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 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
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
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