Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Short Fiction: Sisters, sisters. . .

(Author's Note: believe it or not, this whole story poured out in one blurt this morning. I have no idea how long it is, but it looks kind of like a novella. Did any of this really happen? I'm not sure where anyone would get that idea. But only one person knows for sure.)

My name is Myra, and for a very long time I felt “mired”. Rocking out of the mud ruts of my past has been a long and very gruelling process, and sometimes I’ve come to the point where I didn’t think I could bear to go on.

But I went on.

I have found my authentic life, but had to walk through the hellfire of being silenced, talked out of my truth. It happens all too often. Then others wonder, why does that person drink? Why is that person depressed? – when they should more properly be wondering, Why is that person alive at all?

There is a towering figure in my life, awful as some grinning totem. At this point, I don’t know whether she is alive or dead, so she remains crouched in the shadows. When I was born, I think she was a giant about seven feet tall. I was surrounded by giants. Later I would see them differently, and eventually even grow taller than she was. Photographic records show her as looking very pleased about my birth, even excited.

Of course I didn’t know much about her then. I was too busy being a kid. I see pictures of a little girl in grubby boys’ clothing, passed down twice through two rough boyhoods. When I outgrew my shorts and pants, my mother took a pair of scissors and cut the elastic in several places so they would still fasten. Length was not a consideration.

This not only didn’t bother me, I didn’t even think about it, it didn’t register at all until I had grandkids and saw the way the girls were dressed, sparkly little butterfly tops, slim-fitting jeans with stitched hearts and sequins, leggings with candy-cane stripes, their hair pulled sweetly up in a way that makes their lovely faces nothing short of stunning. And sparkly little ballet shoes, and runners with little lights in them so they blink like fireflies when they run.

I guess it didn’t occur to me. You can’t miss what you never had.

I do remember my older brother Garth who was insane, so we got along well, but he was still five years older, still one of the giants. I had a normal brother Harold who was ten years older. My mother seemed to favour him, while being somewhat oblivious of me. When a sibling is that many years older than you are, they are practically an adult. And if my big, big sister held me and played with me for a while, then dumped me like some sort of animated rag doll, who could blame her? She was thirteen, and not my keeper.

When I was born, a sign that said “OUTSIDER” was plastered on my forehead, and you know something? – here, let me check – I think it’s still there, though with one or two brave strips peeled off. I was a smart kid who was given a battery of tests in Grade 2, then put on an educational fast-track that lasted until high school.

It seems to me that as soon as she could, my sister got as far away from us as possible, literally travelling to the other side of the world. She studied German and wrote her Master’s thesis about Mahagonny, a caustic work of social criticism by Brecht and Weill. When I’d come home from school, from my special classes for smart kids, Mahagonny would be on the stereo, dissonant, dysphoric, bizarre. If I brought a friend home from school, they’d say, “What’s THAT?”

There were German books in the den, Goethe, Schiller. Books by Freud. I tried to make sense of these and couldn’t. But I should backtrack here and mention her brief career as a singer. She did seriously train, had a good instrument, as they say, but something happened. I do remember as a small child seeing her play the lead in a university production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, and being so thrilled and proud of her that I wanted to see it all over again.

And I remember the vocalizing, swooping up by thirds, then coming down like stairsteps. I remember some of the songs she sang, Go ‘Way from my Window being a favourite. (Later in the ‘60s, during the folk craze, she sang such pleasant ditties as Amanda of the Lake, about a crazy old woman wandering around in a yellow wedding gown 50 years after the Civil War ended, Poor Old Horse which was about a cart horse that dropped dead and was eaten by crows, and Gordon Lightfoot’s sour and sardonic That’s What you Get for Loving Me.) Oh, and Down by the Greenwood Side-ee-oh (“She wiped the blade against her shoe/The more she wiped the redder it grew” – this after the mother murdered her two children for no apparent reason).

She played the guitar in the same primitive way I did, plucking awkwardly at the same three chords, but with a difference: she held the guitar between her spread knees like a cello, the neck of it sticking out at a 45-degree angle. I’ve never seen anyone hold a guitar like that before or since. For some weird reason, she named it "The Girl".

The singing career didn't happen, then she went to Europe for mysterious reasons that were never explained, though she must have been studying, talking in German, a mystery to me since no one in our family has the remotest connection to Germany or German culture. The homecoming was not good, for reasons I don't feel I should recount. For many years she lived in a tiny apartment, really just one room in an old house on Roxborough Street in Toronto, a tony area with a shabby underside.

