The day I broke up with Bertie I spent the morning in my closet conducting experiments in ritualized catharsis. I sorted anklets and knee-high woolen stripes into stacks of tactile denominations, then slipped rubber bands over them as if readying to pack them in a duffel bag and schlep them to the drop. These would be payment for Angie’s life. It wasn’t the actual material that mattered; it was the intent. The configuration of objects and forces I created, and their suitability as vessels for the magnetism of my wounded heart. My sister was halfway across the world and possibly dying, and my means of intervention were limited. What I needed was pure transformation, and I was trying to concoct it from the contents of my closet.
After overhauling my sock tote, I built a mobile out of packing twine, a hanger, and my favorite pairs of shoes. It took childlike concentration to pry a hole through the thick, full grain uppers of my clogs, to pierce the gum rubber pads of my Keds. The blade of Bertie’s pocket knife and a sewing needle I found in my nightstand were my tools, and the whole time I worked I felt this inkling of glory, but when I hung the mobile in the window, nothing happened. It dangled there like something dead—lopsided and bent.
What needed to change was me, I realized.
When I finally emerged from the bedroom, Bertie was reclined on the couch with one arm crooked behind his head, scrolling through his news feeds. Save for the rising and falling of his chest and the periodic swipe of his thumb across the screen, he may as well have been hibernating. I leaned against the doorframe to steady myself, then told him I was going out.
“Okay,” he replied, without looking up.
When the silence became awkward, he glanced at me and saw I wasn’t actually going anywhere, then retracted his feet from the coffee table. “I thought we were going to the gallery,” he said.
He had a row of paintings hung in the hallway outside of a lawyer’s office—poker chips the size of dinner plates, stacked meaningfully in a dim light—and I’d promised him I would visit.
“We're not. We're breaking up, Bertie. And I'd like to catch the ten-thirty train.”
He swallowed once and gazed wide-eyed at the wall, then began rubbing the back of his head in a slow circle. I braced myself for the question why, which should have come out of him instinctively—like clockwork—but when all he could offer was the subliminal flutter of his lower lip, as if in hindsight he should have known all along it would come to this, I began to flounder. Something was very obviously wrong with me, and poor Bertie was bearing the brunt of it.
The pain of this realization began in my chest and spread slowly to my extremities, searing me from the inside out until I was numb and wished I was back in the closet, prying up floorboards. My plan was to find the letter Angie had written me all those years ago, when I’d gone off to field hockey camp and she’d convinced our mother to overnight me a token of her sisterly affection. The package had included my half of a chocolate bar, a hand puppet, and a photo of the two of us at the local zoo, group-hugging a bemused llama. My life had possessed a certain charm then; my fortunes had yet to speak with me frankly.
When Bertie squeezed the bridge of his nose like the headache was just beginning, I thought of begging for forgiveness. Maybe we could start over. He could grab hold of me, squeeze my arms until they hurt and kiss me with such passion my past would simply disintegrate. Bertie’s love would wash me clean. Afterwards he’d hold me close and whisper tenderly in my ear. But I knew I was fantasizing again: Bertie did not possess this kind of power. And even if he did, I wasn’t Bertie’s to save.
No one could save me.
A bird flew past the window then, a streaking black dart, perfect and beautiful, and it came with a thought: Bertie needs this as much as you do. I looked at him then, with his waxen face turned to the window, too late to see the bird but drawn somehow to its absence, and I saw how this had happened. He’d convinced himself he was content in the arms of a shallow woman. He was wrong, of course; he just hadn’t figured that out yet, but somehow I had.
It was my first taste of grace.
A vision came of the woman I was becoming. All my imperfections were but hot-burning knots at the core of my being—unseemly cravings that could only be consumed by the fires of difficulty, which meant scenes such as these were inevitable.
“You're going to be a great painter one day, Bertie,” I said.
His arms gave a desultory flap as he slid forward into a catcher's crouch at the edge of the sofa.
Here's the thing, Bertie: Angie is in Myanmar, and I just found out she’s fighting for her life. Last night when I went up to the roof deck to tell you, I found you and the Pharaoh arm-wrestling, only you were both so high your muscles were sending signals to your brains by foghorn, and tears of joy were streaming down your faces. Meanwhile, Dusty was drinking a beer and standing at the edge of the deck, recounting to no one in particular the story of his first trip to a full-blown demolition derby. My life is a mirage, but it needs something real now.
