Diane Sherry Case
It was Fourth of July and Mia was entertaining with the enormous energy that blasted from her year after year, like a Roman candle no one could extinguish. On her patio, in front of the ocean, under a huge yellow hat, she laughed, her head thrown back in a show of abandon. She once told me that this particularly sexy laugh, mouth wide open and head thrown back, was how she had attracted so many wealthy men.
With her twenty or thirty guests, Mia didn’t notice me, hovering in the shadow of the doorway. I had taken a cab from the airport, and was let in by the housekeeper. Scanning the patio, I looked for my younger sister, Celia. I hadn’t told her that I was flying in from New York with a fantasy that, together as a family, we could confront her problem and cure her with love.
A couple of well-oiled bathing beauties laughed at jokes told by men with powerful voices. A few fabulous older women reapplied their lipstick or checked out each others’ purses. I had worn white, instead of my usual black, in an effort to be appropriate for Malibu. I even managed to keep my white blouse clean on the five-hour flight. But now I felt like a ghost, invisible in the shadows and fading as I stepped into the bright sunlight, and still no one saw me.
“I have the best story about margaritas,” Mia said. She held court at a table of eight while a muscular young waiter served margaritas.
Mia paused to make sure she had everyone’s attention, licked the salt off her lipstick, and began.
“I was twenty-two at the time, and they were the richest men in the world. I won’t say their names, but they were all billionaires and we were going to Brazil or some goddamned place to hunt jaguar.”
Her audience included a large male producer who evidently knew the characters in Mia’s tale. I wondered if my mother was making it up as she went along, or if she’d read it somewhere.
“All the guys had airplanes and they all knew how to fly. We just chose the best plane and left. I remember the pilot, whose name I won’t mention, had a drink in one hand and me in the other hand. This was between marriages one and two….”
Mia clearly believed this had happened, and it very well might have. But I had never heard the story before and I was born of marriage number one.
“Melanie!” Mia finally noticed me and held out her arms.
“Hi Mom,” I smiled. I didn’t move toward her.
She sat there, arms extended, as if waiting for me to run into her embrace like a long-abandoned two-year-old.
Her right hand drooped slightly with the weight of a diamond ring that could probably feed half of Rwanda. I have always thought it odd that the two things Africa is most known for, aside from wild animals, are diamonds and starvation.
“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man,” my mother always said. But I never found it easy to fall in love with anyone at all.
My boyfriend, Tyler, in fact, once told me that I was incapable of love. I argued with him. Then I thought about it. Whenever he reached out to touch me, I became distracted, thought of something I’d forgotten to do.
There were moments I could see the man I was once so attracted to, but they were fleeting. Usually, I only saw his paunch, or the food in his teeth, or smelled the stale garlic from his lunch and listened to his annoyingly loud sighs.
The night before I left New York, we did have sex, stone cold sober, between the tears and fights. With lavish use of my imagination, I was able to enjoy it immensely.
But afterwards, when he looked into my eyes, I felt oppressed and fearful. I have never found rest or safety in a man’s arms, at least not for very long.
“Can I get you a drink, Melanie? A nice salty margarita?” Mia waited, smiling, for my answer. “Oh no, no, no, I forgot. Of course.”
She acted flustered, as if she’d made a mistake, but it felt to me like she was doing it on purpose.
“What do you drink now, Melanie?” She looked somewhat incredulous. “Coke?”
“A Coke would be fine,” I said.
I smiled hello at Mia’s best friend Gretchen, a once beautiful movie star, who now looked like she spent most of her week in bed with a hangover. Gretchen was Celia’s godmother, though I’m not sure what God had to do with it. Or even mother, for that matter.
“Where’s Celia?” I asked. I needed to see if she was as scary thin as my friend Sandra had said she was. Celia, my only sibling, who at twenty-five, thirteen years younger than me, was almost like a daughter. And I never, ever thought of her as my half-sister, though biologically she was. Leave it to Mia to give me only half a sister.
“Oh, Celia’s always late,” was all Mia had to say, before returning her attention to her guests.
