This story is the first-place winner of the 2013 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2013 stories were judged by bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Oates and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
Avi knew his sister would take the news badly. Seven years his junior, Avi’s sister was given to fits of feeling, storms of wild emotion. This evening, as Avi awaited his sister in his home, he adjusted the plates at the dining room table, wiped the insides of wine glasses with the bottom of his shirt and folded and re-folded the three maps he’d purchased that day—topographic, political, historical—and had fanned on the table’s end.
Another man might have been able to relax on the couch with a glass of wine and a magazine, or take solace in the warmth of his apartment, the savory scents of dinner drifting from the kitchen. But Avi Lieberman was not such a man. His blood was lava, his fingers unable to rest in one place. He fidgeted with the stems of his eyeglasses, then with the buttons of his shirt. In the kitchen he opened a bottle of beer, forgetting that he’d already opened one moments before. He took a sip, then set the bottle down.
“She’s late,” he told his wife.
Gerta stood at the kitchen counter, rolling leaves of cabbage around some shredded vegetables. A pot of sauce simmered on the stove.
“Your sister’s always late,” she said, setting the last of the cabbage rolls in a row and then placing the pan in the oven.
In her final month of her pregnancy, Gerta’s belly protruded full and round. With her light hair and pale skin, she looked to Avi like a swan dipping in and out of a vaporous pond as she leaned forward to smell the sauce on the stove. The steam rose up in curled waves, then vanished around her face.
“Did you set the table?”
“Yes,” Avi said.
“Yes, of course napkins.”
“Then there’s nothing to do but wait.”
“Well,” Gerta said. “Go wait in the living room.”
Avi lifted his wife’s hair, kissed her neck, then left the room.
The job offer had come one month ago. However, it wasn’t until a week ago, after discussions with his wife, salary negotiations, teleconferences with colleagues and Skype meetings with the director of evolution research at the Berlin Academy that Avi had, at last, accepted the offer. A historian of science with a special interest in evolution theories—he told people that he studied “the evolution of evolution”—Avi could not have dreamed of a better opportunity. Moving to Berlin was exactly what Gerta wanted. The job was exactly what Avi wanted.
Still, the moment he’d accepted the offer, Avi had gone directly to the liquor store, bought a bottle of whiskey and drank half of it alone in his office. Because Avi rarely consumed hard alcohol, he’d spent the rest of the night curled up next to the toilet muttering slurred declarations of love to his wife and apologies to his sister, who would be left behind.
When at last the doorbell rang, Avi righted his posture, checked the tuck of his shirt, then hurried through the hallway to the door. What he planned to say was “Pesty, hi, you look great. Come in. We have some news, some big and exciting news. Come.”
Instead, what he said was nothing.
His sister teetered above him on two-inch heels, a black leather jacket zipped to her neck, her hair in a high ponytail at the top of her head. The tips of her brown hair were bleached white. She stood with a man who was taller than Avi, hairier too, with thick dark hair hanging over his ears and a grizzly dark beard across his chin, a bristly dark moustache above his lip. The man wore a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, exposing black serpentine tattoos along his forearms.
“You must be Avi.” The man lifted his arm from Avi’s sister’s shoulder, extending his hand for a shake. Avi hesitated.
“Sorry!” Pesty said, vibrating with laughter. “Avi, this is Ted.” She bumped her hip against the man beside her. “Teddy, this is my brother Avi.”
Avi shook the man’s hand. His grip was intensely strong, as if he spent his days wrangling cattle, strangling live animals.
“I know I should’ve asked if Teddy could come over. It’s just—we totally ran into each other on the way here! Isn’t that wild? He was just getting off work and I was on the bus and, hey, there was my baby!”
Her baby? Avi blinked as if caught in a windstorm.
“Anyway, he’s not hungry so if there’s not enough food it’s cool. He can just drink, right, baby?”
“Always,” Ted said with a wry half-smile.
Avi said nothing. Pesty? he wanted to cry out. Is that you? Never in all his life had he seen his sister this way—hair bleached white, black leather jacket, black mascara, eye-liner, red lipstick. Never had he seen her so…sexual. Which was not the same as sexy, he knew. For she was not sexy. She was the refracted image of sexy, what you got when you put sexy into a glass of water and looked at it through the translucent liquid. It was distorted and bent and had nothing to do with confidence and poise and everything to do with perception and tricks of light.
