My mother phones me the moment Annie is gone.
It is two o'clock in the morning.
I know at once who is calling and why. Nobody but my mother ever calls me at two in the morning, and then only to tell me that my sister is gone again.
The family gathers in the early morning hours. I get there last because I live in Chelsea, all the way downtown, and my mother's apartment is on West End Avenue and Eighty-first Street. They are already talking about what to do when I come in. My sister-in-law Augusta offers me a cup of coffee, and then we go in to join the others in the living room.
My mother is sixty-three years old, but she still skis and she still travels and there are many people who find her attractive. When I look at her, I see a thin, hawkish-faced woman with piercing green eyes and short brown hair she tints auburn. She is wearing tonight a brocaded silk robe she bought in Tokyo three summers ago, and red velvet slippers with gold trim, from Bergdorf's. My mother is very proud of her tiny feet. She tells everyone she knows, over and over again, that she has truly tiny feet and then immediately informs them that she once played Alice in a touring company of Alice in Wonderland, as if her tiny feet had been responsible for her getting the role.
My mother was once a stage actress, you see. Helene Hammond was her stage name, does it ring a bell? I wouldn't guess so. She hasn't performed in anything since she was part of the young cast in West Side Story -- the original Broadway production, that is -- back in 1957. That was forty-five years ago. But she still thinks of herself as a musical comedy star, which she never really was.
My mother's maiden name was Helene Lederer. That's because she's Jewish. I feel certain my grandmother intended her name to be pronounced "Ell-enn," in the French manner, an affectation common among well-to-do Jews of her generation. Instead, my mother pronounces it to rhyme with Arlene. I personally feel the French pronunciation would better suit her personality, but it's her name and her business. According to my older brother, our mother's Jewishness makes all of her kids Jewish as well, even though my father was an Irishman named Terrence Gulliver.
I say "was" because I never really got to know the man. He abandoned my mother and the family when I was only five years old. Well, divorced her. My mother keeps saying he abandoned her, even though he paid alimony and child support till Annie and I turned eighteen. Like me, Annie was also five when Daddy left, so you can't blame her problems on his defection. Annie is my twin, you see. Andrew and Anne, as our parents named us. Andy and Annie, as we became, no relation to the Raggedys.
My brother is quite successful. His name is Aaron, which was my mother's father's name. My grandfather turned all of Mama's pictures to the wall the moment he learned she was going to marry a starving artist named Terrence Gulliver. By the time my father jumped ship, he was no longer a starving artist, and my hypocritical Hungarian grandfather was calling him "Terry, m'lad," according to bitter stories my mother still tells, but it turned out the old man was right after all, wasn't he? Not wanting her to marry a goy?
My grandfather is now dead, but his namesake -- my brother Aaron -- is the CEO of a cosmetics firm with which you're familiar if you're any woman who tints her hair, go ask my mother. Aaron agrees he's Jewish because our mother is Jewish. That's okay by me. His daughters are not Jewish, however. That's because Aaron's wife is of German descent. In fact, his daughters aren't even his true daughters, in that...
Well, that's another story.
You see, after Aaron brought his intended bride home to meet the family, my mother instantly hired a private detective from Newark to look into the "young lady's background."
It appeared that my brother was about to marry the town whore.
The detective reported that Augusta was knocked up for the first time in the back seat of a Chevy convertible parked behind the football stadium at Ridley High School in Ridley Hills, New Jersey. The father of her first daughter was a quarterback for the Ridley Royals, as they still call themselves, a rather pretentious name for a team that has finished at the bottom of its league from time immemorial.
Michael Henderson, for such was his name, never married Augusta -- or Gussie as she was calling herself back then. Instead, he ran off to join a commune in San Francisco. Gussie somehow persuaded her staid Lutheran parents to let her go ahead with the birth rather than have the baby aborted. Augusta is now forty-five years old. Her first daughter, Lauren, is twenty-nine and married. Mr. Henderson must have spread little Gussie's legs (presumably not for the first time) when she was but a mere fifteen.
