In the pictures of us from another age, we hold onto each other. I’m usually in the middle. There is a hand on my shoulder, or around my waist, and the details of my 8-year-old dungarees are obscured by the fact that I can’t be a body on my own. I’m holding my younger sister. I am being held by my older sister. We look into the camera and all of our limbs are our own, and the camera flashes, and we move together. In another age, we used to do that all the time. Over late-night conversations, five-second arguments, film marathons, stories of first-ever crushes, and borrowing each other’s clothes. With just a few years between us, my sisters and I made up worlds together. “You’re the storyteller, Mariam,” They’d say to me, giving me all the details of their own lives to turn into something good; into more childhood projects we now look back on and laugh at. I’d grin and hide my notebooks, silently appreciating the way we’d stretch our imaginations to turn our feelings into fiction. But there is more than one way to tell a story; or become different ones. And it doesn’t always involve choice.
We stopped being children when our voices stopped saying the same thing, and there it was: our new worlds, whirring and spinning and bursting together. Three sister planets, separate but always bound by similarity. This was the reality of us, growing up: how we’d always be sisters. It’s now that I know it was the most brilliant stroke of luck which allowed us to be best friends, too.
The last time we argued happened a week ago. The feeling is fresh, like the smell of cut grass in our garden during those summers we wiled away our time playing badminton. The argument left us in the same room, cooling down, with years of shared existence between us and three pairs of eyes staring at three different phone screens. It was the most stoic of silences, much more cutting than the slam of a door, and I was in the wrong. The difference of who I’d become after my years at university in a different town smacked my sisters’ in the face and the facts of us, moving on and away from each other, were not ignorable. My older sister accepted a call from her fiancé. My younger sister broke the tension by laughing at something a friend had sent her. And none of us, though caught in something difficult, left the room. The walls watched us move in the same place as different people.
I realized my apology as part of my habit of grieving us as those children, stuck to one another, in our baby photographs. But we couldn’t be destined to be shadows of each other forever. We weren’t. And, in our ever-increasing arguments, it shows.
There is a monster, in Greek mythology, that my mother always laughs at. “Look,” She says when a re-run of the vintage classic Jason and the Argonauts is on TV. Jason cuts through one of the necks of the hydra. “It’s you three.” It doesn’t matter that it has seven heads, instead of three. The important part is in the way that the heads grow back, stronger and more in number. They keep growing back no matter what. Jason’s hacking, irresponsible sword, feels to me like my hacking, irresponsible expectations to keep everything the same: it bites like the realisation that I can’t expect my sisters and I to have the same political opinions, the same personal opinions, the same shared, worn-out personality that came from consuming the same songs, books, films as kids anymore.
“You’re the storyteller, Mariam.” They repeat, clutching their personal truths to their chest whilst letting me exercise mine. And the fear about whether they could hate my truths swells at the possibility of us disagreeing. It swells at the idea of my first, and once only, best friends running off without me, without a single glance back, leaving me with only the pain of a freshly-halted familiarity and no promise of friendship in our blood. A betrayal of something I can’t control. An irrational fear I can’t assuage. But the only betrayal I can only really make sense of is the one that I do to myself, in misremembering. It comes with nostalgia and remembering us, in those pictures from the past, as perfect. I know now, and in every moment in which we don’t particularly like each other, that we never were. I always want us to be, though. See, with our legs crossed and our long stories, we kept out the loneliness of other difficult friendships. My sisters gave me the certainty of being understood when I understood little else. This was what had us hold each other so tightly. This is what makes me cry when I watch a film and see our faces in fictional resemblances of our relationship: in secret-keepers and confidantes, in girls who patch each other up from small and big tragedies. More than anything, there is the secret of something intimate and beautiful, long-lasting and difficult to swallow, in songs that I can only hear my sisters in. And maybe we’ll always be those girls in the car with our mother’s radio on.
Though our planets keep spinning in orbits that dance differently now, the songs stay the same. Even though we know we aren’t anymore. I hear our voices, past and present, join in at the choruses. And though I have been told, with tears rolling down my face, that it’s OK for things to change for us, I can’t help but hope that we’ll always remember the way we once were. I receive a text from a few cities over one sad Tuesday afternoon. It brims with the uncertainty of growing up. My sister asks if it’s okay that her sisters are her best friends. And at those words, hastily sent between other things, important things, things we now need to take more time to explain to each other, I can’t help but smile. Like some special form of muscle memory, our sisterhood offers us that familiar promise: we’ll always remember. And there is the ghost of a feeling on my shoulder, on my waist, my body reaching to hold, and be held. We do. ♦