Sister-Sister -- creative nonfiction by Maya Epstein
Sometimes, at restaurants, thighs slicked to plastic booths, the four of you get funny looks. It takes her time to understand why. You can see it in the slow bat of her eyelashes, in the crinkle between her brows. But you know, without a bat or a crinkle or a blink of the eye.
For you, the knowing is unending; day in and day out, moonshine or sun, through camera flashes and sing-alongs and knotted backs. Your forgetting comes in small spaces - it is a guilty sort of forgetting. It feels like abandoning yourself and casting yourself in stone all at once. For her, it is the opposite. Her state of forgetting is constant, unconscious - at the tetherball court, licking spatulas, brushing acrylic over chalky ceramic. It hits her (eventually) when: you get a funny look at a restaurant. When: someone asks, ‘who’s that,’ and she answers, ‘my sister,’ and they say, ‘your stepsister?’ and she says, ‘no, my sister-sister.’ When: a teacher you’ve both had guffaws at back to school night, ‘I didn’t know you were related!’ You sigh through taut (taught[learned]) smiles: your surname is not a common one.
She realizes when: it is the closing night of your show, hairsprayed, eyes glazed, and you’re walking towards the door. This is when the murmurs have just begun haunting the schoolyard. Wuhan. Sterile beds filled. Bats and pangolins and bodily fluids. You two are laughing, almost to the door, and there are a group of parents standing there. White. Plastic. Burberry. They say through sweet, too-pink tongues:
Have you heard? The Chinese disease. That’s right. I’m not eating Chinese food anytime soon. No way! Wouldn’t go near it with a ten-foot pole.
Excuse us, your sister says. They turn. To them, she is just another girl, flushed from a show well-done, rumpled in a tee and slacks. To them, you are not just a girl but a Chinese girl.
Wuhan, but you are from Guangzhou. Sterile beds. Your own is messy and unmade and filled with plush toys. The Star Wars sheets need washing. Bats and pangolins. You’ve never seen a bat, but you do have dogs you love and play with and snuggle. And what is a pangolin?
Immediately, their conversation abates. Oh no, they think, tittering, glittering, I hope she doesn’t get the wrong idea.
They needn’t worry. You get the right (wrong) idea.
Out in the parking lot, it’s cold, and you can see her frosty breath as she tiptoes over black ice. You okay? she says. You nod,
Yeah, it’s actually kind of funny.
She goes quiet for a moment, glances away, looks back. I forget sometimes, you know? she says, unlocking the car. I forget we don’t look alike. She kicks an icicle from the bumper, waiting for you to speak.
She waits. You pause.
She was only two when you were adopted, a red-faced cherub of a baby, delicate blonde curls flying haywire in the humidity. You were six months, wearing the same yellow shirt as the other girls at the orphanage. She’s grown up this way, scrubbing your nose, feeding you jello, making you laugh. You’ve grown up this way, playing house, biting her hand when she steals your Barbie, kissing her cheek before bed. She sees you for your similarities, but forgets your similarities are not all of you.
She can never understand all of you. She will never understand all of you.
These are parts of you, too, ones she doesn’t share: almond eyes (to her blue), thick hair clogging shower drains (to her fine brown), tan summer skin (to her pale half-baked challah). These parts affect your lived reality. Poppy seed in rice, blue balloon in a sea of red. These parts help her to blend, to fit effortlessly into a pair of rose-colored glasses you’ll never have the privilege to see through.
You slide into your seat, hot air blasting your hair, the whites of your eyes, your miles and miles of skin. She is in the driver’s seat, glasses foggy, lips chapped.
She reaches across, turns on your seat warmer. You offer her your chapstick. Burt’s Bees.
This is how it's always been, the two of you, parts of a whole. Blue and brown, snow and summer, naivety and awareness, yin and yang, all adding up to, if not the perfect picture, then the essence, of family. To sisterhood on your own terms.
I don’t know, you say, blowing on your hands. But I can dream.
Maya Epstein is a perpetually ink-stained seventeen-year-old from Colorado. An aspiring filmmaker, she believes diverse storytelling is key to developing a more empathetic world. You can find more of her written work published in the Canvas Literary Journal and the Blue Marble Review.