For The Little One

I haven’t always been close to my sister.

We’re only a year and nine months apart. She was born in NJ while I was in 北京, and then we switched places, and while I don’t remember a time in my life when she wasn’t there in my field of vision, it’s only recently that I’ve looked at her and seen her as not just my sister, but as my sister.

There is a difference, and it’s something that I’m ashamed to say has taken me a long time to figure out.

My roommates (sorry; “sweetheart goddess lovers“) have listened to a lot of my rantings about my parents, a topic about which I’ve also written, to the point where one of them mentioned to me that the song “Blood Pressure” by Mutemath might resonate with me.

It’s nothing that intense, but… to some extent, yes.

That’s not to say that I don’t love my family. I do, I do, which is evident to anyone who’s ever heard me talk in person about my parents. I owe them everything, and their fears for me, while perhaps heightened by distance-based anxiety, are rooted in a protective feeling, which is awfully similar to the feeling that that I have about

well

my sister.

.

There’s a beautiful essay up on Thought Catalog right now called Things I Wanted To Say To My Sister. The essay’s a meditation by an older brother on the relationship he has with his younger sister—on ignoring her, on not supporting her, on abandoning her. He’s looking back at their childhood and realizing that even though he couldn’t have acted any other way, he’s haunted by a guilt of what he believes he should’ve been for her.

The first time I read this essay, I couldn’t breathe. It was as though I was seeing myself through his eyes, and instead of telling the story of him and his sister

I saw

.

I don’t remember the specifics, so I’ll go by what I do know:

It was raining. We were parked outside of a CVS; I always sat on the right side of the backseat, the way that I always sat to the right hand of my father at the dinner table, and so as we got back into the car, I took my spot and planted myself there.

It was raining. My sister was right behind me; she normally sat on the left side of the backseat, just as she sat to my right at the dinner table. But it was raining, so she asked me to move over and let her get in the car.

That meant that she’d sit on the right side.

I didn’t budge.

It was raining, and she stood in the rain while I refused to move.

She started shouting at me, telling me that I was being mean. I still didn’t move.

She began to cry.

My mama started yelling at me for being so inconsiderate. Only then did I feel bad, that I wasn’t letting my sister, my little sister, get into the car and out of the rain.

I don’t remember what our seating arrangement was when we got home, only that the guilt I felt on that day still carries over into my life now

and I’ll never forget the way that, in my memory, those tears poured from her eyes.

.

These days, during the rare occasions that I actually return home, my sister will accompany one or both of my parents as they pick me up from Newark.

These days, she sits on the right side of the backseat. She also claims the car on which we both learned to drive as her own (she’s named it something eye roll-worthy but I don’t remember what), and she likes to go out with her friends and write off me and our parents as uncool

but there are little things that we, and only we, understand about each other and about our family as a unit. All I have to do is point her in the right direction—

such as saying “Nannerpuss!” in a high-pitched voice—

and she’ll react—

in that particular case, by singing a weird bubbly musical line and trying to dance like an octopus.

We’re a very strange duo, and while we’re very different people, our strangeness unites us (“The jelly… has left the donut.”)

I’m like Ben Wyatt and Peggy Olson and Ramona Flowers and those comparisons sound like extreme flattering on my part but I relate most to these characters’ imperfections, like Ben’s uptightness (I’ll never apologize for my nerdiness though) and Peggy’s permanent state of half exasperation, half confusion and Ramona’s emotional closed-off-ness (there’s gotta be a better word). But I do believe that I’m smart, even if I can’t always (read: never) articulate what I want to say without making compromises between words and within definitions, and I love the things I love truly (, madly, deeply) and with the full effort and effect of earnestness.

Mimi though? She defines earnestness for me, though her passions are more… all over the place.

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 4.10.07 AM

These are her actual Facebook likes.

She reminds me of Riley Freeman and Ash from “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Dark Smoke Puncher, in that she’s little (though she’s taller than me) and sometimes socially unaware (“Gr8 food!! :)”), but she’s scrappy and resourceful and also really good at spitting back rap lyrics (her krumping though: not so good). She likes to act as though she knows things, but then she’ll message me in a panic, asking me for my advice, and sometimes I want to laugh and say to her, “C’mon,” but more often than not, I’ll try to tell her what I’d do, and nurse the glow in my mind that is her trust in me.

She’s a freshman in college right now, and I think she’s having a great time. She’s getting involved with her on-campus radio scene, which is something I wish I could’ve done. She’s also writing about music.

I like to believe that I’ve influenced her in that way, but more likely than not, she just likes it, the way that I liked it.

As for her studies, she’s always been a better student than me. I grew up convinced that my parents were the enemy; she “got” the mechanics of school a lot better than I did, and she did the work a lot more thoroughly and with more care than I ever did. I could never just go to bed; I would be up reading, or watching TV, or sneaking (but not in a Gollum way). Sure, there would be nights where I would walk past her bedroom door and I’d still see light peeking beyond its borders, but I knew she’d be reading, maybe Zadie Smith or John Green or a Pearls Before Swine anthology, and that the light would go out at a reasonable hour (much unlike the one in which I’m currently writing this post).