When she was sixteen, and three months after Lauren was born, Augusta took on a brawny lad named Colin O'Rourke, this time on the football field itself, the better to enjoy the splendor in the grass, no doubt. Lo and behold, and having learned nothing about birth control on her earlier go-round, Augusta discovered that she was once again pregnant. Young Colin, left tackle but devout Catholic, also chose not to marry her, preferring instead to enlist in the United States Army. He was whisked almost at once to a post in peacetime Germany, where he was killed in an automobile accident on the Autobahn. Augusta's first child was only a year old when the second one was born. In honor of her slain Irish swain, she named this second daughter Kelly.
My brother Aaron was twenty-two when he met Augusta. He was a senior at Princeton, which is not far from Ridley Hills, if you have a map. She was twenty-seven, and working at the time as a counter girl at the local McDonald's. By then, gun-shy Gussie had developed a reputation for swallowing organs larger than the one at Radio City Music Hall, a talent my brother apparently found engaging as well as engorging. Gussie's daughters were eleven and ten respectively, and still bore her maiden surname, Manners, the Anglicized Mannheim from which town her forbears had migrated. Manners, no less. A singular contradiction when one considers that etiquette is the least of Augusta's attributes. By the way, she started calling herself Augusta again the moment my stupid-ass brother slipped a wedding band on her dainty trembling hand.
He has since adopted both daughters. They are now, respectively and respectfully, Lauren Gulliver Hastings and Kelly Gulliver. When my mother dies, Augusta and Aaron will undoubtedly inherit a share of her estate which -- when they die -- will go to the offspring of two-elevenths of the Ridley Royals' offensive team.
Augusta had no qualms about seeking an abortion six years ago, however, when at the age of thirty-nine she surprisingly missed two periods in a row, and quick as a wink deduced, Gee, I must be preggers again, wow. This was a woman, mind you, who -- when I suggested that she vote for a freedom-of-choice candidate because one day either one of her two lovely daughters might find herself in trouble and in desperate need of an abortion -- said, "Oh, that!" and airily waved aside the entire anti-abortion issue. It wasn't a matter of "Oh, that!" some four years later, however, when a doctor confirmed that she was indeed pregnant, and Augusta decided she was too old to be bearing another child, they're either too young or too old, right? Quicker than you could say "Right to Life," Augusta found a respectable doctor who aborted the embryos.
You heard me correctly.
Two of them.
Augusta had been bearing twins.
I have never forgiven Aaron for that.
I felt he and his wife had flushed my own heritage down the drain.
Annie believes she is an adept who has been initiated into a form of Tantric yoga.
Her tongue is pierced. She wears a little silver circlet in it, which she says she purchased at a bazaar in Katmandu. She wears another silver circlet through her left nostril (Hong Kong) and yet another through the brow over her right eye (Sri Lanka). Kissing Annie hello is like kissing a jewelry tray. She also has a tattoo on her right buttock, a swastika above the words Ek Xib Chac in red, below which are the words Chac Xib Chac in black, which she says translates as "The red and the black," though she did not mention in which language, probably Sanskrit. She says she acquired the tattoo in Berlin before the wall came down, and before she headed for more exotic places. She proudly explained to a dining room full of dinner guests on one of her frequent stays in my mother's apartment that the swastika was an ancient and treasured symbol in her religion, and might have exhibited her tattoo if my mother hadn't called everyone to coffee and dessert in the living room just then.
Annie tells me she once ate sweet potatoes and later shat in the woods with native tribesmen in Papua New Guinea. She tells me she was mauled by a tiger in a remote section of India, the name of which I can't even pronounce, but which falls ever so trippingly off my sister's tongue.
I no longer know if any of these things are real or merely figments of Annie's fertile imagination.
Ever since what happened in Sicily a month and a half ago, I simply do not know.
Whenever Annie runs away, I blame my mother.
I blame her because she keeps giving Annie money even though she's been advised time and again that she is just pissing the money down the toilet. My sister-in-law Augusta doesn't like my mother to give Annie money, either, but that's because she's fearful her two daughters won't inherit as much when Grandma dies. In that respect, Annie and she are soulmates. My sister often talks about friends of hers who have inherited huge sums of money, or luxurious houses, or acres and acres of undeveloped land in Florida. She seems to think my mother is enormously wealthy. I don't know what gives her this idea; there is no empirical evidence to support such a notion of wealth. My mother's apartment on West End looks like the shabby abode of a European lady who has seen better times. The furniture is shoddy, the drapes need cleaning. There is the faint odor of mustiness and age clinging to everything. And yet, she keeps sending money to Annie.
