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February 19, 2024


By Kellie Gillespie

My sister and I were always called "the girls," thought of in the plural because we were never apart. Our interests, our preferences, our actions were collective, and it was assumed what one wanted the other wanted as well. If our parents called us by name, they invariably used the wrong one. But that didn't matter since we answered to either. I was the oldest; Karen was eighteen months younger. We were the same size and shape, constant companions and only children. She had blond hair and blue eyes, inherited from our Scandinavian father along with her brown summer skin that I always envied. I was red-haired and fair and constantly told that I looked "just like your mother," a fact of which I was already uncomfortably aware. Karen and I were best friends for a while, as much as sisters can be until families start dividing -- husband from wife, sister from sister. We grew older and the family tree split, the plural becoming singular and the branches growing in different directions. The girls separated as the parents did. It just took more time.

When my mother was a hairdresser and my sister and I used to go to her shop to play with the pump chairs and hairspray, we lived in a suburban house with a little unfinished space next to the parked cars and lawnmower. My father put up some drywall and that space became my bedroom. It was tiny and dark, but if we moved the furniture against the walls, there was enough floor space to play Monopoly. On rainy afternoons when our parents wanted quiet, we brought whatever snacks we could sneak out of the kitchen downstairs. Setting up the board was the most fun and took up the most time. The bank belonged to Karen, half hiding under the dresser. The real estate was laid out in careful rows in front of me so that Karen could see it also. Our own piles of money we divided into denominations spread across our sides of the playing board. We each liked to hide our five hundred dollar bills somewhere close by. We called that the "reserve money," and saved it for emergencies like landing on Boardwalk when it had two houses on it.

Our games lasted for hours, if we wanted them to, if we felt charitable enough to give loans to each other from the "reserve" and bored enough with our other friends to be happy with each other. Our trading and dealing took the longest, but we rarely fought about anything during the game, a rarity our mother liked to comment on with mock astonishment. I picked the little iron for my playing piece until it went missing, then I chose the iron: signs of my approaching lifestyle. Karen liked the racing car and sped around the board at every shake of the dice. No domestic symbols for her; she wanted to be an actress. We knew what properties the other liked to collect and skillfully avoided landing on those, expecting, trusting, the other to do the same. We spent whole afternoons there on the floor, playing but not competing. We were two future humanities majors, failing in the game of free enterprise.

It was usually after an afternoon of Monopoly that we, feeling exceptionally close and kind to one another, spent the night in Karen's four-poster bed. Big and luxurious, her room could afford to hold a whole slumber party full of girls, but she seldom had anyone but me share it. We talked and giggled until our parents went to bed, their presence forcing us to sleep. I can't remember what we talked about, most likely school, not boys yet, maybe plans for the next weekend but not for the next year. We made up stories about Krazy Katie and Kooky Karen who went camping and got lost, or horseback riding on semi-wild horses, or ran away from home and surprised everyone with our courage and intelligence. If someone from the next room shouted for us to quiet down, we would for a while, until we could think of something else to whisper about. Our father once became so exasperated with our talking that he threatened to tape our mouths shut. We thought this was a great idea and begged him to please tape our mouths shut, please! So he did, only to burst in later to angrily remove them, muttering under his breath at our increased silliness. We would eventually fall asleep, for a time. Sometimes late at night, Karen would wake me, shaking my arm with concern. Listen, she whispered, and I, too, could hear the voices swelling with anger in the next room.

We lived in that suburban house for only two years. My mother's photograph album shows the many stages of our lives together. Sometimes she and I spend a spare afternoon looking through the history of our family: my sister and I on the Puget Sound beach, bikinis baring round bellies; my father and mother in formal dress, entwined in each others' arms, eyes bright with love; the family foursome with two little girls, one red-haired, one blond under a bonnet, shaded by a father who is holding a croquet mallet with one hand and the mother with the other. "When we were in love," my mother sighs. She strokes the plastic covers and asks me if I remember. Remember when your father bought a sailboat and took us sailing on the bay? The wind changed, causing Karen and me to fall off. Mother dived in to save us while Dad turned the boat around, succeeding only in drifting farther away from us as Mother held onto us, the ones with the life jackets. Remember when we went to Hawaii and everyone got sick at the restaurant that served turtle soup? They had told Karen and me that those pieces of meat were chicken, because if we knew the truth we wouldn't eat it. Remember when your father moved out and took my best towels? I remember all those things, but children can never see the memories when they happen; they only become truthful in the retelling. My mother's voice becomes bitter and I can remember the truth of growing up. The tears my mother wept while I could only stand next to her and ask what was wrong. Camping trips alone with father, staying with Grandma, Hawaii vacations -- all attempts to piece together a family. "You were always my favorite," my father tells me today. "Your mother and sister never would try anything new." And yet nobody speaks to one another, they only remember. Karen, living in Los Angeles, has not seen our father in over seven years.

