The summer before Kate’s sister dropped out of college, they both got jobs working for a dentist. Kate was sixteen and had been sent to stay with Claudia in Claudia’s college apartment while their parents figured a few things out, including whether or not they wanted to stay married to each other (not) and how much larger their kitchen should be (much), though probably not in that order.
Up until now, Kate had never spent much time with her sister, mostly because Claudia was five years older and had always existed largely outside the boundaries of Kate’s world, but also because Claudia found Kate annoying. “You could be twins,” people often said to them, and it was almost true. They had the same dark, shaggy hair and ghostly skin, the same narrow jaws and thin, bloodless lips, the same long, creepy fingers. But Claudia was taller and thinner. Not enough to keep people from mistaking them for each other when they ran into them alone. But enough that — so long as they were together — no one ever got them confused.
They were terribly unhappy that summer, Claudia because she was doing poorly in school; because she thought that their parents were overbearing tyrants who had never understood her; because she felt pent-up and pushed-around; because she had fallen in love again; and because, again, the experience had not gone well. Kate was terribly unhappy because she was always terribly unhappy.
Originally, the plan had called for Kate to spend the summer in New Hampshire with an aunt. Kate had not cared for this plan, but her parents made great promises — spend the summer in New Hampshire, they told her, and in the fall she could have her own phone line, an extended curfew, and limitless use of the car. Kate rarely got phone calls or invitations to go out, and she had yet to learn how to drive, but she liked the idea of herself as someone who could benefit from such a bargain, and so she agreed to it.
In school, Kate read novels about girls who were kleptomaniacs or drug addicts or in love with their brothers, and the absence of such suffering in her own life was a source of perpetual anguish to her. Kate’s unhappiness was like weather, a storm rolling constantly toward or away from her, a force she could feel approaching like a hum of electrical current across her skin before it broke open, soaking her in sadness, and she would have no choice but to brace against the misery until it wore itself out on her and passed on to someone else.
How she longed for a tragedy — a well in which to pour her sorrow — a rare blood disease or psychotic break, a doomed love affair, one in which many people would be invested and many people would get hurt. It was her great hope that something god-awful might happen in New Hampshire.
But two weeks before Kate was to leave, Claudia told a TA that she was going to kill herself, then stabbed a pair of scissors into the back of her hand. And after that, the summer belonged to Claudia.
* * *
What their father didn’t have time for, he explained as he drove Kate the three hours north to Claudia’s, was this bullshit with the college. After the incident with the scissors, Claudia had not been permitted to finish the semester and was required to meet with a psychologist at the Student Health Center once a week for the whole summer. If at the end of the summer this psychologist gave her approval, Claudia would be welcome back to school in the fall.
Mountains from molehills, Kate’s father said. This was a college, for Christ’s sake. If they got rid of every high-strung girl who dabbled in the art of self-mutilation, there wouldn’t be a single female left on campus. And that included faculty.
This mess was because of a professor, that’s what Kate’s father said, another married man with loose morals with whom Claudia had managed to entangle herself. Things fell apart, of course, then so did Claudia. When she couldn’t find the professor, she went to his TA — some poor kid grading papers who nearly shit his pants when Claudia skewered herself in his cubicle.
“Who’s the professor?” Kate asked, and her father squinted for a moment as if he was about to sneeze, then didn’t.
The details, he said, were unimportant. Besides, that was all over. And the college didn’t know a thing about the relationship — the college didn’t need to know. From here on out they would handle the situation as a family, and as a family, their focus should be keeping Claudia on the right track.
Kate’s father knew that he was asking a lot of her, knew that he had made certain promises in return for her compliance in spending the summer in New Hampshire, and he was willing to uphold those promises even though New Hampshire was no longer part of the bargain. He was, in fact, willing to up the ante. All Kate had to do was help keep her sister out of trouble this summer and her father would, upon Kate’s graduation from college in six years, give her the down payment on a house. Now, how about that for a deal?
