I’m not sure when we became who we are. Once upon a time, you were little boy brother forced to play pioneer with his bossy big sister. I was the older sister assuming mom duty in our single-parent home. Our roles and relationship morphed over time. Somewhere between there and here, you became the big brother in height and depth of patience. The calm voice in the night answering panicked calls at 4:00 a.m. The Freak Out Whisperer, turning my fear into laughter.
Cheri and I traveled the West Coast together for an entire summer. The summer I started swallowing the kelly-green and yellow capsules that calmed my mind and gave me hope. The summer after I started swallowing the truth instead of speaking it.
We met through my then-boyfriend, who became my sort-of-ex-boyfriend. She was the cool hippie; I was the strange girl who didn’t quite fit into any of his boxes, with my weird clothes and bright maroon hair. Lemonheads and Tori to his Grateful Dead. Months after he introduced us, when Cheri and I had finished sniffing each other out and were no longer threatened by our differences, he orchestrated a threesome. But that next summer, the one on the road, we never touched each other like that. Our skin became familiar in another way, a sort of home base in the chaos of travel. A place to return to, more intimate than any sex we could have had. In a borrowed bathroom in Missouri, she pierced my bottom lip. It bloomed fat and red, threatening infection, making me look like I’d gone 10 rounds and lost. As if my body were refusing to completely swallow that truth.
We took turns holding each other when we cried on our way out west, each confessing the men who had hurt us, sharing one in common. It made things so tangled later, all the words she’d whispered to me in the late-night firelight, and all the things I’d learn after. Headed back to Illinois that August, asses to elbows in a Ryder truck full of hippies and their dogs, she made her confession. She told me she’d been sleeping with my sort-of-ex-boyfriend for months, long before the threesome, long before he became my sort-of-ex. She was admitting this to protect me, so I wouldn’t go back to him when we got home. But sitting crammed against strangers, feeling more alone than I ever had, a white-hot rage filled every muscle inside me, burning all words from my tongue. All I could do was crawl away from her, put bodies between us and try to keep breathing.
Later, once the truth was no longer new and had made a home in my body, it settled into my mouth, falling out easily with months of repetition. But it never lost its heat. I couldn’t understand why it kept burning my hands and slicing them open while I tried to hold it. Cheri and I agreed that it should be harmless, washed clean of poison by the intentions of the confession. I no longer pictured Cheri, with strawberry blonde dreadlocks and strong linebacker shoulders when I reenacted their sex in my head. Instead, I’d think about the little girl in the story she told me, the one playing with her doll, tricked by an evil man who called himself family. The one who was used before she knew her own body. I’d think of the way she broke down in my arms, sobbing as she told me, a child broken, both of us all the other one had at the left end of the continent. I’d think of the softest parts we’d shown each other. And I’d shame myself into forgiveness. Of course, now I see that I had to separate and choose myself. But it would be years before I stopped beating myself up for walking away from that little girl.
When my niece Katie was three, I bought her a tiny Easter bunny snow globe at Walgreens. It was in my pre-Prozac years, when my anxiety kept me from working. I was flat broke, and it was cheap. I knew she would find it cute, but I didn’t expect her to love it as much as she did. My sister told me she slept with it every night. And then one day, as small bodies often do, her little fingers lost their hold and it dropped to the floor. Broken. She was inconsolable. But Easter had passed, and I couldn’t replace it.
To this day, every time I see a snow globe I think of Katie.
Crawling on the floor, butt-ass naked except for pink no-skid socks covering my strange feet, misshapen after years of being shoved into too-small shoes, it occurred to me that maybe I do have body issues. If you’d have asked me moments before when, at my almost-lover’s request, I’d fearlessly discarded my black strapless bra and boy shorts, I’d have said nope. That I loved the soft mound of my tummy, a cushion above the sheet of muscle that runs beneath. Unstretched and uninhabited by a child: my bikini season consolation prize. That the breasts that horrified and shamed me when they arrived on my 13-year-old frame, leaving deep purple streaks in skin that couldn’t keep up, are now beloved buttermilk mounds, bearing familiar, faded stretch marks, their medium size enough for cleavage but not too much for jogging.
