Tree Gardner and her sister, Tomlyn, were not Southerners in the traditional sense. Their parents had come to South Carolina after a chance encounter at a tent revival in Savannah, Georgia. The father had worked on Wall Street before a slighted lover, who just so happened to be his boss, threatened to oust him for insider trading. He left town in a hurry, deciding he would “go on the road, you know, like Jack Kerouac.” Headed for Chicago, eager to bask in that city’s jazzy smolder, he took a wrong turn somewhere around Maryland. A detour through the Bible belt, he decided, would build his character. Maybe he’d eat a heaping plate of cornbread and collard greens. Burn a Confederate flag. See what all the fuss was about. By the time he hit Savannah, he’d seen enough. He was parked in front of a Lil’ Cricket, mapping out his next move, when he caught sight of a beautiful girl in an orange dress. She sat dead center under a large, circus-style tent across the street, taking down notes as a man in a suit and tie flailed his arms and spoke gibberish. The congregation clapped and roared their approval, but not the girl. She would look up now and again, just to take in the spectacle around her, and then return to her journal. Her lips were the color of strawberry licorice. No virile young man could resist wandering over.
The mother was from Florida, the North of the South. The only child of atheist professors, she had a voracious appetite for religion, if not for salvation. She had to admit, for all the nervous gesticulations accompanying it, the music had soul. Their eyes met with a fiery abandon while everyone else was being filled with the Holy Ghost. The story went that the preacher insisted they get married then and there. So they did. Thirteen months later, they had nine acres of land on which to nurse a variety of squash and two daughters, with whom they practiced transcendental meditation—the kind geared for infants. Identical twins, the girls grew up hating fried okra, NASCAR, and Republicans.
Tree was the youngest by a minute and thirty-eight seconds. She felt that difference like an I.Q. deficit now; as she drove Tomlyn through Kansas, past an endless mirage of wheat fields, back to Colorado State to study athletic training. Athletic training. Tree thought it sounded like something Joseph Stalin would mandate. She was proud of the way she used her distaste for physical exertion to justify what amounted to a degree in reading. It was five in the morning and only semis were on the interstate, boxing in the tiny red pickup Tree had on loan from her dad, just until she figured shit out. The truck was dinged up enough from the cross-country drive, so she made a point of slowing down to a crawl when one of the graffittied trailers pulled alongside her. Tomlyn was tucked into the fetal position on the bench seat in the back, her pretend snores and half-open eyes grating on Tree’s nerves worse than the squealing brakes. This was the first stint in their natural lives that they hated each other. The disgust between them was anything but hostile. It was more of a dull hurt that manifested in their inability to communicate beyond an occasional sigh. Neither of them remembered what had instigated the rift exactly, but it had something to do with Tomlyn keeping secrets. Or was it that Tree spent the summer on their parents’ couch, inhaling aerosol cheese and watching cooking shows?
With the resonance of a gunshot, a tire blew on an eighteen-wheeler a few yards beyond the reach of the little truck’s headlights. Thick coils of rubber scattered in the road, forcing Tree to swerve into the other lane to avoid skidding out. For a moment she imagined herself letting go of the wheel and careening into the neighboring freight. But then Tomlyn groaned as if she was having a bad dream, and Tree realigned the pickup.
Tree was fed up with her sister’s noises. Tomlyn had always been the articulate one. As children, Tree would mourn for weeks on end at the death of a pet turtle or the election of another Bush, not even knowing what a Bush was precisely. She often took a vow of silence. Only Tomlyn was qualified to act as her interpreter in these times of woe. Their parents encouraged the dynamic, believing it to be an ideal trust-building exercise. They were right, too. Until sex ruined everything. Ever since Tree let on about her affair with a tenured professor in the Communications department, Tomlyn behaved as though she had received confirmation of alien life. A foreign, toothy grin distorted her features as she listened greedily for the sordid details. A giddy hum formed in her throat. She had known it instinctively, or desperately wanted it to be so. The word sadist occurred to the younger sister more than once in the wake of this reaction. Tomlyn was hiding something herself, Tree knew. It was a proper emotional stalemate, rife with unsure advances and hasty retreats.
The guy in question was going on fifty, twice divorced, and sported a dirty blonde comb over. He was not an attractive prospect, but for his sway with the Dean of Graduate Admissions. Tree dreamed of writing essays for The New Yorker. That wasn’t why she slept with him. But her sister wouldn’t understand. Her sister had stopped caring. And here was someone who at least pretended Tree was a compelling woman, or writer, or anything. Admittedly, she hadn’t related the whole truth to Tomlyn. She left out the part about Bob, PhD leaving bruises on her inner thighs and below her right breast. Still. Tree was finding it hard to be on her own side. Tomlyn needed to be the voice of reason. Instead, the recognizable hum played in Tree’s ears.
“Knock it off, Tom,” she said, staring into the rear view mirror.
Tomlyn’s hazel eyes shot open, and she stretched and yawned and patted her cropped black hair like a drowsy house cat. She said, “Hands on ten and two, doll face.”
