By Sudha Balagopal
Lila, my sister, flings her arms around the startled real estate agent and gushes, “Oh, I love you! I love this house.” She tends to ladle out this weighty emotion, love, like a plentiful commodity. I cringe. When someone offers affection, I feel beholden to accept, honor and return the gift.
Lila has her highs and lows. Three months ago, she screamed, ranted and attacked a policeman who stopped her for speeding in a school zone. Anxious and worried, I bailed her out. The doctor explained what ails her is invisible and he prescribed medication. Understanding doesn't make the lump in my heart go away.
My sister liked the previous property we saw today. I'm tempted to say, “You said the same thing before.” I bite my tongue, hard, to stop myself. It hurts, but I know she won't listen.
The realtor's phone rings. She glances in my direction, hurries out. “Glad you like this place. Go on in with your mother . . . I won't be a moment.”
I flush, embarrassed, and look down at my comfortable clothes —loose pants, tunic, flat shoes. The agent thinks I'm Lila's mother. I'm thirty-eight, plump and my job in insurance matches my appearance. My sister's a decade younger, lovelier. Lila's eyes shine.
Afternoon sun spills through the open window, casting bands of light on grungy carpet. The air-conditioning is not on although it's 102 degrees outside. The odor of onion and garlic escaping an unseen trash can permeates the air. I go after the agent, to ask her why she's showing us this smelly,
filthy house. She's already outside in earnest conversation.
Today, Lila has assumed the role of a home buyer. A flowery summer dress accentuates her curves, white sandals strap manicured feet, and a handbag dangles from her elbow.
I wish otherwise, but I know she won't— can't—buy this house and still indulge her fantasy. She's had her current job for eight months. Already, she's lodged a complaint to Human Resources about her boss who questions tardiness. Employers eventually tire of her work habits or she quits after throwing a tantrum.
“The aura,” she inhales as if auras can be sniffed out. “I feel such good vibes coming at me.”
Through the open door in the living room, I see dirty dishes packed into a sink. Making my way to the kitchen, I stumble on a Lego piece, left by an absent child.
Lila picks it up and kisses it. “This is what I mean,” she says. “It's a happy house.”
My mind struggles against the incongruence. She utters words that are not based on fact and I concede, knowing the truth is otherwise. Reality and perception are not often friends. I know love means drawing boundaries, but I tiptoe around her sentiments.
“Don't you think so?” She opens a window.
I sort through words. “It's lived in.”
“There are children around,” she raves. “That makes me so happy. And, the price!”
She doesn't have children, and the price won't matter without an income.
A garbage truck trundles down the road. Through the window I see kids on bicycles, screeching and laughing. I should tell her the street is too noisy. Instead, I turn and run my index finger on the television screen. It comes away coated with dust.
“This is great,” she says climbing out through the window. She's bubbling; my mouth hangs open.
“I love this house!” She has one leg on each side of the window. “And I love you.”
She meshes concepts like this. Equating her reaction to the house with the feeling she has for
me. I'm powerless; powerless to take away her delusion. I've learned love is asynchronous.
“Please, come inside,” I say.
The perfectly made bed in the master bedroom contrasts starkly with the rest of the abode. In the bathroom, fluffy, monogrammed towels stand out against grimy tiles. “Look at this huge shower head!” She turns it on, squealing when the spray drenches her. When Lila gets excited, she speaks with rapid gasps as if she has just finished a run. “Made for a couple!”
She has a date later this evening with a man she met in a bar last night. Her last boyfriend took off with her credit cards and her meager savings. She has a predilection for unhealthy dalliances. When I summon determination and tell her she shouldn't bring strangers into my home, she sulks. Since Mama died, the spare room in my house is Lila's refuge. Where else can she go?
I imagine she's thinking of her date.
The other two bedrooms belong to children. In one, a tot's crayon art squiggles its way up a wall. In the other, Lila picks up a doll buried beneath furry stuffed animals from a toy box.
The realtor rattles the lock on the front door.
“I want this house,” my sister shouts, shaking out her wet hair. “I'll pay the asking price.”
“Maybe you should think about it?” My feeble attempt to put on the brakes.
“Why?” She scoffs.
“Great,” the agent says, “I'll inform the owners and get paperwork started.”
Lila hums as we walk to my car. “Give them to me,” she stops and holds out her hand.
“What?” I know what she wants and I don't know how to refuse.
“The keys, silly!” she says. “I'll drive.”
I don't want a confrontation. As she speeds along narrow streets, barely avoiding mailboxes perched at the ends of driveways, I clench my seatbelt and sag under the burden of responsibility.
I relax my fingers when she merges on to the highway without incident. Thankfully, there's not
“Faster, you fool, faster,” she shouts at a lumbering truck, her foot jamming into the accelerator. Cursing, she swerves to pass the vehicle. In moments, I hear a thunderous crash and my body bucks against the seatbelt. My last thought before the airbag inflates: Mama, is this how she killed you?
Sudha Balagopal's short fiction has appeared in Gravel Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Superstition Review, The Tishman Review and The MacGuffin among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories.