older sister (short story)
First published in New England Review, Vol. 37, 2016, Issue 1. It is also appears in the story collection The Virginity of Famous Men.
By the beginning of her second year in college, Alex had learned that she did not like what happened when she drank, nor did she like to be around people who were drinking competitively. Something else she learned was that she had an older sister – technically, a half sister. It was her mother who told her that she and her younger brother Chris had a second sibling, even though Mrs. Fiore was not the woman who’d given birth to her. The girl’s mother was an ex-girlfriend of Alex and Chris’s father, a woman named Michelle who, twenty-one years earlier, had punished him for his decision to marry someone else a year and a half after their daughter Penelope was born by moving to France, where she’d found work as an English teacher at a boarding school a few miles outside of Paris.
When Mrs. Fiore told Alex that she had a sister, they were having lunch at a large and noisy deli on the southern fringe of the Washington, DC college where Alex was about to begin her sophomore year. It was the last day of move-in week, which had been very hot and humid, and now it was raining hard. People kept entering the deli with dramatic exclamations, stomping their feet on the waterlogged mats and shaking out their umbrellas, some of the drops landing on Alex’s bare legs.
Alex stared at her mother after hearing her embarrassed revelation. Mrs. Fiore’s arms were crossed over her lap, hands clenching her elbows as if she had caught a chill. She was small and dark-haired, a high-strung, smiling woman whose laughter was timorous but frequent. Finally Alex asked, “Does Chris already know? Why are you the one telling me this? Why not Dad?”
Her mother wiped under her eyes with the napkin she’d been using while they ate turkey sandwiches and the sweet potato fries the deli was known for. She had trouble meeting Alex’s gaze, something that made Alex feel both impatient and sorry.
“Your brother doesn’t know yet,” her mother said. “But Dad’s supposed to talk to him this afternoon. I’m finally telling you because for years, your father and I went back and forth over when and how to tell you, but he could never make up his mind, and now Penelope is insisting on meeting you, so there’s no more stalling.”
Alex blinked. “Why did they name her Penelope? Why does she want to meet me?” She could feel her heart racing and tried to take deep breaths. She would grow lightheaded if she breathed too shallowly; she might even faint, something that had happened twice in the past year, both times at parties with classmates who had drained a keg before moving on to a cabinet filled with hard liquor.
“She wants to meet both you and Chris, but it doesn’t have to be at the same time. I think she’s coming to Washington next month, which is why I’m telling you now. You have a little time to prepare yourself before she arrives.”
“What if I don’t want to meet her?”
Her mother hesitated. “Well, think about it for a little while. But I do think you should see her. At least once.”
“Has Dad seen her since she and her mom moved to France?”
“He has?” said Alex, taken aback. “When?” She had no idea when her father might have seen this other daughter. His moods were so steady that behind his back, she and Chris sometimes called him Mr. Sunshine. To his credit (or else, she thought, maybe to his discredit), she could not remember any prolonged periods of moroseness or bad temper on his part.
“He saw her a few times when Michelle brought Penelope over from France to visit with her relatives in Madison. But he can talk to you about that. Penelope lives in New York now. She graduated from NYU last year.”
“She’s still there?” Alex paused. “What does she look like?”
“I think she’s working at a law firm as a paralegal.” Her mother smiled. “She’s a cute girl. But so are you, honey. You’re prettier than both she and her mother are.”
“Don’t say that,” said Alex, embarrassed.
“It’s true, honey. You’re the prettiest girl I know.”
“I’m your daughter. You have to say that.”
Her mother regarded her, less sheepish now, the paper napkin back on her lap. “No. I don’t.”
Alex knew her mother was being sincere; she also knew that this prettiness was one of the reasons why she wasn’t going to drink anymore, even if the boys who liked her pressured her to do it, even if her girlfriends jeered at her, mascara and thick eyeliner smeared garishly under their eyes, their euphoric, drunken faces laughing at her sudden, unaccountable prudishness, especially after such a spectacular first year of strip poker and quarters and beer bongs wet with the spit of other lonely students who would throw up all over the sidewalk on the way home or at the foot of their beds or in the dorm hallway where the prim, Sunday-mass-attending RA would emerge at seven a.m. and step in it on her way to the shower, to the great hilarity of the few students who were awake to witness it.
“Why does Penelope want to meet Chris and me all of a sudden?” asked Alex.
“I think she has for a while. Your father was dragging his feet because he felt bad about not having told you about her sooner.”
“That’s why he didn’t come out here with you to help me move in,” Alex said flatly.
Her mother regarded her. “He did have to work, but you’re right. He was being a coward.”
“What’s he expecting Chris and me to do?”
