Three sisters are spending a weekend at the Cape. One is engaged; one is a recent graduate with a B.A. in business; one is a lesbian. Here’s how their conversations go:
“Are you seeing anyone?” the engaged one asks the graduate. She does not ask the lesbian.
“Yes. His name is Chris. He was a business major too,” replies the grad.
How dull, thinks the lesbian.
They drink Long Island iced teas out of tall glasses. Plastic stirrers peek over the rims and ice sweat clings to their hands. They sit on the private beach outside the house that is their parents’ summer vacation home. In low wooden chairs they dig their toes through hot white sand until they reach the cool dark sand underneath.
Up close, genetics and personal taste ensure they look nothing alike. But from a distance the sisters look the same. They sit slightly slouched, legs relaxed, glasses in their right hands. They sip in unison. Each feels a part of something. Each feels differently about what that something is.
They always sit in the same order: engaged, graduate, lesbian. This is not the order in which they were born.
When the drinks are finished, sun pieces float on the water and their skin is nearing the color of dark sand. On it they feel the peculiar moisture and salt stickiness that the ocean throws their way. So far they’ve discussed plans for the bridal shower, their crazy mother, and the upcoming election.
“What should we do about it?” asks the recent grad.
“Do I have to be around?” asks the lesbian.
“I hope so. You’re part of it,” reminds the engaged one.
For dinner they have pasta primavera. The lesbian cuts vegetables with quick cold movements that speak of efficiency requiring no conversation. The engaged one and grad chat while they drain limp noodles and stir popping sauce.
“Tell me about Chris,” says the engaged one.
They talk until the meal is ready. This is what the two sisters learn about Chris:
He is tall with dark hair. He does cute things, like calling the graduate when he gets off work just to see how she is, or unlocking her car door first before getting in himself. And, when he sleeps, he drapes his arm over the graduate’s side and tucks his forearm up under her breast.
The engaged one and the graduate are amazed at the similarities between the boyfriend and the fiancé. Who would have thought that both of them, sisters, would find men who both did such things?
The lesbian picks up the cutting board and pushes the vegetables into the sauce, scraping the dull edge of the knife across the wood. Small droplets of red now surround the pot. Wordlessly, the engaged one wets a paper towel and wipes the drops (like pockmarks) from the white stove top.
Before they came to Cape Cod, the sisters went to be fitted for their dresses. One white (it’s tradition) wedding dress with a corseted back, and two maroon (September wedding) bridesmaids’ dresses, with haltered tops and dipping bust lines. The grad liked the dress and gave a luscious smile when the seamstress announced she had a body to fill it beautifully. The bride was beautiful too (of course). The lesbian’s breasts were too small. She stood (silent) on the pedestal while the lady (silently) augmented them with cups, blanked the bumpy dark nipple with smooth white foam.
As a last (sisterly) hurrah before life’s more pressing concerns disrupt this bond, the engaged one has brought her sisters to this house on the Cape and here they sit now, three points around a table, twirling pasta into neat whirlpools on their forks and sipping merlot.
In the morning the engaged one’s right hand is missing. She comes downstairs to the kitchen where the lesbian is buttering toast and the grad is flipping past newspaper articles on the candidates.
The engaged one takes a moment, smoothes her hair along her forehead with the stump, responds, “Morning.”
“What are we doing today?” the grad asks, a page of newspaper pushing down on air as it falls with mild crinkles, then kisses ink to ink with the previous page.
“Weren’t we going to go into town to look for decorations for the shower?” the engaged one says. The lesbian sets three plates of toast and three cups of orange juice on the table.
“I wanted to tan today,” says the grad.
“We’re here for a whole week. You can tan tomorrow,” reminds the engaged one.
“We’re already tan,” remarks the lesbian.
After breakfast the lesbian kneels below the bottom step, on which the engaged one sits, and loops her sister’s white laces through themselves to hold her white sneakers in place. She moves to a stair above her sister and pulls her dark hair three times through an elastic to hold it in a ponytail. The grad honks the horn of the car. Then all three head to town.
The engaged one was born first. She had dark hair and was not pretty. Now she dresses trendy and has great tits to fill a dress too.
The lesbian was born second. Her naturally pretty (not words she’d use) face can’t be seen under the nose ring, lip ring, eyebrow ring, and a dozen earrings. When she takes them out for the wedding, she’ll put in clear plastic spacers to prevent the holes from closing. Her makeup will make her a plastered and repainted wall.
