By Paige Sullivan
On a mid-December morning, as she wiped the kitchen counter, my mother announced, “I’ve invited Leslie and Becky over for Christmas breakfast.”
My brother and I looked up from our cereal. My stepmom and stepsister did not socialize with my mom, and they had never been to our home, two counties across Georgia from the one they shared with my dad. While Mom and Leslie were not aggressive toward one another, Mom definitely nursed a sense of territoriality when it came to sharing us with another mother figure.
But what made this announcement stranger, of course, was the occasion for the holiday breakfast: my dad’s recent arrest for sexually assaulting my stepsister.
It’s difficult to convey the surreal state that my family suddenly found itself in. None of it made sense, and maybe nothing ever would make sense again—so why not come together for a breakfast, a gathering that fell somewhere between a party and a funeral spread? Why not?
Mom was never one to cook. The holidays commonly featured break-and-bake cookies (most of which were eaten while still in dough form) and pies with canned fillings. A bottle of Coke and cold slices of Tombstone pizza were left out for Santa — “Everyone likes cold pizza, even Santa,” she would say. For this breakfast, Mom set the table with paper napkins. We drank Minute Maid orange juice. The Entenmann’s cheese Danishes rested humbly in their blue and white boxes, perpetually dry and flaky. We did not know then that it would be the last time we saw Becky alive.
The arrest happened a week after Thanksgiving, the dinner hosted by my stepmom’s parents, the most beautiful one in my memory: flutes of champagne to toast to the holiday, candles flickering across the table heaped with food in china dishes, homemade whipped cream for post-dinner coffee that we sipped during a football game.
I was the one to answer the phone, confused when I read “Forsyth County Police Dept.” on the caller ID. My mom disappeared into her bedroom, her voice shrill in a way that immediately made my stomach hurt. My brother disappeared outside to take slap shots in front of the garage. My dad, his parents from Canada, had tried to instill a love of hockey in his Southern children. Josh and I were 15 and 12 at the time, quiet, slightly overweight, good in school. My mom called us into her room half an hour later to break the news. Later that night, when we had to make a run to Winn-Dixie, Josh shuffled a few yards behind Mom and me in the parking lot.
“He’s upset because you are upset,” she whispered. “He can’t bear to see you upset.” My mom had asked me again and again if my dad had touched me, to just be honest with her, that it was important to be honest. I said “No” again and again until I crumpled.
To attempt to recreate the Christmas breakfast with Becky and Leslie would be an inauthentic fabrication. I remember Becky at the end of the table, saying little. I remember, oddly, laughing a lot. Why were they there? What were any of us going to do? My mom talked to Leslie on the phone later that night.
“Leslie said she’s never seen you or Josh so happy. She said you guys are never quite like that around her and your dad.”
Until my dad’s arrest, my childhood was normal and happy. My parents divorced shortly after I was born, and each remarried a few years later. My stepmom and stepsister had a very close, "Gilmore Girls"-esque relationship, taking trips to the mall together for “girl time,” leaving me to watch Alabama football games with Josh and Dad. Becky was a tempestuous teenager, slamming the door to her lavender-painted bedroom after fights with Leslie.
My stepmom, and thus my dad, valued nice things and the picturesque suburban life they had created. Dad wore ties to work and played golf. We had a membership to the neighborhood pool. Becky went to a respectable public high school. Dinner was the same every weekend: grilled chicken, a steamed vegetable trio that we fed to the dog, and out-of-the-packet pasta with a chalky, creamy sauce. My mom was rougher around the edges —a smoker, eventually a single working parent, a believer in cold cereal for dinner. Visiting Dad on the weekends was a brief glimpse at a different way of living.
In the years after the arrest, we saw things disappear. My dad was sentenced to five years in prison. We moved from our three-bedroom house to a variety of small rental homes across the county. My mom’s minivan was repossessed. She declared bankruptcy. We lost our health insurance. My mom borrowed money from my grandfather, too proud to apply for food stamps.
Even though money was tight, food remained our one indulgence, more a source of comfort than nutrition. My brother and I microwaved frozen dinners, made bowls of Golden Grahams, baked homemade bagel pizzas in the oven—always hungry, never full, listlessly searching cabinets and shoveling down handfuls of pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers or Little Debbie snack cakes. Dad wrote us letters from prison every week, most of which went unanswered.
After the Christmas breakfast, I heard from Leslie and Becky less and less. The phone number Leslie gave us eventually stopped working. Josh and I became preoccupied with our daily lives — high school, Mom’s financial anxiety, getting into college. Josh took a job at the local McDonald’s, coming home every night tired and reeking of grease, his uniform polo saturated with the smell.
He had lost all of his childhood puppy fat and was a thin, long-haired teenager with the same dark hair as our dad.
“How do you not gain a million pounds working there?” I asked, frustrated that I was only getting bigger from my waitressing job at a local barbecue joint.
“Easy,” he said. “Just don’t eat the fries.”
Half of our family was missing, and the life we had lived before the arrest started to feel like it hadn’t really happened, that they weren’t people we actually knew. Every time I went to the Mall of Georgia, their favorite shopping haunt, I looked in the shop windows, hoping I’d see Becky or Leslie at Banana Republic or the Gap. In our round, spectacled faces, I knew they would only see how much we resembled our dad. And for that, I couldn’t blame them for their silence.
My father was released from prison two months after my high school graduation. He walked across the scorching parking lot of Dooly State Prison in knock-off Chuck Taylors. After asking us to hold hands and pray in a circle, we went to Cracker Barrel for his first meal, then a party hosted by a prison friend who had been released a few months before him. Josh and I stood awkwardly in the dining room, snacking on the fruit and veggie trays from Publix.
