I only heard from Lizzy once after she left home. More than ten years had passed by the time she called. Evan was asleep upstairs, but I didn’t even think to wake him. He was old enough to understand that his mother had left him, but he hadn’t started asking questions yet.
“Katie,” she said.
When her voice came through the phone, it was a sound I was so accustomed to that it was a moment before surprise registered.
She was silent for a moment. “No one’s called me Lizzy in years.”
I crossed the living room and sat at the cluttered desk in the corner. It may not have looked like it, but there was a system to it. It stored all the papers necessary to running mine and Evan’s lives.
“I don’t think I want to know what you’re called now,” I said as I opened the top drawer and pulled out the little black notebook.
“Then don’t call me anything.”
I slid a finger between the pages of the notebook, felt the check I’d folded and tucked away.
“I know why you’re calling,” I said.
“I thought it may have gotten lost in the mail. I just wanted to be sure it had reached you.”
“You want to know why I haven’t done anything with it.”
“I know it doesn’t make up for everything, but it’s the least I could do…for taking such good care of him.”
“It’s certainly not the least you could do,” I said.
She let out a breath that crackled through the phone. We were both quiet. I looked down at the notebook in my hands, letting it fall open along its worn spine.
Every page of the notebook was filled with all the things I imagined I’d say to her if I ever got the chance. There were words staring back at me that I wasn’t proud of, but I’d felt better committing them to the page.
I usually kept my anger at bay, hidden away in a drawer where it would be contained. But as I flipped through the notebook, something seethed in the pit of my belly. I wanted to say it all, every last thing I’d ever imagined I’d say to her, but she would hang up long before it was all out. I needed to choose one sentence that was powerful enough to say it all. For Evan.
“The check, Katie.”
With a sigh, I pulled the check out of the notebook and unfolded it. I held it up to the light and stared at my sister’s handwriting.
“I did wonder how you were able to give up $20,000 so easily.”
“I didn’t mean for you to think it was easy.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s for Evan.”
“Don’t use him to get your way. You gave up that right.”
“This is far less insidious than you think it is.”
I went back to scanning the notebook.
“I’m not sure that’s for you to decide,” I said.
“I just want Evan to know…”
She trailed off and I waited for her to finish. It was in the silence that I remembered something I’d written when the notebook was nearly full. I flipped through pages and finally saw it.
I plucked a pen from the cup on my desk and underlined it.
We don’t talk about you.
So simple a statement, but it was honest and free of the rough edges of so many of the words I’d written. It was a clean blade that would leave a wound. It said it all.
I took a breath and started to speak.
“You should know-”
“Did you know, back in high school, what I was doing those nights I said I was studying?”
“I didn’t want to know,” I said. “I didn’t want to have to lie.”
“Always so smart, you were.”
“And always so clever you were.”
“Not really. I don’t know how I got away with it for so long. I was never any good at keeping secrets. The only reason I managed it was because our father never thought I would go against his rules. I’m not sure cleverness had anything to do with it. I was always so simple. He used to tell me that, remember? That I was simple.”
Even with time and distance between us, I thought there would be a silent agreement that our shared childhood was off limits.
“I don’t want-”
“What did they say? After I left?”
“Father said you’d gone off to live a life of sin.” I paused. “Are you?”
“Of course I am.”
He was our common ground. He was the most significant thing in the place where our lives overlapped. Of course talking about him was unavoidable.
I underlined the line in the notebook a second time, cutting deeper into the paper.
We don’t talk about you.
“I’m sure you’re pleased that they never knew what became of you.” I said. “That they could only wonder.”
I didn’t understand why she paused for so long until she spoke again.
“They’re dead, then,” she said. The pitch of her voice dropped, taking on a note of seriousness, but no other emotion besides.
I tilted my head back and stared at the ceiling. “Yes.”
“I always knew it would happen that way.”
“I did too.”
“He must have gotten so much worse after she was gone.”
It took all the strength I had to hold it together. I didn’t have to tell her how bad it was. She knew exactly what she left me to deal with.
But there had been Evan. It’s amazing what you can endure when you’re responsible for someone else’s well-being.
“Not really,” I said. “He drank himself into oblivion most of the time and he’d become too old and shaky to do much damage by then.”
But she knew the truth.
“I would have taken advantage and pushed him down the stairs.”
“That’s how it happened.”
