The Best Short Story

Rachel O'Donnell's Sisterly Love

She announces at the dinner table that she doesn’t wear underwear anymore. "It’s really liberating," she says. Food flies out of her mouth and lands somewhere between her plate and your glass of wine. You put down your fork and think your mother is going to choke, and she does. Your father smacks her on the back and Lil just laughs at her little joke, as always. What made you invite her for Thanksgiving? You wish now she would have stayed at her far-out college-that-pretends-to-be-a-college -but-doesn’t-give-grades.

"What on earth made you say you don’t wear underwear while we’re all trying to eat?" you say later when Lil is helping you do dishes. She’s useless in the kitchen and only sinks her hands into the soapy water and watches as you scrub at caked-on food.

"It’s true," she says. She stands in your kitchen in her overalls now. They hang over her feet on to the floor and you can imagine the dirt creeping into your tiles.

"But why did you say it? Did you want to make Mother choke?"

She turns her head and stops playing in the soapy water. "What? What did you say? Why would I want a Coke? I’m old enough to drink, you know."

For some reason she pretends she mishears you. At dinner you asked, "Lil, how’s it going at school?" and she snapped, "It’s hot in here. You’re always too cool."

She blows soap bubbles into your face and stomps from the kitchen to the bathroom, which isn’t much stomping ground in your small Manhattan apartment. You look for the last wine glass and realize she has taken it with her. She stays in the bathroom until you are done with the dishes and mopping the floor. When she comes out, her hair is cut uneven and short.

You run into the bathroom and find hair everywhere. "What have you done?" you hear yourself say. "Why are you so crazy? Why did I end up with a little sister like you?" She hands you the empty wine glass and doesn’t reply. That’s the way with her. Sucking what you say up inside of her and not giving anything back.

You show her the fold-out couch where she is to sleep. She changes for bed in front of you and you see for yourself she has no underwear on. She changes in front of David too and you realize you are embarrassed for her.

In bed you say, "She’s disgusting. Did you see how she talked to my parents? Using all that profanity? She was never this bad in high school." Or maybe she was, you think. You barely remember her in high school.

"Don’t worry about it," says David. "She’s in college." David always tries to keep you calm. You want to convince him you are right about Lil.

"But shouldn’t she understand how miserable she makes everyone? All she does is mope around, complain about the world and tell me how conservative mainstream our lives are. She says we’re yuppies!" You know you and David are not yuppies. You have friends who are yuppies and they call each other from their cell phones to find out who’s stopping to pick up dinner on the way home.

He imitates your whine. "Oh, my little sister is annoying. Oh, I have this terrible sister. Oh, my life is just perfect, but my sister mopes around..." David makes everything silly. Sometimes he’s funny. Sometimes it feels like you can’t have a substantial conversation.

Tonight he’s funny, so you pounce on him and tickle him until he screams for you to stop. He sits up suddenly. "Shh..." he says. "She might hear."

"Good," you say. "She probably thinks yuppies don’t have sex."
"Can you get over it?" he says and rolls over. You’ve thought of that yourself.

You lay awake in bed a while and think of ways to get over it. You think maybe you never gave her enough attention. Then you convince yourself that it’s too late -- you’ve tried too hard with her and should give up. Or maybe you’ve forgiven Lil for too much. She tried to ruin your wedding. "I will not be your bridesmaid. I will not wear an ugly peach dress." You made her wear the dress. She wore her ugly face the whole time.

You listen for the traffic outside. You think of how you need noise -- the Manhattan kind -- and how you wanted so desperately to live in noisy New York after growing up in the silence of tree-lined suburbia. You wonder how Lil can stand going to school with no noise, no excitement. "But I need silence and open space to figure out who I am," she insisted when she left for college and again when she left for a three month camping trip. Part of you hoped she’d decide to live in a cave with the bats.

You wake up early to see David off to the hospital and make Lil pancakes. You clean up the hair in the bathroom and then call her: "Lil, it’s almost 11!" It’s only ten after ten. Lil wanders in to the kitchen and says she only wants toast. You tell her you’re going shopping.

"Where?" says Lil.

"Health food store, pharmacy, fruit stand. We can walk to all of them," you say.

She looks pained.

You try again: "You know, David and I are really glad you decided to stay for the weekend."
"I’ll go get dressed," says Lil.

