I tell her there are levels, layers to my sickness. I wake up one person and go to sleep an entirely different person. I find myself on walls and ceilings, in bathtubs, under covers, holding my breath. My thoughts tick rather than flow, everything feels raw and out of proportion. My body feels too big for my head, my thoughts too big for the room. I feel things expand and contract, but there is no physics at work here, just perception, or misperception, as my counselor says.
Whenever I mention my treatment, my sister falls just short of rolling her eyes. Instead of reprimanding herself, she snaps at me, “You think too much, always have.” I have no response to this, but she continues, nonplussed, “Your problem is that you hold onto the sickness, nurture it, lavish it with attention.”
As children, we were magnetically opposed. The friction between our worlds, palpable. Where she was gripped by time and place, I was in my head, losing track of myself. Her mind was uncluttered, at attention. Mine would deliberately avoid, falter, distance. But every night, afraid of the same things—the sounds of an old house settling in for the night, the overwhelming darkness of the moonless countryside, Grandmother’s needling fingers in the next room—we pulled our twin beds together and I slept on the crack between to be closer to her. I was always afraid of edges, but there I was, right on top of two. Sometimes the illusion of safety is enough, my counselor tells me, but even now, I cannot find sleep without imagining us locked in each other’s force-fields, fighting to come together but always drifting, ever so slightly, apart.
We are three years apart — she, the older sister, born three months premature, her lungs desperate for air. Yet somehow she turned into a runner, long distance. My muscles twitched when I watched her run, like a set of phantom limbs, as she set every pace or fought to get out of the pack. It’s difficult to describe how a person can put emotion into an action, but that’s what my sister did.
But no one can really make anyone feel anything, my counselor says.
When she chooses to pronounce this particular gem, it is usually because I am talking about Grandmother.
Use feeling words, she urges.
She made me feel sad, mad, afraid.
Now own your feelings, she says.
I felt sad, mad, afraid.
Are these emotions all in the past?
Fuck you, I say.
To speak of Grandmother would deprive me of air. I try not to revisit her sins at night, as there are too many of my own to count.
In here we talk about breaking the cycle. Of addiction, abuse, neglect, self-destructive behavior, and above all the denial and the rationalization of these things.
I have gone down the resistant path many times, and haven’t liked its end, so this time around I am compliant and insightful. I want my counselor to believe in me and my ability to get well because I want to see my sister and I want to see my sister because she is pregnant and I want to know this baby.
She is six months along, as they say. Her due date, her baby’s due date, my own birthday. I take it as a sign of something, but I’m not sure what.
When she called to tell me, her voice was clear and clean, almost antiseptic. She was hesitant to give me details, like I could infect the baby if she were to allow herself any emotion.
I worry what will happen if I am not allowed the chance to hold this baby. In this bed, surrounded by flatly-carpeted ocean, I fear I am nothing and no one without this possibility. This baby doesn’t need our history. We could start anew. It would be like when we were girls and in the summer, I rode my bike along with her on every run. She could go for hours, and I would loop around her on the country roads.
It was approaching dusk, not a mile from home, when a car passed us with a sloppy shifting of gears. We had been singing something before this—very loudly—it had been a good running day, and I was looking down, pushing into the pedals as I raced back around her.
And then a smack of a car against a solid mass. We could see the car, but not what it hit. I had gotten off of my bike by then.
It was very quiet where we grew up and the sound of brakes on pavement sounded so surprising. Standing, as I was by my bike and my sister beside me, planted in earth, blanketed in the thick air, it was not like being in a box, hit by another box. We were surrounded by the flat, ungiving land of our ancestors, and the whine of the brakes lifted up into the sky and died there. The sounds of people arguing in a car, wrestling with a decision, filled that distance.
It had been a fawn, we saw then, just getting its legs beneath it, and when the people in the car made their decision and drove off, we saw one of its hooves bloodied and severed at the joint, and when I think about it now, it managed to hobble off fairly well on its remaining three working legs, but all I could see then was that hoof, swinging with every stride it took down into the ditch to hide in a field of brush. My sister was in tears and screaming, Motherfuckers. Come back here, you motherfuckers! It would have been funny, and it was, I guess, because even as she did it, we both recognized the futility of yelling obscenities at a car long gone.
Mary Krienke grew up in the Midwest and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA from Columbia University’s Fiction Program and has been previously published by Midwestern Gothic, Two Hawks Quarterly, Joyland, and Underground Voices, with work forthcoming in Palooka. Now an associate literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, she is currently writing her first novel.
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