Usually, I prefer to stand and walk on the left side of my partner. The roots of this quirk are debatable, but it’s definitely one of my less cute abnormalities. I drove into the city to meet a boy. My roommate knew the reason for my excursion before I had a chance or reason to explain. He knew a friend of mine a few years ago. “Knew” her, I told my roommate. “Is that the hipstery, ginger dude?” she asked. But I was out the door.
Three gin and tonics and a round of kissing that I feel the words “making out” are too brash to describe, we decided that a venture outdoors was mandatory. He put his right arm around me. His right arm, meaning I too was on the right. Which is wrong.
“Uh, I know this is kind of weird, but I need to be on the left.”
“...I’m trying to think of a less intense explanation than that I might have an 'obsessive personality.'”
“No! I’m just...I get caught up in the details, is all.”
I like to keep my nails short. Aesthetically, they’re pleasing enough but to be perfectly honest, sometimes I think that if I kept them long I might run the risk of taking to scratching and bloodying the faces of those who get in my way. Which is a real risk, because some days, I hate everyone. Having a weapon that conveniently protrudes from my flesh and is quite literally at the disposal of my fingertips may not always be the best for the well being of those around me. Sometimes I paint my nails dark or red and I think to myself, Now if I kill someone, no one will be able to see the blood under my nails!
But it’s also the ritual aspect of keeping my nails short that I enjoy. I even like to trim my cuticles. The undiagnosed person with OCD inside me finds peace in mundane tasks; like I’m somehow smoothing the lines and creases of human despair because now, all my nails are filed and clean. Ok, maybe it’s not that intense, but point being, the maintenance of my nails only fractionally has to do with beauty.
I was an anxious preschooler. I used to bite my nails. Being away from my mom and familiar things and people stressed me out. I had two preschool teachers. Both very kind, intelligent women. One was quieter, and in my four-year-old mind, seemed to have a sensitive awareness of the strife and stress that comes with just learning how to be alive. The other one was the laughter. She was the laughter.
She had a curled and swooped crop of short red hair, a pale face and always donned a huge, almost painted on—albeit genuine—smile. Let’s just say she looked enough like a circus clown to scare the shit out of me sometimes. Don’t get me wrong now: she was great. But like, clowns are terrifying.
One day, this circus woman, lovely a soul as she was, caught me biting my nails. She came out of nowhere, put a hand on my shoulder and boomed with a canon shot of laughter, “If you keep biting your nails, you won’t be hungry for lunch!”
I froze. My eyes were orbs back then. I looked at her with what I can only imagine was an effective blend of fear and fretful determination to capture the essence and true meaning of her words.
Huge, dark eyes and a little scrunched caterpillar line for a mouth. She walked away. She had appeared like magic and left me in the ring, watching her pull scarves and ribbons and wisps of faded joy from thin air. I was left to decrypt the jester’s code. Clearly, that made an impression on me. A decade and a half later, the memory still loops on a reel somewhere on a curtain of a faded red and white circus tent, deep in the back of my mind.
* * *
Ivy and Ramona are sisters. Ivy is older, and there was a time when Ramona resented this biological, immovable boulder of a fact. But at 25 and (almost) 23, the gap seemed shrunken to a point where it was clear that it would one day become an obsolete pinpoint. A pinprick of a fact presented during introductions as a party trick. Guess which one of us is older. Just guess.
When Ramona was 13, she went to her cousin’s wedding alone. Alone, meaning without the ally she’d been bestowed with from birth and had never yet taken for granted. Ivy was a teenaged vagabond abroad and vastly more interesting in her absence than Ramona was in the flesh. A friend of their older cousin, drunk and sentimental off of the red wine at the rehearsal dinner, inquired about the absent sibling.
“Just the one sister?” She was blonde and friendly; a solidly built woman swirling with fermentation in her dark dress and dainty gems. “Who’s older, you or Ivy?”
“My sister is, by two and half...well, almost three years.” Ramona was shy. She was less shy than the little girl who would never sit by strangers in public or order from a waiter in a restaurant, but not yet as bold as she would one day become. But Ivy had always ordered. Ivy always took the aisle seats.
“Oh my God, that’s nothing!” The woman began in a crescendo that started with a lean towards Ramona and ended with both wine hand and free hand in the air, gushing over her love for her own younger brother.
“He couldn’t be here tonight. He’ll be at the wedding but his wife couldn’t get out of the city until this afternoon but (sip)—he and I are six years apart, and the older we get, the less and less it seems to matter. We’re like, best friends. The age difference hardly matters.”
* * *
Ramona, Ivy and her two pups were enjoying a Sunday in the park. The four of them were walking out of Dolores to buy more beer. Ivy had bought a 6-pack of IPA but now only had two left. She’d drank one, given another to a new homeless friend, and sold off two others for $4 a brew to some lounging yuppies, looking for a thrill. Ivy was putting her earnings towards buying more.
Ramona told her sister about the ego boost she had received from the above average directional skills she displayed on her way from Oakland to San Francisco. After missing only one connection, she managed to take the BART into the city to meet her sister.
Fuck yeah, she had thought as her train pulled into the 16th and Mission St station. I know things about the transpo system! Ramona was only 45 minutes late.
Ivy had arrived 25 minutes after their scheduled hangout, and the friend she had been visiting had left her in the park only 20 minutes before Ramona’s arrival. Perfect. Perfect weather, perfect day. One of those days Ramona was not quite used to yet in San Francisco. “We have Indian summers,” her roommate had said.
Ivy and Ramona walked down a hill to the pavement. The park was packed. The dogs sniffed at compatriots and the girls swerved around striped shirts and the last sightings of summer skirts.
