If you want to study effects of certain environments on children – it’s easy enough; just take two twins, a set of newly divorced parents, and split them up for a lifelong experiment. The worst part of this was that, in the eyes of two small children, we never saw it coming and had little time to prepare. Arrangements seemed simple enough through the minds of five-year-olds: In other words, Kathy loved Dad, and I favored our Mom. The game of favorites and loose decision-making led us off in different directions, three hours away from each other until holidays at either house.
I watched my equally bubbly sister pack up the back of the SUV with toys and clothes and a huge box of friendship bracelets that we had made together but never actually wore. She handed me her favorite doll and told me that I could keep it until two months from then, when we would be meeting at our mother’s house for our first shared Christmas since our parents so selfishly (or so I thought at the time) decided they were going to break apart the entire family, and just step all over it. She could barely force herself to hug me before she made her laborious effort of getting in the SUV and taking too long to buckle herself in so that our father had to stay put a little longer. Her special way of just spending time with me for a few more minutes, even if I was just staring at her with puppy dog eyes and starting to tear up a bit.
Kathy called me every so often, maybe once a week as time went by, but her personality only became more introverted every time I spoke with her. The horrible truth of the matter for five year old me was that Kathy had started kindergarten at a new school without me and she had forgotten about me. It was apparent that her childhood love of hanging out with her twin sister, her whole world, had turned into starting out on her own adventure and moving onto bigger and better friendships with people who weren’t exactly like her. People with real personalities, real desires, real imaginations that could compete with her own and show her a new side of life. I sighed, at five, and just contemplated over the fact that I was replaced. Her answers to my questions of, “How was your day?” went from, “It was wonderful, you should have seen all the new things we learned in school today, but now I was to hear about your day!” to, “Good.”
A few holidays came and went and Kathy and I were finally going on seven years old and nearly in the first grade. I was attending a shoddy, little public school on the outskirts of town and my sister was growing up into a beautiful young girl at a private school whose name I couldn’t even pronounce. God knows our father could do this for her, he could afford the world if she so chose to take it. She stopped in to visit on Easter and was wearing her private school attire to show off to me that there was such a thing as “Knee socks” and short, pleated skirts, things I could only dream of wearing to my childlike, seven year old girl eyes. She spun around a few times but then went to sit with the adults at the table like some young woman while I pleaded with her using my eyes to come play Barbies in the corner with me. She completely ignored my gaze and we barely talked the rest of the day.
That night, Kathy came into my bedroom and inspected it once over with her eyes. “I see you still have the same sheets on your bed, the same wall posters, the same everything.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say in return. “Yeah, don’t you?”
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“No!” she laughed as if she had told the best joke in the entire world. “Dad bought me all new everything. He bought me the pink fluffy bed sheets I wanted, a brand new television set, and Hello Kitty wall decals! He even bought me my first MP3 player last week.” Suddenly, as soon as her mouth opened, it slammed shut and she dropped her gaze to the floor. “But, I always liked your bedroom…”
“Thanks,” I lied, feeling like complete shit and absolutely NOT feeling thankful one bit.
“Hey, you know what we should do?”
At this point, I honestly wanted Kathy to just leave my bedroom so I could be in peace the rest of the night, but something told me that she wanted to make things up to me. Something told me that after all this time, we were just the center for bad decisions. It wasn’t either of our faults that we were thrown into this situation and the fact that we had to deal with it so young could solely be blamed on our parents. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and I made direct eye contact with her, giving her the official facial expression of “I’m ready to hear anything.”
“We should switch spots.”
Before I could even ask her what she meant by this, she was pulling off her private school clothes behind my closed bedroom door and throwing it onto the bed in a messy pile. She reached in the back pocket of her pants on my bed and pulled out a stick of mascara. As she sat on the bed and drew closer to me, my eyes slammed shut and prepared for the worst but I felt a small brush above my lip and it was over. As I opened my eyes, still uncertain to which direction this plan was headed, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed she had drawn her birth mark directly onto my face.
“I think I get it now,” I chuckled softly, then confusedly questioned, “But what are you going to do to cover yours?”
