Ask any woman who has a sister: Are you the smart one or the pretty one? She'll have an answer. Fine distinctions may be sliced, but eventually, each sister knows well which role her parents assigned to when she was too small to carve distinctions for herself. Of course, pretty implies not smart—and vice versa—to a child. And some kids have a hard time swallowing compliments mixed with shortcomings. Especially the smart ones.
Sisters Amanda and Francesca Greenfield sat next to each other on barstools inside their co-owned Brooklyn Heights café, sipping their drinks and staring at the busy city street. Which sister was pretty and which was smart would seem plainly obvious to any stranger, though both women shared a certain grayness about the afternoon, despite the mid-January crisp brightness of New York.
“What about that one?” asked Amanda, pointing at a tall, thin man on the street, bundled tightly in a black coat and brown scarf. “No hat, advertising non-baldness. Light-footed walk of a man without problems.”
“Unless he’s trying to disguise them,” responded Francesca, known to everyone as Frank, her nickname since birth (not that the Greenfield parents wanted their oldest child to be a boy—a question that had been raised many times over the years). “His bounciness could be a cover for his disillusionment.”
The man in question stumbled slightly as he walked past the coffee bar, his footing disturbed by the two women inside examining him like a moth on pin.
Frank said, “Right there! Did you see that? Light-footed, my ass. He crumbles under scrutiny. A clear sign of something to hide.” She paused to sip. “He’s cheating on his wife.”
Amanda shook her head slightly. “Unmarried. I can tell by the footwear. No woman would let her husband leave the house in those loafers. How he dresses is possibly the one thing you can change about a man.”
“Look,” Frank said, pointing at him openly now. “He’s going into Moonburst.” The man with bad shoes had to fight his way into Moonburst, the neighboring franchise of the coffee bar chain. It’d opened right next door to the sister’s café, Barney Greenfield’s, two year ago. Frank swiveled on her barstool to face inside her floundering place of business. Exposed brick, wood floors, ceiling molding. The street-level shop had once been the parlor floor of a Victorian brownstone. In its time as a coffee bar and before, the space had accommodated thousands of guests, the walls holding inside each brick the sounds of a hundred years of sitting and talking. Only two customers were there that day. Just the two. In the five seconds it took Frank to turn back around, ten customers had come and gone from Moonburst with a couple more waiting to enter. Frank sighed the dry exhale of radiator heat.
The younger sister, picking up on Frank’s glumness, said, “Here’s another one.” She tilted her head out the window at another pedestrian. “Blond, small hands. Hardset cast to his face shows determination, intense ambition. Red lips, passionate by nature, but reserved unless he’s with a woman he truly loves.”
“Can we stop?” asked Frank. “This game depresses me.”
Neither sister was currently with a boyfriend or casual fling. Hadn’t been for a while. Frank’s last boyfriend, Eric, the circulation manager at the magazine she used to work for, left her abruptly after a three-year relationship, having woken up one beaming July morning with the sudden realization that Frank’s “chronic mild discontentment” wouldn’t be a healthy emotional environment for his future children. Frank suspected, after two years now of post-relationship hindsight, that any women Eric dated would be left mildly discontented with his dreary adherence to routine. Amanda, at the time, advised Frank that relationships between two people with similar characteristics—a misadventure in narcissism, really—tended to stall because they had nothing to learn from each other. Frank assured her sister that such wisdom was no solace.
Newly 33, Frank saw her spinsterhood flung out before her like a worn black blanket. Amanda, 29, who’d never had a relationship that lasted longer than two months, couldn’t understand her sister’s preoccupation with the romance of loneliness. Amanda’s remedy refrain, “just go out and meet someone new,” struck Frank like a bitch slap, even though she knew her sister meant no harm. Amanda never meant harm, though she could dole it out unwittingly with ease—a veritable venomous rose. At Frank’s birthday lunch last week, Amanda announced (with the lilt of a dim, self-impressed observation—a “ya know what” moment) that the difference between 29 and 33 for single girls in New York City was about a million miles. And Amanda was the one who always wanted to know why she and Frank weren’t closer.