Tree thought her sister might be a lesbian. They had both been accepted to Colorado State on full scholarships, Tomlyn for her sports thing and Tree for English. They had both arrived in Fort Collins with shoulder-length brunette curls. By Thanksgiving, Tree’s hair was basically the same, albeit a little grimier. Tomlyn’s hair, however, was ten inches shorter and about twenty shades darker. Her wardrobe adjusted accordingly. She’d argued with an old man in a bar that God was a woman. Posters of Billie Jean King and k.d. lang cluttered her bedroom walls. Tree didn’t care one way or another; she just wanted to be her sister’s chief confidant again. And because she felt she wasn’t, she kept to herself these days.
Bob, PhD wore wide wale corduroy pants and a matching jacket. He liked sneaking into the apartment Tree shared with her sister after midnight, tossing his clothes on the futon in the living room before crawling into Tree’s bed. The actual sex happened in sixty-second intervals. He never could finish. It was like being humped by a rabbit with erectile dysfunction. Whenever Tree forgot to fake orgasm, Bob grabbed the fleshiest part of her body he could find in the dark and squeezed. Hence the bruises. In the morning, before sunup, Tree collected his things and watched him dress. She let him out the back door while Tomlyn sat at the kitchen table, pouring almond milk over her granola. This was the semester routine, had been for nearly eighteen months now. They never addressed the professor in the room.
“How much longer?” Tomlyn asked, crawling over the console and settling in the passenger seat. Tree was severely and inexplicably disturbed by her sister’s closeness, the hypocrisy of it. They hadn’t been within twelve feet of each other in as many weeks.
“GPS says eighteen miles to the exit,” said Tree, her voice too monotonous to be considered calm.
“Swell,” her sister said, seeming to chirp the word in that carefully honed happy-go-lucky pitch Tree despised. “We need to talk.”
“You know I have trouble socializing when I’m driving a stick.”
“I’ll talk,” said Tomlyn. “You listen.”
Joy. Unspeakable joy. A sermon from my emotionally absentee sister about how best to streamline my emotions.
“I’d rather we didn’t,” said Tree, keeping her eyes on the road.
“You’re feeling misunderstood.”
“Glad we cleared that up.”
“Come on,” said Tomlyn. “I have licorice.” And she jammed the red candy into Tree’s mouth. The sensation, for Tree, was a familiar one.
Tomlyn spoke for what felt like eight hours in what sounded like a run-on sentence. She started on how she knew these things happened every day on college campuses. Some professors just felt entitled to it, didn’t they? Especially in the arts. Man, artists were the worst offenders. Look at Mom and Dad. Look how they were always encouraging every fucking one to be open to new experiences. Did Tree know Dad had been a low-key porn star back in the day? True story. Mom knew all about it, too. They kept a stash of his videos in the nightstand. There was one from 1987 called Hard Cop. Look; of course he was never a broker on Wall Street. Had Tree seen their dad try to balance a checkbook? It wasn’t pretty. He hightailed it out of New York because there were rumors going around about him making movies with underage girls. Dad’s name wasn’t even his real name. The internet didn’t keep secrets, Tree. It was lucky for both of them that incest wasn’t his kink. But even all that was no reason for Tree not to pursue her Masters in Reporting. Was that what they called it? No reason to stop going to class, jeopardize her future. Bob, PhD had offered to give her a free ride. And as it stood now, their parents thought Tree simply lost her mind, or caved from the work load, or both. Besides, Tomlyn thought he was kind of cute.
Tree heard her heart pounding in her ears as they followed the signs for CSU. The Rockies were a gray outline against the sallow sky. A knife-like pain passed from her vagina to her stomach to her head in the time it took her to let out a sorrowful meh. She wanted to be absorbed into the headlights. To become nothing but energy, which was somehow everything she lacked. She wanted to be saved from the deepest parts of herself. She wanted to be away from her sister.
Tomlyn, her mouth arranged in a serious little line, continued to stare intently at Tree’s profile. The elder sister expected thanks for her pragmatism. Emotions needed to be put aside occasionally. There was no way in hell their parents, who were cultish in their love of the land and ever fearful of submitting to mainstream America’s debt-fetish, would agree to pay Tree’s grad school tuition. It was better to have a stable (and horny) benefactor.
The pickup rattled to a halt in front of the tennis courts. Tree determined to look Tomlyn in the eye before parting, so the latter would know she hadn’t won. But when their eyes locked on one another, Tree saw her sister hunched under the weight of her “Cam the Ram!” duffle and the flecks of green in her hazel irises made brilliant by the burgeoning daylight, and she only managed to weep. She gave in to a wry smile, too. She could just look like her. That would have to be enough.
Tomlyn felt vindicated by her sister’s tears, took them as she pleased, and slammed the faded red door shut. She stood on the curb, and said, “I’m seeing someone. She’s a Republican.”
Tree guessed as much. She responded by turning on the radio, to a station in the midst of a non-stop hour of Hank Williams. Tomlyn yelled something more as the truck pulled away. Only the music was too loud. It looked to Tree like her sister was saying, “Teach young women to be sober.” That couldn’t be right. Nothing about it made sense. Anyway, she had to keep moving. That new apartment with the deadbolt locks wasn’t going to find itself. And there was the added problem of her dad’s truck. The truck would have to be set on fire.
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