I can hear the music leaking from the pink earbuds that have snaked their way over her chest and into the port of her cracked phone; She’s snuck into my room again through the fire escape. Probably because this is where all of her secrets live. My sister flicks her thumb over the screen as her slender body leaves a warm imprint in my freshly made bed.
For the hundredth time in our lives, I am unnerved by her beauty. It shoots down from her thick, almost black hair, across her broad but delicate shoulders, and it swoops alongside the narrow curve of her waist. It’s undeniable along the powerful, and feminine, legs that end in an unfortunate tangle of fleshy knots and callouses she calls feet just inches above the pillow where I sleep.
I open my mouth in preparation for a tongue lashing, but I think twice and exhale into the stale room; When did the air get so heavy? It makes me think of succumbing to the floor’s gravitational pull and melting into the scratchy fibers of my carpet, but I don’t. I want to bond with her, for her to tell me everything. For her to still invite me to her dance recitals. To give her advice on boys and periods and sex and school. I want to feel like her sister again rather than two people who happen to share a bloodline acting cordial with one another because Mom and Daddy love each other so much that they want to pull you apart and live in separate apartments. I am her big sister. There must be some…
“I met a boy the other day,” I say to her with shallow excitement.
She jerks an earbud free and hops up from the bed, gracefully slicing the air with her toes pointed by default and lightly padding across the floor. In a flash, my phone is gone, and I’m only slightly worried by my lack of reflexes as she slides a finger across the screen to hunt for evidence or catch me in a lie.
“You really should put a lock on your phone. If this thing gets swiped, you’re screwed.”
“So I see.” I look over her shoulder and see her shiny blue nail dancing through text messages.
“His name is Brandon. Brandon Davis. I’ve got him on F-”
“Shh, oh my God. Could you be anymore fucking awkward in your text messages? I’m confiscating your phone.”
“What do you mean? I just kid around a lot…sometimes he doesn’t get it.” I shrug.
“Yeah, well some guys might find it a little disturbing when they ask you out and you respond, ‘Wait, we haven’t even discussed rates yet, ‘smiley face’.”
“Oh, come on. How could he not see that as a joke?” I reach around and pull up more messages. “See, I wrote ‘hahahahaha’ and told him not to take me seriously.”
“Hm, and I also noticed that he started taking hours to respond to you after that, dorkus.”
I snatch my phone back. Maybe that was an idiotic thing to do. But I already did it and he’s still talking to me, so, I must be doing something right. Right?
“Does he have a Facebook?”
“That’s what I was trying to tell you before you decided to invade my phone.”
I open the laptop on the desk in front of me and point and click and clack when necessary until his face appears frozen on the left side of the page. My sister leans in closer, and I can tell she’s trying to decide whether or not his strange mustache is working. I didn’t need to stare. I had done so plenty of times already. Last Tuesday, his mother commented that he ought to shave it off, and Eric Dawson agreed that he was “walkin’ pedo territory” and that he should stay at least 500 feet from the playgrounds.
His older sister, Carrie, who lives in San Francisco with her two ridiculously handsome sons, also likes the crispy brown lip broom (according to her, “Sweet stache, baby bro” comment). Her eldest son is the funny one, always taking in forefront of his mother’s videos. An adorable family. I can tell they’re all pretty close, especially considering Brandon has dedicated entire albums to his sweet little nephews. He’s in most of Carrie’s family photos, too, but not as much as Chase. I don’t know Collin’s deal, his profile is private. But I do know he’s second after Carrie, but before Brandon, who is followed by the youngest, Ryan. It must be hard for him to form any real attachments to them since he has to live back and forth between New York and California.
“He’s cute,” my sister says. “When are you going to meet him again?”
“I’m not sure. He’s probably not even that into me.”
“Livy, the fact that he actually kept responding to you after your prostitute joke must mean something.”
We mirror each others brow-raised look and burst into laughter. It’s nice having her around. She keeps me distracted.
I look down at my watch, 11:32. Shit. I’ve only got twenty-eight minutes to get to my doctor’s appointment.
