It is our pleasure to present Tatiana Schlote-Bonne's essay "Me Before You," runner-up in the inaugural David Hamilton Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. This prize is sponsored by anonymous donors who wish to honor the mentorship and support they and other students at the University of Iowa received from Emeritus Professor of English David Hamilton. In addition to publication online, Schlote-Bonne will be awarded a $250 scholarship.
In an ideal world, we are born whole sisters instead of half, and mom takes us to the orphanage or places us in the padded drop-off box at the fire department and we are adopted, together. But she left us, pink and bundled in hospital blankets, with our grandmas, and now our grandmas are dead, I’m living with you and your dad, and the cat is giving birth in the hallway.
“Mufasa!” you yell, cheeks turning red and pulling on your pigtails. “Not right here!”
I wave for you to come into the room, and you tiptoe past the cat and flop onto my bed. We watch Thirteen Ghosts, our favorite horror movie. Jordin stands in the hallway, staring at the cat. She has big green eyes like our mom’s, thick eyebrows, clean and angled from when I plucked them last week, but when she smiles her protruding, uneven teeth distract from the rest of her face.
Jordin walks into the room, glaring at the TV, saying, “Let’s watch a different movie. Let’s watch Can’t Buy Me Love.” We ignore her and she sits on the bed frowning, her arms folded over her chest, her leg touching yours, instantly sending you into a fury because you’re all about personal space, which is what you say when you want to pick a fight or feel too hot.
“Gosh, Jordin, get out of my personal space!” You shove your elbow into Jordin’s rib and she slaps your thigh.
The ghost woman on TV, nude and covered in open wounds, slices a man in half and Jordin, somehow so annoyingly prude for a fourteen-year-old, stands up and yells, “Why do you always get to pick the movie!?”
I pause it. “Because I bought this TV and this is the only movie we have that I like!”
You giggle, then laugh, then double over snorting, relishing every moment of me yelling at Jordin. Jordin rushes out and into her bedroom. We can hear her play religious rock music and anger clean: slamming drawers, aggressive vacuuming.
Mufasa yowls and we peek around the corner to see her sitting up, seven wet kittens squirming around her, remnants of placenta smeared on the carpet. We debate who will keep the kittens in their room. They can’t stay in the living room, because David sleeps there and he works the most. They can’t stay in the room with your dad and Nolonda, because he has diabetes and heart disease, she has pancreatic cancer, and they’re just one-night-of-bad-sleep away from dying.
I say, “I’m not taking them. I have school, an essay, and work.”
You stand up, hands on your hips. “Well I took care of the kittens last time—and you’re the only one with your own room.”
“Fine, whatever,” I gesture toward the closet. “Put a towel down or something.”
“Or you know,” you sit down beside me, softening your voice. “We could share this room and leave the cats with her.” You point at the wall in Jordin’s direction.
“No, I’ll take the cats. Put them next to those textbooks.”
“C’mon, Tots, please, I won’t take up much space. Look, I can sleep over here.” You curl up in front of my desk, beside the closet, ignoring the fact that it’s the only floor space in the room, that I would have to climb over you to get in and out, that the door would bash you in the face if it were opened.
“No, Alex, you’re not staying in here.”
You sit up and pout, looking both older and younger than twelve years old, long legs folded beneath you, dark brown eyes staring up at me, brunette hair braided in pigtails, pressing your cheek against your shoulder, concealing a smile.
“I’m serious, get up.”
You roll your eyes and push yourself off the ground. “Fine! Then move the kittens in here yourself!” You stomp back to your room, slamming the door behind you, knocking my mirror off the wall.
When I first moved here, you were pissed I took your bedroom. You told me to go back to San Diego, where you assumed I had a privileged life, and I did, when I lived with my grandma, but when I was nine, she died, and my dad and his wife moved in. My stepmom seemed annoyed that I came along with her new house. She told me my real mother was a homeless whore who squirted out babies and ran away from them. She forbade me from using the TV and the phone, worried the wrong show would make me a slut, the wrong phone call would lead to a teenage pregnancy. My dad rarely came home, and when he did, he made me hold my ankles, hitting me with a paddle, for watching the Disney Channel. I climbed out my bedroom window to hang out with girls who could wear eyeliner and text, and those forbidden times outside and the plan of leaving for college kept me from depression. But when I was fifteen, my stepmom spotted me at the mall and convinced my dad I needed to be sent away from the bad influence of my friends. She called uncles, aunts, and cousins and finally got ahold of your dad, who said: Sure, throw in a hundred bucks, and I’ll take her, always thought she was a sweet girl, plus I could use the help around the house.
