Take The Streets If You Want To

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Posted on 24 May 2013 23:58

(Originally written for ENGL 31147, or Studies in Magical Realism.)


My sister, sometimes, became things.

It started when she was very young, barely old enough to roll over, barely old enough to hold her head up. She loved it when we held her, as so many babies do; she loved to be swaddled in blankets or surrounded by stuffed animals or walled in by the pillows of an impromptu fort built from cushions I, in my ten-year-old desire to please, stole from every bed and chair in the house. Perhaps it was an early manifestation of her desire to be part of something, to incorporate herself into the things she loved. Her favorite hiding spot, once she learned to crawl, was in the living room, on the bottom shelf of one of the many bookshelves lining the walls; we filled the shelves from the top down, in order to leave room for her toys and board books, and as a result the lower shelves were always empty. My sister would climb onto a shelf, push any books stacked there aside, and curl up for hours, sometimes falling asleep on the uncomfortable pine boards. I asked her about it when she was older, too tall and twiggy to fit inside the bookshelves anymore, and she said It was calming, the weight of the books.

You couldn't feel the books, I reminded her. They were on shelves. Unless the shelves collapsed and you somehow survived and put the shelves back up and we didn't notice.

She rolled her eyes. Not like that, she said. Like – the press of them. The words, I mean.

The weight of knowledge, I said, or something similarly snide, and she swatted at my shoulder and we didn't talk about it again. I was in high school at the time, finishing up my senior year; she was a freshman, still carrying around a backpack she could probably have folded her coltish limbs into and zipped up around her. She never did carry a smaller bag, despite her differing needs during various periods in her academic career. Maybe the same thought had occurred to her. Maybe the idea of carrying a home, a shelter, a stronghold, on her back was appealing.

Long before she vanished into long nights of studying in high school, though, long before I thought myself jaded enough to joke about her superhuman powers of concealment, she began to literally disappear – I watched her, always, while our parents were out on dates. Our town was fairly quiet and certainly suburban, and a date for them was dinner and a movie. Nothing particularly special, but a chance to get away from my voracious reading and my sister's seemingly infinite capacity for self-concealment in various nooks of the house. If they were out, it meant that someone else had to panic when she was neither under the sink nor the sofa, not in the back of the hall closet behind the coats or behind the bathroom door or curled up behind the cushions in my mother's rocking chair. Someone else had to move all the furniture in the house at least one foot to make sure she wasn't wedged behind it and unable to get out. Someone had to make sure she wasn't asphyxiating in the refrigerator, drowning herself in the washing machine, or precariously perched on the rain gutter. Someone, in this case, was me.

She had a pattern, too – our parents would say goodbye, my mother pressing waxy lipstick kisses to our cheeks, my father pulling me into a firm hug and picking my sister up to swing her in a circle, and then they would pull away from the driveway, engines rumbling and headlights already on despite the lingering twilight. If my sister was fragrant pine like the bookshelves, soft enough to mark with a fingernail, my parents were the seasoned oak of our sideboard, rock-solid and traditional and wholesome. They had their small vices, of course; every plank has knots, imperfections, but overall they were the sort of parents who thought about every option and honestly believed in what they were doing and cared both about and for us. I had a lot of time (and a strong inclination) to consider this after my sister disappeared the last time, for good, and I came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could have done and nothing any of us – siblings, friends, teachers, roommates – could have done differently. My sister was always slipping away, slipping through the cracks in our family and our lives like water through our fingers. It was inevitable that, one day, we would look for her and she would simply not turn up.

