by Julie McClement
Looking at my sister’s Instagram makes me feel hollow inside, but I can never stop returning to it—the same way I ran my tongue over the spot from a missing tooth as a kid. I tell myself I should cut back, but it’s a harmless vice, no worse than my occasional late-night drink.
Esther worships Audre Lorde, provides commentary on Beyoncé that verges on the Talmudic. These “yas queen” posts are interspersed with self-portraits of joyful resistance, always capturing her good side. The crimson of her Handmaid’s Tale costume matches the words drawn on her sign: “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries.”
In most of Esther’s pictures, the backdrop goes unnamed: McGill.
“Esther shows what can happen when you work hard,” Mom said while frying eggs the other day, her casual tone not fooling me for a second. The oven’s burner light glowed an angry red in the early morning grey, and I turned my head away from it and from her.
Esther does bring a certain Tracy Flick energy to schoolwork, but I’m sure what got her into McGill was her admissions essay. Who can resist a girl throwing off religious repression and being reborn as an activist, painstakingly aware of her privilege.
When Esther got her acceptance email, she was all pink-cheeked pride and false modesty. She issued disclaimers about her unearned advantages upon being congratulated, as though worried that a member of the PC police would bust into our living room like the Kool-Aid man and issue a citation if she didn’t minimize her achievements fast enough.
While she talked, I quietly picked a scab by my thumb.
Esther’s admissions essay alluded to what happened to me—or what I remembered of it. My cheek, pressed into the couch cushions. My eyes, fixed on an old sitcom with fast-talking, big-haired women. My lips, where the taste of peppermint schnapps lingered. I didn’t actively accept or reject anything he did, but let it play out—title sequence to credits. Esther’s references to what happened were vague but unmistakable, surfacing memories in me like a madeleine de Proust.
Esther and I have never talked about her “appropriation of my experience,” to use a very Esther phrase. But I’m fine with it. I’m called upon to bear life’s trials with grace. Besides, Esther’s got plenty of other things she wants to talk about.
“I just think religion exists to fill a void in some people,” Esther said one night over video chat. “One that could be better addressed with therapy.”
“Okay,” I said. I received Esther’s sage pronouncements with the utmost composure. In the little window on the screen, my silver crucifix glinted.
“There’s science on this,” Esther said. “I’m going to take Psychology of Religion . . .”
Esther kept talking, but the words faded, leaving only the movement of her lips. They were coated in blood-red lipstick that was almost lurid against the shadowed cave of her mouth. I remembered us as kids, applying bubblegum lipgloss to one another before church, how we’d run for the front seat in matching plaid dresses, our Mary Janes shiny in the sun. People asked if we were twins.
Esther has also written posts righteously condemning the judgy comments people make about young women’s sex lives. Nobody has said anything to me. Sometimes I wish a fratboy in training would. Then I could be righteously angry—yell and shame him into submission. I’d tell him what a loser he was for spewing that bullshit, what a failure he was for even thinking it. I’d do an Esther-style takedown and get a chorus of amens . . . but I wouldn’t.
Esther’s snarky posts are getting noticed. She’s been retweeted by some semi-famous journalists and a former sitcom actress. She wants to eventually move abroad and become a columnist for The Guardian. “I can grow my audience from there,” she says.
I’ve never had real career ambitions. As a kid, I wanted to be a saint. I knew we were Protestants who didn’t go for that kind of thing, but the idea gripped me. I poured over every detail of their lives—the young women who died rather than surrender their virginity, the ones who renounced the flesh and the world. Eyes up to heaven in a world full of hell.
The idea lingered throughout adolescence. When I got my period, I pretended I was experiencing a stigmata. These fantasies cocooned me from droning teachers and my mother’s clipped tones and pounding hangovers. However, Canada’s climate doesn’t support living in the wilderness on a pillar which means my future is a blank, the horizon blending with the sky.
To put it bluntly, my future is my present: living at home, supported by Mom—financially.
Mom gives me lots of pep talks over breakfast on moving forward, like a coach who’d love to haul her incompetent player off the field and run the play herself. I sit there with my rumpled shirt and bare face, feeling the weight of the knife in my hand. I cut my rubbery eggs into tinier and tinier pieces, till there’s nothing left for my fork to pierce.
Mom tried some tough love today.
“I know how hard it is,” she said, “but girls with fewer advantages have overcome worse. That young woman, Malala, was shot in the head and still keeps fighting for the rights of girls.”
How the hell did I end up in a competition with a Nobel Peace Prize winner? I imagined a photo of Malala wearing a blue hospital gown while the doctors struggled to save her, beside a photo of me wearing the same gown after Mom forced me to get tested for STDs. Below us, the tabloid caption: “Who Wore It Best?”
I left without a word, letting the front door slam.
“Ruth!” Mom barked from a window. She’s obsessed with respect.
“Sorry!” I said, and kept walking.
I kept forcing myself forward. Acid churned in my stomach, creeping up my throat. It felt like it was closing up, like everything was closing in, though the landscape was nothing but snow and wind, frigid stretches of ice shrouding everything. My face grew numb and my legs heavy.
Eventually, I saw a Catholic church up ahead. I had nowhere better to be.
The sanctuary was similar to ours: functional, with oh-so-70s wood panelling. The only difference—the crosses. Ours are bare, maybe because Jesus has gone up to Heaven. Catholics have Jesus on the cross, suffering. I sat looking up at Him. What a radical vision He offered, one where the lowest would be raised high and the highest brought low. A religion not only for those who overcame, but also for those who have been overcome.
I decided to take a close-up of Jesus’ pained face and post it to Instagram. Esther’s nose would wrinkle when she saw it, her perfect lips pinched.
But as I opened the app, I hesitated. For the first time, I was aware that underneath my stoic acceptance of her barbs, my heart beat with petty satisfaction. As though I was so superior.
I might not renounce the world, but I could renounce that.