By Laurel Osterkamp
It started at birth. Morgan, my fraternal twin, got the 1980s-soap-opera-star name. I got “Maud,” named after a fictional old-lady-serial-killer. After that, God seemed determined to keep the imbalance going. Morgan ran faster than any boy in our class and she always made the goal or caught the ball. I was asthmatic, always last to be picked for a team in gym class. Morgan’s springy blond curls were her crown, unexpected and exceptional, marking her as royalty and ascending her to class president every year since sixth grade. My brunette hair was always pulled back into a ponytail, and the only time I stood out was at band class, when I played the piano, my fingers gliding over the keys. Music was the one thing Morgan wasn’t good at. She could never carry a tune; she can’t even clap to a rhythm.
Now, as adults, I play piano at the bar in the Embassy Suites hotel in northern Tucson, and Morgan is the chief of staff for Terri Hanson, our state senator from Pima County. Morgan’s hair wasn’t the only thing that propelled her into politics. She started with student council and became college president and completed a major in political science at Arizona State. She had an honest do-gooder drive and high ideals. “Honestly, Maud, Terri Hanson could be our next governor. She’s that talented and dynamic. Lots of political stars come from Arizona. Terri could even become the first female president.”
Terri Hanson comes from a property development family, and that’s how Morgan met her. Neither state senators nor their chiefs of staff make much money, so Morgan supplements her income by serving as a real estate agent to millionaires. She sells homes with vast desert views and long narrow swimming pools meant more for decoration than to splash around in. “Come see my latest listing,” Morgan texted me this morning, along with the address and the time she would be there. She knows my mornings are generally free if I’m not sleeping off the night before. She also knows that when she demands something, I comply.
The house is listed for close to a million, which seems outrageous for a smallish two-bedroom, but you know what they say: location, location, location. It’s out near a golf course and borders a nature preserve, so the home is surrounded by rolling hills covered in cacti and prickly shrubs. The house itself is a flat series of halls and living space. It’s Sonora style, all done in tan and terra cotta, and like all homes in Tucson, it’s built to stay cool. Heat rises, so you don’t find second stories around here much. The house is lovely if unremarkable, but the patio makes it worth its weight in gold. An L-shaped swimming pool, fountains and stone, landscaping that emphasizes the view, and even a guest house.
“Couldn’t you see me living here?” Morgan reclines on a lounge chair, close enough to dip her toes in the pool.
Morgan makes a good income selling real estate, but not so much that she can afford a place like this. “I thought you were selling this property, not buying it.”
She tilts her face up, squinting against the powerful Arizona sun, as I stand over her. “Terri is very attached to this property. She doesn’t want it to go to just anyone.”
“You mean, she’s buying it for you? That’s quite the bonus.”
Morgan laughs joylessly. “Don’t be silly. She’s not buying it for me. She’s selling it to me at a reduced price. Basically, at cost.” Morgan stares out at the pool. Like always, I can hear what she isn’t saying.
“So, what have you got on Terri?”
Morgan tenses. It should be no surprise that I can read her like the Sweet Valley romance books we used to mock growing up, though secretly I loved them. I imagined myself as Elizabeth, the less flashy but more grounded twin, yet I knew it was wishful thinking.
Morgan’s voice is tight. “It’s not like that.”
I don’t know why she tells me stuff that she doesn’t want me to know. I sigh, sitting on the hot pavement. It scorches like embers through my soft cotton paisley pants. “What is it like then, Morgan?”
“Terri’s part of a family business. They’ve been pulling strings and working the system for generations. So what if she used a little of her clout for financial gain? Taxpayer money has been used for much worse.”
“And this home you’re buying at a reduced cost is in return for your silence? It doesn’t seem like a fair trade.”
“You don’t get it.” She swivels, facing me and meeting me eyes. “Terri’s planning to throw her hat in the ring for governor and she’s got a good shot. But not if there’s a scandal.”
“Scandals only happen when you try to cover up the truth. How’s it going to look, when people realize her chief of staff is living in a million-dollar home she can’t afford?”
“You have no idea the sorts of commissions I make, Maud. Nor do you understand the world I’m privy to, being in Terri’s orbit. You just don’t get it.”
Disdain is written clearly on Morgan’s face. She’s so pretty, with that outstanding hair, like spun, curly-cue gold that cascades down her narrow shoulders, and her dark brown eyes, so deep and knowing.
Nervous, I clear my throat. “You used to say that you’d be the first female president, and I believed you. You wanted to change the world, and now you’re about to compromise for someone who isn’t worthy of your help.”
Morgan shakes her head, her curls bouncing. “I had to grow up. It’s time you did as well.”
I stand. “No thank you.”
Her shoulders slump as she lets out a breath; I know she feels guilty, though she’d never admit it.
There’s a heavy, stretched out silence that almost seems to bounce off the unnaturally blue ripples in the swimming pool. Finally, she says, “Try and understand. I just want something that’s my own. I can’t drift the way you do. It’s not how I’m built.”
I don’t express my shock at hearing the envy in her voice; I’m too hurt for that. “I should go,” I say, and I head out.
I drive to Embassy Suites, where I can use the pool whenever I want.
The pool area has a towel service and lounge chairs with visors, so you can sit, embraced by the heat while shielded by the sun. It’s part of a nice hotel, upscale, meant to be enjoyed by people who don’t blink at spending over two hundred a night to stay over. There’s a free happy hour, where I play piano, tunes of longing, like “Send in the Clowns” or “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” The guests don’t really notice I’m there, instead, I’m part of the background. But that’s what I’ve always been: the mundane sister who’s only there to make the fabulous sister standout.
I kick off my flip flops and walk to the pool, my feet stinging against the burning pavement. The pool is small for doing laps, though I have before, but only when there aren’t other people in it. Today there is a youngish couple who gently pass their toddler clad in swim diapers, back and forth, between their outstretched arms. I go to the deep end, lay on my back, and drift.
Nothing here belongs to me, not the pool area and not the piano in the bar, which I will sit at later, and play songs I did not write, for patrons who will barely hear the tunes. A cloud passes over the sun, and I can look up at the sky. The sky, I think, the sky belongs to me because it belongs to everyone.
Funny, though. We only ever appreciate the sky when we drift.
About the author:
Laurel Osterkamp is a novelist and high school English teacher, currently completing her MFA in creative writing. She’s been published by Kindle Press and the Sophie King Fiction Prize, and lives in Minneapolis with her family. You can find her on Twitter, @laurellit1, and at www.laurellit.com.
Header photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash