An image of Rosemarie flashed behind my eyes. She was naked, on her back, long white legs bouncing in the air with every slap of a faceless male body against hers, his hands holding down her arms on rumpled white sheets. In this vision of mine, for some reason, they both wore socks that billowed loose, hanging off their feet and flapping in sync. I felt ill.
“Theresa, help me.” Rosemarie’s head sank toward her lap while her hand held the strip in the air. She rolled her forehead back and forth across her knees, reminding me of how my mother kneaded dough for her breadmaker.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. I lowered myself to the shaggy mauve rug in front of the toilet. If I had still been thinking about myself at that moment, I would have leaned over and shouted “I know how you feel!” toward my sister’s abdomen. “Oh my God,” I said again. My mother had never discussed sex with us except to say, “Don’t do it.” I saw her, standing in the kitchen with her T-length polyester skirt, and my sister, splayed and exposed, adjacent on a screen in my mind, a picture split by the kind of diagonal white line they used on television to show two people talking on the phone in their respective houses. Then I thought about my mother doing the same thing, unclothed—and even more horrifying, happily—to create Rose and me, and squeezed my eyes shut until I could stop the likeness of my mother’s face from materializing.
Rosemarie wiped her cheeks with the palm of her hand. “You will not tell Mom about this,” she said. Her voice did not waver.
“Oh my God.” I paused. “Who—” I paused again.
She looked at me. “Does it matter, really?”
“Rose!” I clutched at her sweatshirt. Her drama was frustrating to me, although characteristic of her. “What the hell are you going to do?” I clenched my hand tighter around the bulk of material. “Oh my God.”
“Will you shut up already?” Rosemarie hissed. “Don’t you think I feel guilty enough?” She wouldn’t let go of the strip, but closed her other hand with its bright yellow nails around the white plastic splashguard. The tip was drying in the air, the blue becoming permanent.
I pressed my lips together to keep from crying. Then, “What are you going to do, Rosemarie?”
To my surprise, her mouth jerked into a smile that was not at all uncertain. “We’ll see,” she said. I flinched at how much she sounded like my mother.
“But it’s not that simple,” I said.
“Maybe it is,” she said. “Maybe it’s better than simple. Maybe this makes it easy, Theresa.” And although I knew it was absurd, she seemed to harden in front of me, her body, I mean, perhaps something I noticed in the settling of the muscles in her neck. She looked like she did when she had just run a mile or two around the neighborhood, a red-faced and untucked quality about her. Her hair, the shade of mahogany, was drawn into a ponytail that looked quick and casual, and I knew that she had actually taken great time in making the bumps look unintentional. There were those perfect tendrils, too, one on either side of her forehead, the kind I had to create with a curling iron. Behind her, in a line on top of the toilet, were my mother’s set of little pink cherub soaps, laughing gnome-like creatures with wings and bows and arrows. They seemed to be laughing at Rose in a cackling chorus. I felt like smashing them, or better, running them under hot water.
She looked at me. “Everything is going to be fine.”
I panicked. Suddenly I knew that my mother moved around in the kitchen below us with her glinting crucifix charm, and I imagined her standing over my sister, lasers shooting from her eyes and lightning breaking behind her head, claiming that God would strike Rose dead for what she had done. The faceless male appeared in my head again. I studied Rosemarie; she was slim, pale-eyed, and sharpened at this moment, her facial features strikingly defined against rumpled clothing and bowed shoulders.
She glanced down at the viewbook still in my hand. “Wellesley, huh?”
I shrugged, feeling self-conscious. “Yeah.” Rosemarie commuted to Emmanuel in Boston because my mother had refused to pay for her to live in the dorms, a place where alcohol, sex, and marijuana festered in cockroach-ridden corners. She let Rose go to a private college instead of a state school as long as she promised not to live away from home. “We’re not worried about your grades falling,” my mother had said. “We’re worried about your safety.” I felt guilty for a moment, but then the feeling was gone.
She lifted her eyebrows and let out a sigh, her breaths jagged from crying. “Oh, Teri,” she said, and a worried little laugh escaped her, “I love you, I love you to death…” She curved her fingers around my arm. Her expression reminded me of what hopelessness might look like. “But you’ll never get to Wellesley.”
A week later, my sister decided that she was destined for community service and since she wasn’t living at school, she might as well get involved in something fulfilling. She talked to my mother in her earnest and pink-cheeked way, the same old reliable steadiness about her. Don’t get too close, I kept thinking, don’t get too close or else she’ll know.
