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Sisterland(8)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“Oh, God,” I said, and Hank said, “Yeah, she could have chosen a different example.”

“Every year, GPS instruments record hundreds of instances of seismic activity on and around the New Madrid fault line, yet we feel virtually none of it because it’s not that strong,” Courtney was saying on-screen, and she sounded serene and wise and not sleep-deprived. “The reality is that if you’re using seismometers, you’ll see earthquakes occurring.” She smiled. “The earth is always busy.”

The brunette reporter reappeared in front of Vi’s house, though blessedly without Vi herself anywhere in view. “For St. Louisans rattled first by recent events and now by future predictions, let’s hope not too busy,” the reporter said. “Back to you, Denise.”

Hank paused the screen, and I turned to him and said, “That was awful.”

“So Vi’s eccentric,” Hank said. “It’s not illegal.”

“Kate, Owen spit out his binky.” Amelia was pulling on my hand. “He spit it on the floor.” She held the pacifier up toward me, and I rubbed it against my shirt and stuck it back in Owen’s mouth. I glanced at Rosie, who was setting a blanket over a row of Amelia’s stuffed animals, and I wondered if she realized her aunt had just been on television.

“Vi must have called the station herself, right?” I said. “I mean, how else would they have found her? It’s not like she’s an expert on earthquakes.” No, the earthquake expert—that was Courtney. The feeling that gripped me in this moment was similar to what I imagined the relatives of an alcoholic must experience when they learn that their parent or child or sibling has gone on another bender: that mix of anger and disappointment and lack of surprise, a blend so exquisite, so familiar, it’s almost like satisfaction. Of course. Of course Vi had had a premonition about something big, and of course, instead of taking the time to think it through, she’d called a television station, and of course she’d let herself be interviewed while wearing no makeup. Why did she always get in her own way? I was embarrassed, yes, but my embarrassment was mostly for her, not me. After all, we no longer had the same last name, no longer looked identical. People I was close to knew I had a twin sister, but acquaintances—my former co-workers, or our neighbors other than the Wheelings—wouldn’t connect me to this strange woman in her purple shirt, with her weird prediction. I said, “I’ll never understand why she likes drawing attention to herself.” After a beat, I added, “And the reason you think Vi is delightfully eccentric is that you’re not from here.” Hank, Courtney, and my husband had all grown up on the East Coast: Courtney outside Philadelphia, Hank in Boston, and Jeremy in northern Virginia.

“Oh, I’m not arguing that there aren’t some small-minded yokels in the Lou,” Hank said, and I realized with self-consciousness that a black man married to a white woman probably didn’t need to be reminded by me of how conservative a place St. Louis could be. “But—” Hank paused and mouthed, Fuck ’em. “Seriously,” he said aloud.

“What about Courtney, though?” I said. “She must have been appalled by Vi just now.”

“She hasn’t seen it yet.” Hank checked his watch. “She teaches until one-fifteen. But I’m sure she’ll be okay being the yin to Vi’s yang.”

You mean the rational to Vi’s crazy, I thought, but even in my head it sounded too mean to say. Besides, I didn’t believe Vi was crazy. I believed she sometimes seemed crazy, and that on a regular basis she exercised bad judgment, but I didn’t believe she was crazy; I never had. “Should we get going?” I said.

Amelia attended preschool in the morning three days a week, at a place where I was planning to put in an application for Rosie for the following fall, so on those days, we met up post-lunch and pre-nap. Our default plan was to walk first to Kaldi’s, where Hank and I would get coffee and the girls would split a scone, and then to backtrack to the park—officially known as DeMun Park, though Hank had been greatly amused when Vi told us that everyone who’d ever worked in the row of restaurants along DeMun Avenue referred to it as MILF Park.

As we left the Wheelings’ house, it occurred to me that I should call my father, to check if he’d watched the news, but after his comment that morning about Vi coming into her own, I couldn’t bring myself to do it; in case he hadn’t seen her, I wanted to give him a few more hours of not knowing.

Outside, Amelia and Rosie skipped in front of us, and Hank walked beside me as I pushed Owen in the stroller. Amelia slapped her palm against a lamppost, and when Rosie mimicked the gesture exactly, I thought, as I often did, that Amelia and Hank were like mentors to Rosie and me: Amelia was always beckoning Rosie toward the next developmental stage, while Hank was the person who’d most influenced me as a parent. It was from Hank that I’d learned to give Rosie her own spoon when I’d fed her jar food, so that she wasn’t constantly grabbing the one I was using. Hank had told me to put Triple Paste on her when her diaper rash got bad (“Way more than you think you need, like you’re spreading cream cheese on a bagel,” he’d said), and to buy a Britax car seat after she outgrew her infant seat, and to go to the Buder library for the best story hour. The way Hank was with Amelia—affectionate and relaxed, unconcerned with getting mud or food on his clothes—was the way I aspired to be with Rosie, and the way Hank answered the questions Amelia asked, which was succinctly but accurately (and definitely not cutely, not in a winking manner for the benefit of another adult), was the way I tried to answer Rosie’s when she began asking them.

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