It’s 4 pm on a Tuesday and Tim Browsky is next door with his wife and a gun. Orange cones and yellow streams of caution tape encircle Tim’s apartment building, our building and half-a-dozen others. A sniper crouches on the roof. Across the street police are in the neighbor’s flowerbed. Outside the window I see the woman from two houses down arguing to get past the police barricade. She has a grocery bag in each arm. Eventually she gives up, sits on the curb, and eats an apple from her bag. I lie on the couch and turn on the TV and my twin sister joins me, complaining that they won’t let her boyfriend cross the barricade to visit.
We live in the second floor apartment next-door to Tim Browsky’s second floor apartment. When his windows are open I can smell what they make for dinner and hear what they listen to on the radio. I’ve never heard them fight. The TV news is offering up theories about why things like this happen: the decline of the family, the current economic crisis has been so hard on so many.
I hear a voice over a bullhorn outside, then I hear the voice echoed on our television. The reporter is standing in front of Tim’s apartment building and I can see the edge of our building in the frame. Looking at the television I see two hands emerge from our window with a whiteboard that says I MISS YOU ALREADY, outlined with a heart. It takes me a few seconds to realize the hands are my sister’s.
What the hell are you doing, Karen?
Evan’s so creative, she says.
I get up and look over her shoulder. Karen’s boyfriend, Evan, on the other side of the barricade, YOU ARE MY HEART’S HEART scrawled across his drawing pad in black marker. Karen cleans off her whiteboard with her sleeve. What should we write back now?
Maybe we shouldn’t stand near the window in the middle of a hostage situation.
Dating an art student is so romantic, she says.
She draws a clumsy cartoon of a woman with her arms stretched wide and holds it out the window. Spring has started and ice is melting off our roof. It drips on Karen’s whiteboard and makes the cartoon woman look sadistic, like a horror movie poster. In two weeks Karen’s moving in with Evan. We’re twenty-one and have lived together since birth– correction, since before birth. I act like I am happy for her. She can tell that I’m not, and I can tell that she can tell.
A policeman says something to Evan then Evan draws a big sad face on his paper and holds it up as he waves goodbye. Karen and I both wave back.
By 5-o’clock the news has gathered more details about Tim. He’s a math teacher at the high school where a newscaster is doing interviews. Students and teachers say he was quiet, liked to watch basketball. Everyone is speaking in the past tense. A snapshot of Tim appears on the screen. He is standing next to a taller man, whose face they’ve blurred out. I bet the blurry-faced man is watching television right now and telling his wife that he can’t believe Tim would do such a thing.
The television has a new theory about why Tim has lost it: work place stress. Later today they are going to do a segment about how teaching taxes your mental health, how maybe we should have in-school counseling for teachers to keep them from melting down like this. I know this much: If you believe people care about you then you can threaten yourself. But if no one cares that you’re in trouble, you have to make trouble for someone else, too. That’s why people have hostages, because they think no one loves them.
Overhead I think I hear a helicopter. Karen comes into our bedroom and goes through the closet, taking out her clothes, putting back mine.
Are you packing? I ask.
Sorting, she says. If we are stuck inside, then at least we can be productive.
Do you ever wear this? she says, shimmying into a skirt.
It’s ugly, I say
Great, I’ll keep it then.
She leaves her jeans on the floor and an hour later when her pants start to ring, I fish out her phone and answer it.
Yes, I say.
I’m glad I caught you.
The woman on the phone is a nurse. Everything she is saying is news to me. The lump, she says casually, as if the whole world knew.
Most lumps are benign, but it’s still better to look at it soon. Someone canceled for tomorrow at 10 am. Can you make it?
I don’t say much and the nurse fills awkward silences with chatter. It doesn’t sound like they understand the lump yet. The lump, so far, has no meaning. It should be simple and over fast, the nurse says, You’re young, chances are….
But I am not Karen, the chances aren’t mine, and the sort of comfort she is trying to offer is not the sort I need.
You can bring someone along if you like, the nurse says, but they will have to stay in the waiting room.
I’m angry, then sad, then angry again. I can’t understand why Karen wouldn’t tell me– how this can be hers, without being mine. I hang up without saying goodbye.
I walk into the kitchen to slap Karen and grab a good fistful of her hair. But a policeman is sitting at the kitchen table, his hat in front him like a saucer. Karen is stirring pancake batter. Her arms whir round and round like she is winding up a giant toy. The wipe board is on the kitchen table now, and the officer is starts a game of tic-tac-toe with himself.
What’s going on? I say.
Karen says, This is Officer Wyatt.
Just Wyatt, or Officer Hill, but not Officer Wyatt.
