The Other One – Kaila Lancaster
Miriam pressed a sweaty Diet Coke can to her cheek and shifted in the lawn chair. Her jaws popped and clicked as they clenched, her sore face muscles the victims of TMJ. The yellow glow of fireflies dotted the backyard, and she wished she was young enough to catch them in her hands, smoosh their bodies on the pavement of her porch, and marvel at their guts glowing hot on the ground: smeared luminescence painted on stone.
Instead, she sat and wondered when members of her family had begun to look so much older—fine lines, graying hair, softer bodies. She was a member of the “softer bodies” category, and she pinched her shirt and puffed air into the space between her stomach and the thin yellow fabric.
She was one Walsh body in a circular lawn chair chain of Walshs or Walshs-by-marriage. Miriam, her sister Claire, Claire’s husband Aidan, Mom, Grammy, and a few cousins and aunts and uncles sipped sodas or beer and nibbled hot dogs and salty chips. Pink-orange clouds swelled and melted into a black-blue evening sky, and Miriam’s second or third cousins, sparklers in grubby kid hands, sprinted through the chigger-infested grass in the backyard of Miriam’s childhood home. It was the Fourth of July at the Walsh residence in Waco, Texas, with its stifling humidity and the smell of barbecue sauce and grill marks creeping into Miriam’s nose.
A mosquito—mouth extended, black body lean—landed on Miriam’s arm. She smacked the insect and swiped the corpse onto the grass beside her.
“A mosquito get you?” Claire asked. She sat cross-legged in a chair beside Miriam. Her tanned forearm draped over a mesh cup holder, and her hair was piled on top of her freckled head—messy-but-perfect. Miriam hadn’t seen Claire in months, and she hadn’t seen her apart from her new husband in over a year. Aidan held Claire’s dangling pink-painted fingertips in his own. Young lovebirds still honeymooning six months after the fact, eyes wide, slim gold rings wrapped around fingers.
“Nope. Killed it in time,” Miriam said, and she drank her Diet Coke. Acidic fizz numbed the lining of her throat.
Family members shared stories of the past year as per tradition. Grammy went first and spoke in her hick-twinged voice: she adopted a dog, gone on a cruise, attended funerals of old friends, learned how to send an email. Grammy’s wrinkled face and body seemed to melt into one another like soft serve ice cream. Miriam tried to listen to Grammy—respect your elders, stay attentive, she told herself—but she kept glancing at Claire and her husband.
Claire, her younger sister who married her high school sweetheart. Claire with her slim body and long legs and eyes softly accented with bronze eyeshadow. The “pretty one.” The sister who moved back to Waco after graduating college to be closer to Mom, the sister who lived comfortably on her husband’s salary as a pharmacist, on her own earnings as a lifestyle photographer, whatever that was. Claire had an impeccably decorated apartment—soft curtains and a wood coffee table crowned with never-opened coffee table books, seasonal decor appropriate for the shifting holidays. Beneath the fading daylight of July’s humidity-thick sky, Claire seemed lit from within, golden and comfortable and content, smiling as Grammy spoke. Aidan’s throat pulsed as he gulped from a can of Dr Pepper; his glasses slipped toward his forehead up the bridge of his nose as he drank. He laughed at jokes everyone found funny—his focus was intent on Grammy, his face reacting to the things she said. The perfect son-in-law, brother-in-law, grandson-in-law.
Miriam’s stomach bunched in rolls under her thin yellow shirt, the waist of her jean shorts tight and damp with sweat. She felt chubby.
Miriam loved her sister more than anything—they were inseparable in childhood, always close—but she felt out of place as she sat beside her and her new husband. Everything about this year’s reunion was off somehow. Miriam could see how her family perceived her now that Claire was married and settled and she wasn’t. The older, eccentric sister who hadn’t had a date since sophomore year of undergrad, the Walsh who was wasting her time pursuing some graduate degree no one understood, the ambitious one with potential but what’s the point anyway?
The difference—the true difference, the difference Miriam hated—from the last reunion to this year’s were the pairings of the family members. The labels: Uncle John and Aunt Katy. Uncle Mike and Aunt Barb. Mom and Grammy, because Mom was divorced and Grammy was a widow. The little cousins, Sarah and Colt, and the others. What had once been “Miriam and Claire” had become “Claire and Aidan.” Now Miriam’s name was tacked on at the end of sentences: “And then there’s Miriam.” The other one.
