When I was eight, my mother, father, three older siblings, and I took a family portrait and hung it above the piano in our dining room. The piano belonged to my father’s father, but none of us could play it, nor did my parents see investing in lessons as worthwhile. Eventually, we sold the piano, but the photo remained there, an artifact of our proximity. In it, my mother and father sit next to each other, surrounded by their four children. My sister sits next to my mother and one brother stands between them. My other brother—the oldest and tallest sibling—stands behind our father. I am in the lower right corner, my hands grasping my dad’s forearm. I am missing a tooth.
A decade would pass before the six of us took another photo together.
Introduction to Cartography: A
In my childhood home, Arthur, my oldest brother and ten years my senior, lived upstairs—the sleeping giant at the top of his beanstalk. His bedroom was carpeted in green and distinguished by a hole in the plaster wall that he once punched. In his turret, he designed video games that would swear for him, played Dungeons and Dragons in the middle of the night, and woke up in the afternoon.
His lair doubled as an art studio; canvasses, brushes, and oil pastels speckled the dark green floor. Palettes arranged in rainbows laid open on his desk, begging to be stroked by a child’s hands—but I was not allowed beyond the threshold.
He was my “big big” brother, whom I admired for his advanced motor skills, his ability to play chess, and the fact that he was in college—a place I’d wanted to go since I was seven and learned what it was. But my brother and I lived in two time zones within the same house, our existences split by the decade between us.
My sister Andromeda, seven years older than me, inhabited the other upstairs bedroom. Andromeda’s unpunctured pink walls were interrupted only by a shelf with a twirling ballerina encased in glass. It rained glitter when you shook it.
She never shook it. And wouldn’t let me.
Andromeda made her bed with hospital corners, but down the stairs, to the left, alone at the end of the hallway, my bed exploded with stuffed rabbits, teddy bears with missing eyeballs or limbs, and clothing items that had defected from my dresser or Barbie’s. It wasn’t unusual for the comforter to have migrated to the carpet.
As I accumulated toys and papers and clothes, they found their way to my bedroom floor—landmines along my path from sleep to breakfast. Andromeda seemed not to own things; her floors were immaculate and foreboding.
A row of stenciled teapots and roses served as a cheap crown molding to the peach walls of my own bedroom. My mother had orchestrated their design and painted each teapot to look like Mrs. Pots—to match my Beauty and the Beast bedspread. As much as I loved the teapots (probably subconsciously aware of the labor my mother put into this demonstration of affection for her daughter), I hated the peach walls.
I hated the peach walls because they were boring.
I hated the peach walls because they existed before me.
I hated the peach walls because they were not the light pink walls my sister had.
Although, I was glad they were not the booger repositories of my brother Martin’s room, anchored between my bedroom and the bathroom. A few feet down the hall from my own toy storage facility, you could find Martin’s tubs of Legos and tiny plastic body parts nestled in the blue carpet. When Martin eventually vacated his room—to take over Arthur’s lair—I commandeered it to build a Lincoln Logs village for my Barbies and Beanie Babies. The plastic stars on the ceiling that glowed in makeshift constellations made their home authentic. Sometimes, my brother and I would lay on the floor, pretending to stargaze despite being one flight of stairs from the yard and expansive Montana sky.
Our yard was divided by a concrete walkway. On one side, lush grass and an ancient elm tree. On the other, an enormous pine tree blocked the sun, leaving only dirt below it. This was the side of the yard that we kept our picnic table on, a fact I didn’t question until adulthood. Under the picnic table, with only dirt beneath us, Martin and I would conduct illicit activities.
My mother liked candles, so she used to buy those sliding matchboxes in the not-even-an-arsonist-would-need-this-many-matches size. Martin, my closest brother in age at five years my senior, liked to light them. When my mother caught on to this, she began to hide the matchbox in the back of the highest cabinet. Our parents needed to stand on a chair to reach it, but Martin could recruit his wiry elementary school sister for counter-climbing expeditions to retrieve the matchbox. I always accepted these missions.
With matches in hand, we would slink our way to the backyard: matchstick bandits on the run from fun-killing parents. We always sat under the pine tree. Around us, dry pine needles blanketed the ground, except for the patch underneath the withered wooden picnic table. This is where we lit matches. Martin would slide open the box and strike one, holding it between his fingers as the flame turned from blue to orange and back as it crawled down the matchstick.
This is how we would entertain ourselves on days when the upstairs rooms were empty.
