Sarah Seltzer is a winner of the 2013 Lilith Fiction Prize, and has had fiction published in Joyland, S-Tick, Extract(s), LABA Journal and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a journalist in New York City with nonfiction bylines in The Forward, The Rumpus, LA Review of Books, Vulture, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine and The Nation, among many other places. Her novel-in-progress, “Joy, Somewhere in the City,” was awarded a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.
Kat was born into famine; her sister Rina into plenty. Kat was black and adopted; Rina – white and “biological.” Kat pursued science, and Rina, drama. Kat was mellow to the point of being taciturn, while Rina had been a babbling fountain of foolishness and song.
Kat was alive and Rina was dead.
There were similarities, too. Rina and Kat had both been known as tall, broad-shouldered, standouts. Rina – everyone said in the days after the accident – had been kind. So had her sister. Such sweet girls, everyone said.
Yet as her grief bit into her, tore into her, melted her bones, the usually mild-mannered Kat, who as an adult had engineered her life to not offend the white people who made up her community, could feel herself turning mean.
Case 1: After the news of Rina’s gruesome and tragic death in front of a subway train plastered the tabloids, Kat’s phone began to ring with regular insistence. Most often, the flashing screen bore the number of her childhood “best” friend Joy. Kat pressed “reject” on her cellphone for two days in a row.
Joy began to try the house phone. Some people could not take a hint. Kat heard her mom, Ellen, sobbing over the receiver in some far, but too near room; imagined her mother and Joy cradling each other’s voices in apartments half a mile apart. Evidently, Ellen did not share her surviving daughter’s aversion to Joy’s partaking of the family tsuris, their loss that was now the entire city’s.
Kat sat at the kitchen table, which smelled of tobacco and sour wine, listening to her mother’s choked voice. She heard her mom say, “Oh, Joy,” and start crying afresh. Her heart hardened even as it broke. She moved to the floor of the hallway, leaned against the wall and listened to her stomach growl, a relentless tiger. She lit another cigarette and erased Joy’s number from her phone.
Case 2: During shiva, she had been given pills by Cameron, her sister’s best gay friend. They loosened her tongue, thus, when she was regaled with Rina stories – some debauched – by Maya, her sister’s best female friend, she replied caustically, “Why should I care?” (But she cared, she cared.)
Case 3: While the cold meats were being put away, she rolled around on her bed with her pseudo-ex Ezra – if endless sexual experimentation in high school and occasionally in college qualifies one as an ex. Ezra was her sister’s best straight male friend, a too-sensitive socialist who was always cause-hopping, being holier than thou, and getting into trouble. As he zipped his pants back up, she told him he needed to “get his shit together.” By which she meant, I want you, but fuck you for not being my sister.
Case 4: There would be no case four. Look at the way things stood. Her sister had had a best friend in every demographic, it seemed. Kat had only her sister, and Joy.
She had to be better, to make Rina proud. So she asked her mom for Joy’s number and arranged to meet her old friend on a stoop on One-Hundredth between Broadway and Amsterdam, a place their childhood selves had determined with mathematical precision was halfway between their homes. Lounging, soda cans in their hands, they’d once regularly discussed Rina’s doings as part of the confabulation. Now Kat relented. They would discuss Rina’s lack of doings and she’d behave.
Rina had died on a stifling August night weeks away from her first marquee role on Broadway; these were stifling August days. Rina had fainted from the summer heat, stumbled, floated through the air onto the tracks as the train pulled in. Or so the cops told them. Perfect drama. Quintessential Rina. These “incidents” with girls fainting, they happened all the time, the cops said. The left side of her had taken the blow; when they asked her family to identify her, they covered that side with a sheet. The rest of her body, tall and broad-shouldered, was recognizable only as the shell that had housed an unstoppable – no, a stoppable – a stopped life force.
“Broadway Beauty Mowed Down by L,” the headlines read. New Yorkers, ravenous for horror, turned the pages on their morning commutes, sweaty fingers staining the paper. Kat lost four pounds. She smoked twenty cigarettes. She had zero sisters.