“What the fuck is this?” Josh muttered under his breath, annoyed. I silently shook my head.
I began college that fall, and while Dad and I were slowly rebuilding our relationship, I was far more preoccupied with school, falling in love, losing my virginity, and trying to make Daniel, my preacher’s son boyfriend, happy. A lifelong introvert, I was quietly desperate to be in a relationship.
One evening, my mom told me she had reconnected with Leslie via email. She discovered that Becky had been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier. At the time, my stepsister would have only been in her early twenties. At the time of my dad’s arrest, she was seventeen.
I timidly emailed Leslie, who sent an equally emotional reply. Becky’s prognosis wasn’t great, but I was hopeful, picturing a reunion, even if it was sobered by a hospital visit. Becky and I were over five years apart in age, and I spent most of my childhood watching her more than actually speaking to her. She was all the things I wanted to be—beautiful, social, feminine, stylish. Our email chain continued, and I mentioned wanting to get together sometime.
A few weeks passed with no response. Had I pushed too hard? During my first college spring break, at home, I opened my inbox to find a brief email from Leslie that began, “Hi sweetie….” Becky had died, the funeral held the week before. Leslie was grief-stricken and hoped that we could see each other again sometime in the future. It was selfish, but I was disappointed that she had waited until after the funeral to tell me — it would have meant something to mourn alongside the rest of them.
A pop-up shower had just stopped. I told my mom what had happened and called Daniel to say the same. I put on my rain boots and stood outside. My mom and her new husband lived in a mobile home park seated in a pasture in our rural hometown. The depressions in our gravel driveway were pooled with water. I waited for something to move me.
I knew then, and I still recognize, that Becky and I weren’t close, simply brought together by a sudden marriage, then driven apart by a shameful, disturbing crime. I spent a lot of time wondering why my dad had done it to her, not me. That it could have so easily been me. That, maybe, it should have been me — to even think that felt wrong, though. But he was my dad, not hers — she deserved to be spared. The crime was a freak occurrence, not part of any sort of pattern. It was an outlier in a series of poor decisions — drugs, gambling, alcohol, porn. My dad didn’t give her cancer, but there seemed to be some senseless cause-and-effect circumstances at work.
Daniel pulled into the driveway, pulling sacks of groceries out of the back seat, his brown mop of hair falling into his eyes.
“I brought food,” he shrugged helplessly.
We stood at the kitchen counter.
“Ice cream, chocolate milk, some Krispy Kreme doughnuts …,” he listed, stuffing them in the fridge and freezer. “And … frozen corn.”
I began to laugh.
“I figured I should get you one healthy thing,” he said, sheepish.
My laughs turned into sobs, and he took me into the bedroom, curling himself around me while I cried.
After Becky’s death, I saw Leslie once before she moved to Denver and remarried. She came to visit me at my college and took me to her favorite restaurant, Watershed, for Waldorf salads — sweet, crunchy, light, me digging through the leaves to find the slices of pear. We caught up in a careful way.
Driving through town, she gripped the wheel and told me, “I’m going to be honest with you. I still cannot stand your father. I cannot. But I’m glad you have a relationship with him — I want you to know that I’m glad for that.”
I nodded. There wasn’t anything to say, no way to tell her that I had been the one to call my dad and tell him about Becky dying, listening to him sob on the phone, his grief and regret incomprehensible to me.
At the restaurant, after the waitress cleared our plates, she ordered two slices of chocolate cake: “One for here, and one to go, please.” I smiled. Josh and I had always loved sweets, which Dad and Leslie rarely kept in the house. “You can share the other slice with your roommate,” she said.
When we got back to campus, she asked if I would give her a quick tour. The grounds were covered in brick paths, and the sky was quiet, overcast.
“Becky always wanted to go here,” she said, staring at the glassy front of the science center.
My stepsister had been a cheerleader, one to have a gaggle of loud, chatty girls over on Friday nights, her room adorned with posters of Leonardo DiCaprio. I had never known the intellectual side of her—that she had wanted to go to a private women’s college like me. There was so little to recall—no single, meaningful story that was emblematic of our relationship. Just facts and fragments. Becky ate tofu, not meat. She had a husky, goofy laugh. She liked to lay out and try to tan her milky skin. For one of my birthdays, she gave me a card that said, “You’re practically a sister…And definitely a friend.”
Once, I had packed a sampling of Barbies and doll accessories (my collection was enormous) to take my dad’s for the weekend. I spilled the gallon freezer bag of little plastic shoes and radios and dogs and Barbie food across the living room floor. Becky paused on her way to her room, squatting down to look through the pile. “A Barbie boom box?” she laughed. I looked around and snatched another piece up. “Yeah!” I shoved a piece in her face. “And a pineapple!” I dug through the pile. “And a cake!” She laughed, and I laughed. I don’t know if she loved me, and I don’t know if I loved her in the way that sisters are supposed to.
“Yes,” Leslie said. “She wanted to study psychology, like you. I should have her Psychology Today subscription sent to you.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “That’s really nice of you.”
I walked her back to her car, parked in the front drive. We agreed that we should try to plan a weekend at her parents’ lake house, which we frequented years ago, before she moved to Colorado.
“I’d really like that,” I said, knowing it wouldn’t happen.
I thanked her again for visiting, for the cake, wanting to say more. But there was no way to apologize for the things beyond my control, beyond my desire. I’m sorry it was her, not me. I’m sorry she died. I’m sorry I’m still here. I had never seen myself as the other daughter, just the stepdaughter that came around sometimes, content to witness the two of them from the periphery.
Later, my roommate and I split the cake, sitting cross-legged on the floor of our dorm. The icing was fudgy, thick, perfect, and it clung to our teeth.