At seventeen, my sister, Alicia, began to hate food. Sometimes my mother’s paella, with its mix of dark and unidentifiable ingredients, so disturbed her she wouldn’t eat at all; other times, she would eat an entire marble cake and immediately run into the bathroom to throw it up. Nowadays, anyone would recognize these disorders as, respectively, anorexia and bulimia, but in 1976 they mystified the doctors who examined her. Karen Carpenter’s death from wanting to be skinny was seven years away. Losing weight steadily, Alicia went from Queens General Hospital near our house in Jamaica to Booth Memorial to Long Island Jewish, having tubes stuck down her throat and snapshots taken of her intestines, and when after a year the gastroenterologists could find no somatic cause, they referred her to a psychotherapist.
For me, this was the exciting part. It reminded me of the scene in The Exorcist when the doctors finally decide they cannot cure the little girl possessed by a demon and send her to a priest. Personally, I had judged Alicia as insane for years, and to have my diagnosis confirmed was medically satisfying.
I had never told Ally of her insanity, or otherwise insulted her. She was my older sister and the second most powerful person in the household, and insults went down, not up. She called me a snot, a jerk, a spastic, a weirdo. Inwardly, I called her a bitch, but I couldn’t let her know that. I acted as if I liked her, talked calmly with her even as my heart rate rose, and hid my hatred, dreaming of the day when I would punch in the nuclear launch codes and let her have all my ICBMs at once.
The night she started seeing her shrink, she came into my room and sat on my bed under, fittingly, my poster of The Exorcist. Plump as a child, she now resembled a skeleton with a coat of Ecuadorian paint applied. Below the line of her black hair, her shoulder bones protruded through her thin pink nightgown; her hawk nose, inherited from my father, joined with her cheekbones and jaw to look as hard as a maraca. I would have pitied her if not for my tradition of hating her.
“Joey, my therapist is so smart,” she said.
I puffed my pipe thoughtfully, filling the narrow room with the honey smell of Cavendish. We had both just started college, me at Columbia, she across the street at Barnard, in the same class because I had skipped a grade long ago, for which she had never forgiven me. Now an Ivy Leaguer, I had adopted pipe smoking to make me look more scholarly. Sitting in a swiveling office chair my father had donated to me when he got himself a new one, I felt I cut a good figure, humble yet authoritative. “What did he say?” I asked.
“He said, ‘Tell me about your parents,'” she whispered conspiratorially. “And I told him Pop is a tyrant, and we’re always fighting and he won’t let me do anything. And he said, ‘What about your mother?’ And I said, ‘Oh, my mother’s a saint.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you think it’s possible she has some negative qualities too?'” Her brown eyes widened at the memory of his insight. “I never thought of that before.”
Sensing some insult coming to my mother, I redirected my line of questioning. “So do you feel he helped you?”
“I think he did. But I still can’t believe I’m seeing a shrink. I haven’t told anybody. You haven’t told anybody, have you?”
I didn’t know anybody. I felt I had outgrown my high school friends, so I didn’t see them anymore, but because I was commuting to Columbia, where friendships were made in dorm rooms, I hadn’t made friends there either. I spent my days and nights alone, riding the three subway trains back and forth from Manhattan, sitting in my converted back porch in Jamaica, reading, puffing my pipe, masturbating, and thinking the great thoughts that I knew would someday make me famous. “I haven’t told anyone,” I said.
“I just think it’s a stigma. That’s what it is, a stigma.”
“Stigma,” I pondered. “From the Greek for tattoo mark.”
“That’s what I feel I have. A tattoo mark on my soul. Oh, Joey, you don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”
“Of course not,” I lied.
“I can always count on you.” She hugged me. It felt like a hug from a large spider.
As I said, Ally at that time held the second most powerful position in the house, but she was working hard to upset the balance. In those days, my father still dominated. The order of power could be seen most plainly at dinner, when my mother served her husband first, then my sister, then me, then the dog, and finally herself. Even the dog, Max, ate from his supper dish in the same dining alcove as the rest of us, but my mother sat outside on a stool by the stove, eating burned rice from the bottom of the pot, or leftovers from the previous few nights dumped together on one plate. My sister hated my mother’s self-sacrifice, and yelled at her, “Eat with the rest of us!” But Mom had to be ready to jump up and serve the next course, a task at which neither Ally nor the rest of us helped.
