I knew from the moment that Ellie was born that her beauty would eclipse mine. My mother called this foolish thinking, but I wasn’t fool enough to believe her. Ellie with her piercing jade eyes, and her thick burst of red hair made her head look like it was on fire. Sometimes she looked exceptionally old and wise. Like when she was tired, with her face falling back from my mother’s breast, forming a contented smile.
Her beauty didn’t bother me much at the time. She was a baby. My beauty was then modest at best, mousy hair, warm eyes, thick cheeks. My breasts had recently grown into small melons. Though my geniality and care set my mother at ease, Ellie’s arrival was a much needed distraction and a relief. She had arrived so soon after our father’s death. It was as if he had bequeathed her from the grave: my mother had learned she was pregnant a week after he’d died.
When I think back those days are cloaked in gray, an incessant fog permeating the house. I don’t know if it was really this way. But most of my memories are still trapped in those dark corners. I’m only able to extract them in small pieces, like:
My father once threw my mother’s china out the kitchen window and she curled into a ball screaming.
And yet, he’d bought me swathes of cotton candy at the county fair. He’d send me to sleep with stories of seafarers and warriors.
What happened to my father? How did he meet his demise? I only know what I’d been told, that he’d taken a precipitous fall.
I liked to think he’d sprouted wings in an instant and migrated south to Mexico where he subsisted on butterflies and tequila.
But it seemed just as likely that he’d exploded into pieces and traveled many places simultaneously.
Often, while he’d been living, he left his leather bag by the stairs, its scuff marks like passport stamps. I thought one day I’d set my own by its side.
Maybe, with his streamlined suits and burly glasses, he was a spy, had simply been reassigned.
Other possibilities I’ve entertained but since excluded: UFO abduction, witness protection program, taking to the road as a touring musician.
Of course it’s possible if not plausible that Ellie’s impending arrival pushed him away—his disappearance colliding with my mother’s growing stomach. Had aliens impregnated her? I found her growing bulge distressing. What was she hiding from me? Like a tumor it grew fast.
A sister in place of a father wasn’t an exchange. I’d had twelve years with a father and none with a sister, and I’d preferred it that way.
Ellie cried inconsolably for months after she was born. It wasn’t colic. There was no diagnosis, and only my mother could stop her from screaming with a tit in the mouth. I wondered if she had inherited grief in gestation. Was this a thing? Before you’re born you’re the sum of your mother’s feelings. Once she was able to amble on our own, Ellie became drawn to our father’s old instrument cases in the back of the bedroom closet. My mother hadn’t touched a thing. Ellie would hover over them, opening and closing their lids, pretending to pet the violins.
Once she started walking, Ellie flew. She zoomed through rooms in the middle of the night. With her supersonic radar she never hit a thing. She’d just whiz past, sometimes into my bed. I’d often wake in the morning to find her curled against my stomach.
Now that I had a sister I distrusted her. Screaming ball of flesh burst into the world. I kept my distance from her dirty diapers and flailing limbs. She persisted. She smiled at me coyly when I found her in my box of chocolates, brown smeared across her face. She’d sit with me as I watched movies and would fetch me glasses of water and didn’t tell Mother when I went out to smoke. When I was given a camera and started taking photos, she wanted one too. I only took pictures of my mother and Ellie, never myself.
My mother told me to be proud of my accomplishments when I graduated from high school. That my birdlike view would take me far. That I shouldn’t question my gifts: what I lacked in beauty would be exceeded by my skill. That actions were more important than appearances.
I printed one photo of her breast hanging out and Ellie licking her lips, a child too big for this sort of feeding. And yet they did it. Was it soothing? I was their witness; I reprinted it in the high school yearbook. My mother turned on me after this. Accused me of not respecting her, eyes on fire after a long day at work. She reeked of sweet begonias after working the perfume counter. Ellie’s scent was fried eggs freshly salted and slick, the yolk’s richness running. She ran up and tried to pacify the two of us with a grin, a string of drool running down her face. I knew then I had to escape.
Ellie and I had grown like two trees planted so closely their bases intertwined. Then I disappeared. I went away to college. I dropped out. I slept on musty couches and held a string of jobs: counter girl, artist model, barista, waitress, focus group participant, telemarketer. I dropped my camera work. I stayed away from mother and sister, though I’d write to Ellie and she’d write me back in large cursive letters. She’d tell me about her soccer games, how she loved romance novels and books about martyred saints. My mother took her to church every week and made her wear a whistle around her neck. Ellie called me secretly after mother was asleep, often in the middle of the night.
is like rot rooted within. My sister sent photos, ones she had taken, of mother sitting at the dining room table. My mother looked like a shell of herself, her hair in a stiff curl, her smile creased as if she’d applied it in the morning and it’d bled out all day. Her hands were folded and she looked very still. Despite all of this hardness her skin was heavy and loose.
Ellie avoided the camera’s gaze too. She said she wanted to be like me, and through our correspondence and conversations I gave her advice on photographers to look at, to mimic. I didn’t understand the ones she chose as influences—landscapes in shades of gray à la Ansel Adams, and Edward Hopper’s American dreams. I called her one night and told her to look inward, to turn her lens to women who caught the absurd beauty and terror of life; like Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman. What I would’ve done to be in her place, to turn the camera on myself. Or to be comfortable and awkward and ungainly enough to captivate. I didn’t tell her I’d stopped taking photos, that no one questioned what side of the lens I should be on. I knew Ellie’s beauty shouldn’t be wasted. But she was insistent on looking, not attracting a gaze. I could hear jealousy cracking in the line, our voices distant, the connection fading. I hung loosely to our thread. Ellie’s voice remained girlish and small. She said she missed me, and that she wanted me to come home. Mother was in a horrendous way, not leaving her room, crying all day, and when she could muster words she’d tell Ellie she didn’t know what she’d ever do if Ellie left too.
I waited for more photos that didn’t come. I aged into my solitude. I had a series of contracts to do photoshopping and resizing for ad agencies and design studios; I had a sharp eye and insight and my own bed to sleep in. I convinced myself I was no longer deluded by the possibilities of my youth. I wrapped my legs around men as if they could replace an absence, or at least stand in.
Despite their attempts, none of them could fill my grief so large. I longed to be loved, violated, hurt. What I really wanted was the possibility of fulfillment held out and forever denied. I wanted to be brought to their houses, to their beds, to my knees, to be stripped down, to grind against their ochre sheets. I wanted them to investigate the ways my body slipped into itself, the ways I’d slipped away. I wanted them to hunger for my thighs, to yearn for the way my stomach, ever so slightly rounded, could hold their child. But I would never let a child sprout inside. I wanted them to venerate me, flagellate me, to introduce new forms of abnegation. Though none could undo me as Ellie has.