The Children | Adeline Lovell
Caroline’s sister calls her, which is immediately concerning. Usually, their relationship is relegated to texting once every few weeks and a cheap dinner out during Caroline’s annual visit home. Caroline almost lets it ring, then realizes if she is calling like this it might be an emergency so she picks up.
“Brittany?” she says, realizing a moment later that she sounds cold in her surprise. “Everything okay?”
“Hey, Caro,” says Brittany. “Yeah, of course everything’s okay. I’m in the city, though.” “In New York?”
“Why?” Caroline flinches, ashamed of herself. She cannot help it.
“I just thought I’d come down for the weekend.” Her voice is airy and nonchalant, but Caroline does not miss the thrum of disappointment. For a moment she truly and completely despises herself. “Are you… are you doing anything tonight?”
“Um,” Caroline says, delaying. “I was gonna have dinner with Hannah. But… but we’d love for you to come, if you wanted to.” Even she is aware of the flimsiness in the offer, the lack of enthusiasm that must sound hateful. Christ, what is wrong with her? “Please, come. We’d love to see you.”
“Okay,” says Brittany, a little more chipper. “Sure. Thanks. Where were you guys gonna go?”
“We’ll come to you,” says Caroline quickly, not wanting to bring Brittany to her neighborhood, to restaurants where she knows the staff, and into their home where they have cash
and valuables. And besides, she wouldn’t know how to use the subway, so she’d take a Lyft and then ask Caroline to cover for it. “Where are you?”
“Um,” Brittany says. “In Manhattan. Near Bleecker Street? Hang on, I’ll drop my location.”
Caroline waits, gritting her teeth against her impatience. She’s seeing her therapist the day after tomorrow, and they will no doubt discuss this whole night in extreme detail, and Dr. Turner will make her feel less guilty about being such a bitch, instead calling it boundary setting or something.
The pin comes through. Brittany is indeed near Bleecker Street.
“Okay,” says Caroline. “Wanna meet at Washington Square Park?”
“Sure,” says Brittany. “Where’s that?”
“Check your map,” Caroline says. Then, gentler, “See you soon. I’m happy you’re here.” —
She calls Hannah after that. “Hey, babe,” she says when Hannah picks up. “Um. Brittany just called me and told me she’s in town.”
“Oh,” Hannah says. “Okay. We should probably see her, right?”
“You don’t have to,” Caroline tells her. “But, um, I should.”
“No, I’ll do whatever. Should we invite her over?”
“No, no. I told her we’d meet her for dinner at Washington Square Park.” “Sure. I’ll make us a reservation somewhere there.”
Flooded with relief, Caroline says, “Okay. Fuck. God, she sprung this on me so fast.”
“It’s alright, honey,” says Hannah. “It’s just dinner.” Even after being married to her for four years, Caroline cannot tell if Hannah’s tolerance for her in-laws is real or faked for
Caroline’s benefit. Hannah is one of the warmest people Caroline has ever known, but everyone has their limits.
“Maybe it’ll be nice.”
That, Caroline knows is a lie, but she is appreciative. Hannah, at least, will dilute some of the acidity.
“Thanks, babe,” she says. “Text me where.”
“Will do. Love you.”
“You, too. Hey, feeling okay?”
“Yep! Totally. I’ll see you tonight.”
They meet up in the park. She sees Brittany right away, sitting on a bench, watching a busker perform with wide eyes. Brittany always manages to look out of place, her body perched unnaturally, like she thinks she’s being scouted for a model agency for women who look their age with the exception of teenage crooked teeth and a smattering of chin acne.
God, you’re mean, Caroline tells herself. She feels particularly awful when Brittany sees her and looks delighted. She leaps to her feet and waves, the movements exaggerated. Caroline lifts a hand. When Brittany reaches her, Caroline is surprised by how tightly Brittany hugs her. It makes something twist in her chest, hard and fast.
Brittany looks good, as far as good can go for anyone in her family. She has let her hair go brown again, the awful, juvenile bleach-blonde look finally retired, and she has gained a little weight, but she looks healthier than the addict-skinny she had been.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Brittany says. As they’re walking, she links her arm with Caroline’s, and Caroline makes an active effort not to pull away. She just hates forced affection, is all, and they’re a little old to be walking around like that.
“Me, too,” Caroline says. “I can’t believe you’re here, did you drive?”
