Here at last, the second place finisher in the Summer of Fiction competition–so appropriate for this holiday season.
We’re certain, like us, you’ll enjoy this fine story and ache just a bit, maybe shed a tear.
Happy holidays for whatever way you choose to celebrate!
Sleeping with Tiramisu
by D’Arcy Fallon
It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve stolen Tiramisu from my sister. Tiramisu is my sister’s fourteen-pound pug. She is a delectable baby doll of a dog—part bat, part gargoyle, so squat and cute you want to pick her up and squeeze her like an accordion. Hyper-alert, bug-eyed, with a quizzical frown splashed across her squashed black mug, she’s the canine version of the actress Maggie Smith, who always looks slightly alarmed. Tiramisu means “pick me up” in Italian, and so I have.
She grunts, snuffles, shudders. Her flesh is loose and jiggly. She reminds me of a barmaid who has just shucked off her girdle after a long day working for tips. Now she’s ready to start guzzling martinis. When I shift my position on the waterbed down in the basement where we lie, she trains one lazy brown eye on me and winks.
“Tiramisu,” Mary calls. I imagine her lifting up a sofa pillow or looking under the dining room table. “Come here, sweetie.”
“You better go before her head explodes,” I tell the dog.
I have always coveted my sister’s things and today it’s no different. As a child, it was her Walter Farley Black Stallion books, her collection of plastic palominos, her carefully folded mohair sweaters sheathed in plastic bags, those shiny brown loafers snazzed out with fresh Roosevelt dimes. The mere fact that she owned these things made me desire them. If she’d kept a mound of mud in a mayonnaise jar, I would’ve yearned for one too.
In junior high, I stole her granny dresses and wore them to school, then quickly changed before she got home. But Mary had a sixth sense about my thievery; coming straight home from band practice, she’d fling her flute case on the bed and yank open the closet in the bedroom we shared. Fingering the dresses for body warmth, sniffing them under the armpits, she’d quickly ferret out the one I just stepped out of.
“Thanks a lot,” she’d say and stomp around her in go-go boots.
She was Planet Mary and I was her moon, eagerly revolving around her. I couldn’t escape her gravitational pull. I circled her because she came fifteen months earlier, sharp-elbowed, opinionated, scrappy. I imprinted on her like a damp hand in powered sugar, memorizing the sweet shape of her down to the whorls in my fingertips. When she got glasses, I cried because I wanted them too and tried to flunk an eye test to get a pair. (Now I wear glasses and she’s had laser surgery.)
Riven by deep hungers and far-reaching plans, my sister saw all the way into the future, past the acne and mean boyfriends, the endless waiting until she could shed us and wriggle a life of her own choosing.
Upstairs, her office wall is plastered with first- and second-place ribbons she won at equestrian events. The card table in the basement is heaped with inexpensive presents and rolls of wrapping paper, as if she’s bought presents for everyone who lives down her lane.
This year, I’m sensitive about presents.
My husband was laid off from his job two months ago. Laid off, as in canned, fired, permanently “let go.” We’re panicked about money, certain we will lose our house. Many lifetimes ago, as a newspaper reporter covering the poverty beat, I wrote about how many middle-class Americans were only a few paychecks away from possible bankruptcy. Now it’s our turn. Psychically, I am eight years old, needy, teary, touchy.
My husband, teen-age son, and I have flown out to California to spend Christmas with Mary and the rest of the family. The day after Christmas we’ll drive down to San Diego, where I have interviews at an annual job fair for prospective English teachers. Could there be a worse time to job-hunt? People will be hung over from spending too much on presents and worried that they can’t compete with all the other newly minted PhDs sizing them up in hotel lobbies.
I’ve spent $300 on a suit from Nordstrom’s that I can’t afford, bought three-inch heels, and dyed my hair for these academic encounters. The anxiety will be palpable at the job fair—I just know it. We’ll be as jittery and anxious as dogs at the pound, radiating hot miserable waves of please-like-me. I’m queasy about my half-hour interview in some anonymous room with a panel of unknown questioners; afraid I’ll be outed at any moment as a fraud and a geezer. Too old, too tired, not really qualified.
