Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

Sisters Are From Mars, Sisters Are From Vegas

by Liz Chamberlin


When your sister stands in front of you, wearing pigtails and her Princess Tiger Lily headband, hands on her hips and her cheeks puffing out so her pigtails bounce with each word and she tells you, "I was supposed to be an only child," decide to wound her right back. Decide you will say something clever and cutting.

Open your mouth. Feel the fur on your unbrushed teeth with the tip of your tongue. Think. Think. When she starts to walk away, say to the back of her head, "Well! Well you look like a chipmunk! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Later, under the covers with the flashlight so your sister can't look over your shoulder, get out your book. Write down all the smart things you could have said. Underline the best ones. Imagine you had said them.



When your sister falls off the monkey bars and gives herself two black eyes, so the kids at school start calling her raccoon girl and she cries—great, sparkling smears on her cheeks—sneak into your Mom's bathroom. Color black rings around your own eyes with the eyeliner pencil. Go down to dinner and walk into the kitchen, hands in your back pockets.

"You're mocking me! She's mocking me!" your sister screams.

"Wash your face! For Heaven's sake," your Mom says. Her face is large and looming.

Retreat to the bathroom and stare into the mirror, eyes white and wide inside the watery black rings. Your tears have made your cheeks run black. You are nowhere near as beautiful as your sister.



When your sister goes off to Indian Princesses with your Dad, holding his hand and not looking back even once, and your Mom sees you sitting there without a headband or a fake leather vest and says, "Aw, hell. We don't need them anyway, do we, baby?" stare at her as if you have no idea what she's talking about. Ask her if she thinks you care. Ask her if she's noticed how Indian Princesses is the lamest ever. She'll shrug and go back to her book.



Let the neighborhood big boys, the fifth graders from down the block, cajole you into karate-kicking the heads off every last one of your Mom's tulips. You're barefoot, wearing loose pants, like a ninja, and you move like lightning. Say, hiiii-ya! a lot. You're amazing.

When there's a whole bed of beheaded flowers successfully before you, bow to the big boys' applause. Listen from your nest in your bean bag in front of "Dukes of Hazard," cherry popsicle in your hand, while your Mom yells at your sister for not watching you closer. You, however, are always a very good watcher. You watch your Mom run upstairs with her arms straight down by her sides, hands wriggling at the ends of her wrists.

Let your cat have a lick of your popsicle. Watch her fast pink tongue hot against the tiny crystals of ice. Her breath makes the ice beads bend and part and disappear, like wind blowing across sand.



When your grandmother gives both you and your sister diaries for Christmas and tells you to write down the things that would make you happiest, draw a blank until one day when you sneak into your sister's room and read hers. She's off at baton practice, which is the second lamest thing ever, and so she's forsaken all rights to privacy. You've also been stealing your sister's romance novels and forsaken is your third favorite new word.

Your sister's book says, "Rib eye steak and baked potatoes with sour cream. Richie and his blond hair from "Silver Spoons" and a white horse and a castle on the beach in Mexico. Maids in black and white uniforms."

Go back to your room. In your book, write: Mexico, because that's the best word in the bunch. You have recently discovered that you feel an unusual affinity for the X's.



Sit just outside your sister's bedroom door, because she's not allowed to close it and you're not allowed to set even one toe over the threshold, and yes it counts even if it's just the front part of your shoe even though your toes don't reach the ends yet, so it's not exactly you, is it, it's just a piece of shoe, except your Mom agrees with your sister and they've overruled you even though you know that technically you are right—and that's your top new favorite word, technically.

Listen while your sister and her best friend Julia with long silky hair lie on your sister's bed and talk about boys. They're pretending you're not there but you don't have to go away if you don't want to. It's a free country.

Lean your back against the wall with your knees bent up in front of you, stretching your grape Bubble Yum out of your mouth. Admire how your spit makes the purple strand glisten. Listen as Julia says, "Bobby Masterson says he wants to do it to me on the last day of school."

Break your long, smooth strip of gum in half because you know what it is: humping. You tried to get away on a technicality last year and it didn't work; you said the F word at school and then explained to Mrs. O'Neil that the F word was the same as humping and a hump was also the thing on a camel's back and therefore the F word was really no big deal, was it, unless of course you weren't allowed to say "the thing on a camel's back" at school either? Your sister laughed, but not with you, you could tell, and called you a retard at dinner and for once your Mom didn't correct her. Your Dad was too busy choking on his meatballs although you really didn't see what exactly was so funny.

