Part of a collection of reflective essays- on the relationship of sisters at its purest.
| Sitting at the kitchen table, clad in my most treasured tiger striped bikini with ripe kiwi colored ties, I pushed cold oatmeal around in my bowl. Lumpy. Tasteless. A few dried raisins speckling the surface like algae on a pond. Disgusting. Glancing across the tabletop, I watched Sarah do the same. Her blonde curls hung loosely in her ponytail, threatening to break free at any moment; a few tendrils had escaped the hold of her violet scrunchie and were precariously close to joining the sandy-gray clumps in her bowl. Why Mom insisted on us eating breakfast every morning was beyond me.
“It’s the most important meal of the day, and you girls need your energy.” She repeated that line like a well trained parrot at every morning meal; she didn‘t even wait for us to start whining anymore. Daddy was lucky - he didn't have to sit down to breakfast. Ever. He said that coffee was all he was ever hungry for before noon.
On several separate mornings, when he stepped outside to retrieve the paper, Sarah and I would sneak sips of his coffee, hoping that if, by chance, we liked it then we could have a steamy, fragrant mug instead of our breakfast, too. But every time we tried, it was the same routine: the black, bitter liquid would burn away our taste buds before being shot into the sink from our lips like precisely aimed water guns. My father drank his coffee sans cream and sugar, and the acrid taste of French-pressed espresso grounds did anything but please our palettes. We kept trying, though, refusing to resign ourselves to the gobs of cold, coagulated oats as being an inevitable part of our day, as regular as the supervised brushing of our teeth before we crawled into bed each night.
The triple tap of metal on ceramic snapped my eyes up, locking on my sisters. Our signal - three taps of the spoon on the bowl - signified Mom's departure from the room. Well rehearsed, we snatched our bowls soundlessly from the tabletop and held them down at our sides. Guinness, our seven year old golden retriever, was ready and waiting. Every summer, when the mercury began its steady rise with no sign of reprieve, Guinness would start to shed. Not a few hairs here and there, like most dogs. His shaggy, rust colored fur fell out to such an extent that our family would make bets on whether he would be fully bald by the end of the season; he never did. On some days, he would fall asleep in a sunbeam, as old dogs are prone to do, and when he would rise from his nap, loose fur would seemingly spring from his body, glittering red and gold as it made its short journey to the carpet.
On that particular August morning, the runaway strands hadn’t made it quite to the ground, but instead became stuck to the insides of our bowls. Clean of every last mushy, gummy oat, Sarah and I raced each other to the sink to rinse off the incriminating evidence before Mom came back to monitor our morning meal's progression. Just as we were shutting the door to the dishwasher, her light, even footsteps sounded down the stairs. Sarah hid her smile as she skipped past me toward the hallway; we were proud of ourselves and our mastery in the art of deception. We were genius little con artists, at least as far as our elementary, first-grade-reading-on-a-fourth-grade-level, minds we were concerned.
Standing in the hall next to the open front door, her short blonde curls pinned up under a woven straw sunhat, tied with a black ribbon to match her black and red Brazilian bikini, I saw my mother slip her tiny tanned feet into well-worn flip flops. Pulling her sunglasses on as she glanced in my direction, she sang, "Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I've got a beautiful feeling, everything's going my way!"
Regardless of being horribly off key with far too much treble in her voice, I loved Mom's singing. When she sang, or when my father whistled, it meant only one thing: they were in good spirits and I would, more likely than not, benefit from the overspill of giddiness and affection. One by one I stuck my feet into my favorite pair of black and white Flojos flip flops before hurrying out the door, my mother pulling the locked front door shut behind me.
