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Centre for Stories

SISTERS by Jay Anderson

'And every time I saw her, her arms parted for an embrace and the corners of her mouth stretched to call me sister.'

Graphic illustration of a person driving a car with a large dog in the backseatAs children, Kristen and I were inseparable. My sister was followed into the world in quick succession by our brothers but longed for a sister. Our mum wanted this for her as well because she had spent her own childhood with two younger brothers. So, when she was pregnant with me, she told her obstetrician that she didn’t want to know the sex of her fourth child ahead of the birth. Instead, she waited and led her children in prayer for a second girl before she tucked them in at night. My siblings pressed their knees against creaking jarrah floorboards, brought their palms and fingertips together, closed their eyes, and whispered their amens.

Eventually we’d all learn that you don’t get everything you want just because you pray for it hard enough. Thats not how God works, the Priest at our school would tell us, his work is mysterious. But Kristen would make a sister of me in our three-by-one on Celebration Street, so perhaps his work is mysterious.

Kristen and I turned the cubbyhouse into a castle fit for the princesses we became. We scooped soil from Mum’s garden and mixed it with water to make Nan’s sticky rice for our dolls. Kristen taught me how to paint my nails in curved strokes that were impossible for my impatient fingers to master. She carved my unruly eyebrows with Dad’s razor so they were pencil thin. Skinny eyebrows ruled the 90s and Kristen and I kept a watchful gaze beneath ours over the kingdom we made for ourselves.

Laine followed me four years later to make us five, but Kristen didn’t need another sister. Instead, Troy became infatuated with her; at eight-years-old, his forehead creased with worry over her and he developed a hypervigilance about her wellbeing. As the middle child, Blake kept himself occupied running amok around the streets of Beckenham with the children from the neighbouring houses. He was a troublemaker, which came as no surprise to our parents who said it was foreshadowed during his birth when he came elbow first and had to be delivered via caesarean. So it was Kristen and I, sisters, for those formative years.

When our parents moved us to Kalgoorlie, Kristen was 13. She had to leave all of her childhood friends right before she started high school. Our parents felt tremendous guilt about the move but the refrigeration business our dad ran with our grandad was quickly becoming obsolete. Mass production had begun to replace people, and Dad and Grandad would take curries as payment from the old women of our church and friends of the family – of which there were many. We’d overhear our grandparents and parents say Its more expensive to fix than replace and Things arent built to last anymore. But in Kal there were gold specks to be sifted from red dirt.

We were only meant to be in Kal for two years but three years later, when Kristen was 16, she moved out of our house on Keegan Street to live with three of her friends. Mum spent the night she left crying into the well of her pillowcase in the dark of her room while I tried to convince her that she wasn’t a bad mother.

Kristen and I remained close after she moved out. After school she would often walk me down Burt Street and buy ribbon for her hair – testing the colours against my own, identical hair – and strawberry liquorice from the sweet shop for us to eat. But between school, and the two part-time jobs she worked, it became increasingly difficult for us to spend as much time together as we had.

When she was 17, Kristen moved back to Perth with her then-boyfriend and, over the years, I mostly saw her when she returned for the Easter and Christmas holidays. We’d spend those holidays taking an obligatory trip to the high-ceilinged Church at our old primary school, watching old home videos on the couch, playing pool volleyball in the backyard while our skin deepened under the sun, and taking the dogs for a walk.

Seven years after Kristen left Kal, I left for university. By then she was living with her to-be-husband in Capel three hours south west from Perth. I took a weekend trip to visit them, then another, and another, and my first few years in Perth were characterised by these trips. I spent semester breaks and the holidays in Kal with red dirt beneath my feet and weekends in the south west with white sand between my toes. Her friends called me a boy-version of her, and my friends called her a girl-version of me, so similar were our inflections and gestures and moon faces. And every time I saw her, her arms parted for an embrace and the corners of her mouth stretched to call me sister. With each year that passed I spent less and less time visiting from Perth, so we saw each other less and less. But we always picked up where we left off, unfazed by the infrequency of our orbit to one another.

I had been working for my university for a week after graduating when it was announced that every employee would work from home. Kristen called me and said that her office at the City of Bunbury had been making similar plans. She decided that she couldn’t stay in the South West with her ex-husband-to-be so she asked if she could come to Perth and stay with me for a few weeks. On the night before the regional borders closed, she drove to my house with her windshield wipers beating against the spattering rain, a duffel bag and Molly, her golden retriever, in tow.

We hadn’t lived together since I was 11 but fell into a weekly routine. In the mornings we’d wake, take Molly for a walk, shower, dress, turn on the coffee machine, and sit at the kitchen table to work. At 10.30 we had morning tea, at 12.30 we had lunch, at 2.30 we had afternoon tea, and at 5.30 we closed our computers to take Molly for another walk. We’d spend the evenings on the couch, Molly curled between us, by the soft glow of the lamp from the bookcase.

We talked for hours. About our work and the world. About religion and politics. About our friends and family and the privilege of their wellbeing and our gratitude for it. About boys we’d met and loved and let go. We remembered Nan’s stories about her life as a princess in Burma before she came to Australia. Kristen returned memories from our childhood that I had lost – like the arguments our grandparents used to have in Burmese that were spotted with English swear words, and their old maze of a house that grandad built, tacking extension after extension on as each of his six children were born. We reminisced about the kingdom we ruled on Celebration Street. We shared the quiet thoughts, feelings and experiences that didn’t surface in the brief periods of time we had caught each other in the last few years.

For several weeks were caught in each other’s orbits for longer than we had been for many years, and it gave us moments and moments and moments for joy and grief and our memories. And many moments for us to grin and call each other sister.

Jay Anderson is a queer writer of colour based in the Whadjuk region of the Noongar nation. He managed and participated in the Centre for Stories queer storytelling project, Bright Lights, No City, which documented the experiences of LGBT+ people from regional and rural areas of Western Australia. He currently works for Margaret River Press and studies Social Work at Curtin University. His writing has been published in various journals and print anthologies, and he was recently the KSP Writers’ Centre CALD Fellow.Copyright © 2020 Jay Anderson.

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