My sister Amy and I had more than twenty ex-boyfriends between us, a zillion stories about awkward first dates, and miraculously enough, only one declined proposal. Nobody was under the impression the Fuller sisters were saving themselves for marriage. Not even close. But I’d sort of thought we might be saving ourselves from it.
“Engaged? To be married?” I practically had to shout over the noontime rush at Big Time Diner in midtown— waitresses barking at bus boys, dishes clattering, customers yammering.
Amy worked her way out of her charcoal gray suit jacket, draping it neatly over her purse on the seat next to her. “What other kind of engaged is there?” She loved to answer a question with a question. If it was possible to be a born litigation attorney, that was my sister.
“I know. I know. I’m just…” I couldn’t say more without my stomach lurching, which made me second-guess my lunch order. Matzoh ball soup might kill me. Or, in the absence of wine, maybe chicken broth could help wash down the news. The secret club I’d thought my sister and I had chartered was a sham. How long had she been planning her escape?
“I’m glad it’s not just me. I’m speechless too.” Amy fluttered her fingers, beaming at her diamond and platinum prize like she’d given birth to it. She tucked her neat, blonde bob behind one ear. I’d always envied her high cheekbones, but today they were straight out of a Technicolor film, blushed with every gorgeous shade of a ripe Georgia peach. She got the cheekbones, and the blush, from Mom.
“Speechless. Yes. That’s the perfect word.”
Patty, the waitress with the spiky persimmon-orange hair, slid white diner plates ringed in cobalt blue onto our table, putting my forthcoming paper-thin spiel about love and good news on pause, thank God.
“I still can’t believe it. It’s exciting, right?’ Amy’s voice reached a pitch like air squeaking out of a pinhole in a balloon. She picked up half of her turkey on rye with one hand, leaving the other hand—the bejeweled one—on display in the center of the table. It was no small feat. Big Time served some of the fattest sandwiches in Manhattan.
“It is.” I nodded, as if that might make my lackluster performance more convincing. I sucked flat diet soda through a straw, stalling again. If only I’d had time to prepare some remarks. If only she’d given me some sign that she and Luke were this serious. I’d assumed she was sleeping at his place most nights because the sex was halfway decent. “I’m just…”
“You’re just what, Katherine?” She was losing her patience for my lack of gushing, even while her ocean-blue eyes flickered with optimism as she gazed at the behemoth rock on her ring finger. Diamonds were beyond crazy if you thought about it—a nugget of dirty black carbon subjected to unbearable pressure and unthinkable temperatures until it had no choice but to turn into something sparkly and precious. A sunny person might call it a beautiful metaphor—even the ugliest thing could get better.
It just might take a few billion years.
“I’m wondering…” I innocently slurped my soup. Don’t say it. “Did you know you were going to go back on our pact? Like all along?” You are such a miserable excuse for a sister.
She jerked her hand back. “The pact? Are you serious right now? You’re supposed to be happy for me.”
“I am happy for you.” It came out as a plea to the universe. Please let me be happy. Is that too much to ask? “I’m ecstatic.” I was going to have to lie until I could get on board with happy. I couldn’t tell her how terrified I was. It pained me to think about her getting hurt and if anyone was going to hurt her, it was some dude she’d known for less than a year. Plus, Luke was a little too perfect—clearly spent a lot of time at the gym, had at least a dozen pet names for her, and was always celebrating tiny milestones. Oh, honey. Guess what? This will be the tenth time we’ve gone out for Chinese food. He had to be hiding something.
Then there was the not-small fact that our family tree had divorces hanging from every branch. The Fullers did not do well with the sanctity of marriage, and that led to divorce, which then led to heartbreak, for everybody, even the bystanders. If Amy’s heart got broken, who would pick up the pieces? Me. And I was terrible at picking up pieces. I could never figure out how to glue them back together.
“That was almost nine years ago.” Amy lowered her chin, forcing me to look at her. “It was your idea, and you were drunk when you said it. Remember? Cinco de Mayo?”
“Hey. We had fun that night.”
“And you had five Margaritas.”
“You weren’t far behind me.”
“Exactly why this is a stupid conversation. I only said yes to the idea that we should never get married and stay roommates forever, so you’d shut up and get in your own bed.”
It all came back to me. My head hurt just thinking about the hangover that came on May 6th that year. I didn’t end up feeling right until June. “God. I got in your bed that night didn’t I? I’m sorry. I should never drink tequila. Ever.”
“Exactly.” She punctuated her statement by pointing at me with a french fry.
“You know, I kept the pact when Jason proposed.”
“And you have very big balls to turn down a guy in front of his whole family.”
