Ten years old, I clenched the inside ledge of the pantry window that overlooked the cemented backyard, particles of dust wedging inside what little fingernails I had left from all my nail-biting, then pivoted my toes in their filthy socks and thrusted upward until the bridge of my nose was level with the windowsill.
The woman and her boyfriend were outside. They looked like splotches without my glasses, but I was afraid I’d miss something, so I stayed put, Alma, the middle child who was fifteen at the time, standing next to me, lucky she didn’t have to struggle to see all the drama.
The couple was from one of the apartments next door that shared our backyard. She was screaming at him, sounding like one of those heavy metal singers who are hard to understand. All I could make out was “My sista?! My fuckin sista?!” She was throwing him out, tossing clothes at him, and he picked them up, but then when she hurled an open, empty suitcase and trinkets that I couldn’t see flying at him but heard hit the ground, he dropped his belongings, said “Fuck this. Fuck you!” And he ran over to the royal blue Toyota that was parked outside the gate, and she followed him, calling him a pussy and banging on the hood. He yelled at her to get out of the way, but she didn’t hear, couldn’t hear him over her own voice, and he stomped on that gas pedal and rammed the car into her. She shrieked when she flew back and whack!, she hit the ground, laying there limp, probably broken. Morbidly curious, I wanted to fetch my glasses, but at the same time didn’t want see the damage the car had done.
One morning, on our way to school at Gale Academy, Alma, our older sister Sarah and I walked through the front gates of our apartment. Sarah told me to watch my step, pointing to the sidewalk where there was a spot of dried blood. I tiptoed around it, as she said gang members beat a sixteen-year-old boys head in before they dragged his body to front of our building. I pictured them smashing his face flat with the soles of their sneakers, kicking dents into his skull like they were punting a football. That time, just imagining it was enough to take in.
The boyfriend reversed the gears, backed up and drove forward in snap-snap-snap motions. The tires crackled against the gravel, against her body on the gravel. I cringed but still refused to look away, even after the boyfriend sped off.
If I believed in God or some other higher being, I’d thank him or her every day for my sister not ending up like this woman.
Alma met Jim when she was a twenty or twenty-one college dropout and he was a husky, not-so-fugly yet not-so-cute nineteen-year-old with Coke-bottle glasses and a thick caterpillar unibrow, who was on his way to Marine boot camp. They met through the friend of a high school friend, and a few months later, after they started going out, she became all confused and uncertain about whether or not he was “the one,” so the high school friend scheduled a road trip to Wisconsin, where after a few drinks, Alma lost her virginity to a guy she knew for only a few hours, while the motel TV played Mortal Kombat, the picture going in and out because one of the antannae’s ears was broken in half.
Back in Chicago, Alma returned to Jim, and that same high school friend spilled her guts about their trip. Jim considered it cheating, even though Alma broke up with him beforehand. Still, he became obsessive and controlling, and other guys became threats, her legs populated with islands of bruises, and one of the walls turned into a subsitute for her face and her big toe became the victim of a fifteen-pound weight. She told me that was the last straw, they were finished, she was leaving him, packing as soon as they checked out her toe, released her from the hospital. But she went back for more, a glutton, not believing she deserved better, afraid of being alone—no one told her to stay away from those types of men.
Four years later, Alma yelled at Jim to “Get the fuck out!,” shoved him, but he was stiff, tense, much bigger than her. She felt fragile when you embraced her, like you were hugging a child. Alma shoved him again. This time, he tripped over a plastic pop bottle of all things, but he caught his fall, his empty face scowling now. She reached for him, “SorrySorrySorrySorry.” He grabbed her wrists, twisted them, palms face-up. She whimpered, “StopStopStopStopStopStopPleeeeaaaase.” He flung them at her stomach, stomped out of the living room, into the bedroom. Alma just stood there. If you asked her later why, she couldn’t tell you.
Jim wasn’t supposed to bring the Ka-bar knife home, the one the Marines issued to him after he graduated and joined up with a unit, so he bought one off the Internet. Alma was the first one to use it. During an argument, she threatened to harm herself, and she did, carved an anarchy symbol into her forearm with the keen-edge of the knife, the wound deep and gushing with blood. She began at fifteen, used to wear oversized hoodies to cover her self-inflicted wounds and because she hated the way her body looked and her large breasts because skeevy men ogled her. She stopped cutting herself at nineteen but began again after she met Jim. She should’ve taken this as an omen. Alma said she didn’t go to the hospital, wrapped up her arm in guaze before going to the local Target to get things to stitch up the gash. Now, lyrics dedicated to our dead mother cover the scar.
Jim came back out with the knife, ripped at the rubber protector. It was just as sharp as the day he got it. He rushed at Alma, flattened his hand against her chest, slammed her against the wall, pressed the blade against her neck. Her heart was in her throat, eyes welling, the whites turning pink. He thrusted the knife into the wall next to her head, backed off. He didn’t stop her from leaving. He was in the bathroom, white-knuckling the sides of the sink, trying to keep from pulling it out of the wall.
She eventually got a restraining order, despite going back to him two more times. He was a phony, bragged to girls after my sister that he’d been messed up by the war, even though he didn’t see real action until six years after he joined. Luckily, my sister finally saw past his bullshit.