My twin sister Lulu and I haven't been close since The Thing, a term I use for her sake. I can say it squarely: the tragedy. The accident. The crash, almost twenty years ago. When we were twelve, our parents took us to Playland in Rye, and on the way back, our father, who'd been drinking, drove us into a boulder near our house. I lost consciousness when we hit. Lulu didn't, and I've never known what she saw. After, we moved in with our Uncle Robin in Ossining, where Lulu and I would live together until our 17th birthday, when she left me alone to dodge thrown objects as Robin spent the summer dying.
I heard about Lulu's erratic behavior over the years—she'd knocked over an expensive lamp at some college boy's house party in Purchase, she'd abandoned a photo project on faces, she was leaving the Parsons School of Design—and I decided her problem came down to a lack of healthy routine. I figured she'd piece one together eventually, and went about my own work. We saw each other not much. When a friend in the art world told me last week that my sister had quit her job, though, I decided enough was enough and took the 7 to Jackson Heights.
When I walked into her studio, I told her the only way out of a rut is to hitch yourself to a project, any project.
"Hi, Max," Lulu replied as she walked into her bathroom. She made a vague gesture for me to sit somewhere near the card table in her kitchen.
"Sorry about your job," I said. I took my seat and looked at her bare white walls. "Though it does free you up to take your own photos again."
"Great," Lulu said. She'd left the bathroom door open, and in the mirror I saw her hands pull her face downward. I almost laughed. Our mother used to do that when she had to take a phone call from Robin.
My eyes roved across the rest of her apartment. A single air plant hung between two windows facing a quiet street. She had a map of Thailand on the refrigerator, shelfless stacks of books on the floor. No photos in sight. The space owed a spiritual debt to Uncle Robin's spartan home, which had wan linoleum in the kitchen and faded wood-paneling on the walls, also with nothing on them. Soon after The Thing, though, Lulu filled those walls up with horrible collages. Horses' heads on Barbie torsos attached to bird feet, a whole poster board of cut-out open mouths, other grotesqueries. Robin put them up and left them there for years.
"What are you working on?" I asked, loud enough for Lulu to hear through the door. Something clattered on the bathroom tile, followed by a muffled curse.
"The only photographs I've taken in the last three months are of the ceiling," she said.
Her ceiling was stucco, with dark smudges at the edges. I guess when you look at something long enough, it starts to map the spiky peaks and valleys of your own self-hatred. "Honestly," she said, "I'm just going to drop the whole thing and take up embalming lessons."
"You're not going to do that," I said, in case she wasn't joking. "It's not like photo jobs are easy to get. Robin said to avoid internships, and look, now you don't even have that."
When he was still alive, Robin warned her not to become someone's intern under any circumstances. He said it was low pay, low reward, low prestige, that she was better than somebody's gopher. And yet a gopher is what Lulu became: an off-the-books assistant's assistant for a semi-regarded photographer who photographs her own internal state, which is, based on the last time I looked, still depressed. Empty rooms with bare wooden floors and knifed teddy bears, old tile showers with moldy grout, shadow-marks on walls robbed of picture frames, et cetera. Curdled domesticity. It's pathetic, but it's a project. For a time, Lulu held the light meter.
"Oh God," she said as she walked out of the bathroom. Her blonde hair was ruffled, and the mascara she'd put on would have made her look the part of the ingénue if she were 15 years younger. "You're quoting Robin?"
"Are you going somewhere?"
"Eventually," she said. "It's like you think I'm going to turn tricks or something. One wrong move, and she's out on the street. I'll figure something out." She began filling a bowl—one of the few she had—with spinach from her refrigerator, leaf by leaf, like she had infinite time.
No one said it's an easy city. When I first moved here after my degree in useless words, I spent more than one weekend watching the light shift across the sill. But then I discovered Craigslist, and with it, self-reliance. I cobbled jobs like a demon. I shelved books and did others' laundry. I spot-edited for a radio station—the repetitions, the ums and you knows, the mouth snappings and swallowings you never notice are missing. And that was far more disgusting than my maintenance work for an adult movie theater in deep Midwood, actually. You can get used to the popcorn, the groans, even the secretions, but the salivary symphony of unedited speech still gives me shivers. I've been a yard worker, too, and a parking meter inspector, and a designated seat-wiggler for a renovated theater. I've canvassed for all parties and filled out more surveys than you can click at. Now I manage a literacy program in Flatbush, and all the while, I've volunteered as a bather at Noah's Ark Dog Sanctuary of Brooklyn. You wouldn't believe the burns, the stab wounds, the severed legs. There are innocents in this world, I always think when I have a soapy dog wriggling in my arms. I've been bitten by many innocents, but sometimes that's what kindness gets you.