“Well?” his sister said. “Are you gonna invite us in? You know we’re vampires, Avi, and we need to be invited in.”
“Heh,” Avi said, not quite laughing. “Vampires. Yes. Right. Please, come in.”
In a daze, Avi spun and watched his sister enter his apartment, the man named Ted entering after her. His sister’s new boyfriend walked slowly, playing with the rolled sleeves of his flannel shirt, revealing more of the black designs running up his arms. The guy couldn’t look more sketchy—and, Avi thought, less Jewish—if he tried.
“Ted’s an inker,” his sister explained, clacking her way into the living room. She spun and placed her hand on Ted’s arm, as if to protect it from her brother’s critical gaze.
“An inker,” Avi said.
“You know. A tattoo artist. He works right in the neighborhood. Right next to that diner you love so much.”
“No kidding,” Avi said. “That diner I love so much.” He turned toward the thermostat, as if to understand why the room suddenly felt so hot.
“Anyway,” his sister went on. “Teddy knew right away that my tattoo animal would be a cat. I’m thinking of having that inked onto my arm, wouldn’t that be something? A giant black cat right here.” She traced her fingernail along the sleeve of her leather jacket. Then she leaned toward Ted and nuzzled his neck. “Meow,” she whispered.
And at once Avi knew it all—his sister was head over heels in love with him, the inker. Just as she had been head over heels in love with the recovering junkie stand-up comedian in the East Village, a guy whose entire routine centered around his days trading oral sex for heroin. Or the peach farmer named Karma, a man-boy who had wanted to marry her in spite of the fact that he was, well, already married.
If it wasn’t her tattoo animal, it was some new diet. If it wasn’t some new diet, it was some new project, some activism work or some outreach program or some new way of making art. Full of boundless energy that lifted like balloons out of her pores and into the open sky, there were so many things his sister did, and wanted to do, and to each new thing she gave herself fully until she was utterly transformed by it. Then, when the man she was dating went back to his wife or the activist group turned out to be corrupt or the diet shriveled away all her flesh until she was nothing but knobby wrists and protruding chin, then it would all come crashing around her and the tear-wracked phone calls to Avi would begin. I should have listened to you. I should have known. I’m so stupid! Why do I do these things? Avi, you have to help me. Please, big brother.
Only, in the past few weeks Avi had had reason to hope. Just before he’d accepted the Berlin offer, he and Pesty had met up in Harvard Square at a small coffee shop. His sister had stirred her mocha and fiddled with the zipper of her sweatshirt until at last she told Avi that she was thinking of going back to school, getting her MFA, painting, finally, or collage, she wasn’t sure which, but she was ready now, ready to make real choices about her life, to move forward, to be serious about something. She had looked up at him, his sweet little sister, a small stain of whipped cream on her lip, brown eyes big and hungry for her older brother’s approval.
I think it’s a good idea, Pesty, he’d said. I’ve always thought you had talent. It was discipline you lacked. But if you can manage it, I think you’d be great.
And it was true. He did believe in her. He did think she had talent. Also true was the incredible sense of relief he’d felt, the hope that seemed to burst through his chest at that moment. If his sister became serious about something, if she became a person who made plans for her future, if she could harness all her wild impulses into something creative, steadily growing to rely on her own self a little more and on Avi a little less…
But then—this inker! This greaseball, this scuzzbucket, with his shaggy face and tattooed arms and cool nonchalance, dragging her into a web of needles, infection, mistakes she would regret for the rest of her life.
“You know tattoos are permanent, don’t you, Pesty?”
His sister just laughed. “Duh, Avi, really?”
“Hey,” Ted said. “Why does your brother keep calling you ‘Pesty’?”
His sister exploded into another wild avalanche laugh. “Oh God,” she said, as if it was all just too embarrassing to relate. As if she was embarrassed by her brother’s clinginess, his refusal to just grow up. “It’s a silly nickname, really. It’s because when I was a kid, I was such a pest. I wouldn’t let him go anywhere without me. Every time he left the house I threw a fit until he ended up just taking me everywhere.”
“For real?” Ted said.
