It’s 1964. In her room my sister turns her radio up high. Eighteen and a half, her door shut tight. Scratchy voices croon shriek yodel about love. I have peeked through the space around her doors latch and seen her dancing like some tribeswoman out of National Geographic, the brown, plastic, radio icon urging her on from its place atop her highboy. I can imagine her in there now, undulating in the tension of radio static and the tension of the time she has yet to wait before her date comes and carries her off in his car, its radio, same station, same static, same scratchy voices wheedling weeping wailing about love. Songs’ lyrics blur. All are war cries to my classical soul, abrasions to my ear drums. I am 11 in 33 days and nine hours. I am a classical pianist, seven and a half years of study stored in my long muscular fingers. For five of those years, I have been working with a retired concert pianist and teacher from the Peabody Institute of Music. I am good, and I see no reason for anything more contemporary than Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe—those great writers of great musicals. And of course I embrace the melodious Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. My mother loves to sing with them, and I do, too. ‘‘When I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo—oo-oo-oo” My sister sings, but I never hear her do so outside of church choir; there, I can always hear her voice, separate from the 25 singers. Her voice is true and strong. She can bring a hymn to life. But outside of church, her taste in music stinks.
From her room, behind her tightly closed door, a Beatles’ song begins. Behind my door, also closed tight, I turn my radio on and crank it high. Static pricks the air in my room as in hers, but at least amid my static sing woodwinds and French horns, violins and violas, cohesive in a rich frenzy, heart-palpitating anger trading remarks with abrupt softenings, soothing calms. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. in G minor. Two flats. B and E. My sister s radio takes up my challenge. Some guy whining out of tune and through his nose, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” A few more than you, I smirk. I raise Mozart to new heights. My sister cranks her radio, too. I crank once again, top volume. She cranks again, and I am disarmed. She has more power. The frenzy of Mozart’s first movement ends as he gives in to “I wanna hold your hand.” 1 give in too, turn my radio off, and throw my door open to glare in fury at hers. Psychic, she opens her door to give me that smile, that slightly sweet, slightly crooked curve of closed lips that always makes me feel short and misunderstood, trapped in my child body. I am nearly angry enough to yell, to lunge. But the moment is defused. Astute and always punctual, my mother calls up the stairs with what is the eternal question for my sister and me, “Is anything wrong up there?” What can we do but bond and assure her? “Oh, no!” she responds. “Nothing]” I add. “Just playing around!” she adds, calling cheerfully. I pinch my face into the worst grimace I can imagine and point it at her. “Just seeing whose radio is louder,” my sister adds, grins and gloats. We know whose radio is louder. Mom retreats, knowing that, of course, something is wrong, but not what, and how could either of us explain anyway.
What would my sister say if she answered honestly? Betsy is a brat? I hate having her in my space? (The whole second floor of our small house truly was her whole space until I was 8.) She leaves the bathroom a mess? She messes with my make-up and ruins the Noxzema? Guilty as charged. Guilty as charged. I make messes and don’t see them until someone else does. I ruined her mascara, but accidentally. And it left telltale smudges and streaks that I didn’t see. And the Noxzema, I use it. I wash my face with it. Mom buys it. I don’t want blackheads and pimples to grow because my grandmother loves to go after them. I have watched her corner my older cousins and check their ears and fidget around their noses. Sharp nails. She loves teenage backs the best. So I use the Noxzema just like it says to on its label. But, last week, I left the lid off, and the white creani yellowed and developed a thick skin, pulling away from the side of the jar. My sister said it wras done for, didn’t even put the lid on it, just left it on the back of the toilet where I left it. Now it is beyond rehydrating, a shrunken, hard marshrnallow stuck in cobalt-blue glass. It has become crisscrossed with fissures like the parched, arid regions in the National Geographic.
Could she tell Mom, / don’t trust her to stay out of my room when I’m out? And there is absolutely no reason she should trust me. I have graduated from sticking to the narrow confines of that invisible trail she demarcated several years before, from her door to my office. I am now up to opening and looking—any box, any drawer, her closet. í have not progressed to touching and lifting, and might not. But looking and studying the artifacts of my sister has become serious work, the work of the solver of mysteries, the work of the anthropologist. Who is this young woman with the dark chocolate hair? What does she think? Want? Love? Is she afraid of anything? It never seems so anymore. Does she know her future? Does she love this boyfriend? Does she kiss him? Does he write her love letters? Where would she keep them? The mattress.
