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Although they are now in their forties and no longer live in the same house, Helen and Phoebe are still referred to as “the Campbell sisters.” This makes them feel less like people than a brand. It is a brand with a consistent equity, expressed recently by a woman at a party who said to Phoebe, “I’ve heard about you and your sister. How you’re both super beautiful and smart.”
Beautiful and smart. How was she supposed to respond to a comment like that? The word “super” bothered her, she tells Helen now. As if they are not mere mortals, but crusaders in capes.
“Except instead of saving people,” Helen says, “we fuck things up.”
They are in the kitchen of Phoebe’s house, where Helen is recuperating from what she likes to describe as a nervous breakdown. “And now it’s time for a breakdown,” she says, with a laugh. That En Vogue song was big when they were in high school. Never gonna get it, never gonna get it.
They don’t use the term “breakdown” in front of Phoebe’s kids, who are so overjoyed by their aunt’s presence that they don’t question why she has already been there for three months. Helen often picks up the kids from school and says the teachers mistake her for Phoebe. The confusion amuses Phoebe; she loves that they look more alike now than they did when they were young.
“You and Helen are almost twins,” her seven- year-old daughter says. “You have the same glasses and the same hair.”
“Almost,” Helen says. She has always insisted on the differences between them.
If Phoebe’s husband resents Helen’s presence, [End Page 63] he hides it well. Late at night, when he returns from the office, his body still stiff with tension, Phoebe barely says hello. She is too busy making popcorn, preparing to watch TV with Helen. Phoebe likes the house-design shows their mother always loved: There is something soothing about how quickly the renovations happen. The way cracked linoleum and battered cabinets give way, via musical montage, to granite counters and bamboo floors. These new kitchens promise more than the preparation of food; they seem, with their restaurant-sized refrigerators and ovens, to hint at everything hopeful America can be. The city on the hill, et cetera. American exceptionalism is a myth, Helen would say.
Phoebe insisted that Helen come stay because she was worried about her: Helen wasn’t eating enough, and she was spending way too much time alone, posting seemingly suicidal updates on Facebook. (Phoebe never checked Facebook, but mutual friends had sent her screenshots with panicked texts: is your sister ok?) But now that her sister is here, Phoebe realizes that she, too, was lonely.
When Phoebe was little and their mother told stories about Helen as a toddler, Phoebe would ask, “Where was I?”
“You weren’t born yet,” their mother would say.
“Was I in your tummy?”
“Not yet. You didn’t exist.” Their mother was the oldest child in her family, so she couldn’t possibly understand how hurtful those words were. You didn’t exist was the equivalent of the sign Helen used to hang on her bedroom door: keep out!!!!
Phoebe and Helen’s rooms were on the third floor, a whole flight of stairs away from their parents. They had to move up there when their grandmother moved in and needed a bedroom on the second floor. Phoebe was only six then, and scared to sleep so far from their mother, so she used to sleep in Helen’s bed. Helen said she kicked in her sleep, but Phoebe kicked when she was awake, too. It’s how she always won fights with Helen. The fights hadn’t been physical since they were kids, but as teenagers, there were still arguments, mostly because it drove Phoebe crazy when Helen tried to shut her out. “You never give me any space!” Helen complained. And it was true: Phoebe wanted to collapse the space between...