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April 8, 2008

My Sister's Secret Life

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When I got home, I found my sister lying on the kitchen floor. I knelt down. She had a black eye and a scrape on her right cheek.

"What's this?" I said.
"I don't know," my mother said. "Maybe she fell down as she was walking home."

The bowling alley was just down the street, but I knew there was no way my sister could have walked home in this condition.

I called her name, but she didn't respond. Then she started moaning, making the sounds of crying without the tears. I noticed a spot of blood soaking through her jeans at the knee. "We need to get her cleaned up," I said.

My mother's bathroom had a walk-in shower. The tub part was only about six inches deep, shallow enough that we could fill it with water without drowning my sister.

I lifted her up and carried her into my mother's room. I laid her down on my mother's bed.

"Why don't you take off her clothes, and I'll fill the tub," I said.

When I came back into the bedroom, my sister was lying there naked. She already had a woman's body, and I was ashamed to look. She had tiny cuts all over her chest and bruises on her thighs. She was dirty in places, covered in the grime of asphalt. I couldn't understand how she got like this if she'd had her clothes on.

I lifted her up, carried her into the bathroom, and lowered her down into the warm water. She seemed to be soothed by this. I knelt beside her to make sure she didn't roll over. She lay there floating in the tub for a long time. It would be many years before I realized my sister had been raped.

As bad as things got, we weren't completely estranged from each other during this time. I took her to her first rock concert — the Kinks at the L.A. Forum. When she turned 16, I taught her how to drive a stick shift in the parking lot of an abandoned supermarket. When she was 18 — just before her car accident — I took her down to the Beverly Cineplex to see Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. I had already seen it a couple of times and was so knocked out by it that I really wanted her to see it with me. I must have known this wouldn't be the kind of movie she would go for, but I think I was still trying to re-create that connection I'd had with her when we were kids, lying on the floor, listening to Beatles records.

After the movie, we walked through the mall food court.

"That was weird," she said.

We stopped at an upscale restaurant that had lobster tanks set up out front. We gazed at the lobsters, commenting on the terrible fate that awaited them.

"They scream when you cook them," I said.
"They're not really screaming," she said. "It's just the air escaping from the shell."

It felt like my sister and I were on a date that night. Not because I thought of her as my date, but because I could see that everyone else in the mall did. I wondered what they were thinking, if they thought we were an unlikely pair, me this nerdy hipster wannabe and my sister this blonde bombshell. I wondered if they were asking themselves, What does she see in him? They certainly weren't asking themselves, What does he see in her?

It wasn't long after this that my sister drove her VW into the tree. A nurse called my mother at work and told her what had happened. She told her it was nothing life-threatening. My sister had a deep cut in her forehead that would require sutures. My mother told the nurse not to do anything until she got there. When she hung up the phone, she called our family doctor to get the name of a plastic surgeon. But by the time she arrived at the hospital, it was all over: My sister had authorized the ER doctor to do the stitches. She couldn't wait for my mother's doctor; just the day before, she had met a guy who invited her to Palm Springs, and she didn't want anything to interfere with that.

After my mother contacted our family doctor, she called the shoe store where my sister worked to let them know my sister wouldn't be coming in that day. But when she spoke to the store manager, he had no idea who she was talking about. It turned out my sister didn't work there.

When my sister dropped out of school, she and my mother formed a tacit agreement: If she got a job, my mother would stay off her case. By the time my sister was 17, she'd been fired from countless jobs, usually because she never showed up for her shift. She kept telling my mother she'd gotten a new job or had been promoted at her old one. After a while, she just started inventing jobs, and my mother never asked her to produce a paycheck to prove it.

The accident forced my mother to confront another part of my sister's life she hadn't wanted to deal with. They fought in the recovery room at the hospital and all the way home. When my sister left for Palm Springs the next day, my mother told her she could never come back.

But, of course, she did come back, and with a dark tan. When they removed the stitches, there was a jagged scar between her eyebrows.

My sister was hysterical. Once she had been the girl with the perfect face; now it was impossible to look at her without seeing the scar. My mother tried to console her. She took her out to dinner. She bought her some costume jewelry. She told her she was willing to pay for a plastic surgeon. But then she started thinking again about how my sister had lied to her for so long. In the middle of their reconciliation, she was unable to hold her tongue. They fought, and this time it was my sister who said she was leaving for good.

It took a while for my mother to admit to herself that my sister wasn't coming back. When she finally did, she asked me to come over to the house and clean out my sister's bedroom.

What I found there shocked me: candy wrappers and soda cups and empty jars of peanut butter. Chocolate bars melted into the shag carpet. Homemade bongs, brown glass vials, used tampons, green plastic bags filled with vomit. And everywhere there were empty beer cans — in her closet, in her dresser drawers, under her bed. I hauled out 10 garbage bags of beer cans from her bedroom.

We didn't hear from my sister for a long time after that. Then, when she was in her mid-20s, she resurfaced, calling my mother to tell her she had gotten a job as an A&R rep for Capitol Records. She had a company car and her own expense account and sometime soon, when she could clear some space in her schedule, she wanted to meet my mother for lunch.

My mother would get many calls like this in the years that followed. My sister would disappear for an extended period of time, then she would call my mother out of the blue to tell her about some fabulous job she had. Once she said she was a production executive for Paramount. Another time she said she was doing PR for Pepsi and attending UCLA on a full four-year scholarship provided by the company because they loved her so much. They were fantastic stories, stories that didn't even verge on the credible, and yet my mother believed each and every one of them and dutifully reported them to me. I would ask my mother for my sister's phone number and address so I could get in touch with her, but when I called, the number was out of service, and when I sent a letter, it always came back marked Undeliverable as Addressed or Forwarding Order Expired.

I didn't see my sister again until the spring of 1998, when I got married. She was 32. She'd recently been in touch with my mother to tell her she was the head of marketing for Reebok and that they were relocating her to Fiji. My mother told her I was getting married and gave her my number. When my sister called to congratulate me, I managed to persuade her to fly out to New York with the rest of my family.


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