There is something funny about dinner. I know it because Karen is laughing and I feel like laughing, too. Our heads are bent together as if in prayer, but all seriousness is lost on our gaping smiles, stretched taut as we gasp for air. There is something funny about the way one of Karen's beans rolls across her plate and smashes into the neat clump of mashed potatoes. There is something funny about the noise she made just after another noise. It has nothing to do with what Ted said, or Mom said, or Dad said. It has everything to do with what has been said by these things, this food, by Karen's little noises.

We laugh on past the time when it should be over, the hysteria subsided. We are ecstatic, crooning and cawing, our little-girl chests heaving with the weight of a mutual feeling, a joy, a burst of meaning. The others don't get it.

"What is so funny, you two?" Mom's voice sounds tired. She isn't eating much from her plate. Dad until this point has been laughing at us, saying we are so silly, so goofy. Now he is growing impatient. The laughter is drowning out their meal. And it is a weird kind of laughter, something that churns inside his daughters and keeps being spit out as if it runs on an endless supply. This kind of laughter has patterns, repetitions; its waves beat out meaning batted back and forth like ping-pong. He can hear in it something like talking.

When we finally quiet ourselves and go back to eating, the laughter is sewn shut. The flood dams up. The golden nugget is polished and put away. The next instant it is forgotten, and if asked what in the world it is, we would only look at each other and shake our heads untroubled. Whatever it is has spent its moment of enlightenment. We have fed off of it and now we are full.

Up close, Karen's face is a landscape of skin and freckle and hair that I can glance comfortably over or study, fascinated, for minutes on end. She has a shine to her lips, which are a liquidy dark pink, and a certain chaos in the hair of her eyebrows, which are brown despite her sun-blond head. Her eyelashes are even darker, even more wild, and they match the darkness in the blue of her eyes, something deep and tinged with gray and green like saltwater. She has tiny freckles all over, so thin they hardly show unless up close, sprinkled like watercolor splatter across her nose and cheeks. And then there is a line, not distinct, between her eyes that makes her face more sharply edged than my own. It goes with the point of her nose, which is more crisp, angled; I always look for it in pictures of the two of us. That way I can tell which face belongs to me.

We are in the old house, stilted in among the redwoods in northern Marin County, California. Our younger sister Julia has not been born, yet, and Karen and I are only five years into our lives. Rain is streaming down the tall glass windows, blurring the black trees, the dimly lit deck lined with jade plants. It is before the bay window was put into the dining room and so the five of us sit together in the small, wood-paneled room, circled by our drawings which have been attached to the walls with scotch tape. The room is bright, and Mom's yellow sweater glows like a sun at the other end of the table. Ted is eating quickly so he can return to the Donkey Kong game he got for his birthday. Dad is piling all of the elements of the meal together, stirring up his own concoction. Karen and I relentlessly keep the different items as separate as possible in the curve of our plates. The lima beans from the mashed potatoes from the bits of chicken, diced to fit in our mouths. We are known to scream in furious protest at any crossing of the boundaries, the blending of one food with another.

Mom asks Karen what she did in school that day. She alternates asking one of us to speak first. It is early November and we have just entered kindergarten. For the first time in our lives, we have been put into different classes at school. Karen now has days that differ from mine, surrounded by different children and answering to a different teacher. I listen interested to what she has to say.
"We heard stories," Karen says looking up at the ceiling as if the events of the day are spinning there like a mobile. "And we played house." That is something I did that day, too. I tell all of them so.
"Isn't that nice, Annie. You both played house today. But Karen, tell me about your teacher, Mrs. Peterson. Do you like her?" She hasn't finished with Karen. I will have to wait my turn.

School was still like walking into a cloud day after day. No one had noticed each other yet. I just played with whoever was nearby. If three of us found ourselves in the playhouse then the three of us were playing house together. If I sat down next to a girl who was drawing, I suddenly was drawing, too. We would look at each others' drawings without looking each other in the face. I had only a vague sense of who these bodies were bumping into me, talking into my ears.

