When you share your room with your sister, every night is a slumber party—at least when you edit out the spats. Nostalgia deletes the memory of her slashing your homecoming dress junior year and you cutting off a chunk of her hair in return. You have no recollection of her using your favorite lipstick to draw a line down the center of the room (allotting herself the bigger half.) You definitely don’t remember her selling your underwear to middle school boys the minute she started high school.
Once Mami called lights out, all had been forgiven. “Never, ever go to bed angry,” she used to say much like her mother before her, the same cock to her oblong head.
What you do remember are the nights you and your sister clutched each other close well past bedtime. You giggled about cartoons, crushes, and all the worst teachers. Your sister’s hair smelled like cinnamon and her eyes were really gray, even if most everyone called them blue. She always pulled your curls, watching them spring back into place and laughing every time. In return, you called her Mud Pie because her skin was so much darker than yours—but only ever in the cocoon of your room. At school, she was Mariela, just as Mami had named her. Never Mari and definitely never Mud Pie.
Back then, you shared a bed because Mami said they didn’t come free. Really, it wasn’t a bed. It was a mattress, threadbare and off-color, the same indescribable shade of bubblegum that’s been living on the sidewalk too long but not quite long enough to be black. The mattress was so warped and worn that you woke up every morning with backaches and the two of you constantly stole the blanket from each other. One sister wrapped herself up while the other curled up and shivered, not wanting to wake the burrito. She looked so peaceful.
But Mud Pie promised the bed famine was a temporary challenge for the Gomez sisters. All great heroines must suffer sometimes.
“Because I’m going to college,” said Mariela. “After I graduate, I’m going to make so much money that all of us will have our own beds. Huge ones with headboards and even throw pillows. Gotta have throw pillows when you’re rich.”
A beat later, she added, “You’re going to college, too.”
You nod because you are three years younger than her. Then you close your eyes and dream like any other night.
Soon after that, Mariela is talking about college instead of cartoons and crushes. She lights up when she shows you the admissions brochures. She even brings them to your sorry mattress so you can pour over them together.
“They all kind of look the same,” you say more than once as you peruse page after page of manicured lawns and large, imposing buildings. You toss aside the brochures from less picturesque schools.
“No, mira, this one is all stone. This one is all brick,” she replied one night as she piled more brochures on your lap. “Besides, that’s not even what matters.”
“But don’t you want to go to a pretty one or, like, one by the beach?”
“I’m not going to college to party.”
You shrug and tug for a bigger share of the blanket. “Your loss.”
Night after night, you fall asleep among piles of brochures. More than once you wonder if they’d be a more effective cover than your threadbare blanket.
Mari wrote essays, ran to the copy shop, printed this and that, and cursed too loudly when she messed something up because she knew Mami worked hard for the money.
“These applications are so expensive,” she muttered as you waited in line with her at the bank. Everyone there had clothes that look catalog-fresh, not like they fished them out of a donation box at the church down the block.
A year later, Mari is at a college among cornfields. You weren’t home the afternoon her acceptance letter arrived. She sobbed by herself at the kitchen counter when she read the part about her full-ride. You were making out behind the dilapidated tennis courts at school, learning how someone else’s teeth are supposed to feel.
Once Mari shipped off to school, you had the bedroom to yourself. You wiped off the lipstick divider between your side and her side, and spread out your meager belongings. Dust bunnies grew because Mari was not there to clean them. And sometimes, at night, instead of texting your friends, you cried hot tears because you missed Mud Pie. You knew Mami heard you as she did her crossword puzzles in the next room over, but she never came to console you. The next morning, you would eat frozen waffles together in silence—that is if you caught sight of your maternal ghost at all.
It wasn’t until winter howled through Phoenix that you and Mari were reunited, but her eyes are stormy and her head hangs low, as if permanently bowed due to some monastic vow. When you slid into bed that first night together, she nuzzled your shoulder like an infant.
“What’s the matter?” you asked, wanting to wiggle away but knowing to stay still, stiller than she was in that moment of absolute quiet.
“I’m not going back,” she finally uttered. You go cold.
“You have to go back. You’re the smart one. You have a full scholarship.”
She whispered darkly, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” Then she turned away from you. “I was raped at a party.”
And all the sounds of Phoenix that you always hated—the screechy birdsongs, the intrusive insects, the insufferable dessert wind, even the gunshots and the car horns—seemed to collide into a cacophony amplified by Mud Pie’s wailing.
When the prickly pear cacti bloomed that spring, Mari was still home. She relinquished her scholarship, took up waitressing, and bought two beds by the end of the year.
Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-Scottish-American writer and artist who lives in Brooklyn. Her writings have appeared in Marie Claire, Bustle, The Feminist Wire, Ravishly, Teen Vogue, So to Speak, Jimson Weed, Whurk, and beyond. In 2014, Folio Magazine named her one of the top 20 media visionaries in their 20s for founding Quail Bell Magazine. Christine is the author of Hispanic & Latino Heritage in Virginia (The History Press) and of a forthcoming chapbook of flash fiction from Dancing Girl Press.