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10:46 am | 18 August 2004 | CLICK (the last part)

CLICK part four

Eight months or so after her accident, as we sat in her living room between the radiator’s hiss and the rattle of snow against the window, my sister confided that in her earlier, sighted days, she was constantly searching for her phoenix’s pyre: a fairy godmother, Gepetto’s devotion, the love that was powerful enough to make her concrete. After years of disappointment, she struggled to accept the fact that such ideas are the realm of fairytales, that she would never be the Skin Horse of The Velveteen Rabbit. After she lost her sight, she began to fade (much in the way that mountains, seen from a distance, are less opaque, though no less real). “I think about it all the time,” she said, slowly, steam drifting past her face from the coffee she held carefully upright in her lap. “Some things seem more real, now. This coffee—“ she inhaled—“it never smelled this way when I could see it. I took it for granted; if I saw coffee, I assumed it would smell like my memory of coffee. But that’s true of all ordinary things,” she said. I murmured something to indicate I was still listening. “Claire—“ she said, haltingly—“sometimes I’m glad it happened. It sort of defined me, gave my edges a limit. The way the cup holds the coffee in. It gives me a shape. Now I can get my work done.”
My sister spoke rarely of the accident or her blindness, so I felt a chance to make a connection. Gently, I said, “Do you—do you remember when we were children? We were swinging—“ tears pricked the back of my eyes, the back of my throat— “and you asked me if I’d rather go blind or deaf. And you said you’d kill yourself.” “I didn’t know anything then,” she said abruptly, harshly. “I hadn’t seen anything. I was a child.” She stood up too fast and jerked the cup of coffee, sending it spinning to the floor, where it shattered. “Shit,” she said harshly, storming off to the kitchen. I watched the rivulets of coffee curl into the floorboards and made no move to wipe it up. I heard the water running in the kitchen. “I’m fine,” she yelled, then calmed her voice back into its unruffled alto. “I’m fine,” she said. When she came back, her face was blank again, pleasant. She bent with a towel. “Where’d I spill?” she asked, scraping the bits of china into a pile. I said nothing.

By the time spring returned it had been nearly a year since her accident, and I was finally able to make plans for moving back to college. One Saturday, when I went to drop off some food my mother’d made, I parked a block away (certain she could recognize the sound of my engine by then) and crept, stealthily, into the apartment without her knowing. I set the covered dish down silently, on a towel on the countertop, and slunk into the living room. She sat with her back to me, her face turned blankly towards the window, and I could just make out her reflection in the plate-glass.
The familiar aluminum jingle of a distant ice-cream truck began to trickle through the apartment, growing louder and louder, a crooked wobble of song, and as we both listened I watched her eyebrows pleat into sorrow. As it passed the window she gave a convulsive gulp and her reflection over the passing truck in the window showed a face crumpled with loss. I turned back into the kitchen, let myself out, and collected myself on the porch for a minute, making sure my voice was steady before I banged through the door, calling “Hello? You home?”
At my greeting she turned towards me, face recomposed, calm as a madonna, and smiled a perfect simple smile that betrayed nothing. I wanted to slap her, suddenly, to shake the complacency off her. “How can you not be angry?” I blurted, the violence quivering in my voice, and she looked surprised and sad. She sighed and turned away, fingers plucking the upholstery of the chair she sat in. “I— There was too much in the world,” she said, another cryptic, dreamy phrase that answered nothing. Without thinking, my hand jerked forward, grabbed her soft upper arm. “No,” I gritted out. “Talk to me. You used to talk to me. We used to talk—“ I gulped. Her mouth curved down like it was melting at the corners. “Claire, I—“ she swallowed. “There was too much for me to do, too many things to see, taste, take in. And I realized that I could bear the bad smells, could handle bad tastes, a burn, a cut, the scrape of metal on metal. All the other senses I could endure. But the things I’ve seen—“ she paused, her window-reflected face struggling to hold itself together, and I was staring at her, horrified, “—dogs hit by cars. Things on fire. A face so beautiful I can never look at it again. They all distracted me, took my attention from my work, the things I needed to get done. I couldn’t think straight, with all of that in front of me.” Her voice pled with me to understand as she gulped and began reeling through her list again—“The way you look when someone dies. The way you look when you’re in love. The india-ink of a fresh night sky. A boy carrying two goldfish in a plastic bag thru it rains. Four foxes skinned in a cul-de-sac. A woman stumbling, ankle shattered, and people passing by, unnoticing. Coldness passing over your lover’s face like a horrible shadow—“ she spoke faster and faster and her voice was really crumbling now, hot tears leaking out of the puckered sockets—“acceptance. Not being afraid to lose something because it’s already happened. Birds dead on the ground. Deliverance. Simplicity. Claire—“ she turned to me and I know my face was a frozen rictus, I know my mouth hung open like a steel trap, I was shaking like a cold engine seizing— “Claire, I did it to myself. I did it to myself. And it all went away.” She gulped, shuddered the air out of her lungs. And I bent and kissed my sister on the mouth. And I straightened and slapped her face, just once, hard, her cheek blooming into the colour of her selfish ironic walls, the sound echoed a moment later by the door as I slammed it.

That was in 1991. I have not spoken to my sister since then.
I know my mother is still in contact with her, although I am not sure how much she knows, or if she suspects anything at all. I have my own life, in a distant city, and when anyone asks about siblings, I simply say “I had a sister, once, but there was an accident.”
When I think of accidents, I think of broken things, things that have come apart—a dropped coffee cup shattered on a wood floor. My sister’s accident—no accident at all, in the end—held her permanently fixed. It was as though she’d wear a cast for the rest of her life—all the pieces of herself would rattle around inside it, but they’d never mend. She had seen to that.
I hope she is safe, wherever she is. Most likely she is still in her pomegranate-coloured apartment with her tapes and her phantoms and her precious stupid ideas. Sometimes I dream that she found her peace, that she no longer thrashes restlessly against the inside of her skin like a bird trapped in a greenhouse. But when I wake up I know the truth: that wherever she sits, slideshows reel across the inside of her skull, a Viewmaster stuck on one single disc: Four foxes skinned in a cul-de-sac. Click. A woman falling. Click. The way she looked when she was in love.

- 20 May 2003


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