My baby sister Judy and I share one imagination. It’s true, we do. Our favorite pre-bedtime activity is to trundle the comforter under our legs, then shimmy down into the cocoon. We pretend that our bed is flying through the night sky, that a railing around the bed frame prevents us from rolling off, and that the air is so, so cold but we, under the comforter, are so, so toasty. We both sigh and marvel at our contentment, submitting to sleep (real, not imagined) only minutes later. I’ve never gotten a better night’s sleep than with my sister, right after envisioning our bed in the sky together. It must be the solace that comes with knowing a kindred spirit will accompany you into the thick foliage of slumber.
In the morning, while she is still asleep, I pinch her nose and watch her mouth plop open for air. This game must be played delicately, for an extra second too much of nose-pinching will result in a very awake, very grouchy, bad-breathed, prone-to-retaliation morning companion who refuses to make banana smoothies with her sister or battle on Dance Dance Revolution until psychedelic arrows flash behind the third eye or really be agreeable in any matter at all.
In those lazy summers of five or six years ago, when every morning we awoke together ready to take on the backyard, we favored one in particular. I wrote a description of that game, Madame Mademoiselle, in my college application essay. My sister watched me compose the first draft.
“Yes, yes, Madame Mademoiselle,” I singsong in a French accent. Tippy toes support my weight, arms stretch upward to form a chalice. I turn and throw my sister a look of utter arrogance. She shrieks. And around the lawn we traipse, pretending to be Madame Mademoiselles. From behind we put on perfectly distasteful airs, but both our fronts contort into maniacal shatters of glass in the effort not to laugh.
A few months later, 13-year old Judy came to me, shyly, with her submission to a writing contest. She pressed it into my hands and dashed away. She had penned the same Madame Mademoiselle scene in her essay, but from her perspective.
“MADEMOISELLE!!!” she hollers.
Her arms go up and escape toward the ceiling. Her legs split into a perfect A, and my legs instinctively plunge toward the floor. Her fingers wiggle, and my fingers flutter like eyelashes. I prance behind her, perfectly mimicking her every pose as we flounce perpetual laps around the house. My limbs are creaking, and my voice is croaky, but as long as she dances, I dance. As long as she sings, I sing.
Our styles are really quite similar. We both have an affinity for the word “perfectly,” for the fixation on the movement of an eyelash flutter (a fixation that, I can guess, stems from childhood butterfly kisses whose tufts and cheek grazings we’ll always remember), for fleeting images rather than a concrete plot.
But the substance is different. I have emphasized the “we” aspect of the ritual. She has focused on her role as “follower,” as “obedient.” She characterizes her actions in Madame Mademoiselle as if she were compelled past any of her own “creaking” and “croaky” objections. This surprises me. In my retrospection, her part was never fixed, and certainly we played with no rules. At any moment, she could have inverted origination and imitation by marching ahead of me. To a baby sister, though, that step ahead must have seemed so transcendent of natural order that it barely touched her mind. That characterization pervades the rest of her essay. In another vignette, she writes “I long to come into the light. I long to shine in the purest of me. Without her towering over me like a baobab tree.” The baobab tree starts as a peewee, harmless weed, but if left to grow, will extend into such monstrous proportions that it splits the planet into two. A baobab must be uprooted immediately upon sight.
And so, how do I even have the right to give her advice? When my very presence suffocates her, I should reconsider any effort to mentor her.
I hand the essay back to my sister and tell her, “I have no edits for you. It’s great the way you’ve written it.” She is shocked at my lack of suggestions, which only magnifies my sense of the sudden strangeness that has snaked between us, the sense that we’ve been peering at each other through warped crystal all along. She has been hiding these revelations, and I feel cheated out of an earlier truth even if I had been doing part of the cheating.
The year I leave for college, when I do finally uproot myself, our family moves to China. The distance between my sister and me becomes 7,300 miles, and we do not keep in touch as I had thought we would.
The first winter break back home, my par- ents quickly deduce that their older daughter’s prized virginity has been lost. In the kitchen, between the chestnut wood cabinets, under the anemic burn of the evening light, as I unconvincingly tried to explain why I had thought it was the right decision, through tears, as my mother rounded on me with the vicious voice of someone who speaks with love but also with the pressure of her upbringing and thousands of years of conservative sex culture, as the oven rung again and again aloud its readiness, my sister came to my rescue.
She pushed back against our parents’ concerns and patriarchal shaming more articulately than I ever could have. After the passage of four months, I barely recognized her, this woman who is not only physically, but emotionally stronger than I am.
Judy was not mine anymore—no longer predictably familiar in her cute infantility, no longer the baby sister of my memories—mine to expect from, mine to store remnants of childhood in, mine to tender or whatever it means to possess another human being. I didn’t know if I liked it. But I also did not have a choice.