*Image: “The Feel of It, detail” by Sharon Webster, 6″ x 7″ x 5″ Mixed Media Construction of plaster wrap, foil letters and wood
By Rebecca Fishow
My sister Sarah meets me at the San Diego Airport. I am transit-tired, unwashed. I smell my sweat mixing with the thick hibiscus air.
She pulls up in her pimped-out Altima, its rims shiny, windows tinted opaque, luring people into caring who is inside. She steps out of the car and onto the curb. Fake nails and unnaturally tanned skin, the curls pressed out of her hair. Skin-tight jeans, sequin tank top, cheap hoop earrings, done up like a tinsel Christmas tree. It’s been two years since I last saw her, before I enrolled in the university I cannot afford and she enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
“Yo,” she says, and I say, “Yo.”
Already I am parroting her detached tone. Already I am lying.
“’Sup?” she says.
“Not much, ’sup with you?”
We push my luggage into the trunk and drive. San Diego is palm trees dusting blue skies, a warm breeze and manicured boulevards. Long legs, sunglasses, clothes that scatter light like rain. Briefcases and loafers, sports bras and jogging dogs, eight-lane highways, cars moving inexorably like armies of ants.
On the highway we don’t speak as Sarah pushes the accelerator to the floor, speeding a hundred miles an hour through eight-lane traffic, weaving, jerking, abruptly changing lanes. I freeze and clutch any handle I can find.
She screams, “Fuck! Drive faster!” and nearly takes out another car’s side mirror.
Angry as I ever let myself get, I say, “Can you please slow down?”
“No,” she says, and that’s the end of that.
The guard at the gate to Camp Pendleton checks my sister’s identification card. Then we’re inside the thick calmness of the base, which could be a nature reserve or a national park, except Sarah is saying, “This is where they test the bombs. That’s a shooting range. They train on Humvees out that way. Two of my friends died in accidents there.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, but she says, “Meh. It’s sad but it happens,” in the same yo-tone that she used when she mentioned last June, “I’m getting deployed again. They need more bodies in Iraq.”
Her room in the barracks is a messy hoard. Piles of unfolded clothes, rucksacks and combat boots, hair dryers, purses, high-heeled shoes, fast food wrappers, old magazines, messy like her bedroom back home used to be. I thought the Marines might have made her neat. A broken chair. A BB gun. A blond synthetic wig. The spare top bunk is piled to the ceiling.
When I ask her why she doesn’t have a roommate, she says, “I used to, but I don’t like having one. Female Marines are all sluts. And if you’re not a slut, the guys still spread rumors that you are. So fuck them all, I don’t care. I’m not having sex anymore. Fuck that.”
“You’re not having sex because people will think you’re a slut?”
“I just don’t want to. I don’t like it. I’m just not.”
An hour later, we pull up to Maria’s condo. Maria is Sarah’s only female Marine friend. She lives off-base in the San Diego suburbs, where the identical homes look like big storage units. Characterless clones, beige and rough-textured, their lackluster facades thinly masked by potted begonias. Flowers that look like bloody fists.
Sarah says, “Ted and Maria are divorced but he still lives here. It’s a money thing. She’s really sad. Just don’t talk about it.”
Two baby-faced male Marines sit on the living room couch. They look sixteen and sound about twelve. They play a first-person shooter game, lean alert into the monitor, send gunshot blasts and death shouts through the room. Tiny soldiers burst and fall on screen. I wait for the boys to look up, but they don’t, so I stop smiling stupidly at them.
We find Maria in the kitchen, pouring tequila into shot glasses. Maria is Mexican, and distractingly beautiful. Huge sad eyes and small smiling lips, tanned skin glowing like an angel. But she’s skeletally thin, concave where convex should be. She cuts lemons with tree-branch hands, is dressed like a winking pinup girl. Her ass peeks out beneath a frilly mini skirt. Her thin legs end in tall stiletto points. Maria and Sarah look magazine sexy, and I wish I had changed into one of Sarah’s outfits, like I used to back when we shared a room.
We drink tequila and talk and laugh. We are incredibly sad and having a good time.
Maria says, “Your sister says you’re smart.”
I shrug. Her words feel more like accusations than compliments. She frowns, looks me up and down.
“You are,” says Sarah, “That’s why you go to college.”
“I don’t know,” I say, but it’s a lie.
“You’re really skinny,” Maria says, so I know my sister’s told her that I can’t stop throwing up.
I wrap my arms around my waist. “Not really,” I say.
It’s another lie, but I’m not as small as Maria. When she disappears into the bathroom to fix her makeup, I tell Sarah, “She’s the thin one.”
“She doesn’t eat when she’s depressed.”
She returns with eyes trapped in fresh eyeliner fences, and we leave the boys with their simulated shrieks. They do not look up as we cross through the room, they just keep shooting on screen.
We settle into the car. As Sarah speeds towards Mexico, I force myself to relax. I think, My sister hasn’t killed herself driving yet. Why would it happen while I’m here?
“Do you talk to Mom and Dad much?” she asks.
“Sometimes,” I say.
“I can’t talk to Mom without screaming.”
