Foreign Exchange

by Julie Brown

My sister has always had ridiculous good luck. It’s become an inside joke in my family, though, to me, it’s not really a joke so much as a long-running sitcom past its prime.

There is nothing creative about harboring jealousy in relation to one’s sister. Believe me, I know. The lack of originality is, quite frankly, embarrassing. But you’d be jealous, too, if your only sister were beautiful, charming, witty and has led such a blessed existence that, when she eventually drops dead at the ripe old age of 97 (she won’t look a day over 62), her heart will simply stop beating while she slumbers in the muscled arms of her middle-aged trophy husband. She’ll have on a full face of makeup and she will most certainly not have drooled on herself. I’ve thought about my own death more than is generally accepted as healthy, and, while there have been wild variations in the cause, three details remain constant: humiliation, bodily fluids, and a crowd of horrified onlookers.

Naturally, I suppress these thoughts whenever we’re together. Some days, it’s a mindless exercise. Others, it’s a game of Whack-a-Mole™ that I have no chance of winning, a rigged exercise in frustration. Today, I’ve only been in her presence for eight minutes: thus, the level of difficulty has yet to be determined.

We’re sitting across from each other, waiting for the barista to call out our orders. It’s 8:28 on a Saturday morning. I’ve got sand under my eyelids, bumper cars in my skull and a stubborn coating of bottom-shelf gin on my tongue. Meanwhile, my sister’s freshly-shampooed hair gives off a faint whiff of coconuts every time she shakes it out of her eyes, which is approximately every fourteen seconds because her side-swept bangs are always sliding down over her brow in a cute ‘n’ sexy way that mine do not.

“So.” She’s got one of those sad, leftover smiles on her face, the kind you see on people after they drop someone off at the airport. The kind on Elaine Robinson’s face in that last scene on the bus in The Graduate. “Thanks for meeting me. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“No problem,” I rasp, fingernails tapping out a nervous rhythm on the laminate tabletop, every cell in my body desperate for caffeine. “What’s up?”

“Well,” she begins, “you know that Dave and I have been having problems recently.” I don’t know, actually, but I nod anyway. Dave is the kind of guy who plays ultimate Frisbee and bakes zucchini bread and who seems to have wandered straight out of an REI window display. “We agreed to go to couples therapy a few months ago, and, initially, it was going well… Dave said it was probably just a rough patch and that everything would be fine…”

“Double espresso and mocha latte!”

Her face brightens. “That’s us! I’ll get it,” she says, touching my arm before gliding over to the counter.

What kind of problems could they possibly have been having? Did Dave forget to make the bed in the mornings? Had he been working too much? Were they arguing over the Netflix queue? I try to remember if my mother mentioned anything to me about it, but nothing surfaces.

“Thanks,” I mumble as she slides the espresso toward me. Slightly vivified after the first sip, I say, “So, Dave said it was probably a rough patch…” as if willing her to continue.

“Right.” She dabs at her foamy upper lip with her napkin with the same care she uses to apply lip gloss. “That’s what we both thought at first. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.”

Things didn’t work out. Had they actually broken up? I suppose it isn’t a terribly upsetting notion; I mean, it’s not like she won’t find someone else just as handsome and solid in a few months if she feels like it. She’s got symmetrical breasts and a laugh that isn’t accompanied by a persistent snort. She’s got options.

I swallow my unbecoming jealousy with a mouthful of burning caffeine, a punishment of sorts. “What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t a rough patch. I realized I just wasn’t happy. I was bored.” She shrugs as if to say, “These things happen.”

Twenty seconds ago I hadn’t felt especially invested in the outcome of my sister’s love life; I already knew she was going to live happily ever after, the question was only with whom and when. But that shrug—it stung. Sure, Dave wasn’t my cup of tea, but her blasé attitude about the end of the relationship seemed inappropriate at best. Didn’t she know that some people weren’t as lucky as she was?

