By Marin Sardy
My sister speaks easily with strangers. She’ll chat you up at a party or a neighborhood coffee shop and introduce herself by her nickname, Sadie. You may find yourself looking across a beat-up wooden café table and noticing the straight line of her nose, the high cheekbones, the blond hair swept up loosely, the wrap dress flattering her lean shoulders. She’ll come off as confident, casually beautiful. She she’ll talk openly about her life and tell you the kinds of things most people skirt around, until she gets distracted and you realize that she has forgotten that it mattered or that you cared to hear it. It’s best if you don’t take this personally. Because everything matters and nothing does, and it all gets mixed up most of the time. That’s what she knows and it’s what’s hard to express about the life we have lived—what says, No one has imagined us.
When she talks to you, the facts will be right but the story will seem more like a tangle than a thread, and it will sound a lot like this:
I’m just getting a cup of tea, nothing to eat. But I have plenty of time to chat. Then I have to go take my sister’s car away from our mom. It’s not a big deal. Mom’s not mad about it anymore. She’s actually going to drive up to my house and park it there and then I’ll give her a ride home. There was this whole thing, though, last week. Marin left her Subaru here in Santa Fe when she moved to New York a few months ago. She was letting Mom use it but now she doesn’t want her driving it anymore. Which I think is a good idea considering what’s happened, although Mom’s pretty bummed.
It was worth a try. Marin couldn’t take the car to New York anyway. And Mom has pretty much no money. She lives on Social Security and she used to just walk everywhere or else she got us to give her rides. Marin asked me before she moved if I thought Mom would disappear with the car or sell it or anything like that. But mostly she was just worried Mom would decide to go on a big road trip to California and put tons of miles on it or something. I said I really thought it would be fine. Mom was so excited to have a car and she seemed totally willing to follow all Marin’s rules. Although of course because of her illness Mom’s memory is so elastic there’s no real way to be sure she’ll remember she agreed to anything, especially after a few months. Existence for Mom only happens in the present moment, really. Everything else fades in and out like dreams. Totally delusional, totally unmanageable. Anyway I have to work tonight so I need to get the car back before that.
I’m so glad Marin’s loving it in New York. I’m jealous of everything she does! I wish I had more pictures of her from the years she lived in Santa Fe. If I hadn’t lost them all when my hard drive crashed last winter, I would. There were some ones of her up on Kevin’s balcony that were really good. She was sitting on the railing with the mountains behind her and the wind blowing and thunderheads in the distance. The features of her face looked so dramatic with her hair pulled away by the wind, and there was something else in her demeanor, that intensity she has when she’s thinking. It’s strange to be in Santa Fe without my sister. Just knowing she was around made such a difference. I feel like half my heart is gone.
Marin was so obviously terrified to go to New York by herself, and so sad about things not working out with her boyfriend, Will. She had been so happy when they first started dating, and then she just got sadder and sadder as he started balking and backing away. I kind of still can’t believe what happened after she left. She said he decided he wanted to find a way to make this work. Of course I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Yeah, isn’t this the pattern?”
And she was like, “Yeah but, this time I think it’s different.”
And I was like, “Well, don’t you think it’s different every time it happens?”
But she said, “I know. I know. But what I’m saying is, I can hear it in the way he says things.” And she said, “You would hear it if you talked to him. You know how people give themselves away.”
So I thought maybe she was right, because I do know about how people give themselves away. You get good at seeing through people when you grow up with a delusional mother. Then Will and I met for coffee and we had this great conversation. And we talked a lot about Marin, and I was like, “Oh my god, he really understands her.” Then I got it—that he just hadn’t been ready.
I didn’t hang out with Marin all that much when she lived here, but that was partly because our schedules didn’t match up. She worked at a magazine, normal hours, and my massage shifts were always later in the day and at night. We definitely had overlapping social circles, but for the first few years I was with Kevin all the time. And she didn’t stay out very late like I did—almost never went to the all-night raves out in the desert that all my friends go to. She started complaining about Santa Fe people, actually, almost as soon as she got here. She doesn’t really like hanging out with anyone who’s at all New Agey woo-woo, or anyone who believes in conspiracy theories or does a lot of drugs. She was always telling me Santa Fe’s strange like that. I guess it annoyed her that most of my friends are that way.
About a week before she moved away, though, she and I did a Wiccan ritual together in my backyard, to cast a “soft landing” spell by jumping over a bird’s nest and landing beside a white handkerchief that she then carried with her on the plane. Wicca isn’t really a religion for her. It’s more of an anchor. I think she likes it because usually everything happens inside her head. So it helps her know that her whole inner world can be real on the outside too.
