University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik recalls a previous life, when she and her little sister did, well, everything together…
Another relic from the early 90s, one of my favorites. The boys are 23 and 21 now; my sister and I are thirty years past that; the tough times described here have long since passed away. -MW
“Where’s my brother?” asks three-year-old Hayes when I pick him up at the pre-school. (You should see him, Nancy, he’s a big boy now. He can write his name.) He cranes his neck to check the baby seat in the back of the car. “Is he at home? Is he waiting for me? Did Daddy give him a Popsicle?”
When we pull up, his little brother is on the front porch. As Vince recognizes the car, a flock of emotions flies across his year-old face. His happiness at seeing me is edged with pain because the joy of my arrival reminds him how sad it is that I wasn’t there just a moment ago. And how endless the path from the street to the house! How long until I lift him in my arms! But then he notices his big brother racing up the steps ahead of me, and you can see it happen: the registering, the shift of attention. The airwaves open up. He’s here. Each of them subtly changes into what they are when they are together. Brother first, everything else after.
“We want a banana,” Hayes says. “I want one, and my brother wants one too.” And they run to the kitchen, laughing because running to the kitchen is funny. In the same way splashing all the water out of the bathtub is funny. In a few years, it will be making fart noises with their lips in the backseat of the car.
And now the big one builds a tower of blocks and the little one knocks it over. Incensed, the builder smacks the innocent toppler, who bursts into tears and toddles off crying. “No! Don’t leave!” shouts his big brother, grabbing him and dragging him back. “Play with this,” he says, solicitously presenting a broken piece of some dead toy. And the baby is smiling, honored, waving the plastic turtle foot over his head like an Olympic trophy.
When each of these boys was born, I looked into their deep blue eyes and saw you, my Nancypants. You were the first baby I ever knew.
Yes, I was the big sister. I was always right, I was always first, I always knew more. Of every enterprise, I was the president, CEO and chairman. To find things I could not do better, you had to stretch. You had to press your hands and feet against opposite walls of the corridor and climb up to the ceiling. Then you would come down the hall like that, spreadeagled, inching along over my head, one hand, one foot at a time.
When they had company, our parents liked to show off our accomplishments. I recited my poems, played “Für Elise” on the piano, drew pastel portraits of everyone at the table. And you — the pretty one, the quiet one, the cute little blond one who, legend has it, used to fit in the milkbox, for whom diet pills, braces or a nose job would never even be suggested — climbed the walls. The guests were dumbstruck.
Our parents did their best to treat us fairly. We wore the same part in our hair, the same Danskin outfits, rode identical pink bicycles with handlebar baskets. We went to the same Hebrew school and ballet school and took piano lessons in adjoining half hours from the decrepit Mrs. Baumbach. But really, wasn’t it me who taught you everything? How to write, read, and add, all the countries and their crops, how to play house, ride a bike, even how to masturbate with a stuffed rabbit. I snagged a library book called the The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart off Mommy’s night table and made you vocabulary lists of swear words, had you spell each one and use it in a sentence.
We shared a daisy-papered bedroom, shelves full of dolls and chemistry sets, a billion bottles of Tab. Daddy taught us the foolproof way to split a soda: one pours, the other picks. Sharing people was a little more complex. Some of our bitterest battles were fought over our neighbor Carolyn Mahoney, in whose home Welch’s grape juice flowed like water. Even in elementary school, one sister had only to miss the school bus and the other would swoop in on the prey, huddling with Car in the last row, plying her with schemes and secrets. Then you finally succeeded in stealing her away, and you and she and Donna Benoit kept secret journals documenting my various appalling faux pas. MY SISTER HAD HER SHIRT ON BACKWARDS TODAY. SHE IS SO QUEER, you wrote.
Perhaps exhausted with the effort of competition, you spent most of your ninth year in bed with mononucleosis and appendicitis. This left me with Carolyn and Donna but no sweet taste of victory. “Nancy’s life has become an endless parade of hospitals and presents,” I wrote to our grandmother Gigi at Christmas. “Her teacher comes to the house, but only twice a week. She lives by herself in the playroom, and has her own bathroom and TV.”
