Conjunctions:74 Grendel’s Kin: The Monsters Issue

New Sisters
Quisa had fallen into the habit of disappointing herself, and then disappointing herself a little more, with the words she let slip from her mouth. She kept talking to people in this hungry, intimate way, as if they too had spent the time of their lives in their heads and read the warning labels too closely and worried irrationally about their lymph nodes. Accidental confessions are what these amounted to. A case of social insecurity, as it were. But at the same time, even when pressed, Quisa found that she rarely said what she truly meant. She began to seriously wonder if her true love was to embarrass herself.

     So, Quisa tried her hand at silence. Hoping to pass herself off as a cool woman, she spruced up her wardrobe with ivory blazers and high-waisted pants. Even strangers noticed the change. Other women, more poised and more successful, started looking Quisa up and down. Her first inclination was to remedy these looks with thoughts of extreme dieting and her own mother. She often concluded that the trajectory of her life would’ve been much improved had she gotten into at least one fight back in school, if she had surprised herself and won.

     Quisa’s thoughts never walked in a single direction, and she took this personally too. She breathed the dirty, humid air of her city. When she opened her eyes, life seemed tedious and long, unreasonably precious. Nothing was wrong with her. Her hair was glossy and strong. Her bills were mostly paid. She taught herself to walk with such a lightness that from the right distance, you wouldn’t guess that Quisa was Quisa. But at some point, for some reason, she had stopped looking people in the eye. Then she got to the point where she could no longer speak without resenting the tongue in her mouth. So, Quisa wound up making a second version of herself by faking the real her all the time.

     Unfortunately, Second Quisa wasn’t much better. She sat on the middle cushion of the sofa, quiet and icy as a sapphire. Covered in folds, she seemed to be her wearing those imitation silk pajamas for the first time.

     When Second Quisa smiled, it looked like an injury. Quisa was horrified, then embarrassed. She had seen something she hadn’t meant to see, but there it was. It was the act of Second Quisa’s intrusion, her inability to be anything else, her vital nobodiness that caused Quisa’s embarrassment. To her mind, Second Quisa was like what happens if you get stuck in your senior portrait.

     Second Quisa never said a word, easily her best move. But despite her silence and icy demeanor she seemed fond of Quisa. She liked to torment Quisa by following her around the apartment, holding her own tongue between two fingers. She liked to watch Quisa pick out her clothes in the morning. She liked to eavesdrop when Quisa talked on the phone. Quisa pretended not to notice, but she did. A certain yearning hooked the two of them together, almost by the ribs. It happened gradually over a period of many gestures and sly looks so that eventually Second Quisa began feeling a warm sense of panic when she couldn’t possess Quisa while Quisa was doing the simplest things, like clipping her toenails or watering the plants. Second Quisa wanted a front-row seat to what was happening to Quisa. There was no single thing of hers that she wanted to take specifically. Second Quisa wanted to take it all.

     It was almost as if they were desperate for conclusions, the way the two of them looked out the window. Refineries burned poisons across the sky, dragging foreign colors down the legs of clouds, so that late into the night everyone below could fight, dance, and dream in foggy peace.

     Second Quisa was also vulnerable to appraising looks, but she was a vindictive woman. So, she drowned the plants and cut up the sheets. With a fork, she drew designs into nonstick pans. After ordering specialty meats with Quisa’s credit card and eavesdropping on Quisa’s phone calls (Quisa was only begging the next man to understand her), Second Quisa resolved to make a Third Quisa to get revenge for having been made in the first place.

     First Quisa successfully persuaded this man to buy her some pancakes. And she almost made him fall in love by presenting herself as a sad, beautiful woman alone in this city, unwittingly approaching the apex of her life, her beauty enhanced by her clandestine sadness and loneliness. He had always dreamed of encountering someone in perfect solitude so he could disrupt it. With First Quisa, he was the one to beg. He begged to know what was the matter. Then, as if directed by God, First Quisa said exactly what she’d meant to say, “I have new sisters, and I don’t even like them.” The man came around the booth and sat next to her, squeezing her shoulder in his big hand. He assured her that this type of thing was happening all the time because of the growing popularity of DNA tests. “One day,” said the man, in honey-dripping, self-satisfied tones, “nearly all of us will find out that we have a secret family member somewhere just waiting to be found.” First Quisa angled back to look at him. She worried that this was his dum-dum, cryptic way of letting her know that he had a secret baby, perhaps a few.

     Third Quisa was something else. Like a star or a river, her existence alone was the miracle. She had big, black eyes with a lizardy shine. A loaf of woolen hair. Narrow shoulders and a high behind. During the peaceful hour of the evening news, Third Quisa would strut into the room gleaming with violence. She quarreled with First Quisa on Second Quisa’s behalf, and Second Quisa looked on with a false, painful smile. A cool dignity sparkled in her eyes.

