I wanted to be Lena. I didn’t tell the other girls, who had already assigned themselves characters, and had been kind enough to include me in their imagining. One was most like Lena, because she had the hair and she was good at art. Bridget belonged to our own version of the tall soccer player, who waved her hands wildly as she ran and managed to score four goals in a game. And the third girl was Carmen, the writer, the one who kept the group together and built the home for their hearts and kept the secrets (most of the time) and always had the most beautiful things to say. But The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has four characters, and they offered me one – Tibby – the mystery, the rebel, the girl with the camera who doesn’t recognize herself, who loves fierce, but different. They offered it to me, one of my first invitations to be a part of them, to think of myself as belonging, even if for just the duration of the movie or the week when we cracked the orange cover open and raced through the third book.
But I wanted to be Lena. I wanted the big love Kostos had for her – beaming out of the pages. How he radiated in her direction, how he took care of her, learned her quietness and her fear and her joy. I wanted her ability to see into the people she drew with her charcoal pencil. I wanted to be described with celery green eyes and effortless hair. I ached with it – this character I couldn’t claim as my own – this fictional person who lived a life I thought I should have.
When we drove across the country for the second time, in the darker green minivan, I reread all the books. My sister and I sat behind everyone else, each in the same world at different times. For eight hours, Tibby and Bridget and Lena and Carmen drove with us – stopping for Cokes and pretzels at the gas stations, poking our brothers and being smacked back with the plastic rifle from Wall Drug in South Dakota. We treated the books without care, assuming, like we almost always do, that they will wait for us to come back. That everything waits for us to come back.
During those drives I reread the stories and wrapped my seat belt in strange loops around my waist so that I could have my torso free. My parents always told us not to do this. I ate Swedish fish out of a plastic bag stuffed into the cup holder. I was not yet fifteen, then, and I only had my top braces off, which made me self conscious when I smiled. My hair stuck to my head in sweaty summer clumps, and the pictures of that time remind me that I bought one pink shirt from American Eagle that said something about “bee-ing happy” with a picture of a bumblebee splashed across the front. I wore it as some kind of promise to myself that I could be one of the girls, who shopped at American Eagle and wore cute shirts and played soccer like Bridget and could write like Carmen and draw like Lena.
I read, and we drove, and the country spilled out in front of us: an abundance of white in the sky, an emptiness on the roads. It must have been there that I gave up the dream of Lena. Somewhere in Nebraska or Iowa, staring at cornfields and hay that reached above my head, hearing nothing but wind through the bleached stalks and the bickering of my siblings and my parents debating buying ham at the next grocery store. I released the dream of her – her celery green eyes, her long effortless hair, her drawing, her love story. It floated out the window, between wishing I had a cowboy hat of my own and finding one in a Walmart in Colorado, and I turned fifteen later that summer.
It must be that this is part of the way we learn about ourselves: that we release the dreams of who we might be, free ourselves of the clinging hope of someone else’s beautiful self. We let the character we wanted to play float out the window under a Colorado sky, and we buy a cowboy hat and hug our brothers, and let our sister braid our non-effortless hair in two French braids when she asks. We reread the stories no longer anxious to fit ourselves into the small spaces of the words about Lena:
because we know there she’s only a dream.
because we know that we are real.
because we’d rather hug brothers and let someone french braid our hair and eat Swedish fish.
because we’d rather turn fifteen as ourselves.