Laura is a student at Clemson University. She likes to do anything involving words (read, write, sing, talk, etc.) She lives with Nora Ephron’s idea that “everything is copy.”
If I Could Be Another Person by Laura Dekle
When I was born, she was in the waiting room. She was fourteen months old. She was always ahead of me like that. I was gulping in my first few breaths of air, and she was already walking.
From the start, I admired her more than anything. Perfect is subjective depending on the viewer, and I viewed her as the most perfect. She was graceful and diplomatic. People loved her readily (they loved me, too, once they knew me – but I didn’t see that). Her middle name was Victoria, and she was like a queen – not the evil stepmother kind of queen, but like the Julie Andrews kind of queen. She was lovely.
I didn’t go to preschool, but she did, and my mom used to take care of her after preschool some days when her mom was working. On those days, she would come over and teach me what she had learned at school that day. We have one home video of the two of us running around a laundry basket in my living room that we are pretending is a fire, and we are pretending we’re Native Americans. She’s banging on a tom-tom drum and chanting something and I’m just running and yelling. Later I hit her on the head and she cries, and then I cry – not because I’m hurt too or because I’m sorry I hurt her, but because she’s crying.
I didn’t want to be like her; I wanted to be her. I wanted to have brown eyes like hers and to be not quite so tall as I was and to be good at math and have the middle name and disposition of a queen. I wanted to absorb all of her good qualities and for any qualities of mine that were unlike hers to dissolve – and then, because she had no bad qualities, once I became her, I would be flawless. If only I could rid myself of the things that were so myself, I would feel good and adequate.
We had similarities – moms who were math teachers, dads who were engineers, three younger siblings each, brown hair (hers a dark chocolate brown, mine an indecisive mousy brown), good singing voices, and a love of playing pretend. But something about us was different – that was painfully clear to me. I set out to fix it.
Our families went (and still do go) to the beach together every summer. When we came back into the house from the beach as little girls, we would shower together. We would giggle and play with the slippery soap and sing “Baby Shark” at the top of our lungs, hand motions and all. She was tanner than me, but in the shower, we had the same pale spots on our bodies – the places that never saw the sun. We thought that was very funny.
Then one summer before we left for the beach, her mom called my mom to say that she didn’t want to shower with me anymore. I wasn’t surprised. That was a normal thing to happen, but also I cried. I thought my heart was broken, and I knew I was being melodramatic, and I didn’t know how to stop.
Watching her grow up had me convinced that growing up was supposed to be breezy and seamless and lovely – so I thought something must be very wrong with me when it wasn’t. The disparity between how I assumed growing up was supposed to be from what I saw of her and how growing up felt to me had me disoriented and flustered.
When she was in middle school, she seemed so old and tall and knowledgeable. I couldn’t wait to be out of fifth grade so that I could be in middle school too. I wanted to be old and knowledgeable (I was already tall). When I finally made it to sixth grade, she was in seventh grade, and it didn’t take more than a few minutes after walking into school to figure out that sixth-graders are at the bottom of the middle school hierarchy. So I strived to be out of sixth grade, so that I could be in seventh grade, which was the next cool thing. But when I reached seventh grade, she was in eighth grade, and then that was what I wanted to be.
I was trying to follow her – I did everything I saw her doing, but things weren’t turning out for me like they did for her. Somehow, she was never at the bottom of any hierarchy, while I felt like new hierarchies were being created just so I could be at the bottom of them.
When we went to the beach in middle school, she didn’t play pretend anymore. Her new thing was tanning and reading. Reading had always been my thing, so I was excited that she wanted to do something that I already liked. I left lines in the sand when I dragged my chair all over the beach to put my chair next to hers so we could read together. She read paperbacks with shiny titles like “Rebecca,” and she folded the front cover around the book so she could hold the book in one hand and read only a page at a time – it bent the book’s spine, but it didn’t seem like she was hurting the book – it seemed like she was allowing the books to breathe. I, however, somehow always got sand between the pages of my books, which was much less freeing and inspirational to my books.
