Although family therapy consumed more time than basketball practice and did not improve my odds of attending my first-choice college, my sister’s suicide attempt had alarmed my parents, and they were taking every precaution against relapse.
Horse, meet barn door. Bird, meet coop. I am trying to say: It was all so predictable.
Before our first session, my mother and I piled into my father’s hatchback and off we went to Lesser Memorial, where Zenobia was shut up in the adolescent ward. The receptionist directed us to an outbuilding at the edge of the grounds where our assigned therapist was waiting. I followed my parents down a path alongside the main building and across a meadow ringed with tall pines. It was the first real day of spring, warm enough to be uncomfortable.
The therapist’s office was stifling, but the therapist, a petite brunette in dun-colored separates, looked completely at ease, tucked like a wren into a big office chair. Margaret introduced herself, apologized for the lack of air conditioning, and invited us to sit. We arranged ourselves on the sofa, perspiring politely. Zenobia arrived, squired by a thickset orderly in scrubs who, before leaving, slotted a file folder—her medical record, I guessed—into a clear plastic box on the wall. Zenobia looked like a washed-out version of herself—no makeup, lank hair, visible roots. A pink plastic hospital bracelet circled her wrist.
Until this moment my sister and I had shared everything, from toys and clothes to the scant attention of our parents. Even our mother did not refer to us individually but only as a hyphenated compound: Zinn-and-Zeno. But now Zenobia had things of her own—a medical record, a hospital bracelet, an identity as a certified psychiatric in-patient. Whereas the only trace I’d leave would be a damp impress on Margaret’s sofa—shameful but deniable, unofficial. Well, there were many differences between me and Zenobia, despite how interchangeably our parents treated us. How everyone treated us.
Everyone, that is, except for Margaret, who saw the problem right away and was always careful to point out differences, making me more aware of them as well.
This was good for me, but it wasn’t always comfortable.
We met this way for several weeks, perhaps two months. Margaret chirped repeatedly that what happens in this room, stays in this room, but the reality was not even close. I developed a habit of shoving my fingers between the sofa cushion and the frame, and as a result I often left with odd items, a stray pill, a nickel. There were other exports, less literal. After sessions ended, we escorted Zenobia back to the main building, deposited her on the ward, and hightailed it to the parking lot where my father started the car while my mother reapplied her lipstick. That summer she favored pale neutrals, sandy colors with names like Life’s a Beach. She twirled the lipstick back down the tube, smacked her lips, checked the mirror one last time, and then the fighting began.
They left me out of it, but overhearing them rehash the session, apportioning blame for every thought and feeling, spoken and not, was still unpleasant. I didn’t like playing spectator to what should have been strictly their sport. Soon I was taking the bus home in order to give my parents time to expend their strange energies. To cool off, was how I thought of it, though there was never anything cool between them, not at all.
Toward the end of our therapy summer, I scored a ticket to a Wang Chung concert. It was on a Friday night, after one of our therapy sessions. The ticket made me feel odd, as if I were about to shirk an important responsibility. On the day of the concert, we finished up with Margaret and my parents bickered all the way back to the parking lot. I was sixteen years old, sitting at a bus stop outside a mental hospital, and the tablet I’d found in the crack in Margaret’s sofa had just pitched me into low orbit. Fluff bloomed between my ears. I stuck my dandelion head between my knees, taking shallow breaths so as not to blow myself away.
Our family’s larger problem had something to do with resemblances, a generalized failure to discern between things and people who were similar but not identical. The day of the concert, after Margaret had closed the session with one of her homilies about how I was this and Zenobia was that, I was no longer in the mood to see Wang Chung. More precisely, I no longer resembled the person who had made those plans. What I did feel was tired—of homework, school days, laundry, grocery shopping, family therapy, Zenobia and her drama. Above all, I was tired of hearing all the ways in which I was or was not just like my sister.
Here is a fact beyond resemblances: Wang Chung came to Providence the year after the death of Papa Frank, my mother’s father. I still missed his voice, the way he announced his arrival in our breezeway singing:
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do!
