The silvery bell teetered above their heads as they entered. The frosty pink ringlets on the head in front of her swished in the breeze created by the closing swing of the door before laying tamely down the back of the neck once more. Sarah caught herself pausing to hold her breath at the sight then shook her head and followed after. Angelica had been sporting this shade of dye for a few months longer than she usually kept a color, and Sarah was loath to admit it suited her sibling’s tanner complexion. She understood well the unassuming browns of her mousey exterior left her more than a touch plainer. Swallowing her bitterness she took the bowled high stool across from her sister.
Orders taken she watched the pronounced swing of the waitresses hips become more exaggerated as she passed a well groomed older gentleman sitting at the counter. It reminded her of a load of wash she’d once watched during the agitation cycle at the laundry mat. Diverting her attention to the out of order sign taped to the bathroom door at the far back she briefly speculated at what type of individual would have the nerve to enter such a malodorous cavity. Not for the first time Sarah wondered what it was about the run down little dive of a café that would draw her sister in when she was feeling melancholy, and why she felt the need to drag her homebody of a little sister along. She’d chosen to take residence near the door in a niche lite by the only window in the galley shaped room. Under the bitter tang of ground coffee beans that wound its way around the room and up the nose it still had the feel of the old, sticky, half subterranean bar it used to be before the bank foreclosed following their dad’s injury.
Angelica’s hair had still been a natural honey gold back then, though she’d taken to curling, straightening, or geling it till it laid in a precisely planned manner. Her leap into puberty and the subsequent discovery of makeup and boys had turned her into a crazy and unpredictable creature beyond a nine year old sisters understanding. That had begun the year of fights over bathroom space and time. Her first young love and boyfriend at the time had been a springy mess of limbs and a freckled smile so wide and honest you’d think he’d work for Colgate. She had just gotten home from their latest date and Dad was taking her beau, Jim, home in the truck. They were passing through and intersection when they got blind-sided by a semi. The truck was counted to have rolled three times before wrapping around a pole. Jim died, Dad wound up in the ICU for a year. Coroner said Jim died shortly after the initial impact. Doctors said Dad would be lucky to ever walk again. If he woke up that is.
It was hard to tell which news Angelica took worse, but school officials altered her schedule so she spent more time in the councilor’s office than any two students spent in detention. Despite the added attention her grades took a nose dive before stopping to hover just above failing for the next two years. Then, while mom lost hair from stressing over bills, Angelica took to coping by engaging in an identity revamp. On a cloudy day in a weekend of June, just a month before dad woke from his coma, she walked through the front door and gone was the cascading river of golden locks that I’d envied so. In its place was a shock of cherry Kool-Aid hair that was gelled to curl about her ears and stick up like a porcupine on defense. A spiked collar hugged her throat while a semi-sweetheart, laced corset pushed up her B-cups like the fluffy top of a muffin. Mom went off.
Thinking back, I always imagine the steam billowing out of a piping hot kettle as the vapor fights to escape its cloistered confines. That first altercation was more of a screaming match than a goal oriented argument, but they both seemed to get something out of it, like the released pressure of a blister that had finally been lanced. After that the talks came easier and Angelica stuck to colors of dye and cut shapes that were more subdued and less ostentatious. I remember dark shades of blue, purple, and black accompanying baggy T’s and jeans with holes in the knees. Her entire appearance during that time seemed to mirror her mood. She lacked gender, lacked color, energy, life. Mom once confided in me to keep an eye on her, make sure she didn’t hurt herself.
Dad got to come home for Angelica’s fifteenth Birthday; she changed her hair for the occasion. A chipper buttery yellow with tiger orange highlights that ended just below her ears was the sight that greeted our recovering father and anyone could have plainly seen that he had to take a moment to get his breath back from the shock of it. Still she didn’t release him from her grasping arms till long after the rest of us had. The mood and dynamic of our daily lives was much improved from there on. Angelica started going out with friends again, dressing up in flashy apparel to match the constantly changing color scheme and style of her hair, and ogling boys at the skate park. She got a new beau named Garret who worked at a tattoo and body piercing shop on the other side of town. He helped her get hired part-time as a body piercer in training.
