Thursday, July 28, 2005


Mom bought Sadie a new dress. It was white with green polka dots and lace trim. Sadie absolutely hated it, and I can’t say that I blame her. That was the day she dropped to the floor of the Bloomingdale’s children’s department and refused to get up. Mom was so infuriated by her antics that she grabbed her by the arm to pull her up and accidentally pulled her elbow out of its socket. Sadie was four years old and didn’t scream. In fact, she was silent all the way to the hospital. I was the one screaming, and I was the older one.

Nobody was quite sure how Sadie got to be the way she was. The doctor thought it was from the series of vaccines she had when she was a baby. Soon after the injections she came down with a really high fever, but it broke within a day or two, and she was fine—for awhile. Mom and Dad noticed that she wasn’t reaching the normal developmental milestones: she talked late, walked late, refused to make eye contact, and never seemed to smile. The doctor said she had a form of autism.

For having so many problems, she was actually a genius kid. I don’t mean “genius” in the usual sense—she couldn’t solve complex math problems or write novels at the age of six—but she had a long-term memory that put the rest of us to shame. She remembered the exact dates on which things happened. She could reconstruct entire days. First, she’d set the scene, beginning with the weather, maybe even the cloud cover. Partly sunny, bunches of stratocumulus moving east. Then she’d fill in the details, populate the setting. We all got in the minivan at 3:10 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, and went to the Fantasy Theatre to see What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Sadie lived in a dream world where you could blow-dry a Barbie doll’s hair and it wouldn’t melt. Once she kidnapped my favorite doll, whom I’d named Carol Marie Longgarden after a character on a soap opera, and ripped her head off with her teeth. She mounted the head on the eraser end of a number two pencil and took it into Mom and Dad’s bathroom. Locking the door, she turned on Mom’s hairdryer and liquefied poor Carol’s long blonde hair. I cried for days. Mom bought me a new Barbie that looked exactly like the one Sadie had destroyed, but no doll could ever replace Carol. Sadie didn’t even get punished.

“She didn’t understand what she was doing,” Mom said. “We all have to remember to be extra-patient with her.”

By the time I was eight and she was seven, my patience was wearing out. That year she repeated first grade, but this time she was in special ed. She had difficulty understanding oral directions, and it took her hours to complete the same amount of work that a regular kid could’ve completed in twenty minutes. She also had trouble making friends. When we were both in first grade the year before, she physically clung to me on the playground so tightly that I couldn’t shake her off. I had to get my friend Billy to wrench her arms from around my waist.

“Why don’t you love me anymore, Jackie?” she had asked.

I thought that since she was in another grade, another classroom, I’d finally be free, but her troublemaking continued. The one incident which stands out in my mind is that day when Sadie, Mom, and I were standing in line at the supermarket, and Sadie turned around and said, “Hey Mom, that lady in front of us is really large.” Compulsively telling the truth was part of Sadie’s condition.

“Quiet, Sadie,” Mom said. “It isn’t nice to talk about other people.”

“But she is really large,” Sadie said. She did have a point.

“Hush,” Mom said.

The lady swiveled around and looked Sadie right in the eye. “You’ve got a big mouth for someone your age.”

“A big mouth!” Sadie said. She always took things way too literally. “Watch this!” She opened her mouth to reveal her jack-o’-lantern smile and stuck her tongue all the way out. Mom quickly paid the cashier, took Sadie by the shoulder, and pulled her out of the store.

In the parking lot Sadie said, “I’m Gioconda.” She cast her eyes downward and smiled serenely. “I’m the Cheshire Cat.” She put one finger in each corner of her mouth and pulled back her lips. “Now I’m Lamia.” She stretched her mouth into a straight lined, poked out the tip of her tongue, and hissed like a snake.

Mom whispered to me, “Please hide the encyclopedias again when we get home.”

“Done,” I said. “But who’s Gioconda?”

It was around Christmastime, and Sadie and I were in Sunday school, relearning the story of Jesus’ birth. As Sister Mary Agnes droned on and on about the Immaculate Conception, I watched Sadie’s legs swinging back and forth under her desk. They were covered in cuts and bruises. Her ankles had an almost gangrene look about them. She was a very clumsy little girl. She went up and down the apple tree in our backyard every afternoon, bringing baskets full of things she’d filched from around the house: a limb of a doll, a thimble, a business card, a sock. Even in the freezing cold she’d sneak out to climb—and more often than not she’d tumble down from the higher branches, tearing off patches of thin, pale skin. What grew in its place was not her skin, but the flesh of the dead girl she could have been so many times.

“Jacqueline,” Sister Mary Agnes snapped. “Where did Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem?”

I hesitated, and Sadie put up her hand.

“Yes, Sadie?”

“Sister, why do people say that Mary was a virgin? Everybody knows that in order to have a baby you have to have S-E-X.”

“How dare you!” Sister Mary Agnes said. This wasn’t Sadie’s first time questioning dogma.

I helped Sister Mary Agnes wrench Sadie from her seat and bring her down the hall to Father O’Connell’s office.

I couldn’t hear my mother’s voice on the other end of the telephone, but I was sure that there was no surprise in it when Father O’Connell said, “Your daughter is downright blasphemous.”

“Blasphemous,” Sadie repeated. “Sacrilegious, impious, heretical.” She turned to me and whispered, “He thinks I’m a heathen. He thinks I worship pagan gods.”

“Of course you are,” I said, suddenly proud that she was my sister. “Of course you do.”


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