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The Cold War

Mary had been with me everywhere.  The ups, the downs, the countless moves to different cities and states.  I couldn’t shake her.  My sibling barnacle knew all my moves and how to push all my buttons.  She was my rival, always nearby, a sentient shadow.  And one day when we were coming back from Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors I just, well, snapped.  A moment later when I realized where I was, all I saw was my little sister (not even one whole year younger than me – clinging stubbornly close even in age) lying there on Gower Street with a scoop of vanilla rolling slowly to the gutter.  It lost its glint as it picked up debris and quickly started to melt.

I felt panicky because Mary would tell Mom and then Mom would in turn kill me.

Advantage Mary.

Mary leveraged this information for a few days, a wise move, for she was able to keep me in check all that time.  She didn’t know it, but she didn’t need to have this hand over me; because something unfamiliar was nagging at me, and it had nothing to do with the fear of recrimination.  For I remembered well that we weren’t always like this, and at least for a while after what we’d forever call “the ice cream incident,”  I felt kind of….(I guess) bad.

Don’t get me wrong, we got along well enough sometimes.  After all, we were in different classes at LeConte Jr. High (me – 8th; she – 7th) and didn’t have to see each other a lot.  But just a short couple of years before, when we were Elementary School kids, we were inseparable.

It had been that way ever since Mom brought baby Mary from the hospital and she’d joined my older sibs Laura and Luis in our house.  Laura was a few years older than us and Luis was a few years older than Laura, so those two were not our rivals.  They were more like bosses.  Having older siblings made Mary and I naturally ally together.

Adventurous types, we even ran away from home together (repeatedly) and committed petty acts of vandalism against our Mom’s cigarette habit (breaking Tareytons AND ashtrays). We were early activists whose spontaneous absenteeism gave us firsthand knowledge of the Tulsa Police, and they of us.

 With birthdays on the 6th and 10th of August, we shared on the 8th. It was cool...for awhile.

With birthdays on the 6th and 10th of August, we shared on the 8th. It was cool…for awhile.

  By the time I was 5 and Mary was 4 we looked almost exactly alike, and would remain the same height, one never getting any taller than the other, for years.  Evincing a possible problem with her vision, Mom called Mary and me “Mutt and Jeff.”

But we were doing better back then too, we lived in a big house and we always had enough money.  By Junior High though, we were not doing so great, stuck in a cramped apartment and always short on money.

In the house we’d lived in the 5th and 6th Grade there was also a new and unknown element, a stepsister who taught us the concept of discord (I guess she was competing for the attention she used to have).  She set us at one another and by the time we’d moved away from her and into smaller quarters and in another state (California) a pattern had been set.  With less free space it became hard to break out of this pattern.

We quickly became rivals, and like animals competing for diminishing resources during a drought, we turned on one another.  Our little apartment at The Lido was our parched Serengeti watering hole and there was nary a raincloud in sight.

We knew each other so well that neither could hold an advantage for long.  Perversely, probing for weakness became the only thing we really cooperated on.  But we both had those emotional buttons, everybody’s got those, right?  When mine were pushed I’d go into a rage, when Mary’s were she would sob hysterically, and that in turn would cleverly push my last button, the disarmament one.  And when that happened she felt she’d earned the victory.

Well played Mary.

We ate our meals together at the same small table, putting our arms up and around our food in a protective gesture.  We were like people in prison, quietly setting up our own inviolable spaces.  Flyovers to reach for salt and pepper were not even permitted.  One would mutter a “salt” or “pepper” and it would be silently delivered by the other.  We’d rise separately to get more food, always looking back with a mean look of warning.

We both had friends but they were not the same.  We spent a fair amount of energy trying to get our own sides together and couldn’t stand it if a friend was nice to the other sibling.  We’d try to get our friends to score points for us by making up names and insults for one another.  I rejoiced when my friend Enrique started calling Mary “Big Bird,” however she was equally pleased when her friend Enna starting calling me “Peckerhead.”  Playing as we were for such high stakes, it was ‘anything goes’ to break the stalemate.

Our older sister Laura never took sides.  Instead she just did fun things with us that usually seemed to defuse our mutual tension.  Perhaps unfairly, we saw that as no help at all.  So early on during our cold war we looked to our Mom to tip the scales one way or the other.  For awhile there we outdid ourselves currying favor with her – she usually just found it annoying.

Our Mom turned out to be a bad arbitrator.  If one of us did something wrong we both got punished.  I often thought her glasses must have been so out of prescription she thought we were conjoined twins or something.  But I realized later she did that to stop one’s lobbying efforts against the other; and it actually worked quite well. She refused to pick sides, punished us equally and, worst of all, made us do everything together.  This only served to ratchet up the tension, and it made us, improbably, more evenly matched than ever.

We watched the same TV shows, ate the same food, and usually in the same amounts.  We wore the same unisex-ish boys and girls clothes purchased from Montgomery Ward.  One time I got a pair of Vans and was sure I’d moved ahead into cool status, until I saw her wearing a pair the next day.

We did laundry together in the basement of our building.  We made endless ridiculous errands to the 7-11 and to Ralphs, sometimes two or three times a day (we were coming back from one of those during the “ice cream incident”).

Even though we had a car, Mom didn’t drive much, instead she preferred to send us out on foot to gather our daily provisions, like Parisian neighborhoodies.  But instead of returning with veal, baguettes and fresh leeks, we came back with Chef Boyardee, Kraft Mac and Cheese and Dennison’s Chili, purchased with food stamps, not Francs.  Those daily trips only served to make our precarious finances more obvious.