Rina meant “joyful” in Hebrew because that’s what her parents had been at her birth. Kat had arrived in their arms curled up like a kitten; her older sister had named her on the plane home from Ethiopia. The namer, the knower, Kat’s guardian ever since. Rina had swatted hands away when they tried to touch Kat’s hair; she had snapped “she’s my sister,” when people puzzled out their relationship, and “the Upper West Side,” when they asked where Kat was from. When Kat interrogated her family about her origins, as she had inevitably done at age 15, Rina had supported her: “Yeah, where? Why?” She had approved of the black feminist novels, the African art on Kat’s wall, the radical treatises on her desk, her demands at the dinner table, to her family. “Admit that your white privilege is a problem.”
“We admit it, Kat.”
Of course, Joy had wanted Rina to look out for her, too. Who would not want a protector unafraid to snap unwanted attention from you towards herself?
Kat and Joy stood in front of their stoop, their empty stoop, unable to make small talk because of the momentousness of Rina’s absence. Kat tried to dismiss the ironic echo, the similarity in meaning between the names of her sister and her former best friend.
“How are you coping?” Joy asked.
“How do you think?”
Kat raised both her hands, gesturing at her face, hoping the deep circles under her eyes might steer the conversation.
“Did it turn out that Rina had been drinking that night?” asked Joy. “I know I shouldn’t ask. But my mom and I were just wondering, you know, if there was anything else to explain…”
“Some wine. Nothing she couldn’t handle,” said Kat. “You knew her.”
“Why wasn’t anyone with her?” Joy asked, her tone quieter yet.
“She wanted to study her lines,” Kat said, feeling the stoop scrape against her bare thighs.
“I just – I’m just trying to understand how it happened. I’ve even gone to that platform myself, you know, to see where – ”
“Okay, so have I. I’m a scientist. I’ve tried to piece it together, but. . . enough, Joy,” said Kat. Enough Joy, to her ears. Her sister had been happy, hadn’t she? Kat’s voice came out cold, but her insides cycloned and roiled. She would never release all of her tears; she would remain a nasty piece of work even as a grandmother, snapping at her grandchildren, unable to forgive their ignorance of Rina.
“How do you think she fell, I mean, did they catch it on camera?” Joy’s voice barely above a whisper.
Kat didn’t answer. She recognized what Joy was doing, as her own family had done for days, would probably do for years: turning the big question mark about why it happened into little ones about how.
“Was she – was she depressed? Or on any new drugs or anything like that? Sometimes they can make people do things, you know. . . feel things.”
“I don’t know,” said Kat honestly. “Can we take a break from this line of questioning?”
“You know, the last time I emailed your sister, she never wrote me back.” Joy’s voice was plaintive now. “You guys are tough to pin down. We all used to be so close.”
Kat could have told Joy that Rina, busy with rehearsal, always needed to be bugged to respond to emails. She could have told her about her theory – about the heat and Rina’s even more vegan, even more restricted diet for the new role, and about Rina’s history of fainting. She could have told Joy that the idea, this hovering idea that some clandestine fear, depression, agony, misery had gnawed at Rina, and that Rina hid it away from Kat – that this above all threatened to utterly unman her, leave her crawling on the sidewalk, an insane thing, an insect whose wings had been plucked by a cruel child.
So Kat clung to what she couldn’t un-know: intense heat, screeching, thuds, pain, a body broken – all in an instant.
The conductor of the train, his flashlight ducking between the cars, had tried to reassure Rina that help was on the way. She seemed, he told the press, “so lovely, so beautiful.” (Classic Rina – to look beautiful in death – the half of her not mangled, at least.) But no help or comfort arrived.
“I spoke with her that night,” said Kat, amazed that her voice sounded like a voice and not a wail. “She seemed normal.”
Omitted – the call had been a wheedling request that Kat take care of their parents’ anniversary present. Had she been settling her affairs, or just dumping the task on her sister?
For the life of her, Kat couldn’t remember whether the call had ended with “Love ya” or not. But she had felt it, right? Sisters and best friends, that’s what everyone said at the funeral. “My sister, my shield, my partner,” Kat had said in her eulogy, even then recalling the lines that Rina had needed to rehearse, full of dudes and mans and groovys.
She didn’t tell Joy that after the police had called, had come to pick them up, she had been sure it was a mistake and called her sister, and called her again, and again, and again, hearing the click of the voicemail so many times that she finally had to lean out the window of the police cruiser and throw up.
And then she’d kept calling until, at the precinct, she saw the phone she was trying to reach in a small plastic bag with red smears on its insides.
Now with Joy, Kat let her first barb slip out.
“I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest. I appreciate your concern, but I feel like we had kind of slipped into an occasional coffee friendship, you know? This heart-to-heart thing is weird.”
