May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
May 10, 2021
Last night, my sister Cay slept in our guest bedroom. We hadn’t spent the night in the same house since she joined the Moonies years ago. With her just down the hall, sleeping in the old bed I’d brought from home, I remembered what it was like to share a room with her.
When we were growing up, the windows above our headboards overlooked the same piece of tidal marsh and beyond that murk, Barnegat Bay. Our father was a commercial fisherman, and he left us alone for weeks at a time to trawl offshore for fluke, bluefish, and cod. Our mother died when I was two. Cay never let me forget that I was the baby.
While I was in middle school, each day she disappeared into the halls of the high school, where I imagined she spoke to boys, hung out at her locker with girlfriends between classes, carried heavy school books against her chest like some kind of shield. I wanted to know what it was like to be her. In the darkness of our bedroom, I’d ask a question and hold my body still so that I didn’t miss what she said in the fold of my pillow or in the sheet against my ear. I never faced her while she talked to me. I thought that if she looked up and saw my eyes shining or my mouth slightly open she would stop talking. But she usually didn’t say much—a few words about her friend Janey or a boy named Scott, and then she’d turn her back to me and fall asleep.
In that house, we could always feel storms coming staticky off the bay. The thunder and lightning pushed into my dreams just before I woke, and I’d sit up in the bed and notice Cay, her knees pulled up to her chest, her blanket wrapped around her like a cape. She’d wait for the first crack of thunder and for the marsh to flash open with light. Cay once told me that if we lived somewhere surrounded by trees, we would feel the storms less. I never told her that sometimes I waited for the wind to blow the glass in as it rushed against those old windows. I imagined shards catching in our hair as we huddled close. Those nights, after the storm had passed and she’d gone back to sleep, I’d will that storm to come back as I fell asleep.
On days when Dad didn’t go out to fish or down to the docks to work on the Stella Ray, the boat he named after my mother, it was always bad for Cay. Sometimes at night when Cay had been fighting with Dad during the day, she’d talk to me. It didn’t matter what I did or said or where I looked when she got like that, she wouldn’t stop talking. “I’m not like him. I’ll never be like him,” she said as she threw the covers off and went to stand by the window. She’d wrap her arms around her chest and rock forward and back from the toes to her heals. Her pink nightgown, too small, hung only partway down her thigh and clung tight to her chest.
Dad had a way of filling the house. If he’d been stuck at home for too long, he’d be yanking out the cabinet drawers, slamming doors, or hammering new shingles to the house. Cay would tell me that she couldn’t think for all the noise he made. And I knew that I needed to be careful too, that when he was inside, I needed to make sure all my school books were put away, the light in the kitchen was turned off, and the closet door was shut, hiding the piled boots and shoes, the coats falling off their hangers and hooks, the mess that was sure to raise his ire. I’d hear him calling for Cay to come here, straighten this, clean that. He wanted her to do it right away, no matter whose mess it was. He told her that her skirts were too short and that she better not have a boyfriend. And whenever they fought, I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. Something held me at my desk or on the porch, close enough to hear but still not be seen.
At night, when Cay talked about how angry he made her, I don’t think I ever said anything. I was so used to listening. I paid attention to the sounds the house made as it settled, the sound that came from the pipes when my father turned on the tap to fill his glass. I listened to Cay and pictured my father, his bolting eyes, the way he threatened her, and it felt like when I walked along the jetty near the lighthouse. I’d look down as the ocean water crashed through the cracks between the rocks and splashed against the sides. Sometimes I stood egret-legged between two boulders, not sure how to move as another wash of water came through and made everything frothy and slippery. Something about the way those tiny barnacles filled with water and the seaweed was strewn against those rocks made me feel sick.
The first time Cay got her period, I knew. I saw the rags she left in the wastebasket. When I came out of the bathroom, she called me over. I sat down at the kitchen table across from her, as if she might explain something to me. But all she did was put some money that she had curled up in her palm on the table. “I want you to take this and go into town and get me some Kotex napkins.” She crossed her arms over her belly and pressed in. “I can’t go like this,” she said.
I stood up, taking the money from the table and slipping it into the back pocket of my shorts. “Sure,” I said. She stayed at the table, and I took a jacket from the closet in case the wind picked up.
The crickets rasped from the dried cordgrass even though it was only late afternoon. I watched rocks spring up from the dirt road as they made contact with my bike’s front tire. When I got to the road that ran through the woods, I listened to the sound of the wind shuffling the leaves on the trees. I played the game I always played on that road, picking a pine tree in the distance and watching it turn as I came even and then rushed past.
