Nurse lifts up a band at the baby’s ankle and turns it over for identification. “A little girl,” Nurse says, as if she hadn’t just seen the kid’s genitalia when she was rinsed, diapered, and wriggled into a yellow body-bag of long felt sleeves and footies. She’s holding a clipboard and pouts out of a face of orange rouge while my mother makes up her mind, and I’m there picking my nose right in front of her because it’s too clogged-up-warm in this room to breathe.
There’s trays and trays of babies here. Each in a pee pan, each looking sucker-punched and raw as a skinned carrot. This one on her back has this scream like she’s got a spike in her chest. And ours—it’s not what a baby’s supposed to look like, bubble-gummed onto Mom’s chest. With a face like that, the nose acting more like a corner than an indicator of a center, one brown eye hunkered down under a banana bruise of an eyebrow, the other peeping out a cave in her face because the face hadn’t understood that what an eye really needs are lashes and tear ducts and sclera and lids that click shut. She makes a noise like gnawm gnawm while she eats. And here she still was two years later, pooping like a puma in our living room. Little broken baby Olive.
What I saw was a rotten, dirty kid and what I saw was it is hard to make up your mind.
Sixteen years later, I’m a bicycle cabby in D.C. for the summer. It’s drowsy warm and drizzling and I can only wear sundresses on my days off. I need a whole year off. I cut the phone lines by simply not ever installing them in my apartment, and I moved out of my house without leaving a forwarding address. I cut my hair. I wear ball caps.
Still, Olive finds me somehow, wearing a poncho they sell for five dollars on the street. The rain comes down like thumb tacks and I’ve got my own company-issued poncho on, plastic hood over my cap, when she turns the corner on the street and, with a little hiccup in her stride, turns towards me straight through a puddle and walks up. I can hardly see her face through the hood around her head, the draw-strings tight as a fist. She’s come from the Portrait Gallery, or I’m imagining she’s coming from there – and I’m jumpy at first when she climbs into my cab pulling her poncho down to cover her butt, and she asks me how much. She’ll know me by my shoulder blades, she’ll know me by my voice.
I cough a little, fake an Indi accent, ask her where she wants to go.
The Cloisters on Michigan Ave.
This is where I live.
I bike her there, hanging to the right of the road, trying not to rub tires with the actual cars. She’s light as a Cocker Spaniel, or I’m just getting stronger.
When we arrive, she pays me. She pays me, she looks into my hand when we arrive, she keeps her head low and out of sight, says thank you through the fist, and walks up to the door where presumably she buzzes for me.
I wait for her hand to come down on mine before I get nervy enough to say All live.
Our father chews away at a hangnail with a dirty pair of clippers while I watch Olive cross-legged on the rug, puncturing Birthing Bunny in the gut with a letter opener. She needles it in slowly, experimenting with the cushiness of bunny’s tummy as she tries to dig her babies out. There’s no real reason to. Birtha’s got a Velcro incision in her crotch where six miniature rabbits are stored, but Olive wants them out her way. Poor stabbed Birtha spasms in her lap, being gutted alive in a dramatic cesarean.
I creep towards her, make a little vulture circle till my shadow stretches across her banged-in head. I’m eight and policing the dangerous tools since I know how to use them and Olive’s just four. I’m twice as old, which means twice as smart, and bending down, I snatch the letter opener from her, going, “No.” She looks right at me, that is to say into me. Her face is like a melting face. “You do not kill bunnies.” I nab the punctured rabbit from her and set it on a high ledge far away from Olive and safe in Stuffed Animal Hospice, where the beans can fall out of her stomach in peace.
Of course she screams. Olive wails right from the abdomen, one eye in a pinch and the other wide open like a squid’s. Her hands are on me before I can get away and she pinches her whole fat body around my calf, squeezes tight with surprisingly strong legs, and shoves her front teeth down in the soft space behind my knee.
