The Sisters – Michigan Quarterly Review
an old tv set alongside two vases with green plants

The Sisters

April. About a week after J. and I decide to take a break, I begin Keeping Up with the Kardashians season one. No—about a week after I am placed on break, the way one gets put on bed rest—like, okay, I guess you’re the expert not me—I begin The Kardashians. The Girls embark on their upward trajectory while I slump down in front of them— 

It is 2007, and Khloe has just gotten a DUI. Kris, her mother, picks her up at the police station. She chides Khloe less than my own mother would me. But still it is an appropriate amount. Then Khloe is screaming, raging at Kris. Leave me alone, she wails. Someone is wearing Louis Vuitton. 

The last weekend of May. J. and I are spending it together. A final hurrah before we “begin the break.” “Go on the break?” Is it a vacation? We decide it should last from June to September. Then we will reassess. We are in high spirits. Delirium before the executioner’s block. We spend two days having sex and being in love. It is hot out, so we stay inside. Not much we can look forward to that includes each other, except for the new episode of Kardashians that dropped earlier this week, so we make a big to-do of sitting down to watch. J. joked once that we were like Kourtney and Travis – always making out, excessively bound to each other. We liked to let mythology reign in our relationship. We loved a sense of story, of character, something we could stitch ourselves onto. If not Kourtney and Travis then Kitty and Levin from Anna Karenina. After the episode, I slip out onto the porch to call Maslen and write with her a bit. She is my best friend and we are trying for normalcy. So I try to pretend it is normal to leave J. reading inside, like I am not wasting my final minutes before slipping past the event horizon. I write— 

Kim goes to her closet, which is actually a warehouse somewhere in L.A, a storage facility completely detached from her house. It delights me to think that when she wants to look in her closet, she will have to get on the freeway, sit in traffic, then walk into a space with fluorescent light. It must be temperature-controlled there. All that Balenciaga. Kim’s dilemma these days is that she has to forge a new fashion sense for herself. You see, Kanye used to dress her. Now, she must undergo the very human experience of having to create a novel personality in the wake of a break up. Or she could just get a new body, her usual reinvention: shapeshift shrink slender herself for fashion week, for Met Gala, for Vogue shoot, for rich men, for me, too. I loved her in the Marilyn Dress. I’m sorry. Where was I going with this? Oh yes – what silk garment am I supposed to slip into once the men leave? Sleeveless or high-necked? And in what warehouse are my archives, what is the exit I should take on the freeway, and if I went in to my warehouse would I find rows of garish skin-tight sheaths or would I find the Tinker Bell nightgown my father bought me at Disney World when I was 5? 

On our last day, the day of J.’s scheduled departure, I wake up resigned to excruciation. Within hours, the future I have dreaded will be my reality, will be not anxiety but a condition, damp and lain over me like a shroud. This is the first thing I think upon opening my eyes: that the present has ceased to exist, there is only the past with (excruciating) and the future without (excruciating). I want to tear my rib cage out of my body. I picture a twig snapped in half, one side thrown across the yard. It is only 8:00am. and I almost wish he would just leave, so we can get this over with. 10:00am, breakfast – cold pasta from yesterday. 11:00am, we lie on the couch, pretending to watch Gilmore Girls, collapsed into our respective past (me) future (him) sinkholes. 12:00pm, a walk outside, to the park. The heat amplifies our fatigue. We buy lemonade and CBD seltzer for the nerves. We come back, put on Gilmore Girls, but the pretending is unbearable. I beg God for the end to come, come quickly. I beg God for the end to lose our scent, for this to be a fluke, for J. to be less insistent on his autonomy. Why should he be able to live without me? Possession is the point. A memory, from freshman year of college: I grab J.’s collar and say, mine

So he leaves. He leaves and I feel relief, that at last we have surpassed the terrifying threat of finitude. But after a few minutes, I find myself unable to locate what lies beyond this. The end was all I had to fear, and now? 