Bertie had showered earlier and then sat perfectly still while I’d deconstructed our closet. His blond hair was thick and molten, combed over to its usual perfection, and somehow immune to all that was unfolding in the man below it. He was shaking his head now, and snorting, or maybe it was laughter. He was really bearing up, wallowing in his personal shambles. I nearly swooned, but it was too late, and it wouldn't take anyway. My sister was in the jungle, bleary-eyed and suffering visions probably, and I had to come up with something.
My plan was to be good in a way I’d never been before.
I shrugged myself loose from the doorframe and walked over to him. “You were sweet, Bertie.” By then he was sitting flat on the floor, legs sprawled out wherever they’d landed, forgotten. I leaned over and kissed him once on the head. In response he put an arm around me like he was trying to grasp a refrigerator box. His arm hardly reached, but I certainly wasn't going to come closer and straddle him at this juncture.
I backed away and straightened my shirt.
“I’ll call you,” he said. He was still a little dazed.
“When you leave, will you slide your key through the mail slot?”
“Jesus Christ, Stella.”
He never got up, which reassured me in a way.
On the walk to the Metro, Elton John reached through a cracked car window and caught hold of me. I soared like a Rocket Man. As I swaggered across the sidewalk in sky-shattering ecstasy, I licked an ice cream in swivels so it wouldn't spill. The microphone had cost me three dollars and fifty cents, for which I’d left a ten dollar tip—considerably more than I could afford for a praline pecan—but I was bootstrapping my way to new life. I was buying karmic odds that Angie would fend off the typhoid fever in whatever white canvas tent she was laying inside, scraping breaths out of her chest by the forkful.
“I'm not going to go out with you,” the ice cream attendant had told me, staring at the Alexander Hamilton floating in the coffee can. I was the only person in the shop and her green eyes had borne down on me acutely. The ruby red pegs in her ears had lent a psychological largesse to the proceedings: I had squared off with a whole gang of them. They must have sensed that my heart was a wasted organ—that in its desperation it was prone to rash and impromptu decisions that would only lead to trouble later. And maybe in my red Sauconies and my faded jeans I really had looked like a lesbian.
“I'm not going to go out with you either, babe,” I’d replied.
While riding on the subway I wondered how long Bertie would need to get his bearings, and then I thought again of Angie. A typically seminal moment in our relationship had occurred when I’d been a junior in high school and she’d been in the eighth grade. She’d had freckles, glasses, and eyes like full-bodied tear-drops, and I, too, had possessed freckles, glasses, and eyes like full-bodied tear-drops. But I’d been a slightly more developed take on our Korean Irish heritage. The unexpected allure of this combination, coupled with the results of my mother's lifelong campaign against processed sugar, had caused boys with whom I made eye contact that year to suffer some sort of genetic cataclysm and start behaving as if their brains had turned to wood. Angie had been at the point of noticing this about me and making a study of it, and I’d been at the point of leveraging it.
“Dave likes you,” she said one day when we were sitting on the porch shucking corn. “After your field hockey game last night he stood near you in the crowd on two separate occasions and wobbled back and forth. You should probably talk to him.”
“Dave is a dweeb.”
“Stella. Dave is a good person, and you're being snooty.”
“Shut up, Angie.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put her nose back into her corn-shucking.
What do you call it when a person trusts you with her life, looks up to you, and is even endeared to you by the very knowledge you're full of shit? It's called being sisters, I think. As the older one I’d frequently exercised my prerogative to obsess about my life while ignoring hers completely, knowing that as the younger one Angie could never abandon me. It was a pattern we’d established from a very early age. When she was just thirty months old I tried to crush her hand beneath my dress-up shoes, and she simply looked up at me, smitten and smiling—curious to know what facets of love I was trying to teach her. I knew this because our mother had never let me forget it.
I could tell Angie in passing on a Tuesday that on Friday I would take her to the movies in my recently-acquired Pearl Blue Toyota Corolla, and then I could hang upon every word some college guy told me at a party that Thursday night, honestly believe my life had changed forever, and ditch her without thinking twice.
