Sisters

Sisters

Sisters 1080 623 Christie Tate

This is a story about my sister and me.

There are facts. I’m four and a half years older than she is.  We have an older brother.  Our parents are still married to each other.  Once, in a group therapy session in my mid-thirties, I became enraged when a group mate was talking about having a third child.  She already had two beautiful, healthy children with ringlet curls and doe eyes.  I lashed out at her, yelling, “Why do you need to have another baby? Why are you so greedy?”  Later, when I apologized, she beamed at me with love and said, “I knew it was about you.  You think your parents had a third baby, another girl, because you were somehow lacking.” I shook my head, like I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Except I did know, way down inside me, buried in a place before therapy, before language.  They had to have another baby girl, one who could get it right.

*

A few months ago, in a writing group, someone asked me about the current state of our relationship. The group had just critiqued a piece I had written about us and they wanted the update.  “We text,” I told them.  Three or four times a year.  Benign stuff about our kids or updates about people we know from back home in Texas.  Or if someone dies.  I used to send holidays texts, festooned with themed emojis, but I’ve backed off.  It started to feel like reaching out to an ex-boyfriend who I imagined smirking at my neediness.  She always texts back—friendly as can be—but I can’t help noticing that I always start the conversation.

*

Sometimes it feels like there’s an invisible force keeping us apart.  Three or four years ago she came to visit me in Chicago with her youngest.  There was no big fight, no showdown, but the airport pick up was a disaster. Their arrival time was the middle of my therapy session, which I was going to skip, but my husband said he could finish work early and pick them up, and we could all meet back at our house.  I agreed, which was a mistake.  My husband is competent, kind, steady, and present, but his airport pick-up routine lacks a certain, shall we say, punctuality.  Typically, he leaves the house when the visitor texts from the tarmac: landed.  It works if he’s picking up his single brother at midnight or his mother who walks very slowly.  But my sister is a fast walker, and she had a toddler in tow.  My husband got stuck behind a freight train on the way to Midway.  She took his tardiness as a sign that she wasn’t important to us.  She yelled at me while she waited at baggage claim.  She had every right to be angry.  We fucked up.  I promised it would never happen again.  She refused to acknowledge my husband all weekend.  Wouldn’t look at him all through meals or in the car.  The day she was leaving, I sat on the edge of my bathtub and cried into the phone to my therapist.  “I don’t know how to make this right,” I said over and over.  He asked why I was acting like a pick-up snafu would end the relationship.  “What’s this really about?” he asked.

*

We’ve had brief periods of closeness, sister closeness. During her wedding I wore the hot-pink strapless dress she picked out and gave a speech about how, even though she’s younger, she does the hard stuff first, like getting married.  At the time, I was having no luck in romance, and she’d just married the man she’d been dating since high school.  All through the festivities—the bachelorette party with her seven other bridesmaids on Lake Austin, the rehearsal dinner with plates of Italian food, the wedding buffet with all that cheese and prime rib––I felt happy to be included and to celebrate her, but also ashamed of how messy I was in comparison.

All our lives she’d been the together one.  Swim team and cheerleading.  Sweet, earnest boyfriends.  Homecoming court.  Cool summer jobs like lifeguarding.  Partner track after college. Her life was the one that made sense; none of the stuffing escaped from her seams.  Meanwhile, my high school boyfriend cheated on me multiple times, and I spent my free time in high school at tanning beds and Weight Watcher meetings.  I didn’t hit my stride in my career until I was within spitting distance of my fortieth birthday. Of course she would get married before me.  Did I want to be her? I definitely wanted to be able to do the things she could. Would I ever settle down and have a life that made sense? I wasn’t sure. Was I envious?  Yes, always.

*

A year ago, just after the virus arrived, I called my children to dinner and glanced out the big bay window. Parts of our neighbor’s tree moving vertically. I leaned in and looked closer.  Raccoons.  A fat mama raccoon crawled from the crook of a tree out to a branch that hangs over the Metra tracks.  Four furry babies followed her out onto the limb.  They scrambled over each other and then crawled back to the crook.  I told my kids to hurry—we rarely see any wildlife on the south side of Chicago, where our house backs onto train tracks and we can hear the traffic on Lake Shore Drive.  When the kids made it downstairs, we watched the mama raccoon crawl out of the crook onto the branch once again, the babies following.  “How many times are they going to do that?” my son asked.  I shook my head.  “Are they out because the shelter-in-place order makes it safe for animals to come out?”  I don’t know, baby.   Maybe.  Are they safe?  Are any of us?  All through dinner, I kept one eye on the tree.  At some point, I got distracted.  When I looked back up, the raccoons were gone.