“At least she doesn’t yell anymore. Dad’s the one who makes me mad. He was never there. That’s why Mom could be such a bitch.”
“Mom just speaks and I get angry. I don’t know how you can stand her.”
“I get angry too. I just don’t see the point in arguing. She’s just worried about you, anyways.”
“About me?” she says. “What about you?”
When I ask Sarah what she does at work, Maria insists that Sarah can’t say. I’m a civilian, and she’s in intelligence. But Sarah talks anyways, because I’m her sister.
She tells me she stares at 3-D maps all day. Dots move around the maps and the dots are people, and when a dot crosses a wrong line, my sister alerts the higher-ups, who alert the ground troops, who shoot the dots on sight.
“It’s boring,” Sarah says. “I want to be infantry. I just want to kill someone. But women aren’t allowed. That fucking sucks. When I was in Iraq, I filled out casualty reports and that was just as boring as 3-D maps.”
Whose casualty reports, I want to know. Soldiers? Civilians? Who’s dying?
We park north of the border in a dark lot full of young people leaving their cars. We walk across the border, laugh across the border. Crossing’s a cinch. We flash our passports at a guard, keep moving, are swallowed deep into a circus town that’s heavy, jangling, woozy. There are stray dogs and strung lights, buzzing neon signs pleading, Come in. My sister and Maria soldier past the restaurants and clubs. I wonder where we’ll go in.
In all directions, Men wearing luchador masks blow whistles.
“Don’t let the tequila guys near you,” Sarah says. “They take your head and tilt it back, pour liquor down your throat. After that you have to pay.”
We turn a corner and enter a club that’s so loud I forget my speech has sound.
Strobe lights pulse, and the room is crowded with flailing limbs, bodies that merge into a tentacled monster. We push our way to the back of the room. A bar girl brings us candy-colored drinks. They taste like sugar and nothing. My sister and Maria climb onto a table, so I join them, and we dance. We are above everyone, can see everywhere, but I don’t notice the man in black approaching until he is shouting something up to us.
“What?” Sarah says, and bends down to hear his words, then straightens back up. “He wants us to go upstairs to the VIP lounge. He says we can have free drinks.”
Maria shoots her a skeptical glance, but I only hear free drinks.
“Yes!” I say. “Free drinks!”
“Okay,” Sarah tells the man in black.
He leads us through the crowd and up a flight of stairs. I can’t tell where I am or where I’m going, but I’m safe because I’m following.
We stop on a balcony above the wild dancers, strobing lights. The walls are painted black. The weak floor quivers when somebody steps. The balcony is empty except for a couple other girls, standing, bored, sipping drinks. They don’t dance, so I don’t dance. I drink but don’t feel any drunker. Still, it is a comfort to put the liquid inside of me, make it go where I can’t go.
We watch the dancers until Sarah says, “This is boring. Let’s just leave.”
I wonder if she is wishing she were back in Iraq, stationed at one of Uday Hussein’s confiscated palaces. Back in one of the stories she’s told me, lifting weights in the makeshift gym as a bomb whistles straight through the sky.
A bomb whistles through the sky, and all she can do is listen as her adrenaline spikes, and wait to stay alive or die. When the bomb finally hits somewhere else, not here, someone else, not her, she’s still breathing, so she wipes sweat off her brow. She takes a moment to regain her composure and her hummingbird heart slows to normal. All she can think is, Phew, survived another one, then pick up a barbell and go on lifting weights.
As we walk towards the stairs, I am not too drunk to notice the man in black lingering by the wall. His arms are crossed, his face alert. He eyes us as we leave.
“I’m hungry,” Maria says. “I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.”
I think, I am too, but I don’t say it.
The man in black takes her arm as we pass.
“Where are you going?” he asks. “We’re leaving.”
“No,” he says. “You stay.”
“We’re hungry,” says Maria, and points a finger at her mouth.
He follows us through the club and out the front door. He follows us as we navigate the street, weave through crowds. He stays close behind. We are laughing, but I don’t know why.
“I’m hungry,” says Maria.
Sarah says, “Here.” A taqueria with mirrored walls, fluorescent lights.
We slide into a booth. The man in black takes a back corner seat. A fat, yawning woman brings us menus.
Maria starts ordering a plate of tacos and the man in black gets up and comes towards us. He pulls a wad of bills from his shirt pocket.
“You’re hungry?” he says. “I pay. I pay.”
He slaps three bills on the table, then slips back into his corner.
Maria eats the tacos like she hasn’t eaten in days. When she speaks there’s mania in her voice.
“I was raised in Mexico by my grandmother,” she says, “and I can’t even speak Spanish. I feel bad. I’m a bad Mexican. I’m still hungry. I’m starving.”
The man returns to slap more bills on our table when she orders a second plate of tacos.
“Stop ordering tacos,” my sister says, but Maria orders two more.
“Stop ordering tacos,” we say, but she doesn’t stop ordering tacos.
From his corner, the man in black calls, “Hey. I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back, okay? Don’t move!”
Maria isn’t finished eating her tacos, but my sister says, “Let’s go!” She pulls Maria up. Maria spits taco onto the table.
The waitress shouts, “They’re leaving! They’re leaving!”