Dinner raised the tension higher than at any other part of the day, as all five of us had to assemble and attempt to get along. It loomed particularly hard for me, because I found the whole idea of food degrading. I hated the smell of grease, the way it snapped in the pan, the oiliness on the fingers. Though not skeletal like Ally, I was skinny, and would have preferred to be pure mind, unbeholden to biological functions. As it was, I rushed through dinner while reading my father’s Daily News, hoping to avoid the kind of trouble conversation could bring. The black-and-white TV on the shelf helped: Pop had it tuned to Carol Burnett Show reruns, eliminating any need for talk. But even the television could spark an argument. One Thursday night, shortly after her therapy had begun, Ally stared dreamily at a commercial for a Caribbean getaway and said, “I wish somebody would offer to take me away. I’d go in a minute.”
No one responded at first, but you could see Pop turning it over in his mind, under his thinning gray hair, behind his normally impassive bronze face, the big mole trembling beside his hawk nose. “Don’t say things like that, Alicia,” he finally shouted, in his accented English. “Not even joking.”
As soon as I heard his raised voice, I wanted to escape, but there was never any way out of these situations once they had begun. We were not allowed to leave the table without saying, “Gracias y buen provecho,” and this was not the time to interject it. Ally shouted back, “What are you getting so mad about?”
“You said you’d go with somebody if he offered to take you away. That’s not the right thing to say.”
“What?” Ally scraped her chair back, facing off with Pop as he pushed his chair back. Mom and I, who never wanted anything but peace in the house, kept our eyes down, she on her leftovers, me on my newspaper. “I wasn’t saying anything about a man,” screamed Ally. “How dare you think that’s what I was saying?”
“You said you’d let a man take you away,” he screamed back.
“I was talking about a commercial. I said I want to get out of here. I want to get out of this house!”
“You’ve been on trips. You went to Ecuador. How many people have been to Ecuador?”
“God, I’m insulted that right away you think I want to go off with some man!”
“Don’t talk to me in that tone!”
And now we were on the tone part of the battle, when the very quality of our voices became objectionable to the old man. I had learned long ago to stop resisting at this point, as a dog might curl into a ball while a bear mauls it, but Alicia had never learned this trick. Instead she kept fighting with him, both their voices raised to their highest volume, and when she was little he would have struck her but she was too big now, altogether too big, and all they could achieve was a draw. She muttered “Gracias y buen provecho” and left the table, while he turned his glare back to Carol Burnett.
Later Ally took her anger out on Mom, who was washing the dishes. “You should ask Pop for a dishwasher!” Ally shouted. “You’re killing yourself for nothing!”
“I don’t mind, Ballantine Beer,” said my mother, her accent thicker than my father’s. She called us “Ballantine Beer” because that sounded to her like “Valentine dear.”
Ally waved at our beagle. “You cook separate meals for the dog.” True. Max woudn’t eat dog food, so my mother cooked him chicken every night. “You work at your job all day, you do chores all night. No wonder you don’t get enough sleep. And you’re too fat. You need to lose weight or you’ll get a heart attack!”
My mother laughed nervously and kept washing dishes. I hated to hear my sister berate her and retreated to my room. My mother was fat, and she did work too hard, but nothing excused the way Ally yelled at her. Nothing excused Ally at all.
To top it off, that night she came into my room and begged me for a favor. “I hate commuting,” she said. “It’s just because of Pop that we can’t live on campus.”
Pop had said we couldn’t afford it, and besides we were too young to live away from home. “But what’s the favor?” I asked.
Ally was staying on campus that weekend, in a friend’s dorm room. “I don’t want to schlep my suitcase on the subway. Can you drive me up there tomorrow? Please?”
This was a problem. I had just learned to drive, and feared it. The car seemed like a bronco in a rodeo, always ready to buck. And I had never driven into Manhattan, where traffic clogged the streets and horns honked angrily. “I’d rather not,” I said.
“But why?” asked Ally.
I couldn’t admit it was because of fear. “I’d just prefer not to.”
Her gaze turned cold. “You’re a snot.”
She stormed out. I lit my pipe and pondered the depth of my hatred for her. The world would be a better place if it was exactly as it was, only without her in it.