At this point, my story gets interesting. It thickens, it even coagulates. When I review the facts of it, I sometimes feel a sense of disbelief, except that I know it all happened.

I didn’t have a good adolescence, by anyone’s reckoning. I was hypersensitive and depressed and didn’t think I was attractive. I had a few friends, but not many, and no doubt I was hard to be with.

Meantime, everyone in my sister’s crowd was vastly older than me. Mid-‘20s, even 30s. She gave parties. Oh, it wasn’t the first time I’d tasted alcohol: after completing a long and gruelling walk for Oxfam at age thirteen, I was crying with exhaustion in my bedroom when my father appeared in the doorway with a glassful of something. It was dark and muddy. “Drink this, you’ll feel better,” he said. It was orange juice with a couple ounces of hooch in it. I gagged it down, and felt so much better.

This hooch cure came up more than once. One time, summering at the cottage in glorious Lost Lake Resort in Muskoka, something upset me, don’t remember what, and I ran crying to my room and slammed the door. My sister came in with a glass of hooch and said, “Drink this, it will relax your insides.” I think I was fourteen years old.

By fifteen, there were those parties, with friends of my much-older brother Harold as well as my sister. My crazy brother Garth sometimes attended, and entertained everyone with his surreal monologues full of characters that predated the jazzlike riffs of Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.

People floated in and out of these parties. Some of them were married men. It was a kind of sport to get me drunk, though no doubt today they would claim that I wanted to get drunk, that it was my responsibility at fifteen how much alcohol I should drink. All I can say is, I drank a lot, as much as any of the adults, and woke up with horrendous hangovers that sometimes made me puke and sob with wretchedness and guilt.

But there were other things. My sister’s boy friend had a friend that for some reason liked me, but he was creepy. He was also in his early 30s, and married. I knew all this. One night he “borrowed” me and took me to see MASH, which he had seen 15 times or something (he used to be in the military and still owned guns, like my sister’s boy friend). At the end of the evening we made out, and it was tremendously arousing, but I felt terrible guilt. I finally went to my sister to tell her, and she said, “Oh, it doesn’t hurt to have a smooch and a snuggle after a date.”

A smooch and a snuggle. A few days later this same guy sent me two dozen roses, I mean right to my house with my parents watching, which were placed on the dining room table. No one asked where they had come from. It was as if they were invisible. The card on them said, “Thanks for a lovely evening.”

But the thing is, the thing is, the same thing happened with Harold's best friend, his married best friend, while his wife was asleep upstairs. No one found out. He hit on me, as they say. He didn’t fuck me, but it was definitely sexual, not something you’d do to your sister. Nothing his wife could ever watch.

For years I felt I should have been grateful for all this attention. My parents knew exactly what was going on at those parties, including the drinking, but felt my older siblings were taking good care of me. Besides, drinking was fun, wasn’t it? No harm done.

Stuff happened much later that I can’t even get into, but the gist of it is, the general feeling in my family seems to be that my memories of it are somehow distorted and wrong, even fabricated. No one laid a hand on me, and no one could know it better than my sister! My Dad who gave me hooch when I was thirteen and kept my wine glass filled at fifteen and crossed every boundary I ever had: but then, by that time my sister was so far away from the whole scene that she had no idea what was really going on.

So she kind of made something up that she could live with. SHE never saw that kind of behaviour from my Dad, no not ever. I was to learn much later that alcoholism is a progressive disease, as is mental illness. It’s quite possible he wasn’t like that when she grew up in the early 1940s - incredibly, it seems now, during World War II. Thirteen years is a very long time, and a lot can happen. But by this time her distance from the family was less geographical and more existential, meaning she created her own particular legend and stuck to it.

She said a very odd thing to me once: “The most successful person I know is my mother.” My Mum was a housewife who helped my Dad in his grocery store, not out of choice but because it was simply expected of her. She seemed to have some pretty warm feelings towards my sister and once told me she was the only baby of hers that she breast-fed.

Being one of those embarrassing midlife accidents, I sort of had a blank for a mother. But I can hear the protests now: oh no, it wasn’t like that at all! I wasn’t there, I guess, and she was. My sister never experienced the oblivion of her indifference. Which is, after all, the opposite of love.

Yes, there were at least two realities competing with each other, and guess what: the older horse (poor old horse?) always wins because, being older, she knows much, much more than you do. So even if she wasn’t there, even if she was in fact on the other side of the world, she knew exactly what was happening, and not happening.

Still, there were cracks, later hastily filled in. “I don't like to be around him. I find him sort of oppressive,” she once said of my Dad, and in a letter much later on referred to “his alcoholism” (which conveniently disappeared many years later when I tried to tell her what had happened to me).

