“The story of my family. . .changes with the teller.” ― Jennifer Haigh, Faith
To the real Victor for allowing me to believe in magic. Thank you and Good Night.
The first time I saw forbidden love was when I was about seven – except that I didn’t know that it was forbidden, nor did I know the actual word – was when my older sister took me to work with her. She was an engineer and one of a few women in the work place. I brought my book from home and my sister gave me some plain paper with a few pencils in case I wanted to draw. But I was never much of a self-entertainer. I wondered around the office trying to match the people I saw to what I had heard at home. My sister frequently told our mom various stories pertaining to the drama at the office; Mom would be all into it, laughing and asking for specific details, until she would notice me, then, as if on cue, she would fake boredom and tell my sister, “Lara, its not good to gossip.” One of the stories I had heard was about a man named Victor, who seemed to be the most recurring protagonist in my sister’s office gossip. From what I could put together over the years, Victor was not just the sole inspiration behind “you will not believe what he said today?” but also evoked pronounced pity from my sister and two other women at the office, whom my sister referred to lovingly as ‘my girls’. Apparently, my sister and ‘her girls’ all felt sorry for him ever since the day his wife came to one of the Christmas Parties at the office. My sister described her as bossy, incredibly unattractive (“what is he doing with her, Mom?”), and painfully boring. Lara, also, repeatedly spoke of his sky blue eyes. I didn’t really see the fascination there, as my sister’s eyes were already bright blue and the need to obsess with something one already possessed seemed silly.
But she was right, it was the blue eyes that I also remember seeing first – I saw blue eyes, wavy blond hair and my sister’s arms wrapped around his neck. He was sitting up straight in his office chair with my sister embracing him from the back. Her arms were crossed on his chest, her hands enveloping his shoulders with a grip different from the way she hugged our parents or I. When he saw me, a mix of surprise and discomfort ran across his face and then I heard my sister’s familiar laughter. Nobody laughed like my sister. Still, nobody does. (A few years ago, while on the phone with one of my on and off friends, I heard a few familiar notes in her laughter and it made me, instantly, forgive everything that caused the off part). My sister laughed without really letting go of the embrace and said, “Victor, this is my little sister. She is hilarious.” She looked down pressing her chin into him, “And this, is, our Victor, in a blue shirt with blue eyes.” I thought to myself that I might have been hilarious and funny-looking and whatever else, but I didn’t talk in this ridiculous sing-song-y manner about some strange man’s article of clothing and eye-color. I walked out of Victor’s office and read various hand-written notices to staff along the walls (I was very proud of my reading skills and read everything that there was to read); on one of them, I read that my sister was responsible for fire safety in the office and thought – who in their right mind, would entrust other people’s lives to this airhead who collected toy owls and laughed like a hyena?
After a day of unsupervised wondering around the office; too much candy from my sister’s ‘girls’, sitting on various people’s laps, cheeks pinched, and lectures courtesy of my annoyed sister; listless wondering around the office came to an end – I made it home and quickly forgot about the day as all happy children do.
Some years later, my sister got married and moved far away. She had a little girl named Annabelle who was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. I know, everyone says this about the first baby that enters their lives. But Annabelle really was as exquisite as a baby girl could be. She was born with skin that looked as though she just arrived from a week in the Caribbean; brown eyes rimmed with endless lashes and seemed just content to be present. What, after all is beauty, if its not a sense of peace in one’s presence, a sense of comfort with the surroundings and oneself.
