Harvard Square is one of those places where it’s easy to camouflage, simply because she’s a museum of all different types of people; artists selling their visions on the sidewalk, protesters enjoying the sound of their own voices, just-in-from-somewhere students sticking together in an attempt to fill their home-shaped voids. She sings – sometimes a little too loudly – and if you’re not careful, you might get lost in her music. Not that Michelle could have felt any more lost than she already did; she and her older sister Maria were in the back of an Uber that was at the mercy of the Square’s weekend crowd, on their way to a get-together that Maria had organized for Ani, who had just gotten engaged to Arden.
“I got them this.” Michelle tapped the sparkly pink gift bag she held in her lap, which contained a hand-held blender. “You think they’ll like it?”
“Maybe.” Maria pulled down the car mirror above her seat and teased her wavy hair, which had recently been cut into a thick bob. “But honestly, I think it’s kind of a weird gift for an engagement.”
“Why? They’re moving in together soon; I assume they’re going to be cooking.”
“Arden will be, yes. But Ani? He calls her ‘Takeout Queen’ for a reason.” She patted the tiny gift boxes in her lap. “She’ll like this necklace I got her, though, and he’ll love the watch.”
“Well, you should have told me what to get.” Michelle huffed. “They’re your friends.”
“They’re yours, too.”
That wasn’t true, and they both knew it. The sisters had known Ani and Arden pretty much since they were born – a common consequence of having parents who had grown up together– and the kids had bled into one another’s academic, extracurricular and personal lives like watercolor. Ani and Arden had been frequent guests at the sisters’ house for playdates, which Maria always enjoyed, but Michelle always observed from behind their mother’s skirt. It’s not that the other children ever actively excluded Michelle, but every time she joined one of their games, things always degenerated into them breaking off into a different activity and leaving Michelle sitting in the dust. As Michelle was the youngest of the three, the children’s parents thought it may have been the age difference, but that didn’t explain how easily Taline – Arden’s sister, who was a year younger than Michelle – fit into the group, which Maria and Michelle’s father referred to as the “Fab Four.” The situation didn’t improve for Michelle even well after the girls became teenagers. Whenever she was required to breathe the same air as The Fab Four, she would retreat to a solitary corner of the room to text her own group of friends – Robin, Sai-Yeon, Priyanka and Katherine – who were always waiting at the other end of cyberspace to provide silly memes and moral support. She patted her pocket to make sure her phone was on her person. Yes, it was; fully charged and ready to withstand two hours of boredom and loneliness.
Once their Uber pulled up to the curb, Michelle could feel her head throbbing as they began the 30-second walk to Ball N’ Chain, the freshly-painted, newborn pub on Brattle Street.
“I’m so excited.” Maria turned to Michelle. When Michelle didn’t respond, Maria’s sisterly intuition told her something wasn’t right.
“You okay?” Maria put her hand on Michelle’s shoulder. Michelle paused; what could she say? How could she tell her sister – who had been talking about this night with stars in her eyes for a week – that being around this crew felt like putting on an itchy sweater?
“I’m just really hungry.” She patted her stomach, even though she wasn’t that hungry at all.
“Oh? Well, we’re about to change that.” Maria made her left arm into a hook and waited for Michelle to link her own arm into it. Since Michelle could walk, this had been Maria’s quiet display of protection for her, a gesture she reserved only for occasions like first days of school or doctors’ visits. As annoyed and anxious as she was, Michelle couldn’t keep from smiling. She obliged, and Maria used her free arm to open the door.
The bar was so packed that it was difficult to pick out who they were supposed to be seeing in the loud storm of patrons, but Maria spotted her crew right away. The rest of the Fab Four were sitting at a corner booth with Ani’s cousin James, the sight of whom calmed Michelle down instantly. They often saw each other at community parties, all of which followed the same script—Live Aid-sized crowds, date cookie pyramids on silver platters, old folks belting out their greatest hits (“you’ve gained so much weight” was always the most popular one) – and every time Michelle sought refuge in a quiet corner of the room, she’d find that James had already beaten her to it, and the two would strike up conversations with each other about everything from sports (his all-time favorite subject) to classic rock (hers). She didn’t know James super well, but she was elated that she’d have someone at this table to talk to. The minute Maria saw her friends, she unhooked her arm from Michelle’s and started waving at them so ostentatiously that people from other tables stopped to look.
