"I had nothing to do with your being born a monster," I say.
"You should stop worrying about things like that," Lilly tells me.
She sits across from me, elbows on the table in the coffee shop. She is wearing a burqa. Other people in the city wear burqas, but Lilly drapes a spangled scarf across the bottom of her face mask. She's sewn patches on the sleeves promoting motorcycles and extreme sports.
I shake my head, but at my own lie. I had something to do with this. Something to do with making my mother those "healthy" milkshakes during her pregnancy, slipping in the extra "vitamins" my dad handed to me to give her extra "energy." Everything about those days in quotes. Quotes surrounding all the subterfuges my father had engaged in to hide his bitter heart. But in the end my mother wasn't killed. Lilly was born. My father landed a stint in Rykers, which he said he didn't mind. There was free cable, free meals. No one was required to produce, produce, produce. He told me this when I was old enough to visit him, glancing at me wildly as he remembered all the pressures.
"Your mother," he said, shaking his head.
Well, we both knew how she was.
Lilly was born when I was six. Though everyone said I was an innocent pawn in my father's murderous acts, my mother knew differently. She made sure I knew differently.
And then Lilly arrived. When I first saw her, I thought she was from another planet. My mother screamed when I extended my pudgy finger to see if that lump of flesh was sentient. She pushed me away and slapped me, saying, "Oh, no you don't. You are not harming this baby."
She never did understand how much I loved Lilly. How I'd beat up the other kids who made fun of her. How I glared at adults who stared at her with pity or distaste. It was my gift to Lilly to treat her like a normal girl. I expected her to be smart and funny, but not less or more than what she was. I was Lilly's relief from my mother who treated her like a gift from the saints and a penance all in one.
"You should beware of gift horses, Lilly," I tell her.
"I thought you weren't supposed to look gift horses in the mouth."
"What I mean is that I don't think these people have your best interests at heart," I say.
"It's a reality television show. Of course they don't. But they'll pay for all the reconstructive surgery to 'free me from the shroud of my deformity.'"
Now it is Lilly who uses air quotes.
"I can't believe you signed up for something like this."
"Well, actually someone from work sent the letter. But now I want to do this."
"Mom will be disappointed."
"Mom will be ecstatic. She'll have her fifteen minutes of fame when she tells everyone what a martyr she's been."
"She'll have to explain herself," I say.
My mother never did surrender Lilly to the plastic surgeons. She said she hadn't wanted doctors experimenting on her child. There were too many operations involved. Lilly was growing, changing every day. And she was my mother's precious gift. You don't tamper with a gift from the saints.
"Lilly, don't do this," I say now. "You don't need to do this."
"I know I don't. But I want things to be easier. It's not wrong to want things to be easier."
I reach across the table to grab her hand. "No, it's not wrong. But you'll be notorious. Your face will be all over the television. Before and after. No one will know you as Lilly. You'll be the pretty girl with a little something off who used to be . . . . "
"A monster?" she whispers softly.
"No!" I say furiously, "I didn't mean that. But they won't see you, Lilly."
Lilly looks down at the crumb-strewn table. "I'll move away. I'll dye my hair. Change my name. And people will forget. This gives me a chance. To be a normal woman."
"What if it doesn't work?"
"Then I'm no worse off, right?"
I bite my lower lip. I am so afraid for Lilly suddenly, my stomach twists inside me. She hates doctors. For her to do this . . .
"Have you talked to mom?"
"Last week," Lilly says, shifting slightly away from me.
I blink. "Well, I think you should think about this more. Long and hard."
"I've already signed the consent forms," Lilly says.
"Damn, why'd you even bother to tell me, Lilly? Why didn't you just let me turn on the TV one day and find out?"
"First of all, you don't watch those kinds of shows, you're too squeamish. Second of all, I knew you wouldn't approve. Third of all, I'm telling you now." This time she reaches for me. She squeezes my hand. "I don't want you to feel bad. I want you to be happy for me. Hopeful. Like I'm hopeful."
But she turns away from me and I know suddenly that she's scared. That it cost her to make this decision.
"Alright," I say. "I'm here for you."
The television crews come around to the copy shop where Lilly works. They interview her co-workers. Scenes are shot of Lilly going about the city with one of the girls she works with. Lilly is shown doing normal young-girl things. Shopping at the mall.
Lilly calls me at home that night, breathless with excitement to tell me about her televised romps throughout the city.
"Well, that's Hollywood for you," I say.
"What do you mean?" she asks.
"I mean they're coming up with a make-believe life for you. Next they'll trot out a make-believe boyfriend."
