“John,” my mom says slowly to my dad, her lips starting to twitch. “Maeve set her own hair on fire.”
I look around the restaurant and feel at the charred wisps of what used to be my hair. It must have caught when, leaning backward to laugh, I dipped my hair into the tea-candle. “I can smell it,” my sister says, her eyes alive with barely controlled amusement. The table smells like a Best Buy bonfire—a delicious combo of smoky and chemical.
It takes me a minute and several bites of a funky Fig Newton gelato to calm down after being on fire. “Well,” I say, “at least it’s good content.”
“I was going to say that!” my sister says. “Thank God you’re finally starting to make your own content.”
My sister and I spend a lot of time developing content. By which I mean we live our lives and record the strange things that happen. Then we label these stories our proprietary content, recount them over the phone to each other, and forbid the other from writing about it.
I spend two years at speech therapy learning how to swallow correctly, squeezing into a chair meant for a far smaller child? My content. My sister’s breakups and breakouts? Her content.
It has, at this point, become the bookend of our conversations. One of us might call the other, crying about something that happened, and after we’ve worked through it and comforted each other, I’ll add, “You can’t write about this by the way. It’s my content.”
She’ll whisper to me, “So, this thing happened at work, and it’s my content, but…”
When I was a little kid with a loud temper and all-consuming desire for attention, I didn’t want to be anything like her. She was the best reader in her first-grade class, the type of kid who won trophies for being able to sound out the word “circumlocution.”
So I refused to learn how to read. Flat out wouldn’t do it. I didn’t care why the cat sat on the mat. I had no interest in the mouse in the house. If my sister was going to be the sister who could read, I was going to prove my independence through triumphant illiteracy.
That lasted about two months, until I bowed, pouting, to parental pressure. Once I got onto chapter books, I realized that she had been onto something after all.
And we were off. My sister liked writing? I wrote poetry on my skin in ballpoint pen. She played soccer? I slept with a soccer ball in bed. She discovered Model UN? I spent a week in character as the Delegate from Azerbaijan (“My country, Azerbaijan, is home to the world’s largest KFC. Therefore, Mother, I will only eat fried chicken.”). Our naturally similar interests fueled my fanatic desire to best my sister. She had to struggle and explore to figure out what she wanted in life; I just had to figure out what she wanted, then do it faster.
My sister and I share too much: parents, memories, a passion for fanfiction, and British TV. She’s been, and—knock on wood—will always be a constant in my life. About 75 percent of people aged 70 have a living sibling, and I pray to be one of them. My sister still waxes poetic about years zero to four when she was the sole center of attention, but I have never known life without her. I was born a girl with an older sister, and it is as fundamental to my sense of self as my narcissism and my hatred of bell peppers.
Because we spend so much time with each other and share so much heritage, we start to melt together. The edges blur. So we push against each other. We build plexiglass walls around our memories, saying yes, you may look in and you may know what happened, but you may not touch and you most certainly may not have. We shout, "this experience is mine," and what we mean by that is "you are not me."
“Remember what it was to be me: That was always the point,” Joan Didion says in “On Keeping a Notebook.” Her notebook serves not to record her day but to mark her emotions in certain moments: Her scribbled sauerkraut recipe is not just a recipe, but a memory of a night on Fire Island when she felt safe.
For all of our shared records and shared clothes, I cannot remember what it was like to be my sister. I inherited her lavender jeans and band T-shirts—maybe half of my belongings are things that were once my sister’s. In elementary school I walked more miles than I can count in her mud brown, hand-me-down Merrells. I still find her confounding.
Sibling rivalry is an evolutionary imperative. We are wired to feel threatened by our sibling, to want to kick them out of the nest. By 16 months old, human children know what will bother their siblings and purposely annoy them. And we’re quite friendly compared to species in the natural world. Sand tiger shark embryos eat their siblings in utero, until only the most murderous sibling remains.
By the time I’d reached high school, I had become quite practiced at my own form of sibling cannibalism. Whenever I could, I took my sister’s life and made it my own. In particular, I took her life and turned it into short stories that I then submitted for awards and competitions.
My sister, like many people, lost her virginity. When she did, I wrote up all the details, the good and the bad and the complications, and turned it into an angsty story. During the spring of my senior year, I submitted it to my high school’s literary magazine, which was collecting stories for a publication to be handed out at graduation.
I was helping format the piece on InDesign when I realized that I couldn’t keep it in. My sister was going to be at my graduation, where every single person would read and know about her first experience of sex, barely changed besides some artistic rearranging of words and a bunch of fake names.
“We’ve got to pull the story out.”
“We can’t pull it,” my friend, the editor-in-chief, said. “We’re going to print next week!”
“My sister will know it’s about her!”
“It’s a good story!”
We removed it in the end. But my sister eventually did read that story, and all the others: two entire years of stories I’d written using her life.
“Why can’t you write about yourself?” she said, almost shaking.
“Because I’m 17 and nothing interesting has happened to me!”
“So make something up!”
“But your stories are interesting!”
“But they are my stories. Mine! Get your own stories!”
I did my best. I started attending everything I was invited to, from academic lectures to ping-pong tournaments, and I attended a lot of things I wasn’t invited to as well. I stopped saying no to anything, and when bad things happened, I told myself that they made good content. Ghosted by somebody I cared about? It’s great content. Drove into a telephone pole at 50 miles per hour and crumpled my car up so badly that I now have long-term PTSD and can’t drive without my palms sweating and my heart pounding? That’ll be useful in some essay one day.
Everything that happens is content. So everything is good.
My search for content has prompted my incredibly anxious self to do things that scare me, like saying “yes” when I get asked out by somebody I’m interested in or “absolutely” when I am asked to nude model while on my period. I don’t say yes because I want to live a full life—living is far too scary. For now, it’s enough to watch myself living and try to find something in it worth writing about.
The other day, my sister calls me up, laughing. “Maeve,” she exclaims, “I was on the subway platform, about to board the train, when out of nowhere I hear this man howling ‘MOVE, BITCH!’ and before I even realize he’s talking to me I feel something hit my shoulder. I look over and see him raising a baguette for another whack. And then he swung his bread at me and broke the baguette on my face!”
“Can I…” I already know the answer. I know that this moment will slip back, rightfully untouched, into the stream of my sister’s life. It’s a stream that runs parallel, but separate, to my own.
“And don’t you dare use that, Maeve. That’s memoir-worthy shit,” she says. “Assault By Baguette is my content and my content only.”
Just kidding. My sister was never attacked by a man with a baguette. But my friend Emily was. And when I told her it was great content and asked if I could use it in an essay someday, she said, “You’re so odd,” which is essentially the same thing as yes.
Enjoy leafing through our seventh issue!