Although they are now in their forties and no longer live in the same house, Helen and Phoebe are still referred to as “the Campbell sisters.” This makes them feel less like people than a brand. It is a brand with a consistent equity, expressed recently by a woman at a party who said to Phoebe, “I’ve heard about you and your sister. How you’re both super beautiful and smart.”
Beautiful and smart. How was she supposed to respond to a comment like that? The word “super” bothered her, she tells Helen now. As if they are not mere mortals, but crusaders in capes.
“Except instead of saving people,” Helen says, “we fuck things up.”
They are in the kitchen of Phoebe’s house, where Helen is recuperating from what she likes to describe as a nervous breakdown. “And now it’s time for a breakdown,” she says, with a laugh. That En Vogue song was big when they were in high school. Never gonna get it, never gonna get it.
They don’t use the term “breakdown” in front of Phoebe’s kids, who are so overjoyed by their aunt’s presence that they don’t question why she has already been there for three months. Helen often picks up the kids from school and says the teachers mistake her for Phoebe. The confusion amuses Phoebe; she loves that they look more alike now than they did when they were young.
“You and Helen are almost twins,” her seven-year-old daughter says. “You have the same glasses and the same hair.”
“Almost,” Helen says. She has always insisted on the differences between them.
If Phoebe’s husband resents Helen’s presence, he hides it well. Late at night, when he returns from the office, his body still stiff with tension, Phoebe barely says hello. She is too busy making popcorn, preparing to watch TV with Helen. Phoebe likes the house-design shows their mother always loved: There is something soothing about how quickly the renovations happen. The way cracked linoleum and battered cabinets give way, via musical montage, to granite counters and bamboo floors. These new kitchens promise more than the preparation of food; they seem, with their restaurant-sized refrigerators and ovens, to hint at everything hopeful America can be. The city on the hill, et cetera. American exceptionalism is a myth, Helen would say.
Phoebe insisted that Helen come stay because she was worried about her: Helen wasn’t eating enough, and she was spending way too much time alone, posting seemingly suicidal updates on Facebook. (Phoebe never checked Facebook, but mutual friends had sent her screenshots with panicked texts: is your sister ok?) But now that her sister is here, Phoebe realizes that she, too, was lonely.
When Phoebe was little and their mother told stories about Helen as a toddler, Phoebe would ask, “Where was I?”
“You weren’t born yet,” their mother would say.
“Was I in your tummy?”
“Not yet. You didn’t exist.” Their mother was the oldest child in her family, so she couldn’t possibly understand how hurtful those words were. You didn’t exist was the equivalent of the sign Helen used to hang on her bedroom door: keep out!!!!
Phoebe and Helen’s rooms were on the third floor, a whole flight of stairs away from their parents. They had to move up there when their grandmother moved in and needed a bedroom on the second floor. Phoebe was only six then, and scared to sleep so far from their mother, so she used to sleep in Helen’s bed. Helen said she kicked in her sleep, but Phoebe kicked when she was awake, too. It’s how she always won fights with Helen. The fights hadn’t been physical since they were kids, but as teenagers, there were still arguments, mostly because it drove Phoebe crazy when Helen tried to shut her out. “You never give me any space!” Helen complained. And it was true: Phoebe wanted to collapse the space between them. She liked to come into the bathroom while Helen was showering to talk to her; she liked to leave the door open while she peed so that Helen could hear her; she had no use for boundaries or walls.
But Helen was private, cagey. She’d always kept a diary and when Phoebe sneaked in to read it, Helen flipped out and demanded a safe, like the ones they have in hotel rooms, to lock her thoughts away. Phoebe felt personally betrayed when Helen waited a week to tell her when she finally got her period. When Helen took her driver’s test, Phoebe secretly hoped she’d fail, because she couldn’t stand the thought of Helen going places without her. And now that Helen was applying for college, Phoebe was facing another painful separation. Helen worked on her college applications with the same intense perfectionism she applied to everything else. On her desk, she had color-coded folders for each of the colleges: A navy-blue folder contained the nearly complete early application to Yale. New Haven seemed very far away.