The break. June. A new kind of delirium. I think to myself, I am on sabbatical! This is a chance to go rogue! Plus, this is supposed to last for only three months. I can do anything for three months. I can be a slut for three months! I fantasize about using this time to go to Europe, away, away, then returning with something to show for myself, a draft of a novel, someone kissed, something ruined. But my job requires that I work from the continental U.S, and I only have a week left of paid time off. Also, I fear I might never write again. J. is —was?—my reader and editor; he has read everything I’ve ever written. Has loved everything I’ve ever written. 

In the end, Maslen and I manage to go to Spain for a few days, where I tumble into something like joy, because of the public parks and the tapas. We run around like little weirdos. This despite the periodic lapses of unreality I feel. Like peering up at a church, and suddenly I am peering up at a church with J., and he turns to me and says something pretentious about gothic architecture, and I roll my eyes, and then I am back looking up at the church alone. 

In Madrid, Maslen and I sit in a park. She forces me to write, though I don’t want to. Though I can’t. Write the despair, she says. I can’t quite face that head on yet. Instead I write— There are so many ants in the grass. Black ants minding their own business. I keep feeling one crawling on me. When I go to itch, it is just a drop of my own sweat or a strand of my own hair. I’m sorry that I blame small living things for marching along my skin when it was me marching along myself the whole time. 

Later, I try again— 

Big bell ringing somewhere. People walking back from church. Nuns nuns I love nuns I think they are good people even though they love the bad bad Catholic Church even though they want to fuck god. I mean, I would fuck god, but only if he pursued me first. I require that men come to me. Though of course I lay traps for them to fall into. The stumbling, however, must be of their own accord. 

When I return to the states, I tell everyone I know that I want to move to Spain, and Sofia responds, well it’s a dying country, so enjoy it while it lasts. Back home, I go about my business, walking outside, feeling alive, being a friend. I am doing well, I am taking this like a champ, Livi says, and I say yes, I am, I am a huge champ, the biggest, and really, I do feel some light leaking out of me, the truth is I have always been radiant, even when harrowed, and I know it and my friends know it. The trick? When the void gets too close I gather my roommate and make her watch The Kardashians with me. Down here I am more calm than I have felt all summer, lying sideways on the couch in front of this Great American Family that I love, god I love them, how did I come to love them? Beyond that I am heartened by the pitfalls they climb out of. If Kourtney survived Scott, then surely I can survive this— 

Kendall, 11, swings from the stripper pole hung up in Kim’s bedroom. There is great scandal once her parents find out what Kendall has been up to while they were away. Kendall’s brother, Rob, does not see the problem, though it is his fault she got up there anyway. He was supposed to be babysitting. Ultimately there are no consequences for anyone, just shallow remonstrances, which is how a family should go about dispensing justice. Flashes of anger swallowed by great loyalty. Then a fun dinner at Nobu. 

If the sisters have resentments, they last only until the end of the episode. By season two I have become a more forgiving person. When the credits roll the Girls have coalesced back into their gelled form, and as the next episode comes on my eyes adjust to their bodies, which are the shape of absolution. If a couple breaks up in season one I can sit there until they are back in season two, no living on my part required. I, on the other hand, have a great slog ahead of me. Must live through my season one, then two, with no narrative benchmarks to show me I am close to the epilogue. No Kourtney and Travis. Kitty and Levin lie dead in their fictional graves. 

End of June. One month into being without. Every morning I try to wake up at 7:30am, and every morning I can’t wrestle with consciousness until about 8:15. My body knows something evil about 7:30am and does not want me to witness it. But I woke today and in a rare burst of motivation did everything a person should do: wash face, brush teeth, clean kitchen, sweep floor, take out trash. Then it was 9:30 and there was nothing left to accomplish. Have you ever stood and waited in a dusty courtyard on a hot day? 

I am not yet used to the long hours of myself, and I have no one to answer to, so these mornings I turn on Gilmore Girls. I am not writing much still, some journal entries here and there. Mostly I am watching. 

