Winner of the 2018 AWP Intro Award
Early spring. A man with a big belly tells my sister there is a good chance the lump inside her left breast is cancerous. He is a specialist, she is only a baby nurse. This is what she says on the phone: I only know about the babies and I am not a baby.
I wonder if she can’t help the belly detail—that most everyone around her is pregnant or just made recently less pregnant and more mother, and she can’t unsee it. Hospitals have this effect. Placing people in two categories: cancer-free or not. Pregnant or not.
Twin or not.
We are twenty-five, and I am nowhere near her. Five states away, a fourteen-hour drive. A plane ticket I can’t afford. In the middle of a semester, a broken heart—my second, though I am starting to think it is worse than the first. It is not going away and I hear her voice in this—what if it doesn’t go away? she asks, and I am forced to think of her chest instead of my own. There is relief in this and then not. And then not.
Out the window, the sun feels too bright. I have to go to work, my sister says. But I’ll let you know more when I know more. She hangs up, the phone feels like a paperweight in my hand.
I go back to my desk, try to write. But I can’t with the sun the way it is, the phone still in my hand, so I stare straight ahead at the post-it note I glued to my wall the night I knew it was over between us. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it.
I want to read Maggie Nelson differently now, with my sister in view. With the man out the window, off the coast, a different planet, but part of me keeps confusing the two.
My sister is younger by four minutes, and I think often how those four minutes have defined us. I have always felt older. She has always been taller, flatter. I could go on, all the ways we have come to be separated by words ending in -er, signifying some kind of distance no matter how small, but the lump wins out. I can’t grow one. I can’t take it away or be the brave one. I am used to being the brave one.
In April, she gets more details. It is benign and the specialist isn’t that special. Dummy, our father says. Still, surgery is required. But not to worry, it will be quick like a cat-nap, a kiss out of habit. I imagine the incision will be in the shape of a C: a spoon sliced into a cup of smooth custard, but for her it is skin. Smooth skin. Paler, more prone to sunburn and freckles than my own. She will hardly notice it, they say.
All I can think is C like canine or cantaloupe. I picture her putting a whole piece of fruit in her mouth with the exposed tough rind, her sharp white teeth buried in the juice. I drink a cup of coffee at work and wonder how this will stain, touch my lips. Later, I make lopsided jokes that aren’t funny. I consider starting the show with Laura Linney about real cancer but am without a Showtime subscription. I watch a lot of New Girl on Netflix instead, wonder if I am trying to mend my own heart or hers.
Evenings are the same. I don’t sleep—my mind hovers, dips, nose-dives. It’s not a thing I do much of anymore, even before the maybe-cancer. Time feels wider, looser at night, like a deep pocket in a man’s jeans I used to know well, but something has changed, my hand is so small and the pocket so big, I don’t fit the way I used to and am digging, reaching, treading for car keys because all I want is to go home, I just want to go home, yet all I can find in there is a tiny piece of gum and there is nothing left for me to do but chew and chew and chew. The man doesn’t try to help me. This is what sleep feels like.
As I chew, I think about the letter C more than the average woman-girl in grad school might. The Big C, that’s the show with Laura Linney. But I am more preoccupied with C like complications could occur. That they could lose the nipple. Like her children might not be able to be breastfed if something to do with milk production gets lobbed off, snipped by mistake. I think about the words flap and sag and scar. I imagine what these words will look like on her. If I will be able to notice through her bra. If she will even need a bra. Then I feel guilty, god how great would it be to not need a bra. No, that is not right. It is not me.
Her phone calls the week leading up to the surgery are full of jokes and weird silences. Lucky me, I’ve already got myself a boyfriend, she quips. Hey, good news: I’ve always been flat as a slice of pizza. Her smile sounds scared over the phone, in the places I am supposed to laugh louder. I tell her about the songs I’ve been listening to, the playlist I make her on Spotify. I don’t tell her how I wanted to title it Elegant Badass Is My Favorite Kind of Bedside Manner—something like that, but was afraid of what is never supposed to be funny. I want to make her think herself strong even when she will wake up feeling weaker than maybe she ever has, with me not there, but her boyfriend instead holding her hand, the man she will marry. But her boyfriend instead. How that sentence sticks in my throat even now, and I don’t know why.
