The rental was fine. Three bedrooms, a garage, a yard with a low fence. But the glass. It was mostly concentrated by the fire pit in the backyard where the dogs settled their disagreements. We did what we could with rakes and shovels, but it didn’t matter. Blood continued to speckle the kitchen floor, to dot the rugs. The dogs waited patiently, their ears flat, while we mixed warm water with Epsom salt and dipped their paws. My husband walked to the store and bought Neosporin. We kept on, collecting hard bits of broken bottle, rusted nail, whatever else had worked its way through the dark soil.
We had theories: that previous tenants threw parties and invited people who needed impressing. That they lit fires and tossed bottles and planks of rummaged wood into the pit for fuel or theatrics.
Then, in the fall, after we had lived there for six months, we discovered a mattress buried in the corner of the yard. All around us leaves fell like slow birds.
In December, my sister came. She shed her layers on the porch like I had drawn a bath for her. The weather was unseasonably warm. I hadn’t seen her in four years, but that afternoon she showed up to look me in the eye.
“You’re alive,” I said, and watched as she held her arms out for my husband. The dogs circled her knowingly.
At dinner she sat across from me, nudging her plate farther and farther away, swirling her wine. She was seven years older and had always dieted like crazy. When we were younger, she looked nothing like our mother, who shrank into a small knot like a discarded straw wrapper before disappearing completely. Instead, and for at least a while, my sister had a body that cried out, and men would sometimes follow her into the subway.
It took our mother a long time to die and I would have done anything to get away. As a child I looked forward to hating her.
I was eleven when my sister won custody of me. We sat in a park, shared a churro, and watched the ants assemble. By then my sister had stopped eating food in integers, a half of this, a bite of that, and I remembered my mother once saying she liked taking her body apart because it was something only a man could put back together.
“A man is a kind of captain,” my sister now began to tell me. Our mother had died and we had no father, so this was a sort of strategy, like clipping coupons in the kitchen or waking up early for Two-dollar Bag Day at the Goodwill. When she saw food, my sister’s hands would start to shake. It unsettled her mind. At meals she began to talk more so she would eat less. Like our mother, her voice became a long hallway, her fingers kittenish and moving restlessly across the counter. She slept in my mother’s bed, wore my mother’s makeup. At night she lay with the windows open, listening to the soft voices of bodies moving below us.
Sometimes our neighbors had parties.
They were young, around the same age as my sister, and over the low garden wall we could hear their mixture of Swedish dream pop. It made no difference. My sister never went out. She wore a smock and rubbed lotion into expensive faces all day. I wanted a job like that. It was a job anyone with fingers could do. They didn’t pay her to talk.
On the second evening of her visit, my sister and I explored the basement. She called it the bro-dungeon. There were three rooms and doors with locks. In the middle, a long counter, a shelf against the wall, and four makeshift barstools with batting peeking out the sides. My sister slipped off her flat and smashed a wolf spider against the concrete wall. Under the bar I found an old subwoofer. There must have been parties. Red Solo cups, loud music. It was the ideal location—the closest neighbors a city block in either direction. I wondered what it must have felt like to be a woman in this space, surrounded by sunburnt men and secluded in the woods. A mattress buried in the yard, I thought, holding onto my sister’s bony arm as we wandered in the dark. She wore a cable-knit sweater and the fabric slipped in my grip as she moved.
“How do you stay so thin,” I whispered. “Tell me your secrets.”
I hadn’t been downstairs in a while, and we passed the lighter back and forth as we walked, my sister’s straight, childlike posture disappearing and reappearing before me like a game. In the basement we were almost twin-like, and I felt I could be anywhere if I willed it, leaving my sister to take my place. I reached down as if to pull at a long strand of grass. The darkness, that empty dream.
We didn’t always look alike. In high school, when I had a couple of boyfriends, my sister would sit topless on the edge of the bathtub with the door open and dye her hair.
“Is that your mom?” they’d ask.
These boys made me roll my eyes, but I had a dark heart that I was in the process of strangling.
When I was in class, she’d rope them home and when I’d show up they would be there, lying in bed with her, a hand on a guilty breast. Each left me after that, or I’d turn them loose. Afterwards I’d find my sister under the sheets, asleep in our mother’s bed. I don’t know how she slid in without unsettling the blankets. She said she enjoyed looking like a prepared corpse.
“Come in here,” she’d whisper. “Disturb me.”
Sometimes I prayed over her. Sometimes I closed the bedroom door and stared at my calculus homework.
“I’m doing this for you,” I would hear her say.
In the end, I really did leave. Found a small college and learned how a scholarship could make you feel unwelcome. After the second week of classes, I was drunk. All around me women were experiencing spontaneous pleasure. It soaked my heart. I was sick of all them—each with their own version of an untroubled childhood, parents that came in pairs, family pets. When I closed my eyes, pale girls stretched for miles, carrying heavy boxes and adhering college decals onto the windshields of their parents’ Acuras. They waved their long lean arms from open windows. Their mothers exercised and wore tailored dresses. Their fathers had Kennedy hair and slipped credit cards into their wallets. There was something about them, the way they all winked at each other over the good weather.