Jason was the one declined proposal. He’d invited me to dinner at his parents’ house in Brooklyn, a lovely old Brownstone so picturesque it was like something out of a romantic comedy. His family was Italian and vocal, nothing like mine, Scandinavian and choking on every slightly impolite thing. I hadn’t even taken off my coat before his mom put him on the spot. Look at her. She’s beautiful, with the blonde hair and the blue eyes. She looks like a milkmaid. You’ll make such pretty babies.
It didn’t stop during dinner. Your brother is already married and he’s younger. He’s going to have children before you. It’s not right. You should marry Katherine. She’s a keeper. I can tell. After the Tiramisu was proudly presented for dessert, her mother’s mother’s recipe, she’d dragged Jason into the other room. I’d sat at the table with his dad and younger sister while we heard every word and could only exchange tortured smiles. I’d twisted the cloth napkin in my lap so tightly that I was embarrassed to give it back.
Ma, we’re not ready to get married.
Just give her your grandmother’s ring. You’ll lose her if you don’t.
My brain sputtered. A ring? Oh, shit.
What if she says no?
She won’t say no.
The next thing I knew, Jason skulked into the dining room, followed by his grinning mother. He sank down to one knee and delivered the most dispassionate proposal a man had ever given. Katherine, will you marry me?
His mother gasped.
I wanted to cry.
And then I’d said what I had to. No. I’m sorry.
I was almost proud when I told Amy what happened. You’d have thought I’d fought off the evil empire, even if I’d crushed a guy’s pride in the process. The truth was that Jason and I were not in love, and that was an inescapable point. I came from a long line of people who had not taken that seriously. I was certain I was never meant for marriage anyway—too screwed up, too much nightmarish baggage, some of which my sister carried around as well. I’d only been within spitting distance of love once, with an Irish hottie my sister knew very little about. That guy, the sexy heartbreaker, had been too much to hold onto.
“Look, Katherine. I’m not you. I can’t spend every waking minute being pessimistic. I get enough of that at work. Please don’t fault me for finding a guy and falling in love.”
My shoulders dropped. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I want what you want. I’ve spent my whole life wanting you to be happy.” That much was true. That part I didn’t have to fake. I’d woken up every morning for the last thirty-two years hoping she’d have a good day, even before she’d been born. It was this thing in the very center of my brain, a drive planted at my conception. Had that ambition come from Mom? Was it God’s way of keeping my sister safe? He had to have known our mom wasn’t going to be around to do it herself.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Now can we please order some pie? We’re supposed to be celebrating, but I can’t be late getting back to work.” I flagged Patty, who nodded at me as she poured a silver-haired gentleman a cup of coffee and swiped a stack of empty plastic creamer cups from his table. “When are you going to tell Dad?”
“I’ll call him tonight. He’ll just start stressing about when the wedding is going to be and who’s going to pay for it and where he should go for a tux. He’ll probably book his train ticket as soon as we get off the phone.”
Dad was always planning. He never wanted to be caught off guard. I could relate—Amy inherited supermodel cheekbones and I got a hatred of surprises. “Don’t give him a hard time about any of it, okay? I’m sure it’ll be emotional for him. You’re getting married. It’ll probably bring up stuff. You know. About Mom.”
“Yeah. I need to psych myself up for that.”
“Ladies?” Patty asked. “More ketchup?”
I grasped Amy’s hand and held it up for Patty to see. “Look at what happened. My little sister. Engaged.” There it was—my happiness. I guess I could muster it if I focused my attention outward. Note to self: stop thinking so much.
The sweetest off-balance smile you’d ever seen broke across Patty’s face. She knocked my sister on the shoulder with her knuckle. “Look at you. Getting married. Is it the banker? The one with the tight tush?”
Crimson flushed Amy’s face. “Yes. Luke. He asked last night. It was our eight-month anniversary.”
“Which is why we’re celebrating with pie.” I was determined to hold on to this flash of happiness. I wanted to love it, give it a name, and keep it in my purse for later. “What do you want, Ames? Chocolate cream? Banana?” I looked up at Patty. “You know me. I’ll have coconut.”
Amy dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to start thinking about fitting into a dress. Maybe french fries and a sandwich the size of my head is enough indulgence for one day.”
Patty rolled her eyes. She didn’t have much patience for healthy pursuits in her place of employment.
“She’ll have the chocolate,” I said.
“Got it. On the house. It’s a big day.” Patty sidled off.
“Hey, if you’re worried about the apartment, don’t.” Amy pushed her plate aside. “Luke and I already talked about it and we’ll pay my half of the rent through the end of the lease.”
It hurt to know they’d already talked about my place in their new life, and that I would apparently be playing the role of difficult older sister. I needed to get used to no longer being consulted about things that involved me.
