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Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco


There is still some afternoon sunshine drying up along the edges of the garden, but Kelly always chooses to sit in a spot where the warmth can’t hit her.

Our parents are having a party for my uncle’s college graduation. They always have the parties here, because it is universally acknowledged amongst the family members that we have the best house. It is a tall Victorian in an architecturally noted neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s never sunny in San Francisco, but when it is, it’s sunny here.

Today it’s sunny.

Kelly could use some color, too, she’s pale and thin this summer, and it doesn’t help that she recently painted her nails (fingers and toes) completely black—or that she is wearing sandals (which she never does, normally) for the sole purpose of showing all our parents’ friends how rebellious she can be.

No one talks to her because one knows what to say. Also because it is not a party for us, it is a party for my uncle’s college graduation.

My uncle is thirty-five, which is, I guess, not that old, but it’s old for him to have just finished college. My mother says all the time that he just runs at a different pace. By that, she means that he runs really slowly. He finished a half-marathon last year, but it took him over four hours. Still, he brings it up all the time and every time he does, Kelly rolls her eyes and changes the subject. Kelly does not believe in physical activity. My uncle doesn’t really have that many friends, so most of the people here are friends of the family. Most of their kids made reasons not to come and so it’s just us and the parents. The parents are acting like they have finally entered their natural habitat and can express their true selves at last. No one wanted to see their true selves, especially not me, and especially especially not Kelly.

I keep watching Kelly, but I don’t think I can really see her. It might be that she’s always too close. She is sitting on the top of this stone wall that my dad built twelve years ago, and that sounds like it shouldn’t be weird when I put it like that, so I have to tell you about how the wall is only one stone high, and so her skinny little legs are all scrunched up akimbo, and if you look really carefully you can completely see up her skirt.

I hope no one is looking up her skirt.

It’s okay that I keep looking, disgusted, because it’s not like it’s anything that I don’t, in one way or another, have too. Which makes it unfair for her to sit like that, because she’s not just exposing herself, she’s exposing me. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Kelly always does everything bigger. I told her that, once, while we were playing Scrabble one night in the kitchen, and she said, well, you would know about bigger, wouldn’t you?

I guess I would.

I go and sit down next to her. There is no one here I want to talk to.

“What are you doing?” I ask, scanning the crowd. Our mother is smiling and laughing and hugging people, like she’s at one of those boring high school reunions they make all those sappy old-person movies about. Our father is pouring more drinks.

“Nothing. What does it look like?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s pretty boring.”

“It’s always boring here. I only even talk to you to break up the monotony.”

“Nice, Kelly. I’m so glad I sat down here.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I know.”

I see a friend of my father’s from his office cast a suspicious look between Kelly’s legs, up her skirt. She is wearing hot pink underwear. Hot pink underwear under a sheer white skirt, with a black long-sleeve shirt over everything (like it’s some sort of cover), and then the sandals and the black toenails that look like decay on the ends of her too-pale feet. She looks like a mess. She looks like a cartoon vampire. From certain angles, I think she looks beautiful.

I glare at my father’s friend and cross my own legs. He catches himself, smiles apologetically, walks away. I saw how he looked at her, though, like he wanted to pin her against the old wood fence and eat her up. I saw how shocked he looked by what she was doing. I hate Kelly so much right now, putting us both out in the open. But I still can’t leave her yet; she’s the only person I ever feel safe with.

“I saw how you were eating, just now,” she says, gesturing with one shoulder at the healthy buffet table. I have just come from sampling carrot sticks in homemade onion dip and hummus spread over pita and topped with black olives. The smell of Brie probably wafts spikily against my breath every time I inhale. At the buffet table, I had felt virtuous, well, and Mediterranean, imagining the nutrients trans-substantiated into glowing flesh spreading like balm over my non-remarkable bones. I like that: trans-substantiated nutrition.

“It makes me sick the way you eat like that,” she says, “looking at you is like knowing what I would look like if I ever stopped doing this. It would be hideous. I would die. I would kill myself.”

You’re killing yourself now, I think, but there’s no reason to go there, and besides, I’m probably not even right. Next year, I am going to go to UC Santa Cruz, which to most California families would be prestigious and noteworthy. My father and mother, though, despite my mother’s vapid sorority routine, met at Harvard. We were willing to give you the world, they told me. Evidently, the world does not include California’s storied and beautiful Central Coast. I am never good enough, my brain recites mechanically, and I feel the food I just enjoyed turn into substance-less ashes in my stomach.

“I know you think that I’m dying,” she says, not bothering to look at me, “but that’s only because you don’t have the self-control to see it the way I do. You have to make yourself content with what you are, because otherwise you’d go crazy. You can’t love the lines and bones and symmetry of what I have, because it would defeat you. You can’t appreciate the lack of waste.”

I am a waste, is what she wants me to think—I know it because she has told me before. I am a complete and utter waste.

Already (I know because I noticed them before) there are ten empty wine bottles in the recycling bin. Every time someone comes close to finishing what’s on a serving plate, my mother dumps it into the sink, to be dealt with later. Most of the people at this party are wearing new, fashionable clothes, and they all arrived in separate cars. It’s a beautiful day, but we’re not acting like we care.

Being so close, it’s almost as if I can read Kelly’s mind. We are the pollutants, she is thinking at me, we are the problem, and none of our accomplishments even matter.

“They always loved you more anyway,” I mutter, “I don’t know why you keep doing this to everyone.”

Kelly stretches her arms out over her head and I can see the ripples of her ribs outlined against her black shirt. Her thighs look like they are a foot apart, even though her knees are touching. Her hair is still long, but it’s lank and slightly greasy. She doesn’t wear much makeup, and her face looks almost blue in the shadowy light that’s leaving the garden. She looks dead. For a second I can see the way she would look—the way I would look—and it makes the nape of my neck itch and the color rush to my face in defiance.

“You hate me,” she says, “because you don’t understand what it is to be truly beautiful. I wish you could see that I’m only trying to help you.”

My thighs rub together and my pants tighten against my sides. I am wearing lip-gloss, pretty shoes, and a new sleeveless shirt. I watch Kelly stare at the slight rounds of my shoulders and roll her eyes. I see my mother approaching, carrying a tray full to the cusp with homemade deviled eggs.

“You know you want more food,” Kelly says, “just go take it.”

“Sweetie, there you are!” says my mother. “Don’t you want something to eat? I need to fatten you up before you starve to death on all that horrible dorm food!”

I see my arm as I reach out to take an egg—I hear my uncle’s laugh distorted and strange somewhere from inside the house—for a moment the strangeness turns to clarity, and I see that my arm is frail as a winter branch on a sapling, that I shiver with the effort of simply reaching for the food.

It tastes like fat and nutrient and love. It burns me at first. I swallow and feel it start to spread to my famished cells and skin and hair.

My mother smiles at me. “We’re proud of you, sweetie,” she says, looking, for a second, like the mother I remember from third grade.

I smile back at her.

When I look across at the low stone wall again, Kelly has disappeared.

©2010 by Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco

Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco is a part-time community college instructor, part-time freelance writer, and full-time mother to a toddler. She lives in California's Central Valley with her husband and young son, and enjoys reading, writing, wine, and running -- although not always in that specific order.

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