Unlike the rest, I couldn’t handle the glut of opportunity, the genetic cul-de-sac of a liberal arts college. I held a dark bottle of rum between my legs and talked to anyone who would listen. This usually happened to be my roommate. Our room was dim and clear. When I started to cry, she said, “Oh god, don’t destroy yourself,” and took the bottle away. She wore a polyester shirt and was a full-blown cokehead from California. Her body was like Styrofoam, bleached and perfectly white like her addiction. I figured my depression was no longer new or interesting, and she looked disappointed whenever I indulged in it.
“Look at all the negative energy you’re wasting,” she said.
She felt sorry for me. She gave me high lyrical treatment and eyed me with two pockets of medicated consternation.
My sister went to all the parties. She didn’t feel right unless she showed up whenever she liked, usually on a Thursday afternoon, when the lacrosse team tapped their keg. It was a routine that needed no completing. She hadn’t had her period in years. Her bones sang. Mid-fall, she came for Parent Weekend and went about in a loud way with a couple of joints tucked inside the lining of her baseball cap. There was no slowing, no erasure of speed. She stayed the night, borrowed my clothes, and slept around. While my classmates flocked to their dinner reservations, I followed my evening walk from the library with cigarettes and wandered around the campus looking for her like a ghost satellite.
And so on. Sophomore year I dated a senior who could afford the expensive grocery stores, the cave-aged cheeses, the artisan crackers made from lentils, and I would sit on the bed and play with the sleeves of his Brunello suit. Everything started to go sideways in my mind. I imagined his house was filled with bone china and goblets. In the end, he was a biology major that knew nothing about my body. What I mean is, I got pregnant.
I walked three miles towards the clinic. On the way there, I passed a wedding. All these husbands in sport coats, a bride moving efficiently through the crowd. I took a nap in the reception tent by the bar. The tables were blindingly white and round. I pretended I was sleeping on the moon and felt very far away. When I awoke I drank a glass of wine and told a couple with primordial piercings that I didn’t know who the father was, but that I had my suspicions.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sit here throwing stones,” is what I told them, swilling a second glass. The day felt large and clear. “I can’t wait to get in there,” I said, and pointed towards the clinic. Despite the nap, I was tired. I had 100 mg in
my pocket, which was good enough for at least one line, but I was saving it in case the procedure bummed me out. Being there was enough.
I never made it to the clinic. In the end, a woman drove me back to campus in a spotless German car. She wore Wayfarers and talked about having an abortion in her mid- twenties. The sky was dark and blowing, shaking something loose inside of me. I watched the moon rise in the rearview mirror.
I didn’t know how to put these things together.
“Did it hurt?” I asked, like an idiot.
I didn’t tell anyone, I just stopped going to class. The dean was like an undergrad that had never left. In other words, she was tame and had the fire of charity within her that ignited what was left of my small mean feelings. When she spoke, she took my hand. Some part of her knew. She had underdeveloped facial features and despised me a little. She was fat and lucid, but that was none of my business.
I didn’t like being given a choice.
“Just tell me what to do,” I had said.
Some people pray daily, but not me. In my own way, I kept up with my classes, followed the syllabi, and wrote papers I never turned in. I didn’t want the dean performing heroics on my behalf.
That was four Octobers ago. I left school after I miscarried, and even then I was talked out of feeling certain, the dean saying I would miss a lot of chances if I didn’t grab this one.
A week after my sister’s visit, my husband poked his head in from the top of the stairs to say one of the dogs had cut herself again. I was in the basement, sitting in the dark. He wanted to know whether he should clean it or scout out the glass. I went upstairs.
“Just tell me what to do,” I said. The interior was lowly lit, but I could see my husband standing over our two dogs. He was a young academic who thought I was a kind of student, and sometimes I would visit during office hours.
“If you get pregnant, I’m going to have to fail you,” he’d say, pushing my body against the desk.
I managed to marry him after a couple of months. I never told him about the miscarriage, though I came close a couple of times when he asked. He made me so happy I thought my head was getting sick. But it wasn’t. I was well. I hadn’t been well in a long time.
Once, we took a telescope onto the rental’s flat roof. Everything was up there, all bruised fruit, and he told me a story about Plato’s brothers: Glaucon and Adeimantus. They were both rich, though Glaucon was the smarter one. And he loved young men. He called the light-skinned ones “children of the gods” and so on. There had been a lot of youthful lovemaking in ancient Greece, and it seemed everyone went on in a sexual flourish.
In the story, Socrates explains to Glaucon that dreaming is when you mistake something for something else. That is, even if Glaucon was awake but mistook one boy for his brother, as he often did, in that instant he was dreaming.
“You see, they aren’t interchangeable,” my husband had said.
But this was how I felt about marriage, that we had entered a dream before I had the chance to destroy it.
I watched my husband disappear into the yard, thinking how some people vanish more quickly than others.