Alicia visited her therapist twice a week, which gave me two extra hours a week without her in the house. I came home from school and walked up and down our cramped, sinuous apartment in the three-family house my father owned, talking aloud about the post-Nietzschean ideas I was developing, confusing my dog. But after two months the therapist decided that twice a week with Ally was not enough—although I would have thought twice a week with Ally would have been enough to drive him insane. He needed to see all of us in a family therapy session. He scheduled the event for a Saturday in late November. Alicia was bringing home her shrink.
Mom prepared for the visit as she would for any guest, mopping, vacuuming, polishing things in the living room—the lamp with the wooden Chinese sages, the oval, glass coffee table, the golden statue of a basset hound with a bobbing head. She didn’t want the therapist to think we lived like pigs. Pop looked annoyed at having his weekend interrupted, after putting in a hard week as an export clerk at the World Trade Center. He smoked cigarettes in the living room and watched bullfights while he waited, rubbing Max’s white chest with his foot while the dog sat at attention in front of him. Max had started out as my dog, but he had quickly learned where the power lay in the pack, and devoted himself to my father.
At two p.m. the doorbell rang and Daniel Jorgenson, Alicia’s therapist, walked in. I had expected someone dark and craggy, like Father Karras in The Exorcist, but the young man had long blond hair, a blond beard, and round spectacles. He looked like a wood-elf in a Tolkien story. My parents had chosen him to take care of Ally because he was the son-in-law of a friend of my mother’s and gave us a cut rate. Clad in jeans and sports jacket, Daniel (as we were told to call him) was appropriately dressed for a casual exchange. My father wore shirtsleeves, my mother a comfortable dress, I a navy sweatshirt. Daniel gathered us all in the living room and commenced the attention-fest for Ally.
“Alicia has been making good progress,” Daniel said, in a smooth, soft, educated voice that befitted his master’s degree. “But there are some issues I think we can only work on in a family setting.”
My parents sat with serious faces in their matching brown leatherette recliners, while Ally and I sat on the vinyl-wrapped sofa and Daniel in a chair dragged in from the dining alcove. Max lay on the carpet near my father. The television, for once, was off. “What issues?” asked my father, all innocence.
“Well, to start with, Alicia feels oppressed. Ally, do you want to say something about that?”
Ally tossed back her black hair. Her bony head stuck out of her cowl-necked sweater like a single crocus lost in the snow. “I just feel everyone in the family is oppressing me. Not you, Joey.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“But Mom and Pop—you’re crushing my spirit.”
“How are we crushing your spirit?” asked Mom.
Ally rolled her eyes, her favorite maneuver when the rest of us said something stupid. “Well, Mom, just look at the example you set for me. You’re a saint. You serve everybody. You leave nothing for yourself. You don’t ask anyone for help. I can’t live up to that.”
My mother shook her head, stunned. “But you’re too busy to help. I don’t want to bother you.”
“That makes me feel weak, like I can’t do anything for myself.”
Mom’s thyroid condition made her eyes bulge, and they bulged larger now. “Maybe the problem is I love you too much.”
“Love has nothing to do with it. You oppress me. Martyrdom is oppressing!”
My father lit a cigarette.
“And you, Pop,” said Ally. “You won’t let me do anything.”
“What did I ever not let you do?” he asked, speaking slowly to make sure he got his English right in front of a gringo.
“Well, for starters, what about that boy in the car when I was fourteen?”
This stretched way back. When she was fourteen, my father caught Ally in the street outside our house, talking to a boy in a parked red Camaro. Pop exploded. He dragged her into the house and told her she was too young for boys, especially ones who were already driving and had the nerve to park in front of his house.
“You made me think sex is a bad thing,” said Ally.
“It is a bad thing when a fourteen-year-old girl does it,” said Pop.
“But she wasn’t having sex,” said Daniel. “She was just talking.”
My father glared at him as he did when finding a cockroach in his garage. “One thing leads to another.”
“And you won’t let me board at college!” screamed Ally. “I’m going nuts commuting.”
You could see Pop getting angry, but he kept his rage in check because a stranger was present. “We can’t afford to let you board.”
“Then I’ll pay for it. I’ll get a job.”
Pop puffed his cigarette. “No child of mine is going to pay for her college. That discussion is closed.”
“You see what I go through?” Ally told Daniel. “He’s impossible.”
“I think in this setting everything should be open for discussion,” said Daniel.
Pop eyed him. Although not tall, my father outsized the little blond wood-elf, and the old man appeared to be gauging how far he could throw him, and against what. “But what does any of this have to do with her not being able to eat?” Pop asked.
“Ally’s mental state is the reason she can’t eat,” answered Daniel, stroking his beard like a Norwegian Sigmund Freud. “And what goes on around her in her family has a lot to do with her mental state.”
“She doesn’t have to do anything the rest of us don’t. I commute to work. Mama commutes to work. Joey commutes to school. He never complains.”
True. I hated commuting too, but I never complained. Daniel shot me a glance, as if he had just detected a potential new link in the causal chain behind his patient’s illness. But he turned his attention back to bigger targets. “You’ve never faced the same situation as Ally,” he told Pop. “Ally tells me you never went to college. In fact, she says you have no formal education past the sixth grade.”
My father looked like he had just taken a punch. This was a dark family secret. Whenever it came up, Mom always made up for it by saying, “Oh, but he taught himself after that. He reads so much.” I looked down on Pop for his lack of education, but was nevertheless angered to hear a stranger raise the issue. “That’s right,” said my father, his voice subdued. “I’m pretty ignorant.”
“And you, Mrs. Wraca,” Daniel said to my mother. “You had one semester of college, then dropped out to take care of your family.”
Mom laughed. “I didn’t mind.”
“So neither of you really know what it’s like for Ally to be going to college, but not be able to live there with the other students.”
“Joey knows,” said Pop.
Again the shrink looked at me. This time he was sure I was contributing to the problem. “What is it like for you, Joey?”
I had not expected to be called to testify. “Joe,” I said evenly. “Only my family calls me Joey.”
Momentarily embarrassed, he said, “Excuse me, Joe. What is it like for you?”
Ally shifted toward me, the vinyl crinkling under her. All the Wraca eyes aimed at me, along with the wood-elf’s behind his round glasses. “I believe in keeping peace in the family,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it isn’t wise to trouble your own house. Even the Bible says so. Because you have to live with the consequences.”
“But what I asked was, what is it like for you to commute to college? Do you like it?”
My mop of black hair suddenly itched. It felt like a fly was stuck inside, trying to escape. “I have a theory that what’s important is to present a happy face to my family. I want everyone to think I’m happy.”
“But are you happy?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
His blue eyes were intelligent, but not wise. “But my question isn’t whether it matters. My question is, are you happy?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Ally poked me hard. “You’re lying,” she said.
I met her gaze. “You don’t know that. That’s what it means to present a happy face.”
Ally got to her feet and pointed at me. “He’s the one!” she accused. “He’s the one they use against me! He’s the good son. Joey can do no wrong. He skipped a grade. He’s oppressing me too!”
“Alicia,” protested my father, but his tone was defeated. The young blond therapist had defeated him.
“Alicia, you were happy too,” said my mother. “When you were younger.”
“I’ve never been happy!”
Mom scoffed. “We have home movies of you. You were smiling and laughing.”
I remembered these movies. A fat little girl in a party dress, Ally silently scampered through balloons with other little girls to celebrate her birthday. “I’m not happy now. I’m trapped. Can’t you see that?”
“I just wish,” said my father, “that the family could stay together forever.”
Daniel leaned forward, facing him directly. “But don’t you see the pressure that puts on Ally? That’s why she can’t eat. She’d rather die than live without freedom, so she’s killing herself, day by day.”
Max got up, extended his legs, and stretched his long, black, brown, and white body. He left my father’s side and trotted out of the room. He was always good at discerning power relations. My parents sat somberly, unable to respond. The session lasted a while longer, but nothing anyone said changed what had just been determined. My parents and I were killing Alicia slowly. We were to blame for her illness. The only way to save her was to let her move away to college. My father conceded she could do so starting next semester. The family would break up.
On his way out the door, the victorious shrink took me aside. “You’re not happy,” he said.
“No. And you’re going to have to ask yourself, is it worth it to pretend to be happy? Is the cost worth it?”
I closed the door on him. Ally went to her room, but my father and mother remained standing in the living room, as if the house had fallen down around them and they were gaping at the ruins. “We’re never having another family therapy session,” my father said. “He’s a stupid man. A stupid man.”
