My sister developed a bad cough as we waited at the bus station for what seemed like three hours.
Other than that, there was this silent version of quiet. People walked to and fro as though their mouths had been glued. There were no babies crying, no couples talking, no cell phones ringing. We followed suit. My hands were folded, and my sister, Adriane, was sitting to the left of me just staring into the crowded space in the corner of the room. She kept her right hand over her mouth, balled into a tight fist. I’d assumed that maybe she was glaring at the tall black woman with skinny legs who stood in the corner. The woman wore a blue pea-coat, which was un-buttoned, and she was tightly fit into a t-shirt that read: Live properly: Live long. Within moments, I, like Adriane before me, was watching her as well. The woman lifted her left hand while her head remained focused out the window and took a puff of a cigarette. But Adriane was no longer paying attention to anything in that area. And I spent ten or so minutes following the brown shade of my sister’s eyes to maybe know where her mind was.
“You feeling tired, sis?” I asked as my eyes focused on her high cheekbones. She didn’t answer. I waited a moment. “You want to talk about anything?” Adriane replied by turning her head further away. I began fumbling with my black skirt, pulling it further and further over my knees. It was already stretched completely out of shape. “It’s all going to be okay,” I continued. “Me and you have this whole thing under control.” She then turned her head toward me and pursed her lips.
“How long have we been here, Albrey?” she asked.
“Maybe forty minutes.”
“When is our bus coming?”
“Soon.” I put my hand on her knee. “We’d just missed it when we came in.”
Adriane shifted her face to the other side of the room and began staring into that corner again. There was a large vending machine posted against the wall, black, with green and bright numbers flashing the prices of each item. Packs of twenty-five cent gum were along the bottom, every brand of Frito Lay potato chips lined the next two rows, and there were also candy bars so thick that I could see the chocolate and bulges of peanuts from the outside of the wrapper. They were on the top.
When I stood, I rustled my jacket pocket to see if I had any loose change and took a glance back at my sister. She hadn’t even noticed that I’d moved. Her eyes were still centered on a location I couldn’t manage to figure. Walking to the machine was one of the most nerve-wrecking moments of the day. There were infinite amounts of fingerprints along the machine’s glass casing and I continued wondering what I could do or buy for Adriane that would make her feel just a bit better. I settled on a one-dollar and twenty-five-cent candy bar whose name contained the word “NUT” about seventy-three times. Adriane had her hand along the side of the wooden bench seat when I returned. She began to lean back and breathe hard. I un-wrapped the top half of the candy bar and shoved it into her hand.
“Thanks, sis,” she replied. But the smile she revealed was forced. And her smile was her most redeeming feature. Adriane was one of those overly attractive black women all others walked past and wished they could have a fight with which may result in the blackening of her eye or a permanent scar around her mouth. Her eyebrows were natural and perfectly aligned, leaning to the right like the waves of Lake Michigan. And although our dark skin tones matched, hers always seemed to look as though she’d bathed in cocoa butter just minutes previous. She assumed she wouldn’t look that way anymore.
After taking the candy, she began staring down at it as though I’d trickled poison there. She flicked her eyes quickly back to me.
“Should I be eating this?” she asked.
I made no motion to her and didn’t reply.
“Well,” she continued while pulling the paper further down. “I guess it can’t do any more harm.” Adriane began breathing hard again, sounding as though she’d developed asthma.
“Here, let me do that,” I said, grabbing the candy.
“I don’t think it will be so bad if I just have a small piece, right?” she asked as her eyes lowered in front of me. I nodded my head. She took one small bite of the candy bar, chewed, and lifted her face. “Thanks, sis.” She released again while pulling the wrapping above the candy as though it were clothing.
Over the bus station’s intercom a deep voiced man began speaking: “The number seventy six bus to Schaumburg, Mt. Prospect, and Elk Grove Village will be arriving and departing within the next ten minutes. Please have your fare ready for boarding. The driver will not be docking at the station for long.”
Adriane began coughing again, this time a bit more aggressive than the first.
“Are you okay?” I asked while leaning forward.
“Yes, just my usual.”
“You sure you’re up for this, Adriane?” I moved closer. “I mean, I’m here with you, but we don’t have to do this today.”