As we tumbled into puberty, our parents deemed that we would have our own bedrooms. A decorator was hired to help us select wallpaper, carpeting, and furniture. The boudoir of my dreams featured an electric green shag rug and op-art concentric squares radiating from the walls. Failing to present a concept of your own, you were assigned a Pennsylvania Dutch flowered scheme. Within a year, you had re-papered the walls with Alice Cooper posters and devoted hours of Sistine Chapelesque toil to the mosaic of empty red-and-white Marlboro boxes covering the ceiling. This was the new Nancy, one who sewed dozens and dozens of patches on a pair of disintegrating blue jeans, and refused to wear anything else. You were out of the milkbox for good.
By this time, our early teens, the more obvious rivalry between us had ceased. Not that we were fooled by the parental affirmative action programs. There was no doubt that I was smarter and you were cuter. Instead of hating each other, we began to merge our assets. I shared everything I had: friends, secrets, records, rides to concerts. When you occasionally failed to do the same, I could get mean, spilling the beans to Mommy when you lost your virginity or letting you catch me with your boyfriend on the golf course. What a terrible, thrilling betrayal, his Mick Jagger lips on mine, and your face suddenly looming over us in the moonlight: “If this is what I have for a sister,” you said, “I don’t want it.” But I couldn’t stand for you to be mad at me even overnight, and pestered you with tearful mea culpas until forgiveness was mine.
Part of what stuck us together was the whole conspiracy of adolescent rebellion. It was us against our parents, our school, the authorities, the uncool adult world in general. Every few weeks, we pooled our allowance to buy 20-dollar ounces of pot. I usually made the purchase, but only you could roll. Cross-legged on your white lacquer dresser, we carefully blew our smoke out the cracked-open window of your bedroom, then fumigated with pine-scented air freshener. I’m sure our parents were really bamboozled by a room that smelled like a reggae party in a gas station restroom.
High, we struck a perfect pitch of hilarity in each other. We could giggle for hours about nothing, some foible of our teachers or friends, the way a word starts to sound if you say it 10 or 20 times. Our many obscure in-jokes were so profoundly silly that we could barely use certain phrases in each other’s presence without wetting our pants. Don’t you remember that one crazy game where the object was to make up a story that ended with the sentence, “And then she saw the bottle of glue on the table”? Even years later, when I came up from college to visit you in your dorm at boarding school, I pointed to a bottle of Elmer’s on the desk and repeated our famous punchline. We were rolling on the floor the rest of the weekend. God, I miss that.
Well into our 20s, the basic rule held: any experience, any relationship could and should be shared. So although heroin started off as your little secret with your boyfriend Steven, I wasn’t about to be left out for long. We had that apartment in the city, the three of us, and a few nights a week we’d drive down after work in my old junker car, our stomachs doing somersaults, discussing whether to buy one bag each or maybe four to split three ways. After lining up on the grafitti-covered stoops to buy our glassine packets and our needles, we raced back home over the potholes on 14th Street, turned on the dance music radio station all the way loud and you would pull out your lucky belt from the bottom of your purse. Jump, jump, jump, to it, sang Aretha. Just like I could never roll joints, I could never shoot up either; you always had to do me after you did yours. Once we were high, we’d clean the house, make long distance phone calls, play Jotto and draw pictures with colored pencils, sometimes go out to the Roxy and mingle with breakdancers.
Of course it wasn’t always that easy, and it was never safe. There were nights we were sold packets of talcum powder, nights we were robbed outright, several nights we almost got busted and one time we did. There were people who pretended to be our friends until they found the perfect moment to cheat us and disappear. And though most of the time we shared our drugs the same way we once split our Tabs, sometimes we even tried to cheat each other. Like that night before your wedding, when you took my coke and refilled the tinfoil packet with baking soda. You broke down and confessed just as I was tapping the white powder into a spoon. Then you went up on the roof and stayed there all night, doing the drugs we had stocked up for the reception.
