We sit in a circle, sitting shiva, and for the first time since the funeral, there is a lull in the constant onslaught of visitors. Mid-afternoon on the second day, and suddenly we are alone together, just the family, without all the neighbours, acquaintances and friends. The purpose of shiva is for everyone to comfort "the bereaved"; in this case, according to Jewish law, that means only Auntie Dorothy, the sole surviving sibling, and Pearl. Auntie Dorothy sits on a low chair, as is the custom for mourners, her back straight and her face pale. But the second low chair, the one for Pearl, stands empty. Her absence is terrible, especially now in the sudden stillness, with all the guests gone. It feels like a ghost-shiva: How can we comfort if the bereaved are not all here to be comforted? It angers us obscurely, her depriving us of the one thing that might comfort us right now: ritual duty, doing what is expected, giving to the mourners so we can feel we have something to give.

But Pearl wants none of it. Whatever we are selling, she doesn't want to buy. She is upstairs in her room, with the door closed as usual, probably laughing at us, or hating us, just waiting for us to leave. God only knows what she's doing—sitting cross-legged on her bed, I guess, like she used to back then when I was still allowed into her room. I was fifteen to her sixteen the last time she let me in, and I sat facing her on her bed, cross-legged too. We talked about conformity, she warned me against "playing the game," she said I was becoming just like everybody else, did I want to wind up in one of those "boxes on the hillside," like the people in our favourite song? I didn't know what to say. We were already drifting apart, and she told me that if, on Saturday night, I wore the frilly pink blouse and the navy blue "elephant" pants that I'd bought especially for my class party, if I put on the eyeliner and mascara and lipstick and blush-on that I'd bought the day before at the drugstore, then I would be "selling out," and she would be really disappointed in me. I didn't have a big sister, or even any other friends—I really didn't have anyone but Pearl—and losing her respect, losing her, hurt as much as anything else that has happened to me in the twenty-six years since. But I did look beautiful at the party that night. Boys noticed me, and for the first time ever, I got asked to dance. Bobby Zuker and I even danced slow together once, to "Homeward Bound"; and in spite of Pearl, at the end of the evening I let him give me my very first kiss.

Suddenly a loud, guttural voice booms through the room, and all the whispered conversations instantly come to a halt.

"Vot are vee going to do?" bellows my great-aunt Bryna, and everyone gives her their full attention. My father's Auntie Bryna is ninety-four and almost blind, but her voice with the strong Russian accent is still as indomitable as it must have been when she was a young girl in the old country, bossing around chickens and cows.

Everyone immediately understands what she's talking about. No one has to ask "Do about what?" because this is the same question that we have all been whispering to each other, and when we haven't been whispering it to each other, we have been whispering it to ourselves: What will happen now to Pearl? Who will look out for her? Who will buy and prepare her food, replace her clothes when they start wearing out? Who will speak to her once in a while, to keep her voice from rusting, to make sure she doesn't forget how to speak?

And of course, underneath these questions, there is another question, the compelling, unspoken, unspeakable one, which is, How did this happen? How did this happen to us? To good people, decent people, normal people? How did we end up with Pearl, who is flawed, defective, a failure of a human being? She started out well enough, just like everybody else, normal physically, and with a normal IQ—more than normal, actually, scoring "very bright" on the IQ test we took in high school. She was nice-looking, too: slim with short dark hair. A sweet, if serious, little girl. Whatever happened to her along the way? Was there something we could have, should have, seen? Something we could have, should have, done? The others, I think, brush off this last question without too much thought: What could I have done? they'd say. How am I to blame for how Pearl turned out? But I remember the tricks they played on her, and the teasing, and I know that they are not totally blameless. None of us are. Not even me.

FleshWhere stories live. Discover now