* * *
Kate worried that Claudia would not approve of this arrangement. But the night their father delivered Kate to her sister’s apartment, Claudia threw her arms around Kate’s neck and buried her face in her shoulder. Claudia’s hair smelled like marijuana and cigarette smoke and Kate could feel the angles of her body through her clothing, all edges and corners and knobs. “Thank God you’re here,” Claudia said. “I’ve been so fucked up and lonely.”
Growing up, Claudia had never taken the slightest notice of Kate, but now she clung to her. She wound her fingers through Kate’s hair and leaned sideways against her when they watched television. The affair with the professor, Claudia said, had left her broken and wasted and useless. They sat on Claudia’s futon, and Claudia rested her head on Kate’s thigh as she talked about her heartbreak, her misery, her feelings of desperation. She hadn’t really wanted to kill herself, she said. She’d only wanted word to get back to him that she’d tried.
Kate looked down at the bandage on the back of Claudia’s hand, a square piece of gauze held in place by several rows of white tape. Claudia’s heart had been raped and pillaged for the last time, she said. Men were savages, every single one of them, and she vowed that she was done with them forever. Besides, Claudia had Kate now. They would look after each other, would guard each other from the outside world and stave off each other’s loneliness. All they had to do was make it through the next six years, Claudia said, and then they could live in the house Kate’s father had promised her.
Kate pictured their lives stretching beyond them like an endless summer, the house, which could be any house, full of Claudia’s things — Claudia’s pictures and futon and wall tapestries that smelled like incense, her twinkle lights and cinder-block bookshelves — the house where they would grow old and forget the world together.
At night, Claudia begged Kate to sleep in her bed with her — “Don’t leave me alone,” she whispered, “I can’t bear to sleep alone” — and Kate had never felt more loved.
The day before Claudia was to meet with her psychologist, she made a plea to Kate: Hadn’t she been through enough? Her heart was broken, she’d been kicked out of school, and now she was supposed to talk to a stranger about it? Claudia was sure the psychologist wouldn’t notice if — just for this week — Kate went in her place.
“What will I talk about?” Kate asked, and Claudia said she didn’t care.
“Whatever you want. Talk about me. I’ve told you everything. You tell her, then tell me what she says.”
A flutter of panic stirred through Kate’s stomach. “What if I mess up?”
Claudia frowned. “Then I’ll hate you.”
The next morning, Claudia taped a piece of gauze across the back of Kate’s hand then stood so that they could examine each other side by side in the bathroom mirror. Just think, Claudia said after a moment, if Kate lost five pounds and Claudia gained five, they’d look exactly the same.
Claudia didn’t want to risk being seen together, so Kate walked the eight blocks to the college by herself, then waited at the Student Health Center for Claudia’s name to be called. The session was not nearly as difficult as Kate had feared. Claudia’s psychologist asked what was going on in Claudia’s life, and Kate told her about Claudia’s professor, how they had met in a bar and he had bought her a drink because he was alone and she was crying. The two had fallen in love, had been meant to fall in love by some great force that might or might not be God. Claudia had thought everything was going to be different now, that because he loved her, her life would change. But then he stopped coming to see her. He stopped returning her calls. At the end of the hour, Kate walked home and told Claudia that her psychologist thought she was very brave.
Claudia was delighted. She cupped her hands around Kate’s face and kissed her forehead. “You’ll go from now on.”
During the day, Claudia and Kate stayed inside, smoking cigarettes and watching miniseries after miniseries about long-suffering daughters of plantation owners who, in spite of having riches and beauty beyond compare, were miserable because they loved men they could not be with. These men were usually poor or black or away at war. Sometimes they were scoundrels. “I am terribly unhappy,” Claudia and Kate said to each other in their best Southern belle accents. “I was born to suffah.”
The second time Kate went to Claudia’s psychologist, they talked about how Claudia spent her time. “I watch television,” Kate said. “I cry in bed. And I smoke a lot of pot.” Then she went home to deliver the news: They had to get jobs.
Claudia laughed. “Forget it.”
