A List of Things I Can’t Discuss with my Little Sister
She thinks it’s gross, and whenever I bring it up her cheeks turn two shades darker. I like to make her blush, but as I get older, I find myself wishing I could tell her that I don’t want to get married because I’m scared of that first night. Can’t get the idea of a heavy arm draped across my body out of my head. Of laying plain in a tangle of sheets. If it’ll hurt, blood blooming between my thighs, a snap like a soda can tab. If I’ll have to fake an orgasm. That first night with my husband and already dissatisfied, already lying.
In the South, we have lots of funny colloquialisms to discuss the undesirable. We pair Bless her heart with insults. We call a woman’s undergarments unmentionables. This encapsulates the entirety of the Southern spirit: concealing what everyone already knows. The oaks cast looming shadows. Bottles are strung from their limbs to catch evil spirits. They reflect neon arcs onto the lawn. Clink the sound of hollowness when the wind blows. Even the marsh grasses whisper to the june bugs.
Once, my great-grandmother was talking about her black neighbor and called her a donkey. The whole table erupted into shocked, metallic-sounding laughs. She said, Is that not okay? I laughed with the rest of them. Blamed my tears on laughing too hard.
After my sister had the talk with Mama, I asked her what she thought. Her face hidden behind her little palms, she declared, Well, I don’t want to have kids anymore.
This one is self-imposed. Mostly because I don’t know how to talk about Him without talking about my doubts, how I sometimes see Him as a shadow creature, morphing in minds, or a billionaire uncle who lives in Paris. Funny, God drinking too much wine and mixing up his languages, revealing to me the secrets of the universe in loose-tongued Latin. Once, when I was cleaning a church that wasn’t my own, I knelt to vacuum up dirt from the carpet in the chapel and I thought of prayer. I swept dead caterpillars from corners of the pastor’s office and tried to wrap my mind around Noah’s ark. I dusted the stained-glass windows and let Mary cast her light on me.
Church in the South is a social thing. You can classify the population based on how often they frequent a white-washed, steepled building. Group One: the most honorable, the top-tier folk, the ones who attend every week. These women have a section of pastel, knee-length, collared dresses. These people consider themselves righteous, paint a saint’s face over their own. Concealer, foundation, blush, and lipstick. Add some hairspray, just a spritz, powder the nose. Group Two: those who miss a week here and again, who sometimes stumble in during the first hymn, bleary-eyed, still patting down their hair. Average folk. Group Three: the Christmas and Easter attendees. Just enough God-fearing. But even those who don’t go to church still believe in God, of course. They just get less of a pass if they don’t bring a casserole to the biannual potluck.
It turns out, though, it’s quite easy to fall from Group One to the overlooked. Say you wear a dress too short. Say you use words like bitch and fuck. Say you get pregnant out of wedlock. If there’s one thing Southerners love, it’s a rumor.
Cannot confide in her that sometimes I just want to lie against a soft body that mirrors my own, that I’ve pondered taking a wife at the altar instead of a man dressed in a suit like armor. Instead, my girl would cloak herself in the softest silk, something to catch the light and hold it there. Maybe something with sequins or lace. Something for me to trace as I press my hip to hers and mold myself to the divots of her ribcage.
I picture Thanksgiving if I brought home a girl. I picture myself in college. Away.
IV. Being Scared
She’s always mimicked me. As a toddler, she’d sit on the other side of the sliding door and pretend to be a mirror. She was my echo, only louder. I don’t want to expose her to the dangerous undercurrents of the world too early. I don’t want her to turn bitter like me, to see the bad in cashiers, to seek out flaws within our family. I don’t want to confess.
I fear growing old, an empty house. No job to tend to. I am scared walking down the street alone. I used to tuck a flashlight under my covers to hide from the dark. I fear the murderers behind the shower curtain when I sit down to pee. I fear being on my own; I cannot make my own decisions. Which choice is the wrong one? How do you know? What’s the criteria? She chooses my Starbucks order for me.
V. My Origins
Why people look at me and Mama funny when they see us, trying to draw a family tree in their mind. How I am merely the consequences of one bad night. The punishment for a sin, the shame associated with womanhood. When I go to Aiken, I wear my meanest face. To the old people in Food Lion, to the cashiers who know my Gigi from an old job, to strangers on the polo fields. I wear my face sour. I work color into my splotchy skin, swap out fear for foundation. I put on eyeliner. Flash a strip of my stomach in the supermarket.
My sister flicks my hand. She raises her eyebrows and asks what’s got me so mad, worked up, fancy. She is still too young to understand why. She is a product of different circumstances, of ache and longing. Mama couldn’t get pregnant for years after she had me, felt her heart beat fast and painful when holding her friends’ babies, had to flee to the car when we passed them in the supermarket. She is the only one of us who was planned. They decorated the nursery, swapped out paint samples, and redecorated. I got picked up early from school on the day she was due. Mama had gifted me a dollbaby to show me how to hold her. I knew to cradle the neck, keep one palm tucked under her back. I crawled onto the hospital bed and sat with my back to Mama’s chest. We sat with her holding us both.
I consider how Mama once cried because someone asked her if she was my babysitter at a PTA meeting. I want to ask her if she pulls her hair back to try and look older. There are rows of dangly earrings that she lines up nice and neat on the countertop, muted golds and silvers and turquoise. Sometimes, I stand with my cheek pressed against her shoulder while she hooks them in, steps back to check the effect, pulls out a stray few hairs to frame her face. We all have our own methods of concealing.
LAYLA WHEELON lives in Charleston, SC, and currently attends Charleston County School of the Arts as an eleventh grade writing major. She has won numerous regional awards and two National Gold Medals in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition and placed first in the Atlantic Arts Institute Arts and Essay competition. She has been recognized as a finalist in the USC Honors College writing competition. She enjoys writing poetry and creative non-fiction the most, as well as scripts and fiction.