Wyatt this is my sister Jamie.
Is something wrong? I ask.
No, she says, Wyatt was just outside our building. Hadn’t had dinner tonight, so I invited him up for a bite.
I thought the street was blocked off, I say.
Not to us, he says.
But isn’t there a crisis next door? Shouldn’t you be there instead of here?
He nods while he talks, like he’s affirming his own authority. The thing about crises is that they are ninety-five percent boring, he says, I’ve been a Marine and a policeman, and I can tell you, war, drug busts, all of it– mostly just about waiting.
Might as well wait with pancakes, Karen smiles.
I feel like another second can’t pass without us talking. But I don’t want to talk in front of Wyatt, so the news swells inside of me like a balloon getting bigger each second.
Are you two twins? Officer Wyatt says.
Karen says yes. I say no, cause it’s a stupid question that doesn’t deserve an honest answer.
Whoa, my lucky day.
And because I knew he might say something like that. I’ve never been quite sure why twins are a fetish. Two women in bed, I get that. But why twins? That would be incest. That should not be a popular fantasy.
You know Jamie has run two marathons, Karen says.
Half-marathons, I say.
Karen continues to brag about me. This is how she tries to hook me up with men. Apparently, she thinks I need her help. Apparently, she also thinks I belong with assholes like this.
Wow, he says, you must be really in shape.
I am. My calves are huge. Bulging with muscle, like man legs.
Karen gives us each a plate and we start to eat.
Did you two know the guy? Wyatt asks.
I tell him that Tim brought over our mail when it was delivered to his place on accident.
I kind of remember that, says Karen.
And his wife walks a white little dog around the block.
Oh god, you’re right, Karen says looking out the kitchen window. It’s so much sadder now that I remember actually seeing her. Do you think the dog is okay? she asks.
I am sure the dog is fine, says the officer.
I am living in two realities right now, one where Karen keeps secrets and has a lump growing in her chest, and the other where I know nothing—the reality Karen lives in. My mouth operates in second reality, talking about how I once saw the dog dressed up in a sweater. But in my head I am thinking about my Aunt Melinda who died of breast cancer. The family called her a survivor right up until she died. I was three blocks away grinding beans at the coffee shop. Karen was crowded into the hospital room with the rest of the family. She said they never turned off the TV.
No one says anything for a while and I write on the corner of the whiteboard: I know.
Know what? She says out loud.
I say, They called about an appointment.
She eats her lips together and asks Wyatt if he needs more coffee. He says no, but she still pours him some.
The pancakes seem to be rejuvenating themselves. I eat huge mouthfuls trying to get to the end of them. I keep telling the policeman what time it is, he smiles and chews with his mouth open. Karen looks at him, even when I’m talking. Wyatt says he thinks he should go, but Karen asks him to at least stay and eat one more pancake. He does. I hate her for dragging this out. When he finishes Karen asks if maybe he wants to have another cup of coffee, but he says the other officers are probably starting to wonder where he is.
Karen goes to the door to see him off then comes back to the kitchen and starts scrubbing the counter. She’s scrubbing hard and the motion of her arm makes her whole body shake. I reach up and pull her hair. I pull it hard. I want it to hurt. She whirls around and slaps me across the face. I slap her right back.
I say, You should’ve told me.
I can help.
Sure. Right. I can see you are doing a very good job of that right now.
I want to know if she told Evan. I tell her I’ve never kept a secret from her. It sounds like a lie, but I think it’s true– that’s how you’re close, that’s how you love someone.
I want to know how long she’s known. If she thinks the lump is a problem, or if it’s just a lump. How big is it? Does mom know? Does dad know? Does Evan know?
She says he does know.
Why does he know and not me? Why are you moving out? Do you even want to be my sister? I could keep going on and on, words spilling out of my mouth like rice from a plastic bag, but Karen interrupts me.
What about me? she says.
What about you?
What about me!
We are talking about you, I say.
No, we are talking about your reaction to this, she says. But I’m talking bout me. My lump. My appointment. You want to know stuff—then go ahead. Ask me any question and I’ll answer. She folds her arms and waits.
Why didn’t you tell me? I ask.
Any question about me that doesn’t involve you, she says.
I go to our room because there is nowhere else to go. I can see into Tim’s dining room from my window. Two people sit at the table, but the shades are too low to see their heads. I sit at an angle that might prevent me from being hit by stray sniperfire. The woman scrapes her plate with the fork and Tim drinks from a tall glass of water. When he stands up I nearly jump. He walks towards her and I think this must be it. This is when it all ends. But then he wraps his arms around his wife’s torso to give her a hug. He picks up her plate and walks away.