Our father is an advocate of the hands-off model.
“Oww Ow Ow Ow OW OW OW OW OW GET OFF ME,” I yelp, pounding on her head as her teeth come into me like an apple. My knee buckles. I start kicking hard kicks at her with my free leg, pull down on her hair, her ear, dig my fingernails into her neck, anything, using the bone in my ankle like a sledge.
And I perfect this technique so I’m a knockout for soccer in the spring.
Maybe what our father actually practices is eye-for-an-eye theology and maybe what our father actually does is unfold Olive like an ironing board, flatten out her arms and legs with his arms, pushing her rug-burn-firm into the beige carpet, and chomp his full-grown-Dad chops down hard on her little leg till she bleeds, and then comes after me. And my head.
She’s put to bed instead in a beige burping-gown and below the blankets is frumpy and frog-like, and I’m nervous she’ll fall asleep and choke on her spit or something. We are forced to share a room. I poke my finger through her crib at night and she takes it.
When I’m sixty, Mom is finally dead and gets put in a little ceramic cup, and that gets put in a plot in the ground next to Dad, who wanted to be buried whole. Olive is at the wake and, when I ditch after cold cuts, it means I don’t know anymore where Olive is.
I die first, and everyone comes and argues over what to do with me.
They called it private family educational tutorials, when Olive was so small she could still fit in a sandcastle bucket. Dr. Whitmoyer the Thin, who was all legs in leggings, had us sit on the couch as a family, and it sunk under my tush like a bag of rice. The whole room smelled like pencil shavings. Sunlight came in a slab from between the curtains and I made shadows across it by lifting my legs and twisting at the ankle.
“This family is here to comprehend the neuropsychological impact of facial deformities in newborn and infant peoples,” Dr. Whitmoyer said. She was supposed to be a fresh, young genius on the subject, and she crossed her legs when she opened her mouth. “What’s most vital to the child’s neurodevelopment from infanthood to normal adulthood is the role of the face in communication and human-to-human bonding.”
She had us take turns holding Olive in our arms and making faces at her. First positive expressions, then negative. What she needed was variety. Creativity. I choose goofy and cranky.
“Use complete sentences to develop higher brain-functioning capacity,” said Dr. Whitmoyer. “Communication between one human and another is the hallmark of our species.”
Mom gripped Olive by her fatty sides and concentrated, rolled her eyes back so her lids fluttered and sloppily licked her lips and groaned, “Marinated steaks. Shish kabobs. Tender chicken tenders drizzled with honey mustard. Lamb chops. Turkey legs. Fish sticks. Meat on a stick, that sounds good… One word for this is ravenous. Or wolfish. Think archaic brute man.”
Olive reached out with perfect pudgy baby fingers to explore Mom’s nose and ears. She took what she found into her mouth.
Sometimes when we would go I would put my hand out to Dr. Whitmoyer to see what she would pluck up from her desk and set into my hands seeing as how empty they were—there was a candy dish and a laser pen and a koosh with a hedgehog head—and what she chose was an interactive plastic mold of the human brain, whose hemispheres and sub-regions—variously labeled “frontal lobe,” “parietal lobe,” “occipital lobe,” “cerebellum,” “temporal lobe,” and a purple “brain stem” which had little plastic veins in the end connecting the brain to the neck and back—could be pulled apart and put back in place via Velcro strips.
When it came time for me to hold Olive, it was all I could do to not smell her. Her diaper was ripe and whatever it was full of settled when she curled there in my arms. A little white worm of snot poked out her nose and her breath was not like baby’s breath.
There was no other way for me to hold her but like a tennis racket lying on its side. Whitmoyer the Thin told me to prop up her head, so I did. Whitmoyer the Thin told me to talk to her face, so I did.
