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Guest Writer

Sacrificing something for love
by Amy Nuttbrock

ate was lying on the couch, masturbating to her favorite modern jazz CD, when the telephone rang. She thought it was a telemarketer selling something she didn't need, so she let the answering machine pick it up. Her sister's voice came in a sharp, fractured burst.

"Kate! Are you there?" Kate fumbled with the stop button on the stereo, knocked a yellow bowl of low-fat potato chips off the coffee table and picked up the phone. Gina was in Chicago visiting friends for the week. She wanted to know if they could get together for dinner or drinks.

"I'll pay," Gina said. "I have a shitload of money, and I know you're probably broke."

Kate registered a smug tone in Gina's voice that lingered briefly and then disappeared. Kate suggested a swank, inexpensive restaurant for the following night.

The place, called Devereau's, was right around the corner from her apartment and had pretty, cropped hedges shaped like picket fences framing the entrance. Gina might think it was cool. Kate gave directions to her place and hoped her sister would be able to find her way even though she couldn't remember the names of the minor avenues, and could only tell her to turn left at this gas station or make a right at that enormous blue house.

When she hung up the phone, Kate felt excited and worried. She twirled a piece of hair around her index finger.

Kate had not seen her sister in five years, but she had a picture of the two of them stuck to her refrigerator. Sometimes she would look at it while listening to the television or drinking coffee in the kitchen.

Gina was the Puerto Rican girl with the glittery orange swimsuit and matching flip-flops. They were horsing around on the platform of a public pool. Someone had brought a radio. Their pose was deliberate and, Kate thought, emphatic. Gina's mouth was frozen in the wide shape of a top-40 love song and she was bending her knees to knock hips with her younger sister.

Next to her, Kate was thin and pasty with fluorescent-framed sunglasses. Kate thought she looked homely next to her sister. But she also looked thrilled, her body tilted towards Gina's in an obvious pose of devotion. Gina and Kate were seven and four years old. This was the only picture Kate had of her sister.

ast she'd heard, Gina was a stripper in Seattle. She read tarot cards for extra cash. Kate wandered around her color-coordinated apartment, straightening picture frames, fluffing embroidered throw pillows and thinking about her sister.

Gina was adopted as an infant, so when Kate was born three years later, both seemed receptive to each other's company. Gina would lean over Kate's crib and press a finger into her pliable cheek, while Kate grabbed fistfuls of her sister's hair. Gina would scream delightfully.

They did everything together. When Gina was eight and Kate five, they would push two couches together and throw a blanket over the top to make a fort. Inside, Gina would sit on her ankles and pretend to be a fortuneteller. She'd wear plastic bracelets and read Kate's palm with adult seriousness.

"This is your lifeline," she'd say, tracing the lines on her sister's small hand.

"It looks like you're going to live practically forever." She sipped grape soda. Kate felt safe within the stale heat that held them together under the blanket. They laughed and fantasized about living together on a private island with lots of colorful flowers. Kate remembered the first time she said anything about her "other family." Gina was sitting on the edge of the tub, shaving her legs with the door open. She yelled into the hallway.

"Kate! I have to tell you something." Kate came into the bathroom, and looked through the drawers and cabinets while her sister talked. Kate felt important when her sister revealed things to her. She listened carefully. Gina told her about her friend Anna who wore T-shirts with cartoon characters on them, and self-righteous statements, like Bitch or Brat.

"Anna's alright, but she's not very cool." Gina stuck her fingers in the blood coming from a spot where she'd nicked her ankle. Kate opened up tubes of ointment and smelled them. Gina continued with an animated pulse.

"At lunch today, she asked me in front of everyone if I ever wanted to meet my real parents." Kate could hear something injured in her voice, but it was far away. She tried to imagine Gina sitting with her group of bright-faced friends while they sucked from their juice boxes and stared, waiting for her answer.

"Well, do you?" Kate unwrapped a band-aid and wound it around her finger, even though there was nothing there.

"Why would I want to do that? They're probably crazy or ugly."

