Hot Tin Roof: My sister, my stranger

Hot Tin Roof
Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: The Englert Theatre, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine.
By Tessa Solomon

I am eighteen, and my older sister’s fingers grip my hair. There’s a rip and sigh. A teapot is shrieking; someone left it simmering over a low flame. A scarlet drop rolls down my cheek. I am face down on the living room floor, and she twists my arm behind.  When I attempt to escape it groans like a gnarled branch about to break. With effort, I glance at her; her pale face, partially concealed by wild, whipping streaks of her inky hair, is flushed. My hand is held in a crushing grip, tight with the fury of her manic episode.

I am eight, and a paper mache Frankenstein is chasing us through the Haunted Pretzel. Kiera holds my hand.  It’s sticky from her caramel apple.  I am not yet bigger than her, and I am trembling.  I close my eyes, but my sister’s grip keeps me from being swept away.

Her mood swings first became conspicuous in junior high school—strange bouts of narcissism followed by excessive anxiety—but these bouts were far apart, and our mother met them with the same denial that my grandmother had used in coping with her own daughter’s bouts of cruelty and sadness. Emotional instability was a curse passed down to unlucky Rivera women.

At that time, Kiera was everything I aspired to be. Three years older, she felt worlds apart. As I grappled with a gangly body and a crippling fear of The Penis, Kiera oozed grace. With dark hair undulating like sun-drenched waves, and thickly lashed hazel eyes, she was never bereft of suitors. She cycled through boys quickly, making snap judgments that left me clueless. Though she was always willing, eager even, to help me improve my appearance. When I sought to stop looking like a prepubescent boy, she patiently demonstrated her makeup techniques, gently smoothing blush along my cheekbones.

One of the first major bouts followed a falling out with one of her friends. The details are hazy; possibly, someone had called her a home wrecker (which was probably accurate).  She returned from school, her pale face bloodshot, her midnight hair snarled, and knocked into me when I tried to scurry past her in the hallway. In her room, she rampaged like a savage boar torn from its prey.

After that, her protectiveness became morbid. If I complained about gossipy friends she would advise me to sever all contact.

“Tess, you know you can do better than them,” Kiera said. She shook her head in disgust, sending shivers through her glossy hair. She reclined on our leather couch, flipping through fifty TV channels a minute.

I was chewing my nails.  “I don’t know, they’re not so bad.” I mumbled. “And the whole no friend thing isn’t working so great for you.” Immediately, I bit my lip. Kiera shot up and grabbed my arm, wrenching my hand from my mouth.

“Yeah and I am happier now,” she said, “You won’t have someone to sit with at the big game, who cares. They’re fucking basic.”  Then, in a harsh whisper, “It’s better to be alone that have friends like that.”

I am fourteen and high on my first boyfriend. Kiera pulls me close and whispers, “If he ever hurts you I’ll kill him.” Wildfire burns in her forest green eyes. He breaks up with me after I respond to his declaration of love with a comment on the rain. I do not tell Kiera.

Episodes that had been spread months apart started exploding with alarming proximity.  During her moments of clarity, time with her was more memorable and exciting than with any of my other friends. My idolization started to fade when I entered high school, and I began to develop tastes independent from hers. But I still looked to her for advice on clothes, boys (who only now where tolerable), and music—she had shown me The Cure, an undying love. Kiera had been the pioneer into the hip wilderness, and I had traced her steps with reverence. I first set up a Facebook profile (yeah, long time ago) on Kiera’s laptop, sprawled on the edge of her bed. She was lying on the other side, paging through Ghost World.

“What kind of things do you make statuses about?” I asked.

She put her book down, not checking the page number, and gave me a thoughtful stare.

“Well, you can do song lyrics, or just say how your day was. Just don’t make it too long.” She blinked once at me, and picked up a wrinkled Teen Vogue.

“’Kay, thanks,” I said, relieved and surprised that she hadn’t mocked what I was sure was a stupid question.

I am nine, sitting on my bed, wiping persistent tears. Kiera ducks her head in. “Mom can be mean,” Kiera says, perching next to me; “you’re not stupid for not knowing where Paraguay is.” I nod. She tugs one of curls. “Just ignore her when she gets like that. It never lasts”

Sometimes I felt that she enjoyed her outbursts too much and looked for excuses to release her frustration. At the same time, I felt I was also losing my last ally against our mother, who still experienced her own savage swings. Departing for college became a glittering escape I longed for, yet I couldn’t leave Kiera and my mother cold turkey.  I still love Kiera. I doubt I would have discovered my own individuality without her influence. Also, sometime during our growing up, I grew into the older sister. I felt drawn towards the same instability (there’s safety in lashing out at family), but her instability forced me into the role of the more responsible daughter.  I indulged in becoming a second mother who fretted over Kiera’s future, who felt a responsibility to try to support her. Though I would never admit it to her, I have relished and despised the maternal instincts that were born from watching my idol unravel at the seams.

I am five, eight, ten, fourteen, and when a subtle light shines, when the mood is a precarious perfect her black hair ripples, she is a beauty far past my atmosphere, my solar system. I am six, nine, thirteen, and my big sister is everything I want to be, everything out of reach.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 173

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