“You guys don’t have to do that. I make good money.” Better than good, actually. My position at the North American Color Institute paid great, thanks to a genetic gift that made me really good at my job—a one-in-a-billion anomaly called tetrachromacy. Most people saw a red rose as two or three shades of that color. But when I looked at that same rose, I saw two or three hundred colors. If I looked at something in the sunlight, the difference between hues was even more pronounced.
“It was Luke’s idea, actually.”
“You guys should save your money. Go on an amazing honeymoon. I’ll get a roommate if I need one.”
“I know you. You won’t get a roommate. We’re paying my half of the rent. End of discussion.”
It was sort of adorable when she ended an argument with an assertion, like dad used to when he was tired and grumpy and just wanted us to shut up so he could watch TV. Most of the time, Amy never wanted a disagreement to end. When we were little, Amy turned everything into a negotiation, some of which went on forever. Most of them had revolved around who got to be Barbie and who had to be Skipper, or who got to lick the beaters when we made brownies, but there had been big things we’d had to agree on, too. Like whether we should tell Dad that we were pretty sure Mom was cheating on him.
That topic had not been taken lightly, even though we were ten and eight and unable to fully comprehend infidelity. We only knew it was weird that she invited a man to stay at our house whenever Dad was on a work trip. Gordon. Gordon who stayed over. Gordon who once wore our dad’s bathrobe.
Hours of discussion, over the course of months, went into the decision to tell him. We ultimately made a list of pros and cons on a piece of the Hello Kitty stationery Grandma had given me for my tenth birthday. We’d been careful to consider every possible outcome. Well, almost every outcome. When you’re a kid, and have a mostly happy heart, there were only so many horrible things you could imagine. We were much more inclined to believe that no matter what, everything would be okay.
To this day, I could recite every word Amy and I said to each other the final time we talked about it.
When do we tell him? When he gets back from his trip?
Yes. I’ll tell him. I’m the oldest.
I could tell you what we were wearing that day—I had on a cherry red turtleneck and jeans, and Amy was wearing a celery green sweatshirt that said LOVE on it in rainbow letters. I could tell you what was playing on the radio, but not because I cherished the details. My mind refused to let go of that conversation and everything that happened over the forty-eight hours that followed. It liked to replay it all in my head, like a movie. With precision, it remembered every color.
Years later, when we were teenagers, I’d asked Amy if she remembered what we’d said to each other that day, our rationale, our thought process. Had I dreamed it? What had I overlooked?
“I was eight,” she’d said. “I don’t remember anything other than not wanting Mom to hear us.”
I remembered that part, too.
Patty delivered our pie, two forks, and an extra stack of napkins.
“I won’t live through the guilt,” Amy said. “I can’t give you a single reason to resent me for this.”
“For what? Being happy?”
Amy scooped up a bite of whipped cream and chocolate shavings. “No. For leaving.”
I stared down at the coconut cream pie, my absolute favorite dessert, and my sweet tooth refused to kick in. This was really happening. Amy and I wouldn’t be together anymore. Everything was going to change, and I hadn’t seen it coming. “I think I’ll take this to go.”
“After you made such a big deal about ordering it?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m swamped at work.”
Amy yanked back the sleeve of her white blouse and eyed her watch. “Shit. I have to get back, too.”
I settled the bill with Patty, Amy ate only half of her pie, and I tried to turn my thinking around. My bond with my sister was too important to let my temporary shock get in the way. I needed time. That was all.
Amy and I said our goodbyes out on the street, over the steady hum of traffic and car horns. It was the most beautiful fall day—the air was crisp and dry, albeit perfumed with the aroma of the hot dog cart on the corner.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked.
The sun was shining right in my eyes, and even with my sunglasses on I had to squint to see her. Something about that hint of warmth on my face, coming at me in a kaleidoscope of gold, made everything a little better. She looked like an angel in the sunlight, and in many ways, she was exactly that—a blessing. I grasped her by the shoulders to underscore what I was about to say. “I am better than okay. The person I love most in this world is getting married. It’s not possible for me to be more okay.”
She smiled and stepped in for a hug. “Love you, Kat.”
“Love you, too.”
“I’ll try to be home in time for Jeopardy.”
I turned back and started the walk down to my office, while Amy went in the opposite direction. All in all, I felt pretty good for someone who’d eaten a Matzoh ball for lunch. Sure, I’d just received life-changing news, and it would take some work to keep from slipping down into the depths of worry, which was my biggest downfall. But I had to focus on the good. Amy and I would always be close. Nothing would ever take that away from us, not even a man. We had an unbreakable bond—we’d made it through the obstacle course of our childhood, together. And even though Mom wasn’t around to be a part of our adulthood, I wanted to believe that she watched over us every day, her heart full of a mother’s love.
And hopefully some forgiveness for me.
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