Catherine had her back to me when I entered the kitchen. I had been distant, intentionally, she was correct, but I was trying to sort things out in my own sick way. Her dirty blonde hair had grown long, and I hadn’t noticed. Our features were opposite. We didn’t look alike but she was my sister and it made no difference if we looked similar or not. I wanted to give her the world, since no one in our family ever tried but I was in no position to help anyone.
She had on a gray sweater. Grau. She washed the dishes. And I felt bad, not because she was cleaning dishes I helped dirty, but because I removed myself from everything. I was there, sometimes, but not present. I alienated her and everyone else in my life. I hoped that she knew how important she was to me. She was the only family I had left, basically. If I could sort out my thoughts, put my emotions in check, what would happen? Would I be able to grow, grow, grow? Would I ever be the person I wanted to become? If I could just let go of the past. Which I was incapable of.
I have felt troubled and partly responsible for the fact that she had to endure so much from Hattie. She didn’t deserve the hand she was dealt, the hand we were dealt, but lots of people get cheated, not just us. A rather large portion of people in our country were raised in dysfunctional families.
None of the dishes matched. We had tall pint glasses adorned with christmas trees, New York Ranger crests, and Mets logos. We had some spooky coffee mugs with horizontal rings of black and orange, Schwartz und orange, some haunted with ghosts and others illuminated by pumpkins. All the different sets of plates were handed down to us. You could say we collected them over time. We could pretend it was a hobby. My favorite was a plate with ugly, grotesque foliage pattern that grew as you finished your meal.
When I do dishes, I feel relaxed, somewhat purposeful. Whenever I squeezed my hand into a glass to clean the ring of whatever was staining the bottom I always brace myself waiting for the glass to explode. I stood in anticipation, waiting for the shards to fly up into my face and cut my soapy hands. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll still squint and turn my face away. It is possible I wanted it to happen.
“I’ll dry,” I said, grabbing a hand towel and standing on Catherine’s left.
“Alright. Thank you.”
“Cuts the grease in half.”
I looked into Catherine’s nervous smile, wondering if she could detect the worry in my eyes. We worried so much about each other. We both carried our own bags full of bad experiences and Hattie’s rhetoric. The strategy was always to employ humiliation as a means to control. To propagate a stronghold by diminishing all self worth. Hattie attempted to keep us from leaving, only her tactics backfired, and we didn’t grovel. With us gone, the last of her bridges were thoroughly destroyed.
The twisted irony of it was that Catherine took care of Hattie, they delved into role reversal, and now Hattie was left to her own devices. With children who have deficient parents, it’s not uncommon for the kids to take on the adult responsibilities, anything from cooking and cleaning, as well as emotional accountability. Catherine, a nurturer, became her caretaker, tending to my mother’s declining mental and physical health. Often those kids feel frustrated, and depressed as feelings of sadness and inadequacy begin to fester. Our guilt was birthed from this. We assumed our identities from the basic six of dysfunctional family roles: the addict, the caretaker, the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, and the lost child. Which one are you? I was the last role.
People often remarked about how much Catherine resembled Hattie. I didn’t see it. Never a flattering thing for Catherine to hear because it was always expressed with some condescension. Embarrassing as it was, I confided to Pangur, telling my cat how I feared I was in many ways like my mother. Some said I look like her too, I see it, more so than my sister. Oddly enough, I saw Hattie, in the face of strangers constantly. It could be two things, the result of my overwhelming guilt or the simple truth that I missed her badly. I saw her. In the skeletal face of a cashier or in the sunken eyes of a passerby in the street. Any face with a hint of ennui and I will recognize my mother. She would haunt me forever.
“What are your plans for today? Anything special? I’m not in the mood to go to work today and I have to finish up an essay on the central nervous system. It’s almost due.”
“I know the feeling. I’m meeting Sundeep for lunch. Then I’ll wander about, head into the city and grab a beer. Write a little bit. Nothing too wild. I have work in the morning.” I placed a chipped Chinese bowl with a cat on it back into the cupboard.
“That’s nice. How is the writing going? You haven’t shared anything in a while. I enjoyed that last poem I read.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Well, the writing isn’t going well. To be honest, I have had so much self doubt lately, I barely write at all. I know I want to write. I know what I want to write. I just don’t or when I do, it finds its way into the trash. I stopped talking to people about it because it seems to fuck it up. As if once you mention it it takes the life out of it. I don’t know. When you talk about writing more than you actually write, it becomes problematic. I feel like a fraud. Like I’m full of shit.”
