“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
I could have killed my little sister. People say that sort of thing as a joke, or hyperbole or metaphor. They don’t usually mean it.
I thought I was ready for the glowing accounts of Bella’s first week, sophomore year. Would it be as wonderful as her freshman year? Would the stars align? Would my little sister be the first person admitted to Harvard or Stanford from Reagan High School? I pushed the beef casserole around my plate and waited for her to launch. Oh yes, here is comes. Big breathless sigh. Bingo!
“They agreed to let me take pre-calc,” she said, smiling so her dimples showed. “It looks challenging but this way I can take three AP math classes before the end of high school? That’ll look good on my college applications.”
Pretty standard Bella move making her statements sound like questions to seem less vain. Stupid twit, I thought, even though I knew she wasn’t stupid. No, if there was anyone in this family who could be called stupid, it was me. Miss Mediocrity. Yes, Bella was planning for Stanford, and Candace would make do with community college. Ha, ha, ha. I looked around the table at my earnest mother, my sad, grey father, and my silly grandmother, and I thought I might just shock the snot out of them all one day. One day in the not too distant —
“I’ve asked you to pass the salt three times. Get a grip! Why must you always be so . . . so . . .” Mom couldn’t find the word.
“Remote,” offered Bella, taking a bite between her perfect white teeth. The wind made the house groan.
“Good to hear you’re taking your education seriously,” Dad said to Bella. “Maybe you’ll be able to keep your mother and me out of the poor house in our old age.” He smiled his faint grey smile. Everything about him was grey, from his thinning hair and worn jacket to his slate eyes and washed out, sun-free skin.
“Oh, don’t be silly, Quentin. Bella has more important things to do with her life than worry about us. Let her pursue her own dreams.” Mom was a neat little person with dark hair and dark eyes, often ringed with dark shadows. She’d been thwarted in her own pursuit of her dreams, a theme she returned to often. She was determined that we would not be thwarted too. Or at least, that Bella not be thwarted. She didn’t guess that I had a dream. But I did. And one day it would surprise them.
“Have you started thinking about your college applications yet, Candace?” Dad asked me in that distant way he has. The rain beat harder and a branch thudded against the siding.
I sat still and moved my eyes to suggest that I was thinking. If I stayed quiet for a few minutes, his attention would wander back to his failing stock portfolio, the family’s main source of income, and I wouldn’t have to answer.
“Well?” My mother was more tenacious.
“Yes,” I said. I had started thinking about them. In fact, I was doing precisely that right that minute. I was thinking that maybe I wouldn’t even need to go to college if my dream worked out.
My mother leaned back in her chair. “So, tell us what steps you’ve taken.”
“Well . . .” I started, reaching across the table to the plate of roast potatoes. Eating always seemed to help with stress. Until it didn’t.
“OMG — look at that,” Bella shrieked pointing at the window.
I whipped around catching sight of some flimsy ghost behind the glass, and knocked over the water jug, splashing cold water all over the table and onto Dad.
“Christ, Candace!” He flinched and stood and tightened his fists. “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
Mom found him paper towels to dry his pants but he pushed her away. “Don’t bother. It’s just water. The damage is already done.”
He folded his napkin and headed for his basement office that smelled of mold and pipe smoke. The damage would be the further fraying of his unraveled nerves keeping him from sleep and work for the next twelve hours. I hated making his life more difficult.
“Oh, it was just a plastic bag,” Bella murmured. “Sorry.”
Mom looked at me and shook her head. “I don’t know what you were thinking. You know how much stress your father is under these days.” She dabbed at the mess.
I stared ahead stolidly. If I didn’t react perhaps she’d believe I hadn’t heard her. Maybe she would come to believe there was no point in trying to improve me.
I hurried upstairs and slammed the door to my room, turned on my laptop and returned to my novel. My beautiful novel, provisionally titled Unkind Divisions. I loved it. I loved writing it. I loved living in it. My novel was going to find a publisher and be read all over the world. Sometimes I indulged in the wildest fantasies. But I knew it was good. Mr. Sawyer, my English teacher, read two chapters and told me they were promising. He suggested I excerpt chapter one and send it to the creative writing anthology, The Anchor. Then one day really soon, we were going to be sitting at dinner and I was going to whip out my acceptance letter and I was going to wad it up and stuff it between Bella’s perfectly white teeth.
