When my sister Odette called to tell me Dad hadn’t shown up for rounds, my first guilty thought was that he’d had a heart attack on the Garden State Parkway, that his Benz had swerved, swiveled, and scraped against the railing near exit 142 until it flipped into the opposite lane like a beetle on its back, ready for the picking of crows. He’d fumbled for the aspirin he always kept in the cup holder, in a wood and silver pillbox he couldn’t unclasp when it mattered at last. Blood would mat the silvery-red mix of his still-thick hair, his eyes would be open, he’d be dead, and I’d never have a chance to prove him wrong.
Of course, my second thought was to feel horrible for my first.
“No, he didn’t say anything to me,” I said. I almost suggested she call Olivia, but I knew she didn’t need to, because Odette and Olivia, my twin sisters, know each other’s opinions, their desires and mistakes, without speaking in words. Though sometimes I am party to this peculiar frequency, sometimes I stand feeling like the last chosen for a team because they are identical twins, and I am their triplet, number three. I don’t match physically (they are four inches taller than I and my eyes are hazel green to their clear, cold blue) or hear as clearly in the ether of their silent communication.
“I think I’ll try Mom again,” said Odette. She was using her distinctive stage whisper that meant she wanted everyone standing in that hospital room at Robert Wood Johnson to know she was conducting important business on her cell phone. She was allowed to have a cell phone. She was a doctor.
“I can,” I sighed, thinking I didn’t want to.
“Just wait,” asserted Odette, but we both already knew I’d procrastinate awhile and then go seek out Mom.
“Dinner he would miss—rounds, no. I’ll start and give him another hour,” Odette finished.
If I were talking to anyone else, I’d have been unable to relinquish my frustration. Even Olivia didn’t root me to myself like magnet to steel.
I did feel calmer when I heard both my sisters’ voices. And I could tell them apart—Odette’s had an almost imperceptible deepness, a quiet, sad quality, a clarinet, while Olivia was all flute, in all circumstances. No one else could hear this, however.
We were polyzygots—they were identical, monozygotic, one egg and one sperm met and then split into two zygotes. I was fraternal—another egg, another sperm, but the same timing, which means I was like an ordinary sibling in terms of genetic material, and they were halves of a whole.
We had this special triplet quirk called Party Trick we developed in elementary school, time of Ouija boards and Monopoly (you would never want to play a strategy game with us; we knew how to team up and committed our own form of natural selection): we could speak word by word, each of us in turn, with the fluidity and natural cadence of a single person speaking. We were sleepover favorites when we were little; this was captivating, no matter how dull the subject. “We” “don’t” “like” “ham” “because” “it’s” “too” “salty.” It wasn’t practiced. We had a pact to do it whenever one of us asked—something we used rarely as adults, but still, it was always there, ability, connections, quirk, Party Trick.
In the middle of this crisis, I was struggling with my computer, trying to gain access to an online exam I needed to take in the next twenty-four hours. The server rejected my password. I was all ready, notes, coffee softened with Ghirardelli chocolate powder and half-and-half, a final exam indulgence. I had a bag of carrots and a bag of cheddar bagel chips and a giant sports bottle of water, even though I knew, from my undergraduate research, that bottled water is less stringently regulated than tap. I had my blanket and my most devoted mutt, Alphabet, who was lying on my feet as if he knew I wouldn’t walk him until I’d at least half finished the timed exam. You could only log out and back on once. I had to get an A. I hadn’t done as well on the lab portion as I meant to, but that was because I’d broken up with Feet (officially Ferdinand, an engineering graduate student from Spain who had fabulous dimples and little regard for my privacy), my brief boyfriend whose nickname should have kept me from giving him my phone number in the first place.
Sitting ready at my desk, I tried to log on. I used my password, dogdocClem, but the system said it was invalid. Dad always did this: he made us worry. He blustered in at family gatherings and brushed away queries about his lateness like lint from a suit. But somehow we all worried he was Not Okay—and I was the especial queen of worrying this—as if his Okayness held together the very universe.
I tried again, pounding the keys as I typed in my account number and the password. I was still invalid. I felt invalid. My head throbbed and I was still wondering whether Dad was all right. So instead of starting my exam, I apologized to Alphabet, restarted my computer, and got up to go see my mother.
Maybe he ran away, I thought, as I walked up to the conservatory. My father had built two additions for my mother: an art studio, because she had once casually mentioned she might like to take art classes again, and the conservatory of flowers, a long, inventive, difficult-to-maintain greenhouse that extended from the back kitchen into the lawn. She was usually there, my mother, though we had full-time gardeners for the roses and the vegetables that would be transplanted, after the last frost, into a raised plot by the three maidens’ fountain. Mom made exquisite botanical drawings, having taken a class at the New York Botanical Garden before we were born. Sometimes I thought she was simply a woman of too many talents and opportunities—each was diluted in the soup of all her possibilities.
Maybe he went up to the house in Vermont because he is getting senile and thought it was summer vacation. Maybe he’s had enough of keeping everything gripped in his fist and he let go; he went mad, like King George III.
I’d been mulling, for about six months, the possibility that my father might have early dementia, or even Alzheimer’s. I’d researched the topic when I should have been studying chemistry. Symptom one: memory loss that disrupts daily life. This was a disruption, for sure, though generally his focus on—and memory of—family commitments and plans had always been rigorously limited. Symptom two: challenges in planning or solving problems. No. Yes. Maybe. He had twice had Mom reschedule her plans for an anniversary party because he had forgotten about other commitments. But this wasn’t new.
“I’m going to have to go to the golf outing,” he said, the second time. “You don’t have to come.” My mother had sighed, dialing her party planner.
Symptom three: trouble with tasks at home, work, or leisure. No. He seemed to have no problems with work. Until now—not showing up for rounds. I was probably getting ahead of myself. I never used to get ahead of myself; I used to let the world unroll like a scroll, the beginning happening before the middle and the end, but ever since Cameron, I’d wanted more dimensions, I’d worried more about the unrevealed paper.
So when Odette called I should have just waited, I should have circumnavigated the mess of other people’s early and late, but I was a triplet, and triplets have extra arms, extra eyes, extra marginally obsessive worries. I thought of my father standing by his car, staring at his keys as if they were foreign objects. Last week, I’d been witness behind the carriage-house curtain as he stood like that for a moment; was he thinking, or was he lost inside his own head? Was this the beginning of a crumbled father? The beginning of interventions and wheelchairs? No. No. Maybe.
© 2011 Gwendolen Gross
The Orphan Sister
For Clementine, the next step means retracing the winding route that led her to this very moment: to understand her father’s betrayal, the tragedy of her first lost love, her family’s divisions, and her best friend Eli’s sudden romantic interest. Most of all, she may finally have found the voice with which to share the inside story of being the odd sister out. . . .
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Reading Group Guide
For as long as she can remember, Clementine Lord has always felt like the odd one out—“the unmated shoe”—when it comes to her relationship with her sisters. Although they are triplets, fraternal Clementine is not just genetically removed from the identical Olivia and Odette, but also different in every way imaginable: while Olivia and Odette manage bustling medical practices and prepare for motherhood, Clemetine struggles with her applications to veterinarian school and lives in her parents’ carriage house. But when a family secret threatens to unhinge the bonds that have been forged over the years, Clementine learns not only how deeply connected she truly is to her family, but also the changes she must make to break free from a tragedy in her past and move forward with her life and her relationships. In this story of sisterhood and sibling rivalry, of betrayal and unadulterated love, Gwendolen Gross has created an enduring novel that speaks to the complications and the pleasures of growing up, see more