“We had planned to stay two weeks, shooting jaguar,” Mia continued. “But after two days, we’d already killed all the jaguar and there was nothing to do. So, here we are in this god-awful jungle at an incredible mansion that belonged to some plantation owner, and all there was left to do was…”
“Where was I?” I said. The assertiveness of my voice shocked me.
Mia turned to face me and cocked her head. “What?”
I hadn’t meant to interrupt, but now I couldn’t stop. “I was what—two years old? Where was I?”
A maid appeared, wearing a t-shirt with MIA printed in red across her chest.
“Phone for you, Madame.”
“Can’t you see I’m telling a story?” Mia snapped. “I’ll call them back when I finish my goddamned story!”
Mia turned back to her guests and smiled. “So. Here we were in this jungle and we’d killed all of the jaguar and there was nothing left to do but drink margaritas and have sex in the pool. Well, as everybody knows, no one can get it up in a pool…”
“Errol Flynn could,” said Gretchen.
“What?” said Mia.
“Errol Flynn could get it up in a pool.”
Mia tilted her head down and narrowed her eyes at Gretchen. Her smirk betrayed her admiration. Gretchen had stolen her audience and done it well.
Mia prepared to take the challenge.
“He could not,” she said.
“He could, too. I was there.”
Mia took the phone from the housekeeper, stood and started to step away from the table, but her attention was still on Errol Flynn and getting the last word in.
“Are you sure it was Errol, darling? I recall finding you in the pool with Romero…” she said. Then, over her bare shoulder, “…the gardener.”
I pushed away from the table and leaned over the wall that separated Mia’s backyard from the beach. Several more guests sat on towels, their backs to me, looking like wax figures left in the sun too long.
I studied a large man with meat curling down around his shoulder blades, hanging in thick ripples. Celia and I used to giggle and comment on drooping skin. She saw faces in naked backs. She assigned them feelings and specific communications.
“That woman doesn’t want us to sit there,” she’d say. “See how her shoulder tensed up when I pulled out my chair?” She had insisted that I see it too. “The shoulder blades are eyes, the long backbone is a strong nose. See the mouth around the waist that doesn’t smile or frown? Don’t you see it, Melanie? Can’t you see it?”
Of course I didn’t see it. It wasn’t there.
When Mia returned, the wrinkle between her brows looked deeper and her makeup seemed lighter. She sank into the chair. Everyone else at the table went silent, but for Mia, it was a private moment.
“It’s Celia,” she said intimately, but to no one in particular.
“Oh dear, you look horrible,” said Gretchen.
“Where is she?” I said. “What happened?”
“Her landlord found her passed out in the yard. I am horrible.”
“What do you mean?” said Gretchen. “Drunk?”
“No, not drunk Gretchen,” Mia snapped. “You’re the drunk.”
Mia turned to me. “It was a horrible idea, Melanie, phoning that psychiatrist. Celia’s probably in terror of the appointment we’re supposed to go to.”
“She wasn’t supposed to know,” I said. “You told her?”
As if splashed by panic, Mia got up and grabbed her drink. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “She’s at Cedars. Come on.”
I was surprised that Mia admitted that Celia’s emergency could be emotionally induced. We’d spoken about Celia’s weight a few times, but it had always been attributed to a high metabolism or her vegetarian diet. The thick curtain of denial operated so adeptly in our family.
“Where are my keys?” Mia said, to no one in particular. “What did I do with my sunglasses?”
She walked toward the house and I followed.
“Do you want me to come?” Gretchen asked.
“I can’t drive without my sunglasses,” Mia said. She was too scattered and confused to even acknowledge Gretchen.
“Don’t worry about us, then,” Gretchen yelled. “We’ll keep the party going.”
I reached out for the keys, but Mia shook her head. “I only had one drink. You’re always accusing me, I don’t know why you always….”
“I didn’t say you were drunk, I just offered to drive. I like to drive. Please.” I tried again to take the keys from her hand, but she hid them beneath her perfect red fingernails.
