“What has been the worst feeling since then?” I asked from behind my camera.
“The worst feeling?”
“Loneliness,” she replied.
“Like living outside of the city?”
“No, not like living outside of the city.” She paused. “Are we done yet?”
I originally thought my big sister would be a great subject for my masterpiece, my baby, my documentary: Don’t Feed the Humans. No, maybe: The Tenuous Space Between Us. Well whatever kickass title to come, I thought she’d be great. Mandy is smart, eloquent, and a sharp observer of the human condition. My sister commands attention in social situations without meaning to—her witticisms and anecdotes flow with a natural rhythm, as smoothly as the curling smoke from the Lucky Strikes that she’s almost made cool again.
I remember her talking about something as mundane as her first office job, where she found it strange to work behind one-way-mirrored windows.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it will seem like a passerby is seeking you out. Looking to reach you with their gaze, as if trying to connect with you. And then they do something like abruptly tilt their cheek closer to the window and lick their thumb to wipe a food smudge off the corner of their mouth.” She probably followed this statement with her usual sideways smile. Like a smirk, but not as cold.
See? Perfect for an “Intro to Film and Media” documentary on the deceptive complexities involved in human interaction and relationships. But when I tried to get her talking about our family in that moment, she was stern, silent, occasionally hinting at something interesting in her responses to my questions, but never caring to expand. Film wise, she was totally worthless.
“You’re worthless,” I told her, shutting off the camera.
“And you’re self-important,” she shot back, “but don’t worry, it’s just an undergrad phase.”
I stuffed my camera into its bag, apparently with too much visible irritation and hurt. Mandy’s tea-colored eyes found mine and softened slightly. “I’m sorry. I just feel like you’re looking for something I can’t give you, that’s all.” She brought a cigarette from a pack to her mouth with a swift lazy movement, scooped up by her thumb and forefinger.
“You can’t smoke that in here,” I told her. She really could have been perfect for my documentary.
She was visiting me at school before I went home for winter break, giving me a lift to the commuter bus station that ran from our school’s middle-of-nowhere town to the nation’s capital. I wouldn’t have imagined such a travel route existed, but some upperclassman who ran the radio show slot before mine told me about it. The stop on our end looks abandoned, hidden between the local Walmart and the town’s flimsy tent of a sand and salt storage facility. The last stop lets off at Union Station, where you can see the Capitol dome or take a train to any major city in the United States.
The return trip was always odd—bustling everything to country quiet in less than two hours. I liked going to college around here, but was aware that my campus was a weird bubble. I didn’t understand how Mandy could live just outside of that bubble. It felt so slow-paced; so isolated.
“So you guys are just coming for Christmas dinner?” I asked as we got in her car.
“Yep. The usual holiday routine.”
I looked out the passenger window, debating whether or not to share the direction I was heading aloud. I went for it: “I’d like to see Marta in the full glory of Christmas morning sometime.”
“You are more than welcome to come to Abuela Ocampo’s house. You know that.”
“I know. I just think Mom and Dad would like it too.”
“Ah, well,” she sighed after another long pause, unsure how to proceed. “Maybe someday.”
Six years ago, Mandy was starting college and seriously dating a guy named Luis. Nice guy. I’ve always liked him. He doesn’t take life too seriously, with the exception of my sister, and he makes her laugh like no one else can.
My parents knew they had to, on face level, be OK with her dating him. Going to the community college near Mandy’s prestigious university; not having ever lived in a single-family home; not having parents who speak English comfortably—these are not acceptable reasons to disapprove of a boyfriend. So they didn’t disapprove of him, outwardly. There was a lot of: “You must be too busy to really focus on the relationship,” and, “Who knows where your paths will take you.”
True feelings amplified and surfaced very quickly when Mandy got pregnant with Luis’s baby near the end of her freshman year. She didn’t have an abortion. Within a matter of weeks, she dropped out of school and they both got jobs about an hour and a half away from home.
My parents did not respond well, to say the least. This was their golden child, their smart, driven, athletic and everything else they’d dreamed of daughter. I do all right, but I had always been a little too lazy and distracted to be their primary source of pride.
There was a period of about eight months where they acted as if they had lost her. After a lack of boundaries in verbalizing their disapproval, then completely withdrawing when she stuck to her own plans, they sort of did. They didn’t even congratulate her when she was quickly promoted at her property management company. The birth of Marta was a lifeline that stopped their relationship from drifting infinitely apart, thank goodness.
“Do you wish things were different?” I asked her after riding a while in silence.
She gave it some thought. “Yes. No. I don’t know—you move on. You focus on your own family, your work, the life you create. It’s just different. Maybe it’s what happens to kids who move far away from their families.”
“VERY FAR away,” I chuckled. I looked at her, unsure if my comment was too prickly. She laughed earnestly and I joined her as we continued: “Across the globe.” “Across galaxies!” “Through time and space.”
We ran out of distance examples and got to the bus station anyhow. Mandy parked the car and looked at me, suddenly serious. “They’re now cordial with me, Daniel. Mom once held my hair back tenderly while I puked my guts out from a stomach virus; Dad and I collected 19th century coins; then, when life didn’t go as they expected, we were abruptly relegated to cordial.” She chewed at the inside of her cheek. I offered an awkward and wholly insufficient sympathetic look.
I couldn’t help but curse myself for not having my video camera on hand. My sister had perfectly summed up not only her own complicated relationship with our parents in one small statement, but everything that is fragile and in constant flux between humans connecting and drifting apart. Like when I talk to my cousin Tim who became a paramedic straight out of school. He was someone else I was hoping to include in my documentary. I tell him about a bad day of hangovers and midterms, and he’ll tell me of a bad day that includes being unable to save a 12-year-old victim of a drunk driving accident.
Everything is limited and relative through the lens of the self, isn’t it? Suddenly you’re using a rickety old boat to navigate a sea of your own experiences, and your friends can wave to you from the shore but they’re still just watching from afar and there’s not much else they can offer. They’ve got their own sea.
“Oh! That reminds me,” I said, as if Mandy had been able to hear my thoughts. I ran back to the car’s trunk and took a small box out of my gym bag. “Dad knew I was going to see you before Christmas and wanted Marta to have this. He figured you might want to buy her an atlas or regional map book to go with it, or something.”
Mandy opened the worn taupe box and her face lit up with nostalgic recognition. She took the brass opisometer out of its pristine leather case and ran the wheel along her index finger.
“Maybe Marta will like measuring distances on maps as much as you and Dad did,” I said.
“It never got old to me as a kid, for some reason. Guess it’s soothing.” Mandy smiled, mostly to herself. “She’ll love it.”
“You all are a bunch of nerds,” I said. “Thanks for the ride.”
She slipped the box tenderly into her coat pocket. “Of course, Boogerbutt. Have a safe trip and see you in a few days. Maybe splurge for a haircut at Union Station, hmm?”
I swept my bangs aside in a weak attempt to prove that a haircut was unnecessary, said goodbye, and headed to my commuter bus. Once situated, I saw from the window that my sister was still waiting, as if to make sure I made it safely from the treacherous path of her car to my seat on the Greyhound. She was squinting along the length of the bus, evidently unable to see me. I watched her pull out of the parking lot, starting her short journey home, and put my hand up to wave to the taillights disappearing out of view.