This story was written to and inspired by the following piece of music. Please feel free to listen before, after, or while you read. It may take a moment to load.
“Avival Pastoral” – Nathan Larson
Emma was the child her parents had always wanted.
Margaret was not.
Emma never cried, slept through the night by 3 months old, and grew to be the charming, well-mannered young child that all parents dream of.
Margaret smiled rarely, laughed even less, and seemed too curious about the world for a girl too young to understand it. She was an odd one, for certain.
Emma played hopscotch in the park, hugged her father when he returned from work, and straightened her dolls’ pajamas before going to bed. She hummed as she skipped and loved watching her long pigtails float in the wind when she twirled.
Margaret skewered a chocolate bunny with a stick and lit it on fire to watch how it melted. She asked questions that no one could answer and loved to be alone too much. Her parents spoke only in concerned whispers, certain that their child would live too strange of a life.
Emma’s parents never worried about that.
Emma made questionably-edible cheesecake with her friends in her Easy Bake Oven and wore bright, oversized scrunchies on her wrists. She cheated on her States and Capitals test and giggled as she passed the answers undetected. She wrote her name in bubble letters next to her crush-of-the-month and dreamt of becoming a back-up singer for Britney Spears.
Margaret spent her weekends home with her mother, helping her file her taxes. She slept cradling the 4th volume of the 1974 Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping to reach volume 5 by 5th grade. She was exempt from her States and Capitals test by secretly agreeing to input grades for her teacher, who was an insultingly slow typist. And, very secretly, she dreamt of becoming a back-up singer for Britney Spears.
Emma entered high school with an unfortunate combination of natural popularity and hopeless naïveté. She made too many acquaintances and too little friends, but was too optimistic to notice the difference. She played volleyball for a year, soccer for another, and temporarily dabbled in Chess Club to impress the hot Biology TA named Chad. They dated for two weeks before he realized he was gay and ran away to Portland. She cried.
Margaret entered high school with an unsettled soul and a general distaste for humanity. She met a boy named Aaron in sophomore year when he complimented her on the satchel full of books she called a backpack. They kissed occasionally over the next 10 months, Aaron managing to touch her boobs only once before Margaret concluded she was a lesbian and broke things off. He cried.
Emma attended Harcum College for Advertising and Public Relations. She found her charm a useful tool in getting what she wanted — and yet, for the first time, she longed to be more than that. In her best moment, she began a program to bring puppies in for Finals Week. In her worst moments, she again sought validation in men. She graduated Magna Cum Laude.
Margaret furthered her education alone and found work at a Radio Shack across the street. She kept a stray cat in the broken shed behind her parents’ house. She read him every page of her steam punk fan fiction before posting it online. Her first commenter told her that her story was “a pile of nonsense with hints of total lunacy”. It made her smile, as she’d always been fond of both of those things. Soon after, Margaret met Laurel, who would get to touch much more than Margaret’s boobs in far shorter of a time than Aaron.
One day, while leaving the office late, Emma was asked out for drinks by the coworker she’d fawned over for more than a year. The next morning, she awoke naked on his bed. It wasn’t until the confusion cleared and she found most her clothes on the floor that the recognition fueled her terror. When she reported the man the next day, her boss scoffed and shamed her pinning of a mistaken one-night stand on the “pride of their company branch”. She wrote her letter of resignation on a Post-it note and left. She did not cry.
Margaret was cooking dinner for two and anxiously awaiting news on her publishing deal when she received a call from Laurel’s mother: there had been an accident and Laurel was headed in for emergency surgery. After only three hours, they were greeted by a doctor who removed his mask too slowly to be hopeful. Five minutes later, she received the call: she’s gotten the job. She hung up the phone. She cried.
Emma began living in the basement of an old high school acquaintance and said acquaintance’s deadbeat boyfriend. She paid half of the rent and all of the utilities. She worked part-part-time from home as an article writer for foreign fashion bloggers. When she wasn’t babysitting the couple’s perpetually-screaming newborn or plotting the demise of her attention-whorish Facebook friends, she was reading bad fan fiction aloud to her cat and opening her third daily bottle of wine.
Margaret moved to a new apartment. She worked full-time as a diner waitress and part-time as a writing teacher at an adult night school. The remainder of her short available time was spent watching documentaries, doing crossword puzzles, and mentally reciting lines from books and poetry she’d long memorized. On the rare occasion when her mind unearthed itself from the distractions, she would find herself sitting alone in her closet, smelling the old shirt Laurel used to wear for pajamas. After drowning those thoughts in liquor, she’d fall sleep, leaning heavily on her broken plastic drawers.
After a particularly grizzly argument over money and lost sanity, Emma left the basement to move home with her parents.
Margaret, after a particularly close brush with depression of a more physical sort, decided to do the same.
When Emma returned to that room, there was a pang of distant remembrance in her stomach. She hung her extra-large plain blouses beside the bright, pencil-thin tops of the girl she once was. She sifted through boxes of memories with heavy hands and glazed eyes, wondering what had deadened the love for life she’d once paraded with abandon.
Margaret was unpacking her bursting suitcases of books when a worn encyclopedia tumbled from her bookshelf. After feigning disinterest to no one but herself, her tired hand began leafing through the pages, tracing over tiny notes left in the margins. She felt a pang in her heart before she closed the cover, burying the unwritten stories of the person she once was. She was too blunted by life to see the point in such things anymore.
After putting the boxes away, Margaret walked downstairs and out the old front door for some fresh air. She’d barely locked up when the click of her neighbor’s door drew her attention. Emma glanced at Margaret and their eyes met for a brief moment of foggy recognition. With a cordial smile, Emma nodded in Margaret’s direction, unsettled by the disturbing neighbor of her youth who had apparently never made it out of her parents’ house. Margaret replied in kind with a nod, silently recalling that it was ditsy prom queens like Emma who had almost convinced her she was straight. Turning away, they walked down their driveways and onto the sidewalk — Emma turning to the left, Margaret to the right.
And as both women wondered about all the things in their lives that had brought them there, they were gone — silent neighbors, in the same fight, who would never know.