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 that 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 had left was each other. We were hardly two years apart in age, but it wasn’t apparent when we stood next to each other. In many situations, she had been referred to as the big sister. She loved that when we were growing up, but obviously, it annoyed her now. And while I knew that she must wonder what it was that she needed to do to catch up with me, for me, I wanted 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, that was one of the most important lessons our parents took the time to drill into our heads.
“Accumulating more than you need only weighs you down,” my parents would take turns saying.
We got 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. She opened the door to her apartment and I walked in. I set down my small suitcase on her rug and she immediately grabbed it, directing me to my room. The bed was too big for such small room. I said nothing. Then looking around to find something to start a conversation on, somehow the words came out the wrong way.
“Gosh Rina, do you run a boutique now too?”
“You like it?” she beamed.
“Oh I don’t know, you have too much in there,” I said.
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.
Her closet extended beyond the two doors that once held safe the items within. Now, there were no doors. Two plastic wardrobes with wheels stood in its stead and those had to be dragged simultaneously so as not to upset the impermanent boards that held everything together. It was packed like a warehouse and like a warehouse, there were handwritten labels to make the finding easier. It was like this regardless of the season and hardly anything in it spoke of the age of the owner.
Together we dragged the plastic wardrobes out of the way. She entered. I stood inspecting the wardrobes we moved, then from inside the closet I heard her say,
“There you are!!” she said to something inside. She emerged all excited, “Look, look do you remember this blouse,” she asked sniffing at the garment and opening her doe eyes wider.
I didn’t remember the blouse but I moved over closer as she adjusted it to her body anticipating that I’d be happy about the find as well. Instead, I felt my eyes get heavy and the words that came out of my mouth angered her.
“Marina, what’s 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 said, “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 said, more to myself than to her. “It hardly covers any body parts.”
“Look, even the ribbons are the same”, she exclaimed disregarding my remark.
She folded it in the air like a handkerchief and deposited it in 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 nineteen 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 forty-nine 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 lots of compliments. I like it.” She took in a deep breath and then continued.
“And not because you gave it to me but because it still makes me feel young.” She pulled it from my hand and walked away saying, “you’re just like James, he never liked me wearing it.”
I follow her, “and he’s 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 fifty, 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 interrupted. “Yeah, what else?”
“Listen, I’m not trying to put you down, but you’re not that young anymore. 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 winter 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 punctuated the argument with those words. She took out a bag of popcorn from her pantry and dropped her body on the couch. She laid there for her two hours of passive entertainment.
I sulked and retrieved to the closet room. The portable wardrobes stood in a conspicuous place and I couldn’t close the door to the room. For sure I didn’t intend to move it by myself for I feared it all coming undone. Huh! then she’ll kick me out.
I’d been a guest in her apartment for hardly two hours and already we had fallen into the same routine of our youth.
Everyone says that it’s hard being the middle child, but I’ll tell you, it’s much harder being the big sister.
“Oh Marina, God bless you,” I said out loud, as I inserted my earbuds deep into my ears and I got under the covers. “Let’s be sisters later.”