“I think he hopes you’ll be willing to meet her. He said to tell you that he’ll call you tonight to talk about everything.”
“No, tell him not to. I don’t want to talk about it. Not right now. I have to think about my classes.”
“You’re going to do better this year, sweetie. The first year is always hard.”
Alex shook her head. “No, it’s not. I was a fuck-up. My classes weren’t that hard at all. I just didn’t do enough work.”
“Don’t swear, honey.”
Alex laughed in a harsh burst. “Why not? You’ve heard it before.”
“I know I have, but I don’t need to hear it again. Not from you anyway.”
A few weeks before the end of the spring term of her freshman year, Alex drank so much at a junior boy’s twenty-first birthday party that she was sick for three days and probably should have gone to the hospital, but Cathy, her roommate, managed to get her to drink water and eat Saltines and eventually she was able to keep down peanut butter on toast, then Cheerios with skim milk, and after that, she could take a shower without feeling dizzy and weak. It also helped that Jennifer, their RA, was out of town for the weekend; otherwise, Jennifer might have called for an ambulance, and Alex’s parents would then have been notified and they might have forced her to go to a school much closer to home instead of allowing her to return to her expensive quasi-Ivy league college in Washington, DC, where to her and her friends’ surprise (and, in some cases, envy), she had managed to get in two weeks before classes started because by then, her number was high enough on the waitlist, and her parents hadn’t yet mailed in the tuition check to the University of Illinois.
Something else that happened while she was at the junior boy’s birthday party, something she couldn’t confirm, having only a dim memory of the later hours of that night, was that two, possibly three, boys had taken her into one of the bedrooms at the apartment where the party took place and had sex with her. She didn’t think, however, that she could call it rape. Not exactly. She did not remember a struggle, nor did she have bruises anywhere on her body. She also wasn’t sore between her legs the next day, but there was some stickiness, and she knew that something had happened, something she probably wouldn’t have allowed if she had been sober. Even in her reduced state the next morning, she remembered laughter and whiskers biting into her cheeks and chin and two or three boys whispering to each other and a door being shut and she herself giggling and later feeling sick and throwing up in the bathroom before she left the party. Her roommate, drunk too but less drunk than she, had half-carried her home with the help of another boy who lived in their dorm, one who had been out with friends who lived next door to the guys having the party.
After she recovered, Alex had avoided the boy whose birthday they had been celebrating, and he, it seemed, was also avoiding her, not meeting her eyes when they passed in the student union, only perfunctorily saying hello, and she could see that it took an effort for him even to do this, and Cathy had confirmed that at the party, Alex had gone off with him and another boy for a little while, but Cathy wasn’t sure who the second boy was, except that he was cute, cuter even than the host, whose name was Carlyle, though everyone called him Carl. As far as Cathy knew, there was no third boy, unless he had already been in the bedroom, waiting. What made matters more complicated was that Alex had slept with Carl once before, just after returning to school for the spring semester on a night when she had been more sober than on his birthday. If she had done it once, it seemed likely that he might have reason to expect her to have sex with him again.
Cathy thought that Alex should go to the school clinic to get screened for STDs, but Alex had not gone until she was home for the summer and could go discreetly to the county health clinic. The results of her tests had all been normal, which she discovered upon opening the clinic’s envelope, one with no return address, her hands shaking as she tore it open. Cathy also thought that Alex should confront Carl and ask him what exactly had happened, but Alex didn’t want to. It embarrassed her, and what if nothing had happened, or at least nothing too serious, and then what if Carl thought she was a lunatic for accusing him of raping her? She worried that he would talk about her with other people and they would all say what a freak she was, what a freshman whore, what an idiot-lush too – couldn’t she learn how to handle her liquor like most everyone else did? No one was forcing her to drink either. Why didn’t she just stop drinking before she got drunk if she was so worried about guys raping her?
Other girls, spreading the rumor, would probably be even crueler to her than the boys. The ones who were jealous of her, the ones who said nice things to her face but behind her back, made faces and said catty things about her hair (which was fine) or clothes (fine too) or the way she laughed (a little high-pitched but not terrible), things she tried to ignore, knowing that the place they came from was small and ugly. She had places like this in her too, but she tried to keep them closed off as much as possible.
And now, her mother was compounding her anxiety by telling her that she had a sister, one hidden from view for the entirety of Alex and her brother’s lives. The start of the school year – so much stress already, especially because she was adamant about not falling into the same patterns that had ensnared her the previous year – and now she had to think about a girl named Penelope in New York who wanted to meet her, who thought that she had an unequivocal right to meet her.
