I ring ten times before letting myself in with the key she gave me. My sister Beatrice is in her bedroom standing at her full length mirror wearing a long black evening dress. She doesn’t turn to me when I call her name. She is peering into the mirror and examining the person who is in there. The TV is on. When her little dog starts licking her bare feet she kicks him away then bends down to bury her face in his fur.
“Come and eat something,” I say, tugging at her hands. “I’ll make you a sandwich.”
“I love you so much, Zee,” she says as she wraps her arms around my neck then looks me in the eyes and I look into hers, searching for her in there and wondering how Anaïs Nin could be living inside my sister.
The astounding resemblance can be uncanny when she coils her hair around her head like that and plucks her eyebrows to a perfect pitch. The first time she did that her eyes became glassy and weird, fixed on something I couldn’t see, and her mouth opened and closed without a sound escaping. She frightened me. I had to slap her face a few times, not too hard, just enough to bring her back. Maybe that’s her way to find herself, making an ally of Nin, the one who shares her soul she says, who dreams her dreams, all erotic and wordy.
We shared a bed every night from the day I was born. As kids in the summer on those scorching Montreal nights we took turns giggling and flapping the white cotton sheet over each other as the gas station light outside our window turned us green, off and on, blinking and winking through the long hot night. In the daytime we strutted our baby dolls across the street, propped up in their metal strollers. We arranged their rubber legs so their toes poked out from the flannel blankets, their arms and hands neatly folded on top, hers with the fingers chewed off. Safely stowed on the front walk, the dolls watched us hop our bicycles to go zipping through the park where we circled the miniature windmills and then raced back across the tracks before the late train whistled. When we sang our duets in school our baby fingers always found each other’s and hooked tight.
I was her little sister and she my big. With a steady hand on her fountain pen she wrote her songs and poems in her black book. At first she’d let me read them but later after the Nin business started, she turned her back on me in bed and lowered the shade of the gooseneck lamp on her bedside table until it formed a circle on the page. She told me she had captured the moon.
Her hand was steady too on her eyeliner brush, two perfect arcs, one more lifted than the other. She always made me wonder and question myself. I sometimes woke wanting to be her, mysterious and moody, and began to write my own things down. On a summer holiday to Niagara Falls, she wore a black lace blouse and had done her hair up in those roped coils. She climbed over the railing and flung back her head and arm, pretending to fall like a maid of the mist. I thought I was going to lose her. I climbed over the rail and grabbed her skirt.
“Don’t worry. I’m only pretending. Can’t you tell the difference?” she said.
She never ate much and when she left home she was as thin as a whistle. You’d never think such a wispy body could produce a voice so full of beauty. When she sings she starts off low and melancholy but then her voice rises, bright and brilliant like flecks of mica chipped from fool’s silver. Sometimes she sings her songs in the park dressed in a white lab coat. She lugs her twenty-pound amp down the street, attaches the extension cords then plugs into the outlet on the public utility building. On the platform in the open atrium where the skateboarders are practicing their moves, her electric guitar drowns out the scrape of their wheels and their hard crash landings. From her backpack she pulls out old albums and wings them like frisbees.
As I pull her toward the kitchen so I can get something in her stomach a sickly smell of an extinguished fire seeps out from the bathroom. Her lyrics, stanzas, rhymes, and refrains are now charred scraps of paper and ash floating in a rank bathtub of water. Gluey gobs of pulp float like small islands on the surface.
“My word coffin. She ordered me to burn them. They were evil,” she says.
The bathtub chain is draped over the faucet and the plug dangles like a useless dream. The poem I love about the mermaid and the shackles is hanging over the tub. That one we dry with the hair drier I bought her for her birthday. Before she turns it on I hand her a towel.
“You will electrocute yourself,” I say.
“Maybe that’s the way out of the torment.”
I never know what to say when she talks that way but I know about the bad Nin and her gang of cohort voices telling Beatrice she is pathetic.
The bottle of clozapine I’ve stashed in the drawer is there under the towels. I make her swallow two before I get her undressed, pull a nightgown over her head and walk her into her bedroom. On the bedside table her credit card has been cut in two.
“Don’t worry about me,” she says with a wry smile. “They doubled my money at the bank.”
Before the effect of the drug kicks in, I pull the blanket over her and promise to come tomorrow to help clean up the mess. It’s late in the afternoon and I figure she will sleep through the night but at 3 a.m. she calls me from the emergency ward. Can I bring her toothbrush?
It’s all so damn familiar. The walk past triage, the heavy shove through the double doors, the right turn to the psychiatric corridor. In a single cubby I find her under the striped flannel sheet, her clothes and purse tied up in a white plastic bag. Through her slack mouth she draws long rasping breaths. I look at her for a long time, dim the lights a little, then read my book while she sleeps.
In the morning when she wakes I take her for a cigarette. Outside the cement is hot. Her thick toenails hang over her rubber sandals and I am afraid she will trip as we make our way to a low wall near the parking lot. Her fingers, yellowed from nicotine, are shaking and she puts her head on my shoulder when I tuck her other hand in close to me on my lap. It’s nothing like when we were kids on hot dog night and had those mustard fights, wiggling our yellow fingers at each other, smearing each other’s faces, wrestling and laughing in the kitchen. She takes a couple of long drags on her cigarette and I rub her back, trying to comfort her.
