Two summers ago, I noticed that the same stranger kept “liking” my photos on Instagram. After this happened about a dozen times, I clicked over to her profile, a skipping-stone decision, tiny and meaningless. But of course, there were ripples.
As I scrolled through Kate’s feed, I had the prickly feeling that I could have posted each and every photo myself. As opposed to the more popular pictures of food or sunsets, both of us tended to upload snapshots of nostalgic childhood memorabilia: troll dolls, Mrs. Grossman stickers, Polly Pockets, and, most notably to me at the time, a set of nearly identical neon-patterned bed sheets, vintage from the 80s. We had captioned the image almost exactly the same. Well, she wrote, “About to slip into Kirk Cameron’s bed” whereas I compared my set to something Zack Morris might own.
Like any self-respecting (read: self-involved) millennial, I was instantly obsessed. Who was this girl? Unlike Facebook or other social media, Instagram offered very little help when it came to cyber-stalking. I couldn’t even enlarge her profile photo. I had a million questions. First and foremost, was there a chance she was simply copying me or had I potentially found my soul mate?
I made my then-boyfriend look through her feed. He admitted the similarities were uncanny. Not only had we held onto the same tokens of childhood, but we wrote about them in the same way. Spooky, Chris and I agreed. And maybe that would have been it. But then, offhandedly, he said, “Well maybe she’s your half-sister.”
Now’s probably a good time to explain that five years ago, my parents split up. During the dissolution of their marriage, pretty much everything I held true about my family and my childhood became… murky. In some ways, after so much was laid bare, we were left with more questions than answers. One of those questions (admittedly to the consternation and fervent denial of both my parents) was, “Could I have another sibling out there?”
Significantly younger than my brother and sister, I’d always wished for another member of the family, ideally a twin. As it was, by the time I was 12, I was the only kid left in the house. In many ways, I felt like an only child, so the craving for someone with whom to share all of my growing-up experiences was understandable.
But twin or no twin, grow up I did. The emotional gap between my siblings and me narrowed. The wish for another brother or sister was buried away in the junk drawers of my childhood, as relevant to my evolving life as my 7th grade diary or some crumbling Wet ‘n’ Wild eye shadow. And then, once my parents were divorcing, even my forgotten wishes were erased to make room for my new, most important wish. My only wish: to return to the way things were.
When my dad started dating, other children of divorce urged me to feel lucky that he was only seeing women his own age. No chance of him starting a new family and forgetting about his old one. I knew they were right, and I did feel lucky (hey Dad, I still do!). But a part of me, deep down, half-nascent and squirmy, thought, “Or maybe that wouldn’t be so bad?”
After all, one of my close friends from college had gone through something similar, but when her dad had other children, she found (as many do) that she loved them. Deeply and, most surprising, uncomplicatedly. Now she has two extra people in the world to love unconditionally, who just happen to be the products of one of the worst things to happen in her life.
I was too old for trips to Disneyland or double the Chanukah presents, but shouldn’t I get something?
So when Chris joked that Kate could be my half-sister, I became a little haunted by the idea. Instagram at the time had no option for private messaging, so I did the only thing I could think of: I wrote a caption under one of her photos and included my email address.
Within hours, I had a letter from Kate. My heart skipped a beat at the subject line, a quote from the short-lived, mostly-forgotten TV show based on The Babysitter’s Club books. I knew the chances of this person actually being my half-sister – something I could barely admit I even wanted – were infinitesimal to none. But… but…
The weirdest thing was, the coincidences were striking. We had grown up just a few towns apart in the same suburban county outside of New York City, begging to visit the same decorate-your-own-tee-shirt boutique and shopping for Sanrio school supplies at the same local shops. Both of us came from marriages marred by infidelity and divorce. As I had already surmised from our Instagram overlap, we cherished the same obscure children’s books, watched the same weird Canadian young adult television shows, collected the same long-discontinued toys, and shared identical opinions on everything from rainbow hair dye to how to be best friends with your grandparents.
I’m not insane. As my actual, flesh-and-blood sister was quick to point out, Kate and I were really more like participants in a sociological study about two girls the same age growing up in similar socioeconomic circumstances in similar suburban towns, consuming the same media and forming similar opinions and perspectives as a result. Sure. That totally works.
But that doesn’t account for the immediacy of our connection, which was instantly and deeply personal. We sent each other long, overflowing emails on a daily basis, becoming true electronic-age pen pals. Then came the care packages, filled with trinkets we knew only the other would appreciate. Over the course of that autumn, I told her everything that seemed important and she did the same, each of us filling the other in on the life we had “missed”.
Let me be clear: we ascertained almost immediately that we were not actually half-sisters. But it didn’t matter. I had already begun to think of her that way. I had already begun to need to think of her that way.
When Kate and I finally met in person, just before Christmas, six months after our first email exchange, we sat talking over lunch for hours. We had each brought presents for each other, nearly identical packages of vintage stickers and art supplies. The following spring, I was lucky enough to have a job that brought me from Los Angeles to New York for six months, and over that time Kate and I spent countless weekends watching old TV shows, eating our favorite childhood junk foods, embarking on ambitious arts-and-craft projects, and talking late into the night.
The sheer amount of information we exchanged – the names of all our teachers, the crushes we had dating back to kindergarten, the details of every first everything – was exhaustive and exhilarating. The more we talked, the more forgotten memories that surfaced. We dug up old VHS tapes we were certain nobody else in the world remembered, bought long-lost novels and knickknacks on Etsy and Ebay, scoured our childhood bedrooms (just three towns apart!) for more remnants of the past.
A few months in, it occurred to me that what we were actually doing was attempting to relive our childhoods, but together. We were both in transition phases; Kate was newly engaged and looking for a job, I was in the midst of ending a four-year relationship. Those nights together watching My Girl to celebrate Macaulay Culkin’s birthday or tie-dyeing matching pillow cases like we were twelve-year olds at a slumber party were a cocoon-like respite from the very adult reality of our daily lives.
Today, my friends and family are used to hearing me refer to someone who isn’t related to me as my “half-sister.” When I was leaving New York to head back to Los Angeles, I told Kate I actually think of her as my half-twin, a word I made up, something silly and magical that couldn’t possibly actually exist, but for us, it does.
My parents’ divorce is the sad fact of my life. I will always wish it away. But it’s strangely comforting to know that if things had turned out differently, I would never have found Kate. So now I have a new wish. I want to know Kate for the rest of my life. Just as important, I want to appreciate her for what she is: something beautiful that came out of the ugliest thing that ever happened to me. As for the matching sticker book collections and splatter-painted childhood bedrooms, that’s just a sister thing.