“Ani!” She crowed. Upon hearing her name, Ani whipped around to face the sisters. She was short and plump, with a face that reminded Michelle of every smiling illustration of the moon that she’d seen in children’s books. She noticed Maria, gasped and practically leaped out of the booth to run to her.
“Hi!” Ani drew out her greeting for several seconds as she embraced Maria. “Oh, my God! It’s been forever.”
“I know!” Maria gushed. “It’s crazy!”
The two women then launched into their elaborate secret handshake that they’d made up when they were kids and erupted into peals of laughter. Michelle gawked at them; it had only been two months since they’d last seen each other, and here they were, clapping their palms against each other and bear-hugging as if one of them had just come back from war. She stood there for almost a full minute, waiting for Ani’s eyes to meet hers. There seemed to be an unwritten rule in their community that when the sisters were in public together, Maria must always be acknowledged first. Michelle found the whole scene laughable, and yet, it stung to watch.
Then, it was Arden’s turn to greet Maria. He was the oldest of the group at 26, and Hollywood-handsome, with shampoo commercial-worthy hair and just the right amount of stubble.
“Hi, there.” He, too, hugged Maria and kissed her on both cheeks. “Thank you so much for doing this.”
“My pleasure.” Maria grinned and nodded towards her little sister, who was stiff with awkwardness. “Look who I brought.”
“Hi, Michelle.” After what seemed like an eternity, Ani turned to Michelle and wrapped her arms around her. “Good to see you.”
“You, too,” Michelle responded, muffled by Ani’s shoulder. When Arden finished hugging Maria, he playfully slapped Michelle on the back.
“Michelle, ma belle!” He bellowed in a dark brown voice. “How goes it?”
Michelle, unsure of how to respond, felt sand in her throat. “It… goes fine.”
Ani and Maria failed to contain their laughter, and Michelle’s face became a sunset. This always happened when they all got together. Any sisterly obligation Maria claimed to have was temporarily abandoned, and whenever Michelle messed up, she would be left to marinate in her own mistakes.
The girls sat down between Taline and James and went through the whole greeting routine with them as well — though Michelle fist-bumped James when she saw him. They were both relieved to be in each other’s presence for the same reason. When they were all settled, Maria placed her two wrapped gifts on the table in front of the couple.
“I got you both a little something.” Maria beamed. “Shnorhavor. Congratulations.”
“Oh, my goodness!” Ani gasped as she gingerly took the necklace out of its packaging. “It’s beautiful!” Arden, too, was clearly pleased with the watch and kept admiring it as he held it in his hand.
“You gotta step up your game, you two!” Arden joked, glancing at James and Taline.
“I have something for you guys, too.” Michelle raised her voice and rattled her gift bag. She handed the bag to Ani, who eagerly reached inside and pulled out the blender. Upon realizing what it was, she stared at it like it was a strange animal.
“Arden, this is for you.” She pretended to hand the appliance to her husband-to-be, which got a laugh out of Maria, Arden and Taline.
“See?” Maria whispered to Michelle, who instantly shrunk. This never happened when she exchanged gifts with Katherine or Sai-Yeon; when she was with those friends, her arrow usually hit the bullseye, but with these folks — her own folks — she consistently missed it by a mile. But why did Maria always have to rub it in?
“I’m only kidding!” Ani said, with a syrupy inflection. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
Arden took the blender and seemed genuinely grateful for it. “Think of all the sauces and soups I can make with this.”
“You can use it to make hummus or salsa on game days.” James piped up, but his comment elicited nothing but crickets.
“He loves his football games.” Ani laughed politely, as if she were making excuses for the behavior of an errant child. James hung his head, but he was visibly irritated.
“That is a good idea.” Michelle leaned over and whispered to him, and she saw the corners of his mouth lift a little. If there was one thing that could make this night a little more bearable, it was that she knew she could ease his mind even when hers was about to explode.
“Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” Taline exclaimed as she scrolled through her phone.
