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Face Paint MAG
My older sister, Andrea, had a habit of throwing up. In the car, on the school bus or on any kind of amusement park ride, her face turned glow-bug yellow and her eyes closed as if praying for mercy. Her throat jumped like a pinball out of its chamber, and her cheeks bulged. Then she’d spew all over.
This presented a problem for me, since I was usually the one sitting beside her. On car trips, I made puppets out of barf bags while Andrea put hers to use. We learned to drive with the windows down and keep a supply of paper towels in the back seat.
On the school bus, though, with no parents to object, I refused to sit next to her. I liked sitting in the back, with the popular girls. I admired how their slender bodies flew off the seats every time the bus rode over a pothole. The boys chucked wads of paper at our heads while we pouted and applied lipgloss from shimmering tubes. Andrea had a special seat reserved for her in the front of the bus.
But when we got off at our stop, I forgot to be ashamed of her. We shared a room and I slept on the top bunk because even that height made her queasy (not to mention the ill effects of gravity if Andrea had taken the top bunk). At night, we would lie awake and choreograph flashlight dances on the walls.
During the day, we explored together, searching for sunken pirate ships in the manmade lake and dino-saur bones in the sandbox.
These games, for me, were not so much child’s play as a glimpse into adult life. While we dug around the water pipe our plastic shovels had hit, I swore to Andrea I would become a paleontologist. At the close of a long day playing dress-up, I changed my ambition to modeling. Andrea would always frown and say she didn’t want to think about growing up.
Even though she was 14 and I eleven, she seemed behind me somehow. Maybe it was the way she dressed – she still wore sweaters with kittens on them – or that she cried often. I remember her sobbing for days after we saw some kids throwing birds’ eggs at the side of a house.
One summer, when the carnival came to town, our cousin Millie and I coaxed Andrea into taking us on the ferris wheel. She was the only one who met the height requirement, so without her we couldn’t go. She tried every possible excuse to duck out.
Let’s get our faces painted again,” she pleaded, looking up at a cart teetering at the top of the ferris wheel. Little green and purple light bulbs flickered on the metal spokes, most of them burnt out.
“There’s no room left on your face,” I reminded her. Every time we got in line for a ride, Andrea would “take a walk” for “just a second” and get her face painted. Conveniently, she never came back until Millie and I were safely off the ride. She had a unicorn on her left cheek, a heart and a giraffe on her right, and an off-center teddy bear on her forehead.
“Oh, well,” she mumbled.
“Are you guys hungry? I’m starving.” She licked her lips in an unconvincing, almost farcical manner.
“We’ll buy you some cotton candy after the ride,” I said, pulling her toward the line. “Or a sno-cone or a hot dog or some mini-donuts. What-ever you want.”
I knew all she really wanted was to run and hide, but I took advantage of her insecurity.
“Don’t spoil this for us,” I whined. “If you don’t ride, we can’t.”
She finally capitulated, and soon we found ourselves at the front of the line, stepping off the concrete into a cramped cart with plastic seats. Millie and I sat on one side and Andrea on the other.
When the cart began to rise, Andrea reached to buckle her seat belt, but there wasn’t one.
“No seat belts?” she groaned.
Millie, who was a year younger than me and extremely hyper, began rocking the cart as if it were a hammock just inches off the ground. Andrea paled and wrapped her gangly arms around her stomach. “You’re going to be okay,” I told her. “Just close your eyes.”
We had a gorgeous view of the town, with the houses stacked like building blocks and the cars gliding easily along the highway. But I looked at my sister turning green and knew it wouldn’t be so gorgeous if you were leaning over the side, sick.
When our cart reached the top, it stopped. Millie quit rocking, but the cart kept teetering back and forth. Andrea, with her eyes closed, appeared well on her way to throwing up. Her brown hair was held back with a thick, teal headband and the worry lines on her forehead made the painted teddy bear look deformed.
A droplet of rain fell on my nose, and at the same moment, the door swung open. I heard the springs creak as if it was going to fall off.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no!” Millie screamed. The two of us huddled against the other side of the cart. It was tilted so that our butts were sliding toward the open door. I looked down, but the view of 30 seconds ago had changed drastically. The houses had tumbled on their sides and the cars seemed to be veering off the roads. Like them, we would capsize and fall, our arms and legs still flapping in an attempt to fly, like wheels still spinning after a wreck.
“Somebody shut the door!” Millie yelled, staring at me. Our legs were sticking to the plastic seat, and I could feel Millie quivering next to me.
“You shut it!” I protested.
“So shut the door!”
“Don’t argue,” Andrea interrupted us, her voice raw, as if she couldn’t swallow. We grew quiet, like a married couple caught fighting in front of their child. “I’ll shut the door.”
Millie and I remained silent, our hair dampened by the rain. Neither of us had expected Andrea to be so brave. I knew that she not only had a weak stomach, but she also had no sense of balance. Although her long, thin legs might have been a dancer’s, there was something gawky about the rest of her. She always seemed to be standing at a slant, leaning toward something just past her nose.
She rose slowly from her seat. I wanted to make her sit down and tell her I would close the door. But as she bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying, I could only murmur the Our Father, though I didn’t even remember all the words.
“Hallowed be Thy name …”
She let herself slide toward the open door, then grabbed onto the railing. She looked up at the darkening sky, brown hair blowing into her mouth.
“Deliver us from evil …” I prattled on, thinking of all the reasons God might have to send me to hell. I remembered what I’d said to Andrea – “Don’t spoil this for us. If you don’t ride, we can’t.”
She reached out, the eyes of the kitten on her sweater glowing. She grabbed the rim of the door. It was rusty, and splotched with white bird droppings.
“And lead us into everlasting life.”
She put her free hand over my mouth before I could get to the Amen.
“We’re going to be okay,” she said. “Just hold still.” Hold still, hold still, hold still, I chanted the new mantra in my head. Millie and I squeezed hands as Andrea pulled the door toward her, curling her feet to grip the floor. But the cart began moving again, and her feet slid toward the door.
“Andrea!” I cried.
Just as her feet reached the edge, she slammed the door shut, and we heard the reassuring click of the latch. The air around us softened and we began breathing through our mouths again. But Andrea’s teal headband had blown away, and she stood craning over the edge of the cart, watching the wingless bluebird plummet to the ground.
None of us spoke for the rest of the ride. Our cart moved three or four more times around the wheel. It was raining harder now, and we could hear each drop against the metal spokes. I watched Andrea’s yellow, red, brown, white and blue paint smear away.