“Nah. Took the Greyhound. It was long as shit, but it only cost, like, forty, round-trip.” Caroline is about to ask when her return bus is when Brittany spots Hannah and gives her the same exaggerated wave like they are all much closer than they really are.
Hannah picked a nice Mexican restaurant, and it is a relief to sit down and busy themselves with the extensive menu. Brittany drinks two mojitos, which Caroline has to tell herself not to judge. She’s twenty-seven years old and, anyway, it’s not like the politics of letting someone else, even her sister, buy her dinner is really something she expects Brittany to understand. And, she supposes, you can be in recovery from drug addiction and still drink. But actually, she has no idea.
She should know; she’d seen a bit of Brittany’s most recent decline into drugs. It was thirteen months ago, the last time she’d been home. As she’d gotten further upstate, the leaves around her car began to turn the colors of an enormous, harmless blaze. She drove a little over the speed limit, oranges and reds pressing her in, and a little mass of anxiety began to calcify in her stomach as she drew closer. When she was ten minutes from her neighborhood she’d pulled over and bawled. Her dread was not without reason. Brittany was living at home with their mom, but Caroline didn’t know who to worry about more. Her father and Brittany were the gentlest ones in the family. He tolerated her vulnerabilities more than anyone else and in return, she tried to resist her tendencies toward self-destructiveness. Caroline usually relegated her visits home to once a year, but her father had been dead for three months and Becca had called her, half-begging her to come home for a few days and convince Brittany to go back to rehab.
“If you come,” Becca, her oldest sister, had said, “she’ll know it’s serious.” Caroline heard the bitterness, the quiet implication that she only made herself present for emergencies. She almost suggested a
formal intervention, but she realized they would probably have to get her brother involved for that and that was the last thing anyone needed, especially Brittany.
When she arrived home, only her mom was there. Caroline had told her she was coming, and when she’d opened their permanently unlocked front door and stepped into the living room, she hadn’t even stood up.
“Hey,” her mom said. “Nice of you to come.”
“Mom,” said Caroline. She pinched the bridge of her nose until the aggravation ebbed. “I was worried about you all.”
“I’ll bet,” her mother replied. Then, a little softer, she added, “Well, the one you should be most worried about isn’t even here. Maybe you can pick her up.”
“Where is she?” Caroline asked.
“She’s been at a friend’s since last night. That skinny young man who took Becca to prom, with the neck tattoo, I think. They’ve been spending time together.” “I’ll go get her,” Caroline said. Relieved, shamefully, for the excuse not to stay in this small, small house a second longer. The smell of cheap cat litter was making her nauseous, and the chair her dad used to read the paper in sat discolored and mocking.
She called Becca for the guy’s address and drove the ten minutes to get there. The house was a squat, one-story building with an American flag hanging over the front window. She knocked and got no answer, then let herself in.
She was immediately dizzy with a sense of extreme pariahdom, like walking into a high school party full of people who hated her. The air was vile with all sorts of degrading human activity, and she could hear, faintly, something playing on a TV. She followed the sound to
find a small, dark room full of people in all states of intoxication, an episode of Breaking Bad unwatched on the television.
“Caro!” Brittany shrilled. Caroline had to wait a moment for her eyes to adjust before she saw her sister. She was lying on a threadbare couch, her legs thrown over the arm, her head resting on the lap of a man who was so high he looked comatose. “Sit down!”
“No thanks,” said Caroline shortly. “I came to get you, Brittany. C’mon.”
Someone behind her snickered, and Caroline turned. A man lay there, topless, his leer shameless. She became aware that this was not only a disgusting room, but a dangerous one, and the desire to get herself and Brittany out of there angled towards desperation.
“I’m good,” said Brittany. She patted the couch lightly to make her point.
“I need your help with something,” Caroline snapped. Her patience was non-existent. She felt a humiliating little quiver in her hands.
“C’mon, Brittany. We have to go.”
Brittany laughed, the sound high and mean. “I should probably go, guys,” she said to no one in particular. “Caro’s never in town. Can’t let her fancy writer friends think she’d give us white trash the time of day.”
“Now,” Caroline said, her face and voice impassive. Brittany began to drag herself up, one limb at a time.
“Your sister’s hot,” said a man sitting on the floor, who could not have been younger than thirty. Caroline could not be bothered to even scoff at him.
“She’s gay,” Brittany told him, and there were a few whistles and jeers from the men.