Of course, their meeting didn’t feel weird at all, because of the physical memories embedded in this ugly stoop. If things had gone on as they should have, they would just have continued their yearly faux-delighted get-togethers, feet tapping with impatience, or fingers smoothing the velour couches of some coffee shop, bookended by disingenuous assurances of “we should do this more often.”
Joy turned bright red. “Well, we were best friends,” she said defensively. Then her mouth turned into a trapezoid; she whimpered.
Kat sighed, irked by the surge of pity she felt. A wide-openness about the girl reminded her of Rina the way a copy of a painting on a postcard tried too hard to duplicate the original.
But here was the difference – when Rina rushed up to friends’ parents or new acquaintances, and threw her arms around them, when she pulled Kat to her side and said “my sister,” she became addictive. But no one craved Joy beside her, no one.
Joy’s thumbs wiggled inside the tight pockets of her jeans, causing a vibrating anxiety in Kat’s gut. The twitching inched Joy’s shirt up, showing a soft white belly, a previously well-hidden heft protruding over her skinny legs. Kat knew Joy’s body intimately.
They had been best friends.
“Remember playing star fairies?” asked Kat, thinking of their bare legs flashing through the grass in Central Park. “Remember Rina instructing us on how to cast a spell – as if she knew!” Her sister, Kat had come to see in high school, had really not been cool in the traditional sense. She had just been so defiantly herself.
“She seemed to know everything,” said Joy. Joy had never figured out the secret to Rina’s poise.
Joy had despaired when they stood side by side in front of the mirror, as though Rina’s coltish beauty lay hidden on its other side. Kat hadn’t cared, perfectly content with her own practical build. But then, of course, she’d had a sister to call her beautiful.
“Shall we eat, maybe?” Kat asked.
Kat in these weeks had felt a filmy curtain, a shimmer in the air between herself and the physical world. She reached a hand forward, tried to push through. She struggled mounting and descending the curb, having lost her ability to fathom where her feet should go. She came down too hard or wavered mid-step. She felt like she might pitch forward or back if a gust of wind or an impatient pedestrian hit her, just like her sister had. She groped at door handles and gripped railings like she was old, frail, her bones brittle.
In that trance-like state, Kat led them into a pasta place with an aroma of starch and sweet tomato paste that leaked onto the sidewalk. Only after the bread basket came and Joy eyed it vindictively did Kat learn that her friend was on the South Beach diet.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were off carbs before we went for pasta?” she asked. Joy had been afraid to displease the sisterless one, she guessed.
Joy looked hungrily at the bread. “I need to lose ten pounds by my birthday,” she said.
“October,” said Kat instinctively. “A week after Rina’s. You were birthday buddies.”
They smiled at each other, tentative. Maybe it would be tolerable between them.
Joy ordered a salad that arrived with pale green lettuce and a scattering of purple and orange. She scraped her fork across her small plate while Kat twirled long, dripping pieces of thick spaghetti into her mouth. She ate out of spite and in hunger. The life force asserting itself despite all the cigarettes, the nausea.
“Do you remember how in the children’s choir, Rina always got to do a solo at shul, for Oseh Shalom?” Kat asked, marveling that the joyful words her sister had trilled as a young girl were the same words that closed the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer they’d now say over and over again for her.
Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.
“Yes. Her voice was so. . . I don’t know. Angelic? But goofy; do you remember the trip to Rockland County?” Joy asked.
“She had you singing the ‘Comet’ song.”
Joy chortled and they sang a few bars together, under their breaths. “Comet, it makes your mouth turn green!”
“I thought it was so funny,” said Joy. “Your sister was a budding director, even then. And I was her ingénue.”
Kat detected an emphasis on the “I.”
Kat had gone searching for newts and tadpoles, had held their slimy bodies in her cupped hands, presenting them to the adults, hoping to elicit a shriek. But Rina and Joy, unaffected by nature, put on song and dance routines. It was true: Rina loved to use Joy as a prop, a chorus. Joy would stare at Rina with those round eyes and do whatever she was told.
Kat had been the odd one out, with her science and her stubborn avoidance of show biz.
“Truly epic. How about the summer we got obsessed with judging each other’s dives at the pool?”
“The Barbie soap operas we devised?”
The stories accumulated, exquisite and excruciating.
