Janet tried to parse the muffled sound she had heard through the door. The room was too bright, she thought. The ache in her head made her wonder if cutting her only Friday class and making the long nighttime drive home to take advantage of the holiday weekend had really been a good idea. She had shared driving with Evelyn, a distant friend whose greatest charm was owning a car and having a family that lived 10 blocks from Janet’s. The eight-hour ride had established that this was about all the two girls had in common. Janet had arrived home sometime in the early a.m. and really hadn’t meant to be up before noon.
“Oh,” she moaned. It was her brother Michael, who was either being charmingly solicitous of his older sister or was taking advantage of a delicious opportunity to torture her. Michael had always had too much energy.
Janet suddenly sat up, remembering that her parents had had to leave early to go to Cincinnati for the funeral of a good buddy from graduate school days. She collapsed again and looked up at the ceiling, concluding that Michael had decided that she wouldn’t get breakfast unless he made it. That meant having to make it before he left for school. Michael was nothing if not responsible.
It seemed churlish not to accept the proffered meal, so Janet rolled gracelessly out of bed, searched without success for her slippers, and stumbled off in the direction of the kitchen.
“Eggs?” asked Michael, making some effort not to sound too cheerful.
“Sure,” replied Janet, taking the nearest seat at the table.
No one spoke for the next few minutes, as Michael concentrated on the scrambled eggs, and Janet tried to coax her brain into feigning consciousness.
“How’s everything?” Janet asked at last, as her brother brought two plates of scrambled eggs to the table.
“Fine.” Michael paused for a moment. “Mom’s kinda stressed out. Mr. Kenna’s been leaning on her pretty hard, I guess. Dad’s Dad. He hasn’t had to travel much lately.”
Michael put the teakettle on a trivet and set out two mugs. He sat down as Janet reached for a tea bag. “Fine,” he said. “I’m not sure why we bother with a senior year. Soccer team’s great. I think I’ve finally got the game nailed. Why don’t you stop by and watch practice after school.”
“I might do that. I need to do some shopping and catch up on some reading. Too bad Mom and Dad had to go away. I was looking forward to a few real family meals.”
Michael looked up from his eggs and raised his eyebrows.
“This is good. I mean, I was hoping we could all be together some.”
“Yeah,” agreed Michael. “Bummer.”
The meal was completed without further conversation. Michael grabbed his backpack and disappeared through the door to the garage. He didn’t usually get to drive himself to school.
As long as she was up, Janet thought, she might as well get her shopping out of the way. She went straight from the kitchen to the hall bathroom, where she was greeted by a pungent citrus scent and plump, fresh towels. She undressed quickly and stepped into the shower, where she was soon enveloped by shampoo and fragrant bath gel.
An hour later, Janet was striding through the mall carrying new athletic shoes in a plastic shopping bag. She wore a white turtleneck and a long red jumper—part of her wardrobe she had left at home when she went off to college. She turned into an unfamiliar store, the third one of the day where she would look for blouses. She had decided that her college uniform of jeans and sweatshirts was becoming tiresome, but it was proving difficult to find something that was not too sexy, not too boring, and not too expensive. Two stores later, she gave up and went home.
Janet flopped down into a recliner and instinctively turned on the TV. Then she opened her bag and changed into her new shoes. They were quite comfortable, actually. She stared at the TV for a few minutes and remembered why she didn’t like daytime television. She clicked it off and looked around the room for another source of entertainment. It was then she saw the book of national park photographs Joel had lent to her just before graduation. She pulled it off the shelf, thinking she would take it back to school to return it to its owner. It was too early for lunch and she wasn’t ready to read the Federalist Papers, so she returned to the recliner to page through the photographs.
Joel and Janet hadn’t really dated in high school, though they did go to the prom together. Joel was a lot like Michael—athletic, but not obsessed about it, and intense about whatever was his current interest. He and Janet had ended up at the same college, seemingly by chance, and they had continued their non-dating relationship without giving it much thought. Lately, Janet had found herself looking forward more and more to the time they spent together, and she wasn’t completely comfortable with this new development.