With my clothes in a pile on the floor, I’d shamelessly explored his body, quickly discovering its response was not one that I recognized. Having not been naked with a man in ages, I questioned my expectations. Confused, I moved up to safer territory, kissing his bald head. Seconds later, my almost-lover bolted upright, then jumped out of bed, panicked.
“This isn’t going to work!” His voice was sharp with accusation and fear as he raced to locate his clothing and started dressing. I laughed, stunned, and waiting for the punch line.
“What’s happening?” I asked. “Talk to me.”
“You were kissing my head! I don’t think you want to do this.”
“I’m a woman. We like foreplay.”
This wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. I had been stalling, nervous and unsure of his body’s response.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” he said.
“You’ve got to do what feels right for you.”
I continued to validate his feelings as I aided his escape, searching for his missing sock, wearing nothing but mine. At that moment, the humor of being shameless, bare-skin naked in his gaze, but refusing to shed my socks hit me. For all my birthday suit bravado, there I was, hiding this basic part of myself, ashamed. Like women, body issues come in all shapes and sizes.
There’s a photo from my childhood that feels like a summation. My cousin stands perfectly posed in a pretty dress. Her blonde curls hang in pigtails around her face, chubby cheeks separated by a movie-star smile. I stand next to her, my little body caught in awkward motion, plaid bell bottoms clashing with the striped shirt I insisted on pairing. My mousy brown hair, cut in a blunt bowl cut, frames my face, frozen mid-goofy expression. A mustache and goatee of chocolate are smeared around my mouth.
When we were little, my cousin, who is seven months older, had all the Barbies. And the boat. And the dream house. I loved sitting in the bedroom she shared with no one, choosing from all the boots and jumpsuits. High heels and dresses. Constantly changing clothes on all the perfect plastic bodies. At home in the room I shared with my little brother, I had one Barbie that my dad bought me. He’d let me pick it out at the dime store across from his tiny apartment above the cigar store, where all the men shared a bathroom at the end of the hall (a fact I was too small to be creeped out by). I loved her, my one Barbie. I changed her name and her clothes, though I only had one other outfit. She didn’t drive the pink convertible or embark on Love Boat, mud puddle cruises as we did at my cousin’s. But I gave her a rich life of adventure born in my overactive imagination.
When our spastic, too-crazy-for-a-trailer dog chewed one of her arms to a nub just below her shoulder, I knew I wasn't going to get a new doll anytime soon. And we’d spent hours together creating our shared life. So, teeth marks be damned, I crafted an elaborate story about the car accident she’d been in. It gave me more drama for my story lines and possibly fed my inherently dark writing sensibilities. Sometimes when I tell this story, people give me the poor-girl pity look. I know that we live in a disposable nation. But when I try to imagine life as a child who could’ve afforded to throw her away, all the muscles in my stomach seize up at the thought. My throat tightens. It’s not the money wasted. I just know I could never have given up on her like that.
I’m listening to this song on repeat. The chords and voice of a stranger somehow reflect the evolution of our sibling connection, stretching from moments of childhood to current conversations.
I miss a life lived across the hall from you, though I only realized the gift I’d been given with your birth when you were leaving for college. I wore my bravest face, the one you’ve always seen through. I waited until I crossed the hall to collapse. I knew. Even without sharp clarity of hindsight, I knew everything was about to change. Breathing our way through an invisible ending. I knew the tether would hold. But I was afraid I wouldn’t survive a life without you so close.
Come to find out, I’m a can on a string. You’re at the end.
My body was built for quarantine, for distance and space between myself and a world that often overwhelms me. I’m suited to the silence and predictability that makes managing anxiety easier. Yes, I miss the live laughter of children, breaking in New Balance Christmas shoes running down hallways to catch tiny runners. I miss hands landing lightly on my shoulder, a gesture of caring, of empathy, of being seen when shadows cross my face. I miss family gatherings, 19 voices at once, full volume, roaring with laughter, a thunderous joy, wrapped in so many hugs.
