Issue 23 / Fall 2020
Two months after your suicide, I’m parked outside your university’s athletics facilities. It’s 6am. Queen’s “We are the Champions” blares from the car radio. You’re probably wondering why I’m listening to your favorite band when I never cared for them. On my last visit to your house, Gary gave me your Queen collection, along with a few of your other things. I didn’t want the CDs, but he insisted, claiming he would trash them otherwise. Now the CDs sit in a shoebox on the floor of the passenger side of my car. Each CD protected by a plastic case, organized in alphabetical order, as you left them. In comparison, my Metallica CDs are stuffed into the side pockets of the car doors. My Led Zeppelin CDs squeezed inside the glove compartment in random order.
I know why Gary gave me your CDs. He’s trying to rid himself of all your stuff. He thinks it’ll help him and Juliana move on. In fact, he told me they’re moving to the East Coast at the end of this month—to Philadelphia, of all places. I’m sure you never imagined your surfer-dude husband leaving his beloved California. Well, death does funny things, Anita. You probably think it’s overly dramatic of him to move across the country. Trust me—he gave fair reasons. According to him, Juliana cries to sleep every night. She skips school at least once a week, and she chopped off her long black hair. With Christmas break approaching, Gary wants Juliana to restart eighth grade next semester at a new school, far away from the mess you—her mother—left in Santa Cruz. Don’t worry—Gary already secured a nursing gig at a hospital.
They’ll be all right without you, at least financially.
I’m sure you’re also wondering why I’m up early in the parking lot of your school. I’m wondering myself. It’s spooky as hell out here. The white Pacific fog hangs over my car, the pair of cars parked nearby, the pine trees bordering the lot, and the meadow by the track field and gym building across from me. The world sleeps under this thick-clouded veil. I wish I could sleep along with it. But Gary gave me your university parking permit. The orange one hanging from the car’s rearview mirror. I figured I should use it at least once before it expires. So, here I am, on my Monday off from the restaurant, trying to move on from your death with a run. Yeah, I know I’m not a morning person. I know I’m not a runner. I know I’m an out of shape forty-five-year-old. But every night I dream of you rambling on and on and on about this track and how much you loved running here in the morning before students arrived. When Gary gave me the permit, it struck me: I should come here like you used to. A run might help clear my head. It might help me understand how you could kill yourself a few days shy of your fiftieth birthday.
Cliché, they tell me, like all the others who kill themselves at this age.
But you weren’t like the others. You were important—a mother, a wife, a professor— unlike me: a high school dropout. It doesn’t make sense. Not sure it ever will. Some weird feeling tells me you’re hanging around. Maybe you don’t want to face Mami and Papi in heaven or hell or wherever they ended up—knowing you’re now a disappointment, like me. I can picture Mami sobbing on Papi’s shoulder, asking what they ever did to deserve not just one bad daughter, but two—wondering why they left the warm Caribbean for this cold Pacific, chasing after a dream their malcriada daughters let go of. Talking to you is how I’m trying to cope with your decision. Maybe you’re trying to come to terms with it, too.
Tell you what—let me switch off the car. Let’s go outside.
Out here, the morning mist tingles my face. The air feels cool and light. A bird calls out from the pine trees, piercing the silence. I bet you miss this place, hidden from the world. But you gave up on it. Don’t deny it. Believe it or not, part of me understands. Humanity’s killing the planet: last year’s droughts and the forest fires and the plastic, all the damn plastic. We don’t pay attention to scientists like you. We prefer hunkering into our lives, ignoring your research and data. Yet, I wish you had more faith in people. Sure, you made quite the statement with your suicide. It even attracted a TV news crew to my house (they left me alone after a week). But the news frenzy’s over. Know what else is over? You’ll never again contribute to new findings or books. Think of all the aspiring scientists who won’t learn from you. Think of the policies that won’t gain from your expertise. Think of Juliana, Gary, me.
Do you see what the world has lost?
I bet you’re rolling your eyes at me: the little loser sister who ran away from home. The recovering drug addict who never finished school and ended up a waitress at a chain restaurant. I know you hoped I’d find something else but, at middle age, the restaurant gig is as good as it’s going to get for me. Yet, here I am, the loser, doing something I’ve never done before: walking on the gravel path to the gym and track you regularly visited. My stick legs feel stiff and cold, and every inch of my body begs to get back into bed. Still, I move forward in the sale-rack sneakers I bought for this occasion. The gym building’s yellow lights and boxy outline peek out through the fog, as I’m sure you saw countless times on your morning runs.
