My twin sister is wearing a lace bra and lace panties that don’t match. She expects me to know which one will turn on her boyfriend. She believes a combination of two separate styles is something he will find enticing.
“I don’t know, they all look the same,” I say, which is true. Underwear is a language I’ve never been able to speak properly.
Women in the underwear store are looking at us. A hefty employee occasionally comes over and asks if we need help. Zelda says no, the woman’s opinion isn’t the opinion she wants. It’s my opinion she wants.
Or, actually, my ex-girlfriend’s opinion.
“What would Emily want? ” Zelda asks.
She comes outside, to the area between the change rooms and the store proper, wearing the mismatched underwear and tapping a kind of Morse code on her stomach.
This is common Zelda behaviour. Nudity as a concept is less confusing to her than the necessity of always being dressed.
“Put some clothes on, please,” I say. “Or at least go over there so nobody else can see you.”
She rests her head against the wall and makes a burbling sound.
“Tell me what Emily would wear.”
I lie. I tell her Emily never wore underwear. The truth is, I don’t remember what Emily wore, and this disturbs me. This fact disturbs me more than discussing what underwear my sister is going to wear when she loses her virginity. The imminent event is marked on the calendar beside the fridge.
Emily and Zelda always got along. Emily took Zelda for gelato and tried to teach her to read Russian, even though Zelda really can’t even read English past a fourth grade level. They used to practice their signatures together, filling up page after page in the living room of the apartment. While Zelda’s signature is a free-range farm of looping parabolas, Emily’s has the tightness of a compressed accordion. According to an Internet Web site on graphology, Emily’s small signature means she has good career aims and doesn’t waste time or effort. Zelda’s means she cannot face criticism.
“I like Emily,” Zelda used to announce.
“Emily likes Zelda,” Emily would say, making a mallet out of her hand and bonking it on Zelda’s skull in a Three Stooges routine they’d worked out.
When Emily left me for her old college roommate’s brother, Zelda asked why Emily didn’t love me anymore.
“I don’t know,” I said. “People fall out of love sometimes.”
“Are you going to fall out of loving me? ” Zelda asked.
We were watching a movie about penguins and for the first time since the baby penguins head-butted their way out of their shells she looked away from the TV and fixed her big baby blues on me.
“No, Zee,” I said, pausing the penguin movie so she wouldn’t miss a second of the birds sliding down ice dunes on their stomachs. “No, the love we have is a forever thing.”
Culpability is a difficult concept to process. Zelda has drawn pictures of it. In some of them me-as-fetus wears a cowboy hat and lassos her-as-fetus around the neck. According to the possibly inaccurate studies easily accessed on public library databases, thirty seconds of restricted oxygen can cause six per cent brain damage. While we were born, my umbilical cord choked her for four minutes.
The disability pension Zelda gets is enough to cover the apartment, while my job at the call centre, part-time for the time being, pays enough for our expenses. How Zelda saved up the money for her fancy underwear and her condoms and makeup is something I can’t understand.
“Show me how to use the rubber thing again,” Zelda says.
“I’ve already showed you three times,” I say.
Then she frowns and flops on the couch, turning her back to me. I can tell she’s pouting, making a show of it. We don’t have any more bananas, so I use a carrot. She chastises me about using my teeth to open to condom wrapper.
“You said never to do that, since it could break the rubber thing.”
“Good,” I say, fumbling with the carrot. “You’ve passed test number one.”
While putting the condom on the carrot, pinching the top like they say in the pamphlets you get at Planned Parenthood, the end of the carrot accidentally pokes through the rubber. Zelda laughs, I laugh, and suddenly the world isn’t a place where terrible things arrive in waves. It’s a nice, wholesome place where vegetables are responsible enough to use protection.
In the car Zelda wants me to tell her about my first time again. She thinks it was with Emily because I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was with a person I didn’t know, someone I met at a bar when I first came of age. Zelda believes people mate for life, just like swans.
“Did it hurt? ” she asks.
Zelda’s like baroque painters in this regard, obsessed with the human capacity for suffering. The drawings she makes suggests losing virginity is right up there with waterboarding on the Harvard pain scale. The faces of her mating stick-creatures are corkscrews of agony. They end up on the fridge with the rest of her crayoned artwork.
