“Since when was my sister suicidal?”
It had been a real bitch getting my duties covered for the annual house campout, and I felt a little bad about breaking the news to Biz that I was leaving her with a surrogate Big for the weekend—especially since after weeks of smiling and laughing at everything I said, she’d finally opened up to me at the Sigma Chi end-of-summer volleyball tournament. She was a virgin, she confessed after completing an impressive kegstand for a 90 lb. gymnast of barely five-foot-four. Then she vomited discretely into a Solo cup and when she came up, suggested, “Shots?” It was kind of cute, and the girl I was off-ing her on for a weekend in the woods was decidedly not. Jena was a fifth year senior living off campus and technically not allowed to participate in house events. The only person available for the job, she was pretty, dumb, and smelled like bongwater spilled in a yoga studio. But since she’d been on a loop about all the “epic festies” she attended over the summer, I figured she at least knew how to set up a tent. With our house calendar full until Christmas, it was this weekend or never to visit my sister in Ohio. Biz would have to survive for a few days without me.
Calpurnia had been impossible to get on the phone after starting at her new school, but Mom promised she knew I was coming. Three hours into the drive, I saw a campground symbol on a roadside sign and realized I had forgotten to hand off the tent from my trunk. I tried calling Biz and Jena, only my cell had zero bars. Hopefully somebody would have an extra they could borrow, or at least a tarp to go underneath their sleeping bags, but I still felt pissed at myself, or maybe Calpurnia, for fucking things up despite such well-intentioned rearranging. My sister knew I was driving four hours down-and-back to see her for a day. Whether or not she actually wanted me to visit remained unclear. From the highway’s vistas of farmland and sky, it was hard to imagine the sculpted campus of shaded cottages featured on the boarding school’s website magically appearing a mile from the exit number, but after some spinach fields and a long dirt driveway, I pulled into an arbored parking lot at the Crestwood School for Girls. I checked in at the Welcome Center where Mom had added me to a list of authorized visitors with permission to take Calpurnia on a two-hour campus leave. The Welcomer (it said this on her badge), a flat-faced woman named Torie, made me a name tag, shook and peeked into my purse, then patted me down. It was standard, Torie explained, as part of the program’s commitment to wellness. Calpurnia was in final period for a few more minutes—a Computer Skills class—and I was welcome to wait outside until the bell.
The classrooms all had windows that provided a view of the hallway—or maybe the hallway was intended provided a view into the classrooms—and inside where I located Calpurnia by her cloud of leonine curls typing away in the far back corner, one of the girls closer to the window turned and gaped at me. Then she poked the student seated next to her and whispered something. They both started cracking up. When class let out, I stared the two of them down the chilliest way I knew how. As I stood up to hug Calpurnia, she gave me a once-over. “You look like a total slut, Olivia,” she said, laughing.
“I’m wearing cutoffs and boots,” I said.
“You’re wearing daisy dukes and Uggs. Slut.”
I took another look around. “So is this a boarding school for lesbians or something? Like a scared straight program?” I asked. “Because from the second I walked in, people have been staring at me like starved dogs.”
“And we were making steady progress until your transformative beauty brainwashed us gay again,” Calpurnia said, high-fiving a passing student whose blue hair was sprayed into stiff decagonal peaks.
“But really. What kind of place is this?” I asked. “I mean, Computer Skills? Is that a GED course?”
“Actually, yeah,” she said.
“So this is a fake high school?” I asked.
“No. I work on calc and other classes when we’re in the lab.”
“But the other girls?”
“Lots of them are getting their GEDs. There are two programs.”
“Mom didn’t exactly explain things in detail,” I said, following her down the hallway.
“I like the people here,” Calpurnia said, shrugging.