But you never saw my potential.
Look, I’m not blaming you. I just wish you could have seen things from other perspectives. You never did. You never even considered my ideas and I’m your sister. See those college girls walking out of the gym? Look at them standing there by the entrance, laughing and chatting in their leggings and sweatshirts. Don’t they remind you of us? Of what we could have been? Okay, my vices got in the way when we were younger. But I’ve been sober for more than ten years. I’ve kept the same job for the past decade. And I bought my own home. It’s small and modest and will never compare to Gary’s and your massive wood house, but it’s mine. Yet, no matter how much I turned my life around, you still kept me at a distance. Even when Mami and Papi died, nothing changed between us.
You were the queen in the ivory tower. Don’t deny it.
You never invited me out to coffee or lunch or casual meetups. Never. Every single one of our meetups remained a once-a-year affair, controlled by you. You never even asked me to attend your community lectures or panels or speeches. For God’s sakes, I stalked you. Oh, you didn’t see me, did you? I made it difficult for you to recognize me knowing how embarrassed you were of your “loser little sister.” I usually came in a hat and glasses and wore a blonde wig to hide my salt-and-pepper bob. But, yes, I saw you a few times a year at your public events. I watched from afar, admiring your ability to measure up to Mami and Papi’s expectations—ignoring your grudge against my inability to measure up to their narrow idea of success.
I can’t help but walk faster thinking of all these things.
A dense mist covers the asphalt-rubber track surrounded by meadow. The track’s blackness reminds me of the night I followed you out to your car about a year ago. You presented at the university’s annual climate change conference. After protesters shouted over you, denying climate change, I decided to stick around, wanting to make sure Mami and Papi’s pride and joy stayed safe. I waited outside the conference building, hiding in the moonlit darkness by the stucco wall, watching the parking lot empty out as people left. You finally came out an hour later, walking alone in bare feet, holding your shiny red pumps in your hand and your briefcase in the other. Your dark stare marked by the muted-yellow light from the lamppost. Walking past me, you looked down at your shadow. Your shoulders slumped and your gait slowed—different from the pep and confidence you exhibited at the event.
I followed as you headed to your hybrid convertible, the only car in the parking lot. Halfway into the lot, I started to near you, wanting to comfort you. But you flung your heels across the asphalt and your briefcase fell and your papers flew out. I ran to the trees and hid, shocked by your rage. You cried out, picked up the papers, and crumpled each one, throwing them on the concrete. You picked up the briefcase and slammed it on the ground, again and again. You kicked it and sobbed, and then your phone rang. You let it ring and you wiped your face with the sleeves of your blazer. When you answered, you whispered, “Gary,” and told him you were on your way home. The thinness of your voice felt palpable. He must’ve known something was wrong. I wanted to run back to you but I hesitated, afraid to add more pain.
Now you aren’t here. You’ve been gone for two months.
I stand alone on the track, surrounded by fog, by your memory. Sometimes I think about taking pills to forget you’re gone just for a bit. Or a joint for some numbness. But I shouldn’t take those. Sleep has been the only remedy that has helped.
Time, so far, has been useless. Maybe this run will help me get over you.
Two miles, Anita. One for you. One for me.
I lift my heels up and down. I sweep my hands over my brittle hair and slap the sides of my cold face. I take a long breath. The chilly air stings my lungs—worse than the cigarettes I quit smoking years ago. I exhale out. The steam dissolves in the breeze. I lift my legs, one after the other, and move forward. Mesh-sneakers pound the track. Arms swing at my sides. I grunt and run through the cool fog, around the first curve. Chest swells and chest shrinks, heart pumps and heart skips. Breaths quicken. Face tightens. Side-stitches pinch. I hold my sides and kick out despite the pain, advancing through the second curve of the track.