When Karen and I played in our own playhouse at home, different rules applied. Food was prepared particularly; the plastic hamburgers, eggs over easy, blocks of green peas, squares of brownies all played their role in the ritual. We knew which combinations were best, which items were interesting one day, and which were not. Each piece had a name, not hamburger, egg, peas, or brownies, but other terms of identification determined only by Karen and me. Side by side, my sister and I would cook our own special meals made of words only the two of us spoke. At school that year objects for the first time were being called by other, specific names.

Earlier in the week I had argued with a boy playing next to me over the naming of a red cardboard object. He called it a "brick." I had a different word for it that he had never heard before. "What's that? That's not what it's called. It's a BRICK!" He was growing more and more angry, his face red with frustration. It was my turn to blush, however, when the teacher came over and agreed with him. "Actually, yes, Anne, this is called a brick. A play brick of course. Not a real brick." The boy rolled his eyes.

Karen is explaining to Mom about Mrs. Peterson's long nails. They are so long they scratch your scalp, she says, poising her hand like a halo above her head. Mrs. Peterson always taps them on the head with her nails whenever she wants an answer. Her nails are sharp but her eyes are kind, and her smile sparkles. Karen likes her.
When it is my turn to talk I tell them about playing house but not about the fight over the word "brick." I tell them that my teacher thinks I'm good at drawing. I am very proud of this, since drawing is slowly becoming one of my favorite activities. Karen and I are just then in the midst of a project to design as many Cinderella dresses as we can imagine. The domed skirts in red, pink, and purple Christmas-ornament patterns are steadily multiplying upstairs in our room. Some have even been taped to the wall above our heads where we sit eating.

Though I am still troubled by the brick incident, there is something even more troubling to consider. Karen listened to stories that day and I didn't. Not a single story was read outloud during the entire day. And Karen listened to more than one. Her teacher was known to read story after story, until the children made it clear that they had had enough. They would all circle around her feet on a light green rug and slouch on their knees with their legs crossed, their mouths slightly open. I am so envious of that green rug, of the bent knees and quiet storytelling. I want to know what the story was that Karen listened to.

It feels like the first day of school when Karen's class was to stay the whole day, until two thirty, and mine was let out at noon so we could have lunch with our mothers. Mom had pretended we were both eating at school that day and had packed me a lunch just like Karen's. We carried them excitedly together that foggy morning, up the old wooden stairs and into our separate classrooms. But when Mom came to pick me up and explained that Karen had to stay the whole day, it took me most of the afternoon to get over the awkwardness of eating my lunch on my own, the awkwardness of coming along with Mom to run errands without Karen there, too. I liked it at first. I had Mom all to myself. I felt special, the lucky one. But when it came time to get Karen and she climbed into the backseat next to me, I couldn't help but watch her face to see if I could glimpse a spark of what it was she had been doing during those extra hours at school, in that room at the other end of the hall, while I was walking on the sidewalks of downtown with Mom, eating raisins out of my lunchbag.

The playhouse in the room Karen and I shared was made of white cardboard, with a painted door and windows with the panes cut out like real windows. It was kept in the corner. The wobbly structure was the city hall of our little town, composed of our two slim beds, our shelves of toys, our two small desks, our dressers, our rug. This last was a blue both deep and bright, so that on many occasions it became the ocean and the playhouse the ship that would sail us to shore or fly us over storming seas safely home. In the playhouse, we had everything we needed, the plastic food items, the tools to prepare them with, plates, cups, silverware. We had a cardboard oven and a cardboard stove. Everything we could ever want.

But there was something else in that little cut-out house. There were the words we used to mean certain objects, like the plastic food pieces, as well as feelings, what it was we felt about a certain food, or a certain utensil. This was something that could only be found in that playhouse. It was nowhere to be found at school.
Not that if you had been there, standing just outside the playhouse listening to us talk to one another, you would have heard anything strange. Karen and I rarely spoke our words outloud. Somehow they were spoken inside our heads. There was no need to repeat them with our voices. There was identification in just a glance, a word formed in my mind that I knew formed in Karen's simultaneously. We even had long silent discussions about it, confirmed with a smile, or a warm, gutted laugh.

