The house where I grow up is an expansive split-level with slippery wooden staircases and rooms that seem too large and too chilly. The house is built on what was once the inner slope of a ravine, now a steep street that winds back and forth and downwards in the same places that a stream once did, a long time ago.
I have both of my parents—although in ten years’ time they will live apart, separated across the country in New York and Arizona—and I have a younger sister, a soft, pale-skinned visionary named Emily. This is her religion, the desire to create things from nothing, to create beauty from what is insubstantial but becomes real under her myopic green gaze.
She paints pictures, she invents jokes, she starts questionable fashion trends among her peers, she makes her own peanut butter from scratch, she borrows our Mother’s long red nightgown and twists it, wraps it around herself, ties it into an infinite number of configurations. She demands that our mother weave her hair into experimental braided hairdos in the mornings before school. She has thin, pale lips and dark hair with squarish bangs.
She is six, and I am nine. I work at making her understand that she will never be like me. I am tall and skinny and blonde. I can read chapter books. I have been singled out by our elementary school for an unprecedented amount of academic enrichment. I am allowed to cross the street, and I am allowed to use the microwave, and I am allowed to be home alone. I will be a famous doctor who saves sick children, and she will be my nurse assistant. I will write bestsellers, and she will make illustrations in the margins. My body will bend any way I want it to, like a double-jointed miracle, like I could take a step off the ground and be airborne, and she—she will ever only be my little sister.
All I know at age nine is that when I wake up on weekend mornings, and I stumble from one room to the next, trying to find my family, I can’t find them, even though at least one of them should be awake. I push open the door to my parents’ bedroom, and that is where I find them. My mother is asleep on the left side of the bed, my father is asleep on the right, and my sister is asleep in the center, beneath the blankets.
The sun comes in strong through the windows, illuminating a world of floating dust that frightens me when I realize it is always there, even if it is invisible most of the time. The master bedroom is the warmest one in the house, filled with the body heat of three people. They are happy to stay asleep, cuddled up together.
I try to be loud. I rattle the doorknob. I cough. I scuff my bare feet into the carpet. Nobody awakens. I slam the door and go back to my bedroom to wait for the family to wake up. But just as the door is swinging into its frame, I see that Emily’s eyes are open. She is looking at me from between our parents, a blankness to her face, an expression that I understand as completely as if she has spoken aloud; she knows that this is one battle she has won against me, even though somehow neither of us is aware that there is a war going on in the first place.
The children on our street convene in the afternoons in a dead end road that branches off from the main street. We play with a basketball and some water guns. We choke each other to see what will happen. We throw pebbles at the black Newfoundland tied up in the yard on the corner, whose bark makes the earth shake. We venture onto the property of the old woman whose house is cloaked in shade, and whom we have only glimpsed once, closing a window against us.
But when my father installs the Fun Ride, Emily and I lose all interest in these social encounters across the street. Here is something that can occupy us for hours, and we prefer to keep it to ourselves, because when our friends come over, we are supposed to be courteous, step aside, allow them to play with the Fun Ride as much as they want, leaving Emily or me only two or three chances to ride it in the course of an entire afternoon. We stand off to the side and scowl.
The Fun Ride is a knock-off of the zip-lines one finds in adventure courses and summer camp retreats. It requires that one has two trees, at least twenty feet apart, preferably rising from ground that is mildly angled, like the aisles in a movie theater. In that sense, we are lucky. Our backyard is ideal for a Fun Ride. It is punctuated by two silver maples, one emerging from the hub of the yard, the other atop a mild incline at the southwest end. Together, the trees form a canopy of leaves over the backyard, tingeing everything in sleepy green light, shifting in dappled patterns across the grass when the wind blows through the branches.
My father assembles the toy. A taut steel cord is threaded through a plastic handlebar apparatus and strung between the two trees. A foot of green twine found in our garage dangles vertically from the bottom of the handlebars so that we can pull it along the cord from the lower tree to the higher one.
The Fun Ride is rather inane, in reality, but divine to us, all the same. It is like skiing down a very small slope and then riding the lift back to the top, over and over for hours and hours. We climb two or three steps that my father has built against the base of the higher tree so that we can reach the handlebars, and we grab the handles and lift off, hurtling across the yard to the tree in the middle, which we bounce off of with our feet and jump to the ground. Then we grab the green twine and pull the handlebars back to the higher tree, for another turn. We think the Fun Ride is miraculous, almost as good as the miniature golf course our father has been promising to build in the backyard for several years (and never will).
