l had planned on spending the holidays with a bottle of Chablis until my sister Mag showed up, itching for a fight. At the restaurant, she switched tables three times. The first table had no view, she said. It’s nighttime, there’s nothing to see out there but blackness, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. The second table was too cold, she said. I’ll give you that, I thought. The whole place, one of those touristy floating boat restaurants, was chilly and deserted. It looked like it had been shut up for months and reopened halfheartedly for Christmas Eve. It smelled bad, too, like bilge water was sloshing below the floor. The third table had a wobbly leg and was too sticky, she said. By now, I was mortified but I slid out obediently and followed her to table four, where we stayed.
“I’d like to hear your specials,” she said to the waiter, leaning forth expectantly, momentarily pleased by all the table-switching.
“There are none,” he stated flatly, handing her a menu and stalking away.
“Well, for crying out loud,” she said to his back. Turning to me, she said, “What kind of a joint did you bring me to?”
It was eerie to look at her, an old lady with grooved wrinkles, pouchy eyebags, too-black dyed hair, and see those same glittering eyes that haunted my childhood.
“I was planning on spending the holidays with a bottle of Chablis,” I said. “Don’t blame me. I eat at home or at Captain Shrimpy’s on special occasions.”
“That rat trap. That ptomaine pit,” she snorted. “I’m not going there.”
“Well, here we are,” I said. “Not there.”
The waiter came back. Reluctantly, I thought. “Chablis, please,” I said. “Bring a whole bottle.”
“Water with no ice and a tiny sliver of lemon,” she said to him. “I thought you were sober,” she said accusingly to me.
“I am,” I said.
“Yet you sit here and order wine.”
“Holidays don’t count,” I stated as authoritatively as I could. Or when your nasty sister comes to visit unexpectedly, I thought.
She kept it up all through dinner. She sent back her salad, saying it was too cold. It came back steaming and wilted, like someone had put it in a microwave. She sent back her Bearnaise sauce to be warmed up. The chef came out himself to explain that you couldn’t heat it up or the sauce would curdle. She smiled coquettishly at him and pushed the sauce back.
“Heat it up a little bit then,” she said.
“You fool,” I said. “Don’t you know they spit in sauce when you send it back. Or worse.”
“You’re the biggest ninny I ever met in my life,” she said. “Afraid of everything.”
Well, that did it. I swore I wouldn’t fight with her. I vowed to let her fight with chefs and waiters and a cop, if she could find one, but not me. Not this time. But I did anyway.
“I’ve worked in restaurants. I know what goes on. You’ve never worked a day in your ding dang life. He’s back there spitting in your sauce right this minute,” I said. “So don’t you ninny me.”
That was the most I had to say to her in years. I stood up. The hell with the Chablis. I had another bottle at home.
“Please sit down,” she said.
My eyes almost bugged out of my head. My sister didn’t say “please.”
“I need you to help me,” she said.
I am seventy-four. My sister is seventy-eight. She has never asked me to help her, in all our years. She’s helped me plenty—a big check to bail me out of jail after I set fire to my first ex-husband’s truck; a bigger check to buy a divorce from my third ex-husband, the stinking louse; a plane ticket to New York, when I thought I had another chance at an acting career; startup money for two small businesses— a typing business right before everyone bought computers and started typing their own papers, and a dog-walking service right before I broke both legs in my own driveway and couldn’t walk for a year.
Now my sister—the rich one, who spent her life selling and buying houses and stocks, accumulating a fortune in that mysterious way some people do, without ever seeming to actually work, just watching numbers multiply on paper, until they reached old age with a huge pile of money—needed me.
“I’d like to hear you describe your desserts,” she said to the waiter who appeared, hopefully waving a bill.
“That would be chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream,” he said. “Are you familiar with ice cream at all or would you like me to describe it further?”
“What a smart aleck. I can’t take any more tonight,” she said, slapping money down. “Come on, Julianne.”
I added a crumpled five dollar bill to the table to make up for the piddly tip I was sure she had left him.
We walked along the semi-deserted promenade. It was Christmas Eve and we were in Southern California, in a no-name beach town, far from the Jersey shore we were raised in and the hoity-toity New York City suburb she lived in now. The ocean was shimmery navy blue and the stars were as fakely beautiful as an old Hollywood set. I love California. I feel glamorous there, even if I am a failed everything. In California, my feet never quite touch the ground. I sail along on my daily chores—no one special, one of many dotty old ladies—but I glide regally there, always a bit above the ground. “Well?” I asked. “What’s the story, Sissy?” She hated it when I called her that.
“Don’t you dare laugh,” she said, glaring at me.
“As if.” I put a hand to my chest, acting shocked. She hated it when I used trendy expressions.
“My son’s wife Claudette. You know, the one I can’t stand. The one who’s always taking so-called adventure trips, dragging my son up mountains he has no interest in climbing or bicycling across countries he has never heard of. That one.”
