I Think You're The Problem

Submitted into Contest #211 in response to: End your story with two characters reconciling.... view prompt


Drama Fiction

It was your ninth birthday and I forgot to get you a present. You were nine and knew everything. I remember all of this like it happened last week. It’s hard to imagine that you’re so old now, turning 25. That afternoon, I was laying on my stomach on the bed and you were jumping around my room with a blue balloon, trying to keep it from touching the hardwood. 

You were playing all by yourself and I was watching. The room was quiet and all I could hear was your breath every time you launched yourself into the air or across the room, your weight against the ground, heavy heavy footfalls.

“I always thought you hated me,” you said, catching the balloon between your palms and looking over. You said that. Out of the blue, you said that.

I didn’t respond. The balloon came towards me and I stuck out an arm to bump it. We ended up in an epic balloon duel, opposite ends of the room, guarding two doorways. In a volleyball-soccer halfbreed, you and I spent the rest of the afternoon competing.

I didn’t respond. I wanted to. 

The first thing I thought to say was, “you’re my sister.” But you were nine, I thought you wouldn’t understand. Maybe I thought you would know, and I was afraid.


“Happy birthday, Liesel.” I walked up and hugged you, your chin still only coming up to my shoulder. You didn’t smell like this the last time I saw you, but that made sense. 

The last time I saw you had been two years ago. You probably changed your shampoo or laundry detergent. Maybe you used a different perfume? I tried to figure it out while we hugged, to pinpoint the exact change that had taken place, like a sommelier of scent. That was a funny thought.

The flowers I was holding pressed against your back and their plastic crinkled right in your ear. I pulled away because I didn’t want the sound to bother you, but it seemed like you wanted the hug to last longer.

“You’re always trying to escape from me,” you laughed. 

I didn’t figure out what the different smell was. I handed you the flowers and smiled. They were the kind Mom was allergic to and orange, your favorite color, ever since you were little. 

“Thanks,” you said, “I’ll go get a vase.”

“You’re so mature now. Vases and all.”

The cabinets in your kitchen were nice, a pretty tan with a clean trim. You had more than one vase and an entire cabinet dedicated to vases. Even though I had been an adult for longer than you, I was impressed. My vase collection was meager in comparison. I wondered if Ted did the cabinets himself and then wondered where Ted was. I didn’t ask.

“Do you want something to drink?” you said, back turned to me. 

“I’m okay.” 

You got me a ginger ale anyway and gave it to me quietly, ice cubes clinking on the glass. I liked that you remembered I liked ginger ale.

“Thank you,” I said, but really I wanted to put a bunch of words in your mouth and then grab your jaw and pull it open and closed until you said them all. I wanted you to say,

“Natalie, I hate you, I’ve always hated you. I’ve never liked you, not since the minute I was born. Since the moment I was born, I knew you were a bad person, with bad feelings, and bad thoughts, with no love in your heart. I never expected love from you because you’re a loveless creature.”

You smiled instead. 

“Yeah. Come help me with the cake?”

Your lips were glossed pink and your cheeks were pink, too. Your eyes were done up, bringing out their blue for everyone to see. I was glad you figured out that you were pretty. 

“How have you been?” You asked.

I’m sure Ted thinks so, too, that you’re pretty, otherwise he wouldn’t have married you. I remember when we were all little and I used to tell you nobody would ever like you. It wasn’t because you were ugly, even if your hair was so knotted and split. It was because you were mean. 

“Okay. Things are okay. Work is good and everything. My cat died.” I said. 

You grew out of the mean, like most kids. You got graceful and kind and saintly; proper Mother Teresa. Some of us got stuck in the mean, I think.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” you said.

“That’s okay. He got hit by a truck.”

“That’s awful.” You would’ve covered your mouth with your hand but there was a cake in your hands, which seemed more important. You gave me a sympathetic smile instead.

We carried the cake from the car, my hands on one end and yours on the other end. It was a big cake and the box was black and white. It said the name of the bakery on it but it didn’t matter. I wondered again where Ted was but I didn’t ask. We set it down on the counter and you opened the top of the box. 

