A flower crown wasn’t the solution. But my younger sister Rachel kept trying to get my older sister Sarah to weave her camellia into a wreath, as though it would change anything.
We stood behind a long wooden worktable in a flower arranging class; the instructor chided us to think outside the vase. The class was half-full, a mix of serious grandmothers and dilettante drop-ins only there because of the online deal, like us. No men.
“You don’t have to make a flower crown,” Rachel said to Sarah as though it mattered. Modeling a purple aster by her ear, where pale, freckled skin met dark hair, Rachel set the flower back on the worktable and mouthed at me, What should I say?
There was nothing new to say: We’re here for you, Sarah, we love you, we’re sorry for your loss, all the platitudes. And the one thing I couldn’t say out loud: I’d lost something, too.
I crammed a too-long stick down the center of my arrangement. “I saw flower arranging online and thought it would be nice for us all to hang out.” I wanted a wistful and vaguely Asian aesthetic, but the jagged branch was a gnarled middle finger flicking us all off. I threw the stick onto the table. “It’s silly, but I thought there might be solace in this class, like getting in touch with nature or whatever. All that ikebana type stuff about silence, quiet observation, you know.”
As I considered buying this class, my husband had leaned into the computer screen, hands on my shoulders. He kissed me and encouraged me to connect with my sisters. It could have been us, he whispered.
“They don’t make flower crowns in real ikebana classes,” Sarah said, shoving her hands into her dress pockets. The bright yellow frock was her first maternity outfit, a dress that made her heart flit back then but now made it feel sour as she was forced to masquerade around in maternity clothes while her body retracted. She looked out to the grimy Garment District. Construction workers milled around a barricaded worksite; students and middle-aged women entered and exited a shop selling cheap sequins and velour; twenty-somethings in suits carried takeout salads even though it was Sunday. “Sorry,” she said to me. “It’s just that Groupon can’t fix everything.”
“I know that.” I adjusted a stalk of snapdragon.
Pink and green paper lanterns dangled in the stagnant workshop air. A lightly penciled sketch of forget-me-nots perched above Rachel’s head. The instructor was a middle-aged woman with an orange tan who lectured on choosing flower clippers. She spoke too softly, which reinforced the impression that no one was listening.
I set my clippers on the table. “I’m sorry for making you come all the way out here for a stupid flower class, Sarah.”
“It’s sister-bonding day,” Rachel said lamely and let out a too-loud whoop. “Sleepover in New Jersey!” The grandmothers stared at her.
Sarah’s flower arrangement was aggressively lopsided, with flailing, spindly roses she’d failed to shorten and compact like the teacher suggested. The front was a cloud of fluffy ferns while the back was all buds—a pink-and-orange rooster with a frizzy green tail.
“I’m going to be thirty-three next month,” Sarah said. “What if this keeps happening? The risks only keep going up. I mean, fuck, they tell you to keep the pregnancy a secret until the tenth week, but nineteen weeks? I don’t think I could survive this again.”
I had been so excited to become an aunt. I bought Peter Rabbit at a yard sale and propped it on my nightstand in anticipation of a baby to give it to. I spent hours watching online videos that would teach me how to knit, and my first project was a blue-and-green hat the size of a grapefruit. But then my nephew punched his way out of my older sister’s body, tugging on her innards, making his presence known even as it shifted into a non-presence, a memory, an experience from which to be recovered. When Sarah called me from the ER, her voice taut and choked like she’d swallowed a wrong-way cough drop, it was already over. Her baby was gone. She’d spent a whole day in the hospital but didn’t call until she was hungry and hot and waiting for her husband to bring the car around. I was upset she didn’t call me earlier, but it wasn’t my place to have feelings at a time like this.
Rachel hugged Sarah from behind, her arms wrapped around her stomach. Only when Sarah started to laugh at her eighteen-year-old sister clinging to her in a flower shop, only when her lips actually started to curve into a smile and her ribcage started to vibrate with laughter, did Rachel release her. I fiddled with my twisty branch. As the sister closest to Sarah in age and personality, I’d failed. I was supposed to help her move on, not trap her in some second-rate flower class.
