I don’t know how it was with your sister, but I never fought with mine.
There were a few mistakes; once I snuck one of her books off her bookshelf and read it before she had a chance to finish it (although I was not the kind of sister who would tell her how it ended), and once when I was very young I decided to see what would happen if I pretended to be dead. There were tears, from both of us, on those occasions. But we didn’t bicker, or steal each other’s clothing, or holler at our parents that one of us was poking the other.
I don’t know why we didn’t ever fight. But I think it had to do with our box of paper dolls.
See, nearly every day after school we’d come home and take out this huge file folder box, which was packed full of paper dolls and organized by category. The first question we would ask each other was “old-fashioned or new-fangled?” (We picked up the term “new-fangled” from the American Girl Samantha books, and we had no idea that the rest of the world had already put it down.)
And then we made up stories. We created worlds. We stood our paper dolls up against the flat vertical surface of our trundle bed — it had to be the trundle bed, because paper dolls would slump over if you put them against curving baseboards — and we jumped together into this space that lived somewhere in between the paper dolls and our minds.
Emily would always play one character and I would play everyone else. She was the center of the story and I was the story’s creator. It wasn’t really like that in life — we both took turns being the center of attention and I probably got more than my share — but that was how we played. It was a way to keep everything balanced and to let both of us play to our strengths.
The reason I’m telling you this is that our shared childhood world of course came to an end. Endings are always interesting because they represent problems to be solved. You can solve them in a way that feels right, or you can solve them in a way that feels wrong and will feel wrong for the rest of your life. Entire books are written just so we can see how two people solve the problem of the ending.
Years before we stopped sitting side by side and jumping together into a shared space, back when we lived in the old house, I spent a whole night crying because I knew we would have to stop playing someday. My mom said it would be okay when it happened, but I was inconsolable.
And then, the summer before I started junior high, my sister and I took out the paper dolls and created a game we called “Princess Trouble”.
It was different from our other paper doll games in that it encompassed two stories, and allowed us to use both the old-fashioned and new-fangled paper doll costumes. A group of young girls find themselves in possession of a television studio, because every good story starts with children who have absolutely no adult supervision, and decide to create a TV show called “Princess Trouble” about a beggar girl who discovers she’s a princess after a traveling troubadour identifies the five-pointed star birthmark on her knee. The newly-discovered princess goes back to the castle and has to deal with a bunch of people who don’t like her very much. Simultaneously, the young girls in the television studio bicker over who’s in charge and work on drumming up advertisers and improving ratings.
(It’s worth noting that we had very few male paper dolls in our collection, so we managed most of our stories without them, this one included.)
“Princess Trouble” was fairly derivative, as far as plots go — at one point, for example, the girls in the television studio hold a telethon — but we found ways to turn the clichés into inventiveness. There was original music, including a song titled “1-800-555” that proved we were familiar with television conventions even if we weren’t quite sure where to put the numbers. At one point we wrote a rap:
If you want to see
How much trouble there can be
It was the most comprehensive and complex world we had ever created, and we didn’t want to leave it. We kept taking out the paper dolls and continuing these two parallel narratives. It was the background to that summer, even though I was also getting my long hair cut off in preparation for school and going out with my friends to buy flavored lip gloss. I didn’t tell them that my sister and I were still playing with paper dolls. We both knew that this wasn’t a thing to talk about, outside of the world we made at the base of my sister’s bed. I feel strange writing about it now. It was ours; it lived in the space between our minds and our paper dolls, in the place where toys come to life and dolls become people and we, also, become those people.
And then we started playing “Princess Trouble” in quieter voices, because we were embarrassed for other people to hear us.
It was around that point that I started trying to write “Princess Trouble” down. I already couldn’t remember the beginning of it. There was the troubadour, and the five-pointed star, but I didn’t know how the girls had found the television studio or agreed to create this television series. I hadn’t learned yet how to keep writing even when it was hard. That would come after “Princess Trouble” ended, when I couldn’t use paper dolls but still needed a way to play out stories.
The end of childhood comes in many different ways — and more than once; they never tell you that in those coming of age narratives. My sister and I had our own individual transitions into adolescence and adulthood, but the end of our shared world came when we stopped playing “Princess Trouble”, both of us agreeing to do it without ever having the conversation.
And, just like my mom had said, it was okay. We had this last summer, and this last story that could never be topped, and then we put our paper dolls away and started doing something new.
I couldn’t have written a better ending myself. Only Emily and I could have created that ending together.