Winner of the 2012 Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction, selected by Jenny Boully
Two women. One has a pair of matching pocketbooks, slung over a forearm and clenched in a fist, and two bundles—one bulky and blue—held in her arms. The gold parcel is balanced on top of the blue and she holds it in place with her chin, precarious. The other woman has what looks like two mail pouches at her feet, a twist of rope.
Amy Cutler paints only women, real and surreal. Their small bodies are typically rendered true to life, neatly clad in detailed vintage or Victorian dresses. But they face strange trials, stitching up torn tigers, swallowing whole eggs, wrapping their long braids around porch columns to pull a house through the snow, and their figures are sometimes strange and mutated, heads replaced with birdhouses or teapots, hands grown long into brooms or paddles. In Saddlebacked, the women both wear brown leather straps around shoulders, breasts, and waists, which harness them back to back to white ponies. The first, the one with the pocketbooks, leans forward a bit, to balance the scrambling pony saddled on her back. The other—now I see she is the one not with mail pouches but with canvas feedbags—the other bends forward, braces herself, skirt hiked up and hands on her knees. It is as if she is still adjusting her pony, shifting her kicking burden into place.
I am trying to be kind to my little sister. This is not easy for me, but, as my parents remind me over and over, imagine how hard it is to be Lauren. I imagine and agree that yes, it must be very hard. Being Emily is easy. I am smart; success in school and career has always come quickly. I am healthy, not especially pretty but nice-enough-looking, normalish figure. I have Matt, who told me he wanted to marry me on our fourth date; I had a positive pregnancy test two weeks after we started trying for a baby. I have a house, two greyhounds, enough money and time to quit my job and go back to school for writing. I am just like my parents—practical, steady, a planner. We are inordinately close. My girlfriends are offended that I tell my mom all my secrets. Matt is jealous I prefer to vacation with my dad. I am lucky.
Lauren started cutting herself when she was fourteen; she was hospitalized for an attempted suicide two years later. She is not healthy. Grossly heavy. Skin sallow. The constant pain of fibromyalgia makes it hard for her to move; even to lie still and sleep through the night is difficult. She has spent going on six years on a two-year degree at a community college. She grooms dogs, nannies, and hosts children’s birthday parties—paints faces, twists balloon animals, sprinkles cupcakes—and her checking account is always overdrawn. Her boyfriend is a good guy, kind, but like her he has a hard time with work, school, and a family that leans on him pretty hard. He has muscular dystrophy, she’s bipolar; they think it would be selfish and irresponsible to start a family. She is my parents’ misfit child, always a struggle. One of her old therapists told me the worst part is that on top of everything, Lauren has to be my little sister. Even without the side-by-side comparison, her life seems impossible to me. I could no more deal with her trials than pull a house through the snow with my plaited hair.
I’ve always been the tough one, the problem solver, the classic older sibling—I feel like I should be the one saddled with these troubles, I would know what to do with them. But she makes choices I wouldn’t make, she screws up over and over. Every time I see her, her burden seems more than someone like her should have to shoulder. Lately, she’s asked for the extra bed from my garage. Eric’s mother’s cancer is progressing fast, and Lauren’s disabled, teenaged, soon-to-be-sister-in-law will be orphaned; she will need a place to live. Lauren and Eric will take custody.
For years, I thought I hated her. Our little family was just right before she came along. At five, I’d expected to remain an only child forever. I thought a sibling would be a playmate, not a squalling little person I would be expected to change and entertain and look after. As we grew up, I resented being a third parent; I hated her stealing and elaborate lies, especially hated being blamed for her problems. My mom always tried to make me understand, if I were only less [smart, good, mature, anything], Lauren wouldn’t have to compete and wouldn’t have to fail.
Once, at four, my fierce little sister threatened me, “Just wait till I’m older than you, then you’ll get it.” I was malicious and smug, made her stand on square four of our chalked driveway hopscotch board. I stood at nine and we moved forward together to five and ten, to six and eleven, to seven and twelve. “Don’t you see?” I asked, gleeful. “You’ll never catch up.” She sat on the curb and cried.
When we were small, I was jealous of her.
I still remember my last summer alone with my parents. We rode side-by-side in a yellow ’69 Chevrolet pickup, my bare legs stuck to the cracked vinyl seat. I shivered at the rumble of the fuming diesel engine and allowed myself to bounce and jostle, a metronome between my mom and dad. I breathed deep the setting agent from Mom’s home perm and Dad’s sawdust and the sunscreen he smeared on both our noses. We three sucked the same syrupy raspberry Slurpee, but Mom held the soggy paper cup so that I could grip the stick shift. My dad placed his hand over mine and together we shifted third to fourth along the standard H.
By fall, the truck was gone, replaced by a sedate Volvo sedan that accommodated a car seat. I was moved from the adoring care of my nanny to bewildering all-day kindergarten. My mom took a semester off from teaching to stay home with her new child. I couldn’t go to the hospital as I’d been promised—for a week I was even banished from home—as Lauren’s birth coincided exactly with my outbreak of chicken pox.
As a small child, I’d been quiet and somber—my mother’s snapshots show me wary and serious. But Lauren was a beautiful and laughing baby—all blue eyes and blond curls. My dad built a professional darkroom in the basement and borrowed a bulky video camera from our neighbors. We still have a shelf of old VHS tapes documenting our first few years as sisters. She gurgled sweetly and demonstrated a talent for crawling, so I came out of my shy shell and sang and performed self-taught tap dance routines; I introduced my dolls and imaginary ponies to the camera. I covered my sister with a baby blanket I would peel away and say, “Heeeere’s Baby Lauren,” as if I were Ed McMahon introducing Johnny. But my antics were no match for her baby charms, and I sulked, pouting at the bottom of the stairs, while my mom and dad cooed, recording Baby Lauren’s early ability to climb.
As we grew older, the monthly photo sessions continued. My home-ec-teacher mom stitched matching outfits—frilly white blouses and red corduroy jumpers, white-and-yellow striped sundresses, blue wool coats with bone buttons. We were always posing in the living room, in the nature preserve near our house, and in the gardens at the city art museum. They tried to make me put my arm around Lauren, to hug her or hold her hand, but the pictures always looked stiff and unnatural. My dad has three-ring binders full of archival sheets of negatives, the same shots over and over. The only ones that ever got developed were black and white images of Lauren and me on our own, each posed individually in front of the same rose–covered trellis, seated with a book in our great-grandmother’s rocker. The images were almost identical; as we didn’t sit well together, it was as if our parents tried to make us interchangeable in the same picturesque scene.
I have one picture of us together, in the same photographic frame—Dad made a test print but deemed it not good enough to enlarge. We are wearing matching pink turtlenecks and little embroidered overalls. We sit back to back; Lauren must be perched on a phonebook because her four-year-old head is almost level with my own. I smile as if on command, no teeth showing. Lauren doesn’t smile at all, so serious and intent on holding still. She is beautiful.