“Stop it, Melanie. Get in.”
I took a deep angry breath and got into Mia’s Bentley.
Mia settled in the driver’s seat and handed me a can of Coke. “Here, I brought you this. I thought you might be thirsty,” she said.
“I don’t drink Cokes out of cans,” I said. I put the Coke on the floor, unopened.
Mia started the car and turned off the radio. She looked frightened.
“It might be a good thing, Mom.”
“How could you say that? She’s in the hospital.”
“Maybe she’ll bottom out. Maybe she’ll turn around.”
We passed the gate of the Colony. The guard waved, but Mia did not see him.
I looked at my mother and saw that the skin on her face had begun to soften and hang loosely from her fine bone structure. I remember my grandmother’s chin, and how soft it was to the touch. But I would no sooner reach over to touch Mia than I would jump out of a moving car.
“Mom, Sandra called me in New York and said Celia looked like she was going to die.”
“I hope you didn’t tell Celia that.”
“Why not? She’s got to deal with it. Why do you think I called that shrink? She’s emaciated.”
“She isn’t that goddamned thin. You don’t have to make her feel bad. I’ve seen pictures of people in Africa skinnier than that. They don’t die!”
“Yes, they do die, Mom. That’s why it’s called starvation.”
Cedars Sinai was a cold and busy place. The hospital walls were filled with lithographs from famous artists and plaques commemorating this or that donation. A banquet would be thrown in your honor, and speeches made about your greatness, if you gave enough tax-deductible money.
The halls echoed with respectful whispers from people who were not usually prone to reverence. Lives were shattered there, the process made worse by the antiseptic smell. And to be fair, many lives were saved, including some, I imagine, that would prefer not to be.
My footsteps echoed down the hall, in tandem with Mia’s.
“Every time I go to a hospital I remember that story about them amputating the wrong leg,” Mia said. “It’s ridiculous. We put our lives in the hand of strangers. Supposing they’re in a bad mood?”
“Maybe you better not piss them off,” I pointed out.
“Oh Melanie, are you going to be on my case all day? Why would I piss them off?”
Celia was on the hospital bed, alone in her private room, covered by a light green sheet. Her collarbone looked like a ledge, deep enough to shelve books on.
Beside her was a dinner tray. A miniature piece of chicken sat on a square plate. Some corn. Applesauce. Vanilla pudding. Untouched.
The doctor stood over her, studying the chart. He looked tired, stressed. Anything but wise.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said to Celia.
She smiled slightly, ironically. Her face was gaunt, corpse-like. She seemed to be in shock. Or at least in another world.
“Are you okay?” Mia asked.
The doctor answered for Celia. “According to what your definition of okay is. She’s just come out of a coma. We were feeding her intravenously…”
“Oh, baby.” Mia stroked Celia’s head. I was ashamed of my surge of jealousy.
“How long could she stay like this?” I asked.
“A human can starve for quite some time.”
The nurse came in and whispered something to the doctor.
“Excuse me,” said the doctor. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Wait a minute…” Mia said. “We have to talk. I need to know…” But the doctor had left and the nurse firmly closed the door behind them.
Mia looked helpless, her skin pale, as though the makeup had fallen from her face, and with it, the facade of power she clung to.
Celia just sat there, as composed and polite as a still photograph of Audrey Hepburn.
Mia’s hands shook, as she reached for the applesauce on Celia’s tray and struggled to open it.
“Come on baby, we’re going to eat a little dinner.”
She held a spoonful of applesauce in front of Celia’s mouth. Celia didn’t seem disturbed by it. Her mouth was closed.
I remembered Celia as a baby, spitting a spoonful of squash at me and laughing at my reaction.
“Mother, come on,” I said. “You’re treating her like an infant.”
Mia dipped the spoon in the vanilla pudding.
“Honey, this is really good.” Mia was using a baby-talk voice. “Try just a little-bitty spoonful.”
“Stop it, Mother.” I said. “Just stop it.”