Elko, Nevada, is a small mining town with no mall, but now I have a job, and I bought myself a cellphone and a TV and a makeup set. I’m graduating high school early; I have a full-tuition scholarship for the community college, and next year I’m transferring to a university, far away. All I have to worry about is saving enough money for the move, which is difficult with your dad and Nolonda, both of them on disability, always needing help with bills, and you, always needing my help with homework, wanting to stay in my room, coming in here late at night and tapping me awake, asking if I’m gonna leave you when I turn eighteen.
It’s the first Friday night when your dad isn’t at the casino, David isn’t driving a semitruck, I’m not working at the coffee shop, and Jordin and Nolonda aren’t praying with the Witnesses at Kingdom Hall. I bought steak and vegetables for a family dinner; we’re all sick of hotdog mac and cheese. I set the dining table, but it only has four chairs so I drag two fold-up chairs from the closet and place them at the far ends of the table.
Nolonda keeps bending over to peek in the oven, prodding the potatoes, her wide hips encompassing the kitchen’s walkway. David sits in one of the lawn chairs, sinking low, shoulders level with the table, arms raised awkwardly to reach his glass of water. I smile at him. He and I pay most of the bills, but at least I get my own room. It must be hard for him, living in his stepdad’s living room, all his belongings pissing everyone off, his clothes and shoes always getting stepped on, his presence just heightening the sense of confinement in our six-person, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house.
You and your dad are watching TV with your feet rested on David’s mattress. He’s smoking a cigarette, and I say, “You know that’s bad for your heart.”
He scoffs and glares at me. “Says who? You ain’t no doctor.” He smirks and takes another puff of his cigarette, blowing the smoke in the opposite direction of your face.
When dinner’s ready we sit next to each other in two of the good chairs. Your dad sits at the head of the table in a lawn chair, a beer in the cup holder of his armrest. He leans back and says, “I like this, even better than them nice chairs.” We laugh. I was always jealous of you growing up with a fun, loving dad around. I remember coming to stay with you for a weekend when I was eleven, Jordin was nine, and you were seven. We all took turns riding the mattress down the apartment stairs, holding onto the sides, crashing into the pillows we piled up against the wall. Your dad came home, and I expected him to yell, ground us, make us clean it all up, and but he was delighted, and took pictures of us, His Girls.
“How’s school?” Your dad asks. He means all of us but he’s looking directly at me.
“Good. Jordin and I are doing good.”
“And Alex?” He asks.
When I can get you to go to school, you come home from detention with extra homework packets, papers that need signatures—too much bureaucracy for your dad to handle.
“She’s, you know, doing okay. We’ve been practicing reading aloud, and it’s going.” He doesn’t know that you might have to repeat seventh grade.
You slump in the chair and push the carrots around the plate. “Daddy, I’m doing bad. I’m gonna fail this year.”
He looks unsurprised and wraps his arm around you. “It’s okay baby, at least you’re the pretty one.”
“Rude,” Jordin says.
Nolonda stands up, sighing, and shaking her head. She opens the cabinets, looking for some containers to store the leftovers; quickly she turns around, holding up a macaroni-encrusted bowl, a damning piece of evidence you put dirty dishes back in the cabinets, again.
“Did you do this?” she asks you. You shrug.
“Answer me little girl!”
You stand up and throw your arms in the air. “Why does it matter! This house is already a mess!” You point at David’s bedroom in the living room, the cat birth stains in the hallway, the broken washing machine right next to the dining table.
“Shut up!” Jordin yells at you. You start whining, then crying, and face the wall, where you start ramming your forehead against it. You’ve done this before, a desperate act when grounding and the revoking of TV privileges is certain. We all stare, appalled at how you just pound and pound and pound your skull into the wall.
Your dad stands, crimson-faced, yelling, “Quit doing that crazy shit!” He turns pale, holding his hands to his chest, and leans against Nolonda. You turn around to see your dad pale-faced and wheezing, Nolonda encouraging him to take deep breaths—you let out one last wail and run to your room. Jordin gathers the dishes from the table, offering to wash anything you messed up. Your dad, his face in his hands, mutters, “I can’t handle this shit, can’t handle this at all.”
I go to your room, where you’re sobbing into a pillow. “My dad’s gonna die. He’s gonna die, then I’ll be stuck with Nolonda, or maybe I’ll just be alone and then I’ll die too.”