“Read your fucking Shamu books!” I could yell as I leaped into the sky from the steps at the edge of our driveway. Then I could get stood up at the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet the college guy whose name had temporarily escaped me, and I could feel insanely stupid. When I walked back through the front door an hour later, defeated, she would look up from her Idea Journal, beaming, and tell me that different killer whale pods had different cultures. She had just learned this. They had their own songs, their own hunting styles, probably their own inside jokes!
I was my own inside joke.
What use had I ever been? I should’ve been making a cold poultice and dabbing her forehead with it. I should’ve been sitting on a folding chair by her cot all night, underneath the mosquito net, recounting self-deprecating stories from our childhood with my pinky-finger interlocked to hers.
I should’ve been giving her my life.
I rode the subway to the end of the line, got off, and got back on. Then I got back off and rode the escalator to street level, where I emerged into gridlocked chaos. Traffic lights facing five or six different directions beamed their colored instructions to swaths of the perturbed, none of whom retained any belief in the lights’ capacity to end the gridlock. Human greed and vigilante justice had bound the place up solid. When the lights changed color, the blaring and cursing merely shifted direction.
A text message came in from a number I didn't recognize.
“Angela at critical juncture. Fever 104. Anything you wish to say?”
I pictured a gaunt man in need of a shave standing on top of a hill, holding a satellite phone up to the sky. I had to act quickly, before the Earth rotated, or ash petals the size of maple leaves rose up from the burn piles of old growth forests to obscure the beams.
I sat down on the curb and curled into a ball, shielding myself from the fumes and the epithets. “Tell her she’s not allowed to die without my permission,” I wrote.
It sounded funny at first—glorious in a way—until I read it again and realized I’d written that for me, and not her.
“I love you, Angie-girl,” I appended, but I still hadn’t hit the mark. I hadn’t told her we’d been born in reverse, that I was the one who looked up to her—that without her my world was an underexposed photo.
A tuft of grass poking up through the pavement waved at me while the messages rose into the sky. After nearly a minute my phone squawked and flung a series of exclamation points at me. My messages had been unable to find their way through.
We were both alone.
Back on the Metro I consulted the map and set my course for Arlington National Cemetery. The home of the brave.
The curation of death wasn't exactly my thing, but I thought maybe it could become my thing. I needed order of some sort, and solemnity. I needed to pay some homage.
I looked at the empty bench across from me as the subway car throbbed and banged its way beneath the city, and thought of it carrying all those people from one place to another—day and night, summer and winter, the drunk and the sober, the muggers, the victims and the lawmakers. After a while, I realized the bench wasn’t a bench at all. It was just a shape, a texture. It was a dormant form of goodness. So, too, were the escalator treads at my stop. They were an endless, looping circuit to the city above. They lifted everyone without complaint...
They were pure.
At street level the sky was overcast and I bought a ticket on the tour bus. The driver was a barrel-chested young man about my age with close-cropped brown hair and a prosthetic left shin and foot. He had his arms crossed and was joking with a police officer outside the bus while we climbed on board. They both had radios clipped to their belts. I wondered if I asked him nicely if he could jig-up a connection to Myanmar. I could carry a radio to the top of a nearby hill so we could make a triangle; I’d heard that helped with locating things on the other side of the world. You had to triangulate them. We could run a wire with an antenna on it up the inside of the Washington Monument and hang it out the window. The radios looked willing. Maybe if everyone on the bus joined hands we could boost the signal strength.
I took a seat by the window and watched a flock of Asian tourists file past. They were followed by an elderly couple, some families with kids, and a few obvious vets wearing ball caps embroidered with insignia I didn't understand. When the bus started up I had my head leaned against the glass and a tinny vibration crawled up my nose. I leaned back and looked at my reflection, but all I could see was Angie. I reached for her face. In the reflection it looked like I was trying to clamp her mouth shut so she would keep her comments to herself. She always squirmed and laughed when I did that, but this time she was silent.
The bus lumbered along while the driver instructed us in things I hardly heard—about the wars our nation had fought, about who was and who wasn't buried here, about the ceremonial internments and the military honors. He told us about the protocols we should follow were we ever to explore Arlington alone.
