Content warning: mention of sexual assault
There is cigarette smoke and tension and teary goodbyes. I am five years old, sitting on the concrete stoop with my sixteen-year-old sister and my heart has never dealt with this before—this mix of panic and grief. I go inside to hide in my room, trying to hatch a plan. I find a can of hair mousse, smearing it over a piece of what my mother calls “typewriter paper,” performing a strange and ultimately unsuccessful alchemical act. Perhaps my first spell. I still struggle to believe in my own magic. She leaves, my sister, after holding me in her lap for as long as she can.
A year later, I walk through a department store with my dad and brother on the way to the hospital. I pick out a little pink sleeper, covered in clouds. We’re going to meet my first niece. A little pink baby, covered in clouds.
My sister screams in the night and our mom rushes into the living room, worried about the baby. The cat got into the gerbil cage. He sits there like some purring giant, unaware of the damage he is causing. Everything is mostly fine except one of the gerbils develops a limp. Months later, my sister is gone again. Her baby lives with us.
To accept the stories of virgin births within humanity’s mythologies is one thing. But to take the empty womb of a child and be asked to understand its bearer as Mother? That is another, more confounding task.
When I am ten years old, my family lives in two apartments in the same complex. In one dwell my mother, older brother, and myself. In another, just a two-minute walk away, my sister lives with her two daughters. I rarely feel more independent than when I save enough change to walk to the neighborhood laundromat alone to buy canned sweet tea from the vending machine. This is my freedom.
In this apartment complex, I sprain my wrist when flung from the merry-go-round. I skin my knees rollerblading too-fast down a long hill. I dig into the earth and make a muddy home for worms I’ve found severed, dried out, or wandering on concrete. I am a child.
On most weekends and school breaks, I walk the two minutes to my sister’s to stay with the girls while she waits tables. It feels, when I think back on this time, like I am there more than I am home—though this can’t be true. We play, watch hours of Disney Channel, and sometimes order pizza that I pay for with a bag of quarters. On most of these days we also clean—making this into a game as well. Playing house. A necessary chore because I can’t stand to be there, or later leave them, in the conditions I’ve found. Laundry spilling out of baskets; the smell of smoke woven into the fibers whether clean or dirty. Dishes in the sink, piling on the countertop, proffering competition with the trash nearly climbing out of the can. My sister never says thank you to me or her girls for our work. She doesn’t seem to notice.
On a snowy day, my sister works a double shift. That evening she and her new boyfriend arrive back at the apartment together. He makes tacos that I wait for but don’t stay to eat. Instead, I tramp through the snow with a paper towel-wrapped dinner in one hand, dragging my sled behind me with the other. I stop on top of a small hill illuminated by a streetlight. I stand between my sister’s and my mother’s, both shrouded in darkness and I in soft, warm light. I’m heading home, but I’m walking away from it too.
My youngest niece is in the bathtub, her blonde curls stretching into the water. She is a wild, tiny thing with the cutest nose and more hair than body. I dry her off. I dress her in clean clothes. I lovingly brush out her curls and let them dry before fashioning two braids down her back. We walk to their apartment. She is doted on and I am so, so proud. My sister has married the man she’d brought home. He cooks and cleans and, for a while, brings a sense of calm and stability to their lives. We all eat dinner. Maybe everything is going to start looking up from here.
For my 12th birthday, my dad gets me an epileptic Pomeranian. I walk into my sister’s apartment for my party and there she is; eight pounds of fur. His intention extends only as far as wanting to dispense a large amount of joy all at once, perhaps to make up for the everyday joy eaten by his absence. “There’s something you need to know about her,” he says, trying to explain seizures to a kid who’s never seen one.
Excitement becomes quickly subsumed by confusion and heartache. I am now the owner of a dog requiring special care who will have to live with my eccentric uncle because pets aren’t allowed in the apartments. We’ll have visits and that will be all.
