Iowa Writes

MELISSA STANGER
Jessicas (Part 1 of 3)


        Our mother doesn't know I exist.
        She thinks there's only one of us, but there's two. There's me, and there's Jessica. We're both blonde, with the same eyes, the same freckles, the same voice.
        Years ago our mother forgot about me — first slowly, like a hard-to-break habit, until the forgetting became second nature, and I faded like wallpaper.
        Jessica and I fought when we were kids. There was the time she donated all my toys to charity when I wasn't home, and she laughed when I came back to an empty toy chest, but then I pushed her down and she cried, and we got in trouble. There was the time we played hide-and-seek in the park and Jessica left me to hide all afternoon until I finally came home at dinnertime, sunburned and ashamed.
        When I was a kid, I didn't understand her red hatred of me, but now I do: Jessica didn't want to be friends with someone who looks like her reflection in the mirror.
        I come downstairs for breakfast. Jessica is at the table, eating half a grapefruit with no sugar. She uses the spoon and the index finger and thumb of her right hand to pry out each slice from the peel. Then she chews it for about thirty seconds before she swallows. It looks very dainty. She sees me standing in the doorway and puts her spoon down.
        "What?" she asks. "What are you staring at?"
        I walk over to the pantry for a box of cereal, grab a bowl, and search the fridge for milk. Jessica has finished the carton. It's sitting in her glass. She takes a long sip and looks at me, licking a soul patch of milk that has dripped below her bottom lip. It's a gesture that would look grotesque on anyone else, but when Jessica does it it looks beautifully intentional. But then, everything Jessica does is beautiful. She could trip on the sidewalk and make it look like a dance. I select a spoon and our mother comes downstairs as I take a seat at the table with my bowl of dry cereal.

        Our mother doesn't know I exist.
        She thinks there's only one of us, but there's two. There's me, and there's Jessica. We're both blonde, with the same eyes, the same freckles, the same voice.
        Years ago our mother forgot about me — first slowly, like a hard-to-break habit, until the forgetting became second nature, and I faded like wallpaper.
        Jessica and I fought when we were kids. There was the time she donated all my toys to charity when I wasn't home, and she laughed when I came back to an empty toy chest, but then I pushed her down and she cried, and we got in trouble. There was the time we played hide-and-seek in the park and Jessica left me to hide all afternoon until I finally came home at dinnertime, sunburned and ashamed.
        When I was a kid, I didn't understand her red hatred of me, but now I do: Jessica didn't want to be friends with someone who looks like her reflection in the mirror.
        I come downstairs for breakfast. Jessica is at the table, eating half a grapefruit with no sugar. She uses the spoon and the index finger and thumb of her right hand to pry out each slice from the peel. Then she chews it for about thirty seconds before she swallows. It looks very dainty. She sees me standing in the doorway and puts her spoon down.
        "What?" she asks. "What are you staring at?"
        I walk over to the pantry for a box of cereal, grab a bowl, and search the fridge for milk. Jessica has finished the carton. It's sitting in her glass. She takes a long sip and looks at me, licking a soul patch of milk that has dripped below her bottom lip. It's a gesture that would look grotesque on anyone else, but when Jessica does it it looks beautifully intentional. But then, everything Jessica does is beautiful. She could trip on the sidewalk and make it look like a dance. I select a spoon and our mother comes downstairs as I take a seat at the table with my bowl of dry cereal.
        Our mother has long red hair and an angled, waxen face that makes her look younger than she really is. Her body, slender like Jessica's despite childbirth and time, is the only place she shows her age, in the fine lines that cut across her neck, in the skin, loose and freckled like a garment draped across the hanger of her clavicle and shoulders.
        When I was younger and my mother saw me, I remember sitting beside her at the vanity playing in her jewelry box — not with the jewelry, but with the velvet lining of the box that delighted the pads of my fingers, a softer version of my own skin. I wanted to swallow that feeling. I had looked up and saw my mother's reflection in the mirror. She was wearing a nightgown and brushing her long hair, swiveling her head left and right, following her own gaze in the reflection.
        "You're very beautiful," I said.
        My mother smiled at her reflection.
        "Thank you," she said.
        And I had smiled because she hadn't called me Jessica.
        Our mother steps into the kitchen and the air seems to part for her. She kisses Jessica on the top of her head.
        "Good morning, Jess," she says.
        "'Morning," says Jessica, and she smiles with her teeth before sticking her nose back into her grapefruit.
        "Would you like some scrambled eggs and toast?" she asks, her voice low and uncaffeinated. "I'm in the mood for eggs and toast." She fixes herself a cup of coffee and takes a loud sip that ends in ahhh.
        "I'm on a diet, Mom." She rolls her eyes.
        "Oh," our mother says, and looks around like she forgot where she is. "Where's the other half of the grapefruit?"
        Jessica points to the fridge and our mother puts the other half in a glass bowl, and sits, and eats it with her coffee. She doesn't look at me. I finish my breakfast and put the bowl in the sink, about to wash it out but Jessica is watching the whole time, willing me to leave with her eyes, so I go back upstairs and feel her gaze on my ankles as they disappear up the landing.
        Jessica and I share a room, split down the middle like a war zone. When we were kids she drew a chalk line across the carpet that separated our halves. She told me that I wasn't allowed to cross the line, even though the door was on her side, so I had to creep across when she had her back turned even though she would scream at me when she saw me darting out in her peripheral vision like a deer crossing the road that she couldn't avoid hitting.
        Once, years ago, I found Jessica's diary and read it when she wasn't home to see if she ever wrote about me. She wrote about boys and school and her friends and what she wants to be when she grows up (a dancer . . . no, a doctor . . . no, a teacher . . .), but she didn't mention me at all. And then I got mad and beat the book on the ground until the spine was bent and warped, and then I started to cry because I didn't know why I was angry that she hadn't scrawled a confession about how much she hated me.
        My bedspread is plain, with one pillow at the top and a throw blanket at the foot. I'm sitting cross-legged on it with a magazine staring aimlessly at a sexualized ad for perfume. I consider tearing out the little sticky-tape sample and rubbing it on my wrist to see how it smells mixed with my skin.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MELISSA STANGER

Melissa Stanger attended the Iowa Young Writers' Studio in 2006, which planted the seed for a lifelong dedication to writing.  A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she currently works as the associate editor of lists and rankings at Business Insider. She also writes about and has a passion for craft beer, and is a homebrewer in her spare time.

Jessicas will appear on the Daily Palette in three parts.  Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2!

This page was first displayed
on June 09, 2015

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