My Sister, Part One
My little sister was a big pain in my ass. She had smart-mouthed friends — lippy, spoiled and over-confident — they egged her on. They coaxed her to destroy me.
My sister had only one demure friend (the rest were loud bohemians), a Korean girl named Betsy who had a small mole in the middle of her forehead, where women from India put the red dot. Betsy had just arrived from Korea. Her dad made some money over there in the kennel-to-kitchen business, and recently moved into a swank, white shag-carpeted house on Upper Bay Drive.
By then, in Texas, the dad had found another business. They had color TV, white furniture, plenty of brittle oriental art, and perplexing, funky smells in the kitchen. Betsy’s mother, being Korean and owning some fine American rug, asked that guests remove their shoes at the front door before entering her meticulous home. She had little black and gold slippers waiting for you. It’s the way in Korea, and much of Asia. This pissed my sister off.
DIVERGENCE: Pissing My Sister Off
Anything about her appearance, even compliments. Anything about politics, or driving a car. Art. Love. Cartoons. Pork and Beans. Yanni. Never mention anything about how to build, rig, maintain or sail a boat. Never bring up navigating by the stars. Don’t be purposefully vague or obtuse. “What does that mean?” is one out of every twenty sentences my sister utters. “Obligation” (tremors). “Relax” (steam). “Thin skin” (smoke). “Forget about it” (krakatoa!). Any slights towards Jack Nicholson (she loves him). And anything mean towards a member of her family or any of her friends.
My sister apparently only exempted Koreans from her focused sense of loyalty, and exclusively Betsy. In the thirty-odd years since that time, to my knowledge, my sister has shunned all Asians. Which isn’t easy, as she loves sushi.
Betsy was a math whiz. A fucking abacus. She could beat Jack at Jack In The Box with the total, including tax and extra “special sauce”. Betsy was kind, responsible and respectful of elders; she got good grades and did well in sports. She was game for anything decent and smart. There’s no way that Betsy’s mother could have liked my sister. But, she was new in America, and was going to have to live with these round-eyed whores: “HARROOO! HOW ARE YOU? PRETTY THE HAIRS! BETSY! BETSY! FRIEND IS HERE! HARROO! BETSY! THE FRIEND! COME NOW! Please take off shoe. Here I have slipper.” And she pointed gracefully.
Betsy caught all the fallout from these episodes. My sister seethed for hours from the condescension she endured from Betsy’s mother. But Betsy looked and acted nothing like her blank, lacquered mother: Betsy was tall and lithe, glowing, laughing, with beautiful almond eyes and the dot. When Betsy came to our house, my sister would make her take off her shoes at the door, even though Betsy would be the only one shoeless. My sister cooked hot dogs for Betsy, and tomatoes and onions boiled in butter with handfuls of salt. She made a raw foreigner listen to Willie Nelson. And then Betsy allowed my sister to give her a haircut — in school, Betsy passed without much comment because she was foreign. My sister knew this when she picked up the scissors. I say to this day that Betsy was the truest kind of friend.
The Mini Bike
I’d been chipping away at my father for some time about him shelling out for a Benelli mini bike that I needed to ride. I’d made three 24-mile roundtrips to the mall, on my bicycle, to examine and research the Benelli, and now it was time for Dad to pony up.
My grades were good. I’d never ask him for anything else, ever. I was chipping hard, and it was November. I felt good. And success was there in the garage on Christmas Day, fat-tired and metallic red. The speedometer went to sixty. And now, decades after statutes of limitations have expired, I confess that I took the Benelli out on the five-lane freeway. More than once. Not always alone. There’s nothing like the first youthful understanding of freedom: “Exhilaration”, “exuberance”, “dizzying”, “awesome”…all critical reviews of that moment on Broadway. Benelli was my guru, I followed it everywhere.
It took about a week to get fluent with the machine. By the second week, I was giving rides. I had ridden four of my friends at once, like a circus troupe, at thirty miles an hour on a dirt road. I was speeding up and leaning into curves. I peeled out of the driveway and skidded into stops.
