What To Say
Mary Ruefle says the words sacred and secret are siblings.
But what if your most sacred moment can’t be kept a secret? What if you are at an interview for a nanny job in Westwood, sitting at Café Chez Marie on a sunny afternoon meeting a young couple when the mom asks, "Do you have any siblings?" How do you answer her question while guarding your secret? You can’t.
I do, you say, but she’s gone.
Your most precious moment becomes a refrain.
The other person’s reaction too you could recite. You could act the whole thing out for them, spare them the awkward discomfort as they realize they don’t have any idea how to act, for that's what it is: an act, this thing we call sympathy.
You learn to sit patiently and let them have their go at it. As they start squirming, you want to squirm too, but you hold still. You take a deep breath and maintain your grace. You are practiced at this charade.
Eventually, they finish: they’ve recited the words they have stored in their repertoire for moments like this.
You then brush the whole thing off—as if it were a little mishap, a scuffed elbow, a paper cut, a nothing. You brush it all away to spare them further embarrassment, and then you move on as quickly as possible. You haul them out of your cavern and pretend as if the whole demonstration was a mirage.
The first time someone asked me I was at the Fourth of July Fair, which means she'd only been gone two weeks. Fourteen long days. I'm surprised we'd managed to get ourselves out of the house. But somehow, it seems, we had.
The parade had just ended, and the crowd was funneling between old brick buildings to a parking lot with fair food and kids' games.
Pat was there. His girlfriend, also named Chelsea, must have been with him, but I don't remember. I stood close to my mom. The world felt overly stimulating, verging on alarming. The sun too bright. The children's laughter too loud. The music blasting from the boom box too shrill, too poppy.
I took it all in, every ounce of it, unable to tune out any of the chaos. "Chels, what might you like to eat?" Mom asked softly. I scanned the options and considered the churning feeling in my stomach.
"I'm not really hungry," I replied, wanting to sprint for the car and head back home.
A short woman turned to me. She looked to be in her sixties with a long, grey ponytail lying down her neck.
"Do you have a sister?" she asked.
I looked to my mom, frantic. My heart began thumping louder; I could hear it in my ears. Pat turned to me with compassion but also curiosity.
I looked to my mom again, unsure how to answer. Almost imperceptibly, Mom nodded.
I exhaled quickly. "Yes," I said.
"I think I might have met her," the older woman said, confused as to why her question, harmless as it was, had such a strange effect on this group of people. My heart raced faster. Had she met Aleisha? Did this random stranger know my sister? For that would mean that the strings attaching her here were unsevered. That would mean she wasn’t quite gone.
"Does she work at a pizza place?" the woman asked. "I was there just last night, and I saw a girl who, I swear, looked just like you."
My eyes filled as I shook my head. "No," I said.
"Are you sure?" she pressed. "Maybe she was filling in for someone? You're the spitting image of her."
People had always said that about us. "Twins?" they'd ask. And we'd laugh as she'd swell with pride, and I'd fill with mild shame, for I was nearly four years older and wished I looked like it.
Without a word I turned around, away from my mom and Pat and this woman who hadn't intended to crash into my reality quite as she had. I walked away, my whole body shaking, a lump situating itself in the back of my throat. I couldn't swallow it down. Pat jogged to catch up with me.
"I'm okay," I lied. "I just have to go to the bathroom." I turned and walked away alone.