I heard the photographer’s broad Montreal accent through the heavy wooden bathroom door, “Where’s sister-with-the-baby? Come on people, this isn’t a rehearsal!”
The door to the wedding hall was partially open and I squeezed in. The engagement party was in full swing. It looked like the event of the century. Before I could locate my parents, the photographer stopped me and made me pose for a full three minutes. Flash!
Momentarily blinded, I stumbled into someone.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Hi,” she said, beaming. She had a widow’s peak, like mine. “I’m Phyllis’s sister.”
“Really?” I asked.
She wore a navy skirt and matching jacket with an oversized collar. It was hard to tell where her neck ended and the collar began.
Jet-lag. That must be it.
Luckily, Ariel was quiet, fascinated by the noise, the flashing lightbulbs, the ice cubes clinking at the bottom of Chivas Regal.
The woman’s hand hung between us, but I was having trouble manipulating the baby, the diaper bag, my purse.
“And you are?” the stranger asked. She finally dropped her hand.
“Well, I’m Phyllis’s sister.”
The color drained in the stranger’s face.
“I’m so, so, sorry. Of course, you’re Phyllis’s sister. Why don’t I see if there’s a high chair around here?”
Then she disappeared, burrowed into the crowd.
It took me a minute to realize who she must have been. The bride appeared and I was enveloped in the scent of jasmine, and sweat.
“Look at this baby.” Phyllis smothered Ariel with kisses. “A photocopy. He’ll be just like you. Layla, my darling, have you met everybody?”
I wanted to demand an answer: how could Phyllis invite her half sister without telling me? But I knew that was absurd. I hadn’t lived on the same continent as Phyllis for more than a decade and she could invite whomever she pleased to her wedding.
Besides, they never would have dawned on her; my fears. I had always felt threatened by Phyllis’s other sister. When I moved to Israel would she replace me, the sister she shared with her mother, with Bayla, the sister she shared with her father? I was across the ocean; they breathed the same air.
As the room filled, I sat alone in a corner and heard Phyllis’s childhood voice: “Layla, Bayla—get it? My father did it on purpose to get revenge on Mom for remarrying and I guess his new wife went along with it.”
Phyllis would squeeze my palm until I screamed, then she’d burst out laughing, gripping her sides, the back of her free hand became wet with tears, her upside-down forehead darkening with blood. Her grip was claw-like; I was trapped.
“You know she has a younger brother named Stanley? That’s why we call Stanley Our-Stanley sometimes, get it? So we know who we’re talking about. I betcha never thought of that,” the young Phyllis ribbed. “Layla and Stanley, Bayla and Stanley,” she sang, twinning us in her adolescent mind.
Against Phyllis’s attacks I had no defenses. I took refuge in the deep freeze: Vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch. I licked my armor and felt better. A voice was not something in my arsenal.
My parents each had two kids when they married each other. Together they had me and Stanley. We were always called sister and brother. It was those two who were half siblings. Unconnected. Removed.
My mother had a habit of reading to us while we sat around the dinner table. Between bites of canned corn and breaded chicken she read scientific studies that concluded people were biologically closer to siblings they shared with their mothers, while barely a genetic whisper connected people with siblings they shared with their fathers.
We all nodded, the converted. My father often worked nights. I was sure later that my mother would not have read those articles when he was home; as far as he was concerned, he had fathered all of us.
Often when I was supposed to be in my bed, I would eavesdrop on my sister’s telephone conversations in her next-door bedroom.
“I hear this Stanley’s intense,” Phyllis would growl, like she was opening a ghost-story; her voice grave.
Phyllis would stand on her bed, her stage, the receiver upside down. She’d be talking into it like one would use a microphone. Even if her friend interrupted, she wasn’t interested in anyone’s story but her own.
When I dared, I watched her through a crack in the door. She performed in her cotton nightgown, leaving her arms and legs free to emphasize her language.
“They say he’ll never be able to separate from his mother. And doesn’t that fit? Here’s Stanley and he can’t sleep at night. Normal?” Phyllis asked.
I shivered; my ear plastered to the cold bedroom door. Would she say something about Bayla? Did she get bad grades? Have no friends?
“They say Bayla’s normal,” Phyllis hissed. “But that’s not proof. In some kids it comes out later. I’m keeping an eye on Layla.”
I would shake my head to clear it. Phyllis loves me. She’s my sister. Still, at the word ‘normal’ a sigh escaped me and I was grateful that Stanley was not with me in the bedroom we shared.
I often engaged in self-mockery. What’s wrong with me? She is no shadow, no twin soul? We share no blood. And Stanley? An insomniac before he reached his bar mitzvah. He aligned the bathmat with the tub and toilet, and wouldn’t eat until he had rewashed the cutlery. But he was unusually good looking, everyone said so.
“He’ll outgrow it,” my parents would take turns saying, like someone else might comment about a continuous and depressing downpour.
But in my throat, I couldn’t help swallowing those hard rubber lumps I’d overheard in the bathroom stalls at shul.
