Brown Eyes, Other English

I was too untidy—that’s the reason, she said, I couldn’t live with them that fall, in that little house of theirs. That’s the reason I had to leave. That house, squeezed between the dying pub and the young family, whose newborn’s cry drifted through the walls on the first night I slept there. When I tucked my whole body underneath the blankets and hid from nothing, even though it was harder to breathe, even though I was old enough to drink in this country. It was so small, that house, I couldn’t leave a book forgotten, open on the counter, or a coat sprawled on the chair, without it feeling cluttered, without suffocating them. I was too untidy for that house, for my sister. Too careless; I scratched the stovetop making rice.

       Her english, the whispers, the shouts, before she was a sister, when her hair was still like sand, was the english of my mother, of everyone on her side of the family, for a reason I never knew, if there ever was one. My english never took that shape, the shape that’s only barely different than my own, the shape that made strangers fuss and teachers try to bury, because, of course, that must’ve been why she couldn’t spell, at that age. Even before my eyes refused to be blue any longer, when I still hid behind my mother’s legs, my english took the shape of my father’s, of my classmates’ and teachers’ and most others here. I never knew why hers didn’t. 

       I would get messages from my mother, telling me my sister’s upset that I didn’t text her back. It always was a question I had left unanswered, how were my classes going, or did I have a nice birthday, questions I answered for others so easily but somehow felt it draining to do so for her. When we were both at home, my mom would come to my room to convey the message that she was upset with me, like my sister couldn’t do her herself, like I wouldn’t be able to understand her words, and my mother was needed to translate back and forth. Years of this, of back, and forth.

      That photo of my sister with her big brown eyes in our father’s Les Miserables crewneck, where it fits her like a leaden dress and she can’t be happier about it. She’s always wanted to be an actress. To shine on West End stages, with her name amongst theatre royalty who share her home but not her pronunciation. That’s what I assumed, at least—I never asked. Instead I sat with my friend in the old CRV that my sister drove before me and found her guilty for having an unrealistic dream. Even though I, too, have an unrealistic dream and I, too, pursue it anyways, I scolded her, behind her back and across the sea. For leaving home for a nannying job in London, that I mocked she did because of him. 

        At some point, for a reason that felt so strong, so sure, but now I can’t remember, I hated England with every inch of myself. I picked fights, when my sister would visit, insulting her country and her in the process, fights that could turn into battles and leave me crying on the rocking chair with my discomfited then boyfriend sat on the ground, holding my foot while my mother talked some sense into me. She didn’t like England much, either, nor her mining hometown up north. That’s why she moved to California in the fall of ’81, why she lived against the law until Regan let her stay. She was twenty-two, just a few years older than my sister was when she moved to my mother’s birth-country. 

          That summer when she visited, where every family dinner was an intervention in some way. When my sister told me I was a sociopath, that I didn’t feel things, at least not for them. To prove her point, I didn’t even care. That was the summer I slept most nights at his house. When, over a bowl with him and his twin, I shared what I thought to be the story of my sister and me, the one about how she hates me because she resents me because she’s dyslexic and I can write. How it was that simple, why we didn’t get along. That was the summer where she told me, at the end of it, that I ruined her trip, that she couldn’t wait to go back home because of me.

       At some point, sitting on the red couch with my mother and the mutt, I told her that I didn’t feel like my sister was my sister. That she was just some person, vaguely in my life, who had the same mother as I did. That probably broke her heart, a little, like when I told her that family wasn’t the most important thing to me but that it’s fine, people have different values to each other. It drove me crazy how she just didn’t understand. 

       The first time he came to visit with her, we took the metro, just the two of us, to the Air and Space museum. After, we ate bread and soup, sitting in silence and watching cars pass — I was so young, then, it’s strange to think he’s watched me grow up. It always seemed alright, the three of us, together. An up-and-coming musical theater composer, he bridged the gap between the roles of actor and writer that we had so firmly set ourselves into. I first met him at my grandparent’s house that summer when they met, that summer when she left. When we walked through town, the air of fish, fried food, and litter in my mouth, she told me that this is the man she would marry. I believed her. 

       In London, after I had grown convinced that they both hated me, my sister took me to the Victoria and Albert museum because I didn’t go when I’d gone into the city before, and it was her favourite. Inside, all eggshell and creme, I stared up at Trajan’s column, which isn’t really Trajan’s column but an imposter made from plaster casts, and felt small. My sister told me I was acting too miserable, I had ruined our outing. On the train ride home, curled up on the seat with my sister’s knit, orange hat on my head, I tried to hide behind my legs so the other passengers couldn’t see me cry. That’s when she held my hands and begged me to go home. 

       Always, Christmas at home is my mother’s Partridge Family record, crackling from it’s forty years of turning. Her famous roast dinner, a substitute for Thanksgiving and well fit for a king, with our oldest acquaintances, who are crazy, and we love, all in front of our tree, barely green from all the spangle, with about a dozen shiny Baby’s First Christmas ornaments, each one with my sister’s birth year inscribed. But I get my justice, and cover the tree with pictures of my cherub face as I hang, front and center, some hideous craft-foam cutouts, handmade by my kindergarten self, sequins and glitter glued on around my cheeks. There is one Baby’s First ornament decorated to me — from my sister, years ago, a sleeping crescent moon with First crossed off and 12th written in sharpie. 

       I realized she wasn’t coming back the first time we visited. She’d been living there a year and was barely recognizable — I wondered if it was natural that my sister was as British as she was, after that short time. She knew so much about my mother’s birth-country that I never did, was so fully immersed in the culture I thought I had known. When she said something in an accent, I always rolled my eyes. Years later, at a Costco in Virginia, the sample lady asked my sister where she was from. She told her, with a smile.

       In the cafe where I worked, whose air was dense with the remnants of blackberry pie, good coffee and conversation, I sat in a candlelight corner with a friend. I sipped on a cup of #31 tea and talked about my sister, who was visiting, about how we were more different that two people could be. My friend was doubtful of the fact. 

      When we’d play pretend as children, it was always me at the center of the world we’d create. My sister would spend hours brewing plots that lasted years, creating, performing all types of characters to surround mine in the drama. It’s funny, that I turned out to be the writer. I think she did try to write a book, at some point. My sister, who was put in the special classes because words weren’t where they were supposed to be on the page. I don’t remember much, about that book, only that it took place on the Titanic, and that in the time that she wrote it, there were papers, notes, drafts, lying all over her room.

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