We Were Like Sisters

We were like sisters, you and I. And this, while we already had sisters. Lots of them; too many between us. A girl can’t breathe for all the older versions of herself she finds about the house. What’s a younger sister but a reminder of past awkwardness? Of tighter skins they were only too relieved to shed? You and I, younger sisters. And yet: we chose to be that close thing, that mirror, to each other. All over again, more of the same. Sisters.

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The other day I was staring at my children’s swing set, remembering the Christmas it was gifted, wondering how and when it got so shabby. A footrest is missing from the see-saw and the fire engine red on the seats has become a watery, mottled pink. This is the biggest insult. Sedate colours – gentle blues and yellows and greens – these can fade gracefully, tonally true, but strong colours only look worse for the wearing. So sad diminished. I look in the mirror and I think: how and when did that happen? I still project a fire engine red even though I’m starting to look old and pink and sad. You were all the ocean colours: soft and lovely sage, whitewash, airy blue. Champagne grey. We’d drink the sea in and spit out laughter, letting our long hair float on the surface like the ends of a frayed rope. You were so uncomfortable with your beauty. The kind that will only fade to truer and prettier shades.

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When you’re young you think only of yourself. It’s an unselfish selfishness because it’s impossible for you to do otherwise. You haven’t yet broken apart, into two or more pieces that see the world from their slightly different place. First love is the most intense because it’s the first break. You split into two, and every love thereafter sees that half break into smaller pieces – more enlightening for how the bits fly further and wedge deeper, but never hitting the ground with the same heavy thud of the first. My first love happened. You knew him, you listened to me talk about him. And our hearts thudded.

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Uni began my first day in the city. I was a bushy, beachy scrub to everyone else’s manicured topiary. I wore your grey T-shirt that was as smooth as a rock in a river it had been washed so many times. At your house, at mine. My house was now five hours drive away from you in a suburb I couldn’t spell, on a hill I got puffed walking up. I wouldn’t be back visiting: my family had migrated too, and you – suddenly, impossibly you were no longer my sister. I was in shock – was it only the night before last that we’d spoken and the words had put us to sleep for a thousand years? To survive, I autotomised. Like a starfish desperate for escape, I became an amputee. Once, just once, I came back. I sat on the train for six hours and pretended nonchalance. They showed – The Notebook, – the first time I’d seen it. I cried – huge, embarrassing sobs – the feeling of a phantom limb. The lady next to me tried to express sympathy, so cheap I felt insulted. It was exactly what I did to you that night.

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What are friendships made of? The early ones, the potent ones, the kind with a lifetime guarantee? Our ambergris was youth. When I’m ninety and sick in bed with pneumonia, my body beginning to end, I could slip into a scene from my childhood and it could be yours. Even if all the years in between are unaccounted for, there’d still be that portal open to us, singing, on a note as high and clear as our girlish laughter. Dark beach nights, riding on the back of dirt bikes through cane fields, singing to anthems in cars as indestructible as ourselves. Impressionist afternoons, soaking up warm rain out the back of friendly waves, on creamy boards as slender and shapely as our bodies. Will you be there when I return? When I leave the buoyancy of my board to duck my head under those waves for the last time, will you be sitting beside me? I want to talk to you, before I go. I want to see you as you were, backlit, sun through cloud through golden hair. I want to ask you: where did all your other pieces land? I’m selfishly unselfish. I want to know that they fell on fertile ground. That one of them came to rest by a tree that gave your soul shade.

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Things you did better than me: dancing, drumming, impersonations, loyalty. Things I did better than you: laughing, speaking, boys. On sleepovers we’d quote movies – hand-me-down favourites from our sisters. You’d fire them off, pitch perfect, for me to fumble over, laughing, half-caring. In so many things you hung back but in this you were animated and bold. You were gifted at pretence and strangely enough, I felt like that was the closest we ever came to you, the real you, when you became other people. Everyone’s becoming something at that age: you were busy becoming a mystery.

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I didn’t see you, that one time I came back on the train, kept company by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. What line would you have quoted from that movie, I wonder? Actually, perhaps that’s not a fair question.

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Three times since, our paths have crossed. In the same way that I was never too bothered, never too precise, with the movie lines, I have forgotten the order they happened in. This speaks of some vanity on my part, I know. A flaw in my character that believes it is above such procedural accounting for, for which I am sorry. Scene One (or is it two?): my wedding. Scene Two (or is it one?): an ambulance ride. Scene Three: you meeting my first-born in a fast food line. My recollections from these are flowers struggling to push up through the thick cement laid by everyday life. You left my wedding early, on the back of a motorcycle. You had that familiar, embarrassed look on your face when I startled you in line and presented you with my child (now, looking back, I begin to suspect it was never embarrassment. I begin to suspect that this was just my crass interpretation of a feeling I neither understood nor expected). The day you came down, and we met you to go skating by an alien beach, those hours the closest we ever came to the sun-drenched past. And then you fell off. You went down, your head hitting the road hard. No helmet. For the second time in our history, you precipitated my state of shock. For the second time in our history, we shared a torturous car ride. This one came with flashing lights, and stern lectures, and blood, and you were unconscious, thrashing every time you heard my voice as if it pained you extra. Still, as old as I grew in that ambulance, it was never so bad nor so bloody as that night, that other ride.

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I’m the proud owner of a suburban backyard. A real one. A recent flush of rain after years of drought has made it look like a carpet of green rolled out especially for the children and they’re off, shrieking happily. Doing what comes naturally. I decide to lie back and cloud watch, rejoicing at the opportunity for idleness. A magpie flies directly over me, fifty metres above. I watch its belly glide past; how its wings appear to move forwards and back, not up and down. It looks – actually, remarkably – like a fish. A black and white fish, swimming in the blue. This is strange for me. Not for the bird, who is doing what comes naturally, but for me who has never seen it like this before.

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As my move to the city approached I found myself growing impatient, excited. I swam more, I laughed more, I walked the familiar streets more. I also noticed, more and more, that you were struggling. Never one for physical affection, you gave tight, brief hugs that felt like they’d been ripped from you. I, of course, gathered these up like roses thrown on stage at curtain call, thinking they were for me, not realising they were for you. You became erratic, possessed by some terrible information you wouldn’t share. Not until the last night, you said. I was led to believe the secret was an identity; a lover. As the days dwindled down to single digits, your mood became darker. I suspected an affair; I compiled impossible lists of older married men. But while the compass needle twitched, diverted in this direction now and then, mostly it stayed true. I was so busy thinking of my new beginnings, I was completely unprepared for the end.

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The car was full that night. Full of friends, full of memories, full of last times. You were so familiar to me in that semi-darkness. Our last moment of closeness, did you know it then? The strobed streetlight highlighted then shadowed the embarrassment-that-was-never-embarrassment on your face. Seconds before leaving the lighted sprawl, you gave me the piece of paper. Such a light thing to carry so much weight. I looked down and saw your truth written there, a scrawl, a banner, a signature on the death certificate.

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Years ago, you got up the courage to tell me, in the back seat of a crowded car, on your last opportunity to do so, that you loved me. Not the easy, rolling-wave love of sisterhood – the drifting, tugging current I’d imagined flowed between us all these years – but a sharp and precise and expectant love. You were quoting lines from a movie I’d never seen. I couldn’t give you the right answer. I stared at the magpie flying like a fish and I shot it from the sky.

 

Jessica Lim is based in Ipswich, Queensland. A former journalist and photographer, she writes short, serious things and longer, less-serious middle-grade things and can be found at jessicalimauthor.com. Or on the ‘gram. 

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