No one remembered that I named Celia, but I did. I heard it on a Simon and Garfunkel song, Oh Cecilia. I shortened it to Celia and suggested it to Mia.
I was an only child until I was thirteen, and had spent most of my time shut up in my room, wearing headphones. But when Celia was born, I put music on the speakers—sweet music, soothing music. Not the kind of music I played hatefully at my parents. Not the Doors or the Stones. For Celia, I played Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles.
For hours I held her, all wrapped up in a soft flannel blanket, as if I could protect her. I played music for her, believing that it would sink into her young soul like water into a plant.
I could almost still picture that small face smiling up at me. I remembered so vividly the morning I tried to give her milk from my virgin breasts.
But I couldn’t quite connect those memories with the young woman there in front of me.
All I could think of was the last time Celia phoned.
“We will never be the kind of sisters you always wanted us to be,” she said. “Why do you say that, Celia?” I pleaded.
“We just won’t,” she answered, rigidly.
And that was the end of our conversation.
What the passage of time does to love always frightens me.
Mia stood in the hall outside of Celia’s door and screamed at the nurse on duty.
“What do you mean the doctor’s not available? He was just here. I must talk to him immediately.”
“Calm down. You will talk to the doctor. But right now, he is in an emergency.”
“I’m an emergency too,” Mia yelled.
The nurse spoke in a low, deliberate voice. “Ma’am, excuse me. A woman just checked in with her forty-six-year-old husband, who had a heart attack. The doctor is taking a moment to tell her that her husband has suddenly, unexpectedly, died. Do you think you could wait just another minute?”
“Someone died?” said Mia. She looked at the nurse as if to say, “That can’t be.”
There was a long silence. For a moment, we all stood like statues.
Mia’s face wrinkled in confusion. She wanted the nurse to comfort her, but the nurse just turned around, walked a few feet down the hall and entered an office, looking coldly toward Mia as she closed the door.
Mia let out a horrible moan, like an animal that had just been shot. She buried her eyes in her hands. I knew she wanted my arms around her, but I felt allergic to her pain. I’d long thought it was ill-advised, perhaps even dangerous, to care for someone like Mia.
I went back into Celia’s room, but I could still see my mother, several feet away, crouched on the floor in the hallway, her bathing suit visible beneath a mesh beach dress.
I looked at my little sister, all eighty-five pounds of her. A feeling simmered beneath my surface like tears I could not cry.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said, apologizing more for what I was about to do than for anything I had ever done.
Celia stared at me, cold and distant.
I touched the spoon to her lips, perhaps hoping that a small taste of the sweet pudding would coax her to open up.
She didn’t respond.
Her lips looked dry and cracked. I moved the spoon gently across them, moistening them with pudding.
I licked my own lips, hoping Celia would mirror my action, but she didn’t budge. “You have to eat.”
I jammed the spoon into her tightly closed mouth. She looked at me in horror. Pudding dripped down her chin.
I forced three or four spoonfuls into her clenched mouth.
The nurse came in and grabbed my hand. She pushed me aside and cleaned Celia’s face.
I was instantly reminded of the last time I confronted Celia, pleading with her to eat. In a voice I had never heard before, she’d said, “Mind your own business, Melanie.”
I phoned Tyler from the lobby. I wanted to tell him how badly I missed my sister. I wanted to weep on his shoulder.
The machine answered, with my voice on the outgoing message. When I started to speak, my throat choked up, and then I remembered why I couldn’t be with him anymore. It was the last time I had cried. Tyler left the room. I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold white tiles, alone. He didn’t come back and hold me. Instead, he left the room.
And now he wouldn’t even answer the phone. As if he could see from two thousand miles away just how hideous I was when my true, desperate self came to light.
It was nine at night when we made it back to Malibu.
Celia’s father, Rutger, arrived about five minutes after us. Mia took pride in remaining friends with all her ex-husbands, and Rutger thought he was simply stopping by the party.
“What is going on around here?” Rutger started to pace. “Something’s wrong.”
