He hadn't seen her in years, not since she left home for good. Then he found her — in the pages of a porn magazine.
By Robert Radin
The last time I bought a porn magazine was in the fall of 1996. My girlfriend, Amy, had gone down to New York to meet some friends from college. As soon as she was safely out of the parking lot of our apartment building, I got in my car and drove to an adult bookstore in Enfield, CT, a town and a state far enough away from where I lived that I could be sure I wouldn't run into anyone I knew. When I got home, I went straight into our bedroom and lay down on our bed. Then I looked at all the pictures from cover to cover before choosing one woman to focus on.
I was paging through the phone-sex ads when I saw a picture of my sister.
I closed the magazine and put it down on the bed. I stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours.
It was the scar that gave her away. When she was 18, she was driving drunk and slammed her VW into a tree. Her head had cracked the windshield, leaving a deep scar between her eyebrows. No amount of makeup could conceal it.
She was on a page called "Party Girls Hotline." She was with two other women. They were standing in a line, sandwiched together. First there was my sister, then there was another blonde, then there was a brunette. The brunette was kissing the blonde on the cheek, digging her fingernails into her ass.
My sister was the only one who was looking into the camera. She had a fake smile and an orange tanning-booth tan. She was wearing a lei with green and yellow and pink flowers.
I told myself it wasn't my sister. The odds were too great. I taped the page that had the picture of her to the page before it so I wouldn't accidentally turn to it again.
Six years later I was in a Thai restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles for a family reunion of sorts. Amy and I were married by then, and we were there with our son. It had been a long time since I'd been back home. I'd moved to Massachusetts in 1991 to go to graduate school, suspecting, even then, that I wouldn't return to L.A. unless and until someone died. I bore my family no ill will; it was just that I couldn't be around them very long without feeling sick.
My mother was there, and my brother and his wife, and my aunt. I was spooning Pad Thai onto my plate when my brother mumbled something to me about our sister.
"You know she's doing porn, don't you?" he said.
I felt like the floor was giving way below me.
"I didn't know," I said.
"It's nasty, Bob. She's doing everything. Girls. Black guys. Gang bangs. Taking it up the ass."
"How do you know this?" I said.
"Because I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes."
"It's true, brother," his wife said.
"Are you sure it's her?" I said.
"It's her, Bob," he said. "You don't believe me, check it out for yourself."
He told me her porn name. It sounded like the name of a character from a Victorian novel.
"She's a whore," he said.
My wife and I exchanged a look. Don't worry, she told me with her eyes, we'll talk about this later. Just get through it.
Thank God my son didn't hear. My aunt had taken him to the bathroom.
I don't know if my mother heard. Part of me thought she had but was just pretending she hadn't. She seemed entirely focused on her food, a plate of shrimp and green chiles. I watched her peel back the shells with her fingers.
When we were growing up, I tried to be a good brother to my sister. I was always encouraging her to build model airplanes with me or to play Parcheesi, but most of the time my efforts just backfired. I was only four years older, but it felt like we were a generation apart.
When I was 10 years old, I was obsessed with the Beatles. My sister reacted the way most little sisters would: She told me the Beatles sucked. But every Saturday morning, as I sat on my bedroom floor listening to their records, she came knocking. I made her wait. It was only when she was pounding on my door, begging me please and apologizing for everything she'd said about the Beatles, that I let her in.
She always wanted to listen to the same song over and over again. Usually it was "If I Fell." She loved that song. She'd try to sing along with it, but her voice would crack every time she came to the bridge: And I would be sad if our new love was in vain.
There was one Saturday morning when she didn't knock on my door. I waited for her for a while. Finally, I went looking for her. I found her in her bedroom, in bed with my brother. He was lying on top of her. They were both naked.
I don't know what was happening between the two of them that morning. I don't know if my brother was molesting my sister; I don't know if it's even possible for a 9-year-old to molest a 6-year-old. All I know is that I felt left out. I felt like my brother had taken my sister away from me.
The relationship between my brother and sister would become even more troubling three years later, when my father died, only a day after being diagnosed with leukemia. The cancer had been spreading inside him for years, completely undetected. It was devastating for all of us, but it was particularly devastating for my sister. She had always been a daddy's girl.
After my father died, my brother spent entire nights in my sister's bedroom. I'd see him leaving her bedroom in the morning and I'd ask him what he was doing, and he'd tell me he'd had a bad dream and he didn't want to be alone. When I told my mother, she told me to mind my own business. She had gone from being a full-time housewife to a full-time secretary at a company that made nail polish. She was about to lose custody of my brother for various crimes he'd been committing — shoplifting, motor-vehicle theft, possession and sale of drugs — and she simply couldn't concentrate on anything else.