But this is my hesitant confession, an admission of privilege: I’m more afraid of “going back to normal” than I am of the virus. My nerves bounce red alert at the thought of jumping full steam back into a life I wasn’t certain of, a life that barely fits me but almost pays the bills. Three years of pushing myself nonstop, exhausting my body by stretching outside my comfort zone. New city and career, feeding myself on hopeful maybes, proud of how far I’ve come, carrying that scared girl on my back the whole way. Both of us becoming. I’d never have wished for a world hurting like this, so many loved ones snatched away by a pandemic. One heartbeat here, the next gone.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve needed this year of rest. Maybe many of us did. Weeks and months spent sitting across the table from former selves, sipping tea or slurping wine. Locking eyes and silently reminding us of the why behind the choices we question, the steps that led us here. All these echoes beneath my skin, this Russian doll waterfall of all the women I’ve been. And am still. Owning my biases and unearned advantage. Asking myself to turn the weight of useless guilt into an engine of action. Inspired and failing. Facing the fear that’s kept me separate, isolated from touch, convinced I wouldn’t survive another loss. Discerning, at last, the difference between a reason and an excuse. Deciding I’m ready to risk, to trade the plush certainty of safety for the heat and salt of unfamiliar skin. A delicious ambition.
Without this time, I’d never have considered my body’s whispered request. I’d never have noticed the breadcrumbs I’d left, absently scattered as I was leaving myself. A trip I never planned to take. I’d never have been still enough to follow them back to find myself facing the mirror, finally recognizing my reflection. This hazel-eyed girl, with the eye freckle shaped like Texas. The roadmap of lines across her face, a history written in her skin that no lotions or potions can erase.
It’s more than becoming, this strange integration.
I text you, my mind spiraling, panicking that my OCD indecision caused me to miss the opportunity for the vaccine I only want in order to protect our parents. As I surrender to my crumpled face ugly-cry, my phone lights up with the picture of us taken at our sister’s wedding.
“Hi,” I cry into the phone. Then lighter, “Just over here crying to a song that reminds me of you.”
For a split second, I wonder if you’ll judge this strange. Then remember who we are.
“Oh, yes,” you laugh. “The Weepy Serenade is my favorite.”
The corners of my lips curl up, even as tears roll past them on my cheeks. Your voice feels like home, this safe place I run to, all our history living inside our laughter.
It is one of those rare seconds where I feel the brightness of my life in real time, my breath catching at the beauty of it all. The random luck that, of all the souls in the universe, my favorites landed in my family.
You talk me down from the vaccination fiasco, and we wind our way back to a favorite memory.
Years ago, we were discussing some disagreement I was having with my mom.
“Well, you remind her of dad,” you blurted as if it were obvious. “And she divorced dad.”
I adore this story and its oft-recalled punch line of your unintentional Blunt Force Trauma Honesty.
“You were so pissed at me,” you laugh. “But you’d driven me, so you had to take me home.”
“I don’t remember being mad,” I say. I’ve wallpapered over the facts of the past with the feelings of the present.
I remember moments. You, my brother, remember details. I airbrush memories until only the brightness remains, then hang them romanticized on the wall of my mind. Then you come along, show me the footage, far messier than I remembered and always too big to fit the frame I’ve built.
I am our father’s child. You are our mother’s, tethering me to what’s real, the soil we were born from even when I’d rather take to the sky.
I don’t want a younger body. I wouldn’t trade the perspective of age for the firm tits or flat stomach of youth. What I want is a simpler body. One that feels safe and eager in seeking a vaccine, not shadowed by the fear that introducing new matter meant to protect, will be swallowed by cells and used as fuel to accelerate its tendency to destroy itself.
One that doesn’t have to wonder when the powder blue and butter yellow pills that follow breakfast might fail to protect my body from its own mind, looping in endless circles of tortured indecision and endless regret.
One whose thyroid didn’t eat itself alive, leaving a souvenir of too thin hair and the daily ritual of carefully crafted lady combover.
One without the hormones, heat, and irregular cycles that make me question my worth just as I’m stepping back into my sexuality.
One that doesn’t find a new shame to replace every one it sheds.