For I’m half-cray-zee, all for the love of you!
My mother mourned the loss in her way. Where she was previously neat, she now scattered her things all over the house—shoes, glasses of water, cups of tea. She buried household items in the yard: silver spoons, curtain tie-backs. Her wedding ring disappeared; I suspect she buried that, too. After rain, the objects glinted under hedges and in the moist, dark gap the yard guys always left between the lawn and the driveway. She also enforced new dietary restrictions. For instance: It was very important that my food choices did not resemble hers in any way. For weeks after Papa Frank died, my mother prohibited me from eating white foods—bread, pasta, milk, vanilla ice cream, all forbidden—while she ate only cottage cheese and Epsom salts. She needed white things, she said, because if she didn’t limit her diet in this way, she would die, too.
“A diet to die for,” she called it, “and no dyes, either. Nod yes, Zinnia, so I know you’re listening.”
Instead of white food—or non-food, in the case of the Epsom salts—I ate only red apples, out of spite. I favored the big waxy ones with ivory flesh and thick skin the color of a beating heart.
“Don’t be difficult,” my mother advised me, after I’d piled my apple cores on the coffee table.
I didn’t know any other way to be.
Home, home on the range, I sang in my mind, another of Papa Frank’s greatest hits. Where the deer and the antelope play—
During the weeks I bickered with my mother over food, Zenobia ate everything she could stick in her face. Red, white—it made no difference. After some months of this, my mother duly informed Zenobia, for her own good, that she was a fatty.
Zenobia was actually normal-sized, just bloated from all the eating. Plus, because of Papa Frank, her face was often contorted and shiny with snot and tears. My mother’s problem was not with Zenobia’s weight but with her very being, as a child who still had a live father and the luxury of mourning her dead one.
And so it happened that Zenobia, who knew her own flaws as well as anyone, looped some twine around her neck and suspended herself from the curtain rod alongside the brand new curtains from Laura Ashley.
Like I said, Zenobia wasn’t fat—but she was definitely too heavy for this maneuver. The rail broke. Zenobia crashed. My father thundered down the hallway. My mother followed, her heels loud on the hardwood.
Zenobia’s door hit the adjacent wall. In my bedroom, I froze.
Since then I haven’t been able to stop playing the scene in my mind. Zenobia must have been on the floor, her eyes glassy, her neck bruised, her face wet with the usual, snot and tears.
The house became completely silent.
In this interval of quiet Dr. Teller was called. An emergency meeting was arranged. Dr. Teller met us in Lesser’s intake pavilion, a cold atrium with white Naugahyde sofas and an AstroTurf-colored carpet. He was wearing a jacket and tie even though it was eleven at night. He took one look at the four of us—my red-faced father, my ashen mother, black-and-blue Zenobia, and oblivious me stretched on a white sofa, nibbling a Red Delicious while admiring my reflection in the night-darkened glass—and admitted Zenobia on the spot.
One day when my mother and I were visiting Zenobia, Dr. Teller came onto the ward. A group of patients—all female—buzzed around him, and he smiled as if he had no idea what the fuss was about. I caught him looking me up and down, in the way that a doctor isn’t supposed to. I smiled, and two pink rosettes appeared on his cheeks. He stuck his nose into a chart.
My mother cried: “How love blooms!”
“Like a battered fucking onion,” I said.
“Language!” barked the ward nurse. Only the girl with Tourette’s was allowed to curse, because she didn’t have a choice.
“Battered!” my mother repeated. “Have you seen my bruises?”
I had, but because it pained me to acknowledge them, I only said, “You are golden fried.”
My joke was lost on my mother, whose singularity of vision precluded much of a sense of humor. That clarity was something I liked about her. But, as I told Dr. Teller, it also got her into trouble.
Take the Kruschev delusion. Now that was a singular vision. When my mother was pregnant with me, she became sure that Nikita Kruschev was living next door. She also came to believe that she had been divinely selected to bear this man’s baby, that is to say, me. My destiny was to blow up the Eastern Seaboard with an atomic bomb made with white beets from White Russia. They were already growing, she said, in the backyard.
