Charlotte may have been the fragile baby, but I was the one with the problem. The short of it, akin to a plot from a frothy, clichéd soap opera: we had all grown up together, the Vine sisters and Sanford; I fell in love with Sanford somewhere along the way; he fell for Charlotte. And why wouldn’t he? She was smart, beautiful, trilingual. (There was a year of studying abroad in Portugal, too.) I was fine with it, except for the days, hours, and minutes when my heart seemed poised to take its final beat from the stress of it all. This was what Carmen had alluded to in her apartment those few days ago. Although my parents knew nothing about my feelings for Sanford, it wouldn’t matter, anyway, who I had feelings for—I was merely the nurse whose sole responsibility was to take care of her baby sister. That certainly ruled out expensive weddings for me. (“You’re their spinster martyr,” Carmen liked to say.) All that said, unlike a frothy, clichéd soap opera, there would be no devious plot to steal the man my sister loved. I had no plans to ruin my sister’s life. Until I woke up one morning with my heart and emotions back to normal, I had no choice but to wait, suffer, and ensure that my sister wasn’t overwhelmed by all the wedding planning. A spinster martyr, indeed.
“How’s life, my Catherine?” my father asked me that evening.
“Good.” There was no need to provide further details. It was my father’s requisite, surface attempt at conversation, and my “good” would suffice for him. My parents weren’t bad people, however. Having been molded by so much tragedy, our existing family dynamic was the result. The three years between my birth and Charlotte’s had been fraught with two heartbreaking miscarriages. Charlotte was their miracle pregnancy when they had been told that a baby would likely not come; hers was the dangerous journey toward birth, as my mother was ordered to bed as soon as they learned she was pregnant; and when Charlotte finally arrived, she came 7 months premature. Some time ago, I began to recognize that a type of cocoon, a web, formed around parents and children with that kind of history. It was the kind of structure that no other child could penetrate. I didn’t doubt their love for the three of us, but the web around our parents and Charlotte was altogether different and indestructible.
Dad and I continued to wash the dishes—I soaped and rinsed, he dried—in silence. We had been invited to dinner that evening; Carmen had declined the offer, while Caroline had promptly disappeared once the wedding talk commenced. Behind us at the kitchen table, my mother and Charlotte peered through bridal magazines and intermittently punctured the quiet atmosphere with excited squeals over a dress or a decoration. When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, I nearly dropped the plate I was washing. Undeniably, it was Sanford.
“Sorry I missed dinner, love,” I heard him tell Charlotte in the foyer, after she had raced to open the front door. “It was bedlam at the office.” His apology was obviously accepted, as audible sounds of affection reached my ears in the kitchen. My chest burned.
“Sanford, we saved you dinner. Get in here,” my mother called playfully.
As if she had come out of thin air, Caroline appeared in the kitchen. My protector, I thought. She was instantly by my side at the sink, gently pushing our father out of the way and commanding that he go and greet his almost son-in-law.
“It’s 1 and 3. Ladies, how are you?” Sanford asked behind us. “1” and “3” were his longstanding nicknames for us, based on our pecking order as siblings. However, following a particular tense conversation between him and Carmen about the chauvinistic implications of a woman being identified by a number, Carmen was simply Carmen.
Caroline squeezed my hand beneath the warm, soapy water. “We’re fine,” she replied, quickly turning around to smile at Sanford.
I turned and waved at him before returning my now blurry gaze back to the sink.
“Charlotte, show Sanford some of our ideas for the big day. No photos of the dresses we’re considering, of course,” my mother said.
“Let the man eat first, Irene,” my father said mock gruffly.
Charlotte retrieved the pan of lasagna from the oven and began to prepare Sanford’s plate. Peripherally, I watched her hum and smile to herself. My heart skipped more than a few beats. Caroline squeezed my hand again. I looked up at her and silently communicated what she already knew: I needed to get out of there. Quickly, we finished the remainder of the dishes.
“Mom, Dad, lovebirds,” Caroline said when we were done, “we’re going to head out.” An excuse for our abrupt departure wasn’t necessary; my parents were happily preoccupied with the lovebirds. They would not protest. We said our goodbyes. Once outside, I crouched down on the driveway and took in long, deep breaths of the cool evening air. Caroline rubbed my back wordlessly before leaning down next to me. “Things need to change, Catherine,” she whispered in my ear. “Now.”