The woman who buzzed me in was wearing an off-white uniform and looked tired. She attempted a smile, but it wasn’t a very good one. I attempted a smile too; it wasn’t any better than hers. I took the clipboard from her hands and signed my name. Mine was the only signature on the visitation sheet even though it was late on a Friday afternoon.
I looked around the place. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It looked more or less like an elementary school with heightened security. Lemon and lime colored walls. There was a smell to the place like a secondhand clothes store. Detergent and something like sweat or piss. The shadowy atmosphere seemed to seep into my clothes and settle on my skin, and I wondered why I’d come. The woman in white spoke again and made me raise my shoulders suddenly.
“So, you’re the big brother she’s always talking about?” she tried at the smile again. Her teeth were very white and very crooked. Outside, on the street, she might’ve been beautiful. But she wasn’t there.
“Younger brother,” I said rubbing at my face.
“Oh, that’s right. Younger brother. She said you live in Asia. That must be exciting. I’ve always wanted to travel to Asia. I love Asian food.”
“Yeah, it’s exciting. I came back for a few days. Where is she now?”
“Oh, I suppose she’s out in the rose garden as per usual. She really loves being in the rose garden. It’s just through those green doors and in the corner of the courtyard.”
I gave her back the clipboard, nodded at her quickly and went through the doors to see my sister.
My sister was sitting on a white plastic chair. The kind you see in people’s gardens during the summertime when happy folks decide to eat outside underneath the sunshine. Family barbecues. Not that we’d ever known what that was like. I could see my sister in profile. An ash-white robe was wrapped around her like a blanket. Her blonde hair was hanging in lank waves hiding her face and she was chewing on her thumbnail. I stopped walking and thought about turning around and leaving. I thought I would be able to handle it all, but seeing her huddled in that shaded, cracked courtyard surrounded by emaciated and dead rose plants, I wasn’t so sure about anything. I wasn’t there out of obligation. I loved my sister. But I wondered what good the visit would really do for anyone.
My feet made the decision for me and I continued over and placed my hand on her back. I could feel the bones through the worn fabric of the dressing gown and closed my eyes and opened them again, swallowed the breath mint I’d been sucking to take away the scent of the drink. My throat clicked audibly. She didn’t respond to my touch and I wondered if they had her drugged up. I stood there rubbing her back like she had indigestion, feeling the grooves and bumps of her spine and looking down at the way her greasy hair was highlighted by the afternoon sun.
“Is that you?” she said it horse without looking up.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Mom said you were coming. I wasn’t sure you would. I didn’t want you to see me here, like this, but you’re here now. You came after all.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Why?” her voice cracked and waivered over the solitary word.
“Why? You’re my sister. Of course, I wanted to see you. Don’t be silly.”
“Here? You wanted to see me here?”
“Here. There. It’s all the same isn’t it?”
She finally raised her head, brushed the hair from her face and looked up at me and I saw her face for the first time in years. I tried to hide my shock, but I know she still saw it there at the corners of my eyes and mouth. We held onto eye contact for a couple of seconds more and then her blue, bloodshot eyes snapped across the courtyard.
I dragged an empty plastic chair closer and sat down in front of her, so our knees were touching. Her hands were in her lap and I placed mine on top of them. They were winter cold. She stared over my shoulder. She’d aged so much and lost so much weight that just seeing her was like a kick in the lower gut. I was breathless. I wondered what had happened to the girl I’d seen last waving to me from a taxi, a plastic tiara in her hair and a glittery ‘Bride to Be’ sash tied around her chest.
“I got lost a few times trying to find the place,” it was a lie. I’d stood outside the main gates smoking and pacing back and forth, reading graffiti on brick walls for over forty-five minutes before I’d finally entered the small clinical hospital.
“Yeah,” she was noncommittal in tone. I know she had always hated small talk, but I didn’t know how to navigate the conversation. I needed another drink.
“Sorry if I’m late.”
“A couple of years late.”
“I know Sis. But, I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“How’s Hong Kong?” she asked. I hadn’t lived in Hong Kong for over a year but didn’t see the point in contradicting her.
“It’s not bad. I was hoping you’d come out to visit me as soon as you got out of this place, you’d like it the most.”
“Ha! Like that’s gonna happen anytime soon.”
“I spoke to the nurse,” I lied again. “She says you’re doing great. Just great, you know? You’ll be out of this place in no time. No time at all. You’ll love Hong Kong. I’ve got an apartment near to the harbor.”
“Yeah, you’d really like it a lot.”
“So, what have you been doing lately?”
“What do you think?”
“I mean, Mom said you were doing arts and crafts. Stuff like that.”
“Like finger painting with my shit?”
“Jesus, I hope you’re not that far gone.”
We laughed together finally, and I could have almost forgotten where we were. It was a brittle kind of laughter, but it was better than nothing.
