We’d sit and eat dinner, three-hour long dinners in which we’d only eat for 30 minutes, listening to you talk about your brother, the way he shoved you behind a refrigerator once and you couldn’t get out for hours. You’d have your hair up in a bun, wisps of curls messily bulging from the scrunchie in your hair. We’d look at you, mouthfuls of food squishing out the sides of our lips through the laughing, and we’d cover our mouths so as to not be rude. The light from the chandelier would make you look ten times brighter and more ethnic than any of us. We never quite understood why that was. You’d drink Coke, always Coke, and we knew that, so we’d get it for you when you forgot to.
“Wait, so, how did you break the window?” we’d ask, even though the story had been told 20 times before. We knew that your brother, your other brother, was outside so you and your siblings locked him out of the house. We knew that he cried and y’all laughed and he begged y’all to let him inside. We knew that, eventually, he just tried to come through the window, and he did, and there was shattered glass everywhere, even in your thick, curly hair. We knew that your parents weren’t home at the time and when they did get home they just about killed all of you, making you and the others clean up the broken glass from in between the carpet. We knew this. But you’d tell it differently each time, and we’d like the variation.
Remnants of spaghetti and dinner rolls would be torn apart and strewn across the plates in half-eaten mounds. We’d pick up plates and crowd around the sink, waiting for our turn to rinse them off and put them in the dishwasher. You’d always been the first to finish, waiting for the rest of us in the living room. We’d trickle in, sitting on the red lounge chairs or the supposedly white sofa, the audience, ready. You’d wait for the last of us to take our places, you’d want the spotlight beaming down on you, our eyes beaming down on you, because you had moved to California to make it as an actress but it didn’t work out, so now it’d just be us.
You’d ignore what we were waiting for, make us work for it, poke and prod you “Come on, do it,” we’d say, and you’d act like it was the last thing on your mind, with the how-could-I-possibly-I’m-not-even-prepared attitude that we’d all find so charming. You’d try to appear as reluctant as possible, but be unable to stop the smirk that spread across your face like candlelight when you’d agree. Your sister, the one that strangers would call your twin, the one that we, sometimes, couldn’t tell apart from you in pictures, would stand up next to you in preparation. It’d always be a duet. It’d always be the same song. We’d start the music, our bodies squirming and giggling, like watching reruns and laughing in anticipation of the joke to come. You’d know this and play it out as long as you could, testing into the invisible microphone in your hand.
The Backstreet Boys would come out of the speakers and both of your voices would begin to melt along with them, with only a fraction of the euphony as the boys. You both would reach and clasp the air, pulling it down like there was something you needed from the ceiling. The outline of an actress would shine through, the girl that wanted to be in movies but settled for us, but never seeming bitter. You’d be gracious, almost desperate, sucking the excitement out of us and putting it into your storage tank for later when the rent was due and you were out of luck, so you’d move (we tried to count your apartments, but it exceeded the space available on our hands so we remember them by smell).
As the audience, we’d be enchanted, following your off-key music notes and laughing until we’d have to run to the bathroom because we had drank too much lemonade, Coke, water, or beer at dinner. Your thick, brown, wavy hair would be falling out of the bun that it had been in, and your sister, my aunt, would be laughing too hard to continue singing, so you’d make it a solo. Everyone would be laughing but you; you’d sing while the rest of us would cry laughing, the only one still able to remain composed.
You moved away, but worse than just away, you moved to Texas. You scooped up your things and your kids into yourself and went away from us for long periods of time. You didn’t have money to see us and we didn’t have money to see you, so we called you and told you we loved you and that’s how it went for some years. Your apartments were always filled with beige fabric that rubbed your skin raw, and it always smelled like something needed to be thrown away somewhere. We squeezed onto the tiny, sunken-in sofas that you owned, smiling the entire time because when you smiled it was impossible not to.
Our nostalgia grew alongside your daughters, the girls getting so tall, getting so big, so much so that we couldn’t lift either anymore. The girls’ golden ringlets now down to their chest, blending with the fabric of their intentionally not-matching clothing, and they smiled like explorers. Our nostalgia was the same as these girls, and made us want to hug you and them and bring you back home with us.
We were at your sister’s house. We were about to eat lunch. It was around three in the afternoon, and the sun painted the furniture and your face. You weren’t hungry. You hadn’t been for months, apparently. You wanted and didn’t want to go to the doctor. You said, “I’m going soon. It’s a sharp pain in my side,” and we ate our turkey sandwiches on toasted bread with mustard just the same.
“I really wish we had boiled crawfish.”
Your newfound exhaustion was so confusing to me. I didn’t know how to properly respond. Everything was arduous and even our body placement around you felt forced. Ridiculous scenarios ran through our minds, like if we ate these bell peppers in front of you, you would resent us and it would bring the fact home that you couldn’t have those. We were scared and awkward and you were tired. We sat on the sofa with you and watched movies, every now and then pausing when you had to suddenly run to the bathroom. It was as if we had pulled back the curtain to reveal the great and powerful Oz, and Oz was you throwing up, slouched over a toilet seat.
I throw up slouched over a toilet seat. It’s the most vulnerable I ever feel.
It was Thanksgiving, and we had all come to visit you. Turkey sat in the middle of the table, perfectly sliced and tender. The mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, dinner rolls, and peas all evenly dispersed around this beautiful, carcasy centerpiece. You had taken more food than usual and we were excited about this because you never had an appetite.
“Could I have some more turkey?”
We all froze and pretended like this didn’t hit us like brick, and ate slowly not making eye contact with you. You were laughing, actually, which is something that you didn’t do anymore. We were holding our breath, expecting something to fall apart at any second.
Your sister started singing country. Apparently, since moving to Texas, you had both acquired quite an ear for country music. You laughed an almost laugh as if you were trying to squeeze the laughter like it was in a toothpaste tube. She invited you to help her sing, and my stomach knotted up in excitement. Your seemingly apprehensive smile was consent enough, and she ran over to the other side of the table to stand behind your chair for maximum dramatic effect. I didn’t know the song, but I didn’t care in the slightest. Your hands were feebly gripping that imaginary microphone, the dried up bits of performer making their last appearance. I knew that it was your last appearance. It wasn’t a whole song, and you stayed sitting throughout, but we all needed that. You needed that. When you finished, she went and sat down, and I excused myself to cry in the bathroom.
We cried because we were selfish. We cried because we were weak. And when you were gone, we cried. We cried separately and all at once, waves of crying overtaking us, swallowing us. But you were the most vulnerable out of all of us. You only cried once, and I wasn’t even supposed to see it. It was an accident that I saw. I don’t cry about you anymore.
I sing Backstreet Boys in the car sometimes and my mom says, “You look just like Stephanie.”
Marisa Clogher is a student at Loyola. She is an intern at Neutrons Protons.