“A lovely girl,” I said. “Full of spunk.”
“She won’t shut up about swimming with stingrays. The most wonderful feeling in the world. The most enchanting creatures. She goes on and on about how great it is to swim with stingrays, how I should really swim with stingrays, how much I would love those stingrays.”
My sister stopped, clutched my arm.
“I don’t know what the hell is happening to me,” she said. “I can’t get the idea out of my head. I am absolutely dying to swim with those G.D. stingrays.”
I laughed out loud.
“I told you not to laugh,” she said.
“do I listen to you?” I said. I was sparring to give myself time to think.
“You mean those big flat fish with creepy flappy wings and beady little eyes? The ones that look like flying saucers with tails? The ones, that if you step on them, sting you? Hence their name. The ones that circle people in a pack, brushing up against them to get food? You want to intentionally get in the water with those fish?” I asked. I get all my information from nature channels on television. ask me anything about cheetahs.
She nodded, blushing like she was admitting to an affair. “So swim with the stingrays,” I said finally, shrugging.
“And give Claudette the satisfaction? She must never know,” Mag said.
“So go by yourself and don’t tell her. What’s the big deal?” “I can’t do it alone. I need you.”
It was exactly like all those times in childhood when she forced me to climb huge trees with her or go out in the ocean when the waves were slapping us all over the place. I couldn’t believe it. Seventy years had gone by and here we were in exactly the same place. A leader and a follower. Except she never used to ask me. She used to make me.
“You are out of your ever-loving mind if you think for one minute I’m going to do any such thing,” I said.
I was terrified of jellyfish and eels and other darting creatures under water, and she knew it. She watched me many a time run out of the ocean back in new Jersey, shrieking “Jellies! Jellies!” like they were men with machetes chasing me.
“Please,” she said, staring into my eyes and clutching my arm. “I’ll pay you.”
“Money has nothing to do with it,” I said. “How much?”
“A million dollars,” she said. She looked dead serious. This was a woman who hated to part with a nickel.
“Put it in writing,” I said.
So that’s how we came to be on that boat the next day, headed out to sea off the coast of Baja, two old ladies dressed in bathing suits, for crying out loud, with floaties on our arms to keep our heads above water.
Mag had hired a man with a catamaran to take us out by ourselves, instead of going with a group. She didn’t want anyone gawking at her or spoiling the moment by talking when the stingrays showed up. The boatman said they would come in a school of several dozen. He smelled like a long Saturday night in a dark bar.
“What happened to your legs?” I asked Mag, to put her at ease. She had a nervous beatific look on her face like she was going to a shrine in Yugoslavia where the Virgin appeared to a goat herder.
Her legs were swollen to twice the size I remembered. Her calves and ankles looked like sausage rolls ready to burst.
“I got fat, all right?” she said. “What happened to your breasts?” “Over-use,” I said, and she cracked up.
“What are we doing here, Sissy?” I asked.
The boat slowed, getting into position. The water was as clear and untroubled as a dimwit’s eyes. We were alone out there, the two of us and the boatman.
“Who the hell knows?” she said.
“Really,” I insisted. “What are we doing out here?”
“We’re just going to see some fish, all right? Do you have to get so G.D. philosophical about everything? So California about everything? So what’s-it-all-about-Alfie?” she mocked me.
“What are we doing here, Sissy?” I said. “I don’t see you or hear from you in five years, then you show up on Christmas Eve and pay me a million dollars to put on a bathing suit and feed fish in the ocean?” “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I heard about this and I knew I had to do it. It had to be you and me. It had to be the ocean.”
The boatman pointed. He looked pained to be forced to talk. He instructed us like he was reading from the script of a TV show he had watched too many reruns of.
“Jump in,” he said in a monotone. “Do not walk normally when you get to the sandbar. If any stingrays are on the bottom and you step on them, they will sting you with their barbs. That is quite painful. Instead, slide your feet along the sand, giving them warning. We call that the Stingray Shuffle.” He paused as if waiting for us to laugh. We did not. “Stand on the sandbar. Hold out that bag of squid bait.”
“Squid bait. It gets better and better,” I said.
Mag and I looked each other over point-blank, at the wrack and ruin of our bodies. I could see past her body collapsing around her. I could see a skinny, flat-chested girl who kept up with the neighbor boys, the terror who dragged her fraidy-cat, little sister with her to jump the waves, who held me by the hand and made me walk out on our roof, who hoisted me over her shoulders to climb the cemetery fence late at night.
“I want my million bucks,” I threatened her.
She laughed, took a deep breath, held my hand, and helped me splash out of the boat.
And there we stood, the two of us shoulder deep in blue, warm beauty, waiting for winged sea creatures to fly through the water to us. Arms open, we waited a long time, silently bobbing. The sun felt so wonderful on my head and face. When the creatures came rushing around us, we weren’t afraid at all. We were ready.
*This story was published in: Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson, Autumn House Press, 2016.
*Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Anderson.