Hannah Goss’s insightful vignette about two very different sisters.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
You are surprised to find how much your little sister has changed after her first semester of college. You come home from winter break, your fourth and final one, tired from six hours of nonstop driving, and set your duffle bag on the living room floor. Your sister is already home: Her drive is half yours. She barely looks up from her spot on the couch where she’s laying on her back, her feet dangling over one couch arm, and her crop top and low-rise leggings revealing a new belly button piercing. You think: Mom would have killed you if you had done that. She’s texting someone, her face narrowed in concentration, her thumbs dancing across the screen like hyperactive claws.
She looks up at you briefly, her eyes dancing over you and she asks, “Are you really wearing that?'”
You stand your ground, as if you are dealing with a mountain lion ready to pounce, and think of what you learned in girl scouts all those years ago. Then, you back away slowly.
When your parents get home from work, you’ve both migrated to your own separate rooms. Your sister is blasting SZA, who you only recently learned was pronounced sizz-ah, and she sings, “I need you to get the fuck out my space.” Your mom is yelling for her to turn it down, and you think: you never would have dared.
Your sister used to listen to Taylor Swift and learned how to play the ukulele along to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” She used to toss her sun kissed blonde hair over her shoulder and sing of heartbreak although she had no idea what it was. This girl shouting SZA seems to know exactly what she’s singing about in ways that you wish she didn’t.
“What do you need privacy for?” Your mom places a pot full of noodles onto the dinner table.
“Spaghetti,” she says, looking to you.
She looks back to you sister, shoving her hair into a clip. “What are you hiding?”
She looks back to you. “I always knew she’d turn out like me. Haven’t I always said that? My parents were clueless, but I’m not. Sit, eat.”
She pulls back a chair and your sister sits across from her, leaving you to sit between them – always the intermediary. Your dad isn’t home, though that wouldn’t matter much anyways.
You have a hard time believing this is the same sister who used to collect Webkinz and arrange them on her bed so that they could see each other and wouldn’t feel alone. This is the same sister who used to crawl into bed with you and tell you about her nightmares – a snake in her bed, a thief in the night – and you’d wrap your arms around her and say, “They’ll have to go through me first. I’ll protect you.”
This is the same sister whose nickname was “fuzzy head” because she somehow managed to always wake up with her hair like a bird’s nest. You, though, never got a nickname like that. You were just you.
Now her tongue is sharp as she sits at the dinner table, picking at noodles she isn’t happy about eating. You, on the other hand, are famished. You’ve always been famished, hungry for more of everything, and she’s always been the one stuck at the table until she finishes her plate, forced to pick at the leftovers.
Your mom asks you both: “How’s school?” Your sister shrugs, relates stories of her poor chemistry grade, her difficult anatomy class. She’s studying nursing and hates every minute of it. When it’s your turn, you try to keep it short, but then you tell them reluctantly about the scholarship you’ve been offered for service. “It comes with some money. That’s why I applied,” you say, as if trying to justify it to your sister. Her eyes flick fast to you. You want to say sorry. Sorry, but sorry for what?
“It’s just for some clean-up project I helped with.” You are an environmental science major. You love it. You love organizing litter pick-ups and clean energy awareness drives. But most of all, you love that it matters – that something you’re doing actually matters.
Your mom says, “That’s amazing, honey.” She shovels spaghetti into her mouth and then pauses. She turns back to your sister and jokes, “So what are we going to do about you?”
Your sister slams her fork down and pushes her chair back. “I’m sorry I’m not fucking perfect like her,” she says. Her voice cracks, and her hands crumple by her sides. She leaves her plate unfinished.
She doesn’t get it. She’s never understood that it’s not perfection but a craving that drives you. A craving for something inside you to be filled. Maybe if you do enough, if you’re good enough, smart enough, then the hunger will be satisfied. Maybe then they’ll notice you.
Your mother once said to you during your freshman year of college when you’d gone two months without calling your parents or even being homesick: “You were always such an easy kid.”
Yes, you were easy. Never a problem. Unlike your sister who totaled her car in high school and flunked out of algebra. But you, you wait tables while maintaining straight As on no sleep like it is your burden, your medal of honor, your pride. You are starving. Your sister has never understood this hunger.
On the second day of winter break, when you’ve already applied for an internship with PETA, cleaned the kitchen for your mom, and collapsed onto your bed in a brain fog, your sister enters your room. She’s wearing shredded jeans and a leopard print top, and she asks you if you want to go to Starbucks. You think: This is it. You’re talking again. Things will go back to how they used to be when you would take her to Starbucks after school and you would sit for two hours doing homework and making fun of the way your band director, Mr. Schue, waved his arms.
Then, she asks you to just go through the drive-through, and you order a pink drink for her and an iced coffee with oat milk for you.
She laughs about your oat milk. “Of fucking course. Oat milk is so gross. It literally tastes like nuts.”