“That’s why I’m here, in Boston. Avi moved to Boston for grad school, so I came to Boston.” She shrugged with one shoulder, her leather jacket crinkling against her chin. “When Avi did his dissertation research in England, guess who went with him?”
Ted, seemingly amused by this, threw his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her to him.
“We’re like those animals—” She pressed her hands together and intertwined her fingers. “Those birds. Teddy, you need to have my brother tell you about those birds. They climb inside crocodiles’ mouths and the crocodiles just let it happen. It’s totally wild. What are those birds called? What are they, Avi?”
She turned to look at Avi and then abruptly laughed again. “Jesus, what’s wrong, big brother? You look like you just swallowed a raccoon!”
Throughout dinner, Avi’s eyes returned to the square black clock on the wall above his wife’s head. One minute passed, then ten, then thirty. One hour. He still had not told his sister about Berlin. In fact, just before they sat, Avi had swept all the maps off the table, carried them into the study and shoved them into his desk, slamming the drawer shut.
“You know,” Pesty said, scooping up the last bit of cabbage-wrapped hamburger from her plate. “Gerta, in all the time I’ve known you you’ve never cooked a classic German meal. This is really good.”
“Thank you,” Gerta said, looking not at Avi’s sister now, but at Avi. “I’m glad you like it.”
Avi ate quickly, his fork in one continuous loop between plate and mouth. He drank from his glass of water. He dabbed his mouth with his napkin.
“Speaking of Germany,” he heard Gerta say, and then his wife’s fingertips were upon his wrist. “Eliza, your brother wanted to tell you something,”
“Oh?” Avi’s sister pushed her plate away and scooted next to Ted, leaning against her new boyfriend as if they were about to watch a movie.
Avi cleared his throat, set down his fork. “I…” He paused. “We…”
As he spoke, an image appeared in his mind: Pesty, skinny as a twig, teetering drunkenly down the sidewalk, bleached hair loosened around her face, bare arms covered in black ink, jagged lines curling around her skin like worms feasting on the body of the dead.
A sad and haunting image. But not wholly unfounded. In the past, growing up in New York City with parents too lost in their own problems to recognize the train wreck of a daughter they’d created, it was Avi, always Avi, picking her up from bars when she was too drunk to walk, waiting for her at health clinics when she needed a pregnancy test, STD tests. It was Avi who helped her with her homework, Avi who visited her teachers to find out why she was flunking physics or math, Avi who helped her get one job after another and lent her money whenever it was requested. It was Avi, always Avi who stepped in wherever their parents fell short, which was pretty much always.
“Well you can’t be moving to Germany,” his sister said, her lips forming a quaky and lopsided smile, “It’s kind of scary there, even—”
“I think art school is a good idea for you, Pesty.”
At that, Gerta lifted the empty tray of cabbage leaves and stood up. Soon Avi heard the pan clattering in the sink, the gush of water running in the faucet.
“That’s what you wanted to tell me?” Eliza said over the noise.
“I really think you should go,” Avi said. “If you get in.”
“Well, okay, big brother, thanks for the tip!” His sister laughed and Avi closed his eyes, hearing only the avalanche, large gray rocks picking up speed and breaking apart, tumbling down and down and down.
The following afternoon, Avi sat in his office, a glass-domed beetle in each hand. These were presents from his sister: two identical long, fat, black beetles framed permanently under glass, purchased at one of the many Darwin gift shops near the archive in Cambridge, England.
When Avi had taken his sister along with him for that trip—because she’d insisted, because she’d thrown her arms around his neck like a boa constrictor, because she’d begged and nearly cried and said, Please, Avi, I won’t bother you, I’ll just fly out with you, you know we’ll have such a good time! Oh, come on, when am I ever going to go to Europe if I don’t go now, with my big brother? because he thought, What can I do? What is a big brother to do? and finally said, Okay, come, please, my God, then paid for her plane ticket and her hotel stay, and most of her meals, his trip subsidized by his university anyway, so why not?—the week had not been a good one.
