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Sisters

by Mara Phillips

Something More Beautiful

I look exactly like my sisters, except I am taller than both of them. We were called the trilogy at our high school, all with long, flowing brown hair and dark eyes, smiles perfected by braces. April is two years older than I, and Julia two years younger. We are the original three children of a marriage that ended before my cognitive memory began. We grew up shuffling between polar-opposite homes, forced to understand and swallow the unique bitterness of each of our parents, loving them both completely yet separately. We are the only link between those two now-estranged people, products of a love that has been lost. It is a strange, limbo-like place, a suspension in time where the arms of my sisters and I can reach each side of the pain and experience our own, yet we will never be able to console, we will never be able to draw together into a healing embrace.

I have faith, though, that God never ends something without beginning something more beautiful. This separation between our parents only made the bond between me and my sisters stronger. Whether we were making the sixteen-hour trip from our Dad’s in Florida to our Mom’s in Arkansas, or just making the drive to school, we were all in it together, ready to talk, ready to listen, ready to comfort. When life starts to spin too fast I think back to jokes told on road trips, secrets whispered under the cover of tents made out of bed sheets, bursts of laughter through tears.

“Julz, go to sleep.”

“Wait, Mara, do you remember when Aunt Linda used to tell us that if we didn’t stop crawling under the dinner table during supper that a big, slimy tongue would come and lick us?!”

“No, Julz, I don’t recall.”

“Do you remember, April?”

“You always get it wrong. It’s that if you don’t go to sleep a big, slimy tongue is going to come and lick you. Good night, guys.”

“Night.”

“Night, John Boy.”

Theme Music

I wish I could remember all our conversations in the car. That was my favorite time of day, sitting shotgun next to April, making the fifteen mile drive from Bronson to Newberry, the Alachua county line separating home from high school. We were running late most of the time, probably my fault; I could never get up in the morning or get into the habit of picking my clothes out the night before. April’s red Grand Am pushed seventy on the narrow two-lane road. Julia and I kept watch for cops, imagining red and blue lights on the tops of every car that passed, tricked by the mixture of fear and fog. And of course there was that spot on the edge of the asphalt. “Aah, got me!” April would yell. I would sit in the front seat imagining what would happen if she didn’t jerk her wheel to the left to get her right front tire back on the road. We would go into the tall, yellow grass, hit that barbed wire fence, maybe then a cow, if one was close enough. I loved that spot. It could end the silence of a groggy morning or inject laughter into a fiery argument. Those bumps in the road, the potholes, they make life interesting.

What did we talk about? We talked about boys, I know that much. I had a new one every month, or so April would complain. My only defense was that I was easily infatuated and easily bored. April had one boyfriend. He possessed an attractive, distant nature. It made April want to dig deep into his soul, to reverse the hurt that built the walls inside him. She spent three years trying to fix him, but she was the one who was almost broken in the end. I fell into the same trap later in life, so I understand. It is a fatal flaw of femininity: that “I can change him” mentality. Julia sat in the backseat, leaning forward, resting her elbows on the center consol. “Just break up with him,” an ambivalent observation from an inexperienced middle school student. Looking back on it, though, she was the voice of Reason.

April used to say, and Julia and I agreed, that if life had theme music, like that of a scary movie, she would go crazy. We did have theme music, though, just the good kind. From N’Sync to Joni Mitchell, we sang our way to school. I know every word to almost every Mariah Carey song. April’s car had an antifreeze leak causing the air from the vents to smell sweet like syrup. We would catch the scent each time we drew a deep breath to belt out the high notes. This is why, strangely enough, eating pancakes reminds us of Mariah Carey. We would strain to successfully pronounce every syllable of Savage Garden’s “Chica-cherry Cola,” and The Bare Naked Ladies’ “One Week” was always a good challenge. I think our favorite singer was Jewel. “Who Will Save Your Soul?” was one of my first true acknowledgments of God. My sisters and I sang “You Were Meant for Me” with such a passion, adapting it to the fickle romantic situations in our own lives. We’ll get back together…you were meant for me.

Cigarette Smoke

We are on our way to Arkansas, but we stopped at our Aunt Linda’s to rest overnight. Our Uncle Charlie made us a huge breakfast of pancakes and sausage. He ate with us out on the screen-in porch and then retreated to his tool shed to escape being overwhelmed by so many women in the house at one time. It’s funny; he has three daughters and only one son. He should be used to us women by now. We sit in the living room, surrounded by the smoke from mom and Aunt Linda’s cigarettes. There is a stick of incense burning on the coffee table. I breathe deep, letting the mixture of smoke permeate my memory. This place could tell the story of my childhood. The furniture, the bird cages, that old piano, they all know me.

“It’s almost like a state of mind,” Julia said last night as we lay in our cousin’s bed. “It’ll never change. Coming back here always makes the present drift away.”

Mom sits on a stool at the bar drinking coffee and lamenting to her sister over her failed marriage with my step-dad. Their voices are quiet, but Julia and I know we’re allowed to listen. Julia sits in the corner chair rocking slowly back and forth, Joey, Aunt Linda’s Chihuahua, pacing in front of her feet. I wish April didn’t have to work this summer. She should be here to see this, to feel this. I strum Uncle Charlie’s out-of-tune guitar carelessly, softly singing the only Jewel song I know how to play. Finally I put down the instrument and pick up one which I am more skilled at: my pen and my journal. I look at my mom and my aunt; I study how their faces are like mine. I jot down a poem encompassing what it feels like to sit here in this moment. It takes only a minute before I have three short stanzas. I scribble the title “Sisters” above them. I can’t wait for April to read it. Julia catches my eyes from across the room and raises her eyebrows. We both smile.