Listen as your sister's laugh rings out deep and low, like the laugh of a woman, one who knows things. She says, "He actually said that? Does he even know what it means?" And both your sister and Julia laugh then, reaching around to clutch each other's shoulders, they're laughing so much.

Push your gum back into your mouth and lean across the doorway. Say, "Exactly! They're so lame. You know what they say. Men are from Mars and women are from Vegas." It's true you can't imagine two things more different, a red planet so far away only green men closed up in space suits can walk on it in big bouncy leaps with the cold black air of space all around them; and the big, hot, vibrant city you've seen on TV, full of women in short sequined uniforms lining up together and dancing all in a line, holding hands with their legs kicking high in the air, perfect and straight, with a rhythm as clean and natural as the tops of trees bending in the breeze, as waves falling on the shore. Know that of the two, the women seem more exotic and mysterious to you, but that you'll never tell. Your sister would die laughing if you said it.

Your sister and Julia fall off the bed, laughing hysterically anyway. Pretend that you know why. Laugh for a minute too, nice and loud. Get up to go pet your cat.

Tell your cat, "You're so stupid. You don't know anything." But feel forsaken after and to make up for it ask whether she would rather split a cherry or a lime popsicle.

Decide you'll learn something your sister doesn't know. You think it might be Spanish.



The night your Dad puts all his stuff, or at least everything he wants to take with him, into the back of his little gray Rabbit and moves into a dark one bedroom apartment that smells like dog food and vinegar, sit up in your bed with your arms wrapped around your knees, frightened by the quiet. Without the loud voices and banging doors it sounds like no one's home.

Get up and go to your sister's room. Ask if you can sleep in her bed. When she doesn't answer turn on her light. She's got her thumb in her mouth and she's wearing her Indian Princess uniform and her eyes are smeared and puffy.

When she screams, "Get out now or I'll kill you!" decide to go back to your own room. Look for your cat. Take her under your covers and hold her tight even when she scratches ragged holes in your pajamas, even when she rakes her claws across your face. Hold her with her hot cat breath running across your cheeks and speak up over the low, creaky sound of her growls. Tell her the story of her birth. Don't tell her it's all made up, because you weren't there. She's stupid and she'll never know the difference.



Follow your sister around the house wearing her Princess Tiger Lily uniform. Chant, "Jabba the Hut, the blubber butt," at her back, because that's the one thing that makes her whirl around and look at you. Even though then she digs her nails into your upper arms so hard they bleed, and when she pushes her tongue through her teeth and her eyes bulge out in anger she really does look like a chipmunk.

Tell her.



Your sister's feet don't look normal. They're bent a little and bulge out at that thing that looks like a knuckle below her big toes. They're crooked and lumpy. Your number one dream is to be the fastest person on Earth, that and a veterinarian in space, because astronauts need pets too, don't they, and what if they get sick? But mostly to be the fastest person on Earth, and your sister doesn't want to do anything but read. Read and play Barbies. She only lets you play if your Barbies promise to be the servants and pour the ale for her Barbies, but the ale is really vanilla extract from the kitchen. You try to make your Barbies all speak Spanish, but your accent is terrible and your sister tells you to shut up.



When your Mom's second husband moves in—"Call me Al—as in Crazy Al," he says—and announces that you are banned from the living room, because you can't sit like a lady on his furniture, tell him you couldn't care less. You can't stand to look at him in his mauve bathrobe with his hairy bare legs sticking out the bottom anyway. Since Al never leaves the couch—he lies enthroned upon it all day like a lion—you will not enter the living room of your own house for the seventy-eight remaining months of your Mom's second marriage. You tick each month off in your book, like a shipwreck victim making notches on a stick.

Come to think of it, you like the idea of yourself as shipwrecked. It makes you feel tragic and noble. So much that you transfer the marks from your book to the empty white wall of your room. The marks look so . . . natural . . . up there. Life-sized. Use a black magic marker and big, bold swipes.

Sit by yourself in the kitchen watching the black and white TV on top of the refrigerator. Listen to Al's muffled voice and the sound of your sister laughing on the other side of the door and saying, "I do not have five dates to Junior Prom!"



When you're thirteen, let your sister teach you how to puke up your dinner. She's older and it's the first thing you can remember her offering to show you about life. Be so excited you write down her instructions in your book after:

1. Drink a big glass of water. Or maybe two if possible.

2. Put two fingers in your mouth. Make sure one of them is the middle one because it's the longest.

3. Push back into your throat as far as you can go. When you start to gag, don't panic. That means it's working. Push farther. Push farther and hold.