Helen had taken to locking her bedroom door late at night, while she was on the phone. She wouldn’t tell Phoebe who she was talking to, but it was obviously a boy. Helen talking on the phone was a new thing. Until recently, all the phone calls had been for Phoebe.
“It’s hard to have your little sister outshine you,” their mother told Phoebe one summer, when she won yet another swimming race. Winning always came easily to Phoebe. She felt like her mother was asking her to tamp down her talent, just so Helen didn’t feel bad. But even when she tried to slow down in a race, she still won. What was she supposed to do? Hide all her ribbons and trophies in a closet? Keep all her party invitations out of Helen’s sight?
Their mother said Phoebe needed to respect Helen’s privacy, but Phoebe felt like their mother always took Helen’s side. And besides, she was in Africa most of the time, their mother, so she didn’t know what it was like to be here, so alone. It’s not like their dad was any comfort. Since his mother died, he’d started going to bed right after dinner. “I’m going to lie down,” he always said, but then they didn’t see him again until morning.
Phoebe began spying on Helen at school. She couldn’t enter the senior room, where the graduating class congregated during free periods, and unlike the upperclassmen, she wasn’t allowed to leave campus for lunch. But she observed a boy named Ben get into Helen’s car one Tuesday afternoon; she saw Helen’s and Ben’s heads tip toward each other in confidence during an all-school assembly one morning. Phoebe didn’t see anything special about him. This was the guy who kept her sister on the phone every night?
A contractor called Ben and asked him to come take a look at the house. There was nothing unusual about that. Ben was an architect; he spent his days looking at houses. The address, over the phone, didn’t trigger anything, but when he pulled up to the house, he said, “Holy fuck.”
“You actually said ‘holy fuck’?” Helen said when he called her to tell her about it.
Of course she would focus on that. The fucking in that house, at least some of it, had involved her. From the front, the house looked the same: a colonial, red brick, circa 1920. The same wide lawn, sloping down to the street. A house of pleasing symmetry, with matching iron horses flanking the walk.
“And inside?” Helen wanted to know.
“The guy’s completely gutted the ground floor. He’s doubling the size of the kitchen, adding a huge extension to the back of the house…”
“Where the sun room was?” Helen said. She was forty, he realized, but her voice hadn’t changed.
“Yes, exactly, where the sun room was. And he’s putting in a pool.”
“My mother always wanted a pool.”
“If you’d had a pool, I wouldn’t have been able to lure you over to swim in mine.”
“Did you lure me? I thought I was doing the luring in those days,” she said.
“Your rooms, though, are intact,” Ben said.
“Intact,” Helen scoffed. “You make them sound like hymens.”
Was it weird that he’d gone straight up to the top floor, to look at Helen and Phoebe’s old rooms? Attic bedrooms, with sloped ceilings and dormer windows. Each one with a deep closet, with plenty of room for girls’ clothes. He was seventeen the first time he saw those bedrooms. A Saturday afternoon, when their parents were out. Their house was wonderfully unsupervised; their mother traveled a lot.
He was rifling through Helen’s tapes when Phoebe came into the room. She was bouncing a soccer ball on her knees, keeping it in the air with long, firm legs. She was much blonder than Helen, and though it was October, her skin was still summery gold. Helen had left him alone (to go where, exactly, he didn’t know, but she had a habit of disappearing on him) and so he was left with this beautiful girl and her soccer ball. She was fourteen and her confidence was startling. “Are you Helen’s boyfriend?” she said.
At the time, he hoped to be Helen’s boyfriend. They had made out twice in his basement and she had given him a half-hearted hand job in her old Peugeot. But Helen was aloof, hard to read. Homecoming was a week away and he hadn’t found the nerve to ask her. Lately, she had been totally riled up about Anita Hill: “Of course she’s telling the truth!” she said. “No one ever believes women.”
Helen’s room had slate-blue walls. On her bedside table, a notebook in which she recorded her dreams. “Material,” she insisted. She wanted to be a writer. On the back of the closet door, a poster of Bob Dylan. There was something curated about the room’s appearance. Everything about Helen was cultivated; she was aware of her image and left little to chance.
But Phoebe didn’t care what people thought. In her room: a pile of clothes discarded on the floor. A dresser cluttered with earrings and necklaces, many of them in knots that would never come out. The bed was unmade.