*

We didn’t overlap in high school.   We didn’t share a bathroom.  We didn’t have the same academic strengths.  We didn’t have similar body types or hairstyles.  We didn’t have the same sense of humor.  We didn’t sit on each other’s beds, telling stories.  We didn’t have inside jokes that belonged just to us.  We didn’t have a single fight.  We didn’t double date.  We didn’t tell each other secrets.  We didn’t exist in our own universe.  We didn’t hop in the car and go to Sonic for limeades and tater tots.  We didn’t have a favorite movie that we watched together.  We didn’t know each other.

*

Our story isn’t filled with words.  There aren’t muscular verbs like shout, fight, quarrel, disagree, disapprove, slam, stomp.  There aren’t exclamation points.  The story is one of ellipses.  We just . . . We can’t . . . I’m not sure why. . . It’s confusing…

*

I remember standing in my college apartment, wearing jean shorts and a white shirt.  Barefoot.  Hair pulled back.  Sun streaming in the western windows.  My hungover roommate reading US Magazine out loud from the couch.  An article about the Friends cast.  I was only half-listening as I rummaged through the fridge for American cheese.  “Jennifer Aniston is estranged from her father.  He’s that dude who plays Victor on Days of Our Lives,” my roommate said.

Estranged.  My mind snags on the hook of it.  “Estranged,” I say. “That’s weird.”

“Oh, it’s a Hollywood thing.  Something famous people do with their parents,” my roommate said, moving on to a story about Keanu Reeves.

I rolled the word around on my tongue, afraid to swallow.  Afraid it somehow already belonged to me.  Estranged.  I spit it out.

*

Last night, as we finished dinner, I saw the raccoons again. This time it was only two of the babies, crawling all over each other in the crook of the tree.  Their eyes shone when the light hit them just right.  “They’re back,” I said pointing out the window.  My son swiveled around and watched with me.  Laughing, he pointed at the babies.  “Sometimes they look like one raccoon with a single body and two heads.” They tumble over each other like they’re the best of friends, like sisters.

*

During the first month of pandemic, I picked up the phone four times a day, minimum, to text my sister to see how she and her family were faring.  That’s what you do, right? You check on the people that you love, ask how they are, tell them you’re thinking about them.  But each time, I felt that terrible tremble all through my core. The rumble and shudder of shame.  Shame that she hadn’t checked on me either. Shame that I’m counting how many times I initiate texts verses how many she does. Shame that I have a crush on her but don’t want her know.  Shame that I feel desperate and sweaty with fear that I’m going to look back at all this and wonder why I didn’t text more often.

*

My friend Max does a funny thing when I stay wildly unrealistic things.  He’ll look at me for a beat, and then say: “That’s so cute.”  Like if I say that I’m going to limit my kids’ screen time during quarantine to one hour per day, he’ll side eye me and say it. “That’s so cute.”  If I say I’m going to let go of unrealistic beauty norms and just love myself as I am: “That’s so cute.”

I’d called him during that weekend of the airport debacle.  I cried into the phone about the set of my sister’s jaw, the tension grinding through my shoulders.  I felt like screaming and clawing at something.  At myself.  “Well, don’t do that,” Max said.  “Can you just let her be angry?”  He didn’t get into it then, but the next time we spoke, he asked me why I thought my husband was so late to the airport.  When I said that’s just his thing, Max gave me a sideways look.  “Don’t say it,” I said.  “Don’t tell me I’m cute.”  Max shook his head.  “I won’t, but there’s a lot here that you’re not seeing.”

*

The morning I peed on a stick for the first time and found two bright red lines my whole body trilled with joy I could hardly contain. I drove down Ashland Avenue, giggling the entire time.  I fist pumped myself at every red light.  Baby, baby, baby.  My body suddenly full of life, of promise, of family.  Unable to contain the joy in my body, I called my sister, who was perfect in her joy and support.  I sistered her by letting her in; she sistered me by squealing with joy and calculating my due date.  It was like a scene in a goddamned movie. Me in the 7-11 parking lot watching guys in Carhartt jackets and hard hats buy Gatorade and Kettle Chips.  Me weeping and letting myself be sistered.  My sister holding me and my new fetus, no bigger than a poppy seed, carrying hope for all the broken fragments inside me. We had that moment. We always will.

*

Every night I look for the raccoons.  The babies grow fat, become more agile.  They venture out without their mama, two by two or on a solitary journey to explore the world beyond the crook of the tree.  Last night, when I made my final round through the living room, turning off lights and checking the locks, I saw two of the babies on the back deck.  They stood up on their hind legs, their front paws folded as if in prayer.  I nodded at them, placed my hands on my heart, and then watched them scurry back into the dark fold of night.

 

 

Header photograph © Bradley Branson.

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