Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.
You know that movie, "A Few Good Men" — the one where Jack Nicholson is all like, "You can't handle the truth"? That's my mom. And my sister. I'm more of a wicked queen, the kind you don't know is evil until she's holding your still-beating heart in her hand and laughing wildly.
But I'm writing about my stepsister. The one I got when I was 18. The one who hated me and I hated back. The one who is beautiful and powerful and carries an arsenal of congressional factoids, ready to fire at the first mention of her weight or haircut. The one who gets me kicked out of bars and makes me kiss Russian men and drink shots. The union organizer, the accomplished one. I am the perfect one, the thin one. Everybody loves me, but Jennifer, she's an acquired taste.
She trades on toughness. And not just mental toughness. She'll arm-wrestle you and what's more, she'll beat you. I do push-ups all year to prepare for the Thanksgiving feats of strength. All damn year. "Come on, Sarah, let's do it." Bam. It's like I'm wrestling Clay Matthews, or a blonde gorilla. And she laughs. Because while I have a clean house and a considerate husband, I cannot beat her.
We were living in New York — she freshly post-devastating-divorce, attending grad school at Cornell; me working in the theater in the City. We were family. At least we were the only family we were going to have. Our newly joined parents had thought I should have stayed and kept my job at a theater in Minneapolis and she should have stayed married and gotten her degree in Madison. They were wrong on both counts.
In discussing such issues, a friend once said that the road to happiness is not paved with spite. But upon further reflection: The path to family is sometimes graveled with self-righteousness. And so it was on Christmas Eve, 1999. My husband (the nice one), me, my sister and the impending doom of Y2K.
And what are late-20-year-olds in the big city, feeling sorry for themselves and homesick on the day before the end of the world as we know it, going to do? They're going to drink. And drink we did.
Christmas Eve dinner was spaghetti and, at some point — whether from the candles or the gas stove — the baguettes were on fire. No one knows how it happened, but it signaled the end of the meal. And then the evening became legendary. It became our story. It became the lore of our family.
Later on, she said, "Here is your assignment. You need to kiss a stranger. Really kiss." Orders were given from behind our pyramid of PBR cans. This is the most ridiculous, dumb, offensive thing I've ever been asked to do and I'm about to do it.
"Anyone. There. That guy — the Russian at the bar."
The thing about drinking in New York is that there always is a Russian at the bar. And it's not like you don't know which one he is. He's the one in the fur hat speaking Russian to his skinny friend.
"I'll go with you. We'll do a shot first." Another moment of sheer panic. Done. We are right next to the Russians. My husband is watching from behind the beer mountain, giggling.
"Go" she says.
I tap him on the shoulder, he turns, and I put my arm around his neck and plant one right across his Russki lips. He yells something I believe is positive in Russian and holds up his beer. I run back behind Beer Mountain.
With our matching blue eyes and pale skin, she told everyone we were twins. In step-family theory, we kind of are. Born the same year, three months apart. I, 10 years older than my younger bio-sister, suddenly have a big sister.
And she does too. That's the thing about twins: Even though one is technically older, you can switch off when you need to. When you need someone to sit in a Walgreens pharmacy much later on Christmas Eve for three hours while listening to your insurance company fight with an out-of-state medical supply company, all to get your temperature- and time-sensitive fertility drugs delivered before 5 p.m., it's nice to have an older sister.
She will arrive to spend the holiday in my perfectly clean house, where I'll have fresh flowers and a stack of starched and ironed sheets in the guest room for her. We'll drink Old Speckled Hen on the front porch wrapped up in wool blankets and watch our children play football in the street. We'll have a dinner, and she won't criticize my cooking even though hers is much better. She will organize an arm-wrestling tournament at a bar and my husband, as always, will say "Ladies, get in the car, NOW," just as the bar owner, afraid we're some weird middle-aged gambling ring, begins dialing for the police. And she will beat me at a dozen physical competitions that I don't want to do in the first place but am powerless to avoid.
She will, because we are sisters and she's older and she can. And because I know that, when she was a baby, our dad used to call her Jenny Bird — and while she's an elected alderman and steelworker union rep, Cornell graduate, city planner and right hand to the mayor, here in my house she's just my big sister. Larger than life.