Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” was loudly beating against the hot air flowing through my window. I was in the passenger seat of my sister’s brand new red Fiero – a gift from our dad. Ten years later, when I turned 16, Dad would get me a rusted up used Honda Prelude. But whatever, we can talk about that injustice another time.
I had my hand out the Fiero’s window, whipping it up and down against the warm breeze. I was only six, but I felt beautiful and free.
It’s hard to believe that just three weeks earlier, Mom had stood in the kitchen with her arms crossed and jaw locked. “Anna’s getting in that car over my dead body,” she said, about to whip all our butts with a wooden spoon for even asking. Jenny just wanted to take me to the gas station in town to get us some pops. “Anna can ride with you when you’re eighteen. Until then, forget it.” Dad tried to help us out, but it was mostly for show.
In my mom’s defense, her first-born had just learned to drive. And I was her baby. And she had been the one to teach my sister to drive. And Jenny drove (and still does) like a stone cold lunatic. To this day, Mom reminds us yearly about one of Jenny’s first driving lessons. With little remorse, Jenny drove right through a stop sign into busy crisscrossing traffic. But that wasn’t the part that traumatized Mom most. It was how casual Jenny’s response was about the whole thing. All wispy and nonchalant, as my mom pressed her foot into the floorboard, gripping her door, screaming for God to save them. And Jenny just looked over like, “Geeez, what’s your problem?”
But that was all it took. Jenny was sixteen, so fine. She could have a car. She could drive to school. No friends in the car. No radio. And no taking her baby sister ANYWHERE. Ten and two, and don’t you forget it!
Of course, Mom’s unshakeable conviction crumbled with embarrassing ease once she realized having an older child who can run all the errands and ferry the younger kids to all the things – with enthusiasm, no less – could be a major advantage. In two blinks, I was hopping into the Fiero as Jenny drove me to my swim lesson, while Mom laughed on the phone, her finger curling around the cord. She had the confidence of a woman whose world just burst right open.
As we drove, I gleefully anticipated the moment my friends saw me pull up in that red Fiero death trap of a car, with my super cool and beautiful sister in tow. “Let me guess,” I’d say as we paddled across the pool on our bright red waterboards, “your mom with that bad perm dropped you off in that brown Buick? What a shame!”
Growing up chubby and tomboyish until my early twenties, with a sister like mine, could have been a self-esteem apocalypse if she didn’t love me so much. Her love allowed me to admire her instead of resent her. I could take her beauty as my own, let it be a reflection of me. Of what I could one day be.
At the time of my swim lesson I was sporting a short “Dorothy Hammill” haircut. Except my stylist, at the JCPenney salon, gave me more of a “if Dorothy Hammill was a 6 year old boy” haircut. Mom didn’t seem to mind it, but I did. And when I was an adult and asked her why she gave me such a short haircut, I detected a slight hint of defensiveness in her tone. “It was a popular haircut at the time, Anna. What do you want me to say?”
But, no worries. I wasn’t thinking about my short haircut in the Fiero that day. I was too busy thinking about how cool I was.
Jenny held my hand as our flip flops slapped against the hot concrete. She had a huge beach bag over her shoulder. There was a handsome, bronzed, teenage boy at the large open window. He was cute and I was really feeling myself. I knew, of course, he was older and I was just a little girl. But I also knew I just came in smoking hot in a brand new Fiero. My cool, older sister was by my side. And I had just smashed some Skittles she bought me. At the very least, he could admire me. AT THE VERY LEAST.
We walked to the window and he smiled nervously at my sister, all flustered, forgetting where he was or what he was doing. Finally, he came to, then nodded – acknowledging we were there for the lesson.
“The boys locker room is this way,” he said, sticking his arm out the window, stopping me from following my sister into the girl’s room.
“What does that have to do with us?” My sister said, pointed and sharp. Her eyes narrowed, real nasty and fierce. He realized at once what he had done and sheepishly turned away. But even though my sister shot to kill on my behalf, I was still collateral damage, my confidence popping in the air until I slithered down, deep into my little soul. The jig was up. The vision was gone. I wasn’t the beautiful little super star that everyone admired.
I was a chubby little girl, who looked like a boy.
Jenny pulled me into the locker room, slapped the bag down and helped me undress. She held my suit low so I could step in and she looked into my eyes that were filling and wanting to cry.
“He’s in idiot,” she said, her jaw tight. “Just some stupid idiot. You obviously look like a girl. You’re precious.” Truth be told, I didn’t really want to be precious, I wanted to be beautiful. But whatever. She shimmied my swimsuit up and through my arms. The smell of dank chlorine filled my nose. “Trust me,” she said, her eyes looking firmly into my own, “he’s an idiot.” Then I think she spat.
After she got in her suit, I grabbed her hand and we made our way out to the pool. I was old enough to know her love made her biased, so therefore, couldn’t be trusted. She sat down with the other parents, and got to work dumping half a bottle of sun tan oil all over her body. At the prompting of my teacher, I walked slowly into the cool pool. I did what I was told, but my heart wasn’t in it. My kicks were weak. My stride, limp like noodles.
But I swam, anyway.
Meanwhile, Jenny laid back and got a tan.
Mom was at home, still on the phone. Laughing and laughing.
And the kid at the window felt like an idiot.