“Do you know how much methane cattle produce that warms our atmosphere? By drinking dairy milk, you’re contributing to climate change,” you say.
She scoffs and rolls her eyes. “How do you always manage to show off at every turn? Nobody’s here,” she waves her hands around at the empty car, “and I don’t care.”
“Well, you should,” you say, as you come to a yellow light, slowing down. The truck in front of you is blasting music, something country, with the windows down, and two American flags are flying off the back. You’re reminded why you don’t come back to your hometown often. “Look at this guy. God.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Your sister pokes a straw into her cup. “You never listen to me.”
You reach for your sun visor and pull open the mirror. Your hair is in disarray and your scramble to pull it up as the light turns green.
“What are you doing?”
“Fixing my hair.”
“See, you might be pretending to better than the rest of us, but you’re just as vain as me.” Your sister takes out lip gloss from her pocket and reapplies it in her vanity mirror. For a second, you realize the similarities between you: both of you trying to project an image, pruning yourselves for consumption. You slam on the breaks as the truck in front of you makes a sharp turn.
You say, “You’re the one who ordered the basic drink.”
Your sister goes quiet. You think: That was the wrong thing to say. You drive home past your old high school that is still in session. Cars fill the parking lot and the old clock on the main building still reads the wrong time. You pass all the cornfields that have been reduced to brown decapitated stalks.
Your sister puts on another SZA song that you don’t know the words to. It starts with, “How do I deal with rejection?” And you wonder if there is something behind all these lyrics, that maybe you’ve misjudged it.
Your sister migrates back to her room like some nocturnal animal, and you don’t see her again until late that night. You were just her ride: Maybe that’s all you’ll be to her now.
It’s late that night when you hear her on speaker phone talking to a boy. A man? His voice is gruff but still sounds like a frat boy. He says “bruh” way too often. You’re reminded of frat parties you’ve been to: the sticky floors, the hazy, sweaty dancing, and the way you had to take a shower when you got home from the way that guy grabbed you. You were only eighteen. It’s enough to make you want to barge into her room and shake her, but you don’t.
In high school, you used wander into her room at all hours because you knew it was her boyfriend on the other end. You liked that boyfriend. He had custom-made SpongeBob vans and played pickle ball and talked a lot about his little brother. Then your sister broke up with him before she left for college. You had to pick her up and you still remember how puffy and red her face was, how she wiped her nose on her sleeve, and how when you asked her why, she just said: “You wouldn’t understand.”
So, you just sat next to her on the couch and ate marshmallow fluff out of the jar with one spoon. All you told her was: “It’ll get better.” Though you knew you couldn’t really promise that. What did you know? You’d never had any heart to break.
At 2am, when you still can’t sleep, you hear her sneaking out the window. You think: She’s going to see that boy. You hear the leaves rustle on the tree outside and she sees you watching as she scales it. You lock eyes. She’s like a racoon with that thick black eyeliner, caught pawing through the trash. Her hands cling to the bark of the old oak, and she sticks her tongue out in concentration. She smirks and looks at you as if to say: This is me now. Then she presses a finger to her lips, swearing you to secrecy.
There’s a truck parked along the curb out front with its headlights on. You don’t hear her come back in in the morning, but you know she’s safe because you still have her location on Snapchat. She forgot to stop sharing that with you. Sometimes, when you’re at school, you check it, just to feel like you still exist in the same world.
The next morning, your mom finds out about her late night escape. She forgot about the Ring doorbell with the camera that your dad had installed. Your sister slams the door to her room behind her, caging herself in. You hear her crying. You stand outside the door for a minute trying to decide if you should go in, if she’ll even want you. Eventually, with your hand cupped against the door, you accidentally knock against it, and she calls, “What?” so you have to enter.
She’s got her hands balled like fists in her hair, tears streaming down her face. She looks like Fuzzy Head again, all that untamed hair like a wild mane. You sit down next to her and take her hand in yours. You say, “It’ll get better.” She sobs, resting her head against your shoulder.
“When? They don’t trust me. They treat me like a child.” She’s gasping for breath, and you wrap your arms around her.
“Hey, they’ll have to go through me first, remember?”
You sit there like that, her head rested against you, and you are reminded of those nights that her worst fears were snakes in her bed. You wish you could go back to then, when things were easier. She says, “Why did you have to be so goddamn perfect?”
You laugh. You say, “Hardly.”
You think: Can’t she see that it’s killing you? Can’t she see you’re only aiming for perfection because you would be nothing otherwise? Nothing but the easy child.
“I envy you, you know,” you say. She has never realized how much freedom she has as Fuzzy Head – so little expected of her.
You think about what it would be like a few years later, when your three year gap doesn’t mean as much to either of you anymore. Maybe when you’re twenty-six and twenty-three, and you don’t have to live under your parents’ roof in constant comparison to each other, maybe then you could be just sisters again.