One of the customers, a cranky old woman the sisters knew as Lucy, waved a livery hand in their direction. “Refill,” she demanded. She’s had three cups already. Frank hesitated. A couple of refills were expected. But a bottomless pot—in their financial straits? The woman pointed to a sign taped to the cash register. “That’s what the sign says,” Lucy reminded them. Grudgingly, Frank served the cup, placing it gently on the table, smiling a plastic-fruit waxy grin. Lucy reached for her hot mug and drank. Frank stepped back, watching her future flow down the old lady’s wrinkled throat.
From across the room, Amanda quivered slightly and said, "I just got the strangest feeling, Frank. Like a wave of negativity rolled all the way across the bar, from right where you're standing to right here, by me." Amanda curled her fingers over her curvy hip. "Whatever you've done, apologize to Lucy," she said to Frank.
“It didn’t do anything,” protested Frank, irked by her sister’s alleged mind reading.
Amanda had long claimed she had unusually strong intuitive powers. Frank dismissed Amanda's “cosmic sensitivity” as nothing more than finely honed observational skills which, by themselves, were impressive. Frank did believe Amanda had other gifts, however. Long, wavy auburn hair. Flawless cream and petals skin. Grass green eyes. Even a blind man could see that Amanda was gorgeous. Compared to that, Frank’s smartness often felt like birth’s booby prize. The labeling hadn’t been overt: Mom never once sat the girls down on her knee and said, “Well, Frank, you’re very clever and you learned letters and numbers quickly, but you’ve got a flat face and stubby feet. We’ll call you 'the smart one'. As for you, Amanda, your nose couldn’t be teensier and your hair is a wonder, but you show no interest in books. We’ll call you 'the pretty one'.” The message was more subtle than that: Frank received praise for making A’s, and was punished for B’s (though that happened rarely); Amanda got kudos for her innate style and was criticized for gaining weight which she had a tendency to do (never a problem for Frank).
Where Frank stood now, an adult who’d incorporated her parent’s appraisal into every decision she’d made for thirty years, she knew that smartness was more valuable than prettiness. For one thing, pretty was available to anyone who has the time, energy, money and will. And even without exercise, makeup and plastic surgery, Frank considered herself serviceably attractive. She elicited grunts from workmen; baggers at the supermarket, though, called her ma’am.
Amanda liked to use the suffix "er." She would tell Frank that her hangup with pretty and smart wasn’t conducive to personal growth, that, perhaps, she, Amanda, was prettier, and that Frank might be smarter. But both attractiveness and intelligence were culturally defined. Who’s to say that, in Tangiers, Amanda wouldn’t be considered uglier and brainier than Frank? Whenever Amanda presented her special brand of logic to her sister, it made Frank's head hurt. Among other things, why Tangiers?
Today, Amanda was wearing a long, flowing peasant skirt (wholly inappropriate for the weather), a cashmere pullover and thick-heeled black clogs. When she moved, the skirt dipped between her knees, making her legs seem even longer. She walked across the creaky planked floor to the cappuccino machine. It’d been dead about a month. Amanda stroked its bronze casing as if her touch could ignite the fire of life. She said, “You know what would really cheer us up? Let's go shopping for a new one."
Frank couldn’t help a tiny snicker. "Shopping?"
"What's with the snicker?"
"We don't have money to buy a cappuccino machine."
"Oh, let's just buy one of those cute little Krups ones. With the spout on the side."
“I don’t think we can stave off ruin with a cappuccino machine that makes one beverage at time.” Frank said. "We can't afford a new café-caliber model. And we can't make much money without one." Not that having a working cappuccino machine would send the crowds at Moonburst back to Barney Greenfield’s where they belonged. Amanda and Frank had been minding the store since their parents' deaths almost a year ago. In less than 50 weeks, they'd minded it into the ground.
Amanda noted, “I’d say we’re straddling the horns of a dilemma.”
“You wish,” Frank said.
Amanda laughed generously and twisted her hair into a knot at the top of her head in one fluttering motion.
“Unless something changes radically in the next, oh, ten minutes, this coffee bar is over,” Frank said.
Amanda shook her head sadly, causing the soft auburn curls to tumble out of the topknot and tickle her cheeks. She kept her eyes on Frank while she rearranged her hair. "The tide can turn," she said.
"The tide can turn, but not the tidal wave,” Frank said. “You know the kind of pessimist who digs deep and finds a reserve of optimism just when all seems lost?”
“And how you’re not one of them?” Amanda responded.
“Never heard of them.” Amanda nibbled her manicure. “Okay, so I'm willing to admit that things have looked brighter. Yesterday, things were brighter."
