I did not recognize her, but then she told me her name: not her grown-up name but the name she had back then, when she ignored me at bar mitzvahs and our parents’ barbecues. Back then she was Jessica Weiss, the elder sister of Marlene Weiss, whom I was supposed to like but loathed, because although Marlene and I were the same age and looked alike and were in the same gifted class at school and our moms played mah jongg together every week, her gaze when she fixed it on me always said, Ewww.
Always. In the shul, on our parents’ patios, in class, Marlene sought me out with eyes that looked exactly like mine and as she bared her teeth that looked like mine with lips that looked like mine forming a smile that would have looked like mine had I known how to smile like that, those eyes said, Ewww.
They said, You look like me but like the gross yucky version of me, like me wearing big orthopedic shoes and sale-rack clothes repaired with staples, me hilariously unable to play dodgeball or Chinese jumprope without falling down, me but with bangs cut retard-short by parents using kitchen scissors and Scotch tape. You look like me but whereas I am sharp and lithe, you are slackjawed. You look like me but whereas other girls ask me to play, you scuff around alone, plucking ball bearings from the ground. You look like me, but my parents don’t yell at me in public; they do not scream and stomp in their rage in parking lots and airplanes and yours do. You look like me but you are always bursting into tears. You look like me but when the teacher calls on me, I answer primly. When she calls on you, you blush and mutter as if you believe everyone hates you, which they do.
Always get the last word.
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Our mothers made us play together on their mah-jongg afternoons. One day I crouched in a corner of Marlene’s room and cried into her quilted bedspread. Doing pull-ups in the doorway, Marlene laughed. I pick my nose at night, she said, and smear it on that spread.
Her eyes that looked like mine right down to the tortoiseshell flecks and short straight lashes said, I know you but I do not know you, but not knowing you means knowing you because you are impossible to know because you are not you, you are not anyone.
I never would have recognized her sister all these decades later because Jessica, who used to be so angular, is soft and cushiony these days, the way you look when your kids are attending universities. But her hair still sweeps past one eye and swings beside her mandibles like pointed wings.
At fourteen she was reedy, taller than the rest of us, with pointy elbows and the kind of thighs girls wished they had back then, which when she stood with knees together did not meet, so a triangular sliver of sunshine flickered through. She ignored me at all those barbecues and Scout events, which was a relief compared to Marlene. Jessica liked to sip through straws.
Why is it that my only memory of anything specific that she ever said or did is so embarrassing that, meeting her again last weekend unexpectedly, I blurted I remember but could not go on? She was with her daughters last weekend, buying trowels. Even had we been alone, would I have intoned like a sibyl, a sleuth or the Ancient Mariner: One night in the back of your mother’s station wagon en route to a Scout event when you were fourteen and I was twelve, you discussed menstruation with Pam Silberstein. Pam said, Sometimes I run out of Tampax when I am flowing like Niagara Falls. You said, Me too, and when that happens I stuff Kleenex in my panties and I make a little mess in there.
Why of all things do I remember this and only this? Streetlights slashing her face, striping her stretchy V-neck top and skinny flares, in a car full of girls she spoke those words as loudly and plainly as you would when ordering dinner at a restaurant. I cringed when she said make a little mess. Mess was one of those words I could not say and still cannot, because I hear it roaring in my ears the way I heard it first, the way I learned it as Mom and Dad kicked toys back and forth across my bedroom floor shouting, You are a pig and this room is a mess. Mom clasped my collar as she wept into my face You’re just like me, a fucking mess. Not just a room could be a mess but so could human beings. Horrid ones, I realized. Mom slurred mess as if her mouth held every putrescent globule in the world.
When Jessica said in the station wagon make a little mess, I squirmed, throat clenching and spine flexing as if miming flight. Jessica said it in a light, proprietary way as if a mess was an achievement, like a garden or a work of art. Flicking her hair, Pam Silberstein said, Yeah. The station wagon suddenly felt hotter. I thought I smelled blood.