Each morning when Avi bid his sister goodbye so he could go off to do his work, Pesty looked up at him and said, But what will I do, in this foreign country all by myself? And only once, in utter frustration, did Avi lose his temper, flapping his arms against his thighs. I don’t know! I don’t know what you will do. You’re the one who wanted to come here. You know I have to work. You’re in England, for godsakes, go explore, go to a play, go to a museum. And before he could apologize for raising his voice, she’d taken her key card from the hotel table and slunk out the door, the lock clicking shut behind her.
And rather than feel relieved, all day Avi worried and fretted and grew increasingly concerned that she’d run into the street and looked right instead of left and gotten hit by a car. Or else she’d wandered into East London, some junkie’s squat, and in no time she’d be calling, screaming for him to come retrieve her, to come help.
At last, she’d arrived. Cheerful and oblivious, she’d spent the day visiting the many Darwin gift shops. She’d bought Avi a gift: two black beetles encased in glass domes. She presented these to Avi with a sweet, apologetic shrug. “You said Darwin was into beetles.”
That was over eight years ago. He was still finishing his graduate work then, hustling nights and days for his advisor, sleeping four hours a night, reading ten books a day, flying to foreign cities to attend conferences, networking like his life depended on it. Soporific as those conferences were, traveling still seemed a touch glamorous, vaguely thrilling. It was fun to travel when one knew where home was.
Now, Avi’s cluttered office felt unusually cramped. He would have to pack it all up. Papers, articles, books, folders for his mentees, young men and women who laughed at his jokes, who nodded excitedly as he encouraged their research, as he reminded them again and again that “evolutionarily fit” did not mean superior and that all scientific theory was subject to change.
He would have new mentees at the German academy, of course. Hard-jawed, square-shouldered, prodigious young Germans. Heavily accented men and women, Franziskas and Svens and Wolfgangs, young Germans eager to hear what Avi Lieberman, the Jew from America, had to say about evolutionary change.
Hours later, Avi stood in front of his sister’s apartment building in Central Square, a thick manila envelope clutched in his hand. In his office, Avi had printed out the applications to a handful of New England art schools. These he’d fastened with paper clips and slid into a large envelope. He would make it easy for his sister. He’d give her the applications, even offering to take photographs of her work and label her prints. If she needed help with the essays, he would help with those too. He would pay for the application fees and he would mail the applications himself, hand-delivering them if need be to local schools.
He had not, however, printed any applications for schools in Berlin. In this way, he would break the news to her. We are going, Pesty. You are not. If she pressed him, he would cite the high cost of living expenses, her lack of a job, her inability to speak German. He would remind her that he was going to be a father, that he wouldn’t be able to spend time with her and, dare he say it, take care of her in the way he always had. And if she really pressed him, leaning against him with all her sisterly weight, he would just have to say it: No.
Finally, a young woman appeared at the door. She wore red flannel pajamas and rubbed her eye with her knuckle. It was five p.m. on a Friday but evidently Avi had woken her up. She had pink hair and two piercings, one in her eyebrow and one in her septum.
Avi felt old. He was only 30, a young man by any standard. But this girl, and the countless girls like her who shopped at the local food co-op and slept all day and hung around at nearby clubs like The Middle East and TT the Bears, who waited tables or tended bar and seemed, for all intents and purposes, to have no real thing to hold onto in their lives, made Avi feel old and rigid and decayed.
No matter, he would press on. “I’m looking for Eliza Lieberman.”
“Who are you?” She looked at the envelope in Avi’s hand.
“I’m her older brother. Is she home?”
The girl blinked, still not quite awake. Her skin was ashen and she had a cluster of pimples between her dark eyebrows. “I think she moved out.” She looked up past Avi’s head as if she were measuring the days by the position of the sun. “A few days ago.”
“Moved out? To live where?”
“With some guy, I think.”
The girl shrugged.
“Christ,” Avi said. How could this be? A couple of weeks that she’d been dating this guy. He craned his neck, trying to see through the window of her apartment, unable to believe that she was really gone. “Are you sure she moved out?” He waved the envelope in his hand as if these applications were proof that she was here.
The girl cocked her head. “Hey, are you really Eliza’s big brother?”
“What?” Avi said. Then, “Yes, yes, of course.”
“Well…” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms. “She kind of owes me money for the utilities. The check’s due the day after tomorrow.”
Avi looked at the girl’s face for a long moment, the tiny pimples between her eyebrows, the dot on her lip where a piercing once was. Who are your parents? He wanted to ask. Do they even know where you are?