4. Whatever you do, don't give up. Be persistent.

5. Brush your teeth after. So when your boyfriend kisses you, he won't vomit, too.

Even though you don't have a boyfriend and you never have, unless you count—and you don't—Stan Wacker in the sixth grade who moved his desk next to yours and held your hand once until the other girls informed you that he was a nerd so you moved your desk away again and spent the rest of the year withering under his wounded gaze until he finally moved to Australia; even though you don't have a boyfriend, write down Step 5, too. Because you never know.

Watch as your sister shows you something. She leans over the toilet and pukes without even sticking a finger in her mouth. She has trained herself that well, she says. She can now just lean over and do it. You smile admiringly. You try and try, but you can't make yourself puke. Your fingernails are bitten down to the quick but you still manage to scratch your throat until it bleeds. You cough red blotches into a white ball of toilet paper.

You say that technically you think it worked because at one point a little yellow ball of phlegm did come out. It's still floating in the toilet, like pond scum.

"That's OK," your sister tells you. She rests one hand on your shoulder. "There's always tomorrow," she says, and her face is kind and gentle. Feel warm all over.



Your sister's high school boyfriend takes out Al's gun, only identifiable to you as some kind of revolver. He loads one bullet in the chamber, lets you watch while he spins the chamber. He points the gun at you, smiling as if he's holding a hot dog or a corsage.

Put your hands up in front of your face, palms out. Drop to a ball on the floor. Keep your hands between you and the gun. As if.

When he pulls the trigger—you hear the click—and starts laughing hysterically, saying he knew all along where the bullet was, pick yourself up off the floor and race the sound of his laughter out the door. Vomit into the bushes.

Say, "That's OK," when your sister comes to you, wide eyed, and lays one French manicured hand on your shoulder. Say, "You don't have to worry about me."

Say, "It's no big deal," when your Mom comes in from the garden in her Screw Your Neighbor t-shirt and the You've Come A Long Way, Baby checkered boxer shorts she collects by the dozen—they come with cartons of Virginia Slims—and asks about the vomit.

Don't look at him when he comes over for dinner the next day, bearing flowers from your own yard.

But don't scream or bash him on the head with the fire poker, either.



When you walk into your bedroom and find your sister's high school boyfriend's naked butt pumping up and down on top of your naked sister, and they're in your twin bed, say "hey!" loudly because it erupts out of you as if you have Tourettes. Drop your backpack on the floor with a thud and race out the front door, giggling and shaking. Feel like you have seen something mundane and inexplicably gruesome at the same time. Feel like you've watched an eagle eat your neighbor's poodle.

Wait next to the azaleas until your sister comes out, disheveled with high spots of color on her flushed cheeks, and a triumphant, defiant look in her dark-ringed eyes. Don't look at her when she lays one hand on your shoulder.

Know that you've finally earned the right to be a little bit demanding. Know that you can get away with it now. Say, "Why." Make your voice flat as the desert highway.

Say nothing at all when your sister says, "I don't know," and "We're washing the sheets," and "Maybe just for fun, I guess."



You're fifteen and angry. You're so, so angry. You're fifteen and you've been angry for so long you no longer remember what you're angry about. It doesn't matter. You sling your anger at anybody who happens into striking distance and because you have always been in the habit of writing everything down, your bullets are all words.

Picture yourself like this: you are standing in the middle of the room, arms held straight out on either side of you. You spin around and around as fast as you can, hurling venom from the tips of your fingers.

The image of yourself like this makes you smile.



When your sister is staying with your Dad and your Mom is sleeping like the dead—she hasn't stirred in four days—go to a party thrown by your sister's friends down the street.

Your sister's high school boyfriend hands you a 32-ounce Jack-in-the-Box cup full of Dr. Pepper and Southern Comfort. Take a sip. It's sweet like cough syrup and you can hardly taste the alcohol at all.

Tell him, "This is so much better than Keystone Light."

Tell him, "I could drink this all day."

Ask if you can keep the whole cup. Smile and thank him when he laughs and says, "Sure, twerp. Knock yourself out." Don't even yell at him when his hand rests a moment on your boob.

Drink the whole thing. Walk home with a buzzing head singing I Just Called to Say I Love You, in Spanish, to the trees in the almond orchards. Tell the trees to relax, you are one of them. You're not there to rape them of their bounty. Actually hug one of them, feel the bark against your cheek, not so different from a five o'clock shadow on a man's chin. You think.

When your Mom wakes up and asks why all your bedding is in the dryer, why you smell like a brewery and what on earth is all that crap matted in your hair? don't look up. Exhale as you hear your sister walk in and say, "We've been taking care of things just fine while you where resting, Mommy," in her sweetest voice. You don't remember your sister coming home, or washing all your sheets, whether she came by coincidence or if somebody called her. You don't remember whether you were glad to see her when she came.