“It was in the middle of the night and he was drunk. Hit his head on the way down.”
“Did you push him?”
“You and I aren’t the same.”
She was quiet for a moment before she asked, “Are you married?”
“No,” I said. “I never got married.”
I said it like I was already an old spinster. I may not have been old yet, but I already considered my life to be set.
“No children, then,” she said.
“Just the one.”
“Do you regret not being married?”
“I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made.”
“I never know if I should say I’m sorry when a woman says she’s not married. It wouldn’t be a very modern thing to say, I think.”
“You don’t need to say it. I don’t feel sorry for myself.”
“Are you married?” I asked.
She laughed. She didn’t laugh often when we were children. There hadn’t been much reason to. It didn’t sound like she’d gotten used to it.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Do you think people will inevitably end up just like their parents?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about much.”
“I know that’s not true. It would be impossible for us to not think about it.”
I considered. “Maybe in some ways yes. Maybe in others no.”
She made a humming sound like she was thinking it over.
“Which do you think would be worse?” she asked. “Ending up like him or like her?”
“Him, of course.” I paused. “Why would it be worse to end up like her?”
“I think she might have been worse. It’s hard to decide now. It’s been so long and it’s difficult to remember people as they were. How do you remember her?”
“She was like us,” I said, realizing I was jiggling my leg. “He hurt her just like he hurt us and there was nothing she could do about it.”
“That’s how I remember her. I suppose that means I'm remembering her correctly. Unless, of course, we’re both remembering incorrectly in the same way.”
I paused, but didn’t bother to untangle whatever nonsense she was trying to say. I focused on sitting still.
“It must have been difficult for her, don’t you think? Having to watch him hurt us and not being able to do anything about it?” I asked.
“Ah, that’s where we remember differently.”
“What do you mean?”
She went quiet at the other end of the line. Even without seeing her I could tell her mind was drifting elsewhere. I waited, tracing over the words in the notebook.
We don’t talk about you.
“Is that why you don’t have children of your own?”
I bristled. “As far as I’m concerned, Evan is mine.”
She sighed. I’d never heard a breath so heavy.
“Please, just answer.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Did you not have children because of our father? And our mother?”
“No. I don’t think so anyway. I honestly don’t remember ever wanting children.”
“Wanting them and having them aren’t the same thing.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“I think it’s better when people know they aren’t meant to be parents. The world would be better, wouldn’t it?” She let out a puff of air meant to be a laugh. “Am I sounding like a simple-minded, living-in-sin pro-choicer?”
“To each their own, I guess.”
I was barely listening. I traced the words again, underlined them a few more times, waiting for an opportunity to say them out loud.
“Would you do it? Could you, if you had to choose?”
“What do you mean?”
I heard her shift.
“Are you saying you wish you had…”
“No, of course not. No.”
I was fully alert again.
“Because if you ever even implied as much-”
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Promise.”
We were both quiet. Neither of us knew what the right move was and I wondered how talking with my sister had become a game of strategy. Even if I replayed everything we’d said a million times, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to figure out the score.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she finally said. “Deposit the check. Please. I want him to know…that even if I’m not a real mother that I do care about him.”
I’d put a box around the words in the notebook. I’d traced them so many times, they sat bold on the page.
We don’t talk about you.
This was the moment, but I just sat there. Something in me seized. Instincts I’d thought unlearned long ago, brought to the surface by our familiarity. Without realizing it, a thought had crept into my head. She was the bold one, unafraid of pain in all its forms. I was the one who dodged the blows.
I looked down at the notebook. I knew how deeply words could cut and that she deserved to feel their sting. But my sister was the type to fight back. She could take my little digs here and there, but if I pushed, she would too. And I couldn’t handle that.
My God, I thought. Nothing had changed.
I let the notebook fall closed.
“I’ll talk to Evan about it,” I said, tearing the check into as many pieces as I could manage. “He’s old enough to be part of this of decision.”
I could practically hear her smile. “Good. I can’t imagine what ten-year-old would pass up that kind of money.”
Because that’s what he was to her, just any ten-year-old.
“We’ll do what he wants.”
When the money never left her account, she would know. It was as good as telling her outright, I thought. The message would be the same. She was irrelevant in our lives. And she would know it.
“Thank you, Katie.”
I hung up without saying goodbye. For a long time after, I sat at my desk, listening to the seconds tick by on the clock. Nothing had changed.