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Every Unhappy Family

Girl With the Old English Tattoo

A court order is found buried in a desk. A private detective is hired. But tracking down a doppelgänger is not the same as confronting one.

In the home of Meshack Molatudi, Robinson Lake, Harmony Mine, Randfontein, Pieter Hugo, 2012. © Pieter Hugo, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

The summer before I turn 13, I find a DNA test and a court order for child support in my father’s desk. I have a half-sister. Our birthdays are a couple of months apart. I don’t understand the details, but my pre-teen mind grasps the narrative arc: My father got two women pregnant at the same time. One was my mother, the other was a stranger. The DNA test was done at UCLA by order of a Los Angeles court. The paper stipulates a meager monthly amount that will end when my half-sister turns 18. Nothing else. She doesn’t even get his last name.

The same summer, my father buys me the complete stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Because I am a nerd, Poe’s “William Wilson” becomes the prism through which I understand my father’s adultery. My newly found sister is my doppelgänger, my William Wilson. Unlike Poe’s narrator, I’m not compelled to a life of miscreant desperation, but I too obsess over my double’s existence and am unmoored because my double is out there, leading a life independent of me.

During the August heat waves, I wonder about her life and who she is. I look like my paternal grandmother. Does she? Is she as forgetful as I am? Is she good at school? What does she do when her parents fight? Does her bed need to be by the window, does it always need to be open in order for her to sleep?

I neither hate nor love her, but there is a growing anxiety about being unable to find the answers to all my questions.

I turn 14 and my William Wilson has become an irritant. I still know nothing about her, and there is nobody I can ask. My father, I suspect, has all the answers, but I can’t find palatable words to start the conversation; I’m not equipped to say, “I have a half-sister” without invoking the other woman, the other house, the other household. I sit at the dinner table while my mother harasses me about eating more because she thinks I’m anorexic. My sister asks for an IROC-Z for her birthday. My other sister fields calls from nice boys at her high school. I hope for a pause in the conversation to let me ask my question sideways without everybody getting mad at me for bringing the subject up, but it never comes. I argue with one of my sisters about my alarm clock. I wish my father would say something. I’d like some help in learning how to get along with my siblings. Dinner ends.

I am 16. It has been four years since I found the DNA test. I’ve moved to a new school in Riverside, an hour away from my William Wilson. As I sit in an English class, I wonder what her school is like, and if she would fit in here. In my old school almost all of us were first-generation children of immigrant parents, and here I sit in class hearing others talk about their blue-blooded grandparents, who fought in World War I or moved from Oklahoma to California in the twenties as they discuss Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck. I have trouble making friends. I’m homesick. I try to explain this to my father as he’s teaching me to drive, but instead we scream at each other. I cry. He is alternately brusque and self-pitying. These type of things never happen to my William Wilson. She knows how to handle people at school. She could have the conversation with our father. I want her to teach me how to do this.

I decide to hire a private detective to trace my dad’s secret daughter. The detective does his job well.

I am 21 and living happily in Barcelona doing a study-abroad program. Before I left the country, I almost told my parents I know about her, but chose not to because they’re already angry at me for going to Spain instead of staying in California. During that year, I talk to my mother once. The short conversations I have with my father are terse and hostile. Although I form good friendships with my fellow students, and trust the man I’ve begun dating, I don’t feel safe enough to discuss my half-sister with any of the people I meet. At Parc Guell, on a trip to Sitges, at the Sagrada Familia, I think of her. 

In the middle of my year in Spain, I decide to hire a private detective to trace my dad’s secret daughter with some of the money he’s given me for expenses. The detective does his job well. He calls me one night around 10 p.m. My roommate leaves the room when I answer the phone because she assumes an international phone call that late in the night must mean somebody died. The detective charged me $300 for his work, and the value shows itself in the slow, careful enunciation of the detective’s voice as he tells me her history over the phone. She was an abysmal student, but she graduated high school. The summer of her junior year, my sister went to juvenile detention, and got out a few months later. She was shot in the leg during a drive-by shooting. The police think she is involved in gang-related activity. Around the time I arrived in Barcelona, she also moved, from the Huntington Park to the unincorporated neighborhood of Gage, in Section 8 housing with two children of her own. Right before I hang up the phone, the detective gives me her name and address in case I want to contact her. I write down the information on the back page of a tiny pink Clairefontaine notebook I never otherwise use. The detective seems worried about me. He says I may call him back if I have any further questions, and if I like we can meet and discuss the case once I get back to the States.

I hang up the phone and dump the notebook into a handbag that I keep in the back of my closet. I keep the bag there so I can pretend I don’t have this information and to avoid admitting I’m too chicken to call her.

The year after I finish my studies, I attend a party in Los Angeles because I know that my half-sister will be there. This party is for a friend of a friend. I’ve never met the host or the person graduating. I don’t really belong here. The party is big and so I’m able to keep a safe distance. She is darker than I am and has a few tattoos. They are not the colored, expensive type that will become popular in a few years, but the hardcore, ghetto English-font kind. Her clothes are clean, but I am close enough to see that the fabric of her dress is wearing thin; it has been worn may times. She has my frame with straighter hair and a long scar across one of her legs. I never get to see her face straight on, but I see her profile and it’s the same as mine. There is a wave of disgust, then a rising tide of sympathy. I think of my life, and I think of hers, and I don’t approach her, because our lives are difficult enough already.

I am in my late thirties when my mother divorces my father. A month before the judgment’s entered, I divorce my second husband. I move into my mother’s house while my divorce finalizes, and during the first week of sleeping under the family roof again, I have the same dream three nights in a row. I am at IHOP, eating breakfast with my William Wilson. We drink orange juice and coffee and eat Rootie Tooty breakfasts in silence. Around us sit her children and the reams of paper from my two divorces. There are journals, hers and mine, that catalogue a life of much happiness lined with self-destructive behavior, a continuous sense of precarious stability, and much unsaid.

Each night, with my bed next to the open window, I awake to a sense of regret, loss, and sadness.

The third night, a Wednesday, I wake and think of my sister. I don’t know what time it is, but the owl who nests in the chimney has stopped hooting and the birds in the trees outside haven’t begun chirping yet. It is spring, but the air is hot, and I feel suffocated by the blankets in which I’ve swaddled myself. I know what to say and who to say it to. “I know what he did,” I say aloud. I kick until the blankets roll off me, onto the floor. “And I hate him for it, too.” From my window, I see the sky, starless and wide open. Without the blankets in my bed or anybody else in the room, I roll over and rest peacefully, relieved that I finally told someone.

Alejandra Díaz Mattoni lives happily in suburban Los Angeles, where she also indulges in a rampant bibliophilic lifestyle. She’s self-publishing her first book, The Wet Woman, in July. More by Alejandra Díaz Mattoni