She gave me a tour of the grounds, pointing out her favorite tree and a patch of poison ivy where she had mistakenly chosen to sit during meditation class. When we got to her room, Calpurnia’s bunkmate was sitting on the bottom bed stringing hot pink and black seed beads onto a strand of fishing line. The sections of her forearms not wrapped in plastic watches, torn-off sweatshirt cuffs and other kinds of bracelets revealed a deep cross-hatch of scars. I felt myself staring and looked away. She stopped beading and smiled. “Hey Cal,” she said, “This your sister? You look nothing alike.” We never had, I started to explain, particularly because of my dark hair and her mob of yellow curls, but Calpurnia interrupted to confirm that I was her biological sister while clarifying that I got all the slut-DNA in the family. Her roommate gave me a sympathetic smile. “I’m Ellie,” she said. “I have a lifetime achievement award in sluttiness. And I’m only fifteen.” Calpurnia sat down on the bed and put Ellie in a headlock. They fell backward into a tangle of giggling hysterics. It was weird to watch my sister clinging to this relative stranger whose troubles were scrawled freakishly across her own flesh like the two of them were long-lost twins. They carried on wrestling like I wasn’t even there, so I stepped out and wandered along the corridor. There were two beds in each room, either bunked or parallel on either of the longer walls, one sink, and a closet. Some were plastered with glowing stars, or posters of animals or athletes or celebrities, but most of the rooms’ beige concrete walls were left bare—boastful of their tenants’ impermanence.
The rest of the dormitory was arranged in an open floor plan with a kitchen so staged and scrubbed it looked like the set for a public access cooking show. It joined onto a common area where a group of girls wearing pajama pants and boxer shorts were strewn across worn sectional couches giving each other hand massages while watching a movie about a doll whose preadolescent owner wishes it into humanhood so they can become BFFs. I was halfway considering calling Mom to ask her what she’d been thinking abandoning my sister on the island of misfit girls when my cell buzzed. It was Jena.
“Dude, so like, the tent…” she began.
“I’m really sorry. Can you share with anyone else?” I asked.
“Everyone has a two-person, Olivia. That’s the rule, remember?”
“Right. Well. I’m in Ohio now.”
“Biz is not being cool, bee tee dubs. She can’t hear me because I’m at the campground and she went to gather wood, but I can’t stand this girl. Did you know she’s a virgin?”
“She told me,” I said.
“Well it’s all she talks about,” Jena said, “and also, I smoked her out but like, she’s acting all… ”
“Now isn’t a good time, Jena,” I said, cutting her off. “Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten high with a virgin. And again, I’m sorry but you can always sleep in the car.”
When I hung up, the girls gathered around the television were staring at me instead of the flat-screen. Calpurnia was standing behind me looking legitimately pissed. “Olivia’s in a sorority,” she said, which seemed to explain everything. A few of them rolled their eyes, then went back to looking like a bunch of lobotomized zombie teens at a slumber party. I dug around in my purse for the car keys, reminding myself that these girls would probably never get into a sorority because they were most likely not even going to college. Calpurnia and I walked in silence to the parking lot. I asked what she wanted to eat.
“Chinese,” she said.
“Fine by me,” I said. “And for the record, sororities are feminist organizations.”
“Failed ones,” she said, opening the car door.
“Failed how? We have philanthropies.”
“There could have been a better response.”
“A better response? And what would that be?” I asked, turning the ignition.
“Starve the bastards,” Calpurnia said, plopping onto the passenger seat.
“Starve what bastards?”
“Frat boys. Simple. Boycott their parties. Withhold pussy,” she said drill sergeant-like, emphasizing the words hold and pussy as she buckled her seatbelt.
I started down the long driveway back toward the fields and freeway, keeping further lesbian comments to myself, partly because I didn’t see any point in hashing out the social complexities of Greek life with a screwed up seventeen-year-old, and partly because I didn’t come all this way to get frisked and eat Chinese food in silence, which would definitely happen if I pushed Calpurnia into an argument she’d already decided she’d won. The restaurant, she instructed, was in a strip mall three exits north. As we drove, I tried to ease back into normal conversation. Celebrity gossip. Music. Videos trending on the web. But Calpurnia’s school didn’t allow students use of the Internet except for supervised academic research and an hour of email per week.
“They also block basically everything,” she explained.
“But you could have e-mailed me?” I asked. Calpurnia didn’t answer.
“Seems like it would be pretty easy to run away from that place,” I said, noting the proximity of her school to the road.
“People do it,” she said. “One girl hitchhiked home but her parents brought her back a day later.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?” Calpurnia asked, eyebrow cocked defiantly.
