by Lindsey Crittenden
I have just lifted the sandwich for my first bite of food in twenty-four hours when I see her. My gut clenches. The back of my mouth tingles, like tin foil against fillings. It's my sister. There, across the street, almost halfway down the block, walking east, a purse strap slashed across her back, that loping awkward gait in flat shoes that scuff the sidewalk with each step. Shoes, I know from that day I hid in her closet after hearing the garage door open when I'd been getting high in the bathroom, that wear along the outside of the heels as if shaved. I crouched among them in the dark that day, fingers fumbling against wafer-thin soles, against tangled straps and buckles, against insoles curled stiff from dried sweat, and batted away the dresses and skirts that clung to my shoulders and cheeks.
The last time I saw my sister, Christmas, I was clean. Almost three months clean, and I'd make it another two and a half weeks before my birthday when I got back together with Carla, her mouth and hair over me so quickly, so lightly, I didn't have time to think beyond how good she felt and before I knew it we're headed to Hayes Valley, a voice like a drum beat Just this once, and then the rush picks up, excitement and adrenaline but relief too that now I can stop watching for it out of the corner of my eye, now I'm facing it head on. And when Dee recognizes the van, grins and walks over, her hand already in her pocket, the voice beats on, You're strong enough now, just this once, you can walk away later, and I can almost believe it, almost believe that I have a choice, and then Dee calls out, "Hey, Wade—been a while, good to see you." I've always liked Dee. We make each other laugh. I tell myself, She's your friend, relax, my hand on Carla's leg, grinning back at Dee, lifting my hips to reach for a twenty, Dee's fist a blossom in her pocket, a blossom around the vial she pulls out as soon as she grasps the cash, and then she's gone, the blossom only brown fingers that dropped a skin-warmed plastic vial in my palm, a vial I don't even look at but pass to Carla as I press the gas pedal and take my hand off Carla's leg and the voice begins again, quieter now but more insidious, so I drive fast and hard as if I'm just in a hurry, running street names through my brain with each green light, each corner, but I know what it's saying, I know with every bone in my body the despair lining its words, You're not strong, that's the white rock talking, you're the weakest son of a bitch that ever crawled on his belly, you're walking only in your dreams. In your dreams. At the quiet end of the park I pull the van along the curb so we can smoke, sleep.
Christmas. Six or seven months ago. I know it's summer now because the surf at Ocean Beach no longer gets tangled and furious the way it does when storms back up in the Pacific. The last time we parked out there was before I sold my board, now even the parking lot at China Beach mocks me with its memory of winter's north swell, Fort Point just around the Gate, seeing the ocean when you can't surf hurts like the itch of an amputated limb. I know it's summer because the fog blows in so fast over my head and through the trees along Park Presidio, so thick I can barely see across the tops of the cars to the other side of the street. But I don't know if it's June or July. I don't even know what day it is. They all pass in a kind of sameness. Every night before I fall asleep I think, Tomorrow I'll get myself across town to Dry Dock, and stare at Carla's head on the cushion I ripped from the front seat and then wrapped in a T-shirt to make her a pillow, tomorrow I'll go out to get food and won't come back, and squeeze my eyes shut as soon as I find myself noticing how small and delicate her head is, as sleek as a seal's with its fine black hair that I can't help but reach out and touch. Every morning I wake to daylight seeping through the roof of the van like a 30-watt bulb through a shade, hunger so loud in my body it's all I hear, and by the time I have scrounged money for a muffin or stolen bread and fruit from the shelf of a store all resolution is gone in the rumble of my stomach, the self-loathing that begins at the first bite and ends only at night, back in the van again, when tomorrow can be anything because I'm not in it yet.
Christmas, my mother had six oysters for each of us, on ice all day in the refrigerator. I gulped mine down, briny, plump, while my sister watched me. Our father lifted his glass, I sipped soda while they all sipped wine, closed my eyes to say the serenity prayer and opened them to find she was still watching me, the gray-blue irises of her eyes gone flat in a way that would infuriate me when she stared right through me when I told her a joke or called her by one of our old childhood nicknames. Used to be that was all it took to make her laugh, sometimes just a raised eyebrow, a mimicked adult stance, and we'd be off together in a language no one else spoke. I don't know when she got wary on me, but she did, and one Thanksgiving weekend when she was home from college, I taunted her by counting how many times she said "Oh well" or "Whatever," as if her will had shrunk so much her only response could be equivocation. I looked away then in disgust at how easily she had given up, on herself I thought. But at Christmas I was sober, knew better. Across the laden table I met and held her stare, remembering not only the laughter but the comfort she'd had in her as a young girl, a comfort that had been there for me like a lap to crawl into even as I couldn't stay.
