Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) was nominated for the Ribelow Prize. The sequel, Kaylee’s Ghost (2012) was an Indie Finalist. Her poems and short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, Peregrine, Atlanta Review, Amoskaag, The Delmara Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, and more. Her poem, Second Story Porch, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Schuykill Valley Review. She’s published essays in The New York Times (Lives) and Newsweek, plus many anthologies. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension.
Our curls are blown skyward.
My mother’s shadow is riverine,
spreading, swelling over the hillocks
of sand. I, almost three, squinch-eyed
in the sunlight, but smiling, sit on the hull
of an overturned rowboat.
Mother leans into me, her knees dimpled,
her bare feet wreathed with sand,
our matching two-piece bathing suits
like diagrams for BIG and SMALL.
The corners of her Clara Bow lips turn up.
I hold this photo close,
proof that once
my mother was happy.
You Hold Your Breath
All day your sister chews Bazooka gum to stop herself from eating and makes you swear not to tell your parents by bribing you with the little comics inside the wrapper. Try to laugh when you read the one about Mort telling Bazooka Joe, “Last night I had a dream that I ate marshmallows. I woke up and half my pillow was gone.”
Her face doesn’t redden when she stops breathing. Her cheeks don’t puff out. She just, after a number of moments, sways, weaves, then drifts to the linoleum in slow-mo like a mimosa flower in late spring. You, five years younger, don’t get that she isn’t really dying, especially since your mother, kneeling over her, cries, “Oh, God, don’t die on me.” Your cheeks are wet with tears. Pee runs down your legs. You cannot learn your multiplication tables. Every flash card flashes you back to your sister, lifeless. Your grades not only slip, but the sympathy you get from others does too. Don’t tell your friends, your teachers, or anyone that your sister almost died last night. They will want to know if she’s in the hospital. When they find out she’s in school, they will shrug you off.
“Keep up your nagging and before you know it,” your father shouts at your mother, “I’ll drop dead and leave you a rich widow.” Mother: “You’ll live to dance on my grave.” Father: (eyes rolled heavenward, palms upward in a gesture of supplication) “God, please, take me from this woman.” You think, Oh, there they go again. But your sister studies the series of goldfish that bob, belly-up in the fishbowl, then the toilet bowl. She bends to inspect stepped-on ants (she steps on them herself) sparrows chewed by cats, their skeletons lightly feathered, their beady eyes still open in their small heads. “This will be us someday,” she tells you, not as a threat, but a piece of advice like you too will have to wear Kotex. In the middle of the night, you dream you’re being pawed by a giant tabby. You wake, screaming, with bloody stripes on your arms and bits of own your skin beneath your fingernails.
She survives five suicide attempts and three marriages to men who die young. You, the younger sibling, have arrhythmia and ulcers. “Stay away from her,” your therapist warns, “even when the Chorus comes to say, ‘But she’s your sister.’” You try to crowd out the days when you and your sister bounced on your twin beds, leaping in turn, from one bed to another, the hems of your nightgowns ballooning up. You try to forget the paper dolls she cut out for you, the manicures she gave you, painting your nails Sparkly Rose. She’s an alcoholic and lives in a trailer on Wild Turkey Lane in Florida. You try not to think of her, but in your dreams, her trailer lifts up in a hurricane, twirls two thousand miles, and crashes down on you.