You clean up the kitchen and wait for her, as always. Your mother says that when Lil was born, you didn’t recognize her as your sister. When family came to visit the new baby, you expected her to go home with them.

She is eight years younger than you are and perhaps that is why you never felt like you had a sister. By the time she was ten, you were off to college and home only on breaks. By then she was annoying and spoiled. She came to New York to visit once before you and David were married. You remember that she seemed uncomfortable, even walking down Manhattan streets, and just got in your way.

Lil is uncomfortable now too, and you attribute this to her inability to talk to you. She barely speaks and then pretends she mishears you. She mumbles under her breath and expects you to understand her. Your sister is some strange hippie who doesn’t speak your tongue.

You walk down the street to the health food store with this person you still don’t recognize as your sister.

You ask about what she’s studying. No answer. "Read any good books?" you try.

"I hate to cook," she says.

"That’s not what I said, Lil. I want to know about school." You are frustrated but still push for an answer to your question.

"I don’t like this happily married life you live. It’s boring," she says as though you’re speaking in code. You try to start other conversations, but no matter how serious the topic, it all feels like small talk. There’s nothing meaningful you can exchange with her. She mentions migrant farm workers near where she lives and reminds you often how easy your life is.

You give a dollar to a homeless person asking for change. She laughs: "You think you made it all better now, don’t you?" You are glad for the noise of the traffic and your busy neighborhood; you and Lil soon give up on conversation.

You introduce Lil to the Korean woman you buy fruit from. She says, "Look just alike!" and smiles as she tosses your brown pears in a bag and bruises them. People have always said you and Lil have the same face, only you with blonde hair. Hers is dark and chopped short to her scalp now.

In the pharmacy, you run into a friend from yoga class and make a fuss over her 9-month-old twins. Once you are outside, Lil says, "You and David aren’t emotionally ready to have a baby." You remind yourself that Lil is young and can’t understand you. You try to laugh, but she keeps on: "You have too much of a power relationship and the child would be very unstable. Maybe you should get a cat first."

When you get back to your apartment, you say you plan to make tofu stir-fry for dinner and is that OK.

"Does David ever make dinner?" says Lil.

"Does he go shopping?" she says when you don’t answer. You bang pots and pans around the kitchen.

"Why did we clean up after Thanksgiving dinner? You cooked all of it! What kind of relationship do you have? What kind of life is this?"

You are chopping broccoli furiously now.

Lil huffs at you and goes into the bathroom.

"You don’t have any hair left to cut off!" you yell after her.

When David gets home, you tell him you don’t feel like cooking. You want to go out to dinner.

"Lil!" he yells toward the bathroom. "Do you want Indian, Italian, or Thai?"
She opens the door a crack. "Chinese." She’s being funny. She’s been seeing some Chinese boy from school. She wanted to bring him to Thanksgiving. You said: "Just family." You never see your parents and wanted to spend time talking with them. You probably hurt Lil’s feelings. Does she have feelings?

Your guilt overwhelms you. You don’t want to eat anymore.

"Chinese it is," says David. He gives you his silly grin.

You sit down at the restaurant and realize you are definitely not hungry. No one speaks, so you mention that you and David have been looking for a house on Long Island. "Only yuppies out there on Long Island," says Lil. You look desperately at David to change the subject.

David makes dinner fun. He starts speaking French when the waiter comes. Lil picks up a heavy accent and you must translate and order for both of them. They enjoy their own silliness and for a moment they look like they might be your family, laughing and talking like they take pleasure in each other’s company. You imagine you and David and your children in this restaurant. The children adore you. They talk and laugh and are silly like David. You think of their names and their ages.

David and Lil say, "What’s wrong with you?" at the same time. They look at each other and laugh.

You crawl in to bed with David later and say: "Lil was miserable when we went shopping today."

"She was fine at dinner." No, she really wasn’t, you think. She was trying to make you nervous.

"I guess we just have nothing in common," you say. But maybe David wishes you could be funny like Lil.

"You never tried to understand her." His silliness from dinner is gone.

"Why are you siding with her?" you say and think maybe you’re yelling.

David doesn’t reply. He usually avoids fights by being silly. You think maybe you should laugh, but you can’t. Maybe you should go on a talk show to work this out. Yes, you are a product of your culture. All of a sudden you feel sad. You think you’re sad because you’re supposed to be sad. Maybe you don’t really know what sad feels like. Maybe David has lost interest in you.