Two months ago, our mother came home from work and found Calpurnia comatose on her bedroom floor. When I arrived at the E.R. a few hours later, the two of them were cordoned off in a makeshift room made of aluminum poles and peach curtains. My sister was hooked up to a saline drip and sleeping with her mouth open, teeth sooty from a charcoal drink. Mom was crying beside the bed as a social worker coaxed her through a multi-page questionnaire attached to a clipboard. Calpurnia had taken all of Mom’s antidepressants and the cat’s prescription for Valium mixed with a fifth of Popov. Out of nowhere, Mom repeated. I paged the nurse for a toothbrush and scrubbed my sister’s teeth, wiping away the black slime with brown paper towel. Her eyelids fluttered lightly, then opened wide for a second before she fell back to sleep. Mom continued to cry. Since when was my sister suicidal? Calpurnia’s teeth wouldn’t come clean. I wanted to page the nurse for a bottle of bleach, or else punch them out—and at the same time wanting to pummel her, I fought the urge to unplug her body from the tubes and rescue her from that place, get her beyond the reach of the nosy social worker, wake her and drag her away from the sick and insane people I observed behind other curtained rooms throughout the ward. When Dad arrived and started crying, I couldn’t take it. I sped back to campus, and three days later, Mom drove my sister to the year-round wellness-based boarding school recommended by the social worker.
We sat down at a pleather banquette and placed two orders for shrimp lo mein. The hot noodles steeped in sodium seemed to melt away some tension between Calpurnia and me, and soon we were shooting the shit like normal. Mom’s new boyfriend David who played Xbox Live half the day. Dad and his wife Judith and their hideous terriers. Our middle school teacher who’d started stalking his babysitter and had to move. The babysitter who’d started stalking the teacher’s wife as a consequence. My sister was fine. She was laughing and drinking ginger ale. We finished eating and waited for the bill. Calpurnia asked for my phone and began scrolling ravenously through the various feeds to compensate for months of social and technological deprivation, while I tried to think of something wise and maternal to say about the apparent growing pains my sister had endured.
As Calpurnia wandered the backroads of the Internet searching for updates from the outside world, I swirled my cold lo mein and drifted toward memories of our childhood. Mom and I had returned home one evening after a funeral when Calpurnia walked in from the backyard wearing Mom’s yellow gardening gloves, a muddy trowel in hand. When Calpurnia said she’d been weeding, Mom went out to investigate and found my sister’s underwear buried under a mound of freshly patted dirt. The arrival of her period marked the beginning of a series of weird moves for my sister. First came the incessant showering. Then she stopped showering altogether and wore the same ratty sweatshirt every day for an entire winter, mindlessly chewing on the sleeves until the shirt had gummy thumbholes. It was too appalling to not to intervene. I imparted my share of sage advice about coping with adolescence, borrowed the necessary books at the library, offered her access to my entire wardrobe along with makeup application tutorials and endless encouragement regarding the eventuality of a larger cup size—things nobody, not even Mom, ever did for me, and all to no effect. She responded by making me feel, in general, like an asshole for paying so much attention to things she claimed were a waste of time. (Nobody else in the entire universe is as vain as you are, Olivia.) She was beyond help, I decided, and eventually left her on her own. I must have been staring into space because Calpurnia was waving her chopsticks in front of me saying, “Sweetie, now follow the light with your eyes.”
“Remember when you got your first period and Mom dug up your underwear from the tulip bed?” I asked. Calpurnia looked back at the phone and said yeah in this flat way, then went back to flipping her thumb up and down the screen.
“It’s kind of funny to think back on, right?” I said, trying again. I had expected my sister to start laughing crazily the way she does, appreciating in hindsight the absurdity of getting her period at age thirteen and, being the tomboy she has always been, feeling so mortified by the arrival of womanhood that she buried the evidence in our garden. But Calpurnia dropped my phone onto the table and zig-zagged her chopsticks through the brown sauce on her plate.
“I lied about that,” she said.
“That’s the funny part. You really could have told Mom or me, and we wouldn’t have…”
My sister rolled her eyes in her expert way of shutting down, got up from the table and walked out. I paid for dinner while she paced around the parking lot. Calpurnia wasn’t going to get away with being horrible to me after so much effort and gas money. I was pissed, but also turning over the sick feeling I used to get whenever we’d had a fight and Mom told us you never knew if you’d get a chance to make things right. (Don’t say goodbye or go to bed angry. No matter what. ) I had to fix whatever it was that had broken between Calpurnia and me—even if it meant spending more time with her. Even if it was a waste of time. Back on the road, I had an idea, and continued past the exit for her school.
“Nice. Now you have to turn around,” she said.
“We’re not going back there,” I said.
“I have to go back there,” Calpurnia said. “They’ll call Mom.”
“I’ll call mom first. There’s a tent in my trunk.”
“So we’re going camping,” I said. Calpurnia emitted a single, loud laugh.
“Since when do you camp?” she asked.