“What, this?” she asked unbelievably as she pulled out another compact makeup container from her back pocket. “Concealer can really be a girl’s best friend. There’s been plenty of times where I would be sitting in my room at night and I’d…put it over my birth mark, so that I could pretend to be you. I miss you a lot of the time, you know that, Sis? You really kept me together.”
My sister and I embraced for what felt like ages, but was only a few minutes before our mother knocked on my door and announced that my sister was soon to be picked up. She giggled like a hyena when my mother walked away, excitedly stammering on and on about how she couldn’t wait to spend the next month or so going to my school, living my life, and getting to relax in all new ways. When I asked her about what I would be doing, she said I would really like the school that I went to and that it was fun to be away from home sometimes. That they had a lot of fun crafts to do there. That I would take clarinet practice, but that she sucked at it anyway, so nothing would really change there when I looked clueless. She told me to enjoy my life and we would go back to normal very soon…but not too soon.
The nervousness blew in full force when our father pulled up and Kathy gave me a kiss on the cheek, now her cheek, as I walked away officially as “Kathy” to embrace an all new life for a short amount of time. I made up for lost time on the way home and talked about all sorts of things I knew our father and I had in common, and he even commented once on the fact that I was a lot bubblier and seemed more spontaneous after spending some time with ‘my sister’.
When we got back to the house, one in which I didn’t spend a lot of time at all, I decided to do some exploring. My father went to his study to complete some work and asked if I was going to be okay, so after convincing him that I was fine, I spent some time getting acquainted with the kitchen and eating some of Kathy’s favorite foods, which were also some of mine. When I was finished chowing down a bowl of microwave oatmeal, I ventured back the dark hall on the hardwood flooring, admiring all the pretty decorations around the house and taking in the entire expensive atmosphere. I came to the last door on the right, which I knew was Kathy’s, but had never actually seen before.
I opened the door, peered inside, and almost immediately stepped right back out and closed the door before something caught my eye. The room had the most dim, pointless light fixture hanging on the inside, a dinky, old mattress, and a single torn rug. Over in one corner were some pink sheets that looked like they had formerly been pissed on and never washed before, and a single MP3 player sitting on the edge of the mattress. Aside from that, there was not one thing in this room. It looked like a small storage room meant for putting old things that Kathy grew out of, no posters on the wall, no magnificent anything as she had described – completely empty bedroom.
It was then that it all hit home. Kathy had lured me over here because she was the one with the terrible life and wanted to switch spots with me. I hadn’t enough time to concentrate on the new hatred for my sister before the door slammed shut behind me and my father’s creeping smile came into focus as he lumbered in front of me.
“Have I ever told you that I really hate when you have to spend the day at your mother’s house? And just how much I miss you?” Before I had a chance to react and sputter out something probably nonsensical, my father lunged at me and grabbed me in a huge hug. He started grasping at the cardigan around my shoulders and had it completely ripped off of me in a matter of seconds before I could react. “Now I want you to take off the rest.”
My father pushed my nearly nude body down onto the mattress and ripped off my knee socks, the ones Kathy had claimed she loved more than anything, but were now part of a reminder that this outfit and everything in this entire house, sucked. A nightmare come true, that I would never forget.
The next morning, I stole the phone off of the receiver and bounced back into my bedroom where I called our mother and told her in a whisper that there was an emergency and she had to come get me. The three-hour drive felt like an entire day while I heard my father clicking away on his computer, wondering if he had become suspicious and noticed that the phone had been taken off the stand. When she arrived, she didn’t even bother to knock – she ran back the hall into the bedroom and shrieked as she held me and pulled me out of the house, cooing, “Oh, Kathy, Kathy, why didn’t you say anything sooner? Why didn’t you tell me?”
As the tears streamed down my face and bled into the concealer, I could feel the shock run into my mother’s beating heart through the look on her face and she pulled Kathy and I close, finally realizing that the most beautiful thing in the world was that a mix-up might have saved my sister’s life even if it did ultimately ruin my own.
There are some things that parents learn along the way. How to communicate, how to grow close to their children when they thought that all hope was lost in other things, as if their lives had been forever disrupted by something as pitiful as a divorce. Now when I look in my sister’s eyes I realize that time can be made up and accounted for, and that things really can get better. Sometimes a family falling apart, in the long run, can really lead to other things coming together.
And sometimes, you just don’t know how lucky you are.