“Come with me to the Upper East Side. He works around there. We can make a stop.”
“I look like crap! I am in no condition to meet boys! Ugh.”
She flutters about the room, jerking the mahogany chest drawers open and flinging clothes onto the bed. I resist the urge to remind her that she no longer owns anything in those drawers. Her outfit seemingly chosen, too short and too tight, she rushes back over to my desk, now vanity, and paints her already full lashes with a jet black liquid; hair is gathered and twirled until a tight knot rests at the top of her head. She fumbles through her fringed suede purse and draws a small tin stuffed with a waxy mauve pigment. With strategic pats, her face begins glowing and her reflection starts radiating light.
“That’s how you’re going?” She asks through puckered lips.
I look down at my jeans and KISS t-shirt and shrug. “Pretty much.”
“Jesus, come here.” She pulls my face towards hers and begins plucking and brushing with practiced fingers, applying creams and powders; giving my lashes and lips the same treatment as hers. She flits back to what used to be our closet and selects a floral summer dress that hugs me at the waist and reveals my slightly overdeveloped cleavage. I see a glimmer of jealousy in her eye, but she knows she’ll get there in a couple of years.
I look into the mirror, surprised and pleased with my new face, but anxious that I’m going to be late. Dr. Lacho hates it when I’m late.
We listen to all of the songs she likes on the radio and I feel like an old fool for not know that these hoes ain’t loyal. She’s sitting in the passenger seat, slunk down low with her hideous feet encased in Converses above the glove box. Ever since I was a child I feared getting into an accident and my shins shattering, bone fragments piercing through me.
“You should keep your feet down. Don’t want to get impaled.”
“What?” My sister asks, still tapping along to the thumping in our speakers.
The only time I use my car in the city is to get to and from my appointments because Dr. Lacho says it’s a necessary evil, and I just can’t do trains. The funk and the crazies. There’s just way too much going on for me. Especially after that one time I was groped on the platform. And let’s not even get started on the rats.
Within thirty-nine minutes we’re double parked in front of 250 East 72nd street.
“Just wait for me down here. I’ll be quick.”
“Yup, hurry up though. I want to meet this guy.”
“Um, yeah. He’s only a few blocks down. Sit tight.”
Crap. I don’t know why it begins to dawn on me at this moment that I’m going to see Brandon. I can be pretty brave after midnight when I’m alone with just the glow of my screen, but I begin sweating and breaking out into hives when I talk to someone I like.
“Hey, Ernesto. Just here for my weekly.” The security guard looks up from his AM New York and nods.
What am I supposed to say to him? The last time we were face to face I was pretty certain I was going to vomit on or around him. What can I get for you? Grande caramel macchiato with an extra shot of espresso. And extra caramel. Got it. Nice to see you again. (Flashes me The Eyes). It sounds insignificant, but there was something in the tone. I swear. You had to be on the other side of that counter with me.
The elevator dings when I reach the eleventh floor and the dense oakiness of Dr. Lacho’s incense battles the oxygen in my lungs. Marta greets me with a curt glance over her crinkly eye bags and I take a seat in the waiting room slash showroom for Frankfurt Lacho’s creeptastic dollhouse collection. They say psychiatrists have to see psychiatrists too. But they’re all pretty unique and studying them helps pass the time. Quite interesting when you get over the initial shock of it. One house is Christmas themed, equipped with tiny working lights trailing over Jolly Santa’s sleigh and swirled around plastic evergreens. The fake snow is some kind of soft white powdery glitter Marta probably had to drive out to Michael’s to retrieve which sprinkles onto the blue carpet every time you flip the pages of Family Circle; a neat little halo is underneath the display and each week I wonder when Marta is going to get off her ass and dust bust that crap up.
The eleven AM appointment stomps out of his office, head slung low and dabbing her eyes with crusty wads of tissue, as per usual. See, they always run late anyway. Dr. Lacho materializes behind her in one of his pale yellow seersucker suits, masked with the same bored expression he always wears and mumbles my name from beneath his pencil thin mustache.
