The snow has never looked more beautiful. My head is nestled into the burning crook of your shoulder; I’m so close I can feel every hitch and sigh through your lips trickle into my ears like a mother’s lullaby. Christmas lights mottle our dinner table like a toddler’s paint handprints while the wilting smoke of the hearth lulls us deeper into a dull ecstasy with every breath. My fingers glide around the edges of your gift: a polaroid in the washed pallor of fireplace ashes. Your hand cradles the blush-red mug with sunflowers I had crafted last week– it was intended for a mother, but I had thought only of you. I believed you deserved to reap all the brilliant light in the world. I want to rot with my head on your flesh for centuries until time turns us both into a burnished fossil – I think you might want that too.
Throughout the past four months, you’ve lectured me on multiple occasions that you would be busy – setting up a new house, rolling out dumplings – am I selfish for wanting you all to myself? Just yesterday, I had scoured the families in the cafeteria, hoping to see the red wings of your bandana around a sleek braid, to no avail. Still, I tried not to lose hope, brandishing my certificate solely for your eyes. It was only after, when the truth sunk in.
You weren’t coming.
The bathroom door stubbornly jammed behind me as I doused cold water to strip away the red blighting my eyes, cheeks. Children laughing with open-armed, teary-eyed mothers whose feathery palms stroke flushed cheeks under fluttering lashes – what if it were me? I know, for you, a fifth grade graduation ceremony might not mean much, especially when you had more pressing matters to attend to – pleasing your husband after his outburst. I wish you would’ve come, even if it was for a minute.
These days, you always come home when the treetops stitch into the sky like black teeth in a gaping maw. Stumbling through the doorway, your bandana is stained with rotten grease, the same type of grease smeared over my lips after overdosing on reheated pizza. Without batting an eye, you wave me off, retreating into your room like a warrior famished from battle.
One knock, two.
I wait for you to swaddle my shoulders with burning palms, usher me into your room, bathe me in the dim light of your lamp. Except you don’t. The edges of my homework dig into the chinks between fingers like a shovel against soil as tender as newborn flesh as my fist tightens. It isn’t until a rusty faucet creaks, water sluicing into your cupped hands, that I leave.
Later, I hear car tires sputtering on pavement, buttery headlights clouding your face as you pull away to visit another. Smudges swell on the windowpane from my skin, obscuring the outside as easily as steam fogs mirrors.
I pry my eyes open. Shiver, from the midnight gusts of the open doorway that seep through my thin pajamas. You’re standing on the threshold; my knuckles are white on the stair railing. Tomorrow is Christmas and I’m begging you to stay with me. One holiday together to compensate for the numerous other ones you’ve left on. You argue that you’re required to work overtime at the restaurant, that you’ll try your best to come home early (which has never happened). I’m trying to understand, trying to be as compliant and forgiving as I have in the past. But I think of clanking forks on family feasts, intoxicating chatter under warm lights – why couldn’t I live that way? My grip on the rail tightens as our voices crescendo, and soon, we’re cramming grievances down each other’s throats. I call you pathetic, selfish, useless, hoping to elicit guilt, thinking of all those times you simply weren’t there.
However, it’s only when I scream, wishing you were gone, wishing Mother was still here instead of a wretched sister, that you turn away. The night seems to swallow your fire. You turn to face me once more, and it’s the first time I see tears in your eyes.
My breath catches in my throat.
I inhale a lungful of oil and fumes, padded with fragrant spices; humidity exhales down my bare neck. My resentment vanishes after witnessing the state of you.
Knuckles caked in a pearly veneer, concealing bruises from battles, moving up and down with the rolling pin. Flour streaks tears down your cheeks; your fingers gingerly pinch thin dough, tossing them to the side like sacks of quarters.
I realized then, watching your hunched shoulders, how much effort you took to make sure I didn’t end up in the same mess of a life you had, how lonely you must’ve felt after every hurt. Even with hands rubbed raw, you’d go to work and sacrifice your future for mine. How could I have been that self-absorbed?
I remember your sympathetic gaze, motioning me over with one finger. You placed your callused hand over mine – my voice was lodged in my throat. I’m sorry, you told me, I couldn’t be the sister you needed. Taking my silence as a response, you tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I hope, you say while placing meat into dough, that you will capture every fleeting moment, savor it like the meaty flesh of this dumpling and keep it safe in here. You planted your hand over my heart.
You have made my foundation, so I must make it worth it – for you.
I capture flicks of time with the long-forgotten polaroid, moments bittersweet, and string them up, seeking to add to my growing collection. Often, I’ll look through them, tracing the lines of your smile. Just a few days ago, I took a picture of snowflakes falling amid a fracturing sunset. I wish you were still here to see how beautiful it was.