I have to confess that once I made a rather pathetic, failed attempt to impress her. While I was living in Alberta, I was in community theatre and played the lead in My Fair Lady, one of the biggest thrills and challenges of my life. And my sister was coming from Toronto to see me perform. It was going to be Iolanthe in reverse: surely she would be proud of me now! I had waited for this for so long.

So imagine what she said when my husband took her backstage. Said in that gelled, coolly indifferent voice with that poisonous little eyebrow of a lilt in it:

“Well, you weren’t boring.”

“Weren’t boring.” And that’s all. That’s all.

This could be War and Peace, and it is starting to resemble it. Anyway, getting off alcohol was bloody hard, and my siblings were kind of embarrassed for me to hear that I actually had a “problem”. My Dad wrote to me, “I guess I was lucky that it never happened to me.” I remember receiving a manifesto from my sister, eight single-spaced typewritten pages like the kind of records they kept in the Third Reich, refuting every single thing that I had told her about my childhood, point by bloody point. She originally had planned to show up on my doorstep, I guess to literally strongarm me into her version of reality.

The thing is, when your whole childhood is basically discounted to be replaced by someone else’s far-more-wholesome-and-palatable version, it leaves you with a sense of nothingness. Unfortunately, at about this time there was a very fashionable horror called False Memory Syndrome being blasted all over the pages of magazines and newspapers and on TV. It was simple physics: the equal and opposite reaction to the “action” of sexual abuse memories erupting from survivors’ minds. Things got into a terrible muddle, people began to claim they had been molested by giraffes, and no doubt some people were coerced by therapists (I wasn’t) and made distorted claims to get custody of kids (which they still do).

Some people took this to mean sexual abuse either didn’t exist, or had been blown so far out of proportion that it was nearly unheard-of, the one in 10,000 that was the accepted statistic for incest since records were kept. This dilemma was never really resolved, but just dropped out of sight and went underground again. The public was tired of it, apparently, or it had just gotten too contentious and uncomfortable. (Meaning “legal”). The remnants of it pop up today on reality shows: people who abuse drugs or stuff themselves with food or live in squalid mountains of garbage almost all say they were sexually abused by someone in their childhood.

That is, if we want to believe such histrionic distortions.

It amazed me to learn from a psychologist many years later that, even apart from anything my Dad either did or did not do, there had been sexual trauma in my adolescence, very serious trauma. I told her about going to MASH (and by the way, my “date” committed suicide a few years later with one of his guns), and about my brother’s friend with his wife upstairs, as if I were sharing some pleasant adventures of adolescence, when she stopped me in my tracks by saying, “They abused you.”

“Oh no. It wasn’t like that.”

”How old were they? Twice your age? And married? And drunk on top of that, and – worse – getting you drunk. It’s no contest. They held all the power. It’s a miracle you didn’t get pregnant.”

I sat stunned.

“Not only that. Why wasn’t anyone protecting you? They were so much older than you, and they were your siblings! It was their responsibility to keep you safe.”


Oh dear. Safe? What is that supposed to mean? That people a decade or more older than you should somehow feel a sense of responsibility towards you? But that’s just the thing, the twisted, sick, distorted thing. They DID think they were being responsible, even showing me a good time. Everyone, especially my sister, seemed to think all this making out with drunken married men was good for me, that she was sharing her bounty, her popularity, especially her sexual popularity, with this miserable depressed girl who wasn’t welcome anywhere else. It was generosity on her part to include me in all those wonderful things, all that fun. Not one of them thought that keeping my drinks topped up all night was a bad thing, even when I was ripped out of my skull and puking my guts out. I think they found it entertaining: I was a sort of mascot. My sister used to “imitate” me saying (though I never said this, not once, and never lisped): “I’m tho pitthed I can’t even thee thtraight.”

I guess I’m sounding like a victim, eh? Maybe in some ways I do feel like one, but I had to step away, way away, to really take my life back. Try: the other side of the country. When I told my sister I was moving to Vancouver and wondered what would happen if I couldn’t adjust, she shrugged her little shoulders and said in her best indifferent, coolly lilting tone, “Oh, I guess you’ll just self-destruct.”

There were several things she liked to say to me. She said them often, and either denied she said them or insisted they were compliments. (Obviously by this time I was making a few sad attempts to dig myself out from under the avalanche of wet cement that passed for her sisterly influence.)

“Myra, you’re weird.”

“Myra, you’re crazy.”

