When my sister leaves, she leaves me with a toad. She makes good on a childhood threat. When we were little, she, a round-cheeked angel, and I, older and mean, used to say that when she grew up she would join the army.
“No.” I was controlling, even then, fiercely unkind but fiercely protective.
“Yes.” she’d insist, and to me this implied she would go to war, she would fight and she would be injured, or worse, die. And then I’d be sorry.
So I was sorry, then, for whatever I’d done to make her mention her intended vocation. I had knocked over her dollhouse, or said something cruel, or had snuck into her room and unscrewed the tops of the bottled sand art she’d made at the fair and poured out all the colored sand across her bedroom floor. But I love her, and I loved her then, more than anything. The thought of her in danger made me cry. As a child, the quickness with which I moved through emotion was virtuosic, soaring from nasty to heartbroken to manic, laughing joy. My sister knew how to manipulate this and like a little god controlling a storm she would shift me from electric anger to crying and crying and crying.
I respond similarly when she, twenty-one, gorgeous, and sunlight, tells me, twenty-four, studious and dark, that she is joining the army. As an adult. For real. I pitch a fit. I lecture her on how it is deeply irresponsible to have made my parents pay for a year and a half of a degree that she is now throwing away. I sneer that she doesn’t understand how difficult it will be. She won’t make it through bootcamp. One night, I’m on the phone with her and I’m seething.
“War crimes.” I hiss, “You’re going to be complicit in war crimes.” She argues that it is equally unethical that only poor kids have to go fight the whole country’s wars.
“Fine,” I say, “whatever, but it doesn’t have to be you who goes.”
And she says, “It does.”
This is shortly after 9/11, and we are both, in our own way, radicalized. My fiance and I were in the city when the planes hit. My sister cites this as part of the catalyst for her decision and it feels like there is lightning in my circulatory system and I can’t breathe. When I realize that there isn’t anything I can do to change her mind, I regress. I cry and cry.
When she leaves for the army, she gives me the toad. He had been a subject of her study in college before becoming her pet. After watching him transform from gelatinous egg to tadpole to toad in a biology class, she kept him. When she was still intending to complete her degree, her hopes involved herpetology, a future studying creeping, scaled things. I had approved of this. We both shared a love for animals and I was impressed by her desire to be a scientist. But she doesn’t finish college. She quits undergrad and heads to a base. I take in the toad. We both begin a sort of basic training.
I imagine it constantly. A massive sergeant with a buzz cut shouts at my sister, “Drop and give me twenty!”
She learns how to march. She learns how to clean a gun. These images come straight from the movies and I cast my sister in the leading role and force myself to watch. I play these thoughts again and again, and I let it string me out. On the phone she tells me it isn’t all like that and she laughs. But I’m reading the news and I’m looking at the pictures of the war. I’m looking at them long and hard. I’m drinking more. I have panic attacks. My fiance, with whom I share our small, New York apartment, begins to withdraw. I spend more and more time with the toad.
As I get to know the toad my appreciation for him grows. It takes me weeks to look at him, really look at him, to understand him. He is beautiful. His skin is slightly shiny, each knob and wart jewel-like, a pearl of bloodstone or jade. His underbelly fades into a cream color and pulses softly with the activity of his organs. His feet are webless and his little fingers are short, tubular, and tapered, like small roots that bury themselves in the damp peat floor of his enclosure. His eyes are gold. Eyes like a cat’s but set sideways, so the pupils are long instead of tall. Eyes like a goat. When I feed him crickets he crawls to stalk them with a sneakiness that is uncanny. His pudgy body morphs into that of a predator. His fat pink tongue is impossibly fast and he crunches what he catches with an open-mouthed delight. When he swallows his eyes flatten into his head. When he finishes hunting he goes still. A living stone. I’m entranced.
I realize how special the toad is and so decide that the enclosure my sister built is not enough. I buy him a new tank, twice the size of his old one. I research his natural habitat. I line the bottom of the tank with gravel to create a water table that will keep the tank comfortably moist. I cover the gravel with fresh peat. I buy moss and living plants and add them to his enclosure. I soon notice an errant slug has ridden in on one of the plants that now inhabits the tank with the toad. This is a wonderful development. It’s like he has a pet. I add rocks. Naturalistic bowls for water. I get a little rake used for caring for bonsai trees and daily I rake the earth for him.
During this time, my sister is training. Also during this time, my fiance is leaving me. Then he’s left. We have fights on his way out.
“You’re the one who left me,” he is spluttering. His hands are flailing. “Emotionally, I mean.”