Headstones whirled around us like an experiment in parallax.
When we came to a stop the driver helped us get off the bus and I thought of telling him I’d come here because my heart was enfeebled, but it wanted to grow. The driver seemed like he would understand—like he could listen and tell me how to care for it. He could tell me how far to run each day to produce the optimal amount of meaning, show me which VA hospitals to volunteer at. As I came off the last step he held his arm six inches behind me to shepherd me along—prepared, but never touching. There were protocols for even the smallest of details.
We wandered in clumps between the plaques. I stared glassy-eyed into space, through a grid of grave markers, seeing nothing. Finally I looked down at one of them. Rusty Laquesta, it said.
I repeated the name out loud. “Rusty Laquesta.”
My voice throbbed with life.
I had a flickering sensation all existence knew what those two words meant, even if I didn't. I felt like a turnstile with all sorts of people brushing past me, touching me, imparting information. I decided my heart must work like a radio. Turning it on could reveal a new type of goodness. I at least had to try.
The wind washed down the hill around me while I took a breath and adjusted the dial, placing my full attention upon the enigma of Rusty Laquesta. I squeezed my mind to purge it of everything I’d ever known, and then blew it up like a balloon. I tried to make myself empty.
After a period of uneasy, grasping doubt, I thought of strawberry Starbursts.
What the fuck, Stella?
I sagged and settled into the hillside. While I rolled on the lawn and groaned at my stunning failure as a medium, an image squeaked through of Angie and I fighting at Halloween over pink Starbursts. We'd turned our pillow cases inside-out to make the first accounting of our haul. I was seven and she was four, and I was explaining to her why I needed more pink ones than she did—because I was older and taller, of course—and she cried because she didn't know how to defeat my argument even though it was so obviously wrong. In the end I traded her all my pink Starbursts for a Tootsie Pop. A good trade.
Next Rusty told me someone in his unit had known a girl back home who’d sent strawberry fruit chews to him as the currency of her affection. Rusty and the boys had gathered at night by the lamplight, on folding chairs under the green canvas tents of the battalion, and wagered those ingots of true love over cards. On Sundays they did this. Sundays they kept the cigarettes and the money in their pockets and they played for pink Starbursts, and no one left the table without one. When your luck ran out, Rusty said, the guy with the biggest pile gave you one of his own as a parting gift. It was the most essential part of your gear. You held it close like your life depended on it.
Rusty showed me where he’d zipped his last one into the side pocket of his combat fatigues for safe-keeping.
The next day they’d gone out on patrol and gotten caught in heavy fire. They’d fought house-to-house all afternoon for a hundred yards of stucco, clay and dust—of scraggly kids and sulking dogs. Rusty and one of his buddies got separated from the unit and were forced to bivouac for the night. The other man was wounded—shot in the thigh, he was thirsty as all hell—and Rusty gave him his last pink Starburst. Told him he was going to make it. Held his hand. They whispered about Little League, first kisses, and Magic Johnson.
Then Rusty went quiet.
I glanced up the hill and saw the bus driver barking into his radio. He was shooing people back to the bus like he'd seen a tornado touch down on top of the White House. In the sky above me all I could see was a gray carpet of cloud, clearing off a little down towards the city. There were columns of light shining down in the distance. A wind was rustling past us.
What happened, Rusty?
Some kids had found them hiding in a dumpster and started making a scene. Rusty and his buddy had scrambled from cover and started hobbling down the street, arm in arm, humping as fast as they could like a horror scene potato sack race. Voices rose and scurried around them like rodents trapped in the walls. Lights popped on here and there; you could hear them sizzle as they caught fire. A door slammed. A half-crazed dog lunged out from a door frame and tried to drag the pair home by a pant leg.
They were almost at the end of the block when the shooting started, dimpling the street into moguls of sound. Masonry and wood started raining sideways. Rusty threw his friend around the corner of a building and then dove after him. Some of his unit started returning fire, unzipping the block ahead of them with tracers and claps of thunder, but he hardly heard it. He felt warm and empty and good. He saw a vision of the abandoned lighthouse overlooking the harbor, and inside it, the place where the birds hid themselves for the night. Teal and purple skiffs bobbed in the water down below. Seventeen pigeons were lined up on one beam of wood with their heads tucked under their wings, all of them dreaming the same dream, of tall grass leaned over by a summer’s breeze. How could he have known those things? When he looked back his body was face down in the dust, motionless—a rivulet of blood and saliva dangling from its lips. His friend was yelling to him and Rusty was yelling back, but they weren’t on the same channel.