Sitting with my former selves in quarantine, I was tempted to search social media for people from my past. But I’m terrified to summon the part of my life with Cheri in it, reopening a chapter I struggled so hard to close. What if I become the young woman I was, losing all this ground I fought so hard to gain?
A year or so after we stopped speaking, Cheri sent a letter to my mom’s house. The return address was in Chicago. Now that I live here, sometimes I’m convinced I see her on the street.
My breath locks in my chest as I modernize her memory. I change her hair and her clothes, adding the creases of age. An ancient tangle of emotions, and uncertainty knot my stomach. Could I have tried harder to save our sisterhood?
In her letter, she returned to the borrowed bathroom in Missouri where she pierced my lip.
I’m glad you’ll always have that scar to remind you of me.
I didn’t write back. But even then, I knew that I’d never need that scar.
In our family, Katie is known as my mini-me. We possess a similar combination of creativity, silliness, and ambition. We each craved lives bigger than our hometown could hold. Both of us are third-born, and big sisters to brilliant brothers that ground us. Except eight years ago, Katie lost her little brother to suicide.
This Christmas I almost bought her a snow globe, another Walgreens cheapie. This one was big and made for adults with a shiny silver heart in the middle, glittery flakes raining down every time it was shaken.
I wanted to write her a letter. To tell her I wish I could rewind time, take her back to simpler days when heartbreak meant replaceable objects slipping through her tiny fingers, things she’d forget in time. I wanted to tell her that I’m sorry I can’t give her back what’s been lost. Little brothers who make you laugh and balance your emotional soul with their logical gravity. But when I sat to write it, I couldn’t make the words work. I couldn’t line them up in the right way to tell the story I was trying to tell. The harder I tried, the less certain I was of what that story was. Did I think a six-dollar, drug-store snow globe could be a stand-in for a baby brother? Did the space between the words hold the real story: a hidden apology that she would spend the rest of her life missing something that I still had?
Sometimes I wonder why not us. Why were we immune? I’ve called you more than once with darkness hissing so loud in my head, I truly believed the only way to silence it was to kill the host. You, the eater of secrets, judging none listened. Reminding me that the weather in my head was unreliable, would change. And I’m still here. We are still here, only a text or phone call away from each other. It makes my stomach ache to realize that no matter how old Katie gets, her little brother will always be 18.
She’s never once asked for my guilt or pity. She’s smart enough to realize it’s useless and too strong to need it. (She’s less my mini-me and more of an upgrade.) Suddenly my attempted letter seemed as silly and sentimental as the gift. When does anyone ever need a new snow globe?
But I promised myself that if I ever capture the words that flit through my mind, with or without the snow globe, I will deliver them to her like a gift.
If you ask my cousin what she sees in those old photos of our childhood, she will probably say Chubby standing next to Skinny. If you ask me, I’ll say Dream House standing next to Hand-Me-Down Trailer.
After my almost-lover closed the door leaving cartoon skid marks with his exit, I sat in the settling dust of what the fuck just happened. It will become a funny story to tell my best girlfriends, this scene from my sitcom life. Me, searching for his missing sock wearing nothing but mine as I validate his feelings. But later, hoping to understand, I puzzled the pieces together. His enroute text suggestion of immediate sex upon arrival. His body’s response when that didn’t happen. His inability to verbalize his escalating distress and frustration at the delay. His post-departure text: 100% me.
I realized the reason beneath the punch line: his own body issues. None of us are immune.
Drifting and lit in the yellow sliver of the streetlight outside my window, the snow is falling in big, fat Hollywood soundstage flakes. I watch the shimmer and shadows dance, my Gemini mind undecided if I’m watching a scene from the Upside-Down, or living inside a snow globe, shaken. If I look away and back again quickly, out of the corner of my eye, I see fireflies dancing in a winter sky. The way they used to on summer nights when the kids were small. Lighting up as tiny hands catch them, just long enough to give the names and let them go.
Maegan Gwaltney is working on a memoir about family, mental health, and grief. Follow her on IG and Twitter at @MaeG765, or check out more of her writing and live storytelling at Maegangwaltney.com.