Our usual conversation ensues, and I walk out the door with three new refills.
My sister is still gyrating in the passenger seat and I’m relieved. For some reason I thought she would evaporate into the streets of the city and I would spend the next five hours scouring bodegas and dumpsters only to find her coiled in the arms of a bearded stranger under the shadows of lonely bar lamps.
“You ready?” she asks. “Where’s he work?”
It’s the middle of July and even though my old Toyota is clinking out semi-chilled puffs of air, I can feel the salty beads of sweat escaping from my pores and smearing my makeup.
“Let’s find parking first,” I say with what I hope is confidence.
I lallygag for six blocks until some jerk in a Ford Focus flags us down to inherit his parking space on 74th street. My sister knows me.
“We don’t have to go, you know? Dad’s probably flipping shit that I haven’t checked in yet anyway.”
“I know,” I smile.
We’re blasted with frosty air and a Michael Bublé soundtrack as we walk into the coffee shop. Brandon is buzzing behind the counter, fondling a beastly espresso machine while extracting orders from the dazzled caffeine hounds. My sister nudges me and whispers, “he’s cute”, floating over to a table where the occupants are just finishing up their blueberry scones.
I head for the back of the line, forgetting the mechanics of walking like a normal person and wondering if I have ever walked properly. He doesn’t notice me yet, but I don’t want to keep staring in case he catches my gaze, but at the same time I hope he doesn’t think I’m not interested. The girl in front of me is tightly packed into liquid gray yoga pants and a matching tank top, both of which I envy because they’re probably sweat proof, and I begin tracing constellations between the freckles on her shoulder blades. Only four people left. Three. Two. Yoga pants orders a venti nonfat mocha latte.
“Hey! The usual?”
Oh my god.
“Yeah, thanks. And a grande hot chocolate with a shot of hazelnut. Can you drizzle some caramel on top of that, too?” Smile, don’t be weird.
“Sure. Did you trek all the way from Brooklyn for me?” He jokes.
“No,” I chuckle. “My doctor is just up the street. And I’m with my kid sis. She’s at a table over there.”
I gesture to the tables behind me and Brandon frowns as he searches the crowd for a girl that looks like me. He grins when thinks he spots her.
“So what are you guys getting into today?” His hands are quick and I’m running out of time.
“Um, nothing really. I’ve got to get her back to Brooklyn soon, though.”
“Why don’t you swing by my place before you go? My roommate is moving back to Rhode Island and we’re having a little going away thing.” The orders are complete and he slides the scalding paper cups towards me.
“On the house.” Wink.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds great!” Tone it down, Liv. “Just text me the address.”
“Will do,” he smiles and diverts his attention to the suit behind me.
Fingertips burning, I navigate over cords and past awkward interviews to the lone table where my sister sits by the window. The afternoon sun picks up the auburn hues on her head, only visible in the natural light, and the short strands of hair stand at attention, broken from too many passes of the blow dryer and tight buns. I don’t know why she hates her dark ringlets. They’re the only beautiful thing our mother gave us. When I sit down she looks at me and the beverage in front of her with bewilderment, but shrugs it off in an instant.
“Why didn’t you come over and say hi?”
“I didn’t want to ruin the moment,” she smirks. “He’s really fucking hot. Nice job, sis.”
I hate it when she uses profanity.
“He invited us to his place for a party.”
Her eyes grow wide and the cinnamon flecks in her velvety irises come to life in the sunlight.
“Oh my god! Holy shit. Wait, are you going? Are we going?” I don’t want to disappoint her. I love seeing her so warm and animated. We only get to see these pure moments when she dances on stage. When her lithe body and the music harmonize and your soul becomes entranced by the stories they tell. No one breathes when she is up there; terrified that one breath too heavy will propel the twirling girl upward and away forever.
But we don’t see her dance anymore.
It’s reserved for her and the strangers in the audience. After the divorce she needed to distance herself, from all of us.
“I think you should let Dad know first,” I say. “Plus, I have the car. And I don’t feel like driving around all day.”
