After the rain, the clouds shrank and the sky shone silver. The phone would ring any minute now. I was standing over the receiver when its shrill snarl echoed in the room.
"How are you?"
"Fine. And you?"
"The same. And you?"
"Same here too."
"Did you think it over?"
"I thought it over."
"I don't know, we'll see."
We hung up and each took a sip of coffee, in her own kitchen, standing in front of her own window, feeling guilty for lying.
She's not fine. I'm not fine.
I began to pace aimlessly back and forth, despite all the chores I still had to finish. Ironing, darning, watering the plants, some rudimentary cooking for one. Cooking for one is a terrible thing. In the end I thought better of it and ate some old bread that had gone soft and smelled like an empty Tupperware container.
The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and came running after me. It nudged its way into the hall, overtook me, and fell hard against the inside of the front door, washing it of its usual dark gray. Then the light got sucked back out through the window, returning to wherever it had come to us from. Us. I feel like she's always here beside me, seeing what I see. When we were kids, whenever it rained we would burrow under her comforter and talk about how unbelievable it was that one day we would die. To get used to the idea we would bury one another and cry. Then we would hug and sniffle, the rain washing away our thoughts: what had been a bad omen became a source of consolation.
One day she said, "Don't you think rain is something that happens inside of us?" I didn't understand, but I liked the thought.
"If it's raining for enough people, we see rain," she explained. "Otherwise it's not raining."
Another time she said, "People decide how they're going to die. At a certain point they get tired of living and start to envision their deaths as if they were planning a trip. They say, I'll be wearing my pajamas and walking with an IV pole. Or, I'll be going there with no hair. With black lungs."
"Do you know how you're going to die?"
"I'm going to die in a car accident."
"How should I know? Hold on, wait. You're going to die a slow death. You like to take your time with things. Chemotherapy? I can picture you bald."
She's my big sister. Whatever she says engraves itself in my brain; no rain could ever wash it away. When I first started chemo, I remembered her prediction. She remembered it, too, and suffered a sort of psychosomatic alopecia, so that both of us ended up losing our hair at the same rime. That kind of thing happens to us often. One of us will get sick and call the other to tell her about her symptoms, the doctor's appointments, the tests. A few days later, whichever one of us was healthy has fallen ill, too. Years ago my sister developed a kidney stone. Then I got one, too. There was no such thing as laser surgery back then. When they opened us up, they found a stone in each of our right kidneys, as big as a dried-up umbilical cord. We got married within a year of each other and conceived our children in the same month. Ever since we were teenagers we'd had the same menstrual cycle, so we could be bored together on summer days when we couldn't swim. We liked the same foods, the same movies, the same books. And when each of us necessarily retreated into her own life—husband, kids, work—the telephone took the place of personal presence. We would talk early in the morning and late at night, when no one was around to bother us. My sister no longer said crazy things the way she used to, under the comforter, but every once in a while she would say something that reminded me of her old self. "You're looking out the window right now, aren't you?" she would ask. "Have you ever wondered if what you're looking at might be looking at you, too?" We no longer spoke with the same hunger, and our possible conversation topics had dwindled. These days we were afraid we might get sick if we heard too many unpleasant things all at once. Even when she had the flu and I could hear her sniffling on the other end of the line, she would say she was fine, to protect me. And I did the same for her. Once our children had left home and our husbands had died, I suggested that we live together. "Better not," she said. That's how it had to be: I had to suggest it, and she had to reject the idea. Every day I would ask her if she'd thought it over, and she would say, "We'll see."
Rotten leaves piled up on the windowsill. My children called every now and then to ask how I was doing. That's a meaningless question when you're old. I'd talk to them about the weather and they'd be impatient to get off the phone. Conversation wasn't useful anymore—it didn't lead to any concrete action. As the years passed I came to realize that weather is the most important thing in the world, the sole indication of God's presence. That ray from the sun that nudged its way into the hall was trying to tell me something. But I wasn't innocent enough to understand. And if I said anything to my children, they would get worried and hurry over to see me, when all they really needed to do was to look out the window every now and again. The telephone rang again. I knew who it was.
"I'll come," she said. "But don't make a big fuss. I'll pack a suitcase and come. I only wear two skirts, anyhow, one brown and one black. It's not like I'll turn the whole house upside-down."