I think she's afraid my sister will become a prostitute or a homeless person. I think she's afraid she will be blamed for my sister's destitute state, if it ever comes to that. Even before Sicily we were all a little afraid of that. Afraid we'd be held responsible somehow if anything happened to her. Jewish guilt. My brother may be right. We may all of us be Jews, after all. Except my sister-in-law and her two bastard children.
So here we are on a hot muggy night in August, commiserating and plotting because Annie has fled once again, and we're all afraid that before morning Sicily will happen all over again.
Then again, Annie has always run away, with or without seeming provocation. In fact, she has been traveling all over the world without incident ever since --
Well, that isn't quite true.
On the other hand, it's almost true.
Except for that one crazy week in Italy a month and a half ago, Annie has managed to keep out of serious trouble for most of her life. Sicily was the only episode...well, incident...well, episode...I promise you, the only one.
The family has heard various versions of what happened, most of them from Annie herself, one of them from yours truly who went to Italy to "rescue" her, as Annie puts it. After everything Bertuzzi told me, I don't know which parts of her story are true. It's a known fact, of course, that there are banditos on the road in various isolated parts of Italy, and especially in Sicily where my sister had gone to seek out the wisdom of a guru whose name I still can't pronounce and whose presence in Italy, of all places, I still sincerely doubt. But possibly the bandito part of her story is true, no matter what Bertuzzi says.
Before the incident -- well, episode -- Annie told us she was living in a room she rented from the village butcher. This was undoubtedly true. She told us she had met a German girl from Frankfurt, possibly also true, who like herself was an initiate, and who -- again like herself -- was in Sicily to seek further enlightenment and inspiration from Abu Ben Pipik or whatever his name was.
According to Annie, she and Lise were enjoying a bottle of cheap Sicilian red at a quiet outdoor table under a grape arbor when two Italian "roughs," as Annie later called them, approached the table and began making fun of her rings, the one in her nose, yes, and the one over her eye, but especially the one in her tongue.
I have to tell you that my sister generally takes exceptionally good care of herself. She is three inches shorter than I am, which makes her five-nine, and she weighs a hundred and thirty pounds, which makes her slender -- well, before she went to Italy, she'd let herself go a bit, but I would guess by the time of the trouble there, she was back in good shape again. When Annie isn't sitting silent and motionless in the lotus position, practicing yoga, she is doing sit-ups or pushups or jogging in place. She is extremely fit. We both have green eyes -- Aaron's are blue, but thank you, anyway, Mom. We both have blond hair -- so does Aaron, thank you unconditionally, Terrence Gulliver, wherever you may be. Annie's hair is blonder than mine, almost flaxen, in fact, but that's because on her travels ("Gulliver's Travels," we sometimes call them) she spends a great deal of time in the sun. Altogether, my sister looks like what the guys on the singles scene in New York might call a babe. So it is understandable that a pair of Sicilian youths on the prowl might have approached the table where she and Lise were in deep conversation. That part of the story is possibly true, though Bertuzzi thinks it's all imagined.
Annie isn't fluent in any language except English, but she does have a smattering of French and Italian, so maybe her recounting of the dialogue at the table is accurate. In any case, in yet another retelling of the story, Lise was fluent in Italian, including the Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects, and it was she who was doing the translating. Here, then, is how the conversation at the table went, as translated by a German girl from Frankfurt, repeated later by Annie, and sincerely doubted by Bertuzzi.
"Hey, girls, you want some company?"
"No, thank you, we're having a little private talk here."
This from my sister.
"But thank you for asking."
This from Lise; my sister insists it encouraged a further dialogue.
"Why are you wearing a ring over your eye?"
"None of your business."
"How about the one in your nose?"
"Doesn't it get in the way when you kiss?"
"Boys, we're not interested, okay?"
"Are you lesbians?"
This may seem like far too sophisticated a comment from an ignorant Sicilian farmer, but remember that if a woman isn't interested in an Italian man's obvious charms, she must be queer. On the other hand, I myself have often wondered about Annie's sexual orientation, so it's entirely possible that she and Lise were enjoying more than just a private conversation at their hidden table. In one of Annie's tellings, they were meditating. In another, they were holding hands. In a third version, they were holding hands and meditating. Given the question about the nose ring getting in the way of kissing, might they not have been kissing as well? Who knows? I sometimes think my sister wrote the screenplay for Rashomon.
