Not Quite So Bad

“You have got to stop lying so much.”

They are at the dinner table, but there is no dinner. Chelsea was supposed to make it. She has her hand resting on a fist. Her eyes are half-closed and directed outside so that it is clear she doesn’t want to be listening to Tara. Tara’s eyes, conversely, are laser-focused on Chelsea, with the hope that she will make Chelsea uncomfortable enough to turn and face her fully.

“What are you talking about?” Chelsea says. She plays with the rings on her free hand. Every finger bears a ring. She likes to spin them and wiggle them as a distraction.

“I’m tired of it, Chelsea,” Tara says. Her and Chelsea look nothing alike, even though they’re sort-of sisters. Chelsea has hair that falls in shiny blond ringlets. She wears pastels and creams. Tara wears dark shades. She has brown hair, cut short on one side, and her ears are weighted by large gauges.

“You get tired of a lot of things,” Chelsea said. “I can’t help that.”

Tara fumes. She’s begun questioning, lately, if their relationship is worth the hassle. She used to love Chelsea, but now she just feels annoyed with her constantly. She feels like she just can’t please Chelsea, and like Chelsea is making no effort to maintain their relationship.

Then there’s the awkwardness of explaining how they’re related. Chelsea’s mom and Tara’s dad actually met because Chelsea and Tara were dating, but now they were married. Whenever someone realized that Tara was dating her stepsister, she had to go through a whole awkward spiel about how they hadn’t been stepsisters when they’d met.

Plus, Chelsea has gotten worse in the past few months. She is constantly defensive and on edge, and it seems like everything Tara does irritates her, like chewing too loudly at the dinner table, or blowing her nose during a movie, or confronting her about her problematic behaviors.

“You can try to be less of a bitch about it, and realize that I’m genuinely upset.”

Tara regrets saying this immediately, because it means that their conversation is going to devolve into a fight, and fights are not constructive. Tara never says the right things when she’s mad. Neither does Chelsea.

Chelsea tenses. Her attention snaps toward Tara. Her eyes are no longer half-closed, they’re narrowed, with a dangerous sort of energy behind them. “Excuse me?”

“I want to make this work,” Tara says, though that makes her into a liar, too, because she’s nowhere near as certain of those words as she would like to pretend. She says it mainly because she doesn’t want to make the situation worse. “But if we’re going to do that, we have to be honest with each other. We have to listen to one another.”

“I listen to you,” Chelsea says.

“Sometimes,” Tara says. “When you’re not on your phone, scrolling through pages of nothing, or texting other people, or just looking at funny pictures.”

“I enjoy those things,” Chelsea says. “You do the same thing.”

“Yeah, but when you say something, I bring my attention back to you,” Tara says.

“Whatever,” Chelsea says. Her hand reaches for her phone where it sits, well within her reach, on the table. She twitches. Her fingers curl, and she pushes the phone around instead, playing with it, pretending as though she never intended to pick it up to escape the conversation.

Tara sees all of this, but she declines to mention it. “It’s not whatever. It’s our relationship.”

Chelsea sighs. “You’re right. I’ll work on it.”

This is what Tara meant when she said that Chelsea lies too much. “You’re doing it again.”

“What?” Chelsea snaps.

“You’re saying something just to appease me, even though you have no intention of doing it.”

“You can’t know that,” Chelsea says. “And, by the way, it sucks that you would say that.”

“I say it because that’s my experience.” Tara leans back in her chair. She shrugs. “You lie so much to everyone that it doesn’t even feel like lying to you anymore.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do. It’s not just me. You love to tell your friends that, yes, you’ll meet them for lunch, but then you don’t because ‘something came up,’ or you say you got called into work even though you didn’t, or you tell them you have an appointment you forgot about.”

“That’s not lying,” Chelsea says. “I’m just, I don’t know, trying not to hurt their feelings.”

“Do you ever actually intend to hang out with them?”

“Sometimes.” Chelsea cracks the last knuckle on each of her fingers in turn, which Tara knows she does when she is anxious.

“When you tell you’ve been called into work, have you, usually?”

“Sometimes.” Chelsea says this quietly, as though hoping Tara won’t hear her. “Look, I just get tired, you know? I want to stay home. I don’t feel like going places very often anymore.”

“I get that,” Tara says. She leans back forward, resting her elbows on the table. “I think your friends would get that, too, if you would just tell them.”

“Maybe.” Chelsea’s hand goes to her phone again. She twirls it around on the table.

“You told your mom that we didn’t have enough money to buy Christmas gifts this year, but you actually just procrastinated so long that you ran out of time.”

