Mud Puddles and Mistakes
My sister’s name is changed for her peace-of-mind, as well as her ex-boyfriend’s.
It was early fall, and the light was just starting to become smoky at the edges. We could no longer see the sun, and only a few forgotten rays made it over the fence and into the backyard. Still, the temperature was warm, and I had other things on my mind than the coming darkness. It held no fear for me.
“It’s really easy,” I said. “Just grab the rope and jump!” At three, Ashley needed only my direction and authority. I was her big sister—I could have proposed anything and made it into a game she would be eager to play. I was drunk with that power; mad with it to the point of recklessness at times. I helped her grip the jungle-gym rope tightly in her small, uncoordinated fists, and she giggled with excited terror as she jumped. “Now let go!” I yelled, and she did.
With a sucking sound she was engulfed feet-first by a fresh puddle of mud. It was soupy, not too thick but opaque, and suddenly I had a lagoon monster as a sister. My own clothes, already caked with muck, seemed pristine in comparison. I don’t know where I got the idea to move our play set so the rope would line up with the puddle. It must have seemed too perfect to pass up.
I told Ash to scoot over, and she toddled to the side, mud slathered up her legs and arms and in her short cap of cornsilk-blonde hair. A few years later I would cut that hair while playing barber, and spend another ten letting my mother think Ashley had done it herself.
“Watch out!” And with a running leap and a Tarzan-like cry, I swung myself back into the mud with all my six-year-old enthusiasm. Ashley squealed as I rolled around, grunting and snorting like a pig and tickling her. It was soon absolutely imperative that I feel the mud on my feet; that I watch it ooze through the spaces between my toes as I dance and wriggle and cover myself with Indian paint. I stripped off my socks and shoes and set them almost prissily to the side, ignorant of the fact that they were already ruined. It made no difference.
Ashley was already positioned back at the rope, her eager and toothy smile urging me on. Come on, Celeste! It said to me, I need your help with this one. That’s your job. So I got back up, helped her to take off her small sandals, and swung her again out over the puddle. She was absolutely enraptured by this new game I had invented, and my head was dizzy with laughter.
When my mom finally came outside, standing in the frame of the sliding glass door with a dish towel and a smile, it was completely dark. It was nearly impossible to tell the mud from the grass, but we kept playing anyway, swinging and falling and getting up again, laughing in our closeness and content in one another’s company. We knew our time was numbered—with mom haloed in the light from the dining room we were no longer pigs or Indians or jungle-explorers. It was time to become children again.
The day Ashley came home from the hospital is my earliest true memory. I was three, and I was working on learning how to read. I hadn’t quite figured it out yet—I was still memorizing books, listening when other people read them to me so I could repeat the act later. When my new sister was laid out before me on my dad’s old Steelers blanket, the first thing I could think was to show her my new skill. I “read” to her from The Little Engine Who Could while my mom watched from the couch, and I made sure to really put some feeling into the characters. “I think she liked that, Cee,” Mom said to me when I was done. I couldn’t tell, but I hoped so. The concept of being a sister was foreign to me, and the idea of having one was even stranger, but I knew that I wanted to be a good one. I wanted this loud, pink, tiny little being to like me. I wanted to protect it.
By the time she was fourteen, I was already tired of Ashley being a teenager. I had never really acted out—I never saw the point. My friends and I were happy being dorks, so I was blissfully free of peer pressure. My sister was from the school of thought that you should try everything out for yourself—even if it was a proven bad idea.
I could spend years trying to psycho-analyze her and never get anywhere.
She had a boyfriend, and I absolutely hated him. It was summer, and he seemed to be around constantly, driving me crazy and practically living in our house. It wasn’t like she hadn’t had boyfriends before. After all, my sister was and is incredibly pretty, with a thin, toned body and straight blonde hair that had finally grown out after my butchering haircut. Maybe I was the only one who could see she was still a kid—everyone else seemed to take her at her word that she was a mature adult.
Hell, I wasn’t even an adult yet. How could she be one?
Mom refused to listen to me when I complained that Steven was a terrible influence. I know that she had her own doubts, but it didn’t occur to me until later that being a parent is even more tenuous than being a sibling. If I thought I was walking a tightrope around Ashley in those years, Mom was standing on a piece of dental floss. She was just doing her best to be supportive of Ashley’s decisions. I thought her decisions were stupid, and I let her know it.
