With Love, Your Shadow

I used to be annoyed with my shadow. She followed me everywhere, the tendrils of her pear-scented brown hair glinting in the sun. I could spot her out of the corner of my eye as her breath tickled the back of my neck. She had always been one step behind me. Now, I wish she still was.

My shadow wrote me a letter last year. It was my first semester away at college, and I had left my shadow behind in the sunny state of Texas. I keep it tucked away in my desk, returning to the notebook paper whenever I want to hear her voice. She wrote it on the wrong side of the page, the hole punches on the right instead of the left, a quirk that never fails to make me smile. Her words, penned in her signature thin font with loopy y’s and g’s and a conversational disregard for proper punctuation, are a warm embrace from 14 hours away. A reminder of what I left behind. Her voice echoes along in my head as I read the fading pencil marks over and over.

Hi Lizzie!

Look at me. I’m finally writing you a letter.

She is my reflection in a warped mirror, identical, yet different all the same. Same laugh, same smile, same spark of mischief in her eyes. Even the handwriting takes after my own. We were dubbed “the girls” at home, a uniform nickname separating us from our brother. We did enough things together that it hardly mattered to differentiate us. When they did, our parents used our names so interchangeably that we could scarcely own them. Similar in size, stature, and build, we were often mistaken for twins in public, even more so when she outgrew me.

“No,” I’d grind out every time they asked, cheeks flushing a furious shade of pink. “I’m older.”

They always regretted asking by how much. Apparently, I don’t look the three years I lord over her. They’d falter as they processed the revelation, then shoot me a sympathetic half smile.

“You’ll appreciate it when you’re older,” they never failed to tell me. I’m older now and I still don’t.

There are times when I wished the answer to whether we are twins was yes. A twin would have been a built-in best friend, someone who went through the same experiences simultaneously. I still have moments of selfishness when I want her constant presence. We spent so much of our childhood together that fathoming long periods of time without seeing her face is impossible. Now that we’re older, my shadow is no longer at my beck and call. It often takes divine intervention to sync up our schedules enough for a phone call.

I used to know her like the back of my hand. They’re small hands with skinny fingers clothed in skin that turns olive in the summer. Two freckles near my left wrist. The knob of wrist bone in misplaced from breaking a bone after falling off my scooter. A flat scar from when I skinned it on the asphalt on the day of my eighth grade Spring Show. She’s changed since I’ve been away, like new freckles dotting sun-soaked skin. I guess her favorite color is still blue. She loves to bake, draw, and paint, but her everyday quirks are a mystery I relearn every time I return home. It’s a dark, gushing void that no number of video calls can fill. Over the phone, her face is washed-out and white from the glaring sunlight. Her voice cracks as the wifi threatens to bail and cut off our connection. She parades around my 3×5 inch point of view to show me my parents, the dogs, our house, but it’s not tangible. It’s not the same.

I miss having you at home but I like getting all your clothes so that’s a plus.

I know what it’s like to be a shadow. That was my first role in life, after all, traipsing along behind my older brother. I did everything he did. I strolled into kindergarten with his old nap mat and followed in his footsteps from there. I did Chess Club and Marathon Kids that first year of school and rode to and from elementary school surrounded by him and his friends. I trailed him to soccer practice and started up Tae Twon Do a month after he did. Everything he touched turned to gold, and I wanted it all. His old toys, hobbies, clothes. I wore his hand-me-downs religiously, basketball shorts and soccer jerseys dwarfing my frame, but I didn’t care. He was the epitome of cool. He was the sun that I revolved around.

It was around first grade when the light dipped behind a storm cloud and severed our connection. I was lost. He already had an entourage of friends surrounding him. He didn’t need a shadow to slow him down. He’d run down the cul-de-sac to hang out and explore the greenbelt behind our house. All places I wasn’t allowed to go on my own. At first, I was crushed. I wanted to play with BB guns and trample through the underbrush alongside him. Instead, I was left to my own devices.

I decided to claim a shadow of my own, and we were attached at the hip. I led her through life with a helping hand, our fingers intertwined. I taught my shadow how to kick a soccer ball, braid hair, and decorate sugar cookies. In spite of my best efforts, she always globbed on too much icing and refused to give the cookie cutouts little clothes or smiles. Together, we built imaginary worlds in the backyard, places only we could travel to. Sometimes, the rickety playscape became a swashbuckling pirate ship. I’d dangle one golden hoop from a pierced ear and, after arguing over who got which of the hand-me-down plastic swords, we’d clash them together in a frenzied high-seas battle until the sky was alight with a dappled pink and orange sunset. More often, we were princesses, adorned with paper crowns, Mardi Gras beads, and draped in the finest silk from the costume box. That was back when the world was simple and the hardest thing I had to do was convince my shadow that she, too, wanted to be a witch or a Jedi or a demi-god that day. One day, I became too old for make-believe. From then on, our relationship only became more complicated.

I had always been the one in charge. It was only logical. I dictated the games we played, and always got to claim the best of the Polly Pockets as my own. But it didn’t take too long for my shadow to stop blending in with the soft yellow of our game room walls. She took shape slowly, first a quiet whisper asking to narrate the game we were playing. Then she’d whine, her loud exhales fluffing up the hair atop my head with her soft breath. Soon enough, she had formed wispy arms and legs strong enough to fight back. A corporeal body. I slowly had to relinquish my tight grip on her as she grew older. There were concessions. She could pick the storyline so long as I got to tell it. I still had one hand on the reins back then. Now she’s roaming free.

For the first time, I’m sitting on the sideline of her life, watching it pass me by as she hits high school milestones. Homecoming in the dress I wore just months prior to my graduation. Her first boyfriend. First SAT. College search. It’s as though she’s playing a soccer game and I’ve been exiled to the sidelines. I’m proud to see her dribbling the ball down the field, shoelaces pointed down just as I taught her, but sad that I’m unable to play in the game. Unable to set her up for the finishing shot. All I can do is fetch the ball when it goes out of bounds and cheer her on as loudly as possible.

I love you verrryyyy much and I can’t wait for you to come home and visit!

I miss the days we spent outside having tea parties on the patio, sipping water from the plastic tea cups and eating festive sandwiches cut into little triangles. Back then, my shadow was my constant companion and confidant. I told her everything. Even now, though we’re nearly 1,000 miles apart, she’s the first person I turn to. I broadcast all of my thoughts to her over the web of phone lines that tether us together. She hears if I’m happy, sad, upset, annoyed, stressed, worried and shares right back with me. Tales of online high school during the pandemic. What Mom made for dinner. Frustrated gripes about atrocities committed by our older brother while he’s living at home. Spams me with photos of our dogs. We do everything we can to stay connected. We chat over phone, text, and video calls whenever we are able. We send each other snippets of everyday life. We synchronously watch TV shows and text each other a flurry of related emojis and inside jokes. I regale her with disastrous trips to the dining hall, the content I’m learning in my classes, and tales of my adventures in Des Moines with friends. She’s the first to hear all about the three jobs I juggled simultaneously, and grievances brought against my roommate. But it isn’t the same. Nothing compares to the rush of joy and relief when I hug her in person. I have a countdown until the day I can finally see her again. I check it daily, often times more than that, hoping that days will vanish off the calendar. So far, I’ve had no such luck. As I write this, the clock sits firmly at 39.

I see flashes of her now and then in my life. Her sharp wit in Vanessa’s sassiness. Kendall’s happy-go-lucky personality. Meg’s mature nature. I hear her voice in Addie’s singing. Her bluntness in Campbell’s. The long gray shape beneath my feet on the sidewalk never leaves my side, marching in time with my footfalls, hair swinging in the wind. The sun on my back is a constant reminder of her presence. These little snippets of her help make the months away bearable. Trips to restaurants remind me of how much she’d love the meal I ordered. The Styrofoam-clad leftovers in my mini-fridge even more. My shadow is a sucker for leftovers. I stop to admire the spring flowers planted around campus for her because she loves to paint snapshots of nature. I queue up her carefully curated Spotify playlists just to feel a little closer to her.