Know that your Mom looks at you and knows, she wasn't born yesterday, but that if it's OK with your sister, it's OK with her, too. Your Mom has other things on her mind and your sister is the real adult in the house, anyway. That's what your Mom likes to say.

Don't write any of this down in your book, but don't forget it, either.



Spend a month in the hospital. Have lung surgery. It's nothing anyone did to you: your body has attacked itself. Your lung got weak, there is a hole, the doctor tells you. He sounds angry when he says it. You grew too fast, he adds, as if accusing you of spray painting a bridge. Your Mom will sit next to you through all of this, her face round and still. Your sister will visit, bringing fast food hamburgers you're not allowed to eat and her high school boyfriend who will stand behind your Mom, running one finger across his throat in a giant slicing motion, the whole time grinning his biggest, whitest smile.

Lie on a table, unconscious, while the doctors remove a piece of your lung. Tell the anesthesiologist before he puts you under, "Please don't make me a vegetable. I hear zucchini aren't getting out in the world a lot these days." Laugh like you are hysterical. You are hysterical. Ask for another Valium.

The day you get home, withered and bent kind of sideways and minus thirty pounds, stand behind your sister watching in the mirror while she curls her hair into perfect, springy ringlets.

When your sister says, "I wish you died in surgery," be able to see in her eyes that even as the words leave her mouth, she wants to take them back. Understand instantly she doesn't mean it. See that you look disgusting like a skeleton, like a concentration camp inmate, but she's jealous you're so skinny.

Write all this down in your book, but leave out the part about how she didn't mean the thing about you dying.



The third time your sister leaves for good to live with your Dad, hide in the fig tree until you're sure she's gone. Pick all the purplest figs you see and smash them one by one between the branches and your palm. Don't allow any of the ants who come trickling up to get a single bite. Flick them away with your chewed-up fingernail. When your cat meows up at you, yawning, peg her with a fig.

Pretend not to notice that she never came looking for you, never said goodbye. It doesn't matter anyway, because sooner or later she always comes back. She says she's got responsibilities, but she's not talking about you.



When you're seventeen and lying in the living room at your Mom's house—she got Al's couch in the divorce and—out of retribution, purely—you lounge on it all day long—and your sister looks at your feet and says, "Hey! Her feet are starting to bulge like mine! They're not perfect and straight anymore!" look down at your bare feet in surprise. They've always looked wide and strong to you. In fact you've written poetry about them, odes to your feet in your book. Legs too. Transportation is important to you. But when she says it, see the hint of the outward curve on the inside, just below the toes. Catch your breath. Try really hard not to stare in the direction of your sister's feet, her toes all bent in a slanted line, as if they'd been crammed too long into a pair of alien shoes.



As it turns out, your sister loves Vegas. She has a knack for playing the odds and a fearlessness you'll never achieve about the $1 slot machines. Her affinity for Vegas will always make you laugh. Some time or other, try to joke around with her about it.

Tell her, "Men are from Mars, women are from Vegas! Remember?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she'll say, genuinely perplexed. She'll say, "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard."

Decide it's not worth trying to remind her.

Say, "It's not, technically speaking, really all that important."



You turn eighteen and that's the land of the free, so you escape the home of the brave. When you're on a green-rimmed tropical beach, a place your sister will never be, because she was born with weird-shaped feet that made her not like to walk too far or hike or climb or run or jump at all; she stayed inside with her thumb in her mouth reading books on her bed and wiping her boogers on the pages, you know because you spied on her through the window; and besides you did turn out to be the only one who knows Spanish; take out your little book. Write: Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Peru. Going going gone.

Anyway it serves her right. On this planet, people get what they deserve.



When your boyfriend, the one who only wears flip-flops and drives a bread truck for a living so that his job doesn't interfere with his surfing, says to you, "I don't think you're really allowed to do that, use writing as a form of revenge," just smile knowingly. When he says, "Doesn't that corrupt your artistic vision?" tell him you don't have any. Tell him you just want to tell your side of the story without being interrupted. Don't think about whether this is true.

Copyright©2010 Liz Chamberlin

Liz Chamberlin's recent work has appeared or will appear in Fourteen Hills and Palimpsest. She won the 2007 Maurice Prize in Fiction and was nominated to Best New American Voices 2008. She received her MA in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California, Davis, where she studied with Pam Houston, Lucy Corin and Lynn Freed.

Interview with Liz Chamberlin