You don’t care to press it or push David to yell back and want only to drift off to sleep. You think maybe Lil is listening.

You wake up and David is gone. You panic. Then you realize last night at dinner he said he was covering the emergency room at 5 am. Your clock says 6:30. You decide to crawl out of bed and walk down to the coffee shop by the subway stop.

You leave Lil a note that says, "Went for a walk. Back soon," in case David finds it. He doesn’t like that you drink coffee. "Makes us all too anxious," he says.

For the first three years you lived here, you stopped for coffee every morning on your way to work. That was when you took the subway -- now you make enough to afford the ten dollar cab fare each way. You think you deserve to take a cab. You think you deserve coffee too, so now you keep a pot in your office at work.

Your favorite window seat at the coffee shop is taken so you must sit at the counter. You see a couple holding on to each other and are somehow annoyed; you don’t like clinging. One gets up for a minute and the other looks lost. Their kids are staring intently out the window. You can’t for the life of you figure out what they are looking at.

People are discussing a big moving day and how to pack good crystal next to you. You think for a minute maybe you should interrupt and tell them about your experience with packing materials.

Your mind switches quickly to Lil and you decide that you know her. She must drink a lot and have a lot of sex with as many different people as she can. Yet she is without emotion. Yes, you know how she thinks: you had a foreign boyfriend in college too. He told you to take some art classes, and when he left you, said you have no passion and that he expected you would finish your degree in marketing.

Why does she always make a mess of everything? You want to bring this up to her. You play the conversation out in your head: "Lil, I love you," you will say. "I’m sorry we’re not closer, but you’re my sister. Can we try to like each other?"

"No," she’ll say.

You’ll try harder. "We can work on it," you’ll say.

"Not really," she’ll say. "You have cell phones."

You decide not to let her get to you. You realize the lunch crowd is coming in and though your coffee has been cold for a while, you are still drinking it.

On your walk home you realize that you only got two things done on the 8-item list you made for this weekend. You must start a new list for Monday. A final attempt to maintain order in your life.

When you walk in the door, Lil pounces on you. "Where have you been? I want to get my hair fixed." You call the salon and ask if they can squeeze her in. On your way out the door, Lil asks you to take down the picture of her on the bookshelf. It’s your favorite picture of her. Or maybe it’s your only picture of her. It’s from high school and she is wearing a v-neck sweater and a big smile. "I look disgustingly phony," she says. She flashes you a real smile that doesn’t look like the one in the picture and you are somehow grateful for it.

Before bed, you tell David you spent hours with Lil at the salon trying to figure out how to make her hair look suitable. He understands you: "That must have been nice -- not as stressful as the past few days."

He doesn’t understand you: "It’s too bad she can’t stay longer. She’s really making an effort."

You get up and look at the bags under your eyes in the mirror. Lil’s flight leaves early. You wake her up and say: "Are you set? Do you want some breakfast?"

"No," says Lil. "They’ll feed me on the plane."

David carries her overnight sack out to his car. He has decided it would be a good idea for you to drive her to the airport alone. This makes you nervous. You only drive now and then and you have always been a poor driver. In high school, you would hit the bushes next to your driveway every time you backed out or pulled in.

The drive is painful and silent. Lil hunts for a good song on the radio and plays with the power locks. You are concentrating on the road. You don’t know if you should say good-bye. When will you see her again? And you are tired of her and will be glad when she is gone. You know you should talk, but there is nothing to say. You feel like you are at fault, that you are responsible for her, but there is more between you than can be talked out.

Traffic is bad and you must rush her through the gates so she won’t miss her flight. You are glad to say good-bye and walk away, free from her and the discomfort she brings you. Once she is gone you sit and wait for the plane to take off. Lil asked if you would. And you think, yes, she tries to unnerve you, and yes, she is young and can’t understand you, and yes, she craves attention from you, and yes, she refuses to talk to you, but yes, she is your sister and it should be reasonable to want you to wait for her plane to take off.

You watch the plane taxi down the runway and half wish you were on it.

You sit for a moment longer because you are dreading the drive home. You will probably scratch the car or hit some small animal. You will spend hours hunting for a parking space you can barely get into, then wait a minute before going upstairs. You will sit in the car and stare up at the apartment window trying, in the bright sunlight, to figure out if the hall light is on. Once again you will stop and think maybe David is gone forever. Maybe only a goofy note and silly explanation wait for you on the kitchen table.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes