Anna leans her head over Alejandro’s plate, her black hair falls like a screen across her cheek. She sniffs, her head jittering above the gefilte fish that sits there like a rotten, battered sea sponge. Portia watches her and wonders how many chromosomes come between man and dog.
“Want some?” Alejandro asks. His hair is so dark it almost looks blue. And his eyes are like Anna’s, circles of ink—like overly dialted pupils. Portia thinks that Alejandro and Anna look more alike than Anna and their brother, Emery.
“No fucking way I’m eating that stuff.” Anna sits up straight and picks up the crossword puzzle she’s been working on over dinner.
It is midnight. Anna, Portia and Emery’s mother, Louise, is in the hospital after having suffered a “massive” heart attack. No one knows if she will live. They spent the day in Louise’s room, watching her vomit, mopping up blood that spurted from her nose, breathing in the pissy smell from her leaking catheter bag and the sour odor of death mixed with medicine that seeps from her pores. Their father, whom everyone calls Buzzy, brushed her teeth and Emery rubbed scented lotion into her hands and feet, but the stink still remained, as if the air had been stained.
The gefilte fish is the fifth course of the birthday dinner Portia has prepared for Buzzy. The first course was quesadillas: Two flour tortillas with slices of montery jack cheese stacked between them, fried in a pan of butter, then topped with cilantro and salsa. Portia used the wrong pan, and the cheese melted out the sides of the tortillas and burned. Four tortillas were lost in the process. That left only enough for each person to have one quesadilla. Emery and Alejandro eat a lot. They would have had three each.
The second course was frozen tofu corn dogs. Remove from package and microwave for two minutes. Emery specifically requested them after the quesadillas were gone. Buzzy fetched the mustard from the refrigerator. The corn dogs were a hit.
The third course was salad. Triple-washed for your convenience. Just open and serve. Anna and Portia had bought the bag of greens at the store earlier that day. Portia dumped the contents into a wooden bowl and brought out a glass jar of Italian dressing. Everyone served themselves, using their hands to dish out portions.
The fourth course was pickles. Chill before serving. Refrigerate after opening. Anna opened the jar and passed it around the table.
And the fifth course was gefilte fish.
They are in Santa Barbara where the days are so sunny you’d swear a nuclear reactor had exploded. Anna, Portia and Emery grew up here, but no longer live here. They have each flown in from the East Coast, where they were still wearing weatherproof boots and scarves. Between them, the sisters have left behind two kids, both of whom they passionately love, but neither of whom they currently miss. Anna also left behind her husband.
Anna misses her husband the way you miss gloves on a fairly warm day when you see a nice pair on someone else’s hands.
When she was changing planes in Denver, Anna thought about taking off her wedding ring. She finds airports stimulating, just like bars: strangers brushing by each other, a certain anonymity within the intimacy of a shared experience. Anna wanted the possibility of a flirtation or chitchat; or maybe she’d collect a business card that she’d throw away before flying home. In the end, she kept the ring on because more overpowering than her thoughts of men in suits, or a guy in jeans carrying a guitar case, were thoughts of her mother. It has been only recently that Anna forgave her mother for a litany of crimes Anna had been carrying in her stomach like a knotted squid. Now that the squid is gone, she is hoping she can enjoy her mother more, they way her sister always does, and the way her brother often does.
Portia brought a pedicure kit with her to Santa Barbara, because the last time she was here, her father warned her that women were getting hepatitis from pedicure instruments, even at the most exclusive salons. She plans to take the pedicure kit to a salon where she will pay a Russian woman who was most likely an engineer or physicist in her own country to use it on her feet. Portia is sure that the Russian will laugh at her fear and say something in her own language to the other overly-educated Russian women who are slumped over other American women’s feet. This will not bother Portia, she knows, because the severity of everything that happens these next few days can only be compared to the severity of her mother’s heart attack.
In addition to the weight of Louise’s heart, Portia is also laden with her own malfunctioning heart. Three months ago her husband of seven years, Patrick, left her and their three-year-old daughter to be with a childless, slim woman named Daphne Frank. Daphne Frank wears stiff white blouses and boots that reach her kneecaps. Portia is sure that when her husband yanks off those boots (like removing an epee from its sheath) he sees perfectly pedicured toes. If she were to walk around with chipped toenail polish, Portia would feel that she looked like old leftovers, the ones that have been sitting in the fridge so long no one can identify the once-great meal they came from. Or maybe she’d look like mealy, blanched gefilte fish on a plate.