Their bathroom offered a crash course in femininity. He studied the contents of their medicine cabinets—the tampons and acne creams, the fancy bottles of lotion and perfume, the bath balls stacked like colorful gems in plastic boxes. In the sink, a stray hair, long and fair, coiled on the porcelain. It could have come from either girl’s head. And in the shower, two pink plastic razors. How often did they shave their legs? Helen’s legs, the one time he’d touched them, were creamy and smooth. God, the room smelled good. The girls sometimes crawled out the window to smoke on the roof, they said, but the bathroom, with its flowered shower curtain, didn’t smell like cigarettes—just the fruity notes of their shampoo.
“What are you doing in there, taking a shit?” It was Phoebe rapping on the door.
He came out into the hall to face her. She was so self-possessed for a ninth grader. Was it Helen’s example? “I only have brothers,” he admitted. “I find girls’ bathrooms fascinating.”
“Are you one of those guys who puts tampons in cups of water to see them expand?” Phoebe said.
He had, in fact, conducted that very experiment, with a tampon swiped from his mother’s purse. In his defense, he was only twelve at the time.
“Ben!” Helen’s voice from downstairs. “Want something to drink?”
Their voices were the same. Once, a few months later, when he called for Helen and Phoebe answered, it threw him. She said, “But what if I hadn’t told you it was me? What if I’d let you just talk to me as if I were Helen?” What if.
But it wasn’t just the voices. It was the mannerisms, too. They shared clothes because their bodies were so similar. And they had the same long, wavy hair, like mermaids. Underwater, when they both came over to his pool the following summer, he often mixed them up. With eyes half-closed against the chlorine, he wasn’t sure which body brushed against his. In July of that year, while his parents were in Europe, they always went swimming at night. It became a ritual: Helen arriving after dinner, with her sister in tow. Until Helen went to college, it was her job to drive Phoebe around. Her parents had given her their old car in exchange for chauffeur duties. All year, she’d driven Phoebe to school, to soccer practices, to friends’ houses. And now that it was summer, she dragged Phoebe along on her outings. She referred to Phoebe as her “little sister,” but there was nothing childish about her.
“We should go skinny dipping,” Phoebe said one night. At least he remembers it being Phoebe’s suggestion. He can’t imagine Helen proffering the idea. It was nearly ten, but the sky was still tinged with blue. They were already in the water and Helen, in her navy bikini, was floating on her back, staring up at that blue-black sky, her bare stomach gleaming, a crescent moon. Phoebe dunked herself and then broke the surface holding her bathing suit aloft like Liberty’s torch. She flung it on the deck, triumphant. “Come on,” she said. “It’s dark.”
Did Helen take off her suit next? Or was she the last to disrobe? “You’ve both seen me naked,” she said. “What do I care?”
Ben had been naked with Helen, but he’d never really looked at her. Their furtive couplings had been in the dark. Their mutual deflowering had finally happened the previous winter, in her bedroom, with the door locked (“Are you sure Phoebe won’t barge in?”). Ben had practiced putting on condoms, but in the pressure of the moment, it still took him a long time. He felt incredibly awkward, with her watching him. Helen tended to judge him—she joked that she came from a family of fact-checkers—and he kept waiting for her to edit his condom-application process. The first time they made out, in his basement, she had corrected his grammar. “Lie, not lay,” she said. “Lay is transitive and takes a direct object. I lie down, present tense, but I lay my towel on the ground. Lie is what a person does in bed.”
“Or what a person does when he doesn’t tell the truth,” he said.
“Lie to me at your peril,” she said.
Now she just lay there, looking slightly bored. They had turned the music up—U2, as he recalls—but he was still worried that Phoebe, who was supposedly downstairs watching TV—would hear them. Finally, he had the condom on and said, “Are you ready?” and Helen said, “As ready as I’ll ever be,” and once he was finally inside her, he kept thinking, So this is fucking.