“You’re not full of shit.”
“When I have to write a paper my mind wanders off and all I want to do is get it all down but I can’t because I don’t have the time to commit. And when I do have the time I’m unproductive. I feel like maybe I don’t have it in me to complete anything. I need to write everyday, a paragraph, a run-on sentence, anything as long as writing. I need discipline. And though I’ve been feeling off lately, writing usually helps.”
“So fucking write. Don’t quit. You’ll have ample time to work on your things when you graduate. It’s up to you. No one will write your novels or your poems for you. You just have to do it. I’m ready for school to be done as well. I’m just about over it and it’s not guaranteed I’ll even get a good job.”
“You will. But I hear you. The economy is not looking good.”
“We will get by.”
“Yeah, with a best seller.”
“That would be something. That would be legit. Then I would be a real writer.”
“You’re a real writer now.”
“Just because you write doesn’t mean you’re a writer, does it?”
“Why the fuck not?”
“When did you become quite the little motivational speaker?”
Catherine always seemed stronger than myself. Catherine endured more than I had to because I was older and I would leave and not come home. At twelve years old I walk out, hang at the park or stay at Sonny’s. I did not obey any rules that Hattie would sporadically try to enforce. I disregarded anything she told me to do, and basically did whatever I wanted, which was mostly trouble. Catherine couldn’t do that. When I think back on it, I realize I abandoned Catherine as well when I left her alone in the company of drunks and addicts. There was nowhere for us to go, and anywhere was better than home, and I was sorry I couldn’t rescue her from the chaos. I didn’t save her then and I couldn’t help her now, and I absolutely hated myself for that.
“What can I say? I’m a disgruntled optimist,” she laughed and turned off the faucet. “Hey. Whatever happened with that girl?”
“What girl do you speak of?”
“The bartender. What’s her name?”
“I mentioned her to you?” Oh, no.
“Yeah. You were pretty blotto. That was the last time we spoke about anything.”
“I apologize. Please disregard anything I might’ve said. I’m such a weirdo. I have never spoken to her. Our only communication was me ordering beer. I’m embarrassed I said anything at all.”
“Don’t be. You seemed pretty enamored with the lass. Is she pretty?”
“No. She’s hideous. Of course, she is pretty. She is a beautiful woman. I just don’t know her. She seems interesting and I might be a bit curious, but it is ridiculous even talking about her.” I wanted to know her. For some strange reason I thought we would get on well, but I did not say that to Catherine.
“You are definitely a weirdo but so is everyone else. Why don’t you ask her out and get to know her? Since when are you shy?”
“Maybe it’s time to take a breather from women, a little time out from dating, and try to clear my head. I haven’t been so great with my decisions in regards to ladies, now have I?”
“If you don’t have anything nice to say. What was her name?”
I felt embarrassed discussing my feelings with Catherine, let alone my crushes, and I felt stupid for talking about Glory. How do you talk about a girl you’ve never had a real encounter with, as if I had an opportunity or chance with her. Did I imagine some story in mind where she showed any interest in me? Had I drunkenly tried to manifest destiny and convince myself we would be together? It was bad enough I just kept going to the bar she tended at, straight stalker, creep mode. I decided to change the topic. Whenever I speak frankly about my feelings in general, the moment after verbally vomiting whatever nonsense I am immediately ashamed, and depressed. Is it because my feelings, like everything else change, or because I simply feel stupid for having feelings at all. I get so emotional like Whitney Houston, Hattie’s favorite, but the truth was I don’t want anyone to know me. I don’t want to be in love with anyone, for I am not good for anyone. “I should get going.”
“Come on, man. What’s her name? You should go and ask her out tonight?”
“If it’s supposed to happen it will.”
“Wash your mouth out with soap,” Catherine said. “When did you become fatalistic? There is no such thing. You have to make it happen. Whether it’s this girl or your writing, you have to put yourself out there. I think you wont allow yourself to be happy because you think you don’t deserve to be.”
“I could easily say the same thing to you, Cat. When you grow up, what do you want to be?”
“I don’t know. What about a caterpillar? They’re cool. Oh, I know. Some famous asshole’s personal assistant. I could do that easily. How do you take your coffee? Got it.”
“Both could be cool.”
“You know you can always talk to me if something is bothering you.” I knew I could talk to my sister, but I couldn’t.