Half past seven and the sun was already high in the sky, the humidity making the forecasted eighty degrees feel like a balmy ninety nine. Sarah was lying on her stomach across the only shaded part of the porch, watching Dad load up the van. Pushing herself up on her elbows, Sarah sucked in air in an attempt to get our attention without making any noise. I scanned the yard, trying to spot what had caught her eye, and then I saw it. A mockingbird had perched itself on a pink-budded branch of our ornamental cherry tree and was eyeing up the smorgasbord of splattered bugs displayed on the van’s grill. We waited for him to make a move, to dive onto the metal grate beak first, only to discover that the bugs were long since dead and dried up, some practically cemented onto the chrome. One particular dragonfly had been there for at least three weeks. I knew this because I had watched it slowly lose each wing and dissolve from a shiny emerald carcass to the same drab olive of rotting leaves. Much to our dismay, the mockingbird made no pass at the grill as he took flight and left the vicinity. We must’ve seemed too eager an audience for his taste.
Regardless of the kamikaze insects, the visage of the van was in fairly good shape in relation to the interior. Being a child, I was unaware of the significance, or the difference, between manual and power accessories, but I did know that the van had power “nothing.” The windows were hand cranked, if you were strong enough to turn the handle, and the doors were each locked separately from the inside by pulling or punching chrome plated stubs in the door panels. Without air conditioning, our saving grace in the summer was a square vent in the ceiling that was the filmy, thick color of melted ear wax, and usually contained several dead or dying flies between it and the screen.
A yellow jacket got stuck in there once, and since Sarah and I were too scared to get close enough to open the vent, we named him Hades. He ruled over us, for the three days he lived, making sure that we were uncomfortably hot and sweaty, allowing us no influx of air. The fourth day he died and as we opened the vent over the Route 90 bridge, he blew out into the Assawoman Bay. We tended to keep the vent open at all times after that.
A seat buckle snapped, catching the attention of the easily sidetracked members of our family. Mom was already in the van and in the midst of shutting the passenger side door. She was ready to go, which meant we were too. Dad climbed in the driver’s side as I pushed Sarah back down into a sitting position on the porch, giving myself a head start to the side door. The two cracked, black, vinyl bucket seats in the front were the only seats in the entire van, so Sarah and I had free reign of the rear. Whenever we would pass a State Trooper, Dad would instruct us to duck down behind the front seats. The legal implications never occurred to Sarah or I, we just knew that we weren't supposed to have the freedom to roam around the back of a moving vehicle like we did. Spoiled from those trips, both Sarah and I would grow up regarding seatbelts as highly restrictive and unnecessarily uncomfortable.
The van always took at least three attempts to actually start. The first rev would be followed by a pause. The second by some muttered swears by my father. If the third try didn't result in a steady gravel-like rumbling of the engine, we would hear the predictable, pointed, and unnecessarily loud, "COME...ON..." followed by less muttered, more overt swearing. That morning, however, the van started up on the second try, to which my father announced that it was going to be a beautiful day. Mom launched back into the morning‘s chosen anthem, which left Sarah and I giggling and trying to sing along with her. Our version was more gibberish, humming, and improvisation, but it left her smiling so we assumed we had gotten it dead on.
It was never formally discussed, but there was a type of silent contract, in regards to the seating agreement, that both my sister and I held with the highest regard as being law in every car trip. Since the back of the van was completely open, we each usually sat wherever we pleased, often standing behind one of my parent's seats while holding onto the headrest and looking out the windshield. In the summer, however, things were different. The majority of the time that we rode in the van was for trips to the beach, so piled in the back with us were towels, beach chairs, bags with snacks and the current books being read, and - most importantly to our agreement - surfboards. There was always at least one board, my fathers, and if the waves were clean, but small and unintimidating, two additional boards for my sister and I. Mom was an avid body boarder but never took to surfing, much to my father's disappointment.
The surfboards were each over seven feet in length and had to be slid in on their rails through the middle of the van, their noses touching the dashboard, aligned evenly between the two front seats. They divided the back of the van into two, leaving one side for Sarah, and another for me. The deal was that whichever side we sat on traversing to the beach was not to be the same side we sat on the way home. Each side had its special perks and after enough bickering over who sat where on the last trip, we started switching back and forth each ride.