But Alex supposed that it was her sister’s right, and privately, she did feel a little flattered, despite her irritation over her father’s cowardice and the fact that his long-held silence had been a kind of shortchange. Because, if she were being honest, it might not have been too bad to have known all along that she had a half-sister in France, one she might have been pen pals with, one she might have been allowed to visit – this older sister whom she could have talked to about boys, this sophisticated girl who would teach her how to tie a silk scarf and wear a beret, and maybe, Alex thought, though this was stretching it – maybe she would never have become a lush her first year in college and had sex with eleven guys, possibly twelve, during those nine months, in addition to the four she had slept with before college. She hoped it had only been Carlyle and one other guy in that darkened bedroom, that there hadn’t been a third guy waiting for her too.
Her brother Chris, who was starting his senior year of high school, did not want to meet their sister. When Alex talked to him on the phone the night after their mother told her about Penelope, he said, “If she were to come here, what would we do? Go out for pizza and talk about how great Dad is? I mean, what am I supposed to say to her?”
“You just have to be nice to her,” said Alex. “That’s all.”
“So you’re going to meet her?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to if she comes down to DC and knocks on my door.”
“You live in a dorm. She won’t be able to get into your building.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “What did Dad say when he told you?”
“I think he was kind of drunk. He just said, ‘This is a little tricky for me,’ and he kept clearing his throat until finally I said, ‘Are you dying or something? Is Mom dying?’ He kind of laughed and then he told me about her. Why did they name her Penelope? It sounds…I don’t know. It’s such a dumb name.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad. She probably goes by Penny.”
“See? You like her already. I bet you guys will be friends.”
“She wants to meet you too. Probably more than she wants to meet me.”
He snorted. “I bet. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to meet her.”
“You might change your mind.”
“You sound like Mom and Dad.”
“Well, they might be right.”
“Whatever. I don’t want her to come here. I’ll leave if she does.”
“I don’t think they’ll force you to meet her.”
“We’ll see if they try.”
After her mother left campus, Alex tried not to be absorbed into the familiar, now-ominous scene: classes by day, ambitious drinking by night. Her friends would drink anything too – Boone’s Farm, malt liquor, the cheapest vodkas and tequilas and beer – anything they could find someone to supply for them – usually an upperclassman but sometimes one of their own with a convincing fake ID. The point wasn’t the flavor of the alcohol, only the blurry euphoria, the sloppy, ephemeral feeling of godliness before the puking set in. The point was the stories that could later be told about these hazy, hilarious scenes. She had trouble convincing her friends that she was, in fact, serious about her intention to avoid the series of bad decisions that might lead her to some boy’s dorm room with its piles of dirty laundry and clattering empty beer bottles – the dispiriting squalor of many college boys’ homes away from home. For one, they had a particular smell, one that Alex had never smelled anywhere else – a cloying sweat-stink, half-sweet, half-repulsive. She wasn’t sure what accounted for it: soiled T-shirts and socks? Leftover food moldering under a bed or in a closet? Whatever it was, it now made her want to run heedlessly in the other direction.
Cathy, Alex’s roommate, seemed to understand her sudden and startling abstinence, because she was one of the few people who knew about what had probably happened to Alex at Carlyle’s party, but her other friends’ responses ranged from bemused skepticism to outright hostility. What, did she think she was better than they were? Had she turned Mormon or become a Jehovah’s Witness or something over the summer? Just what was so wrong with wanting to go out and get shit-faced once or twice a week when college would be such a drag otherwise? Did she really think that she would be able to stand around and drink Diet Coke while everyone else was having a great time playing quarters?
Cathy was also smart enough to recognize that the boozy parties weren’t the best way to spend her time, but she was not as popular as Alex and not very confident intellectually either, despite her good grades in high school and the obvious fact that she was there, enrolled at their elite university, one that received many thousands of annual applications, not even a quarter of these applicant-supplicants accepted. Cathy told Alex to ignore the kids who gave her a hard time, and she also said that she would show her support by going to fewer parties herself. “I could stop going all together if you wanted me to,” Cathy said.
“I don’t want you to have to do that for me,” said Alex, though she did. “You should go out whenever you want to. I’ll still go to some things.”
“You should,” said Cathy hopefully. “I’ll make sure you don’t get too crazy whenever you do go out.”
