Paper House

paper houseI understand why people in the Middle Ages thought schizophrenics were possessed by demons. When my sister went crazy she seemed quite literally to be occupied by a completely different entity. She spoke in a voice that was unlike her own, native voice, and looked so startlingly unlike herself that I sometimes actually squinted and leaned in close to see whether she really, truly was still in there. She wasn’t. Her downward spiral was a gradual thing at first – quirky and unusual behavior – and then gained momentum around the time of her eighteenth birthday. By the time my parents had her committed she was walking about the house and shouting verses of poetry like a demented town crier.

My father blamed my mother for Lori’s illness and my mother blamed God. I remained quietly in the background, watching them all unravel, behaving perfectly, keeping still, speaking quietly when I had to speak at all, making sure that the distinction between my behavior and Lori’s was clear. The strain ended my parents’ marriage and Lori was in and out of hospitals for years. When I was headed to college, she was doing her third stint in Pine Lane. When I graduated, she’d moved to an assisted living program and when I entered law school, she was back at Pine Lane. Finally, about a year after my father died, she seemed to reach a place of relative stability and was able to live on her own.

We lived in the same city but I didn’t see much of her because she depressed me. She had been the pretty one, but her features were marred by years of medication and socialization in restricted settings. Her hair was thinning and her teeth were yellow; the effects of the medicines she had to take several times a day. And every time I saw her, all I could think about was the time she’d made it onto the cheerleading squad. She was sixteen and I was fourteen and thought she was the coolest person ever. To celebrate making the squad, her friends had all come over for pizza at our house. I remembered them laughing and squealing and horsing around in our family room, all long hair, tan legs and teenage enthusiasm. They looked like the girls who would have the world at their feet when they grew up. Lori was the most vibrant of the bunch, the leader. Her future had seemed assured.

Now she was reduced to the status of an unpleasant bi-monthly obligation for her younger sister. I went to visit her and sometimes took her grocery shopping, bought her a blouse or new shoes. Mostly, she wanted me to buy her DVDs. Sappy romantic comedies were her preference. She had stacks of them, many from the nineties when we had been teenagers. My mother told me she could sit around and watch six or seven of them in a row, getting up only to use the bathroom or make something to eat. The thought of it embarrassed and disgusted me. Most of my friends didn’t even know that I had a sister.

Today though, I had been summoned to Lori’s apartment. My mother was meeting me there because she said she and Lori had something important to discuss with me. I had no idea what it was but I sensed that I should be feeling dread. Whatever it was could not be good. First of all, my mother hated going to Lori’s as much as I did. She chose to have Lori come out to see her instead, which presented all kinds of stresses because she was never quite sure whether she would show. But the stress was preferable to going to that dull and shabby walk-up where Lori lived, which smelled like open medicine bottles.

I braced myself outside her building and rang the bell to be let up. It was answered almost immediately and I slow-walked the two flights, not relishing what was sure to be awaiting me. Some new crisis, either full-blown or inchoate, but most assuredly a crisis. My mother opened the door and I hugged her. She was wearing jeans and a yellow Lands End slicker. She seemed to have just arrived herself, and looked harried, overwrought.
“How could you not have told me?” she demanded right away. “How could you have said nothing at all?”

I held up a hand and shed my own jacket.

“Give me a minute to get in the door at least,” I said.”What are you talking about? Where’s Lori?”

My mother indicated the living room. I looked around the corner and Lori was reclined on her sofa, an afghan thrown over her torso. She was watching television.

“Hey Lor,” I called.

“Hi,” she said, clearly uninterested in my arrival.

“Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed, Anne!”

“Hadn’t noticed what?”

My mother’s arms were akimbo. She seemed to have been prepared for a confrontation, but had lost some of her steam.

“Oh my god, you didn’t notice,” she said finally.

“What, Mother?” I asked, beginning to lose my patience.

“She’s pregnant!” my mother hissed.

It took a moment for the words to sink in and when they did I laughed. “No she’s not!”

“Anne, I think I know what a woman looks like when she’s pregnant. I would have thought you knew as well.” My mother leaned into the doorway and called to Lori, telling her to stand and show me.

My sister stood obediently, her eyes never leaving the television, and lifted her sweatshirt. My eyes popped open. Lori’s abdomen was distended well beyond that which could be explained by weight gain. And it was smooth and appeared firm. This was no seasonal weight gain, this was incontrovertibly a pregnancy, and quite advanced at that.

“Oh my,” I said.

“Yes. Indeed.”

“You shouldn’t talk about me as though I’m not here,” Lori called, reclaiming her position on the sofa. “It’s not polite.”

An expectation of politeness under the circumstances was an example of how Lori experienced the world now. She wasn’t one of those people who muttered to themselves on the subway – at least not anymore – but her understanding of social norms, or her ability to conform to them, were just a little bit off.

“I thought you said you saw her last month,” my mother continued as though Lori hadn’t spoken.

“I did! I thought she gained weight. She goes up, she goes down . . . you know how she is.”

“Annie.”

“If you saw her more often, you would have noticed yourself,” I accused.

“Fair enough, Anne. But I suppose I was depending on you. Clearly my confidence was misplaced.”

“I never thought to ask her about her . . . sex life,” I said in a low voice. “I wouldn’t have imagined she had one.”

“I had a boyfriend,” Lori said from the sofa. Evidently my voice had not been low enough. “If you want to hear about him I’ll tell you.”

My mother and I moved our conversation into the living room. There was no point excluding her any longer since she was overhearing everything anyway. I sat in the armchair next to the sofa and my mother stood at the door to foyer, as though still hoping for a quick exit.

“We do want to hear about him,” I said. “Who is he?”

“He’s Ukrainian,” Lori said. “Very cute. He sold gyros and hot dogs outside the Center.”