That summer Cay swam everyday it didn’t rain, even when she had her period. We’d bike over the bridge to Ship Bottom and stand our bikes against the fence that ran along the dunes. She always liked to go straight into the cold water that shimmered silvery blue green like the backs of bluefish.
Cay never stayed in the water long. She practiced her breast stroke by swimming parallel to the shore, first in one direction, then another, never far from me. I always expected her to lie back in the water, do the dead woman’s float like we used to, but she would get out quickly. Waves broke into foam around her waist and then her ankles as she walked out of the water. On dry sand, she let her hair hang forward over her shoulders. She did not look left or right as she headed to where I set up an old sheet, its floral pattern faded, held down by our sandals and bags.
That summer, she never seemed to use enough soap. She always smelled of the salt marsh.
I liked to swim, too, but most of all, I liked treading water just beyond where the waves crashed. I liked how it felt to be both rocked and pulled. When I got out of the water, I sometimes held my body like Cay held hers, trying on what it felt like to be a woman.
Sometimes, Dad brought home bluefish for dinner. He’d gut their bodies on the rough wooden table we kept outside next to the back porch. Green flies landed on the backs of his hands as he took a knife to the skin. If I walked through the yard barefoot afterward, I’d find whitish blue scales stuck to the soles of my feet. From my desk, I’d turn and look out the window at a slant to see him there cutting off the blues’ heads, slicing a line straight down their silver bellies, and ripping out their insides. When I was little, he would call me outside if he found something in their stomach. Blues swallowed whole menhaden, squid, and baby weakfish that he’d lay out on the cutting board for me to poke. Later, he fried the bluefish in oil and serve it to me and Cay straight from the sizzling pan. The soft meat always grew cold in my mouth as I chewed. I’d feel the bones he missed sharp against my tongue and have to pick them out with my finger and lay them on the side of my plate. I feared the day I’d miss a bone, and I imagined how it would puncture my stomach.
Which, of course, never happened.
Eventually Cay graduated from high school and went up north to Montclair State for college. I thought of her with her tall socks pulled over her knees, her plaid skirts and wool sweaters, and how she must look when she crossed the campus lawns. She wanted to major in biology, so I pictured her in lectures, taking down notes on human development or making diagrams of the insides of frogs.
I waited for the weekend she might come home. Dad still went away for up to a week, and I kept the radio on in the house when I was alone. I always stopped for the slow songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and songs that started quiet and then pulled in more voices, more instruments, as if in a rush to something: “If you smile at me, I will understand / ’cause that is something / everybody everywhere does in the same language.”1
I imagined a boy at school I liked coming down the road to our dead end, where marsh grass licked his knees, and seeing me as I walked from room to room or bent over my homework at the kitchen table. But when I looked to the window, all I saw was my reflection.
When my dad came home, I turned the radio down to a low hum, so that I could only hear it if I leaned in close.
Toward the end of her first semester, Cay sent us both a letter saying she wasn’t returning to school and she wasn’t coming home. The letter came when Dad was home, so I didn’t have to read it by myself and figure out a way to tell him. I didn’t have to do anything brave like walk to the bus stop in town, take that bus all the way to the depot, and then get on another bus to Montclair so that I could find her.
In her letter, Cay said she wanted no contact with us now or at any point in the future. She said she found God and that she wanted to live by the Divine Principle. She said that she was filled with joy. I wanted to see her. But I just sat there watching my father reread the letter. The stew I had made grew cold and heavy, with grease rising to the top.
“Dad?” I said. It took a long time for him to look at me, and I wondered if it might be because sometimes people said I looked like Cay, and maybe he saw my sister in me—not in my hair or my eyes, but in the tilt of my nose and my forehead. I always thought that you would have to look very closely to see that Cay and I were sisters, but that wasn’t true.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. He ate a few bites of meat and gravy, before he set down his spoon and pushed his chair back. I wanted to tell him that she’d come back. “I should have never let her go away to school,” he said, as he pulled his down jacket from the closet and put it on, leaving before I could reply. He must have walked all the way to the Inn to drink.
I was used to being alone in that house, used to the marsh outside the window, the light of the nearby bridge glinting off the bay, the tides washing bay water onto the road, to the broken tiles, driftwood, and plastic milk jugs that people use to mark crab traps. But I was angry at Cay. I wanted to shake her, squeeze her hand till it hurt, and pull her hair till she pushed me away. I wanted to kick her like I tried to when I was a child, throwing punches into her arm when I got really mad and her just laughing at me. That night, I went through all the things she had left. I went through her clothes and a box of mementos from high school that she kept in her corner of the closet. I looked at her yearbook picture, looked at her eyes and tried to imagine what she must look like filled with joy.