The graduate is the youngest and cutest. She has blond hair that bounces as she walks. She insists on working on her tan for the entire week. She insists on always having her particular beach chair (despite the birth order) because it reclines the farthest.
The lesbian drives them to town. On a street with even sidewalks, potted plants, and store facades lined up flush, they point (more difficult for the engaged one) at items through glinting glass. If they were to refocus their eyes they would see themselves, standing three in a row, reflected as in a pallid mirror. They do not stand in order of their height.
They introduce themselves at each store by announcing their business.
“We’re shopping for a bridal shower.”
“I’m getting married.”
“She’s getting married.”
The ladies at the stores congratulate not only the engaged one, but the grad and the lesbian, too. They are happy for the happiness sisters must feel for their sister’s happiness. They show the sisters vases, silver ladles, candy dishes. The lesbian remarks she would have nothing to put in any of those. The ladies look uncomfortable, shift from one leather-sandaled foot fanned by a slightly swaying summer dress, to the other sandaled foot, until distracted by the glean of another object they can walk towards and say, “Well, this is lovely too.”
The youngest is the tallest, a version of her sisters stretched extra inches from the bones out. She is knobby or thin.
The eldest is average.
The middle is short. So short her parents took her to a doctor when she was little(r). She sat stagnant so as not to crinkle the white paper pulled across the vinyl covered examining table. The stethoscope marked cold circles on her back and chest while the doctor told her to breathe deeply. They showed her the X-ray (the peculiar interior) of her hand. They drew blood, a seemingly endless fountain the fill the vial.
The doctor told her parents this is just the way she is. They considered growth hormones.
The sisters return to the house with bags of decorations; tasteful ribbons and tiny vases for flower arrangements, stenciled place cards for the seating arrangement, exfoliating cream, lotions, and a candy dish for prizes. And other lovely, lovely things.
The next morning the lesbian is spooning batter onto a pan when the other two come downstairs. The engaged one is missing her right forearm. The recent grad is bald.
After breakfast they change into their bathing suits and head down to the beach. The lesbian rubs sun tan oil on the grad’s back and continues the circular motion, sliding oil up onto her scalp, until the entire pate is covered. They sip iced teas again.
At midday the sweat of stillness dips tanning oil in their eyes (more so for the grad). They go inside to mix more drinks. The grad calls her boyfriend.
“We went to town yesterday.
“Something for you? Maybe.” She giggles.
The lesbian forfeits her drink, goes up the stairs to her room to nap.
There are three rooms upstairs. They did not choose rooms in order of most men slept with.
In the morning the engaged one is missing her right arm and all the fingers on her left hand except the ring finger. The grad is missing both feet. One walks and one hops down the stairs. The grad’s hands grip the banister to steady her rocking. Scrambled eggs and juice are placed on the breakfast table. At the bottom it can be seen that the eldest and youngest are now the same height.
At the table, in between holding the egg heavy fork and juice to her older sister’s lips, the lesbian cuts purple ribbons and ties them in bows around the tiny vases.
“You’re doing it wrong,” the grad says, then bites and sips her food as well. The lesbian pushes the vases towards her sister, the bows held together with strangled little knots. The grad ignores them.
They spend the morning on the beach. The lesbian has placed one straw in the hollow of another, creating an extra long straw that extends from the glass on the arm of the engaged one’s chair to her mouth. The sweat circle at the glass’s bottom darkens the gray wood of the beach chair, water reaching either way down its grooves. The youngest two decide to swim. On the way to water a million specks of sand work like sunken pedestals to hold the stubs of shins, which hold the recent grad. The lesbian swims faster over the breakers, spitting foam sea salt to the side.
When they rejoin their sister they brush towels against themselves. The recent grad reapplies tanning oil while the lesbian smears on sun block. Even after it’s rubbed to a hint of grease on skin, the lesbian continues to flutter her fingers over the series of keloids on her left arm (she’s right handed). She alternates between this and sipping tea.
The youngest and most recent grad has slept with the most men. Yet she shies away from conversations that use medical terms like vagina, penis, menstruation, ejaculation. Men like her.
The eldest and engaged one has slept with the second most men. Though the fiancé is the first she brought to their parents’ house (not this house).
These first two numbers are not to be considered excessive.
The lesbian has slept with the least men. She would (however) have had the greatest number of partners if women were counted.
That night at dinner the phone of their parents’ beach house rings, and since it is not the fiancé or the boyfriend, it must be the mother. The lesbian (her second one) answers it.
