Last of the Hermanas Bella

— Lilliam Rivera

Isabelle Flores notices the large stain on her dingy white blouse. She can’t place exactly where the stain came from—the jelly donut from two days ago, the spilt coffee from her morning brew, or was the splotch there before she even put the blouse on? There was a time when Isabelle’s memory was so clear. She could recall events with such detail, right down to color of the dress a person wore and the exact words uttered. But it’s becoming harder and harder to hold on to the memories that matter.

A thick layer of dust covers the framed photos placed throughout the house. Most of the pictures are of her two younger sisters. Isabelle is the oldest, then Alma, then Luna. Isabelle’s barely in any of the shots. If she is, Isabelle stands on the outskirts, apart from them. Her sisters were known as Las Hermanas Bella, the beautiful sisters. Out of courtesy, friends and neighbors lumped them all together as Las Hermanas Bella but everyone knew that Isabelle was the one that didn’t quite fit into the beauty spectrum. La Fea is what the neighbors called her behind her back. The Ugly One. Las Hermanas Bella are now long dead. Luna from cancer. Alma from a car accident. The snapshots forever preserve their slender silhouettes and striking young looks. To lose them both within a year was almost too much.

Isabelle tucks some strands of gray hair behind her ear and eats a bowl of oatmeal standing over the kitchen sink. The dining table is covered with newspapers and magazines, subscriptions belonging to her sisters. Receiving them in the mail eases Isabelle’s loneliness a tiny bit. She’s kept all of their beauty products too. The expired dates are fading on each bottle.

“Today, I’ll finish reading that book,” Isabelle tells Nena the cat, her only companion.

Nena was a stray Alma found two years before the accident. Isabelle never wanted the animal, since she knew it would fall on her to tend to it, but Alma refused to listen, leaving scraps of food outside until soon the cat was no longer living in the alley but inside the house. It was Luna that christened the cat Nena, a joke on how the cat became their only “child.” Isabelle playfully pushes Nena away. The knots on Isabelle’s fingers are swollen and wrinkled. The folds under her eyes match the sagging layers on her neck and arms. Isabelle pulls a book—a romantic novel that belonged to Luna—from in between the crevices of the sofa and begins to read.

The chiming of the doorbell startles her. In the beginning, her sisters’ friends came to check to see how Isabelle was holding up but those visits soon dwindled. There’s really no point in opening the door.

A loud knock has joined the ringing of the bell.

“Hola!” A female voice behind the door sounds melodious, as if she’s singing. “Hello! I’m Diana. I work for AVON, the beauty company. I’m your AVON presentative.”

Isabelle stands by the door and peaks through the peephole. The woman knocks more urgently.

“Not interested,” Isabelle says.

“Of course you’re not. I can tell by the way you keep your house outside so immaculate that you don’t have time to waste,” Diana says. The sounds of her words go up and down. “This is the house of Las Hermanas Bella. You are an Hermana Bella, correct?”

The mention of her sisters’ nickname presses down on Isabelle. Maybe this woman has a package for them, another reminder that Isabelle can add to the many others. She opens the door only a tiny bit.

“Yes?” Isabelle says.

Before her stands a woman in her early thirties. Her hair is full of tight golden curls. The makeup is perfect, like a mask: Diana wears an electric blue suit that matches her eyes with the shortest skirt and teetering heels.

“Hi. My name is Diana. Diana Puente,” she says. “Is Alma Flores here?”

“No.” Isabelle tries closing the door.

“Oh, dear. I knew I should have called.” Diana’s husky laugh sounds like someone who may have indulged in an early morning cigarette. “Is Alma’s sister here?”

“No.” Isabelle shakes her head at the confusion. “Alma and Luna passed away.”

The woman clutches at her chest. Her eyes glisten.

“I’m so, so sorry. I knew your sisters. Beautiful girls, through and through. Inside and out,” Diana says, her voice now a whisper. “We talked beauty, of course, but of so many other things. The importance of family. The strength of family.”

Isabelle stares at the woman before her, unsure, craving to hear more. It’s been so long. She misses Alma and Luna. Isabelle may have been the ugly one but she loved her sisters and they loved her. They accepted her quirks, and her refusal to shave, to comb her hair or dress up. When friends came to visit, Las Hermanas encouraged Isabelle to join them. To the movies. To restaurants. To church. And she did but she always sat silently in the corner.

“You knew my sisters?” Isabelle asks.

“Por supuesto. Las Hermanas Bella,” Diana says. She has a slight smile, not too wide as to look clownish. “Everyone knows all about the three of you. I can’t believe they are gone. I’m so sorry. I won’t keep you.”

She turns away, overcome with emotion.

Isabelle hesitates, but opens the door and says, “Come in.”

“I don’t want to disturb you,” Diana says.

“Please,” Isabelle responds, urging her to enter. Diana turns back, wheeling behind her a small cart.

Isabelle removes a stack of newspapers from the edge of the sofa and gestures towards the woman. Before sitting, Diana walks over to the living room wall and points at the photos.