Our beach group played sports while we read. Their yelling and clapping and laughing, in combination with the ocean waves, were my favorite sounds to have enveloping me while I read. They always asked us to play, and I always said no, but every once in a while, she said yes to playing cricket. And if she was playing cricket, I had to play cricket, because I didn’t want to be the only kid not playing. Somehow, she was the hero of every game, and I felt like maybe I was an insult to every game.
And so we kept growing up. I was in her shadow, but not because anyone put me there. I willingly lived there, because, in all my searching and striving, it was the closest I could get to being what I wanted to be when I grew up.
One time in high school she and her best friend were jumping on a trampoline at a New Year’s party and her best friend accidentally pushed her into a boy and she broke her nose from the force of it. It was the funniest injury I’d ever heard of. I wanted things like that to happen to me – the kind of thing that made a lot of people pay attention to me without my ever asking for it.
Another time, she wore a tube top to youth group. If I’d thought objectively, I would have said that was inappropriate – but for her to do it was fine. Seeing her wear it made me want to buy one.
Her handwriting, just like her hair, was long and straight with a just little curve at the end. They both emanated grace. I also had long-ish, straight-ish, brown-ish hair, too, but mine emanated nothing remarkable. I just had a normal head.
And then she could drive. Sometimes she picked me up and drove us around town – to Walmart, to school, to the new Starbucks downtown. She drove so fast and waited so long to put on her brakes and listened to music so loud and I knew my dad would not approve of her driving, but the thing was – he wasn’t there.
She knew every song on the radio – the old ones, the new ones, the ones that I knew I wouldn’t like if I heard them alone, but hearing her singing them made them beautiful to me. When we went to Starbucks, when it was new and the cool place to be, I wanted to advertise to everyone who could see us sitting together how special she was and what a huge honor it was that she was choosing to spend this part of her time in public with me.
Boys were always interested in her. She got her heart broken once, her sophomore year of high school, which I totally called before it ever happened. And even though that happened, she wasn’t crushed. She was wistful and lovely and romantic in her young grief. When it happened to me for the first time, later, I was not wistful or lovely or romantic. I was whiny and pathetic and depressing.
One day at school, I overheard her mentioning to someone that her favorite flavor of Dum-Dum was root beer. So for her next birthday, in an effort to show her that I loved her by remembering small details of her life, I bought a whole bag of Dum-Dums and sorted through it for the root beer-flavored suckers. There were none in that bag, and then I was stuck with a whole bag of Dum-Dums. I don’t even like Dum-Dums. The situation felt all too typical.
My junior year of high school she wrote in my yearbook that she admired the way that I was always myself and not ashamed. And I was so confused. I don’t even know what it means for a person to “be yourself” – yet she had just told me that I’d been being “myself” for years already.
I reflected on what she had said, and found that she was maybe right. I had spent a lot of my life trying to shake myself off, but it never really worked. I could not get rid of things about myself that were specific to me – like how hard I laughed at this one scene in this one movie that we always watched together even though I laughed embarrassingly loudly and it wasn’t actually that funny, or how excited I got when one of our youth leader friends sat us down and told us she was having a baby – like to the point where I stopped breathing for just a quick second, or how I could read for hours and hours for the sake of reading (whereas she read for the sake of tanning), or how I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and she was closer to going to college than I was but still had no idea what to do with her career. These were things that made me different from her, and they weren’t all terrible things.
I saw that I did have a personality after all. And what a happy relief! I had been so disappointed in myself for not succeeding in being her until I saw that I actually was my own person. I didn’t know I had wanted that until she showed me that I had done it.
I saw that she wasn’t perfect. I saw that she had gone through phases, too, and had been at the bottom of hierarchies, and made less-than-perfect choices, and was a sinner. Just like me.
I saw how patient she had been with me for so long. I had been copying her for years. My seventh-grade yearbook picture is of me in a Ralph Lauren v-neck that used to be hers that was a little too small but I wanted to wear it because I knew it had been hers, so it must be the kind of thing she would wear. In the picture, I’m soft smiling and tilting my head a little. I don’t look like myself at all.
