Marjorie returned home smiling, thin, and tired. She gently told them that the journey had exhausted her. “I’ll need to sleep for weeks,” she joked. Elise thought her voice sounded different. The skin around her eyes crinkled now. Did it used to crinkle?
She slept for what seemed to be three straight days. Her sister brought her a peanut butter sandwich on the fourth day, and told Marjorie that their parents were talking about sending her to a doctor if she didn’t get better. Everyone was worried.
Marjorie stared at the halo of hair around Elise’s head, and asked for a banana. She said she would be better tomorrow, if they just let her rest.
The next day Marjorie emerged from her room clean, dressed, and holding a banana peel. Elisa thought her skin looked translucent, as if you could see every vein. She could see the nudge of Marjorie’s collarbone through her shirt. Her eyelashes were too dark. Something was terribly wrong.
Marjorie smiled. Their mothers face was always drawn now, but she tried to smile back, tried to ask Marjorie how she was feeling, and about the trip. “Everyone’s been wanting to know what you did and what she saw,” she said almost aggressively. She was timid and hot at every turn, boiled under the surface. Their mother knew the wrong words could send Marjorie away for good. She was already a ghost among them.
Nobody around here knew how to love each other. That’s what Marjorie seemed to say with her silence, her sad eyes, her smile. Loving was like touching raw wounds. They could all barely breathe around each other.
Marjorie had been to a far away place and seen things maybe she could not speak of.
On the fifth day it was clear that Marjorie was no longer eating animals products at all. She was mostly eating fruit. Vegetables were too harsh, she told them. Bread disgusted her. Peanut butter was too thick.
“I think you should see a doctor and see if something’s making you ill,” their mother said.
Marjorie answered quietly in her wet, small voice, “No. I’m fine.” Her mother’s concern inspired repulsion, made her look more sick, which in turn made their mother more worried, more angry, more coiled into a vibrating haze. Loneliness ate at her bones, but she could not say all the things she wanted to say to this pale child.
Marjorie was 18 years old. Legally her own. Marjorie had always been her own, distant from the rest of them. Staring at them as if they made her curious and afraid.
Elisa cried that night in her bed. She ached for her sister. She had fantasies of them sitting and talking together. Laughing. She remembered the way her sister used to braid her hair. She’d have visions of the morning she made her sister that peanut butter sandwich. Spreading the peanut butter carefully. Cutting the bread, and holding up a piece to smell the nutty richness. The sweet, yeasty bread. It had been beautiful. Enticing. It would have been what she would have wanted.
She’d found the rejected sandwich in the trash, dried and crumbling, and it was as if Marjorie had ripped out Elise’s heart and thrown it away, too. It was torture. She didn’t know what could be done except to stop loving.
Elise had heard her mother crying too, alone in her room, but she did not want to comfort her. Is this what it means to be alive? Suffocating in your family’s toxic air.
On the sixth day Marjorie came out to watch TV. She was in her blanket, texting someone words she would never say to them. In that moment Elisa found the hatred she’d been craving.
“Why don’t you talk to us?” she screamed, stunned at the power of her own voice. This house wasn’t used to these sounds, the walls were probably shocked as they shuddered out of her. “You leave and tell us you’re going to help people, but you come back sick and tired and won’t tell anyone what happened? We were worried about you, and now we’re even more worried because you won’t eat and you won’t talk and you don’t even care.”
“Shut up, Elise! Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.” Marjorie covered her head with her hands and the burrowed under the blanket. “You don’t have the right to talk to me like that. Get away from me.”
Elise was suddenly pummeling the blanket with her fists, engulfed in precious rage. The blows felt good at first, but then she could feel the bones, and she was suddenly afraid her older sister would break, shatter into dust like the brittle and abandoned peanut butter sandwich that now haunted her dreams.
Instead her sister rose up like a beast, red-faced and heaving, pushing Elisa to the floor and pinning down her wrists. “Don’t you dare treat me this way!” she seethed. “You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t appreciate this privileged life you have. You have a home. You have enough food to eat. You have a future. The kids I saw don’t have any of that. They live in and eat garbage. They can’t even feed their dogs. They get pregnant by their brothers and can’t keep their babies alive. You don’t know what you have, and you think you have the right to attack me.”
Her face crumpled into tears and collapsed on Elise, and Elise could feel her hot face on her chest, her choking sobs in her armpit. Her fingers were bony and cold in Elise’s hand, like knife handles. Every sob felt like a savage victory. Elise reached up to stroke her sister’s hair and it was everything she had dreamed of, this terrible closeness.