August 18, 2016
by Alicia Thompson
With a seven-year age difference between us, most of my arguments with my younger sister Brittany came from her destruction of my property. She would stay up late in our shared room and play with my American Girl dolls, and I’d wake up to a crime scene of strewn outfits and missing accessories. While I was away one summer, my mother called to tell me that Brittany had knocked my framed Titanic poster off the wall and broken the glass. “Leo’s face is okay,” my mother assured me.
One of the most memorable incidents came when Brittany gouged the top of a wooden chest my grandmother had hand-painted for me. “That was special and she ruined it!” I complained to my mother. My mother’s response was bizarrely morbid: “If anything ever happened to her, you’d treasure that mark most of all.”
It’s hard to grasp that kind of love when you’re young and things can be so easily broken, while relationships seem indestructible.
Brittany and I have gone to New York City together twice, and both times were to see Tegan and Sara shows. The first time was my graduation present to her—they were playing two nights back-to-back at Town Hall, and it seemed the perfect way to see them live for the first time. We flew in from Florida and crashed at my former college roommate’s apartment in Queens.
In preparation, I had watched obsessive hours of YouTube videos, studying the different ways they played certain songs, the banter that filled the in-between. The reality was even better. From the second Tegan strummed the opening chords of “The Con”—lightly at first, then more aggressively as the song built—I was totally in.
While the music united my sister and me on that trip, it was the accumulation of a million little moments that made the experience special. Brittany wore a fedora on the plane and I teased her mercilessly for it; she stopped at any sidewalk kiosk that sold anything remotely resembling houndstooth, so I teased her for that, too.
My husband and I had been trying to have a baby, and I spent most of my downtime on that trip pretending I wasn’t conscious of the fact that the timing for me to be away was terrible, that we’d probably have to wait until next month, and that conceiving in November meant a baby born in August, right when my grad school classes would be starting up again. “If and when it happens!” I was telling everyone, but inside I was a neurotic mess.
Looking back, it’s that shimmering aura of possibility that I remember most about the trip. Brittany was eighteen and fresh out of high school. I was newly married, studying creative writing, and had just had my first book published. We were in New York City, houndstooth was everywhere, Tegan was strumming “The Con,” and I was already a few days pregnant and didn’t even know it.
Most fans of Tegan and Sara know about their huge fight in Glasgow in 2008, the one that almost broke them up. It must be hard to be sisters, much less twins, who spend so much time together and whose careers and public identities are so intertwined. Inevitably, every interview asks them about that relationship. For years, the majority of articles that discussed their music marvelled at the fact that they didn’t write together, and that they were very private about their individual songs before sharing them in the context of an album.
Tegan and Sara have written about their sister relationship in earlier albums. On So Jealous, Tegan sings about Sara’s reservations about being in a band together in “Fix You Up”: And there’s not a lot for you to feel if you’re not feeling it. It feels like that conversation became even more open on their newest album Love You to Death, a core part of the song-writing instead of a single answer in an interview. Sara’s songs “100x” and “White Knuckles” both address her regret at the way she handled conflicts with Tegan: she baldly sings It was wrong of me to hurt such a big part of you.
I became a fan of Tegan and Sara right when it felt like they were trying to change things up, writing-wise. Despite their preference for working separately, they holed up in New Orleans while crafting Sainthood to write several songs together, and although only one of those songs appeared on the album, that spirit of collaboration carried forth into Heartthrob and now Love You to Death, where it’s not uncommon for Sara to have written the bridge to a Tegan song, or for Tegan to have provided more prominent backing vocals in one of Sara’s.
Two years after those first Tegan and Sara shows at Town Hall, Brittany found out that she was pregnant. It was unexpected, and we spent many long nights talking about what she would do, what motherhood might look like. I wished that the conversations could be more joyous and celebratory, but those were hard years, and it felt like life was conspiring to ensure that everything was complicated. Brittany was pulling long shifts at a pizza shop. I had graduated with my Master of Fine Arts but with no full-time teaching jobs in sight, so I had fallen back on my pre-grad school career as a legal assistant, only this time with more student loans and at a soul-crushing law firm. I lived for my one-year-old son, but I also knew the harsh reality of not having enough time or money, and I knew it would be more difficult still for my sister to raise her child alone.
