Colleen is packing to leave for university. She folds her clothes into neat piles, her fair hair arranged in an artfully messy bun, with gold strands curling around her face. She packs her rolled up socks into the maze of groves left by the clothes piles. Her movements are thoughtful and tender, like she is tucking them into bed.
I watch her from my quiet corner outside the door of her room, chewing on a hangnail. I am still wearing my pyjamas and I haven’t showered yet today. I stare at her, willing her to hear my voice in her head.
Wait for me.
Wait your turn. I should go first. I’m the oldest. I’m the smartest. I deserve it more.
We've been linked since Colleen was born, ten short months after me. We have been Colleen-and-Cara; say it in one quick exhale. A pair of girls, a couple of friends, two sisters. In Irish, as Gaeilge, "cailín" means girl, and "cara" means friend. We've constantly been compared, weighed against each other, with me consistently coming out on top.
I’ve always been the “gifted” sister. My dad enrolled us in violin lessons when we were in primary school. Colleen dragged her horsehair bow along the strings in a cat’s wail, didn't notice when her strings flattened and needed tuning, cried at the mention of scales. I mastered the art of the up-bow, conquered vibrato, practiced for hours a day until my violin sang like a soprano. I was playing concertos by Mozart while Colleen was still grappling with her arpeggios.
Colleen is the “all-rounder”. If society is a school of fish, Colleen is happily weaving her way in the middle. She’s easy to talk to, easily liked, always making friends. She’s lovely, funny, and perfectly average. She is going to study nursing, to help others. In school, she ran on the cross country team. She wasn’t their star runner, but she was reliable, dependable, guaranteed to place somewhere in the middle.
The middle has never appealed to me. I believe it is better to be great than to be liked.
In school, I didn’t want to be average; I wanted to be a prodigy. My musical prowess firmly embedded into my personality, I took pleasure in reminding Colleen of my brilliance and her mediocrity. I scorned at her minor successes, like when she was cast in the school play and I wasn’t, when she was picked for the cross country team and I wasn’t. She was average at a lot of things, I was gifted at one. My dad held me up as the golden child, the one to be admired. Colleen bore it all with a smile. She came to my violin competitions and listened to my tediously technical pieces with patience.
“Congratulations, Cara,” she beamed at me, every time my name was called out as the first place winner. I thanked her graciously, secretly rolling my eyes that she mastered nothing more than how to follow a dirt path with her feet.
Look out for your sister, my dad told Colleen. She might have trouble fitting in. Geniuses always do.
So Colleen took me with her, to "socialise me", she joked. Her friends, a unexceptional group of girls, didn’t like me very much. They thought I was awkward, saying the wrong things at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes. And I thought I was better than them, with their stupid squabbling over boys.
“I’m not like other girls,” I told Colleen.
“Why don’t you want to be like other girls?”
“They don’t care about anything important. Not like me. I’m gifted.”
“And the superiority complex strikes again,” she sighed. “You won’t make friends acting like that.”
“I don’t need friends.”
“What are we then, if not friends?”
I looked at her. “We’re sisters.”
As I watch her packing, I think of when we were little. Colleen is younger than me, but she has always been stronger. She could run fast in the playground, faster than most of the other children.
“Wait for me!”
Sometimes, when she was lost in the thrill of the race, she forgot about me. I would be scrambling to catch up, knowing I would never be fast enough. But Colleen always remembered me. She would turn her head and slow down so that I could catch up with her, and I would reach her, panting, clutching a stitch, just to point out some flaw in her shoes or her clothes to cover up the fact that I was jealous that she was better at something than me.
My dad told me over and over again that I could do anything I wanted with my talent. I soared through the advanced music programme in school and was admitted to university on a full music scholarship. He and Colleen were thrilled for me. My full potential was about to be revealed.
But it was too hard. They don’t tell you that about university, that it’s not the same as school. There’s less help. You have to do things for yourself, make your own way. Colleen had diagnosed me with a “superiority complex”, and my student adviser gently hinted that this was coming across to other students and staff. “Difficult” was their word for me. Difficult to work with, difficult to manage. In the orchestra, I rowed with other violinists, stormed off in a huff, declaring that none of them could match me in talent.
"You may have been a big fish in a little pond back home, but now you are one of many," I was warned by the conductor, a fat old man who couldn't stand up straight enough to hold a violin properly, let alone play one. I told him as much. He told me to get out.
Without my sister’s natural ease of moving through a crowd, I struggled to mingle, to communicate. I preferred practicing chromatic scales to drinking alcohol, so I spent all my time alone in my room. My housemates hammered furiously on my door to shut me up during my early morning practicing sessions. Within six weeks, I was struggling to do anything. I stopped eating, stopped showering. I stopped playing the violin. Its case grew dusty as it lay untouched, cast aside until my dad and Colleen drove up to rescue me. I haven't played it since.
I holed up in my room, a recluse, dwelling on my failures. Colleen progressed through her final year at secondary school, sat her exams, surrounded by friends.
Once, I overheard a heated conversation between Colleen and my dad. Her words carried through the walls of our house. I sat in my room, listening.
“Don’t you realise how hard it is to bend over backwards to try to help her all the time? And for what? She doesn’t care. She doesn’t say “thank you”. Do you know how many times I haven’t been able to go places, because I have to bring her too? I can’t put my life on hold forever. I don’t want to have to keep compromising myself. I love her. But it’s like dragging around a dead weight.”
Wait for your weight, Colleen, I think as I watch her packing away her life, preparing for a new start. I want to plead with her.
Wait. For me.
Do it for me.
Please Colleen, I want to beg. I have nothing else. Let me have this. I tap gently on her open door and come inside. Colleen's bedroom is pink and white, decorated with cheesy photos of her and her friends, her and my dad, her and I.
“If I asked you to wait for me… wait until I go back to uni... would you?” I ask.
She starts, drops a loose pair of socks. She sighs. A strand of her hair, perfectly curled, sways away from her face. She doesn’t pick up the socks. She straightens up, folds her arms.
"Wait for what? Wait another year, until you're ready to go back? So that you won't be behind me for once?"
"Yes," I wince. It sounds terrible, ridiculous even, when she says it.
“Do you care about me at all, Cara?”
“If you did, you wouldn’t ask.”
I start to cry. A final act of desperation. “Please, Colleen.” I gesture to myself. “Look at me. I have nothing except the violin, and I don't even have that anymore. Do you know how hard it is for me to see you move away, when I’m still stuck here? It was supposed to be me. I’m the brilliant one.”
She looks out the window. I think she's going to ignore me, but she speaks.
“Do you remember, a few years ago, when I was running on the cross country team? You had a violin competition and I had a race. They were on the same day, at different times. Your competition was first. You would have made it to see me finish my race, to watch me cross the finish line. I asked you to come. You said you’d be too tired after winning the competition. I asked you please, to hold on for another couple of hours, so that you, me and Dad could go home together. I asked you to wait for me. And you said no. And Dad brought you home, because he always sides with you. And I got a lift back on the bus. On my own."
I shake my head. “I don’t remember that.”
“I asked you to wait for me.” She looks at me now. “And you just said no. I don’t care what kind of excuses Dad makes for you. I know now. I knew then. I’m not waiting for someone who won’t ever catch up.”
She leaves the room. I pick up the dropped socks. I bundle them into a pair, and tuck them neatly into the suitcase with her other belongings, so lovingly arranged. Then I sit on the floor, looking at her many possessions. When I moved away, I brought only a rucksack of clothes and my violin. I thought I needed nothing else. But now, as I stare at her suitcase, I think of how different my experience might have been, if I could have taken with me my best friend, Colleen.