“Can I come home with you?”
I put the girls together in one of their twin beds and Beatrice into the other. They thrash around some, kicking and squirming, but settle down soon enough while Beatrice snores across the room. There is no story tonight, the one they love to hear from her, the one about the two young dragons who can jump to the moon, then dance on the moon until they become lonely and afraid, and who one day escape on a comet. They fly deep into the ocean where a mother dragon hides them in her mouth and keeps them safe. The same story she always told me in bed long ago when the gas station light turned us green and she covered my eyes with her hands. One Hallowe’en our mother made us dragon costumes. I thought they might be magic and keep us safe forever.
Restless and tossing that night beside my husband, his dependable breathing eventually calms me. I fall asleep around 2 a.m. In the morning he gets up and feeds the kids fruit loops and sugar pops. It’s Saturday morning when I usually get to sleep in but I know I have to deal with that mess in her bathtub. I get up and drag myself into the shower.
Later, when Beatrice shuffles into the kitchen she sits at the table, stares into space and smokes one cigarette after the other, swallowing the smoke like bread. The girls sit quietly slurping up the milk from their cereal bowls. By the time I am ready to leave they are in the front yard swinging their yo-yos around the world. I kiss them goodbye, look them in the eyes, and make them promise to be good. I run back in, take the keys from the little cat tail hook, the one that has Beatrice’s name above it, and drive to her apartment.
In the kitchen the dog watches me open a can. I pick him up to ruffle his fur then feed him. In the bathroom I rake the soggy, gluey pages in the bathtub into a pile with my fingers and squeeze out the water before dropping them into the plastic bags. The drips are blue. She still uses that same old pen with real ink cartridges. So many words I’ve tried to understand. Starry places where her brilliance is illuminated she says, daring me to deny she’s a genius but where evil lurks between the words, ready to spring, always trying to get her, to fool her, to extinguish love. A place where devils laugh at her and then make her one of them. Once she gave me a complete treatise on black holes written in complex algebraic equations delineating dimensions of time. She highlighted the crucial parts in florescent pink.
“It is the truth even though you don’t believe me,” she said. “Some of us are psychic you know. We can save you. The codes of redemption can be deciphered. Trust me.”
After putting the mess into a garbage bag and dusting a cloud of Comet over the black streaks in the bathtub, I drag the bag through the backdoor into the lane where I plop it into the garbage can.
The dog’s name is Otto. Otto is devoted to Beatrice so I snap his leash onto his collar and bring him home. The girls take him into their room and tie ribbons on his ears and tail. He hates that and tries to nip them for their indignities while he whines and whimpers for Beatrice. The drugs she’s been prescribed have a strong sedating effect and she is rivetted to the bed, dead to the world.
The evening comes down on all of us while John makes hamburgers on the BBQ. Jenny climbs up beside me on the sofa where I am rubbing Otto’s ears, mollifying him for the insufferable ribbons. I tell Jenny to get Otto’s brush from the bag I brought from Beatrice’s.
“Sing us Molly Malone,” Sarah says.
“It’s too sad.”
“I know. She dies. Did you sing that one with Auntie Beatrice when you were young?”
“No. It was A Bit of Heaven we sang. Grandma made us green satin sashes that she tied around the waists of our crisp white dresses. Our hair was done up nicely, dark brown curls freed from the spoolies we wore all night, pink rubber things that pinched our scalps. Beatrice was sick that day. She had a stomach ache on the way to the theatre and Grandpa said I would have to sing alone if she couldn’t.”
“I could never have sung without her. I would have stood there frozen in those lights. I would have tried to sing but no sound would have come out. I’d have choked there in front of all those people who had come to hear us, the famous sisters Beatrice and Zelda, but by the time we got there she was okay. She took my hand and lead me out onto the stage. She hooked her little finger into mine and when the piano intro was over we sang together and it was like we were two angels with one voice. That’s what the critics said. I always felt like that beside her, like I could do anything as long as she was there, holding my hand.”
“Is that true? Did you really feel that way?” Beatrice is standing in the doorway.
“I’ve always felt like that. Sometimes I really miss you.”
“Well I’m here. Standing right before your very eyes. Can’t you see me?”
“I know you are. It’s okay. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Neither Beatrice nor I say a word in the car. It’s that strained kind of quiet where you don’t want to upset anyone. When we get to her apartment she doesn’t take her coat off but goes straight to the kitchen, plugs in the kettle, and takes down the porcelain tea cups she keeps on the top shelf.
“It’s okay Bea, I don’t need tea.”
The lingering smell from the fire is making me nauseous and want to go home. I’ve still got my jacket on too. From the pocket I fish out the newly adjusted prescriptions she was issued at the hospital and I line them up in a row on the counter.
“Just promise me you’ll keep taking them this time, okay? Look, I’m really tired. I’ll call you tomorrow, all right?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just I stop feeling things. I go numb.”
“I know. I’ll call you.”
I am walking to my car when the sound of her voice reaches me as I’m about to unlock the door. It’s something I’ve never heard before. The notes are clear and high, like the descant she always reached above my soprano. Flowing through the open window, rising beyond the roof of the apartment building, her song flies up into the clear night sky where it dances, twirls, and spins. It seems to light up the night, make the stars twinkle and flash with brilliance. All her lived and unlived dreams way up there somewhere I can never reach. So far beyond me.