Martin did not want to meet Sylvia’s family. He said he did, and even agreed several times to drive them both to her parents’ house, but something always came up to prevent them from going together, so that in the end Sylvia had to make the hundred-mile drive herself to see her family, and tell Martin all about it afterward while he watched TV.
Still, Sylvia believed Martin when he said he wanted to meet her family someday. She also believed him when he said he wanted to marry her. She had known Martin for eighteen months and had been in love with him for nearly ten, and so she did not really want to believe otherwise.
The day they were finally going to see Sylvia’s parents was Sylvia’s sister’s birthday. Sylvia called Martin early in the morning to remind him.
“We can’t miss this,” she said. “It’ll break my sister’s heart.”
“Break her heart?” said Martin, half to the phone and half to his pillow. “It’s a birthday party. People our age don’t even have those anymore.”
There was a pause. “Well,” said Sylvia, “it’s important to her anyhow. So let’s not be late.”
Martin was not late. But when he rang the buzzer and Sylvia opened the door of her apartment, she found him dressed in an old gray T-shirt and a pair of jeans that she recognized from his college photos. He was wearing his favorite sneakers, the ones he wore to work with his scrubs, and he had not showered.
“Martin!” said Sylvia. “What are you doing dressed like that?”
“Like what?” Martin looked down at himself, his hands flat in his pockets, and frowned.
“I told you to dress up.” Sylvia gathered her purse and sweater with a sigh. “Never mind, let’s go.”
As they left town in Martin’s car and crossed the state border, Sylvia adjusted her sweater and smoothed her dress. They were both new. She had bought them especially for the party and was hoping Martin would notice.
“Sleep well?” said Martin.
“I did, actually,” said Sylvia. She turned to Martin and smiled.
“So,” he said. “Anything I should know? Before I go into battle, I mean.”
Sylvia laughed. “You make my parents’ house sound like a landmine.”
“No!” said Sylvia. “They’re nice people. Really. But don’t talk too much about work, especially to my dad.”
“A man’s got to be proud of what he does. Nothing wrong with that.”
“I know, but don’t overdo it. You might embarrass yourself.”
“Fine,” said Martin. “What about Tanya?”
“It’s Sonya,” said Sylvia. “I told you already. And she’s an angel. Just…”
“Promise me you won’t make fun of her.”
“Why would I do that?”
Martin looked at Sylvia, who was not smiling. He was wise enough not to laugh.
“All right,” he said, eyebrows raised. “I won’t.”
Martin then began to tell Sylvia about the last couple who had visited the clinic that week.
“Infertility?” said Sylvia.
“Oh, they’re fertile, all right. The problem is the wife’s genes.”
“She forgot to tell her husband that Down’s syndrome runs in her family -”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Sylvia, looking away.
“Don’t interrupt,” said Martin. “I’ll lose my train of thought here. Anyway, she’s five months pregnant when her conscience starts to bother her, and one day she decides to tell her husband everything. So now they’re losing their heads, trying to get tested, make sure the kid’s going to be all right.”
“Well, is it?”
“Probably not. But if I were the husband, I’d spend less time at the doctor’s and more time with an attorney. He needs a divorce.”
“Why?” said Sylvia sharply.
“What do you mean, ‘why’? She lied to him, that’s why. If she ends up all alone with a retarded baby, it’ll be her fault, not his.”
Sylvia said nothing. She let Martin go on talking about other patients until they reached her parents’ house.
“At last!” said Sylvia’s mother, embracing Martin with perfumed arms and shaking his face with both her hands. “At last we meet the lucky boy!”
Sylvia’s father nodded once at Martin, shook his hand, and watched him intently over the rims of his glasses.
“He doesn’t seem to like me,” said Martin out of the side of his mouth when the man’s back was turned.
Sylvia jumped, as if startled. “What?” she said.
“I said your father doesn’t like me,” said Martin, a little peeved. He scanned the living room for a clock.
“Yes, he does,” Sylvia whispered. “He’s just a serious man. I warned you, didn’t I?”
Sylvia’s mother gathered them all into the dining room. On the table were half a dozen dishes teeming with Sonya’s favorite foods. In the middle was the cake, a half sheet draped in festive blue frosting. Sonya’s favorite color.
Sylvia counted the candles: twenty-two. She smiled.
“Where’s Sonya?” she said as she sat down. Her voice sounded strained, even to her.
“Getting dressed, I think,” said her mother. “I’ll get her.”
“So I’m about to Sylvia Number Two,” said Martin in a flat voice.
“You’re twins, right?”
Sylvia hesitated. “Fraternal, yes. Not identical.”
“So she doesn’t look like you? At all?”
Sylvia picked up her napkin, but instead of laying it over her lap, she began to finger the edges. “Not exactly,” she said.
“Guess who’s here,” they heard Sylvia’s mother say as she descended the stairs.
A small, breathy voice answered, “Sylvie?”
Sylvia sprang from her chair, rushed to the doorway, and seized her sister in her arms. “Sunny! Sunny! How have you been? I’ve missed you so -” And here Sylvia sighed.
“I missed you, too,” said the girl with a lisp.
Martin had stood up, but he still could not see her face.
Sylvia’s father was watching Martin again with a strange expression. It was not a hostile look, but it was not a friendly one either. It was, Martin decided, an expectant look, though he could not figure out what it was that the man was expecting him to do.
Slowly Sylvia turned around. “Martin,” she said, beaming as widely as her mother, her hand trembling at her side. “Meet my sister Sonya.”
The girl looked nothing like Sylvia. She wore a blue dress that hung from her waist like an apron, and thick white socks thrust into her shoes, and a huge blue bow in her hair. She was several inches shorter than Sylvia, and she had thick arms and pudgy hands and legs like logs, and stood with her shoulders hunched forward and her stomach protruding.
But none of these things shocked Martin as much as the girl’s face: two slanted eyes, a flat nose, and a tongue that hung heavy and red out of a very small mouth – a face like something out of a nightmare.
Sylvia watched Martin in the strangled silence. He did not speak of move, but she saw him press his lips together and clench his fists at his sides, and she saw the anger rise in his eyes.
In that moment Sylvia looked honestly into the face she had refused to see, and opened her heart to the voice she had refused to hear. And as her sister stroked her arm, murmuring, “Sylvie, Sylvie,” she took the girl’s hand in her own and kissed it, and counted the candles again.
© J. Grace, 2015