Martin wouldn’t drop the match into the dirt until it burned to almost nothing. Sometimes, he would burn himself and light another.
The explosion of flame always surprised me. Each burst of fire left as suddenly as it came. My brother liked to kill the flames, and I liked to watch them disappear.
U.S. History: A
Our family’s version of Risk was unplayable because it had been thrown around the room so many times most of the army markers were missing. Still, we kept it in the attic as though it held some historical significance to our family. It was a relic of our legacy as sore losers. And even sorer winners. The game simulated more than the tactics of war—ethics tend to abscond during strategy board games, just as they do in times of battle.
To prevent the United States from collapsing during the Civil War, the Union’s strategy was to leave half of the country destitute. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman made a nearly three hundred-mile march through Georgia in the winter of 1864, stealing food, killing livestock, and burning the houses of Southern civilians who resisted his army of sixty thousand. Confederate forces pushed ahead of them, running south, destroying bridges and food stores to impede the Union troops. Sherman divided his soldiers, and they marched, in parallel, thirty miles apart, lugging potatoes and grains, butchering cows and chickens, and decimating the Georgian landscape.
In 1865, Sherman’s soldiers applied this scorched-earth policy as they burned their way through South Carolina. With few supplies and even lower morale, the Confederacy surrendered that April, preserving the geographical and legal borders of the United States. The post–Civil War South then entered what is known in history textbooks as Reconstruction. From the Confederacy’s perspective, Sherman’s scorched earth left surrender as the only option. In Sherman’s view, his March to the Sea was self-preservation through self-obliteration.
When cornered in a game of Risk, my brother Arthur would usually respond by instituting an “alien attack,” or simply uprooting the game board. Every subsequent reset would lack some fallen plastic soldiers, until there were no longer enough pieces to play.
Drama 101: A+
Who Won’t Eat Their Dinner Tonight?
INT. KITCHEN – EVENING, 1998
Meatballs move around a plate of spaghetti…
Our family ate dinner together every night while I was growing up.
…Noodles spin around a fork like hair around a curling iron…
The forkful of pasta moves to a mouth, spots of marinara sauce abandoned at the corners of it.
Andromeda, are you sure you don’t want any spaghetti?
ARTHUR, 19, glasses, short brown hair, a bandage on his left shoulder, eats the forkful of pasta.
On ARTHUR’S right, sits MARYANN, 9, long, messy brown hair. She has a fork in her mouth and stares at her brother.
(whining, tinged with anger)
From Maryann’s POV, we watch ARTHUR push food around his plate.
MARTIN, 13, curly hair, eats in silence next to DAD, salt-and-pepper hair, Italian nose. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
On Dad’s left, MOM, the matriarch, twitches as she speaks.
Her reddish-brown curls bounce around her head. She scarfs a meatball.
Maryann examines the bandage on her oldest brother’s shoulder.
Forks and spoons clatter against silence.
Arthur had an operation today.
My brother was nineteen when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998.
A year earlier, my sister—at fifteen—had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, which she would fight until she was twenty-four.
Nine out of ten patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma fully recover—one of the most curable types of cancer.
Approximately 10 percent of eating disorder patients die within ten years—the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Problem: If your oldest brother has a 10% chance of dying in the next five years and your sister has a 10% chance of dying in the next decade, what are the odds at least one of them will die before you see your 19th birthday? Show your work.
Answer: (10% + 10%) x (your teenage brother losing his hair + your older sister’s clothes don’t fit your ten-year-old body) = watching two of your siblings starve, depleted of all drive to fight for survival.
Introduction to Anthropology: A+
At eighteen, I left Bozeman, Montana, to go to college in the hyperinflated heart of New York City. Both of my brothers, my sister, my mother, and my father came with me to New York—one of the few times our family has been together in the last decade. I bid my three siblings goodbye with a pat on the back and held my mother while she cried. My father was the last to say goodbye—the farewell I most clearly remember. On an East Village sidewalk outside a diner that would cease to exist within a year—which would become a bakery that would cease to exist, which would become a sushi place that likely no longer exists—we embraced in the unfamiliar swelter of an East Coast summer.
I have never liked goodbyes. I don’t know how to give them. Perhaps because I always find hugs last too long. I don’t like hugs—the touching, invasion of personal space, unnatural pushing together of bodies in some effort to show affection, leave a part of yourself with another human being—but hugs seem to be a convention of farewells. I think this is something my father and I understand about each other.
