Here’s Bethany. A tall mug of coffee in one hand, Pride and Prejudice in the other. Her laptop is sitting, open, on the table in front of her, completely covered in stickers. “It’s okay, I’m usually alone”, “Manhappiness, Kansas”, “Legacy”, “Stranger Reduction Zone”, they read. Although she might have been doing homework on her laptop earlier, now, she pays it no mind. She used to straighten the entirety of her hair, unable to control the amber curls that confined her face. Now, she straightens only the bangs that hang evenly across her forehead and land right before her eyes. Her hair was always much less frizzy than my own. Her eyes, always so much bluer. She hated her hands. She always said that they were too small, like Renaissance hands—short and stout. But she loved her legs, especially her calves. She had dancer calves, as we called them. Her legs were the most muscular part of her body. She wore dresses a lot. Because she, and everyone else in our family, has longer legs than most people, she would always get snide comments from the old ladies at church. “Isn’t that dress a little short?” And all of the teens in our youth group would snort, and quietly try and back away. But Bethany was still able to reply with a smile. Her mouth was so much larger than most people’s, so I think that might have helped.
I remember when she first told me that she had once seriously considered becoming an Atheist. She had considered it during her first few years of high school, and never told me until two years later. She was always more intelligent than other people. She could come up with counter arguments for everything revolving around religion, which only made her that much stronger of an addition to the Nazarene church when she decided to become a ministry major, instead. I always envied her intelligence. Even if half of her intelligence came from remembering stupid little, insignificant facts about anything and everything and nothing at the same time. She always related more with our brother in that area. I always felt like the outcast of the family, being the only one to want to go into something other than ministry. I made the joke once while talking with her, “I’ll be giving you and Noah your jobs. While you’ll be busy fixing lives, I’ll be fucking them up.” I’m a journalism major.
Bethany is my best friend. I tell her about how untalented the kids are that I have to coach every week, and she replies with a long rant about how incredibly stupid humanity is. And then I agree. We tell each other everything. I know every thought about every friend, every feeling, every complaint, every customer that she served at her job, every piece of music that she listened to, every hurt, and every expression. No one else could say they know those things about her. We told each other about our injuries. Her knee came out of place again at dance today, and my shoulders and elbows hyper-extended about five more times per joint at practice the day before. I remember the first time I broke my ankle, she woke up to get ready for school, and noticed me sitting on the couch with an ice pack on my ankle. She asked me how long it had been since I hurt it, and got frustrated with me when she found out that I wouldn’t wake up our parents for an hour and a half, because it was too early in the morning and I didn’t want to bother them. The second time I broke my ankle, she helped me strengthen it again. She taught me what dancers did to strengthen their ankles, and made me do it every day for months. The third time I broke my ankle, I came home from gymnastics in our dad’s arms, and she rolled her eyes at me, asking, “What the hell did you do this time?” But she helped me for months afterwards, all the same.
Bethany is strong. Not only physically, but mentally. She made everyone around her want to be just as strong. Everyone envied her. But she never let it get to her head. It was as if she could control pain. No matter how many knee injuries she would get at dance, how sore she would be after three-hour practices in her frequently talked about scorching hot dance studio, or how many toe surgeries she got, she would always keep the same face. The same too big smile. I think she made up for both of us.
She always made me feel like I could be better. Like, if I wasn’t such a piece of shit all of the time, maybe I could be loved by everyone just like she was. And even though she, too, knew I was a piece of shit, she still called me her best friend. She would still take me on drives to nowhere in the passenger seat of her car. Her small, dark grey, 2005 Ford Focus. She named her Shanny, short for shenanigans. It was her favorite word. I remember when she first got her car. Our family was in Colorado, with our mom’s sister. We both despised family trips. Our family is depressing and drinks a lot. Bethany and I always said that when we got to the age that we were able to drink, we probably wouldn’t drink, anyways, because we had already witnessed more than enough times how much more stupid people can be under its influence. We both hated being intellectually inferior to others. She had always insisted that Noah and I were both more intelligent than her, but I never saw it that way.