Meal, for instance. The word "meal" for Karen and me meant something unique. We knew vaguely what the word as "dinner" or "supper" or "repast" was and how it was used and what it signified to our parents, to our brother, and to our friends. But there was another "meal," a different word that carried much more inside of it. Just it's sound filled us with delight, a sense of unending satisfaction. We would spend minutes with the word, images and emotions running through us. There was a fireplace with warm, licking wood. There was the color of corn and the grit of clean white sand. There was the sensation of my bare belly rubbing up against Karen's before a bath. There was her kiss on my wrinkled-up lips. All of these things were "meal," and at the same time, all along, it was something much larger, an overwhelming sense of well-being, of happiness in each other's presence. And most importantly, for the first few years the word was rarely spoken between us. A thing, a mood, a color, a sound would ignite it in our heads instantaneously. To speak the word would be unnecessary, and more than that it would interfere with the ritual. Later, when we started saying the word "meal" outloud, it still carried the same meanings, the same sensations, but it was slowly losing its weight. Spoken, the word began to sound more and more like the other "meal," that other word used by everyone else.

Ted has already talked about his day and his body has started to wriggle in his seat. A ten-year-old, Ted sometimes leads Karen and me in sock soccer or some other homemade, half-court contact sport after dinner. Tonight he's indebted to Donkey Kong and to his own room, which is green and already desklit and all the way at the other end of the hall. Mom excuses him and he scurries off up the stairs.

While Dad clears and washes the dishes and Mom goes to sit and read on the couch in the living room, Karen and I rejoin some of the toys we left on the rug in the room between them. This is where the ceiling gives way to the whole height of the house, a narrow space empty of any furniture except for a sideboard and a rug Dad brought back from Syria when he was in high school. The outside wall is all glass, divided in four by a large cross of wooden beams. Karen and I play up close to the windows. The air is cool there, and the glass is black. We can see the rain slick on the deck, its planks of wood shining like a record. Beyond the deck the great necks of the redwoods are swaying, their needles tossing. If we stop our playing we can hear the rain make its way through the branches and tickle gently the needled ground. All this sound the rain makes in the dark, invisible, making the trees seem both right there on the other side of the glass, and very far away.

At some point Mom tells us it is time to go to bed. This is when Karen and I will climb the stairs together, undress on our blue rug and pull on our matching nightgowns, the only completely identical garment we ever wear. Our room is shadowed, full of caves. The wide wicker rocking chair is still there, next to the playhouse, though we do not need to be rocked to sleep as much any more. We will sit there with Mom some nights to listen to her sing, her voice moving in and out of her body like breath. I wonder now how she held our weight as we dropped off to sleep, our heads buried into her shoulders, how she kept singing with two bodies on her chest. First one would have to be lifted up and carried to her bed, while the other lay drooped in the nodding chair. And then the second one retrieved and taken to her bed, all without a sound, each move as gentle as possible.

Tonight, we are listening to the house sounds, to Dad running water in the kitchen, to Mom folding up her newspaper, letting it slap on the floor. We hear her on the stairs, her footsteps in the hall, and then she is in the room saying softly, "Goodnight, Ladies!" She comes to us individually, first one and then the other. She kneels by my bed, her knees cracking in her corduroys, and bends over my head and chest in a hug that drowns out sound, thought, a hug both encouraging and smothering, something bigger than I am. She gives Karen the same hug, whispering in her ear as she did in mine that she loves us, each one of us.

The lights are out. All sounds hushed. Even the clocks, the murmuring in Mom and Dad's bedroom down below. I lie awake listening to Karen's breathing, so thick and familiar. I have heard this same breath so many times behind my shoulder, felt it coming on the back of my neck. Her breathing is what lifts me, at some point, finally, off to sleep.

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Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | August 2000 | Volume 6