“They say he’s allergic to everything under the sun.”
“They say he never leaves the apartment.”
“They say he watches TV all day.”
“And the girl?
“They say she’s okay.”
“You know he gave them those names to get revenge.”
“Well isn’t it something that they had a girl and a boy, too?”
“I guess they figured naming her Layla outright was a bit much. But they didn’t fool anyone.”
“And just taking the name Stanley straight out.”
Sometimes Stanley studied me so hard, I knew Phyllis must have been on to something when she said I needed to be watched. Stanley saw it, too.
“Did you ever notice you have this habit of typing?”
“Yeah, your fingers are always moving, like a crab.”
Then my brother would raise both of his arms and make silent clicks with his long white fingers, tilting his head to one side.
“I’m a crab,” he’d say, in a high-pitched voice.
A frown would appear on my face and my forehead would crease, emphasizing the widow’s peak I spent so much time trying to hide. Silence usually made him go.
“I can get inside your head, Layla. Anytime I want.”
“Come on. Why do you look like you’re not breathing? Stop it. You’re my sister. Need a ride somewhere?”
At night questions tortured me, like restless souls: what did Bayla think of her brother? Did she know we existed? Was she like me: afraid of looking in the mirror for too long?
By the time I fell asleep I had only a couple of hours to go before my mother’s voice would penetrate my dreams. Sometimes I slept through her nightmares, other times they kept me awake until the shadows in my room were distinguishable as ordinary bedroom furniture, no longer waking phantoms or breathing beings from a nighttime world.
I don’t want to go back! The ketubah was never written properly. Don’t you see the letter missing? I was never yours. I can’t go back. No!
Once I confessed to my mother that I heard her in the nights.
“Mom, I listen to you at night, to the dreams.”
“You know about the dreams?” my mother asked, in a voice I had to strain to hear. Her body stiffened.
“I’ve been having that dream for twenty-five years,” she whispered. “I never knew you….”
I covered my eyes with one hand. I did not mean to cover my mouth with the other.
“In the dream I have to go back to him, the first one. Have to. There’s no choice, no choice,” she sobbed.
My mother’s sadness invoked my own ghost. There was a gnawing in my stomach and I rubbed my upper arm like nurses do to mark the site before they swab the alcohol, give a vaccination.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said quickly. “You don’t have to go anywhere. You’re right here with us.”
My hand grazed my mother’s shoulder.
“Did you have that dream again?”
I could hear my father’s muffled voice.
“But you see it’s me here with you. No one’s going anywhere.”
Then his snoring and my mother twisting in her sheets.
Then she came into my line of vision. Bayla was pouring someone a drink, laughing, throwing her head back from the waist. Phyllis followed my gaze. I’m Phyllis’s sister. I heard the stranger introducing herself in my mind. The words spun around like girls at recess, holding hands in a circle, dancing.
Layla and Stanley
Bayla and Stanley
One is in Toronto and one is home
one is older
Guess which one?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
“Oh, I found Bayla and she’s here and boy is Mom unhappy. Well, it’s my wedding, isn’t it? We’re all grown up now, she should get over it.”
“Get over it?”
“Why do you look like that?”
“Like what?” was all I managed to say.
“She’s running around saying she’s my sister. She can’t do enough.”
“What? Is it like a joke to you or something?”
“I’m including her. I think that’s more than a lot of others would do. She gets to be part of a family for a day. It’s a mitzvah.”
But this question went unasked. I couldn’t say it. I was not the one to arbitrate on good deeds. It was a good deed if you looked at it in the right light.
“They’re about to start the music. See you inside,” Phyllis said. She kissed me and ran off under a ribbon of mazal tovs.
I noticed Bayla approaching me carrying two glasses. To warn her, send off a verbal flare, communicate through a handshake, like the one between Leah and Rachel before the wedding, before the bridal canopy rose like a sliver of moon. But those were two sisters, joined by blood, and Bayla was…was not and Phyllis was…
“Hi Layla. Sorry that I startled you before. I brought you a drink. Flying is so dehydrating. Your baby’s cute, but honestly,” Bayla said and her voice dropped. “from one psychology major to another, do you think it’s wise to bring more children into the world? With climate change, overpopulation and let’s face it; most parents don’t do such a great—”
Then a male voice over the loudspeaker: The band is ready. Please take your seats. I took the glass; my fingers grazed Bayla’s and I step back. Bayla excused herself; she didn’t want to miss a second of Phyllis’s engagement party.
When I entered the hall, I looked for my seat. Phyllis had written on the invitation that the two front rows would be reserved for immediate family, just as they would be at the wedding next week.
Through squinting eyes, I managed to make out my name on the back of a front row chair, but Bayla was sitting there, next to my brother Stanley.
It was hard for me to avert my gaze from the image: the backs of Bayla and Stanley, seated side-by-side. A hush fell over the crowd as the music began. I had to sit down somewhere, so I sat in the seat marked: Bayla.