We were always hungry. We were never satisfied. We were curious, lost, desperate. We were clawing at an uncertain future we wanted to belong to us. We were six and eight, then seven and nine, eight and ten. Early nineties. The two of us, sisters. Our bodies mere slips in time, underdeveloped, flimsy. We had constant bruises from playing outside, tumbling on jungle gyms. The summer brought three months of mosquito bites and sunburns. The winter brought pale bodies that built forts out of old blankets and laundry baskets. Five minutes, five days, five months, it was all the same. Time, this strange thing, never moving fast enough. We wanted to be older. We wanted shapes to our bodies. We wanted breasts and hips, wanted smooth legs and makeup on our faces. We wanted to know the world. We wanted more, more clothes in our closets, more food on the table. We wanted to fill our bellies until they burst, but instead there was toast without jam for breakfast, school lunch of greasy ham sandwiches, salty meat for dinner. The dry toast scratched our throats and the meat came in an individual package, perfectly rectangular. The smell of it made you gag. We gathered our change and bought a chocolate bar and soda from the school’s vending machine—you preferred the soda while I tore at the chocolate—but still, sharing each of them, swishing the sweetness around in our mouths, savoring each sugary bite like it was the last we’d ever have. At home, we played music so loud it felt like our eardrums were screaming. We sang along to our favorite lyrics and danced around our room, the bed we shared our stage, feeling like we could have it all, all of it, all of the world, until the moments just before our parents came home. Still, it was never enough. Still, we ached for more.
We stood together in the shower, allowing the water to run too long as we always did, feeling the steam fill our lungs while Mom banged on the door, saying, Make it quick! You’re using up all the hot water! Laughing and clutching each other’s hands, the water pouring hot all over our straight up and down bodies, our skin red and pained, until in a flash the water turned cold, at first a welcome relief, and we stared at each other’s face and dared the other to make the first move. We wanted to win, to freeze, to feel only numbness in our bodies. Me, the youngest, always giving in first, stepping away from the water’s icy darts, never able to stand there once my skin turned blue. You with blue lips and shivering body and tiny fists in the air saying, Yes! I’m the champion again! Laughing until Mom slammed her hand against the door, threatening to call Dad. We turned the water off and noted only a hint of something in the others’ eyes, something related to fear, before we laughed, laughed so hard our bellies hurt, laughed so hard we needed to swallow our laughs, wiped away our tears, you saying, She’s gonna kill us! Shh! but laughing more nonetheless. We wrapped ourselves in towels and sat on the bathroom floor, still shaking from the cold now absorbed into our skin, tucked next to each other for warmth.
We wanted to be the women in fashion magazines. We wanted to be the women on TV. We wanted to be the women on the street in business clothes. We wanted to be the women laughing, arms wrapped around the men they loved. These women, their bodies full, their eyes knowing. We wanted to know what they knew, to understand the world in the way they did. We wanted to have babies like them and carry them around in scarves strapped to our chest. We wanted to eat the foods they ate, drink from the glasses they so elegantly brought to their lips. We wanted to be any woman anywhere, just not Mom. Mom was tired and in pain, her skin sallow, her eyelids heavy from the medication she numbed herself with. We didn’t want to be her. We didn’t want to hear her say, Girls, rub my back, and see our little hands pounding against the flesh of her low spine, next to the faded flower tattoo that we hated. We didn’t want her love with our Dad, an angry, exhausted love. We wanted only pure love, uncomplicated love, love that wrapped around you and kept you safe, kept you from needing anything else.
Once, we ran away. Mom made you so mad—who knows what about—and you came into the bedroom where I sat, brushing my Barbie’s long blonde hair, your face red, your body shaking. You threw open the closet door and pulled out the overnight bag we used when we stayed at Grandmom and Grandpop’s house, and announced that we would be leaving. “Take what you can carry!” you said, a line you learned from a TV show. We were excited, laughing. We threw in our favorite clothes and two Barbies and your Walkman and three tapes: Madonna, Alanis, and Michael, and I snuck into the bathroom to get our toothbrushes but forgot the toothpaste. We carried the bag, each taking a strap, out of the bedroom and through the hallway and past the living room where Mom laid on the couch watching her shows the way she always did, and even though you told me not to, even though you said we needed to walk straight out the door and not turn around, I looked at Mom as we left, looked her hard in the face, my anger at whatever she’d said to you permeating through my scrunched up nose, my angled eyebrows, and just as I was about to turn away, she looked right at me, and watched us go. The town we lived wasn’t a place we had been taught to fear. A neighbor would find us soon enough, I thought, but we climbed into the density of woods behind our house without anyone calling our names. We tried to make fire, but they didn’t teach you that in Girl Scouts, only in Boy Scouts. We sat together, playing with sticks in the dirt, singing songs and talking and laughing like we always did, realizing after an hour that we forgot to steal crackers from the cabinets, until it got dark and we got scared and went home. By then Dad was home, too, and we pulled our bag up onto the porch and through the front door and they were both in the living room. Dad smiled for just a second before his face hardened and he pulled his gaze back to the TV. Mom didn’t look at us. That night, I tucked into bed next to you and heard you cry. They don’t even care, you said in a hot rush of breath. For three days they tried to ignore us. Dad gave in after one. Mom didn’t.
