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BY NORA GOLD

PART ONE

I have a cousin who hasn't left the house in twenty years. Well, that's not quite true—Once a year she walks with her mother next door to Auntie Dorothy's, to the other half of the semi-detached house, and sits for a half-hour with the two old ladies in the living room that is a replica of her own, except that everything is laid out exactly backwards. This annual ritual happens every February when Auntie Bella and Auntie Dorothy are about to go off alone together for a week to Florida, leaving behind them two identical freezers full of food, one for my cousin Pearl, and one for a disgruntled Uncle Herb. Other than this, Pearl never leaves the house. She doesn't look like what you'd think of as a hermit (someone dressed in foul-smelling rags, with a long grey beard); she is unusually thin and pale, but other than this appears quite normal. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, no one has been able to figure it out. In the first few years, Auntie Bella dragged a string of professionals to the house, paying them exorbitant fees with money that she didn't have, because even then, no one did "house calls" anymore. One after another, they sat on the old, green living room couch, their hands dangling between their knees, while Auntie Bella stood outside Pearl's door, banging on it, begging her to come out and talk to "the nice man who's only here to help." She hasn't done this for at least fifteen years, though, since the last one left shaking his head and Pearl threatened to kill herself if Auntie Bella ever tried this again. The two of them have lived in quiet isolation ever since, with Pearl passing her days silently in her room, and Auntie Bella cooking, cleaning, and clay-sculpting (three-inch figurines, the size of her index finger), every day till one-thirty, when she goes next door to Auntie Dorothy's for the afternoon. Evenings end early, watching TV.

We were friends once, Pearl and I—best friends. It makes you feel weird, in a way, having been best friends with someone who is now a loonie tune, a loser, a wipe-out. You can't help asking yourself if there isn't something a little bit wrong with you too, for having loved somebody like that. Like later in college when I picked up this guy at a party, and under the dim lights and the warm touch of his hand, everything felt right, and we left the party early to go back to his place. But the next morning, when I looked at him in the light of day, I was appalled, and ashamed of the need that had made him seem okay.

Pearl and I were close once, I won't deny it. I lived only two doors down from her, on the other side of Auntie Dorothy, and we were the only girls in our generation, the only female cousins in a slew of sweaty, smelly, sports-crazed males. On long summer days, Pearl and I used to tie one end of the skipping rope to the door handle of her garage, turn the rope for each other, and skip until the sun slowly went down behind us and it was too dark to skip anymore. She was one year older than I, and when I was six, she taught me how to read, playing teacher in front of a little blackboard on an easel in her basement. We argued over the spelling of the word why. She said it was just a word; but I said no, it was a question—You couldn't have the word why without having a question mark after it, because you couldn't have the word why without it being a question. She, being the teacher, threw the chalk at me and shrieked that I was so stupid I'd never learn how to read, I'd never even pass grade one. Now I can see she was right in a way: A word is just a word, after all—it's not necessarily always a question. Yet, maybe because it's the first word I ever learned to spell, or because this was the first time Pearl and I ever really fought, it became my word, my primary word, the prism through which everything shines for me.

Why? Why? Why?

echoes in me all the time.

 

Two days ago Auntie Bella died. We sit in her living room, surrounded by her things: her framed photographs on the end tables (the most prominent of them being her wedding picture, and a shot of her holding Pearl as a baby); her triple-tiered silver filigree candy dish holding pistachio nuts at the top, then sugar-coated almonds, and below them chocolate-covered mints; and over by the window, her African violets in their seven little pots. She died suddenly of a heart attack. Shocking, even though she was seventy-two, not because "she'd never been sick a day in her life," but on the contrary, because she'd been sick just about every single day of it since she was born. She almost died at birth (she was very premature, and she came out so small and blue that no one expected her to survive); she spent half her childhood and adolescence alone with her mother in the country, trying to clear a spot on the lung; after giving birth to Pearl, she became so ill she had to go to a sanatorium for almost a year; and after that, it was always one thing or another. Whenever you'd go to visit her, she'd show you entire shoeboxes full of multicoloured pills, some as brilliant and beautiful as gems, the way other women showed off their jewelry collections. She looked sick, and she talked sick, and you always felt when you visited her that this was it, that you would never see her alive again. But then, of course, she'd be fine, and despite the complaints, and the huge bags under her eyes, and the warnings whispered to us by her doctors, she lived on and on and on. As my dad used to say: "Don't worry about my sister Bella—She'll outlive me, and half our friends, as well." And he was right. She did. We started to think that if there was anyone in the world who was never going to die, it was her. So when she did, when she finally really died, it was a great shock to us all.

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