By Heather Creamer
Rose hated maple fudge. Myrtle heaped the sweet squares onto a cracked platter. Thanks to her Assertiveness Course, what Rose wanted didn't matter - not anymore.
Myrtle watched her sister over the waist-high wall that divided her kitchen from her living room. Half partitions separated each room in Myrtle's cramped efficiency apartment. Her neighbour Ida joked that the maze design made the rats feel at home.
Because of Rose, Myrtle had moved to Jane-Finch six months earlier. In Toronto's most crime-ridden neighbourhood pushers, pawnbrokers and prostitutes plied their wares with little police interference. Random gunshots were as common as stray cats and attracted even less attention. Prudent senior citizens carried mace and other illegal forms of protection. Myrtle had arrived with victim practically tattooed on her forehead. Thank God for Ida.
Myrtle hadn't wanted to take the Assertiveness Class at the Seniors' Centre, but since Ida suggested it, of course, she couldn't say no. It was the best decision anyone had made for her in eighty-two years.
Filling the kettle, Myrtle recalled the first session. She'd cowered in the back row, shoulders slumped forward, eyes cast down. Myrtle hadn't spoken above a whisper in decades. And then only to say "okay" or "whatever you want is fine." She felt sure that even Serena, the congenitally optimistic, much pierced, young instructor, thought her beyond redemption.
But Myrtle listened to every word Serena said, followed every instruction and practised every exercise designed to improve her verbal and physical assertiveness. She read, and reread, every book Serena recommended. She even joined Toastmasters.
The new Myrtle returned roach-infested food to the restaurant kitchen rather than tip. The new Myrtle hung up on telemarketers. She felt centuries away from the munitions factory's 1944 Christmas party. The party where one person after another dumped their coat on her lap until she disappeared under a mountain of wet wool - and felt relieved by the concealment.
Now, Myrtle could handle anything. Anything except her sister Rose. One word from Rose and Myrtle regressed to the little girl who brushed her hair forward like a curtain to hide her ugly face.
Serena cautioned against allowing your past to victimize you. But Rose refused to stay in the past. She'd moved back to Toronto from New York. She haunted Myrtle's present with daily, belittling telephone calls. She threatened Myrtle's future. Rose had to be confronted. It said so on the Priority Card in Myrtle's purse.
Myrtle had invited Rose over that afternoon for just that purpose. Admittedly, things had not started well. Rose had breezed in and claimed the best piece of furniture, the plaid-and-duct-tape Lazyboy. There was no moving her, so Myrtle had to make do with the lawn chair. Myrtle used every technique she'd learned at Assertiveness Training. She remained calm, spoke clearly and varied her sentence structure. She stated her position succinctly, using feeling words. She was textbook perfect. Rose laughed in her face.
Myrtle had retreated to the kitchen to plan her next move. She felt glad she'd tried negotiation, but not surprised it failed. Serena split victimizers into five categories. Rose combined the worst two: the Headstrong Insistor and the Greedy Person. Victimizers seldom responded to reasonable appeals. Myrtle remembered Serena saying, "Churchill didn't invite Hitler for a friendly chat over tea."
The kettle whistled. Rose liked coffee. Myrtle made a pot of Earl Grey. "With victimizers," Serena taught, "you must take chances, take action, burn your bridges." To deal with Rose, Myrtle would need every skill she'd learned in class and then some.
From the book Don't Pout-Shout! she'd learned that Victimizers had to be shocked into listening. Accordingly, she stamped back into the living room, slammed the tea tray down on the scratched, Salvation Army coffee table, and using the extra lung capacity she'd developed swimming, shouted, "Rose, I've let you victimize me my whole damn life. That's over. For once you're going to shut your bitchy yap and listen to me!
Myrtle never swore and the cuss words felt as strange in her mouth as the marbles Serena told her to use to practice enunciation. But it worked; Rose's mouth hung open, and for once, nothing came out.
Myrtle's heart pounded. She took a deep breath, counted silently to ten and recalled Serena's words, "You command your emotional control tower, project equanimity, look confident." She sat down in the lawn chair, crossed her legs and poured them tea without spilling a drop. Rose didn't thank her, but Myrtle hadn't expected she would.
The old passive Myrtle would have sat wringing her hands like a soggy dishcloth. The hours spent scrutinizing videotapes of herself had really helped Myrtle eliminate what Serena called her Physical Detractors.
