By Catcall Contributor
Some summer day when I was sixteen, I woke up with blood underneath me.
In the bathroom, I fingered a loose thread on my pajama shorts before pushing them to my ankles. I thought about weighing myself and about the clear fluid that had been running down my legs for some days. I thought about my boyfriend.
Then I saw the tiny gray-white thing, almost pearlescent. It was no bigger than a blueberry and possessed black dots one could only think of as eyes. There was emptiness burning up from my belly. I stopped thinking, and here, I can clearly mark the point at which my memories of adolescence change shape; time bent forward in a drunken, shallow arc, spilling onto the ground and across the walls as it reached forward. How long was it before I woke up, pushed away my blankets, swung my feet over the side of the bed, and found that the situation needed someone to blame? A month, maybe two. It was still hot outside.
I might have wondered how my birth control failed if I hadn’t been so eager to lock away every memory surrounding that gray, bead-like cluster, made up from me—my DNA, my skin, my blood. I should have gone to the doctor, but instead I looked online for pop psychology articles on dealing with miscarriages. All I found were links to support groups for people who’d wanted a baby. These women would’ve kept the pregnancy. Sometimes all they’d seen was a pink plus on a pregnancy test, and other times the pregnancy ended five, six months down the line. All miscarriages, all very sad, but they were nothing like me. These were women, I thought, who lost babies. They deserved to be checked for sepsis and infection. I was sixteen. I would have never become a parent. The embryo never would have become a baby. I knew that. It didn’t stop my days from blurring together, warping every hour; it didn’t stop the nauseating emptiness that seared through me.
How had my body made such an important decision without my say? Had I starved it out? Was I allowed to feel sad? And who was the real reason I never ate? Who was the real reason I didn’t feel happy or sad or angry? It couldn’t be me. I settled on Allison.
She’d been out of our parents’ house for a few months, though by then she was almost twenty-two. When Allison had been sixteen, she swore up and down that she would leave the second she was legally able. She had tanning-salon skin and blonde hair with a layer of black underneath. She threw parties while the rest of the family went away to visit our grandmother, whose lungs had literally become crystallized with cigarette tar.
Once, she called us to say she’d gone running and come back to find that our TV, a computer, my brother’s video games, and my dad’s birthday present—a grill—had been stolen. Then she posted on Facebook about “living in hell because her parents and sister hate her considering i threw a party and our shit got stolen.” She wasn’t very smart about lying.
When Allison was sixteen, I was eleven. I had a scabby face and greasy hair covering it. I was partial to Japanese graphic novels, those hallmarks of social leprosy. I was not at all pretty, and Allison let me know it. Like how one day, shortly after I turned eleven, I’d sat in the living room reading a comic about girls with the DNA of endangered animals, which gave them magical powers for defending Earth from aliens.
Allison came in through the garage door, two boys I’d never seen before trailing behind her. She brought home random friends a lot, two or three times in a row at the most. Then we never saw them again.
“Your book’s backwards,” she said when she got to the living room. Her friends were still taking their shoes off a few yards behind her.
“It’s a Jap book, and you’re a Jap lover,” she said flatly. “Get out of the living room, I’m using it.”
“I don’t have to. You’re racist.”
“I’m not racist. Get off your fat ass and go shave your mustache or something.”
Her friends appeared behind her. My face turned red because they could see me and my mustache—a blue-black shadow of fuzz that I didn’t know what to do about—and Sam Schroeder from school had called me a “big nosed freak with a mustache” just the other week, so when I stood up and turned away, I was trying hard to not let my face crumple. I failed, of course, and ran to my mother’s bedroom upstairs.
“What now?” she asked, exasperated because Allison and I were terrible—always fighting, never happy. I reiterated the painful exchange, and she told me my sister was just a bitch.
“Horrible,” she said, shaking her head. “Why does she do that?”
Our mother reacted the same way every time: When I ate something and a disgusted Allison asked if I knew how many calories it had; when I stayed in our basement all summer writing a very dumb book and Allison reminded me that I had no friends; and when we fought on the day of her confirmation and she hit me in the temple so hard that I couldn’t see straight.
Some days were good, puzzlingly. She’d take me to the mall to watch her shop while she talked about being voted “biggest sweetheart” for the yearbook. She’d ask me to read her tarot cards. Sometimes she’d try to take me out for frozen custard, but I couldn’t eat in front of her. Soon, I found that I couldn’t eat unless I was sitting up very straight, lest someone pass by and think I looked gross. Then I couldn’t eat in front of people unless it was plant-based food. Then I’d found that I couldn’t eat at all.