Lulu eased into the other kitchen chair and put her feet up on the table with her dirty soles directed at me.
"Want to hear a secret?" she asked. If she'd waited for me to answer, I probably wouldn't have said yes. "My neighbor's slave name is Petunia."
"I don't know his real name. He's across the air shaft. The curtains are always closed, but he leaves his window open. I hear his dominatrix come every Thursday night."
"People like her make house-calls?"
"The internet says 'people like her' sometimes do, yes, for special clients. I've seen her on the stairs. Leather duffel full of mystery and a beach bag with the word BITCH on the side. Black hair. Chest out, scarf, sandals. She's such a natural dominatrix she wears sandals."
"It's theater, Lulu. You don't think she's playing a role?"
"What's wrong with that?" She smiled, I didn't. "In real life, I see Petunia emptying his recycling into the bins out front—he likes wine and blueberry yogurt with granola. I've decided he looks like a tugboat captain. He's got a white beard and a belly. You don't think of him as the type to be into...what he's into. If I pictured sex at all, I'd picture big, hulking-shoulder sex behind a shipping container or something."
"This really isn't a good way to spend your time."
"He's a good cook, too."
On Lulu's fork was a single leaf of spinach, speared and forgotten.
"The first thing he does is he makes his dominatrix dinner," she said. "He offers her a glass of wine to start, but she says she's not having his wine and demands coffee. He makes that, and then she says it smells awful. He apologizes—yes, mistress, I'm sorry, mistress—and she only ever says 'Quiet, slave.' When he gets to the food, it's stuff like duck confit with mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes with some kind of sauce, whiskey something. I wrote it down, hold on." She got up and took a notebook out from what in a stable person's apartment would be the silverware drawer. "Whiskey peppercorn sauce."
"Such a waste," I said. She was doing worse than I'd expected.
"Yes. All this. Waste of coffee, of time. At least take a photograph of this somehow. Take a photograph of his window. Send it to a blog for perverts if you have to. Make something."
"What do you know about blogs for perverts?"
"Nothing," I said. "That's not the point."
Lulu rested her head on the blank wall.
"You ever think of putting something on these walls?" I asked.
"Sometimes," she said. "But Max, the dominatrix never, ever eats what Petunia makes. He presents her with the food, and same as the coffee, she says it's disgusting. He whimpers in a high voice. I picture him in a dog collar with his shirt off. Man-breasts and belly hair."
"And what are you doing this whole time?"
"Reading a little, drawing. Taking it in."
"It's not the Grand Canyon."
"Beautiful!" she warbled, in an unmistakable imitation of Uncle Robin's verbal tic. She laughed, knowing it would needle me, the caretaker. He hardly said it as he was dying, but before Lulu moved out of Robin's house, we used to count how many times he said "beautiful" when he was listening to races at the Aqueduct in Queens. When his chosen horse was neck-and-neck with another one in the final stretch, he'd stand in front of the radio, snap his fingers repeatedly, and yell something like, "Beautiful, fucking beautiful, yes, come on, you beautiful piece of horseshit, fucking glue stick on legs, come on!" He said it when he had his girlfriends over, too, in between the moans from the other side of the bedroom wall.
"Robin could be a lot more disturbing than Petunia," Lulu said.
"Yeah, but as far as I know you weren't getting off on Robin's nighttime routine."
Lulu gave me a look like she was appraising a piece of jewelry she'd inherited years ago, wondering how much it would fetch if she had a mind to sell it.
"I once did a photo project on fat people," she said. "Like an Arbus thing. Morbidly fat people with stomachs hanging down to their knees, ankles the size of newborns. I imagined them looking at themselves in the mirror like they were normal, not even seeing how gross they were. It made me feel great about myself."
"I haven't seen those photos," I said.
"There's a reason."
I waited for her to say what it was, but she returned to the Petunia thing. Safer territory, apparently.
"Mistress tells Petunia to strip, and then she says, 'I know what you do. I know you pick your ass and smell your fingers and then wrap them around your tiny dick and think of me three times a day. Now let's check your homework, shall we?' Here she picks up a journal she makes him keep during the week. The latest one I remember hearing went something like this: 'Monday. Mistress is making me wear her dirty thongs under my clothes. She said she's going to FedEx a photo of me wearing one to my boss if I don't interpret Song of Solomon, 8:7: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly contemned. I will always disappoint Mistress. Even if I give her complete access to my bank account and all my passwords, even if she sees all my submissive porn and my forum posts asking for people to whip me, I can never give her enough. I will never deserve love.' The dominatrix said he didn't deserve to be saved."