I’m waiting around for her to die. All this time, I expect it. She gets the flu, she vomits a puddle around herself, and while they strip off her onesie and drop it like a hunk in the kitchen sink, and our father uses the sink sprayer to hose her down and our mother cleans out her mouth by getting Olive to suck on a cool wet rag, I know she’s a goner. She will die and millions of people will come to the funeral in a congratulatory flock, a hive of pathos around a miniature coffin. We will spend good money on it and purchase a soft plot on a hill under a tree. And the people will apologize and fog-horn and weep raccoon rings around their eyes. The aisles will be blooming with used tissues, and they will really be happy there’s one less karate-chopped face in the world. Our mother will be too distraught to have children ever again and will insist on immediate sterilization and our whole home will undergo vehement sanitation. New carpets, new sinks, new wallpaper and paint and knobs on the kitchen cabinets. She will be overcome with tenderness for me, petting my hair root to tip, me, who she loves, an heir, and when she turns cold to my father, he will kneel down to me too and learn to love me as if I were a canal between two countries.
When she doesn’t die, and she keeps not dying, and she’s gotten through grade-school, middle-school, high-school with that punched-in melon, gets into Oriental Theatre with it, gets a part in a Bunraku – that’s puppet theatre – where she wears all black and holds a doll nearly as big as her that looks like it’s wearing a red-and-white striped serape, meets one night when a mop slops over her shoes at the theatre an ugly Indonesian girl with rotten pig’s skin and really bad scoliosis, her life becomes the block over which I try not to trip. When they come home for Thanksgiving together and hog the drumsticks and Mom gives us all champagne, when she never goes to college, when she fills up her life with a collection of antique paper fans and asks for the puppets for Christmas, when she keeps not dying and the telephone rings and it’s her with a voice like a mouse nest, and I’m still in school or I’m not still in school, I talk from way up high in Impatience, waiting for life to begin.
She is ten and one half, blond, turning her head crooked when our father brushes her teeth. He invested in electronic brushes that massage a tooth from enamel to gums, and while her teeth shake in the front of her face, our mother brushes her hair from the bottom up in the back, so that her head rocks back and forth like a wooden horse.
I am in the shadow of the mirror, watching this while a pasty Clearasil is filling the holes in my face, the way they lay her on the ground to floss her teeth for her. They changed the bulbs in the bathroom recently—and the room hums with yellow light. Olive is pristine in cleanliness. Blue nightgown, beige slippers. She clomps off to bed where she is gobbled up in dream.
Our parents take me into the living room, where our father laces his fingers together and sets them on his belly, and our mother perches in the fireplace hearth on a small black cushion. They are telling me for the zillionth time to watch over her, because they too are expecting her to die, and that’s what they’re thinking when they purchase a big ceramic garden angel, and that’s what they mean when they fill up her room with pillows, clean linens, fresh lilacs, curtains that fall splendidly from her little window like a capital M.
Ten years old. That makes me fourteen, and into bicycling. Anything having to do with legs and forward momentum.
They are flying to Ireland in the morning. It is simply time for a vacation. They’ve earned it, certainly, and take two separate planes, in case one of them comes down like a roasted goose, so we’ll still have one parent left over.
Our roads were the last to be plowed in the winter, or always seemed like the last because the slush turned worry-brown, and where it melted into puddles one day, it was sure to scab over in ice the next. The plows couldn’t scrape it up, and what snow they could push, they pushed up on the sidewalks. They built snow banks around parked cars. I know this because I was ten when I picked up a local job delivering newspapers by bike. I wore a knit cap under my helmet and specially lined boots and long underwear and double gloves and when Olive asked to come one day I bundled her up myself and snuck her out with me on the back of the bike, her kneeling in the crate above the back wheel and gripping my shoulders with both hands until she got nervous and tipped the bike like a waterglass. We fell into the road in a splosh together and thank God she wasn’t scraped up, though all the newspapers got ruined in the brown slush. And we walked the bike home shaking and a little nervous about all those papers people weren’t getting but we couldn’t do anything about it now but stand over the heat grates together, in our wet socks together. The heat rumbled through the vents. And we shivered into the warm, in stockings and four cold puddles, and then changed back into our nightgowns, and then curled up in the same bed together for heat.
