Monday, November 9, 2015

Illuminations 11.9.15

“Teresa,” I say to my sister. I full-name her sometimes, despite knowing her as Tess for my entire life. She’s Teresa at school, after all. I go with it instead of arguing, because it's not my call. And because she doesn't mind being Tess at home. “It’s 11:30 at night.”

“Frick,” she says to me; she swears properly, sometimes, but she’s still sixteen, so sometimes she defaults to those substitute swears that kids use when their parents are in earshot. Not because she’s afraid of being reprimanded, but because it’s funnier that way, and I swear enough for both of us anyway. We both have school tomorrow and she gets up even earlier than me, but she doesn’t stop talking. She acknowledges that, yet again, we’re gonna be up past bedtime talking about…whatever we happen to be talking about. There’s no way to tell. Topics come up and replace each other constantly. “Anyway.”

If you’d told me a couple years back that I’d be able to carry a conversation with my little sister for merely one hour, never mind hours and hours every day to the point where our other family members routinely tell us to shut up, I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have even laughed it off. My dismissal would have been very serious, because for most of my life, we just couldn't get along.

I’ve got a big family - not at 19 Kids and Counting level but it feels that way sometimes. There’s my two parents, me, and my three younger siblings: Peter, Tess, and Xavier. The age gaps between my siblings and me range pretty widely; Peter’s two years younger, Tess four, and Xavier ten. So there have always been kids underfoot in my house. And for most of my childhood Xavier wasn’t around, so it was only the initial three of us tormenting each other all the time. Since Peter and I were older, that often translated into both of us tormenting Tess, because she was the youngest and therefore not quite up to par as a playmate, as so ordered by the ancient laws of siblinghood. She didn’t get our jokes, she didn’t like what we liked. She was the baby of the family and we simply weren’t destined to get along. Not to say we hated each other, but to me as I was growing up, Tess seemed to live in a different world than I did. And furthermore she always stole my clothes, which was (and still is!) a very serious offense.

My mom, my aunts, my grandma, everyone adult I knew who had a sister, they all told me over and over that someday it’d be different, that sisterhood was its own unique kind of relationship and soon I’d appreciate it. I distinctly recall hearing it on one occasion and responding only with a wrinkle of my nose. It was impossible. We had nothing to say to each other aside from teasing and reprimands about stolen objects.

It was probably always more an issue with me than our relationship, really. Befriending other people is a struggle for me without any common ground to start with. I latch onto shared interests, which is why so many of my friends, both in school and out of it, are fellow writers. That's my way in. Once I can pick up that thread, I can make a friend.

My sister was not my friend until we started to help each other write.

It was reluctant at first, of course, because you don’t get over years of mild distaste and unfriendliness with another person without any effort. But it kicked off when I started reading some of the stories she left open on the family computer. She almost cried as she tried to make me stop - because she thought I’d make fun of her and her work.

Maybe that was when I realized things had to change. Not consciously, perhaps. But somewhere deep down I wanted to do better for her, as her sister.

So like any know-it-all elder sibling, I helped in the best way I knew how. I read her stuff. I gave her pointers. I edited, just a little, just for grammar and phrasing. And out of that bloomed a creative partnership that’s been losing me sleep ever since. We started not just reading each other's work, but bouncing new ideas off each other, developing plots, fleshing out characters, cracking each other up inventing ridiculous scenarios and then settling down to write them. She’s laid claim to one of our ideas about a love story between a graffiti artist and a parkour expert, one we have affectionately dubbed “shitty cat face” after the graffiti artist’s signature tag in the story.

Tess’s strength is dialogue, not really worldbuilding; I have to take extensive notes before I start writing anything. Together we plot arcs like nobody’s business. I tend to get wordy in my prose, and hers is sparser; together we find a balance in tone that keeps itself moving without excluding details. We read, reread, re-reread, iron out stories to entertain and impress each other. In so many ways, she’s become my writing partner, and now I can’t imagine not talking to her for a whole day when I used to avoid her on purpose.

I'd always been "the writer" in my family, at least among my siblings - our parents were the arch-writers, raising us by the book, or rather, the books, our entire family library that takes up half our house. So it was hard for me to see Tess encroaching on that; I wondered if I'd lose my identity, if she'd overtake me, if I'd have to find something else to "be." It didn't work that way. I haven't lost who I am; I gained an ally, someone who gets it, and it's nurtured a bond I always took for granted.

“Teresa,” interrupts our mother from the dining room, eyes flashing in warning. “It is 11:45 at night.”

“We know,” we chorus, in perfect harmony.


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