I react to this in two ways. First, I have panic attacks, climb to dizzying emotional heights and perch there at the summit, my voice clear and shrieking as my body shakes. Then I pitch myself from the mountaintop of my anger and lie crying on the floor.
“Everyone leaves me,” I howl, meaning him, meaning my sister, and he has to say no, I don’t, I won’t. But he will and he is and I’m making him do it. He tries to hold on. In my sorrow I am forcing him to shift from being upset with me to caring for me. As I do this my feelings are authentic. I am in actual pain. But another part of me knows that this is a manipulation so that he can’t stay mad at me and still feel like he’s the good guy. He has to pick me up and put me to bed, pet my hair. I’m really hurting and I’m hurting him too, unintentionally, intentionally. I love him. Many things can be true at once.
But other times I flip and respond to him with a remarkable coolness, a detached calm that is new to me. It is powerful. He’s asking for attention and care and energy and I give him nothing.
“I’m simply not fighting with you right now,” I say.
He says, “I’m fighting for you, Amy. For this relationship.”
And I say, “That’s your problem.”
I begin this sort of behavior before remembering that he owns the apartment. By the time I realize that I’m evicting myself by ending things with this man it is too late, I’ve already set myself off. I can’t make myself stop, or won’t make myself stop. I’m gonna stop, I resolve, I’m gonna be nice to him, but then I don’t try all that hard. One night, he leaves after an argument. He is gone longer than usual. While he is out I trim the plants in the toad’s enclosure. I feed him crickets and he eats them with relish. I cannot make my fiancé happy but I can make this creature happy. I can make him a little world where all the things he likes are abundant, worms and slugs and crickets and plants and moss, where his every need is anticipated and catered to perfectly. I can make him a world where he never wants for anything and he is never unsafe.
When my fiancé returns he informs me that he will be staying with a friend for two weeks and in those two weeks, I will be expected to move out.
“I want to give you plenty of time,” he says, “I don’t want this to be hard.”
I laugh at this. I laugh and laugh because I’m still a mean child and because it is going to be hard, everything is always hard. He storms out of the house and onto the couch of whatever friend and I take the toad out of the tank and hold him gently in my hands.
I am surprised at my mother’s reaction when I ask her if I can have my old bedroom back. In expectation of her disappointment I am already out of breath from crying. But she isn’t disappointed. She’s happy. She tells me that my home town has been growing. She tells me my old high school needs substitute teachers. She tells me that while my sister is over there it’ll be nice for us all to be together when she calls.
“Over where?” I ask. I’m choking. “Over where?”
“Don’t panic,” my mother says, “They don’t let women do anything that dangerous.’
I’m screaming, “Everything is dangerous!” and my mother slowly, slowly, begins to talk me down. She raised me. She knows. She tells me her friend’s husband is a good therapist. She tells me I can bring the toad.
My sister gets a short leave before she is deployed. She calls me to tell me this, and to tell me that she’s worried about me. She offers to come help me move out and back in with our parents.
“That way I can help you,” she says, “And see everybody before I go. Two birds, one stone.” She says she will arrive in three days. This gives me time to prepare.
The room I begin to pack up is the only room in the apartment that contains nothing of mine. My fiancé’s office. I start by going to the hardware store. I buy cardboard boxes and tape. I buy paint, I buy a doggie door and I buy some pretty twinkle lights. When I get home, I box up his things. He’s already taken his computer over to his friend’s house. Perhaps he doesn’t trust me with this expensive machine. This thought annoys me for a moment but I push it aside. I know what I’m going to do. I begin to build a habitat.
Once his things are boxed and out of the room I paint the walls a soft green. While the paint dries I drive out to a thrift store and purchase a twin bed frame and a matching dresser. I buy a mattress, a fluffy sheet set. I buy a cozy tan rug and a pale mesh canopy to hang over the bed. I’ve taken out a credit card to purchase these items and it feels as though they’re free. I have no thoughts towards the far future. I’m only thinking a few hours ahead of myself, about where I can get some nice pictures for the walls. I find what I’m looking for, watercolors of leaves and flowers, and a large teddy bear that looks just like the one she used to have. At the thrift store I find a few bottles of sand art someone’s child made and then discarded as they grew up and I think, perfect. I buy a lock.