It was the next few questions that started the fracas.
"Why do you have a ring in your tongue?"
"Doesn't it get in the way when you lick your friend's pussy?"
Annie grabbed the bottle of red by its neck.
Like the good second baseman and power hitter she once used to be when she and I were young and happy together in summers gone by, she swung the bottle at the head of the lout who'd made the remark, hitting him over the left eye. The bottle broke, spilling red wine all over his white shirt, and opening a gash some four inches long in his bushy eyebrow. Soaking wet and gushing blood, he began cursing in the dialect, seemingly more concerned about his wine-stained shirt than the wound over his eye. His pal went pale. So did Lise the Brave, who immediately raced off into the night. Annie got up, knocking over her chair, and swinging the jagged edge of the bottle in a wide circle as she backed off the terrace and down the steps and out of the place.
That isn't the end of the story.
As the tale unfolds...
She throws the broken bottle into the scraggly bushes lining the dusty road, and thinks at first she should go back to her tiny room over the butcher shop, but wouldn't those roughs in the bar know where she lives? Or wouldn't they ask the proprietor of the bar where she lives, everyone knows she lives right over the butcher shop! So she heads up the mountain instead. It is close to midnight on a Friday night on a lonely Sicilian road. My sister has no specific plan in mind except not to go back to the dubious safety of her room over the butcher shop. At first, she's not sure she's actually seeing figures in the road ahead of her. She stops, peers into the darkness.
There are four men in the road ahead. Four men blocking the road that leads up the mountain and to safety, if we are to understand her reasoning. The leader of the four -- the one she assumes is the leader -- says something to her in Italian, in the Sicilian dialect, no less, which of course she can't understand. Instead of picking up her skirts -- she is wearing a peasant blouse and a wide peasant skirt and sandals she bought in a shop in Palermo before beginning her inland trek -- instead of picking up her skirts and running down the mountain and away from the imminent threat posed by these four hulking men blocking the road ahead of her, their manner and their unintelligible speech promising pillage and rape on a grand scale, banditos for sure, instead of running down the hill away from them...she smiles.
I happen to believe this.
I know my sister.
She would have smiled.
Besides, from time immemorial, women have smiled in the face of imminent rape. Smiling at a would-be rapist is the equivalent of smiling around a pistol someone has thrust in your mouth. Especially if you have a ring piercing your tongue. But smile she does, and then explains to them, in English, of course, that she is an American, and she wishes they would let her proceed up the mountain in peace. The only word they understand is "American." So, naturally, they pounce upon her, and pummel her, and throw her to the ground, and rape her, all four of them, one at a time, or so her story goes.
I have heard this tale and its many variations several times now.
It is the tale she initially told the police in Mistretta, and later the magistrate there, and finally Dr. Lorenzo Bertuzzi, the psychiatrist at Ospedale Santa Chiara. Maybe it's true. I still want to believe it really happened.
As the tale unfolds...
Her rapists leave her battered and bruised on the dusty road in the dark, laughing as they go off into the endless night. Her panties are torn, her blouse ripped open over her breasts. Her lip is bleeding. She is bruised all over, she hurts all over. She stumbles to her feet and starts down the mountain at last, back toward the village where perhaps the two roughs are still looking for her, but where at least there are policemen to whom she can report this outrage, at least there are telephones, at least there are civilized human beings!
But on the way down the mountain...
On her way back to civilization...
On her way back to safety...
She sees a light coming from a wooden shack just off the road. It is a quarter to one in the morning. The crystal on her watch is broken from when she was on her back struggling and her attackers spread her arms wide and held her hands and her wrists to the dusty road, pinning her there...
The broken watch crystal is real. I happen to know that for a fact.
I saw the watch when I went to the hospital to pick her up. It was a cheap little watch with a plastic band. The crystal was indeed broken, but the watch was still ticking. Now whether or not the crystal got broken during a rape is another story. The doctors who initially examined Annie at the hospital found no lacerations about the labia or tears of the vaginal wall, no signs of forced entry, no traces of sperm in the vaginal vault. In their opinion my sister was not raped that Friday night.
