My sister Maria dies twice. First she is swinging blue from the basement ceiling and revived. Then, she is a vegetable taken off of life support.
But maybe she really dies before all of that, back when her bedroom floor is littered with plastic vodka bottles and her bag rattles with un-prescribed pills; when her eyes are black and I tell my mother, “She’s high.”
“She’s just tired.” I am tired too. Of the midnight phone calls and tears, my mother begging me, asking what to do while I slice deep into my leg and bleed. My voice stays steady. But she doesn’t really listen anyway, doesn’t hear the 20 stitches knotted in my skin. I do what I do best; I become the wallpaper.
My younger sister has always been the bane of my existence; shared bedrooms, sixteen months and many worlds apart from each other. Maria is the pretty one; everyone says. Social butterfly with boyfriends and first kisses a decade before me. School dances and passing notes in class with the popular girls. Even she calls me “freak,” and “loser.” I know she’s right. I’m the quiet one. I am the weird one buried beneath boys’ clothes with a curtain of dark hair covering my face. Then later I cut it short and dye it every shade of kool-aid. I find beauty in neon and safety-pins, patches stitched to studded jackets. I don’t care if people think I am the ugliest thing in the world; they see someone, stare, so I know that I am there.
But deep down I wish I know how to be acceptable, how to sit at high school lunch tables instead of hiding. Maria seems to have everything going for her. But our father calls her an air-head, and she pretends to not be smart. I write papers for her, sometimes from hospital beds. She graduates college years before me. She is almost like an older sister and I secretly wish for her approval. I want her to love me.
The year Maria is twenty-two her hair begins to fall out in giant clumps. Left in shower drains and pillow cases. Soon there are bald spots, then just a few strands of hair. “Alopecia,” the doctors say. At first I am almost pleased; now she will know what it’s like to be different, a freak. Maybe it will make her a better person. But then I see how destroyed she is. All of her value has been placed on pretty, and the best wigs in the world don’t make her feel any better. Instead, she begins to resent, to curl up in bitterness. When other people have something she wants, she sees it as being taken from her.
This is when the dying begins, though I don’t know it then. I am just angry she is overshadowing me, my hospitalizations never a topic of conversation, just what Maria is doing, how she held a knife to my brother and screams at my mother. I just wish for her to go away, to stop consuming everyone. I want to wave my arms and shout I’m here, I’m here! But in the competition of who can be the loudest, Maria is the one who gets heard. I stew in silent resentment, carving up my limbs and whittling away my body.
While my mother is busy with Maria’s histrionics, my father sits in the same chair all day long and wails crocodile tears as he knocks back Sambuca. He plots and stages pseudo-suicide attempts, timed exactly for when my mother brings my youngest sister home from school. I beg her to call the police. The house is on fire and no one will put it out. “I have to work in this town,” she says. So we suffer silently pretending everything is just fine.
Until we can’t. Until my father stops paying the mortgage and our house goes into foreclosure. Everyone has given up. Dishes pile in the sink, flies gather, and my father’s accusations and pleads for pity are their own presence in the house, hovering heavy. I toss my belongings in dumpsters, trying to free myself from all the weight. The rest I leave behind, too sad to dispose of and too empty to care. Even my beloved drum set is left in the basement to gather dust, and I don’t look back. This is the giving up, the point where I decide not to dream anymore, where I devote myself to disappearing.
Maria stops calling me for advice. Instead, she calls me a bitch. She hates me for having a boyfriend, for having anything she doesn’t. When she briefly goes to rehab after crashing our grandmother’s car while high, she writes me a letter. I am too angry to open it. I don’t want to hear her accuse or apologize. I am done with her, with being used and silenced. The last conversation we ever have, before I block her number from my phone, she tells me, “I hope you starve yourself to death.”
“I hope so too,” I respond.
“Maria killed herself,” is the phone call I receive at work. I split from my body try to absorb meaningless words, grasp them with hands like sieves. No. My sister is not a dead person; that makes no sense. A mistake has been made. They should be saying that about me.
A mistake has been made. Maria isn’t yet dead; she revived and hooked up to machines, brain dead. Where does an almost-suicide go, before it is complete? Before an attempt becomes an ending? I imagine her hovering somewhere above the hospital room I refuse to visit, a noose around her neck and her finger pointed at me. Because of course she wants me dead too. I feel haunted by my undead sister.
But I also feel rage creeping up. Because she beat me to it, beat me at the one thing I am good at, the one thing I have power over: dying. Maria is a success. She stole it from me.
The plugs are pulled in three days, her organs given out to save strangers. Are their lives better because my sister died?
In some ways mine is; there are no more 2a.m. phone calls or car crashes. There is also never any funeral, just ashes. I realize that Maria isn’t gone; now she is a new hole in my life of what was and what will never be, all the birthdays that pass as our youngest sister will soon become the older sister. She is unanswerable questions and piles of clothes and empty cigarette packs on the floor of a room. When people ask me how many sisters I have, I still say two.