She revealed this, I’m told, after Papa Frank busted through a locked door to find me sitting in my crib, navel-deep in the contents of my diaper. Evidently I’d been screaming my head off for some time. Needless to say, imagining herself to be the virgin mother of some Russian Vishnu was not acceptable to anyone, and my mother spent several months on Lesser’s locked ward, anticipating Zenobia’s visit by a good decade and a half.
“So being here is a kind of homecoming,” I told Dr. Teller.
He smiled. He liked wordplay. “But for whom?”
He was also a man who knew when to use whom.
I told him what Papa Frank had told my mother: Your mind plays tricks.
“Well,” responded Dr. Teller. “That is another perspective.”
Dr. Teller collected perspectives like Imelda Marcos did shoes. To have a single perspective was impossible as far as he was concerned. He walked this talk by taking both sides of any argument; if there was a third (or fourth, or fifth) side, he’d take each one in turn, just for fun. Which, from another perspective, might be called showing off—but I’m probably only saying that out of competitiveness. I wanted a mind of quicksilver, too.
At Lesser, they strapped Mom to a gurney and zapped her head every other day for a month. She didn’t remember anything about the shock treatments, except that they gave her headaches. No memory but pain: this, I believe, was the point.
Zenobia was there, too, her hair standing on end as she floated in my mother’s womb. A kind of homecoming, as I said. Like Mom, she has no memory of it, either.
“Did you have a happy childhood?” Dr. Teller wanted to know.
“Of course!” I cried, obscurely offended.
In fact Zenobia and I soaked up malaise like pickles in vinegar. My father subscribed to the 1950s variety of fatherhood: home at five, enraged by six, snoring before the television by seven, and gone in a puff of exhaust at dawn the next day. On weekends he slept. We had to be very quiet, otherwise he would burst out of the bedroom roaring like a poked grizzly bear. No wonder my mother preferred her inner world of international scandals and questionable produce. At least the absurdity amused; my father was cruel, but cruelty is boring, and if you can point that out, you can defeat it. Imagine yawning at the Marquis de Sade’s. The whole night would be ruined. Whenever someone asked my mother what my father did for a living, she only shrugged. He brings home the bacon, I fry it up in the pan.
When I can, she’d trail off, her eyes blanking ceilingward. When I can-can-can.
“You and your vignettes,” Dr. Teller complained in his mild way. “Everything you say is so composed.”
“Spontaneity’s overrated. Not to mention inefficient. Condensation is so necessary. I want to be completely transparent to you. But then, if I were totally transparent,” I reflected, “that would mean that I was invisible.”
“That’s like a pun.”
“It’s like a superpower,” I corrected him.
His eyes were kind. His pen was poised. “But were you happy, Zinnia? As a child?”
What did I know from happiness? It’s true that I was a good kid, or good enough: I had solid grades and steady friends, I played flute in the marching band, and I made the varsity basketball team in my sophomore year. Limits I mostly observed—speed, curfew, seat belt. I was upright, breathing, not obviously damaged.
I didn’t touch alcohol or drugs, either, but don’t let that add any shine to my halo. The truth was, I didn’t have those friends, so I never went to those parties. Zenobia was the one who ran with that crowd. Apparently she attended some real ragers in abandoned parking lots and the woods. Who knew?
At the hospital, Zenobia sought advantages to press. When the staff wouldn’t let her dye her hair, she persuaded every disaffected kid on the ward—that is to say, all of them—to drape toilet paper over the bare trees in the quad, the raw buds pink against the white paper and the whiter sky. Heads were shaken, meetings were called, a drenching rain resolved the practical problem, and then everyone was on to the next crisis. The following week, Zenobia contrived a romance with another patient, dismaying the staff for other reasons. Once I caught a glimpse of him—bandaged from wrists to elbows, his pale face obscured by a dark mop of headbanger hair. He reminded me of long shots gone bad on the ball court, nothing but air.
