The Older Sister
Marley and Evelyn were twenty-eight minutes into the required sixty-minute baking time for one application of Orange Mist suntan oil when they heard the crack of the belt buckle.
Evelyn flinched because she was the guest. At her house, the violence was in the silence: eyes glazed over at the television, TV dinners, squashed cockroaches under the stairwell that no one bothered cleaning and the quiet hiccups of her father after his sixth beer. The stagnant air of indifference.
Marley’s family was louder. Marley’s mother was always whining in a nasally voice that her father didn’t get paid enough. Marley’s father was always smooth-talking college girls to finish their fruity drinks at Gully’s. Marley’s brother was always crying.
Like that question with the chicken and the egg, Marley didn’t know what came first: her brother’s tears or her father’s belt. Marley and Evelyn’s seventh-grade teacher said it didn’t matter if the chicken or the egg came first because God created the world in seven days and only He knows.
(Snap. “Please, I didn’t mean to…”)
Marley and Evelyn lay on the floor and waited for the product to dry into streaks of crusty orange as the cacophony of snaps and cries continued.
“Do you think Kayleigh really got her period during Ricky’s bowling party?” asked Evelyn, wincing as bit of the suntan on her left shoulder wiped onto the pink shag rug.
(Snap. A yelp. Snap.)
“I told you already, Erica Lane said she saw the bloodstain and everything. She was wearing white shorts,” said Marley, who fought for information with a gum-snapping ferocity.
(Snap. “Daddy…” Snap. Snap.)
“Now she can get pregnant,” said Evelyn.
“Yeah, I know, I’m not stupid.” (“When a man and a woman love each other, they get so close that his penis slips inside,” her father had told her in a Sonic drive thru. Then he bought her a Cherry Slush.) Marley sat up. Evelyn followed.
Evelyn twisted the blue feather braided into her hair. (Snap.)
Marley picked at her chipped fingernail polish. (Snap.)
Evelyn pinched a pimple behind her left ear. (Snap.)
“What do you think he did?” asked Evelyn, who knew what it was like to have a delinquent brother. Hers was older and claimed he worshipped Satan. Jack smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and kicked their dog, Tater Tot, whenever he came back from work at the gas station. But he still slept with a beanie baby and brought spiders outside instead of killing them.
“I literally have no idea,” Marley lied.
Why couldn’t Sam just follow the rules? He got the unimportant ones, no problem. Eat everything on your plate, don’t track mud inside the house, comb your hair before church. But the important ones, the ones that made Marley’s father get out his belt…
“Do you have any chap stick?” asked Evelyn, pulling her glittery peace sign t-shirt over her belly.
“Can you just be quiet for a second?” snapped Marley. And then: “Sorry, my head hurts from laying under this lamp.”
Boys were supposed to collect dead crickets and animal bones. They were supposed to keep their rock collections cleaner than their dirt-crusted fingernails. They were supposed to prefer bare feet first and sneakers second.
“Did you ever find your Cherry Lip Smackers?” asked Evelyn in a quiet voice. She brought her orange knees up to her chest, wondering where she went wrong.
“You know, I think I left it in Panera,” Marley lied again. She knew who had stolen it since the moment she realized that her unicorn make-up bag was lighter. Gone was the Cherry Lip Smackers, two hair bows from Claire’s, and a crusty bottle of purple nail polish.
Lie. Snap. Lie. Snap.
Marley didn’t know a lot about boys. She hadn’t had her first kiss yet, a shortcoming she blamed on her training bra. But she did know that they didn’t steal their grandmothers’ dangly earrings and silk scarves or clomp around in their mothers’ kitten heels. Especially not twelve-year-old boys.
“Your skin looks really good,” said Evelyn, flashing a smile crammed with braces.
“Thanks,” said Marley. “So does yours.”
“My mom said she can take us to Walmart on Wednesday to buy bathing-suits for Tatum’s pool party.”
“I think I’m going to wear a bikini,” Marley announced.
“Yes,” said Marley. “Erica Lane said we’re probably going to play Seven Minutes in Heaven and I should wear a bikini if I want any of the boys to choose me.”
“Oh,” said Evelyn. “I didn’t know that.”
“You don’t have to wear one,” said Marley quickly. “You look cute in tan-kinis.”
“No, I don’t…”
Marley tried to imagine Sam playing Seven Minutes in Heaven and her mind went blank. Sam had only showed interest in one girl his whole life. He used to follow their babysitter Christine like a puppy, absolutely worship at her. He begged her to let him push her nose ring through the hole, play with her chunky charm bracelet, brush her bangs to the side.
