I could fit my twin bed, desk, and dresser in Deborah’s closet in Beverly Hills, and still have more space to walk around than I had in my bedroom growing up.
One wall was covered–from the Berber rug to the vaulted ceiling–in shoes. Dozens of shoes. Heels catching the edge of slanted shelves, toes pointing down, a who’s who of designers’ names embossed along the inner soles: Cole Haan; Donald Pliner; Gucci. I wondered where Deborah kept the pair of Cobby Cuddler boots she bought at Kmart in Vermont. Every snowy Christmas afternoon walk thereafter, she had exclaimed over the wonder of inexpensive boots that lived up to their name.
The long back wall of Deborah’s closet was devoted to hanging clothes, some two tiers high: skirts with skirts, shirts with shirts, blazers with blazers–you get the idea–arranged in color groups. Above the clothes, handbags and totes for all seasons spilled over two shelves. Above the shelves were cabinet doors hiding things I needed a stepladder to see.
The next wall, the wall facing the shoes, was lined with hangers as well. Once when we visited my sister, she brought Courtney and me upstairs to this closet and we played dress-up with the clothes on this wall. Deborah passed us hanger after hanger of shimmering gowns, flowing skirts, metallic tops worn to parties and award galas I’d only seen on television. Little black dresses, silky sweaters, slinky skirts with slits for walking. We were Barbie Dolls for her to accessorize as she gave us a glimpse into her world.
Deborah had dug through built in drawers on the fourth wall for necklaces, hair ornaments, pashminas, and antique clutches to complete our ensembles. You look amazing, beautiful, gorgeous, she had exclaimed as we studied our foreign selves in the shop-size mirror, Deborah off to the side, clasping her hands in delight. Courtney was the one in college, but we all acted like roommates that night, vamping for each other and giggling as we took turns trying on the bedazzled bustier.
Three months after I moved Deborah to Vermont, I sat on the cedar chest in the middle of her Beverly Hills closet, remembering. Dust motes danced in the skylight above my head, poor substitutes for the sequined shimmers of the night we played.
When Courtney was still in high school, she and had I gone to California for the first time. Deborah was in her Santa Monica house then, the one with a fairy tale turret and diamond pane windows. She hadn’t invited us into her closet during that visit. We didn’t even go into her bedroom.
I had thought the six years between our first visit to California and the visit where we played dress-up had softened Deborah’s edges. I had thought the playful, gentler version of my sister we’d seen–the one who invited us backstage into her glamorous world–was a reflection of happiness during a time when her life was resplendent with friends and success.
I was wrong.
When I started sorting through Deborah’s clothes, pulling out things she would need when spring finally made it to Vermont, I was surprised by what I found: worn down heels, stains on sweaters, broken zippers, buttons hanging by a thread. Signs of a life gone wrong lurking in my sister’s closet long before anyone knew what was going on.