I’d counted the days until my sisters’ arrival, so why wasn’t I next door, sitting with Hugh in our perfect-couple sixteenth-century kitchen with its stone floor and crackling fire? Perhaps I worried that if I didn’t wander off, my family would get on my nerves, or—far more likely—I would get on theirs, and that our week together wouldn’t be as ideal as I’d told myself it would be. As it was, I’d retreat to my office and spend some time doing nothing of consequence. Then I’d head back into the house and hear something that made me wish I’d never left. It was like walking into a theater an hour after the picture has started, thinking, How did that kangaroo get his hands on those nunchakus?

One of the stories I entered late concerned some pills my sister Gretchen had started taking a year and a half earlier. She didn’t say what they were prescribed for, but they were causing her to walk and eat in her sleep. I saw this happen the previous Thanksgiving, which we spent together in a rental house in Hawaii. Dinner was served at seven o’clock, and around midnight, an hour or so after she’d gone to bed, Gretchen drifted out of her room. Hugh and I looked up from our books and watched her enter the kitchen. There, she took the turkey out of the refrigerator and started twisting off meat with her fingers. “Why don’t you get a plate?” I asked, and she looked at me, not scornfully but blankly, as if it had been the wind talking. Then she reached into the carcass and yanked out some stuffing. This was picked at selectively, one crouton mysteriously favored over another, until she decided she’d had enough, at which point she returned to her room, leaving the mess behind her.

“What was that about?” I asked her the next morning.

Gretchen’s face adjusted itself for bad news. “What was what about?”

I told her what had happened, and she said, “Goddamn it. I wondered why I woke up with brown stains on my pillow.”

According to the story I walked in on late, Thanksgiving had been a relatively good night for Gretchen. One morning a few weeks after the turkey episode, she walked into her kitchen in North Carolina and found on the countertop an open jam jar with crumbs in it. At first she thought they were from a cookie. Then she saw the overturned box and realized she had eaten something intended for her painted turtles. It was a nutrition bar, maybe four inches long and made of dead flies, pressed together the way Duraflame logs are. “Not only that,” she said, “but when I was through, I ate all the petals off my poinsettia.” She shook her head. “I noticed it on the counter next to the turtle-food box, and it was just a naked stalk.”

I returned to my office more convinced than ever that this would be our last Christmas together. I mean, flies! If you’re going to eat your pets’ food in your sleep, why not think preventatively and exchange your turtles for a hamster or a rabbit, something safe and vegetarian? Get rid of the houseplants while you’re at it—starting with the cactus—and lock up your cleaning supplies.

Later that evening, I found the sisters stretched out like cats in front of the woodstove. “It used to be that whenever I passed a mirror, I’d look at my face,” Gretchen said, blowing out a mouthful of cigarette smoke. “Now I just check to see if my nipples line up.”

Oh my God, I thought. When did that start happening? The last time we were all together for Christmas was 1994. We were at Gretchen’s house in Raleigh, and she started the day by feeding her bullfrog, who was around the same size as her iron and was named Pappy. He was kept in a murky, heated thirty-gallon aquarium on her living room floor, next to three Japanese newts who lived in a meatloaf pan. It was a far cry from a normal Christmas, but what with our mother recently dead, it seemed better to break with tradition and try something completely different: thus my sister’s place, with its feel of a swamp rather than the house we had grown up in, which now felt freighted with too much history. Gretchen’s waist-length hair has gone silver since that Christmas, and when she walks in her sleep, she limps a little. But then, we’re all getting older.

On our first day together in Sussex, we piled into the Volvo and rode to the town with the thirty-seven antique stores. Hugh drove, and I crawled into the way-back, thinking happily, Here we are again, me and my sisters in a station wagon, just like when we were young. Who would have imagined in 1966 that we’d one day be riding through southern England, none of us having realized the futures we’d predicted for ourselves? Amy was not the policewoman she’d so hoped to become. Lisa was not a nurse. No one had a houseful of servants or a trained proboscis monkey, yet we’d turned out OK, hadn’t we?

In one of the antique stores we visited that afternoon, we saw a barrister’s wig. It was foul, all the colors of dirty underpants, but that didn’t stop Amy, and then Gretchen, from trying it on.

“That’s OK,” Lisa said when it was handed to her. “I don’t want to get y’all’s germs on my head.”

Their germs, I thought.

The sun set at around four that afternoon, and it was dark by the time we headed home. I fell asleep in the way-back for a few minutes, and when I awoke, Lisa was discussing her uterus, specifically her fear that its lining may have grown too thick.

“What on earth gives you that idea?” Amy asked.

Lisa then mentioned a friend of hers, saying that if it could happen to Cynthia, it could just as easily happen to her. “Or to any of us,” she said.

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