by Victoria Miller
When I was nine years old, my parents, my three siblings and I, moved from Florida to Japan for my father’s work. We lived in this huge house that, if you squinted one of your eyes, very much resembled a soda can. It was round and was covered in little mirror tiles that were a bitch to look at when the sun was shining on them. Living in a foreign country is eerie. Everything’s different – the landscape, the smells, the sounds. Because I was so far from what I was used to, I inverted into myself. I didn’t have many friends and would just sit in front of the television for hours, trying my hardest to understand Japanese soap operas.
The only people who could bring me out of my bubble were my three siblings, especially the oldest, Carly, who was 15. She was struggling a little too. She didn’t like Japan and hated leaving all her friends at home. Sometimes after a long day she would help give me my baths. Once I was in the tub, she would come in, shaking her head and laughing at the mess that I had already made. When she laughed like this, I could see the gap in her teeth that I hadn’t seen in awhile. She tossed her frizzy blond hair back in a loose ponytail, rolled her jeans, and pulled up her sleeves. When she reached for the shampoo, I could smell her musky perfume. She took great care while washing my hair and started to ask me about my day. Always making sure to listen carefully to my answers and comment when needed. The cold, sanitary smell that the bathroom usually had was immediately covered with the flowery and fruity smells of my shampoo and conditioner. After a while the water started to get cold and my hands started to look like prunes, but I didn’t want to stop talking yet. She was my friend in this strange place and I was safe from the outside if she was here. There weren’t any kids to make fun of me for being the chubby white girl or teachers to get mad at me for not understanding the math problem. I wanted to make her stay there forever, keep her to myself, so I could to hear her talk about school and boys, and missing home. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that she was one of my friends from home and that I wasn’t halfway across the world. So I just stayed in the tub, shivering a little bit, but loving it.
The day of my fourth-grade field trip in Japan marked the end of these bath times. The field trip was a chance for me to spend time with Mom. We were getting ready and scurrying around the house because we were running late. We hadn’t seen Carly, but that was normal this early because her room was in the basement. When it was time to leave, Mom sent me downstairs to get her. I was so excited to get going that I practically jumped down the two sets of stairs to her room. When I got there, I noticed that the bathroom door was shut and that the room smelled like steam. I called her name a few times but she didn’t answer. Then I started to get upset. What if she was still in the shower? She was going to make me late for my first field trip! This was my day, or at least that’s what Mom said, so why wasn’t she answering me? I called her name for a few more minutes and then stomped across the room to yell at her for not being ready on time.
When I opened the door to the bathroom, steam came rolling out and set a layer of dew on my face. Right in front of me, on the floor, was my big sister half wrapped in a towel, unconscious. She was laying sprawled out on the ground and it looked like she had broken every bone in her body. The harsh lighting of the all-white bathroom made her look paler than a ghost and called attention to her dark blue lips. Being a dumb, scared nine-year-old, I just stood there staring at her. I knew that it wasn’t right, that her body shouldn’t be in that position, but I was in shock. The steam started to clear but my head didn’t. I could hear everyone moving around upstairs and Mom calling for us to hurry up. All of the cars and outside noises seemed louder then normal. My sweaty hand started to slip off the door handle and I readjusted my grip, turning my chubby knuckles chalk-white. The steam from the shower was rolling down the mirror in front of me, clearing the fog so that it I could see the scene that had unfolded. Precipitation. That’s what it was called. We learned about that this week in class and I made a mental note to tell my teacher that I remembered the big word. Precipitation. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized that I was just standing there. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but I came to my senses and screamed for Mom. She heard the panic in my voice and immediately came rushing down the stairs. I met her at the bottom. “Something’s wrong with Carly. She fell I think, but she’s not waking up.”
Mom didn’t even let me finish what I was saying – she rushed past me into the bathroom. Next thing I knew I was being pushed out of the door and onto the bus. I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought that Mom was supposed to come with me to school. We were leaving right away, and she was never going to make it on time. Maybe Carly had just fallen and hit her head; she could put an ice pack on it and deal, couldn’t she?
The usually short bus ride lasted forever and neither of my other siblings said a word. We all stared out our windows expressionless. The city outside of my window was a blur of buildings and people. Old folks exercising in parks, groups of teenagers waking around in weird clothes, and skyscrapers, all seemed to be staring at me with pity. At least Tokyo knew that this sucked, that it wasn’t fair. The city understood.
When I got to school and into the classroom everyone was excited and ready for our first field trip. I was just angry. As we were getting ready to go, my teacher pulled me aside and said what I had been dreading the whole time. “Your mom’s not going to make it, Tory. She had to take your sister to the hospital, but don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.” I started bawling. How could she do this? Why did Carly have to take the one thing from me that I had been so looking forward to? I thought that we were going to stick together, her and I.
I don’t remember the field trip very well. I think we went to some old-fashioned Japanese school. When the day was over, we all went to board our respective buses to go home. I was walking towards the bus area when I saw Danny and Lily, two of my older siblings, and my dad in his car. Dad never came to the school, especially not this early in the day; he wasn’t home until 6 or 7 on most nights. I walked over with my head down, still brooding about the day that I had just had, expecting some sympathy. When I got to them, they all kind of looked at me funny. I still can picture it in my head – it was sadness, sympathy, hurt, and anger all meshed into one expression that looked, to the untrained eye, like they were just fine. Dad looked at me and said, “Your mom and Carly have gone back to the states. Carly is really sick and the doctors can’t help her here.” My breath caught in my chest and all I could say was, “Is she ever coming back?” I still think that I heard a whisper of “I’m not sure” escape his lips, but I could have imagined it.
