*Featured Artwork: “Spring Cleaning for the Soul” mixed media by Elle Powell.
My sister and I grew up in a neighborhood of townhouses, somewhere between a perching ground for immigrant families and a waiting room for the oldest souls you could find in town.
It was a pretty diverse place.
The house we grew up in was like any other. We didn’t own the building, nor did we own the land, but in a matter of years it felt like we owned the neighborhood. In the summertime, that house was little more than a rest-stop—mornings were spent conquering new forests, evenings flirting with fireflies and snacking on convenience-store ice creams. We drew circles in the dirt for every new forest and back way, dreamt up worlds like they were ours to command and taunted geese like old game. We collected mosquito bites like itchy spoils of war, scraped knees and dirtied palms like armor on our backs. That neighborhood was our prize, our empire. It gave us little incentive to ever go inside.
There was a never ending list of odd characters in that neighborhood, characters we sought to understand but often resorted to simply noting down by a few cautionary adjectives. There was the senile woman next door—the woman who often peered at us through her drooping yellow blinds at night, who poured soggy raspberries into soggier oatmeal and rarely stepped further than a foot outside her house. When the evening was lonely enough, my mother brought her tea, newspapers, and conversation. She told us to have pity on that woman, for she was all alone—her sons grown and selfish, her husband long dead. She told us to stay far away from that woman.
There was the lively Sikh family across the bend, their turbans and tresses wild in the summer wind, eyes and lips stretched wider than my family’s ever managed to. Each Diwali1, they asked our family to join theirs, and each Diwali1, we peeked with wide eyes through their wider windows—each one strewn with lights shaped like stars. My mother kept me close to earth. Their family was too together, too perfect, she told me, and perfect families will never want the company of broken ones. We celebrated Diwali1 alone.
Then there was that boring little girl who knocked on our door each summer day, water bottle in one hand and a budding superiority complex in the other. She had straight hair like a model’s, personality like a Barbie’s, and I strongly disliked that girl. I liked to think I strongly disliked her for her never ending arsenal of questions, answers, and more questions, punctuation shaped like prying fingers. Her chin pointed further up into the air with each detail she was able to pluck from my hands, which gripped with tender protectiveness the delicate tangle that was my life.
I resented that girl so much I cried for that girl; so much that I locked myself in her own bathroom, swearing I wasn’t crying, she was crying, swearing I didn’t care, who cared?, asking myself what the point of opening the door again even was. Her questions persisted less after that; her chin stayed pointing to the heavens.
My sister and I adapted, shifting to the next house and the one beside that, but time seemed to move quicker than our feet could, and summertime never lasted as long as we wished. September treated us like chided pirates, and we retreated to our shared bedroom and drew new maps, this time of our own household; the characters we found here were entirely different.
My father was a villain, in my eyes. Black and white, a villain. It was only the most logical conclusion; he looked the perfect part, with sunken eyes, collapsing forehead, and paths of stubble that wrapped around his face like gravel. His actions did little to prove me wrong either. He brewed lies like fine wine and arguments like cheap beer, and the trail of broken glasses he left in his wake convinced me of one thing: that man was E-V-I-L, evil.
My mother wasn’t as easy to crack. Her actions contradicted her words, her words her face, her face her mood. Sometimes I feared she was closer to the brink than that batty old woman next door, and sometimes I feared she judged our family more than that Sikh family or the boring-girl.
When she wasn’t working, she cooked, and when she wasn’t cooking, she mended beautiful saris2 she hadn’t used in years. My sister and I were careful not to ask her why; my mother’s happiness, after all, was scripted on a contract of compromise. She would scream at us one moment and hold us close to her heart the next, and we couldn’t blame her for either. We reminded her too much of our father.
Our house was filled with lackings. We lacked food, we lacked money, my mother seemed to constantly lack patience. And what we didn’t lack we didn’t want—cockroaches in brand new bags of daal3, rude children my mother convinced us we needed to get along with, if just for the extra five dollars babysitting earned her each hour. We drowned in that which dragged us down further.
Then the neighborhood became less inviting as well. Kids didn’t come out to play as much—or maybe it was we who stopped opening our doors. The geese returned seasonally as they always had, but I watched from a window sill instead. My sister scoffed at my childish behavior, grabbed another philosopher off the bookshelf and told me to start thinking for myself.
I began pouring more of my attention into school—a scary new thing, as school was a breeding ground for bacteria and troubled children. I pushed myself to move and talk as I had remembered my sister once doing, imagined her palm in mine as I took each leap further into foreign territory. I found myself exploring the paths and back ways of the school the way I did that neighborhood, and it worked. It seemed to earn me friends and respect, and soon moving and talking made way for exploring, finding, flying. Soon my house and my neighborhood didn’t seem to matter as much, no matter how much they tried to overlap into my new life. What those green-turban boys in the neighborhood judged me for, the kids at school would never have to know about. I rarely saw boring-girl around as much, and when I did, I made sure to point my chin up higher than hers.
I laughed louder, cried less. My father eventually left. My sister and I each sealed our own tight gauze over that wound and continued moving, like a tangled flock of geese, toward a future we couldn’t see. We told ourselves happiness wasn’t a now, but a future to be earned, and hell, did we work to earn it.
We grew independent over the years, with wider smiles and smarter tongues, across starkly different avenues. We separated. We broke. My mother stopped mending old saris and began buying new ones. I stopped saying I love you—in fact I stopped saying much of anything to her at all. We scattered in the wind amidst our respective journeys—I can’t remember the last time my sister and I conquered something side by side. I can’t remember the feel of her guiding palm against my sweaty one, or the courage she used to inspire in me. I can’t remember the last time my mother likened me to my father, or went to speak to that woman next door. I can’t remember the empire we built from scratch.
I can only remember two girls, a house, and the women who eventually stepped outside its doors.
1 The Hindu festival of lights, celebrating the everlasting triumph of light over darkness.
2 (plural) Traditionally female garment of clothing worn in India. Consists of a large stretch of fabric to bed wrapped around a woman’s body and tucked into an underskirt.
3 A staple food eaten in various parts of India; most commonly known as “lentils” in English.