Lorelei in her skirt. Her relationship with Luke—now that is a long game. Try not to let myself think about long games with J. because that is defeating the purpose of the “break,” which is partly to see if we can live without each other. When we were first discussing the possibility of spending time apart, he told me he was afraid, because either his life would get worse without me, or it would get better. He drew a wobbling arc with his hands, an uncertain prognosis. 

Not better, I said, different. Freedom feels different from love, but it does not feel better, at least to me. I tried to sound reassuring, though who was I reassuring? Is that a problem, I thought, a girl who likes love more than she likes freedom? I didn’t ask him because I didn’t want to hear the answer. After we decided to take a break, we spent the whole night taking turns crying. 

I said, I feel like I’m going to throw up. He said, I feel alive. 

That was early May. Now it is June and I am still here, watching Gilmore Girls in the background while I work. There are technically eight seasons, but whenever I get to season six, I have to start over, because I hate the last two. Rory graduates college and has no idea what she is doing, her life is a bit of a wreck, her and her boyfriend break up, Lorelei and her boyfriend also break up, and the whole thing sounds too familiar. So before it gets like that I just start from season one. Then Rory is sixteen again with a bright future ahead of her. Eternal recurrence, etc. etc. Still not ready to write the despair, still not ready to write at all, except about the logistics of my day. That isn’t so scary, that I can do— 

For breakfast I made something irrepressibly tender: greek yogurt with thinly sliced peaches, almond slivers, sprigs of thyme, and sea salt. Thyme is the herb of self-compassion. The breakfast was very good and its effects lasted almost two hours, until I began to feel my thyme-induced benevolence turn to something more destructive. This is when it becomes “popcorn time.” It happens every day at 4pm. It is popcorn time because I am skirmishing with my existence as an individual and so I have to prepare a bag of microwave popcorn or else. While I am looking in the bowl I get a short reprieve from the emptiness of the late afternoon. I go to the kitchen after popcorn time, wash up and am confronted with a swarm of fruit flies. I forgot to deal with the rotting avocado on the counter and now here we are. I lay out traps—bowls of apple cider vinegar and dish soap—but the flies just land on the edge of the dish, like they are milling by a poisonous lake, dipping their toes in the water and deciding it is too cold to go in. 

Takes the edge off. That’s how my friend described the effects of anti-anxiety medication when we were discussing whether I should see a psychiatrist or not. After that conversation I do not get medicated, but I do go out and buy a bottle of CBD oil. I administer two little drops every day, like I am a rat in a lab. But I don’t need the edge to be taken off life. Life has no edges. That’s the problem. It just seeps on and over everything in the most ridiculous ways, pooling at our ankles in this formless depravity that we just wade around in. If life had edges, I could find them and walk along them. At least then I would locate myself in relation to an end. I would know the bounds of all of this. Though life does have one edge, which is death, but that’s not an edge I’m interested in falling over just yet. My therapist has COVID, so I don’t meet with her this week. But if I did, I would say something to her about my mother my father my boyfriend who is also my ex boyfriend my roommates my body my god and she would say something like, oh wow, you have a lot on your mind. 

You could call that the edge of comprehension. You could call me later—I’m on the edge of my seat. I’m on the edge of something terrible. I’m on the edge of glory, thank you Lady Gaga. I should get into edging—read an article about that in Cosmo. You’re edging away from me. Wait, come back! 

July. Two months into being without. No writing, no work ethic, but then one day, seated on the couch, I manage by some miracle to write myself, to confront myself, if only for a brief moment— 

I am out of J.’s orbit but I am still reading all the books he told me to. The problem is that he knows what I would like and he’s read all of the greats. The problem is he works at a bookstore. The problem is that all the books in my possession are actually his, which he has lent me or bought for me. In return, he gets me, and the knowledge that he controls the flow of knowledge – worse, art – into my home. His is a weird kind of patronage.

I am painting him as cruel and controlling but he is not. He is just a man with a lot of books. 