After our parents had driven away, I would turn on the downstairs TV for her and go upstairs to pick out a book. Our parents decreed that we could not watch TV until all our homework was done, and they enforced this rule firmly but kindly; I preferred reading anyway, because one episode of my favorite show took a definite amount of time to watch, but reading one book could take anywhere from an hour to two days, depending on whether I wanted to savor it. I liked building worlds in my head and roaming about in them, while my sister loved to find a world that was already furnished, so to speak, and become a part of it, as easy as breathing. She would sit on the sofa, gradually sliding off and lying propped up on her elbows, waiting for the local shows to run out and the reruns of old sitcoms to come on – Black Books, a British sitcom, was one of her favorites, perhaps because even I would set my book aside, butterflied open on the sofa armrest, and watch with her. No matter how engrossed I was in my book, though, sooner or later I would need the bathroom, or a glass of water, or a sandwich, or a new book. Don't do it, I would warn her, as I cracked the spine of my book back and laid it face-down on the end table. Don't do it this time, or I'll call the police, and then what will you do? Though I never said what it, precisely, was (and why was that? Was it from fear? Was it because naming something, no matter how obscurely, give sit power?) we both knew what I meant.

What would they do, she'd scoff, arrest me? Come on, even you can't find me – and that would be when I would storm out of the room, one way or another, from frustration and an unwillingness to admit failure and, perhaps a little, a desire for it to actually come to that. I didn't want to admit failure, but I did want someone else to come into our house, to drag the sofa forward an end at a time, to check inside the dryer and under the beds and in the attic. I wanted to know that it wasn't just us, that it wasn't some elaborate family prank, that it wasn't just me. I tried to stay, once, and my sister just sat and watched television, not moving – not even leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees, trying to get closer and closer to the world on the screen – and the utter wrongness of it, the combination of the quiet of the room and the overwrought emotion and color of the screen, drove me from the sofa and into the kitchen as though I had been physically pushed.

No matter how I left, I always returned to the same thing – the television still on, turned down a little, perhaps, and the sofa empty. I made a game of it sometimes, stepping out for water or a snack and returning as quickly as possible, and she would still be gone. The remote would be on the sofa where she'd left it, her notebooks on the floor where they'd been dropped unceremoniously, her bag still unzipped in the middle of the floor. It was as if she'd stepped out as well, just for a moment, for a smoke, like our mother did, though she never let us see, or to trim the hedges in frustration, as our father did when he wanted to avoid having an argument in front of us. If I had snuck upstairs and hung far enough out the window to see around the corner, though, I would have be able to see the plume of smoke from my mother's cigarette, and if I had looked out the back screen door, I would have been able to watch my father snapping his long shears, foliage flying. No matter how many windows I hung out of, or how many doors I peered around, or how many closets I rummaged through and cabinets I turned inside out and boxes I opened in the attic, she was nowhere to be found. She never stayed away long enough for our parents to come home and catch her at it, and after the first eight or so times I figured that out, and once it got late enough I would simply start putting the house back in order, pots and pans going back onto their shelves in the kitchen, shoes in the bottoms of the closets getting straightened out, furniture hoisted back into place one agonizing inch at a time. Ten minutes or so before our parents' headlights were visible at the end of the road, I would look into the living room and there she would be, sitting on the sofa as if she'd never left. Our parents would pull into the driveway a quarter of an hour later; our mother's lipstick would be gone, sometimes smudged a little onto our father's cheek. When she brushed a hand through my hair, I often smelled the faint pungency of tobacco on her knuckles. My father, similarly, often had the faint smokiness of whiskey on his breath when he kissed us goodnight, me on the forehead and my sister on the cheek. Just as I indulged my sister, they seemed to indulge each other. While our parents enjoyed some time off and my sister went – wherever it was she went, then, I was becoming very good at putting our house back in perfect order and moving furniture without hurting myself.

Did anything happen? our mother would ask, setting her handbag down on the hall table and toeing off her heels. My father would hang his coat first and then hers, shaking out the wrinkles like a finicky bird flapping its wings to settle its feathers, as she dropped her keys in the drawer. Nothing, I'd say, not looking at my sister, not looking at my mother, looking at a point six inches above her right shoulder. We watched Black Books, my sister would chime in. You read the whole time, because you're boring. That last directed at me.

Now, my mother would remonstrate, don't be rude. My sister would pout, but typically ruin the effect by yawning so hard even my father would stop what he was doing to stare. Cover your mouth, he'd say mildly, echoed by my mother, but with much more indignation. Must have been some tiring TV.

Nothing much, I'd say again, and my sister would belatedly cover her mouth.