I got to know Travis, the redneck at the gas station; sixty miles to the gallon and a one gallon tank meant twice-daily fill-ups–a dollar a fill in Texas in those days. I’d been to Katy (at night), and all the way out Old Telephone Road. Before I was done, I’d make regular runs to Galveston, with fishing poles, and a trash bag full of angelfish on the way home.
Eventually, I knew I’d have to ride my sister, and her friends. I didn’t like then for my sister to touch me: thank god there was a bar at the back of the seat. I showed her how to hold on. I had only one helmet — there were no such sensible laws at that time. I gave it to my sister, as I’d planned for her a wild ride. Fire belched from the tailpipe as we leapt onto the road. My sister resisted every buck and slam, even washboard dirt and brief air. She hung on to the bar and laughed in the wind. At the end of it, when my stomach hurt and my arms were lifeless, she wanted to go again.
“No,” I said. “Give me something easy. Where’s Betsy?”
Betsy was reading a monograph by Einstein under a tree.
“Come on, Betsy! Your turn!”
Betsy came gamboling like a fawn. She’d been my sister’s friend for several months and by now had endured dozens of humiliations, plenty of pranks. There had been bruises and banishments, and bizarre “tests of friendship”, and Betsy kept coming back for more. Stupid little thing. Only a small part of it is in books. Betsy leapt around the Benelli like a voodoo priestess, thrilled at being invited to ride. This pissed my sister off. My sister feared that Betsy would infect me with her own joy, therefore I would give Betsy a better ride than I had given my sister.
“All three of us can ride,” my sister declared.
While there was certainly room enough for three on the Benelli’s plush and expansive cushion, the Benelli had one serious design flaw: the fat, flashy chrome-blessed tailpipe. It became blazing hot after only a few minutes running — I had the burns on my leg to prove it.
“No!” I shouted (the Benelli always roared). “Betsy might burn her leg!”
“I’m ready!” Betsy had the only helmet on. I revved the Benelli in preparation for take-off.
“I’m getting on!” my sister screamed.
“NO!” I shouted back.
“What’s going on?” Betsy wondered. My sister pounced onto the end of the saddle. The Benelli shook, but stood. A hissing sound, then a terrible scream.
“My leg!” wailed Betsy, trapped between brother and sister, writhing like an eel. “My leg is burning!”
It was a serious burn. Bed-rest, fevered hallucinations, antibiotics, dressings and expensive ointments — even a part-time nurse: a Korean tragedy. Betsy’s mother knew who was to blame for this. She wasn’t about to lose face to some smart-aleck, white devil-brat. She started calling our house, demanding to speak with my father. My sister picked up the first call, immediately recognized the voice on the other end, listened in for a bit, then simply hung up. Within seconds, the phone rang again. It rang unanswered while my sister explained the situation:
“Its Betsy’s mother. She wants to talk to Dad.” Dad was out of town for a while.
“I’ll handle it”, I told my sister. The phone hadn’t stopped ringing. Betsy’s mother was as tenacious as an outraged barnacle when it came to matters of personal dignity. Finally, after forty rings, she gave up.
At 6.30 AM, the phone rang again. I picked it up. “MISSAKIN! MISSAKIN!”
“Hello?” People often mistook my speaking voice for my father’s.
“SO SORRY CALL! TOO EARLY! BETSY SICK! YOU HAB BAD DAUGHTER!”
“SHE BAD GIRL, BURN BETSY LEG! SICK, SICK!”
“NO LIKE MASSAGE!” I shouted back into the receiver.
“AMISH! LOVE GOD! HANKY PANKY BAD! NO THANK YOU!” and I hung up.
This sort of thing went on for several days, with delightful variations. Over the phone, I discovered that I could do a credible impersonation of a black man:
“You sound like some fine kung pao, baby.”
“NO CHINA! KOREA! MISSAKIN! WHERE MISSAKIN?”
We tape-recorded the “I’m sorry but this number has been disconnected…” message and played it endlessly to Betsy’s mother. She could hear our laughter in the background.
Walter Cronkite gave Betsy’s mother the news. She discussed household travails with Florence Henderson, and enjoyed a number by Sonny and Cher. One night, as a family, we hummed an impassioned rendition of “Muskrat Love” into the receiver. And my siblings and I felt closer then than ever before, comrades-in-arms, united against the Evil Empire that was Betsy’s mother.