Once, when I was drunk, I told her the details and now I can’t leave anything out or she’ll get mad. Sex was so new to me I actually tore some of the skin on myself and bled everywhere. I wonder if there’s a particular recliner in hell for brothers who tell their sisters things like this on the night they’re supposed to lose their virginity.
“Do you think Marxy is like that? ” Zelda asks. She sounds out every word. “Circumcised? Was Dad circumcised? ”
“‘Unknown’ to both questions.”
I turn on the radio, hoping Zelda gets that I don’t want to talk any more.
She walked in on Emily and me having sex once. At that particular point in our relationship, things had only just started to acquire the mist native to polluted relationships. The time we spent together was like a pre-op phase that preceded to the white picket fence. We talked often of down payments for condominiums in those days, of future advancements made in the name of our relationship. I’d found a ring made of endlessly folded Canadian silver topped with a speck of diamond that was delicate seeming but sturdy, an understated geological wonder that reminded me of Emily. I’d squirrelled away almost eight grand to pay for it.
We had been watching a documentary, Emily and I. I’d put Zelda to bed and could tell from Emily’s eyes that amorous activity was on the horizon. She’d been inspired partly by the beauty of a pair of snails mating on the Planet Earth DVD, the one about rainforests. The things oozed out of their shells, turning an almost crystal blue as they hung from a tree on an ever-stretching teardrop of goo and coiled around each other until the body of one was imperceptible from that of the other.
“Shit, that’s romantic,” I said.
One had to acknowledge it: for invertebrates with underdeveloped nervous systems, they sure knew how to fornicate.
“It’s been a bit,” Emily said, lifting up my shirt and making a pink mess of my navel with her fingernails. “I think it’s time we got like the snails and synthesize.”
In long-term relationships, what excites must be cherished, be the muse wing tipped garden clogs or gobs of mating snails. We went at it with a kind of brutality, a violence of entwining limbs. Normally we used rubbers. This round we didn’t seem to have time. Our lovemaking became a thing so grand neither of us noticed Zelda awestruck under the door’s arch. She caught my eyes and waved.
“Howdy,” she announced, snapping me out of rhythm.
“What did we say about fucking knocking? ” I shouted. I threw a shoe that damaged her cornea so severely we had to take her to the hospital.
“What were you thinking? ” Emily kept asking.
They were both in the back seat of the car, Emily cooing soothingly in my sister’s ear. Every so often she dabbed at a mark I’d left on her neck, a cross-hatch of blood vessels popped under the skin by my sucking lips.
I told her I didn’t know, even though I did know: even then, I could feel her turning to air. If pressed to triangulate the exact moment Emily stopped loving me, all signs pointed here.
Occasionally Emily still calls to ask how Zelda is doing. The other day we had a conversation about Zelda and the Marxy kid making their own two-backed beast. My reasoning is this: if Emily thinks the sex shouldn’t happen, she can tell Zelda and nobody will have to go through with anything.
“I don’t follow your lingo, Scotty. Is two-backed beast an arts-and-crafts activity? ”
Zelda liked making things out of other people’s waste. She spent every Tuesday at the local community centre, with people a third her age, surrounded by mountains of multicoloured construction paper spaghetti.
I still fall into thinking of her as a child, something Emily endlessly chastised me about.
“She has a right to be sexually active. It’s going to happen whether you consent or not. At least this way you’ll be there.”
“Like those needle containers in public libraries,” I say.
“Come again? ”
The public library downtown has this fluorescent container in one of its bathroom stalls, a hazardous waste sticker stamped on the side. The idea is, if you’re up to any intravenous activities, say plucking your arm with a heroin needle, you can dispose of whatever’s punctured your veins in these safety buckets.
Emily makes a chortling spit sound into the phone.
“It’s for diabetics, fool.”
