The Tall and the Short of It

by Julia Felsenthal

I recently took a photo of my sister and me in a dressing room mirror. We’re trying on matching purple turtlenecks. She’s got her hands on her hips and she’s humoring me, her lips set tightly in a half-smile. I’m gazing at the screen on my phone, intently composing the shot.

Our jeans are similar, and so is our hair, almost the same color and length. But I tower over her. Her head barely clears my shoulder, and my hip aligns with her chest. She could pull her sleeves over her hands; mine, like the sleeves of all my sweaters, end mid-forearm exposing inches of naked wrist.

If you glanced at this photo out of the corner of your eye, you would be forgiven for thinking that I’m an adult and she’s a child, or I’m a man and she’s a woman, or maybe even that we belong to two different species entirely.

My sister is three years older than I am, and seven inches shorter. She is slim and narrow and small, with delicate wrists and ankles. She is also thoughtful, cautious, responsible, the quiet eye of the storm. I am the storm: erratic, moody, restless, and attention seeking. I am six feet tall; broad shouldered; wide hipped; a sprawling, messy human being. I look like I could eat her for breakfast.

I am louder, but I am the younger sister, the follower. I followed my sister through high school, inherited her extracurriculars, her favorite teachers, followed her to college, into her freshman dorm, her choice of major, to New York—the same block, even—and her world of magazines. My mother once told me she thought my life had only become complicated the day my sister decided to have children and went someplace where I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.

A younger sister is not accustomed to breaking ground. When I got my period and couldn’t figure out how to insert a tampon, my sister did it for me. She taught me how to shave my armpits and legs. In my nascent adulthood, I often went over to the apartment she shared with her not-yet-husband to take a bath, and, like a jerk, consistently left my dirty towel crumpled somewhere on the floor. Once, a decade ago, during a panicked time when I couldn’t face anything, least of all my bills, she came over to my tiny studio, sat on my bed, and calmly opened months of mail for me.

I am younger, but I am the bigger sister. That fact has caused each of us consternation at different points in our lives.If you look at photos of us in early childhood, there are endless shots in matching outfits, my sister serious and rangy, me a stout little grinning gremlin. I remember the moment we discovered that I’d grown taller. I was still in elementary school and we were walking side by side down a sunny block in Chicago. I looked in a shop window as we passed and my reflection hovered above hers. She glared at me when I pointed it out and explained how perspective worked. Objects in the mirror may be shorter than they appear. But I was the one further from the glass, nearer to the curb. Later, at home, I lorded it over her, and she cried.

She doesn’t remember any of this, which makes me wonder which of us was more traumatized: the sister who found it so painful to be outgrown, or the sister who would come to hate that she’d grown so much, so fast.

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