Alex knew that she probably wouldn’t but said nothing. Cathy was a well-meaning, nervous girl with a soft heart and wealthy parents who seemed mostly to want her out of their hair and firmly established in her own independent adult life. But Cathy did not want to be an adult, not yet. She still slept with a blond-furred teddy bear and ate animal crackers with the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches she made for herself in their room when she stayed up late studying. She collected heart stickers and flowery stationery and used a pen with purple ink when she sent birthday cards to her friends, most of whom had stayed in Tallahassee and enrolled at Florida State. Alex felt a sometimes-painful affection for her, along with a desire to protect her, but she was also occasionally irritated by her roommate’s artless enthusiasms and unforced wholesomeness. Cathy seemed to like everyone and did not understand why some of their classmates were not particularly nice to her. And about Alex’s abrupt acquisition of a sister, Cathy was predictably enthusiastic. “Could I meet her too?” she asked. “I think she sounds so cool. Growing up in France, how awesome is that?”
“I guess you could meet her,” said Alex. “But maybe I should meet her by myself first.”
“Oh, sure,” said Cathy, blushing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to seem pushy.”
“You’re not,” said Alex. “You’re so sweet sometimes it kills me.”
Her roommate looked at her uncertainly. “I guess you mean that as a compliment?”
It was a Friday afternoon, the end of the second week of classes, when Penelope called from New York, no trace of a French accent in her voice, which sounded more girlish than Alex expected from someone who had been raised in France and attended college at chic NYU. The warmth of her message also surprised Alex: “I’m just so glad that you know about me now, Alexandra. I’ve known about you and Chris most of my life and it was so strange to have you guys out there, completely unaware of my existence. I hope we can meet soon. I’m going to be in DC next Thursday through Sunday and I’d love to take you out for dinner and whatever else you think might be fun, if you have time. Please call me back as soon as you have a chance. I can’t wait to talk to you.”
Alex listened to her sister’s message five times, her stomach leaping each time she hit repeat. She had had one stilted conversation with her father (their father, Alex realized with a start) since the lunch when her mother had told her about Penelope. On the phone, Mr. Fiore had sounded almost defiant, as if he had had nothing but good intentions in keeping the news of Penelope’s existence to himself until now. As if Alex and Chris would have been grievously scarred by the knowledge that they had a sister, that their father had had sex with another woman before their mother’s advent. It wasn’t until the end of their conversation that he had said something self-effacing and sincere. “I didn’t want you and Chris to think badly of me,” he said quietly. “I know it was cowardly to wait so long to tell you.”
For several seconds, Alex said nothing. Her father eventually cleared his throat, about to speak again, but Alex interrupted him. “You didn’t tell me,” she said. “Mom did. But I guess I understand why you wanted her to do it.”
He sighed heavily. “…if you knew how much anxiety all of this has caused me. I almost started seeing a therapist.”
“Maybe you should have.”
“Yes, maybe so.”
“You still could.”
“I know,” he said patiently, as if he and Alex’s mother had argued many times over his reluctance to make an appointment. “Do you want to see one? Your mother and I will pay for it if you do.”
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
“If you change your mind, the offer won’t expire.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll see.”
She hadn’t told him or her mother or brother, only Cathy, that she did plan to see a therapist, that on the first day of classes, she had called the counseling service on campus and made an appointment, but none of the therapists, most of whom were Ph.D. candidates in psychology, could see her right away. She had to wait until the following Friday, which, as it turned out, was the same day that Penelope called for the first time. It was upon her return from her first meeting with Dr. Abbott that she was greeted by her sister’s warm, almost giddy, message.
Alex’s intention had been to talk with Dr. Abbott (who looked only five or six years older than Alex, wore her hair in a long dark braid and, startlingly, had clear braces fastened to her teeth) about her decision not to drink at parties anymore and that she still thought about Carlyle’s party and the hazy events of that night more than she wanted to. But when she had taken her seat across from Dr. Abbott – Sylvia, she had told Alex to call her if she wanted to – she hadn’t wanted to talk about the party. It was too embarrassing, as if Dr. Abbott would dismiss her as a nitwit-drunk, as Alex knew others would, the date-rapists in particular. She was thinking of them in these terms now, more and more. But she wanted to make a good impression on Dr. Abbott, make this solemn young woman like her. She wanted to seem smart and sophisticated, as if she were courting her – something that she could also imagine herself doing with Penelope. It was she whom Alex talked about instead, this unexpected half-sister, and her father’s cowardice, her mother’s collusion, her brother’s disaffection.
Dr. Abbott nodded sympathetically as Alex spoke, saying that she understood, of course it was hard, of course Alex was surprised and disoriented and a little angry at her parents. Dr. Abbott would not tell her what to do though; she would only ask questions or nod encouragingly as Alex spoke. “Do you think I should be happy that she exists?” Alex asked.
But Dr. Abbott would not say. Instead she said, “I want to know how you feel. That’s all that matters. My opinion isn’t important.”