Mom made me sit with her on the bus to her first day of kindergarten, even though I had my own friends to attend to. I led her down the fluorescent-lined hallways, her brown pigtails swinging, shoes scuffing on the linoleum tiles in time with my own. I waved hello to the teacher who had been mine, once upon a time, before scampering down the hall to third grade. I never glanced back. She started middle school when I moved onto bigger, better things in high school­­­. That didn’t stop me from parading her up and down the halls I had once ruled with a firm but fair grasp for her orientation. I pointed out all of my old haunts. The table I frequented at lunch. The yearbook computer lab with my favorite camera, Beefsteak, tucked away in the cabinet. The secret staircase from the fine arts wing to the athletic hallway. She left the tour truly enlightened.

Everything was all fine and dandy until she started stepping on my heels. First, it was middle school yearbook Co-Editor-in-Chief. Then as a starter on her Austin Texans Soccer Club team. The eighth grade Yearbook award. She was getting too close for comfort. Everything she did I had done. I should have been flattered that she was taking after me and passionate about the same things I was, but I took the easy route. I let resentment fester in the pit of my stomach.

She entered high school just as I was beginning my senior year when I was supposed to be leaving my mark on the programs I was a part of. Because of my influence as an Executive Editor, she became one of only three freshmen allowed straight into our journalism staff. There, she befriended all of my friends, and they loved her. My old teachers loved her. I know now that the frustrations I tried to squash deep within me were completely unfounded. The time we spent connected at the hip was never meant to fuse us together. We’ve grown, both together and as individuals. I’ve always known that I want to write for the rest of my life, but she’s finding her creative release in art. Her plans for the future involve helping people as an occupational therapist. I hadn’t been scared of her independence but my dependence.

Thank you for letting me wear your dress to Homecoming it made me so happy that you were okay with that so thanks.

Before my eyes, she blossomed a fully-fledged young woman, holding hands with the varsity long-snapper in the backseat of the car, taking driver’s ed, and experimenting with clothes, makeup. She began to nip at my heels and I struggled to stay just one pace ahead. A strange tension built in my gut, taut and unyielding. It started small, a little spark of jealousy at her big soccer win, another at her tales of the homecoming dance. It spread until fire consumed my whole chest cavity. I was worried my teachers would like her more, think she had more potential. Worried she’d amount to more than I had. A slip of the tongue left me labeled as her. I’d always pause, waiting to see if they noticed their mistake. Sometimes they did after catching a glimpse of my raised eyebrow. Sometimes, they’d carry on with their business without noticing. They’d freeze when the realized, and then apologize profusely. I would wave it off, grin and bear it, but the honest mistake still stung. I was there first. They had been saying my name for three years. Seeing my face. And in just a few months, she had dislodged me from their minds.

Also Ms. C and Jess and Caera and everyone else want you to come and visit so you’d better.

It’s strange being jealous of someone you know in their entirety. I know how all about her wonky joints that creak and groan from years of playing soccer. I’ve been present for all of her rough patches, friend turnovers, the times when she wished she could fade away from embarrassment. I’m privy to her inner-most thoughts and fears. The green monster simmering within me knows all of these things, and still chooses to rear its ugly head and gobble down my self-control. I’m the first person to point out my shadow’s shortcomings, but the monster doesn’t care. It’s the only thing allowed to pass judgement onto her because my shadow and I will just giggle about it later. But that didn’t stop its hot breath from igniting that spark in my gut.

I didn’t realize how much kindling there was until I was burning brightly. It took me the larger part of a year to stop comparing my worth to my shadow’s, to realize that she was indeed her own entity. Right when I had finally reconciled myself to the idea that we could coexist in harmony, I left.

I started college. Made new friends. Had adventures. All of it without her.