But the following week, Claudia’s psychologist was more insistent — Claudia was not to spend the summer smoking pot and watching television. Claudia needed to dress up and go out. She needed to be counted on to do set tasks, then rewarded for doing these tasks. Getting a job, Claudia’s psychologist said to Kate, was going to make all the difference in improving Claudia’s chances of functioning successfully in the larger world. Then she called Kate’s father and said the same thing to him.
* * *
The dentist needed someone who could start right away, and the work was not skilled — answering phones and mailing letters. His office was in a large building filled with different doctors’ offices: dermatologists and optometrists, other dentists. Claudia and Kate sat in a row of chairs with two other women who were also waiting to interview. The other women were older and heavier and they both wore shapeless floral dresses and panty hose. Claudia thumbed through a fashion magazine while they waited, and Kate nudged her wrist then gestured toward the women. Should we have worn panty hose? she mouthed. Claudia looked at their legs, then shook her head no.
The dentist had broad shoulders and square hands and hair so yellow Kate thought it must be dyed. During their interview, he looked over their résumés, which were not really résumés, but lists of clubs they’d belonged to in high school and awards they’d won in activities like track and choir. The dentist had a deep voice and a thick, scruffy mustache, which Claudia would later say was proof that his hair color was natural, because what kind of person would dye a mustache?
“So,” the dentist asked them, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Journalists,” Kate said, because she thought this would make him want to hire them to answer his phone and mail his letters.
“Millionaires,” Claudia said, and the corner of his mustache twitched.
He asked why they wanted to work in his office, and Claudia told him that dentists gave beautiful smiles to people who might not otherwise have them and that they both admired this service, though they themselves had inherited perfect teeth and never needed braces.
They smiled then so that he could see their perfect teeth, and the dentist rocked back in his chair, folding his fingers beneath his chin. Orthodontists, he said, were responsible for braces. Not dentists.
Kate tried to think of something interesting she knew about dentists to prove that they thought dentists were interesting, but before she could come up with anything, Claudia leaned forward, resting her elbows lightly on the dentist’s desk. Also, she said, they had perfect vision.
The dentist had not been planning to hire two people — there was hardly enough work for one, but he wanted his practice to have a warm, family feeling, and what better way than to hire sisters? People would know right away Claudia and Kate were sisters, he said, because he himself had known right away. Some might even think they were twins!
The snag, he told them, had to do with money. For many years, the dentist had been partners with another dentist, but they had parted ways and the other dentist had retained most of their shared patients, though he had done so by methods that were certainly unethical, if not illegal. Their dentist was still trying to get on his feet, he said. The rent in this building was steeper than they might think. Plus, he had Holly to think about, and Holly was full-time.
He liked them a lot, though, and he didn’t want to break up a set. If they would agree to make a little less than he’d offered in the paper, and if they were okay with getting paid under the table, he thought he could make it work.
They would and they were, and they shook hands with the dentist and went back to Claudia’s apartment to call their parents with the good news.
“Let me talk to Kate for a minute,” their father said after the congratulations had passed.
Claudia was lying on the kitchen floor while Kate sat on the counter, and she clicked her thumb down on the receiver, then covered the mouthpiece with her palm and slid her thumb back off, listening.
“How’s everything?” their father asked.
“Good,” said Kate.
“Your sister seems okay?”
“No sign of Dr. Dickweed?”
“Oh,” Kate said, “no,” and Claudia held the phone away from her head as she laughed into the floor.
Kate’s father sighed. “So it’s still completely over?”
Claudia rolled onto her back, and her hair spilled on the linoleum like a puddle of black ink around her head. She smiled up at Kate, then stuck out her tongue.
“Completely,” Kate said.
* * *
At their dentist’s office, people called to schedule or cancel appointments, and Claudia and Kate would add or remove their names from the appointment book. When patients arrived, Kate and Claudia gave them forms to fill out, then collected the forms and ushered the patients to an examination room. People came back out on wobbly knees, their eyes glassy, their cheeks packed with cotton. Claudia and Kate would collect their money, and if the patients were children, let them choose a treasure from the treasure chest — which was really just a beer cooler painted black and filled with small, crappy toys.
