Our family celebrated the twins’ birthdays a month apart. At each of the dual parties, I sang “Happy Birthday” in a sarcastic baritone and asked Mom why no one else in the family had a birthday that was a movable feast. According to Mom, while my first younger sister was ready to be born on September 19, she decided to stick around the womb a few weeks longer to keep my other younger sister company until she was ready to be born on October 20. As Mom explained it, we celebrated the girls on their “real” birthday, not the day they just happened to come out together.
“That sounds like such bullshit,” I said, and Mom told me, “Oh Rebecca, no one wants to share a birthday. You know how kids born on December 25 grow up? Miserable.”
It was no coincidence my eyebrows went funny after I mocked the twins’ birthday celebration. Week after week, my eyebrows became sparser and patchier. One night I faked sleep, which is nearly impossible to do without succumbing for real. I had to keep pinching the skin on my leg to keep from tumbling across the border into unconsciousness. Sure enough, deep in the night, I sensed my younger sisters standing over me. Making tweezers with their fingernails, each plucked a single eyebrow from my forehead. Not enough to bald me, but enough to be noticeable over time. Instead of confronting them, apologizing for not treating their birthdays with the reverence they deserved, I began placing a piece of tape over each eyebrow before going to bed, and that seemed to stop them.
During a routine dental checkup, Dr. Popowitz tipped Mom off that something was the matter with my younger sister’s oral habits. Her teeth showed a terrible amount of wear. The back molars were ground down and covered in nicks and chips. Dr. Popowitz figured she was grinding her teeth in the night. No big deal, there were various mouth guards available that would protect against that. Mom was skeptical. She secretly placed a ghetto blaster in the twins’ bedroom to record them while they slept. Playing the tape back, Mom heard no molars gnashing against one another, only the hiss of the microphone and the whirling of the ghetto blaster’s mechanical gears.
The culprit turned out to be gravel. Each morning, on the way to school, my younger sister would select an attractive piece of gravel from our neighbour Mr. Janowski’s driveway and pop it into her mouth. She sucked the grey stone all morning long, flicking it with her tongue and rattling it against her teeth like an ice cube in an empty glass.
Mom was appalled by this disgusting habit. She asked my younger sister if she realized how filthy that gravel was. It was covered in lawn spray and vehicular exhaust, to say nothing of all the neighbourhood dogs doing their watering there. If she kept this up she would get a funny mouth disease. Also, it was stealing. Mr. Janowski paid a lot of money to have gravel raked over his driveway. What if everyone who walked by took a piece? There would be nothing left. My younger sister said she wasn’t stealing the gravel; on her way home she always put it back. It’s true, her twin told Mom. She watched her sister spit her gravel into the driveway every day.
Even still, Mom said it wasn’t right to borrow things without asking. My younger sister nodded, and offered to knock on Mr. Janowski’s door and ask permission to borrow a piece of his gravel. Mom told her she didn’t dare. My sister said she wouldn’t have to ask him every day, just once would be enough. Mom told her there was no reason to bother Mr. Janowski — she was no longer sucking on gravel, from his yard or anywhere else, understood?
Dad found her habit funny, calling her Rock Mouth and offering to rent her out to construction crews. They could fill her mouth with stones and water and spin her around till she spat out cement.
Our school was less amused. They found my younger sister’s habit “concerning” and wanted her to see a counsellor, someone to interpret why she found security through a mouthful of gravel. Mom wasn’t having any of that — no daughter of hers was confessing anxiety to some shrink and getting filled up with pills. Mom didn’t mind my younger sister having an oral fixation, she just wanted it to be something less damaging to her teeth. She was too young to start smoking, so Mom switched her to gum.
Mom hoped to pull the wool over the eyes of the school. She filled an old pill bottle with Chiclets and instructed my younger sister to tell her teacher the gum was medicinal. Take one in the morning and a second piece after lunch. My sister’s teacher, Mrs. Milne, wasn’t impressed. The school had rules about chewing gum in class. It wasn’t fair to all the other students for my younger sister to sit there chomping all day like a cow with its cud. Mom argued the gum was prescription, but couldn’t provide the proper documentation to back that up. She’d asked Dr. Popowitz to write a note but he refused to play along. He didn’t want to encourage children developing unhealthy dependencies on placebos.
My younger sister hated the gum’s rubbery flavour and the way it made her jaw ache, preferring the texture and bouquet of stuff found on the ground. The dirtier the better. She’d pop in coins, erasers, pen caps — anything her schoolmates dropped.
After Mom’s deceit with the gum, Mrs. Milne kept a close eye on my younger sister, marking her forever as a troublemaker to watch out for. The oral tic disgusted her. What a nasty child. Believing our parents were too lax to do anything about it, Mrs. Milne decided to correct this behaviour through a program of shame.