And then, as if overnight, your body began to change, to morph, like a butterfly’s. You discovered boys, exploring them behind the red brick of the middle school, while I stayed firmly rooted in a younger grade, jealous and bewildered by your maturity. I wanted to know everything you did. In the grassy patch behind the gym, you let a boy put his hand up your shirt, down your pants, anywhere he wanted to, let him hunger for you, let him discover you, let him help you discover yourself. You came home and kept me full on details, but I still wanted more. What did it look like? I asked. What does kissing feel like? Wrinkly, you said. Wet.
One year later, reunited in your school, you were already floating away. On our walks to the bus stop, the men in the neighborhood noticed you, they called to you. They wanted to know you, to see you. I was your invisible sidekick, ready to yell at anyone if I had to. I was too loud, you said. I was too protective. Chill out, you scolded. You were becoming someone else entirely. Boys are just curious, you told me. But these were men. You pulled your shirt over your head, the one Mom saw you leave in, and tucked it away in your school bag, revealing another shirt that exposed your body from the bottom of your ribs to the top of your hips, your bellybutton a tight knot centered on your long torso. I watched your eyes like icicles stare straight ahead as they said, Take it off, girl! Shut up, asshole, you fired back gleefully.
In school, I watched you huddle with other girls I’d never seen before. You moved elegantly through the hallways, you painted your nails and flipped your hair over your shoulder just the right way. The other kids flocked around you. Teachers liked you. You didn’t even seem to care about being popular.
And me? I yearned to be you. But even more, I yearned to be us. I put socks in my bra, arched my spine when I walked, tried to be more of you. I used your makeup and straightened my hair. The other girls are boring, you said, and brought me back into your circle, the circle of just the two of us. We wore belly tops and cut-offs, drank beer with senior boys. The attention we bathed in. We needed to hear it, we needed their love, the love from all of these boys, craved it. We sipped their Coors and smoked their Newports and let them call us baby and buy us steak sandwiches and greasy pizza, which we ate in small bites in front of them, never revealing how hungry we actually were. It was the year of the cicadas. They come above ground every seventeen years just to make love, you said in a way that meant you saw poetry in this. They must be pretty horny, one of the senior boys said. We told everyone we were older. We rubbed blush on our cheeks, black on our eyes, red on our lips. She’s sixteen, you said, pointing to me. She’s eighteen, I said. Age was irrelevant, we decided. It was just time. It no longer mattered once we decided we could control it. We could do anything, we’d laugh.
You knew how to make each of these boys feel special. You’d make them want you, but let only a few in. You’d purr their names and laugh at their jokes. Boys are all the same, you said, you just have to know how to play their game. When a certain boy came around, a certain boy you liked more than the others, you looked at me with your darkened eyes and said it was time for me to go home. I crawled into our open window and repositioned the pillows we’d placed in the shape of our bodies under the covers. I fell asleep listening to the crickets chirp and heard you come in and curl next to me just as light filled the room and cicadas began to scream. We were us again until we were not.
We became adults, not the women in the magazines, not the women on TV, not even the women with briefcases, but women nonetheless. I fell in love with a quiet man who loved me deeply, and married him. You let everyone fall in love with you. You had boyfriends for different reasons, you said. An insurance man for structure, a drummer for fun, a bartender for the free drinks. You were pragmatic, undiscerning.
On a day in January, we held hands and approached Mom’s still body together. It was freezing, the sky a stressful gray. Distant relatives thought we were twins. Mom looked like loose plastic, her skin plumped up in places that didn’t make sense, more makeup on her face than we’d ever seen her wear in life. We didn’t cry. Relatives looked at us with sad eyes. Dad hugged us and said My girls, oh, my girls. We didn’t say it to out loud, but I wondered if you were thinking it too: we’d won. We hadn’t become her. She hadn’t lived long enough to see us become her.
After, we sat together in the house I owned with the man I loved, drinking glasses of chardonnay, eating expensive cheese, fancy crackers, surrounded by the beige walls with accents of chartreuse the designer I’d hired said was the thing for that year. Suddenly you stopped talking as though your breath had left you. I asked you, What is it? What’s wrong? You looked at me, smiled your older sister smile, pushed my hair behind my ear and said, You, my darling. You’ve found it. I looked at you. Found what? I asked. Your palms faced upward, gestured to the room around us. Happiness.