Holly, the dental hygienist, was thirty-four and had moved here from Cincinnati with her husband — not her current husband, but the one before, a real mistake, she told Claudia and Kate, but an understandable one given she’d been so young when she married him, eighteen if they could believe it, and pregnant too, but just barely. Had Claudia and Kate ever been to Cincinnati?
They told her they had not, and she said they shouldn’t bother. It was a crap-hole.
Holly had stringy hair and a high, squeaky voice. When Holly married her first husband, she told them, she weighed ninety-three pounds. Ninety-three pounds! Of course, she’d been much, much, much too thin back then. Dangerously thin, really. Everyone thought she looked prettier now. More like a woman.
Claudia and Kate hated Holly.
“Her fucking voice!” Claudia would wail as they drove home at night. “It makes me want to drive a pair of scissors through my temple.”
The more they disliked Holly, the friendlier Holly became with them. She said she hoped she hadn’t given them the wrong idea by telling them about her first marriage. She wanted them to know that she’d been happily married to her second husband for nearly twelve years, had given him three healthy children of his own, and also, she was Mormon now.
“She’s lying,” Claudia told Kate later.
“About being Mormon?” Kate asked.
“About being happy.”
There were often long gaps of time between phone calls or appointments, and then Claudia and Kate would take turns making runs to the vending machines on the third floor, bringing back sodas and chocolate bars and little bags of gummy bears. They sat on the counter and painted their fingernails with Wite-Out, eating candy and planning what Kate would tell Claudia’s psychologist the next time they met.
Some afternoons, Holly lingered around their counter, nibbling at their candy and asking Claudia and Kate questions about their lives, then telling them about her own before they had a chance to answer.
“Are you virgins?” she asked, and Claudia snorted while Kate tried to look busy organizing that morning’s charts — there were only two, and she stacked one on top of the other, then switched the top one to the bottom, then switched them again.
Holly had lost her virginity when she was thirteen to a boy who was seventeen and working at her stepfather’s auto shop. They’d done it in the backseat of a 1977 Crown Vic that had been brought into the shop for faulty steering, and afterward, the boy had bought Holly a root beer from the vending machine. When she thought about it now, Holly said, it made her kind of sad. But she tried to remind herself that she’d had low self-esteem back then, and that it was Cincinnati.
At the office, their dentist often bought them lunch and let them go home early, and though he had given up cigarettes several years ago, he let them use his key to the roof when they took smoke breaks, which, he told them, could get him in a lot of trouble if anyone found out. During one of their smoke breaks on the roof, Holly told Claudia and Kate that their dentist had been treated very poorly by his former business partner when something private was discovered about his personal life. But their dentist had handled the situation with dignity and grace. “He could have made a fuss,” Holly told them. “He could have fought for his rights. But he walked away, left like a gentleman.”
“Why?” Claudia asked, and Holly’s gaze drifted over the parking lot below, across the small, silver roofs of the doctors’ sports cars and luxury sedans, the canvas tops of convertibles.
Things hadn’t been easy for Holly either, she said. She’d worked in that office for a long time, been friends with the other women who worked there. Thought she’d been friends with them, anyway.
“You’re not friends now?” Kate asked, and Holly stubbed her cigarette out with the toe of her shoe.
Sometimes friendships were difficult in offices, Holly said. “You know how women can be,” she told Kate, and her eyes darted sideways at Claudia. “Mean.”
Claudia stared down at Holly’s cigarette butt and her mouth crept back into a slanted half-smile. “I didn’t know Mormons were allowed to smoke.”
That afternoon, Claudia and Kate paused beside Holly’s minivan as they crossed the parking lot to their car. The van was rusty and covered with dents and scratches and drawings her children had made in the dirt with their fingers. Claudia glanced around the parking lot to see that she and Kate were alone, then made a gash along the driver’s door with her car key.
