Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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My older sister and I each wanted Dad’s undivided attention. If he read a chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh to me, Sandy asked for two chapters. If he pushed me on the swing for two minutes, she wanted three.
As we grew up, our shared bedroom developed an invisible line down the middle, and we were absolute rulers of our separate territories. I could cross her side to get to the stairs, and she could cross mine to go to the toilet, but that was it.
Sandy was taller, with shiny black hair and radiant brown eyes. I was shorter and plumper, with dirty-blond curls and green eyes. When our artist uncle came for a visit, Sandy was witty and articulate and monopolized him. At our middle school, she played a beautiful Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant, while I worked the lights. In our ballet presentation, Sandy was the elegant swan, while I was an unmoving tree.
Things didn’t improve in high school. The first boy I ever dated was enticed away by Sandy’s charms. Feeling bad, he fixed me up with his friend Peter. Then, while I was working a month-long summer job at the shore, Sandy fixed Peter up with a friend of hers.
Our rivalry diminished when Sandy went off to college, but the subtle jockeying for position continued: Who was accepted to the better school? Who earned higher grades? Who had the more lucrative summer job?
As adults we both married. Sandy had one child, while I had three. We tried to avoid competing through our children, but when her son was accepted to medical school, I sensed an air of superiority.
Our rivalry ended last Christmas Eve, when Sandy died of pancreatic cancer. I miss her every day.
Harriet D. Odlum
West Simsbury, Connecticut
My mother’s birthday was approaching, and I was determined to do something special for her. Even at sixteen, I could see how sad she was, and I wanted to make her happy.
A year earlier, as part of a kitchen renovation, my father had installed a new electric stovetop. When he’d removed the old one, it had left a long hole in the face of the cabinetry. The hole really bothered my mother, and I often wondered if he had left it there just to aggravate her. As my gift to her, I decided to fix the hole.
My father was a talented woodworker who built everything from hand-carved chairs to whole additions to our house. His basement workbench felt off-limits to me, but I mustered my courage and clandestinely used his tools to cut a board that exactly covered the hole. Then I glued three decorative ceramic tiles to the board and epoxied it in place the night before my mother’s birthday. It really did look good. My mother was thrilled, and I was proud to have pleased her.
Later that day my father let me know that he was not happy with what I’d done. It was his job to fix things around his house, he said. I was never to do it again. I feared my father, and I heeded his warning. But I had won a small victory: my gift remained intact as long as they owned that house.
Corning, New York
In the maximum-security housing units, many inmates join a prison gang for protection. If you do, chances are you’ll eventually be placed in an exercise group that contains a rival gang member. Even before you’ve returned to your cell, word will have spread that they’ve assigned two rivals to the same yard. Everyone knows there will be a fight tomorrow. The shot-callers tell you to draw blood. You don’t want to, but you wonder if you should carry a shank anyway. Your rival probably will.
Notes are passed from cell to cell. You listen for the sound of metal scraping on concrete, sniff for the smell of burning plastic — telltale signs of a weapon being manufactured. You’re able to convince the shot-callers that you’ll do better with just your fists. You don’t want to kill this guy you don’t even know. You hope he is smart enough not to use a shank, to realize that you are both only pawns.
The next morning, after a long night of planning and praying, you stretch, shadowbox, and psych yourself up. As you are led to the exercise yard, your legs quiver slightly with the adrenaline rush. Those who don’t want to be involved begin moving away from the open area. The guard manning the gun tower readies Big Bertha, a nonlethal weapon that fires wooden blocks to quell riots.
The gate opens. You and your opponent eye each other’s hands, looking for weapons. Relieved to find one another unarmed, you butt heads like rams during the rutting season. Blows are traded. Guards are running toward you. Boom! Boom! The wooden blocks hit your flesh and bounce off onto the concrete. The guards use pepper spray. It’s all over. Aggression spent, you lie prone on the ground: a split brow, a busted nose, cuts and scrapes all over. You and your rival meet each other’s eyes, both pleased with the outcome.
After being treated, you return to your cell and start getting notes from members of your gang about what a good job you’ve done. You are deemed a “stand-up convict.” The shot-callers have something to laugh about until another new guy comes along.