It was almost one o’clock when Janet opened her eyes. She put the book of photographs aside and went back to the kitchen to forage for leftovers. After a lunch of cold chicken, soup, and baby carrots, she spent the next few hours alternately reading Alexander Hamilton and dozing.
It was about four o’clock when she decided to go to the high school to watch soccer practice. By the time she arrived, practice was half over. The drills completed, the varsity and JV teams were scrimmaging, interrupted only occasionally by the coach’s whistle preceding some commentary on an especially good or bad move by one of the players.
Janet watched the practice with genuine interest from the slight rise at the north end of the field. Soccer represented a special bond she shared with her brother. She had begun playing in the fifth grade and stuck with it through high school. She had convinced Michael to try the game, and, over the years, his enthusiasm had outstripped her own. Janet hadn’t wanted the pressure of playing for the high school, so she played instead in the community league, but Michael easily found his way to the varsity squad, played with passion, and dropped out of most optional aspects of teenage life.
The siblings had encouraged one another’s play and had offered each other pointers. Michael seemed the more gifted player—he could always direct the ball just where he wanted it to go, but he lacked Janet’s sense of strategy. Even with her long legs, she was not a fast runner, but Janet had a talent for always being in the right place. It was as though she could read the minds of the other players. Michael was less intuitive, and he seemed to benefit but slightly from the intricate strategic explanations offered to him by his sister. As she watched the play this day, however, Janet began to understand the comment about nailing the game—Michael not only sent the ball where he wanted it to go, but he also knew better than formerly where that place should be. Like his sister, he had begun regularly to show up at the right place at the right time. She smiled as she began to recognize the change.
“Janet? Janet Tilson?” The almost familiar voice made Janet turn her head sharply. “Betty Thompson, remember? What a surprise to see you here! I didn’t think you were so loyal as to come back to cheer on the soccer team.”
Of course, Janet remembered Betty—everyone in her class knew Betty, who had been a kind of queen of the in-crowd. Janet had not been part of that crowd. “My brother’s on the team,” she explained flatly. “In for the weekend?”
“Oh, yeah, I should have remembered. Yes, I am. It’s good to be back.”
“Sure. What brings you here?”
“Oh, I just had to see Mr. Anderson and Miss Calloway and tell them all about college. You say hello to your brother for me, Janet. I’ve got to go find Coach Larovitch.”
Janet watched Betty hurry off and thought that there was a definite charm to the relative anonymity of college.
That evening, Michael and Janet ordered out for pizza and had a long conversation that extended into popcorn and ginger ale late into the evening.
Saturday saw brother and sister heading off in different directions. Michael spent the morning at the library, doing research for a paper. Janet slept late, telephoned a couple of friends to see if they had come home for the weekend, and returned to the mall. In the afternoon, Michael had a special soccer practice—the team did not usually work out on weekends—so Janet had the house to herself. She spent the time listening to CDs on the stereo while studying and catching up on some of the magazines to which the Tilsons subscribed. Janet hadn’t seen a copy Time—or even TV Guide, for that matter—in months. She was reading the cartoons in a six-week-old issue of The New Yorker when the telephone rang. She got up and lifted the receiver. “Hello.”
“Hello, dear. It’s Mom.”
“Hi. How’s it going?”
“Everything is fine here, under the circumstances. Your father and I are so glad we came, though we are sorry we’re missing your visit.”
“Yeah, Mom, me, too. It’s nice to be home again, though, and it’s good to see Michael. He’s become quite a soccer player.”
“Yes, he has. We’re very proud of him. Is he there?”
“No, the coach called a Saturday practice for some reason. He’ll be back soon.”
“Well, tell him we’re sorry we missed him. We’ll be getting back home around noontime Monday. I guess you’ll be gone by then.”
“’Fraid so. Evelyn’s coming by about eight.”
“Well, have a good trip back, dear. I’m sure your next visit will work out better. Love to you from your dad and me.”
“Love to you, too, Mom. Bye.”
Yes, there would be other visits, Janet thought. If this one wasn’t going to be “normal,” it could still be a pleasant break from school.