We are running, we are leaving, and I don’t look back, laughing, moving quickly towards the street.
A minivan pulls to the curb and we file in. We are laughing, but I don’t know why. We are so distracted by our laughter that we do not notice the young Mexican couple, a man and a woman, file in after us and crawl into the back.
“Border! border!” the Marines shout at the driver.
The driver cuts through traffic and I don’t look back. I don’t look back for the man in black, or a final look at Tijuana. I don’t look back and I don’t look back. I don’t look until we’ve driven around a corner and down another street, until I hear a rustling behind me.
I look back and see the Mexican couple hugging, touching, kissing each other’s eyes. Before I look forward, they are embraced and copulating, thrusting and pulsing, limbs entwined. I can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins. Then, un-embraced, the woman is pregnant. Then laboring, pushing, giving birth, in a moment, to a son. She wipes him clean with the fabric of her long floral skirt. The child cries, and she nurses him as he ages before my eyes. He grows restless, breaks free of his mother’s arms, toddles from one side of the car to the other, climbing over his parents’ laps, cooing and babbling, then forming real words: frightened, hungry, tired. His limbs lengthen, muscles harden and expand. Hairs sprout above his lip, from his chin. He wants to keep moving, but there’s no longer room, so his father puts a palm on his shoulder and he calms. The boy’s hands fold in his teenage lap.
“Sarah,” I say, and she says, “What?”
“There’s a family in the taxi, and they’re—aging.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Turn around,” I say, but she cannot look. She’s busy holding Maria’s head up by her hair.
“Let us off here,” Sarah tells the driver when we reach the lot. Sarah and Maria pay him, then stumble in the direction of the car, but I wait to watch the family climb out of the van. They are older now, the child an adult, the parents’ hair has gone gray. They walk off into the early morning until I cannot see them anymore.
The next days are sunny as we drive up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. My sister drives slowly, now. We roll around the curves along the ridge sandwiched between the ocean and cliffs.
We spend afternoons lying on the beach, soaking up vitamin D. We don’t speak much, but stay on the sand until the sun deposits itself into the water. It’s the first time I’ve seen the sun set over an ocean, and I feel a strange sense of calm.
We leave the beach the last evening to go to a party in the condo of a Marine named Tim. Sarah blushes when she says she thinks she loves him, describes his arms, his smile, his eyes.
But he looks like all the other Marines to me. They are all clean-shaven, thick-bodied, except some are baby-faced, while others are worn and hard. I feel boring and tired, don’t want to talk.
They drink Jaeger. They drink vodka. They drink beer.
Sarah sits next to her Marine, curls up to his chest, tries to climb onto his lap. It’s obvious by Tim’s stiffness that he does not love her back, that he’s trying his hardest not to hurt her. I think maybe it’s because she is no longer having sex, or because someone else’s love can sometimes look like desperation.
When I think I’ve been forgotten, I go to the bathroom to make myself throw up. My sister finds me and asks if I’m all right.
“Tim heard you puking,” she says.
I say I’m just drunk, but it’s a lie. I talk with the Marine named John for a while. We sit on a couch and flirt, but I’m only pretending. I want to know who we’re fighting.
He tells me we’re preparing for China and Iran.
“We’re preparing for everywhere, really.”
I shake my head, excuse myself to find Sarah.
“I’m tired. I think we should leave.”
“Already?” she says. “We just got here.”
She shows me to a bedroom at the end of a short hallway, says I can lie down, then she returns to the party. I leave the lights off, feel for the bed, climb in, cover myself with the blankets. I spend two hours staring at a dark wall. It feels like the safest thing I’ve done all week, until John opens the door.
We share the bed. We kiss. We don’t talk at all. When he puts his fingers between my legs, I think this is the reason she’s brought me here.
Everybody’s lonely here, and starved. I am performing a not-dishonorable duty.
When I wake it’s close to four in the morning. John’s gone. I’m glad I’ll never see him again. Sarah and I are the only ones left.
There are deep brown spills on the carpet, cups tipped across tables, dirty counters. Sarah doesn’t want to let go of Tim’s arm, but he eases her off him, says goodnight.
“Fuck this fucking night,” she says in the car.
“Calm down,” I say, but she can’t.
In her barracks, I pull myself up to the top bunk and watch Sarah undress. She is flinging herself wildly around the room, angry, laughing like a clown. She is naked and clutching her stomach like a loaf, jiggling her flesh with both hands.
“I’m fat,” she says, “The Marines are gonna make me lose weight.”
Then shits in the toilet with the door open.
When the lights are finally off, I roll over to face wall. I see the Mexican family from the taxi, old and sad. Sitting around the table, trying to read each other’s eyes. They look just like any family, just like Sarah’s and mine.
I think, time moves through us, not the other way around. It goes on living through us until we’re all used up.
I feel it so fully. There must be something I can do.
But I just can’t think about it now.
Illustrative Imagery by Sharon Webster
The process of making visual art and poems is a ritual that helps me make sense of the world – and reach out to the world. Art critic, Christopher Faris, describes my work as “exhilaratingly abstract and surreal, yet poignantly expressive… images of the world as seen from within.”