Fiction by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
My older sister and I bid each other good night, voices rising through adjacent walls. We call each other Nicky and Nan, little brother, sis, instead of dumbass. Nerd.
She’s eighteen, I’m fifteen.
It doesn’t matter what we’ve fought over. I tease Nancy over slacking in class. She calls my fondness for dark stories “nerdy.” She thinks I’m too old-school, listening to Tchaikovsky’s brooding Pathetique when Alice Cooper sings about not being Mr. Nice Guy and Queen proclaims rhapsodies of thunderbolts and lightning.
All that goes out the window, no matter how late at night.
We say goodnight. Tell jokes too. My favorite one is Nancy’s quip that the squirrels voted for President Carter because of his nuts. And the one about Nixon and potatoes. He was a dick-tater, she always says, her laughter off-key, but beautiful, like a bell. We proclaim love through walls, love. Love you, sis. Love you, Nicky. Words that seem to linger, an ethereal echo on silent nights when the moon leaves us, parents out at some party or another.
Why do we fight? Why do we feud over the TV, shove each other in the hallways at school? She likes Three’s Company. I love reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with all its darkness and idiocy.
Maybe it’s natural, two forces fighting for dominion. As Nancy jokes when I listen to Tchaikovsky and devour Tolstoy, “You’re sure you’re not the tsar in disguise?”
Maybe I am. Maybe we’re both seeking imperial dominion over the couches and dining room, imposing the visions of the world we know is right.
Maybe it’s a mask, though. After all masks are easier to don. Love isn’t cool. Sometimes, in the hallways at school, I’ll watch Nancy with her friends, hunched together, laughing. Pointing at me even. But there’s a hesitation there, something small, as if she imagines me collapsing into tears. And I admit, I joke about Nancy with friends. She likes getting Ds, because they stand for dumbass, I quip. But how I want to tell them the truth. She’s my sister, three years older. We are tethered by blood, linked by the same parents who drink and carouse, who leave a gap.
I can’t pinpoint when the arguing stepped up. Perhaps when she entered high school, perhaps when I entered high school myself.
Once we used to go to movies, throw popcorn, and yell lines at the screens, sharing the warmth of spaces, even if they smelled like popcorn and armpits. We used to ride bikes up and down festering streets, with old Romanesque buildings crumbling and steel mills gasping their last. We used to share open spaces and constrained ones, huddle together, allies against our parents’ in their feuds.
But save for our late night summits, we live our own lives, me in my Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, Nancy with her friends, at movies, or in search of some Friday night parties, rife with pot and possibilities.
But is it a mask?
Maybe it was a mask once. But maybe we’re inhabiting our masks, late night whispers our last gasps of love. Maybe we’re buying into the insults, helpless. Perhaps we’re unable to stop the inevitable divisions, soon to be absorbed in our own interests. I imagine myself becoming a pianist, Nancy an actress. Or an activist. Maybe it’s easier to insult than to acknowledge Time’s march, slow and cold, taking us with him. It’s easier to define ourselves in relation to what we’re against.
Who knows? So many unknowns swirl through my consciousness, dance like ballerinas in a ballet rife with misery.
Every night, after the good nights have faded, I lay awake. I hold onto fleeting words, especially on rainy nights, when the words echo in the rain’s whisper. I try to remove my mask, to strip the insults. I love you, Nancy, I whisper. I try to utter the very words at breakfast, at school, in front of the TV, but I can’t. She just jokes that I look like a fish or tells me to shut up. Resolve crumples like ruins.
The mask or whatever it is slides back on again and again, sliding with a kind of silent force. Until bedtime, that is, when the words spill forward with eagerness. Desperation.
Good night, I whisper, even after Nancy’s asleep. Good night.