Sunday, July 13, 2008

Siblings Unrivaled

by Zinta Aistars

Paper thin chocolate wafers inside tiny square ivory envelopes, gold embossed, have been placed on our fluffed pillows. The covers on the two king-size beds have been turned back in precise diagonals, revealing the invitation of snow-white sheets. No doubt the thread count is high … Martha would approve. The northwest corner of our room is all glass, opening to a panorama from the 20th floor of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel of the Grand River far below. Eight lighted bridges cross the expanse of the river to the north from where we stand. The river walk below is a shimmer of bobbing golden lights, melting on dark water. We can just make out the horse and buggy crossing the closest bridge far beneath us.

There had been a moment that I had considered Motel 6: sufficient and efficient. Then it occurred to me: this visit deserves, surely needs, more. It had been quite some time since my sister had made the drive out from Chicago, and my new hometown—even while I still lay my head down to sleep in Kalamazoo, my life and work were increasingly unfolding an hour north, in Grand Rapids—beckoned to be explored. Or, perhaps the deeper truth here was that it was our sisterhood that deserved to be explored. I think we both felt it. A connection had been lost. If not lost, weakened by ever more diverting paths.

Blood bond, yes. But it seemed in recent years, we had somehow found less and less to talk about. Daina had eloped at the tender and impulsive age of 18, beaten all the odds to have a better than average marriage, now in its thirty-something year. Who’s counting anymore? I had, well, been there, done that, left that, done it again, left again, and spent much of my adulthood as a single parent and a stubbornly, teeth grittingly, independent woman. I learned to rely on no one. I sometimes wondered if I had lost the ability to commit. Or was it to connect. If I had on occasion dared again the effort, blue skies had opened to zap me with painful lightning of punishment for such risk. A cautiously reopened heart received in return the grinding down of a booted heel. It seemed best to stay my course staunchly alone.

Passing our half century threshold, my sister was planning a quiet retirement far north with her lifelong husband; I couldn’t remember why it was that we ever got married. Her three children were following traditional routes of college educations leading to solid careers; mine were into testing the limits, earning their degrees on their own terms, crashing through barriers, dabbling in a thousand dreams, loving and losing, not unlike their reckless mother. My sister lived in a gated golf community, where the square footage of houses rivaled football fields. I had lowered my eyes to the floor of a welfare agency, refusing to let my humiliated tears show, awaiting my food stamps. Her family had had their share of health woes, each receiving the best medical care. I had raised my kids as one of the country’s uninsured, learning what I could about natural remedies, or simply learning to ignore the occasional ache and pain. She had warm just-baked cookies on the kitchen counter when her babies rushed home from school. I ran from one job to the second, and the third, to make ends meet if I was lucky, unravel if I was not, calling home and wondering why my kids weren’t picking up the phone, oh where could they be?

Our differences didn’t stop there. My sister has one of the kindest, softest, most trusting hearts of anyone I’ve ever known. Mine, over the years, had grown cynical, battered and bruised by too many harsh blows and the hard knocks of unprotected living. In too many ways, I feared, it had begun to shut down. And I had begun to wonder … did we really have anything left to talk about? Were the colors of our lives from a different spectrum? Did we even speak the same language anymore? Was blood enough?

In the past year, at least this: my financial circumstances had at long last begun to match my experience. I had made a few leaps, a bound or two, even mastered the occasional mountain. My humble shack could still fit inside my sister’s house a dozen times and a time to spare. But then, I was considering renting an extra apartment in my new city to the north to ease the commute from place to sleep and place to work—a second residence would be a comfort and a gift to myself. My rambling children had grown into amazing adults never afraid to blaze new trails. And while my heart was still a battered mess, my life goals were finally taking on the faint, fleshy tint of reality rather than a wildly hopeless dream.

And my sister’s life was not without its own tests and obstacles. Perhaps our planets were not orbiting in separate universes any longer. With her announcement of a visit, I decided to greet her as she had so often greeted me—with a light padding of luxury. Perhaps even a sprinkling of decadence. And this time—on my tab. A room at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel it is. The lobby alone was a glimmer of gold. Fountains splashed cheerily under crystal chandeliers the size of a small car. Ballrooms opened to either side. Art galleries invited a leisurely view of local artists. Fine dining establishments infused the air with the delicate scents prepared for discerning palates.