I'm tired, she'd admit. Can I go to bed?

If only both our children would ask us things like that, my father would say, to a remonstrating glance from my mother, and up the stairs they would go, and back into the living room I would go, to pick up the pile of abandoned notebooks and the spill of the backpack and stack them neatly by the kitchen table. I would turn off the TV and dim the lights and put the remote back in the drawer of the end table, and then, with my parents upstairs (my mother wiping away the remains of her lipstick, my father saying good night to my sister) I would listen hard, one hand stretched in front of me as though the room were pitch black, and look for my sister.

It wasn't like looking for her when our parents were out – that was a performance, that was a show I had to put on for myself and her. I needed to know that I couldn't do any more to find her than I already had, and she needed to know that she couldn't be found. This was something much more quiet and effective, like the ring of condensation left by a glass containing a cool drink on a warm day, or the sanguine copper tang I could smell on my fingers sometimes if I played with the change in my pocket. If I turned in a circle, slowly, I could feel the beginnings of it. My sister and I had played hide-and-seek when she was younger, before she started disappearing properly, and this sensation was familiar from seeing her head disappear back under the bed, or hearing shuffling from inside a closet. It was like sparks tumbling down my spine, between my shoulder blades, like certainty and excitement and something all her own. My sister had a sensation to her that felt the way sweet rain smelled – clean, and fresh, and full of possibility. If I turned slowly, I could feel where it was strongest, like a curtain of water, like the flow of it, and the itch between my shoulder blades, and then if I followed the sensation forward I could feel where she'd gone. The bookcases were warm and vaguely woody, the muted smell of cured pine. They felt safe in the way that childhood is safe, and in the way that parents are always a sanctuary; they felt safe in a huge, loving way, as if the days went on forever and there was always someone to pick you up if you skinned your knee. She loved them so much, even after she was too tall to wedge herself into the empty shelves at the bottom anymore, and she still vanished into them from time to time. I never remembered seeing her do it – none of us ever did – but I knew how she smiled whenever she came out of them, through her exhaustion. She looked as if an immense weight had been lifted off her shoulders for a few hours, and her happiness was both simple and infectious, lasting a few days and making her luminous in her contentness.

Our parents knew, of course; the second time it happened, I told them, in hysterics, as my sister sat calmly on the sofa, watching Keeping Up Appearances as I sat at the dining table babbling. My parents told me later that I said I'd seen it, that I'd talked about folding, as though talking about angels' wings, or geometry, or impossible movements of space as a plane, though I never recalled more than the aftermath. They turned off the TV and sat on the sofa, one on either side of my sister, as I shook in the kitchen; I don't know what they said to her, but I know she never again did it in front of them. Perhaps they just didn't want to know about it. My father's mother, I learned later, had done the same thing as a child; her parents, upon discovery of their daughter emerging from the full-length mirror in their guest bedroom, had forbidden such exploration, an edict which had lasted until my father was fourteen years old, when she had gone back into the master bedroom for a pair of forgotten pearl earrings and never come out. My father had never known of her proclivities until her mother – his grandmother – walked into the room, in response to his frantic knocking at her door at six in the evening, seen the mirror hanging in the open walk-in closet, and gone white as chalk.

We should never have tried to stop it, she whispered, or so he told me years later, when I was the one knocking at the door I'd moved out of nearly three years before. I didn't want to make that same mistake, you see, he'd said. We didn't want her to fall so in love she wouldn't be able to come home. We were fine with her doing it – we didn't see how we could stop her, really – but we didn't want her to have enough of a chance to vanish into it. We love her, you see, he said, taking off the reading glasses he'd been wearing for half a year at that point. It was such a simple sentence, and one he hadn't been thrifty with even when my sister was around and in a state where such things could be said. My father was the sort of man who considered every goodbye to be his last, and who didn't like to go to bed angry; my mother, though a little more inclined to hold a grudge from one day to the next, liked the idea of never leaving loose ends, emotionally speaking. They were neither embarrassingly affectionate nor overwhelmingly cold. It must have rankled, then, that they never got any sort of closure, and never would. My sister was not and is not dead, and perhaps never will be, though she is certainly not the same girl who lay on her stomach, head pillowed on her backpack, watching Black Books late into the night and waiting for her chance to slip away for an hour or two of sanctuary. I am not the same as when I turned the house inside out looking for her. My mother no longer smokes and my father is not the same man who took my sister upstairs to say goodnight, knowing full well that he could lose her in a more complete way than most parents could even conceive of, and playing out the supreme lie of Nothing happened nonetheless. My father no longer believes that living in fear is worse than living in obliviousness, perhaps because, for him, the worst has already come to pass.

