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I’d never seen so much chevron in my life. We slowly unpacked all my sister’s belongings in her small, dingy dorm room, and I wondered how it would ever feel homey. Right now it reminded me of a glorified prison cell with a set of worn-down loft beds and a free-standing sink in the corner. The cement floor was not helping in my sister’s attempt to make the room prison-chic. Apparently they were redoing the floors and ran out of budget/time to put in new carpets for this year. Lucky Ash.
I helped her put the sheets on her loft bed (not an easy task, might I add) and we giggled as her corner boinked off and smacked her in the nose. Thank goodness for these moments when we could laugh, when we could forget what was going to happen in a few hours. Forget that I would be living without my sister and best friend for the first time in seventeen years.
No matter how many times Ashley tried to broach the subject of her leaving this summer, I would always turn my head and plug my ears. I couldn’t bear it then and suggested that we push off any sad or mushy conversations to the very last minute. I was a professional procrastinator in all things. Especially feelings.
“You put the bug liner on the mattress before the sheets, right, girls?” Mom asked, looking from a long list she’d printed out from one of her favorite mommy blogs.
“No bugs getting in this fortress,” I said, smacking the bed. The force of my hand smack caused another corner of the fitted sheet to snap out from under the mattress, and Ashley scowled at me.
“I told you we should have gotten the extra-long sheets,” Mom said.
“That’s a waste of money. We had plenty of working twin sheets already,” Ashley said. Always the practical one, she was. Ashley’s brain was constantly in conservation mode while mom’s brain was always in excess mode. Especially in the past two years, after Mom and Dad’s divorce, Ashley has had to be the voice of reason in our home.
“The list said extra-long,” Mom mumbled.
Ashley huffed after fixing the sheet once more, and we both climbed down from the loft. I offered to wind her twinkle lights around the base of the bed while she and Mom tag-teamed getting the minifridge up and running. Who knew you could have a teal minifridge with coral flowers? Only Ashley would upcycle our cousin’s old, beaten-up minifridge to make it beautiful. She was going to film school, after all. It was kind of in her blood to be incredibly creative.
As Mom and Ashley exchanged a few heated words while trying to find an extension cord to keep the fridge in the “perfect feng shui location” of the room, I unwrapped the photos she packed. One was of her and me at summer camp the year that we were finally in the same cabin. We both slept in the bottom bunk that year because Ashley was afraid of heights and I was prone to falling out of the bed. I didn’t mind, though. You can’t quite explain the comfort of knowing your sister is close by.
The next was of our dog, correction, her dog, Fiyero. He earned his name during Ashley’s obsession with the musical Wicked. Our family lived and breathed all things Wicked for the entirety of Ashley’s eighth-grade year. The poodle baby in the picture looked like a stuffed teddy bear. Now Fiyero was a fifty-pound hellion who had a particular fondness for finding and eating makeup. I’d lost many a lipstick to the Fiyero monster.
The last picture was of Ashley, my dad, and me. We were in Hollywood doing a tour of Universal Studios because Ashley had just caught her movie bug. She was probably twelve, making me eleven. We posed in front of the Gilmore Girls town of Stars Hollow and we were laughing our heads off. Most likely, Dad let out a fake fart noise right before the count of three, and we lost it. On the other side of the camera I could imagine Mom’s disapproving face. Mom always refused to be in the pictures.
We worked in a scared silence, taking a few moments longer to complete each task than necessary. If we admitted that we were done, we’d have to admit that it was time to leave. I don’t think Mom had good-bye on her epic list of dorm move-in responsibilities. No matter how many blogs she read or careful notes she took, nothing could prepare us for leaving.
“So when does your roommate get here?” I asked.
Ashley clapped her hands as the fridge hummed to life and she turned to me, taking the Universal Studios picture out of my hand.
“I think this afternoon. She lives in Kentucky, so it’s a bit of a drive.”
“Kentucky? They eat everything fried there, don’t they? You’ll have to be careful that you keep your healthy habits up while you’re here,” Mom said.
“I’m not sure that it’s okay to generalize an entire group of people’s eating habits based on a fast-food chain that happens to mention their state,” I said.
“My metabolism hasn’t changed in the last eighteen years. I’ll be fine, Mom,” Ashley said. I envied the way that she could brush her off so quickly. Of course she could. Her entire life she’d been tall and slender, while I’d inherited the complete opposite body type.
Mom brought up a single finger, her telltale sign that you were about to get into an argument, but then she put it down. Almost like she remembered that we were here to drop off her oldest daughter for her freshman year of college and now wouldn’t be the most convenient time for a fight.
“And she’s bringing the futon?” she asked instead.
“I think she put one on hold at the Target nearby so she doesn’t have to lug it up here with her. Don’t worry, she sent me options and we mutually agreed on one,” Ashley said.
“Because nothing can be left up to chance,” I teased.
“There’s nothing wrong with knowing how you like things,” she said. “Plus, the first one she was looking at was way overpriced. I actually saved her a ton of money.”
“I’ll make sure to call you if I’m ever in the market for a futon,” I said.
“You’ll just use mine, silly,” she said.
I sighed, twisting one of the bulbs that was winking out on the twinkle lights. “I was joking.”