Some things I’ll never forget about Lesser: the cafeteria’s reek, the rosewood banister that hugged the curving central staircase, the dusty rose carpet that went all the way up.
In the afternoon, the nurses brought out medications in little paper cups arrayed on trays like hors d’oeuvres.
“How in the world do they keep them straight?”
“Look around you, dumbass,” Zenobia told me. “What makes you think they keep them straight?”
The place did not seem badly run. Certainly it was no worse than our house.
One of Zenobia’s new friends, the girl with Tourette’s whom—yes—I’ve already mentioned, was watching me closely. “They FUCK you up,” she began, “your mom and dad they FUCK up the meds every SICK BITCH day.”
She cursed like my father did, hammering the diphthongs, making me jump.
“EVERY! BITCH! DAY!”
“You know, that reminds me—” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t mind, like I was perfectly accustomed to people shouting obscenities for no reason—
“BITCH FUCK! WHOOOO-ERRR!”
“Reminds you of what, Zinnia,” my sister asked sweetly.
My chest tightened and I inhaled, desperate to enlarge the space within. “It reminds me—”
“BITCH SICK SLIT SLUT CUNT!”
“Never mind,” I muttered as that inward space collapsed. “I forgot.”
The girl softened. “They do fuck you up,” she said, her voice now completely normal. “Before I was omitted, I was homicidal, suicidal—”
“Fratricidal?” offered Zenobia.
They exchanged glances.
“Zenobia,” the girl giggled, “you’re gonna get in trouble—”
Zenobia lit herself a cigarette and offered one to the girl, who took it.
Because I was not offered a cigarette, I said, “Actually Zenobia is too fat to be a whoo-errr.”
Zenobia, frowning, exhaled. “How small your world is,” she told me. “So snug and safe.”
“Zinn-and-Zeno!” my mother trilled from the nurse’s desk. That day she was dressed in a sleeveless white linen ensemble accessorized with a long strand of pearls. “Family therapy starts in five minutes,” she said, adding darkly, “if you can stand it.”
A nurse handed the shouting girl another cup with a pill in it.
“Cunt,” the girl said matter-of-factly.
The nurse shook her head and walked away.
“You meant it that time,” said Zenobia.
“Meaning it, schmeaning it.” The girl tipped the cup to her mouth. She was so convincing I almost didn’t see her palm the pills.
Dr. Teller and I were now seeing each other in regular one-on-ones. Because my mother had decided that Zenobia was the one who needed help, she refused to drive me to these appointments, and so I took the bus. I didn’t mind. I liked the bus for its anonymity and the escape it provided from parental supervision. Dr. Teller’s office, which overlooked the pine-ringed meadow, was growing on me, too. As was Dr. Teller, if I am honest. His gaze was sharp and clear, his eyes the color of a pool on the first day of summer. I liked the feeling he gave me, as if the world could be a settled place, where a person could breathe without being hassled for needing air.
On those blessed unaccosted bus rides, I liked to imagine Dr. Teller of an evening, tilted in his easy chair, dreaming back the day. Home, home on the range, sings my inner Papa Frank. As ever, Dr. Teller leaps up to adjust the light and the air conditioning, just like he does when I am in his office. We settle into each other’s company, and in those moments, I become someone else. Someone better. Someone I can’t afford to be, not yet. A malleable person, non-difficult. Someone whose sister doesn’t hang herself from a curtain rod in order to feel loved.
“What does Zenobia have to do with my opinion of you?” he asked me one afternoon.
Give me your answer, do—
His question struck me silent. We were so close, Zenobia and I, that I simply couldn’t parse it. I tried to imagine his perspective: A psychiatrist in early middle age finds himself trying to connect with a teenage girl who sees the world through a split frame cobbled from her own perspective and that of her crazy sister.
“That’s a leading question,” I said, still being difficult, still committed to that.
When his hair got long, it curled over his collar. He couldn’t see it, but I could.
Zenobia returned for a few days at midsummer. Her first order of business was to raid my closet. I found my favorite jeans on the floor of her room, torn clear across the knee. What a fucking waste: I’d blown five whole weeks of babysitting money on them.
