Last August, when I received a phone call from a Houston number I didn't recognize, I felt a burning pit in my stomach. My heart stopped. I held my breath. I always knew that if this day came, there would be very bad news. And I was right.
"It's me," the voice said dryly. "So... Mom might've died in a car accident."
It was my sister Jeanie, and I didn't recognize her number because we hadn't spoken to each other in over a decade. Admittedly, there are times I forget she's my sister at all. Judging from what she said–and, more importantly, how she said it–I knew that she hadn't softened one bit over the years.
(I have three sisters in total, all of them younger than me. Jeanie is the closest in age–we're only a year and a half apart. None of us are particularly close to each other, except perhaps Jeanie and Janice, the two middle ones. The only one that I keep in touch with periodically is the youngest sister, Jacklyn, who's nearly nine years younger than me. Then, of course, there is the youngest of them all, our brother Jason.)
"I'm not here to console you," she said, flatly, "You can go to your friends for that. I'm only making a courtesy call."
My blood shot up to a rolling boil. "You miserable bitch," I wanted to say. "You awful, awful person!" But I couldn't. Her ongoing silent treatment had effectively numbed me. When we hung up, instead of throwing my phone against the wall and breaking every window in sight, I slumped down on the floor feeling completely incapacitated. Worst of all, her manner of delivery triggered an eruption of anger that overshadowed any grief I could feel for my mom.
That phone call was pure evil.
In case you're wondering, Jeanie didn't become this way overnight. Let's just say she has upheld a certain reputation over the years. At our mother's funeral, for example, a childhood friend of ours, who'd come to pay her respects, asked me, "Is Jeanie still...?"
"Still what?" I asked, curious about what descriptor she'd choose to complete her sentence.
Would it be "heartless", "mean", "cold as ice", "austere", "scary", or "militant"?
"...Still... You know...'Jeanie'," she replied with a shrug.
Right, exactly. I couldn't have said it better myself.
Jeanie and I couldn't be more different from each other. To give you context, she's fair-skinned while I'm olive-skinned. She inherited our mom's sharp facial features while I took on our dad's rounded ones. She hated any sort of sport or outdoor activity; I used to go for daily runs in the neighborhood. She excelled in school; I skirted by. She slept on her back, with her hands clasped on her stomach; I slept on my side, hugging a pillow. She was never afraid to stand her ground while I was a pushover. We're also opposite of each other in the astrological sense–she's an Aries; I'm a Libra. (Even our zodiac signs are positioned exactly 180 degrees apart, for goodness sakes!)
My memory of the incident that launched her silent treatment is hazy and vague. I was visiting from New York, so it must've been around the Christmas holidays. What year, who knows. I might or might not have been in college at the time–I can't really say. I do remember that she agreed to pick me up from the airport.
Now that she had her own place, I felt like we'd finally become grown-ups. Her more than me, clearly. I think I was sharing an apartment with a few friends in the West Village then. If she's the early bloomer out of the two, consider me the late one. To this day, I've still never lived completely on my own. But, then again, she's always been ahead of me ever since we were kids. She even learned how to tie her shoelaces before I did, which made me feel so hopeless I thought I'd have to wear Velcro shoes for the rest of my life!
But, back to that day...
I lugged my suitcase through her kitchen and into her bedroom. The kitchen, I remember clearly, was a little bit of a mess. "I didn't have a chance to clean yet," she explained matter-of-factly. She'd recently bought a fondue set and had hosted a dinner party the night before. There were breadcrumbs all over a wooden cutting board, wine glasses clustered together on the counter, and a mess of plates in the sink. She informed me that she was getting into wine now and had a book about wines to prove it. (Years before, she had vowed never to drink alcohol.) She's becoming so sophisticated! I thought. I also remember thinking that I wanted to clean up her kitchen for her after she left for work the next morning.
When we got to her bedroom, she slid open the mirrored doors to her closet and proudly showed off her wardrobe. She was a clotheshorse and loved shopping. It was probably dangerous that she lived so close to the Galleria. She had a very snappy sense of style and wasn't afraid to pay retail for it. Mine was either boring or all over the place. I remember looking forward to the night during my visit where we'd get dolled up for a nice dinner on the town. I was most likely going to try to borrow something from her. But, first things first, we had to go visit our mom.
Jeanie told me about her relationship as she drove on the freeway. I had missed this sort of girly catch-up with her since she so rarely allowed such intimacy. Her boyfriend was some years older than her and I think she told me he planned on moving into her apartment. I hadn't met him yet, but she was head over heels for this guy. She said she wanted their wedding to take place on his family's ranch and envisioned herself barefoot at the ceremony.