His comment lacked energy. He didn’t even raise his voice. The force had been knocked out of him by the counterforce of psychotherapy. This stranger, this gringo, had come into our house and altered the power structure. Ally was on top now, Ally ruled. Never before had she talked to my father that way without a fight. House Wraca was destroyed. The only thing Pop could do was creep away. And he did, downstairs to his garage, to rearrange his tools and fume.
My mother sat on the sofa and I next to her. The pain in her face, under her graying black hair, was written in lines: wrinkles on her forehead, furrows between her eyebrows, her lips sloped downward. Her eyes bulged larger than ever, as if trying to see where she had gone wrong, and her mouth hung open as if someone had stuffed it with a gag. “We loved her too much,” Mom said. “That’s all I can figure it out. We loved her too much.”
I put my arm around her, but she wouldn’t be consoled. She cried for the loss of her daughter—not just that her daughter would be leaving, but that her daughter hated her, condemned her motherhood, blamed her for her miserable life. Mom was old now, fifty-three, and I judged it a crime that anyone that old should suffer like that. Ally was eighteen; she had her whole life to live. But for Mom, most of her life was over, and to discover it meant nothing was more than she could bear. Tears ran down her round cheeks, and I took out my handkerchief and patted them ineffectually.
Mom never had time for anything but work, so even though she was crying she went downstairs to iron Pop’s white shirts. I sat for a while on the sofa, taking in what had happened. And then I realized my hour had come.
I knocked on Alicia’s door. Reluctant to seek trouble, I had never knocked on her door before. She opened it and smiled warmly. “Joey,” she said to her little brother.
“I’m here to tell you you’re a bitch,” I said.
Her smile vanished. “What?”
“You’re a bitch for how you treated my parents.”
“How dare you?”
“You hurt them!” I shouted. I had never raised my voice that loud before—louder even than Pop had ever reached. I had pressed in the nuclear launch codes, and all the ICBMs were flying. “You hurt me in my life, and you hurt them, and you’re never going to get away with it again!”
She was shouting too, but I couldn’t hear her under my own voice. “You’ve been a bitch your whole life,” I yelled, “and you’re worse than ever now, and I hope you die of your anorexia and bulimia, but if you don’t I’ll kill you myself if you ever treat my parents like that again! Do you understand me? Do you understand me?“
She slammed the door shut and locked it. I pounded on the thin wood until the frame shook. The whole house shook. “You can run but you can’t hide!” I screamed. “I own your ass! Don’t you ever hurt my parents again! Ever!“
I strode to my room and sat in my father’s old chair. My heart thundered. My arms trembled as I lit my pipe. My mother, who had heard the shouting from downstairs, peeked in. “Did you and your sister have a fight?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, no.” Just when she thought the family could not dissolve further, I had spilled more acid on it. She sat down on my bed, the pain in her face worse. “Well, you’d better apologize.”
I puffed Cavendish smoke at her. “Why should I apologize?”
“Well, you know your sister. She’ll never apologize.”
“Neither will I!”
My mother tried to argue, but I had grown hard. She left my room, and after a moment I left too. I put on my brown corduroy coat and took a walk up 164th Street, my legs pumping quickly with the energy of youth. I had just turned seventeen, and the world was all before me. November clouds raced in a strong north wind. I would never apologize. Alicia would regret what she had done. I would become famous and she would shrink. I passed the Greek deli, the wooded entry to Sri Chinmoy’s meditation and jogging center, the little houses, the orange hulk of Queens General Hospital where Alicia’s illness had first been treated. She would leave soon to live at Barnard. I would stay home, of course, commuting every day just like my parents. I was the good son. I would never live on campus, never make friends, be alone, sit at dinner and read the Daily News in silence while my father watched his Carol Burnett and my mother fed the dog. That’s what it meant to be good. Suddenly I envied Ally her freedom, wished I had had the nerve for it, regretted what I had chosen. I walked all the way to the Hilltop Coach diner on Union Turnpike, looked in the windows at surly working-class people, decided there was no point in waiting for the light to change, turned around and started back. Alicia was no longer in the world, but it was not a better place.
George Ochoa’s short stories have been published in North American Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, and Spider. His poetry has appeared in Chicago Literary Review and his personal essays in the Catholic Worker.He is the author or coauthor of 35 nonfiction books, including the New York Public Library Book of Answers and several books related to his Hispanic heritage. He received his BA from Columbia University and his MA in English from the University of Chicago. He is the director of communications at a Manhattan nonprofit.