“It’s not such a big deal,” she went on. “Just, the electricity will be shut off…”
Avi clutched the envelope against his chest, a shield across his heart.
“How much?” he said.
“Living with him!” Avi said to Gerta that night. “Living with the inker!” He checked his cell phone one last time before slamming it down on the bedroom dresser. He had called his sister six times; she had not answered. He emptied the change from his pockets, letting the coins clank loudly on the wooden dresser. He thought Eliza’s roommate might have lied about the utility bill or perhaps exaggerated the cost. But he had no way of knowing for sure. He never knew anything for sure about his sister.
Gerta was laying flat on the bed, both hands resting on her belly. Her head was propped on two large white pillows, as were her feet. She patted the bed next to her, inviting Avi to sit.
Avi sat. He knew what was coming. Over the years, Gerta had allowed Avi room when it came to his sister, telling him to Go, go, when his sister called him in the middle of the night needing a ride home from some terrible place, and Give, give, when his sister needed money for a class or clothes for a new job or to fly home from some spontaneous trip to another city.
But he’d always known that sooner or later, this conversation would come. The one in which Gerta told him that it was time to sever the cord. And wasn’t that just what he’d loved most about his wife? When he’d seen her in the library so many years ago, he’d been instantly drawn to her upright posture, the elegant way her straight blond hair was pulled back off her face, the loose dangle of her silver necklace over her protruding clavicle. She’d emitted a sweet smell of cinnamon. Her mouth was soft and pink but surrounded by deep laugh lines, etchings that gave her face the impression of being at once sweet but stern, kind but steadfast.
Unlike every other woman in his family, Gerta was focused, organized and calm. She knew what she wanted.
“You’re going to be a father, Avi.”
He took his wife’s hand and placed it on his knee.
“Not just one day,” Gerta continued. “But any day. Tomorrow. Or next week.”
“Yes,” Avi said. “I understand how these things work.”
“But do you?”
After a moment, Avi shook his head. No, in fact he supposed he did not.
“It’s time now…”
Gerta didn’t finish her thought. But Avi knew. Time to let Pesty go. Time to move away. Time to let her make her own mistakes.
And if his sister did irreversible damage? If she contracted a disease or OD’ed on some drug or got herself in jail somehow? If, God forbid, something terrible…
“My sister needs me.”
“I need you,” Gerta said, lifting her feet and plopping them onto Avi’s lap. “Rub please.”
Avi leaned forward, kissed each of his wife’s swollen ankles. Then he dug his thumb into her instep, his fingers cradling the delicate bones of her small feet. Gerta sighed.
After a moment, she said, “Anyway, there are worse things than getting a tattoo.”
Avi said nothing. He simply watched as each press of his thumb made a white imprint into Gerta’s flesh, his mark fading as quickly as it appeared.
Though Avi had never consciously envisioned the tattoo parlor in which Ted worked, it was instantly clear to him that he had been holding a particular sort of picture in his mind. The picture had less to do with reality and more to do with a medley of places where he had seen his sister go—divey East Village bars back when she was in high school, creepy Krishna Consciousness centers when she was into the Hare Krishnas, the dirty pet shop where she’d spent her teen years cleaning the cages of lizards and sweeping birdseed off the dirty floor.
What Avi saw now was an expansive room in which every surface seemed to have been polished to a glistening shine. His shoes tapped along a floor that was tiled in alternating black and white squares. Before him was a long U-shaped counter behind which were displays of various items—tattoo books, tattoo stickers, buttons and bumper stickers that said things like “I WILL NEVER REGRET MY TATTOOS,” and “YES, MY TATTOOS HURT.” A woman sat in a tall leather chair behind the counter, a large old-fashioned metal cash register obscuring her from view. Avi saw only her thick left arm draped across an appointment book, her skin a sleeve of colorful tattoos.
“I’d like to speak with Ted,” Avi told her. “Is he in?”
The woman tapped her long pink fingernails on the glass countertop. “I’m sorry. He’s with a client.”
“Who’s the client?” Avi asked.
The woman laughed. “That’s confidential, dude.”
