I HAVE A THING ABOUT LAST MEALS. NOT AS IN prisoners about to be executed—they know it’s going to be their last. But as in just about everyone else, most all of us. Whatever’s coming, there’s going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last-meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I’ll get to all that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it’s good, really worthy. And though it’s an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.
My father told me I could do what I set my mind to, though it hadn’t been true for him. Mom told me not to expect everything to go my way, probably because of her own bad luck with Dad. She wasn’t a mom to coddle you; she thought once you were ten you could make lunch for yourself. And we did, Katy and I, wild inventions, often edible. Dad ate what we offered, never a complaint.
He wasn’t one of those fathers who did it all for a kid; he liked to stand back and watch, ready to give a standing ovation, but ready to withhold it, too. My mother was tough on Katy, pushed her toward tennis stardom. The same mom took no particular interest in my football career, hoped I’d pick up a more useful hobby, like gardening. And Mom and I spent hours in the borders around our modest house most Sunday mornings—the azaleas were our church. Who knew what Kate and Dad were up to. Always in cahoots, as my mother like to say.
But Mom was Dad’s one true love: Barbara Barton Hochmeyer, a real prize, her wedding photos like glamour shots, his only great success knocking her up to produce Katy, he wasn’t shy to tell us, the very boy Mom’s father dreaded: no-college Nicky H. She was a formidable woman, all right, tall and broad in the shoulders, a tennis star in her day, club champion to the end, always organized and scheduled and ready to go. Nick was slicker, looked for leeway, wasn’t one for a plan. Words were their sharpest weapons, and they didn’t need more than a few. She called him inept; he called her unloving. Kaboom! Their fights were like boxing matches—all the moves well practiced, weeks of workouts in preparation, strategies stored up, sucker punches in desperation.
Figurative punches, I mean.
He apologized elaborately after bouts of anger, after errors, after outlandish deceptions, foolish decisions, all of which were frequent. Mom wasn’t one to apologize—Mom was always right—but quietly she’d wear a tight dress he loved, or bake him one of the oddball pies he liked, gooseberry, mincemeat, quince. And the two of them were constantly up to their bedroom, where they made way too much noise, lovers till the end.
Katy and I had a private world. The cellar was the crater made by the crash of our spaceship, the old stone stairs a rock-climb to the dangerous new planet above. The object was to make it to the attic, collect the magic cloak (a sable cape that had belonged to our grandma) and get back downstairs unnoticed by the natives, great fun during our parents’ frequent parties: Mr. Coussens sniffing his way through Mom’s underwear drawer, Mrs. Paumgartner slipping a porcelain bunny into her purse, the pockets of all those coats piled on the bed unsafe from our alien feelers: diaphragms, strange syringes, once even a revolver, pretty pearl handle, polished steel barrel, chambers fully loaded. My big sister and I passed it back and forth—surprisingly heavy.
On family trips back to Mom’s lakeside Michigan from our corporate Connecticut, Kate and I were the backseat duo—barely a year apart—always some elaborate card trick or dance routine (no seat belts, not in those days). The motel rooms we shared inspired proto-sex games: Monster in the Dark, Cannibal, The Blob. But at Lake Winnipesauke, summer of 1964, Katy stopped playing. Later in the week as we sat bobbing bored on a raft she said, “I’ve got hair.” And pulled the crotch of her suit aside briefly to show me, frank kid.
She was even then a girl who harbored secrets, parceling them out on a need-to-know basis. She was a shoplifter in junior high, a Freon sniffer freshman year, a medicine-cabinet bandit after that, a dealer of hashish at times, small amounts in glassine envelopes she showed me the way she’d shown me her pubes: frankly, briefly, with the understanding it wasn’t for me. Before long I was making pipes for her from every odd material in the house, gifts in adoration, though I never liked to smoke. Also—and this seems more important in hindsight—she had what she called “magnificent thoughts”: sometimes she saw the world as if from high above. Looking off bridges she could feel her wings flex. Looking at the sea she grew fins. These big moods were balanced by weeks of darkness, bleak pronouncements, irritability, furtive movements.
Her most ironclad secret was boys. Tim Hayes was the only one I actually encountered, a kid I knew as the leather-jacket guy. Home early from freshman football one inclement afternoon I walked in on them, he naked, she fully clothed (still wearing her rain slicker, in fact), her face flushed dark. Arousal filled her pink bedroom as if with smoke, stung my eyes and caught in my throat as I made my escape: I’d been seen. Later, Katy pledged me to secrecy. “I made him strip.” To what end, she didn’t say.
My sister was what I knew about sex before I dated. In fact, she was what I knew about girls, period. Lady Kate sank into a kind of simmering monthly funk that I knew to be womanly in some way: she gave off actual heat, owned special items, left spots of blood on the bathroom tiles.
I came into the high school as into a foreign country, looked to Katy for guidance, but very little guidance was forthcoming. Where I wanted only to fit in, she was falling out. To all appearances we were a team, the clean-cut Hochmeyer kids, sharply dressed, serious students, successful athletes, ready smiles, good deeds. And I believed in those things, felt them readily as our identity. But my sister clearly did not believe or feel the same.
Half the guys on the freshman football team had crushes on her, asked me how to proceed, asked me to put in a good word, asked me to set them up. Of course I didn’t: what would Katy want with my jerky pals? She didn’t really have boyfriends at all, not as far as I knew. Yet as soon as the pill became available, she was on it, a circular month’s supply hidden among the dust balls under my dresser: Mom never searched my room for anything, ever.
And Kate’s friends might have been a source of dates for me, but they were the tennis girls, a tight-knit crowd with muscular legs, deep tans, and lanky, bespectacled boyfriends from the local country clubs. Otherwise, oddballs: she ate lunch with Giant Janine the goiter girl, who spat food and often burst into tears; she stood at the bus line with Mark O’Meara, the Thalidomide boy, unafraid to grasp the tiny hands that grew from his shoulders; she idolized June Harrison, who played piano well despite the wheelchair, spent nights at her house. She courted drama, was enamored of difference.
She in her own heart was a freak, is my guess now.
Otherwise, why all the secrets?