Our parents’ refrigerator is covered in photographs of our naked chests. We are four and smiling on the beach with our shirts out of frame, off somewhere in the dirty sand.
Cheese, cheese. Say cheese, girls! Again, that C. But for now it is soft and we don’t know about any of what is to come, so we hop on Dad’s back, shoulders, chest. We laugh and dig in the sand and are scared of the ocean. Both of us have this fear. The cold. It’s so cold. Just a little chilly, our mother says. You can do it, she smiles, and we believe her, so we do and it’s amazing. Our faces both say this: It is really really amazing.
The next picture is us on the stairs of our old home in Baltimore I don’t remember except through pictures. The kitchen looks like our mother: rustic, lots of yellows and reds, warm. The basement is blue and dark, for movies and our father’s cassette tapes—the ones he listens to alone and at night, his brother’s clear voice filling up all that blue.
But on the stairs we are linked elbows and bare-chests and blunt bangs. She is blonder and so this is how it starts. I am smiling bigger. Her mouth is open as if waiting for my permission to speak. I sometimes wonder if she has always been waiting. I am older, but her mouth already has the whisper of the kind of patience I’ll never have. I see it starting right there in her small pink lips, the curl keeping her words inside.
I see it making its way from womb to not womb all over the fridge: in haircuts, freckles, sunburns, piercings, wisdom teeth, prom dates.
We are the same and then we are not. And then we are not. And then we are not.
We are twenty-five and talking about adoption again. This is before the good-chance cancer has been deemed not cancer at all, just a lump. I think of it as a little sugar lump, maybe it will be sweeter for her boyfriend always, and she says Jesus Christ, why do you say things like that?
Back to adoption. She has wanted to do it ever since we saw Slumdog Millionaire when we were seventeen and taking health ed. We watched the birth video, and said no thank you. We watched the movie with Dev Patel, and she said that’s it. I want a little Indian baby. We didn’t think about cultural appropriation or how might that seem a little racist? White girl wants cute Indian baby to avoid vaginal destruction?
We talk on the phone about Indian babies and how they are still her favorite at the hospital she works at in Chicago. Is that bad? she asks. I still can’t tell, she says.
If she has cancer, can’t she afford to be pro-Indian baby? is what I think, but instead say yeah, I think it’s okay.
I ask her if her boyfriend knows about her big grand adoption dreams. She tells me they have yet to discuss it seriously, and if I were keeping score, I’d mark a point for myself. But that’s not exactly true—I am keeping score. I don’t know when it became a competition, I only know this is what is it and I am hell-bent on winning. If he gets her body, I want her heart. Later, I ask my mother if I’m being a little bit crazy.
We are fifteen, boyfriend-less. Sixteen, same deal. Through high school we do not speak of this directly. We circle. We have crushes, the kind that help us get to school on slow gray mornings. But we are always each other’s ride home—our Toyota Corolla loaded with soccer cleats and so many mixed CDs memorized by heart. I tell her to put the magenta CD in, turn to track four, and we both know our favorite Bright Eyes’ song will start to play. If you walk away I walk away. First tell me which road you will take. At our lockers, side-by-side, we report to each other what our crush is wearing, if he laughs at our bad jokes, etc. We analyze the way he lets the teacher know he is present: here or yes or sup. These details feel important. A key into his soul sort of important.
When we are seventeen we try on dresses to go to a dance that neither of us truly wants to attend. But we have to go and we have to be normal and we can’t go with each other so we go with boys we feel too much for or not enough—yet we still need to wear something. We still want to look good, maybe even better than the other. I choose blue, she chooses green. I want to try her dress on when we get home, just to see what it looks like. It is strapless and tight and I nearly break the bust trying to zip my breasts into it. Jesus, how thin are you, I ask. Thinner than you, she says. But at this price, she says, shimmying her torso, her clavicle raw and bright like a bone I could throw.
