For my sister Portia <3
Read at “Holidays on Thin Ice” at Blackstone Brewery on Dec 5, 2015.
Open at the same time
When you share a bathroom with your enemy, it’s important to let them know who’s boss every now and then. When I was 16, getting ready for
my after school job at an ice cream shop, I had 10 minutes to spare and wanted to use that time to aggravate Portia, my younger sister, before I went off to scoop frozen treats for minimum wage. She was reading a book in her room when I busted in to provoke her. She looked up from the pages with flames in her eyes, stood straight up, grabbed me by the throat, and slammed me into the bathroom door. I’m pretty sure she lifted me off the ground that day. It shocked me more than it hurt, and it hurt a lot. I had to go to work with a busted lip and bruised ego. The prophecy my
parents spoke of finally came true, “One day your sister will be bigger than you, and she’ll fight back.” I believed them, I just thought I had more time, she was only 11.
My sister and I are the eldest girls of four siblings. We have nothing in common, we don’t even look related. It’s nothing unusual for strangers to casually ask us if we have different parents. She sports a barbarous brunette bouffant while I’m teasing my flat pallid tresses to look like I have hair at all. Only our blue eyes and tiny button noses reveal any hint of relation. We were mortal enemies from the day she was born. I tortured her and called her every nasty name I could think of. Among them were The Beast, Porkchop, Rude Portia, and Snake eyes. Snake eyes had its own theme song and was particularly cruel because her two front baby teeth had single white dots in the center of each one, as in the worst roll you can roll with two dice. I convinced her she was the sole survivor of a multiple birth, but her twin, Dortia’s, head was hidden in our house and haunted her.
Our intense sibling rivalry started when she decided to be born the day before Halloween, causing me to miss out on trick-or-treating that year. I’d never seen a newborn look so evil. I’d probably never seen a newborn at all before her, but I knew she was bad news. I never got anything to myself after she came. I had to share my room, toys, friends, even gifts. Everything had to be even with us. When friends or family gave us gifts, it would be two of the same thing, in different colors if we were lucky. Once my grandmother saved herself the trouble and bought “twin” baby dolls and let us each take one. As in separate them at birth, like a freaky nature vs nurture experiment from the 70’s. Obviously, my baby was nurtured, while hers was left to nature. To this very day, we’ll be opening presents on Christmas morning and mom will say, “Hold on, you two need to open those at the same time.” You would think we once shared our mother’s uterus with how concerned people seem to be with balancing the scales. I can sympathize with twins. Although our dad is a twin, and according to him, he and his brother were treated like two halves of one person and had to share one of everything, which is why no one feels sorry for us.
After the power shift of the bathroom incident, things changed. We cohabitated peacefully for two years before I moved off for college. On one of my visits home, we had our cousin over with his new wife for Thanksgiving. They were a young couple and planned to visit her family in New Jersey over the holidays. I was invited along to help with gas and driving. They planned to drive from Tennessee to New Jersey in mid-December, a terrible idea, but a cost efficient one. I was won over by the promise of going into the city during our visit, since I had never been to New York. Not being allowed to have anything to myself, of course, my sister was also invited on the trip. I’m surprised she wasn’t set up with her own dormrrom after I left. Why should I have to share my trip to the city with her? I was in college, and didn’t need some junior high dork in her Good Charlotte phase tripping over my heels through Times Square. But the only way I got to go was if she did, so we both went.
I couldn’t wait to brag to everyone back at school about my holiday plans. “Oh, you’re going back home to Beaver Dam, Kentucky for Christmas? I’m spending mine in New York City.” I conveniently left out the parts about carpooling there and staying with in-laws in New Jersey. When someone asked what airport we were flying into, or which hotel, I just changed the subject to something about finals week.
My sister and I were both teenagers, without real forms of income. We were just in awe to be in the city, ride the subway for the first time, and retrace Kevin McAllister’s steps from my favorite movie, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. We saw everything we could despite having next to no cash, being with distant relatives we didn’t know, and the freezing cold wind and rain that chased us through the streets. The night before Christmas, we watched Saturday Night Live hosted by Jack Black, knowing for the first time in my life, I was less than 1,000 miles away from studio 8H. In fact, I had walked past it that very day. The world felt more possible. The places I dreamed of were just an excruciatingly lengthy car ride away.
The hard part was Christmas morning. My sister and I were sleeping in the guestroom of our cousin’s wife’s parent’s house. We asked them to have their Christmas morning and just let us sleep. We asked this so we didn’t impose on their family time, but also the thought of waking up on Christmas morning in an unfamiliar place, without our tree, our parents and brothers, and stockings was emphatically depressing. We were teenagers and preferred to just sleep through the sadness. Our request was ignored, and bright and early we were woken up to meet around the tree with the rest of the family.
“No, you guys go ahead, we don’t want to get in the way.” No such luck. We groggily shuffled downstairs and were presented with smiles and gifts, to be opened at the same time, of course.
Looking back on my past 30 Christmases, I can’t put my finger on any disastrous ones. As a family, we created our own traditions, which we added to and evolved each year. From mom’s baked French toast that sets in the fridge overnight on Christmas Eve, to “the Bird”, a wooden bird gifted to a different family member every year disguised as a real gift, to Portia’s annual jumbo pack of panties in her stocking from Santa. Playing Spoons on Christmas Eve is our favorite card game. We had to stop using spoons because we got so competitive we put gashes in the dining room table. We changed it to Candy canes, but were still so rough that the candy canes got obliterated. Now we use candy canes reinforced with tape, and the game isn’t over until the peppermint inside is pulverized to a fine powder.
Despite everything that was unfamiliar and new about that trip, I had my sister. We got along perfectly, the opposite of any family vacation in the past. We were a team. When our cousin made a double entendre of every road sign we passed for 18 hours, we stuck together. When we ran out of gas five minutes from the house because you can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey and all the stations closed, we had each other’s backs. When the rest of our crew wanted to go to the top of Rockefeller Tower, we decided to stay on the ground level, drink hot chocolate together, and watch people ice skate around the plaza. Our new relatives felt bad for us and offered to pay the $50 for the elevator ride to the top, but it wasn’t really about the money. We needed to have our own family time, warming up in front of the most famous Christmas tree in America. As far as we were concerned, we were already on top of the world; the roof of a skyscraper wouldn’t change our view.