The faint sense of a threat rang through Caroline again, and she snapped, “We’re going.” As she turned away, Brittany stumbling along with her, a bout of hysterical laughter rose from the remaining group.
Caroline didn’t speak in the car. Not because she was worried she would scream, although she was, but because there was a slight tremor all throughout her body and she didn’t trust herself to drive well while shouting at her sister. She bit the inside of her cheek to prevent herself from glaring at all of Brittany’s dramatic movements from the passenger seat, the way she was rolling her head back like an imitation of an actress in a porno. She reached towards the radio, and Caroline caught a flash of track marks up her arms. When she turned it on, Xanadu filled the car, and Brittany giggled and closed her eyes, swaying a little.
“Fucking turn it off,” Caroline said. She kept her eyes on the road while Brittany looked her over, then silenced the music.
“Why are you so mad at me?” Brittany asked, her voice high and whiny.
“Is that a real question?” She swallowed against the bitterness in her voice. Reasoning with Brittany right then would have been like reasoning with an exhausted toddler.
“I didn’t ask you to come,” Brittany said.
She looked freakishly thin, Caroline thought, the pale streetlights deepening the bags under her eyes.
“You’re such a fucking control freak. How can Hannah stand you?” When Caroline didn’t respond, she added, “You think you’re gonna stop me from doing what I’m gonna do?”
They had reached the house; Caroline turned the car off, and darkness fell over them save for a small white rectangle from their living room window.
“If you’re gonna kill yourself on drugs,” she said, “do it. But mom will kill herself, and Becca will blame herself, and I’ll never fucking recover because my baby sister will overdose in a house full of illiterate pieces of shit when we all tried to fucking help her. So as long as you make peace with that, I’m not going to drive five hours and pick you up from places like that anymore.”
Brittany unbuckled herself and slunk out of the passenger seat and into her room where Caroline was sure, she drugged herself up again. Caroline stuck around another thirty-six hours. She grocery-shopped for her mom and bought dinner for Becca and her husband and hired a cleaning lady to come to the house the next week after she left. When she left, Brittany was not there to say goodbye. She arrived home late, said hello to her wife, and made herself a gin and tonic.
“You think she’s gonna get herself together?” Hannah asked when Caroline joined her in the living room.
She sank beside Hannah on the couch and took a long sip of her drink. “I can’t help everyone,” she finally said weakly.
You don’t help anyone, she thought and threw back another swig.
Two days later, Becca called Caroline to tell her Brittany had checked herself into rehab.
“I guess whatever you said to her helped,” Becca told her, almost reluctantly. Then she said, “Um, her insurance doesn’t—”
“I got it,” Caroline said, “I’ll write the check.” It was a relief, actually, to be asked for money that time. It was the one thing she knew she could provide.
Brittany looks mostly okay, Caroline decides, throughout dinner. The three of them sit in a booth, Caroline and Hannah on one side. Occasionally, Hannah will brush her foot against Caroline’s calf.
Caroline uses their time together to gain some insight into her family. Brittany is the only one of them who will not answer these questions with quips about how she should be more involved with them. “I talked to Mom a few days ago,” Caroline starts, her voice light. “She didn’t sound so good.”
Brittany momentarily stops trying to bend her paper straw into something functional. “God, yeah. She’s… yeah. If you even bring Dad up, she just—” Brittany brings her hand up and mimes tears pouring down her face. Their father has been dead for a year and a half, and their mother has taken it hard. “Becca does a lot of the cooking for her, and I do grocery shopping, and I know you’ve been sending money, so thanks. And so does Martin.”
Caroline rolls her eyes. “How’s our dear brother?”
“A pain in my fucking ass. Excuse me,” Brittany says hastily to Hannah as if Hannah will be inexplicably offended by bad language. Hannah smiles indulgently. “He’s fucking always calling me and Becca and telling us that we’re not taking good care of Mom, that we should do more for her. You know what he did? He bought her a fucking iPhone eleven. A seventy-two-year-old woman. Like that’s what she needs.” She scoffs, but her eyes glitter with real hate. Caroline feels for her.
“I’m sorry you’re dealing with that,” Caroline tells her. Hannah nods in agreement, her face appropriately sympathetic.
“Have you heard from him?” Brittany asks her.
“Not for a while,” Caroline replies.