“Oh yeah, right,” she said, grabbing on to her head. “Sorry. I’m all out of whack today. My funny-o-meter is broken.”
“Only temporarily. It works best when you’re settled and comfortable,” I said.
“Will I ever be?” she asked. She finally took a moment to stop her hurried frenzy of setting things up to take in the room. Her breath became ragged, and I watched her eyes focus and unfocus. Seeing her panic in this way, seeing the mix of emotions racing through her, made my own stomach clench. We always joked that we were twins separated by almost twelve months, always in sync with each other in ways that were out of normal sister territory. Unfortunately, the months between our births robbed us of telepathy and the whole looking-alike thing. Physically, we are as opposite as it comes. She’s tall and lanky with muddy-colored hair, where I’m short and chubby, my hair almost white it’s so blond. About the only part that maybe hereditarily blessed both of us was bad eyesight. We can almost wear each other’s prescription contacts.
I reached out to pull her into a very comforting (and comfortable) hug. We had the perfect builds for a great hug.
“Of course you will, honey,” Mom said, joining our hug. She rested her cheek on the top of my head and we stayed this way for who knows how long until Ashley learned her first lesson about living in the dorms: If you wanted to have a private moment without someone bursting in to say hello, keep your door closed … and probably lock it, for good measure.
“Oh, yikes, I’m sorry,” the girl at the door said. She had her hair pulled up in a messy bun that was leaning haphazardly to one side of her head. “I was just wondering if you had any extra duct tape that I could borrow? A cord on my microwave frayed. Don’t tell the RA or whatever, because it might be a fire hazard, but I definitely don’t have time or cash to get a new one. That’s too much information. BLAH. Hi. My name is Yael.”
“Hey,” Ashley said, pulling away from our hug. “I’m Ashley. This is my little sister, Savannah, and my mom.”
“Kim,” Mom interjected.
“Nice to meet you all,” Yael said. Her fingers tapped against the doorframe as she waited for something, anything to happen while we all stared at her. I turned to Ashley for a moment and tried to send her a telepathic “Grab the damn duct tape!” but she didn’t catch my drift.
“Ash, you have some duct tape in the top drawer, right?” I asked, putting everyone out of their awkward misery.
“Oh! Yeah. Yes, I do,” she said, breaking out of her stupor and grabbing the tape. She dropped it into Yael’s open palm.
“You’re seriously a lifesaver. See you around, Ashley,” she said.
Ashley watched Yael skip down the hallway until I coughed to get her attention again. Ashley whipped around and started quickly unpacking more of her clothes. I smiled a little to myself. She thought Yael was cute.
“Well, are you both going to help?” she asked, her face still a light shade of red.
“We’re all yours,” Mom said. “I’ll start folding sweaters. Savvy, can you load the sock and undies drawer? Do you need me to show you my sock-folding trick again?”
“I’ve got it under control,” I said.
We worked in silence until every last bit of her clothes were meticulously placed in her closet and drawers. We rearranged the few knickknacks she’d allowed herself to bring and weighed the options of moving the fridge to the other side of the room at least three times. It was slowly reaching that point where we realized we were no longer needed in this dorm room, which meant an awful and painful good-bye was in my very near future.
“So,” she said. “This is it.”
“I guess so,” Mom said. “Jeez, I’m glad they put waterproof mascara as a must-have on that list.”
Mom pulled her into a bear hug, her head barely reaching Ashley’s collarbone. Ashley leaned down to plant a kiss on her cheek and pulled away, wiping a stray tear from her cheek.
“I love you, Chicken,” Mom said. “I think I just have to leave the room now before I become a complete mess. I’ll meet you outside, Savvy, okay?”
I nodded, feeling the lump in my throat starting to block my airways. As Mom walked out of the room, both of our dissolves crumbled. We pulled each other into a tight hug, our bodies shaking as we cried. We’d never been apart for more than a week at a time, when she went to film camp a few summers in a row. Even those weeks were tough. I couldn’t imagine months without her.
“We’ll Skype all the time,” she said. “We’ll have sister check-ins throughout the day just like normal. The only thing that will change is that we won’t be in the same room anymore.”
“Is that supposed to make it better?” I said.
“I know things have been rough with you and Mom lately. Cut her a little slack, okay? She’s gone through a lot of huge life changes this past year and is adjusting. I’ll come home and visit as often as I can, but I won’t be there anymore to be your buffer. Pick your battles, Savvy, okay?” she said.
I nodded. “I’ll try to be better.”
She held me by my shoulders and forced me to look into her eyes. “You’re stronger than you know. Don’t you ever forget that, no matter how tough things might get. And, it’s not like I’m across the country. I’m only a few hours away if you ever need me.”
I nodded again, curling into her for one last hug. When we pulled away it felt final. I felt like a part of me had been severed and I was leaving it behind. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper, but if her leg was still attached. I decided that, like Mom, if I looked back again I would never leave. So I opened the door and closed it quickly behind me. I took my mom’s hand and we walked down the hallway, down the flight of stairs, and to the car, where we cried for a good fifteen minutes before hitting the road again.
Copyright © 2018 by Maggie Ann Martin