Rusty looked up at the sky with me.
I told him I was sorry.
I climbed to my feet and let the wind whip my hair around in funnels. A man was walking up the slope. When he stepped with his left leg he crumpled into his cane. He wore a tattered green coat that fluttered in the breeze and trailed shadows that danced like flames along the hill. In his free hand he carried a gun. His gums were spotted with teeth, his eyes were round and soft, and his face was unshaven. He looked like he'd been walking for years.
When he drew near he saw me and grunted with frustration at my presence on his flank. His eyes bore into mine but they couldn't make sense of what they saw. He couldn't see anything for what it really was. I could tell. Rusty said sometimes—when you're dying or you're miserable because you think you're dying—all you see is the glare. The colors and shapes form a violence your eyes can’t penetrate.
The man hobbled in a semi-circle to bring the pistol around and the barrel shook when he aimed it, like he had a tremor. At first I wasn’t sure what he was doing, then I froze and my feelings all darted to the center of my chest, each one trying to hide behind the others. I tried to think so much at once it all blurred into a white, thick heat.
I don't know where the bullet went but it didn't hit me or whiz past me like in the movies. I didn't flinch or start to cry or get hysterical. I just softened. I became Angie, beholding the scene curiously after her big sister had tried to crush her hand with fake-sequined shoes.
I glanced up the hill and saw faces in the bus windows, round and pale like white chrysanthemums in the florist’s refrigerator. I looked a little closer and saw they were going berserk, each in their own way. They needed some camp counselors on that bus quickly. The bus driver had given up on the radio and was headed down the hill for some reason, while behind him a man with a rifle and a beret on his head was measuring the distance, the wind, and the light.
I started walking towards the man who’d shot at me.
He grunted again, like he was annoyed I lacked the grace to even get shot properly. His whole world was an item that wouldn't scan at the check-out counter. He held the pistol up across his forehead like a visor and stared right through me. Then he turned back up the hill and took another step, slumping against his cane.
The gun waggled in his hand.
I should have probably been pretty vexed, given he’d just shot at me, but I wasn't. Angie was hanging onto this world by her fingernails and I was hanging onto her by the same margin, and I'd never felt so good as I did then, getting shot at and discovering I knew deep down he hadn't even meant it.
Up above us I saw more rifle barrels congregating near the first. They were spreading across the crown of the hill and digging in like they planned on a surge of infantry charging up the hillside in about five minutes’ time. I stepped into the man's path.
He came to a stop and looked up the slope towards the sky, refusing to make eye contact with me.
I let Angie do my smiling for me. “I know you didn’t mean it,” I said.
He made another grunt and scratched his cheek with the barrel of the gun. Then he pointed up the hill with it. He mumbled something I couldn’t quite catch.
“My boy,” he said absently. “They stole my boy.”
Behind us there were two guards scrambling quietly up the slope, and up above us the bus driver was taking little steps down the hill like he was getting ready to grab someone by the arm and drag them out of a river.
“I've got something for you,” I said, and I pulled a tin of mints from my backpack.
He ignored the evidence in my hand and looked straight at me so he could be certain of what I told him. The way he looked—like he couldn’t trust his own sight, his eyes wobbly and wincing—I could tell he'd been tricked before by the offer of something sweet.
I told him it was a box of kisses from a girl I knew, and one was for him. I wriggled a mint out of the tin and held it up against the sky. I offered it to him but he kept staring past it, into some personal vision, like the world was littered with remnants of a language he’d once taught himself to read and then forgotten. He crinkled his lip and whispered a thing or two meant only for himself.
Bitterness followed him like a cloud.
I smiled and put my arm on his back. He needed a more tangible offering of this world’s affection. I continued my arm around until it landed on his opposite shoulder, and then I kissed him on the cheek.
I love you, Angie-girl.
