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Ditches and Discernments
In the summer of 2010, I watched my sister fall into a ditch. And I didn’t help her right away.
It was a hot Greek summer, and we were visiting an archaeological museum because of course we were. My father was often mistaken for a tour guide with his unlimited knowledge of Greek mythology and archaeology, and he always filled our family vacations with museums, or hikes, or road trips. This one was no different. It was our second night in Greece after a 10-hour flight, we were jet lagged, and my mother insisted on dressing my sisters and me up in matching white outfits. At 7, 9, and 11, we were unfortunately still vulnerable to her questionable fashion choices.
My older sister had enough of this and demanded the car keys. She would rather wait in a hot car, arms crossed, rather than spend another second in the museum full of precious, dusty artifacts. I followed her eagerly--I wanted a way out, too, but wasn’t brave enough to demand it--while my little sister stayed, holding my mother’s hand obediently. Katerina stormed off, too fast for my shorter legs to keep up, and then she fell.
I heard the yelp stop in her throat and saw her arms thrust outwards. She caught herself, clinging to the edges of the circular hole in the ground that couldn’t have been more than 2 feet in diameter. It was weakly protected by a practically invisible net that wouldn’t have been able to catch a pebble without breaking.
“Help!” she yelled. She was slipping. I watched her lithe, strong little body flex and twist with the effort of staying above the hole. She wasn’t going to fall in, but she needed a hand to pull her up, and I was there to give it.
She hadn’t heard me follow her, apparently. That shocked me for a minute, and I stood even stiller. I thought I had been her sidekick, her ally in the war against my parents and the museums and the ridiculous clothing. There was nothing, no force, no magnet, holding me back, but I just didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I don’t think I wanted to see her get hurt, but I guess I wanted her white clothes to get dirty. That would upset my mother. Or maybe see her make a dusty stain in the fancy black rental car. That would make my dad’s ears blow steam.
Suddenly my parents flew past me, my little sister trailing behind. They’d heard the yells from inside. They rushed to her, pulled her up easily, just like that. I inched closer, ready to accept my punishment. My mom would call me cruel. Ella etho paliopedo, my father would say, while dragging me to the car by my ear: Come here, idiot child.
But there was nothing. I appeared before my family, and no one inquired where I had been, what I had been doing while Katerina was dangling precariously. There were more important things, like if she had broken any bones, or if her fancy white clothes were dirty, or if she had dropped the car keys down the hole.
I was interested in these prospects, but after a quick swipe across her backside and down her arms, she was clean. My father’s keychain was miraculously clutched in her palm, which was engraved with the grooves of the car and hotel room keys. There would be no calling the rental company while stranded by the museum. There would be no dusty stains on the black fabric of the car my father would grumble about. My mother wouldn’t have to angrily handwash the white dress tomorrow.
While my family traipsed towards the car, each touched Katerina in some way. My mother stroked her hair nervously. My father hand stayed clamped on her shoulder tightly. Even my sister clutched the hem of Katerina's dress as she shuffled silently behind. I hung back. I stood at the edge of the hole, staring in. I was about 7 feet deep, and empty inside, except for a few medium-sized rocks. I leaned in, my toes hanging over the edge.
Ella. My head snapped up at the sound of my father’s voice, and I rushed to catch up.
My breaths were shallow and harsh during the 45-minute ride back to the hotel. I rested my cheek against the cool glass, suddenly overcome with guilt and self-pity. If it was me, I thought, I’d drop the keys, I’d get myself dirty, I’d make a stain. On top of everything, my parents would yell at me for storming away so rudely, for rejecting my Greek history so harshly, for being a brat.
Katerina, to me, was perfect in every sense of the word. Brilliant, beautiful, athletic, everything. No, actually, perfect is the wrong word; she was extraordinary. For years, I put in strenuous effort to be her opposite. So I could say I’m just as smart, but I’m more of a humanities person rather than a math/science person. Or, I’m not thin like her, but curvy, and some guys like that more. Or, while she gets more emotional and frustrated, I get along with everyone. We’re just different. No one’s better than the other.
After the ditch debacle, I realized this method didn’t work. I met for the first time a side of me that instantly churned jealousy into cruelty at a rate beyond my control. Over time, animosity built up and spewed out of me in that moment. I still think about it often. Was I truly just shocked to the core? Did I really want her to get hurt?
If Katerina had one vice, it was her frustration problem. She’d chew her lip so hard it would bleed if anything went wrong. She still has faint nail-shaped scars in her palms from when she’d clench her fists too hard, in the same spots, breaking the skin. She’s emotionally cold-blooded, my sister. If there’s anger around her, that anger becomes her, and she adds her own electricity to it, creating a ticking time bomb of tantrums. One wrong move and it would blow--all you can do is be out of the line of fire. If the environment is pleasant, she is the kindest person you will ever meet. She hobbles on the crutches of others’ opinions and emotions. Perhaps, with all the expectations she has set for herself, she crumbles under any scrutinization. She’s influenced by everything.
As for what influences me? Her. It’s never really been anyone else. When she’s upset, I’m agreeable, the best version of herself. When she excels, when she’s happy, I can’t help but feel a pit in my stomach. She’s been the standard I compare myself to ever since I was old enough to compare myself to anything. If she was fundamentally different, I would be too. That’s something I could never change, even if I wanted to. Maybe it would be a tremendous weight off my shoulders if I was the first born, or the youngest, or an only child. Then again, I don’t know how it feels to have not one, but two older sisters to follow. Katerina and Christiana both live with different kinds of pressure that I don’t understand. One that, instead of being born with, she has thrust upon herself. Another, for all I know, is what I feel times two.
Now, I don’t know if she influences me all that much anymore. I’ve made it my objective to separate myself because that’s the only way I’ll survive. I’ve become emotionally warm-blooded. I’m never completely happy or completely hopeless, rather in a state of equilibrium. I find it harder now to reach my emotions. When I cry, it feels superficial, like I’m drawing up tears to seem convincing to an audience. When I smile, I do it tightly, with my lips closed. I don’t want to be someone who becomes happy when someone else is sad or vice versa. I love my sister, and I know that I want what’s best for her.
I can’t control the habit of comparing myself to Katerina--it’s been ingrained in my mind for far too long to ever change. I can, however, control my actions and emotions and find my own identity independent from that comparison. Yes, she’s always been extraordinary. I'm my own person, and I have yet to find what I am extraordinary at. And that’s okay.