Eventually, my brother was designated a ward of the court and placed in a juvenile detention center. I thought maybe now my sister would get some of the attention he had been siphoning off for so many years. And she did — by imitating him. She dropped out of school, started doing coke and drinking, and developed a major case of bulimia. To support her habits, she stole cash and jewelry from my mother. She ran up my mother's credit cards and wrote checks on her accounts.
I was over at a friend's house one night during my senior year in high school when I got a phone call from my mother.
"Bobby," she said. "It's your sister. I think she was at the bowling alley. Maybe someone bought her a drink. I don't know."
My mother started crying.
When I got home, I found my sister lying on the kitchen floor. I knelt down. She had a black eye and a scrape on her right cheek.
"What's this?" I said.
"I don't know," my mother said. "Maybe she fell down as she was walking home."
The bowling alley was just down the street, but I knew there was no way my sister could have walked home in this condition.
I called her name, but she didn't respond. Then she started moaning, making the sounds of crying without the tears. I noticed a spot of blood soaking through her jeans at the knee. "We need to get her cleaned up," I said.
My mother's bathroom had a walk-in shower. The tub part was only about six inches deep, shallow enough that we could fill it with water without drowning my sister.
I lifted her up and carried her into my mother's room. I laid her down on my mother's bed.
"Why don't you take off her clothes, and I'll fill the tub," I said.
When I came back into the bedroom, my sister was lying there naked. She already had a woman's body, and I was ashamed to look. She had tiny cuts all over her chest and bruises on her thighs. She was dirty in places, covered in the grime of asphalt. I couldn't understand how she got like this if she'd had her clothes on.
I lifted her up, carried her into the bathroom, and lowered her down into the warm water. She seemed to be soothed by this. I knelt beside her to make sure she didn't roll over. She lay there floating in the tub for a long time. It would be many years before I realized my sister had been raped.
As bad as things got, we weren't completely estranged from each other during this time. I took her to her first rock concert — the Kinks at the L.A. Forum. When she turned 16, I taught her how to drive a stick shift in the parking lot of an abandoned supermarket. When she was 18 — just before her car accident — I took her down to the Beverly Cineplex to see Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. I had already seen it a couple of times and was so knocked out by it that I really wanted her to see it with me. I must have known this wouldn't be the kind of movie she would go for, but I think I was still trying to re-create that connection I'd had with her when we were kids, lying on the floor, listening to Beatles records.
After the movie, we walked through the mall food court.
"That was weird," she said.
We stopped at an upscale restaurant that had lobster tanks set up out front. We gazed at the lobsters, commenting on the terrible fate that awaited them.
"They scream when you cook them," I said.
"They're not really screaming," she said. "It's just the air escaping from the shell."
It felt like my sister and I were on a date that night. Not because I thought of her as my date, but because I could see that everyone else in the mall did. I wondered what they were thinking, if they thought we were an unlikely pair, me this nerdy hipster wannabe and my sister this blonde bombshell. I wondered if they were asking themselves, What does she see in him? They certainly weren't asking themselves, What does he see in her?
It wasn't long after this that my sister drove her VW into the tree. A nurse called my mother at work and told her what had happened. She told her it was nothing life-threatening. My sister had a deep cut in her forehead that would require sutures. My mother told the nurse not to do anything until she got there. When she hung up the phone, she called our family doctor to get the name of a plastic surgeon. But by the time she arrived at the hospital, it was all over: My sister had authorized the ER doctor to do the stitches. She couldn't wait for my mother's doctor; just the day before, she had met a guy who invited her to Palm Springs, and she didn't want anything to interfere with that.
After my mother contacted our family doctor, she called the shoe store where my sister worked to let them know my sister wouldn't be coming in that day. But when she spoke to the store manager, he had no idea who she was talking about. It turned out my sister didn't work there.
When my sister dropped out of school, she and my mother formed a tacit agreement: If she got a job, my mother would stay off her case. By the time my sister was 17, she'd been fired from countless jobs, usually because she never showed up for her shift. She kept telling my mother she'd gotten a new job or had been promoted at her old one. After a while, she just started inventing jobs, and my mother never asked her to produce a paycheck to prove it.
The accident forced my mother to confront another part of my sister's life she hadn't wanted to deal with. They fought in the recovery room at the hospital and all the way home. When my sister left for Palm Springs the next day, my mother told her she could never come back.
