A Version of Myself
By A. P. Joye
When my sister called, we could all feel it. No one wanted to say it out loud because the first person to say “death” is the bad guy, regardless of which euphemism they dress it up with. There’s something about the way my mom answers the phone when my sister calls at a strange time—this time, it happened to be after 9 o’clock, when both my mother and sister are typically asleep. The subdued stress in her voice cues me into what’s happening. G’s stomach flipped, again. My sister’s first dog survived two stomach flips before she died, and we knew this was G’s third. Through the phone, I could already see my sister going through the motions that she knew well.
Every time her dogs ate, she’d watch them nibble and swallow their first bites because that meant she was safe for another day. There would be no squirting the medicine into their squirming mouths nor would she have to get them into a carrier by gentle nudging turned into forceful, stressed-out shoves. This time, I could tell she had already administered the medicine before she got onto the phone and my brother-in-law was ushering G into a carrier, packing for the vet. Her voice was measured where it had been frantic in the past. Somehow, we’d all accepted what was happening long twelve hours before it would be confirmed. Twelve hours before I’d find out there’d be no more walks around the triangular pool in the middle of the complex to exhaust G enough that he’d stop barking. The next time I’d go over to their house, no dog would get his fur all over my black sweatpants nor would he leave red lines all over my neck and arms because he can’t contain his energy, and somehow I still love that dog so much that I couldn’t imagine a world without him. He was part of our family, but he’d be gone the next time I went to visit him.
My mother hung up the phone and stuffed whatever clean clothes she could find—and probably some dirty ones, too, since she’d just gotten back from an overseas trip—into a bag. Within half an hour, she was gone and I was left to handle the house, take care of Zeus, tend to the father. I wrapped Zeus’s night meds in a slice of chicken and gobbled them up the same way that G would always nip at the floorboards. We never understood his obsession with them and my sister frequently took him to the vet because there was no way all of that paint could be good for him. Every now and then, you’d hear scraping and a “Quit it, G” before someone inevitably had to get up to part him from the wall.
The next day, I opened my laptop. I had already dosed Zeus with his morning medicine and texted my mom to update me about G, but I still felt useless. Out-of-place. I’d never get to give G a treat or scratch him in that perfect place right behind his ears again. When he wanted attention, he always bowed his head so that you’d pet him in that perfect spot; it made me melt every damn time.
I knew we were all doing what we were supposed to be doing: my mother was in San Diego with my sister for emotional support and I was taking care of our geriatric dog, no matter how silly or stupid I felt. I was taking out my laptop and putting in my password like this was any other day. I felt like I should say something to her, something that showed her nothing else was on my mind except for her and my nephew. Even if I was two-hundred miles away, the only damn thing I could think about was the fact that I’d never get to see G again and I had to be okay with that because my sister was the one losing her dog and, no matter how much I cared for that dog, her pain had to come first right now.
I could start by saying I know she doesn’t want to talk, not that I should assume that—add a probably. Then, I could say something about death being really hard to understand and try not to make it about that time when my dad made me look at my grandmother in a casket and I could only say no and try to squirm out of his hands so many times before I gave in because my father was asking me to say goodbye—I think?—to his mother. Or how, on some level, I really don’t think my brain can process death properly because it can’t handle something that looks the same on the outside without being the same on the inside. Maybe I could say that I don’t know what to say when someone dies because I’m bad with death, or that I wish I had something better to offer her. I could end by telling her that I’m here for her, even if that means two-hundred miles away and fucking lost.
I pressed send and set my phone screen down, then I checked the clock—I still had another hour before Zeus’ next dose—and put on my earphones. A minute later, my phone started vibrating. I grabbed it, ripped off my earphones, and answered. My sister was calling me; she had actually called me. The day when she was losing her dog for the second time in two years, she called me. When she had her husband and mother in the same room.
“Hey” felt like a pretty subpar way to greet her, but I couldn’t think of anything better to say and I didn’t want her to have to speak first.