“Or addicts. Have you ever seen a diabetic shooting insulin in the library? Not I. But I’ve seen junkies wiping their asses with encyclopedia pages when a fresh roll of toilet paper is in the next stall. It’s the idea that you should facilitate something potentially problematic, say a drop box for dirty drug needles, which could just increase the problem and encourage more junkies to do more drugs. On the other hand, the library ostensibly would be a safer space, since there ostensibly would be less needles lying around for toddlers to swallow and the like.”
At this point I feel partially redeemed for being disgusting. Emily repeating my words back to me had always signified a solidarity of opinion, especially when it came to words that she didn’t use much herself in her everyday life. In the two years we were together, plus the year of courting, plus the four months since we’d parted ways, I have never heard her say “ostensibly.”
“I love you still,” I say.
“It’s not even remotely the same thing,” Emily says. “If you’re arguing that they’re the same thing, what you’re doing is saying that Zelda having a sex life equals junkies shooting up in public and leaving their diseased fucking needles everywhere. Which is a complete and utter bullshit thing to say about your sister, Scott.”
“And don’t ever say that again.”
“About Zelda? ”
“About loving me still. Now I have to go. It’s your decision as to what to do. But if she calls me and asks me to help her, I will help her. Sex can actually be beautiful and an expression of love.”
Emily hangs up. In between punching the wall and regretting punching the wall, I notice Zelda has been doodling pictures of naked four-limbed upright creatures that could, ostensibly, be taken for humans engaged in various gravity-defying acts of sex.
“Emily says hi,” I say, stepping over the pornography in search of a Corona. “And F.Y.I.: it doesn’t look like that. Just so you know. It looks like this.” I make my fingers into a gun and blow my own brains out. Zelda laughs and mimics the movement before falling on her back. The gun in her hand becomes a fist she starts licking. It’s a joke Emily taught her, a parody of an old me who used to overrate the use of the tongue while kissing.
I crack open my Corona on the edge of the dining room table, thwacking off a small spear of wood. Zelda has stopped laughing.
“We all miss Emily,” she says to one of her drawings, this one incomplete—a pair of headless, legless torsos sporting capes and breasts.
The clerk at the motel swivels around in his chair lazily. His fingers shine with the dust of potently flavoured Cheez Doodles, the sheen glowing when he licks each pad individually. His name tag is something incomprehensible, either Pat or Tat or Clat.
“Is there some kind of convention? ” the clerk asks, clacking on the keyboard with his orange fingers.
He points his pen at Zelda, who’s found an itch on herself that seems to travel from her ear to her neck to her shoulder. She walks around the lobby, examining the framed black and white photographic reproductions of Paris in the 1930s. Her dress already has a mystery stain on her ribs.
“If you are going to say ‘retards,’ or gesture verbally in that direction, I think we’re going to have a problem here.”
The clerk shrugs, possibly stoned, possibly still thinking of saying ‘retard’ but not prepared to deal with the repercussions of doing so.
“I was going to say people dressed up for prom.”
“Good.” I hand him my credit card. “That’s the correct answer.”
We make our way down the motel’s L-shaped corridor that winds around what could be a leisure area, the concrete pool cracked and empty, not much more than a gouge, discarded swimming paraphernalia scattered around the pool’s gums. We find our room on the second floor, right across from where Zelda’s boyfriend and his mother are staying. After setting up basecamp in our room, we cross the hall and Zelda slaps at the door.
Marxy participates in Zelda’s biweekly social group for younger adults with developmental issues. He is taller than I remember, hair Brylcreemed to the left in a side part that belongs in the late fifties. Unlike Zelda, who could “pass” unless you really gave her a hard stare, Marxy wears his condition irrefutably, just enough features exaggerated to tip you off. Zelda had introduced us a few times when I picked her up from her group. Still, he’s cleaned up nice and makes a passable Casanova, holding flowers out to Zelda when he opens the door.
“Well howdy, partner,” I say, standing awkwardly to the side as Zelda kisses him in a way that approximates the techniques she’s been practicing on her fist. Normally I would jimmy myself between them, a human prophylactic. A voice eerily similar to Emily’s echoes in my brain, saying, What’s the point? In two-hours’ time, things will have reached critical mass between them.
The woman I assume to be Marxy’s mother appears behind him, nudging past them both to shake my hand.