“Las Hermanas Bella! So sad to hear of their passing. Was it unexpected?”

“Yes and no. An accident and cancer,” Isabelle says. Her only family. When Alma was diagnosed with lung cancer, Isabelle tended to her night and day. Cleaning up after her. Making sure she took the right dosage. But nothing could save her. As for Luna, it was a truck that smashed into her as she crossed the street. Her death was immediate. The driver never stopped.

“We used to take the bus together, your sisters and I,” Diana says, still staring at the many pictures on the wall. She removes from her breast pocket a napkin, unfolding it and revealing an embroidered red flower in the center. She wipes away a tear. “The Number Seven bus. That’s how we met but that was… let me see, a year ago. I was away. Went to the island to take care of my mother.”

“Your mother?” asks Isabelle.

“Yes, cancer.” Diana’s shoulders slump. After a long pause, Diana continues. “So hard to lose someone so close. To be there as they slip away and cross to the other side. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, bury my own flesh and blood. I don’t wish that on even my worst enemy.”

Isabelle nods. Nena the cat purrs by her feet. Diana turns, faces Isabelle, and wipes another tear away. Then she smiles.

“I’m so sorry. All this sadness.” She walks over and sits right by Isabelle and gently places her hand on Isabelle’s shoulder. “Bueno, let’s not dwell on the sadness and think of the goodness. Right? Your sisters talked so much about you.”

Isabelle’s eyes widen.

“I noticed the resemblance as soon as you opened that door,” she says. “It’s the eyes. They had the deepest color brown. But your eyes are even more striking.”

Isabelle shifts uncomfortably. No one has ever said anything about her eyes or paid her any compliment before, except her sisters. They loved Isabelle’s gap between her teeth. They said it gave her character. There were times when Luna would bring Isabelle to the mirror and use her as a blank canvas for makeup experimentation. Green eye shadows. The reddest of lipsticks. Then Alma would play dress up, styling Isabelle in all of her fancy clothes. They were games Isabelle indulged in to appease her sisters but only inside the house. Never out in public. Outside, Isabelle wrapped herself in the sweats she wore every day, without a stitch of makeup.

“My sisters were the pretty ones,” Isabelle says, shrugging off the praise.

Diana clucks her tongue and shakes her head. “Far from it. Your eyes have tiny flecks of gold and auburn. So unusual. Not many women can boast they have such eyes. All you need is a light mascara to bring them out more.”

She reaches out to touch Isabelle’s face but Isabelle flinches.

“No, I don’t need any products,” Isabelle says.

Diana tilts her head to the side, smile intact. There isn’t a wrinkle on her face. No frown lines on her forehead or bags under the eyes. Her skin is smooth and ageless. The same eyes that glistened with tears moments ago bear no emotion now, only a calculated coldness, but Isabelle doesn’t notice. All Isabelle sees is an attractive woman. Another bella.

“Of course you don’t,” Diana says. “But this is what I do. I am a Beautification Ambassador. Enhancing the outside to reflect the good within. Because faith has brought me here, let me do this, in honor of Alma and Lucy.”

“You mean Luna,” Isabelle corrects her.

“Of course, Luna,” Diana says, laughing. “Why did I say Lucy? I don’t even know a Lucy. Luna. Let’s do this for Luna.”

Isabelle shakes her head. Nena doesn’t care what she looks like in the morning, only that she gets fed. There’s no one in the world she needs to impress.

“I wash my face with soap,” Isabelle says with a sigh. “I don’t need any products.”

“You go for the more natural look. I understand that,” says Diana. “You believe in character above all else. Correct? It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Right?”

Isabelle stares at the woman’s hands. Her nails are manicured and dainty compared to Isabelle’s thick, swollen fingers. She can imagine her sisters and this woman talking while waiting for the bus. She can almost hear the laughter. How her sisters used to pour over the monthly AVON catalogue. “They are the best,” Alma and Luna would exclaim. And they are. Women can buy the right solution and keep their youthful faces frozen in time instead of undergoing complicated medical procedures. Alma and Luna were forever 25 years old even when their birth certificates stated otherwise. Although her sisters teased Isabelle for dressing so sloppily, they never pushed her to try any of the Facial Regeneration products.

“They were silly to spend so much money,” Isabelle says. “They didn’t need any of it.”

Her sisters were beautiful when they first woke up in the morning. Messy hair. Drowsy eyes. That is how Isabelle wants to remember them but it’s getting harder and harder to keep that memory from fading like all the others.

The smile on Diana’s face stays frozen. She keeps her hand on her lap and her posture straight, her head always on a slight tilt to the left.

“You must miss them. No one can understand the bond sisters have,” Diana says. “Pictures simply aren’t enough to capture their being. But there is something you can do, a reminder of their love that can’t be found in a fleeting memory. Something a little more substantial.”

Diana rummages through her cart. She pulls out a blue bottle shaped like the face of a young woman. The blue reminds Isabelle of the ocean and the times she and her sisters would go to the beach. The swirls of the waves. The search for seashells. Isabelle would never go in the water but watched over them as they enjoyed themselves. She was always the monitor. Their protector.

