I never had a sister.
Okay, so I did have a sister. She just died before she was born. No one talked about her, because sometimes a family looks ahead and sees through a veil into another universe where tomorrow is a given. But then we end up not living in that reality, and it creates a terrible break in our brains.
Her name was Sarah.
My dad finally told me her name on the deep black road between Omaha and Chicago, on my return to college for junior year. The name unraveled from my dad’s tired mouth as his brain tried everything to stay awake on I-80.
There was a sinking in my stomach when my dad dropped me off in front of my Edgewater apartment.
She’d never had a name before. I’d never looked to the side of my timeline to see that parallel universe, one where Sarah was there and I wasn’t alone. I did think about all the ways I would have loved her.
When she showed up at my door three weeks later, I recognized her immediately.
Blonde curly hair. Big brown eyes. There was an uncanny resemblance. We were related, but she was something completely different than who I was.
“Sarah, right?” I said, like I was greeting a roommate’s subletter. Like we’d been texting this whole time and I knew she would show up eventually.
“Jenna?” she said.
“This is weird,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
She looked to the kitchen behind me. “Can I come in?”
So, she came in and we stood in the kitchen. There wasn’t anywhere to sit, but I was afraid if I moved further into the apartment, she would disappear like one of those ghosts on British surveillance tapes. Eventually, she moved to the living room and I followed. I numbly sat on the overstuffed couch my girlfriend and I found outside in the alley. I’d named it Wilbur, because it was a runt we’d salvaged and given new life.
This detail of my college apartment was real. Sarah couldn’t be.
“So,” she said. “I, uh . . . I guess I made it.”
She said it calmly, in a voice I’d heard on recordings of me singing, or maybe it was my brother Levi’s voice before it dropped and he stopped talking to me.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Made it? Where? What . . . how?”
“I’m in the universe next door, just like Dad said,” she said. Uh, Dad hadn’t said any such thing to me. “He told me about you on the trip back to college.”
“Huh,” I said. “I had a similar conversation.” How weird we both would have ended up in Chicago.
“No,” she clarified like she could hear what I was thinking. “I didn’t go to college in Chicago. I was in Kearney.”
Kearney, the same university I literally flipped off on a college tour. I got the acceptance letter to DePaul on my cell phone just as we finished looking at the dorms. My future was sealed, safe from a state school, safe from Nebraska.
I wondered how that moment was for Sarah, when she decided on Kearney. Maybe she liked Kearney. Maybe Nebraska was her Edgewater; a haven. A home.
“What did Dad tell you?” Sarah said.
I told her about the secret whispered in the dark of I-80 as we sped through Iowa. My dad explaining how there was a miscarriage. How Mom had blocked it out. How Sarah had existed long enough to be named Sarah. She was a promise that never came true.
Sarah looked sick. She looked down at her own hands, and then at mine as I curled my fingers around a cup of hot cocoa and sank into the couch next to her. Two bodies that were meant to always sit on couches together, but never had.
“You were kidnapped in my world,” Sarah said. “When you were a toddler, they lost you at a diner. And then . . . I don’t know, did that not happen here?”
I slowly remembered a small moment when my family was at a diner, just me and Mom and Dad, and I was putting coins in the jukebox and some dude in a black coat came up and took my hand and said to go outside with him. But I also remembered Dad grabbing me in the parking lot, screaming at the stranger, yelling at me with tears on his nose and lips that I was so stupid, so so stupid.
“And then they had me,” Sarah said.
The idea of me being dead in another universe hadn’t ever occurred to me. I mean, sure, there was the time where I slipped on the ice and nearly cracked my head open, the time I had really bad pneumonia, but death wasn’t tangible, just theoretical. Here was my undead sister telling me a real tragedy had happened. She was the sister of a murdered child.
“He showed me pictures,” Sarah said, “and so I had to meet you.”
“How?” I said. “How did you get here?”
“I found my way,” Sarah said. “I’m a quantum physicist.”
“In undergrad? At Kearney?” I said.
Sarah raised her eyebrow, one eyebrow, just like I did. Just like Belle did in Beauty and the Beast, which she probably had seen, although I couldn’t be sure. “I . . . I’m not in college anymore,” she said. “This was a conversation a long time ago.”
“You look young.”
“I get that a lot,” she said. “You probably do, too. You look like you’re fifteen.”
I did always get carded when I went to the movies. It had become a joke with my friends.
“So tell me about you,” Sarah said. “Tell me about what you do. Everything.”
I told her I was going to a theatre conservatory and learning how to write. I told her all the cool shit I was doing in theaters all over town, all the friends I’d made, and all the daring things I’d done. I expected to feel relieved, telling her all these things. Like a Jimmy Eat World song with some chorus about long lost people being proud of me. But she was a stranger. She hadn’t known me to begin with. How could she be proud?