This is much more than nosiness. I need to know her, and I hunt her down amongst her possessions, but I haven’t found her yet. I find parts—a silver filigree friendship ring, a sand dollar from our trip to Florida.
The best part of that trip was when we drove out to Captiva Island and across the sandbar to Sanibel Island. My piano teacher, with whom I share a passion for finding shells, told us about these islands. So we went, and there on Sanibel was a resort under construction, not necessarily open for business, but happy for visitors when they showed up. We stayed five days, a week perhaps, in a two-room cottage for $25 a night. The restaurant was open and the food clearly gourmet, even to my neophyte palate. That’s what the chef said. “You haf a ney-o-feet pal-laht, mademoiselle, but clear a good pal-laht. I will train eet some, n’est-ce pas?” And he did. He did. My sister got a crush on the waiter, Ed, red hair, zits. He took us into the jungle part of the island,birding. Anhingas.Wood storks. And ivory-billed woodpeckers, not the pileated we often see in Catoctin. Ivory- billed, not extinct yet after all. He took us shelling. We waded, me chest deep, feeling with our bare feet for sand dollars, He and my sister held hands. I was in the way, inevitable, invaluable. They couldn’t leave our temporary home without me. So they held hands and probably nothing more, no kissing, and at times, for fun, I pushed against the limits of my value on the Gulf side of the island, where we’d walk to look for sharks, me following 8 feet or so behind, puckering my lips and making kissy sounds. And singing their joy sweetly. “My sister has a boyfriend.”
The strait between the islands and the west coast of Florida was crystal clear like an aquamarine and protected against sharks by dolphins. White pelicans sat everywhere. When we left, I brought back 25 sand dollars, several conchs and some other shells—all priceless to me, all alive until Ed helped me commit molluskicide and store the sand dollars and shells in Clorox and water in the trunk of our car. All the way back to Maryland the scent of dead mollusks grew greater and seeped around the invisible gaps between trunk and passenger compartment into the back seat. The smell was horrendous, sickening, but the shells made it home and into my collection.
I wonder if she keeps the sand dollar to remember Ed. I wonder who gave her the silver ring. I wonder and wonder, but I can never put the pieces together. She is the puzzle I may never solve. And I feel time getting close because she is almost an adult. She might move out too soon, but not for her. She knows me. She is right. When she leaves for her date tonight, I am going to explore one or two of the narrow shelves in her closet, and I am going to lift her mattress to check for love letters. And if I find any, I might just read them. I am also thinking about unplugging her radio.
So what would I answer if I answered my mother honestly when she asked if there was anything wrong up here? There are too many rules up here, Mom? Why can’t I read for a while before I go to bed? Reading under covers with a flashlight is not all it’s cracked up to be. Bach went blind partly because he spent his childhood nights penning masterpieces in secret by the light of the moon. Why can’t I have my radio on low when I go to sleep? Why can’t I turn on my light when I have a nightmare or when I simply can’t sleep? Why does she always promise to tell? And why don’t I let her? What would have happened if she did tell? And would she ever really tell?
But most important, I would ask Mom, Why am I only a pest? I am a pest, it’s true. But I wouldn’t he if I didn’t have to be. Do you understand? I have to be a pest. I am too young to be a friend.
As Mom retreats, no doubt to confer with Dad, we, too, retreat to our rooms and our secret identities as tormentors and tormented. She turns her radio up, just some. I leave mine off.
Through the wall between our rooms, I can hear the Beatles again. Stupid stupid stupid music. I hate the Beatles, partly because their music does not, for me, qualify as music, but more because they drive girls, even girls my age, googah. Everybody loves them. Every girl in the fifth grade has picked out which Beatle she’s going to marry. When people go to Beatles concerts, they stand on their seats and scream so loud that they cannot even hear the music they paid to hear. So they didn’t go to hear the music. It seems like the Beatles get paid just to come out in front of an audience to get screamed at. In some way or another, the Beatles surround me all day and all night.