He lost me in a much more commonplace manner – a month before I teased my sister about hiding under the weight of knowledge, I had been accepted to a prestigious college in New York City, and a week after she swatted me in the shoulder for my irreverence in the face of the inexplicable, I accepted and started packing my room away in boxes. I wondered, briefly, if my sister would make herself part of the new medusa lamp we bought for my dorm room, if she would smuggle herself to the city by hitching a ride on the new beanbag chair or by picking her favorite book from the box of ratty old paperbacks I couldn't bring myself to leave behind, and subsuming herself into it. She had always wanted to see New York City, and my father had once indulged her by taking her in to join him for a day at work; she had absorbed every moment of it, for once a receptacle rather than a fluid seeking a container. She had been enraptured by the stop-start of the traffic, as visible from his office window; she had loved the way she could stand on grates on the sidewalk and feel the rumble of the subway, like a heartbeat; she had loved the lights at night, receding in the distance as she watched them in the passenger side mirror. My father, in worrying about what my sister might fall in love with, had limited himself to thinking of rather domestic things – a beautiful piece of furniture, a particularly stylized painting, the mirror he kept in the attic, draped with scarves and costume closet escapees. He had never considered a house, which, as we later discovered, claimed our great-aunt; he had certainly never considered a city, which. We found out about that one for ourselves.

There is really no way to chart what happened from the last time I rearranged the house, just before my sister entered high school, and what happened when I graduated; for a start, I was no longer her babysitter, as it would have been mortifying to both of us. My parents trusted my sister to keep track of time for herself, and trusted me to help her do so; my sister reluctantly let go of her attachment to the bookshelves, much as I put my stuffed animals in clear garbage bags and from there into storage in the attic. While I turned my attention to heavier books with fewer pictures, my sister had a brief dalliance with the mirror in the attic. Too crowded, she complained to me, one night when we'd both snuck drinks from the liquor cabinet and were sitting in front of the sofa, watching Black Books as though at any minute I would leave the room and return to a room notable by its emptiness. I couldn't talk to her, she went on, cheeks flushed, but, you know, she was there. It was like being in a room with someone you don't know well enough to have a conversation with, but – too familiar for small talk, right? It's like no-man's land. I knew she'd tried the circular mirror in her room, attached to the top of her vanity, and found it flimsy in some spiritual sense; I didn't know that she'd also tried the mirror I had hung on my closet door, one night while I was out, but when I returned home the summer after her most triumphant, final disappearance, I could feel her there, as if she'd just left the room and her perfume had lingered. The mirror felt like ozone and blue sparks down my spine, like the living room with the lights dimmed and the echoing silence left by the TV, and it was as if she'd left a note (Going out for milk, back soon) and had simply neglected to return. She had tried everything, by the time I had moved off-campus with my battered medusa lamp and my ruptured bean bag, patched up with duct tape and waxed thread.

If it is impossible to summarize the two years between my sister's freshman year of high school and my freshman year of college, it would be doubly impossible to summarize the three years that followed. I learned about paperwork and paying bills and broker's fees; my sister studied writing for television and film, and did well in calculus just in case she needed to fall back on it. My father learned about his latent astigmatism, and my mother learned about nicotine replacement therapy. Having already learned about applying to college through my experience, they were spared a repeat of that particular educational experience, and my sister applied to a different prestigious college in New York City, seizing the chance and the day to live somewhere she'd always adored. While I learned about bacteria in more depth than I'd ever hoped or, in truth, probably wanted, she learned (as I had) about packing and the importance of newspaper padding, and one hot late summer's day she learned about the importance of co-opting upperclassmen to help carry boxes into a new dorm room.

