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April 8, 2008

My Sister's Secret Life

He hadn't seen her in years, not since she left home for good. Then he found her — in the pages of a porn magazine.

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The last time I bought a porn magazine was in the fall of 1996. My girlfriend, Amy, had gone down to New York to meet some friends from college. As soon as she was safely out of the parking lot of our apartment building, I got in my car and drove to an adult bookstore in Enfield, CT, a town and a state far enough away from where I lived that I could be sure I wouldn't run into anyone I knew. When I got home, I went straight into our bedroom and lay down on our bed. Then I looked at all the pictures from cover to cover before choosing one woman to focus on.

I was paging through the phone-sex ads when I saw a picture of my sister.

I closed the magazine and put it down on the bed. I stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours.

It was the scar that gave her away. When she was 18, she was driving drunk and slammed her VW into a tree. Her head had cracked the windshield, leaving a deep scar between her eyebrows. No amount of makeup could conceal it.

She was on a page called "Party Girls Hotline." She was with two other women. They were standing in a line, sandwiched together. First there was my sister, then there was another blonde, then there was a brunette. The brunette was kissing the blonde on the cheek, digging her fingernails into her ass.

My sister was the only one who was looking into the camera. She had a fake smile and an orange tanning-booth tan. She was wearing a lei with green and yellow and pink flowers.

I told myself it wasn't my sister. The odds were too great. I taped the page that had the picture of her to the page before it so I wouldn't accidentally turn to it again.

Six years later I was in a Thai restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles for a family reunion of sorts. Amy and I were married by then, and we were there with our son. It had been a long time since I'd been back home. I'd moved to Massachusetts in 1991 to go to graduate school, suspecting, even then, that I wouldn't return to L.A. unless and until someone died. I bore my family no ill will; it was just that I couldn't be around them very long without feeling sick.

My mother was there, and my brother and his wife, and my aunt. I was spooning Pad Thai onto my plate when my brother mumbled something to me about our sister.

"You know she's doing porn, don't you?" he said.
I felt like the floor was giving way below me.
"I didn't know," I said.
"It's nasty, Bob. She's doing everything. Girls. Black guys. Gang bangs. Taking it up the ass."
"How do you know this?" I said.
"Because I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes."
"It's true, brother," his wife said.
"Are you sure it's her?" I said.
"It's her, Bob," he said. "You don't believe me, check it out for yourself."

He told me her porn name. It sounded like the name of a character from a Victorian novel.

"She's a whore," he said.

My wife and I exchanged a look. Don't worry, she told me with her eyes, we'll talk about this later. Just get through it.

Thank God my son didn't hear. My aunt had taken him to the bathroom.

I don't know if my mother heard. Part of me thought she had but was just pretending she hadn't. She seemed entirely focused on her food, a plate of shrimp and green chiles. I watched her peel back the shells with her fingers.

When we were growing up, I tried to be a good brother to my sister. I was always encouraging her to build model airplanes with me or to play Parcheesi, but most of the time my efforts just backfired. I was only four years older, but it felt like we were a generation apart.

When I was 10 years old, I was obsessed with the Beatles. My sister reacted the way most little sisters would: She told me the Beatles sucked. But every Saturday morning, as I sat on my bedroom floor listening to their records, she came knocking. I made her wait. It was only when she was pounding on my door, begging me please and apologizing for everything she'd said about the Beatles, that I let her in.

She always wanted to listen to the same song over and over again. Usually it was "If I Fell." She loved that song. She'd try to sing along with it, but her voice would crack every time she came to the bridge: And I would be sad if our new love was in vain.

There was one Saturday morning when she didn't knock on my door. I waited for her for a while. Finally, I went looking for her. I found her in her bedroom, in bed with my brother. He was lying on top of her. They were both naked.

I don't know what was happening between the two of them that morning. I don't know if my brother was molesting my sister; I don't know if it's even possible for a 9-year-old to molest a 6-year-old. All I know is that I felt left out. I felt like my brother had taken my sister away from me.

The relationship between my brother and sister would become even more troubling three years later, when my father died, only a day after being diagnosed with leukemia. The cancer had been spreading inside him for years, completely undetected. It was devastating for all of us, but it was particularly devastating for my sister. She had always been a daddy's girl.

After my father died, my brother spent entire nights in my sister's bedroom. I'd see him leaving her bedroom in the morning and I'd ask him what he was doing, and he'd tell me he'd had a bad dream and he didn't want to be alone. When I told my mother, she told me to mind my own business. She had gone from being a full-time housewife to a full-time secretary at a company that made nail polish. She was about to lose custody of my brother for various crimes he'd been committing — shoplifting, motor-vehicle theft, possession and sale of drugs — and she simply couldn't concentrate on anything else.

Eventually, my brother was designated a ward of the court and placed in a juvenile detention center. I thought maybe now my sister would get some of the attention he had been siphoning off for so many years. And she did — by imitating him. She dropped out of school, started doing coke and drinking, and developed a major case of bulimia. To support her habits, she stole cash and jewelry from my mother. She ran up my mother's credit cards and wrote checks on her accounts.

I was over at a friend's house one night during my senior year in high school when I got a phone call from my mother.

"Bobby," she said. "It's your sister. I think she was at the bowling alley. Maybe someone bought her a drink. I don't know."

My mother started crying.


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