Shortly after my birthday, my dog is with me at my sister’s. It’s a rare day in which I am not the babysitter. The girls sit on the floor in front of the TV eating broccoli cheddar soup; it only takes a moment of not watching for my dog to serve herself from one of their bowls. My younger niece looks up, a three-year-old face framed in curls and visibly upset. My heart sinks as I hear my sister tell her to just eat it and she looks to me, with the smallest, almost imperceptible expression of confusion. I take her bowl, dump the tainted soup, give her more.
Years later my mom will say to me, “I don’t know how you were so good with that dog. So calm, like something just took over you and you knew exactly what to do. You were amazing.” But the mystery will be lost on me. I had already spent years taking care of fragile beings who were mine and not mine all at once.
Mine and my sister’s stories are like that of a licorice rope with separate strands impossibly entwined. There are parts of hers’ that simply aren’t mine to tell—but some pieces are indelible.
When Jane, as I’ll call her, was roughly 12, she cleaned her room and waited for our dad to come home so she could show him her handiwork. Instead of praising her, he picked up a piece of fuzz off the floor and wordlessly threw it away. He will, almost miraculously, put upon this moment the entire weight of “what went wrong” for Jane’s entire life. Why did she think she couldn’t get his approval? Why did she, as church folk I grew up with love to say, look for love in all the wrong places? Why did she start running and never stop? It’s the fuzz. The fuzz. The goddamned fuzz.
It’s not the cross-country move when she was 14 or that he dumped our family in a mall parking lot as we made our way, leaving us with our belongings for some time before turning around to collect us. It isn’t his fits of terrifying and unexpected anger—a rage manifesting in freezing silence. It was not, certainly, the sexual assault by high-school boys that our mother will only ever call “date rape”—as if the word “date” somehow softens reality. It wasn’t the words he hissed at my mother when she accused him of not liking our loving but troubled Jane: She looks too much like you. How conveniently the guilty mind forgets yet clings. It was all just the fuzz.
Some of the sweetest, earliest memories of my life are with my sister. Jane didn’t want to transition from homeschool to Catholic school the year I was born—her 11th—because she wanted to help take care of me. She delayed again, afraid she’d miss my first steps. All the home movies where she is beside me, often asking me to repeat after her all the names of the New Kids on the Block. All the pictures proving the hours we played; the times she’d dress me up like a doll. All the days of my being small enough to zip me into her coat and carry me around the mall, giving way to simply holding my hand, and into walking side-by-side for so many seasons sipping “Santa’s White Christmas,” a syrupy decaf dispensed from a coffee shop cooler as we walked beneath wreaths and garlands and lights. I grew and she grew with me. I was her baby and hers would eventually become mine. Separable strands of the same raspberry-colored rope.
From that tear-filled day when she first moved out, Jane floated in and out of my life and those of her children, who would eventually number six. In and out of abusive relationships, drug use, affairs, poverty—all peppered with gleaming moments where things appeared to get better but receded again into a stormy sea. I often wonder what lies at the root of her ability to be a
fiercely loving yet often absent, self-obsessed mother. A cat in a cage. I know this: it is not about the fuzz.
This one summer my sister hardly comes home anymore, though no one knows exactly where she disappears to. Her husband is works doubles and plays the martyr while the kids spend long periods alone. I drive out to their house regularly both to break up their days and to make sure they are fed, adding a meager but meaningful contribution of sandwich supplies to mostly bare cupboards and fridge.
My two oldest nieces move in with my mom and me for another uncountable time. The difference this go-around is that my sister does not accompany them. The oldest is only 13 but “becoming unmanageable”—code for “I can’t deal with my child right now.” The younger had snuck a note to my mom pleading to be removed because, at just 11, she “can’t handle it.” Fighting parents; working-all-the-time parents; parents who, through their self-serving behavior, are asking her to be a fulcrum for a weight far greater than a child’s frame should carry. Without much resistance, they are allowed to move in with us until that elusive time, in an imaginary future, “when things get better.”