Of course she didn’t. This point had been illustrated many times, in many ways, over the years, as she had attempted to help me with my regrettable lack of a steady boyfriend, as though I could saunter up and hit on that scruffily handsome guy who I’ve spotted at the newsstand the past twenty-six mornings, always wearing the same green hoodie, buying a copy of the paper and, weirdly, a pack of Juicy Fruit. He must really love gum.

My sister has always suggested, in complete earnestness, that I orchestrate ridiculous “meet-cute” scenarios in order to meet someone, like waiting around the corner until he’s approaching the newsstand, then reaching for the Juicy Fruit at the same time he does. Then we’ll catch each other’s eye, laugh, and apologize, holding our gaze just a bit longer than is polite. He’ll say, “You live around here?” I’ll say, “Yeah, just up the street…You?” One of us will suggest getting a cup of fair-trade coffee, and then, a few mornings later, we’ll end up in a tangle of sweat-drenched sheets in his loft with its exposed brick, hardwoods and framed cult movie posters. He’ll trace his finger over my lips and murmur, “You were amazing.”

This is the kind of thing that happens to her. She can’t imagine that it isn’t so easy for anyone else, particularly her older sister. I mean, we’re related. How could we be so far removed from one another’s realities? It’s like I’m a foreign exchange student who was raised by a completely different family on another continent and, despite her best efforts to assimilate me into her culture, I never quite fit. I’ve got unfinished edges, weird shoes, an uncomfortable way with an idiom.

Things didn’t work out.

It used to flatter me that she assumed that I could exist in the world as she does, like it meant that, at least in her eyes, we were on the same level. It gave me a comfortable nest of false hope to settle into, a belief that, one day, I’d blossom into the sister she should have logically gotten. Now it just felt like being poked by a splinter that, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t remove.

“You woke me up at 7:45 on a Saturday morning to tell me that?” I finally retort.

She looks down into her cup, as though she’s been caught ogling a stranger on the street. Guilt prods me back into my role as supportive sister—whether out of habit or a genuine impulse, I’m not sure. I mutter an apology.

“I slept with someone else,” she blurts out. “I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I needed to give Dave a reason to move on. He didn’t want to accept the fact that I could just fall out of love with him, you know?”

As the meaning of her words register, a whirlwind of ugly, cruel, angry thoughts gather in my head, compete for space: I know that, despite my best efforts, one of them is going to make a break for it. I clench my jaw, set my tongue against the roof of my mouth, creating a physical barrier to hold it in.

What the hell were you thinking Dave is such a great guy that’s a disgusting thing to do to someone you should be ashamed of yourself you always get what you want anyway so don’t lose any sleep over it I hope you’re happy with what you’ve done don’t expect me to feel sorry for you I’m embarrassed to call you my sister slut tramp bitch whore don’t you know how lucky you are.

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror across the room, and, though nothing is uttered or hissed or screamed, realize it doesn’t matter because every word of it is scrawled across my face in the frantic hand of the self-righteous. She knows what I’m thinking, partly because I’m a terrible liar and partly because she’s my sister.

Her usual expression of mild beatification has been replaced by creases of worry, regret, around her eyes and forehead. She is heartbreakingly human, ordinary and fallible, as she sits across the table from me. I notice that she’s even missed the tiniest bit of foam at the left corner of her mouth. There’s one gray hair, wiry and incongruous, peeking out from her temple. She’s thinner, tired. A flash of recognition tugs at my features like an impatient child, coaxing a smile.

It doesn’t matter. She’s still beautiful. She’s still my sister.

I reach across and rest my hand on hers. “It’s going to be okay,” I say with the certainty that applies to laws of physics, biology. “Sometimes things don’t work out.”

JULIE BROWN lives and writes in Austin, Texas. Her writing has appeared in Cherry Bleeds, the now-defunct website and a pathetic high school lit journal. She treasures irony, cynicism and Aaron Spelling productions. More on all three of these delightful things, along with The Best Timewasters on the Internet Completely Unrelated to Pornography, can be found on her website,

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