Kate was late to the office the following morning because she couldn't find anything to wear. She tried on several combinations of outfits before settling on a gray skirt and a green sweater. She worked as a secretary for an insurance company. Her boss was a cranky woman who wore stiff suits and reminded Kate of a local politician who was responsible for cutting free dental care to homeless people.

Kate thought her boss didn't like her very much, because she always asked her to do boring, mundane things like seal envelopes and type up spreadsheets. She would sigh bleakly, but she actually enjoyed the predictable repetitiveness of these tasks. When she wasn't working at the office, she volunteered at a battered women's shelter. The women there seemed to like telling Kate about their lives, while she nodded sympathetically and smiled. They always offered her soup in a styrofoam cup.

She was snacking on dry, high-fiber breakfast cereal when someone called her on the telephone. Kate could barely get her name out before an irate male voice spat through the phone lines.

"Look, I know this is going to sound weird, but my girlfriend said she wouldn't marry me unless I got a face-lift. Now I'm sitting here like I got nailed in the face with a baseball bat. My eyes are black and blue, and I have gross stuff draining into my throat. I look like hell."

Kate made vague acknowledgements, mostly inaudible, while munching her cereal. She wasn't sure where this was going. As far as she could tell, the man's voice sounded needlessly belligerent.
"Then, yesterday, I got a bill for $8,000! I mean, I told them that I had this condition, that I was depressed. Insurance should have paid for this. Now I can barely even open my eyes, for God's sake!"

"I understand. But if you submit a claim, I can see what I can do." Kate's voice sounded weak and ineffective. She was hot and her armpits were getting wet. "Can I get your name, sir?" The man didn't seem to be listening.

"I made a sacrifice here! My girlfriend and I can't afford a bill like this." Kate looked around to see if anyone was nearby. An intern was photocopying something at the Xerox machine.

"Maybe I can have a representative here contact your surgeon?"

"Don't you know what it's like to sacrifice something for love? I mean, do you have a boyfriend or anything?" Kate slumped in her chair and stuck the end of a pen in her mouth.

he did not have a boyfriend, nor did she date often. She thought the intricacies and procedures that people went through to get to know each other were trite and exhausting. She was shy, and, when nervous, had a distracting quality of speaking in fast, clipped sentences, which annoyed her. The last man with whom she was involved told her she wasn't "spontaneous enough" and promptly dumped her for a holistic sex therapist. That was two years ago. Now she felt fairly asexual. Some people thought she was a lesbian.

Once, Kate found two copies of female pornography in a neighbor's dumpster, and brought them home to show her sister. They lay on Gina's bed in their T-shirts and underwear and looked at glossy pictures of voluptuous women bending over household appliances to show off their backsides while coyly peeking over their shoulders. They giggled and made nasty jokes.

"I hope my tits don't get that big." Kate was adamant and concerned.

"Well, I hope mine do!" Gina pulled up her shirt, and bounced off the bed to get her disposable camera. They took pictures of each other under the guise of "playing photographer." Gina would wear brightly colored beads around her neck and spread her legs to show off her crotch like the women in the magazines. Kate would hold her face and apply orange lipstick or white eye shadow. Gina would arrange herself in different poses. They touched each other's cheeks and thighs and talked about sex. Kate was fascinated and nervous. Then Gina leaned over and demonstrated a French kiss.

"This is what you have to do," she said. Her kiss was hard and dramatic, filled with brute need. But Kate could feel that Gina's hand on the back of her neck was tentative and shy. She used a lot of tongue. When she pulled away, Kate wondered why anyone would want to do something so gross. But Gina looked pleased with her demonstration. She had a huge zit on her forehead, which made her carnal aggression seem less intimidating. Kate felt a heavy closeness towards her. She wanted to pick the zit.

When Gina cot a boyfriend, she didn't take pictures with Kate anymore. Once, Kate walked in on her giving head to a boy named Mike. Gina had her face in his lap like a faux porn star, wearing only her stained white bra. Mike was wearing cute socks with cartoon sports equipment on them. Yellow Christmas lights were strung up around her window frame. She had magazine photos of rock stars taped crookedly on the wall. Pop music reverberated from her tape deck.