It was fun at first. The independence and separation that I had desperately wanted from my shadow was cotton candy, sweet to the taste but gone in a flash. I didn’t feel complete. A part of me remained with her. It felt as though I was missing an extremity. I was hobbled, unbalanced. A swift wind would send me crumbling into dust. Movies depicting sibling comradery made my vision cloud until I blinked the haziness away. Listening to the song we duetted for our school’s Choir Cabaret show made my heart swell and sink below my chest. I wasn’t whole without my shadow.

Luckily, I suppose, college has kept me too busy to truly miss her. Between assignments, events, jobs, and a planner riddled with cramped scribbles and reminders in multi-colored pens, there’s always something going on in my life that places a stopper firmly in those emotions before they can fully surface. On Easter, I didn’t think about how much I’d rather be at home eating devilled eggs with my family than sitting alone in my dorm room with a Tupperware of Thai food because I was the only one of my friends still going to church virtually. Those thoughts would be foolish when there are deadlines looming overhead.

I have, however, spent quite some time thinking about the future. Our future. What I want for my career path, which of my new college friends will be at my wedding (once I get a fiancé, let alone a first boyfriend), and where I’ll want to put down roots. I don’t have answers to any of these. That isn’t a bad thing. But I’ve come to realize that the reason I don’t have answers is because I want to remain close to my shadow. My dad’s brother lives a little over three hours south of us in Houston, and growing up, we hardly ever saw them unless we were in town for a soccer tournament. I don’t want that to be us.

Every time I’m back with my family, we click. Things feel right. The months I’ve been away at college feel like a dream. It’s almost as though I never left, although reality screams the opposite. I’ve missed out on so much. Birthdays and anecdotes and inside jokes from TV shows I haven’t had the chance to watch. Time mocks me with familiarity. They aren’t the same as they were when they dropped me off at school. My shadow is more self-assured and sassier. There are new unspoken rules of the house, quirks picked up while living through a pandemic. I’m the odd man out.

I miss you lots but I’m very glad you’re having fun in college.

I’ve had a year and a half’s worth of practice being shadowless, and it isn’t always easy. I gnaw on my lip every time I think of her, my eyes prickling. The spark of comparison, however, has died down. Every time it rears its ugly head, I douse it with a million thoughts of things I still hope to share with her. She’s never seen campus or met my friends, my roommate, and there’s a bucket list of summer activities she wants to work through together. I live vicariously through her – the glory days of high school, the anticipation of the college search, the excitement of redoing the smaller house we just bought so that our family can downsize (that I’m a little jealous of). I cling to every story that I can squeeze from my parents over the phone. She had a test today. She’s annoyed about yearbook coverage.

But most importantly, I’m no longer afraid of my shadow outshining me. I want her to succeed in anything and everything, even if it means surpassing the standard I set. In fact, she should. She did have the best teacher. And while I may be between her and our older brother in birth order, but I’ll never be overlooked. After all, it is well documented that my mother agreed I am her “most perfectest angel child.” As for my shadow, our mom says the jury is still out on her.

I love you so much, you’re the best sister in the world and I miss you!

Now, there’s no telltale pear scent wafting in the breeze. When I glance over my shoulder, my shadow is no longer there. She’s home, basking in the heat of the Texas sun, planning out her future, and making her own way in the world. Without me there to diffuse the light, her own thoughts and dreams are starting to take shape, so very different from my own. She’s her own entity, a force to be reckoned with.

I love my shadow more than anything in the world. I suppose I always have, even in the times when it didn’t feel like it. She’s always been there for me, from reading our favorite fairytale book to me in the car when I broke my wrist, to jamming out on the ride to school and giggling at inside jokes. I know that she’ll always love me, no matter how many times I recite movie lines or force her into hugs. I asked her for a third annoying quality of mine and she drew a blank. She did, however, make a point of saying that I am not without my faults. But that’s okay because together we make the perfect pair.

Okay, love youuu,

Your favorite younger sister in the world

My silhouette will always be rimmed with her signature pink glow. I wear it proudly. It’s a constant reminder that we can never and will never be apart. Despite the distance that stands between us, we’re never truly separated, my shadow and me. Though she still occasionally answers to my name, she’s begun to claim her own.

Dear Rosie, this one’s for you.

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