There was a time I didn't know where my next husband was coming from.
-- Mae West
I like to sleep with other women's husbands. I try not to like this. It's not the healthy thing to do, either mentally or hygienically. I see a shrink. I see a gynecologist. But then I sleep with the husbands anyway.
I started big, with my own sister's husband, Patrick. Sarah had always been the stupider one, the uglier one, and the one who lost her virginity first. It's like I couldn't let her get away with that one. The first time I slept with Patrick, I seduced him in a bathroom at a party. I walked in while he was standing at the toilet.
I slept with my best friend's husband. Norton. This did not make me feel like a woman. I slept with my librarian's husband, while she was at work, counting books. Friends, acquaintances, coworkers. All husbands.
After I started sleeping with her husband, my sister asked if I was seeing anyone special. I said, "Unique, anyway."
Sarah smiled. "What's he like?"
"Oh, you know. Like a man. Male." Sarah kept waiting for more information, so I said, "A mailman."
"Maggie, get serious. Don't you want to find someone? The One?"
"I don't believe in the One."
"Don't you want security?"
I stared at her and then laughed. She laughed, too.
I told Sarah, "I'm the girl in the movies where the guy marries the other, really nice and less slutty girl."
Sarah and Patrick got married when she was twenty-three. I had dated him first, for nine months in high school. He and Sarah dated for the rest of high school and then college. She had never been with another man. "Tell me details," she said, eyes shiny. "I need stories of adventure."
"It's not all that exciting. Probably just like what you and Patrick do," I said.
I live across the street from a halfway house. I wave at the inmates at night ("Hi, guys!"). Squirrels live in my walls, running around in the early hours, hiding nuts or whatever. A previous tenant had once set fire to one corner of my carpet. The refrigerator sounds like Darth Vader. My landlord has a tattoo on his face. It says Jail Sucks.
My sister and Patrick live in a mansion. They have an entire wall of cabinets dedicated to their crystal and china, with display cases for the prettiest plates. They have three Afghan hounds, petulant as cats. Sarah sometimes holds up a tablecloth and says, "Only a hundred bucks! Can you imagine?" She invites me over for dinner and shows me all the things she's bought since she saw me last. While I look at these things, I let the wine pool in the side of my cheek before I swallow it. I'm older than her by two years.
My sister's name is Sarah Allison Brown. She did not keep her name when she married Patrick. She isn't a beautiful sister, or even a particularly interesting one, but she's mine. Nobody gets to make fun of her but me. I'd kill for her.
I'd also kill her. Growing up, she drove me crazy, so needy and sad. Our parents died in a car crash when Sarah was sixteen and I was eighteen. Our parents were both only children; besides a stray great-aunt, we had nobody at all.
My shrink says that this is why. My shrink says that I'm suppressing latent homosexual desires by instead sleeping with the husbands. She says that I have an extreme fear of intimacy, yet I'm fascinated by it, so I choose to witness it risk-free, by sleeping with the husbands. She says that the husbands represent things to me. Fathers, sons, women, power.
My last real boyfriend, the one I introduced to Sarah, he wasn't a husband. He was an astrophysicist. When I broke up with him, Sarah lightly shook my shoulders, saying, "But there's nothing wrong with him."
Sarah told me stories about Patrick. How he wore his socks to bed every night, black ones, even in the summer when the air conditioning was on the blink. How he gave her flowers when he was sorry, only when he was sorry.
Patrick told me stories about Sarah: long, whining stories about how she washed his suit in the washing machine once, or how she baked his birthday cake a day early. Then he'd stop short, saying, "Oh, sorry, she's your sister."
It's hard to love, and it's hard not to. I'm better at the not part. Sarah loves enough for both of us. She's one big heart, that thrusting muscle. She's a small animal with eyes on opposite sides of the head, watching all the time, but for only one thing. Danger.
Sarah booked a cruise around the Virgin Islands. "It'll be just the two of us, like sisters."
"Bad idea," I had told her, but she bought my ticket, so I told my boss that I was going to be sick for a week in April.