Bella was in a giddy mood applying a skin mask and singing a Bette Midler song, some twaddle about love and rivers and roses. We met in the bathroom.
“Did you take my hair dryer again?” she asked.
I fetched it for her. Bella had white chocolate colored hair that she parted perfectly and tied up in French braids. Mine was brown and frizzy.
“Can I borrow your thesaurus?”
I didn’t respond but kept brushing my teeth.
“Please, I need it for a project I’m working on. I’ll do your math homework.”
Two years younger than me and a year ahead in math, Bella had her future mapped out. She was compiling the perfect college resume: volleyball team, piano, volunteering at the literacy center, leadership classes in summer, youth group every Sunday. She had several good friends, both male and female, but no boyfriend. Her youth group mentor had explained that romance interfered with academics and she was taking no chances. Not that the boys didn’t ask her out, but she always told them — in the sweetest way — that she wasn’t ready to date.
Mom asked me to give Bella a ride to school on Tuesday morning. “Oh, and would you mind dropping your sister off for the concert tonight?”
“Yes,” I scowled. “I would mind.”
Mom sighed loudly. “Remember, giving her rides was a condition on our letting you use Grandma’s car.”
“Sure. Whatever.” When Grandma lost her license, I’d begged my parents to let me use her car, a forty year old pea green Ford Pinto with 100,000 miles, better than the bus, but just barely.
“You’re not going to miss my piano solo, are you, Mom?” Bella asked.
“No, dear. But Dad and I will be running late and I know you need to be there by 5:30. But we wouldn’t miss your actual performance — not for the whole world.”
“You missed mine,” I mumbled.
Mom drew back and looked at me. “What did you say?”
“I said that when I played the clarinet in ninth grade, you missed my concert.”
“Really, Candace? You remember that? Well, I’m sorry if it that still bothers you. But you know how hard your father was working at CorpTech back then. Now that he’s left the company, we have a lot more time.”
Not for the whole world, you said, I wanted to tell her. But I kept my mouth shut.
“That clarinet did make an awful sound,” Grandma put in.
Everyone laughed. I had played badly. I had given up. Why the hell should I care if anyone made fun of my past playing? Think of your novel, I reminded myself. Think of the next chapter. Think what happens when it gets reviewed in The New York Times.
“Let’s get dressed, darling,” Mom said to Bella.
I daydreamed for a while longer and then dropped my coffee cup on my plate with a clatter.
“Why are you always so angry, Candace?” Grandma asked.
“What?” I hadn’t guessed that she could remember enough from day to day to talk about always — which was why I sometimes confided in her.
Grandma touched a hair on her chin. “I see how you look at your sister. You hate her. You’re jealous of her. Forget about her. Focus on yourself. If you do well, you will be loved and respected. If you do badly, sin is crouching at the door.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You’re not making any sense. I don’t have to listen to you.”
Grandma sucked on her teeth. “Now you’re just being unkind,” she said to her plate.
“We’re ready.” My mother stood in the doorway, with Bella close behind her. They were dressed alike, ‘dressed for success’ Bella called it, wearing a pencil skirt, blouse, and jacket, in complementary shades of purple, mauve, and lilac, to help her think of herself and get others to think of her as a serious professional in training. “What’s going on?”
“We were just arguing about Scripture,” Grandma said.
Really? Was she just making that up? Or was that line about sin crouching at the door really in the Bible? I wouldn’t know of course, since I’d avoided church since my parents gave me the choice at fourteen. Bella would know. Perhaps I could ask her. If I cared.
Grandma’s comments about sin crouching at the door followed me all the way to school. You’d think, with all this pushing and pulling, I would do better. I had this perfect model in the passenger seat beside me. You’d think it would be easy to follow the model, pull up your socks, try at least to write legibly, not talk back when the teacher says something stupid. Maybe you couldn’t be perfect, but you could be a damn sight closer to perfection. You couldn’t really compete with the perfect Bella, but you could get halfway there and wouldn’t that be nice? Nicer anyway. And then your mother and grandmother and even your father would nag, bitch, scold only half as much and the noise in your head would quiet for a bit and you could stop thinking about yourself and your defects, and focus on something important.
