by Sol Paz Kistler
When our mother went to be with God, I am told, my sister did not hesitate to be the one to replace my polyisobutylene pacifier when it would slip from my mouth. Her grieving for Mother was overtaken by her captivation with me. That little petrochemical nipple provided what nourishment it had to offer us both.
My first memories are of following her around the backyard barefoot, polycarbonate sippy cup in hand —a thermoplastic containing, no doubt, the precursor monomer bisphenol A. She kept our baby dolls under a tree, sisters like us, made with additive plasticizers to soften their polyvinyl chloride bodies. She would brush their nylon hair and place them side by side to “sleep” under a blanket of biodegrading leaves. This is how I thought of her: my sister had the power to infuse life into otherwise passive matter. She served this vitality to me from our high-impact polystyrene tea cups.
I am aware that my memories might be selective looking back under these circumstances. It seems possibly too symbolic that the polyester comforter we pulled over our heads at night was printed in a lovely, replicative, baroque pattern of invertebrates and Carboniferous ferns. Or that the only children’s book of ours that I can recall with any detail featured sorrowful woolly mammoths, their trunks raised, unable to lift their knees in pools of tar. I know now that this image is merely a simplification for children, and that the much truer story of petroleum is composed of microorganisms; of phytoplankton, zooplankton and algae. But this is harder to depict.
At the time, I had taken a ballpoint pen (polystyrene and polypropylene) to the book’s pages and scribbled blue tears falling from their eyes and forming lakes around them. My sister drew ladders for the woolly mammoths to ascend.
My sister stole for pleasure. I would be on the lookout at the market as she hid a can of peaches under her clothes. She would place the can on top of the fence and make us wait until the fruit had warmed in the sun, corn syrup mixing with BPA, before we scooped out the syrupy half-moons and ate them with our hands.
She drank straight from the polyethylene gallon milk jug, wiping her mouth dramatically afterwards.
She was also a true redhead, like Mother. Each strand of her hair seemed to be a different shade of gold or copper. I watched her braid this hair with a nylon bristled brush, securing each plait with an elastomer band.
Every time we would get into the car, my sister would turn and quickly buckle my polyethylene terephthalate seat belt for me before I had the chance. She would never outgrow this game. When I fell, she would gingerly apply nylon polymer bandages to my knees. I think of these gestures as the links between us —as long polymer chains of hydrogen and carbon.
When the time came, my sister warned me that the sodium polyacrylate sanitary pads would feel like wearing a diaper. She showed me, before I had to ask, how inserting a low-density polyethylene tampon applicator was easier and more comfortable to do while standing up with one foot on the sink.
Side by side at the sink, we scrubbed our faces with an exfoliating cleanser made of micro-fine polyethylene granules. These tiny beads have since sailed down, spilled out, and propelled themselves away into currents where they have passed into ever-increasing bodies of water; first a river, then a sea, until finally they reached the ocean where they are forever suspended into what can now be described as a large soup of materials that cannot die a natural death.
She remembers our mother, while I can not. I think this is why my sister is the type of person who believes her spirit will never fully depart, but only change form. It's why she can look up at the stars and say that she feels “at home in the universe.” Like most redheads, she has a baptism of freckles across her face indicating stardust. I thought her beauty would mean she was stable and nearly-eternal.
I chose to become a chemist in an effort to learn how to transform waste into worth. I wanted to understand intimately how, for example, with the cumene process, where phenol is made from oil, a capsule of aspirin can be produced. And the expanse of geologic time can be held in the palm of your hand and administered to someone with a fever. In chemistry, things become more similar than they are different. DNA and nylon, for example, are both polymers. Simply put, they are long chains of repeating molecules. It’s the small changes in the type of molecules being bonded and how that create different compositions. There is a memory I have, thinking this: my sister wearing lipstick (petrolatum) and biting into an apple coated in paraffin wax. I wanted to make sense of the way that death can imitate life.
My sister and I are together everyday now. Grown old from other kinds of love that failed and disappointed. I am holding her hand, and this is the truce between our two dichotomies: we’ve agreed that her polyvinyl chloride IV is her etheric cord tethering her to this plane of energies.
As she lays in her hospital bed breathing shallowly, I look into her eyes and see — what else? Nurdles, those resinous microplastics swirling in retinas the color of two great water columns.
At her side, I am aware that I am incessantly lecturing to her that her current state of failing health is likely the result of a consumerism in which we’ve both been immersed. That all of these short-term pleasures have assembled in her body, mimicking life and disrupting her endocrine system until she has become frail from the organic eternity that is constant change. I find myself angry at a solidified material that is hard to pull apart, passive, yet performing invisible tasks. Fulminating that we were so desirous for a world that could always be future tense, that we created an abundance of things made only for immediate consumption.
At this, my sister’s eyes widen, and her voice is propelled forward with that incalculable impetus, not the imitation of life, but the real thing: “Imagine how the ocean feels!”
Sol Paz Kistler lives in Kealakekua, Hawaii. @solpazk (instagram) & @solpazkistler (twitter)