“We bought a new house,” my older sister said a few months ago, in one of our rare phone conversations.
“I’m so happy for you,” I said, though I’m sure the octaves and intonation were off. “You deserve it.” And she does. My sister has worked tirelessly ever since I can remember. Unlike me, she’s always been responsible, never leaving a job before accepting another, and certainly never leaving a job and then, instead of finding new employment, flying to Southeast Asia and staying for three months.
“We’re finally going to live in a grown-up house,” she continued. (By “we” she meant her two girls, ages 4 and 7, and my photogenic, equally successful brother-in-law.) I thought about their soon-to-be old house — the quaint rooms, small closets, the inevitable, maniacal clutter. The neighbor’s orange tree, the tall branches of which extended just over my sister’s fence, taunted my nieces with unreachable fruit. But it was a nice neighborhood. The house was on a tree-lined street that was abundant with young, attractive professionals, all of whom had young, attractive children, all of whom played together before dinnertime and on the weekends. What wasn’t grown-up about that?
I apprehensively booked a ticket to Los Angeles, paying a little extra so that I could change the reservation, with minimal penalty, if the apprehension became unbearable. Grown-up house. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I thought about that term and the home I prematurely bought in Marfa, when the market was strong, with the help of my father and the understanding that I’d eventually pay him back. I moved to the tiny West Texas art Mecca (population 2,100) in 2006. The house, an old adobe, required a massive renovation, which I embarked on, mismanaging the contractor, who screwed me out of a lot of money, which ran out well before completion. And the town itself turned out to be a mistake for me, so I moved back to Austin, and my impractical, incomplete house will soon be on the market.
My sister is the family success story. She is fiery and forceful and professionally driven and currently works as an executive in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, at 37, I do whatever work people will give me and lately that means writing truncated, sympathetic versions of convicts’ life stories for a criminal attorney. The mini-biographies are hopefully riveting and heart-changing offerings to the parole board. (For what it's worth, some of his clients are innocent or at least deserving of a second chance.)
When I arrived at my sister’s new home, she was still at work. I was greeted at the door by my 7-year-old niece, Sophie, still recovering from a cold, and the nanny who, I later found out, makes more money than I do.
“Aunt Tobin, come see my room!” said Sophie, grabbing my hand and pulling me up the stairs to her room, which was bright, clean, organized.
“It’s amazing,” I said with a tinge of sadness she’s too young to have noticed.
Sophie continued the tour around the home – not ostentatious or a mansion, by any stretch, but big and two stories and beautiful. She took me into my sister’s room, a gigantic spread with a king-size bed and large flat-screen TV hanging above a fireplace. Her bathroom has two sinks, the biggest bathtub I’ve ever seen, marble counter tops, and makeup drawers that stop short of the cabinet then slowly, quietly close on their own, like the trunk lids on fancy cars.
Even my sister’s lawn rang of a superior life: The grass out back was magic grass, and not the kind you smoke. It’s verdant, a green that glows beneath the sun. It’s crisp but never cold, and soft beneath your feet, though it always rebounds after it's been stepped on. (She also has a pool.) Meanwhile, my desiccated yard in Marfa is filled with burrs and gopher holes. There is a rusty, never used fire pit out back, and life-size papier-mâché horses created by an artist to look dead. They lie on their backs, their legs reaching toward the sky, in an alternatively glorious and terrifying state of rigor mortis.
“Let’s play with Legos!” Sophie said, dragging me into the playroom. We made a quick stop in the kitchen, where she grabbed each of us a bag of the kiddie crack that is Pirate’s Booty. And then I created a Lego jungle that terrified Sophie, but that I loved and posted on Facebook.
“When does Lily get home?” I asked the nanny.
“Not until 7. Lily has school, ballet class and then a play date.” My 4-year-old niece has a fuller calendar than I do, I thought, and then I went in the kitchen to get more Pirate Booty.
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My sister and I are very different people. She’s two years older than I am, 6 inches shorter, has much softer (only vaguely Semitic) features I’ve long envied, and, though the oldest of my parents’ three children, has always exhibited the autonomy of an only child. When we were kids, she was generally undemonstrative. If she was upset about something she kept it to herself. I was, and remain, wildly oversensitive and an over-sharer, both traits I’m sure she finds exasperating. In junior high and high school, I was Spike the Bulldog to her Chester the Terrier, classic Looney Tunes cartoon characters. “Hey Rachel, whatcha doing Rachel, whatcha doing?”
Usually the answer, spoken or unsaid, was “not hanging out with you.” Rachel was cool. Almost all of my middle school crushes had crushes on her. If she had a truly “ugly phase,” I don’t remember it. (Mine lasted a decade. Friends have confirmed this.) Before she got married, Rachel was a serial monogamist, who chose sensible partners with steady jobs, minimal emotional issues, and average looks. I’ve only been in a handful of relationships, most of them short-term and with “pretty boys” whose good looks made me feel better about mine. Over and over again, these men proved my mother was right when she told me, “The pretty ones won’t be nice to you, because they don’t have to be.”
As adults, the communication between my sister and me has been synonymous with miscommunication. When I’m upset and call her for consolation, she either offers unsolicited advice that I translate as judgment; suggests that I read Deepak Chopra, which I find patronizing; or, says, “If it was meant to be, it was meant to be,” at which point I hang up. But my sister is an incredible mother, who inspires confidence in her girls, tells them she loves them and hugs on them throughout each day, and encourages the type of close sibling relationship that Rachel and I will likely never have.
Meanwhile, I try to be a good aunt in a way that I wasn’t always a great sister.