Only, she wasn’t alone. In those days, it was natural that we would return to The Con, a quintessential heartbreak album that will sock you in the feels no matter what you’re going through. Mostly, we listened to “Nineteen,” which is about a romantic relationship, but still seemed pertinent to Brittany’s situation as she grappled with this new growing life: I feel you in my heart and I don’t even know you.
There was some joy in those conversations after all.
The second time Brittany and I traveled to New York City for Tegan and Sara, it started as a whim. There were going to be four intimate shows before Love You to Death was released, and the only one on the East Coast was at a small, downtown venue, Le Poisson Rouge. I took advantage of my job as a college instructor: I gave my students an in-class assignment, turned off the projector screen, and refreshed the page until tickets went on sale. I bought two.
Logistics were harder to figure out now: I had two kids at home and my sister had one. Still, we arranged childcare and started planning a trip not only to see Tegan and Sara, but also to write and visit bookstores, with plans to open our own someday. We had both finished novels for National Novel Writing Month a few months before. The experience had brought me closer to my sister in a way that I had never thought possible when we were kids, when I thought of her as someone I took care of rather than someone I worked alongside.
We rented a basement apartment in Brooklyn through Airbnb. It was decorated with unsettling paintings of lips punctured by barbed wire and had a skylight in the bathroom that made the toilet directly visible to the fire escape of the building next door. We spent our mornings writing at Southside Coffee, used the subway commute into Manhattan to troubleshoot issues with our plots and characters, and filled our backpacks at every bookstore we could find—the Strand, Rizzoli, 192 Books, Books of Wonder, Alabaster.
By the time we made it to the show our feet were sore and our backs ached, but still we found a spot near the front of the stage. Brittany was shifted behind me in the crush of people, so we couldn’t talk. She is much friendlier than I am and had no problem making friends with other people in the area; I could hear the hum of her happy chatter above the crowd’s noise. I stood in my spot and waited, the anticipation growing until I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or anxiety or a bit of both.
It was fitting that Tegan began the show with “Call It Off,” the song that had ended the show we’d seen at Town Hall years before, and that often ended their sets in the shows we’d seen in between—at Tampa Theatre, on the Parahoy Cruise, anywhere we could manage. It marked one of the only times either Tegan or Sara played a guitar for the show, but I didn’t miss their trademark instrument as much as I had expected. The new songs were catchy and immediately energized the crowd. The older songs fit in seamlessly as they stripped them down, made them more electronic in some cases, and changed the live arrangement until the division between old and new was blurry and meaningless. Without the guitar, the chorus of “Nineteen” became more wistful than aggressive, and I turned around to catch my sister’s eye. We were both crying.
After the show at Le Poisson Rouge, we stumbled across one more bookshop the next street over: Mercer Street Books & Records. We were humming with music and love and adrenaline, and we had to stop in, not ready to give up on the potential of the night. The owner was the only one in the store, and he chatted with us—mostly with my much friendlier sister—while we browsed. On the way back to our rental, I teased her about how she’d talked half an hour past closing time, but then the joke was on me when I let us ride the subway all the way to Coney Island at midnight.
Relationships aren’t indestructible, whether with your family or with your favourite band. They can hurt you. They can let you down. They can also surprise you, grow with you, and take you somewhere you hadn’t expected. The fragility of the relationship is what lends it its beauty and power and possibility: the magic potential of a bookstore that wasn’t on your list, a new song you’re hearing for the first time crushed against seven hundred bodies who are also hearing it for the first time, the sprawling chaos of a city, a blinking cursor in a manuscript. There is the possibility of creative collaboration, new directions, altered plans. There is the possibility that the person right there with you will be the person who was there at the beginning, and the person who will be there at the end.
That’s what the gouge in my hand-painted trunk means. That’s what it means to truly love someone to death—not in a flippant way, but in a way that means your love will endure.
Alicia Thompson is the author of the young adult novel Psych Major Syndrome and the children’s series The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts, co-authored with Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu. Her work has been published in Girls’ Life, Narratively, and WomenArts Quarterly. She teaches writing at the University of South Florida, where she wears too many stripes after doing all of her clothes shopping in Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood era. Find her on Twitter @aliciabooks.