Afterward, they returned to the basement to watch TV with Phoebe, who gave them both searching looks. Ben was convinced that she knew they’d had sex. And after he went home, he wondered if Helen was giving her sister a play-by-play. Helen was a terrific mimic; she could do all kinds of accents and speech patterns. And though he always laughed at her impressions of others, he couldn’t bear the thought of her impersonating him. “I don’t tell my sister everything,” she claimed, but the intimacy between the girls couldn’t be denied.
Even then, Ben felt sorry for their father, whose two daughters were the default source material for a lot of masturbation sessions. “The Campbell sisters,” guys at school called them and the mere mention of their name inspired moans. Phoebe especially—anyone who had seen her in a bathing suit didn’t forget it. Some guys were a little afraid of Helen. “If she’d just dial down the smart,” his friend Josh said. But Helen would never dial down the smart: Intelligence was the thing she valued above all else.
They had rules for skinny-dipping in his pool: Bathing suits came off only when everyone was already in the water, and then he had to close his eyes—“and keep them closed!” Phoebe insisted—while the girls climbed out of the pool to find their towels. “We can’t watch you getting out, either,” Phoebe said, but he always wondered if she sneaked a peek.
In the dark water—they never turned the pool lights on—they were just bodies, passing each other like sharks. Phoebe was fifteen; she’d be sixteen in October. She was old for her class. That last summer, before he and Helen went off to college, they promised to teach Phoebe to drive. But Helen was an impatient, stern instructor. And so Ben offered to give her lessons. Helen was grateful.
The rule was that Phoebe had to learn to drive stick, and so he gave her lessons in Helen’s car. In an empty parking lot of a public school, he taught her to shift gears, and to feel the Peugeot’s transmission. “Driving automatic isn’t really driving,” he said. “With a standard, you’re in more control.”
“But sometimes it feels good to relinquish control.”
In that respect, she was nothing like Helen. Unlike her sister, she was not stiff in the driver’s seat. Helen actually kept her hands at ten and two, but Phoebe’s grip on the wheel was loose, as if she’d been driving for years. She often smoked while she drove, so her left hand dangled the cigarette out the window while her right hand took care of shifting gears. He taught her to parallel park. When he was confident in her skills, he made her practice parking on the narrow streets of Georgetown. One day, caught in a late-afternoon thunderstorm, stuck in the library parking lot, with the car off and the rain sheeting down the windshields, he kissed her. It must have been August. In less than a month, he and Helen would be off to school. Helen was going all the way to New Haven, but he would be in Charlottesville, which was only a couple of hours away. It was wrong, he knew, to start thinking about how easily he could get back to DC to see Phoebe, and it was wrong to put his tongue inside her mouth, but Phoebe’s tongue had found his and she was kissing him back, and their mouths fit together in a way that was both completely familiar and completely strange.
“Holy fuck,” he said when they pulled apart. Though he probably didn’t say that, he realizes. That was an expression he didn’t use at eighteen. He started saying that much later, in grad school. He probably said, “Jesus.” And Phoebe? She looked terrified, but she also started to laugh. She climbed on top of him in the passenger seat and sat there on his lap, with her arms around his neck. Her desire was so un-ambivalent, so unguarded compared to her sister’s.
Of course they couldn’t tell Helen. And of course he knew they should stop the driving lessons. Spending all that time alone in the car, so close together, was courting danger. But they didn’t quit. By the end of August, Phoebe was an excellent driver.
Without Helen, the house felt empty. Just a week after she left for Yale—did she have to be so un-conflicted about leaving home, Phoebe wondered?—their mother boarded a plane for Sudan. “I’ll be back in six weeks,” she said. That left Phoebe and their father, who was going to sleep earlier and earlier each night, as if he could hibernate for his wife’s whole absence and emerge for the spring of her return. Phoebe wished their grandmother were still alive; she felt bad for ever complaining about changing her bedpan.
So when Ben called, she was grateful. “When’s your driving test?” he wanted to know.
“The day after my birthday,” she said. “October 19.”
“We’d better practice then,” he said.
How potent Phoebe felt, being desired. She liked watching Ben squirm, a fish on a line, before she unzipped his jeans. In public, she could see him cross his legs and try to hide his erection when he looked at her. The hold she had over him was palpable. With his eyes closed, she imagined Ben could almost believe it was Helen he was fucking. But then he told her she was better in bed than her sister. Helen, he said, was prudishly afraid to keep the lights on. He liked the way Phoebe walked across the room naked and left the door open while she peed. “Helen has always been too self-conscious,” Phoebe agreed, and then felt like she had betrayed her sister a second time.
