A Door Unopened

A Door Unopened
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Monday, October 18, 2010

Sister Skirmish

This is the retelling of a classic story of sibling strife. We were about 14 and 16 when this fracas occurred. The moral of the story: Old clashes die hard or sometimes not at all.

My sister, Beth, and I were seventeen months apart in age, two years apart in school, eons apart in temperament and light years apart in dispute settlement capabilities. Hitting was absolutely forbidden in our house. Our mom insisted that we use words instead of physical violence to solve our differences. This explains why there was always quite a bit of yelling at home; we were never short on conflict. The no-hitting rule was instituted early on and was very rarely broken. Very rarely, however, does not mean never.
I had something Beth wanted and I didn’t feel like sharing. She was pestering me, big time.  Righteousness personified, her customary state of being, she barged into my room to ask me again; it seemed like the billionth time. “Please. I really want to try it. I just want to use it once. Please!” I could tell by the whiny edge of her voice that she was tired of asking. I was tired of it too.
I’d been turning her down for days. Being the youngest in the family, it seemed to me that I rarely wielded any power in household dynamics. This was an unusual, heady moment for me; I had my sister begging. I felt fully justified in saying no. I bought the stuff with my own money and it was expensive. I didn’t want to share it, and I didn’t have to share it. So, I didn’t.
The coveted item in dispute was a goopy, apple-green, apple-smelling facial mask. You applied it with a synthetic brush mounted to a screw cap. It tingled for a few minutes while it squeezed your pores down to invisibility and dried into a gluey sheet. After ten minutes, you pulled off the ghastly, rubbery shroud and … Voilá! Your skin was youthful and blemish free. (Of course, my skin was youthful. I was only fourteen at the time.) 
Beth was dying to try it. I figured that if she wanted to try it so badly, she should get her own. Certainly, she had plenty of stuff she refused to share with me. This was day five of her campaign. I wondered what made her think I’d made any sudden strides in the generosity department since she asked the day before and the day before and the day before that.
     “No!” I said, for probably the fourth time in this particular exchange, finally starting to lose my cool. I went back to practicing my flute. Lord knows, I needed the practice. I played the flute for four years in school and never really got very good at it. Just the two of us were home since our mom worked full-time as a secretary.
Beth would not give up. “Hey! I asked nicely! I just want to try it. Why can’t you just let me try it?”
“I don’t feel like it. If you want some, go get your own. It was expensive.”
“How do I know if I want to buy it if I haven’t tried it?”
“You heard me. I said no and I’m saying it again. No! Now get out of my room. I’m practicing!” Both our voices were getting louder and edgier.
“You are a spoiled brat!” Her voice escalated; I could tell she was reaching the level of red alert. She had an easily breached tipping point and I sensed that she was teetering on the edge of going to the dark side. When this happened, there was no reasoning with her; she got unpredictable, scary, and crazy. I knew I needed to get her out of my room before something bad happened but I had no idea how to make her leave. Looking back, I can see that the easiest thing to do would have been to let her use the green goo just to get rid of her, but my fourteen-year-old mind didn’t always work toward the most peaceful means to an end. I stood my ground.
“I told you to get out of my room! If you don’t get out of here now I’m gonna call mom at work!”
“If you call mom at work you’re gonna get her mad at both of us.”
“So then why don’t you leave me alone and no one will get in trouble?”
Strangely, logic always seemed to undo her. This last comment provided just the nudge she needed. Her face turned red and scrunched and she started to cry. She entered the zone of fury.
“You are such a little bitch!” She said it in a wailing screech. At the exact moment she said the word, “bitch,” she gave my metal music stand a hard shove. The stand and all the books and pages of music that were on it came flying at me.
Feeling I was under attack, I suddenly entered my own zone of fury. For a change, I was the one who got scary and crazy. I bolted up from my bed where I’d been sitting. The music hadn’t yet settled after the first violent assault and it subsequently went fluttering around me in frenzied anticipation as I went after my sister.
Beth was not fast. In all my memories, I can never remember her being faster than I, even though she was older. There must have been some point when we were younger that she could beat me in a race. Not that it mattered at this point; we both knew there was no way she could outrun me. I was the faster girl.
Unfortunately, for her, she had not fared as well as I in her genetic roll of the dice. She was shorter, rounder, less coordinated, and less athletic, factors which, no doubt, contributed to her constant irritation with me. In truth, neither one of us was particularly athletic but when it came right down to it, I was the stronger girl.
Unfortunately, for both of us, I had not relinquished my flute when I came for vengeance. Because of this oversight, (Whether it was deliberate or accidental is debatable, I suppose.) I was also the better-armed girl.
     She made the wrong turn down the hall. It might have gone differently had she made a left instead of a right. Left would have taken us down the hall and into the living room. In the seconds that would have ticked past it’s possible that I might have come back to my senses … or not. However, she took a right turn coming out my room and immediately came smack against Mom’s closed, bedroom door.
It all happened quite quickly. I can assure you that I didn’t actually premeditate the blow. There was a brief scuffle, while she tried to push me away and then, with one quick whack to the eye, it was over.
A major cry-fest ensued. My sister, not known to be particularly stoic, let loose with a stream of indignant, morally outraged howling. (For the record, this was how she spent a good percentage of her childhood and adolescence.) As soon as I connected my flute with her eye, I came back to a state of sanity.  As I recall, by that point I was crying too. It wasn’t just from the emotion of the confrontation, although that was part of it. It was obvious I would be fingered as the evildoer in this situation and it seemed entirely unfair. But I knew that a plea of, “She started it!” wasn’t going to pull me out of the hole that I’d dug for myself. She had shoved my music stand at me and, in return, I’d given her a black eye. There was no question about it. I was in big, big trouble.

Mom listened to both sides of the story when she came home. She was mad. She was mad that the entire, ridiculous incident occurred over teenybopper cosmetics. She was mad that we were fourteen and sixteen and unable to figure out how to get along together without coming to blows. She was mad about Beth’s black eye but was madder still when I told her that as a result of the fisticuffs, I’d damaged my flute.  I imagine she was mad that she came home without fortifying herself with a stiff drink before she walked in the front door.
I can’t really blame her. My sister and I were tolerable, possibly even endearing, when we were apart. Together, we were beyond exasperating; we were hateful, incorrigible, mismatched bookends.
     I was grounded for a month and I had to use my allowance to get my flute fixed. My sister’s eye went from bruised back to normal in a couple weeks. I never knew if Mom thought Beth didn’t deserve punishment or if she thought the black eye was punishment enough.

The story has become part of our family lore. Dad brought it up just a few months ago. “You and your sister. You two never could get along. Remember that time you hit her with your flute?”
Yeah, I remember. I’d like to call her up and share a laugh about that story since we’re older and with our middle-aged perspectives we should be at peace with that kind of thing. It happened over three decades ago. I’d call and make the attempt but … well … she’s not speaking to me at the moment.

"Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life."
            Charles M Schulz

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