Constructing a not-fat body became my hobby, along with bleaching my mustache off and using makeup to fix myself. I got rid of my manga and purged my personality of any other embarrassments. My parents were worried, and when a therapist asked me to describe my emotional state, I had nothing to say. No one called me ugly or weird anymore. I found a boyfriend who thought I was pretty and said he loved me, which was never supposed to happen. I was relieved.
By the summer I’d decided to blame her, Allison had changed some. Her vitriol had faded away, like it always does in siblings. She could drink legally and, paradoxically, went out less. Her hair was brown again. She lived an hour away but came home every weekend, because she hated her little apartment in the only town she could find a job.
I told my boyfriend. Not about the miscarriage by malnutrition—I was afraid he would blame me and lay claim on emotions I had been frustratingly unable to uncover for myself—but that it was time to address Allison as the root of my bizarre eating habits, which had made me an unfavorable companion at the Wisconsin Dells, movies, and his family gatherings.
“You know how she used to tell me I was fat and ugly and no one would ever love me?”
“You’ve mentioned it.”
“I think that’s part of why I’m so weird. I want to change and don’t want someone like her in my life.”
I didn’t see her often anymore, which made enacting such a decision difficult. She called one day to tell me her boyfriend had finally proposed.
“You’re the first person I called!” She was crying, and she sounded more excited than I’d ever been for anything. Her words were all strangled, and I could hardly hear her over the wind in the background. She was on the roof of a hotel in Chicago.
“Wow! Thanks,” I said. I fidgeted with the bathroom sink. “I’m really happy for you.”
“Will you be my maid of honor?”
I stretched my face out wide so it’d sound like I was smiling and said sure.
“Good! I’m so happy,” she sobbed. “You’re going to help me plan all of it.”
I regretted saying yes immediately. I didn’t want to be anyone’s maid of honor. When I grew up and got married, I didn’t want her to be my maid of honor. I waited a week for her to do something awful that I could use as an excuse. She told me I’d have to start penciling my eyebrows in differently if I wanted to be in the wedding. I took great offense and handed the title over to her best friend Amanda. The ensuing argument was so bad that our mother came to take part.
“We’ve never been friends!” I said. “I’m not gonna be in your wedding at all, and I’m not your sister.”
For almost two years, I could not see or hear whoever Mom was talking to in the kitchen. I did not make exceptions on holidays, and I didn’t feel bad when I explained my reasoning to my mother and she cried.
Something like an intervention was staged a few months before her bridal. She really wanted me to be a bridesmaid. Could I please? This had gone on for too long. Adults didn’t act this way. She was different now. Those years had been awful for everyone.
I acquiesced. I wouldn’t be in the wedding, but I’d talk to her.
Some time after I’d dropped out of my first college, I sat in my mom’s bedroom pawing through an old stack of books while she folded laundry. I pulled out a yearbook from Allison’s sophomore year of high school and began making fun of everyone’s hair. I’d been talking to Allison for a while, but still loved rehashing how awful she’d been.
In the back of the yearbook were pictures from school dances. Allison went every year in a very short, very expensive dress that our mom had said she wouldn’t buy.
“They didn’t put her name on the list for homecoming court,” I said.
“She was on homecoming court. They didn’t list her.”
“What are you talking about? Allison was never, ever on homecoming court.”
“She was on something like, every year. She got voted biggest sweetheart,” I explained, searching for evidence. But “biggest sweetheart” wasn’t even a category.
“She wasn’t on anything. You can look, she’s not in the pictures.”
I’d thought I’d seen the pictures before, in particular one of her standing in the gym with a sash over her sparkly dress. I pulled out another yearbook. The photo wasn’t in that one, either.
“Why would she tell you that? No one voted for her for anything.”
“What about all of her parties? People came to those.”
“I’m sure people came. But she was always crying. No one in that high school liked her.”
I put the yearbooks away, remembering the electric blue walls of my sister’s high school bedroom.
“Homecoming court… that is the weirdest thing,” my mother said, more to herself than to me.
Allison used to offer up evidence of her fabulous life at a public high school freely. I never asked. It became fact as she said it, and I seamlessly fit it into my image of her: My sister, who had tons of friends and was voted onto homecoming court. Her life outside of our house was supposed to be perfect, a place where everyone thought she was wonderful and agreed with everything she said. She had been powerful. She’d maintained many of these lies into her adulthood, referencing them in our private conversations before we stopped having them. That girl had been my sister. That was the girl I’d placed blame on for all my misery, and now I sat on the floor of my mother’s bedroom learning that she wasn’t real.
I’d spent almost two years not being Allison’s sister to find that it wasn’t really my choice. Allison, as I’d known her that bloody summer morning, was an adolescent escape. I did have a sister, but it wasn’t here—it was the girl who’d come home crying and alone to dream Allison up.
My mother said, again, how strange it was.