She started calling me long distance more often than before. At the end of every phone call, she’d have me holding my phone over my heart as if this would teleport to her all the emotions she had stirred in me. I was sure she could use a hug and I wanted so much to give it to her. Okinawa and Chicago were worlds apart, and having lived in Chicago for a while, I knew first hand how lonely one could feel on holidays with no family around. That Christmas, I put my family’s celebration on hold and booked myself a last minute flight to O’hare.
With both parents now gone, all we have left is each other. We are hardly two years apart in age, but it’s not apparent when we’re standing next to each other. In many situations she has been referred to as the big sister. She loved this when we were growing up, but obviously now it annoys her. And while I know that she must wonder what it is that she needs to do to catch up with me, for me, I would like to know where the difference began. We were raised by the same parents who taught us that materialism was the vice of our time. Growing up, this was one of the most important lessons our parents took time to drill into our heads.
“Accumulating more than you need only weighs you down,” my parents would take turns saying.
We get all the pleasantries out of the way in record time. Traffic from O’hare to her apartment was horrendous but that was a good thing; it gave us something to talk about. I set down my small suitcase on her rug and she immediately grabs it and directs me to my room. The bed was too big for such small room. I say nothing. Then looking around to find something to start a conversation on, somehow the words come out the wrong way.
“Gosh Rina, do you run a boutique now too?”
“You like it?” she beams?
“Oh I don’t know, you have too much in there,”I say.
I don’t remember exactly what I said next because my mind disconnected from the room and made a mental comparison to my own small closet back in Okinawa, but it had to have been some kind of protest on the size of the big closet. The closet extended beyond the two doors that once held safe the items within. There are no doors now. Two plastic wardrobes with wheels stand in its stead and these have to be dragged simultaneously so as not to upset the impermanent boards that hold everything together. Either that, or one could dive in through the clothes to get to the ones behind. It is packed like a warehouse back there and like a warehouse, there are handwritten labels to make the finding easier. Its like this regardless of the season and hardly anything in it speaks of the age of the owner.
Together we drag the wardrobes out of the way. She enters and I stand inspecting the wardrobes we just moved, then from inside the closet I can hear her say,
“There you are!!” she says to something inside. She exits all excited, “Look, look do you remember this blouse,” she asks sniffing at the garment and opening her doe eyes wider.
I don’t remember the blouse but I move over closer as she adjusts it to her body anticipating that I’d be happy about this as well. Instead, I feel my eyes get heavy and the words that come out of my mouth anger her.
“Marina, what is a blouse like that still doing in your closet? You were…how old when you bought that?”
“You don’t remember…I’m hurt,” she says, “you bought this for me the first weekend that I came to live here with you. It’s the same one, I wear it at least once every year.”
“Wear it to sleep, I hope.” I say. “It hardly covers any body parts.”
“Look, even the ribbons are the same”, she says disregarding my remark.
She folds it in the air like a handkerchief and deposits it on the palm of my outstretched hand.
“Gosh Rina, don’t tell me that you really parade around the city in this skimpy thing. You were barely 19 when you begged me to buy it for you. And I remember thinking that that would be one blouse I’d never be borrowing from you. You’re 49 years old now, let me buy you something more age-appropriate”.
“Why do you always put me down like that? Ever since we were little, you always pretended that you were better than me. What is it to you if I like that blouse? And yes, I wear it to go out and I still get a lot of compliments when I do. I like it. And not because you gave it to me but because it still makes me feel young”. She takes it from me and walks away saying, “you’re just like James, he never liked me wearing it.”
I follow her, “and he is right, that piece of cloth is for teenagers going through puberty –kids testing boundaries and trying to get to grips with their sexuality. You’re going on 50, you’re a mature mother of boys who are no longer teenagers. You should choose clothes that are more becoming. Choose clothes for the material and –”
“Material?” she interrupts. “Yeah, what else?”
“Listen, I’m not trying to put you down, but you’re not that young any more. And you know what, those compliments that you say you get are not well intended. Why are you so naive?”
“No, all bullshit. You’re just jealous that you cannot wear a blouse like that because you’re so flat chested and all. It’s a blouse that requires you show a little more cleavage for it to call attention. It just wouldn’t look as nice on you. I’ll wear it later and I’ll show you.”
“Rina, you told me not to pack any warm clothes; that you had plenty that I could borrow during my stay here. Could we get that part out of the way first please.”
“Let’s do that later. It’s almost time for my Novela.” she says as she takes out a bag of popcorn in preparation for her next two hours of passive entertainment.
I sulk and retrieve to the closet room. The portable wardrobes stand in a conspicuous place and now I cannot close the door to the room. For sure I will not try to move it by myself, I tell my thoughts, I fear it all coming undone. Huh! then she’ll kick me out.
I’ve been a guest in her apartment for hardly 2 hours and already we have fallen into the same routine of our youth. Everyone says that it’s hard being the middle-child, but I’ll tell you, its much harder being the big sister.
Physically, Marina had always been the healthiest of all three sisters. She had a bright disposition too. But somehow, she couldn’t hold on to friendships for long periods at a time. Perhaps she was too clingy and insecure; weighing her self worth in her petty acquisitions? Yeah, that’s were I think we started to be different. Maybe. But if you were to go to Macondo today and mention us, people there would remember Marina as the wise one; the one who was more tomboyish, the one who would take on a dare without thinking out the consequences first, the one who would think out good ways of making money on market day. She would be the one who would climb the trees the fastest and descend with the biggest coconut or the biggest avocados wrapped up in her skirt. The one who would not cry at the dentists’ or at the clinic when we would get our shots.
I on the other hand, would be remembered as the sick one. I developed asthma as a child and missed a lot of school on account of that. School was where I wanted to be most of all, but I never complained about being absent because it gave me the wonderful opportunity to get on with my passion of devouring a good story book and of writing in my diary. And when Marina would come home from school and start a fight out of nothing, I would let her win. Always. I let her win because I felt bad that I couldn’t be there to keep her company at school as big sisters should. Instead I was here at home hogging the attention of our parents AND reading to my hearts’ content.
“Oh Marina, God bless you,” I say out loud, as I insert my earplugs deep into my ears and I get under the covers. “Let’s be sisters later.”
…And though our roots belong to
The same tree,
Our branches have grown
In different directions.
Now resembles a thousand
In a sea of a trillion
With parallel destinies
And similar dreams.
You cannot envy the branch
That grows bigger
From the same seed,
And you cannot
Blame it on the sun’s direction.
But you still compare us,
As if we’re still those two
Kids at the park
Slurping down slushies and
Eating ice cream.
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun (2010)