“I think I’m glad,” Alex said after a disappointed pause. “I think I probably am.”
Dr. Abbott nodded, crossing her legs, which were covered by a navy blue skirt, and looked expectantly at Alex.
“Why do you think she wants to meet my brother and me?” Alex asked.
Dr. Abbott hesitated. “I suppose she likes the idea of having siblings. A lot of people do. But I shouldn’t be speaking for her. You can ask her if you meet her. Do you plan to?”
“Do you think you can forgive your father for waiting so long to tell you and your brother?”
“Yes, I already have, I suppose.”
It wasn’t until the last five minutes of the appointment that Alex found the courage to mention the party and the two boys, possibly three. “I really don’t remember that much, but I know something probably happened. I don’t want to go to parties anymore, unless I know they’re not going to be about getting wasted. I’m not going to drink much anymore either. My friends are giving me a hard time about this. Except for my roommate because I’m her only friend. At least, the only female friend she can count on here. Most of the other girls are pretty fake with her. They think she’s a dork.”
Dr. Abbott was looking at her with a mixture of suppressed alarm and concern. “Have you talked to anyone else here about what happened at that party? Your RA? She’s trained to handle situations like the one you just described.”
Alex shook her head. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t really like my RA last year. The one I have this year is better but it’s too late now.”
“It’s not too late,” Dr. Abbott said quietly. “It’s really not. You should talk to her. Those boys should be called before an adjudication board if you know for sure who they are.”
“Carlyle’s the only one I’m sure about.” She paused. “But I think it was his friend Jack too.”
“Alexandra,” Dr. Abbott said, her tone more forceful. “You really should talk to your RA. Women keep quiet about these sorts of crimes all of the time and it does no one any good.”
At last, an unequivocal directive. But it was not one that Alex felt comfortable acting on. She had not used the word ‘crime’ in her thoughts, even if she had begun to think of what the boys had done to her as rape.
As Alex was picking up her bag and stuffing a wadded tissue inside, Dr. Abbott said, “I want you to come again. Let’s talk next week. I’m sure I can find a slot for you.”
“Okay,” said Alex, feeling chastened. It was obvious that Dr. Abbott would not let her off easy. But Alex did not think that she was ready to act. It was too overwhelming to contemplate – the accusations put down on the university’s official record, the names spoken in an office somewhere to some school official’s stony or possibly admonishing face, the circumstances of that bleary night described over and over, the rumors that would leak out like poison contaminating groundwater, the shame and embarrassment of her transgressions of the past year being discussed in detail, her reputation henceforth defined by her freshman year excesses, predictable and average as they were. There were other girls who had drunk more, and more often, than she had, other girls who had had sex with more boys, but as far as she knew, they had not been taken very drunk into a room by two or three classmates who, aside from their hoarse breathing, had made no other sounds as they fucked her. And if these girls had had the same experience, they had probably chosen to remain silent about it too, or had said less than she had, in any case.
Alex made the appointment with Dr. Abbott for the next week but later canceled it. She called Penelope the morning after receiving her message but was routed directly to voicemail. Her sister called back that night, a Saturday, when Alex was sitting in her room, contemplating Monday’s homework and wishing that Cathy would return very soon from the party that she had gone to with three other girls who lived on their floor, or else she might have to go out and find her, which she knew would be a bad idea.
Penelope’s voice, hearing it live for the first time, made Alex’s eyes well up. She sounded so warm and kind, so genuinely pleased to hear Alex’s own voice on the other end of the line that for several seconds, it was hard for Alex to speak. Until that moment, she had not understood how deeply entrenched her misery was, how confused and forsaken she felt at this university that she had thought would be the setting for her greatest feminine and scholarly triumphs, at least up to this point in her life.
“Alex?” said Penelope, tentative. “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice breaking.
“Hey,” Penelope said gently. “Are you all right?”
Alex found that she could only breathe in small gasps. “Yes,” she whispered.
“You don’t sound like it. Have I upset you? I’m so sorry if I have.”
“No, it’s not you,” said Alex, clearing her throat. “I’m happy that you called.” She tried to laugh but it came out sounding as if she were choking.
Her sister hesitated. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“…I don’t know.”
“You don’t have to, but if you want to, I hope you will.”
“We hardly know each other,” Alex croaked. “I can’t unload all of my problems on you.”
“Do you want me to come down there right now? I could catch a train. I think there’s an Amtrak that leaves at ten. I’d get there around 1:30 if it isn’t delayed.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. I’m okay.”
“I know I don’t have to, but I could. Just tell me. I could ask my boyfriend to lend me his car too.”
“You have a boyfriend with a car? In New York City?”
