Issue 15 • Spring 2015
It started not with a sore throat, which would come later, but with the left side of Gigi’s upper palate becoming puffier than the right. Gigi felt this with the tip of her tongue. She and Momo were sitting on a bench near the entrance of the park, with the acid-colored 90s graffiti and dark-skinned drug dealers in puffer jackets. The sisters’ long hair billowed out in the wind, two arms’ length to either side. They had taken the usual care not to sit on their hair, as it tended to snag on the splinters of the public benches.
The more Gigi rubbed the left side of her upper palate with her tongue, the more she perceived it starting to hurt. While Momo gazed into a falling sun and took long, shivering drags on a Parliament, Gigi took to Google: swollen palate. Google told her that it was oral cancer. In the past year she had tried to quit smoking three times. Rather she had said, at three different times, to a handful of people she vaguely knew: I think I’m trying to quit? Phrased like that, a question, her words trailing up and out, head cocked to the right.
Other symptoms of oral cancer included loose teeth and ill-fitting dentures. Gigi made to take out her retainer with her tongue, the way she had done since she was eight. Gigi, Momo and their third oldest sister had all been born with underbites of varying severity. Gigi's was the worst; she could not chew meats. Every day, Grandmother laid them on their backs across the wooden floor of her house and stacked sliced ginger root on their chins, just below their lower lips. They had to lie very still so the stacks would not fall. Grandmother lit these stacks aflame, and the ginger root would burn for what always felt like an hour. Momo and their third sister were cured before they were ten. There was no need for metal in their mouths. But after five years, Grandmother threw her hands up in dismay and sent Gigi to the mouth doctor to have her unfixable situation fixed.
Now, Gigi, trying to pop out her retainer, found that she couldn’t. This confused her. She tried again, harder, her fingers tightening around her phone. It could not happen—it seemed her tongue did not have enough strength.
“Momo,” she said without thinking.
Momo slid her a lazy sidelong glance, blowing out blue O’s.
In the days following, the puffiness on the roof of Gigi’s mouth exploded into an open, bleeding
abscess. Sores blossomed on her inner cheeks, squishy and whitish. They popped with a metallic ring. The initial tongue weakness escalated into a blunt ache that rendered speaking harder by the day. Eating was difficult, then unfeasible. Robbed of her tongue’s dexterity, Gigi struggled with her clumsier fingers to take out her retainer. Her gums ached. Her throat ached. At night, when they slept in bed together, Momo listened to Gigi’s soft moans of distress. On the fourth morning, Momo flicked her ash decisively in the sink and said, “We have to do it.”
Gigi lay down across two kitchen chairs, facing up. Her hair formed a black pool on the tiles. Momo sliced up ginger root, stacked it on Gigi’s chin and lit it up. Gigi closed her eyes to the burning, rising smell. It reminded her first of Grandmother’s kitchen, and then of the hospital wing where she had died. Grandmother had not wanted to die in a place like that, but the place had said that they could save her.
Gigi and Momo followed this regimen three times a day. By the sixth day Gigi’s tongue was so swollen and numb she could no longer speak and found it hard to breathe. Her flaking lips split, bleeding, into the milky expanse of her face. Momo sucked hard on cigarette after cigarette, twisting her hair in frustration. On the eighth day, when Gigi’s skin started to turn blue, Momo called their third sister.
When the sisters first moved to the new city, they found an apartment where they would live
together. They slept three in the queen-size bed and brushed each other’s hair each night. They smoked cigarettes and gazed out their kitchen window, silently homesick.
Gigi and Momo did not venture far past the park. They enjoyed taking walks along the
gravel path, as they had done in Grandmother’s garden. In the beginning their third sister joined
them, but each time she walked faster, farther ahead, becoming a smaller and darker spot, until one day she was not seen on their walk at all.
A month after they had settled in, their third sister took a job. She met people at this job. She met a sandy head of hair with large, moist hands, a thick Adam’s apple and a Tom Ford suit. These large, moist hands took her and swayed her to take the name Hannah, and after some time, not a lot of time, they took her away from the apartment. After the paperwork was done, Hannah cut her hair, as was the custom. Gigi and Momo should have been the ones to do it but instead the large, moist hands put her in a salon chair and had some stranger with wide hips and thick eyeliner do it.
Gigi and Momo had not seen their third sister in over a year. Momo set out a bowl of red grapes the size of fingernails. Their third sister had liked the big ones with thick skins that had to be peeled off, but the little ones were what the new city had. “Sister,” Momo had said into the phone. “You know more about how it was all done. You remember best. Please help us.”
Momo kneeled by Gigi and brushed ginger root ash from her chin. A lit ember flicked up
into Gigi’s nostrils. Gigi did not flinch. Her lips had turned a chalky, scabby violet. “Sister is coming, Gigi,” Momo murmured against Gigi’s cold ear. “She remembers. She will help us.”
After stacking and lighting fresh slices of ginger root, Momo stood and moved to a folding chair at the table. She blew smoke at the ceiling and ate two grapes. Hannah had said over the phone: “Let her come with us. Don will pay, he said he will pay. Let him take her somewhere proper, we have to—”
Momo had hung up then. An internet photo on Momo’s phone showed Hannah with her hair styled in an angled, chin-length bob streaked with honey-colored highlights. A stinky sweetness clouded Momo’s mouth. Days before, the grapes had split open in the refrigerator, their skins overwhelmed by expanding juices. Now they had shriveled back to size, their gashes like limp open mouths.