Mostly, I remember the shouting. My house is four stories tall—including the basement—and sprawls out haphazardly across a hill. I’m standing in my bedroom, maybe the living room, maybe the kitchen. It doesn’t really matter. The shouts barrel through doors and hallways and up and down flights of stairs and find me wherever I am.
Sometimes, the shouts become slamming doors, and cars pulling out of the driveway, and whispers of “divorce,” which feel louder than anything else. I’m sitting with my sisters at the kitchen table when, after it gets bad one night, my mom asks us, or maybe herself, or maybe nobody in particular:
“Wouldn’t it be better if we were apart?”
The answer is yes, obviously, but not to a kid.
Later that night, I sit with my two sisters on a white carpeted floor in one of their rooms and listen as they talk. My little sister, Pia, can’t be more than nine, maybe 10 years old, but she says something that feels older, more jaded: “I never want to be married.”
I should say something, I think, but I don’t. Instead, I go to my room and sit with my thoughts alone.
The kitchen is the center of my home. When I think of family, or of growing up, I think mostly of that kitchen—its eggshell blue walls with their slight green tinge, marble countertops, and a dark wooden table nestled in the corner, which I always considered mahogany. It’s a kitchen that I felt uncomfortable bringing friends into. It’s a kitchen that said we were well off, but more than that, it’s a kitchen that, to me, said we were happy. And we were, sometimes, but sometimes we were not, and it was hard to make sense of that in a space stocked with such nice things.
A lot of the fights took place around that kitchen table, usually between my parents or between my older sister and my dad, but there were a lot of good times there, too. It’s telling that, years later, I just can’t remember any of them clearly. What I do remember is the tension that at any moment good could shift to bad with a single misplaced comment, a joke gone awry. There was a fragility to these moments that somehow made them feel even more special, like cradling china on a tightrope.
None of this is to say that I had a particularly tough upbringing. In fact, I felt like a cliché sometimes. The kid who’s never struggled for money, with lawyer parents who fight at home more often than in court (possibly because neither is a court lawyer). The kid with parents whose divorce is an inevitable fact of life, like death and taxes, and for whom the process is so drawn out that by the time it comes around, it’s more relief than anything else.
By the time I reached my senior year of high school, my conception of family—what it was, what it meant, my role was in it—was, at best, muddled. My parents were still together then, and would be for another year, but the shouts had turned to silence. Our house, once loud and vibrant, had grown quiet and empty.
I kept myself busy: classes, afternoon labs for AP Physics, badminton practice, print nights at the school newspaper, studying with friends at cafés, college applications. At first, I was skipping family dinners only on print nights, then I was skipping them all, and then the dinners stopped altogether. I took the last bus home, or if it was a weekend night, I often didn’t go home at all. I joked with friends that I could disappear for three days without anyone really noticing. I felt like a ghost in my own house. My friends, some with curfews, were jealous, but I didn’t feel particularly lucky.
I didn’t think about family much for most of high school. Until one morning in October, during second period, when my English teacher, Mrs. Theodore, pulls me aside and forces me to. She asks me about my relationship with Pia, then a freshman in her fourth period class. I answer truthfully: we rarely see each other, we don’t talk much, our family just isn’t really that close.
“Yesterday, she said you don’t love her,” Mrs. Theodore responds.
I’m not sure what to say, or think, for that matter. Of course, I know that I do love her. She’s my sister. But it’s confusing, like someone is telling me that I have forgotten to water plants I didn’t even know I owned.
“You’re going away in less than a year,” she continues. “You need to fix this.”
I want to—and for the next few days it sits with me. But how do you change a relationship that has been static for 14 years? And how do you do it in less than one? Eventually, I figure that, if I know anything about my family, it has to start at our kitchen table.
After school one day, I take the AC Transit 18 bus route, which drops me off three blocks further from home than the 7, but close enough to Barney’s, a pretty good diner. There, I pick up an order of curly fries and head home.
I tell Pia they’re leftovers from lunch—I even microwave them to keep up the façade—and ask if she wants any. Unsurprisingly, she says yes to free food. We chat at the kitchen table for some twenty minutes over those slightly soggy, reheated curly fries.
In the days that follow, I think about where to go next. How long are you supposed to wait before you reach out again? Is four days too soon? I’m very aware that, as a freshman entering the high school social scene, Pia may already be too cool to hang out with me. I feel like a freshman again myself, weighed down by the shyness that had defined middle school, carefully plotting a way to make friends. I decide a movie is a safe bet, but I wait a couple more days, just to be sure.
The days, weeks, months that follow start to blur together, but these moments stand out: We watch great movies like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Central Intelligence, really anything with The Rock in it (‘dwaynelover420’ is now the password to our joint GrubHub account). We marathon Friday Night Lights, wishing—half-jokingly, half-not—that Coach Eric Taylor would jump from the screen and be the father figure we desperately need. We scour thrift stores for the weirdest clothes that we can convince ourselves are worth buying, looking for “just the right amount of ugly,” as Pia puts it. Her Justin Bieber Purpose World Tour hoodie is a particular standout.
Some of these moments take place the summer before I leave for Columbia, much of which I spend lying on my living room couch, trying (and failing) to make my way through the Iliad. Pia immerses herself in friends, clubs, and summer programs, in and out of the house sometimes several times a day. But in the lulls in her schedule, which range from minutes to hours to days, she joins me on the couch to watch old episodes of The Office, or in the kitchen to cook more crepes than we know what to do with, or on the 7 aimlessly heading downtown.
I learn in this time that family exists in small pockets and that it can feel remarkably like friendship. This may seem obvious, but it never had been to us. But there are also things siblings know that friends can never understand: what it’s like to grow up in your loud, then quiet, house, or to come home and find your mom sad and drunk on the floor with your dog, or to go days, months, years without speaking to your dad.
When the divorce finally does come, our siblings get us through it. Our half brother and half sister look after the three of us while my parents go AWOL. My older sister and I take turns cooking family dinners, trying to build consistency when our lives feel anything but consistent.
When Pia’s boyfriend breaks up with her over text on New Year’s Day, I help her box up all the gifts he had given her (a hoodie, a camo snuggie, a small ceramic animal) and hide them deep in her closet. We sit on her bed and eat Thai food and talk about bad relationships, sad that they are gone but glad that they have ended.
During orientation, my group leader asks each of us what each we did over the summer.
“Nothing,” I answer impulsively.
But later, FaceTiming Pia from the floor of my friend’s Carman suite, I know that’s not true.
About a month later, I get a text from Pia. “I came home today, and was confused when you weren’t on the couch.” It’s a joke, mostly, but there’s something in it that’s left unsaid: Our relationship, our family, has become expected, and reliable, like we’re stepping onto solid ground after a life wearing thin blades on ice.
When my mom asked if things would be better apart, she meant my dad and her, but in the years that followed, our whole family drifted. Now, we’re finding our way back together, slowly, carefully, in little steps.
Every time I come home for break, Pia and I hang out in largely the same way. We take the same bus route into downtown Berkeley, have lunch at the same Japanese restaurant, walk up to Telegraph to shop at the same stores, and walk back down to Shattuck to thrift at the same thrift store. Then, we walk to one of the same three nearby movie theaters and watch anything that’s playing. (Sometimes, The Rock is in it.) Every time I come home, we do these same things. It’s one way we’ve learned how to be siblings, and the formula helps. No one ever taught us to be family, but we’re figuring it out.
Have fun leafing through our ninth issue!