But not this evening. With two of my sister’s cotton balls soaked in warm water and wrung out, I shut my door and wedge myself into the right corner at the head of my bed, the furthest point in my room from the wall that separates her from me. I stuff the cotton balls into my ears and pull one of the books from beneath my pillow. I try to lose myself and my fury in the trials and tribulations of “The Middle Sister,” a girl from the pioneer days, true, but her story is the same as mine, except that she gets a chance to do something so brave that she is never just the middle sister again. She makes an apple tart for an Indian who comes into the house while her family is in town and she is supposed to be cleaning and making dinner for their return. Her fear is split between the Indian and what her mother and father will do about her using the last of the stored apples to make him the pacifying tart. He eats and is peaceful when her family returns. She is a heroine. Her joy fills her chest and mine. I pull out the cotton and re-enter my world and hear silence. My sister has gone out. I tiptoe to my door, open and confirm. Her door hangs open on its black iron, pseudo-colonial hinges, and her light is off. I take up my flashlight and begin the search.
There are some wars between people which start in the gut and bypass reason. My sister and I had those wars a lot. She knew just how to push me into action against myself. I knew how to get her riled. Our wars, like all wars, were about territory and power. Like all wars, they began with a slightly faster rush of blood in the veins in response to some almost imperceptible movement. Then a nudge from one side, a pushing back from the other, a shove, a harder shove and—escalation, elevation—the rocketing, spiralling, out-of-control, full-scale war, both sides giving as much as they could to give as good as they got. Unlike most warriors, my sister and I left no gaping wounds or scars. Skirmishes were guerrilla, often silent and devastating, quick as the strike of a snake. Retreats were strategic and as fast as a moray drawing back into his crevice, only to strike again. Take the war of the closed bedroom doors, for example. I don’t know why this single event sticks with me, but it has, perhaps because it was a true matching of wits, and she won.
Our bedroom doors were knotty pine, not with knobs, but with latches like some garden gates have—on the inside, a flat bar which is lifted and let down by a metal lever that goes through a hole below the bar, outer door to inner door. When the door was closed, the bar crossed the crack between door and jamb and fell behind a metal catch on the jamb. The doors would close, but they would not lock. Thus neither of us was secure from interruption, invasion, and the space around the lever encouraged spying. There ‘was one day, though, when the issue of locking surfaced big time, just that once and never again. I cannot remember who started it. I remember that it started as a game of sorts, fun, then lessening fun, then fervor, then fury. I can only start after the game had begun.
if the lever won’t move, the bar can’t lift. So I stuff small wads of paper into the space around the lever. I test it. It cannot move. I go sit on my bed and watch as my sister pokes the paper out with a No. 4 pencil. She snaps the lever up, and ta-da!, she has my door open. She waltzes back to her room. I try again. If the lever won’t move, the bar won’t lift.
So I fold paper until it is thick enough to force down between the bar and the door. If the bar is too tight, the lever won’t move. I step back and wait, longer this time. I feel her studying the problem. I hear a grunt of satisfaction. A minute later, I watch as the thin, steel blade of her painting spatula slides in and down the crack between the door and jamb and shoves my thickness of paper down and out from behind the bar. She snaps the lever up with a loud clack, opens my door, and grins her way back to her room.
If the lever won’t move, the bar won’t lift.
So with kite string I wrap and wrap around the bar and the lever, tying them into permanent immobility. Then I sit on my bed and wait, even longer this time. I hear her door open. î feel her studying the problem. I see the white and brown ball of her eye as she peers in around the lever. I am complacent. I have got her this time. I have won. And as I settle into my warm bloodrush of glory, I see the blade of a knife slip silently through the crack between door and jamb, and she saws away at the string. This takes a while. The blade against the tangle of string grates and squeaks. The door rattles some, back and forth with each saw of the blade. As I watch, I feel the fun draining out of me and despair flooding in. Close on the tail of despair, anger edges in. The last string frays in the blade’s path, and she snaps the lever up, and opens the door, and gives me a look that seems even sad. 1 cannot outsmart her. She goes back to her room without a flounce. She knows the game is over. But if the lever won’t move, the bar won’t lift. There must be a way.