She closed the appointment book and laid her hand flat across it. Avi saw that her other arm was also covered in a sleeve of tattoos that stopped in a neat line just above her left wrist. He imagined his sister then, getting off a plane to greet him, her tattooed arms stretching toward him like two long snakes.
“Please,” Avi said. “I’ve got to find my sister.”
Sighing, the woman stood and at last led Avi through the lobby, past a heavy red velvet curtain and into a hall. Here, too, every surface was shiny, freshly mopped and scrubbed. Black and white tiles swam dizzyingly beneath Avi’s feet. They passed one room after another, each door painted a dark deep red.
At the last door, the woman knocked. “Ted?”
Avi heard the buzzing of an electric needle.
“Ted?” the woman said again, knocking louder. “Someone wants to see you.”
The needle continued to buzz, a high-pitched electric whirr that seemed to make Avi’s toes vibrate inside his shoes.
“What’s your name?”
Rather than answer, Avi pounded the door with his fist. He said, “Ted, it’s Avi Lieberman. Eliza’s brother.”
The buzzing stopped. Avi heard muffled voices conferring on the other side. Then a high-pitched laugh that Avi recognized at once. He pushed the door open.
“Sir—” the woman said.
“Pesty!” Avi said, and then he shoved past Ted straight to the black leather chair where his sister sat, her right arm hanging down beside her, the sleeve of her tee shirt rolled up to her shoulder and pinned in place with a jumbo silver diaper pin, skinny black ink lines along her bicep, the surrounding skin red and tender. The room was brightly lit. A tall yellow lamp stood beside the chair, so bright that Avi could see each small brown hair on his sister’s arm slowly rise.
“Sir!” the woman said again. But Ted told her it was all right, and she at last threw up her hands and walked away. Ted closed the door.
“What are you doing?” Avi said to Eliza. Then to Ted, “What have you done!”
Ted peeled off his white plastic gloves and tossed them into a wastebasket. He crossed his arms and looked at Avi. He appeared different here, now, in his own territory. Here there was a bodily comfort, a resoluteness that intimidated Avi just slightly. Ted’s clenched jaw and steady gaze all seemed to say, This is my turf, friend, and you are toeing a very thin line here.
But Avi’s sister was not Ted’s turf. Her arm was not Ted’s turf. Her beautiful skin, her youth, her sweetness, her gullibility, her foolishness. Her bank account. These things were not Ted’s turf.
“You know,” his sister said, admiring her arm. “I’ve always wanted a tattoo.”
“You’ve always wanted a tattoo?”
Gently, she prodded her reddened skin. “Yeah. I’ve always—”
“What about school, Pesty? What about a steady job? What about a nice place to live? Haven’t you always wanted that?”
“Hey now,” Ted said, and stepped forward, placing his hands on the leather headrest of Eliza’s chair.
The room was bright and windowless and smelled of ink. The walls were covered with photographs of black designs as well as some personal effects that must have been Ted’s own touch—signed photographs from some famous tattooed musicians or movie stars with the words Thank u!! and XOXO in black Sharpie across the top. A row of sanitizing bottles stood on a shelf: peroxide, rubbing alcohol, Purell, along with paper towels, tissues, a pile of neatly folded hand towels. Inches away stood a large metal contraption that Avi did not want to look at, some kind of machine that he did not want to contemplate the use of. On another shelf, an open briefcase stood upright, displaying needles of all different lengths and widths, their sharp silver points gleaming in the room’s light.
“If the lady wants a tattoo…” Ted said, and he moved his arms from the top of the headrest to rest on Eliza’s shoulders.
“If the lady wants a tattoo,” Avi said, “who do you think is going to pay for it?”
“Ted gave me a discount,” Eliza said. “It hardly costs a thing.”
Avi took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It will cost,” he said, “everything.”
“Avi, it’s just a tattoo. Anyway, I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Pleased? What would please me about this, Eliza?” It had been so long that he’d called her by her actual name that his sister jerked her head in surprise. Avi placed his glasses back on his nose, then went to the standing lamp and finally clicked it off. “I’m moving,” he said. “To Berlin. Gerta and I. We’re leaving in three months. We will be starting a new life in Berlin. In a few months, I will be very far away.”