Sighing through her nose to flush out the thick fragrance she cast her eyes back toward Angelica. The pastel pink nail polish was beginning to chip away from the tips of her nails as they clicked an agitated beat on the laminate table top. A sure sign of her disquieted emotional state, Sarah thought. Angelica sat with her other elbow on the table, fist curled under her chin as her chestnut eyes stared sightlessly past the opaque window. The down turn of her painted lips had a different quirk to them than usual, not just a displeased pout but a set grimace that looked aged and seemed to say an unpleasant decision had been reached.
The waitress returned with their orders; a fruit smoothie the color of lemon candies, a decaf Frappuccino with whip, and a basket of sweet potato fries to share. Angelica seemed to rediscover her sister’s presence as she thanked the waitress and shifted her posture in her seat. “So, how are those homemade dog treats going?” Angelica asked as she shucked the paper sleeve off her straw.
“Butch still only wants to eat the peanut butter and bacon ones. But I think that’s just because he’s spoiled and stubborn.” She reached for a fry before continuing. “Still haven’t got the mint biscuits to the point a dog will go near them though.” She lamented half under her breath.
“Remember the vet said not to give him too many of those. He’s a sausage already as it is; he doesn’t need to be plumper.” The derisive sneer that spread across her mouth spoke more loudly of her distaste of the animal than her tone did.
“He’s a Chiweenie. He’s supposed to be vaguely sausage shaped, and he’s not fat he has a glandular disorder that make him retain excess water.” Sarah corrected tartly.
“Whatever,” she amended. “You’re special needs dog”, a tick passed as she leaned back in her chair before muttering. “Suits don’t it?”
Sarah sat up straighter and pointedly looked anywhere else but at her sibling as a pregnant pause elapsed. Both new a sensitive wire line was being trespassed upon.
“What did you bring me here for?” Sarah asked flatly and pushed away her Frappuccino, no longer interested.
Another pregnant pause stretched on as Angelica fidgeted. “I’m gonna leave here, after I graduate this year. I’m gonna apply to every collage along the California coast and go to whatever one accepts me first.” Angelica announced a bit jerkily, as if wanting to get it all out at once but struggling to do so.
Sarah took the time to soak this in, absently plucking at a loose thread pocking from the hem of her shirt. “So, what you’re saying is I’m gonna have to find someone else to help and run errands for me.”
“What I’m saying, is that you’re gonna have to learn to do things on your own. No more people running around for you just because you’re scarred of what ifs, and nobody else wants to be made out as the bad guy and tell you to get over it already!” Angelica was half leaning over the table from her chair, hands gesturing emphatically, breathing heavy. “You weren’t even there! Dad’s moved on, I’m over it, there is no reason for you to be so fixedly terrified by the thought of ridding in a car!” Glossy lips remained parted to admit the breath she needed back after expelling so much. The frosty ringlets hung scattered around her face, and still she looked beautiful and alive.
Before she’d realized it Sarah found that she had curled in on herself, arms folded protectively over her torso, hands and fingers tucked, slouching in her seat. Seeing this, her sisters’ features softened again, this time taking on a hint of pity as she tried a different approach. She reached a hand across the table in an attempt to beseech her younger sibling. “Honey, you haven’t left the house of your own volition, besides to school, for four years. You barely go near the street if you can help it and you can’t even get into a parked car without having a panic attack. You have let this fear limit you so much. This is no way to live.”
Both sat quietly for an extended time. Tears were shed quietly as drinks melted and fries got cold. Brief glances were shared and avoided while emotions and thoughts were sorted through. Finally it seemed Angelica had gathered herself up enough to speak again. “Look, I’m not saying you have to do it all at once. Take baby steps, as many as you need.”
She stood up then and began to gather her stuff, digging briefly through her purse before depositing a twenty on the table. “Use the rest to tip the waitress.” She said with a small but genuine smile taking two steps to Sarah’s side.
The sudden hug surprised her, but she accepted it and gave it back in turn as best she could from her seat. Standing upright again Angelica spoke somewhat breathily as she pet her sister’s hair. “Just promise me you’ll try.”
Sarah felt reluctant to agree, but the entreating way she had said it compelled Sarah to nod her head. With another brief flash of her sister’s wounded smile she was out the café door and onto the street above. Then as the smudged image of her beloved sister traveled passed the window, curls dancing in the wind, Sarah felt in that moment as a bystander, as though she were looking in on a different person than the one she was used to, a sudden change. It dawned on her then; her heart-faced sister looked like a grown woman. She had grown and become a vibrant determined individual who she would soon have to let go.