Kate clamped her hands over her mouth to silence the cry she felt rising inside. The mark was five or six inches long — sizable, significant, not an accident. But it blended in with the existing wounds of the car, and there was a good chance Holly, or anyone else, wouldn’t notice.
Still, Kate felt the panic rolling across her like waves, the unsteadiness of what Claudia had just done, the door she had opened. And when nothing happened, no sirens went off and no men in uniforms came to drag them away, the panic brightened into a giddiness that Kate felt rushing through her joints like champagne bubbles.
“Why?” she asked, and Claudia shrugged.
“We hate her.”
* * *
Claudia’s psychologist thought they needed to work on impulse control. Five times a day, they were supposed to tell themselves no. They were supposed to say no to things they really wanted. They were supposed to say no and mean it.
“That’s stupid,” Claudia said. “I don’t want to.”
Their dentist had given them permission to come in late on Thursdays so that Kate could meet with Claudia’s psychologist, though he thought that he had given them permission to come in late so that they could tutor slow readers at the YMCA. This week, Kate had told Claudia’s psychologist about gashing Holly’s van in the parking lot. She also told Claudia’s psychologist about driving by their dentist’s house at night, because she and Claudia had done this several times.
Claudia wanted to get a look at his family, so they’d found his house — they were pretty sure it was his house — but they couldn’t see inside. At first, Kate had wondered if this might not be a good idea, but Claudia assured her that it was only natural to be curious about the personal lives of their coworkers, and Kate really did want to see where their dentist lived.
The neighborhood was nice enough, but the gutters on their dentist’s house were swollen and sagging with rotting leaves, and the yard was brown and weedy. “Guess things are a little slow-going at the new practice,” Claudia said.
From Holly they’d learned that their dentist had a wife and three children, though he worked very hard and didn’t get to spend much time with them.
“He doesn’t wear a ring,” Claudia said.
“Lots of men don’t wear rings,” Kate said — their father didn’t wear a ring.
“Does your husband wear a ring?” Claudia asked Holly, who blinked at the floor then said that he did. “You see?” Claudia told Kate. “Holly’s husband wears a ring and our dentist doesn’t. He hates his wife.”
After her session with Claudia’s psychologist, Kate peeled the fake bandage off her hand while she explained to Claudia: It was important for their development as human beings to tell themselves no. No damage to property. No candy for breakfast. No drive-bys. Five times a day: No, no, no, no, no.
Claudia was holding an unlit cigarette in one hand, and when she reached for a lighter with the other, Kate pointed back and forth between them. “No.”
Claudia paused for a moment, then pointed back and forth between herself and Kate. “Um… No,” she said and lit her cigarette.
* * *
The day their dentist’s wife came into the office with his children, Claudia rushed around the desk to get a look at them. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she gasped without thinking, and their dentist’s wife looked alarmed.
Claudia’s face went slack for a moment and then she smiled, recovering. “Well,” she said, “I’ve heard that you’re lovely.” Then she reached out as if offering to take their coats, though it was summer so they had none.
Their dentist’s wife was lovely, and Kate could tell by Claudia’s sudden loss of composure that she’d not been expecting this. Her hair was smooth, her clothes chic and simple, and she stood with her purse in her hands, asking Claudia and Kate polite questions about their hometown while she waited for her husband.
The children — two scarecrow girls and a boy with buck teeth — knelt around the cooler while their mother waited, sinking their fingers into the heaps of rubber rings and plastic charms, letting the toy whistles and pencil erasers spill over their hands. After a few moments, their mother whispered that the toys were for patients, and the children closed the lid gently and backed away with their eyes on the carpet.
When the dentist finally came out to speak to his wife, the two went back into his office and closed the door. Claudia looked after them for a moment like a frantic dog, then turned her attention to their children.
“What grade are you in?”
“Fourth,” the oldest girl answered after a moment.
“What’s your teacher’s name?”
“Miss B,” the girl said and wrote the letter in the air with her index finger. “It’s short for something.”
“Is she fat?” Claudia asked, and the children looked at one another, surprised. “My fourth-grade teacher was fat,” Claudia said. “She had these fat feet that pudged out over her pumps, and she used to steal the desserts out of our lunch boxes while we were at recess.”