“We’re having a great time.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask her.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask her.
“I don’t know. Let me put her on.”
She stretches the cord over the counter top and tucks the receiver between her older sister’s shoulder and cheek. The engaged one uses her ring finger to steady the pocked mouth piece under her chin.
In the morning the recent grad bumps down the stairs on her butt, legs missing from the knee down. The engaged one has no arms, only balls of motion that swirl cauterized flesh at her joints.
After breakfast the lesbian suggests they go for a run on the beach. She squats and the grad puts her arms around the lesbian’s neck. Braced against her back (something they never did when younger), she piggy-backs her younger sister to the beach chairs and sets her in one (the one that reclines the farthest). She puts lotion on her back and scalp and lets her do the rest.
At the house the lesbian takes off her older sister’s night shirt and slips on a tee-shirt. She holds open the waist of a pair of shorts and the engaged one steps through the leg holes. She ties her sneakers.
The engage one then asks, “Can you?” and motions with her eyes to the night stand. The lesbian goes over, removes a pendant from the thin chain of a necklace and slips the ring (.9 carats) onto it. She clasps it around her sister’s neck. For now she tucks it into the side of the sports bra, so it won’t bounce against her as she runs.
They walk down to the lee where water makes sand hard for a moment’s step, but malleable if pressed on for time. They begin to run. The engaged one’s shoulders swivel. Since her balance is easier, the lesbian runs ahead. She pauses, waits for the engaged one’s red serious face moving between the ocean and sand to catch up.
The grad turns her sunglassed eyes from the water to watch the two dots of her sisters disappear into million dots of sand.
The sisters return sweaty, their own salt contesting that from the breeze of the Atlantic. Inside the lesbian helps her sister undress, shower, redress. When they join the grad on the beach chairs they bring (lesbian carried) a fresh tray of drinks. As margaritas (they like to mix things up) sink into glasses, the lesbian readjusts the engaged one’s straw so she can drain the last drops of blended ice.
Then she stretches her arms up, hooking fingers into fingers to hold palms outward. She pushes her legs out, fans toes, arches back and pops belly outward.
She suggests the next day they rent a sea kayak.
The lesbian sits in back operating the pedals and sliding her paddle through left then right water. Scars white against tanned skin. The engaged one sits legs crossed in the middle. The grad sits harnessed (two belts strapped around either thigh then under the bench) at the front, slapping swells of water with her paddle. They do not sit in order of mental health.
Each daughter was a planned pregnancy and each has heard not only the story of her birth, but also of her conception. The engaged one and the recent grad find this comforting, and sink into the collective history of family like ink already pressed. It makes the lesbian uneasy to know her father had the flu.
The lesbian puts her paddle against the waves that gently and persistently push their bow off course.
The engaged one is the healthiest. She graduated summa cum laude. She is engaged to a man her parents like.
The recent grad has job offers from marketing firms and a likable (if dull) boyfriend. She can be charming, or red faced screaming (like their mother), or sporadically cruel.
The lesbian has been on antidepressants (Zoloft now) for seven years and is not married or profitably employed. Occasional conversations with her mother go like this:
“I worry about you.”
“But I love you.”
“You love [engaged one] and [recent grad] too.”
“No, not the way I love you.”
“Worry about them.”
It’s not love like an unwanted gift, but a cut that gives view too far inside. (Like the cut that brought the lesbian to the hospital, and got her stitches, antidepressants and her mother’s worry (love).)
Only when far from shore does the recent grad complain.
“My arms are tired.”
The engaged one says, “At least you still have arms.”
The grad says, “Shut up shut up.” She throws her paddle in the boat.
“Damnit, you almost hit me,” says the engaged one.
“Well, you can move out of the way.”
The lesbian, hearing familiarity in rising voices, says, “It’s okay. I’ll do the paddling.” Though the tide is rising she dips her paddle, pushes against it. She straightens the boat. Her arms burn like phantom pain by the time they hit shore. She draws the boat onto the beach, cutting a neat path throw the hot dry sand. She helps her sisters to the house.
“That was a stupid idea,” says the grad to the back of the lesbian’s neck.
(That deep wound on her shoulder caused the anonymous doctors and nurses (interns most likely, white coats definitely) to strip her in a soft walled room in the back (psych ward) of the hospital to reveal more twinkling swells on arms and thighs. To go home, she told them anything they wanted to hear. She reasoned it out for them: it was because she felt no one would (did) care. But look at her family there, she said, enduring an all night waiting room, piss tasting coffee. The four of them in the plastic chairs, a family. She could see them as if through a one-way glass. Now she knows, she told them. Let her go home, to the silent shelter of her room.)