“I’ll miss you,” he said.
“I’ll miss you, too.” As I hugged him, I remember wanting it to last longer.
It would be four months before I next saw my parents. The length of our separations expanded each year after that. In my three years at NYU, I returned home three times, the last being the summer of 2009, before I graduated and made my roots in New York City permanent. Seemingly within days of my commencement, Mom and Dad sold their house in Montana and embedded their own child-free roots in Florence, Arizona—a city whose population may be equally divided between prison inmates and retirees.
My brothers had both permanently left Montana years before our mother and father. Arthur, the oldest, moved out at eighteen, then back in to undergo chemo, then to Ohio, Tallahassee, back to Bozeman for his final remission CT scan, until settling in Philadelphia with his wife and their collection of unicorns. Martin, who moved in and out of our house with the same consistency of a cat secretly living off of two families, eventually made his permanent home in California. Despite being the least responsible of the four of us, he was first to get married—to a woman with a young son. Andromeda fled our hometown for the Montana state capital—an hour-and-a-half drive from Bozeman, through fields of cattle, bison, llamas, and horses—when I was in eighth grade. She was the last to leave the state. A couple of years after our parents left, Andromeda packed up for Portland, Oregon. After having a baby, she and her husband moved to Arizona to be closer to Mom and Dad. I remained in New York City, living in three boroughs in five years. In that time, I spent a total of sixteen days with my parents.
Like Father, Like Pie
Maryann hasn’t spent much time with her parents since then, but she’s visiting for Thanksgiving on the first vacation she’s had in several years.
“I haven’t had more than a few hurried moments alone with them outside of an Embassy Suites continental breakfast in the last six years,” says Maryann, who is waiting with her father in the familiar gleam of grocery store lighting in an Arizona Safeway.
“There wasn’t a lot of time between the collective fury of my siblings’ weddings,” she continues. “My brother got married in August 2010, my other brother in 2012, and my sister in 2014. Their anniversaries are all five days apart.”
Dad turns to his daughter and asks if she is excited for steaks.
“I know they’re your favorite,” he says. Quietly, his 26-year-old daughter replies, “Yeah.”
Dad puts his hand on Maryann’s shoulder and sighs. The physical resemblance between them is minimal, stopping at their Mediterranean skin tones and brown eyes.
“You know,” says father to daughter, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget how much younger you are than everyone. You went off to New York and you were the only one who never moved back. I feel like we should have done more. We are really proud of you.”
Aaaay,” says an Italian man—with more grey hairs than black—to the butcher. His daughter says she thinks he sounds like Fonzie.
“Can I get three ribeyes?” he asks. The butcher grabs some steaks to weigh.
He purchased a winter home in Florence, Arizona in 2007, when his youngest child, Maryann, graduated high school. When she finished college in 2010, he and his wife made the move permanent and sold their house in Bozeman, Montana.
AP Biology: A-
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most curable types of cancer despite it affecting the blood and lymphatic system, which transports white blood cells around the body. Arthur had lumps on his lymph nodes surgically removed, underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, among numerous scans, tests, and medical procedures ranging from inconvenient to inconceivable. It was difficult for me to reconcile how curable could be so complicated. For a disease with such a great outcome, multiple surgeries, regular IV drips, and laser beam blasters (at least, that’s how I always imagined it) seemed excessive. My mother and I suspect the numerous medical complications he later dealt with in his twenties and thirties originated in his chemo treatments.
As with most cancers, the cure for lymphoma most often includes surgery and a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Arthur didn’t need radiation, but both treatments fight the disease by attacking the body’s cells without regard to whether or not they are cancerous. Chemotherapy includes drugs—most often intravenous—that attack the body’s cells to reduce the number of cancerous ones. Radiation keeps them from reproducing by destroying DNA. Cancer treatment is akin to emptying a machine gun in the enemy’s general direction: there’s a high risk of friendly fire.
Abnormal Psychology: A
Anorexia is considered an addiction. This is complicated by the fact that it is an addiction of restraint, not of indulgence. My father used to say that all Andromeda needed to do was eat. The threat of a feeding tube was a common motivator to force Andromeda to finish the remnants of her fish and spinach, but we never followed through on this. Apart from her final hospitalization—when she was required to use the bathroom with the door open—my sister had the freedom to feed herself and go for walks, even at her lowest weight: sixty pounds of skin, bone, and tendon.