In my new home there will be no roommates, just me– my messes, the noise of my own mouth smacking open with spit. I take out all my sweaters from the drawer and fold them up and put them inside a box and tape it shut. I write my name in lower case letters on the first box, but it looks too tiny and cute. I write it in all upper case on the next box, but it look even more like a child wrote it. Nothing I do looks adult.
An hour passes and I can’t see anyone at Tim’s apartment. Outside, some of the caution tape has come loose and is blowing in the wind, a cat casually weaves in and out of the barrier and no one says a thing. I crack my front window and hear the scuttling of the cops and cameramen. Everyone looks calmer than any of us should be and I can only assume that Tim and his wife have gone to bed. It’s been a long day for everyone.
I hear Karen start the water for a bath and go in to wash my face.
There is tea on the counter if you want some, she says.
I stick my feet in the tub and Karen moves her knees over to make room for me. Once when we were kids and sharing a bath, I held Karen underneath the water for what felt like minutes. She came up coughing and spitting, her face squeezing tight, then exploding wide. I didn’t want to kill or even hurt her. I just wanted to know what it was like to be stuck under water, but was too scared to do it to myself. The next time we took a bath she held my eye open and filled it with shampoo.
Karen sits back in the tub. For a second she seems like a stranger and I try to figure out if she’s beautiful or ugly. But I love her and hate her too much to know what either of us really looks like.
I ask, If you were in charge right now, what would you say to Tim?
I guess I’d say, drop your gun and come out.
No. I mean like, what if you had to go inside the apartment and negotiate things. Like really talk to him.
I’d explain the consequences of his actions and how the law will go easier on him if he comes out now. What would you say?
I don’t know. Just sorry it came to this, I guess.
I squeeze shampoo in the water then wave my hand around to make bubbles. Karen breaks the bubbles with her finger.
And what would you say to me, if I was holding someone hostage? I ask.
Who are you holding hostage?
I think for a good minute, but the only person I can think of is Karen. I don’t tell her this. It feels good not to tell her.
Karen, I didn’t mean to be, you know, like I was earlier.
It’s alright, she says.
I ask if I can feel it and she nods yes.
My fingers are soapy and slide back and forth over her breast looking for the lump. Karen stops my hands, holds it still for a second and then guides my fingers closer to her armpit. There, she says. It’s tiny and hard, an alien curled up in fetal position.
Are you scared?
You’re going to be fine, I say.
Karen dries off and leaves. I take off my clothes and sit in the bathtub walking my fingers over my own chest, steady at first, and then zigzagging faster. As I plunge my hand harder and deeper into the tissue, my breasts squish into shapes, but I find nothing. I put my head under the water and try to hold it there.
We fall asleep on the couch and I wake up with Karen’s toes in my hair. She gets the leftover pancakes and orange juice and we eat with our fingers and drink from the carton. After Karen finishes flipping through a fashion magazine she hands it to me, and I hand her the newspaper I was reading.
Then there’s a shot. We both stand up, as if saluting. Karen turns on the television. The camera zooms in on the front door as a woman bursts out in her bathrobe and is immediately swallowed by a crowd of uniforms. It takes about five minutes before the news confirms that the hostage is free and Tim Browsky has shot himself. Tim, I say aloud.
News reporters face the cameras, pointing behind themselves at the apartment. Karen picks up her cell phone and calls Evan. She tells him to turn on the television. Neither of them seems to be saying anything on the phone, they are just being together. The crowd thins and an officer stacks the orange cones on top of one another, while another officer rolls the caution tape around his arm. I tell Karen I am going outside and she nods, the phone resting on her shoulder.
Out front paramedics and police are going in and out of Tim’s apartment building, his wife is sitting in a police car with a young police officer crouched on the ground, looking up and asking questions. I think about walking over and asking if Tim’s wife wants to be my new roommate. We could help each other carry things in from the car and always make extra food when we cook. If she left the bathroom light on, I’d turn it off for her. We’d laugh each other’s jokes, out loud, very hard, especially around other people. I’d introduce her to people I knew, and she’d introduce me to people she knew, and we would all give each other a quarters when we were caught on the bus without change. But she’s looking over the policeman’s head, and I don’t think she wants to talk to anyone right now. I wish it weren’t too late for Tim and I to do these kind acts for one another; we wouldn’t even talk about it, we’d just do it– like a secret alliance.
Walking up porch staircase I almost slip on the bottom stair where the last patch of ice still hangs on, wet and sorry. Soon spring will give into summer. I will sit outside hot and sweating, unable to remember what it’s like to be cold.
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