I remember her last dance recital. It was her senior year of high school. I was a sophomore, still. She was brilliant on pointe, and not just like when people say they are, but in reality, their feet are sickled, their back is arched, they have no turn out, and their ankles aren’t strong enough. Bethany really was brilliant. Every senior at her dance studio got to create their own solo performance. She chose a contemporary piece to the song “I Don’t Regret” by Barlow Girls. The song was one that she and I grew up with. For a long time, we were only allowed to listen to religious music. Barlow Girls was a band that we frequently went back to. No one else could have understood what that song meant to her. What it meant to both of us. Everything was pitch black but a few white lights shining onto either side of the stage. She decided on a short, spaghetti-strap, layered dress made of every shade of yellow imaginable. It looked magnificent on her. It was beautiful. No one in the audience would have guessed that she had had an in-grown toe-nail surgery for the second time not but the week before. She made pain look like beauty. Her feet said otherwise.
She had definitely been a dancer. Her feet were always red with rashes, and bruised. She had bunions on the side of her feet the size of walnuts. Her toenails were usually half way, or completely torn off, and she would usually sit on the coach in our house pulling black strands of puss from underneath her toenails. She would smile and try and show me how interesting it was. I wasn’t interested.
Dance had been her life up until then. Gymnastics had been mine. I always hated that her back was more naturally flexible than my own. I remember when I told her about a cool new trick that I saw an older kid doing at gymnastics when we were younger. She had never heard of a back bend until that day, but she did it, anyways. I tried. I couldn’t get it until a few years later. But she always hated me for not doing dance, when I was so perfectly built for it. Wherever she lacked, I exceeded the expectations. Long neck, flexible everywhere, broad shoulders, thin waist, long legs, long torso, long everything. I even had long toes where she didn’t.
But, the way I saw it, she had everything that I lacked. When I was always so anxious, she was always able be confident in everything that she did, and whenever I found myself unable to speak, she was able to find words. I didn’t know how I would survive in such a scoring society without her.
I was still in high school. My junior year, then. There were about two months left before the end of her first semester of college. She was still dancing, even though she was busy with her college work most of the time. She always found time to drive around to coffee shops with me. After all, I was the only person she ever felt like she was able to talk to. I knew every stress. Every pain.
She told me her back was hurting, and I told her that my ankle was hurting again. Neither of us thought anything of it. The rainy weather did strange things to our joints.
A couple more weeks pass, and we’re driving to a coffee shop in town. We’re listening to her music, because she refused to go anywhere without noise in the background. She tells me that her back is hurting, and she wasn’t able to sleep last night because of it. I tell her that it’s been a while since her back started hurting. She iced it that night.
A couple more weeks, and I come home from school, and I hear her groaning before I see her downstairs, laying on the couch with an ice pack on her back. The same ice pack that she’s been using for the past few weeks. She has dark bags under her eyes, and as soon as she hears me coming down the stairs, she stops groaning. She smiles up at me, and rants to me about another stupid person from one of her classes.
She had told our parents that her back had been hurting for a couple of weeks, now. Our dad used to race dirt bikes, and had picture proof of being in a full-body cast. Our mom always thought that no one under the age of forty knew what actual pain was. They told her to keep icing it. It would go away eventually, like every other injury she and I had ever had. Bethany and I knew better than anyone that injuries never actually go away.
Days later, I wake up to screaming coming from her bedroom. I just as quickly hear my dad wake up, and rush downstairs. It’s the middle of the night, and I couldn’t get back to sleep before I had to get ready for school. I asked Bethany about it later on in the day. She smiled, and told me that she was fine, her back was still hurting. She tells me that she just took a few more ibuprofen.
By her college’s finals week, she was having a hard time walking. She had already been having hard time sitting up and lying down. She laughed while telling me about almost falling over while turning in one of her finals later in the week. I probably smiled, but I remember never being able to fully laugh with her for the last few months. Not while I knew she was in so much pain.
Our mom was still convinced that it would go away eventually. More ibuprofen, more rest, more sleep. I knew Bethany better than anyone else, though. I knew she was stronger than anyone gave her credit for. I knew every thought about every friend, every feeling, every complaint, every customer that she served at her job, every piece of music that she listened to, every hurt, every expression, and every injury.