“Do you remember how you’d always bug Rina when she tried to do her homework?” Kat asked. “You would pad down the hallway and peek into the maid’s room, then Rina’s room.” The two of them had watched the older girl bent over her homework, or a script, in the light of her lava lamp.
“Leave her alone,” Kat would say. “She’s got to learn her lines.” Rina’s legs would splay out on the bed, spectacularly. Her hand with a pen in it would prop up her chin for so long that her arm fell asleep.
“Yes! And her arm, the thing she’d do? Whipping her arm around and around to get the feeling back?”
When Joy wasn’t around, Rina would let Kat perch on the edge of the bed and braid her older sister’s hair, or massage her shoulders or listen to her run her lines. But Joy was around too often.
Kat waited, pinned down by dread.
“Do you remember how everyone used to think we were sisters?” People always did – always had. They pegged Kat as the friend, the third wheel.
Why had Kat shared so many of her life’s now-finite Rina moments with such a parasite?
At least there was the comfort of the times she’d mocked Joy with her sister, who of course hadn’t always been kind, or generous, or even thoughtful. “Deviated septum my ass,” Rina once said to Kat in a moment of candor, sitting on an island between two lanes of Broadway’s zooming traffic with frozen yogurt cups on their laps. “Joy’s nose,” they’d squawked. Once aquiline, it lost its bump. Kat had been delirious that day on the street with her sister, arms linked against the world, buoyed by Rina’s vivid energy.
“What are you smiling at?” asked Joy. They stood to leave.
“Oh, just a private joke. Well, not so private, I guess. It was about your nose. My sister found its transformation very amusing.”
Joy’s mouth dropped open.
“Oh,” said Joy. “I didn’t realize you knew.”
You moron, thought Kat. Everyone knew.
“Okay, well, so. . . I guess I just wanted to ask – can we be friends again? Real friends?”
Kat recited her lines stiffly: “Sure. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
And then the last blow surfaced from deep within her, from a place thick with bile and envy. “Oh, and let me know how the no-carbs thing goes,” she said. “If you do drop those ten pounds, or fifteen maybe, you could fit into Rina’s clothes. Well, her shirts, anyway.”
She didn’t look to see the expression her words left on Joy’s face. She turned around and walked back to the house of mourning, forward on a long black ribbon of time that would take her from this curtained-off half-life to a life that was diminished, but a life nonetheless.
She supposed they would run into each other at some point, and sure enough, about three years after they parted that day at the stoop, Kat arrived at an engagement party on Park Avenue, a twinge in her memory’s muscle asking if she’d see her old friend there. Kat didn’t cry as often now, but she popped antacids like candy.
Sporadic Facebook binges and gossip had told her enough. Maya had had a nervous breakdown; Ezra had become an Orthodox Zealot in Israel; Cameron was gentrifying Brooklyn. And Joy?
“I’m delighted that Joy is doing well again,” said the bride-to-be, Zoë, with a sigh as she ushered Kat through the room. Sporting a big diamond ring, a smile, and a willingness to gossip, she led them to the balcony. To Zoë, this was mere idle gossip.
Kat felt the familiar gauzy curtain fall, partitioning her from her surroundings. Her free hand gripped the brick wall behind her until it hurt. She stopped sipping her champagne, its taste suddenly acrid. “What do you mean? What happened?”
“Oh, you didn’t hear? Have you guys lost touch? Her eating disorder got really bad. She had to be hospitalized and fed through a tube. Poor thing. She’d been dieting obsessively and then it just tipped right over that line.”
Her eating disorder? Was that the South Beach diet? Hospitalized? Kat remembered of course that she’d said a cruel, cruel, thing to her old friend – the words sparkled, knife-sharp, piercing through the humid shroud of that unspeakable summer.
Zoë clucked and hushed her voice. “You guys growing up together and so on, the thing with your sister hitting her so hard. I thought maybe you’d heard, somehow. Parents or something.”
“Oh,” Kat said, putting on her too-sad-to-talk-about-it face, feeling the brick scrape her palm. Rina would know exactly how to weasel out of this.
“I guess I wasn’t in good touch with anyone for a while.”
“Understandable,” said Zoë. “La vie, eh? So tough. I wonder if she’ll come tonight. I invited her. She’s doing so much better, you know.”