The microwave pings behind me and I take my bloated bag of popcorn from it, prying apart the folds of paper to release steam and fake-butter smell.
It takes me a bit to notice that Lilly hasn't said anything.
"You alright? Don't let them hurt your feelings, Lilly."
"They're not hurting my feelings," Lilly says. "I actually do go to the mall, hang out with friends."
I pause, "Well, that's good . . . "
"I'm not a virgin," Lilly continues with annoyance.
I am frightened that the situation is much worse than I imagined. The possibility that there's someone using Lilly looms. That's the only reason why she'd do this.
"Who is this guy, Lilly?" I ask, keeping my voice as neutral as I can.
"You'll meet him," Lilly says.
"Listen, Lilly, you . . . "
"Don't, Agnes," Lilly interrupts me.
"Don't say anything you don't want millions of people on national television to hear."
I nearly drop the phone. "You mean they're taping now?"
"Yeah," Lilly says. "They want to show how my family is taking this.
"I just want you to be happy, Lilly," I say finally. It is not want I intended to tell her, but it's true.
We talk some more. Lilly mentions, almost casually, that she's going to meet the surgeons. She doesn't ask and the rest of the conversation is filled with her not asking, so I volunteer. "Lilly, do you want me to go with you?"
"No," Lilly says. "That's alright. I'm good. Mom's going."
The phone clicks on her side of the line before I can even make a sarcastic comment about mom.
I spend a restless night brooding, telling myself I should enjoy my freedom, finally released from being Lilly's keeper.
But I'm angry at Lilly for ambushing me on the phone with the television crew. I don't call her for days. Finally, almost by accident, I run into one of her co-workers when I go to the coffee shop near the place where Lilly works. When she sees me she gushes, "You must be so excited."
"I guess," I say, confused.
"I'm going to the hospital now. The TV crews will be there, I'm sure. Do you want to come?"
And this is how I find out about Lilly's first surgery. It's a "minor" one, the girl tells me, pumped up with all the details she is privy to and I am not. I tell Lilly's friend that I'll come by, making sure that she works the name of the hospital into our conversation.
At the hospital, Lilly's achieved some celebrity status. The television crews have taken a break, the nurse at reception tells me. They've gone down to the cafeteria to capture some reaction shots of my mother.
I enter Lilly's room. I draw in breath. This "minor" operation has taken pieces of my sister. I can see concavities in her flesh, marked by gauze and sterile padding. I grieve the loss of Lilly.
"Don't be sad," I hear Lilly's muffled voice say.
"I'm not sad. Can I get you anything?"
"I'd really like some ice water," Lilly says.
I get her some and she slurps it from a straw. I study her. Parts of her look more normal under the covering of the bandages, more like parts from the standard model of human being. But they clash with the parts that are different.
"So you're feeling ok?"
"Yeah," she shrugs. "I guess I better get used to this," she gestures at the room. "This is going to be the first of many."
"Eight," she whispers, then tries to smile. The lower half of her face is not used to moving in the way she's attempting. The bandages cupping her chin rustle.
Tears well up in my eyes. "Lilly, are you sure about this? You don't have to do this."
"This is what she wants," a male voice says from the doorway. I see Lilly's eyes light up before I turn around and I know this is the alleged boyfriend.
When I do turn, I'm surprised. He's a blond surfer boy with chiseled features and a steady gaze. I blush and despise myself for it.
"Thinking you want something is different from getting it," I say. I feel like I'm reading a fortune cookie.
"Agnes, this is Stan," Lilly says in a small voice from the bed, interrupting the speech I am about to make.
"I've heard a lot about you," hunky Stan says, proffering his hunky hand.
"Right," I say. "Then you should know that I make it my business to look out for my sister." My voice sounds prissy, even to me.
"Agnes . . . " Lilly murmurs.
"That's good-hearted of you," Stan says. "But maybe you should step back a little bit and see how capable and strong Lilly is." I gape because he sounds like he's reading off a teleprompter.
"Oh, so she's handi-capable? What a great slogan," I say sarcastically.
Stan shakes his head. "I see what you mean," he says to Lilly.
This, more than anything, makes me furious - the implication that he knows so much more about my sister than I do, that he's privy to her secret thoughts.
I square my shoulders and step forward just as my mother comes in the room. She's accompanied by two cameramen and a slim, dark-haired man with a goatee. He looks at me. "So this is the sister?" he says.
"I'm Agnes," I reply, leveling my own gaze at him, refusing to look into the camera. I glare at my mother, who looks away.
"Great!" he gushes. A young woman comes tripping into the room behind him. "Fleur," he nods to her. "Get Agnes some makeup. We want to interview you," he says, turning back to me.