At some point this summer, I began thinking of his books as mine. How could the copy of Bonjour, Tristesse that he brought to me last year (him getting out of his Honda, or is it a Subaru, and how am I forgetting this already, him getting out of his car with a red backpack full of novels for me, a solstice offering, the authors all white women, which is the kind of book I read in early June, when the heat makes me spoiled, malaised, his neck smelling like rubber after a long car ride down the I-95) how could the copy of Bonjour Tristesse be anyone’s but mine? Same with the other books on my sill. I will not give them back. He will not ask for them back. 

I wish I could say I will take good care of the books that are mine now, but the truth is I treat books like extensions of my fingers. I am always dipping them into glasses of water and shoving them in pockets and smearing them with food. I hold reverence only for the act of reading, not so much for the turning of pages. Maybe this is why I have never really bought books for myself. I know how cruel a mother I can be. 

J. can keep what I have given him, too: a silver necklace, a white duvet cover, a series of essays I wrote him, some haikus in his name. All these gifts for my patron, for the friendly court which harbors me. And when the regime is dissolved? When the court no longer requires my stories? Where will my words live? Fine. I will not ask J. for my books back. Though they are not books in the conventional sense, as they have no publishing deal, no second editions, no re-prints. My books are nonsense whispers, deadly serious. They are the upright stance, the puddles of sun in his room that he slips on as he stumbles to the bathroom upon waking. Sounds that tickle him, make his ears ring. That is not a gift I can revoke. 

The writing makes me tired. Don’t think I can do that again anytime soon. At night, my friends and I watch Dirty Dancing, best movie ever, and also about abortion, which people forget. Patrick Swayze is a beautiful dancer – he studied at the Joffrey Ballet school. I used to do ballet. I am a dancer still. As in, I will dance anywhere, I think it might be the only kind of freedom that doesn’t scare me, though I do get a bit self-conscious if people are watching. If I never write again, whatever, because I have the way Patrick’s torso sways in pursuit of rhythm, my torso could do the same if I practiced some, if I closed my eyes I wouldn’t even be scared of the audience, and nobody puts baby in a corner, and nobody puts me on a break. 

September. Three months into being without. I had a good summer, given the circumstances. Given the heart-rending. I read a lot. I get to season two of Kardashians— with their oiled bodies, bodies that a drunk man must have alchemized in a laboratory. I spend June and July and August with their genuine and unconstrained desire to pursue fame, not as a means but as an end. A desire like taking a rock and putting it through a dishwasher. If you watch them from the right angle – down here on the couch – the whole endeavor takes on a moral glow. The next episode begins. My pupils dilate and I am borne up on a slick tide towards my Family. I develop a California accent and acquire a Range Rover. I seek only clean and earnest ends. My means uncomplicate themselves. I sit down for dinner with my American Sisters. 

I watch Kardashians while I pack up my belongings to move from D.C. to New York. Celebrity relationships seem horrible: the paparazzi, the performance, the PDA. Pete Davidson gets milk duds delivered to Kim’s private jet. I take down from my wall a sonnet that J. wrote for me. The last line: I dream and it opens, our perfect enclosure. Kim calls Pete. You’re so thoughtful, she says. 

September still. After three months of “break” J. and I end it for good. No – he ends it for good, I stand there and agree, yes, yes, I was thinking the same thing. A blistering consensus. We need to grow as individuals, he says, his voice breaking, but we will be lifelong friends. Yes, yes, that is best for both of us, I nod. But I do not know in what direction I am supposed to grow. 

I ask him if I will still get first dibs on good books from his bookstore. I want priority for the advanced readers’ copies. I want priority in his life. Of course, he says, his face gentle. He indulges me one last myth. 

A memory: a christmas gift from J. A copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, inscribed, for my favorite writer, in the rare and terrible event I am not there to help you find the perfect word. Our perfect enclosure. My perfect editor. Enclosed, my editor. I want to die. No—I don’t. But I’m already dead? After we break up, I give Maslen the thesaurus, make her hide it somewhere. I know that if she doesn’t, I will keep reading and re-reading the inscription, though I can hardly bear it. I will keep trying to make us into Kitty and Levin, to elevate us to the level of literature, when the truth is I shouldn’t seek language to articulate this rare and terrible event. I should not try to narrate the breaking of a twig into two. How dull. How ordinary. 