I couldn’t believe that Carly would just leave me here, with no friends and no mother. Couldn’t they have just stopped by the school, given me a quick hug, explained things, and then left? I was alone in this foreign land, with my barely-there father, too-cool-for me 11-year-old sister, and a 13-year-old brother who was too into video cameras and skateboarding to care. I stepped up into the van and we drove away, the same way that we had come but different, more lonely.
Carly had, that morning in her bathroom, while she was stepping out of the shower, trying to hurry up so she wouldn’t make me late for my field trip, experienced a grand mal seizure, the first in a series of seizures that would eventually lead doctors to diagnose her with epilepsy. It was bad, the worst she could have actually.
* * *
A few years after we moved back to Florida from Japan, Mom, Carly, my other siblings, and I all went down to Fort Lauderdale for the weekend. I was thirteen years old and not happy about being thrown into the backseat between Danny and Lily. Carly, upfront as usual because she “got sick” in the back, let out a loud gasp causing Mom to slam on the breaks. I was mildly amused by the situation because I knew, even from under my headphones, that Mom was overreacting. My other siblings were sitting up looking at Carly but I wasn’t about to give her any more attention then she already had.
“I forgot my sunglasses at Melissa’s house!” she said, as if the world was ending.
Mom looked like she might have a heart attack, “Jesus Christ Carly, never do that again, I thought you…”
“…were having a seizure?” I mumbled under my breath, “Surprise of the freaking century.”
“Okay, sorry” she said, “But you know that I’ll get a headache if I don’t have them.”
Mom turned the car around.
I can’t handle this, I thought. I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything because Carly was the one that had to live with this horrible sickness. But still, I just wanted to go and now we were all going to be smashed together, in this very small backseat, for longer then anyone ever wanted. I sighed, loudly. Very loudly. I wanted to make my discomfort known. Carly turned around in her seat and stared at me.
“You know I need my sunglasses, Tory. I’m sorry if that inconveniences you.”
I didn’t say anything; I didn’t even look at her. Because if I did we would be yelling and it would ruin everything. But she kept talking.
“I don’t know why you’re so angry with me. You have never liked me. You always roll your eyes at me and get so frustrated so easily. I don’t understand what I did wrong. I don’t even remember when it started. But I’m sorry that I’m sick, Tory, and I’m sorry that I have to have certain things. But I can’t help it. I can’t do anything about that and I wish more then anything in the world that I was better, that I didn’t need this much attention. Do you think I like having to be checked on all the time if I’m quiet for more then twenty minutes? People look at me like I’m going to drop any minute. But not you. You won’t even look at me and I don’t understand why. I can’t remember a time when you weren’t angry with me or with Mom… I just don’t…. I don’t know.”
I couldn’t even look at her. It was still all about her, after all these years. It never even occurred to her that some people had been left by the wayside. The casualties were never even counted. I stared out the window and put my headphones back in, ignoring the burning that was raising in my chest and settling nicely behind my eyes.
* * *
Anger is the hurt that you carry on your face; it is the tension in your shoulders and the harsh slicing of your words. It can be with you for years and you don’t even know its there. Not until someone tells you. Not until you take a look at yourself and realize that you have been holding onto something for so long that now it’s not just a part of you, it is you. You have become anger.
Carly never remembered much about Japan; it’s all a blur to her. She lives it through our stories and memories of the place. She doesn’t remember anything, not how loud the cicadas were outside at night or how it rained almost every other day. She doesn’t remember the park down the road where every clover had four leaves or the time that our brother got really sick and we all read him chapters of a book. She doesn’t remember that she was my only friend, the only person who actually talked to me over there. The only one who made me feel real. She truly didn’t know why I was angry. Heck, until I was thirteen, I didn’t even know that I was still angry. I had held onto this anger and this fear for so long that it had become a part of me.
Anger can do a lot to a person. It can turn a little sister into a big angry hurricane of feelings. It can confuse people and hurt people. It can turn an entire family upside down and tear it apart. But anger could also turn a small child into an adult in a matter of hours. It can hold onto a persons heart forever and never let go.
Guilt can do the exact same thing. It can make an adult flinch at the sound of a fight. It can make a nineteen-year-old girl wish that she could go back and change everything. It can make her think that maybe if she was smarter or more mature at nine or thirteen years old, then maybe she would have understood and not held on to her selfishness and anger for so long.
But understanding can heal families and pull them together. It can weather the storms of anger and guilt. It can mend a child’s heart. It can make that same nineteen-year-old girl realize that nine-year-old kids aren’t equipped to understand trauma. It can help a big sister comprehend what was inside her little sister for all those years wasn’t hate, it was hurt, and that she is so sorry for holding on for so long.
When we moved back from Japan, Mom and Carly met us at the airport with a few friends. I walked right past Carly. I walked right past my sick sister sitting in a wheelchair and ran to my mother. I even turned around and glared at her as if to say, “See. I have her now.” I wish I could go back to when I got off that fourteen-hour plane ride, with all my anger, and I would take a look at my pale, frail-looking, big sister and I would hug her.