“I already told Daddy I was staying with you,” she says. “You have a good spot up here anyway. Let’s just hop on the train and pick it up later. Pleeeease.”
This isn’t a good idea.
A text vibrates the phone in the worn red purse on my lap.
68 Water Street. Ring 35. Apt 24L
Ty will be there. He’s cool. Be there in prob 2 hrs
Seven seconds pass and there is a final buzz.
Hope you come cutie 😉
My sister has already plucked the phone from my trembling hands and waits a few seconds before responding.
“Guess we’re going after all,” her grin is devilish and I am nauseated.
We leave the coffee shop and her untouched drink.
Black spots are already dotting my vision as we descend into the foul underground sauna.
Immediately, foreign bodies are bumping against me and I feel the cotton and polyester, the rayon and sometimes silk. We walk down to the middle of the platform against the echoing blasts of train horns and the stench of soiled sleepers. My sister doesn’t speak to me. One earbud is lodged in the side of her head, but there isn’t any sound dripping out and into the heaviness of the station. She’s quietly preparing herself for my inevitable breakdown and casually tapping her foot to a beat that doesn’t exist. I see the light of the train creeping towards us in the distance. It’s brighter than the other beams that illuminate other rusty subway lines. It belongs to one of the newer models; the ones that speak to you and tell you things you should already know.
The steel doors hesitate to open for me, but once they do, even hotter air presses against my damp skin. My sister pulls me into the car.
I don’t make eye contact when I’m on the train. I just stare at the repetitive advertisements underneath the smudged plastic cases. Even when they’re not in English. Unless it’s Dr. Zizmor. He’s a creep.
The ride is longer than I expected, but my kid sister holds my hand as we rock back and forth on the warm blue seats. Her hands are cold and a relief from the stagnant bubble of people’s breaths. I try to distract myself as the little orange bulbs on the electronic subway map tick off above our heads. I think about when I first held her hand, before her fingers grew so long and before she painted them every color of the rainbow. I think about the first day we met, when our mother placed her on the floral love seat in our living room. I pulled back the tiny pink cap on her head and gazed at the glossy black hair beneath it and smelled how fresh and sweet it was. I was seven and she was new.
The train halts at Fulton Street and I don’t want to go. We exit briskly, two steps at a time, and I don’t even care that people can look up my dress. Up above there is still daylight and we are safe. I hate coming down to the financial district. The buildings make be feel like I’m too small, almost small enough to slip down into the subway grates. We search for Sixty-Eight down the seedy alleyways and I have my army knife at the ready in my palm. When we finally reach the heavy black door, I press thirty-five and wait forever to hear the crackled buzz over the intercom. My chest is still tight on the way up and I think about how I am sacrificing my sanity for my baby sister. She’s jittery, alive, and ready to capture the attention of Brandon’s friends with her genuine laugh and twinkling eyes.
I push the black doorbell.
“Hey…” Ty, The Roommate, beer in hand, gives me a questioning look, but doesn’t hesitate in letting us in.
There are only a handful of people strewn about the small living room dense with weed smoke, just enough people to quicken the blood rush to my head.
“I gotta pee. I’ll be right back.” My sister darts into the open bathroom to my right.
“Hey! I feel like I know you from somewhere.” A young voice reaches me over the sharp music radiating from the speaker system.
“No, I don’t think so,” I say to the girl swaying in front of me.
“That’s so weird, I swear–I swear we know each other,” she insists.
“Sorry, don’t know.” The bathroom door is open and the light is off. “Have you seen my sister?” I look around at the people who have stopped in the middle of their conversations about nothing to watch this scene. Their joints are burning and their beers are going flat, all because this tiny girl is already drunk before the moon is out and tugging on my dress.
“Did you ever – did you ever work at Berry?” she hiccups.
“I really think you’ve got the wrong person,” I start to back away slowly and land into Ty’s chest. His beer spits onto the hardwood, but he flashes me a smile from beneath his scruffy beard to reassure me that he’s accustomed to this. To girls falling all over him and melting into his warm, brown eyes. We gaze at one another for just a moment, but it’s long enough for me to forget about why I am here and who I am waiting for.
