"What the hell is this?" Claudia Kishi's voice is shrill and hysterical. She is standing in front of your computer, hands placed firmly on her hips, wearing a sun earring in her left ear and a matching moon in her right. You avoided commenting on the fact that proportionately the moon really shouldn't have been the same size as the sun, or using these earrings as a springboard for discussing the role of the sun and the moon in mythology and religion. You avoided commenting on the fact that the bright yellow boots with grinning sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphic suns are the sort of item you would never in a million years – no hyperbole here, truly you feel that if you were to live a million years those boots would still be hopelessly embarrassing – put on your feet. You are trying.
And your sister, standing there, fifteen and more beautiful than you'll ever be, is clearly not.
You take a deep breath before you speak. "I left the room for" – you check your watch – "sixteen minutes, to get a coffee and a herbal tea. I explained to you where everything was, and pointed out which drawers were free for your things, should you wish to unpack and not live out of a suitcase for the entire weekend. I suggested you make yourself comfortable, which does not, I am sorry to report, equal going through the files on my computer and reading private documents. It is a complete violation of my trust, not to mention the unspoken social norms which I had thought you, of all people, would be familiar with and wish to adhere to . . ."
She is sulky. "Can't you just talk like a normal person?" And this is absurd, and you have always suspected she says things like this not because she doesn't understand you, but because she wants to reinforce your sense of difference. You can't find the cool slang words to express what you want to say, and you know you'd feel self-conscious using them, anyway.
You opt for the simplest way you can think to put it, and it comes out more screechy and less calm than you would like: "I can't believe you read my story!"
"I can't believe you wrote it," she retorts. "Now that's one of those volitions –"
"Violations," you correct automatically.
" – of trust," she finishes triumphantly. And then she glares at you and turns on her heel in those ridiculous boots, and walks out.
This means, of course, that you have to follow her, because you are the older sister and your parents will kill you – you think quite possibly literally as well as figuratively – if you lose your younger sister on her first visit to see you, now an allegedly mature college student.
Your mom and dad say that you've been ready for college since the day you started kindergarten. That you were practically born ready. You are the sensible daughter in the family, and you should be completely at home in this new environment.
In the two minute head start that Claudia has on you, she has managed to make herself more at home than you have since you moved in, talking to the sort of boy who you think most girls of your age would probably find 'cute'. You approach them in disbelief, wondering how on earth she is capable of this, and then wondering why you are in the least bit surprised.
"Claudia," you say sharply, and she appears to have some kind of temporary deafness. Pointedly ignoring you. How childish.
But then again, there is nothing childish about the way she is talking to this boy, playing with her hair and laughing and smiling as though it's the easiest thing in the world to do.
And so you wait, quietly, watching, until she finally looks over at you and sees that you are still there, and after an exchanging of phone numbers with the boy, returns to you.
"You can't go running off like that," you say to her, and as you say it you know how silly it is to say this to her. She's younger than you and already she's seen more of the world than you have, maybe more than you ever will. Claudia can take care of herself. She has handled the kind of situations you can't ever imagine being in. She doesn't need her big sister watching over her every move.
She doesn't say anything, just follows you back to your room, where she sits down on your home-for-the-weekend roommate's bed and pulls out a sketch pad and begins to draw.
You watch her for a moment, and then return to the comfort of your computer, the moving of your fingers over the keys. There is always another assignment due, another deadline around the corner.
You wish someone had told you before you came here that taking college-level classes or winning prizes or being top of the class in your small-town school meant nothing. It is expected, not unusual. You wish someone had told you that it wasn't a choice between being smart and being sociable: everyone you see seems to be managing to be both at the same time. You wonder, sometimes, whether they ever sleep.
You think, as you so often do these days, about Emma in your writing class, blonde and beautiful and elegant and effortlessly brilliant when it comes to putting a story or an essay together. Part of you wants to be just like her, or maybe just to be her friend or her confidante. You still have barely exchanged more than two words with her.
You are trying to be well-rounded. Or, rather, the college is insisting that you be well-rounded. Never mind that you know, already, where your strengths lie. They want to exploit your weaknesses. They want to make people take classes in as many areas as possible. They want to make you feel small and scared and inferior.
Claudia holds up the page, a rapid rendering of the view from the window in pencil. "Well?" she says, and you are not quite sure what she means.