When Michael finally came home, he and Janet decided to have dinner at Jimmy’s, a local hangout with good food and an informal, rather permissive, atmosphere that made it popular with adults and teenagers alike. It was a good choice. They ran into some of Janet’s favorite friends of her brother’s, and the group spent a good two hours over dinner. When they returned home, Michael decided he was pretty tired, so he turned in early. Janet worked her way through a couple more New Yorkers before doing the same.
Sunday had always been church day, and no one suggested that this Sunday should be otherwise. Michael and Janet had a light breakfast, dressed, and arrived just in time for the 10:30 service. They decided to skip the next tradition, Sunday dinner at a restaurant. Instead, they returned home after church and contented themselves with soup and crackers for lunch.
“What’s on for this afternoon?” asked Janet.
“Well, I can afford to take a little time off. I’ll have the whole day to work on my paper tomorrow, since you’re leaving early. Why don’t we go see a movie?”
“Sounds OK. Did you have something in mind?”
“Not really. Why don’t we be adventuresome and pick one when we get to the theater?”
Janet wasn’t convinced that Michael’s suggestion was especially daring, but she hadn’t seen a movie in a long time and readily agreed.
The Tilson parents were movie buffs who had rather deliberately passed on their passion to their children, whose taste had grown quite sophisticated over the years. Janet knew Citizen Kane much better than she knew Peter Rabbit. She and Michael picked a romantic comedy from the 15 or so movies playing on the 20 screens of the theater and enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in the dark.
After they returned home, Michael remembered that he wanted to show Janet the new radio control system he was working on for one of his model airplanes. Janet wasn’t especially interested in model airplanes, but Michael was always such a good sport about her interests that she felt obliged to seem fascinated. And it was nice to see that he hadn’t abandoned every pastime for soccer. Besides, the little show-and-tell session got Michael into an especially good mood, so that getting him to help clean up the kitchen after dinner would not be difficult.
Dinner was an Italian-Polish dish Michael concocted in the sauté pan. It consisted principally of zucchini, kielbasa, and tomatoes, with generous portions of onions, parsley, and oregano. Janet made a green salad.
Midway through dinner, Michael asked, “How’s your social life, Jan?”
“I think I’m falling in love with Joel,” came the matter-of-fact answer.
“Oh,” said Michael, and he paused to take in the idea. “Why?”
“Why? What do you mean, why? I don’t know. Familiarity, I guess. Really, Michael!”
“Well, Jan, I don’t know much about such things. You guys have always seemed to like one another a lot. I guess it makes sense.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Have you two ... ”
“No. I mean, I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
Janet and Michael had always been frank in discussing the thornier details of growing up, a habit that made friends of both of them uncomfortable. Michael was, after their mother, the next person to know when Janet got her first period. He was first to know when Janet went on the pill. Janet was a similarly privileged confidant when Michael had his first ejaculation.
Michael’s “Do you want to talk about it?” was the beginning of another long evening.
Evelyn arrived right on time early Monday morning. Whatever her limitations, she was punctual. Janet was already packed. She assured Michael that he didn’t have to see her off, and she went out to the car. Despite Janet’s feeling lighthearted this morning, she was not looking forward to the long trip with Evelyn. Yet, she threw her suitcase into the back seat, opened the front passenger door, and managed to jump in with a cheerful “Hi!”
“Ready to go?” asked Evelyn.
“Want to drive first?”
“Sure, why not,” said Janet, jumping out the door to change places.
In 15 minutes, the car was cruising the interstate, and Janet began to relax.
“How was the weekend?” asked Evelyn.
The corners of Janet’s lips moved upward almost imperceptibly. “It was good,” she said. “Good. I got lots of schoolwork done. I saw some friends, and I worked in some really good downtime. I even got to see Michael playing on the soccer team. He’s gotten really good.” And, she thought, going to bed with Michael had been good practice.
The idea for this story occurred to me after encountering the phrase “sibling incest” recently. The word “incest” had always brought to mind sex between fathers and daughters, and this unfamiliar phrase suggested possibilities I had never considered. Writing the story was a stretch, if only because I am an only child; it is hard even to imagine what having a sibling—either male or female—might be like. Nonetheless, writing the story was fun. I wrote it in March 2000 and made minor corrections 6/10/2004.