“No, no you’re not gonna die.” I look into your beautiful, miserable brown eyes and say, “you have to get it together in school, then you can go away to college or get a job and move out.”
You cry on my shoulder. “Can’t I just live with you? Please, Tots. I’ll do dishes, I’ll do them real good. I promise.”
I’ve been thinking about it: the two-bedroom apartment we could get, the space we’d have, the late-night horror movies we’d watch, the two of us moving across the country together, me going to college while you’re in high school, juggling work and studying and helping you study, buying clothes, affording food, and you banging your head against the wall.
Someone dripped blood all over the bathroom floor. It wasn’t me, Jordin’s a zealous neat-freak, and Nolonda says she’s all dried up inside. I look at the red smears on the toilet seat, the smudges on the toilet paper, and I walk to your room where you’re lying on your mattress, looking at pictures in one of my Seventeen magazines. Jordin’s on her bed, only a few inches from yours, reading one of the Jehovah Witness Watchtower magazines Nolonda gave her; you and I both think it’s weird, stupid, cultish—one of the reasons you’re my favorite.
I tell her I need to talk to you alone, and she sighs and takes her religious propaganda to the kitchen. I sit down next to you, pushing the shoes, the wadded-up jeans, and crayons off the bed and point at the bathroom. “You left a mess.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Well someone got blood everywhere.”
You shift your weight and stare at a mascara ad. “It was probably Jordin.” You’re dressed in one of my old tank tops and wearing sweat pants—two pairs of sweat pants.
“Have you talked to Nolonda about, you know, having your—”
“Gross, no. I hate her.” Your dad’s had many girlfriends, but he married Nolonda, the one who brought Jehovah into this house, the one you liked the least. You blush, holding the magazine up to your face. When I was your age, sometimes mom would ride the train to town, taking me away for weekends in a motel where she’d teach me to straighten my hair, use eyeliner, insert tampons. When it was time to leave, I would cry and ask her not to take me back to my stepmom. She’d hug me and say she was going to get a place soon, that you and Jordin would live with us, promised we would finally be a family once she got her life together, got clean. Then she’d disappear again, and you don’t even know what she looks like.
I comb my fingers through your hair, trying to think of the right thing to say. “Well, are you just out of products? Or is this, like, your first time?”
“Oh my god, no, I’ve had them before. It’s just that dad’s always with her, and Jordin hides all her stuff from me.”
“Well, go clean it up, quickly, and do a good job—I’ll let you use my makeup.” You jump up and go to clean the bathroom. I put a bag of tampons and pads in your drawer.
We sit on the floor of my bedroom, trying to be still as the kittens climb up our legs. You’re good at putting on makeup, better than I am, holding the mirror with one hand, applying foundation with the other, spreading the creamy blend on your olive skin, dipping the thin brush into Sinful, a charcoal black, the most used shade in the palette, sweeping it over your eyelids before using the mascara, starting in the middle then wiggling the brush out to the sides—like I’ve taught you—lengthening your already long lashes. Luckily for everyone, you’re not interested in boys yet. Right now, it’s just about looking as beautiful as you can. You bat your eyelashes at me, your chocolate brown eyes even more bold with the black liner, heart-shaped lips colored pink, concealer hiding the pimple on your dimpled chin.
Your dad walks in, and he looks exhausted, his eyes red, his gray hair sticking out in different directions. He sits on the bed and says we need to talk. He stares up at the ceiling and tells us he got bad news from the doctor, they said his heart’s all clogged up, and he needs new valves and stints, or stents, somethin’ like that—whatever it is, it’s gonna take a lotta money and a lotta driving back and forth to the doc in Salt Lake City, three hours away. He says we have to move to the city.
I stare at the chocolate stains on his shirt, his overgrown toenails, the pick-mark scars on his cheeks. I say, “Oh,” not feigning any sympathy. “Well I need you to sign a waiver, so I can get an apartment before I’m eighteen.”
He puts his hand on top of my mine and I have this sick feeling he’s going to say what I don’t want to hear.
“You’re not gonna want to hear this, but you have to come with us. We can’t the afford the move on our own. And your sisters need you.”
I yank my hand back and I want to yell at him, tell him he’s ruining my only chance to escape from this place, to not end up like the rest of them. I say, “I’m not going.”
He stands up, glaring down at me, and says, “You’re coming with us. Think about all I’ve done for you.”
He turns to leave and I say, “I told you to quit smoking.”