“You guys ready to bounce?” Rachel asked, calling out my failure.
I rotated my arrangement in a circle, ninety degrees at a time as the teacher suggested, to ensure it looked even on all sides. It didn’t. “The class isn’t officially over for another half hour.”
Sarah stared at her flowers, clippers in one hand and a gerbera daisy in the other. Her brown eyes were huge and wet. Instead of arranging them, she simply cradled them in her arms and pressed them against her chest.
“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s go.”
On the way out, I murmured to the instructor, “Thanks. Sorry to leave early.” She opened her mouth, why wouldn’t we stay, it was just a half hour more, but the door bells jangled as we pushed onto the street.
I lugged my ugly arrangement in its generic glass vase down Broadway, past a Duane Reade and a conglomeration of girl stores. The buildings pushed higher and wider as we neared Penn Station.
It took two blocks to notice Rachel wasn’t next to us. I found her a block back, plucking flowers from her bunch and passing them to homeless people, ladies with babies, a woman our mother’s age in a McDonald’s uniform. The street swarmed, and the flowers were gone in minutes. I smiled at Sarah, hoping she’d think it was sweet, too. She scowled.
“I want my bouquet and I don’t care if it’s misshapen. It’s mine. If you don’t want your flowers, I’ll take them.” Sarah snatched the arrangement from my hands and hugged our two bouquets to her chest. “Tell the goober we’re gonna leave her if she doesn’t catch up, yeah?”
I backtracked until I caught Rachel’s attention, and she jogged toward us. When I returned to Sarah, I found her crouched on hands and knees in front of a large planter outside Madison Square Garden. I thought she might be crying. Vomiting. Her body heaved forward and back as she rocked on her heels like a mourner. I ran to her.
Sarah’s hands were deep in the dirt, fingernails scratching at flower stalks, grasping, collecting messy roots. Torn tulips sheafed like wheat in her fists. “Hey,” I said quietly, “people are staring.”
“Let them. I fucking want these flowers.”
Rachel caught up.
Sarah consumed what was left of Rachel’s arrangement, taking it into the great maw of her arms. Her limbs were full with three vases, mismatched flowers, leaves from the tulips she plucked from their small allotment of city soil. Her hunger couldn’t be sated by what she held; she raked through the black-brown dirt of the planters, dumping the armfuls at her feet so she could kneel over the public flora on the hard sidewalk outside of Penn Station. Sarah clutched the stone basin that had held a springtime display but was now shards of green and orange and a dusting of pollen. I kneeled next to her in my denim shorts, knees scraping the rough concrete, and tried to help her carry her burden, begged her to stop tearing at the tender sprouts, tried to make her stand up and breathe and look at me and breathe, breathe, it doesn’t matter that everyone is either gawking at us or avoiding us—New Yorkers dodge any scene that doesn’t make sense, just calm down it’ll be okay, no of course I can’t guarantee it’ll be okay but I hope to God it is because if it isn’t then where does that leave any of us, so look into my eyes, take a deep breath, we’ll get you home.
She didn’t listen to me, but all Rachel had to do was squat next to us and place her hand on Sarah’s back. Fourteen years between them, they looked like mother and daughter themselves.
“Thank you, Goobs.” Sarah took Rachel’s hand and stood.
I couldn’t blame them for submitting to our family’s long-standing determinism: Sarah will always be strong and independent, Rachel will always be a free spirit and I will always be undefined, trapped in the interstices. In high school, I used to sneak out of the house to see if anyone noticed. I’d climb out my window, cross the street to the neighbor’s house, lie in their grass and stare at the stars. After an hour or two, I crossed back, clambered through my window and tucked myself in.