“I camp,” I said. “I’m supposed to be camping right now only I came here instead. Plus I saw a campground on my way in. We can go there.”
“Then what?” Calpurnia asked.
“Then I don’t know. Camp,” I said. Calpurnia’s eyebrow did its thing.
I called our mother and told her the school wanted permission for my sister to spend the night with me. I said it was because I felt like the drive was too long to head back tonight, so I checked into a hotel figuring we could just go there and order pizza—that I’d planned to take Calpurnia back, but we started a pay-per-view movie about a doll that comes to life and were really enjoying it. “You have to call the office and tell them Calpurnia is authorized to be with me until first period tomorrow morning,” I said. Mom asked to speak with my sister. Calpurnia agreed that the movie was really good and said she wanted to stay the night, then passed the phone back.
“Are those guns in the background?” I asked.
“Oh you know. It’s just David’s games,” Mom said.
“Right. Well, don’t forget to call the school. I told them I would have you do it when we left for dinner. We just got caught up.”
“I’m glad you’re catching up,” Mom said, not really hearing me clearly over the battle noises, and I felt a little bad for her at home alone with her virtual sniper for a boyfriend.
The sign I had seen turned out to lead to a piece of land the size of a small trailer park, and although it wasn’t exactly a regular campground, the owners seemed nice enough, with a collie and three young boys who were running around shooting massive and many-chambered purple squirt guns. There were kayaks stacked up on a rack near the cottage-like house, a big fire pit, and picnic benches where the few campers were having their dinners of grilled meats and soda. It was humid, the burnt smell in the air reminding me of summer block parties held forever ago, when we lived in the small house, all four of us. The husband, Dale, was bearded, thin, and helpful. He directed us to a spot near the edge of their property, loaned us a lantern and some bug-spray, gave us two granola bars, then asked good-humoredly if we wanted any help setting up the tent, adding that it would be ten dollars total for the spot, whether or not we took him up on the offer. Calpurnia gave me a look that challenged my previous claims to outdoor experience, or maybe implied that she thought I thought Dale was hitting on me, so I politely told him we could handle it. Fortunately, the tent was as idiot-proof as the guy at Walmart had promised: just two segmented poles that connected and then crossed in an X at the top, and a set of stakes that pushed easily into the still-soft summer dirt. Calpurnia crossed her arms and watched as I assembled the thing.
“That’s a kids tent, you know,” she said as I finished securing the last stake.
“How is it a kids tent?” I asked.
“It’s primary colors and tiny,” she said.
“Well, it’s up,” I said, “and we’re using it.”
She crouched to step inside. I grabbed my sleeping bag and the emergency blanket out from the trunk and heaved them into the tent. Calpurnia spread them out inside and sat cross-legged, leaving room for me on one side. It was almost dark out but still sticky. I stooped down, slid off my boots, and entered the vinyl playhouse. As I switched on the camping lantern, my sister lunged for the zippered entrance. “It’s stuffy as fuck in here,” she said, crawling out. She had a talent for sudden moods, but I had no idea what I’d done to set her off. I picked up the lantern and held it out in front of me, following as she marched toward the pine trees at the campsite’s boundary, the dim white light swaying in the space between us. When we reached the trees, Calpurnia pulled a branch aside and continued into the evergreen mesh. She stopped to smack a mosquito on her cheek. “Turn that thing off,” she said, and I twisted the knob on the lantern. Even with the lamp off, the mosquitoes kept coming, and Calpurnia went on smacking them as they landed on her forehead, neck, and in her hair. Maybe because of my blood type or pheromones, mosquitoes have never been drawn to me, so I helped swat the air around Calpurnia. Then she sucked in a determined breath and asked if I remembered Evan’s party. “You know, the hot tub party you wouldn’t let me come to,” she reminded, even though the party was not ultimately significant for its hot tub.
More of a neighbor and classmate than close friend, Evan was in my year at school—it had been his funeral the afternoon of Calpurnia’s gardening episode. There was an accident after the party, sometime long after I’d left. I was supposed to be babysitting my sister that weekend while mom was on her first vacation with David at a cabin up north. While Calpurnia was too young for a high school party, I didn’t think she was too young to stay by herself. It hadn’t made sense that she’d wanted to come in the first place. She was entering eighth grade that fall, and maintained a long and active list of antisocial hobbies that included taping her hockey sticks and tattooing her canvas slip-ons with a metallic paint pen. She wouldn’t know anyone. I laughed at her for even asking, then ordered a pizza and left. “Well did you know I went anyway?” Calpurnia asked. I hadn’t. The idea seemed so unlikely that I almost didn’t believe her, and my memory of the rest of the evening was all but nonexistent since I ended up trashed on hard lemonade and cherry Jell-O shots that left me puking and passed out in a row of shrubs.
