I have a sister named Alice who’s only eight months older than I am. The reason for this eludes most people. My parents adopted Alice before they figured out my mother was already pregnant with me. And people, when they hear we’re sisters, say, “Oh yes, you look just alike. Around the eyes.” Alice and I don’t look anything alike. She is a tall, buxom redhead and the rest of us are tiny brunettes. Alice has always stood out in a crowd.
On holidays, I usually don’t have anyplace to go. Our parents retired to a desert community in the Southwest, and so I go to Alice’s house. It is a standing invitation and I only have to call if I’m not coming. It has been this way ever since Alice married Jim. Actually, Jim says he was hooked by Alice, but this isn’t true. She simply told him he had two years from the day she finished college to decide if he was going to marry her. When the date rolled around, Alice told Jim she loved him but it was over. For a month she wouldn’t see him or speak to him on the phone. Then he proposed.
Alice tells me I need a strategy with men. Every once in a while, when something doesn’t work out for me, I wind up on Alice’s doorstep and she always takes me in.
A few days before Christmas I call Alice to say I’m coming. Normally this isn’t necessary, but originally I’d called to say I wasn’t. The man I’ve been seeing on and off this past year decided at the last minute to go skiing in Colorado. I don’t really understand the reasons, but Alice doesn’t ask questions either.
It is snowing when the train pulls in. On the train, an old man sits in front of me. He has two paper bags filled with gifts, all wrapped in a sloppy way, with dirty bows stuck on. The man seems confused and keeps asking me if we’ve reached Wilmette. When we get to Wilmette, he gets off and wanders away into the snow. I want to see if someone is there to meet him, but Alice comes up and hugs me and the old man is gone. Alice never hugs me very hard. In fact I’ve always thought, since I was old enough to think such things, that Alice’s hug feels more like she’s pushing me away. She has a sharp, angular jawbone and I can feel it press sharply against my cheek.
I didn’t always love Alice, but one day I suddenly did. We were walking down a street together in Oak Park and a tall, redheaded woman who looked just like Alice walked right by us. Alice looked at the woman and the woman looked at her. The woman paused, hesitated, started to speak. But Alice just grabbed my hand and we walked away quickly. Alice was crying by the time we got home and she told me never to tell our mother what we’d seen. It was the first time I really knew she belonged to us.
Alice lives in a big stone house. In the winter, there’s always a fire going in the fireplace. We walk into her house arm in arm. Stockings hang from the mantel and Alice tells me they’ve decided to wait and open their presents when I’m there. She • says, “So, this guy’s in Colorado skiing, huh? . . .”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t nuts about him anyway.”
Alice nods but I don’t think she comprehends the notion. She has been nuts about Jim for fifteen years. Once she told me that to this day whenever he touches her, she goes wild. Jim works for Sunbeam and helps develop small appliances. Alice’s bouse is filled with these appliances. Little filter machines to clean the air. Hand vacuums. Tiny electric fans you can carry in your purse.
Alice has two redheaded children, Sara and Teddy, and they grab me around the ankles as I walk in. Jim leans over to kiss me. He’s making breakfast. He’s got eggs scrambling in the electric frying pan and bacon in the microwave and muffins in the toaster oven and coffee in the coffee maker and juice whirring around in the blender. He is the essence of efficiency as he moves quickly from one appliance to another. “How’s my little Pebble?” he asks. Pebble is an old nickname from my youth. When he was dating Alice, back in high school, I always went along. He called me the pebble in his shoe. Then just Pebble.
Alice reaches her face up to kiss Jim hello. She’s only been gone half an hour but they seem eager to kiss. Alice’s cheeks are rosy and a droplet of mucus hangs from the tip of her nose. Jim kisses her. Then with his finger he wipes the drop away and onto his jeans. No one has ever with his own finger wiped nasal drip from my nose.
If I think back, it is the first Christmas I’ve been single in ten years. It’s also the first Christmas I haven’t been miserable in ten years. So what is worse, I ask myself. I think how maybe I should call that man in Colorado and tell him just forget it.
We flock to the living room to open the gifts. At first there seems to be some system to the opening, Teddy and Sara sit near their presents like dogs being trained to wait for a biscuit. First they open their stocking stuffers one at a time and display whatever Santa gave them. Then they open all the packages that are not from Santa and give Alice the cards. Alice carefully records the name of the person who gave the gift, so that thankyou notes can be written. Then the system falls apart and we all tear open our presents.
I give Alice a lavender sweater and a pair of lavender socks.
She quickly pulls the sweater on to show me it fits. She is radiant.
I reach down to open what she’s bought me. “I don’t know,” she mumbles. “Maybe I should have gotten you something more practical.” But I’m already opening my gifts. The first is my stocking stuffer. It is a small booklet, about one inch by two, entitled What I Know About Men. It looks like one of those flip books of animation but when I flip the pages they’re all blank.
Alice and I fall over laughing. Then I open a present. It is a paperweight with a single drop inside that Alice said reminded her of me. And finally I get a large silver angel to stick on my wall. A guardian angel.