"So this is a Christian thing?"
Lulu ignored me and continued.
"Then Petunia always cries. His sobs sound like hiccups. Eventually the Mistress asks him if he's cold, and he says yes. 'Does my slave need a blanket?' Her voice changes. It sounds like Mom's did when you used to get pneumonia all the time. 'Mistress will get you a blanket,' she says. Petunia doesn't say anything, and I don't know what they do next. I can't hear. She must take a blanket out of her BITCH bag. Fifteen minutes later, Petunia thanks her and they chat about the weather. Then they wish each other well until next week, and she leaves."
"And then what? He masturbates?"
I can't remember our mom's voice, but I do remember her hand on my forehead, how she'd rub her fingers just slightly, just enough.
"See, aren't you kind of disappointed?" Lulu asked. "Don't you wish you knew more?"
"What? No. No, I don't. What I want to know is why you enjoy this."
"I don't think she ever touches him except maybe to hold him with that blanket. Isn't that beautiful?"
I've come to hate that word. Yes, I've seen some beautiful things. If I turn off something important inside, I can see how a dog's blood on linoleum might look beautiful. I could see how the human body traces a beautiful arc when it's thrown out of a windshield. I've tried to picture our parents' deaths—heads whipping around like cattails in a hurricane, shattered glass, the twin arcs—but it's all abstract to me in a way it couldn't have been for Lulu. If I'd been awake then, maybe something about this Petunia would have seemed beautiful to me.
"Maybe it's beautiful," I said, "if you think a screaming dog with two paws hanging off at the joint or a photo of a sunset in a war zone is beautiful."
She shook her head, as if I'd said something absurd.
"Have you ever really looked at my work?" she asked.
"Of course I have," I said. Her series from Playland, for example, which she visited again years after The Thing. She hung around the long lines full of huddled families and jaded teens all dripping sweat onto their fried dough and ice cream as they waited for the Dragon Coaster to creak its way back. She caught fathers mid-scold, daughters mid-scoff. Everyone seems to have double chins. Robin, Lulu's patron and champion, called the photos beautiful. "You photograph misery," I said.
"And why would I do that?"
"Is this a test?"
"You know, when the dominatrix has the blanket on Petunia's shoulders, she could be whispering that he's a good person. Did you think of that? I wish I could do her job."
"You don't have to hire a dominatrix to tell you you're a good person. Just do something for someone."
Not that you would understand, I thought. She never received a hard hand on the shoulder if she was in Robin's way, never received a light smack on the head when she read on the couch for too long, was never told she moved like a puppet whose puppeteer had Parkinson's, never went to the gym for a month after hearing that, never dodged a dying man's thrown grapes and crusts of bread, never watched a sibling use another man's shame for her own enjoyment—though given who this Petunia was, he probably would have liked knowing she was listening. I could almost hear Robin's laugh in the background. I didn't know who of the three was the worst.
A truck went by and sighed, an exhausted rhino rumbling up 83rd.
"You don't think this Petunia might leave his window open for a reason?" I asked after a time.
"Parochial," Lulu said, shaking her head. "Parochial is the word for you."
"That doesn't bother you? That you're using each other?"
"Maybe it's a symbiotic relationship," she said. That's what Uncle Robin used to call Business 101. Any good business is a symbiotic relationship, he said, even though his wasn't. He owned Rembrandt Lawn Painters, and his business bloomed only where grass died. When he answered his phone, he said, "Rembrandt speaking," followed by a wheezy laugh. He had long, gray hair, and despite his chain smoking, very white teeth. His forearm veins stuck out like violin strings from beneath his skin. In his off time, he watched Ultimate Fighting Championships. Robin carried such a small reserve of tenderness, and when he loosed it on Lulu, he did so with abandon. Maybe he knew it was the only time he ever would.
"It must have been quite a fight you had the day you left," I said. "You know he almost throttled me when he came back to the house?" I realized my hands were gripping the fork she'd left on the table.
"No," she said, eyeing my hands. "I didn't know that."
Robin had told me he and Lulu had a fight about her photography that day, and to my mind, that meant he'd given her some kind of ultimatum about forming a practical plan for her life. At first, right after she left, I wanted to know her side. Then as the summer went on, I decided I wouldn't dignify her with a question. And so the years went.
"It was a discussion," Lulu said.
"A discussion. I took him to chemo and cleaned up his shit and watched his body collapse all summer. He spit on me regularly until he died. We never had a discussion."