The last interaction she’d had with him had been a long, convoluted text telling her what an awful daughter and sister she was. It had been sent at four in the morning and included sentences like I hope the Brooklyn key parties were worth missing the last few years of your dad’s life and It’s insane on so many levels that they’re keeping you in the will. Caroline had never even heard anyone use the phrase ‘key party’ until that text.
“Has he been saying what a bad daughter I am?”
Brittany shrugs, which Caroline interprets as a yes. “I gotta pee,” she says suddenly. Caroline looks at the empty glasses, the bottoms clotted with wet mint, and is unsurprised. “Breaking the seal,” Brittany giggles. She stands, steadying herself with the table.
“No one has said ‘breaking the seal’ since sophomore year of college,” Caroline says to Hannah, once Brittany is out of earshot. Hannah gives her hand a squeeze.
“Babe,” she says, “I might head home. My back is fucking killing me.”
For the first time all evening, Caroline really looks at her wife, and realizes she is a little wan.
“Oh, god, of course,” Caroline says. “Everything—everything’s okay, right?” She touches Hannah’s stomach gently. Under her cable knit sweater, the little swell is invisible.
“Yeah, nothing feels unusual. I’m just beat.”
Caroline nods, kisses her, and says, “I don’t think I’ll be long.”
Brittany returns, a little steadier on her feet, sliding back into the booth with surprising grace.
“Hannah’s gotta go,” Caroline tells her. She tries, momentarily, to find a way to leave with her, but she cannot construct a justification for leaving Brittany alone in the West Village, two mojitos in.
“I’ve got an early day tomorrow,” Hannah says, apologetic. “Brittany, it was so lovely to see you. I’m so happy we did this.”
When Caroline had introduced Hannah to her family, all they could talk about, even more than her being a woman, was her being British. She watches Brittany grin at the apparent inherent sophistication in everything she says as Hannah hugs her briefly.
“Thanks for dinner.” Brittany gestures to the remains of the meal. “See you soon.”
Perhaps, thinks Caroline, she is reading too much into it. People say ‘see you soon’ even when they have no plans to see each other soon or at any point. If she expected to crash with them, she would have said, ‘see you tonight.’
It’s not that they don’t have the room, or like Brittany is a particularly egregious houseguest. It’s just that Caroline pictures the whole rest of the night with her sister, and breakfast tomorrow, and helping her find her way to Port Authority, and feels instantly exhausted. The labor of it seems so extreme that she almost cannot imagine herself having completed it, the day rolling by without her sister there. She does not know how she made it so long, living at home. Everything seems less bearable on the other side of it.
Caroline pays right after Hannah departs. Brittany thanks her again. Caroline had not been drinking in solidarity with Hannah, but she really wishes she had let her wife bear the misery of a sober evening out with her in-law alone. Caroline could have had one drink, she thinks regrettably. Even the placebo effect of alcohol would have calmed her a little. She does not know why this feels so unbearable, her sister’s presence and nowhere to go, the music and chatter in the restaurant suddenly assaultive.
“Dessert?” Brittany says. “There’s gotta be ice cream around here, right?” “Sure,” says Caroline.
It is still early spring, and ice cream at this time of night isn’t entirely enjoyable. But they buy it from a place right next to the park and sit on the steps of the NYU law library, looking out at Washington Square Park. When their knees bump, it’s uncomfortable, like sitting beside a stranger on an airplane and having to pull away before continuing to invade their space.
Brittany doesn’t talk while she eats, and Caroline realizes Brittany has driven almost all of the conversation so far. She clears her throat and says, “So, how’s work?” Work, for Brittany, is a Goodwill sandwiched between a closed sex store and a smoothie joint.
Brittany does not answer right away. She circles her spoon around the rim of the cup, gathers her cookies and cream, and licks it off in a way that almost looks sexual. Caroline cringes.
Flatly, Brittany says, “So you’re really not gonna ask me why I’m here, huh?” Vague shame flushes Caroline. “What?”
“Obviously I didn’t take a fucking Greyhound six hours to go to M and M world.” Caroline laughs weakly, but Brittany isn’t smiling. “Well, how was I supposed to know?” Caroline says, annoyed.
Brittany scowls. “Right, why would you even consider anything I’m doing.”
“Britt,” says Caroline, hurt even though she can’t begrudge her sister the reaction. “Okay. So, why are you here?”
She scoops another spoonful of ice cream, the same complete circle around the bowl. She does not lift it to her mouth. “I got an abortion this morning.”