My mother put her face in her hands.

“We were together for about six months. He would come here and sleep over. I could never go to his place. And then I learned he had a wife and a three-year old daughter. So I got rid of him.”

So she wasn’t totally insane after all, I thought wryly.

“Oh darling,” my mother said. “We talked about this. Men who would take advantage of you because of . . .”

“He didn’t take advantage of me,” Lori protested. “I liked him.”

“And she did dump him when she found out about the wife,” I pointed out. “That’s a lot more than some friends of mine have done.”

“Thank you, Annie,” Lori said.

“But darling, now what are we to do?” my mother implored her. “About this baby.”

“Why does something have to be done?” Lori demanded. She removed her attention from her movie for the first time and sat upright with some effort, lowering her feet to the floor.

“Darling you’re not equipped to take care of a baby?”

“What am I equipped for?” Lori said. “You don’t think I’m equipped for anything, just admit it!”

And then she was crying and blubbering and ranting about how her life was ‘for shit’ and no one believed she deserved to be alive. It was a scene I had become immune to. Lori’s swings back and forth between stupor and hysteria. The medication was supposed to control this sort of thing, but often, her volatility would break free and she would off to the races. The best thing to do was to wait until she exhausted herself. There was no point trying to reason it away.

“Has she even been to the doctor?” I asked my mother, raising my voice so she could hear me over Lori’s cries.

“Apparently so,” my mother said. “People at the Center have been helping with that. They might have called.”

“She’s a legal adult,” I said. “She lives semi-independently. I don’t think they would believe it’s their place to tell her mother on her.”

“But still, they of all people should know that being able to take the ‘A’ train doesn’t constitute independence. At least not the kind that one needs to raise and take care of a child. I wish to God your father were still alive, he would know what to do.”

I doubted that very seriously. My father had never known what to do about Lori. His initial reaction to her crack-up was to simply demand that she “snap out of it.” And then he took to blaming my mother who was herself somewhat emotional and prone to histrionics on occasion. By the time he died, he was only just beginning to come to terms with the fact that Lori wasn’t “acting out” as he put it. And that was after a decade of dealing with her rapid cycles of mania and near catatonia. My guess was that his reaction to her pregnancy would have been relief. He would probably have seized on it as evidence of normalcy. Once when Lori had gone through the entire pantry in the middle of the night and rearranged every box, canister and can according to color, he’d claimed that the existence of a system meant that she was not wholly insane.

“Oh for heaven’s sake Clifford,” my mother had said. “Have you never heard the phrase ‘method to the madness’?”

I smiled at the memory because it illustrated just how off base they both were where Lori was concerned.

“Well Dad isn’t here,” I said now. “So what are we going to do? Lori? What are your plans?”

This stopped her crying jag in its tracks. She wiped her face with the back her hand and sniffed a couple more times for effect. People rarely consulted her about her own plans for her life so I made it a point to always do so. And also, after many years of dealing with her, I was too exhausted to propose anything since it would likely be shot down anyway.

“I’m going to have the baby and keep it,” she said. “If it were anyone else, that would go without saying.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But you’re not anyone else. You have . . . stuff you go through occasionally. You have to wonder whether that’s the best thing for a kid.”

“My doctor says I can have a perfectly healthy baby. That I can be as good a mother as anyone if I follow my treatment plan.”

“But what about the financial part of it, darling?” my mother implored her. “You work twenty hours a week. You can’t even pay the rent on this place without help.”

“I know that!” Lori spat, resentful of being reminded of her shortcomings. “That’s why I wanted you two to come here today. I have an idea.”

Until this moment, I thought the big family meeting had been my mother’s idea. That it had been at Lori’s bidding hadn’t even occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, she was perfectly capable of letting this pregnancy go on until she was in labor and then call me and my mother from the hospital.

“What’s your idea sweetheart?” Mom asked. She was still using that tone, like she was trying to stop Lori from jumping out of a window or something.

I sat still, my hands itching to reach inside my purse and check the time. I had plans with friends from work to meet them for drinks at a cool new bar. I’d planned on going home to change first, into something befitting a Friday night on the town. If this conversation went on much longer, I would have to go dressed as I was, in a brown pencil skirt and school marm-ish white blouse.

“I think I should move in with Annie,” Lori said. “Until after the baby is born and I feel comfortable.”

I froze, for a moment wondering whether she was referring to some other Annie. Some friend from the nuthouse, maybe. But not me. Certainly not me.

My mother and Lori were both looking at me, waiting. I could see the hopefulness in my mother’s eyes. She loved my sister, but had passed the point of wanting to take care of her. She had been relieved when Lori gained a modicum of independence, and even after my father was dead, had never broached the idea of having her move home again. She had friends, she had a routine; I think she’d even been on a couple of dates with older gentlemen from our old neighborhood. Lori moving home, and pregnant to boot, would not be among her plans. Problem was, it was most certainly not part of my plans either. Sure, I had a big enough place, but I had a life – a full life – boyfriends and cocktail parties, the occasional overnight guest, dinners that I went to, and some that I hosted. None of these plans would lend themselves to a roommate. A crazy one at that.

“I . . . I actually think that’s a marvelous idea,” my mother said hesitantly.
Sure. Of course she thought it was.

“Annie?” Lori said.

Her face was hopeful, and frightened too. She knew how I felt. She could tell that I didn’t want her, but she felt the need to try anyway. I thought about all those romantic comedies which I thought she was pathetic for watching over and over again. The reason it felt pathetic to me was that I had a life. I might conceivably live out a romantic fantasy. And she on the other hand was far less likely to. The life that had once been hers for the asking, was no longer.

When I opened my mouth, I honestly wasn’t sure what might come out.
“Of course, Lori,” I heard myself say. “Of course you can move in with me.”

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