Lucky duck, I think I say. Something about how she is the lucky one. As if there can only be one and it is her. She is younger. I am fuller. We are smiling in our prom pictures, but we both wish we could just go home and watch movies together, alone, without anyone else. A big bowl of popcorn sandwiched between us like a puppy.
After surgery, I am obsessed with her scar because she won’t let me see it. I want to examine it in the flesh with my naked eye on her very naked chest. The boyfriend gets to see it, which I hate.
I end up writing about breast cancer, but I don’t email her the short story. I change all the details: it is about dying and a mother and the only thing she would be able to find of herself in it is the Chicago Cubs fan boyfriend who doesn’t understand a thing about it but loves the protagonist, hopelessly, to such a degree that he won’t ever leave, not even when she is being awful, not even when she laughs at him when he mistakenly believes her pregnant and his face cracks open with joy and she closes the bathroom door in his face and flushes the toilet repeatedly so he can’t hear her cry.
My sister would think it was about her, and how would I explain that it’s not her or me but maybe it’s part-us.
And how could it be part-us.
We are eleven months old when my father’s twin brother dies of AIDS. They are thirty-two. We don’t go to the funeral. This is the part of us that feels close to the center. It’s a sad story that seems to sneak into every story I tell about my sister. I cannot get away from it. How our father’s bone marrow failed to save him. How that word “save” never feels right but there it is. I use it all the time, am envious my sister saves week-old lives routinely, as I am taking food-orders, writing words.
Our mother’s mother stays behind, plays with us the day our father buries his brother. She tucks us in, then waits in the kitchen for the adults to come home. We don’t remember any of it, but our grandmother tells us when we are older that the first thing her husband, our grandfather, says when he walks in the door and sees her sitting at the kitchen table not eating, is that it was the saddest thing he ever heard in his life. Our dad’s voice splitting like that.
We know this is the truest thing and the scariest. To be left behind by the other. The split.
I think this is why I kind of hate the boyfriend. He is making her leave me behind. And I know it isn’t hate at all, not really. It has to be something else. I ask my mother what could it be, and she asks me how much sleep I’ve been getting these days? Honey, she says. You need your sleep.
But all I really want is a hint and all I have to go off of is her voice.
It feels like a very long time since someone has touched me.
My sister is in recovery far away when I see a book advertised by my local bookstore on Instagram. I drive there immediately, it’s almost 8 p.m., nearly closing. The girl at the checkout tells me I’m lucky, that they just put this one up on the shelf and I don’t tell her I already know this because I saw it on my phone fifteen minutes ago. I toss her my money, no thank you I don’t need a bag. The book is called The Where, the Why and the How so it must have answers. On the cover the description reads: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science. I flip through the table of contents, reading questions. Why do whales beach themselves? Why do we sleep? How are stars born and how do they die? Do trees talk to each other?
I get in my car and thumb through until I reach the one about stars. The PhD writes “Stars are born in galactic nurseries of cold, dense, dark gas clouds,” and I think it’s a nice touch, the galaxy as nursery. The opposite page shows the artist has latched on similarly—she’s drawn little cribs with newly-born stars sleeping in them. The backdrop is black like a chalkboard and the stars and cribs and mobiles are all etched in white, numbered as figures 1, 2, 3. Figure 8 is titled Nurse Gravity and is a darker black than the rest, like someone blotched that part of the chalkboard clean with hot water. I take a photo with my phone and send it to my sister, text: Star babies.
But she is not answering. Her boyfriend texts me back on her phone a picture of her sleeping. The captions reads: Our sleepy girl. Her hair looks very soft.
Weeks go by and she is back at work, back with the babies. Her breast is still her breast.
I am still obsessed with my new book. Not so much for the answers it provides, but the
questions it doesn’t ask. Can people become separated but remain together always? This question is not in the book, but I try to make it fit in the sections that discuss trees, how they talk to each other. Still this pulls up short and I am left irritated, irrational, selfish: I want the science to push further, become personal to me and my life and how do I talk to my sister now that she spends more time talking to someone who isn’t me, who doesn’t share her eyes, memories—and is that all that’s left? I can’t think of a third thing.