Kate admired the delicate skeleton of her lithe sister, and her sharply angled shoulder bones. She thought Gina was prettier than a movie star. She watched them for a while with alert interest, then went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and try on Gina's makeup.

Later, she would sneak into Gina's room to expose the film in her camera.

Kate thought of these moments both fondly and with mild embarrassment. She remembered reading an article about a pair of fraternal twins who opened a successful French bakery and lived together for the entirety of their lives. At the time, Kate wondered if she and Gina could be like that. But then Gina got to high school and things changed. She became distant and resentful. She cut her hair short as a boy's, applied lots of dark eyeliner and wore long, baggy pants. Kate didn't think she was as pretty as before.

Gina could also be catty. She would get annoyed at their mother for talking loudly on the phone, while she and Mike sat at the kitchen table, eating candy and drawing pictures with dark pencils. Gina would sigh dramatically, roll her eyes and say, "shut up." Their mother would put her hand over the white receiver and say, "watch your mouth." Gina took a Spanish class, but only repeated the swear words around the house. She would call their father a moron whenever he came into her bedroom and asked what she was doing.

If Kate was lying on the living room floor, watching TV, Gina would walk by and make fun of her clothes and passivity. "You're such a lump, Kate. You don't really do anything at all."

But sometimes they were friends again. Gina would allow Kate to come into her room and hang out while she and Mike read passages from a book called "Murder and Mayhem." There was a story about a guy who kidnapped teenaged girls and kept them in his dark basement, where he tortured them with stripped electrical wires. Apparently, he'd dabbled in necrophilia.

"What's necrophilia?" Kate asked. Gina abruptly stopped reading and turned the book upside down on her lap. Her face was a mixture of insolence and aggravation, as if Kate had somehow offended her.

"Don't be an idiot." Gina's voice was harsh, and she wore a nasty smirk. Kate picked at the hem of her pants. Then Mike leaned over and whispered in her ear: "It's when you have sex with dead people." Kate giggled and muttered, "Gross."

hen Gina broke up with Mike, Kate made her a card out of construction paper. It had a picture of a mirthful cat rolling over on its back to receive a welcome rub from a disembodied hand. She had cut it out of a magazine that advertised pet supplies. Inside the card, she wrote: "Sorry about Mike. But at least you still have a great sister!" She drew lots of lopsided hearts with colored markers and signed her name in huge, swirly script. Gina was sitting at her vanity, plucking her eyebrows, when Kate gave her the card. Gina opened it and read it as if it were a report card. She set it down indifferently.

"You're not even my real sister," she snapped. Kate's stomach sank. She went to her room, and stroked the corners of a tattered fleece blanket until she fell asleep.

On the way home from work, Kate stopped into a novelty shop on Ninth Avenue. The adorable stuffed animals toppling over each other in the display window drew her in. The store was energetic and welcoming. There were lots of colors along with the dueling scents of jasmine and artificial fruit blends.

Besides plush toys, the store also sold cards with comical pop-up features, and books about gags you could play on people you didn't like. Kate picked up a stuffed rabbit and looked into its dopey face. She wanted to surprise her sister with something nice. Kate browsed the narrow aisles for several minutes, bumping into people's shoulders and saying "oops" and "excuse me." She admired the display cases.

Then she saw a ceramic figurine shaped like a sitting cat.

It was a handsome cat, painted orange with illustrative blue eyes. Kate liked the thought of someone taking the time and effort in painting such a superfluous ornament. She imagined the artist applying the final touches and then leaning back to admire the work. Kate decided this was a perfect gift. She carried the figurine up to the register where a blond woman with dark roots and chapped lips put the gift in a white box with pink tissue paper.

"Isn't this the cat's meow," the woman beamed. Kate thought this was a silly thing to say, but it made her smile.