But, of course, she did come back, and with a dark tan. When they removed the stitches, there was a jagged scar between her eyebrows.
My sister was hysterical. Once she had been the girl with the perfect face; now it was impossible to look at her without seeing the scar. My mother tried to console her. She took her out to dinner. She bought her some costume jewelry. She told her she was willing to pay for a plastic surgeon. But then she started thinking again about how my sister had lied to her for so long. In the middle of their reconciliation, she was unable to hold her tongue. They fought, and this time it was my sister who said she was leaving for good.
It took a while for my mother to admit to herself that my sister wasn't coming back. When she finally did, she asked me to come over to the house and clean out my sister's bedroom.
What I found there shocked me: candy wrappers and soda cups and empty jars of peanut butter. Chocolate bars melted into the shag carpet. Homemade bongs, brown glass vials, used tampons, green plastic bags filled with vomit. And everywhere there were empty beer cans — in her closet, in her dresser drawers, under her bed. I hauled out 10 garbage bags of beer cans from her bedroom.
We didn't hear from my sister for a long time after that. Then, when she was in her mid-20s, she resurfaced, calling my mother to tell her she had gotten a job as an A&R rep for Capitol Records. She had a company car and her own expense account and sometime soon, when she could clear some space in her schedule, she wanted to meet my mother for lunch.
My mother would get many calls like this in the years that followed. My sister would disappear for an extended period of time, then she would call my mother out of the blue to tell her about some fabulous job she had. Once she said she was a production executive for Paramount. Another time she said she was doing PR for Pepsi and attending UCLA on a full four-year scholarship provided by the company because they loved her so much. They were fantastic stories, stories that didn't even verge on the credible, and yet my mother believed each and every one of them and dutifully reported them to me. I would ask my mother for my sister's phone number and address so I could get in touch with her, but when I called, the number was out of service, and when I sent a letter, it always came back marked Undeliverable as Addressed or Forwarding Order Expired.
I didn't see my sister again until the spring of 1998, when I got married. She was 32. She'd recently been in touch with my mother to tell her she was the head of marketing for Reebok and that they were relocating her to Fiji. My mother told her I was getting married and gave her my number. When my sister called to congratulate me, I managed to persuade her to fly out to New York with the rest of my family.
We all stayed at a little hotel in the Murray Hill section of the city. Amy and I had a room on the third floor. My mother and my sister and my aunt shared a room on the seventh floor. We went up to greet them after they checked in. Amy had never met my family before.
My mother opened the door. She had already changed into one of the muumuus she always wore at home. She gave us each a hug.
As my mother and Amy exchanged pleasantries, I scanned the room for my sister. I saw her kneeling on the floor behind one of the beds. Then all of a sudden she stood up and walked over to me. She was wearing black spandex leggings and a black spandex halter top. Her bleached-blonde hair was shocking, bright. She greeted me as if we had just spoken yesterday.
"Hey, Bob," she said. "How are you?"
I felt flushed for a moment, confused. When I hugged her, I could feel her hip bones pressing into my legs. I could feel the vertebrae in her back. I had to give her one of those half-hugs you give really skinny people for fear that a real hug would snap them in two.
And yet she had these breasts, this full chest that was pressing into mine. I wondered whether she'd had a boob job.
She broke from my embrace and went over to her suitcase and pulled out two grocery bags.
"These are for you guys," she said.
The bags were filled with candles. More candles than we could possibly burn in a lifetime. They were all different shapes and sizes. They were layered with different colors of wax, each layer bleeding into the next.
"Did you make them yourself?"
"Yes," my sister said.
"They're beautiful," I said.
That night my family and Amy's family went out to dinner so that we could all get to know each other a little before the wedding. My sister was wearing the same outfit from the hotel, plus a waistcoat and a pair of black stilettos. As we stood there in the foyer waiting for a table, I remember wishing she had worn a longer coat, something that would have covered her body.
She was holding a long black box that was about the size of a walkie-talkie. Her keys were attached to it. As we waited, she kept shifting it from one hand to the other, as if she were assessing its heft.
"That's quite a key chain," I said.
"It's a Taser," she said. "Like the cops use. It'll knock you right out." She handed it to me. It was heavy. It seemed like she could just as easily club a guy with it as stun him.
The restaurant staff pushed a few tables together. I wound up sitting across from my sister. I tried to get her to join the conversations of the people sitting around us, but she kept falling silent. Finally I realized I was going to have to try to draw her out on my own.
"When was the last time you were in New York?" I said.
"Oh, God," she said, "not since high school. Do you remember when Allen and Lenore invited me out here?"