“Oh God, Rutger, it’s Celia,” was all that Mia could say.
Rutger looked towards me. I didn’t generally speak to Celia’s father, for he was subject to rages and one never knew what might set him off.
“Something’s wrong with Celia. Why won’t anyone answer me?” He asked, shooting his question right and left. “What the hell happened?”
“Melanie, please talk to Rutger. I have to go to the bathroom.”
I told Rutger. He evidently hadn’t seen Celia in a while. He wanted to go to the hospital right away.
“It’s late. You should wait until morning,” I said.
Rutger immediately made scotches for himself and Mia.
A dozen other people were still lingering. Most of them had spent the entire day drinking in the sun. People mingled in the living room, some still in bathing suits. Guests drank Bloody Marys and some tried to be solemn for a moment or two, but most couldn’t stand a lapse in the usual relentless chatter.
Crisis in the family or not, this was still Malibu, it was still a party. It was, after all, Fourth of July.
“I made a movie once about an anorexic,” said Howard Damon, a studio exec who lived nearby.
“We don’t care right now, Howard,” said Gretchen. “I really don’t think anyone cares.”
“I never did finish my story about margaritas,” Mia piped up. “Rutger, did I ever tell you about the time I went to Peru?”
“You’ve never been to Peru,” said Rutger.
“Oh, never mind.” Mia turned to me like a small helpless child.
“Melanie, can’t we bring Celia out here? So she’s with us. We can cook for her. We can get a nurse. Why don’t we bring her back here?”
“Mia, come on, get off it,” Rutger said. “You shouldn’t drink so goddamned much.”
“It’s just beautiful out here, there’s no reason why Celia shouldn’t be here.”
From the guest room, where the maid had placed my bag, I phoned Tyler. It was after midnight in New York, my last chance to make a reasonable, as opposed to desperate, middle-of-the-night call.
The machine answered on the seventh ring. It was no longer my voice.
I was so taken aback that I didn’t leave a message, figuring that I’d better think this one through. Tyler had rerecorded the outgoing message. Where was he? Was he home, in our bed, and just not taking my call? In the past he would have waited up, he wouldn’t have minded being awakened.
I guess he believed the lie I told him, when I said I wanted to leave.
I dialed our number again. My voice was still gone. It was Tyler’s voice that said, “I’m not in right now.”
The Malibu shoreline looked as if it could be Rio or the Riviera or any dreamed-of beach resort. Large white architectural homes alternated with tiny Spanish bungalows. During the week it was nearly always empty, and what one did see was surprisingly common: a young couple walking two sandy Labradors, a shapely blond with an obvious breast job.
Except occasionally, an outrageously familiar face appeared. I once saw Robert Redford, running at water’s edge, shockingly out of place in three dimensions.
I walked down to the wet sand, hoping for some solace—a divine stroking of my weary head. But this was not the gentle Caribbean. The waves sounded far away and unfriendly, like coyotes howling close to a campsite. Fireworks bounced around like cannons in the air. Flames sputtered and sprayed with high-pitched whistles.
I walked until the fireworks died out, and in the silence I realized that I’d been holding my breath. I’d forgotten how to goddamn breathe. As if I’d ever known.
I returned to find Mia sitting across from Rutger at the kitchen table, curled up in a straight-backed chair, hugging her legs. It was the first time I’d seen them alone together since before their divorce, ten years ago.
“If I ever die, I want to be buried at sea. Will you take care of that, Rutger? Will you write that down. I don’t want it to be depressing.”
“You can’t do that, it’s impossible,” laughed Rutger.
Mia had the hurt look of a fifties sex kitten. “Nothing is impossible.”
“You can’t bury someone at sea, Mia. It’s illegal. There’s no way to do it.”
“Just hire a boat, damn it,” Mia slammed her drink down on the kitchen table.
“You’re going to give me orders, even after you’re dead?” shouted Rutger, suddenly furious.
They were back on familiar ground. I watched their argument build to a high pitch.
