Marleana should have had the forgotten, middle-child complex, but instead she was the pretty one, the center of attention, the belle of our familia of women.
It wasn’t just her good looks either. She had a style about her. An energy. When cholas were in, my sister stood in the bathroom forever, aerosol Aqua-Net in one hand, the other hand holding a round bristle brush and bangs that reached for the sky. She’s the one I called when I needed clothes advice. The one who knew about the new trends, or what would look good on your body shape. She was also seven years older than me, so it was almost inevitable that I wanted to be like her.
I cut my hair short in fourth grade to try and match her fashionable bob, but my curly mane would never lie flat. It fluffed where it should have been smooth, tangled where it should be sleek. Later, when I was thirteen, Marleana moved back home with Mom and me. I was an awkward middle school student and Marleana was a sexy young woman: independent, confident, beautiful. She had just turned twenty-one and spent her nights out, her mornings sleeping, and her afternoons working. She had a closet full of clothes I envied; silky dresses, sparkly tops, heels, jackets—everything a tween wants to wear but has no reason to. I would sneak into her room in the morning while she slept, careful not to bump her dresser covered in nail polishes and make-up, quietly sliding the door to her closet open and slipping out a shirt or a dress to wear inappropriately to school. I was already too big to fit into her pants. She’d always been the most petite of us girls, but she was so skinny by then that my size three waist was too big for her clothes. It made me feel fat and ugly.
I didn’t know what meth was then. Or how it made you lose so much weight.
Her independence took another hit when she became pregnant a few months after she moved back home. Our Mom, who gave birth to her oldest at seventeen, was understandably upset. Sure, Marleana was twenty-one, working, and somewhat ready. It was her future baby-daddy, Jose Garcia, that was the problem. One thing that my mother especially hated, was when he’d park his primer-gray, old-school wagon in front of our apartment building, right below my sister’s window, and crank oldies until she came down to talk to him. I remember my mom yelling at Marleana about what a loser he was as the chords of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” could be heard coming through the front windows.
A few weeks later, she moved in with the Garcias, who shortened her name from Marleana to Marlena. A subtle difference, just dropping an A, but it changed her name’s pronunciation. Made it sound more Mexican. I was at the hospital when her first son was born. I saw her exhausted beauty as she held her little miracle. She was glowing brighter than ever before, sweaty hair pulled up in a messy bun, stragglers sticking to her neck. It made me think maybe, someday.
By the time her second son was born (barely a year later), things had changed. I wasn’t living with Mom anymore, didn’t make it to the hospital to see my sister in the glory of motherhood. She had the baby thirty minutes after arriving at the hospital and was released the same day. Without Mom around, I didn’t see my sister and the babies very often. Occasionally, Marleana would call Grandma’s house, where I was staying, and let us know everything was going well. And sometimes she’d stop by with the boys, but not Jose. I would coo and tickle the babies while Grandma tried to get Marleana to eat.
“Oh, you’re so thin, mija,” our grandmother would say to Marleana. “Flacca. Eat something. Let me make you un burrito. A tosdada?”
“No, Grandma, I’m good. I just ate.”
“Just a little something? I have some puerco con chile, I’ll make you a little taco. You need strength for these boys.”
“No, really. I’m fine.”
My junior year I started partying with my friends on the weekends, and as most high schoolers our main goal was often to get alcohol or weed. My sister was a good source for both. I would go over to the Garcia’s, often with my best friend who had a car, and pick up my sister and take her to the store with us. She was always so happy to see me, but never really wanted me to get out of the car and go inside the house. The first time I did, I understood why.
Years before, Jose had begun building a shed, and as his sons began to arrive, he worked to complete it. They were now living in the incomplete room. The structure itself was sound, with a roof and everything, but the inside was unfinished: no insulation, bare plywood floors, and an extension cord that served as electricity. I had dropped by without her knowing I was coming and could tell she was a little flustered at my arrival.
“This is temporary, just until Jose finds another job,” she told me.
“Sure,” I agreed.
“It’s not that bad really, we have a little space heater going at night. It gets hot in here.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just nodded. She had her oldest boy out there with her, and he played on the bed running Crayolas over sheets of notebook paper, making full page rainbows in the wrong colors.
“So what have you been up to?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, taking care of the boys. Joseph is inside sleeping right now. He spends a lot of time inside with Graciela.”
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
As we spoke my sister had gotten comfortable on the floor, leaning up against the mattress and box springs. She had white tennis shoes next to her, and she picked up a white-out pen, like the ones I had used in middle school to paint my nails, and she began coloring the rubber bottoms of the sneakers.
“Is that how you keep your shoes so white?” I asked. Her stuff always retained that new quality, while mine looked worn within hours of the first wear.
“Yeah, I hadn’t done it before. One of Jose’s friends told me about it.”
When we talked about that day later, after she got clean, Marleana would cringe. She’d say ‘Maaaaaaan. I was tweaking so hard then.’ But I didn’t see it. Our family had never lived in a converted shed, but we had definitely been through hard times. I thought my sister and her new family were in transition, about to get a house of their own. I didn’t notice the slightly chemically, plastic smell, or the bits of straws and burnt spoons. I didn’t think of the pimples on my sister’s face as speed bumps, but as a bad breakout. I didn’t know that at the time, San Bernardino County was known as the Meth capital of the U.S. I didn’t understand that statistic in relation to my family. I didn’t see that my sister was an addict.