Maybe the monotony of the Fun Ride is what inspires my sister to raise the stakes. Still, Emily and I are not children who are keen on taking risks. We swing hula-hoops and kick soccer balls, deriving our excitement from the stamina required to become truly gifted at backyard play. We experiment with pogo sticks, jump ropes, hopscotch, even gymnastics among the cushioning ivy that overtakes our yard a little more every year. But when my father installs the Fun Ride, it becomes the only thing to be done in the backyard; it becomes the backyard itself.
My sister and I invent acrobatic stunts to perform while zipping across the yard, which leave my mother leaning forward and holding her breath until it is over. We unintentionally invent a code, a secret language, all having to do with the Fun Ride. We name different stunts, such as The Double Whammy, and we refer to the handlebar as, simply, The Yellow Thing. We can ride it backwards, facing where we have come from instead of where we are going. We can go two at a time, grasping the handlebars together, facing each other as we fly. We can swing our knees up and through our arms, so that we traverse the yard upside down. The string hums, it buzzes as we travel. It is fantastic and terrifying.
It sometimes seems to me like everything important happens in July. Emily is born in July, on the twenty-second. I am bitten by a tick in July at age ten, and left with a bad case of Lyme disease for well over a decade. I save my sister’s life in July. As a child I don’t notice all the hassles of July that will make it my least favorite month as an adult: the constant mosquito bites which I can’t help but pick at, the sweaty stickiness that re-surfaces on my skin as soon as I step out of the steamy bath, the smell of chlorine always in my hair, the blisters from water sandals, and the sprawling days which are so long, so boring, I try to create disaster to entertain myself. But Emily beats me to it.
On July 4th, 1991, one year before I become ill, we invite a neighboring family to have a backyard barbeque with us. Our mother and their mother are good friends. Both women are short, round, Jewish in culture but not in practice, shimmering with yellow gold rings and tennis bracelets. They often intersect on their way off the block to go run errands, and they stand in our driveway, chatting beside their idling cars. I can hear both of their laughs drifting through my bedroom window, light and dulcet in a way you wouldn’t expect from such history-heavy women. In later years Betty will lighten her hair, develop a befitting laugh. My mother, living alone in the house once my father has moved out and Emily and I have grown up and gone away, will enroll in court reporting school. Her joints will swell with age, and when the two women meet in the driveway she will shiver, even in the most delicate breezes.
The neighboring family consists of Betty and her husband Mark, and their two girls: Alana, who is a toddler, and Stephanie, who is almost exactly one year older than Emily.
The adults sit at the kitchen table, which is adjacent to the panoramic windows that face the backyard. They eat salad, drink Fresca and Scotch, and tend to Alana. Stephanie and my sister and I play in the backyard. Emily and I pause from our implicit rivalry long enough to make Stephanie acutely aware of her status as uninvited guest, as far as we are concerned. She ignores Emily, and I ignore her, out of loyalty to my sister. Emily and I use our code words and show off our stunts on the Fun Ride for a while, before the three of us move to our respective corners of the yard, engaged in solitary play like infants.
Stephanie can’t seem to master the rhythm to keep the hoop circling around her hips. The hoop swings around in two lazy revolutions, and then falls to the ground. I wander over to the swing set, where I hang by my knees from a trapeze and watch the branches twitch overhead. I am already getting too big for the Fun Ride, so that if I don’t tuck my legs, my feet graze the ground and I slide to an anticlimactic stop. I resent this.
The near-death experience that Emily is about to have isn’t the sort of near-death experience that probably everyone has had one or two of. I once dove into a pool and missed crushing my skull against the bottom by inches. I’ve had a fever that shifted from ninety-nine degrees to almost one hundred and five degrees in less than two hours. I’ve tumbled down tall, hard staircases, had allergic reactions to foods, been stricken with a brain infection. But this is different, with Emily. This is the sort of event that will be abbreviated by family members over the years to “Remember the Fun Ride?” followed by a roll of the eyes and a half-sad, half-mirthful sigh. Our neighbors won’t mention it again, as if they had intruded this evening on a very personal family memory in the making. This near-death experience, as lethal as it is, was brought on entirely by Emily herself.