He realized as he spoke that not only had he not yet uttered these words to his sister, but he had not quite uttered them out loud to anyone. Always it was framed in some other context. He’d had to tell the movers they would be flying on a certain date. He’d had to tell the head of his department that he’d accepted the offer and would continue his work up through the semester. But the words he had not spoken yet were these: “I will be very far away.” He did not have anyone to be very far away from, except for his sister Pesty.
He handed her the manila envelope full of art school applications. “Here. These are for you.”
His sister took the envelopes and set them on the floor without looking at them. Then, to Avi’s astonishment, she began to laugh. “Berlin! Yeah right, Avi. What’re you gonna do there, practice your goose step?”
“Pesty,” he said. “It’s not a joke.”
“What are you saying,” she said, and Avi could tell that she was still trying to make light of it, that she was straining to smile, “that you’re moving? To Germany? For good?”
“But that’s impossible. What about your job?”
“I was offered a better job.”
“What about your academic work?”
“I’ll be doing research there.”
“What about Boston? Your friends here?”
“Gerta’s family is there. We’ll make new friends.”
She brushed her bangs aside with the back of her wrist. “What about me?”
For this Avi had no answer.
After a moment, he kneeled down beside her chair. “Pesty.” He reached for her hand.
But she did not offer her hand to him. Instead she leaned forward in her chair and pushed him, hard, so that he fell on his haunches and then tumbled back into the wall behind him. For a moment he couldn’t see. The room split into watery shards. He placed his hand on his head and said again, “Pesty!”
“I’m gonna get some soda,” Ted said. “Anyone want anything?”
“Are you okay, Avi?” Eliza said. Avi held up his palm. Ted kissed Eliza on the top of her head, then walked out.
Avi pulled the halves of his coat together. He felt an ache in his head and, after a moment, he realized that the ache was a hard knot of anger. He stood, reached for her forearm and, careful not to touch her tattoo, he shook her.
“What about me, Pesty? Don’t I deserve a life? Don’t I deserve a family of my own?”
She tried to wriggle out of his grip but he held on. He didn’t care. It was time, now, for her to hear what he had to say. It was time for her to listen.
“I’ve been taking care of you for years now, cleaning up your messes, lending you money, picking you up when you fall, dealing with all your bullshit and I’m done, Eliza. I’m moving away. I can’t keep taking care of you.”
Under his grip, her muscles clenched, hard as stone.
“Taking care of me? Is that what you’ve been doing?”
“Yes,” Avi said. “That’s exactly what I’ve been doing. You move around from place to place, you get into one relationship after another. And who cleans up after you? Who makes sure you don’t get fired? Who helps you get into school? Who picks you up from the airport, the bus station, the bar, the club?” He stabbed his finger into his chest. “Me. Always. Just yesterday I paid your utility bills over at your old apartment.”
“No one asked you to do that, Avi.”
“Yes,” Avi said, laughing a bitter laugh. “In fact, someone actually did ask me to do that. And that’s what you don’t understand, Eliza. Every time you make these decisions that you make, every time you follow your wild impulses, running off here or there or God knows where, there is a trail of mess behind you.”
Finally freeing herself from her brother’s grip, Eliza stood from the chair. “Well, who said you’re the one who has to take care of it?”
“Oh, please. If I don’t, who will? Mom? Dad? Your new boyfriend? Your inker?”
“Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll take care of myself.”
Avi waved away the thought. “Oh, that’d be the day. When have you taken care of yourself ever?”
“You’ve never given me the chance!”
Avi was silent. So now this was his fault. It was his fault for caring, his fault for being a good brother, his fault for not letting his sister die in some drug-infested flat in London or some artist’s loft in L.A. or any number of places where she might put her life in danger by trusting a little too much, taking it all a little too far, knowing, in the end, that Avi would be there to help her.
“When I went to England,” Avi said. “You wouldn’t even let me go by myself. You begged me and cried and—”
“When you went to England, I was 16 years old! I was a kid!”
“Well, what’s changed since then, Eliza? What’s really changed? You’ve never had a steady job, you never stay in one apartment for longer than a year, you have a new boyfriend every time I see you. Now you’re hanging out with a tattoo artist, you’ve forgotten all about school—”
“Who says I’ve forgotten about school?”
