There were so many words we were not allowed to say (not just the obvious ones) and gestures that were considered too vulgar for our body parts to participate in communicating them. We couldn't point, or stick our tongues out. We couldn't say "shut up" or call someone a "liar." A lie was a "story," and that suited me just fine. I had a whole book of Bible Stories that were too fantastic to be true, and I came to understand that liars make good storytellers, and are forgiven.
My mother was the arbiter of these rules, our Emily Post and our Khrushchev. Lots of people, maybe most people, never shed the skin of childhood. It just stretches with age and if you scratch down through the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis you'll hit the tender skin of their youth. With my mother, the sequence is reversed. Her childhood layer is on top. She bruises easily and is always wearing some fresh shade of hurt or healing. I can see why she'd want to spare us her condition, to raise children above reproach.
She had it rough though, raising twins, children born to operate as a team, and Ben and I were usually in it together, unless I was in it for myself. Although he had been born first, by four minutes, it was because I shoved him out. I was, from the beginning, the boss of Ben. Which is why, when he made the mistake of saying "hell" – within some innocuous or mildly rebellious context – I held it over his head for weeks. His allowance was mine. My chores were done. Until it was time to tell.
I rushed into the master bedroom, tattle on my tongue. Ben right behind me, pleading. Our mother was lying on her back with a Merle Norman glossy, hot-pink mask on her face. It made her look like a burn victim, and she couldn't talk without cracking open. When I informed her of Ben's grievous sin, she nodded and flicked her wrist for us to go. Ben, poor soul, rather than being angry with me for tormenting him, was so relieved he threw himself into my arms and sobbed. I had saved him by wisely choosing this very moment when our mother had been rendered impotent by cosmetics to reveal his crime.
Ben never did toughen up, or wise up, but he was rescued. Just before second grade, Mama found a new best friend. Sally Sheldon, a grade-school teacher from Anniston, moved into the classroom next door to hers. Sally had two sons and one of them – Cal – was our age, a chubby, sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy with the kind of lashes you see on an expensive baby doll. He had a drum kit, an arsenal of pellet guns and a dog. I couldn't compete with that, and pretty soon Cal was the new boss of Ben.
As our parents socialized we were often thrown together, a gang of three. Only, within human relationships, there is never an equilateral triangle; someone is always at the narrowing end. I became the tagalong, the tolerated, the pest, watching Ben and Cal bond over their shared love of KISS, motorcycles and hunting. I turned inward, to books, and one of my strongest memories of that time is reading Island of the Blue Dolphins on the Sheldon's couch, feeling marooned, while Ben and Cal listened to Black Diamond a thousand times, trying to work out the guitar parts. There would be an upcoming concert in the Sheldon garage. I would be the ticket taker.
By high school, Ben was in trouble, troubled. He was emotionally unpredictable, using alcohol and drugs to mute unspeakable urges and voices. Cal was right by his side, along for the ride, just like everyone who loved him. Ben was now the boss of us all. And Cal – Cal had shed his baby fat, grown tall, broad-shouldered. He came into his inheritance, the suave grin that made his philandering daddy famous in three states. I couldn't look at either Ben or Cal without longing to see them as they once were: Ben, when he was normal and full of promise. Cal, before I desired him.
Early one morning, during the summer after high school, I came home after a night out with my girlfriends and found the house trashed. Our parents – Ben's and mine and Cal's – were off somewhere for the weekend, and we'd all made the most of it. I'd partied at a nightclub and they had partied at our house. "Holy hell, guys!" I yelled down the hall, where I knew Ben and Cal were sleeping. "You'd better get out here and clean up before Mom and Dad get back."
I heard the shower turn on, and I grabbed a trash bag and filled it with red Solo cups and pizza boxes. I gathered pieces of a broken bird figurine and thought up a lie, a story, about how it got broken. It would have to be my fault. Too many things were Ben's fault. I went to the sink, filled it with sudsy water, and I was washing plates when Cal padded up behind me. He smelled like soap. He set his hands on my shoulders, his chin on the top of my head. "Sorry about the mess," he said. Then he delivered a brotherly kiss to my cheek. After that, a lingering, not-so-brotherly kiss to the back of my neck. Another between my shoulder blades, along the spine.
I was already packed for college; my boxes were in the hall. I had worked out the person I would be, away from here, away from Ben and our parents, the people who knew me too well, trapped me into being someone they knew. I would dress differently, talk differently and be different. That was the plan and I knew that if I leaned into Cal my life would be different in some other way, a way I could not control. I said, "Cal. No."
He dropped his hands and stepped away. "It's too late, I guess. I'm too late."
I left for school. Cal and I didn't speak for seven years.
Ben's wedding was a complicated blur, but I have the photos. All of us lined up along the brick facade of the church, as if for a firing squad, wearing our best clothes and bottom-heavy smiles. Smiles that need neck muscles for support. Except for the bride. She's effortlessly beaming, oblivious.
By then the list of things we weren't allowed to say included things we weren't allowed to think. A thoughtless synapse could crack us open. So we all agreed that the bride was beautiful and the weather was unseasonably warm. I discretely scratched at the waistline of my pantyhose, where a belt of sweat was drawing tight. My mother patted my arm in warning. Stop. Then we lined up for the procession into the church, where we would perform as a gracious, above-reproach family, and when the shit hit the fan, we could claim to be surprised.
At the reception, hope came in the form of champagne and an open bar. Maybe this really would be just the thing Ben needed. A wife. A future. My mother danced with her mother. Nanny's knee-highs slipped below the hem of her dress. My father danced with me and then the bride. I danced with Ben, cheek-to-cheek, pausing to pose for a photo that would one day be the prize in my collection.
As Ben went to reclaim his bride, I was spun into the arms of the best man, Cal. He tensed as our hands met, and I did too. A gap of seven years, bridged in an instant. He grinned, that infamous, meaningless grin – perfected – and I was no longer the girl he might have loved like a sister and could have loved more. I was just a girl, any girl. He called me that when he grabbed me tight about the waist and pulled me close. "Girl, let's just dance."
And that's what we did, until our faces shone like mirrors.