Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I'm Sure I Was Number 21

Earlier this summer, I submitted an essay to a writing contest conducted by the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop. I have never before entered a writing contest, and figured one that selected 20 winners might be a good one to dip my toe in, particularly because the topic was 'Sisters' - a topic for which I have much fodder. 

Alas, the list of winners was announced today and I am not on it. Not one to keep things from you, dear readers, the essay is included below. 

Twisted Sister

The sisterly bond is one of loyalty, love, and support.

Or so I hear.

I entered the world exactly thirteen months and one week after my sister and only sibling. According to our mother, she was completely fascinated with me initially – it was as though my parents had brought an exciting new plaything into the house. This seemingly auspicious start was actually rather foreboding, as she spent the rest of the time we lived together conceiving of ways to toy with me.

It began when a kindergarten teacher asked her to draw a picture of her family. She returned home and proudly shared the original work that depicted all our family members in a line: a full-color Daddy with a huge, red crayon smile, a vibrant Mommy looking elated, and my sister – looking every bit as vivid and happy as our parents. As the next in order chronologically, I expected to see myself. However, the space where I should have been was reserved for our cat, Henry, who also flashed a cartoonish, gleeful grin. Instead, I came last – a figure set apart from the rest of the family, drawn entirely in brown and lacking any facial features. I often reflect on the efficiency of simply walking into a therapist’s office and wordlessly handing over this picture.

A vacation memory from our early years signaled my sister’s inclination toward premeditated torture. Knowing we would be sharing a hotel room bed, she stopped clipping her toenails well in advance of the trip, then sharpened them into miniature shanks before crawling under the covers with me. It is no surprise one of my favorite photos of my sister and I around this time is from Halloween, in costumes we selected. I am dressed as an angel and she is dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. 

The metaphor is not a subtle one.

During our childhood, I was perpetually the Charlie Brown to my sister’s Lucy – I wanted so badly to trust her, I repeatedly and foolishly let down my guard. She rewarded this vulnerability with some of her most cunning work during our high school years. I fallaciously believed she would be an ally in high school and possibly even help me assimilate into her group of friends. Rather, she elevated my social pariah status to staggering new heights.

We attended high school when kids still listened to terrestrial radio – and everyone our age followed one particular Top 40 station. She used this very public platform one evening to call in a treacly love song dedication to the quarterback of our school’s football team, claiming it was me and that I was too shy to profess in person the feelings the song so perfectly articulated. I conveniently blocked out what were surely some humiliating school days following this incident, though the sound of Casey Kasem’s voice will likely always be triggering.

Another time, my best friend and I took a summer class for driving instruction so we could earn our learner's permits. Each morning for a week, we met at a local school where we assembled to receive instruction on a parked school bus. We would then exit the bus to drive cars in the parking lot and practice what we learned.

As my sister already had her driver’s license, she was tasked with schlepping us to class. Because this errand cut into her free time, she decided to make this chore entertaining for herself. So one morning, she tore into the parking lot at what felt like a million miles an hour, turned aggressively to perform a squealing donut around the instruction bus, and screeched to a halt right next to the open bus door. My friend and I slunk out of the car and up the bus steps as my sister sped away.

Unamused by these antics, the instructor berated my friend and me, and explained we had demonstrated exactly the wrong way to drive a car and were completely irresponsible with no regard for safety. I was so thoroughly mortified I told my parents about it, naively believing it would address the situation. I was hopeful we’d reached a d├ętente as my sister pulled into the parking lot slowly and carefully the following day…and continued driving slowly and carefully as she deliberately ran over each and every orange pylon set up for our class.

Understandably, all of these exploits affected my self-esteem, so when I was inexplicably able to attract a boyfriend senior year (albeit from a different school), it felt like something of a coup. The relationship was going well until he called the house one night and my sister and I both simultaneously lunged for the phone. She managed to grab it first and when he asked to speak with me, my sister politely informed him I was unable to come to the phone as I was “having a bowel movement.” He was gentleman enough not to mention this when we ultimately spoke, although he subsequently requested a rain check for our date at a Mexican restaurant that weekend.

What I’ve detailed here may cause some to think my sister was unrelentingly cruel. I contend that in retrospect, her behavior toward me was not all heartless and actually quite formative. While these embarrassing episodes were tough at the time, they absolutely helped me develop a sense of humor and discover an outlet for expressing it. In fact, I learned most personality traits are molded in the developmental years and these characteristics often help identify which career best suits us as adults.

I suppose, then, it is interesting I became a humor writer and my sister found her calling as a corporate litigator.

Which is also not a subtle metaphor.