I Have Underlined Your Name in All My Baby Books

Jill Kolongowski

The other sisters, my cousins, run through the house, their sticky hair tentacle-wrapping their faces. They are overtired, wrung-out dishrags; they pull their Dachshund’s velvet ears for the hell of it, scream their tin-bell screams because they can and because they feel a little bent, banged-up, hollowed.

Amanda sits on the couch tangled up in her own toothpick limbs and the elephantine cord of the oxygen machine. I pretend not to look, but the machine is angry and wants attention and roars over all of us. The mask’s elastic band cuts into Amanda’s face beneath her ten-year-old cheekbones and she looks like a muzzled dog, all sad and defeated and like she would never bite anyone in a million billion years. She is a jumbled pile of matchsticks, all never-lit and somehow still so used up.

Her mother makes grilled cheese sandwiches in the kitchen like her middle daughter is not dying. She remembers that each daughter likes a different kind of cheese. Six pieces of bread lay in a row and I wonder if later she’ll remember she only needs four. Amanda’s mother scrapes butter pats into the pan in time with the oxygen machine’s hum and she somehow has to stand it. She is humming, too, like the force of her breath might vibrate some color back into her daughter’s unlit cheeks.

Two years later we go camping. We go camping like Amanda isn’t still dying, drowning in her own lungs, but what else can we do but pretend? I stare at the way her cupcake pajamas fall empty over her little kneecaps as if she is not there at all. This year Amanda loves Michael Jackson and no one mentions that he’s dead, like we’re afraid to jinx her. She has memorized his dance moves and she pops and locks next to the rusted merry-go-round in the park. She tracks round with her eyes first so no strangers can see; and she’s a little pebble I can’t swallow and it hurts how much she cares. She makes jokes about Dirty Diana and I let her, even though she is probably too young but she might as well be older than I am.

“I had a dream about Michael,” she says, as if he’s a close friend. “I was auditioning for him. And I think maybe he kissed me. But then he was mad because I kept messing up, and he wouldn’t let me go on tour.” She smiles her own little heartbreak.

She lifts up onto her toes, tips her black fedora at me. Her white socks are folded perfectly. She speaks in a British accent when she’s playing Michael, which makes no sense at all, but who even gives a fuck because she is such cherry-topped sundae perfection in the way that she presses her knees asymmetrical.

“I just wanted to be something,” she says.

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Jill has worked as an editor, writer, and doughnut maker. She grew up in Michigan but has since lived on both American coasts. Jill is an MFA Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at St. Mary’s College of California and Managing Editor at YesYes Books. Her work can be found in Revolution House, Fugue, and elsewhere.