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April 8, 2008

My Sister's Secret Life

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We all stayed at a little hotel in the Murray Hill section of the city. Amy and I had a room on the third floor. My mother and my sister and my aunt shared a room on the seventh floor. We went up to greet them after they checked in. Amy had never met my family before.

My mother opened the door. She had already changed into one of the muumuus she always wore at home. She gave us each a hug.

As my mother and Amy exchanged pleasantries, I scanned the room for my sister. I saw her kneeling on the floor behind one of the beds. Then all of a sudden she stood up and walked over to me. She was wearing black spandex leggings and a black spandex halter top. Her bleached-blonde hair was shocking, bright. She greeted me as if we had just spoken yesterday.

"Hey, Bob," she said. "How are you?"

I felt flushed for a moment, confused. When I hugged her, I could feel her hip bones pressing into my legs. I could feel the vertebrae in her back. I had to give her one of those half-hugs you give really skinny people for fear that a real hug would snap them in two.

And yet she had these breasts, this full chest that was pressing into mine. I wondered whether she'd had a boob job.
She broke from my embrace and went over to her suitcase and pulled out two grocery bags.

"These are for you guys," she said.

The bags were filled with candles. More candles than we could possibly burn in a lifetime. They were all different shapes and sizes. They were layered with different colors of wax, each layer bleeding into the next.

"Did you make them yourself?"
"Yes," my sister said.
"They're beautiful," I said.

That night my family and Amy's family went out to dinner so that we could all get to know each other a little before the wedding. My sister was wearing the same outfit from the hotel, plus a waistcoat and a pair of black stilettos. As we stood there in the foyer waiting for a table, I remember wishing she had worn a longer coat, something that would have covered her body.

She was holding a long black box that was about the size of a walkie-talkie. Her keys were attached to it. As we waited, she kept shifting it from one hand to the other, as if she were assessing its heft.

"That's quite a key chain," I said.

"It's a Taser," she said. "Like the cops use. It'll knock you right out." She handed it to me. It was heavy. It seemed like she could just as easily club a guy with it as stun him.

The restaurant staff pushed a few tables together. I wound up sitting across from my sister. I tried to get her to join the conversations of the people sitting around us, but she kept falling silent. Finally I realized I was going to have to try to draw her out on my own.

"When was the last time you were in New York?" I said.

"Oh, God," she said, "not since high school. Do you remember when Allen and Lenore invited me out here?"

I remembered. Allen was my father's brother and Lenore was his wife. They had both passed away several years earlier. I think Lenore came from some money, because they had an apartment on the Upper East Side. My sister was around 13 or 14 when they invited her out to visit. I remember feeling angry, because they had never invited me or my brother out to New York. I think it was because the last time they had seen us was at my father's funeral, and my brother and I were acting like animals. But their memories of my sister were different. She was a china doll back then, their beautiful niece. They imagined taking her out on the town and impressing all of their friends.

They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. My sister drank all their booze and cleaned out their refrigerator. She promenaded down Fifth Avenue with the two of them in tow, asking them to buy her every glittering bauble she saw. They were stunned by her total lack of grace and etiquette. She was supposed to stay a week; they sent her back after three days.

I pretended I remembered none of this. "Yeah," I said. "What happened with that?"

"It was really weird," she said. "Allen was really sweet. But Lenore hated me. It seemed like as soon as I got here, she had it in for me. I remember they took me to this restaurant to meet some of their friends, and in the middle of dinner, Lenore just stormed off. She just went to the bar for the rest of the night. Allen kept getting up from the table to try and get her to come back, but she wouldn't do it. She said she wouldn't sit at the same table as me. It was really uncomfortable.

"I still had a great time, though. The city was beautiful. We went to Central Park and the Guggenheim — I remember really loving that place. We went to Rockefeller Center and walked down Fifth Avenue. They took me to see Evita. I was just blown away."

As my sister spoke, I noticed her top teeth were worn away. Her front teeth were smaller than her incisors. Her incisors were smaller than her canines. Her canines were smaller than her bicuspids. It was the same with her bottom teeth, so when she closed her mouth her teeth didn't touch. I had heard about this kind of thing happening to bulimics. I had heard that the acid from the vomiting could wear away the enamel on the teeth, but this kind of pattern seemed strange to me. It wasn't until several years later, in a conversation with my brother's wife, that I learned my sister had been addicted to crystal meth. The drug had rotted her teeth away.

I looked at my sister and tried to focus on what she was saying. "Yeah, I don't know what it was, though," she said. Her eyes were glassy. "Lenore was really sweet. But Allen hated me. It seemed like as soon as I got here, he had it in for me. I remember they took me to this restaurant to meet some of their friends, and in the middle of dinner, Allen just stormed off. He just went to the bar for the rest of the night. Lenore kept getting up from the table to try and get him to come back, but he wouldn't do it. He said he wouldn't sit at the same table as me. It was really uncomfortable."

On the night of the wedding, my sister wore a form-fitting navy dress with a teardrop cutout over her breasts. She walked down the aisle with my brother. She stood under the chuppah as my wife and I took our vows.

At the reception she seemed jittery. I thought she probably didn't want to have to stand there and answer the typical party questions about what she did for a living. It's only now that I realize she was probably afraid of being recognized by one of my friends.

Toward the end of the night, we danced. She seemed surprised when I came to her table and took her hand and led her onto the floor. The DJ was playing a slow song by Otis Redding. As I held my arm around her waist, I could feel her shaking. Then she started to cry.

"What's wrong?" I said.
"I don't know," she said.
"Look at me," I said.

She looked at me, and for a moment it seemed like she thought I might actually have the answer, the words that would make everything right.

When my sister and I were kids, we played a game we called "Make Me Laugh." We'd go into the bathroom, and she'd sit in the bathtub and be the audience while I stood in front of the vanity and played the comedian. If I made her laugh, then we had to trade places. I'd usually open with some kind of shtick — an impersonation or a corny joke that would fall flat. After a few minutes I would resort to the one thing I knew would get her: I'd flare my nostrils. She'd kill herself laughing every time.

And so that night, dancing with my sister at my wedding, at a loss for words, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I flared my nostrils. And just like old times, she broke down laughing.

I haven't seen my sister since that night 10 years ago. I still have the porn magazine with the picture of her inside it. I don't look at it, not just because of her, but because of every other woman in there. I know that each one of them has a story similar to my sister's.

Amy wants me to throw the magazine away, but I can't. It's my only keepsake. I know that's a strange thing to say, but that's my sister's life; that's her work. The magazine is a part of her in some perverse way, or she is a part of it.

I know I will have to throw it away someday. Someday soon, because I don't want my son finding it.

The hardest thing of all for me isn't the thought of my son finding a picture of a naked woman and recognizing her as his aunt. It's the thought of him finding a picture of a naked woman and not recognizing her as his aunt. Of him not recognizing her at all.


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