Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical non-fiction and contemporary poetry. She is addicted to League of Legends and hates ranch dressing. Her work has been featured in Calliope, Sonic Boom Journal, Spry Literary Journal, and more. Her first novel, Moon River, was released in September. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband and miniature dachshund named Ahri.
She first stumbled into my garage the same summer I began to starve myself.
Her pale skin glistened at her hairline, a shallow creek bed next to a field of burning wheat on a summer morning. That image flickered in my skull as I traced the outline of her tall, muscular body with eyes that had not seen an ounce of light in weeks.
I stood on fragile ankles in the doorway. My voice shook away the 7 AM dust of the morning as I said to her, “Uhh. My sister isn’t here.”
Ignoring my remark, she stepped around my shrinking body and slipped out of her athletic sandals. They stacked atop one another, next to my black leather boots with the broken zippers.
“What? Again? But she told me to come over this morning.” The skin around her eyes exhaled. I saw the dough of her cheeks tremble.
How was I supposed to tell her that my sister, a recent high school graduate who was injecting herself with lethal doses of infatuation to stay relevant for her new boyfriend, could not spare even a two-minute phone call to say, “Hey, I won’t be home tomorrow, come over next week,” but she could call him every five minutes to say, “Hey, I love you?”
We knew each other’s names. We knew very little—she was my sister’s best friend, and I was her best friend’s little sister. What I learned—the first thing I came to know—as I watched her carry the weight of my sister’s addiction on her shoulders, a feathered boa of disappointment strewn around her neck while she leaned over to return to her sandals, was that she was done. The longer I watched, the more I cultured in my memory: the fire at her ears, a Chicken Pox scar on her jawline, the absence of everything in her eyes as she turned to leave.
My little word grabbed her attention.
“Do you like Zombies Ate My Neighbors?”
I started eating again.
We braved the next few years stitched together, a quilted patchwork of young girl dreams, clichéd broken dreams that shattered across long summer nights stealing sips of Popov and keeping each other’s scent locked away in dollar store journals.
The year I graduated high school, her junior year of college, she told me that she liked it when I drank because she didn’t feel as disgusted with herself. Her body filled with that sensation for both of our sakes. She told me this as we lay in just t-shirts and laundry day panties on her bedroom’s hardwood floor. Six empty cans of Bud Light blinked between us, their blue bodies the children of our shared tribulations: daddy issues, emotionally distant boyfriends, small towns with big mouths and a selected vocabulary of just our names and the f-word, something about not having enough of everything.
Her voice dissolved in a cloud of fermentation. “We’re gonna stay like this for a long time. I hate using the word forever, so don’t make me.”
I turned over. I watched a dollop of sweat bead between her breasts. She wore a block of light across her shoulders, a selection of eerie blue from either the moon or the fluorescent dive bar sign near her apartment. It was like dipping my tongue in a glass of salt, watching her wait for a response, a suspension controlled by the shifts and sounds of my mouth alone.
Finally, I found a response somewhere on her skin, and I said to her, “I don’t want to leave you.”
She kissed me on the forehead. “Don’t start.” Then she was silent.
That silence, whatever is what, followed us for many years. A quiet thing that manifested into some sort of disease, a sickness that stole the very fingerprint of our relationship, and we tried so hard to fight it.
The first time she denied me was when we sprawled out on a trampled knoll that smelled like marijuana and body odor, the physical reverberations of Rob Zombie’s classic “Dragula” sending the concert crowd into a frenzy of blinded swings and punches with sunbaked knuckles, and when I reached for her hand to tell her that she was the most important thing to me, a middle-aged man with a backwards ‘90s cap captured her attention, and she jumped up and left.
She used to let me sleep in the same bed as her. Sometime in 2010, that changed, and she asked me to instead use the couch.
There was also the time that she introduced me as her friend from West Virginia. My heart blinked at the absence of her ‘best.’
Then the realization of it all splayed like a map on her bedroom wall, and it was quick for me to notice the discrepancies of faces printed on those low-quality Facebook pictures in the shape of a heart above her bed. She had invited me to her luxury apartment in downtown Pittsburgh for a weekend of boxed wine and Lady Gaga. I dropped my overnight bag on her bedroom floor as she pirouetted from the closet to the open window. Her hair, as fiery as ever, burned in the afternoon sun. “We can get a cab to Images. I’ll have one of my friends bring us back.”
I swallowed the mathematical difference between the photos with my face and the photos of someone else’s. “Okay. But, there’s something I want to ask you.”
Her bonewhite legs cast a blinding glow on the side of her bed. Her skin drew the shape of a liquor bottle with sunlight on her periwinkle sheets. Only she could do that. “Yeah, babe?”
My upper lip stirred. She never called me babe. I was not her babe. Every summer I was her pillow during nights of thunderstorms and tequila, her reciprocated echo when she needed to unleash one of her self-hatred spiels of how nobody loved her, her doll to play with when she felt at her most vulnerable only to throw back underneath the bed when someone was coming—
Something struck me then—cement in my lungs, acid on my tongue, a knot of fishing wire constricting my throat—and I found part of my answer in the bevel of her hips. Another fragment beckoned me from the way her neck danced as she tossed back a full glass of wine in less than four swigs. My eyes read the freckles on her arms like Braille and wrote some sort of sappy, romantic love story that was going to be in all of the history books in one-hundred years. The fingerprints of my glance, the absence of any plot during periods of sobriety, that was the most terrifying part of that silence.
I needed to know. “Have you moved on?”
The silence shattered like a mirror on her bedroom floor. She moved her eyes to her feet, only to see her own reflection, shards of my face crossing with hers, repeating itself over and over again all around her. Instead of bleeding the soles of her feet to get to me, she stood in place, a mask sliding over what was left of her defeated glance, and I heard her say something faint, like, “Well,” but it must have been a sigh from a door or the window in the bathroom, because nothing of her moved.
The photographs shrunk on her bedroom wall that day, dry snapshot petals flaking from their totem and floating down, down until they lay in a heap at the foot of her bed. I took with me what was left of her reflection—nothing more than sharp traces of the firsts of her features I had studied that first summer together, those muscles, that wheat—and I stepped aside, gave her enough time to reach out and touch me for the first time in her life, but I made sure she did not get that luxury before telling her that I no longer wanted to be a part of her when nobody was looking.
I kicked photograph chippings with me the entire walk back to my car. They smelled like that first day many years earlier, summer in a bottle, salt of muscle, dew on our shoulders, mine.
Two weeks later, she was in a relationship with an accountant named Frank.
So I stopped eating.