Sisterland(10) by Curtis Sittenfeld

Again trying to sound lighthearted, I said, “Don’t let Courtney hear you say that.”

“Ehh—” He shrugged. “She cuts me slack for being artsy.” Before Amelia’s birth, Hank had worked as an art teacher at a private high school, and he made oil paintings, or at least he intended to even if he didn’t have much time these days. The attic of their house, where I’d never been, was his studio. He added, “My only point is that it’s hubris to claim there aren’t unexplained phenomena out there.”

Hank and I had been friends for just over two years, which wasn’t that long, but we’d seen each other almost every day during this time, and there were ways in which he knew more about my daily life than Jeremy did. Yet every time Hank and I had headed in a direction that could have opened onto the topic of psychicness, of my psychicness—conversations about our families or our childhoods or about secrets, even conversations once or twice about the paranormal—I’d always let the opportunity to tell him pass. I’d imagined that I’d immediately wish I could take the admission back. The last person I’d revealed the truth to was Jeremy, because I’d thought I owed it to him. But if I wasn’t marrying Hank, was it unreasonable that I wanted to seem to him like a regular person? Growing up, from adolescence on, I had assumed that I couldn’t live in St. Louis as an adult because my past would always follow and define me. I’d been pleasantly surprised to discover that I might be wrong. To have settled in my hometown with a husband from elsewhere, to have friends from elsewhere—this was a version of life I hadn’t been able to envision as a teenager. Why would I disrupt this fragile balance just for the sake of self-disclosure? Hank and I knew each other well; we didn’t need to know each other completely.

And yet my withholding of information, which had previously felt only like discretion, abruptly seemed to be verging on dishonesty. We’d arrived at Kaldi’s, and I pulled the brake on the stroller. Amelia, who was standing with Rosie by the café’s front door, called, “Daddy, can we have a raspberry scone?”

“Hang on, sweetheart,” Hank said.

“I’m sure Vi will be glad to have you in her corner,” I said.

“But does she have you?” Though Hank’s tone was casual, he was looking at me so intently that I wondered what he suspected. Surely this was the moment to say, Of course she does, because we’re exactly the same. Or we had been, until I’d deliberately destroyed my abilities.

Instead, like a coward, I said, “Of course she does. She’s my sister.”

Chapter 3

Vi and I were born in August 1975, less than a month before our parents’ first wedding anniversary. At thirty-seven weeks, we were considered full-term, which was and still is unusual for twins, but the truly notable fact of our arrival was that our mother didn’t know until the day of her delivery that there were two of us. Twenty-three years old and slim, she had gained seventy pounds during her pregnancy; by her second trimester, her hands and feet were so swollen every morning that the doctor told her to remove her wedding ring or risk needing to have it cut off.

Apart from her dramatic weight gain, our mother had experienced what she understood to be a normal pregnancy. It was at a routine appointment on a hot morning in mid-August that our mother’s obstetrician ordered an X ray because he was considering revising her due date based on her size. (Sonograms existed then, but they were still uncommon.) During the X ray, the technician saw right away that there were two babies, announced the news to our mother, then pleaded with her to act surprised when the obstetrician told her. But she didn’t have to act—she was stunned. How would she take care of twins? She had moved to St. Louis a year and a half earlier from the tiny town of Risco, Missouri, and she knew no one who could help her. She’d grown apart from the girl she’d lived with before marrying our father, she was estranged from her family in Risco, and she no longer had co-workers.

The doctor, who didn’t want our mother carrying twins beyond thirty-seven weeks, told her to call our father and have him pack a bag and meet them at the hospital. Once there, the doctor broke our mother’s water—she said he used a hook that resembled a crochet needle, a detail that as children, Vi found fascinating and I was disturbed by. After several hours, the doctor decided that our mother’s labor had progressed enough, and he had an anesthetist administer an epidural. As soon as it took effect, our mother realized only half her body was numb. She needed another dose, she told the nurse, but the nurse explained that the anesthesia just hadn’t kicked in yet and our mother should wait. An hour passed, and our mother, with increasing desperation, told the nurse she still was numb on only one side of her body. After the doctor examined her, he said she was too close to delivering to receive additional medication. This meant that while the left side of her body remained desensitized and immobile, the right side was wild with pain; one arm and leg writhed as the other lay inert. She was trapped, and she also was alone; our father sat in the waiting room.