Daina’s eyebrows arched in appreciation. “Mmm,” she hummed. “Nice.”

“Anything for my big seester,” I flushed with pleasure that comes from the ability to freely give. I was breaking in my AARP card for a discount on the rate. Some things take time to achieve. I had paid for my graying roots. Now they could pay for me.

Dinner at Louis Benton’s Steakhouse sported $55 steaks and black truffle infused mashed potatoes, lobster bisque, a platter of a buttery wild mushroom mix that had us both laughing as we dove in. There was no explaining it but odd genetics, and we wondered aloud if some DNA codes were shaped like ‘shrooms, because even when we had nothing else in common, we had our culinary tastes that mirrored exact preferred menus: a near obsession for mushrooms; a weakness for oysters, smoked, raw or fried; a moaning appreciation for shrimp. When I couldn’t afford such delicacies, Daina bought enough for both of us. Now, it was my turn. We clinked glasses of fine red wine. Even so, her filet mignon was medium rare, but my rib eye was medium well. I took a special pleasure in the obscenity of the food bill. It paid for years of baked beans and rice.

And still our lives were worlds apart. There was no reducing it to a dinner menu. After our dinner of decadence, we walked the city streets slowly, asking about each other’s families, work—mine writing for a large health care organization, hers helping her husband to run a new business. Our rosters of favorite books recently read had no matches. I hadn’t watched the movies she loved. She loved gardening in her wooded backyard while I wondered if I shouldn’t soon replace the rotting boards on my graying deck. I told her about my creative pride in a new summer issue of my literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, and she wasn’t sure how to bookmark a link. We worried together about our aging parents. Dad had an 81st birthday coming up. We were old enough to understand how birthdays had become something of a day to dread. Instead of a celebration, these were days of a sober reassessment: where have I been? Am I any closer to what I had hoped to achieve?

We sat at my favorite booth at my favorite pub in the old section of town, while my sister shrugged to admit she really had no favorite pubs in Chicago, didn’t really go to any. She had her regularly scheduled Friday night dates at fine dining establishments with her husband, ending in a cozy cuddle. My Friday nights were unpredictable. I couldn’t recall the last time I had been held. Just held. Close and warm to another beating heart that gave a damn.

Fed and floating, we trailed slowly back to the Amway Grand, our steps in time on the wooden walk along the Grand River. A series of small rapids spilled and sloshed below. We crossed a bridge, leaning over the railing to watch stars swim in reflection in the black water. Then leaned back to gaze at the glimmering skyline of Grand Rapids, guessing at which window on that high tower in silhouette might be our fairy tale room for the night. We weren’t so young anymore; we were ready to return to our room and take our shoes off, even if it wasn’t yet midnight.

Half a dozen bouncing boys in the elevator on our ride up, first fuzz of experimental beards bristling on their soft cheeks. They formed a half circle around the two of us as we stepped in, smiling widely at us, oozing friendly. The fresh face next to me knocked his head to one side and peered at me, then my sister.

“Care to join us? Party on the 27th. Killer view!”

“Thanks,” I smiled with a quick glance at him. “We’ll pass. But you boys have yourselves a grand old time.” I surmised my son had a year or two on him.

Another fresh face leaned into us as the elevator door opened on our floor. “You’re sisters, aren’t you?”

Daina laughed and hooked her arm through mine as we emerged on the 20th floor, ours. “For as long as I can remember,” she said.

Crawling into each our own king-size bed, both of us setting our paper-thin sliver of chocolate aside for morning coffee—mine with cream only, hers with sugar and half and half—she made a quick detour to come over and give me a goodnight hug before sleep. Just like when we were girls sharing a pink bedroom of adolescent fluff and ruffle. My sister held me. Close and warm to another beating heart that gave a damn.
(Artwork: Sisters by Mary Cassatt)

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