“They’re coming in like an hour,” she said. She’d already told me she didn’t want G to be in a vet office like her first dog was; she wanted someone to come to the house and do it in a place where G would be comfortable, not hyperventilating.
I don’t really know what to say when it comes to this kind of stuff. I’m sorry. I wish I could make you feel better. How’s G?
I couldn’t decide what to say and nothing seemed good enough.
However, one of the best things about talking to my sister is that she doesn’t leave silence for long; she nearly always has something to say. So, we talked. For an hour. We had one of those conversations that you manage to completely forget after it ends. You go back and try to summarize it for yourself, mostly to know that you can, and nothing you think of sounds like it could encapsulate what that conversation meant to the two of you.
The only reason the call ended was because the doorbell rang. It rang through her phone into my ear and, suddenly, I could see myself standing in her living room watching the whole scene. I imagined an executioner walking in with a sickle, his face covered in black leather to hide everything but his eyes. When he walked, his black robe flowed behind him; he moved in slow motion and I felt sick. She said she had to go, I told her a measly bye and slammed the phone down on the couch. I hoped I could regain composure, situate myself on the couch in the living room two hundred miles away, and breathe. I failed on all accounts.
Usually, when I lie, I lie by omission. I leave out the details that will tarnish my precious reputation while emphasizing what makes me look better because my mistakes typically fit in the cracks between the good decisions I’ve made in my life. When I write, I do much of the same. I try to emphasize the details that people will respond to, the ones that keep people reading even if that means shifting the truth around to make room for the interesting.
Details like the fact that G wasn’t a dog—he was a bunny—and he didn’t die from his stomach flipping; he died from stasis. These are the harmless white lies I tell as a writer. Lying about my sister losing a dog rather than a bunny could be an insult to G’s memory, but consider me telling you about a bunny dying from stasis while you pretend to care. Logistically, I’d have to explain what stasis means and I’d have to get you invested in the relationship between a bunny and a human the same way you’d invested in the relationship between a human and a dog because I’m guessing most people have not encountered a bunny in stasis. Exchanging the simple terminology of “bunny” for “dog” gives me space to focus on what the story is actually about. Fudging other details, such as my mom getting back from an overseas trip, added interest and maybe even increased the stakes; I say “fudging” because, during a previous bunny emergency, my mother had been returning from a trip, but she didn’t end up driving herself due to jet lag.
These are innocent lies that do nothing but deceive the reader (which is arguably how you could define fiction). It’s when the mistakes that I need to hide get too big to fit between the better parts of my life that omitting and fudging aren’t enough to create a story people want to read—or if I’m honest, a story I’d want to immortalize on the page. There are a lot of memories I wish I could lie away, dress them up so that I could make myself look better. And honestly, that’s true for some of my mishaps. I can chalk up my college bitchiness to “individuating” and getting to know myself away from my family identity. My childhood stupidity is forgivable because I was a child. It’s the times when I’m supposed to be an adult, supposed to know how to be an adult, that are a little harder to disguise as something else.
In this story, I’ve lied outright. In fact, the only true part of this story that matters is death. G’s death and how I handle it. That’s why I never texted my sister. There was no drawn-out phone call to tell me how much my sister needed me on that day. Instead, there was the moment I decided whether I should text my sister. That moment when I could have sent that heartfelt message but decided that my sister didn’t need me; it was the same moment that I envisioned my sister with our mother and her husband. She didn’t need another person.
It would take me two weeks and three days to be told that I was, in fact, needed—not as another person to crowd the room but as an adult sister who could be there for her (also) adult sister. It would be after two weeks of my sister avoiding my texts and limiting our conversations that she would tell me how much she needed me, how much she needed her adult sister to be there for her. Even a year after this happened, I wrote this story because I needed a version of myself like this to exist, one who was there for her and one that started feeling long before her sister could no longer speak to her.