During meteor showers, my sister and I used to lie on our backs in a clearing above the lake, above the trees, above the dam. We pointed at constellations with a flashlight, and when fire streaked the sky, we said, “There! Did you see it?” We found the cloudy arm of the Milky Way. We studied stars and fancied ourselves astronomers. Eyes big with wonder, we could have eaten the entire night sky.
She told me the story of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, and how, after Orion had pursued them for seven years, Zeus turned them into doves and placed them among the stars.
We walked to the park, dug up clay, caught tadpoles in our palms. The woods were our playground.
Remember building forts out of blankets and chairs? Remember melting crayons on the sidewalk? Remember devouring books with a flashlight beneath the covers past bedtime? My sister and I could never read them fast enough, always needed more. Book after book, night after night.
We wanted everything. That desire to know and touch and have and do. We were insatiable.
At first, I talked incessantly: ideas and plans and observations. In the second grade, I stopped. I still spoke in monologues to my sister, but without the protection of oaks and wild animals and manzanita branches, I was frozen. I couldn’t tell you what made my voice dangerous—only that I’d begun to fear the world. Amid the screaming and crying of a chaotic household, I grew quiet.
I tried to answer when called upon, but words didn’t work anymore. The teacher showed me games at recess and asked me to play, day after day. I nodded. Then, as soon as she turned, I ran to the field, counting clovers the way I used to count constellations.
I still wanted everything. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be everything. Just quietly, now.
Then my sister grew too old for sunburns and stray animals and the treasure we buried ourselves. She wrote poems. She wore a dress to middle school every Tuesday—“Because it’s Tuesday,” she explained. She was a runner, she was fast, she was tall, she was bright.
Without her, keeping tadpoles was useless. I wanted to be bright, too.
Now, we fought. Over whatever we could. Over our pets. Over shotgun. Over our parents’ pride and scrutiny. No more adventures. No more spending lunch quarters on city maps and plotting to run away together with a red pen.
I wasn’t fast, but I was smart. In high school, when the kids asked who got the best score on a math test, the boys would start to argue and I’d catch the teacher’s eye, but he wouldn’t betray me.
It was a trick I learned from my sister, actually, who did the same in her classes. Until she started falling asleep by 7:00 pm, stopped seeing her friends. She spoke less. She got a B. She got a boyfriend, who flirted with me. Instead of writing sad poetry, now she wrote no poetry.
I grew taller. We joked that she was my “little” sister. We learned to censor ourselves, to measure our words. But we still wanted stars.
There was a hill at a stoplight where my sister always stalled the car, so we took the freeway home from school. With the Sacramento River behind us and Mount Lassen ahead—a literal volcano, although it hadn’t flared in decades—we could pretend we were driving fast in our old car that shuddered and struggled to accelerate. Here, we’d sing dramatically. Boy bands. Bad ’90s music. Bad ’80s music. One time, we blew the speakers blasting Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
One day, I found a letter in the printer. It was addressed to our mother. My sister was asking her to sign a permission slip for a prescription of antidepressants.
I put the letter back.
Another day, I was startled by my sister in the hallway. “I heard something strange,” she said. “I heard the toilet flush a few times while you were in the shower.”
I was thinner than I’d been a few months earlier.
She had that look in her eye like my math teacher, like she was on to something only the both of us knew. We were both very polite about it—the bathroom, the printer. We had practiced playing pretend as children, and now, as teen girls, we played polite.
After she left her boyfriend, he sent me an e-mail about how much he loved her, how she was meant to be for him, how special she was. I don’t remember if I responded. She told him they could still be friends. The three of us walked around the mall together as we often had. When she wasn’t watching, he would try to kiss her. I saw her turn away, again and again. But I didn’t see that her wrists were bruised.
We left home, studied. Grew up, grew apart. I was distant from our family, seeking quiet. I learned to converse, but still I trusted no one.
We lost track of each other. My sister hiked off-trail in the redwoods and worried about old-growth logging. I kicked sand on the beach and worried about overfishing. There were shots of tequila chased with lime, girls kissed, secrets shared with friends only when I was drunk enough for it not to count.