“You remember when we went to the zoo for the day when mom and dad were still together, and you shit yourself on the train and we had to go home early? I’ve never really forgiven you for that. I wanted to see the Pandas.”
“Yeah, I wondered if that was coming up in your therapy sessions. It is in mine.”
“Bastard,” she grinned. “How’s Wei-Ping?”
“She finally left me. About a year back now,” I told her, hoping the confession would help her in some way.
“I always thought her name sounded like ‘weeping’. Like she was crying all the time.”
“Yeah, I guess it did.”
“Was she what?”
“Crying all the time?”
“No, but she was pissed off a lot,” I got a lopsided smile out of her and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
“You can cry so much sometimes that your body runs out of liquids. You get dehydrated.”
“I guess so. Can I smoke here?”
“You can. It’s all they let us do.”
I lit up and looked around for an ashtray and my sister gently took the packet and lighter that were balanced on my leg and lit one up herself.
“When did you start smoking?”
“I don’t know.”
We smoked in silence. I stole a glance at my wristwatch when an old man with a disheveled grey beard and bald head, draped in a rain mac started wailing painfully in the corridor and had to be calmed down by two heavyset Arab guys in white overalls.
“What’s his problem?”
“That’s John. His wife left him for his brother.”
“Yeah, that’ll do it.”
“If he ever even had a wife to begin with,” she shrugged, snubbed out her cigarette on a cobblestone and lit another. The nicotine stains on her trembling fingers were a tint of brown. I examined my own fingers and then snubbed out my cigarette too.
“Sis, are you okay? Here, I mean. Are you okay here?”
“Not really but it’s better than the other, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“You’re seeing me on a good day. I know it probably doesn’t look like it. But today’s one of my better days. How long are you back home for?”
Home? I’d never been all that sure where home was. I’d never really felt at home anywhere. I guessed that was why I travelled the world like some kind of modern nomad.
“I’ll go back tomorrow evening,” I lied again. It was starting to become easier. She looked saddened and I told myself it was for the best. The best for her. The best for me.
She licked her lips and I could tell she was holding back tears. I found a scratch in the arm of the plastic chair and picked at it.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I wanna go back in time. Sometimes at night, I lay awake looking into the darkness and I try to travel back in time, in my mind before everything got so fucked up. Does that sound completely batshit crazy?”
“Nah, I do that too.”
“Really. Is there anything you need? Something I can go and get you?”
“No, it’s okay. Mom brings me what I need.”
“How about a newspaper or magazine?”
“No, they make me upset. I don’t like reading those things anymore.”
The conversation fell hushed and we both sat looking everywhere but at each other.
“Has Dad been here? To see you, I mean,” I asked, knowing the answer to the question already. I didn’t even know why I’d asked it.
“No. No, he hasn’t. But fuck him, right?”
“I was hoping Mikey was going to come and see me today with you.”
Michael her husband had died three years ago. My mother had warned me that sometimes my sister believed he was still alive and sometimes she knew he was dead. It was some kind of symptom of extreme trauma. I didn’t know how to respond so I just agreed with her.
“Yeah. Maybe he’ll be by later. Look, Sis, I’ve got to go because I have to do some things before I go back, but I’ll come by and see you tomorrow before I go. How about that?”
“Yeah, sure,” she shrugged it off, accepting the lie to save us both grief. “Can I have your cigarettes?”
“Sure. You need some money?”
“No, I still have a little. It’s fine.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, okay?”
“Okay, sure little brother.”
I stood up and put my arms around her. It was like embracing air. There was nothing there. I kissed her cheek and it was as cold as her hands had been. The sheer emptiness within my embrace bought tears to my eyes that I impatiently brushed away.
I dug into the damp soil with my fingers and made a hole that would be deep enough for the rose plant that was in the plastic shopping bag next to me. I took it out of the bag carefully holding it by the thick green stem and squeezed the plastic pot, pulling the plant free. Clumps of soil fell from the roots onto my sisters grave and I placed the plant into the hole. I’d tried to pick the healthiest looking one from the shop and I’d carried it carefully to the cemetery. It was the first time I’d been back since the funeral. The grave looked pretty much the same, but she had a simple headstone now. I pushed clumps of dirt over the roots and set the plant erect and proud at the center of her grave. The roses were in full bloom and looked beautiful. The deep shades of red added so much color to the dull browns and grays of the plot of earth. I chewed at my lip and tried to think of something to say, a prayer or a song lyric she might’ve liked but no words like that came.
“I know you’re not here, Sis. You went back, right? Back in time before everything got so fucked up and you’re happy now, right?”
The grave remained silent like I knew it would. A bird called out somewhere from behind me. I lit up a cigarette, smoked with fingers the color of the earth and let the tears fall wherever they wanted.
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. Glamour Girl Gone, his debut novel, will be released by Close to The Bone Press January 29th, 2021. He recommends The Samaritans.