Like my novel, the one thing in all my mediocre existence that I could do well, the one thing I wanted to devote my life to. I’d always avoided trying because trying meant failing and looking foolish. I’d preferred to sit on the sidelines and jeer, and never know the sting of failure. But my novel was different; it was worth the risk.
I was writing a novel, a novel about a girl who didn’t get on with her family and especially hated her beautiful sister.
Yes, of course. I know. Where did I get that plot from? But write what you know, right? I’d started the book almost a year ago during NaNoWriMo. I sat down one night early in November and wrote 5000 words. I’d had them brewing in my head for a long time and they just came out. I remember looking up and seeing the gray light of morning and realizing I’d be late for school, but not caring because I had discovered my purpose in life.
I’d finished the novel in a rush and then gone back and slowly revised. In the meanwhile I sent out excerpts as short stories. They kept getting rejected. I had to keep reminding myself that this was normal and something all good writers — like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King — went through. So, I told myself to grow a rhino skin and keep submitting. Sometimes when the work was hard or discouraging, I’d take a break and daydream about the day I sold my book and shared the news with my family. I would no longer be a loser in their eyes. I’d be an eccentric genius. And Bella wouldn’t be the important beloved one any more. That would be me. I’d be the one putting our family’s name on the map. I’d be the one supporting the elders in their old age. I’d be the one they admired and loved.
One early morning in July, after writing all night, I made myself a pot of coffee. Bella must have heard me because she came downstairs, poured herself a cup and sat beside me. “What ya doing, Sis?” she asked.
“Just some homework.”
“Oh, come on! It’s summer, and I can’t remember you ever being excited enough about homework to get up early for it.”
“It’s something personal.”
“Let me see if I can guess. Is it a science article?”
I said nothing.
“Is it a . . . novel?” Her eyes were bright.
My face must have given me away. “No,” I said but felt myself blushing.
“Yes it is. Grandma told me,” she said. “Can I read it?”
Grandma? How the heck would she know? I scanned my memory. Sometimes I thought out loud when she was in the room, because she seemed not to hear or understand or remember most of what she heard. I must have said something about my novel in her presence and the information must have stuck to the fluttering fly paper of her brain.
I shook my head. “I’d like to keep it a secret — especially from Mom and Dad. Can you keep quiet about this?”
“I like secrets.” She opened the fridge and surprised me by drinking straight from the juice bottle. Then she wiped her mouth with her bathrobe sleeve. “I hope you’ll remember me when you’re famous.”
“Sure,” I said. And in that moment, I meant it. I thought I loved her, my darling, tender little sister.
Thanksgiving is a big deal in our house. With our help, Mom cooked and cleaned and decorated the place with pumpkins, and corncobs. Mom’s sisters and their families came over around midday, all dressed up and carrying dishes. At four in the afternoon, we sat around the table laden with roasted turkey, ham, sweet potato pie, green beans, cranberry orange relish, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Dad said Grace, and then we held hands for the thanksgiving ceremony.
“You start, Candace,” Mom said.
Everyone looked at me. I hesitated, trying to decide whether to tell them my news
“Come on, Candace!” seven-year-old Tyson called. “That turkey’s going to grow wings and fly away. I’m starving.”
When the laughter died down, I took the plunge. “I’ve written a short story and it’s going to be published.”
“Cool!” “Congratulations!” “Where’s it coming out?”
“In The Anchor Magazine. That’s the school creative writing magazine.”
“Wow, cool. Great job,” someone said in that fake tone reserved for the kid who wins third place in the T-ball tournament.
“Something for the resume, I suppose,” my father said. “Moving on, I’m thankful for the recent rise in the Stock Market.”
They went around the table, thanking God or the universe for new hips and basketball wins and snowboarding and Jesus.
“I’m thankful that I still have work,” my mother said. Then she turned to Bella. “Your turn,” she added in a stage whisper.
Everyone waited. Bella opened her eyes wide, started, stopped, started again. “I have a very important announcement. I didn’t really think it was possible, but this spring I started writing a novel — a novella really — and just a few weeks ago I sent it off to a small publishing house in Chicago. And guess what? They want to publish it!”
My father stood up, his vague eyes suddenly in focus. He walked around the table and then bent and kissed Bella’s cheek hard. “My girl!”
* * *
This is the first installment of a two-part story. You can read part two here.