My sister’s hands smell faintly of lavender and chamomile. I notice this as her fingers tease through the tangles in my hair and comb my neck and brush the floating strands away from my eyes. She does this because she knows I like it, because it reminds us both of days now long past, of summers spent in bathing suits and sprinkler water, of afternoons sitting side by side at the piano trying to harmonize, of secret evenings that stretched to midnight sharing fantasy stories and saltwater taffy. Back then, her hands smelled like pink rubber erasers.
Beyond a closed bedroom door, Kelli’s baby cries. The fingers pause, and I tell her it’s fine, go, I want to hold my nephew. I say this because that’s what sisters say to each other, when they are grown, and their lives, loves, and losses are no longer braided together. Let me hold your son. Let me feel that soft black hair beneath my cheek, those tiny fingers around my thumb. Let me kiss his small, round nose, like you do every day. Maybe, then, I will know you again.
Little Joseph has just turned one. He has Kelli’s large eyes and Emmanuel’s dark skin. The perfect combination of his parents, we say. His tiny lips form the familiar smirk of my brother-in-law, his irises are the same black-brown. Already, people know him for his Mexican beginnings, not his Dutch or Irish roots. He hasn’t started speaking yet, and I wonder if that first word will be in English or Spanish.
For his birthday I bought him a drum, a red and yellow plastic toy that speaks when you hit it. One! Two! Three! it counts as large dots of light outline the large numbers appearing beneath Joseph’s tiny fist. Emmanuel slides the button near the bottom as Joseph whacks away, and we hear the overly enthusiastic female voice change: Cuatro! Cinco! Seis! Joseph’s dark eyes are wide, his lips spread in glee. Siete! Ocho! Nueve! Diez! The family applauds him for completing the sequence, and his papa cries, “¡Bien hecho, hijito mío!”
Almost everyone in my family speaks Spanish, but we are not native speakers. As a young twenty-something, I lived eighteen months in Spain, where the language of Andalucía was my daily bread and water. But we don’t speak it together, not even with the Castros. That’s Kelli’s world, now, and there I am only a visitor with a clumsy tongue. I can scarcely wish them a good day without fearing I am saying it wrong.
Old cardboard boxes in my parents’ basement hold traces of what we once were together — wrinkled sheets of piano music, unlabeled cassette tapes of our play-acting radio show, a torn, once-beloved copy of The Secret Garden. And notebooks. Stacks and stacks of lined paper and fading pencil marks. Back then, Kelli wrote all her stories by hand, simple love stories. They were presages of her future romances, and she told them to me as we sat cross-legged on the twin bed, our knees touching, our hands smothering our laughter so that we wouldn’t disturb our sleeping brothers.
We no longer share long nights, but we still talk about stories — mine now, not hers. She has stopped writing. I cannot imagine a day when I will no longer rely on my stories.
She passes me her baby, and I laugh and say, Good morning, Joe-Joe! I call him this because no one else does, and I am glad. I need a part of him to be uniquely mine. I want his tÃa, his only blood-aunt on either side of the family, to be more to him than merely his mother’s sister. I need him to be more than merely my sister’s son, because that’s just not enough.
I am still young, but I sometimes wonder if I will never marry. I wonder if I will ever have a child of my own, a new love.
I hold him close and hold my breath, trying to feel a thread that ties him to me and me back to her. But Kelli wrinkles her nose and reaches to take him back. Someone needs to be changed! she says. She takes him out of my arms, and I follow her to the changing table. While she dresses him, I gather together a diaper, the wipes, and the baby powder scented with lavender and chamomile. As she cleans him up, we try to resume our conversation, but neither of us can remember what we had been talking about.