Where’s Your Sister?

Ona Gritz holds a Master of Arts in poetry from the creative writing program at New York University. Her new memoir, Everywhere I Look, a finalist for the Reader’s Choice Award, is about sisterhood, grief, true crime, and family secrets. Ona’s essays have appeared in Brevity, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Utne Reader, and been named Notable in The Best American Essays and best of the year in Salon. Her earlier books include the middle grade novel, August Or Forever, and the poetry collection, Geode. She won the Poetry Archive Now Worldview 2020 Competition and has received many other honors for her poems. Ona lives with her husband, writer Daniel Simpson, near Philadelphia and teaches creative writing to teenagers with disabilities. Click here to learn more about her work, including her forthcoming Young Adult Verse Novel, The Space You Left Behind.

“Where’s your sister?”

The question came up less and less as the sight of me leaving our house alone grew more common. When someone did ask, my answer was always the same. “She’s a runaway.” A runaway. Not, “She ran away,” which would be a single action, a verb that could be set in reverse. You were a runaway like you were an epileptic, like you were a sister. Sometimes, you took off, and neither our parents nor I could say where you were. Other times, you were living where they put you—a boarding school or foster home. But even then, you were there because of what you were, a runaway. It was as complete an answer as I knew to give.

You were the late-night phone call I usually slept through. The reason Dad had to rush out of the house in the middle of watching Columbo. A missing girl who had surfaced behind a locked door in someone’s apartment and refused to come out until she heard her father’s voice.

“She’s a runaway,” I’d say because it was the closest I could come to saying you were an absence. The name on the extra pass I lent to friends so they could come with me to our beach club in summer. The girl whose empty bed those same friends slept in when they spent the night. Yours was the voice on the other end of the line when I least expected it, a voice that often sounded urgent and rushed.

“Is Mom or Dad there? Come on, baby. It’s important.”

“Are you an only child?”

By the time I was in fifth grade, I heard this question more often than “Where’s your sister?”

“No,” I’d answer quickly, but I believed the truth was really no and yes. If only children were lonely, which I imagined they were, I was more so since I had someone specific to miss. Worse than that, unlike real only children, I had been left. I was leavable.

For a few months, you lived near us, actually in Far Rockaway, with a family in the Redfern Projects. I had one friend who lived there too—Jody, a quiet boy as small as I was who showed me photos of beautiful places whenever our class went to the school library in the afternoons.

“Do you know my sister? Andra?” I once asked him as we looked at a book about the Grand Canyon. “She’s staying in Redfern.”

“That’s your sister? Everyone knows her. She’s the only White person there.”

After Redfern, you lived with a guy who worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken in some other part of Queens. “At least she won’t go hungry,” Dad sighed.

The summer before I started intermediate school, you called to tell me you wanted to be called Angie.

“Because of the song?” I asked. “Angie” played on the radio almost every time I turned it on. It was one of my favorites, along with Elton John’s “Daniel” about a guy who missed his brother.

“Yup. What do you think? Do you like it on me?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty.”

What I really thought was that Andra, the girl who had shared my room, would be gone now in a new way. Still, the next afternoon, while Mom and I were in town, I pulled her into a record shop to buy the 45.

“The Sto-nes!” the guy at the counter drawled approvingly.

“The Rolling Stones,” I corrected him, afraid he might give me the wrong song.

Too soon, September came and, even though I’d had cerebral palsy my whole life, at my new school, I suddenly felt like The Crippled Kid. We had to switch rooms for each class, and it was hard for me to get from one to the next in the five minutes they gave us. Also, since many of us were strangers to each other at I.S. 53, both teachers and kids randomly asked me if I’d hurt my leg. Worst of all, a boy in my homeroom made fun of how I held my right arm, bending his at the elbow, dropping his wrist, and panting at me like a dog.

When I finally got home from those long days, I did what you’d taught me to do, retreat into music and make-believe. Alone in what had once been our room, I’d watch my shadowy reflection in the blank TV screen and pretend to be the star of my own show as I sang along to 45s. “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” “I Got a Name.” When my friend Kerry stayed over, we played that it was still the sixties and we were Beatle wives. Only once in a while, I was just myself, listening to Carly Simon’s No Secrets album and studying the cover where she looked a little like you with her long dark hair, her elegant hands, the globes of her breasts visible beneath her clingy blue blouse. I’d pull out the lyric sheet and imagine Carly Simon was my sister, sharing confidences, telling stories, and giving advice, all in the words of her songs.

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