“...Anyway dude, I just don’t think there is ever a good way to ride a push scooter when you’re over the age of like, 12.” Ramona was recounting the adult male who had passed her on a Razor scooter at the Ashby BART station before she walked in to buy her ticket. He had scooted right by where she had stopped to put her phone away. He was wearing a button down shirt and a tie.
“Even as teenagers people start to look too big for those tiny, little wheels.” Ramona squinted up at the clear October sky. “I mean, what kind of message is that man trying to send? Really.” It wasn’t a judgment. It was a thoughtful call for reflection.
Ivy was giving her sister a face that started on top with eyebrows drawn together, making her forehead scrunch and eyes narrow. Cheeks over chiseled cheekbones lifted and fell into a huge, full lipped smile. All teeth with no bite, today, and a barking laugh that was never bashful or ashamed.
“Maybe he can’t afford a bike and he doesn’t want to be a skater boi.” Ivy hadn’t specified, but Ramona knew what spelling and what connotation her sister meant.
“Maybe...” Ramona laughed. Skeptical, thoughtful, Ramona.
The eyelids of the moment lifted. A world that had a moment ago been red behind their closed gaze revealed a world that looked too blue with eyes wide open.
“Ramona, I have a question.”
Ivy was being weird and formal. Ramona let out a tsk from the tail end of a laugh. Her breath went crystalline in anticipation.
“OK, what?” Ramona was natural with her sister, but it hadn’t always been like that in the past few years.
True to her name, Ivy was at one time a creeping, strangling shadow over the fragile blossoms Ramona tried to grow. Now that the two were both on their own, they tended the weeds together.
An older couple passed between them. “What sweet dogs!” the woman crooned, reaching out a hand for the russet pup.
The couple passed closely.
“I can’t really say it that loud...”
Ramona moved closer, curious, smiling with mock concern. The black pup’s tongue lolled to the left.
“Ok, what is your question?” Her voice was an exaggeration.
Earnestly, with concern and in all innocence and honesty (the way only Ivy, even at 25 could pull off) she asked, “What is up with you and gingers?”
“HA!” Ramona threw her head back, genial and amused, eyes rolling. “What do you mean, ‘what’s up’?”
Ivy was laughing, perhaps because she could only hear the humor in her question after the words were away from her.
“Just like, why do you like them so much?”
“Oh my god, I don’t ‘like them so much.’ I don’t have like, a fucking ginger fetish or anything.”
“That’s what Nat says I have!” Ramona was laughing. “She thinks I had a weird thing for Ron Weasley or something.”
“OK, but like, Ron doesn’t really count.”
“Dude, I know! And it’s totally not even true! Obviously, I was into Fred.”
Ivy gave the scrunched face laugh again that Ramona knew translated roughly into, “Ooh, child, what are you saying?”
Ramona knew that face; knew her sister’s face so well that it sometimes just morphed into a reflection of her own. Ivy was the one person on earth who knew her on the most intimate genetic level. Once, Ramona had seen her sister walk outside to the back patio, fully nude from the shower, to shush her barking dogs. Ramona waited, biding her time before she switched the scene to comedy, watching, unnoticed.
“What are you doing?” she had asked from the kitchen, barely stifling a laugh that jolted her sister. Ivy was a spooked horse. She laughed and off she trotted. Their nipples were exactly the same color brown.
Ramona was in her head:
My sister and I have a suicide pact. I think we’d always known, but we’d never put it into words until we stood in the kitchen of the rented home where we lived with our mom and our aunt.
“I mean, you know that I can’t live without you,” I said, smiling slightly, but insanely serious. She and I were instantaneously and seamlessly on the same side.
She looked at me, and I looked back.
In anger, I have told my sister that she doesn’t even know me anymore; that who we were as kids is not who we are now. “You think you know me, but you don’t.” I knew the words cut through her.
Ivy had yelled with tears in her eyes. “That’s not true!” We were both right. Ten months. Ten months in a row she’d been back home. It took tears and wrestling on the floor and a broken shoe rack and a broken door and an incident where my aunt ran upstairs, a place she never ventured, in her bra and without her wig yelling, “Girls, girls!” because my mom wasn’t home and she probably thought we were killing each other. We weren’t, but we did cause part of the handrail on the stairs to come loose after one of us knocked the other to the edge. Who can remember now? We’re so often on the edge.
In the kitchen, my sister looked at me with the same face I’d known for 20 years. A feather tickle of a reluctant smile touched her lips and her round eyes shone.
“Oh, I know,” she said. “Me either.”
“Like, I would kill myself if you died.”
“No, don’t do that.”
“Well, like, if I was already hella old.”
“Me too,” she said. “I couldn’t live without you.”
Ramona put a hand on the head of the black dog she loved so much as they waited at the crosswalk. She scratched behind the ear of the russet baby girl. She put her hand on the bones inside her sister’s shoulder. Ivy smiled with the sun in her eyes. Her front teeth have reverted back to the gap she had before years of orthodontic patience.
Ramona’s skin was just a shade more golden to the olive of her sister’s. “Honestly like, I don’t really know what’s up with it.”
* * *
In middle school, I tried to tell my mom that there was a 70/30 percent chance that maybe I might have OCD. “No,” she said. I think she would have laughed more, but she knows me, and she knew I was serious. Mostly. But I probably let a few shakes of laughter roll through before I composed myself back and spoke in the grave voice of a doctor delivering bad news. “Mom. What if I really have it? Sometimes I need to touch the doorknob all the way or re-tie my shoelaces if they’re not right!”
“Ramona, everyone has compulsions. Some people just can’t control them. You can.”
Sarah Grace is an optimist who sulks and scowls and sighs and sings with eyes upturned to rain clouds. A resident of the California East Bay, Sarah has been published in the Huffington Post and Ravishly.com. She’s definitely down to hang out. She loves that kind of shit.