metal hitting metal, could still see that red nose light beneath her door, as Nancy lay awake trying to fish out the wishbone.
* * *
I’m sixteen when I lose my virginity to Cody, and I lie on the side of Nancy’s bed, in the dark of night, an hour after it happens, going between tears.
“Is it the pain?” she asks.
“It’s not the pain. I knew about the pain,” I tell her, which I did. Regine had told me about the pain, of the shock. I had asked her if there was a noise that came from my body when it happened, and she had laughed aloud at me, her hand around my neck like I’d just whiffed at a detail of life and womanhood I never would again.
“Is it the boy?” Nancy asks.
“I think I love him.”
“Oh, Denny,” she says, Denny being her nickname for me, “But that’s wonderful news.”
“Regine says it’s better to be more experienced before you meet the person you love,” I say, which saying aloud sounds like the absurd thing one insecure girl tells another, but it’s a concept I probed with heart.
My sister turns me around so that we look at each other shadow to shadow, only able to see the other’s face through memory, because it’s the same face we have looked at all our lives, and she says, “No one in the world will ever love Regine.”
In the morning, I wake in Nancy’s bed turned sideways to the wall and its two windows, which are crosscut with black power lines and the trees my father expertly trims to not interfere. It’s Saturday, early. I roll over, and Nance is already up. When I go for my room to keep sleeping, I find her on the bathroom floor, her body lain out like a starfish, a dribble of spit out the side of her mouth like dish soap.
Both my parents are downstairs, and with a single scream of their names I have them enacted: my father’s arms lifting my sister up, my mother backing the car out of the driveway, me in the front seat in the same clothes Cody had taken off hours earlier, for the first time. We’re a series of cut-to-behavior whenever something goes wrong with Nancy.
Since my sister’s diagnosis with chronic kidney disease, it’s become assumed she’s susceptible to everything. To my parents, she’s a living, breathing petri dish and any time she doesn’t appear up to code lands us in the emergency room, in the offices of specialists. The medical bills have a separate filing cabinet, and there are at least five being paid off at all times. Our parents’ health insurance has stopped being able to provide for the unique testing my parents feel necessary, and so they continually cancel our vacations, hold off on take-out Fridays, and buy us cheap toilet paper, which dissolves in our hands.
A week earlier, my sister came into our bathroom to pee while I was doing my hair, and as she went to wipe, she unspooled at least six feet of paper, folding the squares over and over again.
“You think if I complain of a vaginal rash mom and dad will get us fleece towels from now on?”
I hear this comment once again as I look to the backseat, my father propping her head up like a ventriloquist.
When my sister comes to, our parents are still meeting with the on-call physician and taking down names and numbers to their pen-and-paper-bibles: metabolic acidosis, uremia, hypertensive encephalopathy; the upshot being that this was a partial seizure.
I’m made into a ball on the chair beside her as her eyes open, the same way I was nine years ago as we sat and waited for Nancy to wake up from the transplant surgery. The same surgery she could have had three months sooner, suffer-free, worry-free, if I’d ever spoken up about the kidney I wasn’t using. Instead, my parents said nothing to Nancy about my being a match, for fear it would become something to divide us.
“Hey,” she says, like it’s just a Saturday afternoon and she’s been slow going. “Did you talk to Cody?”
It feels impossible not to talk about, and so I let it happen.
“He called me late last night. I was asleep.”
“That’s good,” she says, “That’s really, really good,” and drifts off.
At home, my sister sets up camp in the living room. Gatorade for the electrolytes, bananas cut up by the handful for the potassium, containers of B12 supplements she works like maracas, a spanking new St. Benedict candle. My mother has written on an index card what Nancy will not be allowed to do for two months: no driving, no running, no flip-flops, no roller skating.
“Does she really think I still go roller-skating on the weekends?” my sister asks, trying to harken memories of the rink downtown most people outgrow by sixth grade.
This time around, I decide I’m not going to leave my sister’s side. I go to Hollywood Video and rent every movie they have with Pierce Brosnan—her future husband—that isn’t a James Bond. Only, by the end credits of Robinson Crusoe, my sister’s had enough of my attention.
“Okay, this is just going to depress me, you sitting here with me. You need to go out. Put on some flip-flops, go roller-skating. One of us should.”
“They make you buy socks if you’re not wearing any when you walk in,” I tell her, but my sister just throws a pillow my way.
“Go see Cody, or even Regine, and I’m going to make mom and dad watch—,” she fumbles around in the bag of DVDs, “Dante’s Peak. It’ll offer some perspective.”
I kiss my sister’s head, and leave my house, my parents in their usual poses, tallying the latest visit, bowls of ice cream and cups of coffee spread around like they’ll be pulling all-nighters, like they know there’s an answer for everything, and they’ll find it.