Studying Rose, Myrtle knew she'd always suffered by comparison. Rose was tall, Myrtle short. Rose had a delicate beauty mark above her lip. Myrtle a purplish birthmark around her eye. Rose wore a sleek Channel suit. Myrtle a faded floral muumuu from the Zeller's bargain bin. At seventy-six her sister still moved like a ballerina. Myrtle had clubfeet. Rose hadn't let herself go. Neither had Myrtle - what little she had simply left without asking.
As children, Rose told everybody that looking at her sister was like looking at herself in a mirror - a funhouse mirror. Back then, everybody laughed. Back then, Myrtle cried. Today, she recognized Lookism as a prejudice and refused to be victimized.
Myrtle pressed her palms under her chin to loosen her vocal cords and then said, "You, Rose, are what psychologists call a Genetic Celebrity. You get by on looks."
Rose didn't object. From the odd expression on her face, Myrtle worried that she might be flattered.
Myrtle sipped her tea, pinkie raised, then continued, "You had flaxen curls and dimples like the children in the Borden's milk ad. You were Mother and Father's divine compensation for having a crippled troll. You got pretty dresses and posture lessons at Miss Maude's Finishing School. What did I get?" She paused for effect and to marvel at how she'd learned to say so much without inserting a single "er" or "uh." When she judged her sister had waited long enough for an answer she concluded, "I got to escort you to your lessons with my metal leg braces scrapping the sidewalk and chaffing my thighs, while you chanted, 'Myrtle, Myrtle slower than a turtle.' Everybody laughed." Myrtle stopped, shook her head and tsked. "Miss Maud wouldn't laugh if she could see the way you're slumped in that chair."
Rose didn't move. Rose didn't take orders.
Thanks to You're the Self in Self-Esteem, Myrtle understood the importance of sitting up straight. She celebrated her near-perfect posture with a bite of fudge. After swallowing delicately Myrtle said, "Rose you haven't touched your candy." Myrtle dabbed her mouth with a serviette. "Of course you're not used to being served things you don't fancy. We always ate what you liked - even on my birthday. But I never complained. Not even when I got punished for your misdeeds. Remember when Father caught you smoking?"
Rose feigned ignorance.
"Oh, come on." Myrtle waved her hand. "You were already a chain smoker. But since you looked like an angel, Father whipped me for planting the ugly idea in your pretty head."
Rose stared off into space. Myrtle remembered lecture six: "Occasionally throw out an olive branch or the victimizer will tune out." Myrtle though for a moment before saying, "You're not entirely culpable for your childhood behaviour. Our parents reinforced it. But there's little sense bearing a grudge against the dead. Besides, look at the ancient Greek philosophers; people have always confused the beautiful with the good. You'd know that if you read."
Myrtle hobbled across the room to a bookcase assembled from bricks and boards she'd scavenged from the derelict warehouse across the street. She caressed a worn copy of Aristotle's The Politics and recalled childhood Saturday afternoons and adult Saturday nights made less lonely by books.
Myrtle sighed. "I excelled at school. Nobody noticed. People thought crippled body, crippled mind. So when the war left more university places for women, Father sent you." Myrtle re-shelved Aristotle between New Millennium-New You and The Joy of No. Her finger lingered on the spine of the book. "Me, I worked in a munitions factory to help pay for it. How fair was that?"
Three police cars raced past the apartment building. It was like Rose to answer when the wail of the sirens made it impossible for Myrtle to hear. But Myrtle didn't bother to repeat the question. Rose would never apologise. There was nothing else Rose could say that she was interested in hearing.
Myrtle returned to her lawn chair. "I bet you never opened a book at Queen's."
Rose didn't deny it, so Myrtle continued, "You forgot the B.A. and went straight to work on your MRS. You were Magnum Cum Laude in finding rich husbands. Bagged the first one in three months. What was his name?"
Rose couldn't provide an answer.
"After nine of them, I suppose it is hard to remember." Myrtle poured herself more tea. She reached over to freshen Rose's cup only to discover she hadn't touched it. "You want to be drinking that soon or it'll be as cold as you are."
Rose wouldn't even look at the cup. Myrtle figured its condition repulsed her. "Since you took all Mother's china, it's a bit much for you to be put off by a little chip. Chip, that's it." Myrtle clapped her hands together. "That was the name of your first husband."