This tragedy belonged to Sarah. Our parents and Rachel and every friend and distant relative was offering support. This wasn’t about me. Not about me losing a nephew, about how I was rushing to knit a baby blanket before he was born and how now he might never be. The blanket was a surprise; Sarah still didn’t know I’d taught myself to knit. It wasn’t for me to daydream about reading Goodnight Moon to my sister’s son. It wasn’t my place to feel angry that I’d waited in the wings while she struggled to conceive, and it wasn’t her fault I was ready for a child of my own but wanted my big sister to go first. It wasn’t fair that our mother had three tough pregnancies and I was counting on Sarah to show me our genes weren’t cursed.
The maroon and navy seats of the train were a shiny, rubbery material that chased the backs of my thighs. We didn’t talk as the train raced through the underground passageways, as we passed the crowded haze of Secaucus, the frenzy of tourists at Newark, the industrial landscape transitioning into playgrounds and fake-looking town squares and swaying oaks outside colonials. The heap of wilted flowers sat in Sarah’s lap. She rested her head on Rachel’s shoulder; I propped my knees on the back of the seat in front of me, legs curled inward.
Even though I’d heard about Sarah’s new suburban lifestyle, it was strange to see her at the elevated helm of a red RAV4. I sat in the passenger seat and the goober poked her face into the space between us to commentate during the drive. “I can’t wait to sleep over at your place, even if it’s just to get away from my roommates and cafeteria food.” “Hey, Sarah, how much did it cost to buy your own house? Dad says you should’ve put more down. Is that a mortgage thing? Do you have a mortgage?” “Do you ever go to that mall? It has a 16 Handles.” “You know, you look kinda like Mom in those sunglasses.”
Although she didn’t answer any of the questions, Sarah glanced into the rearview mirror and I caught a hint of a smile. When Rachel was five, we gave her an old-fashioned tape recorder to spare ourselves the endless chatter. She sat in the playroom for hours, singing tunelessly and narrating fairy tales into the wheels of magnetic tape. Early in Sarah’s pregnancy, she and I helped our mother clean out the basement. Rachel’s tapes were hidden in a shoebox labeled simply “GOOBER” in my teenage scrawl. The musty smell of wicker surrounding us, Sarah and I sat in ancient basement recliners and listened to our little sister incorrectly sing the Star-Spangled Banner. What so loudly we held at the twilight’s last leaving. Leaning back in the fake leather seat, Sarah rested her hand on her belly and said, “That’s what I want.”
We pulled into the driveway of a little juniper-hedged house. Without officially inviting us in, Sarah entered through the garage and left the door open behind her. We followed. Cardboard boxes sprouted in the living room where she and Jeremy hadn’t finished moving in. We followed her past the living room, into the kitchen, through the hallway. She paused by an open door. Despite the unpacked maelstrom in the rest of the house, the nursery was flawless: the walls were painted a crisp gray and overlaid with stencils of white tree branches and orange birds. The crib stood erect; a storage unit along the opposite wall matched in white and orange. Side-by-side rocking chairs faced the crib.
I waited for a cue from Sarah, but Rachel pushed past both of us and entered the sanctuary. “It’s really pretty,” she said. “You did an amazing job.” She sat on the furry rug next to the crib and leaned her back against the painted wood slats.
Sarah followed her and sat in a rocking chair. I sat in the other. “What now?” she asked in a too-even tone.
Rachel drew out a big vodka bottle from a multicolored, vaguely ethnic-looking messenger bag. She lifted an eyebrow in our direction.
“Rachel!” I said. “You aren’t even twenty-one. How did you get this?”
She shrugged. “A friend.”
Sarah laughed. “Calm down, Lea. She’s in college.” She rocked back and stretched her arms toward the wall behind her. “And shit, I haven’t had alcohol in more than five months.” She rocked forward again. “I’ll see if we have any orange juice.”
Rachel used her teeth to rip the seal off the cap. “I’m not a crazy college kid, I swear, but today doesn’t feels like a day for mixers.” She pulled out the stopper and handed the bottle to Sarah. “Why don’t you do the honors?”
Sarah tapped her fingers against the glass for a moment before taking a swig. She shuddered like a wet animal shaking out its fur and passed the bottle to me. “I’m the one who’s been through something traumatic, not you. Maybe try to loosen up a little?”
