From the writer:
Putting this together was a bit of a catharsis for me. It’s based off the recollections I have of my estranged older sister, Mary. I tried to build a portrait of her through the eyes of our priest, her son, her ex-husband, my mom, and myself.
I. Fall Leaves
From her priest at the St. Luiz Catholic Church:
I wanted to help in some way but could not force myself to believe that this was it. It was the face of a child that stood in defiance before me; I begged her to wait a few years before committing her life to the young man. He claimed time was scarce because deportation to Iraq was imminent, but I had my doubts. When a couple so young comes so dead-set on a quick marriage, it almost always means one thing. Sure enough, though I refused to ordain or preside over the wedding under their terms, I found myself baptizing their son just seven months later. And, just as I had foreseen but hoped against, the young man could not stand the pressure of two lives entwined so young, and he left her by the time the autumn leaves turned crimson red that fall.
II. White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookies
Said her little sister, whom time had made a stranger:
I hated and loved her for leaving. I couldn’t cry for years afterward until the next person I let in too close left too. A seamless break for him, a floodgate-break for me – bitter in its pain and yet sweet, so sweet in its release.
No breath wrapped my legs around
Shhh baby oh
Stay with me stay with me
No stop making it harder than -
I wanted him to use me. I threw my body at him, forgetting self-worth if for no other reason than to keep him close, to pretend. And I told myself that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes that she did. That I was different. I was the good one; the one that nobody ever had to worry about even on those nights when I wished they would. Not a blot to mar my transcript; the Ivy Leaguer to outshine the high school dropout, the one who would never be stupid enough to give herself so readily to a man.
I’ll always love you. Try try
Can’t say the same for you
Oh God don’t leave me
Didn’t want to do this to you
Used to it, remember?
But I never wanted to be the one –
She also said she’d take me with her. I wanted to go someplace far where magic and green-scaled dragons and purple-eyed lilies -
She said she’d take me with her, and suddenly in my mind I’ve intertwined them, two people so capable of hurt.
The morning smelled like cookies. She woke up early like she never did. She loved to bake. No matter if the AC wasn’t working from bills our parents couldn’t pay. No matter if the Cali sun was blazing hot outside. White chocolate macadamia nut was our favorite kind, the type that comes in prepared little scoops and bakes out flat and perfect like the skipping stones we used to throw at Lemon Creek Park at twilight.
Twilight – when he came to my room and stayed and stayed and said he slept better this way.
She woke up early that morning and said goodbye, but how could I have known that that was the last? The cookies were double-wrapped in unfolded napkins but the grease seeped straight through.
Baked these for you, they’re hot
Have a good day at school
Thank you thank you thank you
The last words you say.
And maybe he was right when he said I just didn’t get it, because I guess I never understood why it is that people come in chapters imprinted in your life that you can’t flip back to.
There’s an apartment out there somewhere in New York that we were supposed to have – two broke sisters battling it out with the world;
There’s an apartment out there someplace in the world that we were supposed to have – two lovers who never needed anybody else.
Words words you’re nothing but words you filthy
Had to leave just had to
I saw her just once after that, but she was too high out of her mind to say a coherent thing. She sat out on our front lawn, perched atop a suitcase. But my parents were done. They had thrown away too much money on psychiatrists and rehabilitation centers, only to watch her choose her drugged-up boyfriend over us. There were no fifth or sixth chances. There was only honor and respect or the absence of either, the latter of which was inexcusable, especially where it concerned the family and family name. So she sat there all morning, all afternoon, all evening.
Well, what do you want? Why are you here?
Said I was sorry
You left and I don’t need you anymore don’t you see
Suze, I’ve changed just try
Don’t have a sister don’t want to hear it can’t take it anymore
The last words I said, and the next morning she was gone. She left angry messages on our answering machine from time to time, and for a while it killed me, wore me down. And then I didn’t even have the will to care anymore.
And so when he left, I cried like I did on the morning that smelled like cookies, and I cried and cried until dry-sobs broke into hysterical laughter because it was so good to finally feel again after all those years.
III. A Pair of Nice Eyes
Recollections from an ex-husband:
I met her through my ex-girlfriend, Dominique. They were best friends but the second Dominique started cheating on me, you’d better believe Mary came running to tell me. You gotta hand it to girls – they’ll do just about anything to get a guy. I kind of respected her for it. Asked her out on a couple of dates and it worked. She was quiet and easy-going, had cute little eyes and did whatever I asked her to do for the most part, which was a nice change from all the crazy bitches I dated in high school.
So anyways I always pulled out and all that, and I thought we were being safe enough, but she got herself pregnant a little after her senior year, and then we were in a God-damned mess. So I did what any decent guy would do in that situation – I married the girl.
Gave her her first hit of amp not long after the marriage and the first baby was born. Wasn’t about to fuck up my own baby so I made sure she wasn’t pregnant again first. God did she love the stuff. I’ve seen lots of meth highs but nothing that good. And for a while, that’s all there was for either of us. The highs and lows of the drugs were the highs and lows of our lives. Sometimes just pot but more usually the harder stuff. And when it was good, Goddamn was it good.