And what happens to her is a horrible thing, an event that undoubtedly contributes to my nervous flair, my fear of flying, my fear of flames, and my fear of strong winds. It is the reason why I continue to jab at her self-esteem—it is anger I am expressing at her, for almost dying. For taking such cavalier carelessness with her own life. It is what makes me an over-protective sister forever, guiding her through intersections and helping her study for exams. I see it now, only now that I am writing this all down; I am a terribly selfish person.
She shouts something like, “Watch this!” and, while holding the handlebars, she flips upside-down so her legs are tucked through her arms and her head is pointed toward the ground. It looks as though she is halfway through completing a backflip. I too, am hanging upside down, from the swing set’s trapeze, and for a moment, there we both are, airborne, upside-down, seeing the lawn as sky.
There is the steely zip of the Fun Ride being ridden. The adults are eating salad in the kitchen. Stephanie is in a corner of the yard practicing with the hula-hoop. My head is full of blood and I can feel it pulsing behind my eyes. The backs of my knees ache from supporting my weight. I am hungry and irritated and wishing the neighbors would just go home so I could eat Lucky Charms for dinner and watch The Little Mermaid.
Over the rattlesnake sound of the hoop I hear the thrumming of the wire as Emily takes off, and I wait for the clunk of her feet hitting the trunk of the tree, and the soft thump as she hops down, gasping and laughing and proud of herself. But it doesn’t happen. I hear a sound like a zipper getting caught and then a sigh. I hear my name whispered into my ear. It is the wind blowing through my hair, it is a shout diminished to a whisper by the distance it has traveled. It is sister telepathy.
I look to the Fun Ride and it takes me a moment to see how much trouble Emily is in. My sister is standing in a funny way, on her tiptoes, her chin tilted upward, swaying like a drunken ballerina. In a half-second I am running across the yard, toward Emily. For the rest of my life I am running toward my sister, in dreams, in arguments, in stories I write. I see Stephanie standing still, the hula-hoop on the ground like a defined circle of safety around her. I trip over a tree root on the way to save my sister, and it gives me time to resent Stephanie for her immobility in an emergency.
It is obvious what has happened. My sister, in a moment of Houdini-like inspiration, tied the foot of twine that hung down from the handle around her neck before taking off on the Fun Ride. She was showing off for Stephanie. Or maybe Emily had been showing off for me, letting me see how weightless she is, how acrobatic she is. Later in the day I sit cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom and cry, as I try to understand what on this planet had made Emily think tying twine around her neck was a good idea.
This time, the Fun Ride didn’t stop all the way at the tree, where the underground roots make a slight rise in the lawn, perfect for an easy landing. Instead, the handlebars stopped a few feet short, closer to the middle of the ride, and when my sister tried to hop down, her feet couldn’t quite reach. The rope around her neck went taut.
The branches shift overhead, and her smooth cheeks reflect the flickering green shadows. The look on her face—in another context it could be a stomachache or a bee sting—lets me know how serious this is. I lift up one knee to create a seat for her dangling body, to slacken the string. But it is impossible. The twine is knotted around her neck and there is no loosening it, there is nothing, nothing I can do to help her.
I am trying to hold her up, trying to undo the knot, trying to keep her calm, trying not to scream “Emmy!” Instead I am screaming at the adults through the kitchen window, screaming at Stephanie to go get someone, to do something. I decide I officially hate Stephanie for this. I am listening for any sounds from my sister, and there are none. There are colors surrounding me and that is all I see: the green of the twine and the salmon-pink of Emily’s tie-dyed shirt, and the gray of the dirt on her elbows as she claws at the rope around her neck. I look into the kitchen window and see my mother sipping from a glass.
There is the struggle against gravity, uniting both of us so that we must look like one desperate creature. There is the evening chill coming over us, the leaves of the silver maples shifting in the wind, and the sparkling dots of fireflies emerging in the dark corners of the yard.
I scream at Stephanie again to go get someone. She stands within her circle of hula-hoop and watches Emily’s face turn blue. I am fading under the weight of my sister, and now all I can think of is the image as I ran toward her—a dim expression, genuine fear. I am doing two things at once: trying to keep my sister from dying, and mentally adjusting to the prospect of a life without her; I am minimizing the damages already.