“Oh,” says Caroline. Indifferent, overdoing the nonchalance, like she’d been told Brittany got a new sweater. “Oh,” she says again. “Um. How are you feeling?”
She shrugs. “Like fucking shit. But I took Advil and that helped.” She makes an unattractive puckering noise with her tongue that Caroline tries not to flinch at. “You know they told me to go home and rest. But I wanted to see you.”
Caroline, unsure what else to do, squeezes her sister’s shoulder. She wishes she were not so cold, she wishes she could pull Brittany into her arms without flinching. Brittany has always
seemed so vulnerable in a way that only the youngest child can, and Caroline has had to fight against her repulsion at it. She was always a terrible protector of her sister and the shame of that overwhelms her in a way it hasn’t in a long time.
When Caroline was twenty-one and Brittany was seventeen, Brittany had a boyfriend named Jimmy. Caroline had been home from college, sulking. She hated coming home, but the lease for the apartment near campus that she was renting with friends did not start for a week.
Her family already detested her enough for having left them to go to a college so far away, an Ivy League at that, full of rich kids studying things like philosophy and art history who would become Caroline’s good friends.
Her parents and siblings were all rooting for her to fail, at least a little bit. It would have humbled her: Caro, who has always thought she was better than everyone around her, leaving to study English, changing her name to Caroline. The prodigal daughter returned. She didn’t even mind. She held onto that, especially at the beginning, when she was neck-deep in her fear of everyone else at Yale knowing just by looking at her that she’d once lived in a trailer and had never been on a plane and had aborted the quarterback’s baby weeks before he was declared brain dead in a drunk driving accident, a pretty standard occurrence in her town. So she thought about the other almost-success stories turned into cautionary tales, the gym teacher who had once looked like she might make it to the Olympics for skiing before flunking out of her scholarship and the Target general manager who had moved out to Silicon Valley to start a business with people he met online only to have a nervous breakdown and move back in with his mom. She thought of her sister Becca, three years older than she was and married to the most boring man in the world, pregnant with his baby and still working twelve-hour shifts as a waitress, and her brother, selling insurance over the phone, his anger that this was his life glittering off of him. She thought of her father, who worked for a moving company and hardly spoke, carrying the quiet disappointment of his life so heavily that he started to stoop at age forty, and her mother, coming home from her lunch lady job to read paperback romance novels and heat up meatloaf for children who barely acknowledged her. She revered these people. She thought of them all the time. They all thought she had betrayed them, that she was cold and elitist and cruel, so she leaned into that, she held them up as examples for the worst possible outcomes and it worked. The revulsion that grew around her like a cocoon protected her as she moved forward. She started essays the day they were assigned and got a job working nights in the library so she had an excuse not to party and put all the money she made immediately into savings. She was about to be a senior and graduate with honors and, if the internship she had this summer went the way she hoped and hired her, move to New York to work at a publishing house.
The mutual disgust between her and her family had folded on itself into something enormous and quivering with a life of its own, pushing in between them even when a conversation with the potential to be pleasant began. “Can I help with dinner?” Caroline would ask, and her mother would say, “Oh, my cooking isn’t too trashy for you?” and Caroline would leave the room. Becca would say, “Caro, let’s go out now that you can get into bars,” and Caroline would have to grit her teeth against unmitigated disgust at the thought of going out and watching her sister get trashed while her husband laughed at her and guys she went to high school with leered at her while nursing their activism. No one could stand to have her home and she couldn’t stand to be there.
But that week, she was. Her mother was making passive-aggressive comments about leaving, how she would be gone again next week, and all they had in the way of sustenance that adhered to her vegetarianism was Triscuits, American cheese, vanilla Oreos, and Rolling Rocks.
Brittany was still a kid and had not yet grown into the resentment her older siblings and parents harbored. Caroline hoped that perhaps she would be able to go to college and get out of there too. Definitely not Yale with her grades, probably not anywhere too competitive, but the state schools weren’t bad—she could become a teacher, maybe even a nurse or a paralegal if she worked hard. Caroline wanted this for Brittany, but not badly enough that she could put energy into convincing her. She had gotten this far by putting herself first. She could not dedicate anything to her family without risking being swallowed by them, chewed up in the manner that they all did to one another. They lived too close to each other; it was like being in an airless cell with someone, recycling the same air until they were being sustained only on toxic gasps. She would not be discarded by them in this shithole town to make minimum wage and drive into Syracuse if she wanted to meet other gay women.
“Caro,” Brittany said, materializing in the kitchen, where Caroline was debating making a grilled cheese. She was startled out of her bitterness. “Come get a Mcflurry with me.” Because the options were that or listening to Fox News from the living room, she had. Brittany had gotten her license since the last time Caroline had been home, and it felt strange to sit next to her sister in the passenger seat. Brittany was playing The Dixie Chicks. Caroline watched familiar storefronts roll by, greyer and sadder than they’d seemed when she lived here. Half of them had been shuttered since she’d last visited. The car rose over a small hill; they were getting to the obligatory small-town stretch of corporate stores. She used to find them kind of dazzling, a clean, predictable world of neon lights, a dome of every object and food and service anyone could need from birth to death, improbably pretty when the sunset turned the sky to a creamsicle color and bright, familiar signs burned underneath the blaze. It depressed her this time.
Brittany drove past Mcdonald’s, and Caroline said, “You missed it.” Brittany didn’t say anything. “Britt,” Caroline said, annoyed, “are you paying attention?”
“I gotta go to CVS first,” said Brittany.
“Okay,” Caroline said, “what for?”
Brittany turned into the parking lot, a little haphazardly: the car had a momentary suspension in what felt like an arc. Caroline held the dashboard.
“Caro,” said Brittany, once she’d parked, “can I borrow thirty bucks?”
Brittany checked her appearance in the rearview mirror and applied chapstick. “Morning-after pill.”
“What?” said Caroline, briefly slipping into the prudishness of an old maid. “Are you kidding me?”
Brittany rolled her eyes. “No. Please?”
“Brittany,” Caroline said tartly. “Jesus, you have to use protection.”
“I know, I know. Can we talk about this after? I do want those McFlurries.” Caroline retrieved thirty bucks from her wallet, handed them over, and watched her baby sister flounce inside. She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose until Brittany returned, plastic bag in hand.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll get your milkshake.” Caroline nodded dumbly. Brittany opened the pink box, popped the pill out of its foil, and downed it with a final slug of an old can of root beer that was sitting in her car, getting flat and warm. Caroline thought how much packaging those brands wasted for one fucking pill.
“Alright,” Brittany said like she had just finished a particularly inconvenient chore. “Flurries.”
Caroline ended up paying for those too. They sat in Brittany’s car, the sky turning the clementine color that made Caroline want to cry, inexplicably, the storefronts threaded in gold. It could almost look pretty here. They ate in silence for a few minutes.
“You do need to use protection,” said Caroline finally. She sounded so old. “Jimmy won’t.” Brittany shrugged.
“What do you mean he won’t? Like it doesn’t fucking feel good?” She huffed out a sneer.
Brittany shook her head. “Not that.” She smirked like she was holding onto a juicy, slightly amusing piece of information and debating whether to share it. “Alright. He wants me to get pregnant.”
Caroline gave Brittany a humorless snort.
“I’m dead fucking serious,” Brittany said. “He wants my baby.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows just a bit, like, can you believe someone is so crazy for me?
Caroline had the momentary sensation of being held under cold water. “What?” “He thinks if I get pregnant, I’ll have to marry him.”
Dread coiled in Caroline’s chest. “So—So—you tell him to wear a condom, he says he doesn’t want to, and you guys laugh and have unprotected sex?”
“Pretty much,” Brittany said. “He kisses my stomach after, can you believe that?” Caroline closed her eyes. Vertigo was closing in on her. “How long has this been going on?”
“‘Bout two months.” Brittany studied her and clocked, apparently for the first time, the blatant horror on her face. “It’s no big deal, Caro. Really. Normally I just steal the pills, but I figured you wouldn’t approve of that. I’m not gonna get knocked up.”
“Brittany,” Caroline said. “That’s rape.”
Brittany let out a little snort of air. “It’s not. I like having sex with him.” She smirked again.
Caroline, her voice splintering at its edges, said, “If he’s trying to get you pregnant against your will, and refusing to wear a condom, that actually is rape.”
Brittany gave her a long, pitying look. “Caro,” she said, “Jimmy isn’t, like, abusing me. He wouldn’t have the balls. The reason he does that is ‘cause I’m out of his league and he knows it. Believe me, he’s a sweet guy.” Caroline was taken aback by the condescension in her voice.
“I’ll kill him,” she said, hearing the melodrama in her voice. Everything, through her rage, was tinged white on the edges.
