Laura Bernstein

Laura Bernstein

Stacey’s six-foot frame takes up the majority of the floor: flat on her stomach, arms straight down her sides, one cheek exposed, eyes transfixed on my kneecaps. I originally went into my sister’s room to let her know we were about to eat Christmas Eve dinner. Instead, I found her on the floor, humming. Her hips jut out of her jeans, no layer of fat between bone and skin. Her long, brown hair doesn’t know which direction to go, so it paves paths all over the floor. Stacey’s had seizures before, and this position seems like the result of a repeat. As I check her pulse, I ask her for her name. She knows it. I ask her to identify her birthday. She knows that, too. She even knows that it is Christmas Eve—that our immediate family is supposed to gather around a giant foldout table in the living room, make casual conversation. This isn’t a seizure.

“I can’t do it, I can’t go out there,” she says, gasping for air as she cries, limbs still stiff. Her eyes bulge, but they do not blink. Then the screaming starts. I wedge myself between her bed and body. The door is two feet away, but it might as well be miles away. I want to leave. I can’t.

A pod of twelve orcas

swim along Quebec’s Hudson Bay mid-winter,

lock themselves in frozen water. Ice blades

cut closer and closer to their bodies.


Massapequa is like a celebrity smile: giant, veneer homes cap over the roots where small, dull spaces once lived. It was Jerry Seinfeld’s childhood residence. The Baldwin Brothers’ father taught at the local high school. If a person looks close enough, she will see a couple of rotten homes crowding the Massapequa streets—too stubborn or poor to file down to soil and build back up. Neighbors whine about these homes and stare at them from their windows at night. My childhood house is one of the cavities in the mouth of the town.

I once shared this 8×8 space with Stacey. We fought over everything, especially décor. When I was convinced that a Backstreet Boy was my soul mate, I slathered every inch of my existence in teenybopper paraphernalia. Stacey reminded me it was her room, too. We compromised, and I only covered half of the walls and ceiling, took a measuring tape and drew our territories down the middle. I glued each picture up because I used to say that “the Backstreet Boys are not a phase I’ll grow out of.” Stacey’s side of the room had the door, so I used to slip in and out of the first-floor window whenever I wanted to exit. Mom put a stop to that, but I would have been fine popping the screen out day and night. Where there weren’t pictures of musicians, I stuck up frameless prints of my friends. My side looked like the inside of a gift. I was surrounded by smiles.

Stacey’s artwork was internal: she stacked journals on her bookcase, filled with her own sketches. She sifted through her drawings while she molded her body on the inside corner of her bed, draw some more, and shut the books. I rarely looked inside.

When I left for college, my posters came down; I sanded, scrubbed, and painted the walls clean until the room was free of boy bands. I’m not sure where my bed went—it was probably donated. I slept on the living room couch when I visited during breaks. The room switched from ours to hers.

It’s been almost ten years since I’ve lived in the house, or even in Massapequa for that matter. Stacey is still here. She painted her room’s walls a bruised purple and ripped down our chandelier ceiling fixture. Little statues sprout in corners and on bookshelves. She has several weeks of laundry shoved into a corner by the door. Vintage hats, clunky rings. There are two table lamps on her dresser; one of them does not have a lampshade, and it is an inch away from a pile of paper. Her own artwork is plastered on the walls.

And now she’s on the floor, her artwork staring down at us. I notice that some of the art is done in the India ink I gave her during last year’s Christmas celebration. Some drawings are abstract with colors thrown all around the canvases; others have women floating in the midst of thick paint. The eyes in all of the women squint, their joints are fixed in one straight position.

I’m not sure how two beds ever fit in this space.

The orcas are a black and white spiral,

each one takes a turn to breach

in the small hole of water, empty their spouts

and breathe. It’s a Ferris wheel they can’t stop.


Between deep breaths, I hear transitions of stories. I try to press my ear close to her moving mouth to find the inner conch of her thoughts, but it doesn’t work. I nod to let her know I am trying to listen. I notice that I am tapping my fingers—from thumb to pinky—and I want to stop so that it does not send off a larger spark; I start to French braid half of her head. I look at her tiny ears, the smallest ears I’ve ever seen on an adult. We once placed a ruler next to them and found out they were only one-and-a-half inches long.

I brush all strands of hair out of the way and stare at her ears, still nodding. “This goes back to my childhood,” she starts, follows with a movement of mumbles and sobs. “When I was five…And then yesterday…”

(I take a breath to interject but get cut off.)

“But three weeks ago…And in the future…Then I think about when I was in high school…When I was setting the table an hour ago…”

“—Let’s think about this moment,” I say. She pauses. Finally, I can talk. “What are some goals we can focus on that we can solve right now?”

“Well,” she starts, she bends her elbows, presses her hands down on the floor to try and sit up.

Then there’s a knock.

“I’m not coming in,” I hear Mom say through the door, “I just wanted to let you know that we’re going to start dinner without you two.”

“See?” Stacey screams, her elbows stiffen and her body slams back down. “I ruin everything. EVERYTHING.”

As Stacey starts crying again, I hear our family saying grace.

God is great. God is good.

“We want to see them free,

but we also want them to go away,” a local mayor says.

“Killer whales eat seals and belugas. The seal hunt

is a huge part of our economy.” Joints of their flukes slowly freeze.


I often get asked what is wrong with Stacey, like if I say a word or a phrase, there will be more understanding. A connection. A pill. A cure. There will be some sort of tethered cord that my family hasn’t tried sewing back together for decades, and if there’s a specific name for what she has, it will repair itself. Or it can be fixed with a mixture of Klonipin, Remron, and maybe even Tegratol. They’ll stand from afar and suggest.

The suggestions usually become more prevalent when a new batch of medication commercials air on television. Zoloft once had a cute, little circle drag its frowning body around as a gray cloud followed in its slump. A blue bird flapped its wings until the cloud poofed out of sight and a daffodil blossomed. A clarinet played in the background. The little circle rejoiced. “I saw a commercial for Zoloft once. Has she tried Zoloft?” people ask, try to find some common jargon. “I think I saw what your sister has on an episode of Glee.”

My sister’s episodes cannot be channel-surfed by my family—we can’t just turn her off or pause her for later for when she’s too loud, too intrusive, too sad. Her static will always buzz in the back of our heads, even if she’s tucked away in her room.

Somewhere in my sister’s rambling, I hear more than the transitional phrases. I hear her say, “I’m hungry.” She gets up off of the floor and starts to talk about a random joke that one of her friends told her earlier today. She also asks me what I did to her hair.

A video of the orcas floods the Internet, people beg

for an icebreaker to chisel out a multi-mile path for the whales

to search for warmer water. For once, something viral

turns out to be good.

Stacey leans in to give me a hug, her collar bones are soaked from crying. She unravels the braid I constructed on her head, thick waves cover her ears back up. As we’re leaving the room, giggling and cracking jokes about who will annoy us the most at the dinner table, I notice some Christmas gifts on the top of her dresser. There are several with my name on them, and they are all wrapped in pictures of cats. I hate cats. I smirk and tell Stacey she has a good sense of humor. She turns to me—her smile fading—and she says, “What is your problem? Something is wrong with you for trying to snoop. You’re ruining Christmas!” She slams the door and shuts me out to hide the gifts from my sight.

I stand in the hallway between her room and the dinner table, unsure of which direction to go. Family dinners don’t seem complete without Stacey by my side to exchange glances throughout the occasion. I don’t know what will happen if I open her door though. I get out of the ice before it freezes over again.

1 Comment

  1. Loved this story. With all the stories out there to read, I’ve read this one twice.

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