After I lost the baby, I came home with two dogs. I had just turned twenty. One was larger with more muscle and ears that insulted its intelligence by being too small. The other had long lustrous fur and large black eyes. She didn’t know what to make of the first dog. She’d watch it, until the larger dog became unnerved, curling into a corner. At night the smaller one would steal its food. This was a strategy, like she was trying to weaken it. I liked this one.
I stood and looked at the dogs.
“Is it you?” I asked.
I took each paw and lifted it off the ground until I came to the injured one. I held it firmly in my hand and sensed her dark eyes on me. She jerked it back.
“I’m not fighting you for this,” I said. “It’s yours.”
I dipped the paw in the warm water and watched the blood blossom then turn the bowl rust-colored.
I took a towel and applied pressure to the pad. It was the easiest way to pinpoint the cut, and I used it like a map. I lifted the towel and saw a bright red star. I aligned it with the paw and pressed my thumb into the wound. The dog let out a low animal hum. I sang Christmas songs, like “Away in a Manger,” and “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” that sort of thing. We held this position for a few minutes. Paw in hand, hand in paw.
After two songs my husband appeared, stamping his feet on the mat outside the glass door. I used my free hand to let him in.
“How is she?” he asked. He had been out there for a while.
I said the cut was not very deep, that I got the bleeding to stop.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked.
He shook his head and set the flashlight down. “I started to,” he said. “I was standing right in front of the pit waving the flashlight like this.” He stuck his arm out to show me the slow movement of his arms. “Next thing, I’m on the ground.”
“On the ground?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I must have slipped. But it was nice. The feeling was nice. Like I had wanted to do that for a long time, and I finally got to. I felt like time was passing through me, you know?”
So I took his flashlight and started for the door.
The last night of her visit I had found my sister in the guest bed laid out like old times, sheets cleanly stretched across her breasts.
I felt my hackles rise and closed the door. What the body knows, the brain learns later.
Still, I waited to hear them that night.
How long does it take before you really know something?
I didn’t know I was miscarrying when I called the cab. All I knew was that I was completely unfit to walk from my dorm room to the health center, that the ride to the hospital was a dream, that the driver would move his lower jaw up and down whenever I adjusted the towels. I had never ridden in a taxi before and kept checking to see if I was staining the seats.
“What keeps the heart working?” I asked.
“When there’s no peace, I think about God,” the driver had said, and I saw that he was crying.
“No one is dying here, I said.” “Let’s not hurry.”
When we arrived at the hospital, I opened the door and felt the warm air from outside. It was like stepping off one of those propeller planes, the air-conditioning falling back and the blood rushing into all your limbs. What could I say to that? I just sat there.
The nurse who took my information called my roommate. I was lying in bed, looking out over the dark city, and I held onto the rails like I was aiming the bow of a boat. I had decided not to think too much. There are many colors of blood, but the moon is not one of them.
My sister answered and demanded to speak with me.
“I’m not happy about this,” she said. “Come back to school.”
“I’m going away,” I said.
When she told me she was going to kill herself, I imagined her in my room, wearing my clothes, smoking my cigarettes. When she told me she was going to kill herself, I imagined her lying in this bed.
To change the subject, I told her about the movie I watched while they held me for observation. The movie was about an American who goes to Germany because her boyfriend has some marketing job for a company that sells luxury sunglasses in Berlin. Everything is great. She is trying to get pregnant and they are so happy that even a visit to Dachau doesn’t bum them out.
“And?” my sister asked.
“I stopped watching and dreamt that I was drunk like it was my ten year high school reunion and I don’t know what. And all along my body were tiny lines of tiny babies. My mouth was an oven and as they entered I said to them, ‘Know the difference between the end of something and the beginning of something else.’”
But I would say anything to keep her away.
The nurse went to the gift shop and brought me a dream catcher. It was a piece of shit of a dream catcher though. I held it to my chest and ordered double espresso shots every few hours until I could feel my heartbeat and watch it quicken over the monitors.
I stood there gripping the flashlight. In the corner of the yard, the thin fence sagged. It was only a matter of time before one of the dogs would jump across, leaving the other behind. It would hardly take any effort.
I moved the thin light across the trees, drawing short lines between two points, mapping a new constellation. The trees were taller in the night. Above, tiny islands of light filled the sky. I waited for something to happen. I suppose there are shadows, real ones, and ones I had conjured up.
I turned off the flashlight and sunk my hands into the dirt. Inside, the soil, another kind of night. I dug and dug and I started talking, my cold fingers working out the bent nails, the bottle caps, the shards of glass, small and shining like stars. And I felt it, at the core, a buried heart. How can I explain? In some ways I had wished for this, when all the essentials were suddenly different. You try to live a perfectly normal life and then your sister shows up and your husband starts coming up with crazy things like this. But here’s something I can defend. Dogs know where they’ve been hurt. In their sleep they will lie across the wood floor and their dreams will make their whole body convulse, but even they know how to keep the injured limb perfectly still.