The ecologist in my book writes, “Many forms of tree communication don’t require complicated explanations: When one tree grows faster and higher than its neighbors, it’s telling them to either grow up or grow out.” I think there could be something in this, but the thought is yanked away quickly. We are not neighbors.
I am paging through more whys and hows, listening to her playlist when she sends me a picture of a premature baby. It is after one in the morning, her night shift break. The baby’s eyes are closed, but his mouth is open. She captions it: Presh babi. Precious baby. And I know she is not supposed to do this, but the picture disappears after ten seconds and so it doesn’t feel wrong.
It feels like a sign of some sort, a map to her mind, where she and the boyfriend are headed. And I think of how weird it will be when she has a baby that is my niece. But instead of a new person coming into her life and splitting her from me, I feel a sudden rush. I set aside my book, seem to tune out my love songs.
Aunts keep popping up all over my stories and I think maybe this has something to do with it. I remind myself that I need her boyfriend in order to be her daughter’s aunt. Why daughter, I don’t know. It is just a feeling. What I do know: When I am an aunt she will be a mother, which also means she will be a wife. Twin will be tacked on last, even though it was the first thing. Even before daughter, she was twin. Death doesn’t take that away. Our father knows this.
I want to notch myself another point, but it is starting to feel less like a victory—this counting one for me, one for him, when they all should be for her.
I suddenly want to call my mother, tell her this is the kind of thing that keeps me from sleeping, but she will already be asleep, an hour ahead. Her body warm next to my father’s.
Again, I reach into the man’s pocket, find myself falling behind.
We are twenty-one and drunk and thinking about getting matching tattoos. My only requirement: It has to be something cool. Done, she says. I got it. The song—‘Remember Me as a Time of Day’ by Explosions in the Sky. A song with no lyrics, but one we have internalized so fully every note is a word and we know all of them.
You’re brilliant, I shout, and we both crack up, beer on our chins. Everyone around us has no idea what we are talking about, but it is more fun that way. We joke about getting the same time—9:47—tattooed on the inside of our wrists. Do you remember? she asks, and I do. We used to talk about what time we should get when we were fifteen and since our birthday seemed too obvious we came up with 9:47 based on the numbers on the back of our soccer jerseys. I was 9, she was 4. I used to be 7, when I was younger, which translated to the time of day (in theory) we would think of each other.
I wonder if she remembers how it didn’t use to be a joke. That the whole thing started out as morbid conversation about whenever one of us dies the other has to get a tattoo for her, the dead one, before we really knew what that meant. Somewhere deep down, our father and his brother must be buried in this, I know. But I don’t go any further into it. We shouldn’t ever have to go any further into it.
In the end, we get too sick for the tattoos and the next morning my sister says, I hope you didn’t think I was actually serious. She passes me half of her breakfast bagel and laughs. Her wrists are very tiny. I remind her with a soft shrug that I am afraid of needles anyway.
Winter in the Midwest, snowing. We are newly twenty-six and home for Christmas. Her boyfriend will join us tomorrow once the roads are clear and I will pout about getting kicked out of my old room because his bad back only feels less bad when it’s sleeping on my queen mattress. I will sleep on the trundle bed, below my sister’s body, her light snoring she swears up and down against keeping me awake.
For now, we are sitting on the couch and I am asking her to move the ottoman over. We put our feet on top and I turn on Netflix, find what I’m looking for. A music documentary I’ve seen five times, but she hasn’t yet. I’ve built it up. Said things like: It’s quiet but powerful. It will stay with you.
Okay, weirdo, she says and we settle in.