“I’m fine, Albrey.”
She gripped the seat of the bench and grunted when lifting her body. At that moment I looked at my sister clearly for the first time in almost a year.
Adriane once had a figure similar to mine. She was probably tall enough to play basketball in Greece, with muscular legs that made you believe she had a squat machine pinned to a wall in her bathroom. When Adriane stood this day though, her legs wobbled a bit, as though the cartilage in her knees was leaving by the second. She began trekking those newly pencil-thin legs toward the door.
“Do you need some air or something?” I asked while lifting quickly.
“Yeah.” She dropped the candy bar on the seat as though it were a heavy suitcase. Adriane took another sharp look at the girl standing in the corner. “Did I look like her?” she asked while pointing. There was a small piece of chocolate on the left side of her mouth.
“You looked better than her,” I replied.
“You know what I mean, Albrey.”
We continued walking to the station’s exit door. It was like traveling with an elderly person who’d been battling arthritis. When we arrived outside, Adriane began breathing better. She walked back and forth on the edge of the pavement, just barely missing cars as they flew by on the street.
“It’s really sunny today,” I said awkwardly.
“Yes, it is.” She pursed her mouth again, and began biting her bottom lip. Adriane then pulled her coat further onto her shoulders. At that point, it looked as though it had been purchased three sizes too big.
“We don’t have to go, Adriane.”
“But you look really tired.”
She used her long fingers to pull the wool cap further down on her head. Although it was probably fifty-five degrees outside, the wind was not blowing and it definitely was not cold enough for a wool cap. Adriane handed me her purse.
“Dig in there and find my lipstick for me,” she said with force. When I handed it to her she nodded her head.
“Come on, Adriane, let’s go back and sit down.” I grabbed her left hand. “Our bus will be here in a few minutes and you need to be able to climb those stairs.”
“What’s the name of the place we’re going?” she asked.
“I’ve never been there before.”
“They have a lot of cool shops there,” I replied. Adriane nodded her head again. “And we can go to the other place last.”
Her face lifted once she finished applying her lipstick. She began staring at me again.
“Did I look like that, Albrey?” Adriane used her forehead to point in the direction of the woman. The woman was still puffing her cigarette slowly.
I reached toward my sister and pulled the curling part of her hat over her ears.
“Come on,” I started. “The bus is boarding.”
The CTA bus we rode was as long as those used in Greyhound lines, but there was no tint on the windows. It was painted red, white and blue, like a reminder of our flag, but considering how dirty it was, it resembled something closer to maroon, gray, and navy. The seats were peeling of their painted plastic and there was traces of trash scattered around the floor as though they were decorations. We sat in the first two seats after paying the fare. Adriane continued grunting from muscle pain while doing what then had become the norm for her: staring out.
“There are so many nice stores in this mall,” I said. She didn’t move. “They’ll have everything you like, sis.”
Stretches and stretches of yellow leaved trees seemed to be gliding past as the driver increased his speed. I reached over and began rubbing Adriane’s leg.
“I don’t need that,” she said. But I didn’t move my hand. She began breathing hard and coughing again. Within seconds she’d grabbed a small piece of toilet paper and proceeded to wheeze then cough into it. When she unfolded the paper, which held her mucus, there were minute traces of red stains along it.
“Is that blood, Adriane?”
“Doctor said it’s normal in this stage of my treatment,” she replied without looking at me.
“Never thought I’d hear that coughing up blood is normal.”
Adriane folded the tissue once over and placed it neatly into her coat pocket. She then turned her entire body away from me. The wool cap on her head had begun to loosen. But I didn’t motion to touch it. I saw clearly the empty area behind her ear where hair used to be. Ironically, she used her left hand to pull the hat over her ears after scratching that spot.
The entire bus ride lasted about thirty-nine minutes. Thirty five of which I spent watching Adriane eye-capture birds from the bolted window of a public bus. I’d absorbed the plain blue paints of seats, the balding spot in the back of the overweight driver’s head – which looked nothing like my sister’s, the deafening kids playing some game two rows behind us which required their use of every foul word in the English language, and that skinny woman who’d been smoking her cigarette in the bus station’s lobby.
