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I knocked on the blue wooden door, the paint of which was starting to peel from exposure to the weather. Within seconds it was flung open and I was assaulted. She enveloped me in a hug so tight that my lungs felt as if they were submerged in thumb tacks and my arms quickly lost circulation. She drew back after a second, withdrawing her curly black hair from my chest and looking up at me. I took a second to recover, breathing hard and shaking my arms out. “Hey!” I said with a laugh, even though the situation was serious. Her eyes were puffy and red, and it was obvious that some tears had been shed.
“Alex!” she choked out “I missed you.”
“I missed you too ‘Nessa.” I said as a faint smile grew on my face and I tried to remedy the gloominess that was obvious from the state of her eyes. It disturbed me that she was so distressed because I’ve hardly ever seen this side of her.
She stepped inside, and I followed her down the hall. Her house usually smelled of good things, lemon or orange cleaner, the killer tostones that her Abuelita makes, or her perfume. Now it just smelled stale, as if a presence that had brought a lot of joy had withered and died. I knew Santiago had passed, but now I was hit with such gut-wrenching sympathy because I saw the effects of his absence, and I blinked back my own tears. “Be Stronger,” I chastised myself. “She doesn’t need you to be weak.”
A photograph over the mantle was draped in black silk, and I had to look down before I saw the happy face behind it. The swing of her hips was entrancing, and they took my mind off thoughts of her sadness. “Stop it,” my mind said, pulling me out of my trance. “Think about something else.” Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other as she led me up the stairs to her room. I had visited her room a few times before, but never in these circumstances. We had always gone to her room in giddiness and comfort, or sometimes in genuine fatigue, but never in sorrow. “Be stronger,” I told myself. “Life isn’t what it was.”
Now things are different, and somehow it made the room feel nostalgic and depressing. Her room was like any old teenage girl’s bedroom: old stuffed animals lay around, a desk that was somewhat cluttered sat in the corner, and posters of celebrities hung on the walls. It seemed oddly desolate and reeked of sadness. She walked over to her bed and flopped down, so I opted for her beanbag chair by the window.
“I’m sorry for asking you to come over like this,” she said, concern lacing her voice.
“No, I like seeing you!” I replied, but really wondering what had happened. I knew of her brother’s death, but she had already talked extensively to me about it since his funeral last month. Scenarios circled in my mind because she hadn’t mentioned what was bothering her, and my worried mind was making things up.
“I..” she managed to choke out before the tears came in trickles down her cheeks. I moved over to the bed and sat down with my arm around her. My thumb reached up and brushed the tears from her lashes as they threatened to join the stream. Her head slowly lowered onto my shoulder as I waited for her to compose herself and tell me what I could do, why I mattered, why she called me instead of anyone else. “Be stronger,” I told myself, “for her.” I ran my hands up and down the length of her back in an absentminded gesture to comfort her. I waited for her to speak, but she didn’t say anything. She just lifted her sleeve by way of explanation to show me what I needed to see.
The scars were only slightly faded. They stretched across the width of her wrist, her depressions in otherwise flawless skin, marking a defeat to the world. A razor dragged across her wrist drew blood here, and in a dozen other places that she keeps hidden. She knows that she’s let me down as she looks into my eyes. I can see that she doesn’t want to disappoint me or cause any undue worry or stress. She knows that it will cause me anguish to see her in pain. “I can’t do it anymore, Alex” she says, a tear starts to slide down the corner of her deep brown spanish eyes that seem to only be made for laughter. In days past perhaps, the other days. She is confused; torn between her need to express her heartbreak and a duty to carry on and be stronger as her brother would have wanted.
But he is gone, so she relapses. I dream of that fatal hour when Santiago, her Santi, the foremost role model, guide, and light in her world was extinguished. I picture him swinging low into his sweet camaro, who is comin for to take him home. I wish briefly that I never had to take his place in caring for her, that he never got into that car. The burden of being someone’s light in the darkness is a hard duty to bear, and I’m not sure that I can follow his act. I’m not even sure I want to because I know that I’m not bright enough to light the way for her. She is too innocent and kind to me to take care of, too perfect, but I look down at her eyes staring back up at me and I know I have a role to fill. “Be stronger.” my mind tells me.
Her dark hair spills onto my chest as I pull her close, and I feel the need to comfort the beautiful girl in my arms. “Hey, ‘Nessa” I say into her ear as I kiss the top of her head, “You’ll always have me.” I cringe inwardly knowing the magnitude of that statement, and wondering if I just made a promise that I was doomed to leave unfulfilled.
“I know,” she says as she looks up at me, “Thank you for being so good to me.” I cringe again, knowing that I’m not good enough. I’m too angry, too volatile to keep her in my life without hurting her in some way.
“I’m not good,” I tell her, “I can never replace Santi.” I look down at her and she tilts her head up to look me in the eyes. “Your brother was your best friend, and now he’s gone and I just… I don’t know if I can fill his shoes and be what you need me to be.”
“I never asked you to be Santi, I’m just asking you to be you,” she said as another tear welled up behind her lashes. “I just miss him and…” her lip trembled, “I need someone.”
“You know that I’ll always be that someone,” I tell her, “but you need to stop being so destructive.” I held her by the shoulders at arm’s-length so that she could see the seriousness in my eyes. One slip of the blade, one jolt of surprise or pain, one slippery bead of sweat too much, and she would bleed out and go join her beloved brother. “You need to stop cutting yourself. You’re letting me down, and I’m sure he wouldn’t approve either,” I say cautiously as I refer to her brother. She nodded and tears threatened to cascade down her cheeks again. The truth is that I’m scared. I’m scared to lose her, and if she joins him, then I won’t know what to make of myself. “Be stronger,” I tell myself.
“No, you WILL.” I say firmly. “Attitude is half the battle, hun.”
“Ok, I WILL.” she repeated, a faint smile pushing at her lips. I smiled back as I gathered her close once more and found myself in this position again. The support guy. I’m the backbone for everyone I care about, the cornerstone, the crutch, but yet I feel so empty, so incomplete. I have no support of my own. I exist only because of my duty to helping others cope with their melancholy.
We lie down on the turquoise sheets and Vanessa puts her head on my chest. I feel a circle of wetness creep over my right side as her tears subside. I draw lazy circles along the back of her pink tank top and lazily plant kisses on the top of her head. Her breathing steadies and I look down at her face. She is sleeping, peacefully it seems, because a faint smile stretches across her lips. I look around the room again, which has regained its cheerful atmosphere. It reminds me again of giggles and kisses, of innocence and affection. Maybe it has nothing to do with the room. Maybe it’s her. Her smile and happiness remind me of better days, of the days when people seldom saw one of us without the other. I know things will never be as they were again because I’m too different. I’ve changed.
I just have to remain strong and silent, focused on helping others in order to avoid dealing with my own problems; the scars on my own hands adorn my knuckles. They make me strong, I tell myself. I can keep others happy. It is one of the only things that I seem capable of, I can keep them strong, but I know inside that I have a long way to go myself.