No, she was my sister. She’d come all this way to see me.
What I saw on her face was pride. Something like pride. Maybe relief that somewhere out there, the little girl who’d been killed had grown up to be a functioning artist in the big city. Or at least a semi-functioning adult.
“Does Dad yell where you come from?” she said with a quiet tone that should have been saved for a secret.
“Too much,” I said. “Why?”
She shrugged. “I always wondered if he was angry all the time because he didn’t see that guy kidnap you. But I guess he’s just an angry person.”
“Does Mom ever go outside the house?” I said.
“She’s inside all the time with you, too?” she said. “Are our parents just really unhappy in every possible universe?”
We both were sobered by this.
“Do you drink?” she said.
“A little,” I said.
We decided it was time to get a drink.
And when we got home, my girlfriend was also home and was confused as all hell, but I told her, “It’s my sister come to visit.” She was hurt I’d never told her I had a sister.
I tried to explain to her that I hadn’t had a sister up to this point, but I don’t think she believed me. She was very quiet as we went to sleep. Then she was quiet for the next week as Sarah moved onto the couch. I really should have noticed the silence, but I was enveloped in a family I should have been allowed to know years ago. Ghosts from another life took precedence.
“Do you have any other siblings?” Sarah asked me the night I took her to the Thai place next door, before going downtown for the Christmas lights. My girlfriend did not come with us.
“Two brothers,” I said, breaking my chopsticks apart. “We don’t really talk. They don’t like me. We don’t fit.”
“I don’t have any other siblings,” she said. “How is it to have brothers?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. If there was something worse than not having a sister, it was having brothers.
We talked about other things. I told her about my fifth birthday when I’d gotten a bike. She told me about her fifth birthday, when she’d gotten to see Annie at Ralston Community Theater and barfed halfway through thanks to the flu. I showed her school pictures. She showed me her graduation video (she’d been commencement speaker). We realized that we both liked Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird. We laughed because we were too fake-hipster for our own good.
“Sufjan Stevens is the soundtrack to 2008 Chicago,” I said.
“Oh my God, that is the year.” She held her head. “What a hot mess.”
“It was really wonderful here,” I said. “A month ago, the President’s Victory Party was down in Grant Park? The whole city lit up brighter than Christmas.”
But Sarah didn’t say anything. She just watched me from behind her almond chicken, and then she picked at her rice with her fork.
“That happened in my world, too,” Sarah finally said. “But I voted for the other guy.”
She asked me what my favorite movies were. I said Disney. She said foreign films.
I asked her what her college was like. She told me about her sorority. She asked me about my own sorority, and I snorted water out of my nose. I instead told her about Hillel and GSA and the Disney movie viewing club I’d created for friends who didn’t want to go out on Fridays.
“GSA?” Sarah said. And then it clicked in her head. She didn’t say anything. But I knew that look. It was my father’s look when he finally realized my girlfriend was not just my roommate.
There were incongruent potholes on the path between us. I felt my heart sink, and I saw her disappointment drag her shoulders down like Mom’s did when the world was too heavy.
Our dead sisters were not the people we’d hoped to meet.
But the way her hair frizzed up like mine, the way we held each other in hugs, arms slung around shoulders, the flippant way we asked for the other to grab tampons out of our purses or the other’s bathrooms . . . there was a familiarity.
“When are you going back?” I said as we walked through the Kindermarket downtown. Chicago was lit up with a holy glow of Christmas lights, a silent chorus through the white snow floating between tall towers that pierced the low clouds and the sky beyond.
“I don’t know when I’m going back.” She shrugged. “Soon. It’s not a big deal, I won’t lose any time. I’ll just go back to the point I left. It’s your life that’s getting interrupted.”
“You could just stay here,” I said, feeling lots of awkward emotions. Part of me felt she was encroaching on my space. The other part of me felt like a missing hole had been filled with wet hot tar.
“I could,” she said. “But I don’t have a social security number in this world.”
“I’ll go to your world then,” I said. “We’ll say I didn’t die, and I was miraculously found twenty years later.” But as soon as the words slipped out of my mouth, I felt a sick sinking in my stomach and knew it was the last thing on earth I wanted to do; live in her world. Sarah was not someone I would give up my life to stand beside. I didn’t like that as a truth.
“Let’s just enjoy the time we have,” she said quietly.
We stood outside Macy’s, looking at the magical window displays. Each depicted a different happy scene of toys and Santas and even Mary Poppins. Each window was separate, but each one connected with their joy.
It was too cold to stay forever.
On the L train home, we kept talking about our separate childhoods that played out in all the same places. Dad called us both his favorite princess. Mom shared the same car rides to Blair with both daughters. We had the same room. We were parallels.
And we thought maybe, if we’d intersected, we would have loved each other.