“You must be Scotty.”
She introduces herself as Pearl. Her fingers are clammy in my hands, though warm to the touch. From the way she wrote her E-mails I thought she might have been a teenager; no grown woman I’ve met indulges in that many emoticons and that many apostrophe-less contractions. But she’s not a teenager. The best way to describe her would be: Woman, fully grown and languid. I have trouble imagining Marxy being brewed in her uterus.
From an objective standpoint, factoring in age, Pearl is not bad looking. Her hair is blond and she has fairly high cheekbones, which men are supposed to find appealing. A part of me is glad I’m taller than she is. The bow on her bra, the fringe of which I can see from under my sunglasses, is a different kind of fabric than the rest of the bra, some kind of fluffy stuff knitted together.
Marxy and Zelda quit kissing and we all migrate into the hotel room.
“Drinks, anyone? ” Pearl asks, lifting a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Marxy raises his hand, so Zelda raises her hand. Soon I’m the only one not raising a hand.
“Maybe we should save that for later,” I suggest, even though the fog of a good buzz might make the situation seem more reasonable. Zelda has never been drunk, as far as I know. She turns and pulls on the skin of my elbow, tugging the excess skin taut. With her other hand she holds Marxy’s hand.
“Please? ” she asks.
“One nip or two can’t hurt,” Pearl says, already pouring out four plastic cups.
Irrespective of one’s gender, erections are a difficult thing to avoid staring at. As Marxy walks around, his penis announces itself against the fabric of his suit pants.
“I think it’s cute,” Pearl says. “It shows he’s passionate, in love with your sister.”
The television is tuned to one of those adult music channels that plays songs that are the audio equivalent of what lava lamps are to the eye.
Marxy and Zelda have started dancing, vaguely approximating a box step. Neither of them knows much how to lead. As they turn, Marxy’s erection moves like the dial of a compass.
“Zelda’s sweet,” Pearl says, flopping down on the bed next to me. She kicks off her heels and starts massaging one of her calves. “She’s a few I.Q. points over Marxy, but on the whole I think they’re pretty compatible.”
I swish the whiskey between my teeth and swallow the burning.
“Seems that way.”
“She didn’t get enough oxygen, that right? Some umbilical cord issue? ”
“It wrapped around her neck.”
She puts back her drink and pours another few fingers into her cup. The song shifts to a slow, grinding song that confuses Marxy and Zelda. He wants to keep the old pace, while she’s already adjusting to the change in rhythm. Eventually they synchronize, bumping against each other like billiard balls.
The deal was I’d pay for the room, while Pearl and I sit tight, make pleasantries, and wait for nature to run its course.
“Zelda and Scott,” Pearl says. She’s got a deck of cards and does a professional job of shuffling them, cards spitting from one pile to the other in a pink-checkered blur. “Why does that sound familiar? ”
“Ever read Gatsby? ”
“Not since high school.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it. The love interest in it’s based on his wife, Zelda.”
“Named after a married couple? ”
Pearl deals out a handful of cards, sculpting them into two piles. I’m not sure what we’re playing but fan the cards out anyway. Pearl flips over a card from the deck and snaps it on the bed between us.
Without meaning to, I start thinking about how it might feel to wakeboard my tongue down the contours of her chest. In the months since Emily parachuted into someone else’s life I’d only made it with one other woman, as easy to recollect now as a window smudge. We’d been drunk and flailing, the last two people at a Martini bar with a jukebox that played only Brit pop. The number she left sat unnoticed in my pants for days. By the time I’d remembered it, the washing machine had smelted it to gummy paste.
“I’m drunk,” I say, putting my cards down, slurping the booze through the filter of my teeth.
“Figured as much. You’ve been putting those back like you mean it.”
Instead of crumpling, the plastic cup splits into the shards when I give it a squeeze.
“How do you suppose they’re doing over there? ”
“Fine, I imagine. I gave Marxy a two-hour lecture on how to treat a lady, how to put a condom on, how not to neglect the sweet spots on a lady’s body.”