But we have to get through Christmas first. At my sister’s sprawling country house outside Sacramento, we rent shoot-’em-ups from Blockbuster and watch reruns of Big Love. We play Scrabble. Mary’s husband, a tall hunky Nordic plumber, wipes us out in one swoop with the word “Faustian.” We eat chocolate truffles from Harry and David’s and cold turkey sandwiches on thick sourdough bread. One brother sneaks whiskey out on the porch. The sober one sips a latte and strums Grateful Dead songs on his guitar. The youngest brother recaps his star turn in a local community theater, laying it on thick with an Irish accent. “Well, boyo, and what will the lads be tinking next?” he booms. When did that kid learn to project? My father’s doing a Sudoku puzzle; my mother’s making bouillabaisses.
Mary goes down to the barn, in rubber boots and sweatpants, me trailing like always. She’s tiny and strong, with curly blond hair that energetically bounces as she moves. Honestly, she’s pretty adorable. She cleans out stalls and grooms her latest equestrian love object, a young pinto named Sef. She also keeps an eye on Tiramisu, making sure she doesn’t get underfoot.
“So how are you?” Mary asks me, her arms in furious constant motion, sweeping, currying, measuring out grain.
“Oh, okay. Nervous about the interview.”
“Yeah, I bet. It’s really nerve-wracking, isn’t it?” Brush, sweep, scoop. “So what do you think of the baby?”
“Sef! Isn’t he gorgeous?” She nuzzles his velvety nose, slips him a piece of carrot.
Actually, he reminds me of another horse she had years ago, a big white gelding named Chico who developed cancer of the penis. She had to rub a special unguent on it every day. My brothers and I kidded her about it, never missing an opportunity to ask her, “How’s Chico? How’s his … penis?”
She ignored us. She loved Chico. And she’s a nurse, used to handling body parts. One time her husband’s Great Dane puppy, Sophie, got kicked in the head by one of the horses, knocking her out cold. Mary gave Sophie mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the hay. Sophie lived, but was never quite right after that.
Sister love is complicated. Mary and I got stoned together. Hiked in Mt. Diablo State Park on New Year’s Day together, giggling among the wind-sculpted rocks and stands of junipers. We used to send each other cards on Mother’s Day, mocking that cloying holiday, writing: “Thank god we’re not mothers!” I was the maid of honor at her wedding, as she was at mine. We’ve seen each other drunk, sad, furious, and crazy jealous. But lately, we drifted.
Maybe it’s me. For most of my adult life, I lived away from my family—in Colorado or the Midwest. My sister, with her menagerie of pets (she has fifteen dogs, many rescued from puppy mills), has never come to visit. I’m the one who comes to California to see my family, to pay homage to my sister, admire her animal kingdom, gush over her to-die-for house.
My sister is childless by choice. I have one son, a teenager who seems mad at me all the time, skulking around the house, and resenting the big changes that seem to be winging our way.
“News flash, Mom,” he’s taken to telling me lately, “it’s not all about you.”
My sister, I know, can be critical (and amused) by any teen-age backtalk. She’s never had to tolerate the contempt of a 15-year-old who knows all her weaknesses, sit through a basketball game where her kid seems permanently benched, or endure the silent treatment during a three-hour car ride through the desert.
The poet Louise Gluck writes: “Of two sisters one is the watcher, one the dancer.” In our separate lives, my sister and I both dance. We’re divas in our own operas. It’s only when I am with her that I become subordinate, second-in-command. The watcher. And with the watching comes envy.
But what is envy next to anti-depressants, hormones, and the inevitable sag of aging? We’re getting old. We’re becoming those women with the heavy, drawn-on eyebrows we used to mock.
Next to mortality, sister-envy is nothing.
We used to make fun of our grandmother CeCe, who was parked in a nursing home and furious about her keepers. “She was a witch!” she would utter with fierce indignation, eyes flashing like Bette Davis, when asked about her latest helper. We could end up like her, hurling our bedpans down the hall.
It will come soon enough. In two weeks, I’ll turn fifty. There is nothing I can do but totter towards my birthday in tight new shoes.
Tiramisu burrows next to me, snoring. Should I deliver her to my sister’s arms like an errant Fed Ex package? Will she accuse me of alienating her dog’s affection?
Upstairs, the TV is blaring. My sister’s sharp heels bounce across the floor. She pauses. Pivots. The basement door opens. Light splashes down the stairs.
News flash, Mom: It’s not about you.
But please, just for tonight, leave me something.
“Tiramisu?” My sister pauses on the landing. “Are you down there?”
“Shh,” I whisper. “Don’t say a word.”