September still. Southbound, stuck in traffic on the I-95. I am on a bus traveling from New York to D.C. to my father’s house, because I have just ended a relationship. No—it was ended for me. But I was there for the end. Now I am watching Pretty Little Liars on my phone but it won’t load. A baby cries. I should be the one crying. A man two rows behind me is on the phone talking about the mandate of his church. He says something about the language of the uncivilized. No TV show means I should write a bit, so I wake up the guy in my brain and say, hey! Get to work! He can only muster this— 

I still have only two bars of cell service. My brain has only two bars of cell service. Now, we turn off an exit and I have no cell service. The God guy is still talking; this time, loyalties and enemies. To whom is he preaching? I had a very good muffin this morning. I don’t like that when I ordered it at Dunkin’ Donuts I had to know it contained 560 calories. That is not of service to me. This traffic is infernal. I am being transported across a clogged artery. The woman behind me is humming. 

My TV show is starting to load so I have to go. Things are not as bad as they seem! Not as useless as they seem. Not as clogged up. I am not as civilized as I seem. I am not as loyal as I seem. I am the descendant of a woman and a man. I will never be of service to any church because I am too interested in sin. I might become a Buddhist because I know for a fact that desire is the root of suffering. I want to live without desire. I want to live with five bars of service. The man keeps preaching. Who is he talking to? Vessels and possessions. “Hero worship. We are the heroes!” 

September won’t end. Maslen and I turn to each other and say “I hate it here!” whenever something bad happens. In the spirit of positivity we begin saying “I love it here!” instead. And then just – “I love here!” Still the bad things happen. One day I am on the phone with my mom walking on Eastern Parkway, my new here (I moved to Brooklyn one month ago) and the air is cool like it is about to rain. And then I look across the street and see J. going into the subway. See my old here, the one I’ve never loved anything as much as. And I say mom mom shut up shut up and she says jesus christ take it easy and I say can you shut up and listen to me I just saw my old here across the street. He was getting into the subway. And she says oh god are you okay and I say no I hate it here. And she says how do you feel did he see you and I say no. But I saw him. I stopped in my tracks and stared at him glared at him like is that really you? And he met my eyes for a second but maybe didn’t recognize me because I am his old here and he is mine but right here and right now I am trying to gather myself and keep going but I am just stuck here staring glaring. 

I’ve never loved anything as much as I love here. I run into the Dunkin Donuts on the corner to hide until the feeling passes. I’ve never loved anything as much as I love the Dunkin Donuts on Franklin Avenue. I get my pumpkin cold foam cold brew without sugar. I love here. The woman taking my order hates here. The woman taking my order does not know what I have just seen. I do not know what the woman taking my order has seen this morning either but I can tell it is no good. She can tell I am no good by the way I insist: no sugar in my drink please! 

There’s this scene in Gilmore Girls where Luke and Lorelai run into each other on the street after they have broken up for the first time. Don’t worry – they get back together. She is visibly shaken, but of course shaken she looks beautiful. She takes her time with the encounter, meeting his eyes, looking her lack in the mouth. I always thought if I came across my lack on the street I might mimic that same look of shock. A delicate O of the lips. I thought I might linger like that, let time stretch between silences, between how have you beens and good to see you agains and hope you’re wells, let the tension mean something, meaning: the risk of possibility. Meaning: mutual acknowledgment of hurt. But I am not Lorelai, that brave woman, I don’t lay myself across the passage of time. I rush through the here. I wish to end the dwell. 

