Before she died, she had thrown her head back and laughed, and the crow’s feet around her eyes crinkled as though her hard, sun-blasted skin was papier-mâché. Life had been hard on my sister, to her lungs, really, to her everything, and she coughed and gasped and the marijuana joint disappeared into her black, gap-toothed mouth. Like a bird’s, her throat bulged as she swallowed it whole. Her eyes widened and rolled at me sidelong and her oxygen tubes glowed and spewed light, nebulous bright yellow and orange light, into her face, a pair of petite blowtorches tied to her nose.
My sister’s oxygen tank went up with a whoosh! and a hot orange flash. When I looked back, blinking the purple-green after-image from my vision, there were some flames, a puff of white smoke, and with that, Maria was gone, forever.
But Maria would want to be remembered more gently.
This is my sister, Maria: I’m not even ten and my baby sister teeters over the edge of a rocky precipice, the sharp end to Sugarloaf Mountain’s gentle trails, and my mother howls this hollow, motherly howl: “James, get her back!” She means my father of the same name, who lost track of Maria while he was trying to name one of the deciduous trees that, from a distance, fluffed the mountain like the top of a broccoli stalk. I’m sure she’s going to drop silently out of sight and out of our lives, and I think, well, that was unexpected.
She doesn’t drop. My father leaps from rock to rock, sways over the hundred-foot precipice, and stoops to sweep her to safety. But Maria withdraws from the edge—she just giggles and scampers back to the trail, where my mother picks her up and presses her cheek to Maria’s round forehead and regresses to her native Spanish: bubbling, elegant strings of sound that neither I nor my father understand, but we know are declarations of unconditional, singular love.
And before we know what hit us, she’s twenty-five, and all of four feet tall. She’s taller than that, really, but when I look at her, I see an energetic gremlin with a pixie cut and red highlights, flagging down our waiter for a fourth White Russian. “James,” she says, “hermano.” She has kept her Spanish, not like me, and sometimes she tells me she wishes she grew up somewhere else, in another world, with swirling olive-skinned dancers and mountains, real Andes Mountains, and ruins bursting with ghosts and ancient spirits. She wants those clichés. She drinks and she says, “I could do this forever.” And then she waves at the waiter and asks for más, más.
Maria would have found this, this ritual, ridiculous. All these people, she would have said. She would not have been able to remember your names.
It can’t be such a horrible thing for her to have found something that made her happy, something that made her so, so happy, and to pursue it hard and reckless and unrelenting. When we asked her why, why—and she said that she was happy, what was it that made her answer illegitimate?
So when she asked for something to dull the pain and the boredom, I relented. I gave her the joint. For this, I do not apologize. I only pray that I someday find the same passion for a thing.
Sometimes I think of learning Spanish again and taking Maria’s trip to Machu Picchu. Of grinding my toes into the chilled mountain soil, the tough roots of the grass snapping against my effort. I would touch the ruined stone remnants of the Incas, our ancestors. The stone walls and terraces that rise from the rocky mountainsides so elegantly that they might as well have been grown, as natural as a nail on a finger.
I do not apologize. Maria died drunk and laughing and floating in that chemical ether just slightly outside of reality, where pain and hatred are illusions, and she went out just as she would have wanted, evaporated, in a bright cloud of smoke.