If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child. — Linda Sunshine
Jenny was right to enlist me as an accomplice. It would take two to convince Jane to set aside her guilt for an entire hour. Though neurosis is Jane’s norm, Jenny had recognized that the current events in Jane’s life were becoming unnervingly uncontrollable. Both Jenny and I pestered Jane daily until she agreed to join us for a drink one Wednesday afternoon. We weren’t so foolish as to think that happy hour would be enough time for our eldest sister to actually relax, but a square of toilet paper in a public restroom doesn’t look so small when it’s the last one left.
On Wednesday, Jenny headed straight for my place after leaving her downtown office, and Jane came over as soon as she’d finished describing the efficacy of a new drug to a doctor at a hospital nearby. In my dark long-sleeved T-shirt and black pants, I felt underdressed as I walked down University Avenue beside my sharp-dressed sisters, with their heels, jackets, and accessories. We were halfway to our destination before a multitasking Jane ended the call on her Bluetooth and gave Jenny and me a proper greeting. Because this was Jane’s night, we were quick to forgive the slight with only one sarcastic “So sorry to interrupt you” before taking our hug and a kiss on both cheeks.
Once inside Baja Betty’s, we were led to a high table by the bar. My sisters took a moment to study the menu while I appreciated the glittering gold ornaments hanging from the chandeliers. “What are you getting?” Jenny asked.
“Same as always — chicken mini tacos with no onions or cilantro,” I answered.
“I guess I’ll do the potato flautas,” said borderline vegetarian Jane. Then, after a moment of silent contemplation, she added, “We should have called Heather.” I wondered how she could be hungry when filled with all that guilt. She knew it would have been impossible for our absent sibling to meet us, that happy hour would be over before Heather could ever make it out of San Marcos in the middle of the week. Jenny purposely didn’t tell her because she knew Heather would only lament missing out.
A waiter appeared to take our order — a strawberry margarita for Jenny, a chi-chi for Jane, and for me, a signature shot that tasted like a Buttery Nipple but had a much more scandalous name (I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “sock chucker”). The three of us stared in awe as Jane’s drink, a piña colada with vodka in lieu of rum, was set on the table in front of her. “That’s not a glass,” I said, “that’s a punch bowl.” If she pushed the fruit aside, Jane’s head would have fit easily within the rim. Eyeing Jane’s drink with envy, Jenny said, “Are you going to eat those cherries?” Jane shrugged in response.
Once we’d consumed a few bites of food and had a chance to sip our ultra-sweet concoctions, we began to catch up. It was a rare delight to see Jane and Jenny outside of the context of my mother’s house — as if we were three friends without the hierarchy of siblinghood; adults, individual and self-defined, not prey to the familial roles we’d fallen into as children.
“This has been a tough year for me,” said Jane.
“This has been the best year of my life,” said Jenny.
“Well, I did have a baby,” said Jane. “That was cool.” I shot Jane a look to convey my awareness that Jane’s younger daughter is almost two. Jane smiled at her failed attempt.
Jenny continued, “I mean, I got married, I moved in with Brad, I went to the Cook Islands —”
“You got laid off,” Jane interjected.
Jenny’s face fell. Jane allowed some big-sister schadenfreude to creep into the corners of her mouth. Suddenly, Jenny’s features lifted and she said, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t laid off, I quit that job!” Jane tried to take a sip through one of two towering straws in her drink, but she was laughing too hard to siphon. Jenny, briefly traumatized but now relieved, if not a little exasperated, laughed along with her two older sisters. As our giggles tapered off, Jenny asked Jane, “Are you going to eat those cherries?” Jane said, “Probably not,” but kept her glass close.
It’s not that Jane had regressed to the torturous older sister we knew her to be, it’s just how she is. Jane has always derived pleasure from torturing people…in a fun, lighthearted way. It’s how she keeps herself (and others, though they may be loath to admit it) entertained. For example, on Thanksgiving, once Jane gleaned Heather was disappointed she hadn’t been invited to join us at the step class we’d attended earlier in the week, Jane kept finding ways to bring it up, saying things like, “Hey, Barb, are you as sore as I am?” Each time, Heather would grumble, and Jane would laugh in response. Though Heather may have been genuinely upset, the rest of the family was amused at Jane’s sadistic, and yet somehow adorable, behavior.
While Jane was still laughing over her “laid off” comment, Jenny and I exchanged a raised brow, a sigh, and a smile. Jane’s skutchiness was a good thing — it meant she was allowing herself to unwind. Unfortunately, when the oldest sister unwinds, it’s usually at the youngest sister’s expense. Jane pushed her cocktail toward me. “Here, have some, I have to drive.” She’d been sipping on it for an hour, but the level had only fallen by half an inch.
Jenny eyed the gargantuan beverage, paying particular attention to the two maraschino cherries suspended in the icy white liquid. “Are you going to eat those?” she asked. I shook my head and slid the glass toward her. “Why? Don’t you like them?”
“Not really,” I said. Jenny retrieved a cherry, brought it to her smile, and bit the fruit from the stem.
A moment later, while Jenny was mid-chew, Jane turned to her and, in a casual tone, said, “Now, let me tell you why I don’t eat those.”
Jenny’s jaw dropped and her tongue jutted out, as if to keep the remaining bits of cherry in her mouth as far from her esophagus as possible. Jane was rocking left to right from the force of her howls, tears cascading from her eyes. Jenny uttered a desperate, guttural “Why?” which sounded more like “Angh?”
Jane was gasping for breath between exhalations of mirth. When it looked as if Jenny might vomit for fear of the unknown “reason” not to eat the cherry she’d already begun digesting, Jane showed mercy. In a squeaky wheeze amid chortles and chuckles, Jane revealed, “There is no reason.”
Jenny finally closed her mouth. Jane, looking more pleased with herself than she had in weeks, broke into a fresh fit of laughter, so sincere and unrestrained, that Jenny turned to me and smiled in the knowledge that her plan had worked.