No one knows exactly when my sister disappeared. When I think of her now, a funnel, dark and deep, opens before me, echoing back her name: Victoria. When did I become too old to shout her name into the void and expect an answer?
In my first memory, she was nine and I was two. (Now I am thirty and she is . . . lost.) On that afternoon I was supposed to be taking a nap, but I’d learned how to undo the side of my crib, my white-slatted wooden cage. I tried to escape, but above me suddenly came my sister’s face, her long pigtails drooping as she leaned forward. “Oh, Ginny!” she said, engraving my name onto my memory like a swear word. She relocked the gate with two clicks and turned away, braids flouncing.
Our house was a silent place of polished floorboards, grayish white paint, and fragile objects. The roses in their silver vases seemed never to wilt. The cat was not allowed to mew because pets, like children (especially girls), were best seen and not heard.
Both of my parents were forty-one when I was born, and the manners of a different era and country — England — formed a barrier between their lives and mine. I had to adjust my accent on the walk between home and school. While my peers made fun of my saying someone pooped a horn, at home my pronouncing grass or tomato incorrectly provoked snide laughter from my father. My mother sent a note to school once, defending my spelling of “colour” on a test, and I was able to interview her as a “foreigner” for social studies. Much later, their different culture became a valuable asset — friends were charmed by their accents and afternoon teas — but as a child I wanted a father who doled out dollars to His Little Girl and wished I could call Mummy “Mom.”
Victoria’s room had lavender walls, a green bottle of peacock feathers on her desk, and hand-inked, psychedelic drawings on the closet doors. Posters were not allowed on the walls, but an embroidery sampler — a sedate rectangle of trim flowers — hung above her desk. She had a long, green stuffed snake that a boyfriend had won for her at the fair. She had boyfriends and she had pictures of boyfriends in silver frames on her doily-topped dressing table. Her knickknack shelf held trolls, china dolls, and — most wonderfully — a tiny, doll-sized dresser I had made of matchboxes and pushpins. Its drawers actually went in and out.
On the door to her room was a sign that indicated the mood of the room’s inhabitant with a metal pointer aimed at one of several messages: “C’mon in and join the crowd!” in jovial block letters; “Quiet, please — student at work” in pastel cursive. My favorite was the jazzy-looking one — “Please knock before bustin’ in!” Sometimes I played with the pointer, turning the small arrow to a growly message if my sister had been cool to me, leaving it at a puzzling halfway point if I wanted to trick everyone. Victoria never looked at it.
She often locked the door, but her best friend, Carla, would take pity. When she heard me listening outside, Carla would coo, “Is that Vuh-gin-ia out theyah? Come on in, chile, we need some good advice,” and I would be allowed to join them on the floor as they secretly painted banners for the high-school football game. My father would have made them do it in the back yard, out in the sun, a long way from the house and patio so he wouldn’t have to smell it. And they would have had to spread sheets of plastic or newspaper to protect the grass.
Sometimes Victoria would lie on one of her twin beds, her waist-length hazel hair spread down her back in a sheaf. (She kept her feet hanging off the end of the bed because we weren’t to dirty the bedspreads.) Arms folded under her chin, she would close her eyes and sing along with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She knew the words to every Beatles song.
Carla would stretch out on the parallel bed with its matching purple bedspread, and I would straddle her back and brush and comb her fantastic, apricot-colored hair. Victoria’s hair was impressive, but people stopped Carla on the street. “Is it real?” they’d ask, but I knew the tangles, the deep red underside the sun couldn’t reach; knew the weight of all that hair in my hands, the coarse, strong veins of color running all the way down her back to my knees, spreading and fanning and falling everywhere. I’d brush it into three parts, which I stroked into smooth, silky cords. Then I’d arrange and plait a huge, orderly braid, twisting the rubber band on the end with pride. After a little unnecessary smoothing, I would have to leave the room, my function complete.
Once my mother forbade Victoria to do something — to see a particular boy, I think, or to wear a certain dress. I went to her room to see how she was taking it. She was sitting up in her bed, quietly tearing a magazine into thousands of tiny pieces. Little snowflakes of shiny paper lay all around her. She didn’t look up. The pages made a long, dry sound as she ripped them. She sandwiched two pieces and tore them in half again and again, very slowly. “You’ll make a mess,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I’ll clean it up.”
Victoria disappeared for the first time when I was eleven. The night before, my father knocked sharply on my bedroom door. I leapt silently off my bed — guilty of being horizontal before bedtime, instead of at my desk, reading properly.
“The cat has made a mess,” he announced. His tone told me he had already kicked the cat, a blue-cream Persian, beautiful and highly partial to me, a gift on my eighth birthday. I worried he might kill her. “Clean it up at once,” he said.
My father stood in the kitchen, frightening in his controlled fury, as I ran up and down the stairs from utility room to carport, assembling the required materials for his inspection: newspaper, carpet cleaner, Lysol. He clapped his hands together twice, crying, “Faster, Virginia, faster! You move like a slug.”
Victoria came in. “I’ll do it,” she said.
I looked between them, the bucket in my hand. At once my father hit the side of my head, and my sister screamed, “Daddy! Leave her alone!” Then she rushed upstairs; he thundered behind. I heard a door slam and the harsh pounding as my father beat the door first with his fists, then with his shoulder. The noise echoed downstairs, like a heavy weight falling, over and over. I heard my father panting. Then the wood splintered and the sounds became muffled. “Goddamn it!” he said. There were quick, heavy noises of bodies moving on the wooden floor, then silence. I went to clean up the carpet.
The next day Victoria met me as I walked home from school. She was waiting just where an oak tree’s roots had made a hill in the sidewalk that you had to walk around. She offered to carry my lunch box. I said no; it was empty. The houses on that road had rows of azalea or hibiscus separating them from the street. I ran my hand along a flat-topped hedge, yanking off leaves without looking.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” my sister said. “But you can’t tell anyone, OK?”
I crossed my heart.
“I’m running away from home,” she said. “I’m leaving a note. But listen —” She handed me a five-dollar bill, enough for an album, or maybe ten magazines. “This is for you. I thought about asking my friends if you could come, but . . .”
But what? I was eleven years old. It would be five years before I left.
I waited with her on the front porch, by the door used only when we had company. A white van pulled up — not into the circular driveway, but off the property, out by the mailbox. My sister said, “I’ll miss you,” but she looked terribly happy as she kissed me goodbye. She ran to the van and its door slid open. A hand took her knapsack, she jumped into the darkness inside, and the door slid shut. The van chugged around the corner, and my sister was gone.
At dinner that night, my mother cried. I’d never seen her cry before, and I was afraid. My father taunted her with stories of what happened to runaway girls. She wept silently, behind her hands. He said, “Stop having hysterics,” and twiddled his napkin ring, awaiting dessert.
Confused, I tried to leave the room, but my mother pulled me to her with a wet hand. I folded into her warm embrace.
A special-delivery letter came several days later, but my mother kept its contents a secret. When a parcel arrived for my birthday, though, she gaily handed it over as if it were just anything, a book from an aunt. It had no return address, only “V.” and a Boston postmark. I hoped that Victoria was living with our brother, Michael, at MIT.
Hiding it beneath the piles of beautiful presents, I saved the square, brown package for last, not because it would be the best, but because it was so little after so long. I unwrapped it slowly, hopefully. Inside was a letter — her handwriting, the small, upright, blue script set carefully on the lines — and a palm-sized rock. The top half of the rock was painted white, with a strange, spidery, black flower spreading out from the center, its tendrils curling around the rock’s equator. On the bottom were the words: to my sister. The letter said she was never coming home.
She came home the following summer while my father was away at a long conference in Canada. When she arrived, my mother said, “Look who’s turned up again, like a bad penny!” but she kissed her and smoothed her hair. Victoria was wearing a loose, densely patterned skirt I had never seen before and frameless glasses with gold stems that disappeared into her hair. She was thinner and taller (too tall for a girl, my mother said), and her straight hair and hippie clothes emphasized her leanness. She was pale because she lived in Vermont, but she didn’t wear makeup, and put on shoes only to go hiking.