“Mom,” she said, “I think I’d like to volunteer—”
I had just come in from church choir rehearsal and I slapped my music folder onto the kitchen table, a little too loudly. But my mother smiled at Rosemarie. Her skin rose into dozens of wrinkles that I had never noticed before; her eyes looked sleepy, her mouth a burden. “Oh, honey, that’s lovely,” she said, and straightened her back in her chair. “You’ve always been so giving and eager to help. I always knew that was your nature…” She looked at me, beaming. “Theresa, remember when Rose had just turned seventeen, and we had that terrible blizzard, and none of Dr. Hamburger’s patients could drive themselves to the office so Rose went and picked them up?” Her eyes glinted, much too excitedly, I thought, and I stared down at my hands lying flat on the table.
Rosemarie pressed her lips together. I could always tell when she was restraining something, because her nostrils flared, the only way she could get out whatever was inside. “Theresa could have done the same thing if she’d been old enough to drive,” she said.
“Yes, honey,” my mother said. “But I still think it’s your nature.”
Rosemarie sighed. “Right.”
“What are you thinking of doing? Visiting nursing homes? Babysitting?” She pointed at Rosemarie. “I know. Why don’t you call Father Roland? I’m sure he needs help with his fundraising this year.”
“Well,” my sister hesitated, “actually, I was thinking of becoming a candy striper.”
My mother pursed her lips. “I don’t know it I like that. Imagine if you caught something. All those people out there with those diseases we know so little about, Rose, those viruses…”
“Mom,” Rosemarie said firmly, “don’t be stupid. You work in a doctor’s office.”
My mother had been the receptionist for a geriatric medical practice for over fifteen years. She worked for two middle-aged men, associates, named Dr. Hamburger and Dr. Trickle, who argued constantly over the best exam rooms—there were only four and they were all identical—and teased my mother about never having fun, never smiling. “Who are they kidding?” my mother had said once. “It’s my efficiency that keeps them clear-headed so that they can afford to be young and careless once in a while. They’d be lost without me.” Every now and then, I couldn’t help thinking that spending too much time around the elderly was somehow causing her to age, too; one day I glanced up from my dinner plate and it struck me how gray she looked, how pulled down and tired her skin was, how puffy and strained the veins in her hands seemed. But this thought brought me shame, and each time it re-emerged I tucked it away, only to be overwhelmed by a wave of aching affection for my mother that made my eyes and throat smart with tears.
Now, she appeared hurt but didn’t chastise Rosemarie. Instead, she said, “I’m proud of you. I think you should begin as soon as possible.”
I picked up my music folder. “Mr. Caverton asked me to demonstrate a phrase today,” I said.
My mother smiled at me tiredly. “Well, then. He must think you have some talent.”
I bet you never planned on having such a talented daughter. “I guess,” I said.
I followed Rosemarie out of the kitchen and upstairs, and stopped in the doorway of her room to study her as she walked, completely composed, to her bookshelf. Her bed, usually disheveled, had been made, one side of the comforter lower than the other. By the age of six Rosemarie was bored with her powder pink bedspread, and demanded to have what she considered the most beautiful linens in the Bed, Bath, and Beyond catalog: a bedset with some kind of jungle print, purples and greens and browns, the heads of tigers poking from behind tall grasses, heads with glinting gold lamé eyes. “It looks like something you’d find in a brothel,” my mother had said in disgust, and I had nodded in agreement, not understanding. But my sister cried and for her seventh birthday she got everything, the sheets and the comforter and pillowcases and European shams and a throw pillow shaped like a tiger’s head. The walls in Rosemarie’s room were pink and the floor was white. My mother always told her to keep the door closed when we were entertaining.
“What are you up to?” I asked her, drumming my fingers on the door frame.
She didn’t look at me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” and I dropped my voice to a whisper, “are you going to tell her, or not?” Are you going to keep it? Are you going to give it up? Are you going to marry him, whoever he is?
She swiveled her head to look at me. “Teri,” and I thought I saw her eyes glossing over, “I can’t. You know I can’t.” She reached into her back pocket, uncomfortably, I thought, and came up with a wad of bills. “I told him today,” she said.
“What are you going to use that for?” I said.
She bent down and surveyed the top row of her encyclopedia collection, the junior edition my mother had acquired at Stop and Shop, another volume for every fifteen dollars she spent on groceries. Rosemarie pulled out volume M.
“He said he’d give me fifty bucks a month to help with expenses if I let him off the hook,” she said. She tucked the money somewhere inside the book and slammed the maroon cover closed.