Bethany’s winter break had begun. It wasn’t snowing at all, though, because Kansas weather is a bitch, and would rather snow in the middle of July than right before Christmas. She spent her break lying in bed in every uncomfortable position imaginable. Our dad put a board under her mattress so that it wouldn’t sink in as much, and she kept a pillow under her back at all times.
There’s Bethany. Two weeks before Christmas, and at night, when our mom and dad are helping her into bed, Noah and I sit upstairs with pillows on either side of our heads to smother out the noise. There’s a vent in my room that leads directly to her bedroom. I know, because when we were younger, and we wanted to talk to each other without leaving our rooms, we would just talk through the vent. I could hear everything. My brave, talented, genius, happy, strong best friend. She didn’t sound so strong, anymore. I lay in bed, my eyes circled with dark blue, and pillows on either side of my face. I shut my eyes, and everything was dark, but the air moved with screams. It smelled like salt. I didn’t have the energy to get up. I didn’t want to risk the screams being any louder than they already were. I remember thinking about everything that she had done for me, and all I wanted to do was take it, instead. I should have been able to do something as small as take the pain, instead.
Our parents took her to the hospital that night. She stayed there through Christmas. I brought her small, white Christmas tree that she usually put up in her room every year. I remember thinking it looked so much worse than it usually did, because I had been the one to decorate it, even though I used the same decorations as every other year. Everything she did was always so much more artistic than I could ever do. There was a self-portrait that I drew of myself. It is black and white, and it looks like I am glaring at every person who looks at the picture. Everyone always said it was brilliant, but I always looked at it next to the portrait that Bethany drew of me. It is light and colorful, and I am making the same face that I make when I am acting angry at someone, but really don’t mean it. She thought it would be ironic. No matter how many times I look at the two drawings, hers always looked so much better.
That was her, always so much better than me. But she saw me how no one else did. So, when the doctors at the hospital told us that she had a Staph Infection on her spine, and that they would do surgery on it, but they couldn’t promise that they would be able to save her since the infection had gone on for so long, all I could think about was how I had seen her the way no one else did.
When we were kids, I used to follow her and her friends around everywhere they went, because I wanted her to like me. She was bitter as a child, and realized that she was far more intelligent than most kids her age. She didn’t like me as a kid. She thought I was clingy, and just naturally a nuisance. She would make fun of me, create fake games with me and then abandon me, and she hated everyone in our family. She was a real bitch. But she was the only child in our family that was brave enough to stand up to our parents when it felt that they were being unfair. She stood up for Noah and me, because we were not strong enough, and she was the oldest. I wanted to be just like her when I was younger. Now, I am just like how she was when she was younger, and I’m still trying to be just a fraction as good as she ever was.
I remember when she came out of the surgery. The bacteria that had built up around the crack in her spine had been dug out, and we could only hope that her spine wasn’t too far gone. They asked if she did any sports, or some activity that would have caused her spine to crack in the first place. She did. Her back had always been more naturally flexible than mine, after all. She had explained to me before that dancers arch their backs differently than gymnasts. Gymnasts get to gradually arch their backs, but dancers had to keep theirs perfectly straight, so their bodies create a right angle.
I wasn’t able to sleep for weeks. I sat by her hospital bed, trying to leave the tears for when I was at home, alone, because she needed everyone to stay strong around her. I felt like I was the one dying. I think a part of me did die. I couldn’t close my eyes without my mind beginning to whir. So, instead, I would imagine switching places with her. I would pray that there was some way that we could do just that. The world didn’t need any more anxiety-ridden, cynical, big-headed, radical, future-journalists with their guards built up far too high. The world was already filled with those types of people.
The world would be so much better off with her than with me. Everything that the world lacked, she made up for. For every bitter person, she was able to add a bit of contentment. For every timid person, she was able to be bold. For every weak-minded person, she was able to stay strong. And for every moment of sorrow, she was able to be the sun.
But she left me, anyway.
I couldn’t say why. But sometimes siblings are just a bitch.
Note: This is a creative non-fiction piece, written for a past creative writing class. The assignment’s only requirements were to create a true story about myself and present it in a creative way.