About time, I think. I have things to say about this.
Fleur leads me out of the room. "He'll interview you out here." She gestures to the waiting room. "By yourself. We want to capture some tape where you're not influenced by an audience, family, friends, even Lilly. We want this to be as real as possible." She hands me a form to sign and makes vague fluttering gestures at my hair.
The goateed man, David Stark, sits beside me on one of the waiting room's plastic chairs. "We've wanted to interview you," he says. "Lilly tells me you're an accountant." When he says this, I can almost feel his contempt. But he starts asking me about my childhood. He asks me about things going on in my life. As if I am a separate person from Lilly. He acts as if he is genuinely interested and laughs at my wry remarks and stories. I start feeling a little better about this. Maybe they will look out for Lilly. Maybe they are interested in how different human experiences are.
"So why do you think she's doing this?" he asks me.
"Oh, Lilly likes to re-invent herself," I say. It comes out without my thinking and sounds flippant. "I mean," I amend, "she sees problems in her life and she likes to make radical changes."
"But surely," David says, "this is a re-invention that makes sense. Unless you think that she should stay the way she is?"
"Like a monster? Is that how you see her?"
"I never said that," David says. "How do you see her?"
"We used to play this game when we were growing up. Lilly was an alien princess and I was her loyal soldier. She'd command me to go on missions. She always thought up the best missions. One day, we were outside playing and the mission was to rescue the neighbors' cat from their own backyard. I'd never seen it, the neighbors had this huge fence—they were private people. But Lilly told me they were abusing it, this poor cat. She told me the cat was really an ambassador from her own planet." I find myself mimicking Lilly's speech impediment, the way Lilly had of hitching up her right shoulder and keeping her left arm flattened against her chest like an injured pigeon. "Please, Agnes," she begged me, "thave the ambassador." I laugh at the memory of it. "I hauled myself over the fence and found myself face to face with the meanest looking Rottweiller I'd ever seen. I got seven stitches out of that mission. The neighbors never had a cat."
David wrinkles his forehead. "I'm not sure I get that story. What does it have to do with . . . ?"
"Lilly knew they didn't have a cat," I said. "She wanted to test me. I think she wanted that dog to bite my face off."
David raises his eye brows. He makes a subtle gesture to the cameraman. "That's kind of twisted," he says.
"No," I say. "It's complicated. That's what I'm trying to say. Lilly is a complicated person. That's how I see her."
David thanks me and he gets up to catch up with my mother who has just walked out of Lilly's room with blond surfer boy. Fleur remains behind for a few more seconds. She looks at me and shakes her head and I'm not sure what I'm supposed to get from that. What message is she giving me? I start feeling nervous about what I've said.
Lilly isn't discharged and allowed to get used to her new form before the second operation is scheduled. The TV show is on a tight schedule that the doctors are trying to accommodate; apparently funding for the show is conditional on the reaction of focus groups and early episodes.
I stay away for awhile. I have to. I'm busy. It's tax season. I tell myself that Lilly obviously has plenty of friends and they're not people I want to hang out with. But I go to her finally, three days after the second operation.
When I walk into the room, I'm shocked. The entire left side of Lilly's face is covered with bandages. Stan's there and looks like he's been crying. My mother looks grim.
"They were reshaping the bones of her forehead and eye socket and a bone splinter got into her eye. They had to remove her eye," my mother says.
"Oh, Lilly," I say, moving towards her.
Lilly turns the right side of her face to look at me. "I'm not worried," she says in a small voice. "They'll fix it. These things happen." She laughs. "I have to create some drama for this show."
"That's my girl," Stan says, patting her hand.
"Are you all crazy?" I say.
"I understand your concern," David Stark says from the doorway. A cameraman swings his camera to my face for a reaction shot.
"Get that fucking thing out of my face," I hiss.
"I do understand," David says again. "But this show will be big. You all are invited to a screening of our first episode. There's still some editing to do. But we're quite proud of it."
This stirs up quite a bit of excitement in the room and it's as if they've all wished away the shroud that's half covering Lilly. They make plans to see the screening that night. David will bring in DVD's he's burned. They talk about inviting some of Lilly's girlfriends from work. I inch out of the room.
I want to stay away. It would be a matter of principle not to take part in this circus. But I need to go, to see Lilly's life reflected in this mirror of media.
They've already started when I get there and I have to beg one of the nurses for an extra hard-backed chair to sit down on. In the end I'm crammed awkwardly between Lilly's nightstand and the window.