“I’m loose.” My lips burned as the lukewarm liquid made contact. “I want to help you get through this,” I said, coughing a little at the sear in my throat, “but this is more than just your trauma. I mean, of course you own it, but he was our nephew. We’re feeling things, too.”
“Not the same way I am.”
“No, not the same way you are.”
“Are you afraid you’ll end up like me?” Sarah asked, a mean edge to her voice.
I took another swig of vodka and coughed again. “Kind of, yeah.” I expected Sarah to hate me for not being there for her in her grief, but she nodded as though I’d passed a test.
The light from the window was turning the golden-orange of dusk. “Let me show you something.” Sarah slid to the floor and crawled to the cabinet. A cord, an outlet, something made of dark plastic. The ceiling lit up with speckled yellow stars. A lamp on the floor made the solar system spin overhead, streaks of blue and purple floating like galaxies.
Sarah lay at the foot of my rocking chair. The swirling masses were indistinguishable, constellations from a dream of the night sky. Bits of green and pink floated around the blue and purple, like celestial beings hobnobbing among the stars. Sarah propped herself up, took another swig, then lay back down.
“He looked like an actual baby, you know.”
The cosmos machine whirred.
“They said I could wait a few days for him to come out naturally if I wanted to hold him. He was a little bigger than my hand, with fingernails and facial features and everything.”
I knew that already. After Sarah called from the hospital, I Googled miscarried fetuses. In my photos, the slimy purple babies were miniatures, each foot a large almond, each toe a grain of coarse salt. On one face, delicate features looked molded from maroon wax; another baby’s face was slicked by a slimy mask of placenta that made it look suffocated.
The window darkened to black and the simulated stars shone brighter.
Sarah cleared her throat. “I couldn’t stand the thought of him inside me for days. Rotting. Driving to work, making an omelet, and him just there. I couldn’t go through labor and then not have a child. I wanted the D&E. I wanted to get him out of me.”
Many of the online babies were dressed in bows and hats and baby clothes so small they wouldn’t fit a doll. I wondered what the gooey-looking skin felt like. Satin? Jell-O?
“I asked to see the remains they took out,” Sarah said, “but my doctor said it would only be a bloody collection of mashed-up cells, and that wasn’t how I should remember my baby.”
Rachel lay down next to Sarah and curled into the nook of her arm.
I propelled myself back and forth in the rocking chair. “I wish there were some way for you to get closure,” I said. “Like, a ritual.”
“We should hold a funeral,” Rachel said. “Go to the cemetery and all that.”
“There’s nothing to bury,” Sarah said. “The remains got thrown out with the rest of the hospital’s biowaste. All I’ve got is a pair of bloody, stained underwear.”
“Fine,” Rachel said. “We’ll bury your underwear.”
The lights glittered on the ceiling. Crickets chirped through the open window.
Rachel lifted the bottle. “Soon.”
We passed the bottle around. Out of nowhere, Sarah laughed. “Hey Goobs, do you remember the first time Lea ever got drunk?”
Rachel paused, bottle halfway to her lips. “I was probably, what, nine? How would I remember that?”
Sarah smiled at me and I couldn’t help laughing, too.
“Remember my secret sickness? You were breaking the rules by staying up way past your bedtime. So when Sarah had to carry me back into the house—I was seriously falling all over myself—we told you I had the secret sickness.”
Rachel’s eyes widened. “The mystical illness that would kill you off if I told Mom or Dad. Where one symptom is that you vomit up coins, which is why you offered to give me whatever you found if I didn’t tattle.” She laughed. “God, I was a gullible kid. For years I thought it was something that only affected teenagers, and I spent half of high school afraid I’d catch the secret sickness someday.” With a pout, she said, “You should’ve paid me off with more than a dollar-fifty.”
“How much do you want?” I jokingly fished in my purse for my wallet. She really had grown up. I loved seeing how the years had changed her, and how they hadn’t. “I’ll never forget how sweet you were, Baby Goob. You sat next to me in the bathroom for hours, even after Sarah tried to force you to sleep. You held my hair whenever I puked, brought me water, sang me all your favorite songs. You didn’t even question me too hard when I handed you all the coins I could find in the couch and told you they were from the secret sickness.”