I'm a makeup artist for opera singers. I like my job -- I like the exaggeration. I like to paint an eye to say, Yes. This is an eye. An eye for people with myopia -- an eye for those of you in the cheap seats. This is everybody's eye.
Patrick and I got braver. We paid for rooms with his credit card. I went with him to Texas for the weekend and lounged around the hotel room in my underwear while he met with clients. At night, in his slightly fleshy arms, I said, "I don't want to go on a cruise."
"Maybe you'll meet someone," Patrick said.
I sat up by planting my elbow on his stomach. "Oof," he said. "You're so sexy." He rolled over, exposing a triangle of back hair where his shoulder blades met. It had spread like a fungus since he was a teenager, and he didn't have the courage to wax it, the dexterity to shave it.
Patrick -- a quasi-honest man who tried hard, or at least that's how he marketed himself. Sometimes he broke character -- rented a porno, didn't bother to recycle, slept with his wife's sister.
Once he was walking down the street, holding a small purple rock to give to his niece, when he saw a fat, dumb squirrel about ten yards away. He threw the rock and beaned the squirrel on the head, perfectly. He felt guilty when he saw the squirrel's face, confused, tottering off toward a tree to figure it out or maybe die. But he was proud of the shot, right on the sloped forehead. He was half in love with that shot, and relived it many times without its consequences. He never told Sarah.
I don't sleep with the husbands for this kind of inside information, or for the compliments, or the attention. I guess I do it because I'm only good at being different. I'm the one that's not the wife, not remotely the wife. Not remotely anyone's wife, ever. That's exactly what I'm good at.
The cruise ship had a tennis court with a big white shell over it, a lounge, a swimming pool, and a bunch of hopscotchy-looking drawings on the deck where you slide a puck with a stick for points and feel very fulfilled about it. The ship got going. We waved good-bye from the deck, even though we had nobody to wave good-bye to; we had taken a shuttle there. Sarah clutched a red silk handkerchief and flapped it.
"You've got to be kidding," I said."
Patrick bought it for me. He said, 'Wave it and think of me, even though I'm in Duluth.'" She looked at me. "Business trip."
Sarah wouldn't stop pointing out men. "How about that one? Standing outside the ladies' room? Oh, looks like his wife just came out. How about that one with the tie?"
"I don't like his teeth.""His teeth, Maggie? What does that matter?"
"You have to be picky in the beginning, because after you fall in love, you don't care anymore."
"So? Then you're happy, and together."
"God, Sarah. You don't stay that way."
We shared a cubby-sized room with one narrow bed, which was all Sarah could get on short notice. That night, after dinner and a mixer that I sat out, Sarah read a book with her back to me as I lay there, sleepless, watching the light bulb burn so steadily for something so fragile.
The first morning, we disembarked for a day at the beach. A suited boy carried around a sign with a bell on it that said, "Remember Sunscreen!" Sarah emerged from the room with a pink straw hat and a cotton dress, the kind with the waist all the way down by the hips. She stopped when she saw my bikini top.
"You're just wearing that?" she asked. "Your belly button ring, Maggie. I mean, this is a conservative environment. There are Republicans everywhere."
I went back for a T-shirt.
The beaches were so beautiful that they looked fake. All truly beautiful things look fake. I had been to Alaska -- fake. Greece -- fake, fake. They look like reproductions of themselves.
Sarah and I lay on our beach towels and slapped lotion on each other's backs. I felt strange doing that. I realized that I hadn't touched my sister since I was a kid, when we used to play with each other's hair or pick each other's scabs. Now, her skin felt strangely familiar, yet not. Her body had changed in ways that felt like a betrayal. Her thighs had gotten enormous, with puffs of cellulite puckering the backs. The tops of her arms wobbled. We were in our early thirties. I wanted to blow a whistle and make her do pushups.
"This is fun. Isn't it?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah." I watched the ocean.
"I wish we did more sister stuff together."
"What is sister stuff?"
"You know what I was thinking yesterday? I was thinking that we have such different memories of each other, growing up. Like, what I remember, you don't, and vice versa. So when bad stuff happens, the other person doesn't learn from it, they just move on, and you're the one who's left sad or mad or whatever." Sarah picked her tooth with a pinky nail, then looked at the opaque peach polish for chips.