I am amazed as I watch the tape. My mom comes off like a pragmatic woman who's fought hard for her Lilly to have a normal life. They show pictures of Lilly from childhood, revealing her face until she is about seven, when the costumes come out, the garbs that precede the burqa. Various schoolmates are interviewed, either apologizing for their behavior—they just didn't understand how special Lilly was—or recreating history until they became faithful friends.
They cut to my interview and there I am telling the story about the neighbors' cat. There I am making fun of Lilly's mangled body and twisted speech. They cut off the story right as I mimic her voice saying, "Thave the ambassador." They cut off the part of the story about the dog. The episode goes on but I can tell the mood in the room has altered. Lilly's girlfriends look at me with blatant dislike, Stan with anger. My mother pats Lilly's hand. Lilly doesn't say anything but I can see tears streaming down the right side of her face.
"Wait a second!" I say. "That was taken out of context. I didn't say that."
David frowns, "You did say that."
"But that's not all I said and you know it!"
"Oh, what else did you say?" my mother asks annoyed. "What else could you have possibly said that would make this better?"
I'm stopped. "Nothing," I mutter. "Lilly knows." I glare at Lilly who is still crying. She won't say anything. "Fine," I say, and grab my coat, stomping out of the room.
As I drive home, the feeling grows in me that I've done something really terrible. By the time I get home, I can barely breathe. I call my mother on her cell phone. "Mom," I say, but she hangs up the minute she hears my voice. The disconnection feels like a physical blow, like a small death.
I pace around my apartment. I call David Stark. "You have to take that out," I say when he answers the phone. "Or you have to explain to them. What the context was."
There's silence on the line. "I didn't authorize you to do that," I add.
I hear David sigh. "Actually, you did," he says. "You signed a release that allowed me to use my editorial discretion. Relax. They'll all forget about this. It's good television. The later episodes can show the two of you kissing and making up."
"You know that's not right," I say. "You don't understand how bad this is."
But he's hung up on me too and I'm left in my apartment with my heart pounding and my breath trapped inside me. I sit down and go over the exact scene that played out in the hospital room, try to remember Lilly's expression, what my mother said, the looks on the faces of Lilly's friends, on the blond boy's face. I see myself on the television set, cruelly mimicking Lilly's voice, her deformed body. God, what have I done? I have to explain, I think. But no one is letting me explain.
I go to the kitchen and take a pair of sharp scissors from the drawer. I walk into the bathroom and pull my jeans down. I take the scissors and make slashing motions on my thighs until bright lines dotted with drops of blood are drawn. My pain is real, and anchors me to the world again. I start to feel better as the pain increases and put the scissors, brown-flecked with oxidized blood, on the sink. I look at my scars, my beautiful scars, and sigh. I take my jeans off completely and go to bed, feeling the cool sheets sticking to my legs. In the morning, I'll throw the sheets away. I'll go and talk to Lilly. She'll forgive me. She'll have to know I didn't mean it.
But I never get the chance to talk to her. Lilly's boyfriend keeps guard over Lilly and refuses to let me into her hospital room.
"She doesn't want you here," he says.
"But I need to explain to her." I feel my face turning red. "You can't keep me from seeing her."
"Yeah, I can," he says, looming large in front of me. "Go away, Agnes," he tells me. "You're not good for Lilly right now."
I find out from Fleur who I bump into in the hospital lobby that the third surgery has been scheduled. I am as frightened as I've ever been for Lilly. I don't trust the doctors who are operating on her. I'm afraid of Lilly losing more of herself. No one else seems to see how badly this could turn out. I can't lose my sister.
I go to my mother's house. It's Tuesday morning, her day to go grocery shopping. I decide to wait in the car until she comes home. Finally, I see her wobbling in high heels down her driveway. She looks hot and her eyes look tired, but there's a fixed smile on her face. In case anyone's watching. Anyone but me.
I give her about fifteen minutes to go inside and unload her groceries and think of what I need to say. I get out of the car finally and knock at the door. I see the curtain at the window sway slightly. The door remains closed. I knock again. I start pounding. "Mom," I yell. "Mom!" If there's one thing mom hates, it's a scene.
Finally, she swings the door open and I smile because I know her after all, but then I see the look in her eyes. And I am stopped. I am yanked back to all those years ago when I was small, facing her with the knowledge in her heart and mine about what was in those milkshakes.
The look in her eyes is hatred.
"Momma," I say.
"Go away, Agnes."
"But I want to make this right."
"You did this to Lilly. And now you can't even let her be happy. It was disgusting, how you made fun of her."
"Momma," I say again, pleading for her to remember me. To remember that before Lilly, she loved me.
But she closes the door in my face.