"You should rent out your place, so you'll have some money coming in."
"Let's not make a big deal out of it. Let's try it out first, see how it goes."
After we hung up the skies opened again. I did some dusting to show my sister, and myself, that life hadn't gotten the better of me. I even baked a cake to welcome her with. The doorbell rang, she handed me her umbrella, her dripping raincoat, her red beret.
"Stupid weather," she said.
My sister got up every morning and padded into the kitchen in her nightgown. She drank some coffee and ate a few crumbs of bread, like a sparrow. She nodded her head as I talked about the significance of the weather, then got up, leaving her mug in the sink, her crumbs on the table. I brushed them up with a damp cloth, pleased that they swept up so easily from the Formica, together with whatever drops of coffee she had spilled. Then I did the dishes and cooked for the two of us, and since I was dealing with more appropriate amounts, whatever I made usually turned out well. But my sister was always disappointed with my cooking—she always thought there was something missing, not enough salt or sugar or mint. She'd leave the sauce to dry on her plate and go lie down on the sofa.
"Do you think you could water the philodendron on the coffee table?" I asked one day.
She just kept wriggling her hips, searching for a more comfortable position.
"I have an awful headache," she said.
The belt of her robe hung limply from the arm of the sofa.
There was a rotten leaf stuck to the sole of her slipper. My sister had a whisky every afternoon, then went out for a short walk or drive, "We have to respect our solitude," she would say. I took advantage of her absence to tidy up a little. I brushed her slipper prints from the sofa cushions, washed the colored-glass tumbler she drank her whisky from. Then I did some darning, or certain other things I was embarrassed to do when she was there. When she came back she liked to tell me about whatever she had seen on her outing. "Today I walked," she'd begin, or "Today I drove." She would tell me about slippery sidewalks, babies, distracted drivers. Broken streetlights, women walking home from the farmer's market with carts filled to overflowing.
"They push their carts so selflessly. Did I ever do that? I must have, or my children would have starved. But I don't remember anything from that period in my life."
"I do. We're still living in that period."
"You, you're a heroine."
One afternoon I saw her empty tumbler on the coffee table in the living room and got angry. I don't know why I got angry on that particular afternoon. Instead of picking it up, I made a sudden movement and swept the glass off the table onto the floor, where it smashed into a thousand pieces. I'd have liked one of the shards to dig deep into my palm so I could feel the pain, but I carefully picked up the pieces and threw them into the kitchen trash. Then I poured myself a whisky, too. It burned the roof of my mouth and scratched my throat, going down like broken glass. It went somewhere deep inside me, into some dark, desolate place I didn't like. Did it do that to my sister, too? Did she leave the belt of her robe lying on the sofa because daily life seemed meaningless to her?
It started to rain. The sky knew that I found it unbecoming to cry. It hadn't poured like that since the day my sister moved in. So I thought that if I did exactly what I had done that day, the spell would be broken. I dusted. I baked a cake.
When I finished, it was still raining. Every so often I would look out the window to see if the sky had brightened, but it never had. At one point I saw a red object whirling high in the sky, off in the distance. So small, like a tiny beret.
When my niece called, I knew right away what had happened.
"I told her a hundred times to get rid of that wreck," she said through her sobs.
"Don't cry, honey."
It was as if I had told her to cry harder. Her voice broke entirely.
"Oh, Aunt, it's just awful . . . They called me in to identify her . . . She was wearing her raincoat and a red beret . . . She looked like a little girl, like a little broken doll . . . "
Would she have thought it self-centered of me if Ihad compared her pain to mine? After all, I had known my sister for as long as I'd known myself. But my pain wasn't even or smooth. It hitched in places.
"And can you believe, someone robbed her, Aunt! Some passerby pulled her from the wreckage, then stole her wallet right then and there. Can you imagine?"
"People are completely—"
My voice broke, too, but I didn't need to cry. The sky was doing that for me.
"We've come to talk to you about the importance of family. Do you have a few minutes to hear what we have to say?"
The two boys couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old. They were both wearing suits and ties and something shone on their lapels. I looked closer, and saw little pins with their names engraved on them.
"Are you selling something?"