She couldn’t risk having Helen find out, so she and Ben kept their meetings clandestine. Phoebe thought she’d like having a secret of her own, that it would make her feel grown-up. That it would make her feel like Helen and their mom. But the sneaking around began to eat at Phoebe like a tapeworm. She was always hungry, but losing weight. She was always tired, but couldn’t sleep. She was restless and unraveling. Sleeping with Ben—yes, Phoebe and her sister lost their virginity to the same guy, which was so creepy she tried not to think about it— was fun, but the fact that she couldn’t talk to Helen made everything seem like it wasn’t really happening. It was the kind of ironic story that Helen might write. Even when Ben told her he loved her—he said it all the time, as if trying to justify the sinfulness of their pairing by propping it up with noble feeling—it didn’t feel real. Phoebe occasionally reciprocated his declarations of love, but she didn’t mean it. She had to say she loved him because she was fucking him, and he was (originally) her sister’s boyfriend, and if she didn’t love him, how could she rationalize all this?
That fall, Ben told Phoebe that one of his friends from high school wrote to him: “The Campbell sisters, huh? Glad you’re keeping it in the family.” “You’ve been reading too many issues of Penthouse Forum,” Ben wrote back. “Does your mother know you have such a perverted imagination?”
But Phoebe knew that he wasn’t above that clichéd sexual fantasy: What was it about men and sisters? Years later, at her fifteenth high-school reunion, a guy she’d barely known came up to confess that he’d been “in love with the Campbell sisters.” Join the club, she thought.
Phoebe kept trying to find a way to tell Helen. She couldn’t understand how Helen didn’t already know. Helen had always been frighteningly perceptive; at times Phoebe even thought she was psychic. Sometimes Helen dreamed about things before they happened. But she had a blind spot as far as Phoebe was concerned.
Ben wanted to make their relationship public. He was proud of being seen with Phoebe. She knew that, for him, she was some kind of prize. “You’re a good person,” Ben assured her, but she didn’t believe him. How could she hurt the person she loved more than anyone else? And of course, eventually the truth came out. Someone from their school—someone who had seen Phoebe and Ben together too many times—ended up going to Yale. Apparently Helen was at a party when this guy said, “Is your old boyfriend still banging your sister?”
It was strange to think of himself as a teenager now that his back kept going out. Ben was forty-one. The high school boys he encountered now—in coffee shops, at gas stations—were blurry: their outlines indistinct, their features undefined. They were always looking at their phones. Did they touch other people, or just screens? Ben had felt, at that age, so full: of appetite and insight. He couldn’t contain all his feelings—everything was always spilling out of him. His world was small—and yes, privileged, he didn’t deny that—but he explored it, every corner of it, and was alive to its possibilities. He worried about his sons—who were still so young, too young for phones, thank God—about what their adolescence would be like, filtered through a strange scrim of apps and swipes. The teenagers he saw now looked so small, so limited by the confines of social media. It was hard for him to believe that they felt things as intensely as he had. But of course they must; these kids were probably bursting with impulses, and were surely convinced of their uniqueness, the way he had been. There might even be, among these pimpled specimens, a boy or two who has convinced himself that he is in love with two sisters, who has let himself be carried by a current he will never be able to escape.
Ben and Helen were in the backyard of her old house, standing next to the new pool. When he’d called her to tell her about the renovation, he offered to get her in to see the place. And now, here she was, looking very much the way he remembered her at eighteen. Her hair was still long and wild but she was sexier now, more sure of herself. Less unyielding. She held a travel mug of coffee in her left hand, and he studied her bare ring finger.
“You never got married?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “Never met the right person, I guess. Besides, I’m not sure I’m the marrying kind. It would be nice to have a partner, but marriage? What’s the point?”
