Sarah Mollie Silberman
IT WAS SUMMER, too hot to move or think or breathe, too hot to do anything, and we sat on my brother Felix’s balcony. Balcony was a generous word for a slab of concrete, two plastic chairs, and a ceramic garden gnome, but that was what we called it. It overlooked Q Street. Row houses, trees, a pedestrian or two meandering along the sidewalk, faces gleaming with sweat. We had spent hundreds of hours there, lining Modelo cans at our feet and biting into nectarines, the juice sluicing down our wrists. That particular evening, though, we just waited for the Chinese food delivery guy. Neither of us felt much like talking.
“Maddie,” Felix said. “What time did we order?”
I checked my phone. It was after 7:00pm, but still light out. “Half an hour ago.”
“I can’t decide if I’m starving,” he said, “or if it’s too hot to chew.” He had one of those tiny electric fans that plugged into your phone and he sat there, fanning himself, looking like an asshole. He leaned back and propped his bare feet against the railing.
I drank from a water bottle, the plastic crinkling beneath my fingers, and studied him. He wore cutoffs, a threadbare Dukakis ‘88 t-shirt, and plastic sunglasses. He was skinnier than ever—rangy—but it suited him, like he was stripped down to his most elemental Felix-ness. I reached over and wrapped my fingers around his wrist. “Are you eating?” I asked.
“I work at a restaurant,” he said. “They have food there.”
“Do you eat the food?”
“I thought I would try one of those cleanses, actually,” he said. “With lemon juice and cayenne pepper.”
“Funny,” I said.
He pulled his wrist away. “I eat the food, Madeline.”
Our mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months earlier—she would live another five and a half weeks. Surprisingly, Felix had been on time for her doctor’s appointments. At the last one, a few hours earlier, the doctor had given us a folder thick with resources about end-of-life care, with words like palliative and self-determination and fear, but I had been fixated on Felix’s socks. One striped, one solid. The cells in my mother’s body were dividing rapidly, insanely, murdering her, but my 27-year-old brother could not be bothered to wear matching socks. Anyway, it was like he and I had retreated to our own separate corners to do whatever you did when your mother was about to die. Wait, I guess.
A police car zoomed by on the street below, lights flashing but no siren. On the sidewalk, a little boy in roller skates, maybe four years old, was trailing behind his mother, fingers hooked to her belt loops as she walked. He was singing to himself, and the wheels on his skates rattled on the pavement. “Do people still roller skate?” I asked. I looked at my brother, who was looking at his phone. I swatted at a mosquito buzzing around my ankle. “Felix,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Roller skate,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Why did you invite me over,” I said, “if you’re going to ignore me?”
Felix lowered his head and pointed the electric fan at the back of his neck. “I didn’t invite you over,” he said. “You came over.”
My water bottle was empty, now, and my mouth was swampy, tinged with onions I had eaten at lunch, and I was hungry. Hungry enough that I could have leaned over and slapped my brother across the face, except it seemed like too much effort. “Forget it,” I said.
“We can have a fight, if you want,” he said.
“Let’s,” I said.
“Fine,” he said.
We sat there. We listened to air conditioners drone in windows, to a dog bark incessantly. We watched the sky grow dim and overcast; you could tell it would just go from day to night without a real sunset. A light came on in the apartment across the street and a girl walked to the window, yanking it open, receding into the room. It was unfurnished. Bare walls lined with blue tape, a ceiling fan whirring. The girl wore overalls with just a red bra underneath. With her back to us, she picked up a paint roller, dipped it in a pan on the floor, and rolled it along the rear wall in a long, curving streak. The paint was the yellow of an egg yolk.
My brother raised his sunglasses. “That’s a good color,” he said.
The girl stood back to take in her work. She lifted the roller over her head and twirled—a single rotation, graceful as a dancer—and then applied more paint to the roller, moving it up, down, sideways, the mechanics of her body quick and frenzied, a little unhinged, a piece of performance art. It was sort of mesmerizing. Or, it was a relief to watch someone do something.
“She’s really going to town,” Felix said.
“Yeah,” I said.
We watched for a while longer. Long enough that I could imagine the weight of the roller in her hands, the paint splatters hardening on the floor by her feet. I could imagine the stifling heat of the apartment, the sweat beading along her spine, the air dense with fumes. She would be breathing them in—big, greedy lungfuls—until she was lightheaded, until the room was transformed, dizzying and yellow and exactly as she wanted it to be.
Sarah Mollie Silberman lives in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.sarahmolliesilberman.com.