I'll Be You
On a Thursday night in July, 378 days into my latest bout of sobriety, my father called to tell me that my twin sister had gone AWOL. My sister and I hadn’t spoken in 379 days, so this came as news to me.
“She told us that she was going to a spa of some kind,” my father explained. “But she’s been gone almost a week already, and she’s not answering her phone. It all seems very strange.”
I found this unlikely. My sister had never done anything strange in her life. Elli—married to a real estate lawyer, owner of a two-story Spanish Revival just blocks away from the Santa Barbara beach where we played as children, a woman who coordinated her purse with her heels—was the very definition of conventionality. Last time I was at her house I opened a drawer in the kitchen and found a banana slicer.
As for me: I was living in a near-empty studio apartment in Hollywood, so close to the boulevard that I woke up most nights to the sounds of people vomiting in the bushes underneath my window. I was thirty-two years old and slept on a futon, still crawling my way back from losing most everything I owned or loved in the years before. Fortunately, I still had my looks, some interesting tattoos, and a generous AA sponsor; and with these I’d found employment at a trendy café popular on social media for its latte art.
From semi-famous child actress to milk-foam Instagram model. That had been my life trajectory in a nutshell, a downward parabola precipitously accelerated by the excessive use of intoxicants.
When my father called, I was watching cooking show reruns and eating day-old green curry straight out of the takeout container. It was nine o’clock and eighty degrees out, the air in my apartment still flaccid from the day’s heat. I stood by the air-conditioning unit and ducked my head to let the whisper of coolant dry the sweat on the back of my neck.
“Let’s be real, Dad. This is Elli
. She probably just got a bad facial peel and is hiding out until her skin heals. Nothing strange about it.”
“That’s what your mom said, too, but I can’t help worrying.” I heard a familiar note of concern and disdain in my father’s voice, a tone that was usually reserved for me. I’ll confess, I derived some perverse delight in drawing that out of my father: that I—I
—might be the functional twin for once.
“What about Chuck? What does he think about all this?”
“Ah, well. He moved out a while back. They’re getting divorced.”
“Divorced?” I stood up abruptly, slamming my head against the edge of the air conditioner. Something squeezed tight in my chest, compressing my lungs.
“You still haven’t spoken, then, I take it.” Something had shifted in his voice, the pendulum of judgment swinging back toward me.
“No,” I said, squirming. “Not in a while.” Why was my father calling me anyway? My mother was usually the one who rang me up when something was amiss. Typically, I got a tentative quarterly voicemail, left at a time when I was most likely to be at work, though I noticed that she followed the café on Instagram and “liked” every photo of me.
A moment of hesitation. “And you—you’re still . . . OK
“You mean, am I still sober? Yes. More than a year now.” The silence on the other end of the phone was stiff with disbelief. “Look, do you want me to text you a photo of my latest recovery medallion to prove it?”
“No, no, I trust you. We’re proud of you, honey.”
Was he? I didn’t quite believe it, and I couldn’t blame him for that, either, given the number of times that I had betrayed their pride in the past. We lapsed into silence, the bitter failures of the last two decades—parenting and childing, alike—leaking into the crack in our conversation.
It dawned on me then that there was a reason for my father’s phone call. “Wait, are you asking for my help
My father coughed lightly. “I don’t want to inconvenience you,” he said.
I had to stifle my laugh. I looked around the minuscule apartment that I called a home, barren of personal effects. My possessions these days consisted primarily of emotional baggage. My social life consisted of AA meetings, with an occasional foray into NA meetings. I had been treading water for so long that I relished the idea of having something—anything
—to swim toward. It didn’t occur to me to legitimately worry about my sister; not yet.
“Not at all,” I offered graciously. “So what do you want me to do about Elli?”
“It’s not Elli, actually. What we need—what your mom
needs, really—is for you to come help out with Charlotte. Your mother’s struggling a bit, physically I mean, and she’s been doing her best but Charlotte’s just starting to be too much for her to handle.”
This gave me pause. When you’ve spent the better part of a decade in various states of inebriation, it’s easy to forget names and faces. I ran this name through my spotty mental Rolodex, and came up empty-handed. “I give up,” I said. “Who’s Charlotte?”
My father sighed, his patience with me finally at its end. “She’s your niece
,” he said.2
The next morning I asked my boss at the café for a week off. “I need to go home and help my parents take care of my niece,” I told Tamar, all trembly lips and damp eyes. The tears were probably unnecessary—Tamar was also my AA sponsor, and had spent much of the last year listening to me rehash my family estrangement—but I wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. It’s a neat trick, to cry on cue. Not all actors can do it.
I still missed being on set.
Tamar flicked a clot of coffee grounds from the front of her apron and gave me a hard look. “Is that such a good idea? That’s going to be triggering and you know it,” she said. Tamar was ten years older than me and composed entirely of sharp angles and visible tendons. Her eyes constantly darted around the room as she noted dirty tables, monitored the length of the line, judged the crema on a macchiato. She’d been a cokehead, a decade back, and old habits die hard. Or maybe we just choose the drugs that amplify the instincts we already have, that let us be our unedited selves: paranoid, slothful, amped-up, wild. Our ids cranked up to one hundred.
Tamar turned her focus to me, noting something in my eyes that made her squint suspiciously. “Maybe someone should go with you. I don’t think you’re ready.”
“Point taken.” She gave me the time off and told me to go find a meeting when I got to Santa Barbara.
My parents lived ninety minutes away up the coast, in a tile-roofed Mediterranean in the hills, not far from Rattlesnake Canyon. It was not the house that I’d been born in—that had been a far more modest two-bedroom bungalow in a neighborhood where you didn’t find hiking trails outside your back door. This particular home had materialized in high school, not long after my sister and I were cast as the stars of a middling Nickelodeon TV series. My mother had done quite well for herself, for a while, as manager of her daughters’ acting careers; better than I had done, it had to be said. Then again, any money she might have made off my career was probably better spent by her than by me, because she at least had a house to show for her percentage, while all I had for mine was an empty rental apartment and the scars on my psyche.
My mother was already standing in the garden when I pulled into the driveway. She wore a caftan printed with palm trees that billowed around her stout legs. A straw visor shaded her eyes, bright red curls neatly puffed into place. She waved both arms at me with an eagerness that bordered on aggressiveness. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas, which had mostly been fine, except for all the weeping.
“Darling!” She waited for me to approach and then threw her arms around me.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, and let her hug me for longer than felt necessary, considering. I guess she was relieved that at least one of her daughters wasn’t currently running rogue. She sniffled a little into my shoulder. She had grown smaller, I noticed, more askew. And when she turned to walk with me up the garden path I realized that she was limping a little.
“Osteoarthritis,” she said, noticing me noticing. “Just like your grandmother. You’ll have it, too, someday, I’m sure. It’s how all the women in our family go.”
I’d spent so many years skating right to the edge of death and then leaping back that it was strange to imagine my demise as a slow natural decline. Our parents’ bodies mirror our eventual mortality, unless we divert the paths ourselves. God knows I’d tried.