I’m not often decisive, and that’s a fact.
But occasionally, I’m marginally organized. This is one of those times, and I’ve decided that before we go any farther, I need to tell you about my sister.
From my junior year on, she’s with me pretty much all the time and yet, in the course of my daily notations, I hardly ever write about her. I mean, I do write about her—I write down her contributions to various conversations, or what she was wearing or funny things she’s said. If we go somewhere together, I mention that she was there.
But the thing is, I don’t study her or plumb the depths of her psyche or speculate on her hopes and dreams, because I feel like I already know her. I never feel disconnected or worry that I’ll forget something important about her, because forgetting her seems impossible, like forgetting my own name, and even though I’m a year older, as far as my particular worldview is concerned, she has never not been there.
Little Sister Yovanoff is both practical and sensible. She inserts herself into tenth grade almost without a ripple, and if she’s troubled by the boredom or the noise, I don’t hear about it. If she ever wishes for excitement or worries about who she is, she keeps it to herself.
We never have poignant heart-to-hearts or confess things. We don’t tell each other our deepest darkest secrets, but looking at us from the next table or watching from across the hall, you might think we do.
From the outside, we are a united front—the Sisters Yovanoff. We can have whole conversations using nothing but eye-contact. We finish each other’s sentences. If this were a TV show, we would be those quirky, one-dimensional side characters that cult fans quote incessantly and make T-shirts of, but everyone else just kind of finds annoying.
We make up games and then play them, because it’s what we’ve always done, and because school is boring and we think arbitrary rules are funny. The games all have names like 26 Ways of Walking and Word of the Week. We have contests to see who can work nevertheless into casual conversation the most times before someone notices. We make up absurd penalties and elaborate point systems, and then completely ignore them.
I cut her hair and dye it UltraViolent Violet and buy her purple mascara.
She paints my nails glitter-pink and scolds me for improper use of eyeliner and for looking at my feet when I walk.
People are always mistaking us for neighbors, because on the surface, we aren’t even related. In fact, sometimes they think Sisters Yovanoff is just another game we’re playing—that we are best friends who like to trick our classmates into thinking that we’re relatives.
Just below the surface however, we are identical. Over the years, we’ve developed an extensive collection of tics and mannerisms—a certain way of sighing, a particular tone or signature hand-gesture. We can mimic each other almost flawlessly.
Below that, though, the similarities end. Sisters Yovanoff is a game we’re playing—we just happen to actually be sisters.
In truth, we are just as different as we look. Maybe even more. I’m fast and eclectic and vague and a little bit chaotic. She is sweet and dependable, skeptical and stubborn—a bear cub to my hummingbird. She likes arranging things, imposing order, making the world a more attractive place. I like puzzles and figuring things out.
This disparity of temperament has existed since birth. She was a cute, cuddly baby who slept often and walked early. I was a pointy, watchful child who talked constantly and never slept at all. When I was eight, I liked taking apart radios and dissecting frogs. When she was eight, she taught herself calligraphy.
As sisters, we make absolutely no sense. However, as fictional characters,* we are perfectly matched, and as an academic team, it turns out that we are kind of unstoppable. We invent farcical and pretentious term projects, and then dare each other to actually turn them in. My senior year will be characterized by a kind of manic productivity, where every presentation and essay is simply a joke with many facets.
(I suspect that my English teacher is on to me. He regards me with a certain indulgence, like maybe he is quietly amused by my antics. Or at least, he recognizes that I’m being ironic.) (Hers just thinks she’s a bonafide genius.)
We both have plastic sheriff’s badges, but hers is more realistic than mine.** Holding them up, we sometimes claim to be operating in an official capacity—officers or deputies of things that do not have formal regulation, like Common Human Decency or the Coalition to Encourage Proper Use of Pants or anything else that might be considered cynical and mildly hilarious.
Little Sister Yovanoff is excellent at pretending to be a police officer. She’s unsmiling. Resolute. If she disagrees with something or thinks it’s ridiculous, she has this unnerving way of raising her eyebrows and blinking really fast. My senior year, one of our friends will comment that Little Sister Yovanoff is the only person he knows of who can make him feel abjectly stupid simply by biting her lip.
The thing is, on a day to day basis, she is utterly familiar and even though I know that we are not interchangeable, it still seems like I’m always mistaking her for just another piece of me—this propagated clipping, cut from the main plant—and I am repeatedly mystified when it turns out the she is not, in fact . . . me.
She doesn’t listen in on people’s conversations or keep a journal that I know of, but she is permanently attached to my mom’s camera—and always has been, ever since she discovered that pictures were a thing. Maybe since before she could talk. By the time I’m out of college, I will have been the subject of literally thousands of photographs, to the point where I’m dissatisfied when other people take my picture, because they don’t do it like my sister does.
Once, when I have just been approached by my art teacher to join the yearbook staff and am feeling guilty for telling him no, we have the following conversation:
“Why don’t you be a yearbook photographer?” I asked her. “Next year, maybe. Anyone can sign up. And you actually know what you’re doing.”
She tapped her chin with one finger, like she was thinking hard about it. “I take better pictures of people I know. I wouldn’t really want to take pictures of strangers.”
I wanted to tell her they’re not strangers, that we see them everyday. But I think, sometimes, that she doesn’t.
I encourage her to join the yearbook staff because I’m still operating under the misguided assumption that she’s an extension of me and if I can talk her into taking my place, then I will have redeemed myself. She will make up for my sheer laziness and my reluctance to get involved.
I’ve only been able to find one true, uncomplicated snippet of her, one journal entry that isn’t just an observation in the context of something else (in the context of me). It happened on an afternoon in November, when we were just coming in from lunch. The moment was striking, quietly cinematic, and I wrote it down because it seemed to perfectly incapsulate her—this startling mixture of the practical and the fantastical, complicated by an underlying tenderness, like I was seeing past my daily perception to the very best parts of her.
“You know what I would do if I died tomorrow?” Little Sister Yovanoff said, looking over her shoulder at a cluster of kids smoking by the bus bench. “I’d come back as a ghost and I would stand over there—or hover or whatever—and I would blow out their lighters.”
I looked in the direction of the smokers. A thin boy with acne scars was cupping his hand around the flame, chasing it with the tip of his cigarette.
The lighter flickered out. “$%&@!” the boy said, rolling the wheel with his thumb again, trying to keep it lit.
“Maybe someone’s already over there doing it now and we just can’t see them.”
Little Sister Yovanoff shrugged. “That’s even better. They could probably use some help. I mean, look at how many lighters there are to blow out.”
“Eight?” I said. “No, wait. Some of them are sharing.”
“Anyway, I would just do that,” Little Sister Yovanoff said. “For the whole passing period. And when the two-minute bell rang, then maybe I would let them light it and maybe I wouldn’t. But two minutes is not really that long.”
I nodded. “It wouldn’t really be enough, though.”
“No.” Little Sister Yovanoff tilted her head. “But it would be something, wouldn’t it?”
For discussion: Are you close to your siblings? Do you have games or private jokes? And if you are close to them, is that the same as actually knowing them?
Also, I was thinking a lot about about this and I kind of wanted to shake things up, so today I have an actual task for you. Here is the task: I encourage you to think about someone you tend to gloss over or take for granted!
Because watching is good for us. And because underneath the everyday layer of what you expect, they might be surprising. They might be special.
*And oh, we are fictional. We are staunchly devoted to figuring out what to strive for and who to be, but we are not quite there yet.
**Largely because mine is pink.