I saw that she loved me. She wanted to spend time with me, and that was why she asked me to come over to her house and color in princess coloring books and watch The Little Mermaid with her on weekends sometimes. She saw how I was more expressive, while she was more reserved, and she liked that about me (I think).
But I had turned her into an opponent. I had seen that she got to go to prom all four years of high school because she had guy friends and I didn’t, and I resented her for it. I saw that she played softball in addition to being valedictorian and I got mad at her for being multi-talented. I hadn’t been okay with being different, and in that, I had forgotten that we were friends, and that I loved her.
Seeing these things made her a real person to me. We were finally on equal terms, and it was good. It was fair to both of us – I was holding her to normal standards instead of standards of perfection, and I knew that I did not have to be her to be okay.
We kept being friends. We went to college – different colleges – and both blossomed. We each became more ourselves than we had ever been. To me, it felt like an epiphanal revolution. I hadn’t known I could blossom, and it was wonderful. I felt fuller. I felt like I had a personality. I felt like myself.
Early in college, she met an engineer, and then after graduation, she married him. I met lots of engineers in college, too, but none of them asked me to marry them. And I was mostly okay with that (it’s hard to be around so many engineers and be 100% okay with not even one of them wanting to marry me – but I was as okay with it as I could be. I was also even okay with knowing that she was married and I was not on that path presently).
The summer before her wedding, we went to the beach just like we had for every summer of our whole lives. I didn’t follow her around with my beach chair, but we talked like friends do. We took a walk together. We played games with our sisters in the evenings.
On the last morning of the beach, we woke up early to pack up and head for home. All of the “big girls,” her, me, our sisters, and Kate, shared a bedroom. I had just woken up and was sitting up in bed when she came and sat next to me. She smiled like she knew something I didn’t, and told me she loved me, and asked me if I would be the stand-in bride for her wedding. I didn’t know what that was until I was it – it’s a small but sweet role in the wedding rehearsal, based off the tradition that it’s bad luck for the bride to walk down the aisle unless it is the for-real, live-action wedding. The bride traditionally asks a friend to do it, and she chose me as that friend.
And so, three days before Christmas and one day before her wedding, I showed up at our church, ready to go. Her sisters handed me a pretend bouquet that they had made out of a lot of ribbons and a lot of bows and a lot of hot glue. I held it in front of me like I thought she would be doing the next day with her real bouquet: stately and resplendently. The wedding party lined up in front of me, all abuzz with excitement and anticipation and smiles and whispers. I stood at the back of the line holding the bouquet in my left hand and her dad’s arm with my right hand, feeling peaceful and a little bit matronly.
I watched as the thirteen bridesmaids and twelve groomsmen took their turn up the aisle. I watched as the flower girl and ring bearer cried and argued about not wanting to go. And then it was my turn. I walked up the aisle, matching her dad’s steps, smiling like I thought she would. I walked slowly, hearing the music, feeling her dad starting to get emotional. I walked up the aisle of our church, the church where I will also get married if that happens one day, thinking to myself: this is it. I am Wimberly right now. She asked me to be her for this day. And I was.
I passed her as I walked up the aisle with her dad on my arm, and she smiled sweetly at us. We walked up to the fiancé, to her sweet engineer boy, and he cried. Her dad kissed me on the cheek and said that her mother and him were giving me away, and I took her almost-husband’s arm and hand to walk up the steps to the stage. I gave her sister my bouquet and she pretended to fix my dress, like she would tomorrow with the real thing. We went over the vows, then Charlie and I turned to face each other. He held both of my hands in his. He smiled at me.
I had tried to be her for so long, and now it was my job to be her. I was emulating her the best way I knew how but I didn’t feel like her. I felt too tall, but that no longer felt like a burden. It was just a fact.
I was her in that moment, but also in that moment, I knew that everything about the moment and the day were hers. This was her engineer fiancé, her dad, her thirteen bridesmaids, her Christmas wedding. And I still wanted things that she had, but not in an envious way like I had my whole life.
I didn’t hate her for what she had that I didn’t. I was excited for her, and I was excited that she had included me. I loved her, and we were friends.