She sent me pictures occasionally, in those first few months; she was rarely in them, which was nothing new. She had always sent me pictures of places and things – a lamp in a garage sale, a cedar box she'd found in the attic and was using to store jewelry, a glass witch ball in the flowerbed two houses down – and the implication was always the same. While she was not in the pictures, if I visited those spots and lingered by the fence of the garden, for example, or tracked down the lamp or snuck into her room and ran my fingertips over the box, I would feel that clarity, that irrefutable sense that she had been there. They were, in a way, pictures of her, without requiring her physical presence in front of the lens. It was somehow more intimate than all the unflattering, badly-angled, self-taken photos of herself could have been.

After she moved to New York, though, all the pictures were of the city – a street lamp covered in stickers, a ghost bike chained to a tree and surrounded by white carnations and votive candles, the blur of an approaching train rounding the last curve to burst into sight, all headlights and horn and the screech of wheels on metal. She loved to get up early and walk downtown to Lincoln Center, never mind that it was several miles. She loved drinking cart coffee, too bitter or too sweet. She loved feeding pigeons until they mobbed her, like something out of a Hitchcock movie. She loved walking the streets and riding the subways and waiting at bus stops and watching the sun come up from her perch on a rock in Central Park; she loved to watch the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline from the abandoned piers in Brooklyn; she loved the city, every glassy skyscraper and soot-stained burned-out Harlem walk-up of it, and I loved her, and yet none of us thought to make the connections from the photographs she sent before to the photographs she sent after. We all depended upon her changing, when we should have known how much she had always known herself. After all, this was a girl – a woman, by the time she disappeared – who thrived on becoming things not herself, on becoming other, on being mutable and yet returning to the same way of being, the same person, every single time. Nobody could do that without absolute knowledge of themselves, I realized later. Nobody else could have survived like that. Nobody else could have done what she did, of course – my sister, paradox, paradigm, and paragon.

She came to see me one last time, before she vanished – I was unlocking the door to the building where I lived, three bags of groceries hanging off my wrist, and I turned to shove the door with my shoulder and there she was, almost exactly the same as the day I'd last seen her, a year and a half before when we'd all last been able to make it home for Christmas.

I came to say thank you, she said.

You could come in for coffee, I said, still reeling a little; in that year and a half I'd cut my hair, changed the style of glasses I wore, bought a black leather jacket. I, in my naiveté, mistook that for a transformation, and misinterpreted the static aspects of her appearance as stagnation. How are you? Is something wrong?

Nothing's wrong, she said, and reached out her hand to take mine. Looking closer, I could tell that she was luminous, as she had always been after emerging from the bookcase. Not literally, of course, as that was not the nature of her gift. She was merely present in every single way – she had not tucked a little of herself away in the streetlamp on the corner, for example, as she had been wont to do before staying up all night to write papers in high school, so that she would have a little of herself left over in the morning to help her through the day. She had not invested a little of herself in the subway rattling beneath our feet, which occasionally rattled the glasses in my cabinet. She had not given some of herself to the car shrieking a desperate alarm a block over, or the fire hydrant halfway down the block, or the bricks or the sidewalk or the door. She was wholly there, wholly real and solid and whole, and I could not remember the last time I had seen her like that. I see now that she wanted to say goodbye as herself, of course; she wanted to make a clean break, without reservation, which I respected then by recognizing the momentousness of her being, and which strikes me silent now.

I took her hand and felt the familiar cool flow of ozone, the tickle of tiny lightnings.

Nothing's wrong, she said again. I just wanted to say hello.

Hello, then, I said. Are you sure I can't get you anything? Sure you don't want to come in and sit down?

No, she said, considering, tilting her head a little. I don't think so. Thank you, though.

No rush, I said. You know where I live. I'll be here whenever you need me.

That was the cue she had been waiting for, of course.

I do, she said, and so will I. She paused, considering; I slid the bags from my wrist to the stoop, and she seemed to come to a decision. Godspeed, she said. I'll see you around.