As she exited the shop, a harried man with a pinched expression was digging in his briefcase. He accidentally dropped an address book and a tube of lipstick. Kate instinctually picked the items up and handed them back to the man, who met her with a quizzical look. He nervously jammed his things back into the briefcase. Kate felt helpful and generous, even though the man didn't say thank you. She walked away with a cheerful hop in her step.

When she got to her apartment, she took the cat out of the box so she could look at it while fluffing her hair. She was excited to see her sister and walked around the living room, rehearsing possible conversations in her head. She rolled the pleats of her skirt between her fingers. Then Gina called and said she had to cancel their plans.

"Eliot will throw a fit if I don't see him tonight. Can we do dinner tomorrow night?"

"But I got you a present!" Kate blurted. She'd forgotten that the gift was intended as a surprise. On the other hand, she hoped that she'd sparked her sister's interest.

"Ooh," Gina cooed. "What is it?" Kate picked up the cat figurine. She thought she'd heard something expectant in her sister's voice, and this made her feel playful.

"I can't tell you," she teased. "But how about I make dinner tomorrow night? You can come over to my apartment at 7:30. We can have wine."

"Sounds like a deal." Gina said she'd bring a bag of chips and some onion dip. When Kate got off the phone, she ran a bath and thought about what she might make her sister for dinner.

By the time Kate was in high school, she'd felt sisterless. Gina spent most of her time driving around in her car with the windows rolled down, or hanging out with a bunch of pallid, blank-faced teenagers who wore black. On the weekends, she worked in a store that sold weird, abstract jewelry. Gina wasn't around very much. When she was home, she snarled, smoked and talked constantly about finding her "real parents."

"I'm glad I'm not really a product of you assholes," she would say and stomp upstairs to talk secretively on the phone and read morose poetry. Their parents didn't talk much then. Their father would lay around and read the newspaper while drinking beer. Sometimes he would go into the garage and build small wooden birdhouses to hang in the yard. He would swear at the neighbor's dog if it shit on the lawn.

Their mother would collect recipes out of home decor magazines and experiment with them in the kitchen. The meals usually turned out bland and revolting. They looked nothing like the glossy, steaming prints in the magazines. But they sat at the table and ate them anyway. Gina didn't eat at the dining room table. Kate would hang her head over her plate and grow aggravated by her father's nasal breathing and the shrill sound of forks scraping against the ceramic plates. Then their mother would say something predictable and forced, probably to start a conversation.

"Is there anything wrong?" she'd ask. "You've been moping around for days." Their mother worked as a medical assistant for an OB/GYN doctor and she was always interested in what might be wrong, ulcerating or malignant. Kate felt sarcastic and thought about the new mole that she'd noticed on her inner thigh. For a moment, she considered its symmetry.

"I don't know, maybe I have skin cancer," she said. This was meant to be flippant. Kate rolled her eyes. Then she described the small brown speck on her inner thigh, while her father stuffed stringed beans into his mouth.

"Is it larger than the circumference of a pencil eraser?" her mother asked. Kate became irritated at her willingness to continue the mole conversation.

"Why doesn't Gina ever come down for dinner?"

"I think your uncle Daniel had skin cancer?" Her mother chewed on a piece of lettuce.

"Oh, crap. Do you have to chew that so loud?"

After high school, Kate took business classes at the community college and worked as a waitress at a quaint diner that had turn-of-the-century antiques mounted on the walls. Later, she got a small apartment in the city. Gina moved to San Francisco with her bartending boyfriend who operated a massage parlor. She would visit once in awhile. Kate remembered answering the door once, and being surprised to see Gina posing at a fashionable tilt, her arms extended for a warm embrace.

"I thought I'd drop in and surprise you." It wasn't even a holiday. Gina was thinner and less erect than she remembered. But her face had the mature angles of a beautifully alert animal. Her hair was long and there were lines framing her sharp eyes and edgy mouth. She was wearing a T-shirt advertising an automotive company. In a fat, exaggerated red font, it said: "I don't have a license to kill. I have a learner's permit." Her hipbones stuck out bossily. Kate wanted to link elbows or wrap her arms around her sister's waist as if Gina were a best friend that she didn't want to lose to a college summer vacation.