Whoever it is, I hate him. Or her. It doesn’t matter. Viewing the remains of this person’s depredations makes my skin prickle with outrage. How could anyone else have found my secret spot? I can’t even explain how I found it. One day I was driving through the Berkshires when I glanced up a wooded hillside, and the thought came to me: Maybe there. I pulled onto the shoulder, parked the car, and followed a pair of tire ruts into the woods. A quarter mile in, I spotted the first small morel mushroom.
“Follow water” is my mushroom-hunting motto. Here that meant struggling through an acre of brambles to an open, grassy glade with a few decrepit apple trees — and so many morels! Thirty, forty, fifty. The more I looked, the more popped into view. And they were huge — six inches high, at least; waxy, unreal, golden; a mycological fantasy fulfilled.
I relished each one as it went into my basket. At home I photographed the heaped bounty on my kitchen table. Then I ate some of them sautéed in cream and brandy, dried a few for winter, and shared the rest with friends.
Every year I returned, always in the second week of May if the winter had been mild, the third week if the snow had been heavy. I battled the tick-infested brambles to pluck the morels from the warm grass — until this year.
When I arrived at the glade in May, I found nothing but flat, waxy stumps. An unknown rival had found my secret clearing and made off with the harvest.
So the game is on. Next spring I will go early. I will go often. I will go as stealthily as a cat. Next year those morels are mine.
My husband, Gordon, was in the seminary, and Will and Elizabeth lived next door to us in married-student housing. The three of them were pastors in training; I was the unholy tag-along. We cooked meals together, borrowed each other’s cars, and had Friday-night drinks at Archie’s pub. One snowy Friday in late January, after a few beers, we stole some plastic trays from the seminary dining hall and went midnight sledding on Suicide Hill, a steep incline with an imposing wrought-iron fence at the bottom. The challenge was to barrel down at top speed and bail out just before colliding with the fence.
After a couple of dizzying solo runs, someone suggested tandem races. Will climbed aboard behind me on the tiny “sled,” wrapping his legs and arms tightly around my middle. Gordon glared at Will, then took the front position on Elizabeth’s sled. Suddenly he and Will were rivals, and I had become the prize.
We pushed off. The race was a blur of white powder and icy wind. I felt a kind of electric charge from Will’s hands. As the fence rushed toward us, Will squeezed me tight and said in my ear, “We’ll bail on three. Ready? One, two, . . . three!”
We rolled off just six feet from the iron fence, while our makeshift sled sailed over the spiked posts. It took us a while to untangle our limbs and get to our feet. Soaking wet and chilled to the bone, we laughed and marveled at our narrow escape. I had completely forgotten about Gordon and Elizabeth.
Gordon’s ride had ended badly. Elizabeth had jumped off in plenty of time, but he had ridden on without her and slammed feet first into the fence. He wasn’t getting up.
“My God, Gordon,” I said, “are you ok?”
He winced with pain, then snapped at me, “No, damn it, I am not ok. Go get the car. I think I broke my ankle.”
“Let’s get you up the hill first,” Will said. We made a chair with our forearms, and Gordon grudgingly half sat on it and half hopped back up the hill, one agonizing step at a time. When we reached the top, we were sober and drenched with sweat. I went inside for the car keys. When I came out, Will was offering to come with us to the hospital.
Gordon shook his head, his face stony. “You’ve done enough for one night, thank you.” Nobody asked what he meant. Deep down I think we all already knew: Will and I were in love.
Linda was the most popular girl in high school: tall and fashionable, with flashing green eyes that could dismiss you with a glance. She had blue-black shoulder-length hair that flipped up perfectly at the ends. My hair was chestnut-colored and flowed past my waist: my “crowning glory,” my mom called it.
Linda and I never spoke, but sometimes she’d catch me looking at her, and I’d turn away quickly when our eyes met. Secretly I would have given anything to be one of the popular crowd, but I acted the part of the rebel instead, wearing black clothes, too much eyeliner, and a military-surplus jacket.
In the middle of my junior year, I started to blossom. I got the lead in the school play, began dating the captain of the football team (cute, but dumb), and was asked to rush the Chantells, an illegal off-campus sorority. All the popular girls were members, including Linda. I wondered why they’d asked me. Clearly I wasn’t their type. Maybe they wanted a little diversity, or maybe they thought I was a diamond in the rough. No matter. This was my chance.