Carla will never come with me into recovery. She says it's weak, nothing but men sitting around all day watching TV, so passive they don't even hit the Mute button when the commercials come on. She says all I need is a job so we can get out of this shitty van, live like people again. I tell her that in most of the programs there are donated black-and-whites that don't even have remote controls, and she says That's not the point Wade, her voice getting tight and screechy. Where's my loyalty? How can I leave her again? What would she do all alone? One night I did leave: jumped up, hopped out of the back of the van, slammed the door, and ran down Funston toward California. I'd gone three blocks when she caught up, driving up on the curb and screaming out the window so I had to get back in. She had all four tires back in the street for another block, and then pulled over outside a Union 76, lowered her head, unzipped my jeans with her teeth, half promise half threat. She's already got enough to hold over me, but I can always give her more.
There's traffic on Park Presidio day and night, and in the afternoon, after we've eaten, I move the van to a new spot on the quiet side of the trees and walk away, leaving Carla sleeping in the back, hugging the T-shirt pillow, skin pale from being outside only at night, until I can't see the van anymore. I sit against a eucalyptus tree and brush tattered strips of fallen bark, smell the fog before I see it. My sister and I traveled this way as kids, going to the airport or, more frequently, to my grandfather's house. We would climb into the way-back on the way home, the empty back seat between us and our parents as if we were in a separate vehicle. In warm breath, she'd spin stories about how the street lights were runway signals to a secret land, a place we were going where we'd never been, like Oz, she'd say. "Doesn't it look that way?" she'd whisper, and then, "Sh...." And then we'd pull onto the bridge where the fog smudged the lights into golden blurs, and she was right, it did look that way, but what I noticed, above the lights, were the thick twisted cables that reached up into the fog. I had to know what was up there. I heard the rushing sound of other cars around ours, felt the car sway as our father changed lanes or braked, and knew that the back seat could not contain me—any more than my sister's imagination could. I had to burst ahead of the rest of the traffic, to soar and race, to break the confines of speed limit and traffic signals. Why? my parents would ask me years later as they waited with me on the cracked plastic chairs of juvenile hall. What, a judge once asked, would make a kid like you break the law? At sixteen I climbed the north tower, grabbing the cables and running until I was out of headlight reach. No fog that night so the lights were blurred only by tears from the wind, nothing above me at last but the stars.
"Let's pretend," she'd sometimes say, "let's pretend we've been kidnapped," and we'd sit up and mouth Help out the back window at the car behind us, falling against each other in laughter until our father called out to quit it. Then we'd quietly press our mouths to the glass and stick out our tongues, wanting not so much a response from the other drivers—who either smiled and waved or looked away, mouths set in grim lines—as to prolong our feeling of power over them, of invulnerability as we distracted them. By my junior year in high school I was a regular at juvenile hall, and the one time my sister drove me up there we said nothing the whole way, except for when we pulled alongside a pick-up, its cab big enough for a back seat. Three small faces grimaced and eyeballed out the rear window, three mouths stretched like anemones on glass at the aquarium. "Pass them," I told her, but she said, "No, I don't want to, I'm already going sixty." "Live a little," I told her. "Go sixty-five." She shook her head and waited a mile or two, tugging me on a short leash because then she did pass, and I turned my face to the window, pulled back my lips, touched my tongue to the tip of my nose, and waggled my eyebrows. Two kids pulled back in amazement, but the older one gleamed with delight. "Future delinquent of America," I said, but she only stared ahead, and I ached to grab the wheel, jerk us free.
The fog's thickest late in the day, when the birds start wheeling over the tops of the cypresses in Golden Gate Park. Seven I was or maybe eight one summer day when we stood in line for hours, eating hot dogs and popcorn balls, my mother and sister and I. Inside the Van Gogh exhibit at last, my mother stopped at the one of ivy, swirls of green paints so thick on the canvas they stood up. My sister liked the sunflowers best, but I couldn't stop staring at the one next to it. Crows, blots of jagged black against a field of gold. Years later, flipping channels late at night, too amped to sleep, when Carla and I still had an apartment, color TV, and cable, I caught it on A&E, filling the screen. I learned then that it was the last painting Van Gogh did before killing himself, and it made perfect sense, how loud and mocking those circling crows would be until you could paint them, but how painting them might be worse because then they'd exist outside of you, too. Carla'll sleep for another hour, but I run back to the van to crawl next to her, burrow into her hair, touch the narrow, tight ribcage under the drum of her skin. She'll hold me and murmur my name, not call me weak. And later, when she'll ask me to score more, we'll pass the park on our way downtown and they'll be just birds again.
"Hey pal," I told the man's blank, wide, Asian face, "don't wrap it. I'm going to eat right away." But he did, swaddling the sandwich tightly in butcher paper, even taping it. I slapped the money on the counter. Bastard didn't even meet my eyes. Everywhere I go they smell it on me, storekeepers and dealers and cops. I'd never rip this store off. I'd go farther away, someplace I've never eaten a sandwich, chatted up an old lady. I'm in the blistering sunshine, the door jangling behind me, its glass panel covered with a Newport ad of a laughing couple tugging a football like a bad joke, when I rip off a corner of paper and lift the roll. When I see her the bread turns to cardboard on my tongue. My sister lives in L.A., has a job, a nice apartment, a life so different from mine it's as if we never lay side by side in the back of the car but I know we did, it's what makes my heart stop when I see her, stop and then start pounding. It's not her. It's her.