Arden raised his eyebrows at her. “Is there a monkey at our table?”
“Look!” She handed her phone to him and then to Maria. “I didn’t even know they were going out.”
“Who?” Michelle didn’t know who they were referring to, and while she didn’t really care, she secretly wanted to be in on the whole thing.
“You remember Ellen?” Taline asked Michelle. “From dance?”
“Uh-huh.” Michelle replied, even though she didn’t.
“She’s going out with Raffi.” Maria said – then, realizing that they knew close to ten Raffis, added – “Raffi G. from Lexington, not Raffi D.”
“Oh, yeah!” Michelle exclaimed, because she actually did remember Raffi G., albeit vaguely. But it didn’t matter if she wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup if she were to see him today; this was proof that she wasn’t as far removed from her own people as she thought.
“He’s Mike’s brother, right?” James asked, starting to get engaged in the conversation.
“Cousin.” Ani playfully nudged James and spoke to him in a tone befitting a Sesame Street character. “You know that, Jamie.”
“No, I don’t.” James sounded slightly annoyed. Unlike his cousin and her buddies, he didn’t stay up at night studying the family trees of all the Armenians in the Northeast. Michelle locked eyes with him and gave him a sympathetic wink.
“Did you order food?” Maria scanned the area, looking for a server.
“Yeah. Mozzarella sticks all around.” With a perfectly manicured finger, Taline gestured towards everyone but Michelle and James.
“What’s Michelle going to eat?” Maria was suddenly concerned for her sister, who was allergic to dairy — something everyone at the table had been aware of for almost two decades.
“Oh, right!” Arden smacked his forehead. “I’m so sorry; I forgot.”
Of course you did, Michelle smirked internally, gesturing “no worries.”
“I ordered fries; we can split them.” James turned to Michelle, who bowed her head at him in silent thanks.
“My little cousin is so nice.” Ani nudged Maria, who nodded in agreement.
“Remember what the counselors used to say at Camp Yerevan?” Arden took another sip of his beer. “‘Take care of your brother.’”
“Or sister.” Maria chimed in, and Michelle stopped to enjoy the delicious irony of the moment. Oh, how badly she wanted to do or say something that would dim Maria’s star, to make her shiver with embarrassment that felt like putting on wet clothes…that feeling was strong, but sisterhood is stronger — so, like she always did during moments like this, she exhaled slowly and held her tongue.
When the night thankfully came to an end, the five young folks went outside and waited for the Uber that Taline had ordered for all of them. When it finally arrived, Maria stuck her head in the car to check if it could accommodate their entire posse. When she saw that it didn’t, they all stood around wondering what to do.
“I’m going with my love.” Ani, who was standing next to her cousin, rushed past him and snuggled up to Arden, who led her into the backseat.
“I’ll take an Uber with Maria.” Taline put her arm around Maria.
“No, but I want Maria in our car.” Ani pouted, which made both James and Michelle roll their eyes. Maria stood in the middle of the sidewalk, turning her head towards her sister and James, and then the Uber, as if she was making a life-or-death decision.
“I’ll go by myself.” Michelle blurted out.
“You sure?” The thought of Michelle coursing through the city alone in a stranger’s car brought moisture to Maria’s palms. Maria’s hesitation filled Michelle with a spark of hope; maybe her supportive arm-offering sibling was slowly starting to come back to her.
“Uh-huh.” Michelle had paid for her and Maria’s Uber going in and couldn’t afford to do it again, but she would have gladly made the 30-minute pilgrimage by foot to her apartment if it meant she didn’t have to spend another minute getting brushed off to the side. Plus, just as she could smell her sister’s apprehension, she could also sense her desire to be with her clan.
“I can walk with Michelle.” James — who, out of everyone, lived the farthest away — volunteered out of the blue. Michelle was pleasantly taken aback; all this time, James had been nothing more to her than a fellow wallflower who talked to her a few times a year, and now he was more willing to make sacrifices for her than her own family was.
Maria shrugged, and after a few hesitant seconds, decided to complete the Fab Four, as Michelle figured she would.