My interview went well. All the sorority sisters were nice to me. I thought my transformation from fringe-dweller to popular girl was complete. I hung out after school the next day, hoping one of the Chantells would find me and we’d celebrate. Instead I got a call at home that night from a sorority sister who said sorry, but they’d decided against me. No reason given.
Crushed, I became even more of a rebel. I marched in antiwar demonstrations. I stopped dating the football captain and started dating a James Dean type. I smoked pot, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ram Dass, and did yoga and Transcendental Meditation. I pushed the pain of the sorority rejection to the back of my mind till I almost forgot about it. Almost.
At my thirtieth high-school reunion, I spotted Linda at the bar, surrounded by her old sorority sisters. When Linda saw me, she came over to my table, still looking pretty and trim, black hair hovering just above her shoulders.
“I’ve owed you an apology for thirty years,” she said. “I was the one who blackballed you from that sorority in our junior year. I made up lies about you. I’m really sorry.”
“But why?” I asked. “What did I ever do to you?”
“You were my rival,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “You were the rebel. Nothing stopped you. You got the lead in the play, and you were good, not afraid in front of all those people, like I would have been. You marched against the war. You did all the things I was afraid to do. You were my hero.”
“Your hero? Why couldn’t I just be your friend? Why did you have to make my life hell?”
It was my hair, she said. Hers wouldn’t grow past her shoulders, no matter what she did to it. It was thin and brittle. Mine was so long and thick. She was jealous, that’s all. It wasn’t fair that I should have it all.
Marina del Rey, California
I was born just one year after my brother, and I grew up as the little sister in his shadow. In school he left a trail of dazzled teachers behind him, many of whom asked me outright, “Are you as smart as your brother?” I became a perfectionist and an overachiever, afraid that if I didn’t excel, I’d simply disappear.
In high school my brother wrote a witty column for the school paper. The journalism teacher pestered me to follow in his footsteps, but I steered clear and instead chose photography, a subject in which he’d never displayed any interest.
I continued taking pictures after I graduated, but it was a decade before I showed my photographs in public. A friend who owned a coffee shop cajoled me into letting him put some of my images on the walls. I began to participate in open studios and group gallery shows.
Then I noticed my brother taking a few photos on a family vacation. I’d never seen him with a camera before. It was unsettling. Before I had the chance to wonder what he was up to, he had begun exhibiting at prestigious galleries. He was invited to join an artists’ collective and introduced himself at parties as a photographer. My modest little coffee-shop shows suddenly seemed contemptible. After nearly two decades, the joy I’d found in photography simply disappeared. I put my gear in storage and tore out my darkroom to make space for my husband’s office.
After some time, I began to write. I had always fantasized about being a writer but had avoided it because of my brother’s past success. As my stories began appearing in magazines, I held my breath. I lived in fear that my brother would disappear to use the bathroom and come out ten minutes later with the Great American Novel dashed off on a roll of toilet paper. He hasn’t yet. I’ve decided that even if my brother picks up a pen, I won’t put mine down.
Louise was my father’s secretary. She wore jeweled glasses, had the raspy voice of a chain-smoker, and was unbelievably petite. When I was little, my sister and I played hide-and-seek at our father’s law office, and Louise let me squeeze under her desk. One time she took my sister and me to New York City, to the Hawaiian Room, where we sipped Shirley Temples out of coconut shells and spent so much money that we had to scrounge change to pay the parking-garage fee. Louise was fun. She was the antithesis of our mother, who was dour and sad and away in the state mental hospital.
Around my twelfth birthday, I started to notice that Louise and my dad were spending a lot of time together outside of work. Many Saturday nights Louise would show up at our house, and my dad would coat the rims of two cocktail glasses with sugar and make sidecars for them both. Soon they’d be laughing in the kitchen, boiling lobsters on the stove, even though neither my sister nor I would eat seafood. I began to realize that Louise was more than a secretary to my father.
I spent my teenage years locked in silent combat with Louise. I glared at her across the dining-room table and answered her questions with grunts or monosyllables. In return she ignored me or made hurtful remarks about me to my father. “Your daughter eats like a vacuum cleaner,” she said one night. He did not rush to my defense; in fact, he barely acknowledged my presence whenever Louise was around.