“Again, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”

“You told me you were applying for jobs all day yesterday, but you weren’t.”

For a heartbeat, it is as though Chelsea is a video recording and someone has hit the pause button. “I looked at jobs.”

“You played the Sims all day,” Tara says.

“No, I… How would you even know that?”

“Because I looked at how many hours you’d played before I left for work, and I checked them again when I got home. You played for seven hours yesterday. That’s almost the entire time I was gone!”

“So what?” Chelsea said. “It was my day off. I wanted to relax.”

“You told me you were going to look for a new job, do the dishes, and clean the bathrooms. You didn’t do any of those things, and you lied about the thing you thought I wouldn’t notice. You just lied about it again.”

“I mean, I looked a few listings,” Chelsea said. “Before I started playing.”

“Did you apply to any of them?” Tara asked. “Do you even have an up-to-date résumé?”

Chelsea crossed her arms. “What do you want me to say? You’re asking all of these questions like you already know the answers. You’re just going to correct me if I don’t say what you’re expecting.”

“That’s just because we both know you’re going to come up with something that’s not quite true in order to appease me and make yourself feel better. Sometimes I think you lie to yourself as much as you lie to other people.”

“Tara…” Tara realizes, suddenly, that though Chelsea isn’t crying, her eyes have become more reflective. They glisten with building tears. She has stopped playing with her phone. “Can you stop, please? That’s enough.”

Tara shakes her head. “That’s not how this works. We don’t get to stop having an uncomfortable conversation just because it makes us unhappy.”

“Why are you so mean all the time?” Chelsea says.

“I’m not being mean. I’m calling you out.”

“No, it’s not just this,” Chelsea continues. “It’s not just now, telling me I lie to much. You’re just always so down on me, like I’ll never live up to whatever ideal you have in mind.”

“What?” Tara asks. Her face goes oddly numb. She’s not even sure what expression it holds.

“Like, okay, I tell little lies all the time,” Chelsea says. “It’s how I cope with things. It’s how I let myself pretend I’m not hurting people. Whatever. It’s not like I’m telling big lies, or doing anything really awful. I’ not cheating on you and lying about it. I’m not, I don’t know, gambling away all of our money in secret. I get that I shouldn’t have lied to you about applying places but honestly, it’s not nearly as awful as you’re making it out to be.”

“You hate your job, Chelsea,” Tara says. It doesn’t follow from what Chelsea has said, but Tara doesn’t want the conversation to be about her. It was supposed to be about Chelsea.

“Most people do!” Chelsea says. “Someday I’ll get off of my ass and actually find somewhere else to apply. In the meantime, I could do without a girlfriend who’s constantly riding me about every little thing I don’t do just the way she would want it.”

“That’s not fair,” Tara says. “I’m just trying to help you.”

Chelsea huffs. “Look, I’m not mad that you called me out on playing the Sims yesterday. I mean, yeah, it’s a bit much that you stalked my hours played like some janky PI, but whatever. I actually deserved that. I’m mad because you do this all the time. You’re constantly trying to ‘correct’ me and fix me up into someone else.”

Tara lets silence fall for a moment. It is hard to speak the next set of words that have come to her mind. She forces them out anyway. “I’m turning into my mom.”

“I didn’t say that,” Chelsea says.

“No, but like, I am, right?” Tara says. “That’s why dad divorced her. He said she made him feel like he was never good enough, like he was a project she had to complete.” She feels an overwhelming wave of regret. “Oh god. That’s what I’ve been doing to you.”

“No.” Chelsea bites her lip. “I mean, well, yeah? Maybe a little bit. But not quite so bad.”

Tara’s head collapses onto her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Chelsea stands. She comes around the table. When she leans down to hug Tara, the smell of her sweet perfume and the lotion that she wears and her hair product all blend together. They smell like distant happiness.

“It’s okay,” Chelsea says. “Honestly, don’t be sorry. I’m the one who should be sorry. Or, like, maybe both of us should be. I think we’ve both being doing some things wrong.”

“Yeah,” Tara says. She wipes at her eyes, though she’s not really crying; she’s just close. “I’ll try to stop… you know, doing what I do. What my mom did.”

“I’ll try to do the things I say I’ll do.” Chelsea’s hug becomes a bit tighter. “No big promises. I’ll help you if you help me, though.”

Tara had lost her energy for the conversation. It hadn’t resolved like she had dreamed. In fact, she felt like it hadn’t resolved at all, despite the words they had spoken. Still, she had no desire to continue it anymore. Things would either get better between them, or they wouldn’t. Tara didn’t feel like she had control over that.

“Okay.”

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