“Basically,” she went on in airless bursts, “Something fucked up happened. And then it got more fucked up. And then a day or two later, because I felt fucked up about it, I buried my underwear.” Calpurnia was scratching herself ferociously and shuddering a little, so I got closer, wrapped my arms around her neck, and in my failure to make sense of her confession, told my sister, the way our mother would have done, that it was o.k., whatever it was, was o.k. “I was rollerblading in the street that night,” she continued, pulling away from me, “and Evan saw me and invited me over. I thought it was cool of him to do that, since I was pretty much nobody, you know, so I drank some beers with him and a few other older kids. His dad had this sailboat in the garage he said he wanted to take me out on. He brought me in there and told some people who were smoking to leave. He said we were going on an imaginary voyage, acting all goofy and cute, playing with the life jackets and stuff. I pretty much knew what he was trying to do, and even though I hadn’t done that before, I let him, to get it over with, which I know is probably illegal, but obviously not the point.”
The point Calpurnia didn’t need to make was that Evan ran his moped into a cement barricade at the end of a construction zone early the next morning. Still loaded, before it was light out, he hadn’t seen the orange signs along the way on a street he usually took to get to the lake. His service was held a few days later in a giant church that couldn’t hold the entire congregation. Girls from both local high schools arrived in packs, filling the parking lot and curbsides for blocks with their sweet sixteen SUVs and parents’ sports cars. They formed bewildered lines at the building’s entrances and stood huddled outside on the granite steps wiping their mascara. I couldn’t remember Calpurnia’s reaction to the news, or if she’d asked to come to the service with Mom and me. I thought of the months spent memorializing Evan, charity events and scholarships in his name, an entire community’s shared grief over the loss of a hometown golden boy—and Calpurnia, having a funeral for a pair of underwear alone in our backyard. I turned on the lantern so I could see my sister’s face.
“You’re crying,” she said. She looked repulsed. My body ached and shook. I repeated an apology, the sound of my own voice unrecognizable, strained. Calpurnia told me to stop it. She took my hand harshly and led me back to our campsite. We crawled between the emergency blanket and unzipped sleeping bag, Calpurnia making herself the big spoon behind me. With her body alongside mine, both of us hidden safely together inside the crappy little tent, I began to calm down.
“So, really,” she said softly after a moment, “the funny part isn’t that I hid my period from you and Mom.”
Then she started laughing her ape-shit crazy laugh, and the way the nurse handed me the toothbrush in its crinkly cellophane wrapper with a look on her face that said, What a waste, started flying around in my chest, and a fragment of something else, some voice from the past, rattled around inside me too. It’s lonely here without you, Calpurnia had said, looking embarrassed when I told her to stay at home the night of Evan’s party. I grabbed Calpurnia by her shoulders and pinned her hard against the ground until she shut up. Her eyes, meeting mine, darkened and cooled.
“And the best part is, you always thought I wanted to be like you,” she said, holding perfectly still. “You were a joke. You didn’t even have friends until college. Excuse me, sisters.” I let up on her shoulders. Calpurnia was mean but she wasn’t wrong. She wriggled to free herself, then yawned and flipped onto her stomach. Cicadas hidden in the trees flexed their tiny muscles, chirping their habitual chirp. I wished I had something biologically necessary to say to my sister, something that could save her life or offer a ripcord at the right time, but I knew she wouldn’t buy it if I tried getting deep.
“So then, is it getting any easier being like you?” I asked.
“Supposedly you don’t find out until they release you back into the wild. I don’t know. I’m really tired,” she said.
I turned off the lantern. Dale’s kids were out playing flashlight tag, yelping at one another and darting across the park-sized lawn, their moves projected on our tri-colored walls. Calpurnia was dozing off with her mouth open, snoring a little. I watched her face and curly mane change shape in the shadowy glow of red-yellow-blue, her teeth, made straight by the braces she’d worn in middle school, perfect and bright. “Wake up,” I whispered, and drew back the zipper that separated us from the boys and beams of light, tugging my sister awake, out through the hatch and into their game.
Photo by John VanderHaagen.