I remembered. Allen was my father's brother and Lenore was his wife. They had both passed away several years earlier. I think Lenore came from some money, because they had an apartment on the Upper East Side. My sister was around 13 or 14 when they invited her out to visit. I remember feeling angry, because they had never invited me or my brother out to New York. I think it was because the last time they had seen us was at my father's funeral, and my brother and I were acting like animals. But their memories of my sister were different. She was a china doll back then, their beautiful niece. They imagined taking her out on the town and impressing all of their friends.
They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. My sister drank all their booze and cleaned out their refrigerator. She promenaded down Fifth Avenue with the two of them in tow, asking them to buy her every glittering bauble she saw. They were stunned by her total lack of grace and etiquette. She was supposed to stay a week; they sent her back after three days.
I pretended I remembered none of this. "Yeah," I said. "What happened with that?"
"It was really weird," she said. "Allen was really sweet. But Lenore hated me. It seemed like as soon as I got here, she had it in for me. I remember they took me to this restaurant to meet some of their friends, and in the middle of dinner, Lenore just stormed off. She just went to the bar for the rest of the night. Allen kept getting up from the table to try and get her to come back, but she wouldn't do it. She said she wouldn't sit at the same table as me. It was really uncomfortable.
"I still had a great time, though. The city was beautiful. We went to Central Park and the Guggenheim — I remember really loving that place. We went to Rockefeller Center and walked down Fifth Avenue. They took me to see Evita. I was just blown away."
As my sister spoke, I noticed her top teeth were worn away. Her front teeth were smaller than her incisors. Her incisors were smaller than her canines. Her canines were smaller than her bicuspids. It was the same with her bottom teeth, so when she closed her mouth her teeth didn't touch. I had heard about this kind of thing happening to bulimics. I had heard that the acid from the vomiting could wear away the enamel on the teeth, but this kind of pattern seemed strange to me. It wasn't until several years later, in a conversation with my brother's wife, that I learned my sister had been addicted to crystal meth. The drug had rotted her teeth away.
I looked at my sister and tried to focus on what she was saying. "Yeah, I don't know what it was, though," she said. Her eyes were glassy. "Lenore was really sweet. But Allen hated me. It seemed like as soon as I got here, he had it in for me. I remember they took me to this restaurant to meet some of their friends, and in the middle of dinner, Allen just stormed off. He just went to the bar for the rest of the night. Lenore kept getting up from the table to try and get him to come back, but he wouldn't do it. He said he wouldn't sit at the same table as me. It was really uncomfortable."
On the night of the wedding, my sister wore a form-fitting navy dress with a teardrop cutout over her breasts. She walked down the aisle with my brother. She stood under the chuppah as my wife and I took our vows.
At the reception she seemed jittery. I thought she probably didn't want to have to stand there and answer the typical party questions about what she did for a living. It's only now that I realize she was probably afraid of being recognized by one of my friends.
Toward the end of the night, we danced. She seemed surprised when I came to her table and took her hand and led her onto the floor. The DJ was playing a slow song by Otis Redding. As I held my arm around her waist, I could feel her shaking. Then she started to cry.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"I don't know," she said.
"Look at me," I said.
She looked at me, and for a moment it seemed like she thought I might actually have the answer, the words that would make everything right.
When my sister and I were kids, we played a game we called "Make Me Laugh." We'd go into the bathroom, and she'd sit in the bathtub and be the audience while I stood in front of the vanity and played the comedian. If I made her laugh, then we had to trade places. I'd usually open with some kind of shtick — an impersonation or a corny joke that would fall flat. After a few minutes I would resort to the one thing I knew would get her: I'd flare my nostrils. She'd kill herself laughing every time.
And so that night, dancing with my sister at my wedding, at a loss for words, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I flared my nostrils. And just like old times, she broke down laughing.
I haven't seen my sister since that night 10 years ago. I still have the porn magazine with the picture of her inside it. I don't look at it, not just because of her, but because of every other woman in there. I know that each one of them has a story similar to my sister's.
Amy wants me to throw the magazine away, but I can't. It's my only keepsake. I know that's a strange thing to say, but that's my sister's life; that's her work. The magazine is a part of her in some perverse way, or she is a part of it.
I know I will have to throw it away someday. Someday soon, because I don't want my son finding it.
The hardest thing of all for me isn't the thought of my son finding a picture of a naked woman and recognizing her as his aunt. It's the thought of him finding a picture of a naked woman and not recognizing her as his aunt. Of him not recognizing her at all.