The September sunlight in the late afternoon was fire. The sunlight was an increasingly burning orange that provided the pine trees on the highway’s periphery with a luminescent glow from the inside out. My mother was driving, and I could tell that in addition to becoming blinded, she was becoming fatigued. For reasons I cannot articulate, I never offered to drive. Instead, I sat in the passenger’s seat the whole way and covered my face with a T-shirt to escape the sun and then removed it when I got too hot—off and on, off and on. During an off period, when the T-shirt was making me too hot, I noticed two truck drivers. The one in the passenger’s seat was performing the exact same actions that I was. Then I stopped going back and forth with my T-shirt because I realized how stupid it looked.
My older sister was in a rehabilitation house in Brevard, North Carolina, in the fall of 2016. So, every other weekend, my mother and I, sometimes my father and I, would make this trip. Occasionally, I would have to pee or felt hungry, but off of every exit, there were only labyrinths of churches and boiled peanut stands adorned with Confederate flags that implored me to keep my mouth shut.
The Holiday Inn that my mother and I spent our nights in on those weekends was walking distance from a dusty strip mall whose only claim to fame was a Walmart and a Japanese restaurant called Sora. The napkins in Sora were printed with little roses on them and were made of material that, although indeed disposable, was such good quality I would feel wasteful just throwing them away. One evening, we were checking in and the receptionist’s eyes were bloodshot and she had tears beside her chin. This made me feel sad, but mostly I needed a restroom.
Visiting hours for the rehab house began at 9:00 a.m. In the early morning, my mother and I would quietly eat continental breakfast in a dining room alongside white families and white couples, young and old. There was a surreal uneasiness in Brevard. The only sound of the human voice in that dining room came from a couple of televisions playing Fox news.
“OH shit! Is there a towel anywhere?!” The old man’s voice was piercing.
“What did you do?” begged his wife.
“Well, I just spilled some milk but . . .” before he could finish his thought, a middle-aged Latina came carting through and extended an arm with a towel in her hand, implying she would take care if his mess. She came in and left like a mirage.
When we would leave the hotel after breakfast, it would often still be too early to visit. We would drive over anyway, park the car at the rehab house and go for a walk around the neighborhood. For the Southeast, the sidewalks were considerably wide, especially for a town outside the city. The chain-link fences around the houses boasted overhanging honeysuckles and opening morning glories poking through, crying dew that would look to the sun to dry their tears. They blossomed in their survival of the heat from the summer. Some residents would glue themselves to lawn chairs outside their houses and would sit against the landscape like they were painted there. I would walk on the inside of the sidewalk, my mother on the outside.
However, one morning, there was an energetic dog whose bark was a roar. I was scared to approach the lawn the dog occupied. Maybe I was walking a bit more slowly, or probably my mother just knew I didn’t like the dog and moved herself from the outside in. As we walked by, the dog wasn’t any more excited than it was before.
Some of the faces in the rehab house carried more weight in the cheeks. Some, including my sister’s, looked perfectly healthy. Others looked like the bodies they were attached to had died and been dug back up after six months, their flesh decomposed, only upright bones covered with skin. I observed the sharpness of the human skeleton, and realized its fragility. At noon, the patients religiously crowded the kitchen to prepare lunch. Some patients took medication for whatever illness, others were convinced that eating weighed tuna salad with X amount of saltines at the same time every day would cure them. On a day when there were more visitors than normal, one of the specialists in the house said, to no one in particular, that each of these solutions can work depending on the patient. Like clockwork, there would be the same frail body shivering at the end of the dining table slowly nursing a meal replacement shake. My sister told me before that patient arrived at the rehab house, her family would call her Ana. To my surprise, Ana actually made good conversation. Unfortunately, I would always be too distracted by her skeletal body to remember what we talked about.
I came to the realization that the people in the most pain are often the most creative. The rehab house had an art studio where the patients would make the most intricate mandalas. The patients would stitch quilts made up of cotton and feelings so complex, I have never felt them before myself. My sister had a roommate change twice. The first time, the patient she was sharing a room with was discharged. The second patient my sister was sharing a room with would vomit in a container and then attempt to hide the evidence in their closet.
The face of disgust I made when my sister relayed this information to me was the most sympathetic I ever got. The frustration I felt was toxic. I didn’t understand why my sister behaved the way she did and I’ve never tried to understand either. I imagined instead the rehab house had to be so dense with cannibalization, any patient escaping the mindset they got there with was a lost cause. If everyone who lived in one house hated themselves, how were all the residents expected to appreciate themselves. The patients were drowning in a pool of other minds and bodies with the same feelings as them, the ultimate legitimization. I asserted that for every sandwich my sister either vomited back up or never ate to begin with, there was someone being exploited when they took the time to slice it in half anyway.
Toward the end of her stay, my sister would be allowed to leave the rehab house for some time with her visitors. One afternoon, our father took my sister, our youngest cousin, and me to a waterfall called Sliding Rock, a natural formation that’s smoothed over mostly, that’s scarcely but lovingly kissed with patches of moss. Water runs down the rock and visitors can slide down. The sky was overcast that day and even though it was hot, I didn’t want to get in the water. My cousin though eagerly waited in line among the hundreds of other people to slide down the rock. He slid down and proceeded to get back in line over and over and over again. In this time, our cousin was visiting from Mexico. Between his young age and his ignorance to the English language, he had a loose idea, if any, why we had to drive two hours to see my sister. I saw in his face though, as he slid past me, all that escaped him. When it was time to take my sister back to the rehab house, my cousin realized he forgot to bring a change of clothes. He said goodbye to my sister, sopping wet, wrapped up in a towel.
For every time we are exposed to the sun, we will become hot and blinded. For every time we cry at work, we must continue working. For every time we refuse to relieve our bladder, it will soon become the only feeling we pay attention to. For all the milk we spill, someone, if not ourselves, will have to clean it up. For all the fences we build up, flowers will make their way through. For all the tears we cry, if by no other means, the light and air around us will dry them. For as much as we may be afraid of it, we have to put some calories in our bodies. For every action we make, whether it is instinctual or purposeful or by accident, there are consequences.
Only once did my sister cry when we left her in Brevard. I can’t remember exactly what we spent the day doing when she did cry when it was time for us to leave. I can’t remember either what it was like the day she came back home.
To this day, sometimes I’ll open up a drawer and find at the bottom of it a napkin from Sora. I’ll pick it up but I’ll never throw it away. Without the napkin from Sora, there would be no evidence that Brevard ever happened to me. There would be no evidence that Brevard ever happened to us. To each their own life.