"Are you mad at me for something?" I asked.
"I a little bit resent the way you used to hide my Raggedy Ann doll."
"I didn't do that."
Sarah was quiet for a minute, then said, "But you beat up that boy who was making fun of my glasses. You were my hero."
I felt suddenly sick. I rolled over and stared at a plastic bucket until it came into slow focus.
It's not true what they say, that when you lose family, you cling to what remains. No, you weed out the desire. You attack the need for family. It's not a physical need. You replace it, like smoking, with something else, like carrots, or jogging, or even sex.
Still, there is this way of being sisters. There's this way that you laugh at each other's jokes, even when they're stupid. This way of knowing not just what the person is saying, but every single thing underneath it; understanding the placement of the strings on the piano you're playing. I can tolerate it for about ten minutes, and the rest is torture.
On a cruise, there are many, many husbands. I know how to get the husbands. First, there's the look. Like you don't care, which you don't. Shiny clothes help. Men are like crows -- they like to pick up shiny things, take them back to their nests and poke at them with their beaks.
You can play the klutz: "Oh, I'm sorry, I bumped into you, is that tie ruined? Let me take care of the dry cleaning, no, I insist, give it to me, you can get a new one in your room, oh, what a nice, nice room, nice bed..." Or the concerned neighbor: "Is your wife really seasick? I have the perfect seasick medicine in my room, it's all herbal..." Or anything, really, anything at all. They meet you halfway, and walk you home.
At dinner, Sarah and I sat at a round table with a doctor and his wife. The wife was pretty and cloying. Sarah adored her. "That's so very true," Sarah said every time the wife finished a sentence. Or, "I can't wait to tell Patrick about that."
An annoying habit of Sarah's: she thinks about everything twice. Sometimes she'll say something, then mouth the words to herself afterwards. She doesn't know she does it. If Sarah ever wanted to be a spy, she'd have to work on hiding that.
The wife sold Amway, and Sarah said, "I've been meaning to get into that. It sounds like an ideal lifestyle." Then Sarah mouthed to herself, ideal lifestyle. I asked her silently, Who are you?
The doctor husband was from Iowa -- no, Ohio. I ate with one hand in his lap.
As we all headed out together after dinner, the husband said, pointedly, "I'll be in touch about that back problem you mentioned. I'm in Room 407. Four...oh...seven."
I was careful not to look at the wife, but Sarah stared with her mouth open.
"Tom. Well, I never," hissed the wife. Then she took his arm and they were gone.
"Maybe if you did, he wouldn't," I said.
Sarah's mouth was still open. Then, "Jesus, Maggie. That's rude."
"Sarah. Why do you judge me so much?"
"Someone has to." She adjusted her bra strap. She looked at her rings. She sniffed her wrists, her own perfume.
We returned to the room and Sarah struggled into her nightgown. I changed into a T-shirt. Sarah brushed her hair. I brushed my teeth. We lay down. She fell asleep, as usual, and I didn't, as usual. I never have slept well. Usually I think about things: plan menus, imagine what life would be like if I were a princess, a jockey, a cowboy. Now I just thought about Sarah, sleeping next to me. I thought, this is the person in the world closest to me, genetically. There is nobody more similar to me than her. And nobody I understand less.
The next day we went shopping at a Caribbean market. Sarah's pink straw hat again, and a matching purse. We walked through the crowded stands ablaze with colors. Turquoise, orange, red, purple, glaring bolts of cloth. Sarah held up something orange and said, "Would Patrick like this? On me?"
I nodded, so she bought it. Afterward, she unfolded it in the sun; it was a sari. Her shoulders sagged, and her lips started trembling. "Why did I just buy this? I'll never wear it." It drooped in her hand, the bright orange tinting her skin yellow. "I can't pull something like this off. He'll just laugh at me." Her face looked like a cracked windshield. She wanted to be a tropical princess. Not a housewife smeared with sunscreen. I felt awful.
"Come on," I said roughly, and grabbed the sari out of her hand. I draped it around her waist, and made her unbuckle her shorts and drop them to the ground. The sari stretched over her legs and curved away in the wind, looking like an enormous slice of cantaloupe.