See you, I said, immensely amused by the gravitas of it all.

She let go of my hand and, abruptly, smiled in a way she hadn't since Black Books in front of the sofa, joyous and honest. It knocked the breath out of me, and I turned away to push at the door with my hip, cursing how it stuck in the humidity. It thudded open eventually, and I turned to pick up my bags and wave, and by then, of course, she was gone.
I felt it later that night, as I sat writing an essay that I didn't think I would finish before the sun rose; the city seemed electrified, in a way I hadn't felt for three years, and had felt again only a few hours ago, and I knew, of course. I had never tried to find her while she'd been elsewhere, while she'd been other, but I had always felt the echoes of it, the background radiation of her concealment. It was like comparing a shock of static electricity to a lightning strike. I felt it then, when the lights flickered for a moment; it was blue, clear, sizzling blue, and felt like a direct current down my spine. The air washed out clean for a moment, like taking one's first breath after a cataclysm of a thunderstorm, and I gasped with the force of it, the familiarity, the irreducible element of her, her smile, her laughter, her happiness.

And then the moment was past, and the lights came back to their normal level, and the sensation was gone, and yet it still echoed around the room. I pushed back my chair and went out and stood on my stoop, and there were echoes there as well. They were in the subway station, when I walked down the stairs, still in pyjamas and barefoot. They were in the park three blocks down from the subway, and in the coffee I bought from a straggling street cart, like an extra shot of espresso without the bitter aftertaste. She, and the city, were in all of them, in neon lights and electric blue, inescapable and all-consuming.

I drove the three hours back to my parents that night, carrying a half-finished cup of cart coffee, a newspaper I picked up from the subway station, a twig broken from the oak sapling in the park, and presented them like offerings. My father took one sip of the coffee and set it down and put his face in his hands; my mother picked up the twig in confusion, and I watched her realize as well, and I wondered if I would ever be forgiven, by them, by her.

Just one couldn't hurt, she said shakily to my father, and dug through her purse for the unfinished pack of cigarettes she had kept as a reminder, and went out to stand on the porch.

We drove back into the city together that morning, arriving before the dawn, all unkempt and exhausted and resigned, and stood on my stoop together, my father's arms about my and my mother's shoulders, my mother holding my hand behind his back, and she was there, they were there, in the flicker of the stop lights, in the broken glass glittering on the sidewalk, in the angry blare of a car horn and the rumble of the subway. My father began to smile, at first, and then my mother, and then I did, and we stood there, together, in –

– the sunlight, breaking over the river, catching on the planes taking off at a low angle and glimmering off the helicopters; the early morning quiet, which resolved itself into lights coming on and the city waking in endless coffeemakers and frying pans and the clatter of cutlery; the sound of feet on the pavement, bare feet and stiletto heels and sneakers and boots and sandals; the hum of the streets, made up of a hundred thousand cars purring to life like wary wildcats, made up of the clatter of a hundred hundred street carts, and the tick-tick of a hundred bicycles, and the pneumatic hiss of buses and the growl of motorcycles and the whir of little scooters; the ringing of alarms, from cell phone klaxons to old-fashioned alarm bells to electronic beeping to a cat standing on someone's face, a dog pulling the covers off a bed, a six-year-old escaping their cot to urge their parents into wakefulness; too many languages to count, with too many tones and too many alphabets for one person to learn in a lifetime; the increasingly frequent rumble of the commuter trains, like a contented purr, like the movement of continents, like something infinitely certain and confident and bursting with potential, with ozone and a freshness to the air –

– like the hundred infinities of stories my sister had so loved, like the infinite worlds into which she longed to escape but would never have the time to, contained in a city, a microcosm, a universe all its own, that could give her both the stories and the time to hear them all, to know them. I began to laugh, there in the city sunlight, paper still unfinished, still standing in my pyjamas, and though I have never been given to fancy, I thought I could hear her laughing in the only way a city can, electricity crackling down my spine and along my shoulder blades like wings, like the catharsis of a lightning strike, like absolution.

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