When she got to New York, she said she finally felt like she was where she needed to be. But she also said that the only photo she has up in her bedroom, besides one of Biscuit as a puppy, is an old one of her and me at our aunt’s house when, I guess I was about twelve, so she would have been fourteen. We’ve got our heads close together, both of us with these big smiles—mine with the gap I used to have between my front teeth and hers with her retainer wires showing. It makes me think of this other picture my dad took of us when I was literally less than one year old. I have on this little red onesie and a really funny look on my face. And apparently she was whining about wanting to hold me, so in the picture she has me in her arms. But she’s only about three and can’t hold me very well, so I’m kind of sliding out, head down, toward the floor. I guess Mom jumped in and grabbed me at that point, and then in the next photograph I’m lying on a cushion next to her. What I think of, though, is that even when Marin was dropping me I didn’t look upset.
Our aunt Bev once said that we idealize each other. I haven’t figured out what I think about that. Marin’s my favorite person. And I used to tell her so. “You’re my favorite person,” I would say. She once said we became close in the way people do when they live through a war together. I think she was trying to say that when you grow up with a parent who has schizophrenia or whatever exactly our mom has, you never know what’s going to happen next. And nobody’s looking out for you. Even our dad—we only lived with him half the time and he really didn’t understand what it was like for us.
I mean, I never thought my mom was going to physically hurt me, ever. I’ve always been really protective of Mom. It was just—like, when we were teenagers Mom spent a couple of years basically living off Coke and cake batter, and her teeth started rotting and went suddenly crooked. Just one more bizarre manifestation of her illness, you know. There were so many random things like that. Dad said maybe it was scurvy. But they were divorced by then so it wasn’t like he could make her eat better. So Mom decided to basically give herself homemade orthodontics, which involved putting little rubber bands around her teeth to try to pull them back into alignment. I was mortified to go out in public with her. It looked so disturbing. But the worst of it was just, what it meant for Mom. We were always watching her deteriorate. But she wouldn’t ever go to a doctor after they told her she was mentally ill. She didn’t believe them.
Anyway, Marin left the car with Mom until Christmas, as a trial run. Which seemed okay—Mom lives in a basement apartment next door to our aunt Bev, so Bev could keep an eye on things. But first Marin asked me if I would take the keys away from Mom for her if she decided it wasn’t working out. And it turned into this whole…thing. It went okay for the first couple of months, but then last week Marin called me asking if I’d heard anything about Mom taking the car in to a mechanic to get it worked on. One of Marin’s rules was that if there were problems, Mom was supposed to call her instead of dealing with it herself. She had told Mom she would have Will deal with it. Which, when she told me this had been her plan I was like, “That wasn’t wise. Mom wouldn’t go to Will for help.”
But I guess she didn’t expect Mom to start trying to fix things in the car that weren’t broken. Although we still don’t know if the car was actually having trouble or not. I think it maybe was. Mom’s usually pretty sharp about stuff like that. It just sucks that she tried to fix it herself.
Apparently it all started when Bev left Marin this cryptic voicemail saying Mom had fixed the Subaru. And Marin was like, “There’s nothing to fix. I had it serviced before I left. It should be in good shape.” Bev told her that Mom was planning on moving out of her apartment in a couple of weeks to go stay with Grandma in Roswell. So then Marin was also afraid that Mom was going to leave town with the car. I could tell she was getting kind of frantic and having trouble thinking straight, the way she does when Mom’s being unpredictable. I don’t really react to Mom that way. When I’m having a problem with Mom I tend to shut down. I go kind of blank. I guess because I get overwhelmed. Which, I mean, sucks. But Marin gets really nervous and panicky in those moments. And of course it just made things worse that she couldn’t call Mom to find out what was going on, since Mom doesn’t have a phone.
It’s happened a few times that people in Santa Fe who met Marin and me separately and knew both of us for two or three years would then somehow find out that we’re sisters and be completely surprised. I think she was always trying to explain me to people. Especially when I was finally breaking up with Kevin and was so pissed off about him cheating on me. I was telling people about this one fight we got into, when he shoved me and my head hit the wall and I got a concussion. Yeah. That was at the end. And then I totaled his car while I was drunk. I hit the median and it broke the axle.
Marin said her friends sort of saw the two of us as opposites and that they didn’t understand what she meant when she said we’re actually a lot alike. She told me once, “I tell them you’re like an electron cloud, and you have to see the whole cloud for any part of it to make sense.” But I’m sure she also explained about how much we leaned on each other growing up—in psychological ways mostly. We became kind of complementary to each other. She was, hmmmm, a loner, nerdy, studying all the time. And I was always at friends’ houses or out snowboarding. I was so mean to her. Poor Marin! I would try to push her buttons. And she would get really mad about it sometimes. She was like Ferdinand the Bull. Just smelling the flowers until a bee came and stung her, and then she’d charge. But in some unconscious way we helped each other. When we were teenagers people used to mistake us for twins even though she’s two years older than me. Not identical, but the same age. And it felt like that. She was so small for her age.