The morning after I arrived in Los Angeles was frenetic. The rustling began at 6 a.m., when my brother-in-law got up to make the kids’ lunch.
“Can you wake up Sophie and make sure she gets dressed?” my sister asked.
“Sure, no problem,” I said, needing to be useful in some way, wanting to feel like a part of the family, and hoping to disprove my sister’s conviction that I’m wholly incapable of being functional before 10 a.m.
But my niece didn’t want to get out of bed. Apparently, acquiescence costs $2.
On the drive to school, Sophie sat behind me, elevated by a kid seat that I needed her help to install in my manual-windows-only Kia rental. I was wearing old jeans and the sweat shirt I’d slept in, trying and failing to engage in a conversation through the rear-view mirror. Then the Violent Femmes came on the radio. “Kiss off,” I love that song, so I started singing, hoping she’d appreciate the entertainment. I said one one one cause you left me / And two two two for my sorrow / And three three three for my heartache …
“Stop!” said my niece. “You’re weird, Aunt Tobin.”
It hurt my feelings that she didn’t find my performance amusing, but the moment stuck with me because it confirmed something I long suspected. I am the weird aunt, the relative who always looks disheveled even when dressed up. I’m the one who’s never in a steady relationship, who’s perennially moving, and who drives a messy car that has multiple dents and a laundry basket in the back seat. I’m the relative she won’t think is cool until she gets to high school or college and needs someone to buy her beer.
A while ago I read a line in the Jim Crace novel “Being Dead” that struck me:
“She was dejected every time she saw an image of herself, in a mirror, in a photograph, in the heartless window of a shop. Men did not seem to see her any more. She turned to cats and cigarettes. Her life would be her work, she thought. She’d masturbate. She’d baby-sit. She’d wear thick glasses, read thick books, and be an aunt.”
That quote is now taped to my office wall. Though I’d love to say it’s surrounded by literary maxims, esoteric truths, and fortune cookie fortunes, the few quotes I’ve been compelled to save are ones that remind me of me. This aunt is definitely more stable than I am, even though she’s dead throughout the novel. But I see myself in those lines – not just because I have a cat, and because I’m more pragmatic than a head turner – but because that woman is inclined to think about things that her sibling has that she doesn’t, which maybe is what most people with siblings do. I wonder if I like that line because it comforts me, makes me feel less alone in my solitude and disappointments. Maybe I like it because things inevitably, albeit temporarily, work out for this aunt. It offers hope.
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Saturday was, in my sister’s parlance, a “big day.” Lily had two birthday parties to go to and Sophie’s coed basketball game started at noon.
“Ref, that was a bad call and you know it!” screamed her coach, possibly the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen.
“He’s a Calvin Klein model,” explained my sister. Of course he is, I thought. “His kid’s on the team.”
I loved the spectacle of the game, not only because of the coach, but also because I could sit on the front row wildly cheering for my niece. Most of the parents sat on the bleachers responding to what I presume were work-related emails on their iPhones. I’d relinquished mine to my youngest niece halfway through the first quarter. She was getting antsy so my sister downloaded $10 of applications and handed it over to her 4-year-old. (My app icons now include a pig, an apple, a pretty princess and a smiling flower with petals in primary colors). This was mostly fine because all of the kids on the court were unbearably cute, lilliputian dribblers in Lakers jerseys.
“Which one is yours?” said the man beside me. My mood plummeted.
“I’m number 24’s aunt,” I said. Sophie is a Kobe Bryant devotee. ”But I’m sure I’ll have children, or a child, I’m just doing things later than everyone else,” I continued, trying to justify my existence to a stranger. At least he didn’t ask me what I do for a living.
My gaze remained inward until the fourth quarter, at which point the score was tied and the Calvin Klein model was gleaming with sweat. I would have taken his picture with my phone, but Lily was using it to color in a turtle.
After the game, I opted out of the birthday parties and went home. We ordered takeout Chinese, and afterward, I went to my room and packed for my return flight the next morning. My carry-on felt heavier, weighed down by the self-doubt I’d have to sort through when I got home. It’s a tedious process, one that involves revisiting the wild trysts and great adventures I would likely not have experienced and the people I’d likely not have met if I’d opted for a more conventional life.
Before I went to bed, I checked my email. I’d been emailing back and forth with a friend who is an uncle. We’ve known each other for 20 years. He lives alone in his modest house with a dog named Brown Dog, stays up late working on a screenplay and reading, and spends his weekends either fixing or riding his motorcycle. He’s more comfortable with being The Uncle than I am being an aunt. I’d been sending him details of my trip throughout my stay.
“Are you jealous of her?” he finally asked. “Do you want all that stuff?” I hated that he asked the question as much as the fact that I really had to think about the answer.
“About some things, yeah,” I finally wrote.
I’m jealous that she’s never been or had to worry about becoming The Aunt. I’m jealous of her family, the dinners and the early morning chaos, and I covet her bathroom; high-tech coffee maker; her endless supply of Pirate’s Booty. But I also understand that my role has given me close friends and adventures – in foreign countries, at local bars -- I would not trade, even for luscious, rich magic grass.
Still, the jealousy I often feel when I’m around my sister nags at me. It also forces me to think about the things I really want, which is not a new history but a controlled future, one in which I have a substantive income; go to Africa; find and get married to a wonderful and wonderfully strange man; have weird and beautiful children (or at least a child); and publish a book that people actually buy. But these are great ambitions, at least some of which, realistically, I may not achieve. A more modest, perhaps more attainable goal should be happiness in Austin, where I’ll likely stay and buy a house that’s a little more practical than my last one but still has fake dead horses in the yard.