“Look at that,” crooned Marley’s mother as four-year-old Sam tugged at the edge of one of Christine’s corduroy skirts. “A little ladies’ man.”
“You have to go to bed now, Sammy,” Christine would say in a gentle voice after their second story. “I have to do my make-up.”
“Where are you going? Where are you going?” Marley would beg, swelled by fantasies of being a big-girl. Fantasies of going out past eight o’clock with cute boys and music.
“Can I watch?” Sam asked every time.
“One day,” Christine always said, and pinky-swore.
Marley’s father never beat Sam in front of guests, not if he was sober enough to realize who was in the house. Marley felt trapped in the zebra-print wallpapered confines of her bedroom. If she intervened on Sam’s behalf, Evelyn would witness his transgression. What would it be this time? The make-up made Marley’s father’s temper the hottest. Marley can just picture it now: tear-tracks through rouge caked on Sam’s trees, lipstick smeared from pleading.
“I will not allow some eighteen-year-old feminist bitch to turn my son into a faggot,” Marley’s father had roared that November evening when Christine let Sam use her Cherry Lip Smackers. Christine never babysat for them again, and Marley’s father called Sam a faggot more often than Marley remembered to say her prayers at night.
“I’m going to get some Jalapeno poppers from the kitchen. Can you stay here and clean up?” asked Marley, feeling a tug in her chest that pushed her towards her brother.
Marley left the room in a hurry, the air suddenly stifling. She followed Sam’s cries to the bathroom on the second floor, passing the hallway cluttered with picture frames: Marley and Sam smiling in tutus (Marley’s mother refused to take the picture down, despite their father’s insistence) … Marley and Evelyn in tan-kinis back in fifth grade…Marley’s face scrunched up with tears as Sam tugged on her hair at their cousin Lucy’s fairy-themed birthday party.
The picture had always made me Marley uncomfortable. Guests would chuckle at the picture as Marley’s mother led them on a tour.
“Boys,” they always crooned, endeared with Sam’s act of violence.
“We don’t fight,” Marley insisted to them. “Sam doesn’t like to fight.”
She now realized he was reaching for her hair bow.
“Sam?” she called.
“Yes?” a voice sniffled from down the hall.
He was a sorry sight when she reached him. Hunched on the toilet like a lost bird, shoulder blades protruding. The welts were already visible on his bare back, crisscrossed like train tracks designed by a drunk architect.
Marley suddenly felt a ball of shame squeeze its way down her throat like a SweeTart you accidentally swallow before chewing. She could have stopped it this time, she should have stopped it this time…
“Hey, Sammy,” she said. His head snapped up; Christine was the only one to ever call him Sammy.
(“Sammy is a girly name,” their father had declared. “If people are so retarded that they can’t call you Samuel, they can shorten it in to Sam. But no ‘Sammy.’”)
It was just as Marley had suspected: make-up. His cheeks were runny with mascara tears and his lips were still slightly pink with what looked like Cherry Lip Smackers.
“Here,” Marley said, grabbing a washcloth from the cabinet and soaking it with some face wash and warm water.
She pulled up a stool with a duck painted on it that Sam got as a baby and sat across from him on the toilet.
“Can I wipe your face for you?” He nodded.
They sat there across from each other, sister and brother. Marley gently wiped his face. Sam continued to cry.
“There,” she said when she was done, the way mothers do. Like suddenly everything is all better with a Band-Aid or a sticker after a shot. Mission accomplished.
She looked at him, and all she saw was boy. Eyelashes longer than he deserved, the same blue eyes as her, short hair. She wondered, for a fraction of a second, if Sam felt like he was looking at his reflection instead of his sister. His appearance in another life. A better one.
“It’s going to be okay.” Empty promise. Empty response. Sam barely had enough energy to shrug his shoulders.
Neither of them moved.
Marley suddenly stood up, and Sam shrunk back into a defensive shell. But instead of leaving, she marched to the clean-clothes hamper atop the washing machine. She rifled through it for a second, found a pair of lace underwear that she and Evelyn had bought last week at Victoria’s Secret on a Cherry-Slush bravery high.
“Here,” she said, handing the underwear to her brother. “Put these on, and he won’t be able to see them.”
And for the first time in his life, Sam looked at his sister with an emotion other than jealousy.