I actually thought about hitting Steven with my car, twice. Sadly I never had the guts to go through with it. He was a punk, cock-sure and arrogant, and he was missing teeth from numerous skateboard accidents—he thought he was some sort of Tony Hawks.
“Why did you do it?” I was in her room, unsure what to do with my hands except let them hang uselessly at my sides. I would look at her, but then my gaze would veer to the side, unable to keep it up. My stomach, which had been in a permanent knot for a week by the point, was threatening to make me violently ill. But I had to do it, because I had to know if they’d had sex. Everything, including the sudden doctor visits, pointed to that. I didn’t want to believe it.
Ash was surprised by my presence, but she immediately shuttered down. It was always her response when anyone tried to talk to her about anything she didn’t want to talk about. Even now, if it’s important, my mom will text her. I don’t go for the easy route—I’m slightly histrionic. She didn’t say anything, and I don’t know what there would have been to say. I already knew, my worst fears confirmed, and she knew that I knew.
“I mean, Jesus Ash. With him? Really?” My incredulity was thicker and more palpable than cough syrup, and probably just as hard to choke down. I couldn’t bring myself to say the name of her sin out loud. I don’t know why.
She had music playing, like she always did, and it was something I hated, like rap or Green Day. To add insult to injury, she was wearing one of his shirts. I stood in the doorway, trying to look as casual as I could even though every word stung with betrayal. Her betrayal of me. I knew we hadn’t exactly been close for a few years, but really? How could she do this to me? She was supposed to be my little sister. The oldest and most treasured creed in my entire life was the underlying directive that I was supposed to protect her, and I’d failed that somehow.
Maybe if I’d had the balls to run him over, none of this would have been happening.
“You aren’t even a freshman yet.” And there was that nagging voice at the back of my mind, the one pushing towards the front to be heard. A voice that said, maybe I didn’t care so much because she was my sister, or because she would inevitably get hurt, or that she was too young for something this emotionally demanding. It was a voice that said maybe the only reason I cared was out of jealousy and self-concern.
Seventeen, and I hadn’t had a boyfriend since the sixth grade. All of my friends were suddenly deeply involved in relationships—some of which were getting intimate—and I was beginning to feel like the outsider looking in. Some sort of womanly rite-of-passage had occurred, one which I could only imagine, and my younger sister had experienced it before me, had knowledge outside of my understanding. It didn’t seem fair. I was mad all over again, bristling with it, lashing out.
“You know, for someone who is so desperate to get out of here, for someone who wants to grow up and do something with her life, doing that was pretty retarded.” No response—she just followed me warily with her eyes. I knew I was trying to hurt her, trying to make her feel guilty. It was the only weapon at my disposal. “Because let me tell you something. If you do something stupid, like get yourself pregnant? Your life is over. And you will stay in this house forever. Understand me?”
My self-righteous anger was cloying—smothering me with disappointment in myself and in her. I couldn’t take it anymore, and I slammed out of her room as fast as I could. But next door, in my own room, I still couldn’t escape that damn music.
My first night home for Christmas break from college I was asleep, when suddenly I woke up to the sounds of Ashley getting into bed. She sleeps in my bed while I’m away—mostly because it’s the best bed in the whole house. I looked over at her blearily, and she realized she had woken me up.
“Sorry, I was trying to be quiet.” I shook my head at her, indicating it was no big deal. Disoriented, I looked at the clock. 2 a.m. Nice. “I just got back from the cast party.” She had been in the community theater production, like I had been for years before going away to school. I smiled thinking about it.
“Did it go all right?” I hadn’t been able to attend thanks to my late flight.
“Yup, just fine.” By this point she had snuggled in, and I scooted over to give her some more room. It was nice and warm, and it was the first time I had seen her all day. Still mostly asleep, but awake enough for conversation, I stretched over and gave her a hug. She gave me one back. “Sorry you couldn’t come. We all missed you.”
I guess, in the long term, I haven’t messed things up so badly after all.
Even as I write this I check my Facebook, and get an update that my sister has changed her status. It’s gone from “In a Relationship” to “Engaged”. This is the third time, and she’s only nineteen. I leave her a snarky comment, something witty like, “You won’t mind if I don’t buy the toaster until after the ceremony this time, right?” I receive a snarky answer in return. Do I think that she’ll actually go through with it? Who knows?
But I’ll be there … And I’ll promise not to hit the groom on the way.