I saw the cake said Happy Birthday Liesel in orange letters and it had little flowers.

“It’s a nice cake,” I said.

You pulled your bottom lip between your teeth and gnawed it, working your way from one corner to the other, not saying anything. I knew you were eating your lipstick off but I didn’t comment. We were quiet for a little while.

“Who ordered it?”

“Ted did.”

“Oh,” I said, “that makes sense.” 

I paused.

“The letters are in orange. Orange is your favorite color,” I added.

You nodded. 

“I still know you,” I said.

You sat down on the kitchen table and put your blonde head in your hands. Your nails were painted and shiny. They looked like plastic or something sweet. I thought of those candy hearts everyone gave out on Valentine’s Day but nobody actually liked to eat. Sickening, too much love. 

“Where is he?” I asked. Curiosity was eating my insides and it just came out of my mouth, not even on purpose. 

“Um,” you looked up and your face was a little bit wet. Your eyes were even more blue and even more beautiful when they were filled with tears, something you learned when you were young. “We got in a fight. He left to go somewhere. I don’t know where he went. I don’t know what’s going on, really.”

I stepped back, surprised, but not really that much. I never liked Ted. 

Something about the rectangle shape of his head and his glasses and his fingers and torso. Something about rectangular men made me uneasy and I told you this. You didn’t believe my feelings but I thought every man has to have something round about him. Bluntness is unkind.

“What did you fight about?”

“I don’t really want to say.”

I let it sit for a minute. I knew. 

“Was it me?” 

You didn’t respond. I knew it was.

“He still hasn’t gotten over that? It’s been two years. Seriously?”

“It really hurt his feelings.”

“Boo hoo? He can’t get over it? He’s that hurt about it that he decided to ruin your birthday? What a tool. I don’t know why you married him, I really, really don’t. I told you it was a bad idea. Do you believe me yet?”

You looked at me and I got the feeling that no, you didn’t believe me. You had those cold eyes.

“Yes, you did tell me it was a bad idea.” You smiled but you weren’t happy. “You did tell me it was a bad idea and you made sure everyone knew just how bad of an idea. He wanted to get your blessing. There wasn’t anyone else. He cared about your opinion. He wanted you to believe in him. And you spat in his fucking face, Natalie. I’m not surprised he’s still mad. I would be, too.”

The only thing he had to be upset about was being born with a hammer for a head. Maybe he wasn’t born with it, I thought. Maybe the hammer hit him in the head when he was born, and that was the beginning of it all. 

“I don’t know why this is all coming up now,” I said.

“Because he didn’t want me to invite you.”

“That’s pretty fucking pathetic, isn’t it?”

“He doesn’t like you. It’s been two years, Nat.”

“It’s mutual, if that’s of any comfort to either of you. I can’t believe he’s ruining your birthday.”

You were quiet for a second, chewing on your cheeks. I thought they’d start bleeding soon if you kept biting them like that. Your fingernails scratched at the back of your neck, and you were hunched in half with your chin near your elbows. Eating your mouth like that, you looked sort of like a fish. 

I thought bubbles might start coming out of your lips soon, each one with a little word in it floating around. Like a video game character, I imagined running around the room and popping all of the bubbles, collecting all the words. Each word would be a point. When they were all collected, I would sit down and try to unscramble the sentence and figure out what the hell you were saying. 

“Whatever, Natalie.” 

Two points.

“He’s ruining your birthday,” I said again.

“He’s not ruining my birthday, you’re ruining my birthday.”

Nine points. The words were a little scrambled and it took me a minute to put them together. 


“Ted isn’t the problem, Nat. I think you’re the problem.”

Now we were talking, we were really talking. 25 years, I’d been waiting for you to say you hate me. I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. Now, now that you were in your new apartment and hitched, it was finally bubbling up. You had been stewing for so many years. For so long, it brewed inside of you, I could smell it on your breath every time you saw me, especially this past year. The hate was just rotting in there.