I get home, start drinking, and set everything up. I tell the toad what I’ve done. I take him out of his enclosure and hold him up to the newly green walls and he seems to say, ‘Good. I think she’ll like this.’ I check his feet for dirt and then I let him hop across the bedspread. He pulls his squishy body onto the pillow and he looks like something out of a fairy tale, a cursed prince waiting for a kiss. So I do it. I pick him up and I kiss him. He leaves a bitter taste on my lips. Nothing changes. But I am not a princess and this room isn’t for me. I return him to his tank and prepare for my sister to arrive.
I wait for her at the airport outside of security. An old man causes a bit of a scuffle when he tries to walk past the new machines and snaking lines. An agent grabs him, rougher, maybe, than he needs to, and explains that no, the man cannot wait for his daughter at her gate. I am watching them argue when my sister appears.
There she is, backed by sunlight pouring through the windows out to the planes behind her, small but strong under her duffle bag, fatigues and everything. I run forward to hug her but then I see something reflected in her face. I look like hell. I did shower the sweat and paint off my body before coming to greet her but this hadn’t been enough to conceal that I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve gained weight. I haven’t had a haircut in quite some time. But the worry and surprise on her face shifts quickly into a smile and I embrace her. In the cab to the apartment she talks about training, about leaving. She’s very nervous, but she is also excited. She’ll be stationed at an embassy. She’s met a guy in basic training and as she talks about him. I can hear that she’s fallen in love.
But she’s casual about it,she says, “It’ll be nice to have someone to write to.”
We arrive at the apartment. I unlock the door. She walks in smiling, but then her face falls. There’s a small stack of boxes in the living area, but other than that it is clear that I haven’t packed.
“Oh, Amy,” she says, but I quickly divert her.
“Look!” I gesture towards the large aquarium sitting on what once was my desk but is now the pedestal that holds the toad. The habitat is lush with plants. It is beautiful. It is a tiny, perfect world. The toad sits on a smooth rock in a sort of glowing stillness.
“You’ve taken such good care of him. He must be so happy in there,” she says, and I think, you will be too. I ask if she wants to put her stuff down. She nods. I open the door to what was my fiance’s office, and push her inside.
I say, “Here’s your room.” And then I lock the door.
It takes her a moment. Seconds pass and I listen.
I hear her move a little, then say, quietly, “What is this?”
Then she tries the door. “Amy?” She asks, and her voice is strange and pitches high. “Amy!”
“Yes, I’m here,” I hear myself say.
“What is this?”
“Do you like it?” I ask, and she says, “Amy, let me out.”
But I don’t. “Wait!” I say, and I hurry into the kitchen. I get a bowl out of the cabinet and fill it with Fruit Loops, which was her favorite, is her favorite. I pour milk over it. I grab a spoon. My hands are shaking. I return and pass the cereal through the doggy door that I’ve installed.
“There,” I say, as the flap swings shut. “Do you like it?” Now I’m getting nervous. I was thoughtful about the environment I made. I used her favorite colors in the room, got her favorite things, and gave her her favorite food. But it has been a while since we’ve lived together. A long while. I left for boarding school when I was fourteen, which means she was eleven, still a little girl. I heard her grow up over the phone. I called home every other day. Still, I wasn’t there. There may be things I haven’t accounted for, things I don’t know.
“Let me out.” she says. I can tell she’s angry.
“I know it is a new environment,” I soothe, “But you will like it. It takes time to adjust to a new habitat.”
“You don’t own this apartment. I can’t stay here and neither can you.” But I’m not listening. I’m breaking down. I’m crying, then I’m howling,
“You don’t like it!” I’m sitting on the floor outside the enclosure I made for my sister and I feel as though I’m dying. “You don’t like it, but it’s safe! You need to stay where it’s safe.”
“I don’t want to stay here, Amy,” she says, “And nowhere is ever really safe.”
I know this. I know, I know, I know. Nowhere is ever really safe. She could be in a car accident, she could get sick. She could be working in a high, glass office on a clear fall day and the entire world around her could explode into fire and smoke and I know in that moment the only way to never see her get hurt is to go first. The apartment is on the tenth floor. It is enough.
“Amy?” She’s really worried now. I haven’t said anything for some time. I’ve been crying in a horrible way, low and gagging, but I get up. I go to the living room window. When I open it the glass makes a loud squeak. My sister hears this.
She screams, “Amy, let me out!” And I’m not going to. This isn’t what stops me. What stops me is across the room I hear a long, aching croak. And then another. It sounds like dry wood rubbing against itself. It sounds like a speaking stone. The croak says, No one will love me like you love me.
My sister is crying.
“Amy don’t!” she yells, but I’m already closing the window.
“No one will ever love you like I love you,” I say. I unlock the door, and I let her go.