After the divorce, our father would pick us up in his used white LTD, the Rolling Stones on the radio and Betsy in the front seat. "If you ever want to talk about sex, I'll be glad to listen," Dad liked to say. We never did. Karen and I giggled in the back seat, exchanging meaningful looks whenever they kissed or held hands. At night, lying on the borrowed sofa bed at his house, we talked like we used to. We wondered at our father's apparent happiness, wondered when he would come home. Mother told us that she cried while we were gone, because she felt so totally alone and totally free. When we got back, Karen sat in Mother's room and talked about my father's house and his car and his girlfriend, what he bought for us, what we ate. Talked for hours. "Snitch," I hissed through the open door. "Snitch, snitch." Katie kept on talking because she wasn't sorry. She just drove the wedge in further, until there would be no chances for any of us anymore. Still, we tried to be together, to be sisters as we were told we should be. "Your sister will always be your best friend," our mother liked to say, but the maid of honor at my wedding had been apart from me too long already.

After the divorce, my mother gave big parties for her new college friends that filled the apartment with fascinating facts and figures, giving her a newfound interest and vitality. The kids were now in the way of her single life, and Karen and I lost no time trying to make our presence known to those people ignoring us downstairs. We had always fought, harmlessly, but the longer we had to take care of ourselves, the more violent and hateful we became. Name-calling and nasty faces turned into hair-pulling and arm-slugging. I teased her endlessly, even though she was taller than I was. Every time Karen blinked those big blue eyes at me, I couldn't resist slapping her face. I treasured my satisfaction as those eyes filled with tears, and I savored the pain I could inflict. A few years later, she taught me how to apply eye shadow and that feeling returned. I could not help but envy those eyes, and I hated them as they grew more beautiful. I was a terrible older sister, she told me repeatedly. I did not warn her of the adolescent traumas that would befall her. I did not help her with her clothes or boys but flaunted my big sister poise and figure with happiness. I even stole one of her boyfriends that summer we spent by the swimming pool, to compensate myself for her effortless golden tan. She had a competitor, she said, not a sister.

Karen grew up to became a person I do not recognize. She was always interested in theater and music, and when she made plans for a singing career, we all laughed at her. "It's a hard world," my mother cautioned. "Better pick something safe, like teaching." My husband and I pirated her audition tapes, as though we could prove to her with our mature knowledge that she would never make it. As we listened, I was not so awestruck by her talent, which was considerable, but amazed that she could sound so different, so remote. Now she is living in Los Angeles, studying with a voice teacher, and hoping to get a lucky break. She works for a long-distance telephone service, has a roommate I've never seen, and sends me letters stuffed with twenty dollar bills, telling me to "go out and have a nice dinner and please get something for the kids." She will never marry, she told me once. Why make more people unhappy? We went home to visit one summer and left without seeing her, even though she was so close. She couldn't make the trip, she told us. Maybe she knew that now I'm ready to be the big sister, to tell her that family is important and that she shouldn't let hers slip away. Maybe she avoids me because I won't let our family die. I want all the wounds healed before it's too late. But why make more people unhappy, she asks again with her absence.

My mother likes to show visitors the photograph of Karen and me on the beach, saying cheese with our teeth and tentatively hold hands as if we had just met. But that was long ago. We can no longer hold hands, the honeymoon is over, and if we had been married, someone would say that we just grew apart instead of growing together. Now all we can do, her in Los Angeles and me in St. Paul, is quietly assure ourselves that it was no one's fault.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-02-07
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