Zenobia stood in the doorway flicking the overhead light.
“Stop that before I barf on you.”
“Bitch, you wouldn’t dare.”
“You shouldn’t take my clothes without asking,” I said, hating myself for sounding prissy.
“They were ugly jeans,” Zenobia replied. “You’re better off.”
“But they don’t fit you! You have fat knees.”
“Cunt,” she said thoughtfully, as if understanding something for the first time. “Whore.”
That night, she set fire to my jeans in the BBQ pit. I smelled them burning from inside my bedroom where I was procrastinating over my SAT prep.
Outside the air was full of the smell of lighter fluid, a summer smell; and other smells came on, too, a smell of burnt denim and something creaturely that might have been mine.
I turned around and went right back to my problem set. At least SAT prep was still under my control.
The next day, I asked my father to install a lock on my closet.
“You know she’ll just break down the door,” he said. “Forget about it.”
I owned a pair of black jeans, a black T-shirt, a black sweatshirt, some socks and underwear. From that moment on, that was all I wore. Every night I washed and dried this wardrobe, which consisted of what could only be taken off me by main strength. Sitting atop the dryer, dressed in one of Papa Frank’s old shirts, I calculated my grade point average and the days I had left.
“A family is a system,” Margaret was saying. “I feel like I can tell you this, Zinnia, because in this system, you’re the person who understands things.”
I shrugged. I knew the drill. First Mom cried and yelled at Dad, who pretended not to know why she was being so unreasonable. The therapist then solicited feedback from me and Zenobia. I never had a response apart from the unsayable one, that it was all bullshit. Besides, whenever I had ventured an opinion, Zenobia made sure no one heard it anyway. So I stayed quiet, and Zenobia ran her mouth the way a biker runs an engine while parked outside the shops on the bougie side of town.
That day, Zenobia described the misery of living with all of us, particularly me. She resented my grades and the awards I’d won, the trophies I’d brought home and the praise of my teachers.
“What do you think it’s like,” she wailed, near tears, “to have you for a sister? To have a perfect sister?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “How would I know?”
I pressed myself into the corner of the sofa and watched the outside world, the slice of it I could see through the window behind Margaret’s desk. A breeze lifted the branches of a large Ponderosa pine. Heat shimmered over the parking lot. I stole a glance at my mother. She was staring at Zenobia, holding very still.
“Zinnia,” said Margaret. “I feel that you are distancing yourself.”
“It’s not like I’m so proud of any of the things Zenobia mentioned,” I said finally. “I don’t even study all that much.”
Zenobia wailed, “See what I mean!”
I shrugged. “It’s true. I don’t.”
Margaret stared at me. “You are so brave,” she said quietly. “And you,” she continued, turning to Zenobia, “are a manipulative bitch.”
She hit the diphthong hard. For once I didn’t flinch.
Zenobia put her fist right through the wall.
Margaret touched a button on her telephone, and an orderly—large, male—appeared in the doorway. A gentle giant, I thought. Then he caught Zenobia in a half nelson.
My mother cried, “You can’t do that!”
“For heaven’s sake,” my father said cheerfully. He was enjoying this. “Of course he can.”
The guard pulled Zenobia from the room. Zenobia twisted and hissed; she opened her mouth and drooled on his white nursing shoes. “We have to stop,” Margaret said. “That’s all the time we have for today.”
After leaving my parents in the parking lot, I went back in search of Dr. Teller. My head was clear enough; what I needed was to talk. Approaching the double doors that led to the adolescent ward, I caught sight of him through the glass. I waved and he mimed a punching-out gesture; he was almost off his shift. After a few minutes, he emerged, his eyes narrow slits over shadowed pouches. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, he sank down until he was sitting on the next-to-lowest step. He ran his hand through his hair. He was sinewy under his scrubs, with large hands and feet, and he was about a week from needing a haircut.
“Wanna shoot some hoops, Zinnia? I could stand to move the blood around.”
“Sure.” Maybe we could talk while we played.