Man, Pearls Before Swine. She was Pig. I didn’t belong in that world, or perhaps I once did and now I don’t.

There are a lot of things that have lost their importance with time. There are a lot of things that I only begin to understand as time continues flying past me, like Hermes racing the winds themselves on the way up into the stratospheric heights of Mount Olympus.

.

One afternoon, after getting into yet another screaming match with my parents, I closed my bedroom door and started sobbing. We’d probably fought over something stupid like a curfew or a particular test grade, but every time my mother insinuated that I was being lazy or my father raised his voice and spoke in sharp, percussive jabs, it would open the floodgates in my eyes and I would begin to tear up, whether or not I actively wanted to, and I would scream my nonsensical teenage angst to them in between hiccuping sobs, and I’d meet my mother’s steely eyes with my red, puffy ones, and I’d see clearly the iron of their Red blood, and I’d feel, so completely and acutely, the generation gap in sharp relief, and it was not like a chasm but more like the maw of some ravenous whirlpool, sucking both parties into a neverending swirl of misunderstanding and bitterness and

Just writing about it brings back all of the frustration. And it’s not as though we’ve stopped having those kinds of conversations; every time I talk to my parents by myself, our conversation inevitably touches on the sensitive topic of “my future,” and I’ll be on the defensive because I know my papa will “subtly” suggest law school and my mama will ask me about my professional prospects with a tone of skepticism and

…moving on.

One afternoon, after getting into yet another screaming match with my parents, I closed my bedroom door and started sobbing. About a minute into my sobbing, I heard a quiet knock on my door, and my little sister told me,

“I don’t know what you’re fighting about, but I just want you to know… you’re a good sister.”

.

I don’t know what to tell you. You, who used to follow me around when we were younger, wearing both my hand me downs and my shadow; who now openly scoffs at me, calls me out, when I let my arrogance get ahold of me; who lets me pinch her cheeks and pretend she’s only 8 or 9 when in reality she’s 19 going on 20.

I look at you, and I see how my childhood affected yours. I remember the way you struggled with some of your friendships, much as I struggled with some of mine, and I wish I could’ve yelled at the people who belittled us because of our size or our ethnicity or our particular habits and said that we were united by blood, and that we would defend each other the way a grizzly bear guards her cubs

but I let people slip by me and hurt you, and I hurt you too, and we may not acknowledge these little hurts anymore but I still see the shapes they’ve left in your soul and I cringe at the sight of them.

I’m so, so, sorry, but I know you’ve already forgiven me, the way you forgave our mama for not telling us when 外婆 passed away, the way you forgave our papa when he left us alone in the almost-empty hotel dinner room.

I remember how timid and embarrassed you used to act around my friends. You still bristle when I tell you that I’ve told my friends about you, but you don’t know how much I vaunt you even as I tease you.

I wasn’t at home when our family’s stability was up in the air, when we were split between coasts and continents, when there was so much fear and uncertainty about where exactly “home” would be. Even now, I still don’t bear the brunt of the consequences of the eventual outcome. You’re the one who sees our parents in their natural elements, rather than in the rarefied temporal space of school vacation, and while there are definite upsides to that (namely, home cooking), you don’t get to escape Belle Mead the way I did.

Not that you need to, because unlike me, you haven’t burned all of your bridges from that place.

Don’t get me wrong—I was happy during our childhood, but it’s the happiness that comes from looking back at a particular time and place with a mixture of nostalgia and informed reflection.

I don’t regret moving and living in Los Angeles at all, but I miss sleeping in your unnaturally comfy bed when I was supposed to be downstairs with the rest of the family eating breakfast, and the way you got away with throwing all your clothes and books on the floor when all of the other rooms in the house were cleaned up under papa’s exacting eye, and the sound of Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” with its trembling, cascading closing.

Mostly, I’m glad that you’re happy. But I do miss you sometimes, and I worry about you, even though I know I’ve got nothing to worry about.

Run happy, little sister.

.

One night this past winter, my sister and my mama and I were waiting outside of the parking garage under my dad’s workplace. My sister was wearing a goofy-looking hat; I was wearing my friend’s sunglasses, even though it was well after sundown.

My dad pulled the car out of the garage, and through the glare of his headlights, we could see that he was laughing.

As we got into the car, he couldn’t stop cracking up, and the only words we could understand from his quavering speech were, “Royal Tenenbaums.” He caught himself just long enough to explain that my sister and I looked like idiosyncratic characters out of that film, which is a family favorite: “Mimi with the hat, and Leo with the glasses.” Both of our parents started cracking up.

My sister and I turned to each other with the same bemused yet bewildered expressions on our faces. And then we started laughing too.

(Image: from the Wes Anderson film “Fantastic Mr. Fox”)

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