Fed up with waiting for my father to divorce my mother, Louise quit her job and moved to Hawaii at about the time that I was leaving for college. After she had been gone a year, my father apparently met her terms, because Louise moved back and reclaimed her place in the front of my father’s office, and in his social life.
By the time my father divorced my mother and married Louise, I was living a thousand miles away. On my annual trips back home, I found that my father was showering his new wife with gifts: expensive jewelry, a new house, trips, even a mink coat. During one of my visits, my father and Louise took my husband, Bob, and me out to dinner. Louise worked her charms on Bob, and I sat there fuming as my traitor husband fell under her spell. Later, when I confronted him, he dared to suggest I was being too hard on Louise. Didn’t he understand that she had stolen my father away?
When my father died suddenly a few years after that, I saw no need ever to speak to Louise again. It didn’t occur to me till much later that I had focused my anger on her because I didn’t know how to express my rage toward him.
Because our fathers owned rival drugstores in our small town, Melissa and I weren’t exactly friends. We fought about which ice cream was better: Sealtest, which her father sold, or Borden’s, which my dad served. My family’s store displayed Hallmark cards; her family’s store sold American Greetings. We were both certain that the valentines we gave out at school were the best.
In junior high we became part of the same straight-A crowd, and we put aside our petty differences. Some days the gang would meet at my dad’s drugstore for Borden’s best; other days we’d meet at her dad’s store for Sealtest. Though Melissa and I still were not bosom buddies, we got along.
In high school I had a boyfriend from another town. I was so in love with Dave I almost couldn’t stand it. When I was a senior, he gave me a diamond ring. Melissa, who didn’t yet have a boyfriend, wrote in my yearbook: “You and Dave are a beautiful couple.”
When Dave and I broke up, I was devastated. I cried half the night and later told all my friends the sad news.
Not long thereafter, Dave called Melissa and asked her out. She told me about it over a Coke in my dad’s drugstore. “I said I wouldn’t go out with him, because of you,” my old rival explained, and she reached across the table and patted my hand.
We’re both in our sixties now, and still good friends.
Ann O’Neal Garcia
One snowy December night I was awakened by the phone. A male voice asked if my husband was home.
“No,” I replied sleepily. He often worked late hours managing hotel banquets. “Who is this?”
He told me his name and then said, “My girlfriend works with your husband, and they left the hotel together hours ago. No one has seen them since. I think they’re having an affair. I thought you should know.”
Shocked, I told him he must be mistaken; my husband wouldn’t do something like that. After I hung up, I sat in the darkened living room, watching the snow fall outside, and tried to think up other possible scenarios. Maybe the woman had needed a ride home, and they’d gotten stuck in the snow. I wasn’t going to suspect the worst until I talked to my husband.
Nearly an hour later, I heard his key in the lock. He asked what I was doing up, and I told him about the phone call. He said he had given the woman a ride home, and that they had sat and talked for a while, but nothing had happened. After I questioned him further, he admitted to kissing her, but that was it. He said he was sorry, and he would never do anything like it again.
I was hurt and angry. Though I’d been suffering from depression for the previous few months and certainly hadn’t been fun to be around, I was seeing a therapist and doing my best. I’d thought my husband supported my efforts. But the truth was, his interest had drifted to another woman.
It was 3 a.m. In a few short hours, our children would be up. They’d need breakfast and baths, and then we’d all leave for church, where the children were going to act out the Christmas story in Sunday school. Those kids wouldn’t be the only ones acting that morning.
When my older daughter was five, I gave birth to her baby sister. She’s never forgiven me, or her sister. I can still hear her wailing when she discovered the little one had taken her Barbie and chewed the feet off.
Now my daughters are in their thirties and have become best friends. It does my heart good to no longer hear crying and complaints from one or the other about how they’ve been treated unfairly.
Recently, when my older daughter was working many hours of overtime, I went and cleaned her house for her as a treat. I came across her old, beloved doll and brought it home to wash it and iron its clothes. The next day my younger daughter called me, crying: her sister had accused her of stealing the doll. I told her what had happened and assured her I would clear up the confusion. Immediately after we hung up, the phone rang again. It was my older daughter telling me that her doll had been stolen. After I’d explained and hung up once more, I sighed and laughed, thinking how childish they still were, fighting over dolls at their age.
Then the phone rang again. It was my sister, excitedly telling me that her husband had just bought her a new Cadillac. I hated her for a whole week.