Myrtle wound her arthritic fingers around her warm cup and searched the steam for memories. "Chip left university to join the air force and promptly got shot down. Isn't that right, Rose?"
Her sister offered no collaboration.
Myrtle rolled her eyes. "I can't understand you not wanting to discuss him. He fared better than your other husbands. Sure you got his money, but he didn't live long enough for you to suck out his soul."
Myrtle half expected Rose to hurl the teapot at her. She didn't. Emboldened, Myrtle continued, "You didn't always marry for money, I'll concede that. Once you married for pure meanness."
Rose kept up the silent treatment. Hardly surprising, it had always worked on Mother, but it wasn't going to stop Myrtle from saying what needed to be said.
"Myron worked beside me in the munitions factory. The army didn't want a man with black teeth, weak eyes and a thyroid problem. Neither would you - normally. But Myron was my beau, the only one I ever had and you couldn't stand it. It didn't take you long to steal him and you crushed him even faster. Calling him Moron. Running around. Myron was a true passive: first he hit the bottle, then that streetcar hit him in front of Maple Leaf Gardens."
Myrtle pulled a tissue from her sleeve and wiped her eyes. "Your darn smoke bothers my allergies." She knew it sounded lame. Rose's cigarette had long since smouldered out in the ashtray. But as Myrtle discovered in Tap Your Inner Tiger, you don't show an open wound to a predator.
Myrtle forced a smile and felt her serotonin levels increase just as Serena promised. Composed, she continued, "You made a date at his funeral. In fact, you were so busy marrying and burying husbands that you couldn't help care for our parents. I was trudging up the stairs with trays of food and stumbling down again with loaded bedpans. You were climbing up the Eiffel Tower and sailing down the Riviera. You'd swoop home once a year with expensive goodies for the folks. Afterwards they badgered me about why we couldn't eat caviar more often. I wanted to scream that gimpy seamstresses didn't make caviar money. But I didn't. I couldn't bear to tell them that you refused to contribute to their upkeep."
Myrtle stirred her tea and chuckled. "They thought I was a miser. So when Mother finally died at one hundred and two, you inherited everything. On the understanding, of course, that you would make some modest provision for me. And you couldn't make it more modest. Selling the house out from under me. Giving me a hundred measly dollars a month. Now, after six months, you claim you can't pay the hundred anymore. Rose, without that money, I won't even be able to afford this dump." Myrtle heard the desperate waver in her voice. She recalled lesson ten: "Retain the initiative."
Myrtle yawned, remembering, "Lions yawn. Lions roar. Nobody ignores lions." Reinvigorated by the massive intake of oxygen, she resumed her offensive. "What do you want the money for anyway?" She provided her own answer. "More cosmetic surgery? If your breasts caught fire the toxic fumes would force the evacuation of half the city. I understand you're desperate - all you've got is looks. But you can't defy the laws of nature, even if you waste all of our parents' estate."
Myrtle shot her hand out like a traffic cop. "I know what you're going to say, so don't bother. I realize our parents were cash-poor immigrants, but Cabbagetown's been gentrified. I know you got a fortune for their house. So stop lying to me." She stared into her sister's eyes counting off the full twenty-five seconds Serena advised. Rose didn't even blink. What a shameless scoundrel, Myrtle thought. At least she didn't have the nerve to deny it.
Myrtle stood and pointed down at Rose. "Don't think you can buy me off with that pitiful allowance. Things have gone too far. Between all that alimony and life insurance, you've got more money than you'll ever spend. I want, no, I deserve, every cent from the sale of the house." Myrtle paused and cupped her hand over her ear. "Do I hear any objections?"
Rose offered none. Myrtle had triumphed. Assertive people, Serena insisted, created the conditions for victory and planned to win. Accordingly, before Rose arrived, Myrtle had concealed a celebratory bottle of sherry in the wicker sewing basket under the coffee table. She toasted her triumph. The liquor tingled in her throat. She felt warm and elated. She knew whatever happened, she'd freed herself from Rose's tyranny.
Myrtle put down her empty glass, picked up the receiver of her rotary phone and dialed. When a Toronto Police constable answered she said, "A crime has been committed in my apartment."
In response to the constable's next question she said, "Me? Oh, no." She paused and admired that little round bullet hole between her sister's perfectly penciled eyebrows. "No, I'm not the victim."
Ms. Creamer's most recent story "Home Cooking" appeared in The Cynic.
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