The next day, Dad went to find her and left me at home. He shaved off the beard he usually kept all winter; his cheeks and jowls looked pasty, and his lips too pink. He kept biting his lip as he walked through the house gathering what he needed. I thought I heard him talking to himself.
“I’ll go,” I said to him. “I can help you.”
“No. You stay right here” was all he said. I imagined him appearing at her dorm room to talk to her roommate and wandering around the town. I saw people trying to make out where he was from. And that if he went up to them, how their eyes would glance at his faded jeans, his plaid shirt tucked in too tight, and then they’d look past him, trying to think of how to get away. I envied Cay now. I didn’t know where she might be or who she might be with, but I thought it must be better than being with him. His hand closed tight over the back of the wooden chair, and I didn’t say anything else.
After she left us, he didn’t pick on me. He barely noticed if something wasn’t the way he liked. The kitchen pots could be left out to dry on the counter, leaned against each other on towels. The laundry could be left on the couch, on the coffee table, or in a basket, the clean clothes wrinkled and waiting for me to fold. The closet door open, shoes piled up. I kept all of Cay’s shoes, knowing I would one day grow into them. She took most of her good shoes to college, but she left behind scuffed flats, stained tennis shoes, and a pair of leather sandals with straps so stretched out that I returned them to a box of her things underneath her bed.
Dad drank more and more, but it didn’t bother me as it should have. I knew what he was doing. I knew his patterns: when he sat on the porch, when he came inside, when he’d turn on the television he finally purchased, how long he’d sit watching baseball games before he fell asleep. The Inn was only a mile away. He walked to it or took his boat, coming home long after he thought I’d fallen asleep. He’d come home smelling of fresh air, not sour beer or cigarettes.
A couple of years later, Dad died quickly of cancer. I didn’t find Cay till a couple of months after the funeral. She came to visit when she got my letter. It had been easier than I expected to find her. Dad had tried through that first year, tracing her through the school, talking to her teachers and her former roommate, talking to person after person on the phone and then in Montclair, as if she had just disappeared behind the door of a shop and if he found the right place, she would be there, ready to talk to him. When I tried to get him to let me help, he said, “But what if they get you, too?” And I stopped asking.
When Dad got sick, John and I had been engaged for a couple of months. We pushed back the wedding. Dad liked John and didn’t mind that John came often for dinner. Dad told stories about when he was younger, what the ocean was like on long hauls, and what the town had been like when it was mostly fishermen who lived near the bay and the summer people who came and filled up the hotels on the island. He told us about how he got the Stella Ray, buying it from a neighbor who was too old to fish. He said that he bought it after he got engaged to my mother when she worked at the Engleside Hotel, managing girls who came to work there in the summers, girls who were younger than I was when Cay left. When I asked what Mom looked like, he said he remembered her white apron, the dark skirt, the blue blouse she wore as she rushed around on the hotel’s wide porches, serving dinner to the rich people from Philadelphia.
After he died, Cay came back and the first thing she did was stand on our front porch and lift her hand, holding it a couple of inches from her eyes. I knew what she was doing. When we were younger, all those years ago when we stood at the bus stop, she’d tell me to hold my hand in front of my eyes so that it blocked out the land across the bay. Below my hand, I saw the bay water, and above my hand, nothing but sky. When I asked her what I was supposed to see, she said, “Don’t you know? The sky and water are always the same color when you cut out the land.” When I was little, I remember looking and looking, expecting to see it the way she did. But the water always seemed too green, the sky too gray. After Dad died, and she stood on the porch, I watched her hold her hand there, and when I said something about what I remembered, she said, “Oh, that? You think that was what I was thinking about? No, just how long it has been since I’ve been here.”
“You left me,” I said.
She turned and looked at me. “I had to,” she said.
“He looked for you.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry about that.”
“When he got sick, you wouldn’t have recognized him. He changed so much,” I said.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Not today. We need to be positive today.”
I felt as if I had to keep talking. At births, deaths, and weddings, we must speak, I thought. Change gives us permission to share. But then I looked again at the marsh, and I stopped. The wind blew against my bare legs, and she turned from me.
