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“I’d have to pack up the baby. Move over the car seat. We’ll just wait here,” I said.
We waited at the window watching snow slide down the glass until the headlights pulled up. There she was, shuffling out of my father’s truck, the same cab that carried her away three years ago, Gracie the model with three scarves looped around her neck. Her hair dangled down her back in ropey waves that kept getting caught in her purse straps as she re-hoisted her bag onto her shoulder.
Lila ran to hug her but got only a leg she couldn’t shake loose. Instead of giving me a real hug, my sister leaned forward over the baby and hooked her elbow around my body and gave me a few pats on the back like she was afraid to touch me.
Her damaged beauty filled the rooms of my father’s house. It’s true that you begin to love a thing more the farther it moves away from you. As we sat around the tree, Gracie on the sofa with my father and me on the floor with Lila, my father kept boasting about how tall she had become because he couldn’t bring himself to say she’d gotten thinner. “You’re like an Amazon,” he said.
“Dad, Amazons are supposed to be strong.”
“Maddy, your sister is strong. After what she’s been through, she’s the strongest woman I know.”
“Stop bringing that up, Dad.”
“Why should he stop?” I said, “They only want you for your leg.”
“That isn’t true,” Grace snapped, but we both knew it was. All of the photos Grace shipped home, the ones Dad fixed to the refrigerator with magnets then moved into a box he kept pushed under the coffee table, showed a neatly hemmed hamstring or a slack stocking that dripped like a birthday streamer from her skirt. Where other people displayed decorative chess sets and oversized Bibles, my father kept clippings of his daughter, half dressed and heavily made up so that she didn’t belong to any of us anymore.
When it came time to exchange gifts Grace handed me a gift bag sprouting tissue paper plumes. Inside was a pair of once-worn Balenciaga shoes that cost more than my rent. I shared a bed with my toddler in a one-bedroom apartment with wilted ceiling tiles and a leaky faucet colonized by stubborn mold half an inch thick.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked.
“You always wanted peep-toe shoes,” she said. “I saw them and immediately thought of you.”
“Where would I possibly wear something like these? I’m on my feet all day delivering bread and pesto in the dark.”
“It was supposed to be a nice gift.”
My father urged me to thank her. To him, pretty shoes were just that. Useless but necessary girl things no different from maxi pads. It took us months of bleeding through our bed sheets to convince him that wadded up toilet paper just wasn’t enough. Even then, she was the one who went to the store with him and picked out the good kind, name brand ones with the sticky wings, and lingered in the checkout when Dad didn’t want to go it alone.
“Aren’t you going to thank your sister?” he asked.
“I can’t even wear them. I’m a nine and a half now.”
“Really?” she asked. “You always wore my shoes in high school.”
“Fatty Maddy and her too fat feet got fatter with her.” I pointed at Lila who was opening a real gift, something Grace had bought in a store.
“Oh, come on,” Grace said. “That was just a joke. We were just kids.”
Lila dropped the doll in a cellophane-front box and slipped one of my too small shoes onto her even smaller foot. Her toes squeezed together in a chubby mush. She lifted her bare foot like a flamingo and hopped a few steps before crashing into the couch.
“Lila, stop it. You’ll break your ankle.”
“Look at me, Mommy. I’m pretty like Aunt Grace.”
Pretty like Aunt Grace. In my shoes.
“Yeah, well, pretty isn’t everything.”
“Oh, Lila,” Grace said. “Just let her play. She’s just a kid. I don’t mind.”
“Just a kid. Well, I was just a kid when I put that snake in your room.”
“What are you talking about?” Grace asked. She crossed her good leg over her fake and leaned back like she was gathering leverage to do something serious.
“That copperhead Jake caught out by his father’s pond? I took it home and put it in our room.”
“Maddy stop telling stories.”
I wanted to know what it felt like to be the center of everything for once. Here I was. I pulled Lila onto my lap like she was some kind of shield. She kept trying to squirm away, so I gave her the other shoe to shove her foot into. Four toes poked through the gap, and she kept trying to force her pinky through.
“You couldn’t,” Grace said. “It would’ve killed you.”
“I could so. Jake and his dad put it in a Tupperware. All I had to do was take it home and open the lid.”
“Oh, Maddy,” Grace said. “That is just so sad. And on Christmas.”
She uncrossed her legs, reached out and pulled Lila out of my lap so that I was sitting alone on the floor. Both shoes fell off her too small feet, so I sat alone among the discarded heels. I brushed my fingers over the shoes. The red satin was rougher than I expected, something that might stain easily and that someone like me could never wear. My dad was right. I should have hugged Grace for thinking I could have nice things like these, but there was too much between us for that. I turned over the shoes in my hands. The bottom of the toes were scuffed a little from where my sister had walked in Paris or Rome or some other place I’d never go.
Gracie whispered something into Lila’s ear and tickled her under her chin until she shut her neck and squirmed away. I wished that the snake had bitten Grace someplace else and taken more than just a leg. I wished that it had bitten me and changed my life too.
* * *
By the time she turns twenty-five, my sister is done with modeling. It’s hard for us to tell whether she is done with them or they are done with her. We expect her to return home, to finish her degree, to settle. But she refuses us. Gracie drifts. She marries and divorces a man whose name we never learn. Every year, she remembers Lila’s birthday and sends a card stuffed with cash. By the time Gracie sees her again, Lila will be old enough to have a boyfriend of her own.
My sister lives in Phoenix now where she makes her own jewelry, wire loops and coils with beads strung onto copper. I see her in photos on Facebook lounging on other people’s limbs. In her profile, she stands against a bright orange wall in a knit dress blown up by the wind. Her arms are spread wide, and she’s smiling so hard her eyes squint shut. Her long hair is a tousled mess that will never comb all the way out. In other photos, her leg is half hidden by a curtain of scarves or fractures of sunlight, but in this one the seam of her leg has been cropped in. There she is, my sister, smiling into the camera the way she never did in those magazines, alone and Amazonian. It’s the kind of smile reserved for only those who harbor great loss. It boasts a kind of privileged triumph, as if Gracie’s broken parts were the best part of her. Whatever bright star burned inside of her all those years has finally been let out. It gushes over everyone in that desert heat, a kind of crippling love that stays with you all your life. I like to think I brought her here.