by Rica Keenum
It was a deep purple color, like a bruise. I thought how ironic they called it punch, a liquid blow. When I put my lips to the plastic cup, the vapor of alcohol cut sharp in my nose. I’m gonna tell you how it happened, because I see you there so often, gripping the obituary you hide in the secret panel of your jewelry box. I’ve seen you search Mom’s bedroom closet for photos. Rifling through shoeboxes where she keeps her dusty college memories. Snapshots of her and Dad, cheek to cheek or hiking in Colorado, the mountains at their backs—a gray looming shadow. Like me. I guess that’s what I’ve been reduced to—shadows. I know you’re curious about me, the big sister you never really knew. But if I tell you how it happened, will you promise to do better than I did?
So the punch—I didn’t expect it to taste good, but I wasn’t prepared for the burn. Everyone was watching me like I was a Netflix special. I know it’s stupid, but I wanted to feel like one of them for a night. Not a prom queen or the girl whose dad rented out the movie theater for her 16th birthday party. I just wanted to be someone who could sit at their table. Who could eat with the group, instead of spending lunch hours in the science room, cleaning beakers and putting microscopes back on the shelf so I didn’t have to watch them smiling, laughing, whispering secrets I’d never know.
I just kept swigging the punch. They cheered then raised their cups. The burn simmered to a warmth in my chest, spread out like a winter blanket. Ty and Greg were dancing on the bar in his basement, ridiculous, hilarious, swinging their arms like cowboys with invisible lassos. Then Ty gestured to me, like he’d caught me, a drunk teenage cowboy lassoing the animal-girl. You probably heard the phrase “liquid courage.” It’s a thing, I swear. It made me epically brave that night. When Ty pulled me up next to him, I got all Beyonce with it. Maybe he was thinking he could make everyone laugh at the awkward band-girl who was lucky to be there in the first place—thanks to Brittney. We’d gotten paired together for the science fair. Mom drove me to her house in Cherry Hill Estates—god, you should’ve seen all the marble, the skylights like cathedral domes. Anyway, I told her we could make a heart rate monitor using light to measure a pulse. She squealed and clapped, saying this grade would bump up her GPA. No summer school for once. That’s when she asked me to the party—all nonchalant like it wasn’t the first high school party for me, the only party if you’re not counting Chuck E. Cheese. After that, I spent the whole week dancing in front of the mirror and trying out hairdos, sloppy buns and French twists. I was ready for the party. So when Ty pulled me up on the bar, I just went for it, grinding on him with my hips. I pulled his T-shirt up with one finger, then blew him a kiss. Everyone cheered, and later, a few boys leaned in and asked me my name. I called myself Andi, because I was just so tired of being Andrea.
I knew it was getting super late. I thought about Mom waiting up, sipping chamomile tea in that mug I bought her for Mother’s Day, the flowery one that says: My Mother, My Friend. I could see Mom’s face in my mind, the way she bit one corner of her mouth when she got nervous. The way her tooth left a red dent in her lip. I knew she was doing that, but I was Andi that night. And the music, I felt it like a rainbow of colors—the beat bursting inside me like fireworks. All the faces were swirling around me. Laughing, touching, raising plastic cups. I’m not gonna say I regret staying. Actually, it’s the leaving part I regret. But Ty stood there with his arm around his girlfriend with the pigtail braids, the pool-party girl who also lived in Cherry Hill Estates. I barely had my driver’s permit, but Ty held up the keys to his father’s Mustang and said, ‘You down?’ He didn’t even wait for an answer, just let the keys drop then turned and walked away. What was I supposed to do?
When I bent over to grab the keys, my hands were all clumsy like a pair of puppets. But by then they were putting their coats on, high-fiving the other kids and stumbling into their goodbye hugs. They looked way drunker than me. I thought maybe it was better if I drove. The cold air outside would sober me up.
I wish I could tell you more, but it’s all kind of fuzzy from there: The car on route 19, the endlessly black road then the high beams from the other direction, blazing light. The feel of my hands on the wheel, a literal death grip. The crack in my ears, the jolt like a knock-out punch. There’s that word again—punch.
So that’s the story. It’s pointless to say I’m sorry how it ended. Who would’ve thought the invisible girl could make all the important people disappear? The girl with the college pennants and Harvard dreams could bring the night down with a crash, could carve a crater in time like a meteor?
Because I’m your big sister, I’ll tell you what you need to know. When Mom calls you to the table for breakfast, don’t put up a fight. Just let her pour your orange juice and watch you chew on your toast. Let her seal the moment in her memory, take it with her to work like a souvenir. Let her collect all the tokens of you. When she hugs you too long or too hard before you walk out the door, let her hold on. She knows all the ways a body can break, and she needs to feel you there in one piece. When you see her in the kitchen with her hands in the sink, the dishwater going cold around her fingers, let her stare at the street in silence. Many times after the incident, she looked for me. Brief moments when her mind let the reality that I was gone slip away. But those days are done, and she’s not looking for me anymore. She’s looking for the place where she went wrong, thinking maybe, by some miracle, if she could find that kink in time, she could somehow straighten it out. Please, tell her it’s not her fault. Can you tell her this one thing for me—if you hear me? Can you hear me, little sister?
Rica Keenum is a senior magazine writer for a media company in Florida. Her book “Petals of Rain: A Mother’s Memoir” was released in 2019 and is widely available. She’s currently in the querying phase for her second book, a memoir that is part romance, part drama, part journey toward reckoning. Read her essays and ramblings at Rica Writes.com.