I kept my older sister’s cat-eye glasses in a drawer after she was struck down by a train. Nancy’s Chevy Bel-Air was stalled, like a truly cliché song on the radio. She was only eighteen and it was 1961. Nancy said they made her look like a freak. A nerd. She was embarrassed that she needed glasses to read and see the world’s problems highlighted. She’d get rid of these glasses, go with contacts if she just had the money. A scarlet letter, a reminder of what Nancy didn’t have. There was so much my sister and I didn’t have. We lacked parents like Ward and June Cleaver, the opportunity simply to relax and watch the world move past. Vast objects that were all our own, the finest frocks and suits.
I at least had Hardy Boys books and the promise of adventure. Nancy had cat-eye glasses.
“I like your glasses,” I’d tell her. She’d hug me and laugh.
“You want your sister to look like a librarian for life?” she’d joke.
“Nothing wrong with that.”
But they highlighted so much else for me, those sleek plastic frames: They held history. An image: Nancy helping me with my homework, glasses perched over her long, precise nose. It was as if she were the greatest scholar, slowly explaining the root causes of World War One, her patience overwhelming my frustrated ears. I fulminated about the uselessness of Franz Ferdinand and Turkey and Kaiser Wilhelm in my own life. I’d leave this shithole when I had the first opportunity, I growled. And still she wore patience, even if her heart broke at the harshness of my words. The glasses conveyed grace. Love.
“There’s no room for self pity,” she said, when I didn’t get into drama club. “Do you understand, Nicky? No room for it all. You’re talented. You can’t measure yourself against their visions. Some people don’t see talent in you, they give up. But you can’t give into all that.”
But I always gave in too easy. Brooded, withdrawing into the prospects of adventure and distant cities. Reinvention. Nancy never did. She moved about with grace, she sang up and down the hallways on the darkest of nights, an aspiring singer.
And now she was festering in the ground, at the age of eighteen. She was on her way to pick up groceries when the train struck. How cold that act seemed, paying fealty to the world. I wish she’d been on her way to some dreamworld, to a gig, to something that might open doors. She might have died with hope. But instead she was just buried, a cold, cheap burial, with only me and a few crude spectators leering.
Our parents didn’t even make it home until a month after she died. An Episcopal priest proclaimed platitudes about going home with Christ, without specifics. He conjured green pastures, but not a detail about Nancy’s love of song, or her favorite jazz standard, “Misty.” He didn’t know how Nancy loved Johnny Mathis’s rendition. She always said he turned that song into dulcet dreamworlds.
Nancy should have been going into the world. But she had me to deal with. She could have left. She should have, to be honest. It would have been too easy to go out into the world and seize what she could, connections and new friendships, and hopes of new homes.
I opened my drawer to look at those glasses night after night, the frames shattered now, and I thought of that train, the way it struck her. I thought of the car stalled, motor sputtering, a cruel laugh. I thought of dreams unfulfilled, Nancy’s desire to be a singer like Rosemary Clooney or Julie London. Her voice, tinged with cigarettes past, rose to my mind, trying to articulate music and give voice to things she kept to herself. I imagined heartbreak in every note she sank of crying rivers, of longing to be so misty and in love. How I imagined her wanting to be in sentimental moods, a stranger in paradise. How I wished I could give her all those things, an awkward asshole, without a real place in the world. I didn’t understand the power of ideas or of athletics. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t create.
I thought of the things I never told her. I thought of my sister’s last thoughts in the moment of impact, as the train bore down, her car stalled. I wished I had been there to comfort Nancy in that moment of transition from light into the haze of the afterworld. I wish I’d told Nancy I was sorry for all the times I teased her about her singing dreams, every time I lost my temper.
How Nancy strove to keep us together, while our parents drifted about Europe, dodging the authorities, weaving tales, pulling out imaginary addresses where our parents were just relaxing, before resuming the natural course of things. Our parents were loving parents, she assured the authorities, accentuating that word. Loving. Loving, what a word to describe people who withdrew into mint juleps and cold wanderlust, who struggled even to remember our names. Who argued with starched, tight smiles, concealing real meanings beneath jokes. Love. What a foreign word, a word I could never utter.
Nancy worked multiple shifts at Edgar’s Café, serving pancakes and desperation. At night, she went over bills, organizing, reorganizing, so as not to miss one thing. Some nights, she’d weep, after I’d gone to bed, her cries like a cantor’s lament. Help me, she seemed to cry. Help. No one came. I should have come to comfort her, but emotionalism frightened me. I never cried and I think I hated and pitied her for doing so. At least a little. Sometimes, I wondered, and I’m ashamed to say it, if being struck by a train was far less painful than living, than having the world take piece by piece, a greedy beggar at our doorstep.
Looking at those glasses, I often wished it was all a nightmare and she’d be there, silhouetted by the moonlight. She’d tell me that everything would resume its natural course, even if it was bullshit. After a while, I started seeing the darkness of things: I didn’t stop her from going out the day she got run over. I couldn’t give a proper eulogy for her. I was selfish, always absorbed in my high school life, trying to survive abstractions and figures. I was in trying to fit the pieces of my own life into place and look to the future.
I thought about throwing the glasses away, but I couldn’t. Every time I picked up the glasses, held them over the trash, it was as if my sister was permanently attached to the frames. I felt selfish. So, I bore the darkest memories for Nancy. I bore the pain with the stoicism of a soldier, a king, things I wasn’t.
One night, I slipped on the glasses and went for a walk. I walked past our little apartment and into downtown, with its old brick buildings. Office buildings, coffee shops, a bar with murky windows that smelled of armpits and depression. The glasses kept slipping from my eyes. People stared and went about laughing at me, at unknown things. I could imagine their words. Freak, freak. Nobody. These were all blurs, shapes without form. And I kept walking, feeling that I was my sister, trying to find the world. I wept, vision clouded even more.
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