Unlike cancer, solving the physical problem of anorexia does not eradicate it. The goal is to change the patient’s way of thinking. There is no laser beam to blast bad thoughts away (although that is kind of the idea behind electroshock therapy). It requires intense psychotherapy and a gradual building of independence and responsibility. The particular challenge of curing anorexia nervosa is that the person suffering from it is literally starving. When the body is deprived of its most basic needs, advanced cognitive processes are limited. And force-feeding someone doesn’t do much to build trust.
Drama 102: A+
Who Won’t Eat Their Dinner Tonight?
INT. Kitchen – 1999
An unembellished chicken cutlet and pile of lettuce on a plate.
Pull away to reveal ANDROMEDA, approximately 16, dark curly hair.
No, I don’t want a hamburger.
DAD, at the head of the table, slams his fist.
THE FAMILY startles. We see mother, father, two sons, two daughters around the table.
Just eat, Andromeda!
Dad grabs a hamburger and throws it on Andromeda’s plate. He slams a fork down next to her.
MOM, DAD, and ANDROMEDA yell at each other.
MARYANN, 9, cries. She picks up the corded phone on the wall behind her and calls her friends who live down the block.
Hi, Sarah. Can I—
Can I come over? I—
We follow Maryann to her bedroom. It explodes with stuffed animals. She gets a backpack and fills it with toys.
We continue to follow her out the back door.
Maryann! Maryann! Where are you going? Come back. Dad’s sorry.
It was the only time I remember my father yelling at any of us. He and my mother would argue, but the dinner table showdown was the only ostentatious display of emotion I ever saw from my otherwise logical and tranquil father. Even more surprising, though, was how ready I was to begin running.
My sister would often ask my parents if I could go with her on road trips around Montana. My parents obliged, usually without asking me. She’d always attend my speech and debate meets in Helena, where she lived, and once wanted me to stay overnight with her after a meet. (Helena was an hour and a half drive.) This required I get a permission slip signed so I could be released to her.
“Do you want to stay with her?” My mother asked when I explained my sister’s request.
“I’d rather spend two hours on the bus with my friends,” I said, “but I don’t know how to say that to her.”
My mother signed the slip and my speech coaches released me to my sister, waiting on a residential street, looking like a little kid wearing her mother’s clothes. My friends asked why I was leaving, to which I rolled my eyes and muttered “my sister.” As I walked off the bus, my coach/sophomore English teacher must have perceived the dread I could not completely mask because he asked me if I wanted to go. I sighed and shook my head gently.
“But she’s here now,” I said.
“Cheer up,” he said.
My peers rode the bus the two hours back to Bozeman, singing and laughing and sleeping all the way—my battalion forging ahead without me.
The following summer, Andromeda drove with me up to Kalispell—a six-hour car ride—to stay with her for three days at a craft festival where she was selling her quilts. We bonded through misanthropy. We made fun of a band of out-of-step cloggers in mom jeans (the men and women). We critiqued the other artists’ work at the craft show, awarding mostly positive reviews, except to the man who made wire sculptures of horses—they looked like coat hangers reshaped into ovals with legs and a neck. The artist was the only member of the craft fair interested in trading artwork with my sister. We teased him like schoolgirls behind his back, despite neither of us having any sculpting skills to speak of.
One morning, I caught a glimpse of her leg as she changed in our motel room. Her thigh was the circumference of my chubby bicep. It looked like someone had stretched her skin over the muscle, like Saran Wrap encasing her sinews and musculature. At the time, my twenty-one-year-old sister probably weighed between seventy and eighty pounds. At fifteen, I was 130.
I couldn’t believe she was standing. I thought she’d have a heart attack there and I’d be trapped in Northern Montana, with no cell phone and no driver’s license: no means of escape.
College-prep Math: B+
Problem: Montana is the fourth largest state in the union in terms of land mass and the 44th in terms of population. You could drive for seven hours—with no traffic—and either still be in Montana or have made it to Canada. You have $300, no passport, and no car. How do you leave?
Answer: Report cards.
Before I left for NYU, Martin took me out to get a cup of coffee because I wasn’t old enough to go out for a beer.
“So why are you going to New York?” he asked.
“Because I want to get away from here. Experience something different, I guess.”
My brother paused for a while and sipped from the giant coffee mug in front of him.
“It doesn’t matter where you go. Everywhere is the same. People are the same,” he said.