The children stared up at her, their eyes wide, their lips parted in wonder. “I swear to God,” Claudia told them. “I didn’t get a Little Debbie or a Hostess for a whole year.” Then she reached behind the counter for their stash of vending machine candy. “Want some gummy bears?” she asked, and their eyes floated dreamily across her face, their mouths widening into lovesick smiles. “My kids think you’re an angel,” their dentist told Claudia after they’d gone, and Claudia held her hands up as though she had no explanation.
“Kids think I’m swell.”
Later on the roof, Claudia leaned against the ledge, gazing out over the parking lot as she smoked. “I can’t believe she’s so pretty,” she said.
“I know,” said Kate, although she had not spent much time anticipating the appearance of their dentist’s wife and therefore had no real expectations.
“I mean, she’s really pretty,” Claudia went on.
“She is,” said Kate, for she was.
“So much prettier than Holly.”
“So much,” Kate agreed, then, “So?”
Claudia turned and smiled as though Kate was about to say something obvious and amusing. But a moment passed, and when Kate said nothing, Claudia’s face cleared and she blinked.
“What?” Kate asked.
Claudia turned and Kate felt, suddenly, that they were standing a great distance apart. But then Claudia shook her head, pulling Kate close to rest her chin on Kate’s shoulder. “You can pick what we watch tonight,” Claudia yawned, for this was their only point of consistent disagreement: Kate had grown bored with plantations. There was too much sobbing, too much violence, too much love of land and country. Kate wanted to spend more time with the Victorians. She loved all the secrets and guilt and groping in gardens.
* * *
A few days later, Claudia fell on the apartment stairs and chipped her front tooth. The chip was large and obvious and made her look homely and slightly stupid. She lay facedown on her bed, weeping. Now that she knew what it was like to have a chipped tooth, Claudia said, she couldn’t believe she’d wanted to kill herself over love.
When Kate suggested that they might find the chip and glue it back in, Claudia sat up and slapped her across the face. The slap was not hard, but Kate began to cry, and Claudia got up and locked herself in the bathroom.
The next morning, Claudia would not speak to Kate. As soon as they arrived at work, she rushed into their dentist’s office and closed the door behind her. When they came back out, her eyes were wet from crying and their dentist had his arm around her. He led her into the light, then cupped her chin in his hand and tilted her face up, squinting into her mouth. “Piece of cake,” he said.
He would sand the tooth until the chip disappeared, then sand the tooth beside it so they matched.
Claudia gaped at him. Couldn’t he just cap it?
That would be expensive, he said. And this would be free. Besides, he added, Claudia’s front teeth were kind of long to begin with. They made her look a little horsey.
Kate reached for her front teeth with her tongue, trying to measure their length as she followed her sister and their dentist to one of the examination rooms.
“This will feel a little funny,” their dentist said to Claudia, “and it will smell bad.” Then there was a sound like a cement grinder, and the room filled with a hot stink that made Kate gag into the back of her wrist.
When it was over, their dentist held up a mirror and Claudia squealed, then leaped up to kiss him. “Oh my God!” she gasped. “I’m so much prettier than I was before!”
After work, Claudia drove Kate home and dropped her off. “Where are you going?” Kate asked, but Claudia wouldn’t say.
When their father called that night, Kate told him that Claudia was at a movie. For a moment, there was silence. “Kate,” he said evenly.
“I don’t know where she is,” Kate said.
Claudia came back to the apartment at 11:30, and Kate gave her the message to call home. She stared for a moment, then crossed to the phone and dialed. Her voice was bright and friendly as she explained to their father that she’d been hired to babysit their dentist’s kids in the evenings and to help his wife around the house. Their father must have approved of this because Claudia thanked him and said that she was really trying to participate and make connections. Then she asked how his day had been.
After she hung up the phone, Claudia crossed to her bedroom and closed the door without so much as glancing in Kate’s direction.