The Staves, a girl band trio of sisters from Watford, England are about to do a cover of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Chicago’. I fell in love again, all things go, all things go. One of the sisters, the eldest I think, is telling a story to the crowd, something about sleeping in a car all night, and seeing a man staring at her through the trunk window, but then one of the other sisters, the middle sister, interrupts her. I didn’t notice it the first or second time, but have started to zero in on it. The middle sister picks up the eldest’s story and starts explaining the look on her face, the fear in her throat before they realize it’s only their drummer, Bobby or Billy. I watch and glance at my sister, but she doesn’t notice. The sister on screen looks like nothing is wrong or stolen, that it is simply a picking up. Her sister isn’t taking her story or looking to scoop up the laughs from the audience. She is just there too, watching.
Maybe it feels significant to me because I don’t get to watch anymore, touch the way I used to. Since moving away, beginning grad school, I only get her through a screen. FaceTime, Snapchat. Everything else—just words: text messages, voicemail. It is never enough or the same, the way I want her, and I’m about to say something to my sister along this thread, perhaps fill her in on why I keep making little jabs at the boyfriend’s holiday weight-gain, how I can’t stop pointing out that his breasts are bigger than hers, but when I turn to her I can see she is a little bit bored, and her eyes are slowing down. It is the time right before dinner when our father will soon come with his Bloody Mary, switch to the five o’clock news.
It feels like high school, like we are still living in the same house, only a bedroom apart, and no boys are coming over, our parents in the kitchen. Her breathing gets heavier and she looks over at me. I might not make it, she says. I yawn. Me either, I say. Dad’s going to kick us out soon anyway. Her chest is rising and falling and she’s wearing a sports-bra, so her breasts look taped down or not even there. I rest my eyes, our feet touching in the space where the cushions meet, the little gap. Her feet are always warmer than mine.
Colder, still winter. I am in Fort Collins and she is in a black and white bikini in Jamaica with her boyfriend. I am wearing a dirty apron in February, trying not to get yelled at for mixing up blue corn-cakes and corn-cakes with chile rellano, my mistake. New year, new job, but I can’t untwist all the Cs in my mouth. We are twenty-six and she is sending me pictures of white-sand beach, blue clear water. Paradiiiiise, reads the text caption.
Hiding in the restaurant’s bathroom, I am acutely aware of how not the same we are in this moment. In the photo I can’t tell if there is a scar, her breasts look the same as always, except pinker from the sun.
I have made her a playlist titled: Jamaican Me Crazy Because I am Here in Colorado, Enjoy. It doesn’t have anything to do with where she is, so much as where I am. It’s pretty much all The Staves except the first song, the one I can’t stop listening to. Dawn Landes, ‘Honey Bee.’ It is a love song but it doesn’t remind me of a lingering broken heart, the bad feeling in my gut that is somehow still there. My mother tells me I am really good at holding onto things, and I know this is true. I picture my heart as a tentacle and when it finds someone it recognizes it refuses to let go. Yet when Dawn sings the words, this song was made for lovers, I think of the higher us—me and her—and it feels like a lullaby. Sugar, won’t you come by me, she sings. Rock me to my soul, to my soul.
And this is how I reason it: Everyone is allowed to leave, except for her. Love, even the kind I believed so rare and mine, is allowed to go, move away, age, forget, be with someone else. It is never a contract. It is on faith and faith I have found is never so steady as we tell ourselves in the moment. But my sister is the only kind of faith I believe in anymore. I have always had more—minutes, breast tissue, language—but I am only now starting to see that she has someone else and that makes me feel less hers.
A person is not the same as a song, is how I would try to explain it to her if I could—if she asked. Instead I ask her during my ten-minute break how the weather is and she texts back quick: Fantastic, I’m never leaving. The boyfriend sends a follow-up photo a few hours later. My sister in the sun, her white stomach exposed and growing red, her mouth hanging open in sleep. He captions the photo: Our girl.
Her skin looks like it is starting to burn. Mine is covered in oil, kitchen grease, my fingertips sweet with honey, or maybe it’s syrup. I still haven’t showered. We are not in the same time zone. We are not in the same time in our lives.
But she is our girl. Our girl has blue-gray eyes just like our father, like his brother.
Emily Harnden holds an MFA in fiction from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from the Normal School, the Adroit Journal, and CHEAP POP. Originally from small-town Illinois, she currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Photo by Srijan Kundu.