I’d been hired as a systems manager, though I was not highly qualified for the job. For the first several months, all I heard from my boss was how George, the previous manager, had handled things. When my boss bristled at the system-wide changes I suggested, I was worried he might fire me. I didn’t understand how George had managed to make a success of the position with the same demanding boss and the same buggy system. I began to hate my predecessor.
Over time, I corrected the system problems, and my boss and I made peace. At the company Christmas party that year, we both had too much to drink. I’m not sure who started it, but we ended up locked in a heated embrace on the couch in his office. Suddenly, in my drunken state, I began to laugh. My boss wanted to know what was so funny. Between giggles I managed to blurt out, “I finally found something I can do for you that George couldn’t.”
For most of my life, I competed with my brother for our mother’s love and attention. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d realized it was no contest from the beginning.
“I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you,” Mom told me when I was seven. I accepted that as high praise, and, trying to live up to the implied expectation, I kept my needs to myself.
My older brother was friendless and played alone in his room with his collection of miniature soldiers. He always walked ahead of me in public and wouldn’t look at me or speak my name. When I learned to swim before he did, he sulked. My mother frowned because I’d upset him.
At eighteen I married, moved a block down the street, and began having children. My brother was drafted into the army. “I’d rather he were dead,” our mother said. I’m ashamed to admit I once slapped my fussing two-year-old after listening to my mother lament my brother’s absence for an entire phone conversation.
Following his discharge, my brother moved across the country to San Diego. Our mother lived for her visits with him. After our father died, she remarried, and my husband and I and our four nearly grown children moved to San Diego. I realize now that the move was partly another vain attempt of mine to secure my mother’s affection: she loved my brother; she loved San Diego; therefore she’d love me.
It didn’t work. When my mother visited San Diego, she stayed at my brother’s tiny apartment rather than in my spacious home. My brother didn’t drive, so I’d take them to the zoo, the beach, and the museums. Other than that, they would exclude me.
Eventually my brother moved back home to live with our mother and our stepfather, and she never visited me again. Before she died, my mother said to me, “I know you’ll look after your brother.”
Today my daughter teaches children with autism and its milder form, Asperger’s syndrome. Through hearing about her work, I’ve come to the conclusion that my brother had Asperger’s. Parents of my mother’s generation did not have this name for the poor social skills and lack of empathy exhibited by children with the disorder. Instead of getting help, these mothers often blamed themselves or tried to “love” the problem away. I know now that when my mother said, “I don’t have to worry about you,” she meant, Thank goodness you’re ok.
I will probably always resent not having felt the security of my mother’s love, but my feelings about my brother have changed. He’s no longer my rival. He’s simply my brother, who survived because our mother devoted herself to his well-being. She knew I’d be ok without her help, and I am.
San Diego, California
For a year I was the female champion of a shabby little boxing gym in Washington, D.C. The gym’s logo was a set of scales with books on one side and boxing gloves on the other, and the owner was an ex–Black Panther who claimed to have trained a young Sugar Ray Leonard.
When I first started working out there, the only other female boxer was a feisty high-school girl named Theresa. She was ten pounds lighter, three inches shorter, and seventeen years younger than I was. Being the only two women, we would spar together once a week. Though I easily dominated Theresa, she fought with heart and was always ready to go another round or three. I felt like her mentor, in a way, and tried to inspire her academically outside of the ring.
Then another young woman joined the gym. Josie had natural athletic ability and learned fast. Still I didn’t feel threatened by her. I had more experience, having fought in two competitions. (OK, I’d lost, but the woman who’d beaten me had later gone on to do well in the nationals, so, as they said at the gym, I “hadn’t lost to no chump.”)
Theresa stopped coming to work out, and one day our trainer put Josie and me together in the ring to spar. Josie punished me, hitting with so much power that I stumbled several times. I secretly hated Josie from that moment on. The experience made me wonder whether Theresa had ever felt humiliated by our sparring sessions.
Soon after that I made two trips out of the country, and when I returned, I began getting back in shape to fight in the amateur Golden Gloves tournament. When our trainer asked Josie and me to gear up to spar one evening, I told myself I’d let the outcome decide whether or not I’d enter the tournament.