* * *
Without Claudia to tell her what to say, Kate was unsure how to proceed with Claudia’s psychologist. She no longer knew where Claudia went or what she did, and so she couldn’t pass the information along. This was frustrating for both of them. “How has your week been?” Claudia’s psychologist asked, and Kate said, “I don’t know.”
Throughout the workday, Claudia found ways to be wherever Kate was not. If Kate was in the reception area, Claudia disappeared into the filing closet. When Kate went up to the roof to have a cigarette, Claudia went down to the parking lot. Kate offered Claudia a bag of gummy bears, and Claudia held one hand to her stomach as though the very sight of the packaging made her ill. “I’m trying to not commit suicide, remember?”
At night, Kate would lie awake in her bed, waiting for the sound of Claudia’s key in the door and thinking about the house her father had promised her, the house Claudia had said they could live in together. Now Kate pictured a small brick house amid a sea of small brick houses, a place where she would wander from empty room to empty room, a grown-up version of herself living out a grown-up version of her life.
The week before Kate’s last meeting with Claudia’s psychologist, Claudia took the car for lunch and didn’t come back for three hours. When Kate asked where she had been, Claudia glided off to the filing room. “I don’t have to tell you everything I do, Kate,” she said as she passed. “You’re not my fucking diary.”
At the end of the day they sat with their purses on their laps, not looking at each other, while they waited for their dentist to finish with his last patient so that they could collect the bill and go home.
The patient was a round little boy who was having four cavities filled. When he came out, his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were soaked and swollen from crying. He held an ice pack to his jaw and walked with tiny, fragile steps. Kate led him to the treasure chest and he knelt before it like it was an altar, waiting for her to open it and reveal all the glorious bounty within. After she did, he peered inside, then looked up at her. “These toys suck,” he said.
The boy’s mother was still in the waiting room, and Claudia leaned forward over the counter and lowered her voice. “Your face sucks,” she whispered, and the boy’s lips parted, novocaine-slack with shock, before he started to cry.
Kate stood to the side, watching. The little boy’s mother had been curt and superior when she’d checked him in, and Kate felt good for a moment knowing that her sister had hurt his feelings. It was almost like she’d done it herself.
That night, Claudia dropped Kate off at the apartment, then went to babysit their dentist’s children. She came home late and went to bed without speaking to Kate. A few nights later, she didn’t come home at all.
* * *
Without Claudia and her car, Kate couldn’t get to work, so she didn’t go. She wandered around Claudia’s apartment, looking through Claudia’s closet and dresser drawers, trying on her clothes, reading her journals and old school papers. She found some pictures of Claudia naked and some poems someone had written about Claudia and an engagement ring with a note saying that Claudia should keep the ring anyway and think of him sometimes, love always, Paul.
When, at last, Kate’s father called, she thought he would come straight away, would figure out where Claudia was and what she was doing, then would make her stop at once and come home. But when Kate answered the phone, her father didn’t ask about Claudia. He was crying, and a long moment passed before he spoke — he and her mother had decided it would be best for everyone if he moved into the city for a while.
Kate had probably seen this coming, her father said, and Kate told him that she had, not because she had at all seen it coming, but because — now that she thought about it — she saw that she should have.
The day of her last meeting with Claudia’s psychologist, Kate walked to the college with the sun spilling between the leaves. If Claudia did not come back, maybe Kate could just stay here, could live in Claudia’s apartment and attend Claudia’s college. It would be easy enough to say that Kate was the sister who went missing, to let it be Kate’s life that went unfinished.
But during their final session, Claudia’s psychologist told Kate that though it had been a pleasure getting to know her, it was her opinion that Claudia should not enroll in fall classes. Then she told Kate that she was, at her heart, a very gentle person, and that she shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
* * *
A few days later there was no food left in Claudia’s apartment, so Kate quit eating. She drank water and Lipton tea and returned to Claudia’s closet hourly to check the increasing ease with which she slid into Claudia’s clothing. The phone rang several times, then Kate unplugged it. She stopped looking out the window. She stopped listening for Claudia’s footsteps outside. She closed the curtains and counted her ribs and thought about those fallen belles and mad wives of gentlemen, the women left alone in decomposing mansions and drafty attics, the ones who, in the end, always set fire to everything.