It was a matter of time, really.

“Of course you’re choosing his side,” I said.

“Do you even see what you’re doing? Do you see that you do this every time? Every single time, Natalie, that we try to have a conversation, you do this. You’re just like mom. Every time I see you you look more like her. You’re growing her nose, you’re turning into her fucking mirror image. You’re ugly on the inside, Nat.”

“You really want to get into this right now? Really?” I felt hot and ready to shout. You knew how I would feel. “Do you really want to?”

“Can you think of a better time? Because I can’t. Today already sucks. Everything already sucks.” 

“You did this to yourself.”

“You did it to me!” You stood up and opened your mouth really wide and closed your eyes tight. Your polished finger was right in my face, shaking, accusing. “You never want me to have anything good. You don’t want me to be happy. You always want to ruin everything because you just don’t like me. Just admit it, just say you hate me and we can all go home, Natalie.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You ruined my wedding, you ruined my graduation, you even ruined my stupid Junior prom. Everything good in my life, you try to take it from me, because you hate me.”

I sat down at the table and nursed my ginger ale, clamping down my teeth hard. You stood in the middle of the kitchen, tiles under your feet, trembling like you were about to explode. I thought about high school chemistry class and excited ions, generating heat. The temperature rose. 

“You’re wrong.” 

“No, I’m not.”

“I didn’t want you to marry Ted because I didn’t want you to be miserable. I didn’t think he was a good person. I didn’t want you to get into a bad situation like I did and I didn’t want to have to be the one to pull you out.” 

“Of course you didn’t want to have to pull me out. You never think of anyone but yourself. You just don’t want the burden of dealing with me. You never did.”

“I never asked for the burden of you.” I realized that sounded harsh. I tried to soften it. “I never asked to have a child to take care of. I was eight. I learned to be a mom before I learned to be a kid. And I didn’t want you to have a sad love. We had to pull Mom out of that. When we were so little, too. We’ve done enough pulling for a lifetime.“I got married anyway.”

“I know. Obviously.” 

I looked down.

“I’ve always just wanted you to be happy.” I added.

The question sat on my tongue like gristle. I had been chewing this one for a long time, wondering what it was, wondering why I couldn’t just swallow it.

“Are you?” I asked.


“Are you happy?”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted you to say yes or no. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know you were happy or if I wanted to know I had been right all along.

“I think so.” You weren’t shaking anymore. 

You pointed to the fridge, covered in postcards and Polaroids. The two of you, skiing. The two of you, dancing. The two of you, sharing ice cream. The two of you, last Christmas. “We have a life. We have a place where we love each other.”

“Do you love him, really?”

“I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t.”

“I guess so.”

“You haven’t been around much. You haven’t really seen it. We have a good love.”

I felt lighter somehow, and good. I was happy to hear that, I guess. Leaning back in the chair I felt my body release tension I didn’t know about. I tingled and began to cry. I guess I was glad.

You didn’t say anything but you came up and you stood behind me and put your arms around my shoulders. Your chin went on the top of my head and your hair fell over me.

I kind of wanted you to say, “I don’t blame you. I know how you feel. I know how you felt your whole life. I don’t blame you for turning out the way you did. I don’t blame you for being so bad. It just happens sometimes.” 

What you said was, “I think we can make it work.”

I nodded and tears came down my face, hot and embarrassing, without me asking them to. I wasn’t sobbing, just running like a faucet, dripping down onto my neck and the sleeves of your sweater.  You smelled like citrus, something clean and happy. It was a new smell, but it could be comforting. I thought maybe I could get used to it. 

I wiped my nose and thought I should probably talk.

“I always thought you hated me,” I said, mumbling into the crook of your elbow.

“I always thought you hated me,” you said. I felt the hum of your throat when you talked. I laughed and you did too. It felt good to hug you for real this time. I thought maybe I could get used to that, too. 

“You’re my sister,” I said.

August 19, 2023 03:04

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