After I got so high at work that my boss had to take me home on the subway, after I got beaten up and robbed trying to cop at 4 in the morning, after I spent an entire vacation in Montreal trying to force a reformed junkie friend to get me some drugs, I finally scared myself badly enough to move to a town where I had no dope connections. It was sheer luck and not for lack of trying that I never found any. When I left the city, Nancy, I honestly thought you would be all right. You and Steven seemed to have it under control. You would go on, I believed, getting high a few evenings a week, just like other people have a couple of beers. You had each other. Though after I left that seemed to be all you had.
It took me a long time to realize how bad things were. Though we talked on the phone every week, you only told me what you wanted me to know. Of course, you were trying to quit. That was good enough. I only started to think otherwise when I came up to visit pregnant and for the first time watched what was going on instead of participating. We hadn’t seen each other in months and yet that time you spent locked in the bathroom was the most important thing.
After that visit I’d ask every time we talked: Have you guys been down? Meaning did you buy drugs. But now I can see I half wanted you to say yes, that some sick part of me didn’t want my sister to stop shooting heroin. Why? Because you were my last connection? Because I refused to believe in the fact of addiction? Or was I still competing for the prize of Best Child? Was it that old-time schadenfreude spirit — I really didn’t want your life to be okay?
I helped you rationalize your habit even while encouraging you to stop. And in the end — addicted bone deep, crazy, spending close to a hundred bucks a day — you found the strength to save yourself without my help. You left Steven, checked into a rehab, joined Narcotics Anonymous, threw yourself into the Twelve Steps with zeal. Now you go to meetings every day, retreats on the weekends. You make speeches at the regional conferences. Your phone is always busy; you have friends I’ve never met; you tell them a version of this story I don’t know.
Do you remember a couple of months ago you told me the story of your friend from N.A.? At the age of 25, her parents finally told her she had had a twin, a boy. A few days after their fifth birthday, the two of them were playing in the front yard when a drunk driver swerved out of control, jumped the curb, and killed her brother. Though she was unhurt, she didn’t say a single word for almost a year. When she spoke again, she didn’t ask about him, never uttered his name. So the parents followed suit; it seemed like the right thing to do. Then the only thing to do. They hid the photographs, the monogrammed spoon.
All her life, you told me, she had the feeling that a part of her wasn’t there. At least now she knows it’s true. She knows his name.
You know, Nance, the word sibling comes from sib, related by blood, and ling, a diminutive suffix, as in princeling. As in my little kin, my tribespuppy, my clansmuffin. My sibyl, my changeling, my sibilant darling girl. Once we shared a setting, a cast of characters, a hundred plots. Now do we share nothing, do we now go on as cameos in each other’s lives? The two-in-one, the Siamese twins joined at the ego, don’t you see they are gone? We is the name of the part of us that isn’t here.
You held the scalpel and performed the surgery yourself. To save (I think you would say) your own life.
I could be letting myself off too easy, but I wonder if there isn’t some kind of genetically encoded script being played out here. If there is, the sequel is already in production in my own kitchen, where just today the boys were whining for graham crackers. Well, the big one was actually saying “graham cracker,” and the baby was standing beside him, whimpering supportively. I went to the cabinet, got the crackers, handed them around. Seconds after I turned away, Big Brother had devoured his and snatched the other from the baby’s unsuspecting hand. I heard a cry of infant outrage and wheeled back into the room in a fury. I scooped up Vincie, smacked Hayes harder than necessary, and grabbed the stolen cracker, shouting, “You can’t do this to him! You can’t always take everything. For God’s sake, let him have something for once! Let him have it, I said. Let go!”
“It’s okay, honey,” I told the baby, putting him down with his cracker. Eyes on his tearful sibling, he licked the cracker once, then handed it over.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.