For an hour, at least, I work on creating a mess so solid that none of her ploys can dismantle it. The thickness of folded paper, tighter and longer, wadded paper, around the lever and string, and chewing gum holds it all together. And I wait. I wait. I wait. I hear no sound of her for a long time. Then I hear her radio come on and the opening and closing of bureau drawers. I sit on my bed and stare at the mess that has secured my latch and locked me in. I wait and wait more. Finally, she comes out of her room, and as she passes my door on her way to the bathroom, she pauses to pull my lever out of its hole, leaving the mess, the string hanging limply. If the lever isn’t there, there is nothing.
I am embarrassed and frustrated. I am angry, too angry for the small size of my room. As I jerk stiffly toward the door to rip the mess away and get my lever back, I see my right hand sweep across my bureau, knocking the surface ornaments awry. When all is still, two china horses, a bay and a black, lie shattered on the floor. My heavy, hand mirror lies, its glass unbroken, in the shards and dust of what had been my bank, a gold-painted pig large enough for a 3-year-old to sit on. Now it is gold pieces, with hints of what had been pink flowers painted on its back. Its head lies solid but away from the body. And in the plaster dust and chunks lie silver coins, many 50-cent pieces. I sit on the floor in silence and disbelief. What had started as a game had ended in the wreckage of things I loved. Beyond repair. Wreckage of things loved beyond repair. For a long time I cannot cry. I can only stare. I can feel the wail of a child stuck in my chest. Look what she made me do! Mama! But in my mind I hear the words of a non-child. She did not make you do this. You did it yourself.
Finally, I begin to assess the damage, to count the dead. I carefully pick up the pieces of pig and limbs of horse, using cotton handkerchiefs from Aunt Edith to help me separate the bay horse from the black from the gold and pink. When all that remains is dust and small unidentifiable white plaster chips, no longer horse or pig, I clean the mess off my latch and get a damp sponge from the bathroom. My lever lies on the floor outside my door. I pick it up, go in and shut the door, and set the lever on my desk. If the lever isn’t there, the bar won’t lift. But as I am wiping up dust and small pieces, my sister sticks her lever into my door, and the bar rises. She has heard a crash. Am I alright?
I have broken two horses and my pig. I nod toward the hankies and box. It is then scalding tears drip from my eyes; like acid, they burn paths along the contours of my face. Cooling to chill, they drip down to rny chest. I am ashamed of myself. I have broken things I love. But no wail accompanies the tears. They are silent. My sister squats down and hugs me. I let her. I am not angry with her. I am angry with everything and with myself. She stands up, fetches three boxes from her room, and returns to take carefully my handkerchiefs of shards.
I let her. And for some reason, after this battle of doors, I never go into her room and snoop again. I return to the narrow trail to my office, keeping to my boundaries.
Over the next few weeks, my animals reappear. First the bay, then the black. There are cracks and white spots where chips are missing, but these only make them more precious. I put them on a high shelf with my other more precious objects. But when the pig returns, it is as if he had never been hurt. Missing chips have been reconstructed with plaster or spackling. He is freshly gold, and his flowers are pink and purple and white. His eyes shine blue. They were not noticeably any particular color before. Now they are peacock blue. I do not know for sure if í have my sister to thank. I would not know how to thank her if I tried, just as she would not know how to let me. A stillness grows between us. A silence. Not of anger. Just distance. 1 think for the first time I recognize the distance. In part it is age and the times. But it is what makes us who we are more than anything else. Needs. Interests. Quirks. Beliefs. Creeds.
In 1966, my sister got married two days before my 13th birthday. I was one of her bridesmaids in yellow satin with a moss-green satin sash and moss-green, dyed Naturalizer shoes with heels. I was forced to shave my legs. I was made to practice in the heels. I was inept and dead serious, as I hobbled down the aisle before my older and elegant cousins. As I passed one pew, someone hissed, “Smile, Betsy.” I don’t think I did. The wedding passed. The reception was modest but grand. Good food. Good music. Good punch. Inside, my younger sister, 5 and a fine extrovert, spun in dervish windmill circles amongst the dancers. Outside, my yellow satin and moss-green, dyed Naturalizer pumps met February mud in the rainy church driveway, as I made chains of can from the caterers’ trash and strung them from the newlyweds’ bumper and tucked them neatly out of sight. In the doorway to the reception, women were gathering and passing bags of rice. Purse open, I rose from the mud and went to get my share.