"There you go. You're beautiful, Sarah." She was, almost. I'm not saying that because she's my sister; I'm saying it despite the fact that she's my sister. Sarah started walking through the market, a little clumsily. I leaned my forehead against a stand and took a deep breath. The inevitables: death, taxes, and family.
After I caught up with her, Sarah started chatting about our great-aunt, our only living relative. Our great-aunt was getting religious, studying the apostles and knowing the names of the saints and what they do. She sent me a St. Jude. This is the woman, who, when I asked if there was a God at age five, had said, "That depends upon your interpretation."
"Last time I visited, she gave me a tract. You know, one of those little pamphlets that say, 'Jesus is your pal!'" Sarah said.
"She told me that I needed a husband."
Like I need any more husbands, I thought. "Why do you do that?" I asked.
"Decide that your life is great and mine is incomplete just because of Patrick, of all people." I snorted. "Patrick."
"He's a good husband. He provides for me. He's brought many good things to my life."
"Remember your wedding day?" I asked.
I had been her maid of honor. She had a wretched cold, and kept sneezing into her bouquet. I was drunk. Patrick had taken the last-day-of-freedom thing a little too seriously, and was flirting with a bridesmaid from Oklahoma. The bridesmaid kept veering toward Sarah and me, saying, just as if Sarah weren't the bride, "Get that guy away from me, cripes."
Sarah was miserable. She looked like an enormous dumpling in a tulle dress that had cost five thousand dollars. She said to me, "I don't think this is such a great idea." I nodded, and pressed Kleenex against her lower eyelids so that she wouldn't mess up her makeup, crying.
Sarah sucked it up, married him quickly, and smiled for all the pictures. I slept with Patrick for the first time three years later.
"He's my husband," Sarah now said.
"Hey," I said. "Did you know that the phrase, 'Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,' originated as a Listerine commercial?"
"Why won't you get married, Maggie?"
I laughed. "To whom?"
Sarah looked down. "It seems like there's always somebody you're seeing.""Maybe it's too late for me. When everyone was pairing up and getting engaged, I don't know what I was doing. I don't know where I was. I missed it, somehow."
Sarah wanted to hurry back to the boat to eat the buffet lunch and attend the informational video show about the island. I walked her back, then bought a hot dog and moved around the market by myself, watching the tourists try to bargain with the locals.
The doctor husband from dinner approached me and touched my arm, lost. We smiled a lot. He asked if I had seen his wife.
I said that she was probably somewhere on the boat. He agreed. We checked my room first.
I called Patrick from the deserted lounge while Sarah flailed in the yacht pool, taking Intro to Scuba lessons.
"Hey?" Patrick can't tell the difference between our voices, Sarah's and mine.
"It's Maggie. Cruise. With your wife."
"Are you bonding?"
I thought, as I had before, how strange for this man. How strange to think in-laws and think sex. I took a deep breath and said, "I think we should call it off. You and me."
"What? Are you serious?" He actually laughed.
"Don't you ever feel bad, Patrick?"
"No. You do?"
"Yes. No. But I'm trying to, Patrick. I think that the least I can do is try. You, too." I looked out the window at a small bird flying toward the boat.
"OK." But I knew he wouldn't; that nobody, in the end, would feel bad but Sarah. Then he said, "But you know you'll come crawling back."
Patrick was silent on the line as I watched the bird come closer, then closer, then crash into the window. Its neck twisted and it dropped to the deck, leaving only its own afterimage and a small drop of blood. Patrick was still breathing on the phone, waiting.
The next day was "Walk-Around Day." No scheduled activities -- we were each of us on our own. There were paths, roads, a jungle, everything a tourist could need to get completely lost.
I called my shrink long distance while Sarah was at breakfast, and asked her if she thought I was sick. She said that she's a Freudian -- either everyone's sick, or nobody is. I said, "Sarah's not." Then Sarah showed up at the door. "I'm not what?" she asked.
"Sick," I said, one hand on the phone.
"I take vitamins," Sarah said. "Let's go."