“This is so new. It’s not even in the catalogue yet,” Diana says. “It’s the latest in Facial Regeneration. It’s called AVON Skin So True.”

She opens the bottle and allows Isabelle to take a small whiff of the floral scent. Isabel fails to see that a tiny drop from the AVON Skin So True bottle has singed through the plastic covers of her sofa.

“With just a few sips, this will take off ten years,” Diana says, holding tight to the bottle. “Come.”

Diana stands and urges Isabelle to face the large gilded mirror situated across from the sofa. There are several pieces of mail, prescriptions, and financial documents taped to the edges of the mirror. Isabelle reluctantly joins her while the cat stays put by the sofa.

“What makes this Facial Regeneration so unique is that it extracts the physical ties that link you back to your family,” she says. “Not only will Avon Skin So True shed ten years away but the next time you look in the mirror, it will be as if your sisters are staring right back at you. You will be transformed into a living reminder of them.”

Isabelle’s chest aches with emptiness, to have a keepsake of her sisters. Maybe then she won’t feel so alone. She can be something more than a woman who lives with a cat.

“No, that would be wrong,” Isabelle says. “I shouldn’t.”

Diana picks up one of the many taped papers on the mirror and reads it.

“This prescription is from three years ago,” she says.

“Don’t touch that.” Isabelle grabs the note back from Diana. The room goes quiet except for the sound of Nena licking her fur.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” Diana finally says. “For a long time I kept the countless bottles of medicines my mother had to take in the medicine cabinet. But those reminders of my mother were too depressing. Now, whenever I look in the mirror, I see her—truly see her. Here, let me explain.”

She pulls out a picture of a young woman with tight blonde curls. Diana is the spitting image of the woman in the picture. They are practically the same person.

“I did the Facial Regeneration as soon as she died. I knew it was the right thing to do. This way, she will always be with me,” Diana says. “I am a walking tribute to her. I’m really fifty years old. But now, whenever people see me, they see my mother when she was just a young woman.”

Isabelle stares at her reflection in the mirror and then back at the photo of Diana’s mother. To have a lasting reminder of her sisters. To physically embody them. Then the loneliness will no longer be so consuming.

“With AVON Skin So True, the goal is to heighten the family roots that already exist,” Diana says. “It’s a way of continuing the family legacy.”

Diana hands the bottle over to Isabelle.

“Just a sip and it will be as if Alma and Luna never left.”

Isabelle timidly takes the bottle from Diana’s hand. She brings the bottle to her dry lips and takes the tiniest of sips.

“Don’t be shy,” Diana says, laughing. “Drink it.”

Isabelle tilts the blue bottle to her lips and drinks a generous amount of the solution. Then she waits for the wrinkles to go away, for her skin to shape and morph into a more youthful version of herself, to look like her sisters. Isabelle waits, eager.

But instead of her face shifting, Isabelle’s throat tightens. It’s hard for her to swallow. She clutches her neck, gasping. She reaches out to Diana but Diana pulls away. Isabelle stumbles over to the sofa, unable to breathe. Towering stacks of magazines and papers spill onto the floor, nearly hitting Nena as she scurries underneath the sofa for shelter. Isabelle slumps to the floor, unable to move. Her face frozen in muted horror. Her hands still wrapped around her neck. This time, Diana tilts her head to the right side, her cold smile still intact as she pulls out her phone.

“Tech 214,” Diana says into the receiver. “It took a while but I found her.”

Isabelle’s dull eyes follow Diana as she paces the room.

“Tell me about it. You should see the place,” Diana says, her voice no longer melodious but tired. “Shame the family didn’t program her for an automatic factory return. No. She’s an older model. The Shimai 3.2 Classic. Manufactured to be nurturers. Hmhm. Babysitter bots is more like it.”

“Yes, the sisters died a while ago,” she continues. “Something always goes wrong with the hardware. Stuck. Yes. I’ll be done in a few. You can send them later.”

Diana ends the call and sighs. She kneels before Isabelle, the smile now replaced with a concerned look. She picks up a couple of the scattered magazines and sets them aside.

“It’s time,” Diana says and places a hand on Isabelle’s shoulder.

Isabelle can no longer move or speak but memories of her time spent with her sisters flood her mind. Las Hermanas Bella’s first day at school. Las Hermanas Bella’s first dance. The birthdays. The tears. The laughter. But one thing stays constant. Throughout all those years, Isabelle was 45 years old. She took care of Las Hermanas Bella. Stood by them as they grew up. Tended to them when they were sick. Cooked and cleaned. For parents who craved more personal time. A simple purchase. Isabelle became their chaperone. Finally, Isabelle remembers it all.

She never truly was a Hermana Bella.

 

 

Lilliam Rivera (@lillamr) is a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and 2013 Enchanted Land Fellow at A Room Of Her Own Foundation. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Sucker Literary, and Latina.