"So you want to talk about it?"
"No. I want to talk about your next job."
"You're offering something?" She put her elbows on the table and stared directly at me. "Whatever it is, I'll do it."
"See, this is your problem. Even if I were offering, I haven't told you what it is. What if I said you had to kneecap someone?"
"You would never ask me to do that." She said this like it was a bad thing. She sighed and stood up. "Give me the fork. I need to wash it."
I watched the blood come back into my fingertips after I handed it to her. She turned the faucet on but just stared at the water coming out.
"We need a new administrative assistant," I said.
"Excel, and all that."
"I mean, I don't know what you're going to do next, so."
"Not charity work." The water hissed.
"This isn't charity work." Lulu's selfishness shouldn't have surprised me. "That's reductive. There are kids—"
"You're not going to make me owe you, Max."
"I'm not trying—"
"It was my birthday present," Lulu said. "Robin wanted to hike to a pond he knew. The pond was supposed to be surrounded by trees and filled with lily-pads. He said you could practically run across it, there were so many. I brought my Polaroid camera. He asked me questions like 'What about landscape photography?' and 'Do you ever put just one person in your photos?' He said he really thought I could make a living at it, that as far as he was concerned, I should be in a gallery. I joked with him, said he'd never been in a gallery, and he said the day I had a show would be the first day he set foot in a gallery. 'Put a promise sticker on that one,' he said."
Lulu now brandished the clean fork, turned it over and over and over again like it was a rotisserie rod. She held it up and put it in front of her eye like the eye was in jail. I would never think to do that.
"The pond had the lily-pads," she said, "and with the sky's reflection they looked like green clouds. 'You going to take a photo?' Robin asked me, and I fiddled with the camera. The place was beautiful, but also kind of boring for a Polaroid. Static. It would have come out like a tourist shot. 'You should take a photo,' Robin said. 'Make a memory.' I told him to take one instead, and as I gave him the Polaroid, I saw a frog where the water met the dirt. I scooped the frog up and held it between both hands and didn't know what to do with it. I thought maybe now that I'd caught a frog, we could leave. But Robin looked so happy to be there."
I have the photo Robin took. Lulu stands on the edge of the pond and the lily-pads with her hands clasped and a stricken look on her face. Half like something is funny, half like the frog's tongue is stuck to her palm. This frog feels gross, she seems to think, but it trusts me.
"Then he said he had to tell me something. He told me to sit down, which I did even though the ground was damp. The wetness soaked through my jeans, so I remember I had a wet butt the rest of the day. He said, in a very serious tone, 'You're the talented one. You know it already, but I want you to hear it from me. Your brother isn't going to cut it. I once saw him trying to make himself an omelet, and he could barely crack an egg without flinching, and I thought, this kid's a featherweight.'"
"You could have left that part out," I said. It was like a hand reached out from the past and grabbed me by the collar. And I thought, at least you're dead. But he wasn't. For the first time, it occurred to me that he had tried something with her, and sitting there in her kitchen, I could have been sitting on the edge of the world's longest, most horrible waterslide.
Lulu said she was sorry, but it was a distracted sorry, more like she was sorry I'd heard it.
She continued. "Robin said, 'Let me tell you why you're beautiful.' He had his hands in his jean pockets. 'It's not your DNA. Sure, you've got a pretty face, but I've known a lot of women with pretty faces. It's not your talent. I've known women who could draw as good as a photo and women who could tell fortunes. Those women were talented, you're talented. And you're always looking for what you've lost, I've noticed that. You've got your clothes flung all over your room and your school things in six different folders. I know what it all adds up to. You're so interested in your photos that you can't keep track of anything else. You're an artist. You're transparent. And that's what it is: you're beautiful because you can't hide anything.' "
"Was he drunk?" I asked, though I thought shut up, for once, shut up.
"Shh," she said. "I released the frog onto the ground, and Robin didn't see it. He said, 'I think that's what it's about, not hiding anything. Which is why I like talking to you. I can say these things to you. I'm your uncle. I'm your friend. When you forget your keys, I'm your man. When you need a ride, I'm your man. When you have a lover one day and you need him beaten, I'm your man. I can protect you.' He smiled at me, like his blue eyes saw a virgin or something. Horseshit, obviously, because I was sleeping with Jay Clancy at the time. I'd just tried vodka that spring. 'I need you to do something for me.' He knelt down and took my hand."
I imagined Robin's veiny arms around Lulu in a corner of the house, or Robin putting a cloth over a doorknob to muffle its turning, or Robin pulling a long, blond hair off his collar and putting it in his pocket, smiling a private smile as he went off to paint the world's lawns.