Emily’s hands relax and fall to her sides, but she is still conscious. She is resigning herself to her fate, whatever it will turn out to be. Stephanie and I watch and wait, as Emily swings in the breeze. I have given up on Stephanie. Look, I will the grownups. A sip is swallowed, a punch line hits its mark, a fork clinks against the side of a salad bowl. The adults reach a lull in their conversation. And then one of them hears our prayers and my screams, and glances out the window with Scotch-glazed eyes. In moments the four of them are with us in the backyard. My mother cannot untie the knot. My legs are buckling.
The grownups make a huddle around the problem, pushing me aside so they can lift Emily higher. I am relegated to the edge of the yard, with Stephanie. “She’s alive,” I hear my father say. “Is her neck intact?” Mark asks, whatever that means. Fingers pull at the twine, women’s voices coo at Emily to keep her calm, and someone shouts “Hurry!” as someone else leaps back into the house, and then back out with a pocketknife.
There is a collective sigh as her heels touch ground. And when she wobbles away from the zip line and sits down on the grass, she has a stunned look on her face and she is wheezing. My mother examines her throat and Betty pats her head. My hatred for the adults bubbles over. I go back to the swing set to hang upside down and watch the sky in bookish contemplation.
My sister will have a raw ring of red around her neck. My mother will breathe heavily all night, my father won’t say a word to anyone, and I will be required to apologize to Stephanie for yelling at her while I tried to save my sister.
Years later I will feel more kindly toward Stephanie, as she develops troubles of her own. A severe and chronic stomach illness will overtake her in high school, flinging her back and forth between malnourished emaciation and steroid heft. There will often be crinkled packets of Pepto Bismol peeking out of her pants pockets, and she will not get the chance to attend parties and drink as much as her friends do. There will be talk of surgery, even.
And years later Emily will grow into her magnetism. She will know better how to use it to her benefit. She will glide across the Cornell campus, always with friends, always doing the talking. She will nod at acquaintances, who feel giddy at being recognized. Professors will know her. She will be alabaster, with wide hips and enormous eyes and thick henna-dyed hair all the way down to her waist. She will wear long cotton summer dresses over jeans with knit socks converted to fingerless gloves, and, famously, a pink cowboy hat. It will seem that everyone knows who she is.
Her drive to create will have been channeled into crocheting and knitting. She will be able to make anything, a knit cap or a crocheted potpourri bowl, and it will perhaps be one of the things that allow her the supreme satisfaction of outdoing me. In my guilt, I will welcome it. And her drive to create will have been expanded as well, into a drive to prevent destruction. She will study Natural Resources. She will dream of lobbying for animal rights and rainforest preservation. She will worship Maureen Dowd and tremble with potential when she thinks of how she too could be a journalist, both creating sentences and preventing planetary destruction, all at once.
This is the part I will never tell anyone—I see Emily tie the twine around her neck in the first place, before she even takes off. I see it, and I don’t stop her. It seems unimportant at the time.
About thirty minutes after Emily is rescued, after the adults have gone back inside to set the table, I sit down next to her in the cool grass beneath the silver maple in the center of the yard. She seems as if she’s stepped away from herself for a moment. There is that blank expression again; she sits cross-legged and watches the sky, which is darkening. This is not the awake, effervescent Emily that I know. When she is older she won’t remember this day very well; all she will know about it is that she did a very stupid thing that was upsetting to everyone, and that I, her taller, older, more capable sister was smart and able enough to save her life. I am praised for my quick actions. The words “Fun Ride” will bring a twinge of shame to Emily’s mind when she hears them, although she can’t be sure why.
But in this moment she is pink-cheeked again, breathing, and alive. I reach out and smooth her hair. She turns to look at me, and she seems as though she’s suddenly been made aware of some important pattern in her life. It is as if she is seeing the years behind her and ahead of her, strange and frightening years full of parental divorce and a sick sister and the onset of any number of other troubles, and how it is all woven into a cohesive picture, a life that progresses linearly by my constant belittling of her. It is one thing she can be sure of, for many years to come. “I’m sorry, Em,” I say to her, apologizing for something we are still too young to understand. “Thanks,” she says and then coughs, touching her throat, “It’s okay,” and she stands up and walks back into the house, leaving me sitting outside in what is quickly becoming night.