They released her the next evening.
In the morning, clouds blocking the sun like eyelids, the engaged one is missing her right leg and the recent grad has lost her thighs.
They decide to stay in. They listen to the candidates’ agendas on the radio. Peace and prosperity are promised. Security and growth are heralded. The engaged one, tired from hopping, plopped in a kitchen chair, doesn’t know who to vote for. Both sound so good. Just like the chicken and the veal she has to decide between for the reception. She has just finished discussing it with the fiancé on the phone. (He’s a veal man.) The recent grad, in true business major style, has decided to vote for tax cuts.
The next decision is hairstyles. Up or down? Buns, braids, bobs? The lesbian is silent.
“Come here,” the grad says. Sitting next to her sister on the couch the lesbian is careful to stay on her own cushion, a game of space and territory they played as children. The grad tangles her fingers in the lesbian’s long straight hair and pulls it up (draws her sister nearer). Stray strands brush at her eyelids. The engaged one looks over, considers it. The grad sweeps her fingers through the hair again the lesbian feels it fall around her head differently.
Again. The hair is pulled to almost painful tightness on her scalp. Beautiful, the sisters agree. The grad relents and the lesbian feels the tangle of hair collapse on her head. She suppresses the desire to run a comb through it, to straighten it out (ha ha). Instead she stays, smiles, suggests a fresh round of drinks.
When she returns with the tray the radio is still on. Diatribes like mosquitoes fill the room. The lesbian isn’t registered, but she votes for the chicken.
Last time all the girls were at their parents’ other house, the mother complained of the lesbian’s tattoo on her back.
“Why’d you have to get that for the wedding? I had to order special make-up to cover it.”
“I got it four years ago.” With her fork she pushes fatty meat to the other side of her plate. She stabs it once twice and watches oily swells rise out of prong holes. “Besides,” she says “It’s not nearly as bad as the scars on my arm.”
Silence. The other sisters spear meat into mouths, chew it and words thoroughly.
“Did you order cover up for those?” the lesbian asks.
Silence. Then the clink of fork on plate, the stomp of feet on stairs, the slam of the door of her old room.
The only time such things were discussed.
At night the lesbian piggy-backs the grad up to her room, then acts as a crutch for the engaged one as she hops up the stairs. She hands her younger sister a toothbrush and glass of water. She brushes her older sister’s teeth and hair and puts a glass to her lips. She helps them with other toiletries before bed. They do not fall asleep in order.
Final morning at the Cape and two sisters nothing but torsos and heads. The lesbian enters each of their rooms, lifts them—her arms around their ribs, the balls of their hips on the juts of her pelvis, their face to her face, chest to chest, belly to belly (that’s all the body to match)—out of beds. She brings them downstairs to the best breakfast yet.
The order down the aisle will be lesbian, grad, engaged one (soon to be married one).
The lesbian feeds, wipes mouths, dresses torsos, packs bags. She dials the phone and tells their mother they’ve had a lovely time. The sisters nod in agreement as if nods had audible capacities.
They take a last walk through town. The recent grad is in a papoose on the lesbian’s back and she pushes the engaged one in a stroller. She is surprised at how heavy just torsos can be, as if the weight of a person is a centered metaphor not to be distributed by blood, oxygen or tissue to appendages. She sees them in a window meant to display lovely things, a three headed monster from the same womb stalking down bricked pavement.
At the house the lesbian checks rooms for forgotten items. Then she drags three bags and two sisters to the front porch. Again face to face, arms around ribs, nice tits against too small tits. Also, breath on hairs of neck, scent of sisters perfuming and the lesbian’s spine arched so tips of vertebrae pucker at tips of vertebrae, holding all weight in such a gesture.
Outside she props them against the railing and kisses the two that are her sisters. She takes the largest bag (shiny, black, almost as large as her) and heaves it into her car.
“Do you want to come in my car?”
“We don’t need to.”
“Chris is coming.”
“My fiancé's coming.”
She waves from the driver’s seat, hand held, palm outward, fingers straight then curling over due to gravity, tightness of skin, lassitude. She leaves [engaged one] and [recent grad] for their men to come and get.
Dani Rado recently received her MFA in fiction writing from the University of Notre Dame. Her stories have been published in Harpur Palate and Mochila Review.
2006, Dani Rado. This work is protected under the U.S.