(and): “God, I’m sure glad I’m on your side, Myra, because if I wasn’t. . . “

She went through a period of rampant promiscuity, empty sex with a lot of married men. Married was better, fewer messy attachments. At one point she had a lover about fifteen years younger than she was and bragged to my sister-in-law about how sore she was all the time, because he had such a . . . The two of them mailed me a joint when I was living in New Brunswick, which I smoked alone, listening to the original cast version of A Chorus Line and blubbering.

I remember one scene – God, where is this all coming from? – I was standing in the kitchen with a drink in my hand, heading into the darkened living room, where her boy friend was sitting by himself on the sofa (with a drink in his hand). She turned around, her eyes incandescent with fury, and snarled, “So, what do you think you’re going to do? Are you going to go in there and sit down beside Jack and flirt with him and romance him?”

I was learning the bizarre dynamics of a family system as twisted as a defective strand of DNA: Jack could “romance” me, but I could not “romance” him, was not even allowed to think about it.

Then she did one of her famous 180s. Suddenly she didn’t need sex at all, and anyone who did was subject to her famous contempt. (She was also contemptuous of people who drove cars, because she had never learned how.) By this time she was Queen of the Sardonic Jibe: she had honed a certain technique of toxic sting to the point of sheer genius. Disdain mixed with contempt. She lashed out like a cobra, stung viciously, then turned it around on you and insisted that YOU were the one who was being cruel.

My God, this is like an archaeological dig of pain! One time I made another fatal mistake in trying to reach her and really be her sister: I went to visit her in Toronto, and by this time she was living in a high rise and doing some sort of work that involved computers. When she got home, she started in on me, saying “boy, are you ever wired!” because I was excited about something, and this time I called her on it. I don’t know what I said, but it was pretty mild compared to her “weird” and “insane” comments.

She ran into her bedroom, slammed the door like she used to do when she was in high school, flung herself on the bed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

I was really afraid the cops would come and she’d say I assaulted her or something. I was afraid, and when she finally came out I placated her and apologized profusely for – what?

It occurs to me now that no matter what I had said to her, if I had told her to fuck off and die (which perhaps I should have), it did not justify the massive temper tantrum she had just thrown in order to make me feel really bad. I did not allow my children to act like that when they were toddlers. It was inexcusable and completely insane. I had never done anything like that in front of her, ever. After that I had to be careful, careful. Look what I did to her – look what I made her do!

Just how awful and heartless can a human being be?  

There were layers of pain building up, layers she insisted either didn’t exist or had nothing to do with her, because I was, after all, “crazy”. My attempts to make her understand anything of what I was going through were doomed from the start, but I kept on trying. She never married, see, and there are certain other details I won’t reveal here. I do remember one of the rare times I went to my mother claiming she had said something vindictive and horrible to me, and she said, “Oh, she’s just talking about herself.” (My mother had an older sister too, a sometimes-vibrant alcoholic who later committed suicide. Though the family said “she just lost track of how many pills she took”. It takes a couple hundred pills to die, which is kind of a lot to lose track of: but I digress.)

My sister not only does not acknowledge the elephant in the living room: she IS the elephant in the living room. The tomb has been sealed, and as far as I am concerned, she is in it. I have made a life for myself with husband and children, and she didn’t, or couldn’t, because she never found the courage to try. I find I can’t spare much mercy for her. People say “you should forgive her”, because the intensity of my feelings makes them uncomfortable. They really don’t want to hear about it. If I forgave her, perhaps I would shut up.

I suppose I shouldn’t make any of this public or even write it down, because someone might actually read it and it will make THEM uncomfortable, or perhaps they will recognize themselves. I wonder what happened to the drunken gang at my sister’s house, apart from the man who shot himself. The other guy, the guy whose wife was sleeping upstairs, was getting divorced last time I saw him, and very deep into alcoholism. I don’t drink, not at all, because I see that it isn’t good for me. I do the best I can, sometimes better, sometimes worse. There was a tiny bit of communication with my brother Harold a few years ago, just a couple of emails, and I had the thought that my sister might be trying to find out how I was, mainly to confirm her suspicion that I was either hopelessly insane, or dead.

But I didn’t die, see. Myra is no longer mired. People call me My now, which is sort of nice. My meaning “mine”. My house, My grandchildren, My world. I am a published author now, two novels, a dream come true. And even though part of me still has fantasies of throwing her over the edge of the balcony in her mingy little apartment, I realize now she isn’t worth it. You see, you can outlive your enemies just by taking a closer look at them, and thus diminishing them into the very small people that they always were.

My, my.