You wouldn’t get it. Nobody on their high fucking horses would get how powerful it makes you feel – like you could pick up whole buildings and throw them across the world as waves of it come over you and the tingly numbness feels so good you think you might just explode. And suddenly I felt – I mean really felt – every inch of her body and every breath was an orgasm, every brush of skin an explosion in your mind. But the anger, the bloodshot eyes, the fighting and all that other shit that came with it, hell, that was a whole different story.
So I left the military. I had to before they sent me to war or kicked me out with a blood test. They’d find out sooner or later, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit around and wait for my brains to be blown out by some turban and beard I don’t give a fuck about. Like hell I’d put my ass on the line for a bunch of suits in DC who’ll never feel that sickening sweetness of cold metal turned hot against your skin.
She stole a checkbook and credit card from my uncle, and for a while we lived off that. Things were really going to shit though and I don’t know how much longer we would’ve lasted even if we weren’t caught. They put us on TV on Thanksgiving. For us it was just an act – just had to say how grateful we were for the donated meals at the homeless shelter. Thirty seconds of fame for thirty days in prison. I was dishonorably discharged from the Marines but to hell with it. She was so pregnant she was let off real easy for the stolen checks.
She tried coming back to me after I got out but I had enough of her and wasn’t about to throw away my own life supporting a whole family. So I filed for divorce and left her at her mom’s house a little after the second kid was born. Never really knew what happened to her next, but I visit the boys once in a while. Bring them a balloon or some candy. Almost tried taking them once but came back to my senses about that. They’re little brats anyways, just like their fucking mom. All in all I’d say things are much better this way.
- IV. Soft Lips
From the son who recognized her only in pictures now:
Her lips were like warm marshmallows on skin, soft on the stinging hurt, and I was crying and crying and couldn’t stop, so I held my breath but it made the crying harder and my tummy didn’t feel so good.
I like the bandages with lots of colors but Mommy always made it sting real bad before she put it on. She’d spray something on and said it healed faster that way.
And I don’t know why she wouldn’t come back after that, and I thought maybe it was because I was bad all those times, but at least the screaming stopped, and anyways Grandma is Mommy now so I guess things aren’t all that bad.
I remember it was dirty and smelly at the old place where we used to live, and there was lots of beds against the walls, and one lady put powder in her mouth, I think because she was so hungry. I guess that makes sense, there were so many lines for everything I always got hungry too.
I couldn’t breathe. That’s because I had AZ-MUH, but anyways I outgrew it, mostly. Mommy put a mask on my face back then, and the air got really thin and light, and went right down and out again without trying.
There were bright lights on Thanksgiving because the TV guys were talking to the people who slept in long rows of beds like us, and Mommy held me and spoke to the nice cameraman who gave me a candy, and I could feel the kicking in her tummy and knew that was Joey inside, only he didn’t even have a name yet.
Daddy was saying we had to be careful but Mommy wanted to be on TV and that’s how they found us or else maybe we’d still be together, always running. Daddy said the police are bad but Grandma says that’s because he was AY-WALL and I guess that means he’s the bad one instead. They found him after we were on TV on Thanksgiving and even Mommy had to go away too. That’s when Joey and I got to come to Grandma’s house and Grandma says we can finally stay.
I like Grandma’s house because she makes good things to eat and there’s always things to play with. Mommy called and left a message on my birthday but her voice was croaky like a frog, not pretty like it was, and I guess maybe I don’t remember much. In the message she said hi baby, and I laughed and said, Grandma, doesn’t she know I’m not a baby anymore? Grandma just smiled funny and put her hand on my shoulder and said, yes, that’s silly of her, you’re such a big boy now.
V. The Feeling of Helplessness
Said her mother, still in pursuit of the American Dream:
My beautiful, first-born child. I never would have wished these things upon anyone, much less my own daughter. Our lives have become so glaringly parallel that I see myself in you, more than just in eyes or nose or lips. The lines between us run a much deeper vein than this, but you destroy yours even as I nurture the ripeness of what is left of mine. I left you with my mother as you’ve left your children with me, but always, always did I intend on coming back. And I did, just four years after you arrived. Four years of schooling and hiding in public restrooms to relieve my breasts of the fullness of their milk; of roach-infested apartments in the city and the unthinkable loneliness that sets my accent apart from yours; of speaking in a tongue that hurt my throat and strained my ears but speaking nonetheless because I knew that mine was a voice of two.
It was for you that I left, that you might have opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. My daughter was to become a doctor, or an astronaut, or a physicist, or an actress – or anything in the world she wanted because we were here, a country full of postcard-worthy sights and where honey oozes from trees. And when I held you in my arms for the very first time in the crowd of people milling to the luggage claim, I closed my eyes and breathed you in and you – you spit in my face.
I have tried with everything in me to love you and I will never understand why you have thrown back each kiss, each caress, each unanswered prayer I sent your way.
I brought you to the land of purple mountains so the two of us could start our lives anew with your new father; I came back because I needed you; because not having you with me was a pain I can’t describe – a pain you should understand completely now that you’ve lost your sons, now that they’ve passed the age that they could ever belong to you again.