“Oh, my god. It’s not a big deal. I’d never have brought it up if I knew you were gonna freak out about it.” Caroline felt out of control; she wanted to howl. “Nevermind. Drop it. Forget I said anything.”
Caroline had told Martin. Together, they’d waited for fucking Jimmy after his lacrosse practice, kicked the shit out of him, and Martin had said, “If you ever get near my sister again I’ll have you in jail where you’ll be the one getting knocked up.” Not his smoothest, but Caroline appreciated the sentiment, and it got across. They had driven home together in Martin’s car and stopped at the Seven-Eleven along the way to pick up sodas.
“You think he’ll leave her alone?” Martin asked her, as he pulled in front of their parent’s house to drop her off.
“Yeah,” Caroline said. “Thanks for doing that with me.”
“Thanks for telling me.” They smiled at each other, uncomfortable, and then she stepped out of the car. It was the closest she’d ever felt to her brother, and the last time she would feel that way.
Now, Brittany looks smaller than she had at seventeen, her edges sanded down, as vulnerable as she has ever been with Caroline. Caroline wishes they were somewhere else. The steps of a law school building seem so trite for this conversation, and not private enough. In a thirty-foot radius from where they sit, homeless men are asleep on the benches, 17-year-olds blow smoke rings, holding blunts with acrylic nails, and a young couple on an early date sits at the fountain, facing each other shyly.
“Who’s was it?” Caroline asks her quietly.
Brittany examines her nails. They are short and unpainted. “I’ve been seeing this guy. His name’s Aaron. He teaches history.” She snorts, self-deprecating, or maybe mocking towards Aaron for the appalling crime of teaching history.
“Did he know?”
“No. God, no. He’s too—he’s really nice, you know? He’s like, the first nice guy I’ve ever gone out with. He’s annoying about it sometimes. I told him my favorite show was This is Us, and on our next date he told me he’d started watching it.” Brittany shakes her head. Caroline thinks that sounds very nice and normal. “I was like, ‘you don’t have to be me.’”
“You said that?” Caroline says, startled.
They look at each other and burst out laughing, uninhibited. Caroline is wiping tears from her eyes by the time she manages, “Brittany, god, you’re harsh.”
Brittany grins. “I know, I know. But like, I could tell he wants us to like, send each other good morning texts and go to bed and breakfasts and all that crap. And like, I don’t know. Sure, that’d be nice, but we have nothing in common.”
Caroline grimaces. They both go quiet while a group of young drunk people pass them, shrieking with laughter like no inside joke has ever possibly been as funny as theirs. “Wait,” Caroline says, “how come you came all the way down for the… to do it? The laws are the same up there, right?”
“I know, like, at least two girls who work at the Planned Parenthood up there,” Brittany says. “I didn’t need that.”
Caroline nods, unsurprised. She has never missed that at home, the incestuousness of tiny towns, the way she could not turn anywhere without being assaulted by the gossip of others.
“Um, and honestly, I kind of wanted to talk to you.” Brittany presses her palms together as she says this. “I, uh—people are weird about this shit, you know? I mean, obviously.”
“Yeah,” says Caroline. “I got an abortion my senior year of high school,” she says. She’s going for empathy, but it feels stilted and forced. It’s like she’s telling her they saw the same movie last week.
Brittany says, “I wondered if you were gonna tell me that.”
A cold thrum passes through her. “You knew?”
“I found the paperwork in your dresser drawer a couple months after you left to go to college. Dumb to leave that, by the way.”
“Huh,” says Caroline. She remembers not knowing if she would need to hold onto that for medical records, and not wanting to bring it to Yale, where she was certain she would not only be a hick but a slut if anyone found out.
“Yeah.” She pauses. “Do you regret it?”
“I don’t even think about it,” Caroline tells her truthfully. She had not even really thought about it then, certainly hadn’t grieved over it. It had been the baby of a boy who she hadn’t even liked. He wasn’t her boyfriend. They had sex at one of the only parties Caroline had ever been to in high school, and she can remember how badly it hurt, that she had pulled his hair so she didn’t scream. She didn’t even know yet that she didn’t want sex with any man, she just thought it was supposed to be clean pain, like the way exercise ached but felt good in the end. They didn’t make eye contact in school the next day. It literally had not crossed her mind to tell him she was pregnant until the Planned Parenthood lady asked her about the father.