     Third Quisa was mouthy and bossy, loud, horrible, and abominable. You couldn’t beat her unless you were willing to take off your earrings. Vaseline your jaw. She took over the apartment like an odor. She wore sexy panties and a floral bra that was way too small for her tiny breasts. She sat at the computer for hours and then painted her face with cosmetics that made her look like a sweet dragon. But deep down, under the bad attitude and lingerie, Third Quisa was desperate for romantic attention. Her desperation gave her a scent, made her eyeballs shake in her head. First Quisa opened a window, but the city below was howling at other things.

     Second Quisa eyed Third Quisa, saying in her silent way, “Nobody’s coming to fuck you.” But in addition to being a vindictive woman, Second Quisa was also two-faced. In a leather-bound diary that used to belong to First Quisa, she scribbled down all the atrocious things she meant to say. Then she gave the diary to Third Quisa to perform out loud.

     Each of the Quisas sat together on the sofa, turning secretive and dreamy as they grieved their dead girlhood. But First Quisa did what she knew her sisters could never do. She let her little former self take a peek from the great beyond while the other two, having just been born themselves, were left to look back on the most recent wrong turn. First Quisa let her young self regard her with amazement and some disappointment at what they’d become. The simple fact that this little person liked her anyway made her heart swell to bursting. Second and Third Quisa did not ask what First Quisa was laughing at. Somehow they knew. The pain of their monstrous existence was melted into their angry little smile.

     Third Quisa started a fight simply because she had no other means of getting First Quisa to make herself more present. Third Quisa fought like she’d been robbed of something. She yelled in the wrong pitch, afraid she might cry. She wanted revenge for being there, for being accountable. Someone owed her a confession and she was beyond bitter about it. But when she locked eyes with Second Quisa, who in the first place had conjured her up from the sole ingredient of desperation, and Second Quisa was all shivering pieces, stuttering from the inside, Third Quisa knew there were no explanations in this life. She stood up, unhooked a painting from the wall, and carried the painting out to the balcony, heaving it into the street.

     Tonight First Quisa had had enough of that. She and Third Quisa rolled across the floor, pulling and scratching. They got spaghetti in their hair and socks. They smashed a lamp and flipped over a coffee table before crawling away from each other, embarrassed. Then First Quisa stood up and said, “That’s enough. I know who I am.” Without even packing her things, she left the apartment for good.

     After a while, Second Quisa stopped waiting for First Quisa to return. She lost interest in keeping up with her diary and prank calling First Quisa’s ex-boyfriend. To avoid her thoughts, Second Quisa prepared ambitious dinners, serving everything on First Quisa’s inherited china. She watched television with Third Quisa. She rolled Orange Crush and they smoked and ate until they were nauseated. In the emptiness they both looked out the window but the night was so pure, what more could be said? Nothing happened, so Third Quisa picked a fight.

     As time passed, Second Quisa noticed how unpleasant it was to hang out alone with Third Quisa. With First Quisa gone, Third Quisa had begun to quarrel with her without warning, without end. Second Quisa carved her own face into the chest of a cookie sheet as she listened to Third Quisa’s one-sided arguments. Second Quisa flipped through her diary with a look of hurt amusement. Then she tossed the diary out the window. Day in and day out she held her tongue, but this time she wasn’t teasing. She killed herself, and Third Quisa dropped her glass. It felt like plumes of smoke were ballooning out of her ears, but mostly Third Quisa was relieved. Her whole body lit up with a green, apologetic joy.

     At the service, Third Quisa swayed to the hymns. For some reason, perhaps only because she had dressed up in clothes that didn’t even belong to her, she vaguely expected First Quisa to walk in, but First Quisa never showed up.

     Late at night Third Quisa was still trying to convert her snubbed feelings into freedom, even triumph. She put on her best lingerie and danced across the den, stiff and rigid as the letter H. But there was a meaning behind all that soulless jerking and shaking. She was trying with muscles and tendons to work something out of her body. Waving her hands had no effect. Bouncing and looking back couldn’t unhook it. As the horns and strings curlicued away, Third Quisa scratched between her shoulder blades. In the silence of the apartment, she had reached an impasse with herself. She haunted herself with a memory of when First Quisa had told her, “That’s enough. I know who I am.”

     “Well, so do I,” said Third Quisa, a bit too defensively, and even though nobody was listening, she pretended to be satisfied with herself. Alone, she believed that she could act profanely kind with anyone. She’d never have cause to raise her voice, not unless the smoke detector came on. She felt awash with a delicious, guilty sort of relief, and she’d recline across all three cushions of the sofa to sink into that relief and really appreciate the experience.

     But sometimes she would jerk up without a thought, her organs clawing up her throat. She would look over her shoulder because after all it wasn’t her apartment, and First Quisa knew where to find her.

Selena Anderson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, The Baffler, Bomb, Georgia Review, and Fence. She has received fellowships from the Kimbilio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and recently won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in California with her family and is working on a novel.