"It rained yesterday."
"I don't mean literally," she said.
Amanda hardly ever meant literally. Frank wondered what life was like in her feathery dreamland. The older sister had to carry the full weight of responsibility for the store on her slight shoulders. The coffee bar had been run and owned by a member of the Greenfield clan for 49 years. First Grandpa Barney, then their parents, and now the two sisters had been serving gourmet coffee and sweets to the residents of Brooklyn Heights since 1950. The original coffee bar of this neighborhood, Barney Greenfield’s never made the family rich, but everyone had enough money to go to college. When the sisters took over, they fully expected to usher Barney Greenfield’s into its 50th year despite the competition next door. Frank had her doubts; Amanda was hopeful. Frank left a low-paying but highly prestigious job as an editor at Bookmaker's Monthly—a trade magazine about the publishing industry. Amanda had been a personal shopper at Bloomingdale's. Within months of their taking the reins, Barney Greenfield’s went from straining to failing.
A small portion of their failure could be linked to broken cappuccino machines, high overhead and inexperience. The majority of the blame could be heaped on Moonburst. Whenever she saw a customer who'd defected from her shop enter Moonburst, Frank wished she could run out of Barney Greenfield's, hurling obscenities. Instead she cursed under her breath and swallowed another mouthful of anger. Amanda held her breath whenever she walked past the chain store, like driving by a cemetery.
"Let's think about the good things in our lives," Amanda suggested. “Let’s hang on to what we’ve got. Because . . . mystery lyric . . . we’ve got a lot." She sang, trying to cheer up her dour sister.
"We've got nothing," countered Frank.
"You're talking as if this is the end."
Frank sighed heavily. “This is the end." Frank knew a lot more about the family's finances than Amanda. For instance, Amanda was unaware (despite her powers) that Citibank was one mortgage payment away from foreclosing on the building. Since the sisters lived in the apartment above the store, a foreclosure would leave them homeless, too. Frank had heard rumblings that the manager at Moonburst was just dying to expand into Barney Greenfield's space. Frank could secure their apartment by renting the building's ground floor to her greatest enemy, probably at a screamingly outrageous price (plus the cost of their souls), but that’d be like spitting on the graves of her ancestors as well as admitting personal failure. Frank considered telling Amanda the true depth of their troubles. But why burden her with the horror, too? Frank thought it best to shield Amanda from reality, let her float along in the cushion of the cosmos.
“Just trust me,” said Frank. “We’re done.”
The sisters stood together at the cookie case. The shop was filled with the gurgle of coffee pots. Amanda said, "I think we should hug."
She held out her arms to Frank and waved her in. The older sister, uncomfortable with non-sexual touching, felt something in her heart, some understanding that her little sister's compassion and love were sustaining and real, but Frank couldn't bring herself to get mushy. Instead of answering the call of Amanda's arms, Frank said, “I think we should consider our options.”
“If you're rejecting my hug, you have to indulge me in a toss." Amanda jogged behind the cookie display case (Brooklyn's finest breadstuffs, delivered fresh three times a week) and opened the cash register. She removed six pennies from the till. Frank watched silently as Amanda shook the pennies in her hand like dice and tossed them onto the counter. The pennies spun and danced, eventually slowing and surrendering to gravity. Amanda arranged the pennies in a vertical row depending on where they fell. She studied the pattern of heads and tails. By doing so, Amanda believed she could see the future. The practice, known as the I Ching, had been a fixation of Amanda's since . . . since the sisters stopped having regular conversations.
“I don’t think your Chinese fortune-telling is going to drag paying customers in here,” Frank said as her sister analyzed the toss. To Frank, the enterprise of reading elaborate truths in chucked pennies was absurd and tiresome. Pennies had hardly any intrinsic, let alone prophetic, value.
“The idea is to see how our energy is flowing,” explained Amanda. “Maybe we can get a clue about how to save ourselves.” She examined the pennies carefully, gravely. “Sky over lake,” she concluded. She reached for her handy I-Ching translator under the bar. She dragged her finger along the laminated sheet until finding the right spot on the grid of sixty-four squares. She read, “Treading on the tiger’s tail but the tiger does not bite.” Amanda looked up at Frank with rods of hope shining from her eyes. She said, “Something’s going to change, Frank. For the better.”