"Well, what?" you finally say.
"Well, is it mediocre enough for your taste?" she spits out.
You are surprised that she understands the word mediocre, an echo from the days when you had to sit down with her once a week and help her with her painfully simple homework, and then you feel guilty. And you are also confused. "What do you –"
But her lower lip is wobbling the way it used to when she was little, and you see. The story. That damn story. (Don't curse, you remind yourself. It's the lazy way of articulating your responses.)
"It's not about you," you say.
"Of course it is. I mean, it's not me exactly, but it's an artist, and she thinks she's great, and then she isn't, and she wishes she was more like her sister, and I might be stupid, Janine, I might not be able to figure out all that metaphor and simile stuff, but I know that it's me."
"It's not you," you say, and you are alarmed to find the tears ready to fall. This was supposed to be the weekend that would make things better, remind you of your life before college began, not make you cry.
You are supposed to be good at college. You are supposed to be fitting in here. This is supposed to be where you belong. You are not supposed to be tearing your hair out (figuratively, for now) over classes that you thought would be a nice break of pace from everything else in your schedule. You are not supposed to be watching Emma or wishing that it all came easily for you.
You can't remember the last time you had to struggle with any part of life inside the walls of a classroom.
"I had to write about –" You pause, blink, and start again. "I couldn't write about me. Our instructor is – so utterly scathing about anything that seems vaguely autobiographical. And I'm evidently not in the least bit artistic. In the visual sense, of course, but just generally, also, and –"
Claudia is watching you carefully, and you're not sure whether she understands. "The girl in your story wants to be like her sister," she says, finally. "And I never – I mean, it's not that I don't wish I was smart like you. I just – I'm glad I'm me. I like being me."
You smile, weakly. It's not a surprise, really, is it? You've always known this. Claudia has never wanted to be like you. And you, even though you are not quite sure whether you would give up being smart, give up that IQ score that keeps you going late at night when everyone else is partying, you have always wished you were that little bit more comfortable around people.
You remember, suddenly, your grandmother dying, and sitting in Claudia's room surrounded by her friends, thirteen-year-olds and eleven-year-olds, having no-one else to turn to. Claudia's always had an entire world of friends.
"I know," you say. "I know that. I just wanted to write something that I understood. Something I knew. And I know what it's like to be jealous of your sister."
You have said something along these lines to Claudia more than once in the past number of years. And it is amazing the way she never quite seems to believe you. "I can't believe you could ever be jealous of me," she says.
"Look at the way you were talking to that boy!" It comes out sounding more prudish than you intend, and you wince when you hear yourself. "I mean, you just seemed to find it so easy."
"It's always easy to talking people you don't have a crush on," Claudia says as though it's obvious. "When it comes to guys I do like, I get shy and can't think of anything to say." She grins sheepishly.
You have to clear your throat before the words come. "I know what you mean."
"You should write a mystery," Claudia says, skipping dizzily into the next topic as she leaps across the room and looks over your shoulder. "For your story. I bet the rest of the class would love it."
"I don't think I could." But you have to smile at this enduring love for mysteries, and it reminds you of her other vice. You open up the desk drawer with your candy stash, no longer needing to be hidden carefully from disapproving parents, and gesture towards it.
Claudia dives in. "Now this is why college seems like a good idea," she says, tearing open a bag of M&Ms.
You can't write a mystery. You are hopeless at putting the pieces together. You wonder if Claudia would be the kind of girl that Emma might – if she even – if you were more like your sister – then –
You bite your lip. "How's school?" you ask, more as a way to distract yourself than anything else.
Claudia shrugs. "It's hard," she says. "Like that's new, right?"
You nod. "How's your art going?"
At this her face lights up, and she talks and talks while you try to listen and nod at the right places. You know enough about art at this point to write about it in a story, enough to understand Claudia's shorthand, just not enough to be artistic or creative. Just not enough to write something that will be clever enough for your instructor and real and beautiful enough to impress Emma.
Maybe later you will ask Claudia about how she talks to new people. New friends, you will say, and not make it obvious. Not yet.
But already you know that she is the first one you will tell, when you figure all of this out. And you watch your little sister chatter on excitedly and you smile.
Perhaps this will be the weekend that makes a difference, after all.