Six weeks later, he wrapped his car around a telephone pole driving home drunk after a party. Everyone whispered about it in school, more intrigued than devastated: he was a being kept alive by machines but he was a vegetable. When his family pulled the plug on him, Caroline signed the big banner that her school put up in the hallway and hardly ever thought about him again. When abortion comes up, in conversations with her lefty Brooklyn friends or in tweets from angry young women she respects, she almost never thinks of it as something that applies to her, although of course, it actually applies more to her than most.
“Hannah’s pregnant,” Caroline says. “We’re having a baby.” She tells Brittany this, she reasons, because six months from now, Hannah will give birth and Brittany will wonder why Caroline left out this important detail on a night they spent talking about pregnancies.
Brittany snaps her head up. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, wow.” Then she bursts into tears.
“I’m sorry,” Caroline says, bewildered. “I didn’t—sorry.” She flushes, disgusted with herself. She feels close to tears too. She is respected, people send her their manuscripts and beg
her to tell them how to improve their language, and right now she cannot say anything that does not pour gasoline on this flammable situation.
Brittany shakes her head. She sniffles loudly, and drags the back of her hand under her eyes. It’s like watching a little kid cry. Caroline fights improbable annoyance. She takes her sister’s hand, winces at the moisture.
“It’s gonna be okay, Brittany,” she says, the words sounding flimsy. Brittany nods, her face screwed up in grief. “Here, why don’t you come back to Brooklyn with me and spend the night?” Even as she’s talking, she finds herself mentally begging Brittany to decline. She’s exhausted.
“Okay,” says Brittany, hiccupping. Caroline puts her hand between Brittany’s shoulder blades. They both sit still.
Caroline hopes, in spite of herself, that when she wakes in the morning Brittany will be gone, will maybe have washed the mugs of tea left in the sink the previous night. When she gets downstairs, Brittany has not even woken yet.
She looks around her beautiful kitchen, light pouring in in buttery streaks, a vase of wildflowers sitting on the kitchen island. She is filled with inexplicable longing for her own life. She wants to distill it, drink it when she forgets her fortune, the fortune she made. Upstairs, her perfect wife is asleep in their large, soft bed. Their baby is the size of a plum. The one she aborted was only a few weeks smaller than the one she and Hannah have now, but she cannot muster any emotion for it beyond a collection of cells, a procedure as impersonal as a root canal. She is grateful to whatever it is in her that allows that, her own emotional stuntedness, perhaps.
Brittany’s presence in her home, in the light of day, feels oppressive, a wine stain on a cashmere sweater. She winces at this reaction, but she cannot banish it. She wants her life to herself again. She is so unspeakably angry at her sister for showing up here in her life full of pleasures and making her think about unwanted pregnancies and siblings who resent her and a mother she never calls. An ache swells behind her eyes.
Caroline is making coffee and steeping in her anger when Brittany emerges. She looks like a teenager stumbling out of bed at noon. “Hey,” she says, and Caroline says, “Hi.” “Coffee?” Caroline adds, after a moment. Brittany nods.
Brittany piles hers with cream and sugar. Caroline adds almond milk to hers. They sit across from each other, quiet.
“Thanks for last night,” Brittany finally says. “Sorry I freaked out.”
This thaws Caroline some. She says, “Yeah, ‘course.”
Brittany takes a swig of coffee. Caroline remembers to ask how she feels. “Okay,” she says, “better.”
Brittany watches her, her face full of expectation. Caroline busies herself with the dishes in the sink. “My bus ticket is for today at two. From Port something.”
“Oh,” says Caroline, hoping the relief does not show through. “Okay. You know how to get to Port Authority? No, you don’t, sorry. It’s pretty easy from here.”
“Cool,” says Brittany.
“It was really nice to see you,” Caroline says. She feels like this morning will never end, like the hour will keep stretching itself forth and she will never have her kitchen to herself again. Her sister, her whole family, are their own fucking planets, bringing a gravitational field into
every space and dragging her, flailing, into it. She feels so ashamed, like the morning after a one night stand, wanting to shower and file away the evening in a far, strange corner of her memory. “Yeah,” Brittany says. “Maybe I’ll come back? After New Years, or something?”
“Yeah,” says Caroline. “Maybe, yeah.”
About the Author:
Addie Lovell is from Brooklyn, New York. She’s currently a junior at Smith College, where she is majoring in English and the Study of Women and Gender. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review. This is her second published piece.