My mom works full time, so I have the responsibility of taking them to and from school each day. Two schools—an elementary school and a middle school—about 20 minutes away. Almost every day we listen to a CD of Taylor Swift’s Fearless; their favorite. By the time I’m heading home it’s nearing the end of the album and I must make a choice: listen to “The Best
Day” and allow my welling tears to fall or hit skip and swallow them. It’s a song about a little girl and her dad and all the beautiful, perfect memories they’ve shared. And it’s a knife. Plunged, then twisted. It feels cruel and dishonest. A beautiful pond on a summer day, reflecting a pristine, cerulean sky. But as you approach, you see the scum around the edges. The dark, silty water; a dead fish floating; the truth of it all. You, your brother, your sister, her children—none of you growing up within reach of the idyllic pond. Usually, I end up skipping the song. Now, years later, I skip the whole album.
My younger niece moves home, where she waits with her siblings for my visits accompanied by bread, peanut butter, and jelly. It’s been decided that the older one, with emotional outbursts that no one knows how to contain, will be better off in foster care. If I were older, living on my own with a stable income, with more knowledge of how crudely “the system” functions, I might not let her be driven away—my hand slipping a bracelet through the crack in the car window at the last moment. Something of me to take with her. Two pieces of my heart—from the fire to the frying pan, back into the fire.
Within weeks of my sister’s fifth child being born, he is taken away—thankfully placed in the care of my mother, who has to urgently leave work to pick him up at Social Services. In an unexpected turn of events, it’s my sister’s honesty that costs her. At a WIC appointment, she’d asked about financial help obtaining a breast pump for when her son went to daycare and in this way admitted to breastfeeding.
Years prior, she had tested positive for HIV. Something that makes it hard to understand the patterns of my sister’s life is her brilliance and the moments of clarity that sometimes
accompany it. It is like this switch she flips on according to her whims, leaving all those that love her wondering why she ever flips it back off. When she got the test results, she spent countless hours doing research and became determined that she had received a false positive. In a matter of days, she understood HIV and the way that false positives occur inside and out. She never accepted this diagnosis. She has never been on anti-retroviral medication, never shown any symptoms, and never passed it on to any of her partners or children.
In the hospital, she was told that she was not allowed to breastfeed. She signed something agreeing that she wouldn’t. I believe that in the haze of hospital birth—the comings and goings, medications, slew of papers to be signed—she didn’t realize the severity of what was said to her. And she did not believe she was sick.
I’m still living at home during the months her baby lives with my mom, and I share in caring for him. We’re both working and he goes to daycare most days, though often my sister transports him—always accompanied by someone else.
There is one singular day, though, where I drive him by myself. He must be barely six weeks old. I hate leaving him there when I go with my sister. I know the importance of daycares; I’ve worked in a preschool. This is not enough to quell the anxiety and sadness I feel about leaving him in the care of near-strangers for so much of the day. This little being, with faces only coming into focus roughly 12 inches from his face, sitting in a sanitized bouncy seat in a blurry room.
The day I drop him off alone, I ease him out of his seat and sit holding him in my car, nearly in tears. When I pick him up, I repeat the same ritual. I cradle him in the backseat,
whispering apologies over him that cascade down the crown of his head, still soft with possibility.
So much has happened in this haunted history. That baby is now nine years old and has a younger brother. There have been Social Services calls and forced absences and needles that she’ll swear aren’t hers. There have been trips to get ice cream and visits to the home of my oldest niece, who now feels like a mother too, to see two of my nephews temporarily placed in her care. There was a full hour locked in the bathroom with the same niece at a family Christmas party, where everyone was there but Jane, in which I put my arms around her as she cried. I just miss my mom. Repeating it over and over.
A few years ago, I made the anxiety-riddled choice to move a few hours away. Close enough for weekend visits but far enough that the miles between feel eternal. Having done this feels like having an empty nest, only I am the one who flew.
Kalyn Livernois is an MFA candidate at New England College. She is a prose editor at Cobra Milk and the managing editor of Variant Literature’s journal. Her work has most recently appeared in Dust Poetry Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. You can find her on Twitter @kalynroseanne.