She walks like my sister, steady and upright but without straightening her legs at the back of each stride, as if she were wearing heels and a tight skirt. My sister would never wear heels and a tight skirt, not during the day, not on the street. I usually don't notice women dressed in loose skirts and baggy sweaters, their fineness all hidden away in folds and drapes. If I could see the curve of her jaw I'd know. At the corner, she stops, lifts her knee and rubs her calf as though she pulled a muscle, tore a tendon. Her hair hangs straight down. The narrow ribcage, the long waist. She's always moved as though her center of gravity were somewhere above her shoulders. She falls easily, can't ski, could never surf. But she's grown into her body, I see as I watch her cross the street, turning her head in one direction but not the other so I still can't see the slice of profile that would tell me for sure, moving with the fulcrum of her weight now between her hips, as though she carries a bowl balanced there, a bowl brimming with liquid that sways a little with each step but does not spill. I can't lose her now.
It hurts to squint into harsh white sunlight, hurts to chew the roast beef on French roll that I spent four of my last seven bucks on, hurts to feel my stomach pull the food down and cramp for more. Carla's going to wake up soon, hungry too, maybe remembering that I whispered into her tangled black hair before leaving, "Be right back," maybe not, starting to scrounge through my jacket pockets, my knapsack, the glove compartment, to see if I have money squirreled away that I haven't told her about, to see if I've kept anything from her that we could hock. But I keep scuttling crookedly along the storefronts of Sacramento Street, following this apparition, this stranger, this sister, as she walks confidently down the center of the sidewalk. Loss breaks over me, no longer with the crisp edge of an approaching cresting wave but with the rushing tumble of one that has crashed right on top of me, and I bend over, my stomach jolting in revolt as I hack up chewed roast beef and French roll and the tang of sweet mustard and bitter saliva. I spit, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I can't let her see me like this.
She crosses Baker and heads north, her swinging skirt flashing the pale back of a calf with each uphill step, each bent knee. She is slowing down, fumbling with her purse. I crouch behind a parked Civic. Her hair falls forward as she bends her face down toward her open purse, and then she pushes it back behind her ear, a move I have seen my sister make thousands of times, and suddenly looks up. Perhaps after three blocks she senses she is being followed. Perhaps she is as nervous as the man behind the deli counter at my presence, although it is late morning on a sunny day, although we are in one of the city's safest neighborhoods. Perhaps, as she lifts her keys from her purse and sweeps the street with her gaze, she notices my feet as an irregular shadow between the regular shapes of the Honda's back tires. Perhaps. But it doesn't matter, because in the instant before I jerk my head back behind the Honda I have seen what I need to know.
On those visits to our grandfather, Poppa always gave us each a new penny, then as we got older a crisp dollar bill, asking each time, "How much have you saved now?" My sister, having counted before we left the house, would reply with the exact amount she kept in a papier-mâché box she'd made in school. Sometimes I'd go into her room and lift the lid to marvel at the bills tucked neatly along the box's folded edge, coins covering the bumps of dried glue. I never stole from her, not so much because I knew how carefully she tracked her money but because I was in a kind of awe at her thrift, as if we were separate species and I was learning about her unique money-saving habits on the Discovery Channel. One day she told Poppa, "Eight dollars and forty cents," and he patted her head—"That's a girl"—and turned expectantly to me. I had no idea, I'd spent some of it, lost some of it, and never remembered to count what I did have, but I said "Four dollars and twenty cents," thinking that since I was half her age at the time I would have accumulated half as much. He smiled, and I can remember the sour disappointment at being praised for something I hadn't done when the calculation I had done was much more remarkable, but I couldn't announce it without admitting the lie. His watery blue eyes held mine a fraction longer than usual, and I wondered suddenly if he was on to me. If his failings that my parents talked about on the drive home—forgetting my mother's name, abruptly interrupting my father once to ask "And who are you?"—were tricks he played on them, and if he could see through to deeper truths. I wondered if he knew what I'd done, and if it was okay. But already it was my secret, something to keep me apart, and I said nothing.
I stumble, fall to the curb, almost drop the sandwich. There is a brief moment of clarity where the trip to Dry Dock is a bus ride I can catch a block away, where I do not hear the rushing outside the station wagon or the drum beat inside of me, where I can stay with my sister, a brief moment before what could have been tumbles against the bruised tissue of my brain and I wrap up what is left of the sandwich to take back to Carla, knowing I'll be ahead by three dollars if I don't have to buy her one of her own.
Lindsey Crittenden writes, edits, and teaches in San Francisco. Her collection of stories, The View from Below, was published in 1999. Her stories and essays have appeared in Quarterly West, Santa Monica Review, River City, Bon Appetit, and Health, among others.
Note: "Like This" was first published in The View from Below (Minneapolis: Mid-List Press, 1999). Copyright 1999 by Lindsey Crittenden.