My mother had had higher hopes for Whitney. Two weeks after graduation, they packed her stuff and drove up to move her into the apartment where Kirsten was now living alone. To me, this cohabitation seemed like a bad idea from the start. My mom and dad, though, were firm: Whitney was only eighteen, and she needed some family looking out after her, and since my parents were already helping with Kirsten's rent, she couldn't really complain. (Although she did, of course.) Besides, my mom said, my sisters were older now, their various conflicts all in the past.
Once Whitney was moved in, my mom stayed on for a little while getting her settled, signing her up for a couple of courses and accompanying her to her first few appointments with agencies. Each night, she called after dinner to fill my dad and me in on what was going on, sounding happier than I'd ever heard her as she reported on celebrity sightings, meetings with agents, and the hectic, amazing pace of New York. Within a week, Whitney had her first go-see, landing her first job soon afterwards. By the time my mom left a month later, she was working much more than Kirsten ever had. Everything was going exactly as planned… until it wasn't.
My sisters had been living together for about four months when Kirsten started calling my mom and saying Whitney was acting strange. That she'd lost weight, hardly seemed to be eating at all, and was really snippy every time Kirsten tried to broach either topic. At first there didn't seem to be much cause for concern. Whitney had always been moody, and even my parents hadn't expected their living situation to go completely smoothly. Most likely, my mom reasoned, Kirsten was being overly dramatic, and if Whitney had lost a little weight, well, she was working in a very competitive market, which meant more pressure about her appearance. As she gained confidence, things would even out.
The next time we saw Whitney, though, the change in her was obvious. Before she'd looked lithe, elegant; now, she was gaunt, and her head seemed too big for her body, weighing down her neck. She and Kirsten flew down together for Thanksgiving, and when we picked them up from the airport, the contrast was startling. There was Kirsten, with her round cheeks and clear blue eyes, wearing a bright pink sweater, her skin warm against mine as she threw her arms around me, shrieking how much she'd missed us all. And beside her, Whitney, in sweatpants, a long-sleeved black turtleneck, no makeup, her skin pale. It was a shock, but at first no one said anything, instead just exchanging hellos and hugs and the basic how-was-the-trip banter. As we walked into baggage claim, though, my mother finally broke.
"Whitney, honey," my mother said. "You look exhausted. Is that cold you had still hanging on?"
"I'm fine," Whitney said.
"No, she isn't," Kirsten informed us flatly, pulling her suitcase off the carousel. "She doesn't eat. Ever. She's killing herself."
My parents exchanged a look. "Oh, no, she's just been sick," my mother said. She looked at Whitney, who was glaring at Kirsten. "Right, honey?"
"Wrong," Kirsten told her. To Whitney, she said, "Like we talked about on the plane: Either you tell them, or I will."
"Shut up," Whitney said, her voice clenched.
"Now, now," my father said. "Let's just get the bags."
This was typical. My father, the lone male in our estrogen-heavy household, had always dealt with any kind of emotional situation or conflict by doing something concrete and specific. Discussion of cramps and heavy flow at the breakfast table? He was up and out the door to change the oil on one of our cars. Coming home in tears for reasons you just didn't want to discuss? He'd go make you a grilled cheese, which he'd probably end up eating. Family crisis brewing in public place? Bags. Get the bags.
My mother was still studying Whitney, her face concerned. "Honey?" she said, her voice soft, as my dad yanked another suitcase off the belt. "Is this true? Is something wrong?"
"I'm fine," Whitney said again. "She's just jealous that I'm working so much."
"Oh, please!" Kirsten said. "I could give a shit about that, and you know it."
My mother's eyes widened, and again I thought of her amongst us, so small, fragile. "Watch your language," my dad said to Kirsten.
"Dad, you don't understand," she told him. "This is serious. Whitney has an eating disorder. If she doesn't get help, she'll—"
"Shut up!" Whitney shrieked, her voice suddenly shrill. "Just shut up!"
This eruption was so startling—we were only used to Kirsten freaking out, ever—that we all just stood there for a second, as if gauging whether it had really happened. But then I saw people in the crowd glancing over at us, making it clear. I saw my mother's face flush, embarrassed.
"Andrew," she said, moving closer to my father. "I don't—"
"Let's go to the car," my dad told us, picking up Whitney's suitcase. "Now."
We went. In silence, my mother and father walking ahead, his arm clamped over her shoulder, Whitney behind them, head bent down against the breeze, Kirsten and I bringing up the rear. As we walked, she slid her hand down to enclose mine, her palm warm in the cold. "They have to know," she said, but when I turned my head, she was looking away, and I wondered if she was actually talking to me at all. "It's the right thing to do. I have to do it."
When we got in the car, no one spoke. Not as we pulled out of the deck, not when we got on the highway. In the backseat, stuck between my sisters, I kept feeling Kirsten taking in a breath, like she might say something, but no words came. On my other side, Whitney was pressed up against the window, looking out, her hands in her lap. I kept staring at her wrists, which looked thin and knobby and pale against the black of her sweatpants. My parents, up front, both stared straight ahead, and occasionally I'd see my father's shoulder move, and I knew he was patting my mom's hand, consoling her.
As soon as we pulled into the garage, Whitney was pushing her door open. Within seconds, she covered the few feet to the door that led to the kitchen, disappearing inside and slamming it behind her. Beside me, Kirsten sighed.
"Okay," she said quietly as my dad cut the engine. "We need to talk."
They did, but I wasn't allowed to hear what they said. It was made clear to me ("Annabel, why don't you go do some homework?") that I was not to be part of this conversation. Instead, I stayed in my room, math book open in my lap, straining to make out some of what was happening downstairs. I could hear my father's low tones, my mom's higher ones, and the occasional indignant shift in tone from Kirsten. On the other side of my wall, Whitney, in her room, was silent.