“You didn’t have to tell me they were vomit coins. Did you know I washed them in the sink before using them? Twice.”
I laughed. “The prerogative of an older sister.”
Sarah leaned back in her rocking chair and let out something that sounded like a sob. But then she did it again, and it was a laugh. I found, to my surprise, that my body also ached for release; as I loosened the mental reins on my chest, on my core, on my belly, I couldn’t stop laughing. Rachel stared at the two of us, bewildered. She was supposed to be the crazy one who giggled at inappropriate moments. Her role was as our pressure valve, our goofball, yet here we were, tears running down our faces, unable to stop our diaphragms from pumping air, gasping for breath at the thought of little Rachel scrubbing coins in the sink, joining a cabal of teenage secrets without even realizing it. Finally she must’ve understood that we weren’t laughing at her juvenile gullibility but at her innate sweetness, that our laughter wasn’t meant to exclude her but to invite her into our cabal once again. And suddenly she joined us, wheezing with the gusto she’d always unwittingly employed in moments of levity, like a small animal screaming or dying as air struggled through its amused windpipes. And then the tears that streamed down my face were tears of hilarious laughter and also of loss, and Sarah was crying, too. I couldn’t stop laughing but I was also crying, and I couldn’t name the emotions streaming out from my face because they were etched on my body but as yet inscrutable to my brain.
Rachel’s talent was reading her older siblings, understanding what we needed in a prescient little sister way. Maybe it was all the years of watching us, wishing to be one of the big girls. Maybe she was jealous because Sarah and I were friends before she was alive, or because we were allowed to stay up until ten on weekends, when we whispered bedtime stories about friends at school after the lights went out and she was long asleep. I’d always envied Rachel’s freedom, the simplicity with which she said what she wanted and usually got it. To me, her casual confidence was the result of her place as the youngest of our family, the last child our parents would ever have, the delicate baby to be protected from the world. Compared to my older and younger sisters, I’d always come up wanting, like some unformed middle. But surely the gooey core of Rachel’s selfhood coagulated around the contours of the two sisters she’d never lived a day without. She was a force of nature, to me, more independent than anyone else in our family. But then I remembered how she held my hair when I was sixteen, and it made sense that she was the first one to put on her shoes.
As Rachel tied brown laces into a bow, Sarah asked, “Are we really doing this? You don’t seriously want to see my stained panties.”
Rachel swigged. “I seriously do.”
Sarah disappeared and returned with something in a plastic sandwich baggie.
“You don’t have to hide it like that,” Rachel said. “We’re all women here.”
“Says the goober.”
Sarah left for a moment and came back with a cardigan for me. “You always get cold.” Rachel darted back to the nursery and returned with her arms full of the day’s flowers.
I slipped my older sister’s sweater over my shoulders and flipped off the lights behind us.
There were no lamps on the quiet suburban street; only a handful of homes illuminated their street numbers. The darkness was unimaginably deeper than in Manhattan, a darkness that hummed and pulled me skyward. Pink and green streaks winked across the cosmic ceiling. My shadow in the moonlight stretched long over the asphalt of the street.
Rachel hummed random notes under her breath. I hummed along tunelessly, clashily, both of us compelled by the same something. The night shimmered, not in one particular place but in the air we breathed, like glitter expanding and contracting in our chests. Moonlight blazed against a balled-up wad of aluminum foil littering the sidewalk; it caressed more softly a neighbor’s mailbox.
The cemetery was modern and clean, headstones buffed like the corporate marble of an office building. I’d pictured a romantic place pocked with ancient names carved into weathered limestone. Fake flowers and American flags stabbed the earth with plastic at the foot of many headstones. A few wealthy families erected gaudy mausoleums for their dead, portraits of smiling faces scratched into granite walls.