As Grammy finished speaking, the sunset finally succumbed to darkness, and multicolored explosions peppered the sky.
Miriam thought of her childhood and her relationship with Claire as Aunt Barb recounted her recent trip to Disney World.
Claire social, Miriam shy. Miriam the responsible, Claire the careless-in-a-good-way, the sister to laugh things off and to forget grievances and mistakes. Claire had always been the sister quickest to forgive, the quickest to love. Ever since Mom’s divorce—Miriam was thirteen, Claire eleven when Dad left for a stick with bulging breasts and a knotty nose punctured with metal in attempt at a youth facade—Miriam couldn’t trust too many men or people in general. Claire did the trusting for her.
Miriam had relied on Claire for friendship throughout adolescence—she counted on Claire to do things with her, to go to the movies and split a buttered popcorn or go browsing in department stores with shiny floors clothes branded with price tags stamped with numbers they couldn’t afford. In high school they drove to school together, suffered sporadic dinners with Dad together, secretly ridiculed their stepmother, reluctantly pitied their stepsister.
Miriam remembered when Claire started dating Aidan. Claire was a junior in high school, Miriam a newly-minted college student. Miriam had come home for Christmas break.
“Movie, Claire?” she asked her sister one late afternoon, the shadows long and the weather outside too warm for December. Claire was bent toward the bathroom mirror, applying makeup and distorting her young face as she brushed and pulled and swiped.
“I have a date,” Claire said, yanking the flesh beneath her left eye toward the floor, dragging a black pencil over the lower lash line.
Miriam’s chest ached in a nervous way, inflated and sore from unprompted pressure. Unjustified aching, the result of a persistent anxiety she’d acquired since moving away. She wanted to go to the movies with her sister she hadn’t seen in months, but Claire had other plans.
“Aidan Murphy. We’ve been seeing each other for a few months.” Claire—eyes unfinished, one rimmed with black smudges, the other a blank canvas, pale and freckled on the lids—turned toward Miriam, smiling and searching Miriam’s face for reassurance.
“He’s cute,” Miriam said, voice quiet, her chest thick, knotted. “Another day?”
Claire agreed to another movie they never went to see, and Miriam spent the evening in her room watching television, the family dog Poochie curled at her feet at the foot of her bed. She heard Aidan’s car pull up around ten, and she peeked through the blinds in her room—shades parted not even half an inch, her breath fogging the glass between the dusted plastic—and saw the couple kiss, Aidan’s hand sliding down Claire’s arching, thin back.
Miriam closed the blinds, turned off her television, and burrowed under the quilt Grammy made her for Christmas one year. Claire knocked on her door, but Miriam pretended she was asleep.
It was Miriam’s turn to speak. She chugged the last of her Diet Coke and stuffed the hollow can into the mesh cup holder.
“Let’s see,” she said, discreetly suppressing soda-induced belches with a fist pressed to her lips. “This year I moved to Kansas. Started my Ph.D. Got a cat, Bagheera. He’s in the house, and you could say old Poochie doesn’t like him one bit.” Chuckles from the group; glassy eyes blank and blurred with alcohol, mouth turned up at the corners with polite expression. She divulged she’d been accepted for publication at a small journal, had grown an herb garden in her kitchen. Thyme and basil she rarely touched—she preferred takeout to the mess of cooking, but she liked the way the garden looked. She mentioned a few friends she made, colleagues nice enough company for a dinner out, a wine night in.
Miriam excluded the fact that she’d gained ten pounds and spent most days in her small apartment typing essays and grading papers, the only noise the static of an old television, the humming of the AC or the buzzing of heating unit. She often endured twenty-four hours without opening her mouth to speak—but she liked this, the silence. The simplicity. “It was a good year,” she said, and the circle of Walshs tilted heads and drank more beer or smiled absently, minds probably deciding what they would reveal to the circle.
“Claire and Aidan, your turn,” Mom said, leaning toward the middle of the circle, her elbows resting on her knees, hands and arms flopped over each other.