Emery packed very few clothes for this trip but brought Alejandro. He does not think his mother will die—he feels too young to be someone with a dead mother. It is difficult for Emery to project bad news into the future. This inability is a gift that infuriates Anna. She once told Emery that she wouldn’t believe he was an adult until he had learned to worry, until he had rolled some wretched thought around in his brain so many times that he’d altered the pathways of neurons and the length of telomeres. The truth is Emery did worry about things as a kid, but eventually grew out of it. Anna just never noticed.
Emery has no interest in revisiting worry and growing up on Anna’s terms. His life is just starting: his career is flying forward like a high-speed train; he loves his boyfriend, and they’ve recently decided to have a baby. In fact, one of the reasons Alejandro has come to Santa Barbara with Emery is because they are going to ask Anna and Portia for their eggs to be implanted in a woman they’ve already met. Emery does not worry about his sisters saying no. He only hesitates because he wants to catch them at the right moment, when they’re not fretting over Louise or their own lives, which they both seem to do with some frequency.
“Did you seriously like the gefilte fish?” Anna’s pen is poised above the folded newspaper. She’s staring at Alejandro’s empty plate.
“It’s not bad.” Alejandro smiles, then glances towards Buzzy, who’s leaned over his raised plate, scraping a fork against the last oatmeal-looking smears of fish.
Coyotes howl outside. They all freeze, their heads cocked like alert animals, and listen. Earlier today a bobcat ran in front of the car Anna was driving. It dashed out of the brush and silently bounced, like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh, from one side of the road to the other.
Buzzy and Louise live in an umber-colored Spanish stucco house with fresh blue trim on the windows and a red tile roof. There is a barn that is also stucco with blue trim. They are located on a stretch of eighteen mountain acres that abut the Los Padres National Forest. This is not the house Anna, Portia and Emery grew up in. This is the house Buzzy and Louise bought only five months ago after selling the family home and unloading most of its contents into a giant, dented blue dumpster. The new house is a place that shows its non-family purpose in the same way as a convertible sports car. There are only two bedrooms in the main house and Buzzy and Louise each claim one of them. The barn with the guest quarters (and Louise’s studio) is far enough away that nothing can be heard or seen from one structure to the other.
From Buzzy and Louise’s property you can see the ocean spreading all the way down to Los Angeles, a hundred miles away. Louise loves it up here where, she says, the wind blows fiercer and the sun is more ferocious than in the town tucked at the base of the mountain. The house has a name: Casa del Viento Fuerte—House of the Strong Wind.
After Buzzy and the boys have gone to bed, Portia finds herself alone in the living room, where paintings are hung three-high and the fireplace mantle takes up an entire wall. She has the strangest sensation of being lost. Not lost like when you’re trying to find a specific piazza in Rome, but lost like when you’re a kid in the supermarket and you mistake the mother right in front of you for your mother who has disappeared down another aisle. Portia goes to the kitchen where her sister is, to moor herself, and has to sit to keep the floor from wobbling. She lays her head on the table and lets her thoughts move and gather like a cloud.
“You okay?” Anna asks. She is cleaning out the food in the pantry—throwing away the stuff that looks too old, or simply too disgusting, like a jar of crystallized jam that appears to have knife-scrapes of peanut butter glued to it.
“Do you ever feel sort of wobbly?” Portia asks. Since her husband left, Portia has been thinking that she is a faded, fuzzy outline of herself. And now that her mother may be dying, it seems that even that scant outline is evaporating, like a water painting on a sidewalk.
“No,” Anna says. “Never.” Portia could have answered this question for her sister. She knows that Anna is profoundly fearless compared to Portia’s newborn sensitivity (startled and unsure at any sudden movement). Until her fifth month of pregnancy, Anna was a cop—the unusual kind who actually uses her gun. If their mother dies Anna will be sad, but she’ll be fine. Portia imagines her sister flying home to Vermont, making lunch for her son, driving to the grocery store thirty miles away, buying three-hundred pounds of groceries (triple Anna’s weight), trekking through the snow into the house carrying seven bags at a time, then putting it all away in less than ten minutes. Portia wishes she could be more solid, like her sister. When her husband left, he appeared to pull the bones out of Portia’s body and take them with him.
“I just feel like it would be easier for Mom to die if I had a husband to help me,” Portia says.
Anna puts down a jar of almond butter. “Who buys almond butter?”
“Dad buys it,” Portia says.
“You need to appreciate the fact that you’re not married,” Anna says, and she turns her back to Portia, returning to the contents of the cupboard. “You’re free to fuck whomever you want. You don’t have to do some guy’s laundry. Fewer dishes.”
“Yeah, I’m really lucky.” Portia clunks her head onto her folded arms. She thinks of Disneyland to stop herself from crying. It’s an anti-crying trick she’s been practicing since she was about seven years old.
“Ech,” Anna snorts.
“What?” Portia lifts her head.
“Nothing.” Anna opens a box of Wheat Thins and cautiously puts her hand in to pull a cracker out.
“Do you think this house is sort of scary?” Portia asks.
“No,” Anna says. “Taste this and see if it’s stale.”
Portia takes the cracker, bites into it. It tastes like soft cardboard. “It’s fine,” she says, but really she is thinking about the last time she visited the house and the list she had made of the ten most likely ways to die at Casa del Viento Fuerte:
Death by mountain lion: A neighbor’s pony down the road was killed by one last year. And when Portia was eleven, a small boy hiking with his mother in the forest surrounding Casa del Viento Fuerte was snatched and killed by one. Their droppings are a frequent sight during hikes.
Death by rattlesnake: Last month Louise deliberately ran over one in the car. She saved the carcass as a souvenir. When Anna and her son, Blue, were visiting three months ago, Louise and Blue were rattled at by a snake outside the barn.
Death by falling: Buzzy did fall recently. He was hiking with Louise when he slipped on some moss and tumbled over a precipice. Brushy chaparral bushes growing out from fissures in the side of the cliff broke his fall and he landed on a small sandstone ledge instead of plummeting to the stone bottom a couple stories below.
Death by drowning: The stream that runs through the property is usually shallow with big jutting rocks like stepping-stones. But, occasionally, after a season of rains, it becomes surprisingly deep and rapid with a noisy foaming waterfall. Three months after Buzzy and Louise bought the house, a dead bear was found in the stream, apparently drowned.
Death by bear: If one drowned, there must be others.
Death by earthquake: When Portia was a teenager, she was lying naked with her boyfriend in a cave that was carved out of the side of a massive rock wall. Portia asked, “What do you think would happen if there were an earthquake right now?” Her boyfriend said, “This cave would collapse and we’d be crushed to death.” A moment later the ground was sliding back and forth, as if they were sitting on a platform on wheels. The boyfriend scrambled out of the cave, abandoning Portia to her fate. The cave didn’t collapse, but the ledge they had been sitting on a few minutes before they had crawled into the cave broke off and smashed to the ground a hundred feet below.
Death by bullet: There’s very little crime in Santa Barbara, but there’s a rifle club in the nearby National Forest. If one were to hike to the far end of Buzzy and Louise’s property and someone from the rifle club wandered away from the target areas, it is conceivable that one could be hit by a stray bullet.
Death by fire: Months go by in Santa Barbara with no rain, and in the summer the hot Santa Ana winds blow through town like spirits on a rampage. In the last three decades there have been three devastating fires in the vicinity of Casa del Viento Fuerte. Buzzy and Louise keep only two mountain bikes in the garage, to be used on the trails in case the road to the house is closed with fire.
Death by falling rock: There are three yellow diamond-shaped signs on the drive up to Casa del Viento Fuerte, all with two simple words: Falling Rock. Often, a boulder the size of a Volkswagen will appear where nothing was the day before. No one’s been hit by one yet, but Portia can’t imagine it will never happen.
Death by sailing over a cliff in a car: When Buzzy was teaching Emery how to drive, he said, “The key to driving is to be able to look at everything all around you while still keeping the car where it has to be.” Buzzy is famous for noticing things as they pass, then turning and looking out the back window of the car as he zooms forward down the mountain road. When Portia imagines Buzzy driving her mother to the hospital, she thinks that at that moment Louise’s chances of dying from a car wreck were probably equal to her chances of dying from the heart attack.
In fact, death by heart attack never even made it to the list.