We disembarked and began our walk, up a road flanked by jungle on either side. The road dipped and rose and every now and then we saw ocean, or caught a breeze. There was vegetation. Sarah really cared about the vegetation. I wished we had brought a pitcher of something.
I thought about the husband the day before, the doctor. At first he was impotent, so we both lay with one hand behind our heads as he explained 401k to me. I had never understood it before, but now I did. I said that it sounded like a very good idea. He agreed.
After the sex, he talked about my body parts, one by one, as if they were the Seven Wonders of the World. The thing about those Seven Wonders, nobody gets to live there. People visit and send postcards from there to the real places in their lives -- Cleveland, Topeka, the two-bedroom house in Pittsburgh that's home, after all, because home is where you spend the useless time in between the exciting events you call your life.
Anyway, he had just done that so I would remember him as a great lover.
We walked around to the safe side of a wood fence and rested our arms on top of it, watching the empty road. Sarah's upper arms creased a little bit. She hiked one foot up on the lower railing.
"Maggie," Sarah said. "Did you bring someone into our room yesterday?"
"What? Why? Yes."
"I had a feeling. There was Brut cologne all over the sheets."
"Do you, um, like Brut?"
"Maggie, what's wrong with you? Where did you meet this guy, in five minutes? Why do you act like that? It's totally disgusting."
"Sarah, you live every situation wondering exactly what Jane Austen would have done." I climbed over the fence and paced on the side of the road.
"How does one become this way, I don't understand." Her fists found her hips and stayed there.
"I'll tell you, Sarah. Things are different for me. I don't know why. I see people with husbands and babies, and it seems so amazing that they managed to pull that off. It seems strange that anyone would have someone to...I don't know. To keep their history for them, I guess."
"I'll keep your history, Maggie."
"Hell, Sarah, you don't even know half of my history.""You're my sister."
A car approached out of nowhere on the empty road, with ribbons and flags sprouting out of the sides. A loudspeaker was attached to the hood, and garbled words were coming out of it. I was still thinking about the word, "sister." The car veered around the curve, and I froze as it aimed straight for me. Sarah's hand magically clutched my shoulder, reaching over the fence and pulling me close to her. The car sped away down the hill and I stared after it.
"Wow. Good reflexes, Sarah." When I turned to her, Sarah's face was white as salt.
"You idiot. You're part of me, forever," Sarah said. "Just like Patrick is part of me, forever. My husband." She looked away as a drumming sound faded in, almost drowning out her last words: "You don't get it."
Approaching from up the road was a whirl of black bodies, all running toward us in shorts, bare chests and sneakers. It was a race. They were sprinting downhill. It must have been the final stretch. The feet in unison sounded like thunder. There were so many men that they blurred together, until they were just one body, running fast, their sweat gleaming on their skin.
They were beside us. For a second, I couldn't tell who was moving -- them or me. It felt like they were running into me, their bodies washing through me like dark water or wine, leaving me a little different for the duration. And then they were gone, and there I was again, on the sidelines, hand on the fence.
Sarah was still looking at me. All of a sudden, I knew that she knew about Patrick. She had always known. I knew this the way that she knew. How you just do, when you're sisters.
For the first time since I was a small child, I was scared.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "It's over now. Sorry."
"God damn it."
"I'm so sorry." I covered my mouth with my hand and talked through it. "Sarah. I'm so sorry."
"Why, Maggie?" Sarah's face was turned toward me, as if someone were holding her chin in place, forcing her to look. Her face fell into a million pieces. But she stood there, and I realized that, even though I was older, she was the bigger, stronger one. She could break me.
She reached one arm across the fence and I closed my eyes. Then I felt the weight of the hand that could have reached for my throat, but chose instead to rest on my shoulder.
"I don't understand, Maggie." She was crying, hard, the way I used to. "You all just run, and run, and run."
We turned away from each other, two sisters. Still crying, Sarah looked uphill at the trees, the road turning upon itself like a snake. I looked downhill at the fading backs of the men, running as if they would explode, toward whatever line they had drawn in the sand to call it the end.
Excerpted from COME UP AND SEE ME SOME TIME © Copyright 2001 by Erica Krouse. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.
Come Up and See Me Sometime