My mother figures out how to use caller ID and stops answering my phone calls. I start calling Lilly—her boyfriend can't be with her all the time. But she won't pick up. I try to talk to Lilly's friends at work to get them to intercede for me, but they turn a cold shoulder. "How could you make fun of Lilly like that?" the girl who gave me directions to the hospital says.
I try to explain to that I could, because I'm Lilly's sister, because I see her as a human being. That it's part and parcel of our relationship. But I remember the tape, my cruel streak displayed for everyone to see. I remember Lilly's tears. That wasn't for effect was it? David wasn't taping then was he? I grab my head and dig my fingers in my scalp anxiously until I draw blood and strands of hair. How could I indeed?
I go home. I call Lilly. I let the phone ring. When her voice mail picks up, I tell her, "Lilly, you know I didn't mean to hurt you. You remember don't you? About the dog? Even if I had known, I would have jumped that fence."
But not to protect you, I think. To feel the satisfying rip of flesh from my face. So that we'd finally be even after what I'd done to you before you were even born, before you even had a chance to fight back.
The phone disconnects me. I've exceeded the amount of time for leaving a voice mail.
And we'll never be even. Because I've done it again. I've hurt Lilly. What murderous impulse seized my heart this time, I'll never know, but this time it's irrevocable. I've lost my sister.
I stumble into the bathroom. The scissors are still on the sink. I look at the mirror at my face. My features seem blurred, distorted. I pull back my sleeve, the hatch marks of old scars glistening whitely. I reach for the scissors and start cutting.
There was a funeral, but I couldn't go. I was still in the hospital. When Agnes called that day, I couldn't answer the phone, not having much of a mouth left to speak with. The third operation had gone badly and Stan kept sobbing by my bed so finally I sent him away. It wasn't hard; I am pragmatic about such things. And I knew he'd be back. He has a need for me. And I for him. Agnes wouldn't understand, neither would my mother. Perhaps dad. He'd understand how people are animals and sometimes they just need a physical connection. Sometimes love is just too much and all you want are the simple things. Sex. People need sex. I do at least. Stan does. We get each other that way. Though lately I think he's confused, he talks about staying with me through thick and thin. He's thinking about the idea of love. And I need to disabuse him of that notion.
But that day he was gone. And the phone kept ringing.
For God's sake, Agnes, I remember thinking, it's not always about you.
Finally, my voicemail picked up and I got some sleep. I dreamt good dreams. In my dreams, I am always myself. Still monstrous me. I am a beautiful monster. I don't dream of shedding my skin. I don't dream that I am a princess trapped in a world of ugly people. I am me. Lilly. And most of the time that's enough.
Why I wanted the operations. I wanted to learn how to play the piano. It helps to have five fingers on both hands to do that. I wanted to learn how to ski. You needed a certain balance for that. I wanted the sex to be better. Well, enough said.
It's a moot point now. The television show lost its backers. The early episodes were too graphic, Fleur told me. My mother did not have a good television rating with focus groups. She was neither evil enough to be easily hated or sympathetic enough to make people root for her. My friends were bland. Even Stan. Poor Stan. And me, I'm not enough of a sad sack, not plucky enough, not anything enough. I cried when the doctors poked me. I don't laugh prettily. I have a sarcastic sense of humor.
I'm fine with that.
There are doctors here who are offering to do more surgeries for free. They need to practice some advanced techniques.
I am declining their kind offers.
Fuck it. I'll learn to play the drums. I'll learn how to snowboard. I'll invent new sexual positions that will keep Stan with me for as long as I want him to be.
Is that bad? To use someone like that?
I miss Agnes. I do. But she always took things too hard. She kept going on about the dog in the neighbors' backyard. For Christ's sake, I was five-years old then. So I knew there was a dog behind the fence. I'd visited him before. He had this distorted beat -up face and a canny look in his eyes that made you think he knew a lot. I always felt he was a lot like me.
I thought he'd scare Agnes, sure. I thought it'd be funny. I had no idea he'd attack her. Kids make mistakes. They use bad judgment. She, of all people, should have known that. There really wasn't a whole lot of hidden meaning to that story. And I wasn't crying that day in the hospital because she'd made fun of me. My face was hurting. And then mom went off at her. I just didn't see the point in getting involved in that whole bit of theatre. There was a lot of history between my mom and Agnes. There's still a whole lot of history. My mother doesn't really let things go. She's a lot like Agnes that way.
I'm going to get out of the hospital this week. I'm sewing more patches on my burqa. It's starting to look like a coat of many colors. I'll fly through the streets in it, invisible and visible at the same time.
Whatever I want to be.