He says, “We leave in two weeks,” and slams the door shut. I lie on the bed, the pillows encasing my head, but I can still hear you crying and saying, “I told you he was gonna die.” I’m scared you might be right. If he does die, then Nolonda and David will probably leave, and you and Jordin would only have me.
“Get out of my room, Alex. I need to think.”
You stand up and walk to the mirror, your shoulders hunched, wiping the makeup from your eyes. You look at me in the reflection and say, “Don’t leave me, Tots.”
I tell you I won’t.
I don’t pretend to be happy. I come home from work or school and eat dinner in my room and only talk to you. Your dad doesn’t care. He says I can be a tenant instead of a family member. I put the money he needs in envelopes, label them all in red letters: INTERNET, RENT, MOVING, and slip them under his door. I can hear him and Nolonda through the thin walls, excitedly talking about the four-bedroom apartment they signed a lease for, and I laugh, thinking about how moving from a rundown house to a rundown apartment is all they’ll ever know. You come into my room late at night and tap me on the shoulder, asking if we can share a bedroom in the new apartment. I say yes.
Nolonda and Jordin still go to service at Kingdom Hall, and your dad started going too, even though the congregation shunned him for smoking. I imagine them sitting far in the back, in the delinquent Witness seating, Nolonda listening to the sermon, nodding dramatically, believing the meeting will heal her husband’s heart disease, him sitting next to her, falling asleep, head rolling forward, periodically jerking awake. Jordin probably sits in the front, taking notes, believing this dedication will give her a better life. One day she will make friends with the other Witness girls, and then she’ll go to their homes, see their marble countertop kitchens, their three-car garage, use one of their bathrooms.
We make fun of their cult. You wear a blanket like a robe, hold your hands out in an offering, saying, “Dear God, this is Jordin and if you can hear me, I brought you these hairs from my crush, can you make him notice me, please?” We burst out laughing.
I point out the window. “They wait until it gets dark, then they go up in the mountains and the women dance around a fire and the men chant. Then they choose a sacrifice to keep the gold mine strong.” You gasp, and your eyes widen, and you look like a medieval monk with that blanket draped around you and I’m thinking: if only I’d had you when I lived in San Diego. We could’ve shared my bedroom, stayed up late whispering under the covers, plotting against our stepmom, holding flashlights as we read books we weren’t supposed to read, and we still would’ve felt sad about our unfortunate lives, but never lonely.
I’m at my friend Kelly’s house, trying on a dress to borrow for graduation. We work together, and when we first met, I didn’t think she was the kind of girl I’d become close friends with: a cheerleader, good at math, socially outgoing—but friendship grows when working slow weekend nights in a coffee shop. Her house has multiple bathrooms, marble countertops, an office, a garage, carpet that feels good between my toes, and it all makes me aware of the cigarette stench on my cat-hair covered clothes. Her dad is in the office, calling clients for his landscaping company. And she has this mom who’s always asking if we’re hungry or thirsty or can get us anything, anything at all.
Kelly and I sit on her queen-sized bed, sewing flowers into our graduation caps. We talk about boys and the new kayak rack on her new Jeep, and she asks if I’ll stay for dinner, and I’m thinking I’d rather go home, eat pizza on my bed, watch a scary movie with you, but then she says, “I’ve been telling my parents how bad things are at home for you, and they said you should move in, live here while you go to college. We have plenty of space.”
I laugh, then stare at the fake flower in my hand, wondering how they could possibly want me to live with them; aside from small talk, and whatever Kelly’s said about me, they don’t know me. Maybe this is some charity case: they seem like people who give donations, or buy lots of things, realize they didn’t want all of it, and then give some of it away, or see this poor girl whose face lights up when they tip her five dollars for a latte, see her name on the dean’s list with their daughter’s, see her spending weekends at their house, taking extra-long showers, and think, Hell, we have all this space.
“We have a room ready,” Kelly says, “if you want it.”
I stay for dinner, and years from now, I’ll hear that your dad is alive thanks to his new heart made of pig, Nolonda left, you dropped out of high school, and you tell people you only have one sister. When I get home from Kelly’s that night, you’re in my bedroom on my laptop, online shopping for curtains, nightstands, and dressers. You say, “Look we can get this purple dresser and these purple curtains for our bedroom.” I sit on the bed, biting my nails. You tap me on the shoulder, and say, “But we can get whatever color you want.”
I nod, looking past you and at the suitcase in my closet.
Tatiana studies exercise science and creative writing at the University of Iowa.