“Yes.” Penelope laughed self-consciously. “He’s a little older than I am. He’s got a much better job.” She paused. “I could come down, Alexandra. Really, if you need me to, I will.”
It was absurd, Alex knew, but she did want her to come down. She wanted very badly for Penelope to come down and tell her what to do. Go to the RA or not? Risk ruining her chances for lasting friendships and good boyfriends and witty stories she might one day publish in the college alumni magazine?
“If you don’t say anything in the next few seconds,” Penelope murmured, “I’m going to assume that you want me to come down there.”
“You’re coming next weekend.”
“Yes, but I can see you both this weekend and the next.”
Alex took a long, shaky breath. “I do want you to come but it’s such a long--”
“Good. I’m glad you can say it. This is about a boy, I’m assuming.”
“Yes,” said Alex weakly. “Well, more than one.”
“Wow,” Penelope breathed, laughing a little. “A woman after my own heart.”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s actually pretty bad.”
“It is? Oh no. Well, we’ll straighten it out.” She said this with such confidence that Alex could almost believe her.
It was a little after two a.m. when Penelope called Alex’s cell phone to announce that she was downstairs and needed to be signed in at the dormitory’s security desk. Cathy had returned from the party only a half an hour earlier and was now passed out on her bed, alcohol fumes rolling off of her in fetid waves. Alex had tried to tell her that she was expecting her sister to arrive soon, but Cathy hadn’t seemed capable of processing this news and Alex had given up and let her fall asleep, Cathy’s eyelids drooping even as she struggled out of her suede boots and corduroy miniskirt. She fell asleep on top of the covers, her gauzy peasant blouse still on, her skirt in a tangle on the floor, her bikini underwear white with big pink polka dots. Alex had to struggle to get her under the covers, not wanting her sister’s first impression of her roommate to be such an undignified one.
Her palms and underarms were sweating when she walked the two flights down to the security desk to sign Penelope in. She felt fully awake; also, guilty. She worried that it was very selfish of her to have allowed her sister to take the train down from New York in the middle of the night so that she could tell her a humiliating story, one that Penelope might even insist she tell their father. She hadn’t thought of this possibility until Penelope was already en route, long past the point where she might have said, “No, never mind. Let’s just wait until next weekend.”
But then, seeing her sister standing in the front of the security desk with an oversized black handbag slung over her shoulder, her small body belted into a tailored red raincoat, a delighted smile on her pretty, flushed face, Alex knew that Penelope wouldn’t force her to reveal any of her secrets to their father. Alex liked the look of her instantly. She was already a little infatuated with her anyway (her brother’s suspicion that she might eventually favor Penelope over him not necessarily unfounded) – her Parisian pedigree, her NYU diploma and big-city lifestyle, whatever this lifestyle actually was.
“Thank you so much for coming,” said Alex, abashed, walking into Penelope’s open arms, surprised by how firmly her sister hugged her.
“It wasn’t a problem,” she said, brushing a few strands of dark hair out of her eyes. She wore her hair shoulder-length, with a slight wave to it. Alex had the same hair, from their father, unless Penelope’s mother had it too. “I slept the whole way. It’s a good thing that I couldn’t get Tex on the phone. Driving would have been harder.”
“Tex? Is that your boyfriend?”
Penelope nodded, laughing a little. “His real name is Frederick, but he’s gone by Tex since he was twenty. It’s a little silly because he’s from New Jersey, but he went to college in Austin.” She paused. “It’s so good to finally meet you, Alexandra. You’re so pretty! But I knew that you would be. Dad showed me pictures of you and Chris the last time I saw him.”
How disorienting it was to hear Penelope call their father Dad, though of course she would, Alex realized. Unless she addressed him by Anthony? But it didn’t seem like she did.
“I didn’t get to see any pictures of you,” Alex said, promptly regretting it, not sure if Penelope would be hurt by this news.
“I know. Dad was so weird about all of this. You probably know that I finally had to force his hand. There were so many times when I thought about calling you guys in Chicago and telling you who I was, but I didn’t want to seem like a crazy person.”
“Let me take your bag,” said Alex, leading her into the stairwell. “I wouldn’t have thought you were crazy.”
“Chris probably would have. And your mother too.”
Alex faltered. “Chris might have. He tries to be so macho all of the time but he really isn’t. He cried when he watched Schindler’s List for his history class, but he wouldn’t admit it, even though I know he did.”
“I cried when I saw it too.”
“I’m sorry Dad didn’t tell us about you until now. I feel bad that you had to wait so long.”
“My mother didn’t really encourage it either though. I think she was pretty jealous.”
“She didn’t marry someone in France?”