To and fro we walked, neither one too far ahead of the other.  It wouldn’t be fair, you see, the other would complain about being left behind.  And if one felt the other was carrying too heavy a load or for too long; the one would simply set the bag(s) gently on the sidewalk and keep going.  A wordless battle of wills would ensue, the one seeing how far he (or she) could go without the other having to retreat (thereby admitting a muttering defeat) and pick up the abandoned bag.

I’ll admit, usually it was ‘advantage Billy’ on that one.

This all may have looked pretty strange to our fellow pedestrians but it was our cold war, not theirs.

And like the real cold war, escalation was very rare and when it occurred had to be addressed immediately.  We knew that, cooped up close together as we were (always sharing the same bedroom), any outright hostilities could completely spiral out of control.  We survived by subscribing to the theory of mutually assured destruction.  And we knew in our case it wasn’t just a theory.

I had this in mind the day of the “ice cream incident” as I profusely apologized to my sister all the way back down Gower and then up Hollywood Boulevard.  I was like Kennedy making deals to get those missiles turned around.  And thankfully, even with her elbow bleeding she agreed to another détente.

For the time being.

Oddly, photos of us arguing are extremely rare.  I think this is one, ia few years later in Florida

Oddly, photos of us arguing are extremely rare. I think this is one, a few years later in Florida.

We hadn’t gotten old enough yet to feel confident in our own separate interests so we didn’t pursue them.  But we did sometimes agree on doing something new together, if only to find a new arena to compete in and perhaps gain a lasting edge over the other.

For instance, Mom enrolled us in Caroline Leonetti’s Acting School on Sunset Boulevard.  We both were not that great, but for different reasons; I was too shy to go up and try the improv that was required, and Mary was too demonstrative, a little over the top.  We eyed each other’s performances warily, always taking the mental notes that we knew could possibly be converted into damaging insults.

We collected our Leonetti certificates of completion and later picked up nearly matching Screen Extras Guild cards.  We were ready to be unleashed on Hollywood.  We hoped that maybe the powers that be in Tinseltown would finally decide this thing once and for all.

We answered a cattle call in Century City.  It was for some ice cream company we’d never heard of, called Flav-O-Rich.  There were maybe 30 kids herded into a big room, brought into another smaller room one at a time.  We were equally excited, the one taking great care to not show more or less enthusiasm than the other.

They just looked at our head shots, only occasionally glancing up to see the real (nervous) article standing there before them.  No questions, maybe a comment, an aside.  Then we were sent out – “Next!”

We heard nothing.  When it was all over the head shot ogler came in and picked out about a dozen kids.  Both Mary and I made the cut.  Crap.  Well, I guess it was better than her in and me out.  Her inclusion somewhat soured my joy over being in a commercial and I could tell by the look on Mary’s face, she felt the same.

A few days later we arrived on set.  The scene was a junior high school dance.  They put the boys in a row on one side and the girls on the other so they could match us up photogenically.  I drew the tallest girl there (no, it wasn’t Mary).  She was taller than me and I was embarrassed.  Mary drew the tallest boy there and he was actually the same height as my new dance partner.  Mary and her partner made more visual sense than me and mine and I didn’t like that at all, it was unfair (we said everything was unfair).

I would have to make a star turn; I would have to get closer to the camera to even things out.  After rudimentary instruction, the cameras rolled on the first scene.  Basically the kids had to dance, as well as we could (they didn’t show us how) anyway.  My partner and I started in the back of the room and I tried to steer us up towards the camera while a cheesy song blared in the background.  It was a tough sled.  Though not fat, as I said she was taller and surely outweighed me.

I managed to get around the middle of the pack, during that take and several retakes.  They’d stop rolling before the end of the song if something wasn’t right, I realized later that was because a burst of confetti closed out the commercial; and who’d want to sweep all that up in between takes?  They had to turn the set around for another commercial later anyway.

I never saw Mary during any take, therefore I couldn’t assess her efforts and that made me feel helpless.  I just had to do the best I could and hope she didn’t show me up.  I couldn’t wait to see this thing on TV!

I asked a crew guy what Flav-O-Rich was and he told me it was an ice cream that was sold only in the South.  Which meant that I would probably never see it, unless we suddenly moved to Alabama or something.  Great, the parity between Mary and I would have to stay in place a little while longer.  It turned out it was a lot longer, for neither of us ever saw it.

Stubbornly, with great reluctance, we both got a little older and even started to develop our own interests.  I was into art and she was into music.  She didn’t even begrudge my getting taller than her but she did give me a run for my money.  I topped out at 6’2” and she, 5’11”.  Growing more as we did into our own identities, our virtual Berlin Wall began to come down.

By the time the real wall came down in West Germany in ’89, we were pretty copacetic, even learning how to argue without everything escalating all out of control.  And looking back, I wouldn’t trade these memories and experiences, as bizarre as some of them were, for anything. Because we mirrored each other in rivalry but also in respect. We went from being cold warriors to fellow veterans, returning from a long ago war and reminiscing.

A posed shot, yes, but it does give the picture of recent tranquility.

A posed shot, yes, but it does give the picture of recent tranquility.

But some of that old tension remains; I still know her buttons to push and she mine.  Incredibly, they’re still the same and they still all work.

If you see Mary and I now and you ask her about that little (barely noticeable) scar on her elbow, she will temporarily revert back to that 12 year old, make a face and say, “Billy pushed me!  He ruined my ice cream!”  All the while pointing at me accusingly. Always trying to score points, always trying to gain the advantage and break that old stalemate.

But that’s ok; I’m getting closer to finding that Flav-O-Rich commercial which will vindicate me once and for all.

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