A year before, Kat would have rolled her eyes, unable to shoulder the concept of anyone else’s suffering, even if she’d precipitated the slide into hunger, anguish, feeding tubes. Even now, a sliver of her judgment found something contemptible in Joy’s succumbing to such an illness, an illness that, despite all the medical truths she’d learned about genetics and brain chemistry, she found, well, somewhat narcissistic.
Still, Joy’s round eyes, her irritating questions, her relationship with the mirror and with Rina’s theatrical poise arrived in a new light of desperation, and Kat felt her soul clench with remorse, genuine remorse. Yes, Rina was her sister, hers alone. But Kat had wanted to siphon the sorrow for herself when there was plenty to go around.
What did the scarred-over wounds between them signify, anyway? Joy was “doing great” now. Joy had conquered her demons. Joy had soldiered on without Kat, the shattered sister.
Kat let her champagne glass rest, trying to stitch back together the newly-reopened gashes. Joy showed up half an hour later. The two women circled each other, exchanging pleasantries with others. They smiled over strange shoulders like prospective lovers.
At last, Joy approached Kat, armed with a new confidence, a slimness in the belly, a sense of having survived, and won.
“How are things?” Joy asked. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“It’s been – ” said Kat. “Well, it’s getting better. Well, not better, but bearable, I guess. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch.” She looked down at Joy’s shoes, which came to an abrupt point. Power shoes. Probably Joy had just been asking how things were, in general. She probably didn’t want a report about where Kat had arrived in the five stages of grief.
They spoke of this and that, of Joy’s new career in arts administration – she was working at a theater – and Kat’s promotion at her lab.
“You always did like experimenting,” said Joy. “You must miss Rina. You still go to synagogue right? I’ve gone a few times, wondered if I’d see you.”
“My family stopped going. Like, totally. I don’t really know why, but I actually do go pretty often on my own, and I always go for Rina’s yahrtzheit, just to hear her name and say Kaddish. It’s actually next week,” Kat said, surprised at the rush of words, the lilt in her voice. As though she was asking something of Joy.
“I know it’s next week,” said Joy. “I wouldn’t forget. Hmmm. You shouldn’t go alone. I’ll try to make it.”
Despite herself, Kat nodded.
“That would be so lovely,” she said.
The next Saturday, Kat arrived at the synagogue and looked for Joy, but didn’t see her friend in the lobby. She chastised herself for holding expectations. Why was she here anyway? Because no one else who was close to Rina was. Because here in this crowd, with no other family or friends to mourn, Kat could hear her sister’s voice and be alone with it. Selfish to the last.
But she wasn’t alone. When Kat was nine and lost her grandfather, they called his name from the bimah each Sabbath for a month. Every Friday night, her family stood up to acknowledge their loss, always to Kat’s humiliation and Rina’s perverse pleasure. But on the fourth Friday, Joy came and sat with them. And that night they stood together. They stood up as one family suffering one loss. One family, knit together by Kat, Joy and Rina’s friendship, their voices murmuring the words of the Kaddish in unison. Rina’s voice the clearest, the highest, a voice people said was “destined for the stage,” a voice whose sudden silencing would never, ever end for Kat, even as it receded behind layers of time.
Now, Kat sat in a corner, finding herself looking at the same stained glass, finding faces and patterns in it as she had when she was a girl. Strange that she was the only one in her family who came here, the one who wasn’t born a Jew, the one who baffled people. There were so many things she’d lost since she’d lost Rina. She’d lost her parents coming to shul, she’d lost her ability to empathize, she’d lost her sister as a shield and protector, and she’d lost – she’d pushed away – Joy. They might not have stayed close. But a yearly coffee didn’t seem so terrible.
Loss builds upon loss. A sudden wind sneaks through a cracked window and every thread of the curtain inside is displaced by the movement of its neighbors. The ripples go back and forth, from the threads that are nearest the wound in the glass to the edges of the cloth and back again.
Kat never imagined she could bear such a thing, but here she sat. She was still here.
She stood up in the pews when the Rabbi read out Rina’s name and craned her neck around to find any other mourners standing. But she was alone, as always, the eyes of the congregation on her, on her skin and on her hair and on the hole beside her where her sister should be. She recited the words of the Kaddish by heart, loud and unafraid, because it gave her comfort, because she would remember always as the ripples slowed but never ceased.
They would never cease for her, but they would never cease for Joy either – for Joy, somewhere in the city, walking forward in her power shoes with her head high, touching the other side of a thousand-threaded curtain, an endlessly shifting curtain of lamentation.
Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.