If our first sparring session had been a punishment, this was a killing. Josie backed me into a corner again and again, knocked me down once, and had me covering up like a turtle against her blows. My lips, eyes, and arms were bruised and tender for a week.
After my depression lifted, I realized Josie had taken a big load off my back. I could hardly continue to think of her as my rival.
In a few weeks Josie will fight in the Golden Gloves, and I will be in the bleachers cheering her on. I sincerely hope she wins. I don’t want to have lost to no chump.
We were best friends, but also rivals.
When we were ten, I got a three-speed English bike for Christmas, and he got a Schwinn. One point for me.
When we were twelve, he climbed up two branches higher than I could in the backyard tree. One point for him.
When we were thirteen, I made the junior-varsity basketball team; he made the varsity. One point for him.
When we were sixteen, I got the girl. One point for me.
When we were seventeen, he was the football team’s kicker; I was the quarterback. One point for me.
When we were nineteen, we joined the marines together. I eventually became his sergeant. One point for me.
When we were twenty, he was killed while out on patrol. Because, as his sergeant, I should have been the one to go down, I give him that last point — the only point that really counts.
In college my classmate Lucas aroused in me that strange blend of envy and desire that is sometimes felt by one gay man for another. When I told my friend Janice I had a crush on Lucas, she said, “Of course you do. He must be the hottest gay man on campus.” I laughed but was secretly annoyed. Why wasn’t I the hottest gay man on campus?
Lucas worked hard to keep his title. At the rare queer college party he would strip down to his skimpy blue underwear and hold up a sign that said, “Kissing Booth Open.” I’d feign disinterest but always casually slip into line.
Lucas may have been the hottest, but we were neck and neck in the race to be political queen bee. He was the president of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender student group one year, and I was president the next. He gave a moving speech at a vigil for Matthew Shepard (the college student who was beaten to death in Wyoming because he was a homosexual), but I topped him with a powerful piece of interactive performance art. Lucas and I got along well enough when we collaborated on the occasional rally or ran into each other in the dining hall, but I never quite lost the feeling that he was sitting at the “cool kids’ table,” and I wasn’t.
Graduation day eventually came, and I was presented with a special award for community leadership. After the ceremony, Lucas came up to me and offered his heartfelt and awkward congratulations. “You’re just going to go so far,” he told me. “You can do anything.” There was a longing in his voice that was all too familiar to me. For four years I’d been so busy watching him with envy that I’d never guessed he might be watching me.
The first time I saw Alex, she was standing in our art-school lobby, dressed from head to toe in tomato red, furiously flinging a handful of pennies onto the concrete floor. The coins bounced and rang and caught the light as they flew in every direction, narrowly missing the heads of several students.
I liked her instantly.
She had a childlike lack of self-restraint and made beautiful, brutal paintings with rich colors. She liked me, too, but often kept me at arm’s length, as if I were more admirer than friend.
Alex had grown up without a father, and at times her family of four had lived out of a Chevy van. Two of her mother’s alcoholic boyfriends had molested her, and she’d been on her own by the age of fifteen.
When Alex’s mood was light, she, her boyfriend, and I would often curl up on her bed and listen to Elvis Costello records. When her mood was dark, she would scream like a three-year-old and twist her face into such monstrous expressions that I’d want to flee.
As school went on, my artwork began to show talent. Alex would look at it, her red lips twisting from side to side, her brow furrowed, and say, “You are copying me.” I said nothing. Although there were minor similarities, I knew my work was quite different from hers.
One cold Saturday we were driving to get paint when Alex bluntly declared, “Why don’t you get your own ideas?” Although the car was still moving, I opened the door and leapt out, shouting obscenities. She drove away, her face white with rage and confusion. We didn’t speak for months. After we finally reconciled, I began to take pleasure in showing her work that was good enough to enrage her. I could measure the success of a painting by how angry she got.
Our friendship hobbled onward with explosions of anger and jealousy, followed by months of silence, and then grand reconciliations when we would laugh and luxuriate in each other’s company. I began to withhold my artistic successes from her.
The most damaging fight we had was over an illustration job for which I was paid two thousand dollars. When I told Alex about it, she screamed, “Fuck you, you copier!” We didn’t speak for two years. She would appear in my dreams, though, offering me pomegranates and coffee. I yearned for the drama of our flawed friendship.