Unable to maintain a sprinting pace, I slow to a jog and enter my second lap. The fog thins out and the blush world emerges. A pair of deer grazes on the track’s inner circle of grass. Their long ears perk up yet they continue to forage, unthreatened by my presence. Ahead, a dull yellow dot moves slowly across the track—a snail in the middle of the path. I jog by the small creature, careful not to crush it. Rounding the curve, I overlook the homes dotting the coastline below, visible through the retreating fog. A ruby-red sun rises over the horizon illuminating the Pacific’s dark waters—deep, expansive, and sparkling from my view up here on the hilltop.
Several laps later, the morning sky and adjacent pine trees appear through the fading mist. I clench my fists and run through the final curve, breathing fiercely, thrusting out my aching legs, picking up the pace once again. I enter the last stretch and cross the invisible finish line. Sweat prickles my eyes, smothers my face. I slow to a walk and wipe the wetness with the sleeves of my hoodie. I unzip the hoodie, pull it off, and wrap the sleeves around my waist, tying a knot. I open my mouth wide and gasp. I gasp again. Taste brine and dew in the coastal air.
I walk off the track, step onto the grass, and pace back and forth to calm my cramping legs and heaving chest. After I cool down, I kneel facing the sea, glimmering orange-pink. I place my palms flat on the damp earth in front of me, and the soft meadow compresses under my weight. I lower my face until the tip of my nose brushes against a blade of grass.
I close my eyes and breathe it all in: pollen, salt, dirt.
No wonder you loved running here.
Walking back to the car, my wet shirt clings to my skin. My shins throb. My fingers pulse, swollen. Sweat dries on my face. More students walk around now, heading into the gym or heading out, some huddled together before class unaware of the gray-haired woman walking past, unaware of the leaden anchor weighing me down—similar to how none of us were aware of your pain, of its depths.
You hid it so well.
I should’ve run to you in the parking lot, held on to you in spite of your shrieks. It’s what I regret most—allowing my stupid fears, my own fragility, to stop me from comforting you when you needed to hear another voice, another reason to live.
Maybe you would’ve screamed at me, thrown your briefcase in my face. Or, maybe you would’ve spit, sped off in your car. But I shouldn’t have succumbed to what-ifs, I should’ve stepped out of those trees, yelled you matter—everything about you mattered—helped you fight your demons at least one time, at least for one more day.
Yes, you were conceited. Yes, you were elitist.
But you were independent. You were fierce. You were the first and only one in our family to graduate from high school, college, and earn a PhD—despite the hard-to-pronounce foreign last name—becoming a respected professor, exceeding Mami and Papi’s wildest dreams, making all their sacrifice, all their long hours at the factory, all their restless sleep worth it. You were the legacy of our ancestors with a conscience for our world and stuck to your ideals no matter the social cost. You were more than a mother for Juliana—you were her best friend. You meant everything to Gary—now a thinning shell, struggling to keep it together for Juliana’s sake.
And you were my sister, dammit. Mi hermana, two of the few Spanish words I remember to this day.
The sister I sat next to on Saturday mornings—long before the drugs and graduations and moving away—watching cartoons, eating our cereals, enjoying the comfort of each other after a week of school. Mami and Papi in the background drinking their café con leche after the night shift. The sister who grabbed the dead rabbit from the road in front of our house, squashed by a truck, and buried his mangled body in our backyard, even when Mami and Papi told you not to touch that dirty thing. The sister who insisted our family recycle before it was a trend, buying a recycling bin with the high-school science prize money you won. The sister I embarrassed showing up drunk and high at your wedding—calling your Ivy League friends hypocritical cunts when they laughed in my face. Vomiting all over myself, my addictions ruining your big day.
I wish I could take it back. Run back in time and fix it away.
But I can’t.
All I’m left with are your CDs and your ghost and my memories and my failures.
No run will replace the hurt, will allow me to understand, will rewind our lives.
I reach the car, open the door, sit in the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition. Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” blasts and I look through the windshield, my vision blurry with hot tears streaming down my face. The sun shines golden in the firmament, warmth reaching down like fingers, seeping into dark spaces.
Maybe that’s all there’s to it. Light absolving dark.
I love you, Anita. I love you always.
Eneida Alcalde immigrated to the United States as a child, transplanting her Chilean-Puerto Rican roots into Pennsylvanian soil. Her stories and poems have appeared in several literary outlets including recent publications in Magma Poetry, Palabritas, and Parentheses Journal. Learn more about her at her website.