And then she mentioned that he borrowed a good sum of money from her.
Stupid, stupid me. I made some kind of disapproving remark about it and questioned his intentions. I had crossed some invisible line in the sand and that was the end of it. She never wanted to speak to me ever again and she meant it this time, she yelled. Next thing I knew, she announced that we were going straight back for my suitcase because she didn't want me staying with her anymore.
"You can stay at Mommy's house," she declared, cuttingly.
And that's exactly what happened. She didn't say another word to me the entire way. After I pulled my bags out of the trunk and shut the door, her car screeched off into the night.
Surely, she couldn't be serious. We'd gotten into crazy blowouts before but always managed to repair things after cooling off. I tried calling her later that night to apologize but it rang and rang until I got her voicemail. I tried again and again to no avail.
When I got back to New York, my emails went unanswered. A couple of years later, I tried a new tactic of just sending her a very short quip with no emotional content. "I went to Barcelona and tried anchoas for the first time," I wrote, attempting to reel her in through her love for Spain. To my surprise, she took the bait and wrote back. She said she had a thing against eating small fish. But the stick was firmly planted in the mud. She ended her email with: "I hope you've changed by now." Nothing got past her.
For years, I carried around an immense sense of guilt–just an overall terrible feeling about myself. I became even more cautious, self-conscious and accommodating, as to not drive people away with my very existence. "Maybe you should try harder," everyone urged me, further reinforcing that this devastating divide was entirely my fault. She was punishing me and I felt very punished indeed.
While she wasn't exactly a warm person, Jeanie was caring in her own way. When I was struggling during my early days in New York, she used to send a check here and there for $50 or $100. I was touched by her gesture, for she was struggling herself in Houston. It should've been the other way around, though, shouldn't it? The older one caring for the younger one? I'm sure she shored up some resentment over it, especially since I'd come home with some hundred-dollar haircut or an eighty-dollar Prada skirt I found at a consignment shop which, I'll admit, was irresponsible. At the same time, I was young and living in Manhattan. What can I say? I felt a constant pressure to keep up appearances with my peers.
If I reach deep enough, I can tell you of one instance in which I had total confidence that she didn't hate me completely. We were teenagers at the time and there was a rumor spreading about me while we were at a party together. I can't believe now how affected I was by it then, but people were calling me "superficial" because I'd apparently turned some guy down the week before "because of his looks". There were whispers and dirty stares going around the room. "Snob!" "Who does she think she is anyway?" "She's not even pretty enough to be a snob."
For the record, I turned him down because I thought he was creepy. Tell me, what kind of a guy drives 45-minutes across town, in the middle of the night, to deliver a red rose and a handwritten card confessing his feelings to a sixteen-year-old girl he's never even spoken to? The gossiping ate away at me. (Having my actions grossly misunderstood and misrepresented is one of the great curses in my life.) But my sister stood up for me. She stood in front of that crowd of older kids and demanded they stop spreading rumors about me. "My sister is a good person," she said, through her tears. "She is a good person."
I felt like a failure witnessing my sister's boldness. Could I ever come to her rescue as fearlessly as she was doing for me? I wasn't sure I had it in me. In fact, I was such a coward that I prayed such a situation would never arise. Today, there'd be no question. Like I said, I'm a late bloomer.
For the longest time, my dysfunctional relationship with my sister was a source of great shame. I was afraid that it would be reason for anyone I met to write me off. "She must be a truly deplorable person if her own sister refuses to speak to her!" It's a temptingly easy piece of information to tuck away as future ammunition.
At this point, though, I've come to accept that perhaps this is her only mechanism for coping with her emotions–or lack thereof, rather. It's the most compassionate explanation I've found. After all, her history of unleashing years-long silent treatments has extended to our dad, one cousin that I know of, and God knows who else. Her insidious hostility goes beyond my own character flaws, you see.
So, no, I don't know my sister's phone number and I didn't bother to save it. I don't know what she does or where she lives. We no longer have any significant ties to each other. What moments we did live through together are nothing more than a pile of ashes now: indistinguishable, delicate and disintegrating.
But maybe burning through it all is a form of healing in itself. As reflected in Nature, controlled burns are necessary in dense forests because they create the environment for regrowth. With the overgrowth cleared, the sun is able to filter through the remaining trees; its rays can penetrate beneath the foliage. The hope is that those sparks of light will awaken all of the hidden seeds to grow into new flora and greenery.
But I'm not holding my breath for it.