Our two-year feud ended when Alex sent me an e-mail out of the blue. We met at my house and drank too much whiskey. Within an hour she had thrown a book at me. Instead of kicking her out and starting our ugly cycle all over again, I held her face in my hands and said, “I am not without blame. I love you.”
My boyfriend and I are in Nashville for a getaway. Although Music Row is much more his scene, I find myself fascinated by the urban cowboys, the musicians carrying their guitars down the street, all the wannabes and hopefuls. Even the karaoke singers here are good.
We get a table at a bar with a live band. It’s a warm fall evening, and I’m feeling relaxed — until I spot a woman in a yellow camisole top, tight jeans, and a rakishly tilted cowboy hat. She’s tipsy and dancing sensuously with a guy in a suit, who looks uncomfortable.
“They don’t go together,” my boyfriend comments.
I am disturbed that he has noticed this sexy dancer in the tight clothes. But I tell myself I’m being silly. How could he not notice her?
When the song is over, as if she hasn’t made enough of a scene, the dancer goes onstage to have the drummer — a masculine-looking woman — autograph the small of her back, and we are all treated to the sight of her lifting her shirt. Now I am becoming annoyed.
The dancer lurches off the stage, and the music starts up again. She and her partner are now gyrating uncomfortably close to our table. We hear the man say prudishly, “That girl is a lesbian,” meaning the drummer.
“I’m a lesbian,” his dance partner replies thickly.
My boyfriend, who claims not to have eyes for any other woman, says under his breath, in a deep, sexy voice I have never heard before, “You don’t look like a lesbian.”
The night is ruined. I accuse him of lusting after her. He denies it, of course, but I heard that voice. Back at the hotel, I cling self-righteously to my side of the bed.
The next day I wear a blouse with a lower neckline and tighter jeans.
Cindy’s mother, Janet, bought her a chocolate brown Porsche when Cindy and I were both sophomores in high school. I worked early mornings with Janet at a restaurant because I needed the money to make payments on a used Ford. Every day Janet would tell me how Cindy was going to date only college boys, and the Porsche would attract the right kind: pre-law or pre-med.
Cindy was beautiful, and Janet had a hard time screening out all the surfers and jocks who came around. At work I heard her livid rants about the ones she knew of. Cindy told me about the rest. Some mornings Janet would race home on break to catch Cindy with a boy.
I’m not saying I didn’t like Cindy. I did. But I was terribly jealous of her at the same time. I’d cringe when her mother would corner me at work and show me the latest professional photos she’d had taken, commenting on the gold highlights in Cindy’s hair and her peachy, unblemished skin.
When Cindy and I both got nominated to the homecoming court, Janet said, “How wonderful you got nominated too, Lynn! . . . So, do you think Cindy has a good chance of being voted queen?” I was honest and told her yes.
Cindy got a new wardrobe: an outfit for each day leading up to the election. I borrowed some clothes from a friend who attended a different school. My mother made my homecoming-dance dress. Janet brought to work a picture of Cindy modeling her new formal gown. She looked gorgeous. As I stood there, with my bean-pole figure, and envied her, Janet asked, “There’s no way you can tell she’s wearing breast and fanny padding, right?”
As I’d predicted, Cindy was voted homecoming queen. And I never mentioned the padding to anyone, not even Cindy. It was victory enough to know that even a homecoming queen is insecure.
My rival in my college-theater program stood for everything I was against: wealth, trendy clothes, and even trendier ideas about playwriting. A professor in our department once praised her for a play that my rival smugly explained was “about nothing. It’s ridiculous to try to have a point.” In our junior year we were both nominated for a fellowship, which she won because she had the more impressive résumé. In my mind this wasn’t an indication of her talent, but rather of her parents’ deep pockets. In the summer, while I was serving hash browns full time to pay for college, she was spending ten thousand dollars to attend writing seminars all around the world. I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least I had integrity.
Ten years after college, I ran into my old rival outside a trendy East Side bar in New York City. Nothing had changed about her. Draped in the latest fashions, she casually let it slip that she had gotten her MFA from the most prestigious school in the country and also had a critically acclaimed performance-art piece showing in the city.