“In two weeks you’re going to be in some terrible fix. I know this, Eliza. I know you. You’re going to be looking for a ride home or you’re going to miss some application deadline—”
“Who says I’ve forgotten about school?” she said again.
“Or you’re going to want that thing—” he flailed his hand toward her arm—“removed from your body and you’re going to be begging me to borrow the money.”
“Who,” Eliza asked once again, “says I’ve forgotten about school? And who says I’m going to want this removed from my arm? Maybe this is part of me trying to change, trying to grow up. Maybe this tattoo is about me finally committing to something permanent.”
“A tattoo?” Avi said. “That’s your big commitment in life? Getting a tattoo?”
“See? All you do is make fun. You tease me like I’m a kid.”
“Not true!” Avi said. “I’ve encouraged you more than anyone.”
“Yeah, sure,” Eliza said. “In your own backhanded way.”
Avi turned away from her. This was insane. It was wrong, wrong, wrong. She was taking his best self—his love for her, his concern—and using it like a weapon against him.
“When I told you I wanted to go back to school—”
“I supported you!” Avi said. “100 percent. I told you how talented you are.”
“You told me I didn’t have discipline.”
Eliza looked down at her shoes. “Then you brought it up at dinner like it was some special thing you had to remind me about. You either treat me like a child or you make fun of me. You make fun of the things I want.”
“You put me down, Avi. You do. Ted thinks—”
“Oh, please, tell me what your shegetz thinks about all this.”
“Your goyisher inker.”
His sister nodded slowly. “So that’s what this is about.”
“No,” Avi said. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about you needing to grow up.”
Eliza raised her brow. “Since when do you care about me dating a Jewish man?”
“Since you decided to do this!” Avi said, and he gestured up and down her body, meaning all of it, the bleached tips of her hair, the lipstick, the heels, the hysterical laugh. The tattoo.
“I used to think,” his sister said, “that you hated to see me happy.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“But Ted says you don’t want me to grow up. That’s why you still call me ‘Pesty’. You don’t want me to stop needing you.”
“Bullshit!” Avi said and took a step toward her. “You know where I was yesterday? I came by your apartment with grad school applications for you. I came by to help you fill them out. Precisely so that you could grow up and stop needing me.”
“Who asked you to do that for me?”
“Why do you keep saying that? No one asked me, Eliza. It’s what a big brother does.”
“No, Avi. It’s what you do.”
The room was too warm. Avi wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm.
“You’re so worried about me getting a stupid tattoo and you’re the one moving to Germany. With your German wife. You’re about to have a child who won’t even be—”
“Half,” Avi said quickly. “The child will be half.”
Eliza let out a hard laugh. “Whatever.”
Avi turned away, leaned against the cool plaster wall. His sister’s words should have liberated him, sent Avi roaring into the streets, climbing rooftops shouting, “I’m free! I’m free!” For was that not what he’d always wanted? To be freed from his sister’s need? To know that she had found her way, that she would be all right?
Only, he did not feel like shouting. It was the plover his sister had been thinking of that night in his home. The plover, with its proud white chest, jagged gray plumage and spindly yellow legs. The plover, who needed the crocodile, who fed on the garbage, insects, bacteria and also, apparently, the broken relationships, unpaid utility bills, bad break-ups and lonely, frightened nights which clung to the reptile’s teeth.
The piping plover: endangered species.
When the door to the room opened, Avi stood up quickly. Ted had brought sodas for each of them. He offered one to Avi, which Avi accepted, in spite of his having not wanted one earlier. The soda was sweet and bubbly and cold. Avi drank it so quickly that his eyes watered more, his nose tingled, his throat burned.
“So,” Ted said. He went to Eliza and stood beside her, wrapping his arm around her waist. “You ready to finish that tat, babe?”
Avi didn’t wait to hear his sister’s reply. He leaned forward, kissed her on her forehead. Then he looked at the inker, met his eye. “Do a good job,” he said, nodding toward his sister’s arm. “Those things, they last forever.”
Outside, Avi tilted his head upward, letting the winter wind cool his skin and fill his eyes with water. He stood still on the sidewalk for a long time, watching the clouds. There were so many of them, and each large white puff broke eventually into long thin lines. Each stream of vapor drifted off, one after the other, in its own direction, sooner or later dissolving into the wide-open white sky.