"He said he wanted me to take his picture. 'Lung cancer,' he said. 'I'm going to lose my hair. I'm going to get even skinnier. I've got months. They're not going to be pretty. I want you to remember me like this, like how I am right now.' I told him of course. I got choked up and asked him how long he'd known, what he was going to do. He shook his head and said, 'First, you should take my picture.' Then he stood and unbuckled his belt."
No, no. No.
"He folded his clothes and put them on the wet ground. He stood naked in front of the lily-pads. His chest was sunken in, like someone poked him too hard when he was little. He had a thin waist and hair on his belly."
She stared through me and into her memory. I stared into mine. Robin danced around everything she did. He read every one of her report cards, he cut out articles about photo exhibitions and left them under her door, and maybe on the underside of those articles were notes of love. All this, another Thing happening while I read detective novels and resented them both. Of course she wanted to leave.
"So that's when you ran," I said, mostly to myself.
"You know how he always looked like he was up to some mischief?" she asked. "That look was gone. He looked tired. He was breathing hard, with effort. He just wanted to be seen."
"So you took his picture?" I asked, knowing it couldn't have been all he wanted.
"He was, yes. He turned to the pond and shouted, and his shout echoed out over the lily-pads. He smiled for a second before he started to cough, hard. I guess you know that cough."
"I took care of him."
A cancer cough is not much different from how sick dogs sound. I know that better than she ever could. Whenever she hears nasty coughs on the subway, she doesn't have to think of Robin in his hospital bed under the same fluorescent lights they have at the Noah's Ark Dog Sanctuary.
"The coughing just kept going, until his body was bent over on the ground. He put his hand over his mouth, and it came away bloody. He looked at me and said something I couldn't hear. His body was pale, but his face was dark red, like it might burst, like someone massaged all the blood in his body upward into his head. Such an image. He'd talked about not hiding anything, about how that's what beautiful meant. Before I could think, I took his picture with the Polaroid. And that's when I ran."
When Lulu came into the house that day the back of her jeans were soaked. A few stray hairs curled down her red face and into her mouth. I followed her to her room, where she took out a backpack and threw a few shirts in along with some underwear and maybe a bra. She didn't look at me as I leaned on her doorframe and asked her where she was going. She looked at me like she was looking at nothing.
"I'm going somewhere else."
"What? You can't leave, Lu. What do you think he'll do to me when you're gone?"
She threw her Polaroid camera into her bag so hard it could have shattered. "You can go, too."
I walked over to her, put my hand on her shoulder, and realized I couldn't remember the last time I'd touched anybody. Sweat appeared on my forehead. "He's not stable. He'll drink and—"
"And, nothing. He won't. He's dying."
I spoke words to her after that, yes, but it was like they came out of someone else's mouth. I was too busy looking at Lulu's eyes, which were black wells with shivering girls at the bottom.
"I didn't know you were this selfish," I said, and she said nothing. I walked into my room and stared at my bookshelf, with its unalphabetized books. A minute or two later, Lulu appeared in my doorway with a backpack over her shoulder.
"I'll rent out your room," I said, not knowing if that was a threat or a plea.
"You should have this." She held out a Polaroid picture, what I later saw was the photo of her by the pond. When I didn't take it, she dropped it in the doorway and left. Her shoes tracked mud in the hallway.
By the end, Robin's head was bald as a stone. His gray wig rested like a dead raccoon on the table next to his hospital bed. On his last day, I sat next to him in the sunlight filtering through the cheap blinds. A nurse came in and left, another did the same. Both looked at me like I was an understudy called in at the last minute. The second nurse said, "He'll feel you if you touch him," but I kept my hands on my mug of mint tea until the heart meter flat-lined. When it did, I reached out and dug my thumbnail into Robin's palm, to no response. I dug my nail into his hand every few minutes until a doctor put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I wanted her to re-heat my tea.
All Robin wanted was a photograph and a nurse. He got both, but not the right ones.
"Do you want to see the photo of him?" Lulu asked as she stood in front of the knife drawer.
I shook my head.
"I still have it," she said.
"No. I saw him in states far worse than you did."
"And he loved me more, I know."
"I took care of him," I said softly.
"That's not the point, Max. That's not the point at all. Please. Look at it." Her eyes watered, and her mascara looked ready to emigrate.
"Weren't you going somewhere?"
She shook her head and dug the photo out of the drawer. Our thumbs touched as she handed it to me. I held it face down.
"Please," she said. She sat back down at the table and waited.
I held the photo like that for a long time.