When Cay stood in my kitchen this morning, I wanted to ask her what she knew of her fiancé. I had read about the Unification Church in the newspapers when they started reporting on the wedding. They spoke about love bombing, said it was how Moonies got new members. The papers printed pictures of what looked like college students, standing around someone who looked a little bit scared. Everyone around the circle beamed all the love and warmth and good will that they had upon you, offering all that love and emptiness with their eyes. The church was strict about touching when alone, but when they stood in groups they said loving things to each other, kissed, and hugged, till you felt somehow gleaming and made new before them, and you no longer wanted to leave. All you wanted to do was have a chance to be on the other side, offering that love to someone else, someone who was still scared and hopeless. But as she sat in my kitchen, I couldn’t even ask her about Gabriel. I didn’t want to hear her talk about love not attaching itself to any one man.
I wondered if Cay had trouble remembering what Gabriel looked like after seeing him only a few times. When I asked her about it, she said, “Don’t be silly.” She told me how she and Gabriel had been matched in a ceremony. Reverend Moon moved through a crowded ballroom filled with people ready to be married. Sometimes he worked quickly. Other times, he circled the room, pulling a woman from the far corner that no one had even seen to be matched with a man in the front row. Then, the pairs went into the hallway to talk and decide. Cay didn’t say how long she and Gabriel spent in the hallway before they walked back into the ballroom and said that they accepted the match. After that, they met a few times more, always in ballrooms filled with expectant men and women, never alone.
I had trouble remembering John’s face the summer we met. He came to Long Beach Island to live with his uncle after he graduated from high school. And the first few times I saw him, I was too nervous to stare at his face. We had a wet summer, and the tide rising on the bay often flooded the marsh and our road. I would call him when it went out, and while I waited for him to pick me up, I’d go over what I remembered of his eyes, his hands, the freckle near the edge of his lip. It took me a while to see him whole, to not be surprised when he came to pick me up in his uncle’s car. Later he said that he could have figured out the flooding with the tidal chart his uncle kept on the refrigerator, but he liked to hear my soft and nervous, “You can come get me now, John,” on the phone.
When I asked Cay if she needed help with her makeup, she said, “No. I’ve been practicing.” I had placed a mirror from my vanity on the kitchen table. She took a small kit from her purse and a page from a magazine. She looked down at the diagram before tracing her eyes with light brown eyeliner and coating her eyelids in shimmery blue-green eyeshadow. Her mascara was brand new, not dried and smudged around the edges like mine, and she put it on without flinching. I watched her from the sink while I washed and dried dishes. On my wedding day, I couldn’t even fasten my shoes, let alone put on eyeliner and mascara. I remember sitting in John’s aunt’s kitchen as his mother helped me. I had to tilt my head up as she leaned over me. She smelled of lavender. I liked the light pressure of her fingers on my face. I hadn’t been able to think of anything at the time. I just knew that in order to be married, I had to stay still.
While Cay smoothed pale blush over the apples of her cheeks, Anna ran into the kitchen and stopped next to Cay. Anna stared at her aunt, taking in her makeup, the curls hanging softly around Cay’s face. She took in her white slip and then glanced with widened eyes at the wedding dress on a hanger placed on the hook on the wall where I sometimes hang my apron. Anna pointed to the dress and said, “Pretty bride.” For Anna’s last birthday, a neighbor had given her a Barbie dressed as a bride, and for weeks Anna ran around the house, bride dangling from her hand. She called it her pretty bride.
I looked from Cay to Anna. “Will you have children?” I asked.
Cay leaned forward to sweep blush on Anna’s cheeks. Anna giggled at how it felt. Cay said, “Yes.” I didn’t say anything, but I doubted it would all come together as easily as she planned. I doubted she could just marry someone because she had been told to and it would work out fine. I wanted to ask how she could do this to her child. Anna had been so awed by Cay, awed by her beauty, her dress. Later, at the wedding, Anna had stood watching the brides walking down aisles, lifting their faces to look at something up near the ceiling as Reverend Moon splashed holy water on them. All those brides must have looked like her Aunt Cay or like her dolly come to life.
When Anna came into the kitchen a second time to see what Cay and I were doing, I pulled her onto my lap. Anna often sat there with her head against my cheek. She liked to listen to me, or listen to her father talk to me, or sometimes she told me about Isabel, her baby sister. When she talked about Isabel, I knew she was really talking about herself. But this time, her shoulders bunched at my touch. She kicked and pushed out her stomach. I held her, but she refused to settle. When I let her go, she stood next to Cay again, and Cay pointed at the mirror where they both could see themselves. Anna kept her mouth open as her eyes moved back and forth between the image of her aunt sitting in the kitchen chair holding some bobby pins in her mouth and her own body still in her long purple nightgown even though it was getting close to time to leave.
