In 1991, Maggie Marcella walked the long corridor of Our Lady of Grace in one-and-a-half-inch kitten heels to the gym, where behind stacked chairs she expected to find B.R. What Maggie didn’t expect was to find me. I was wearing B.R.’s jacket, with his initials in fine-tipped black sharpie on the inside label like a little kid’s. She loaned it to me because I said I was cold while in line at the cafeteria earlier that day. “Wear this,” Maggie said, sliding the jacket off her narrow shoulders. The scent of citrus wafted in my direction.
In 1991, I was black high top Converse with mismatched laces—one pink, one green. I was a Memorex mixed tape—side A, Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim and side B, The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me—made for me by Maggie Marcella. Maggie is smart and pretty and kind. Her kindness is guileless, without deception, and she and my sister are alike in this way. Every day, Maggie slips out of Study Hall to make her way to the gym to make out with her boyfriend B.R., whose jacket she likes to wear. It is soft and smells faintly like peeled oranges, stale cigarettes, and peppermint gum.
My younger sister is smaller than me and she is my secret-keeper and I am hers, though she has no real secrets to share. She is too young, too timid. She is not angry and reckless. She does not hide pot or mushrooms (later coke) in the battery compartment of her alarm clock. What she will do is collect a long list of awards: Girls’ Eastern Regionals Skating Champion, Women’s Doubles Nationals Tennis Champion, four-year National Honor Society alumnus, five-time Science Fair Award recipient. She is New Kids On The Block and myopic vision before her first pair of eyeglasses years old. When she gets them, she’ll be bee-eyed and busy like a worker, not a queen. Until then, she is squinty and slow-moving as though she’s memorizing all fifty states while learning to navigate long corridors. Later, but not that much later, she will get contacts. She will wear snow-white skates and land triple salchows at competitions all up and down the East Coast, including a regional one in Greensboro, North Carolina. Our mother will display all of her trophies in the house they will purchase there, two years after my sister wins the first of her awards. They will stay in this house into their retirement years, and the trophies, lined up like soldiers awaiting their marching orders, will stay exactly where they are.
In the living room of our first American apartment, my father is Elvis Presley before Elvis was drafted into the army years old. He is “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up” though sometimes he is also “Blue Moon.” For a time he is Marlboro Reds and a drafting table with smoke curls, curtained off from us by the haze. Every day, my father is graphite pencils and blue prints. He is one plastic French curve, one erasing shield, and one steel protractor.
My mother, in contrast, is a quiet hum. She is digital CAD before AutoCAD. She readily gave up the slanted drafting table in favor of a leveled desk with a separate graphics terminal. The romance of graphite pencils was not for her because she had to become a steady low hum for my sister and me, especially after leaving our home in Manila. My mother is like fluttering wings, an imperceptible thrum in the air. Always on. Always quiet. The quiver of her wings, a gentle breeze. This is how many years old she is.
That afternoon in 1991, Maggie Marcella saw B.R. first and then me. A smile flickered across her pretty face before it disappeared like a blown-out birthday candle. At first, Maggie looked confused; her eyebrows knit together. Everything happened quickly, but time slowed down. She looked at us but didn’t seem to understand what she saw. She puzzled out the lip gloss streaked across his mouth, how it trailed off into his collared shirt, why the two of us were pressed close together. “And wait,” her face seemed to say to me as her eyes scanned the line of his shoulder down the length of his arm. “Is that his hand under the folds of your skirt?”
My mother tells me that when boys are hurting they hurt others. “When girls are hurting, they hurt themselves.” I’ve readily accepted this truism my entire life. I accept this because when my father is angry, we are the first to feel his rage and disappointment with the world. The recipients of his fury usually go in this order: my mother, me, then my sister. When his anger becomes uncontainable, my mother and I fold over like flowers, shutting tight petals to protect the center: my sister, who is the smallest among us and the most in need of protection.
Maggie was my first friend at the new school. Her table at the cafeteria was packed. The din of the crowd was unbearable and intimidating, but Maggie led me to the center, where Amy, who became my second friend at the school, saved a seat. “Scoot over,” Amy said to the girl on the other side of Maggie’s place. The girl surrendered her spot without hesitation. Amy smiled and gestured for me to sit. I was hungry, but seeing that none of the other girls, including Maggie, were eating, I left my packed lunch in my bag. This became routine for the rest of ninth grade.
When my sister asks what I do when I slip out of the window of our shared room, I tell her the truth. I uncover my face from a layer of blankets to look at her. She is sitting at the end of my bed with a clipboard, weaving strands of embroidery thread, all in varying shades of crimson. I choose my words before telling her that I go out and meet friends and we have fun. I say we listen to music, eat and drink. I tell her the truth, but not the whole truth, of course. Because to do that would be to completely abandon her. The truth of how far I’ve gone without her would hurt her. She nods, then redirects her attention back to her clipboard, spreading the thread out evenly. I watch her make loops and pull strands through, until a pattern begins to emerge from all her tight knots. The steady movement of her fingers transfixes me, her quiet determination to make something beautiful.
Maggie’s mom usually picked her up from school, though some days, her much older brother Tristan drove their black Range Rover. The car was stylish and beautiful and befit Maggie in every way. When her mom came to get her, she waved to Amy and me, and we waved back before making our way to our designated school bus, where we waited our turn to get on. Amy lived in one of the luxury condos near my family’s apartment. It was nicer than the gray, Brutalist concrete that we lived in, but still another country away from the sleek, manicured, multi-level mansion where Maggie lived. “Her mom is really her grandma,” Amy said to me one day. “You know that, right?” She sucked on an Altoid and held the tin open for me. I shook my head in response, both to the mint offering and the preceding question.
Later, I’ll realize that though she is the smallest, my sister is not in need of protection.
My sister moves from Under the Table and Dreaming years old to Pablo Honey and later, The Bends. In college, she will be the editor-in-chief of her school’s feminist newsletter, The Radical, and her articles will be near militant. Later, as she tries to establish herself as a therapist to a high-risk population, some of whom are homeless, drug-addicted and largely invisible to society, she will think back on her days at The Radical and remember how unbending, how unyielding, how impractical her ideology had been. She will swat away the memory while untangling the big balls of red tape: insurance forms, low-cost housing forms, and other legal documents that clog up these women’s lives. She wears contacts now. No longer myopic, she can see so far.
Before Maggie walked the long corridor of Our Lady of Grace in black kitten heels to the gym, where behind stacked chairs, she expected to find him, I was the one wearing his jacket. I walked the long corridor with a hall pass in my hand, intent on returning the jacket to her. A hand tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around to see B.R. He brandished a smile, chided me about wearing his jacket, and after that, I can’t recall the exact sequence of events.
“That jacket looks good on you,” Maggie said to me while we were in line, waiting to pay for our salads and Diet Cokes. “I have your Pixies mixed tape,” I said back, as if that were an appropriate answer to her compliment. “You keep it for as long as you want.”
When B.R. tapped me on the shoulder later that day, he said the same thing almost verbatim, “My jacket looks good on you.” I let out a nervous laugh, touched my hair and looped my index finger around a stray curl. His words, hanging there between us, formed a bridge, a place for me to cross over to where he was and to where I had always been. In that moment it became possible for me to be someone else, someone I told my sister I could be.
Tricia Gonzales received her MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and lives and works near the Washington D.C. area with her family.