That particular morning, after climbing into the van and sliding the single side door shut with a gritty slam, Sarah plunked down behind Mom leaving me to swing my legs, one at a time, over the surfboards to the space behind the driver's seat and my father. The perk to the driver's side was more favored by me than that of the passenger's side. Over here was The Hole.
As the van pulled out from the driveway and began its five minute journey to 56th Street, I moved towards the rear and kneeled down on the knobby, sand-embedded carpeting next to the wheel well. There was one protrusion per wheel on each side of the van, but this side was only half covered by carpeting, the front left naked in dull steel because Dad had run out of carpet when he was refurnishing the interior three years back.
Placing my hands on the edge of the carpet at the top curve of the well, I slipped my fingers underneath and pulled the edge back. An inch or so behind the edge of the carpeting there was a pin-nail sized hole in the metal of the wheel well where a rivet once went. When Sarah and I discovered this hole, we found that by closing one eye and pressing the other up against the miniscule window, we could see the road passing under half of the spinning tire below. My left eye was currently doing just that, marveling at how fast the white line on the side of the road was moving and hoping that Dad would run over a stick or a puddle or a road kill carcass...anything to break up the monotony of the curb.
Keeping my balance by holding onto the surfboards with my right hand, I curved my left hand to place my fingers under my eye socket. Quite a few times I had sat without such padding and ended up with a swollen, black and blue eye from bouncing over a bumpier section of road. Staring at the spinning Goodyear tire for as long as I could before motion sickness set in, I tried to guess where we were en route to the beach by which way the wheel had turned and what type of ground we had passed. I rarely guessed right, and that time I was much father off than usual but too nauseous to care.
"Hey, Kate. Look, a Seahawk," whispered Sarah, lifting her hand overtop the layer of surfboards. She held a blob of pinkish-white, coconut scented Sex Wax that she had scraped off the face of one of the surfboards, indulging in the perk of the passenger's side: surf wax sculptures. The blob vaguely resembled a bird in flight, but looked more like a boomerang that had been thrown one too many times. After she was sure I had appreciated her incredible artistic talent, she smeared the blob back onto the face of the blue and white Walden board, and started to scrape off another chunk with her chewed off finger nail.
We always whispered when we were sculpting, thinking that my father would, for whatever reason, disapprove of our game. How dare we waste his carefully applied surf wax, marring the evenly spaced bumps for a mere moment of silly, little girl enjoyment. After all, it always was his board that was face out on that side of the stack. Over ten years later I would ask him about those trips and our game in the back, and laughter would cascade out of his thrown back head like a waterfall from a broken dam. Apparently he knew from the start what we had been doing, not just from the odd scrapes and reapplied bumps of surf wax on his board, but from my sister's and my inability to actually whisper quietly enough for him to not hear us.
“Kate. Kate, look. Kate. Kate. Hey, Kate,” my sister said, breathlessly whispering at first, but ending a notch or two above a normal speaking voice.
“What?” I hissed back, keeping an eye on the reflection of my father’s sunglass covered eyes in the rearview mirror.
“I made you.” I looked over the rails of the surfboards and into her little hands. The wax in her palm had been pinched, pulled, and plied into an inch long figure that bore a striking resemblance to a cross-legged girl.
“See how it sits Indian-style, just like you? It's even got short hair,” she pointed out gleefully. It did indeed have the same boy-like bowl cut that I had gotten that June and, although it may have been unintentional, the dirt from her fingers mixed with the wax gave the figure shading under the arms and on the chest. It was the best sculpture that she had ever done, hands down, and she lifted it up like an offering, placing it in my hands.
Because I had never sculpted anything so well, my immediate reaction was to smear it back onto the board, throw out a comment like, “Oh, yea, neat,” and pretend not to care - but I didn’t. Jealous or not, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it. I held it in my hands for awhile, whispered my thanks, and tucked the figurine carefully into the front pocket of my mother’s beach bag next to a tube of original flavored Chap Stick.
Fifteen years later that wax figure still sits, hardened with coats of clear nail polish and protected with a piece of raw silk, in its own cubbyhole in my special-occasions-only jewelry box.