He strode ahead, moving fast. He actually seemed to believe that he could resolve his exhaustion by expending yet more energy. I predicted a short court session.
First thing, he hit a three-pointer. Dumb luck: He had no athletic ability that I could see. I countered with a layup, crying FOUL. He cursed, gasping. Language, I objected. I must have sounded like the ward nurse. He doubled over laughing, the ball canted off his hip, and, after several deep breaths, gave me the free throw.
I crouched slightly at the free throw line, taking my time. Bouncing the ball, spinning it, letting him catch his breath. I didn’t want to win. I just wanted to keep him upright enough to have a respectable outing. “Zenobia put her fist through the wall,” I said.
“Why in the world did she do that?”
“You didn’t hear?” Bounce, spin, bounce, spin. “Margaret called her a manipulative bitch.”
“Margaret?” He guffawed. “And what did she call you?”
Bounce, bounce, spin. I arced the ball high and straight through the hoop.
“Nice.” He caught the ball as it fell. “What did she call you?”
“Nothing,” I told him. “Nothing but net.”
We traded shots for a while, until my shirt was sticking to me and he complained about sweat running into his eyes. A group approached with the physical trainer. They had reserved the court, so we headed for a bench.
“Phew.” He mopped his shiny face with his shirt. “Good game.”
I took the hand he extended, wanting to be polite, un-difficult. Then the touch became something else. I turned his hand over, traced a line down the center of his palm. He stared at me over his rimless glasses, letting his hand sink into mine. Something was going to happen.
“Yeah, I’m not bad at this.” I dropped my hand out from under his and wiped both of mine on my shorts. Was he somehow unaware—of the staff on the court, what people might see? Who was this performance for?
“You know, I was supposed to see Wang Chung tonight.”
“You don’t think you’ll make the show?”
“I decided to take the bus home,” I said. “And now I’m too late.”
“Your problem is not the bus or the clock.” He gave me a significant look: Here was on-ramp if I wanted to take it.
“Right,” I told him, all breezy. “My problem is lack of a car.”
“Come on,” he said, rising. “I’ll take you.”
His car was full of Dunkin Donuts cups, medical journals, and baby stuff—teething rings and pacifiers.
“For your patients?” I asked, plucking a binkie from the ashtray.
“Of course not.” He took it from me and dropped it in the pocket of his scrubs. “I have an infant.”
Pills on the floor, sample packages. I picked one up. It said: NOT FOR RETAIL SALE.
Without taking his eyes off the road, he snatched that away, too.
I recited my address, and we drove for a while. He was not taking the most direct route to my house and I was not minding the least little bit. Eventually we turned into a parking lot fronting a small beach. A pair of men had planted fishing poles in the sand. The men sat side-by-side on a cooler, holding cans of beer. The bay smelled dead and looked worse, a slick of something oily on the surface. Dr. Teller leaned back, stretching. He smelled like a long day—heat and sweat, cheap disinfectant, cafeteria food.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You see all kinds of crazy. I’ve been seeing a lot of it, too, lately.”
“I bet you have.”
“Mom talks to herself in the mirror, she sees things that aren’t there, she thinks people are trying to hurt her. But that’s all harmless, more or less.”
“She’s not as sick as some other people.”
“She isn’t always completely wrong. Zenobia isn’t thin. I am—”
He turned to me, cocked his head all birdlike. “You don’t need your mother to tell you how the world works. Or who you are.”
“My mind is stuffed too full of things you want me to keep there,” I said. “Advice. Opinions.”
“You’re right. What I think doesn’t matter.”
“From your point of view? Or are you telling me about mine?”
He caught my gaze and held it. I stared at my hands, clasped in my lap, one hand holding the other against letting go. Being let go.
All Zenobia had done, probably, was look cross-eyed at my mother.
He was still looking intently at me. If his eyes were a swimming pool, the water was deeper than I thought. Colder, too. Something flashed in his eyes, like a school of fish turning in a shaft of light. His intelligence, I suppose. A creature in the shadows, watching, evaluating.
“Can you drive me home now, please?”
“If that’s where you want to go.”