“He loved you,” I said, “Dad.”
And then before she could respond, I said the kind of thing a child would say, “I hated you for it. I hated you. I hate you.”
Anna looked at me, at the sound of my voice, pinched, angry, but I didn’t care what she heard. I dropped the brush I had in my hand and went and sat on the couch in the living room.
Anna picked up the brush and brought it to me. “Why don’t you go outside, Anna? Daddy’s outside,” I said, and she smiled at me, the kind of smile that meant she might do as I asked. She skipped toward the door.
Cay didn’t come to me. She must have sat there, finishing her makeup, combing her hair.
I wanted to leave, to avoid whatever was coming from Cay, but where could I go? I could hear John outside with Steven, Isabel, and Anna. Steven was pulling Isabel in the wagon, singing, “Baby, baby, stick your head in gravy,” something John says to Isabel when she starts to cry.
When Cay came to the doorway, she stood there a long time looking at me, and I didn’t look at her. I looked out the window to see some movement, some change.
“It’s time to go,” she said. “We don’t want to be late. I’m ready.”
And when I stood up, I did look at her, and as if my glance were an invitation to really respond, or as if only then did she find the words, she said, “I know you don’t mean that. You might have felt it then, but you don’t mean it now.”
I nodded, and then she hugged me, hugged me so that I could feel her thin shoulders, her small breasts through the satin dress.
“You never did what anyone told you. When we were little, and now you are getting married to someone you don’t even know because someone is telling you to.”
“You can’t understand what I’m doing,” she said. “You don’t know.”
Look, I wanted to tell her, I have something to say about marriage, about having babies, about this house around me, about what all of this might mean. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t say anymore. Nothing I could say would touch her, I realized. I felt as if I weren’t just talking to her but to all the people from her church who met in ballrooms, all those people surrounded her, and would surround her again at the wedding, those rows and rows of people doing exactly what she would do. Their faces shone behind her in my living room, taking up all of the space around us, all of the air so I could hardly breathe.
The day John asked me to marry him, he walked through the tide that flooded the road. When I opened the door, he was wet to his knees.
“Did you see any fish?” I asked.
“No,” he said. He sat down on the bench next to the door. While he unlaced his boots, I told him about a time when I set out down the water-covered road wearing my father’s boots. I had been wearing a skirt, and it lifted in the wind and then dropped down to the water when the wind lulled. When I looked down, I saw killies swimming between my legs. Their bodies were like little dark pulses. I moved my leg, and they darted away. When he finished getting his boots off, I went to get a towel from the linen closet upstairs. When I came back, I knelt down and wrapped the towel around his feet, moving it back and forth to dry and warm them.
John didn’t say anything as I rubbed his feet, and I didn’t look up at him either. I let my loose hair, grown longer than I’d ever had it before, touch his bare legs. When I looked up, he said, “Will you marry me?” I didn’t want to speak. I kept looking at him, and he kept looking at me, and the wind kept blowing my hair into my eyes, until finally I had to let go of his feet to pull it back.
“Yes,” I said to this man I barely knew but who had walked through high tide to reach me, to ask me. I said yes because of the way my body felt before his.
John comes into the kitchen, stands in the doorway, and watches me. He can tell that I’m crying. I meet his eyes and take a deep breath. He leaves the room and returns with Isabel. He lowers her body into my arms, and she fits against me. I look from him to her, waiting for the choppiness of my breathing to disturb her. I feel so old, so old, as John looks at me, and Isabel turns her body so that she can stare up at me, curious about what her father is looking at, curious about the slight moan that I try to hold in.
In this moment, I see Cay alone with Gabriel for the first time. She doesn’t struggle. She stands looking up at her husband, waiting. Her face is calm. She is hiding what she feels, hiding that she is scared. She is feeling inside herself, not unlike what I’m doing while I hold Isabel, the baby looking up at me as the world rushes around us. I imagine the brown carpet of Gabriel’s apartment in Queens, the wrought iron banister painted white in the landing. I know Cay is thinking of the marsh for the first time in a long time, and she is thinking of our father, seeing his gray hair, his blue eyes. And she also thinks of me.
Rachel Sturges is working on a collection of essays called Backyard Studies. Her writing has appeared in Commonweal, Image, and Earth Island Journal. She lives in Canton, New York, with her husband and two sons.