“I like being married,” he said, and realized it was true. Marriage made him feel tethered. He liked the Google calendar his wife had made, the fences of their family schedule. She was a doctor and everything she said felt like a prescription; how reassuring it was. He liked fatherhood, too. It didn’t surprise him that Helen didn’t have children, though. “How many kids does Phoebe have?” he asked.
Helen held up three fingers. “All girls,” she said. “I like being an aunt.”
They circled the pool, which was long and narrow, perfect for laps. The kind of pool her mother would have loved, Helen said.
Ben had attended their mother’s funeral. Helen was gracious after the service. “It was good of you to come,” she said, in that formal way of hers. And when he tried to apologize for the past, she just waved her hand and said, “Bygones.” In the years since, he has followed her life on Facebook and Instagram: It looked glamorous, all the foreign travels and book parties.
Helen looked up at the house and shook her head. “It’s really ugly, isn’t it? I don’t think Phoebe could handle seeing it like this. She’s become as sentimental as my father.”
It was hard to imagine Phoebe as the sentimental one. She always seemed like she would never look back. “Where is your dad?”
“He lives with our stepmother. In Florida,” she said. “I never thought I’d have a stepmother. It’s such a loaded word, fairy tales and everything.”
“I’m on my second stepmother,” Ben said. “My father seems to think the third marriage will work.”
“You have to admire the optimism, I guess.”
“That’s one way to look at it. But he’s eighty, so who knows how much time he has left.” Ben’s father had begun to forget things. He was fuzzy on the details of his career, his marriages, his children’s lives, but recalled his youth vividly. Apparently that’s what happened: As you neared the end of life, you circled back to the beginning.
Helen tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. He’d forgotten how often she used to fiddle with her hair. “I know this is crazy,” she said, “but I’ve always wondered…Do my sister and I taste the same?”
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” Ben said.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “We sound the same. The older we get, the more we look alike. Nowadays people always ask if we’re twins. So I want to know: Did we taste the same? Did we taste briny, Benjamin? Or is that a myth, that lady parts taste like fish? I’m a writer, this kind of detail interests me.”
He deserved it, this crude outburst. All these years, she’d never said anything to him about Phoebe. She simply stopped speaking to him for over a decade. And then accepted his Facebook invitation to connect. Perhaps success made it easier for her to be magnanimous.
“You never experimented with women in college?” he said. “I thought that’s what you arty girls did.” He didn’t know why he was taking this adolescent tack, but he wasn’t sure what to say. They were all so young then.
“I did sleep with one woman,” she admitted. It threw him, the way she shifted from rage to revelation. Even her vulnerability felt calculated. “For a while, I really wanted to be a lesbian. I thought my life would be easier. So there was this woman, a playwright who ran a student theater group—I know, I’m like some kind of caricature of myself—and it’s funny because when we were kissing, I was really turned on—she was really sexy, in this androgynous way, with these sinewy arms—but then when I went back to her dorm room, when our clothes came off, I kept feeling like something was missing. And she was so determined to make me come, but I can only come when I’m penetrated, to be honest, so this was fruitless cunnilingus. And it went on and on…like that Harold Brodkey story, you know?”
Ben didn’t know. He hated that after all these years, Helen could still make him feel like a philistine.
“And I just couldn’t go down on her,” she continued. “She had this curly black bush and I just couldn’t face it. She was like, ‘You really are a straight girl, aren’t you?’”
She was laughing, so he laughed with her. Oral sex, as he remembered, was something Phoebe enjoyed more.
Helen sipped her coffee and said, “I can’t believe I just told you that story.”
“You and I always had good conversations,” he said.
“Did we? I don’t remember that. I think you liked the idea of me. And then you liked the idea of Phoebe even better. I get it, she was ‘the hot one.’ You upgraded.”
“It wasn’t that.” Though that was part of it.
“She seemed sunnier, more fun.”
Fun, yes. And it’s true that Phoebe looked sunny. She had skin that browned easily; she was at her best in summer, on the beach. Whereas Helen was a wintry sort: acerbic, melancholy, pale. But Phoebe was often stormy—she picked fights and broke up with him every week or so. When her clouds cleared, though, she was irresistibly bright and warm. They always had adventurous makeup sex. Thrillingly unpredictable, that was Phoebe.