According to my enamored sister, she almost never cried and just serenely observed the world around her. In Annabelle’s first year of life, I only saw her twice. During one of those two visits, I almost dropped her from the stroller and it immediately became apparent to me that I was no longer my sister’s favorite little girl. She shot an angry look full of annoyance and agitation, a look I couldn’t believe one could have for a sister one hasn’t seen in over a year…She barked, “Will you be careful, for once? She isn’t a toy. Stop showing off with your stupid Hemingway book under your arm, everyone already took note how well read you are. Put your book away and focus on what you are doing.” The comment about the book stung. True, I was very proud of being well read. However, it was especially true, that I did bring “The Old Man and the Sea” on this particular trip to get approval from my sister. I always carried books and what my sister didn’t know is that I also, always, carried her daughter’s photograph as a bookmark inside the pages of every book that I read. When I lost Annabelle’s picture during a subway ride to school, my mom said I cried as though we, God forbid, lost real Annabelle. I had many pictures of my niece since then but never did this attachment to a picture repeat itself.
Why some people feel familiar the first moment you see them, while others remain strangers after decades of friendship or acquaintanceship, is a type of question, that just as some people, is better left alone. Poking into the metaphysical is satisfying only in theory; in reality it produces hopelessness and depression. Why do we love people that we aren’t suppose to love is a similar type of question.
I didn’t know that my sister was dying. I was pregnant with my first child and my parents claimed later that they were afraid for my pregnancy. But I know that they were afraid for me. All I was told is that my sister was suffering from depression and I wasn’t supposed to take anything she says personally. I lived in New York and she lived in Dallas; her husband and I never found common ground and ever since my niece was born our closeness came with six-month interruptions at best. And yet, in the last two years of her life we spoke almost every day. How could I not tell that she was gravely ill?
During one of our conversations, she told me of a modernist painting she remembered looking at when she was pregnant with Annabelle. It depicted a woman in late stages of pregnancy with endless phone wires attaching her head to her stomach. My sister marveled at the accuracy of the painting. She said pregnant women see and hear nothing except what goes on inside. She laughed at how silly it is to blame and sue employers for wanting to get rid of pregnant women at the workplace. Only now, so many years since, did I understand that this wasn’t about employers or women’s rights. Everyday, on the phone, my compassion and focus was tuned in to the life that was forming inside of me not the life that was leaving her. Last time I spoke with my sister was on her birthday. It was January 7th, and we had a typical ‘moody Lara, annoyed me’ type of exchange. I think I hung up.
While I was spared watching my 39-year-old sister dying, my little niece was a front and center witness to the passing of her mother. A week after Lara died, my niece came to stay with me. She was strictly instructed to not tell the-ever-so slightly unstable aunt about the passing of her sister. I wonder what my parents were thinking in their assumption that this little girl was stronger than a new mother in her twenties. Regardless of the overarching age difference, my niece and I have always had a relationship evenly peppered with specks of jealousy. My sister and I had an unspeakable bond and history long before Annabelle entered this world with her serene brown eyes. As for me, I was well aware of an even stronger unspeakable bond that exists between a mother and her child. Our interaction for the first twelve years of Annabelle’s life succumbed to constant juxtapositions of experience. I had known a younger, lighter Lara. And around me, she had always embraced her goofiness and sang a lot. Annabelle was jealous of our stories, of endless tales of five-year-old me coming to Lara’s bed in the morning on weekends, when Lara desperately wanted to sleep and tickling her into turning tv on. We cuddled and watched ridiculously dumb morning shows. Saturday mornings becoming the only time when I wasn’t ‘the annoying pest’ and she wasn’t the ‘standoffish hyena.’ We were both drastically different from our parents and other relatives in our zest for life and occasional hysterical agitations. We both talked non-stop and both believed in magic well into the years when believing in magic is considered a sign of a looming diagnosis at the shrink’s office. To succumb to a cliché would be to describe us both as dreamers. We refused to give in to the pragmatic necessities of this life, or as my father puts it, refused to grow up. Both would easily spend the remaining forty bucks left on checking account, on purchases of the most non-pragmatic quality – some small funky magnets or a silly Shakespeare finger puppet for a random friend. Our mom, my niece and her father were born knowing how to count money. My niece, it seems, was also born with an alarm clock. She is an early riser and an enviably organized person.