There is a light burning in the small shack.
She approaches the front door.
A man's voice.
She understands the Italian. He is asking who is here at his front door at a quarter to one in the morning.
"Sono io," she says. And then, because she learned the word to use in case of an emergency just like this one, "Aiuto!"
"It's me! Help!"
The door opens.
A massive man is standing in the doorframe, lighted from behind. He is bald, totally bald, and naked to the waist, and barefooted. He is wearing only trousers fastened at the waist with a black belt.
He looks at her.
Without a word, he reaches out for her, seizes her by the arms, both arms, grabs her just above the biceps, and...
("It's called a head butt," Annie tells us. "Men in Europe are skilled at it. They know how to bang their heads against yours with unbelievable force and yet sustain no injury to themselves. It's a skill they have.")
He pulls her toward him, his head moving forward at the same time. Their heads collide. She stumbles away from him, dizzied by the blow, staggers across the road, loses her footing, falls to her knees, rolls over -- and suddenly she is falling down the mountain! Tumbling and rolling and bouncing and jostling, she finally comes to a stop on yet another dusty road below, and lies motionless and breathless on her back under the stars. She does not move for ten minutes, fifteen, perhaps longer. Then she stumbles to her feet and begins walking again, not back to the village where all of this started, but instead to the nearest real town, Mistretta, where there is a proper constabulary that will take note and make record of the various indignities she has suffered this night.
She tells the police she was accosted by two roughs in the bar in town, and then assaulted and raped by four banditos on the road up the mountain, and then head-butted by a brute of a man who lives in a shack on the side of the mountain, after which dizzying blow, she fell down the mountain. She shows them her bruises, her cuts, her bumps and lumps. She tells them she wants them to go up the mountain to arrest the brute who butted her with his knobby bald head, and then find the banditos who assaulted and raped her, and then go over to the village to arrest the roughs in the bar who started all this. She tells them her father is a famous painter. She tells them he is Terrence Gulliver. She does not tell them that she hasn't seen him since she was five years old. Standing disheveled and wild-eyed in a police station at two in the morning, she tells the police she wants them to arrest half the male populace of Sicily. The police cluck their tongues and shake their heads in sympathy, Ah, questi Americani! But they are not about to go out into the night in search of men they already suspect are phantoms. Finally, in desperation, my sister tells them she will kill herself if they don't protect her somehow.
The cops tossed Annie into a cell, and locked the door, and kept her there until nine the next morning, when the local magistrate came to work, at which time they informed him that they had a crazy American here who was threatening to kill herself. My sister repeated the entire story to the magistrate, who listened carefully, especially when she told him she would kill herself if he did not immediately issue an arrest warrant for the seven men who had accosted her. Instead, the magistrate had her remanded to the nearest hospital, a place named Ospedale Santa Chiara, perched on a mountaintop overlooking the verdant plains.
A man named Gianfreddo Mazzoni called my mother from Naples to say that her daughter had been confined to "a mental hospital" in Sicily, and then asked at once if Annie's father was really a famous painter. Apparently, the people at Santa Chiara were used to patients claiming their fathers were Pablo Picasso, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Prince Albert, or even Jesus Christ. My mother informed Mr. Mazzoni that she and Mr. Gulliver had been divorced for thirty-one years now (but who was counting), however, yes, he was rather well-known in art circles. "If that's why you've put my daughter in a mental hospital..." she started to say, but Mazzoni informed her at once that Annie had been admitted in a violent state and had been medicated and restrained, and did someone want to come to Italy to arrange for her release and transportation home?
Annie had indeed been restrained and medicated. She reported this to me on the phone after I got past a multitude of Sicilians who could not speak English, and then a social worker whose English was faulty at best, and at last got through to Annie herself, who seemed bemused by it all and who insisted there was no need for me to travel all the way from America, she was learning a lot of Italian songs, everyone was being very nice to her, everyone liked her a lot, everyone smiled at her all the time.