You moved, you were always moving. You left the state with a new man who loved you. We moved to a bigger home when I became pregnant. We transformed an office into a room with pale walls and a crib. You returned every other call I made. You sent a big package of baby-related things in the mail. You signed a note that said Hold on to it. By the time we found out the baby’s heart had stopped, we were already moved in to the new home, and the pale room became a shut door we walked by when moving from the bedroom to the bathroom in the middle of the night, scrappy fragments of dreams still lingering in our heads.
I sat at home to paint—I’d decided I wanted to become a painter—but did nothing more than stare out of a window with a blank canvas on an easel in front of me. I had stocked cabinets, granite countertops, a duplex and a two car-garage. There was food on the table, hot water in the shower that never ran cold, yoga on Saturdays, spin-class on Mondays, enough clothes to keep me warm. My husband was a kind, gentle man who worked too much. But still. I remembered what you’d said and knew you’d been wrong. I was completely, utterly empty. I hungered. I craved.
The unborn baby became something my husband and I never talked about; a silent ghost that lingered around us as we sat watching reruns on a Friday night. For weeks, the package you sent sat alone in the closed room, in case we decided we’d try again. But we didn’t.
It was easy enough to convince myself I wasn’t in love. It was easy enough to say I never wanted any of this. It wasn’t a lie to say this wasn’t how I thought it would all look. Anxiously I packed a suitcase, the way we once had, and left a note for my husband to read when he returned home from work. I moved into an apartment, ridding myself of the excesses that I thought I wanted. I found another man I’d rather be with, dove into his arms and left the only man I’d known to love me. This man was younger, a realtor who’d grown up with wealth and gained even more of it in his early twenties. During the day I tucked into a dusty, cobwebbed corner of my apartment, near a window that overlooked a parking lot, and painted awful pictures. When the man finished work he took me out for lavish dinners, and I slept with him in his bed that smelled of his cologne, and in the mornings, I returned to my apartment. I convinced myself this was happiness, that now, finally, I could tell you the truth, that I was happy. I called to tell you, hoping you’d congratulate me, hoping you’d tell me I was right, I so desperately needed you to tell me I was right. But instead your voice on the other end stopped, and I thought it was a bad connection, until you said, Why? Why on earth would you do that?
I left that man and moved on to another, still technically married to the first. I discovered black mold in a corner of my apartment. The mattress I slept on squeaked. I often cried at night. I was comforted by a teakettle I thought to take with me, my one possession from the life I’d left. But I wasn’t yet ready to return to our home, to admit defeat. I was searching for anything. The world had to be more than it was. It couldn’t merely be all I’d known it to be. The third man treated me nicely for the first three weeks, and then he didn’t. You moved home, pregnant, happy, your face glowing. You’d chosen a part-time artist, full-time teacher, for the empathy and the suffering. You were thirty-seven and defying time. You could do anything.
You visited me in my tiny apartment. Are you satisfied? I asked you. Are you happy? You tilted your head, thought about this. Happy? Yes. You said. Satisfied? Never. You looked around the room we sat in, listened as a downstairs neighbor yelled at her teenage daughter. You can hunger, you said, gently, laying your hand on top of mine, just don’t let it eat you up. We waited for the teakettle on the stove to cry out, and you stayed with me through three cups.
I could feel it happening again, you floating away from me. You had a baby to care for, a man to give your love. What will become of us? I asked you over the phone. When will we be us again? I demanded, my voice sounding strange. What do you mean? You paused. We’ve always been us, you said.
I moved home to my heartsick husband. I should be better, I told him. I looked at myself in the mirror. You’re thirty-five, I said to the mirror. You should be better by now. Life had become a vacuous space settled in between expectation and reality. But what was the expectation? What had we been preparing for? I attended weekly couples therapy and cooked big meals. I bought a dog to replace the specter of the baby. I called you less, because you were busy more. I folded myself back into my old life and you tucked happily into your new one, and time moved on in the way it always does, because what I realized is that we were wrong all those years ago: time, this strange thing, isn’t something we can control.
And so sometimes, when I think things have settled enough, when my husband leaves for work and the dishes have been put away and the dog has been walked and the house is still and quiet, I play music loud, so loud, and look at photos of us as young girls, and I stare at us, at the hunger in our eyes, at the other lives we’d craved, and I feel something catch in my throat, something that’s not really there at all, something I can’t quite cough away.
Alisha Ebling is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her fiction and essays can be seen in Junto Magazine, The Avenue, The Rumpus, Luna Luna Magazine, The Head & The Hand Press, Bangalore Review, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Dhaka Tribune, Apiary Magazine, The Stockholm Review, and other anthologies in Philadelphia and abroad. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. In her writing she explores family, femininity, and the relationships that shape us. Read her work at alishaebling.com.