“Your hands are empty,” he gives me a coy and crooked smile. “Let’s fix that.”
He walks me over to the kitchen, the mindless banter has already resumed and the drunk girl is being reprimanded by her friends.
“What’s your drink?” Ty asks.
“Oh, I don’t really drink,” I admit. “But I’ll take whatever you’re having. That’s fine.”
He leans into the refrigerator and retrieves a brown bottle that hasn’t chilled yet, and searches around for something to open it with.
“Here,” I reveal the red pocketknife that’s been sliding around in my wet hand.
“You really carry this around like that?” he laughs.
“You can never be too careful,” I smile back. He takes this as a joke.
I don’t know where my sister is, but I imagine that she’s safe in the den when I allow Ty to lead me into his room to show me a 1934 Royal typewriter. She wouldn’t leave without me.
Before I can regret my decision, his firm mouth is against mine and my back is against a Scarface poster. It’s twenty-one seconds of groping and rubbing until we hear failed whispers on the other side of the door.
“I know where that chick is from,” the drunk girl says. “We went to the same high school.”
I begin to panic and moan to distract Ty.
“Dude, she killed her own sister.”
“Car wreck, two years ago. It was like, everywhere for weeks. They even shut down the school for a couple of days.”
Ty is no longer kissing me, but trying to read my expression, trying to understand why my body is no longer trembling in response to his heat. I am perfectly still. I am more calm than I have ever been before. My shiny blue nails are digging into his flesh, but he only winces with pleasure, interpreting this contact as encouragement. He kisses my neck and we fall into the bed, onto the sheets that are still rumpled and under the tinkering ceiling fan. I let him fuck me. I let him fuck me even though I can’t feel anything because I know that he doesn’t feel anything either. She’s no longer with me and I don’t know when I will see her again, but I know she’ll come crawling through my bedroom window again to curl up alongside me, just like always.
“So that’s it. The night I…you know…lost my virginity, an entire room full of strangers found out about her.”
Doctor Lacho sits patiently across from me with his legs crossed, his chin resting in the palm of his dry hand.
I continue, “It was crazy. I felt numb, but relieved and terrified at the same time. The whole thing was confusing. I don’t think that guy even noticed, but I felt it.”
“What did you feel?” He prods.
“I felt like—like I had just been released from a hole in the ground that I dug for myself. I knew people would give me weird looks once I walked out of the room, but it was okay because I could finally stretch my body again. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
“This is great news. I’m very proud of you for reaching this new breakthrough and recognizing the difference between how you were living.”
I smile weakly. “Yes, I feel better. Thanks.”
As I book my next session with Marta, I revisit the night of my “breakthrough” last week. It hadn’t happened according to plan, obviously, and I didn’t know what I was going to do the minute I walked out of Ty’s room. The people on the other side of that door knew more about me that I had been admitting to myself and I wasn’t sure if I would bulldoze through them or pretend I couldn’t hear them gossiping.
I allowed him to finish, buying myself time to think about what to say to the drunken girl who outed me. I tried to remember the exact number of steps it took for me to get to the bedroom, maybe if I make a quick left…
He was done sooner than I expected and kissed me on my lips, then forehead. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to happen. I didn’t know. I just knew that I was running out of time and soon I would have to face those people with no plan in place. But what I was most afraid of, more than the potential sympathy or worse, condemnation, was that she was gone forever. That the essence of my sister which had stuck by my side all this time was finally going to be released from the prison I had created in my head. I didn’t want her to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, yet again.
“You alright, sweetie?” Marta looks up at me over the rim of her floral glasses.
“Yeah, sorry. I’ll see you next week.”
“Okay, then. You take care of yourself. Did you get your refills?”
“No, yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”
I turn down the hallway and head for the stairwell. When I reach the third floor I hear a voice call after me.
“Hey! Slow down! You know I don’t have your long ass Gumby legs.”
She smiles at me, gracefully floating down the stairs in her converse.”