I stand up and scan the room for another plastic cup. Pearl leans back, using her arms to buttress herself. A slug of a vein pokes up from under her skin, right near the elbow.
“One of the things I learned straight off, having someone like Marxy, someone who’ll never be like other people, is that you need to accept the reality while doing your best to improve things. Do I think it’s completely normal for a mother to be teaching her son how to do finger tricks to please a woman? The pope would not approve. But if I don’t show him, who will? He can’t even spell his own name right more than thirty per cent of the time.”
The glow coming from the half-lit sign outside the motel hits Pearl’s face in a strange way, and for a minute she could be made of freshly blown glass. In that glow I reach out for her thigh. We both seem surprised when I make contact.
“We should probably put the brakes on,” she says. “I told my therapist I’d stop doing this kind of thing.”
She doesn’t elaborate on how I went from very good brother to a thing.
She gets up, flicks on the TV, and sits over in the other bed. A laugh track pulses from the channel. Pearl messes her hair.
“Are you a fan of improvisational comedy? ”
“She died a horrible death,” I say.
“Zelda Fitzgerald. Was in a mental institution waiting to be zapped by electroshock when a fire broke out. She was caught inside and got burnt to a crisp.”
The look on her face is like a photograph of the look I’d seen a hundred times on Emily’s. Am I trying to be funny or am I secretly praying for locusts to descend over the evening and make the sky black.
“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine this evening,” Pearl says, flopping back on the bed.
Sometime while watching skits on television I fall asleep. No dreams come to me, just jets of colours—par for the course when I’ve been into the drink. Blue, purple, red, my brain projecting for me a buzzing panorama. None of them make it clear to my dream-self that my sister is in another room, making love or screwing or fucking someone.
I’ve never owned a cat, but they say the awful creatures have modulated their howls to replicate the sound of babies wailing, a Darwinian trick that makes them impossible to ignore even when you’re asleep. Something about babies and crying hard-wired into the circuitry of our brains, a secret code delicately folded into the meat of our limbic systems.
Waking up, I can think only two things are happening: either a cat’s fallen off something very tall and landed on its head, or a particular kind of sicko is doing a very bad thing to an infant.
“Just relax, honey,” Pearl is saying, ushering in a haze of nakedness I come to recognize as my sister. Her body shivers, hiccups. She’s got tears making a glimmering mess of her face. Soon Marxy rumbles into the room, a towel around his waist.
“Stay a ways back, Marxy,” Pearl says.
Marxy’s hair is still stiff to one side. He’s crying, too.
“I did what you said, the way you said,” he announces to the air.
“It’s O.K., just sit over there.”
Pearl wraps a blanket around Zelda. Marxy doesn’t even notice me. For all I know, I’m just a figment of his imagination. Zelda rolls up into a little walnut shape, squeezing her legs together around her hands. This is the shape of something that’s suffered, I decide.
And it occurs to me, just then, that Marxy’s face might make an ideal landing pad for the ridges of my fist. I complete the operation quickly, the interaction of our bones echoing the sound Tupperware containers make when they’re opened very quickly.
And so I see red. The sound of my fist hitting Marxy’s nose is the only external stimulus that makes it through to my brain.
Instantly I understand that there has been a kind of miscalculation here. Pearl turns herself into a human shield, using the hem of her untucked blouse as a cork to stop the blood coming out of Marxy’s nose. Marxy whimpers, curling into a nautilus shell.
Something has gone wrong. Brothers do things for their sisters. They take action when action is required. Should a bullet whistle through the air, on a trajectory heading for the sister’s forehead, brothers must react in such a way as to negate the bullet. They must discover gaps in the theory of relativity. They must thwart Newton’s laws. There is a theory that once every eleven billion times you drop a pencil, the pencil will rise instead of fall.
“No,” Zelda starts up. She’s yelling not at me but to various objects around the room. She sweeps the coffee machine onto the carpet. She throws the remote into the ice bucket, where it bobs like the carcass of a long-dead sea creature.
Zelda falls onto Marxy, a shawl expanding over him. Her back has Marxy’s handprints on it. I can see the chorus of pink fingertips from my end of the room. From here, they are each very distinct, and each very far away.