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  • The Fragility of Memory
  • Melissa Hart (bio)

When I was five, and my sister Jenny was three, she asked me to bite her big toe. We sat squished together like Siamese twins on our mother's orange recliner, bored with Sesame Street. "Are you sure?" I demanded.

Jenny nodded, blond ponytails bobbing. "Bite it!"

Burdened with the responsibilities particular to an older sibling, I bent low and obliged. Instantly, my sister screamed. "Mommy!" she cried, huge tears springing from her wide blue eyes. "Lissa bit my big toe!"

Our mother gave me a swat on the behind, and I slunk outside to sulk with our pet rabbit, feeling the sting of betrayal. Jenny doesn't remember this definitive moment in our relationship, but it's imprinted upon my memory, impermeable. At what cost do we allow past grievances to shape present perceptions?

In high school, Jenny became a frothy blond cheerleader. I had already established myself as the dark and enigmatic yearbook editor. The chasm between our chosen extracurricular activities hinted at deeper disparities; in those years, my sister attended a fundamental Christian church each Sunday, while I sat cross-legged under our scraggly suburban willow every afternoon at five o'clock, hoping both for enlightenment and for a date with our cute paperboy.

In college, I tried to play the role of big sister. Jenny delivered a whispered account of her first sexual escapade, sans condom, and I dutifully ratted her out to our mother, convinced of her dire need for parental guidance. Later, I presented her with a copy of my own holy book, The Tao of Pooh, a gift that prompted her to observe, "How can you read about being happy and calm in all circumstances, and then act so fucked up?"

In the near-past, I still blamed my sister for the conflicts, the unspoken competitions that marred our relationship. Her moods, her volatile self-consciousness, [End Page 63] her treble voice burbling an odd amalgamation of Texas twang and Valley-Girl ditz—all make me cringe. But as a dear friend observes, "Spot it? Got it!"

And so I gotta admit to y'all that our decades-long battle is, like, totally my fault, too.

After our graduations from high school and college, Jenny took a job as a waitress in a hip Orange County watering hole, while I, armed with a copy of What Color Is My Parachute?, set about looking for a career. Anyone familiar with the employment section of the newspaper can attest to a dearth of advertisements for "Novelist. $60,000 starting pay, 401(k), full benefits." I realized quickly that my parachute, if I wished to eat and sleep with a roof over my head, had better be colored green.

Initially, a rotund middle-aged painter hired me to be his assistant. The job consisted mainly of keeping the artist stocked with super-sized orders of French fries and washing out his paintbrushes. Both tasks could be performed on autopilot, leaving me adequate mental space in which to compose short stories and poems.

But after a few weeks, the artist asked me to pose nude and to stay overnight since his muse was apparently nocturnal. Posing nude could not be done on autopilot, and so I quit without my first paycheck, but with my dignity intact.

The editor of a fledgling newspaper snapped me up next, paying me less than minimum wage to design ads and write muckraking political articles for his biweekly rag. A month after hiring me, he explained with genuine regret that he had overbudgeted. He couldn't afford to pay me, but would I consider staying on for free as an intern, and while I was at it, could I run next door and get him an order of Kung Pao chicken?

Briefly, I considered a job in pizza delivery, since I could now boast several weeks of experience in food transport. But there were no positions available, pizza delivery apparently being a cutting-edge career.

A month into the summer, my little sister bragged of $120 a night in tips at her beachside brewpub, and I sounded the cry that college graduates in the liberal...


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pp. 63-73
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