"Kate. God, you'll never believe who I ran into in San Francisco. Mitch Dennison from high school. Apparently he runs an Internet business where he designs porn sites. I've seen his stuff and its wild. We exchanged numbers."

Kate didn't remember the guy she was talking about, and thought this was an odd intro to an overdue reunion. She thought Gina looked antsy and caged in her apartment. She circled the living room, pulling things off the shelf, inspecting them, then setting them down in the wrong position. Her speech was multidirectional, as if she were throwing words out and hoping they'd land someplace where Kate might pick them up.

"Can I use your bathroom?" she smiled.

Kate couldn't think of much to say to her sister, so they watched TV on a tiny resale set with cockeyed bunny ears. They made popcorn with lots of butter and ate it greedily. At one point, Gina leaned over and put her chin on Kate's shoulder. She seemed heavy and absent as a piece of furniture. Her hair smelled bad. Kate wanted to smooth the hairs that were standing up on her sister's arms. They were all going in the wrong direction.

fter that visit, Gina only sent ambiguous cards with pictures of landscapes on them and no note. She signed her name in firm, boxed print. Kate started calling psychic hotlines and hanging up after one or two rings.

On the night of her dinner with Gina, Kate was rinsing bulbous, knobby carrots and heads of lettuce in her kitchen sink. She had a three-bean casserole in the oven and a bottle of merlot on the counter. She hoped Gina liked French vinaigrette dressing.

While Kate prepared her modest salad, she tried to imagine Gina in her apartment. She thought of her wearing glittery orange and putting her elbows on the dining table while picking vegetables from her salad and eating them with her fingers. Gina would talk about her boyfriends and her job. She would have some problem that Kate could sympathize with, maybe a drug habit or a mean friend. It would bring them closer. They would hug like talk show guests and then make fun of their parents.

Kate washed her hands and realized that these were images of what she knew of Gina, juxtaposed with what she heard about other people interacting with their siblings. She didn't even know what Gina might look like now.

The buzzer went off and Kate took the casserole out of the oven and let it cool on the range top. Then she went into her living room to watch a trivia game show on TV. She played along with the eager contestants, but couldn't get any of the answers right. The shadows in the room grew stretched and freakish.

It was getting dark. Kate turned on a lamp. She thought of the time when she and Gina had been stranded at the day-care center. Their mother was late picking them up. They sat in a quiet rec room and watched a cartoon about an idiotic dog and a resourceful cat who tried to kill each other in violent, animated ways.

The day-care attendant wore shades of brown and wandered around the room arranging houseplants. Kate watched for their mother's headlights and Gina said, "We'll probably have to spend the night." Kate worried and played with her shoelaces. Then Gina wrapped her arms around Kate's ribs in a warm, protective hug. Their mother eventually showed up an hour late, looking exhausted in her long gray coat.

Kate kept thinking that her sister would arrive at any moment and wrap her arms around her like she did at the day-care center. But Gina still wasn't there by 9 o'clock. The casserole had already formed a cool, hard surface layer, like a scab. Kate started to imagine her sister in a car accident, a limp wrist tossed over the dashboard, flashlights beaming. Maybe she'd been arrested for shoplifting, and was holed up in a bright police station with mustard-colored walls. She could just as easily have been lost, led astray by her sister's vague directions.

Then Kate remembered her nasty smirk, and she could picture Gina's face in someone's lap, a curtain of hair shielding her face, administering a perfect blowjob. She saw her in a pair of red baggy pants driving around the city with a couple of glum cohorts, windows rolled down, radio turned up. Maybe she was casually leaning across a bar somewhere, eating pretzels and talking to an interested young man with an affable scowl.

Kate stared into space.

"That bitch," she sniffed. She pulled her knees to her chest and pressed her fist against her teeth. She couldn't even eat her dinner.

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