I’m looking at my sister, Cara, trying to decide who I blame for destroying her childhood. She looks back at me, sleepy but curious, from the right side of the bed. Our fluffy down covers are smashed into a condensed-feather heap at the foot of our bed. Neither of us ever makes it through a whole night with the blankets on, and when we share a bed, like tonight, we usually give up on the covers pretty early.
She repeats her question: “Do you ever tell people about what happened with mom and dad?”
I know what she means, but seeing her earnest face asking this serious question is something I feel like turning away from, rolling over and pressing my face into the pillow and breathing in my own wet-hair scent.
I know who I blame.
The day my father and mother told us they were getting divorced, I sat in our big green chair, my legs twisted under me, and felt hopeless. I remember it was summer. I remember the smell the most, of lilacs.
Not quite a year later, my father took Cara and me to meet Rena. It was around November, windy and cold, and we went with our father to meet this unknown woman for hot chocolate at a cozy Irish restaurant. On the way to the restaurant, Cara and I sat bundled in our coats, and I felt cold and confused. Cara drifted off to sleep, gently snoring, as she always does on car rides. I nudged my shoulder into a crevice of the car door and stared out the window, as I always do on car rides. I bit my nails and wondered at what she’d be like–Pretty, maybe? artsy and calm, with a long printed skirt? tall and long-limbed and authoritative? Would she be intimidating? Would she even be smart? My father, driving, whistled along with a Johnny Cash CD. One Rena had made him, I later learned.
Rena. Cheerful and warm, both literally and figuratively so. Diminutive and strong-featured, with puffy graying brown hair. Her smile at the first sight of us pink-and-purple-coated little girls was genuine, and one she always greeted us with. Cara and I, from that first smile, felt that she cared about us. As she asked that familiar question, “now, which one of you is which?,” I felt myself give a little grin back as Cara loudly announced which one she was. We couldn’t help ourselves, seeing that contagious smile, feeling her immediate embrace, in beginning to care about her.
Rena would come to our father’s apartment and teach us games, bring us sewing projects and special treats from bakeries we liked. She made my father relax and have fun with us in a way he rarely did. We saw him joke around, laugh loudly even though he normally was too shy as to even smile for pictures. “Johnny B,” she would say, “do that crazy dance you and the girls do–I’ll film it.” She filled our lives with art: photos she’d taken, pottery she’d made, drawings she’d done of my father that made him look wise and special. Once, we went furniture shopping–something Cara and I had always hated doing with my parents–and Rena made up scavenger hunts for us to play amongst the plush couches and shining wood cabinets.
She became one of my favorite people in the world, helping my father learn how to relate to his daughters and letting us know that she truly adored us. She loved us. Loves us.
The summer that I was 14, about a year after my father and Rena broke up, my sister and I went to Martha’s Vineyard with our mother and each of our best friends. Us four girls all shared one room, a dimly lit one with hard beds and a futon. On our third night there, my mother was reading in the lamplit living room and Cara, our friends, and I were brushing our teeth and pulling on pajamas. Cara took me aside in the hallway and I watched her swallow as she haltingly explained that she had to tell me something: “Do you…know why mommy and daddy got a divorce?”
I found myself looking at the ground; she looked at the ground too. I felt the way I had years earlier, when Cara had insisted on knowing if Santa Claus was real or not. Trying to close my ears the way I squeezed my eyes shut, sensing words that I was sure I did not want to hear but needed to.
“Daddy cheated on mommy,” Cara said, softly.
I asked, “what?” reflexively, but she didn’t repeat her words. I stayed there next to her for a moment, feeling broken. How had I been so completely idiotic as to not have seen this? How had it never made sense that my mother, in the few times we’d seen her and Rena together, was cold in a way that my mother never was with anyone? How had my father lied to us so surely, let us grow to love Rena as a part of our family? And how was it that I, who had tried so hard for years to keep Cara from hearing my parents’ fights, was the one standing here feeling so stupid and useless in cloud-print pajamas? I felt failed and fallen, so angry that my no-longer-little sister had to bear the knowledge of this. Bear the burden of telling me.
Cara’s asking me if I ever tell people about what happened. “No…not usually,” I say. Looking right at her, not looking at the floor.
“I don’t want to tell most people because I don’t want them to hate daddy.”
She nods, those big sage eyes sad in her agreement. And we silently recognize that we both want to be past letting it shape us.
Though I want to be past letting this shape me, though I love Rena, I will never forgive her. The thought of her total betrayal still wrenches through me as pure, deep, and infinite heartbreak.