“Bye, Michelle.” Maria hugged her sister and hopped with Taline into the Uber, which dissolved into the night. It was just Michelle and James now, standing two feet away from each other on the sidewalk, feeling strange yet also at peace. James broke the tension by turning in the direction of Mt. Auburn Street.
“My place is actually down this way.” Michelle said, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Actually, would you like to go to The Frappe House?” James asked. “Neither one of us ate much.”
“You didn’t have to share your fries with me.”
“Friends don’t let friends go hungry.” He replied gently, and Michelle froze. Sure, they were “friendly” with each other, but crossing into “friend” territory weighs more than gold.
“I can’t have ice cream.” Michelle stared down shyly at her feet.
“I know. But they have killer sorbets. My treat.”
Never one to turn down sweets, Michelle followed him to The Frappe House, an ice-cream shop that had opened about six months ago. The place was a slice of ancient Americana, with shiny metal tables and plump red leather seats. It wasn’t as hopping as Ball N’ Chain, but there were enough customers to give Michelle the impression that the ice cream and sorbet were certainly worth a try. They entered, and Michelle’s eyes were immediately drawn to the list of flavors on the wall.
“Ooh, raspberry lime.” She pointed to the list. “I’ll take a small cup of that.”
“Make that two, please.” James told the girl at the counter, who nodded and went to grab two cups.
“No dairy for you, either?” Michelle asked.
“Oh, I can have dairy.” He took his wallet out to pay.
“So why don’t you take a regular flavor?”
“Solidarity.” He handed Michelle her cup of sorbet after the server set down both cups on the counter, and held his up in the air. Michelle felt warm inside; at least someone was in solidarity with her.
They scoped the shop, and James found a booth for them next to the door.
“You were having a tough time, too, tonight, huh?” She took a delicate lick of her sorbet.
“I just never really gelled with those guys. Them and their —” He then began to wildly flail his arms, which left Michelle confused.
“Is that an octopus having a seizure?”
“No, it’s their handshake.” He answered and did it again. Michelle was overcome with laughter.
“I didn’t know you were so funny.” She gasped for breath as she wiped amused tears from her eyes.
“That’s cause you’ve never seen me with my boys.” He took out his phone to show Michelle a picture of his crew; one Asian-looking fellow and two redheads who looked like they had hatched from shamrocks. “I was supposed to see them tonight, but…” He shrugged. “…I knew I had to be there for Ani. It’s not every day your cousin gets engaged.” He scrolled to another picture that showed him sandwiched between two of them and making a goofy face. “You wouldn’t believe it, but when I’m with them, I’m the clown of the group.”
“I’m like that with my group, too.” Michelle balanced her spoon on her nose.
“I believe that.” James giggled when the spoon fell on the table.
“But with our own…” Michelle’s voice trailed off. “…I’ve always felt like the letter ‘Y’.”
“What do you mean?”
“What did they teach you in kindergarten? A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.”
“Well, here’s to feeling like all the other vowels.” He held his cup up to the sky. “Kenatz. Cheers.”
Michelle raised an eyebrow, and clinked her cup against his. “I’ve never seen anybody kenatz with food before.”
“I know! It’s crazy.” James’ voice floated up to a falsetto. He grinned mischievously, and Michelle instantly realized what he was doing.
“Watch it.” Her tone was not angry, but it meant business.
“Alright, sorry.” James, contrite and slightly nervous, cleared his throat. “I was just playing.”
“Yeah, but…..” She ate another spoonful. “Blood is thicker than sorbet.”
“Ew. I hope not.” He wrinkled his nose at her and chuckled.
Suddenly, her phone buzzed urgently. She took a look at the screen. It was Maria, asking “Are you home yet?” Michelle stared at her screen for a moment; there was so much she wanted to unload that was resting in her fingertips, but she held back; Maria was her sister, after all, and the idea of her being upset hurt Michelle’s heart—even if the reverse wasn’t always true.
“b there soon. will text u.” Michelle typed. She slipped her phone back into her purse. She intended to go home eventually, back to living in the afterglow of her sister’s aura and wishing she could sink into the ground whenever she was amongst those who had nothing in common with her but the fact that their ancestors had all crossed the Caucuses. But right now, where she was, sitting with a kindred spirit, transcended the clock.