by Sam Bratkon
art by Nic Sugrue
She’s much taller than most kids her age. Her feet are actually bigger than mine. From a height standpoint she was big enough to go on every ride at the beachfront carnival, but intellectually she’s right where she should be, 6-years-old. Myself being 15 years her elder, I often felt more like a mom than a big sister. Regardless, I was naturally uneasy when during our vacation to the beachfront carnival she insisted on riding the pirate ship.
I’ll go on almost every ride but that was where I drew the line. Rides with big drops or anything with movements resembling the Tower of Terror are a no-go for me. I feared the sensation that makes my feet squirm, of my bladder in my throat, that makes me count the seconds until I’m back on solid ground.
But she insisted on riding, announcing that she had been on a pirate ship before and was not afraid. A friend of mine volunteered to ride with her. My sister beamed a gap-tooth smile with every swoop, flaunting her enjoyment in the midst of my doubt.
In addition to the nights spent at the waterfront carnival, on the last day of our vacation I took her to an amusement park about ten minutes from the house we were staying at. We went with some of my friends after lunch that day. She had a ham and cheese sandwich for the third day in a row. The meal would become a staple of her diet in the coming weeks.
The day was filled with high pitched screams, winning stuffed pigs from carnival games, and the sun glistening off her round brown eyes.
As we made our way around the park, our group approached the park’s pirate ship. Much to the insistence of her and my friends, I strapped into the ride, right in the center row. My sister decided to sit all the way in the back. Once the ride began I found myself surprisingly enjoying it. With the fear faded, I kept turning my head back to watch her shriek with joy as she experienced the ride.
We filled the following hours with snacks and screams and spins.
I promised her one last ride at the end of our adventure and of course she requested the pirate ship. Having previously in the day conquered my fear of riding it, I chose to sit one row closer to the back to heighten the sensation of each swoop. After our bar was secured the ride took off and began gaining momentum. This time, sitting beside me, my sister admitted she was afraid. She began begging to get off as the ship ascended towards the clouds. I couldn’t understand why she was so upset this time around, considering she had pleaded with me to ride a few nights before.
I wrapped my arms around her head, pulling her into my chest, and asked her to close her eyes. I sang to her gently, to no song, in particular, just making up words about how it would all be over soon and attempting to murmur her shouts that arose with each swing.
When the bars released she ran off and looked up at me with those big brown eyes, swollen from tears, as we walked out the exit. I again promised her one more ride. Followed by one more game. And maybe a snack later. Because I can’t stand to disappoint her.
Although I decided years ago that I never wish to bear children of my own, I can equate to no other the pride I felt when the cashier at TJ Maxx asked if she is my daughter the week before our vacation. The possibility that something so beautiful and pure could be brought forth from me is humbling.
There was no reason for it, we simply felt a strange high from watching our spit encase the bark of the twigs. When we finished we stared down at our handiwork, wordlessly agreeing that we’d never speak of this again. It felt barbaric, destructive, and completely “unbecoming” for a bunch of Catholic school girls.
I experienced a sort of phenomenon the other week, when, lying in bed on a quiet Tuesday night, I numbly tapped away at my phone screen. It was around 11pm, and I had been off the grid for a few hours by that point, so I felt it appropriate to check in on those I knew—and those I really didn’t know at all—the one way I could: Instagram.
We have to consider what Instagram really is: a platform. It is not an extension of reality. Sure, it is a place where we document our lives in photographs. But nowadays you’d more easily find users of the app paranoid about “the grid” (how their photos look and flow together on their feed) than posting authentic, day-to-day material. We manicure our feeds, we don’t bare our souls on them. The only place on the app you might find any sort of soul-baring is on someone’s “finsta,” in which they can be truly unfiltered, only to a safe, select group who after years of each other’s company are not quick to pass judgement. But if our “finstas”—or what I like to think of as digital diaries enmeshed with shitposting—are only available to a limited and private audience, what new connections are we genuinely forming? With this in mind, I always perceived Instagram as a platform for performance, and therefore the last place for real human connection. It was all artifice, ulterior motives feigning authenticity, an artwork where the artist was involving less and less of their true self in the art.
But that night, my mind and heart were changed when I stumbled upon the story of a person who I really did not know at all. We had only met one night the previous semester in which we shared a juul beneath hazy neon lights, and exchanged social media information before parting ways. In this one story, the person chose to be refreshingly candid: there was no performance here, rather an untouched selfie against her bedroom wall, from which a Velvet Underground poster hung. The same Velvet Underground poster that hung above my own bed.
My fingers flew to the message box: OMG I HAVE THE EXACT SAME VELVET UNDERGROUND POSTER IN MY DORM. Then, I stopped. Who am I to “slide into the DMs” of this person, who I barely know, about something so trivial as a poster? This could end disastrously. That was when I realized, this poster would never appear in a “manicured feed.” It would never be something fresh or aesthetically-pleasing enough to coincide with today’s modernity, or even our obsession with “vintage media.” I was presented with a tiny, telling thread of information about this person, and that thread would be gone in 24 hours. Only this message box—this place for “DM sliding”—connected us, and it connected us via something real.
I approached my friend Sam to discuss this very trivial yet somehow dire situation. “Should I DM this person? Is it weird? Will they take it the wrong way?” And then he said something brilliant. “Social media, in so many ways that we don’t even really recognize, provides us with nuances—even mundane ones—about each other. It’s not the overt expression, but the little unique qualities about our shared habits [like a poster in the background of a photo] that can really connect people in ways that wouldn’t happen elsewhere.” In short, the story and DM feature of Instagram was (and is) taking a platform so expansive, so manufactured, so (in many ways) impersonal, and re-personalizing it. I finally saw it as media that was authentically social.
I hit SEND and held my breath. Suddenly: a DM notification. A week later, as I traipsed through the dining hall, a voice called out: “Hey Matt! It’s me, Julie.”
We haven’t stopped chatting since.