Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I meet my sister at a Pakistani place in a bad part of the city that would get my parents pissed if they knew. It’s not just because they’re racist against Pakistani people (I blame it on the British), but because they think Sana’s in Pittsburgh majoring in pre-med right now, not at some skanky, fluorescent-lighted Asian fast-food chain in New York. Sana hadn’t bothered to tell me either. She’d only posted something at a bakery in Soho, the kind that’s made its debut on a Food Network TV show. It’s expensive and classy and fits Sana’s taste. She’s the kind of girl that likes to be in bigger places.
Before she enters the restaurant and the bells strung above the door for good fortune ring, I think about the last time I saw my sister. It must have been a year ago, at our parent’s house in Mason, Ohio. Her newfound piercings and a tattoo that wrapped around her left shoulder had frightened my parents, prompting them to ask her to consider what she was doing with her life and shouldn’t she be more careful and not everything is at easy as it seems. She left after that.
Mason’s the kind of place where people get excited when a news headline decides to visit for a day or two. One year it was a sighting of some rare Nat Geo animal in the woods, the other it was an inmate from the nearest jail gone rogue. It’s the kind of place where people like to do a whole lot of talking and not much of anything else. It’s sticky, like honey, and will wrap itself all over you if you let it. Sana left before it could.
My sister is someone I think I know. She’s someone who’s made me wonder what it means to really know someone, their roots and branches all tangled up inside. When we were younger, Sana’s hair would run down her back, thick and heavy and stubborn, frizzed up from the summer heat. And I’d sit there with the largest drugstore brush we could find, but I’d never be able to pull through the curls or loosen the knots. I’ve never been able to untangle Sana.
When it comes to sisters, they say you’re connected by birth, something to do with cells holding little pockets of you. I find it hard to believe. Sana and I have the same blood; it just flows differently.
She’s wearing a sweatshirt of some diner in the city like she’s been here all along and knows what she’s doing. It’s long enough to cover the black skirt she’s wearing underneath, the seams hugging her legs tightly. She carries herself the same way she always has, the way that got boys knocking on her window in high school, and in a way that makes everyone think she’s okay inside. I think she’s always despised me for being everything she wasn’t. I was plain, simple, boring. I pleased my parents only because I was afraid of doing anything other than what was expected of me. I was the older one, but Sana was everything I could never be.
She looks like the kind of girl they show on covers of magazines, someone who we will all melt and mold into, in a thousand or so years. She’s a little bit of everything. She has honey-blonde skin that the aunts in India praise my mother for, asking what she ate during her pregnancy as if my mother stirred beauty into her womb for nine months. In India, she’s called the American girl, someone they all flaunt over, asking for secrets and sorrows they think my sister will spill. She’s unheard of, at the time, born in a place where everything glints white as they see on the screens. Sana can scale towers with her dimensions. They think there are corners to turn and doors to open inside of her.
They were never all that wrong.
I wasn’t born in America like Sana was. I’d only arrived with my parents to a country that was more foreign to them than they would have liked, and I didn’t have enough figured out to do any differently than what my religiously middle-class immigrant parents taught me to.
I was the girl the other kids stayed away from.
Mason had clung to me. It had run underneath the soles of my feet and over the loose strands of my hair until I’d become the portrait of a child for my parents. They saw the colors I brushed across my skin and nothing else. I crawled inside cardboard boxes and duct-taped flaps shut. I spent years rolling letters off my tongue, hoping this or maybe that would work. I flailed in open air, silently, unnoticed and unheard.
Sana did as she pleased. She wrapped herself in slick film, slipped and slid through windows and doors for most of her life, the same way English rolled off her tongue, effortlessly. She’d figured out everything but herself. By the time I was twenty-one and ready to leave Mason, Sana had already left.
She orders food that’s greasy and smells too much like the flavouring from the packets my mother always refuses to cook with. It’s similar to my mother’s food in the sense that they both carry curry and spices and a false sense of home. Because what is home, really? Is home the place your cousins pity your dark skin or the place where you want to shout look to the schoolkids when you smear black marker on your skin just as they do? Is home a one-story your parents let go of their youth and dreams for, and now spend long, empty days wondering if it will ever be worth it?
Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I drown myself with wool and silk and wonder if I will ever be home.
Sana tells me she’s staying down the street in a two-bedroom one-bathroom with a girl she found off Craigslist who agreed to put off the first month’s rent. She tells me it gives her time to figure things out. I don’t ask her about Pittsburgh or college. I don’t ask her what sorts of things she needs to figure out.
My sister has been given everything. But I want to forget. I want to forget about Sana and all her dimensions. I want to forget about my parents and their one-story and sticky, hopeless Mason. I want to listen to a song they don’t call music; just hollow, empty space floating between your ears.
Instead, I tell Sana I have six months to live.
I didn’t plan for it this way. I don’t mean my death, because if we planned our deaths, I think some of us would leave far earlier than others. I mean I didn’t plan to tell Sana this way. I would be lying if I said I planned to tell her at all.
I don’t know what it is; if it’s just the cells with the little pockets they say work miracles, or because sitting in this cheap set-up in a part of New York I was taught never to be in, surrounded by food that’s supposed to remind me of home, I’m reminded my sister is more fearless than I’ll ever be.
I haven’t told anyone, I say to her. I have no one to tell.
My parents are immigrants. They believe you can earn anything you work for. My parents will spend months circling around doctors and labs and medicines that will not work. They won’t understand that disease was never meant to be a part of the American dream.
Argyria, I say. I show her a part of my wrist that is already turning grey, like the rest of my body will be in a few months. My skin is fading away, along with the rest of me, and my sister is here to watch.
Dedeepya is a high school junior from Edina, Minnesota. She is a national Scholastic Art & Writing medalist and her prose has been published in The Best Teen Writing of 2019, The New York Times, and Canvas Literary Journal, among other publications. She is an alumna of the Iowa Young Writers Studio and a member of the 2020 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, studying fiction under Elaine Hsieh Chou. She finds inspiration in busy streets and warm weather. She loves coffee mugs (although not coffee!) and long bike rides.
Michelle Dong is 14 years old and is from New York. She loves programming, design, art, and music. Her passion for website design and research led her to qualify for nationals at NHD, which is situated in Maryland. As of 2019, she won the Lowell Milken award grand prize for her website about an unsung hero, Caroline Ferriday. Her hobbies for art and music have led her to become a late-night doodler and an avid earbud breaker.