Penelope shook her head. “She dated some guys but she didn’t end up marrying any of them. I think she thought Dad was her soulmate.” She laughed a little, seeing Alex’s startled expression. “No need to worry. He was smart to get away from her. She’s kind of nuts. I love her and everything, but there’s a reason I’m here in the States and not back in France with her.”
At the door to her room, Alex gave Penelope a look of apology. “My roommate went out earlier and she’s passed out on her bed now. The room sort of smells like alcohol too. I hoped she wouldn’t be such a lush tonight.”
Penelope smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I’ve seen worse. I’ve probably done worse too.”
Her sister nodded. “Thank God college is only four years. Otherwise half of us probably wouldn’t make it. Why weren’t you out tonight too?”
Alex opened her mouth but couldn’t force out any words.
Penelope looked at her gravely. “Is that what you wanted to tell me about?”
“We should go somewhere and talk. Is there a diner or something near here that’s open all night?”
“There’s a place on M Street we could go to. There used to be this French place on Wisconsin Avenue where everyone went after the bars closed, Au Pied de Cochon, but it closed. We should put your bag in my room first. Are you sure you have the energy?”
“I do if you do. We can sleep in tomorrow. Unless you go to church?”
“No. Do you?”
Penelope laughed. “Not if I can help it. My mother goes three times a week. She became very Catholic a few years before I left for NYU. I’m not really sure why, especially because she was raised Lutheran. France isn’t even that Catholic anymore. It used to be, but I think less than half the population goes to church now.”
“I think it’s the same here.” She put her key in the lock and tried to open the door quietly but the hinges creaked and she could see Cathy stirring on her bed, but she didn’t sit up or say anything when Alex put Penelope’s bag, more heavy than she expected, at the foot of her own bed. She would have to sleep on the floor and let her sister have the bed. She couldn’t imagine the two of them sharing it, not so soon.
At the college’s front gates, Alex looked uncertainly at the deserted streets. M Street was about a ten-minute walk away and at two-thirty in the morning, Georgetown was not the safest place for two girls to be walking by themselves. But when she said as much to Penelope, the older girl waved a hand dismissively. “I have pepper spray,” she said. “I’ll use it too.”
“Isn’t pepper spray illegal?” Alex asked. “I think it is in Chicago.”
Penelope laughed. “I don’t know, but I’d rather risk a cop arresting me than some drug addict mugging me.”
Alex could feel her face burning; Penelope probably thought that she was an enormous loser. Yet her sister, two inches shorter and ten pounds lighter than Alex, said nothing more and took her arm, holding it just above the elbow, and didn’t let go until they had reached M Street where a few people were still loitering in front of the bars, music crashing out of their open doorways. Alex could feel some of the bouncers’ eyes following them as they passed and shook their heads at these burly men’s exhortations to come inside. It was a chilly night but the bouncers were in T-shirts, apparently impervious to the brisk air.
Only four other people were inside the all-night café when they arrived – two young couples at a small round table, along with a boy with a blond moustache who stood behind the register, waiting without interest for their order. Alex ordered hot chocolate, Penelope a hummus plate and sparkling water. While the boy made Alex’s drink and went into the kitchen in search of Penelope’s hummus, the faint strains of an old Van Halen song emerging from behind the kitchen door when the boy opened it, Penelope told her about Tex, who was tall (six foot four! she exclaimed), and thirty-five, and a designer of video games.
“He’s a vegan too,” she added after the boy had returned with her food, a generous serving of a garlicky hummus and raw vegetables. “I could never even be a vegetarian. For one, it’s pretty hard not to eat meat in France. It’s such a huge part of the diet there, but we do treat our animals a lot better. No factory farms. At least I don’t think so.”
“I’ve never been to France,” said Alex.
Penelope looked up from her plate, her blue-gray eyes bright with surprise. “Oh, you have to go. You’d love Paris. Maybe we could go together sometime.”
“You know all of the best places to shop, I bet.”
“Some of them, yes,” said Penelope. “There’s no shortage. Okay, no more stalling. Tell me about your man troubles.”
Alex could feel blood rush hotly to her face. It was all so strange: the middle of the night and here she was several blocks from campus with her sister, this previously unknown woman who now sat less than two feet away, waiting for her to reveal the most humiliating secret of her life.
And, Alex realized, she was going to do it.