There was a collective sigh, from ourselves, from our parents. There used to be the bright world I believed in, the way children invest hopes into shooting stars. There was the girl I was supposed to be, perfect and shining.
Perhaps the world would have kept its end of the deal had I kept mine.
A few years later—I must have been twenty or twenty-one—we found ourselves sharing a bottle of Napa cabernet sauvignon and asking each other questions like it was a first date.
“You drink?” she asked. “I thought you were a nice church girl.”
I shook my head. “I’m a disappointment.”
She didn’t correct me. Not because she was disappointed, but because she knew what I meant.
We grew into professionals, learned to stand at our full heights, but there was something reserved in our postures. A slight tucking of the shoulders, perhaps, as if to protect our hearts.
When my sister finally told me the reason her wrists were bruised that day, and that she had cried for help, it was hard for me to understand how nobody came. I believed her, but still it was hard to imagine that nobody would help a girl they heard screaming on a public campus during broad daylight. A girl being shoved into a car in a full parking lot. A girl who had done the “right” thing by breaking up in public.
I knew she was telling the truth. That I didn’t question. What I wondered was how it was true.
Until I screamed, too. I was in a residential area, the lights of Manhattan glimmering below. I must have woken the entire neighborhood. Get the fuck away from me. Don’t fucking touch me. [repeat, repeat]
Nobody came. I wonder if, maybe, they never do.
The dispatcher told me it was my fault, which I knew she would do. I worried she was right. Then there were mugshots. Hours of them. Men on my own street. The slant of that cheek, the narrowness of that jaw, the crease beneath an eye. The detective laughed at me (kindly), seeing me hold up my finger to cover each forehead. I wouldn’t recognize him without a hoodie.
They sent me away with a file number, a charge—“sexual assault.” Language, comprehension escaped me.
What was worse, maybe, than being chastised by the dispatcher and then receiving apologies from the police, worse than the ensuing panic attacks, worse than studying portraits, worse than knowing what they say about girls like me—out alone, late, drunk, in a dress—was the shameful doubt that maybe I had asked for it, did deserve it. If not that night, then on previous nights. On my long runs back in Southern California, where I used to run alone late at night, daring someone to murder me because I was too afraid of suicide. Those were the nights when I debated if maybe my sister’s pills might help me, or if it would have been better to swim out too far into the ocean on a hard day of training. It would have been an innocent accident; nobody needed to know. It would have stayed a secret. But I couldn’t do that to the people I loved, people like my sister.
In New York, I yearned for life—but maybe it was too late; I had already wished harm upon myself years earlier.
Thousands of people continued to rush by each day. Crowding on sidewalks, cramming in subways, and me pressing my back to buildings, reminding myself that I was safe, that there was nobody following me, that I could breathe. Most of these were good people, talented, bright, generous. I believe in people. I’m an optimist. But I was frightened. I never knew which nod came from the wrong man.
When it happened again, I wondered even more if it was my own damn fault.
On a visit home, I see my sister. It takes only a few words for us to realize that there was no need to have grown so apart yet again, that perhaps we could have let our guards down earlier. Why were there ever years apart?
Her daughter looks just like her. I swear I’m six years old again and looking at my big sister, ready for an adventure, ready to swallow the stars. Fiery eyes, a world of possibilities, and nobody to slow her down.
My sister shows me some dresses. I do her makeup. Those girl things we never shared before. We run seven miles along the river together and feel strong. I pick up a piece of iron, a remnant from the construction of the dam, and put it in my pocket.
We sneak away from the family for a private glass of wine. We even relax. No explanations. We have an unspoken understanding.
I still look at the stars, think of my sister. We never bothered trying to count all of them at home, because even with our child imaginations, we understood there were too many in that crisp mountain air. Here in the city, I sometimes find only a few stars; sometimes I have to stop at twenty. On a clear night, I can make out three or four of the Seven Sisters.
They can say what they will about girls who wear dresses. The dispatcher told me plainly. But my sister and I are more than that; we will never repeat their words. I never mentioned the pills, and she never mentioned the bathroom.