“I promise you, Adriane, we’re going to have a good time. Everything will be just fine.”
The bus pulled into the mall’s parking lot.
“My muscles don’t hurt so bad anymore,” she started after a few moments. “Maybe the ride was good for me.”
“Doctors say that I need to get around more anyways.” She shoved her hand into her coat and began circling it. “I think I feel okay now.”
Adriane stood before the driver had properly parked, nudging past me on her way to the front of the bus. It was easy considering how much weight she had lost. She moved to the front of the doors and leaned her back against them. When the driver opened the door Adriane stepped from the bus as though she were arriving to her own birthday party. Those bony shoulders, which were once hidden behind a leather coat, were fully visible, pointing to somewhere in the sky. There was a small smirk along her face that hinted at some version of misplaced arrogance and she bounced back and forth from the mall’s curb to the concrete pavement like a child playing hopscotch. And I watched her from the doorway of the bus with my head tilted.
My sister and I had been roommates for the past two years. Our parents both passed in a car accident twenty-one years ago, when I was actually only twenty-three. We were the only two children and decided it may be wise to live with one another, considering that we’d both been divorced for a while and had no children of our own.
“We don’t have anyone to take care of us as we get older,” she said as she shoved her belongings into my condo. “If either of us finds a man we like, we can separate. No questions asked. But until then…”
I remember nodding my head but not being in total agreement. My sister was a hard woman to live with. She walked through the apartment often times naked, and with heavy feet, sounding like a woman weighing three-hundred pounds; she spent that teenager of amount of time in the bathroom, and never remembered to flush the toilet once finishing. Adriane hardly cooked but ate everything and watched television at a volume that made your eardrums feel as though they were being punctured with hot needles. All of it I eventually got used to. There was a good side of our living together as well: She paid bills on time, cleaned as though the health inspector was coming, and had enough loud conversation after work to last until the next morning. The two of us were never close as kids, although we were only two years separated. And we didn’t have any sibling rivalry. We just never had anything in common.
“Come on, Albrey!” she yelled from the pavement. “I need to go to the bathroom.” She continued bouncing around. “And I’m really hungry.”
When we walked into the mall I noticed Adriane’s low eyes widening with excitement while passing each store which was surprising considering what we’d come to do. She glared at the skirts of Express, the beige business suits of Banana Republic, and anything New York and Company had in their display window. But we didn’t get a moment to try anything on because as soon as her newly bright eyes landed on the sign that read: RESTROOMS, my sister disappeared. She was gone ten minutes. And as I stood in the two-block long hallway, watching healthy passersby with small kids and smiles along their faces, I began to get antsy.
“Maybe coming to this mall was not such a great idea,” I said to myself.
“I’m fine, Albrey,” Adriane said as she walked up behind me.
“I didn’t know you were there.”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, using the back of her right hand to wipe moisture from her mouth.
“Are you sure, Adriane?”
She grabbed the inside of my hand and began walking me into various mall stores as though it were her idea to come. We eventually tried on every sexy blouse, skirt, bracelet or watch, and even underwear that read vulgar phrases on the ass that I would never have allowed my mother to see were she alive. But that was Adriane’s person. She wasn’t exactly a rebel: worked as a computer technician for a bank, folded her clothes much neater than I could emulate, and spoke clearly always, never using a lazy term of slang.
“Are you coming?” she asked as we approached the mall’s food court. “With all this walking, I’m even hungrier now.”
I watched my sister eat in a crowded food court area while sitting on stools that made even us, at five-feet ten-inches each, seem short. Our feet barely touched the tile of the floor. Her dark skin seemed to lose its color as the seconds passed but I pretended to ignore it.
“Stop looking at me like that, Albrey,” she said. “Eat your food.” She paused for a moment. “We still have to do what we came here for.”
And her energy subsided right then. She turned into the woman I remember from the bus station, the woman from that bus ride; she stared at others smoking cigarettes, or women looking chic in their heels. She transformed into the person from our thirty-minute CTA ride that wouldn’t give a second of eye contact, who consistently pulled her hat further and further down onto her round head. Adriane was a woman who with the loss of almost thirty pounds and a full head of hair developed uncontrollable mood swings and insecurities, and believed that everyone we passed on our walk through the mall was making fun of her.