As she told Penelope about the birthday party, her sister tried to maintain a look of kind encouragement but there were moments when anger, even outrage, pulsed across her eyes and mouth, something that made Alex apprehensive because she understood then that like Dr. Abbott, her sister was very likely to insist that she talk to her RA or the dean of students, someone who would start an inquiry and change her life. This upheaval was what she feared most, but she also realized that she had been courting it ever since her return for sophomore year. Otherwise, why would she have gone to talk to Dr. Abbott or asked her sister to come down from New York, spur of the moment, to immerse herself in what had become, Alex also realized, her life of controlled hysteria? Well, not hysteria exactly, but watchful anxiety, permanent unrest. Even when she slept through the night, she woke up feeling tired, and sometimes her dreams were violent, waking her before dawn, her heart beating wildly, her empty stomach leaping sickeningly.
“Something like that happened to one of my friends at NYU,” Penelope said quietly when Alex finished her story. She reached across the table and squeezed Alex’s arm. “I’m so sorry.”
Alex shook her head, her eyes tearing up. “I feel like such an idiot. I don’t know why I had to drink so much every time I went out. It was so stupid.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Alexandra. It’s what kids do in college. No parents, no rules. At least not the kind that are easy to enforce. I drank a lot too sometimes. But you’re tired of that now, it sounds like. That’s something positive.”
“But I don’t know what to do. I saw a therapist and she told me that I had to talk to my RA, but I don’t want to.”
“You don’t? Are you too embarrassed?”
Penelope sighed. “Of course you are. Have you told your boyfriend? What did he say?”
“I don’t have one right now.”
“No? I thought you would for sure. Did you have one when it happened?”
“No. I went out with a few guys last year but no one long enough to call a boyfriend. I partied too much.”
Penelope hesitated. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
Alex shook her head.
“Did you get screened for STDs?”
“Yes, I was fine.”
“Thank God.” Penelope regarded her, her expression unreadable. “You could talk to your RA like your therapist said. Or not. It’s up to you, obviously. It depends on how much muck you’re prepared to get yourself into. Especially if you had sex with one of the guys earlier in the semester.”
“What would you do?”
Penelope touched the edge of her plate, avoiding Alex’s eyes. “I would probably go talk to the guys who did it to me. I would tell them that they’re assholes and that I’ve told my friends to stay away from them. I don’t know if I would tell my RA or the dean though. I’m not very brave. But that’s just me.”
Her words summoned something complicated that it took Alex several seconds to sort out. But then there it was, uncompromising as a brick wall: disappointment. She wanted Penelope to command her to go to the dean and set things in motion against Carlyle and his friend, but her new sister, older and more worldly, had not said this. As Alex sat looking down at her empty mug, chocolate syrup drying at the bottom, she felt a powerful wave of exhaustion. She needed to get back to campus and go to sleep, even if it would have to be on the floor. It had been stupid to insist that Penelope come down from New York a week early, to expect her to have all of the right answers, to fold her into a sisterly embrace and march her off to the dean’s office where Alex would tell the whole embarrassing story of that hazy night when something bad had happened, but well, maybe it hadn’t? Though she knew it had.
How stupid, for the thousandth time in her life, she had been. Was being.
“Alex,” said Penelope, her voice gentle. “If you think you should go to your RA, I’ll go with you. We can do it first thing in the morning.”
“I don’t know what I think,” said Alex. “I feel like such an idiot.”
“What happened isn’t your fault.”
“It is my fault. I shouldn’t have drunk so much.” She could feel tears pricking her eyes hotly and looked down at her lap. Her hands were clenched, her knuckles and nails glowing whitely. She worried that she might throw up.
“Not every girl who drinks too much ends up in a room with three rapists. You should be able to go to as many parties as you want and not worry that you’ll be taken advantage of.”
“That’s not—” she faltered. “I don’t know if that’s realistic.”
Her sister looked at her, exhaustion showing in her kind, pretty eyes. “Let’s go back to campus. We can talk more in the morning, okay?”
As Alex pushed back her chair, the tears she’d been holding in for the last hour began flooding down her face, an enormous lump rising in her throat. Penelope put an arm around her shoulders and steered Alex toward the door, out into the street where they stood in the cold night air as Alex sobbed and Penelope hugged and murmured to her, the voices of the bouncers down the block reaching them in short gruff bursts, cigarette smoke hanging in wisps before their hawkish faces. Alex felt emptied out, on the brink of something terrible and necessary. Her sister’s neck smelled like rose soap and cloves.
It was almost four in the morning and there were no taxis. They turned and started back to campus, to Alex’s room where her drunken roommate snored softly in the tensile dark. Penelope held her hand as they moved north toward the university’s front gates, neither of them speaking. There was no one else on the street, and they walked fast, eyes on the block ahead of them. Alex wished they were already inside her dorm, the door closed and locked behind them.
- End -
This story was included in The Best American Short Stories 2017 Distinguished Stories list and also received a special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology of 2017.