Sisters: A Short Story By Julie Showalter

Introduction: Julie Showalter’s Unpublished Writing

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

Julie’s Unpublished Writing comprises a group of pieces I’ve found on Julie’s computer or in her office that range from workshop exercises to story fragments to projects set aside to finish at a later day to work that appears, at least to me, to be fully as polished and effective as her published stories.

Sisters, the latest addition to Julie’s Unpublished Writing, was incorporated, in modified form, into Julie’s novel, Needlework. It was originally posted May 6, 2007 at, a predecessor of


Sisters by Julie Showalter

I am the oldest of three sisters, cannot remember a time when I did not have sisters. Karen was born when I was eighteen months old, Billy Sue less than a year after her. From the start, I was mother’s little helper, a role which grew into telling my sisters about Santa Claus and sex, which I thought entitled me to tell them what to do. Billy Sue went along with this system. Karen didn’t.

When I was twelve, Karen lined the three of us up in front of a mirror. “Look,” she said. “Look at our mouths. Julie, yours is too big. Billy Sue, yours is too little. Now see how mine is right in the middle, just the right size for a mouth.” She moved on to eyebrows.

Karen has always attributed any of her character flaws to having been the middle child. “Middle child syndrome,” she will shrug to deflect criticism, even now when she’s 50 years old. From where Billy Sue and I stood, being in the middle looked pretty good – not too young to go after my boyfriends, not too old to steal Billy Sue’s. And there was the mouth – medium size, just right. And the eyebrows, thicker than mine, thinner than Billy Sue’s.

In a family that apportioned traits like fairies at a christening, Karen was the pretty one. She was also the funny one, the one who could do the impossible – make Daddy laugh. She was the one who drove Mother crazy.

We moved the year I was in eighth grade, so Karen and I hit a new junior high together. That’s when I found out she was the popular one, the vivacious one, the one the boys wanted to walk to class and the cheerleaders wanted to share lockers with.

I was the smart one with glasses and no style. The one that teachers noticed but that other students didn’t.

The rivalry that began when she was two weeks old and I bit her toe, intensified and it took on purpose. We would protect our turf. She could never be smart and I could never be pretty or popular. We made sure of it.

When we weren’t fighting, we did each other favors. I’d do her homework, dashing off in ten minutes a set of algebra problems that would have taken her hours, in the process establishing her reputation as the one who cheated. Teachers held her up to ridicule. “How can your homework be so good and your tests so bad?” “Obviously you can do the work it you try.” And worst of all, “You certainly aren’t like Julie.”

Teachers knew I helped her cheat. But they were never angry at me. They saw the way she ignored me in the halls. They heard her giggle with her boyfriends when I walked by.

In high school, she tried to teach me to dance. Tried until the night before the prom when she declared me hopeless. “You’ll never get it,” she said. “There’s a look you have to have and you don’t have it.” The next night we double-dated in matching dresses our Granny had made. I sat at the candle-topped card table in the gym, too embarrassed to dance and expose myself as not having the look, feigning interest in the Wonderland by Night decorations, pretending it didn’t bother me that Karen took turns dancing with our two dates.

Sibling rivalry, at least our version of it, is not so simple as wanting what the other has. It’s not wanting the other to have what you have. It’s wanting the other to want to be like you. It’s proving every moment that you’re nothing like her.

I married the week of my nineteenth birthday. Young, but not scandalously young. Karen married six weeks later – 17 ½. Married in the church where my wedding had been. Wore my dress and veil. Sat before the wedding smoking a cigarette wearing my dress and veil.

Six weeks later her husband got drunk and beat her. I invited her to stay with my husband and me while her broken heart mended. If my husband got up to get a coke, she said, “I waited on Phil hand and foot.” When I brought home hamburgers for dinner, she said, “I cooked all day for Phil.” One evening she volunteered, “Phil and I made love for two hours every night.” When I found my husband with his arm around her comforting her while she cried, I sent her back to Mother to take care of.

There’s a certain amount of score-keeping.

She had the first failed marriage, but I had the second. And the third. But both my failed marriages lasted a respectable length of time. So who’s ahead there?

She had our parents’ first grandchild. A month later, I adopted a three month old daughter, so I had the oldest grandchild.

I spent six years in analysis. She straightened herself out for free with a self-help book and Oprah. You be the judge – who should feel smug?

These things don’t change. At 30 she had her breasts enlarged. And suddenly, my breasts, which had been in the middle, not tiny like hers or huge like Billy Sue’s, were the smallest. I no longer had the right size breasts.

At 40 I flew home from our father’s funeral weeping hysterically. Why? Because an hour earlier Karen had entertained assembled friends and relatives with a story about me picking my nose in first grade.

And now. I’m 51, she’s 50. Last month our niece, Billy Sue’s older daughter, got married. As I fretted about what I’d wear, my husband said, “Do you really think all eyes will be on the aunt of the bride?”

Not all eyes, but two.

What I want from her is the following: I want her to admit I looked better at that wedding. I want her to admit I danced better. I want her to admit my life is better than hers. I want her to admit that she could never have done the things I’ve done.

And she admits these things, some of them, but she doesn’t do it right. I have a Ph.D., was the only one of us to go to college. I’ve held impressive jobs with big titles. What does she say about me? “Julie is the most successful of all of us. She married a doctor.”

I am a writer who has had some success with stories of our childhood. What does she say? “Anyone could write those stories. I’ll tell you the stories and you just put in the right words.”


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