She wouldn’t watch television or eat ice cream with me — my favorite indulgences when my father was away — but she left her door unlocked, saying I could come in whenever I wanted, even sleep in there if I liked. But there were times that summer when I couldn’t find her — when she hadn’t gone out but wasn’t in her room, wasn’t with our mother, wasn’t down on the dock or out in the woods. Once I came upon her sitting in the car; she said she’d gone there to be alone.
Once or twice a week my mother went out for the evening: to contract bridge, I think, with other doctors’ wives, or to little parties where she probably would have preferred to have my father with her. As soon as her Chevy crunched down the driveway, we began our “projects.” Victoria would unpack grocery bags of supplies she’d bought; I don’t know where she got the money. Once we double-boiled hard, white wax in old pots until it turned clear and watery. Then we shaved in my crayons — red ones and some blues to make her new favorite shade, fuchsia — and the waxy globules melted, releasing clouds of color. Carefully, we poured the hot liquid wax over chips of ice in half-gallon milk containers. It hardened into ice candles, pink and pale, full of holes of light when they burned.
We also tie-dyed T-shirts, knotting new, white Fruit of the Looms into long braids and dunking them into a vat of inky color. The next day they opened to reveal exploding-star shapes and wild spirals. We sent the best one I made to our brother, and he wrote back that he wore it.
We made collages with shells we found at Sanibel Island. She taught me macramé, needlepoint, and how to press flowers between sheets of wax paper. “See how easy?” she would say. “You can do this with your friends when I’m gone.” I knew that I wouldn’t, but the day after a project I was always the best at show and tell. Victoria said she’d decided not to be a dental hygienist; she was going to major in art.
Batik was too much for me. I hadn’t expected one picture to take four evenings of work, which had to be spread out over a couple of weeks on nights our mother went out. I got confused by the layers of color, and painted wax on cloth I should have left white. The result was a muddy, blotched mess, my image of a horse and a girl nearly indistinguishable from the brown clouds. Comparing my work to my sister’s, I balled up the still-damp cloth and hurled it into the garbage. “No!” she said, indignantly fishing it out. “I like it. I want it. If you hang it with the light behind it, it’ll look beautiful. It’s not bad; it’s just different.”
We spent the last hour of each evening sweeping and scrubbing, restoring the kitchen to perfection before my mother returned. She wouldn’t have been angry if we hadn’t, but Victoria said that it was her house and we should keep it tidy.
Her latest disappearance has been gradual, like a Cheshire cat in reverse: the smile goes first. My mother has been telling me on the phone for some time that Victoria always looks sad or tired. My sister lives near my parents now in New Jersey.
When my mother’s voice catches up to me in Shanghai, or in Egypt, or on a ship in the Gulf of Oman, her words bounce weirdly over the long-distance lines. Third-world technology comes between us; Philippine operators break in; the ship’s satellite connection breaks; I run out of drachmas, or one-pound coins, or prepaid time. We have to talk fast: I always ask about her and Dad, then about Victoria and her family — always in that order.
I don’t know if everything my mother says is true: that Victoria is suicidal, that she cries for hours every day. Sometimes, alarmed, I write my sister long letters; I get back cute, cheerful notes. Sometimes I call. “Mummy says you’re in a depression,” I say.
There’s a pause, and I imagine my sister rubbing her nose. “Well, you know how she exaggerates.” Or there’s a short, unmusical laugh. “Oh, I was premenstrual last week. I was just a little down when she came over.” Each time her voice grows fainter.
Once when I was little, I woke up in her room and didn’t know how I’d gotten there. I was sitting in her desk chair wearing my nightgown. Her voice came to me quietly out of the darkness: “Gin? What are you doing here?”
I had no idea. Embarrassed and sleepy, I said, “I like it in here.”