Claire placed her hand on Aidan’s thigh, her cheeks coloring, her face golden from the light emanating from the back porch. Claire never enjoyed speaking to a large group—Miriam was the sister who could speak in front of large crowds.. Miriam had always been the professional one, a natural in front of “the grown-ups,” the socially awkward among peers. Claire was the afraid of the sun, the spotlight, never to stand on a creaky wood stage to act, to present, to persuade.
People liked Claire because she loved to listen.
“We’re married now, but y’all knew that,” Claire said, her Texas accent melting words together like butter melted on toast. The twang coated words gently, never too thick or strong. The family laughed at Claire’s quip, and Miriam wished she had talked more with Claire over the six months since her wedding. She’d missed her voice—soft and sweet, like Claire herself transformed into pitches, intonations.
“But other things have happened since the wedding,” Aidan said. “We moved into our apartment, our first place together. Claire’s been doing well with her photography, I’ve gained a few pounds.” Laughs, polite and soft. Miriam realized she never really liked small talk that parties catalyze, even family parties—laughter forced, attention stolen from other things.
When the family settled, when the attention was about to shift to Aunt Katy and Uncle John, Claire said, “We have one more piece of news.”
Miriam discovered then she was going to become an aunt come early February.
Mom cried, tears sprang from tanned leathered eyes. Grammy wobbled from her seat and embraced the couple. The aunts and uncles shouted “Well I’ll be damned!” into the night, and the distant pops of fireworks punctuated their voices.
Miriam reached over to Claire’s free hand and squeezed. Claire’s hand was soft, freshly lotioned with her favorite lemon-scented hand cream. Claire squeezed back, and Miriam’s throat burned dry and her body prickled hot and red with hives.
As Miriam—her body blotchy, skin angry—popped Benadryl into her mouth, she thought of the night Dad left them.
They had huddled on the bed in Miriam’s bedroom—the biggest bedroom with the television, “because she was the oldest.” Some sitcom rattled on the screen, the girls’ attempt to stifle Mom and Dad’s yelling drifting through the walls. It didn’t work.
Dad’s voice: “I’m unhappy.”
“You’re unhappy? You’re unhappy?” Mom’s voice, hissing. “Do you mean you’ve found someone new to stick it in?”
Miriam and Claire said nothing to each other. Canned laughter spilled from the small television that had belonged to Mom when she was in college. Poochie—young then, just a year old—whined at the door of the bedroom, his tail drooped and limp on the floor. Miriam and Claire didn’t let the him out.
Dad’s voice, again: “I’m leaving. It’s for the best.” Silence for minutes. Claire lifted the quilt from her lap and gnawed at the corner, a habit from childhood.
“For who? For those girls in the bedroom? For your ego? Or for or your dick?” Mom growled then, and Miriam imagined flames sprouting from her head, Mom’s face crimson, her eyes shooting acid onto Dad’s face, dissolving his skin, revealing his skull. At the time, Miriam was hurt, confused. Looking back now, though, she felt proud of her mother’s contemptuous speech.
Hours later—post screaming and suitcase and knick-knack gathering, closet doors slamming—Dad left without saying goodbye. Remnants of tears streaked down Claire’s kid face, the streams gleaming and sticky under the yellow light of the ceiling fan. Miriam cried as well, releasing choked sobs heavy with anger and embarrassment. Hives catalyzed under her skin, pink and welted, buried swollen under pale freckled flesh. Miriam always suffered hives when she felt most upset—after losing in class spelling bees or foot races when she was younger, after Grandpa died last year.
Mom entered the room after Dad left. She gathered Miriam and Claire into her arms and squeezed, her hands firm on Miriam’s back. Mom’s face was dry, her eyes clear. She said, “You have to be best friends, girls. Even when you’re grown and married, whatever.” She coughed, placed her hand over her chest, and massaged the bony surface with the pads of her fingers. “If they leave you, you’ll have each other at least.” Then she left the room, leaving the door cracked for Poochie to follow.
Claire slept in Miriam’s room that night, and the chattering of Friends reruns and the flickering blue light of the television kept them company as they lay in restless silence.