On the phone, Annie told me the hospital had a small mental ward, to which she'd been transferred on her second day there, after she refused medication and was put in a strait jacket. That was when Mama found out she'd been hospitalized. Before then, it was all a lark to Annie. The hospital was crowded and so they put her on a wheeled bed in the corridor outside the maternity ward. She could see women coming in bloated with pregnancy and leaving days later with babies in their arms. The women taught her Italian songs. She could walk down the hall and look in at the newborn babies row on row, "like pink flowers in a garden," she told me. She felt safe here. Her little ruse had worked. "I never intended killing myself," she told me on the phone. "That was a trick to get away from the guys who were chasing me. I knew if I threatened suicide, they'd send me to a hospital." She did not tell me why they thought she'd needed medication -- which, of course, she'd refused -- or why, if she was so calm and serene and singing Italian songs and looking in at little pink-faced Italian babies, they'd felt compelled to move her to the mental ward, in a strait jacket, no less. But the situation must have suddenly stopped looking like The Wizard of Oz along about then, must have seemed threatening enough, in fact ("One of the orderlies began fondling me while I was tied to the bed"), for her to have requested a telephone call to the American Consulate in Naples.
The medication they'd given her was Risperdal.
"This is the brand name for risperidone," Bertuzzi tells me. "It is an antipsychotic agent used for the management of acute psychotic episodes and accompanying violent behavior in patients with schizophrenia."
This is the first time he has mentioned the word "schizophrenia." We are sitting in his office at the hospital, a high-ceilinged room in what once used to be a nunnery, huge windows overlooking the green hills beyond. It is a beautiful day at the end of June, but the good doctor is telling me my sister is psychotic. He sits behind a large oaken desk strewn with case folders. He sports a gray Vandyke beard that matches the color of his wrinkled linen suit. His English is accented, but impeccable. His eyes are so brown they appear black. He never smiles. I notice he never smiles. He is obviously not kidding when he tells me he knows for sure my sister is nuts.
"That is to say, she hears voices," he tells me. "Which means she's hallucinatory. And yes, she's delusional, as well, in that she believes the FBI is following her around in blue windbreakers that have the letters FBI printed on them in bright yellow."
I look at him.
But I say nothing.
"In the literature," he says, "delusions and hallucinations are called Criterion-A symptoms, and only one of them is required for a diagnosis of schizophrenia if the delusions are bizarre. Or if the hallucinations consist of a single voice keeping up a running commentary on the person's behavior. Or if two or more voices are conversing with each other."
"I don't know why you think my sister is hearing..."
"It would be comforting to think of her as suffering from a mere delusional disorder," he says, blithely unaware that I am listening to his talk of voices in total disbelief, "rather than a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, except for the fact that two of the A criteria for schizophrenia have been met, and her delusions are not simple non-bizarre delusions like being followed, or poisoned, or infected..."
"Any of your everyday, garden-variety delusions," I say, but he does not smile.
"Your sister's delusions involve full scale investigations by the FBI, whose agents follow her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She thinks it's because she once had a roommate who was a translator for the UN. Has she never mentioned...?"
"Dr. Bertuzzi, I think you're making a terrible mistake here. I don't know what sort of medication you've been giving her..."
"I told you. Risperdal."
"Well, it seems to have inspired..."
"On the contrary, it has subdued the voices for the time being. I know it would be more comfortable to accept a less significant diagnosis like paranoid personality disorder," he says, "but the literature specifically states that paranoid personality disorder must be ruled out as a diagnosis if the pattern of behavior -- persistent delusions and hallucinations -- occurs exclusively during the course of schizophrenia, which is most certainly the case here."
"Thank you, Doctor, but I hope you won't mind if I ask for a second opinion, hmm?"
"Yes, I would in fact suggest you do that as soon as you get back to America. The injection we gave her should wear off relatively soon, but I'll prescribe medication that should keep your sister stable for a month or so. However, Mr. Gulliver, believe me, è rotto," he says, suddenly reverting to his native Italian. "Her brain, do you understand? È rotto. Her brain is broken."
My sister has been in trouble since she was sixteen, I can't pretend she hasn't. In fact, from the first time she ran off to Europe alone, Annie has been the star of our little family show. A day does not go by without our discussing Annie's whereabouts, or her well-being, or her finances. Not a single day. Annie has been the central concern in our lives for the past eternity now. Or perhaps longer.
But before Sicily, no one ever told us she was mentally ill.
So now the family gathers in the empty hours of the night, and wonders what on earth we are to do.
Copyright © 2002 by Hui Corp.