Even my father went to her wedding. About twenty of us formed a circle behind a farmhouse on a clear blue day full of warm winds and white butterflies. Even New Jersey can be beautiful. We held hands as the Unitarian minister talked; he was pleasant and optimistic. Although Victoria is a vegetarian, there was ham to eat afterward, and her friends played music everyone would like. She took her husband’s surname: El-Kebsi. When the minister asked me to sign the marriage license as a witness, I lingered with the pen in my hand. “If I don’t sign,” I asked, “will she not really be married?”
Mahmoud, like us, is first-generation, but he assimilates well. He goes to the Unitarian church, and he eats pork and drinks wine if he wants to. He has black, tightly curled hair and a predilection for very loud, brassy music. He’s as American as a pit bull. He makes excellent money running three Lebanese restaurants and is out of the house twelve to fourteen hours a day. When I ask him why he doesn’t cook at home, he says that Allah means him to do men’s work, not women’s.
Two years ago Victoria quit her job as an art therapist to make a garden and have a baby. Allah’s will, she said, was fine with her.
Sometimes I think that, under Mahmoud’s mother’s influence, she has taken on an unhealthy passivity. I worry when she talks about his parents uncritically. I wonder if she believes what her husband says, that he holds the household together.
Other times, particularly when we are with our father, her careful, neat hair and mild voice remind me of my English aunts. Then I think she’s not becoming foreign, but rather going back to her roots. It’s not bad, I tell myself, just different.
I flew from California to see her after her daughter was born. Victoria thought I’d come to see my niece. The baby had an Arabic nose and skin like a Brit. That week, Victoria seemed transparent, but I thought it was joy, or postpartum depression.
The baby is named Hannam, after Mahmoud’s mother, but she responds to Hannah as well. Victoria often calls her by my name by mistake. Poor baby: American, Arab, and English. How many accents will she need to win all the relatives’ approval?
When I visit, I hear my sister call “Ginny! Watch out!” as her daughter is about to hurt herself. Then, catching the mistake, Victoria laughs in a new way, distractedly, self-consciously. Her eyes are always on the baby, and I cannot see her face.
“Vicky,” I said last summer. “We ought to do something alone one day, go out without anyone else.”
“Yeah,” she said vaguely. “If my back ever gets better.” She put her hand behind her neck, kneading the muscles. “Did you know she weighs twenty-five pounds now?” Victoria’s eyes were closed, and she seemed hardly to hear her own voice. She had cut her hair and gotten a perm that made a fuzzy, round flower of her head. I reached out to rub her back, but after a few seconds she had to go save Hannam from some imagined disaster.
Around noon she wanted to take the baby for a walk, so we gathered the bottles, lotion, and food in a diaper bag and walked along the canal path. The state park was green and voluptuous that wet June. We walked at a toddler’s pace, each holding one of Hannam’s little hands. Some distance from the house, we came to a small stream we had to cross. No bridge. My sister evaluated the boulders rising from the water, then gently picked up her baby and, rock by rock, step by careful step, expertly balanced her way across. The child barely knew of the danger.
She’d made it to the other side before I even started with my own burden: the baby’s accoutrements, Victoria’s and my pocketbooks, and lunch. Preparing to follow her across, I sat down to take off my sneakers; when I stood up, Victoria was already halfway up the hill on the other side. I could see her tall back, her long arms curved in front of her, her whole body scooped around Hannam. She continued on ahead, confident that I could catch up.
Quickly, I added my sneakers to the heavy bag and stepped on the first stone. The second was slick with moss, and I slipped. My elbow smacked the rock and cold water soaked me. Tears came instantly; the pain in my arm made me gasp. “Vicky!” I screamed.
I managed to make the far bank, but I had dropped the diaper bag somewhere. My elbow felt tender. It was swelling and bruised — maybe more. I sat down on the muddy bank, my clothes streaming wet. “Vicky!” I shouted. “Come back!”
But either my voice was too faint, or the breeze carried it the wrong way, for when I looked up the hill to where I’d last seen my sister, she was already gone.