Olive stayed asleep and inside when the snows came down and the newspapers were want to smudge. She stayed in, I went out. And so there existed separate space.
Her name is Lastri, which is a common Indonesian girl’s name. None of her teeth are aligned—they grow out of her gums at odd places and the upper front teeth splay apart like windmill wings. There are lines in a curve down her cheeks that make a closed parenthesis around her mouth. Mascara and thin, black eyebrows. She’s got a nose ring and wears a headscarf, babushka-style. I cannot stop staring at her when she talks. The sounds that come out of her mouth are wooly soft.
She sits with us when Olive performs in Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. I’m next to Dad and Lastri’s next to me. “I want to get to know Olive’s sister,” she says, and squeezes my knee. My leg tightens and I can’t stop feeling strange because of how after dinner she sat on the steps idly until Olive squatted down and kissed her the way beavers gnaw wood. Olive didn’t even need to tilt her head to get her awful nose out of the way.
“Please let go of my knee,” I say.
She does, and puts the offending hand to work retying her scarf.
“Aren’t you an athlete?” Lastri asks.
“You were in crew?”
“Yes. And soccer. And I ran.” There were scholarships. I was good. And now I bicycle my way everywhere.
She asks, “Do you like these plays?”
I tug on my earlobe and I say, “They’re alright.”
Olive’s puppet is fluid and, if you don’t watch Olive’s body, the thing seems so queerly alive. It floats. It reads a letter and leans forward. It’s got a little hand in a fist under her chin. She climbs up a wall up a ladder in her long dress, and her arms stretch up so much, and when she gets to the top, she looks behind her into the theatre at us, and the way she pulls one leg up behind the other is so strangely human. Not like a string puppet, knocking its parts together. Here, Olive had a little dance to get the puppet to crawl up off the ground, a little rhythmic routine to show the doll panting. Olive behind her there like a black cloud, while a narrator stage left reads the story in Japanese or something, and an orchestra provides tone and movement.
Later, when the play is almost over, I lean over secretively to Lastri, and hiss, “Do you even like Olive?”
She nods a deep Buddha nod. “Peculiar,” she says. “You two have the same knees.”
The seats are velvet and bristle when I run my fingers against the grain.
“You are not the same,” is maybe what she said.
She prefers to go by Dwi, which means ‘the second child.’
She may talk nice, but she sang like an asthmatic when she lullabied Olive to sleep.
You’d think the Museum of Medicine is pretty boring, but you’d be wrong. Me and Olive are forced to go one summer to learn about history and baby-making. Our mother and father lean down towards us and when we finally button up, they give us jelly-beans as treats, and while we chew them so the flavors bleed together, they guide our arms through the leash straps. We are there for an interactive exhibit running the entire length of a corridor: The Pelvis from Fish to Man.
Olive is by this time five and likes to get her hands on everything so that our mother has to keep the little muscle between her elbow and bicep tight as a pinch on the harness. I am nine and take two steps to my father’s every one.
What I like is the strangeness of evolution. What Olive likes is the wooden, human pelvis with a matching rag doll with the smooth, wooden head.
When I say ‘smooth’ I mean ‘featureless.’
In the Museum of Medicine there’s an old model of a pelvis that was used to teach proper childbirth technique. Olive is half-way through pushing the doll back through the vagina head-first when my mother jerks back on the leash.
At least through May, Melissa Goodrich is an undergraduate studying fiction and poetry at Susquehanna University. She peers precarious over that cliff called senior year, calling out words like “collect” and “kerosene” to see which gets swallowed. Her fiction appears in PANK and her heart pans from that little glass garden called the Bucknell Younger Poets. They are all twelve of them, wonderful.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2011 print issue