The plainclothes pair was close, so I motioned for them to slow down. Everyone around us was itching for some righteous violence.
“What were you thinking of doing with that gun?” I asked.
He smiled like it was his own little secret, and a good one at that—he’d pieced it together carefully over the years.
I smiled back because I could tell he was following the instructions of his crippled heart, just like I was.
The guards were behind us and to the side, holding their distance. They had their sidearms out. I marveled a little at how scared they looked, how intense, like grenades in a box with their pins pulled, wondering when they would detonate. I marveled, too, at how relaxed I felt despite being caught in fields of fire from two directions. Angie and I must have really been letting loose with our sisterly power.
I told the man I could pay the debt he required, for his son, if he was so desperate to make things right. I was close enough now he could hit me for sure. He could hit me right in the chest and that could make it right. But then the man up the hill was going to shoot a rifle and make him right, too. How right did he want to get?
“I don't want to kill you,” he scoffed, but he said it to someone neither of us could see. Then he squinted up towards the hilltop as though he hadn't realized the rifle barrels were for him.
I asked him if I could help him find his way back home, and his body language told me I probably could. He must’ve had his address written down somewhere safe. “Was it in a car?” I asked. I could tell he was trying to remember which one and where he'd parked it, when the bus driver finally reached us. He was comfortable with the truth of guns. He was barrel-chested with short-cropped hair, and I marveled at the kind of power that lived inside of him. The man with the gun asked the driver if he was his boy.
“No, sir. I'm sorry.”
“Well he looked like you, anyway.” Then he looked at the driver more closely. “What happened to your leg, son?”
The driver said it got blown off over in Afghanistan.
“That's where they done it to him, too,” the man said. “Only they blowed off more than his leg. They blowed so much off him you couldn't tell anymore what it got blowed off of. We weren't supposed to look.”
“Is he buried here, sir? In Arlington?”
“They all are, I thought.”
I could see he was right. Just look.
“Sir, maybe I could carry that gun for you?” the driver said. “Help lighten the load?”
I gave the man an encouraging squeeze and kissed him again on the cheek again, and the man thought it over for a minute, then said that'd be nice. “You look like my boy,” he said, as he handed his gun across to the driver. “I reckon you could carry it a ways.”
I slipped the tin of mints into his pocket as a gift then, so quick he never even felt it, and stepped aside as they started walking back down the hill. The guards swarmed around him quickly after he handed over the gun. Suddenly I was outside of it. I glanced at the onlookers up the hill. Across the field, I saw a copse of flashing blue lights.
I wondered how I would find him again. Would he recognize me if I did?
I watched them trundle along for a while and then turned towards the bus. I wasn’t ready to go back yet. I was fresh and tender, still just beginning.
Then Angie came. I felt the whole of her in an instant. There was the delicate shape of her nose; the sight of her hanging off the side of a chair at the kitchen table, half-standing while she worked, playing drums on her thigh; a movie of her leaping from her bed in her favorite purple tee-shirt to hang for an instant, hair flying crazy and weightless like an astronaut’s, before she curled in a ball and slapped face-first into a pile of bean bags.
In the distance I noticed the shape of the city—the crisp interlock of bridges and buildings, and the tendrils of shadow they shed in their wake. I witnessed the contours of the land and the ribbon of water laid across it that marbled the earth with secrets. And I waited. From every direction the message was identical: Angie was going to fall in love with that grizzly man beneath the satellites who'd texted me, and somehow I knew the sound of his name, even if I couldn’t say it. It was like the feeling you get when you step on something soft. They were going to have a couple of button-cute babies, French and Korean-Irish, and I would play with them on a blanket in the sun. Even now, their voices were on the radio.
I sat down on the earth and leaned against the nearest grave to rest. I buried my face in my hands and I listened for a very long time, until my breath settled deep inside of me and I was like nothing I’d ever been.
I’m here, Angie-girl...
I looked up as a bird flew past. It darted through the shadows, dipped between tombstones, then vanished. The sweetness of it was daunting. The sweetness of my breath, of every life at once curled around me.
When I was ready, I rose and brushed myself off, then picked my way slowly up the hill. The wind was cool against my face. I was walking towards Angie, putting one foot in front of the other, just like I’d been doing my whole life.