Her name was Sassy, though she was anything but. She was a mangy thing, smelled like there was rot between her paws all the time even when I washed them, first with hand soap (she was quiet) and then with disinfectant (she screamed). I named her for the character of the cat in the movie Homeward Bound, because they both had the same brown and black specks on their faces, but this dog truly lacked the personality to live up to her name. She ambled around off-kilter with her tail between her legs, and every day without fail she walked into the same orange chair in my living room, then whimpered piteously, even though the chair had been there for as long as she’d lived with us.
I asked my mother for another dog. I was sick of smelly Sassy, and I wanted a dog that was regal, beautiful, the kind of dog that filled up space, whose fur blew behind her like a cape when she jumped through the air. For that matter, I wanted the kind of dog that actually jumped through the air. In order to get my mother to agree to this extravagance, I told a little lie—that my sister Lila wanted her own dog, because she was feeling left out. She of course did not care about acquiring a new dog—she did not seem to want things the way I did. Lila was always content to just be.
My father had left my family about a year ago, just before my twelfth birthday. The day he left, he gave me a handful of HI SOUR sweets that made my mouth pucker from the tartness, winked, said, Happy early birthday; don’t tell your sister, and walked out, the outside gate latch vibrating against the empty air behind him. I asked my mother why he left us behind this way, and she said he could no longer balance the demands of having two families, so he picked one, and our family wasn’t it. I wondered what it was about the other family that made them seem better to my father. Was the mother more beautiful? Were the children brighter somehow, cleaner, smarter? Or perhaps there weren’t children? I wondered how adults made choices like these—and if their choices left the same gnawing hole in their chests as they did in mine. I asked my mother about this too, and she told me to shut up; that this was our lot in life, and we were to accept what we were given.
After my father left, my mother strove to create an equilibrium in everything between my sister and me, as though to correct the imbalance left by having only one of two parents. I was four years older, but we were made to dress the same, wear our hair the same, in a thick braid down the center of our heads. We got the same amount of food, even though I was always hungrier, and were told to share, equally, in everything. But despite her intent to create this balance, my mother was unable to control her instincts to favor my sister. I saw her sneak Lila an extra meatball at lunch, an extra ribbon for her hair, an extra kiss when she dropped us both off at school. Perhaps it was because my sister looked like my mother—fair in the eyes and hair and but tan in the cheeks—whereas I am my father’s daughter, dark everywhere, and dry and flaky around the chin. Perhaps it was because my sister never seemed to want anything and was always ready with a smile and a hug, for everyone, even me when I was short with her, whereas I wanted everything and did not like being touched.