“You feel better?” Claire asked, pajama-clad, bare-footed in the kitchen. She gripped a plastic water bottle, twisting the cap open and closed, open and closed. Miriam was reading a book on the sofa in the adjoining living room. It was almost one in the morning, and family had trickled back to their homes or to their hotel rooms. Claire and Aidan opted to stay the night, “for old time’s sake.”
“I’m good. Thanks.”
“Can I sit with you?” Claire asked. Since the news of the pregnancy surfaced, Miriam noticed Claire’s face was rounder, fuller, her cheekbones not as prominent as they used to be. Her complexion was still clear—Claire always had good skin—but she recently acquired a small pocket of flesh under her chin.
Claire sat beside Miriam. “Is school really okay?” she asked, falling naturally into the role she played her entire life: the nurturer, even to her older sister. Miriam always felt guilty—she should be the mothering one, the older sister who looked after the youngest. But she couldn’t bring herself to be that for Claire, to be that for anyone.
“It really is, Claire. Everything’s good.”
“You really have friends?” Claire’s face slimmed as she frowned. Her naked eyes had darkened over the years—soft purple pockets under lower lashes, green eyes morphed to hazel.
“Yes. Good colleagues.”
“That’s good,” Claire said, and she sat quietly for a few minutes. Miriam read a paragraph of her novel while Claire scrolled through social media on her phone. She typed replies to comments on the Facebook post announcing the news, her fingers quick and mouth turned up in a smile, her lips mouthing her words as she typed. They sat next to each other, yes, but Miriam had never felt more distant from her sister.
“Was it planned?” Miriam asked, her voice cutting through silence like the fireworks had sliced open the sky that night. She could hear bitterness in her voice, and she hated herself for it.
“Hm?” Claire looked up from her phone, distracted.
Miriam repeated her question, this time softer, gentler. She tilted her head like she’d seen Claire do when she was listening. She’d try to nurture this time. Nurture Claire, Miriam instructed her psyche. Be the big sister.
Claire twisted and untwisted the cap of her water bottle. “No,” she replied. “But it’s okay. Aidan and I are happy, and we can afford it.”
Miriam studied her sister—eyes bare, face sans bronzer or blush, skin softly textured, light hairs wisping above her lips and on her cheeks. Was she happy? Miriam wanted to ask her sister if she’d miss being alone, missed her time in college in her shabby apartment, painting and building and designing things for her major, doing the long distance thing with Aidan, calling Miriam every afternoon at 3 p.m., per their routine, their collegiate tradition. Did she miss the McDoubles from the dollar menu? Road trips home alone, radio pounding from speakers, a stretch of road and a stale air freshener her only company?
Miriam said, “I’m happy for you, Claire,” and the they sat together for a while longer, Miriam’s skin prickling and itching, hidden hives desperate to claw to the surface. In the morning, Claire and Aidan would leave for their apartment and would begin house hunting in town; Miriam would trek back to Kansas, Bagheera curled on the floorboard of the car, the land becoming flatter and the sky expanding as they neared their home. For now, Miriam tried to enjoy sitting on the sofa with her sister, kitchen light buzzing, darkness blurred and soft. She counted each time Claire’s phone buzzed and illuminated: eleven well wishes and congratulations from strangers or people Miriam hadn’t seen in years.
“I’m going to bed, Miriam,” Claire said, yawning and stretching her arms like some delicate heroine from an old movie. She stood slowly. “Will I see you in the morning?”
“I’m heading out early, so unless you’re awake at six or so, then no.”
Claire leaned down and hugged Miriam, one of those awkward hugs, Miriam’s arms reluctantly reaching up like a child begging their mother to lift them. “I love you, Miriam.”
“Love you, too.”
Claire walked to her childhood bedroom where her husband slept, and Miriam tried to fall asleep on the sofa, book spread across her chest. Photographs of Miriam and Claire wallpapered the room, the sisters’ likenesses smiling for the camera or for Mom or for Grammy or Grandpa—freckled faces, crooked teeth, chubby preteen bodies, gangly limbs, small fingernails. Images and memories of two sisters in a constant embrace. Miriam fell asleep, and in the morning—sky gray, the sun hidden behind clouds—she left for Kansas before morning coffee.
Kaila Lancaster is an MFA candidate at Oklahoma State University.