He remembered the last night he hung out with both of them, before Helen left for school. “Come over,” she said. “Pheebs and I are just watching a movie.”
He found them in their basement, splayed on the sectional. There was popcorn, in a large copper bowl. The room smelled of butter and salt. And their dog—an old border collie, who farted all the time—was curled up on Helen’s feet. The Campbell sisters were crazy about their dogs. He had just returned from two weeks on Nantucket, and this was a reunion of sorts.
“So?” Phoebe said. “Did you miss us?” She said it in the taunt of a bratty younger sibling, but it made him woozy. That was just it: He missed both of them. He liked them as an “us.” Each of the girls was more attractive in proximity to the other. That’s what Ben could never explain. And of course, he couldn’t deny the role of ego. He liked knowing other guys were jealous: The Campbell sisters chose him.
“I kept wondering if you’d write about us,” he said now.
“You don’t think I have any better material?” Helen started walking back toward the house. Had her body always been this good?
So many stories involve a love triangle. But what kind of triangle were they? Like most architects, Ben was always good at geometry. The angles at which he, Helen, and Phoebe met, had shifted. There was a time when he met Helen at 90 degrees—he faced her, in her essential correctness; but he rushed down toward Phoebe, carried by a momentum out of his control. Phoebe was erotic, intoxicating.
An isosceles triangle then:
But he couldn’t condone this with math. He couldn’t diagram his way out of it.
Helen turned to face him. “Does it scare you? To think you might find yourself in one of my stories?”
Before he could say anything, they were interrupted by the ding of a text message. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and glanced at it. “My sister,” she said. “Shall I tell her you say hi?”
Phoebe has spent years trying to forget the things that Helen screamed at her, when she called the next day. In the moment, she couldn’t respond because Helen was right, she was a terrible person, she didn’t deserve love, but after she hung up the phone, Phoebe found herself hyperventilating and afraid to go on. Swallowing that bottle of Tylenol was a melodramatic gesture, but that afternoon, she really did want a way out. It was Ben who called the ambulance. The next day her mother flew home early from Khartoum, and slept next to her in the hospital room.
“Sisters always forgive each other eventually,” her mother said, but Phoebe realized she was trying to convince herself. One of her mother’s younger sisters was suing her, over family property; the lawsuit had already dragged on for several years.
Their aunt never spoke to their mother again. She didn’t even come to their mother’s funeral. But Helen did forgive; the détente began as soon as Phoebe’s stomach had been pumped. In the hospital room the next day, right before Phoebe was discharged, Helen was there. The conversation felt stilted, like a play.
HELEN: Well, that’s one way to end an argument.
PHOEBE: What do you mean?
HELEN: Swallow some pills and turn the victim into the victimizer, just like that.
PHOEBE: You’re not a victim.
HELEN: No…but neither are you.
Helen didn’t care about Ben, not really. She just couldn’t stand being humiliated. Phoebe knew that what really got her was the shame, the shame of being the hoodwinked and the loser. “You’re shameless,” Helen said more than once, and Phoebe knew she was right: Unlike Helen, she wasn’t paralyzed by shame. Helen, who wasted so much time trying to be appropriate and proper and correct. Helen, with her bespoke stationery and her faultless manners and the deadlines she never failed to meet. Helen, who was so insecure and so easily embarrassed that she never revealed herself at all. She performed, that’s what Helen did. She should really have been an actress, not a writer. In fact, Helen was in a lot of plays in college, and their father used to fly up to New Haven to see her act. Helen the ingénue. She was very good, apparently, though Phoebe had only managed to watch one show. She knew Helen too well to suspend her disbelief.
After all that drama, though, they’d ended up much closer than they’d been before. They’ve never gone a day without speaking, and in recent years, texting.
And this time, it was Helen who ended up in the hospital, after her cracks finally started to show.
But betrayal leaves a trail. Phoebe knows that Helen still feels like she owes her. And wasn’t writing about people another kind of betrayal? Now that she has daughters of her own, Phoebe recognizes patterns. The oldest is self-conscious, the younger ones are more brash. The oldest wants space; the younger ones resent exclusion. “She won’t let me in,” they wail, but Phoebe helps the oldest print out a sign that says keep out.