"No, we're bringing you the message of the Mormon church. We've come to tell you that the Heavenly Father's plan for salvation not only unites the family here on earth, but also in the hereafter."
I stepped aside to let them in and showed them into the kitchen, to the table by the window.
"It's sunny here," I said. "Please, have a seat."
I offered them each a piece of the cake I had made, but they declined. They were right. It was all dried out.
"Thank you for welcoming us into your home. We're representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"Is that some kind of sect?"
"It's a new faith. We're here to tell you about it. But first we want to pray with you. Do you have any objection?"
"My sister died," I said.
"She'll live eternally, in the name of Jesus Christ," the younger of the two boys said, his eyes filling with tears.
"I'm afraid it might have been my fault. I had bad thoughts."
"Let's pray for her," said the older boy.
They bowed their heads, joined hands, and said, "We thank You, Heavenly Father, for guiding us to this home. We ask that You ease this woman's pain and replace it with eternal life, so that she can meet her sister in Your heavenly kingdom. The word of God works through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ Amen." Then they told me about their founder, Joseph Smith, who went off into the forest one day and had a vision. The prophet Moroni appeared before him and asked him to find the eternal Gospel and translate it in its entirety. It was written on gold plates buried in the ground.
The two boys believed in their prophet. It had been a long time since I'd met anyone who believed in anything with such selfless passion. As they spoke, a hope began to stir in me that my sister and I would meet, and that paradise is a place where it never rains. I read out loud, as they asked me to, from the Book of Mormon, Alma 32: If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
They made me promise to read a few more verses before going to bed, and to pray. I was very tired and very alone and I said I would. They came again and again, and we prayed together and I said whatever they asked me to say. They were good, honest boys. Whenever I called them to talk about how bad the weather was getting, they always had something comforting to say. And when they came to the house, their upper lips would tremble with emotion. I gave them orangeade and hot chocolate. I also asked them to take my husband's ties, because I couldn't bear to throw them away.
One night I dreamed of my sister. She appeared just as Moroni had, emerging out of a blinding light. She was wearing the long white tunic of a prophet, and the whiteness of that garment was more dazzling than anything I had ever seen in my life. The bedroom lit up as if it were broad daylight, and my sister spoke.
"Are you completely crazy? What on earth are you thinking?"
"Don't be so hard on me. I needed something to believe in."
"Something to believe in? You're in danger of going soft."
"Did Moroni send you?"
"No, your gullibility did."
"I miss you."
"So pack up your things and come."
"What's it like there?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you what it's like."
"What do I have to do to come?"
"The opposite of what you're doing now. You have to lose all hope."
"But I have lost all hope. I don't want to do anything. Just to watch."
"You can't even do that. You can't watch, you can't think. Do you want to live to be a senile old fool? How old are you now? Eighty-five?"
"So what are you waiting for? Come on!"
"Do you think it's my fault?"
"Everything. When I broke the glass . . ."
"Who do you think you are, a prophet or something? You don't know anything! You can't even recognize the truth when you see it." As soon as she had passed on her message, all the light in the room gathered around her, swiftly digging a tunnel behind her leading up into the sky. She disappeared into that tunnel of light.
I didn't cross myself when I woke up. I knew she was watching.
I put on my slippers and went into the kitchen. The table was bare and clean, not a crumb in sight. It practically invited you to sit down and make decisions. I boiled some water for chamomile. I poured it into my favorite mug, the one with the almond blossoms on it. I sat down and listened to the rain. How long had it been raining? Ever since the day she died—two whole weeks. I took a swallow and burned my tongue. It felt nice, real, precisely the sort of ordinary thing that happens in life. If I could choose, I'd prefer a slow death, in a hospital, with doctors, intravenous lines, my children gathered at my bedside. I was different from her.
I stirred my chamomile with a spoon.
"You want to have it your way again, huh? You want me to come to where you are. Just like when we were kids, with the comforter. You never budged, I always had to come to your bed. But I'm an old lady now. I can't just die because you want me to. And I could certainly do without all these tunics and tunnels of light."
I crossed myself. But I did it furtively. There was no sense in giving her a reason to laugh at me.
From I'd Like. Published 2008 by Dalkey Archive. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.