We still do this thing from that old cartoon about the teen superheroes. The Wonder Twins. They morph into different shapes that are always cooperative in some way. Like one will be an eagle and the other will be a bucket of water so together they can put out a fire. To change shape they would punch their fists together and say, “Wonder Twins, activate!”
God, it’s more like wonder-what-went-wrong twins. My life is so not figured out. I spend my time tap-dancing around, bobbing in and out of things, never actually making real commitments. I do that. I’ve always done that. I told Marin it’s terrifying to see that about yourself. Because how do you change? What if you can’t? It just makes me want to curl up and cry. Marin talks sometimes too about feeling like she has lost a lot of time. She used to have pretty bad depressions. And she still thinks of herself as some kind of weirdo who can’t deal. Which is really not true.
What’s funny though is that Marin told me Will offered to take the car back from Mom for her. Hee. There’s so completely no chance of that working out well! Nobody could get those keys from Mom except me or Marin. I think the idea put the same image in our minds—of Will trying to be nice but just being totally baffled while Mom, completely intractable, stonewalled him and tried to distract him by offering him, like, cookies. And then starting to have delusions that he had stolen her house or something. That’s kind of classic Mom, to think you’ve stolen her house.
What time is it? I should go soon to get the car. What happened in the end was, last week I set it up so that Mom and I Skyped with Marin from Bev’s house and we talked about it. Oh, poor Mom! Marin started asking all these questions and, well, you could tell Mom thought something was still broken in the car. It turned out she had already dumped four hundred dollars into getting the starter replaced. And she said the problem still wasn’t fixed. So we were like, Great, Mom’s getting swindled now.
Marin was like, “No more fixing anything. There’s nothing I want fixed.” And Mom sounded like she was going along with it, but with Mom, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. So Marin brought up all the rules about the car, but Mom said she didn’t remember them. Which I think was true, although Mom was also being evasive and pretty clearly making things up as she went. She gets that way—like the way kids are when they’re trying to cover their tracks and avoid getting in trouble. And she said something about wanting to take the car down to Roswell to have another mechanic look at it.
That’s when Marin said, “Okay. Mom. I’m gonna need to take my car back from you. This isn’t working out. I need you to give the keys to Sadie.”
And Mom kind of freaked out. She leaped away from the computer screen and hid off to the side. Marin was calling out to her but Mom turned to me and said, “Hang up!”
I was like, “Mom, I’m not going to hang up on Marin.” But Mom wouldn’t look at the screen anymore.
“Mom,” Marin was saying kind of too intensely. “You need to give Sadie the car keys now.”
And I said, “Mom, give me the keys.” But she was getting more and more agitated and miserable-looking. I told Marin, “She’s really—not happy right now.”
“Mom! Come look at me,” Marin kept saying.
“She’s really upset,” I said. “She looks really unhappy.” I was feeling pretty severely checked-out by then, so it came out sounding really flat.
Marin tried a few more times, sounding shakier and shakier. But Mom jumped up and bolted outside and said, “Let’s go to lunch now!” And she wouldn’t come back inside.
Uh! The whole thing was such a bummer. Marin was taking deep breaths, saying, “It’s obvious she’s headed down a delusional road that she can’t be turned away from at this point. She’s just going to keep blowing money on the car.” It made sense. Mom can’t afford to be wasting money like that. But I felt so bad for her. Marin asked what I thought, and I looked around for a moment.
“Yeah,” I said, “I think you’re right.”
“Do you think you can get her to give you my keys?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. She’s pretty freaked out.”
“Fuck,” she said, dropping her face into her hands. “Dammit.”
“I may need to get the spare key and just come take the car from her,” I said. We paused. “That won’t be fun.”
Finally I had the idea to tell Mom I was going to take the car back in a few days. That would give her time for important errands, and time to let it soak in. Then we just, didn’t say much for a minute. Marin looked at me really sweetly, sad-eyed. “I’m sorry you’re the one who has to do this,” she said. I sighed.
She held her fist up limply to her computer camera so it filled my screen. “Wonder Twins activate?”
I didn’t look at Marin directly. I stared out through the sliding glass door to where Mom was waiting, out there in the cold looking tense and confused. But I reached up to the screen and met her fist with mine.
Marin Sardy’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Missouri Review, Hobart, Post Road, Phoebe, Lumina, and several other journals, as well as in two books published by the University of New Mexico Press—Landscape Dreams (2012) and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby (2009). Her essay “A Shapeless Thief” has been listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015. Sardy has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and is the nonfiction editor of Cactus Heart literary magazine. Her criticism and cultural journalism have appeared in regional and national magazines, including ArtNews and Art Ltd. She is currently writing a memoir.