When, at last, a knock came at the door, Kate answered with her legs wobbly and her thoughts loose in her head. This would be her mother, probably, here to collect her, here to fall to pieces when she realized Claudia was missing, had been missing for, what was it now, eleven days? Or her father, who would shout horrible things, things Kate deserved to have shouted at her, for she had called no one, told no one, that Claudia was missing, and what if something terrible had happened, what if Claudia was dead? Until this moment the thought had not actually occurred to her: What if Claudia was dead?
Kate opened the door, and their dentist’s lovely wife stood on the doorstep twisting her lovely hands. She’d been crying and her hair was wet, which made Kate think that it was raining, though it wasn’t. For a moment, Kate thought this must be a dream, one of those mundane, immediately forgotten scenes in which some slight acquaintance suddenly takes the main stage, but then their dentist’s wife told Kate that it was over with their dentist, and her perfume passed across the threshold like a lilac-scented breeze.
She was beautiful in the way that women in magazines are beautiful, sloped and elegant. Kate’s sister had stolen the husband of a beautiful woman — why else would she be here? — and now, in Claudia’s absence, Kate would have to pay.
Inside the apartment, the light was dim and their dentist’s wife perched on the edge of Claudia’s futon, squinting at Claudia’s bong in a way that made Kate wonder if she’d ever seen one before. Kate asked if she wanted some and she shook her head, then pointed at the pack of cigarettes beside it. She’d take one of those, though.
Kate gave her a cigarette and watched her light it then sit and smoke in silence.
She’d made a lot of mistakes in her life, their dentist’s wife said finally. She hadn’t meant to, but she had. She’d once cheated on their dentist with an old boyfriend. But she’d done this only once, and she’d felt like shit every single second of every single day ever since. You could live with a secret for so long, she told Kate, that the secret became the only thing you knew was true about yourself.
Kate should have put together what was happening. But a moment later their dentist’s wife was thanking her for her courage and her honesty, her strength of character, her sense of decency. And though Kate could not think of a single reason for their dentist’s wife to thank her for anything, she was momentarily so drunk on the praise and gratitude that she could not be bothered to question its ill fit. And it wasn’t until their dentist’s wife took both of Kate’s hands in hers and said, “If you hadn’t told me what he was up to with Holly, I don’t know how many more years I would have gone without knowing,” that Kate realized she’d been taken for Claudia.
* * *
Claudia left with her professor. He’d had a change of heart over the summer. Decided he couldn’t live without her after all. Had been a fool. Et cetera.
Years later, Claudia would write Kate a letter, trying to explain. She’d been young and vulnerable, in terrible pain. She’d never meant to put Kate in the middle of such a mess or to leave her to handle by herself that incident with their mother and the sleeping pills shortly after. Claudia was so very sorry, she wrote in that letter, to have learned about Kate’s recent troubles in love. Perhaps in her current situation, Kate might at least imagine how Claudia could have behaved so atrociously that summer.
Along with her letter, Claudia sent a check for fifty dollars with her apologies for missing so many birthdays, and a photo she had cut from a magazine — a portrait of a famous actress in character as the famous photographer she was about to portray on film. Claudia was including the picture, she wrote, because when she’d first seen it, she’d thought it was Kate.
The famous actress did not resemble the famous photographer and neither of them particularly resembled Kate, but the photograph captured the ghost of an expression and, for a queer moment, Kate too thought she had seen herself.
They should try harder to keep in touch, Claudia wrote at the end of her letter. She would like to be better friends. They were sisters, after all.
Kate put the letter away somewhere. But the portrait of the actress-photographer kicked around for a while and was the subject of much conversation. In the year or so before it disappeared into clutter or was tossed in a move, no one who saw the image — not even those who knew Kate very, very well — could pass by without asking, “Is that you?”