Irene Keliher

What We Eat, Where We Live

She didn't belong in the Lima airport, my sister, yet there she was, gripping her backpack's battered straps with both hands. The airport gleamed clean with expectation, a slice of the States carved out of Lima's sprawl, French fries and hiking gear and duty-free cologne. The Quechua grandmother next to me touched her rosary as she watched the planes ascend into the haze. I wanted to grab her hand and say I shouldn't have agreed to this, I wasn't going to come, to command her sympathy in the whirl of unknown passengers. Don't burden strangers with your problems, my mother would have said. Amazing how that voice could climb up from the tile and take shape before me.
     Sarah hadn't seen me yet. Dry strands of hair lifted from her scalp like filament as she chewed her lip with frantic determination. Her weight shifted from sneaker to sneaker. As a kid she'd gnaw the corners of her mouth into raspberry-colored sores unless I put a finger against her cheek and said, "Stop, crazy."
     Her e-mail had said nothing but hello, can I visit. We hadn't spoken since our mother's funeral, when Sarah had been high in that slurring, slippery-eyed way you can't hide.
     "Molly," she called. A pair of rain-jacketed tourists stopped to stare.
     I walked quickly, then. "You don't have to shout."
     Sarah reached for me and I thought of her the year before she left us, when she read poetry at a coffeehouse down the street, tilting her head beneath the exposed beams so the light caught the lines of her throat and the luster of her eggplant lipstick. Sarah wrote about her medicine crowding the cabinet, about being sick as a senior citizen at twenty-two: "They tell me, try a psychologist, you feeble bitch," she'd finish, and the crowd would giggle. But they loved best her poems about blow-jobs, for which they waited impatiently, fingering their hulking for-here mugs in anticipation.
     Afterwards Sarah would wink at me from across the room as she sipped the cheap Cabernet someone had smuggled in for her, the baristas shouting and steaming milk behind the makeshift stage. When I made my way to her she threaded an arm around my waist and pressed her mouth against my ear, almost lascivious.
     "This is my solitary sister," she'd say to whoever had brought her the drink. "Don't act like you know us." Her disdain made her beautiful.
     I would remember her like this even after my mother's illness: weaving through the folding chairs, her fingers brushing the nape of someone's neck. She stored up her energy for those nights, forgoing opiates so she'd be articulate. Hers was a slippery illness, pain without a cause: the orthopedists had declared her sound after a cycling accident three years before, but the phantom pain kept her up at night and out of school. She folded up on the couch, dark rings for eye sockets. Her breath hollow.
     Sarah hugged me a minute too long, even for an airport. A year of rehab could define your biceps, apparently. She was warm and clean and I relaxed into her, clinging before I could recover my reserve. She wore a stiff new sweatshirt; the plastic tips of the drawstrings pressed into my collarbone. I didn't know if it was because I was in perpetual state of missing her or because I was used to being a foreigner and here was home, meeting me, but I clung.
     "I hope you don't have another bag," I said into her shoulder.
     "To the jungle," Sarah said. "I can't wait. You look good."
     "You too, considering," I said, letting go.
     "I came here to make up," she said. "The new program was the best ever."
     "We weren't dating," I said.
     "You know what I mean." She fiddled with the backpack straps again.
     My mother had kept a framed picture of us in the hospital room. We were three and six years old. I had a fist in my mouth; Sarah sat, ropy with childhood, an arm slung across my back. We shared uncertain noses and colorless lips, but her ears curled neatly against her scalp while mine saluted at right angles. Later I would grow my hair long to hide them because Sarah advised it and I would lie for her, before I knew better, if I ever knew better.
     "I just—" Sarah started to say.
     "We better go. The La Merced bus leaves in an hour," I said . . .