After I’d graduated from college, I’d worked various office jobs while struggling to become a writer. Somewhere between the temp work and the budget analyses, I’d discovered I had a flair for numbers. I was now a business manager for a design company, and though I’m sure I made more money than my old rival, I found myself ashamed to tell her what I did for a living. She had done what she’d set out to do, while I’d abandoned my dream of making art for art’s sake in favor of making money for money’s sake. It took seeing the woman who’d once represented everything I was against to remind me of what I’d lost.
Brooklyn, New York
I didn’t think of my brother as a rival when I was a girl. After all, he was five years older and twice my size, with twice my brain power to boot. I couldn’t compete with him for my parents’ attention, because he already had it all, and he gloried in it. He also gloried in bullying me. I still don’t know why. He mocked me, ridiculed me, and told me over and over how stupid I was, until I was afraid even to speak.
Somehow I endured his abuse, and my brother and I grew up and started careers and families. I would occasionally get a phone call from him, informing me of the huge paycheck he’d gotten that week, always more than my teacher husband earned in a month.
Then one day, nearly ten years after I’d had any real communication from my brother, he turned up on my doorstep. He was dying of cancer, and his wife had kicked him out because she couldn’t stand caring for him anymore. He could no longer work. He asked if he could stay with us for a few days.
That was eight years ago. For eight long, miserable, challenging years, my brother has lived in my home. I have been by his side through chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery after surgery. His ex-wife calls every year or so to ask if he’s dead yet and to remind me that she wants his pension check and insurance benefits, which are in her name. His grown children do not contact him at all.
I look at this pitiful shell of a man and want to weep. Whatever happened to the confident, brilliant brother I could never hold a candle to; the brother I envied; the brother I longed to love but deeply resented? Maybe the real question is: Why am I caring for him now, when a part of me still resents him? Maybe it’s because when he walked in my door, the first words out of his mouth were “Before you say anything, I want to apologize to you for all the awful things I’ve said to you and done to you in the past. I know I’ve treated you badly, and I am really sorry.”
Stunned, I mumbled, “That’s ok. Forget about it. The past is past.”
That’s what I said, but it wasn’t true. The past is not past. I’m reliving my painful childhood all over again with him under my roof. I want my brother — I’m ashamed to say — to just go ahead and die. But he keeps hanging on, surprising all the medical professionals. I’ve tried putting him in a nursing home, but the bills were horrendous, and he was too unruly a patient. So I spend my days running him from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital. Everyone marvels at the loving sister who is keeping her brother alive, giving him a reason to live. What a joke! On the outside I look like Florence Nightingale, but inside I feel like Lucifer’s daughter.
I keep wondering: If I had known as a girl what my brother’s fate would be, would I have had the gumption to stand up to him instead of wasting all that energy on resentment? I’ll never know. Meanwhile I carry on, a reluctant, resentful martyr.
I know I will weep when my brother dies. I will weep for a promising life gone horribly awry, a brilliant man reduced to a pitiful pauper. I will weep tears of relief, yes, but I will also weep tears of honest grief.
A child of the Depression, I grew up in the northeastern United States, but many of my relatives still lived in Germany, where my Jewish ancestors had resided for centuries. It was a time of free-floating terror. Newspapers put out extra editions to report the latest outrages in the Third Reich. The newsboys’ hoarse, barely intelligible cries chilled me. What had Hitler done now? Some days I would arrive home from school to find my grandmother clutching a letter from a relative in Europe who was desperate to get out. Not only were the gates closing in Germany; they were also pretty firmly sealed in the United States.
At my primary school, when the snows came, we had recess in our schoolrooms rather than the schoolyard. Our favorite indoor game was eraser racing, which pitted two students against each other in a contest of speed and balance. The two began back to back, each with an eraser on his or her head. The goal was to circle the room without losing the eraser. Though I was only moderately good at baseball, fair at rollerskating, and abysmal at basketball, at eraser racing I was the undefeated fifth-grade champion.
Our geography class studied countries one at a time. One day the country was Germany. As part of the lesson, our teacher asked us what was new in Germany. In all probability she expected us to say something about the autobahn or the recent Olympics. But her question was greeted by silence. Finally, a non-Jewish girl named Betty raised her hand and said, “Is it the terrible things they’re doing to the Jews?”
A few hours later at recess, Betty was my opponent in the eraser race. I had beaten her many times, but that day, for the first time all year, I lost. It didn’t matter. On the way home I felt only gratitude for Betty and her family.
Kingston, New York