“They may be the same kind of people, but they’ll be new people.”
“True, but you’ll find that it’s still the same.”
I didn’t drink coffee then, so I mulled my answer over the frothy chai in front of me.
“Well,” I said, “I’d like to find that out on my own.”
“That’s a good point.”
Martin moved to California that summer.
My father used to sing along to the Frank Sinatra tunes he pumped through the speakers in our house while he prepared dinner each night. With his kids out of the house, he performs Sinatra at karaoke in Arizona. My father does karaoke.
I cannot sing. Or play the piano. I quit choir in elementary school because I found it boring. The piano in our house was an artifact, not an instrument. Despite knowing my siblings my entire life, I have no idea what any of them sound like when they sing. Not even “Happy Birthday.” When you have three older siblings, they all sing “Happy Birthday” and they all blend together around the table because all you can focus on is the cake in front of you.
You don’t pay attention because you hear them every day.
You don’t pay attention because their voices are more familiar than your own.
You don’t pay attention because you are eight and there is cake with your name on it.
Then one of them gets an eating disorder and you stop having birthday cake.
Then one of them gets cancer and you forget to sing “Happy Birthday.”
As the years drag on and your sister begins to look more like a skeleton and your brother follows suit, you start to pay attention to the color of their thinning hair and the shape of their eyes sunken into their heads and the fact that you aren’t even sure what color their eyes are.
As birthdays pass without song or celebration, you start to pay attention to the pallor that has set into your siblings’ skin and the circles under their eyes that are showing up on your mother’s face now too. You start to pay attention to how they draw with pastels that you can’t touch and how they won’t let you shake their snow globe.
But you were nine and you wanted birthday cake.
You were eleven and your parents didn’t explain.
You were fifteen and you were studying.
You were eighteen and everyone was gone.
You want to remember every detail of their lives, but, twenty years later, they’re all alive and well and, as you find yourself researching chemotherapy and feeding tubes, you realize all you remember is that they were dying.
I noticed the sparrow while reading a book my sophomore English teacher had suggested I look at over the summer. The bird sat on our patio table, impassive, as if it belonged there. I peered up every few minutes to watch it. Each time, I expected it to be gone, to have fluttered into the sky to disappear forever. But it didn’t move.
Even as I flung the sliding glass doors open—compelled to investigate why something that could fly would sit so long—it stayed still. I crept over to the table and extended my hand to touch it. I imagined it would propel itself into obscurity to live in the realm above our world—the unknown freedom of flight that humans can only simulate. As my fingers hovered above it, it still didn’t move. My mother came out of the house and said it was probably injured.
It would die.
The sparrow hopped away from me across the table, bouncing inefficiently, flapping its wings as it did so. The left wing was heavy, lacking the flit that is so characteristic of tiny birds. The broken wing sent the bird in a circle, pivoting around an invisible obstacle until it hopped back toward my hand.
I scooped up the bird and he nestled in my palm. His chest moved in and out as his wing flailed about, trying to return him to the sky. Eventually, the sparrow stopped, resigned to the fact that all he could do was breathe. I stroked his feathers gently, worried the oils of human hands could ruin them. My breathing slowed with his—my body impassive, as if it belonged there, with this bird. I sobbed, commanding tears from deep inside myself. My mother kept an eye on me from her post inside. The sparrow rested in my hand until his last breath, which could have been fifteen minutes or two hours later. I felt the sudden weight of his flightless body in my palm and my tears slowed.
He had been extinguished.
I placed the bird under a rose bush and went inside.
“It died,” I said to my mom, sniffling, with a dried wall of water on my face. “It couldn’t fly, and it died.”
She hugged me and said, “You should wash your hands.”
“The Geography of Flight” was previously published in print in Volume 17.2 of Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley in November 2017. To buy that print issue, please visit:
Maryann Aita (rhymes with beta) is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, New York. Her debut essay collection, Little Astronaut (ELJ Editions), is forthcoming in April 2022. Her work has appeared in PANK, which earned a Best of the Net nomination,The Porter House Review, The Daily Drunk, perhappened, and The Exposition Review, among other journals. She is a St. Nell’s Humor Writing Residency Fellow and performs around New York City, including her one-woman show, My Dysfunctional Vagina. Maryann is also the nonfiction editor of Press Pause Press. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives with three cats. You can follow @maryann_aita on twitter and instagram or learn more about her at maryannaita.com.