It wasn’t until the next year, right after my eighteenth birthday, that I began to see. I was back with Mom then, we were living in a cute house, not far from Grandma. Marleana’s first few days with us she slept. Like seventy-two hours straight. I mean, she was up at some points (the boys were staying with us, too), but I just remember her in a pile of blankets in the corner of the living room. I don’t remember if Mom took time off work to help; I’m sure I must have babysat here and there, but mostly I remember how dirty Marleana was.
One night, soon after she was with us, I came back from getting street tacos with a friend. We were sitting down to eat, when Marleana woke up.
“Hey, Sis. You hungry?” I asked.
She nodded, and I passed over the foil packet that contained my four tacos. “Grab one,”
She nodded again and started eating. My friend and I snuck out back to smoke pot before we ate, and when we came back inside all my food was gone.
“You ate them all?” I asked, annoyance clear in my tone.
“Yeah, sorry. They were soo good,” she answered as she slunk back to her corner and into her pile of blankets.
I was pissed. This bitch ate all my tacos! I didn’t understand then that she hadn’t eaten in in who knew how long. That those little tacos were the first bit of nourishment her body had had in far too long. I still feel guilty whenever I think about it.
Days passed. She was having a hard time getting herself together. My sister, my pretty sister, who always fixed herself, now lived in sweats, her long beautiful hair tied haphazardly into a ponytail of knots.
“You have to shower,” Mom told her.
“No!” Marleana would yell in a petulant child voice.
“Yes, Rochelle. Now.” Mom uses middle names when she means business. “I’m starting the shower, you better get in in five minutes.”
It was evening. The boys were in the living room, watching Disney movies, while Mom tried to bring her daughter back.
“C’mon, Sis,” I told her. “Just a real quick one. I’ll brush your hair after.”
“Uuuuuhhhhhh!” But she got up and went to the bathroom.
It was almost an hour before she got out. She came into my room wrapped in the large bath sheets that Mom favored and plopped on my bed. I was on the floor, pretending to do homework while really watching TV.
“How was it?” I asked.
I nodded. Her hair was wrapped in a towel, turban style, and only her arms, ankles, and feet were visible. She had shaved, I could see little rivets of water mixed with a hint of blood run down her legs. As I watched one trickle down to her feet, I noticed her toes. The nails were long and ragged. Broken into points on some toes and grown so long on others that they curled over the tips. Small blotches of metallic blue nail polish were present here and there, but it had obviously been a long time since she had paid any attention.
“You want me to do your toes?”
She was lying back on my bed now, her legs crossed at the ankle. “No way!” she said, pulling her legs up and hiding her feet in the folds of the bath sheet.
“C’mon, you need a pedi.” I playfully grabbed for her feet but she twisted, rolling away.
“Uh-uh, they’re gross. Shit comes out of your toes.” She always called meth “Shit”. Like she wanted to disassociate what it really was.
“All the more reason to clean ’em up.” I got up and went to my dresser where I kept all of my polishes. I grabbed them and tossed them on the bed. “Pick a color.” I went to the hall and got all the supplies: polish remover, clippers, files.
When I came back in she was sitting up again, her feet planted on the floor. She had a red bottle of polish in her hands and didn’t say anything as she handed it over.
I went to work. Her feet were kind of gross, and I am kind of squeamish, but it didn’t bother me. First I cleaned each toe with remover, making sure to reach in the creases where polish and grit like to hide. Then I went for the clippers and began trimming. As I reached the second and third toe on her left foot, I noticed the nails fell apart as I tried to cut them. They were brittle, like a dry pie crust. And the nubs of skin right below the nail were like callouses. I ran my thumb over the nails and skin, feeling the rough surface. The calloused skin feeling like a buffer between my fingers and my sister’s toes.
“I told you, Shit comes out of your toes.” She had noticed my fascination.
“No worries. I’m gonna make your toes so pretty, you won’t even notice.”
We didn’t talk as I worked. Mostly my sister lay back, watching the ceiling while I attempted to revive some of her beauty. I worked hard, peeling layer and layer of skin from the dry toe tips, never finding smooth skin, trying to clean the pain, and the tired, and the Shit out of my sister.
“Alright, finished!” I said with a flourish.
My sister lifted her feet to admire her toes without having to get up. “They look good,” she said after a second. She sat up, placing her feet gently on the floor, keeping her toes off the ground. “You can still kinda see where they’re fucked up but it’s not that bad.” She leaned over and touched her fingers to the tips of her dry toes. Wiggling them so they sparkled in the lamplight.
“Yeah, and they’ll be back to normal before you know it.” I grabbed her foot and gave it a little shake as I got up to return all the supplies.
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe.”
Meiloni C. Erickson is a California native who enjoys living in different parts of the country including Alaska, Louisiana, and currently Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she served as Fiction Editor for Bayou Magazine. Her fiction has been published in The Greenbriar Review, Flyway Journal, and Natural Bridge.