“I’m getting tired again, Albrey,” she mumbled while chewing. “My muscles are tightening.”
“You want to leave?”
She didn’t answer.
I grabbed her purse and opened it, pulling from deep inside four bottles of pills.
“Which ones of these are you to take for the pain?” I asked while twisting each lid.
“Put those away.” Adriane lowered herself from the stool and folded her food into its wrapping. She then did the same with mine. “Come on!” she yelled without turning to get a response.
There were more people in the mall than before. Adriane and I walked side by side, close enough that our hands grazed one another accidentally but neither of us acknowledged it.
“You have another store you want to see or something?” I asked.
She proceeded in walking as though she knew her destination exactly, and my being privy to any info may have thrown her journey off. Her walk wasn’t as stiff as it had been while in the bus station. There was fluidity to her firmness, a rhythm, a routine stumble as if she’d had a bad leg since birth and was becoming accustomed to it.
* * *
The window was full of them.
Adriane and I stopped walking when we approached the shop’s outside glass. There were mannequins on display, wearing white versions of hair that could make a woman resemble Marilyn Monroe, pink ones that could slide her right into an eighties’ party, big puffy and unmanaged ones that had to have been molded with a picture of Margaret Thatcher in mind, and small, short styles that reminded me of young pictures of Aretha Franklin.
“We don’t have to do this if you’re not ready, Adriane.”
“I just need to step outside for some air first.” She turned to me and went into the habit of biting her bottom lip. “It’s getting rather hard to breathe.”
The wig shop was located on the east end of the mall, where the parking lot was. When I pushed the double doors and Adriane stepped out, she began coughing and taking in air as though she’d been held underwater for an hour.
“We should go home, sis,” I said to her.
She began folding the small blood stains into her tissue as she did on the bus.
“You know, Albrey, I’ve known for almost a year now.”
I stepped closer to my sister, with her purse still in my left hand. “Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
“Because I was afraid of you acting toward me the way you have been,” she said and paused, holding for another cough. “I never wanted you to act with me the way you did today.”
“So?” I said as I turned my back to her.
“You wouldn’t even answer the one question I asked you this entire afternoon, Albrey.”
“Did I look like that woman in the bus station when I’d smoke?”
“I don’t know, Adriane.”
“Exactly,” she responded. “You won’t answer.”
“I don’t remember what she looked like.”
“I need to know, Albrey.”
At that moment I took two steps away from her, standing near a small, brick garbage can with a pile of what looked like dirty sand from Rainbow Beach as its lid. There were cigarette butts stuffed inside, tail ends sticking up.
“I don’t want to talk like this, Adriane.”
“Before I go in here and accept this whole thing,” she started again, “I need to know that I at least looked good while I was killing myself.
I faced her and walked close. I then opened the purse and pulled from it the box of cigarettes that had been buried underneath the bottles of pills.
“Would you like to show me?” I asked.
“What can it possibly hurt now?” she answered while giggling. It was the first time I’d seen Adriane truly smile in months.
There were only three cigarettes in the pack. I handed one of the long sticks to Adriane. She twirled it in her fingers as though it were a gun in a wild-west fight and lit it quickly. I pulled one of the other cigarettes from the box and pressed it to the end of hers.
“I’ll try one with you,” I said.
We leaned against the wall for a while without looking at one another. Adriane finally turned her head to me.
“I think I’m going to get the pink one,” she said.
Five seconds later she used the wall to put the cigarette out and walked back inside.
I waited a few minutes before following.
Jasmon Drain is from Chicago but he lives wherever helps his writing. And he will write about ANYTHING: his momma and that rat-infested Church’s Chicken they lived beside, or the white, over-polished Adidas shoes he wore in seventh-grade trying to pass off as new, or maybe his cousin, who at 11 had the legs of a Heisman Trophy winner, and stole Optimus Prime from Toys R Us and got away with it. And sure, Jasmon has published a few things here and there, maybe even won or placed in a fiction contest or two, but that isn’t so important…is it?