October now. My writing won’t go. As in, my writing won’t start. As in, there is no guy in my brain, he went on strike. As in, who am I now? Either my life will get worse without you, or it will get better. I google: how to revive wilted sunflowers. I take a walk, I cry on my bed. I eat a banana while lying on top of my duvet. I write an erasure poem with Maslen. Somewhere in between that there is an egg, overcooked, oversalted. In a last ditch effort at joy I halve a grapefruit and eat the wedges. I arrive late to a virtual meeting because I am writing this. In the kitchen I hear the egg maker beep. Maslen is cooking two eggs. I hope the yolks run. In the event I am not there to help you… 

I have my women. I am on season three of Gilmore Girls, season two of Kardashians, and season six of Pretty Little Liars. I am with Rory and Lorelai and Kourtney and Kim and Khloe, and sometimes Aria and Emily and Hannah and Spencer, and I ache with them and talk to them, the only hours I lean into the long. I have very little to write about, just the forty-minute increments during which Kim goes to fashion week or Rory gets an internship. These are my happenings, and I report them to my friends and to my journal. 

Then one day a kind of torrent occurs as I am lying on my stomach on my bed. I load a Google Doc, I can do it, I— 

I want to write about being near the ocean like wet like cold like frontier of self like frontier of loss like lonely lonely lonely like ocean lonely like oceanic loss like oceanic dredge like finding yourself in the ocean like losing yourself in the ocean then coming back going to cobblestone crevices slipping up streets to the central spot the fishy restaurant to have a thick warm chowder after a long day lost to recreate Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” to fear not the fish to not fear not the silver the wretched the cobble the clamor like slipping on stones like skipping stones into the water fear not the sink fear the float then grip the sink and hold and run the tap and get dry somehow. 

And I want to write, I do. But how do I acquire the slowness I need to write words that march solemnly along, words that love the world and deliver the world and are deliverance themselves? Though some days the prospect of writing that way seems like crawling around slow in the dirt no arms. I am not a worm. On the days when writing slow and serious seems torturous I get the urge to write things smooth and empty, some flare-up of consciousness that dies before you turn the page. I want to write white womanhood uncritically, give her big Lolita sunglasses, I say! Put a hat on her! Make her laugh, send her to the beach in a convertible, give her some malaise for texture, then to be literary, make her a bit too smart for her own good. That kind of writing seems so good sometimes, so light I could lift the words off the page and traipse around a dinner party wearing them as a gown. That kind of writing someone will read and say oh look, a gal, a gal, a girlie girl, isn’t this dark, funny novel just right for my coffee table? The other kind of writing, the first kind, the slow kind, you could only read that in a church. In a hot library. You could only read that when you’re desperate to drag yourself up and out of godlessness. But instead of writing either kind, I am here writing about a literary relationship that was a real relationship that was just two people watching TV together and reading books sometimes and writing each other poems and of course having sex but what good is that doing anyone? 

October. Season three of Gilmore Girls. My sister Rory. My mom Lorelei. My town Stars Hollow. My perfect enclosure. Luke is always there when Lorelei needs him. Would she ever go on a break, just to see if she could live without him? And could she? Live without him, I mean. But then again, she has all those gorgeous boots, and her inn, and her coffee, and Rory. 

On screen, she comes in from the rain, opens the door and walks into Luke’s Diner. She needs to get dry. Can I get dry? Can I linger in the seat? I fear I will just keep writing about the same thing, some with joyful inflection, some with devastated inflection, but always about the same thing, which is love, which is my distaste for freedom, which is my fear of change, which is my addiction to comfort. I would die for love. I would not die for freedom. Rory would die for freedom, I think. She would be just fine on her own; her books would keep her company. I want to want to die for freedom. Maybe the Lexapro will help with that. Maybe the writing will help with that. Maybe I was not meant to be one of the free – I was meant to be one of the loved. I think this is the dichotomy of my life. Same theme, over and over. Lifelong themes. Lifelong friend. Lifelong love, lifelong essay, lifelong Rory, lifelong Kim, lifelong sisters. This is the rare and terrible enclosure, the rare and terrible fate, the literary fate, the literary failure, the fish house clamor, the wet fear, the here, the here. 

Sabrina Bustamante is a writer based out of Iowa City. She is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, where she is an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her work appears in Split Lip Magazine, Knife Room Poetry, Latina Magazine, and Bending Genres

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M