“For God’s sake, Mia, it doesn’t matter,” Rutger said. “Does it matter where your dead body goes? I can’t believe you. What difference does it make?”
They glared at each other as I looked on like an invisible camera. The rage between them was so hot, I felt the embarrassment of watching two people who had just met and were about to tear each other’s clothes off.
Years before, when the darkness was filled with screams and slamming doors, I’d take Celia in my arms and we’d curl up under the bed, both of us terrified that someone would get killed.
If only we had understood their sport.
Gretchen sat on the living room floor, leaning against the couch, a glass of champagne in her hand.
“Hopefully those two won’t kill each other,” she said.
“Might ruin their fun,” I said.
The champagne smelled sweet. Gretchen smiled up at me. She could barely hold her eyes open.
“Your man seems sweet. I told him about your poor little sister.”
“You talked to him?
“He asked how you were holding up. I gave Mia the messages. She didn’t tell you?”
“Of course not. It didn’t concern her.”
“Oh Melanie, she probably just forgot. Stop ragging on her. You’re always on her case.”
“You don’t think I have a right to be angry?”
I heard the front door slam so hard that something fell off the wall in the entry hall. Glass shattered on the marble floor.
“There goes Rutger,” I said. “Guess who won that round?”
“Give it up, Melanie. It’s all she can do to keep her head above water. She could use a little tenderness, right?”
Mia sat by herself, on the patio, in a lonely backless nightgown. Her face was buried in her hands. Her shoulder blades curled under like eyes looking downward, grieving for all she’d ever lost. I thought of Celia.
“The closed eyes become shoulder blades,” Celia said, “the strong backbone of a nose. That beauty mark of Mom’s is like a tear falling down the left side of her back, right below the shoulder blade. Don’t you see it, Melanie? Can’t you see it?”
For once, I looked at what was in front of me.
“Yes, I see it,” I said aloud.
Mia turned around. Her eye make-up was smeared down her face and onto the blue satin robe she held crumpled in her hands.
She let me look directly at her. We stared into each other’s eyes, past years of blame, past everything we were familiar with.
I knelt in front of her and pulled her towards me, laying her head on my shoulder. She sobbed in desperate little gasps. I stroked her cheek, and rocked her at my breast, until her cries slowed to a small sweet whimper and her body melted into mine.
“I made coffee.”
I turned around to see Rutger, standing in the doorway.
Mia jumped up and threw her arms around him.
“I thought you left,” she said. “I needed you.”
“I’m back,” he answered, drying her tears as I dried mine.
When my mother gives a party, she fills her house with flowers. Vases are set on every available surface. Petals fall onto carpets and marble floors and into the crystal glass of orange juice that I left on the table beside the bed where I am supposed to sleep. A lone iris lies in the soap dish on the bathroom counter. Orange lily pollen has been carefully removed from the flowers on the dresser, so as not to stain anyone’s white clothing.
I phone the airlines and a taxi. I call to leave a message for Celia. An impatient nurse writes down the message for me. I tell her that I am going home.
“Is that all?” says the nurse. I ask her to please, please take down one more sentence. But she has already hung up.
I gather my things and sit on the edge of the bed, as if there is something else to do. Like say goodbye.
The taxi lights glare through the curtains. I place a yellow lily in the buttonhole of my white jacket and realize that I am stalling.
I hear Mia with Rutger in the kitchen. Their laughter sounds so private, I hate to interrupt.
©Diane Sherry Case
top photo © Thomas Wommelsdorf
Diane Sherry Case is a writer and filmmaker living in Santa Monica, California. She has published two novels, Elephant Milk and Earth to Skye, and her short stories have been widely anthologized. She wrote and directed two short films, Spa-tel and Valentine’s Day, and most recently, House Poor, a digital comedy on Amazon Prime. She also holds a Masters in Psychology and teaches a therapeutic writing program that she developed. Her book on the subject, Write For Recovery: Exercises for Heart, Mind and Spirit, will be published in January 2018. More about Diane Sherry Case and her work can be found at miraculousproductions.com and at WriteForRecovery.com.