I paused to read a slim, partially faded grave marker. A woman named Ethel died in 1943 at age fifty-five. I imagined what it must have been like to live here back then, wondered what Ethel’s favorite food was, decided that she was the mother of two boys and a girl. Dead two years before the final surrender, she never saw the end of the war. She had sons and brothers and nephews overseas, dying, fighting, and she never learned who won. I imagined that Ethel’s descendants lived nearby, maybe even visited her occasionally. The wind tonight felt ancient and I imagined it was her. The humid air whistled through my brain.
We strolled the grounds slowly, Rachel shedding petals from the bundle in her arms. Although it was her idea to visit the graveyard, she and Sarah fell into step behind me. I enjoyed the centrality. I thought about Vodou rituals and whether we might try to raise the dead, try to reclaim the joy when we learned our family would have its first grandchild. I wondered whether we were angering those buried here by trampling their graves, or if we were celebrating them.
Sarah swigged and passed the bottle around. As I drank deeply, my vision melted into something fluid.
Sarah let out a howl that shook the dark branches towering above us and pierced me with my own fears. Yes, she would try again and would probably have a healthy pregnancy eventually. But no number of babies would erase the shocking revelation that our bodies were capable of creating life but also of snatching it away.
Rachel rested her arm on Sarah’s shoulder. “You sound like a wolf.”
“I am a wolf,” Sarah said in all seriousness, tears streaming down her face. She turned to me. “Try it.”
I took a breath and howled, one she-wolf to another. Across the graveyard,
Rachel stood on a squat grave marker and roared into the night air. Her
voice reminded me of childhood, but also opened up the future: the goober
she was, the woman she would become. My head throbbed pleasantly, like a
fish bobbled by an endless stream of bubbles in its tank, pushing its whole
body toward the surface. My ears pop-pop-pop-popped with the swimming
I felt the weight of Sarah’s bloated belly, the stinging stretch marks that belied the fact she’d never had a child. The shame and confusion when a woman at a wedding asked her when she was due, when the baby was two weeks gone. I saw the world through Rachel’s technicolored lenses, the blinding emotional contours that we teased as melodrama, the painful desire to ease Sarah’s sorrow, to see me happy. And I felt myself understood, unexpectedly, not as an afterthought but at the forefront of my sisters’ psyches. The acute awareness of me as the sensitive one in the family, the quiet one, but also the one who never forgot a birthday. The one who mailed care packages when Sarah left for college and Rachel went to sleepaway camp for the first time, the one who’d stay up till three in the morning on the phone if her sister needed to talk, even if she had a big presentation the next day at work. They saw me, and they loved me.
“So, are we going to do it?” I asked finally.
Rachel shifted her weight. “I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea.” Petals fell from her arms onto the dark ground. “Classic Goober. Sorry.” She laughed uncomfortably.
All night we’d followed a nineteen-year-old. A kind, sweet, hair-holding, demanding, shot-calling, imperious child. But I was an adult. I’d been through many rites of my own: living by myself, losing my virginity, falling in love, getting married, understanding my own self-sufficiency. Each of those deserved a tent pole, a monument. I feared the rites I hadn’t experienced, too: divorce, death of a parent, estrangement, miscarriage. These events, too, deserved monuments.
I cracked a branch off a bush and started burrowing into a patch of unblemished grass. Heaping the flowers onto the soil, Rachel hovered by my side and dug with her bare hands. After a long while, Sarah joined us.
When our hole was about six inches deep, I asked her, “Can I see it?”
“That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”
Sarah handed me the Ziploc baggie. I removed the panties from the plastic, lifting them by their elastic waistband. They felt normal, cotton, similar to ones I’d worn a thousand times myself.
“Oh Lea, please don’t touch my soiled underwear.”
I held the blue-striped, Victoria’s Secret low-rises up to the moonlight. “This would have been my nephew.” I set them in the cozy burrow and gazed down on them. This is the closest I had ever come to touching the corpse of someone beloved.
I was the first to throw earth into the hole. My sisters followed and the shallow grave was filled within minutes. Rachel rested the flowers on top, baby’s breath blowing in the wind.