The summer my sister sang with a girl from the local pueblo, I had been starving myself. I was counting out almonds on my palm when Pauline’s name was announced over the crackling loudspeaker. We were seated in a hot tent at the Albuquerque state fair, our places reserved with pieces of notebook paper that said “family of lead soprano” in magic marker.
As the lead soprano in the eleventh grade, my sister had the honor of choosing the penultimate piece for the touring company. Previously she had graced us with a shortened O Mio Babbino Caro and Ach, ich fühl’s. That summer she had chosen a duet, though my mother had screamed and wriggled under the suggestion she share the stage with another student.
Pauline stepped forward from a line of girls in homemade dresses. I sucked the light salting off my ninth almond, watching the stage lights kiss Pauline’s gleaming shoulders. Nine almonds — that was four more than I allowed myself in a morning. I had already finished my OJ and water sluiced-combo, and wouldn’t be having sugar for another 24 hours.
My sister flipped her white-gold hair over one shoulder, preparing for her annual crushing of the community’s hopes for their own children. In the dry silence that followed, she turned toward the rest of the choir, tilting her head toward a heavy-set girl in brown. The girl’s rough braid didn’t bounce as she walked forward.
The girl stood with my blonde sister in front of a crowd of white people who had recently voted to decrease state funding to the pueblo cultural center. The announcer coughed her name through the sound system, and the crowd began to whisper. Even my mother stirred, and I hated her for it. My thighs were sticking to the folding chair under me. I thought they wouldn’t do that if they were slimmer, barely bone and muscle. The sound of metal and bone clicking together, I told myself, would be clean and beautiful.
“She’s shaking,” my mother whispered. She meant the girl on stage, but I was quaking from somewhere deep in my colon. I heaved my body weight against my mother to support myself, who assumed I was being affectionate. The stage was fringed in a grey wiry mist that I would have reached for, if my arms were strong enough. From somewhere far away, my sister began singing. My sister was joined by my sister somehow; their voices were inseparable. Had I been in my right mind, I might have recognized Lakmé de Delibes as it began. Instead, I saw ripples in water we didn’t have in New Mexico, cool and green pools of sound, and my sister and her sister dipped their limbs in, their fingers touching and gently pulling away.
What happened after that first note exists in liminal space. I was in between consciousness and sleep, my body functioning on vapor and sound. My sister’s shimmering voice glided upward, twined and bolstered with what timbre was coming in ribbons from the dark-haired girl’s mouth. I swelled up, a dome of white jasmine and two enflamed kidneys, leaving behind a trail of my almonds, like diamonds or high notes, so we three could find our way back. Something osculated softly against my brain, asking me to follow it. I obeyed.
My mother says I seized forward into the dirt, my eyes rolling back into my skull. I remember this too; I watched my spine straighten and my limbs lock against my torso as I spun somewhere above the tent, the dense canopy of blue in our desert town. Espressivo. Potassium. If I spoke Italian, I would have cried to hear my sister and her partner sing of laughing in the morning.
The song must have stopped when my mother started screaming, but in my memory those voices continue over the shining waves like birds. They dip below the surface and rise toward the sun, one dove and one morning-dove, transcendent and free from their bodies as I had tried to free myself from mine.