Each morning, Mrs. Milne called my younger sister to the front of the class for mouth inspection. Underneath the flag, my younger sister tilted her head back and opened her mouth while Mrs. Milne fished inside with two wooden sticks normally used to check for head lice. Her excavation became part of the morning routine, just like attendance. All sorts of interesting things were plucked from my younger sister’s mouth: marbles, pop can tabs, little toy soldiers, pieces of crayon . . . With each extraction, Mrs. Milne sneered, “Ewww!” and held up the item for the rest of the class to behold, urging them to voice their disgust. Mrs. Milne didn’t throw any of these things away but kept them in the bottom drawer of her desk. She planned to send them home to Mom in a bag, hoping the accumulation of chewed whistles and action-figure legs would shame her into taking measures.
Mrs. Milne warned my younger sister if she wasn’t careful she’d become like one of those garbage sharks that swallowed all the detritus in the ocean. When they were caught and cut open, their bellies were full of licence plates and old fishing boots. Is that what she wanted? To grow up to be a garbage shark? I thought the teacher was really stupid. Like, how was my sister going to grow up to be a shark? I suspect Mrs. Milne, cruel woman that she was, hoped to plant a nickname in the minds of my younger sister’s classmates. It overjoyed me when her ploy backfired, and Mrs. Milne’s comical repetition of the phrase led the kids to dub her Garbage Shark. The nickname outlived our school attendance and she remained Garbage Shark until retirement, its origin long forgotten.
I wonder why Garbage Shark couldn’t let my younger sister be. Who did it hurt if she liked having something hidden in her cheek? She didn’t make a big show of it, she wasn’t trying to draw attention to herself. Honestly, the only person distracting the class day in and out was Garbage Shark herself, and she only succeeded in driving herself mad.
Deprived each morning of the soothing objects found on the ground, my younger sister began filling the void with whatever she could get her hands on inside the classroom. She would steal pieces of chalk from the board, caking the insides of her mouth with white plaster, her lips looking like she’d been drinking Wite-Out. Garbage Shark branded her a thief, sending her home with a bill pinned to her dress, demanding fifty cents restitution for the chalk. Still bitter over Garbage Shark’s refusal to indulge the chewing gum solution, Mom dropped two quarters into my younger sister’s mouth before pushing her out the door, telling her to pay up.
During art period, when the students were handed clay or crayons, Garbage Shark kept a close eye on my younger sister, knowing anything she got her hands on went right into her mouth. To combat this, Garbage Shark bought a bottle of hot sauce, sprinkling burning orange goo on each item handed to my younger sister, who would not put the spicy item in her mouth. This ploy backfired on Garbage Shark, who forgot about her own booby-trapped fingers and absent-mindedly rubbed her eye. The burning began instantly. She ran to the teachers’ lounge to flush her eye, returning to class all red and swollen, unable to disguise the outright hate she felt for my younger sister, who sat contentedly at her desk, mouth full of fresh chalk.
That was the last straw for Garbage Shark. She had been defeated. Announcing she could no longer ask the rest of the class to put up with the distractions, she pulled my younger sister’s desk out of the aisle, butting it against the wall at the back of the classroom, and had the janitor construct a cardboard wall around her desk. Out of sight but never out of mind. Even hidden, my younger sister drove Garbage Shark mad. The teacher couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the class, too busy staring at the cardboard barrier, imagining all the awful things her arch-nemesis was getting up to right under her nose. I envied my younger sister her moment of triumph and I hope she enjoyed it.
All of this, it seems, left a greater impression on me than it did either of my younger sisters. When I asked the twins about it years later, the three of us sitting grown-up in the backyard, they barely remembered what I was talking about.
You know, I said. That awful grade-school teacher who stuck you behind the cardboard wall.
My sisters looked at each other, battling confusion by pooling their memories. “Was she the one who had the funny nickname? Ugly Fish or something?”
I wanted to know what caused her neurotic sucking. Did she have any idea of the root of this silly childhood compulsion? When did she finally get over it? Nearly squirting tea from their noses, my sisters laughed. My younger sister reached into my other younger sister’s giggling mouth, sliding her fingers inside her cheek and pulling out a tiny piece of ceramic. It was a broken-off foot from a crèche Christ child. I remembered Grandma’s crèche display, broken nearly twenty years ago during Christmas Eve tomfoolery. Had my younger sister been sucking on the deity’s foot ever since?
For the rest of the day, I wondered how many of my sisters’ old tics were still in play. Brushing my teeth before bed, I studied my patchy eyebrows in the mirror, wondering how much fuller and connected they might be if I had ever moved out to a place of my own.