* * *
Regine, I understand, is not the most realistic friend in the world. She wears low-cut shirts with a push-up bra, and thin tank tops over both, which veil just enough for someone to believe the push-up bra isn’t doing everything. On weekends, she likes to be in the company of as many people as possible. Not for any length of time, but she wants to be seen going elsewhere in front of people. It is her ultimate goal, having something more important.
When I tell her I have news to share, we’re standing outside the laundromat that’s across the street from the bowling alley, where a good portion of our school spend their weekend, when it isn’t football or basketball seasons.
“How bad was it?” she says with a crooked smile, but interrupts me when I hesitate. “I’m just joking, you know that. You have to do it again before it can be bad. Where is Cody anyway?”
“My sister passed out today,” I say, “I haven’t talked to him.”
“You didn’t talk to him at all?”
“Well, I was at the hospital.”
“Dana, you have to call him now. Kid is probably out of his mind. Look, I’m supposed to go over Telly’s party for a few, I can drop you at his house on the way. His parents are still out of town, right?”
Cody’s parents had gone to a hotel downtown the night before for a couple’s spa weekend they’d won at a silent auction. The night we had sex, I parked in their garage, killing the headlights before I turned onto his street, letting the car just roll there in neutral. We were afraid to turn on any lights, and didn’t even get into a bed. We stayed on the couch in the middle of his house, no light except a tiny bulb over the stove, which never turns off.
The second time, we go into his bedroom, where he shuts the door, and has his bed already made. I’ve known Cody for five years, since day one of his moving here, and I’ve liked him for all five of those years, too. Though, it wasn’t until the middle of last summer I saw something more physical about him. A bunch of us had gone swimming one weekend, six of us somehow piled into Regine’s Jeep, with coolers and towels, and it was the first time I’d seen Cody without clothes. A clean, fit body, with a long torso, not much hair anywhere, and red swim trunks that cuffed above the knee. I could feel him in that moment. I understood that I could take off my clothes, I could take off those red swim trunks, and I could lay the body I was seeing on top of mine. I would feel comfort, arousal, presence.
The second time, though, while easier, more fluid, still hurts. An hour later, while we’re still in bed talking, I can feel a pressure inside my body I’ve never known before, a bruise free-floating. Nothing to do with having to go to the bathroom, nothing to do with the positions we’d been in. It feels distinctly like a result of Cody pushed inside me. I get it in my head that it’s bad sex. Regine has it all the time, I think. We’ve had bad sex, and it doesn’t mean it can’t be good.
I climb onto Cody, both of us still naked, and quickly ready again. I adjust my hands so that I hold us in the parts that are most human, and I puzzle us back together.
* * *
The following morning, I can hear my father and Nancy in the living room downstairs, having it out.
“If you don’t tell us, we have to guess. I’m not asking for much, just call me in after you go,” he says.
“I can tell you if it’s there,” she repeats.
“It might not be something you see in color. It has a consistency, Nana.”
“Dad. How long are we going to do this? Are you going to follow me to college, sneak into the girls’ dorm to check the bathrooms?”
“If I have to.”
By the time I make it downstairs, the argument is nearly through, and I pass my father as I enter. On the television screen is Pierce, his body paused in action. He has longer hair and a light scruff.
“What movie is this?” I ask.
“The Lawnmower Man.”
“Pointless, really. He has glasses on the whole time, which take away from his eyes.”
My sister pats the couch, and I lean in beside her.
“You get any last night?” she asks bumping our shoulders together.
“I’ll take that as yes,” she says unpausing the movie, and for some reason, I feel I can’t commit my sister to the truth. In this moment, I see that something about her body is more wrong than right. It’s dull and exhausted, like something without bone you just move from side to side.
“Cody wasn’t around last night, but I’ll see him at school,” I tell her.
“Oh, careful when you go to the bathroom today. Dad might push in the door before you flush.”
I don’t leave the house again until the late afternoon, during a repeat showing of Lawnmower Man, when Nancy is asleep and my mom back home. My father, with his candles and prayer and repayment plans—while necessary functions for him to keep going, for him to preserve his daughter—are a drain for my sister. When they’re left alone together, it’s as if every reassurance my sister gives funnels toward him, and it keeps falling downward to a place that can never be filled. It isn’t long before Nancy tires of illustrating the cause and effect of her body, and they begin to fight.
Regine’s parents are almost never home, but they are when I come in this afternoon, both huddled over the newspaper reading the same article.
“Look, Mary,” Mr. Atwell says to Mrs., “It’s the one decent girl Regine has in her life.”
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Atwell.”
Mr. walks up and places both his hands on my head, inspecting me.
“Something’s different. Don’t tell me,” he pauses, and Mrs. Atwell walks over. She repeats the motion, her hands on my head like a spirometer.
“Huh. Something is different. Something is weird,” she says.
“Dana had sex,” Regine says walking into the kitchen, and she puts her arm around me, which I quickly shove off.
“And there goes the one decent girl Regine has in her life,” Mr. says, before Mrs. slaps his arm, and smiles, embarrassed for us both, though most of all herself. It’s common knowledge that people grow up and begin having sex, and young girls are always the first to mature, it’s known to dirt, but Mrs. Atwell has given life to the person who enjoys saying everything not even the dirt does.
Away from the kitchen, Regine tries to understand why I would be in pain.
“Good pain?” she says with a half-wink.
“I don’t think so. It’s pain I don’t want.”
“Could go both ways, then. Did you tell him it hurt?”
“I told him it hurt, but that it started feeling better.”
“Oh, great. He’ll run and tell all his friends that exact story.”
Regine turns on her computer, waving her mouse out so that the screen lights up.
“Alright,” she says, “Maybe you have a UTI. Let’s see the symptoms.”
I watch as the Internet breaks apart everything my morning-after pain could be in seconds. Cause and effect lines drawn by the millions.
“Does it feel like you have to pee?” she asks.
“Does it burn when you pee?”
“That rules that out. Next up, yeast infection. We’re going to have to take a look.”
“Oh, stop. Like I haven’t seen my own?”
“I’m not letting you just inspect me.”
“Well, fine,” she says, pulling a compact from her purse, “Here. You’re going to want to be thorough. Oh, and be on the lookout for raised bumps. That’s our next check.”
When I leave the Atwell’s, no one says anything to me, and Mr. and Mrs. are still in the kitchen, the sections of newspaper spread around them like decoupage. I leave just like one of the other indecent girls, I think.
At the car, on my phone, there’s a call from my mother with a voicemail telling me they’re at the hospital again. My sister’s levels have dropped, and she needs a transfusion. By the time I arrive, however, knowing full well that I’m a match, that I can finally give something to my sister, it’s already been done. She’s sitting upright in her bed, a pellucid IV dripping into her system.
“I want us to say a prayer,” are the first words out of my father’s mouth, and as reluctant as my mother always is, she takes his hand without question. The four of us in a round, my sister’s bed as our focal point, we say a half-dozen Hail Maries.
My sister’s too weak to stay up, and the doctors all recommend we go home, too: get your rest, be back first thing in the morning, we have to wait and see. They’re words television has taught us, and they feel painful. As we walk out, my parents flank either side of me, their arms on my shoulders, not like they need me as a crutch, but like they’re wanting to place their hands on their one secure possession.
* * *
I don’t use Regine’s compact, but I look at myself, my hands trying to expand my body to fit the bathroom mirror. It all looks normal. That night, I read more about yeast infections, and find that yogurt is a natural remedy. I pull out a scoop of plain Greek yogurt from the kitchen, and I go into the bathroom. With a dozen feet of toilet paper folded over, I apply it. I put on large cotton underwear I steal from Nance’s dresser, and I sit on the couch with my parents watching The Thomas Crown Affair.
Early on, I fall asleep, and my parents go up. When I wake, draped over my legs is a blanket, and it’s the middle of the movie and I don’t know what’s going on. Rene Russo and Pierce are in bed, and they’re happy. They’re naked. Everything easy, no one in pain. It seems like what I want out of adulthood, but instead I’m sixteen with yogurt seeped through my sister’s underwear, my sister in the hospital with a body trying to turn itself inside out, and I can’t help but think about being on her bed all those years before playing Operation in the middle of the night.
I remember being called to that room the week she was home and recovering, called by that occasional flicker of red that told me she was still awake. I pushed open the door, climbed in with her, and we fit the game between us in the pitch black.
“Shouldn’t we turn on a light?” I asked.
“No way,” my sister said, “This is the best way to practice. Touch the board and think about exactly where you’re going.”
Buzz after buzz we went, my turns always the shortest offenses, while my sister’s hand lasted longer and longer with the tweezers.
And then it happened. A strong silence, and into my hand, my eyes adjusted to nothing, my sister placed the wishbone.
“I told you,” she said, “It doesn’t matter what we can see.”
The next day, my parents excuse me from school to stay home and rest, while they go to the hospital. They invite me, but I’m not yet ready to enter a world where my sister is forced to be patient zero. I take a shower, wiping clean everywhere I had gotten yogurt. I inspect once more, this time for raised bumps, which I’m not even certain about why. There’s nothing. I make a late breakfast, and I watch The Thomas Crown Affair again, in full. This time understanding everything about the two of them in bed, realizing through a particular worry that they’ve had good sex on their first turn, and it’s what made them keep going, in some ways. And this is when Cody calls.