When she was in first grade and I came to Dallas for a week long visit, I wanted to read her a chapter from my favorite Judy Blume book; she was very excited and told me to come up at 7:30 right before her bedtime. I procrastinated playing chess online or talking on the phone or just daydreaming, but when I came to her bedroom, Annabelle pointed at the clock and informed me that I was half-an-hour late and it was now her bedtime. This unflinching characteristic in a seven –year-old was in stark contrast to seven-year-old me aimlessly wondering around my sister’s workplace seeking entertainment anywhere but inside my own space.
Many years since that day at the office, my thirteen-year-old niece sat next to me on the bed while I breastfed my firstborn, and talked unflinchingly about her mother, as though she was still alive. It is those three days that are so hard to forgive myself for. I breastfed my child for what seemed like hours and my niece sat next to me for what seemed like hours. Blessed or cursed with an ability to keep things inside, to entertain herself, to entertain me, mere seven days after she lost her mother. Armed with my realization that Annabelle’s only crime had been that she was different from Lara and I, that she, in fact, wasn’t a robot, a cold pragmatist, a machine (particularly hurtful term my father used to describe Annabelle and her dad), I grew to get attached to the actual girl and not merely her a snapshot of her as a six-month-old. As our relationship slowly transformed from mere competitiveness for who was, in fact, closer to Lara to a relationship of our own, we became comfortable enough to talk about the person that we competed over. If time doesn’t heal all wounds, at the very least it conceals the rawness of the pain, so that the wound can be carefully touched. I asked Annabelle about my sister’s last months, years after my sister was no longer here. Annabelle talked a lot, she needed to talk a lot; I listened and didn’t listen… until she mentioned that my sister was in and out of consciousness for the last two months of her life and at one point forgot Annabelle’s name and called her Nadia. I was about to repeat the only thing there was left to repeat, “Sweetie, I can’t imagine how much it hurt, how much all of it hurt…” When, my niece interrupted me and said that she had grown accustomed to this by then and that she was far more disturbed by her mother’s insistence that she, Annabelle, in fact had a brother. Lara, coming in and out of the world that was about to swallow her whole, begged my niece to find her brother, she said his name was Alexander and he was only a few years older than Annabelle. My niece asked her father and was told that when cancer spreads to one’s brain, one is no longer immune to believing things that have neither merit nor truth.
The moment when pictures in one’s mind – pictures made up of observations, overheard stories and snapshots of forgotten memories connect- is called an epiphany; the moment when I connected my sister’s plea to her small daughter to find her brother felt less like an epiphany and more like I fell through the ice. My sister’s crying behind a glass door. My father yelling at her at the bottom of the stairs that she is to quit being naïve or life will whip her even harder. My sister’s bandana on her defiant forehead and screaming that she doesn’t have to live with my parents if they can’t accept the man she loves. My mom’s plea to accept that he has children, a wife, responsibilities, that he won’t leave his wife, that he is merely using her. And me, years later, barely pregnant lying on the bathroom tile, exhausted from morning sickness that lasted into each afternoon, evening and night, dialing my sister….And her, telling me of two very different pregnancies….that being pregnant with a boy was different…that one time she barely managed to jump out of the bus before vomiting all over herself in the street…Victor’s blue eyes and look of discomfort when I walked into his office… Lara must have been over four months pregnant to know with stubborn certainty that it was a boy… My memories of snuggling with my sister on Saturday mornings had been shot through in a continuous, uninterrupted cinematic sequence. My goofy, lighthearted sister with a laugh that could wake up a log sleeping half a mile away, held on to her baby sister every weekend morning, while brewing the strength to terminate a life of a child, and say goodbye to the man she loved. She must have succeeded in closing that compartment up until her own life was slipping away from her she hadn’t tried to reconstruct the pieces of the past. But her pleas to Annabelle to find her brother ring with a final, excruciating attempt to validate a love and a life she almost lived.