“I heard your sister’s really sick, are you all right?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” I say, and I look to the clock behind me. It’s just after two, and my parents will be meeting with a hospital accountant at three.
“Come over,” I tell him, “No one will be here for hours.”
“Are you sure?” he asks, but I know that I am. I know that the only thing I can think about right now is this need to know about my body, to understand it.
Cody has on high-top sneakers, athletic shorts, and a green shirt with a picture of a bird nosediving on it. I take them off him in my room, and prop a chair beneath my doorknob as a last resort.
We’ve never had sex, I realize, in the daylight, and our bodies look distinctly different. I can see every follicle on mine, every blemish on his, and we move together quickly, a little sloppily. First I’m on top, and then he rolls me over, and places his hand on my stomach. He props too much weight with that hand, and I wince, and move it to my side.
“Sorry,” he says, but I don’t pay attention to what he wants.
I’m only paying attention to the movements below my stomach. They all hurt. Not on contact, not a jabbing force; it has nothing to do with Cody. I even think that Cody is probably a good lover, but I push him away taking deep breaths of pain.
“Did I do something wrong?” he asks, and I know I have to roll back over and face him, not make him feel like every time we’re together I become this way. I want to show him we can have the sex that adults have, but I can’t.
“I’m worried about my sister. I think I’m distracted.”
For some wonder in the world, Cody puts his arm around me, and his body presses my backside like a compass until I turn around.
“I’ll drive you to the hospital, maybe you’ll feel better if you see her,” he tells me.
I look down at his body, which is as exposed as mine. I think about what Regine says happens when the guy doesn’t finish, and how that’s the reason Andrew never talks to her anymore, because of just that one time. But, my sister is right, no one will ever love Regine.
At the hospital, I’m told my sister’s asleep in her room, my parents still with the accountant, but the nurse says I’m fine to enter in and wait. Her room is private, and nearly the same size as the one she has at home. I think about whether or not this is a perk the hospital allows you after so many visits, or if it will be a discussion I overhear my parents having later on.
“What’s the money if she can at least have some privacy during this,” our father will say, our mother nodding along as she carries the two with her pencil.
On the windowsill is a row of potted plants from the gift shop, which my father has shoved laminate prayer cards into, as if they’re identifying each scientifically. The fern, Saintus joseph; the African violets, Saintus maria; the iris, Saintus agnes. As girls, he would hand these prayer cards out to us like a game, and we’d stack them in rows, naming their patronage.
As Nancy wakes, I go to her side. I can’t fit in the bed like when we’re at home and so I pull the chair close and wrap hands with hers.
“Are you taller than me?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“You look tall by the windows. I don’t like it. Don’t be taller than me.”
I pinch my sister’s hand and watch as the catheter beads with the condensation of medicine, its vapors breaking into her blood stream.
“I need to tell you something,” I say, and my sister nods up at me, like now or never.
“When you needed a kidney, I was a match to give you one, but I didn’t want to. I was afraid I’d get sick, too.”
My sister pulls my hand.“Mom told me.”
“The day they put me on the list.”
I shudder. For the better part of a decade my sister has known exactly how much of a coward I really am.
“That’s not why I’m sick, Denny.”
I’m crying when my parents enter, and I wipe my eyes on the bed sheet. My mother and I switch places, my father’s hands filled with a stack of papers and a pen between his teeth like a rose stem.
“We’re robbing a bank,” he says, eyes on me, “Which daughter is driving the getaway?” and I see Nance’s hand rise up as I go into the bathroom, my mother reprimanding my father for saying anything,
“What? I was only kidding, the girls know it,” he says from behind the door.
Over the sink, I straighten out the makeup I’m wearing, and turn on the faucet just for the noise. In the mirror, I look young and healthy. I look the very opposite of Nancy. No scar on my belly, two arms, two lungs, one heart, one kidney too many. I sit down to pee, when I notice the toilet hasn’t been flushed. I grab the handle, and pause. Never before have I looked at my sister’s urine, and probably for many reasons, but this time she forgot to flush, this time she must have been too weak. Amid the pale yellow, there are blushes of red, which my sister told my father weren’t happening, which she said have never happened. They swirl inside, like ripples of DNA in a sunspot.
In my body a pain rises up from a place no one else can see. It hangs there in the depth of me, until I flush it away. I give my sister what she doesn’t have, knowing this time we’ll share the consequence.
Scott Gloden was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, and Southern Humanities Review. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University, and lives in New Orleans.