Speaking Clearly

My older sister Theresa got married two weeks ago, and my sister Michelle was the maid of honor. Theresa, the bride, was calm. Michelle was not.

For Michelle, the wedding was the culmination of 12 months of planning. She had survived the Vegas bachelorette party. The flowers arrived in Milwaukee and were arranged just so.

Two days before the wedding, she FaceTimed me. “The speech,” she cried. “I forgot about the speech.”

I led her through some breathing exercises I remembered from a video about giving birth. “In through the nose,” I said, ad-libbing. “Out … through the nose.”

Public speaking isn’t one of Michelle’s talents. She has enough of them. She’s a nurse at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago and much brighter than me or Theresa.

But Michelle also had a childhood speech impediment. It left her with an acute phobia of public speaking. She perfected her speech through years of speech therapy. That, and intensive bullying by me and my sister Theresa.

“Mithelle thells thea thells down by the thea thore,” we’d mock when she did her speech exercises.

I regret that now, but, you know, kids can be cruel, especially shitty kids like me and Theresa. You can bully children out of anything. Theresa and Michelle bullied me out of my Britney Spears phase. Michelle and I bullied Theresa out of calling mom “Mommy” when she was 14. It’s a natural part of the sibling ecosystem.

The difference was my mom never stepped in when Theresa and I got picked on. But if we mocked Michelle’s S sounds, my mom would explode. It was a guaranteed grounding at the least. “She never stands up for us,” we’d grumble on the way to our rooms. “It’s not our fault the girl can’t thpeak.”

We didn’t understand the trauma that comes with speech problems and why my mom was so protective. Theresa and I were 12 and eight, respectively. To us, it was blatant favoritism.

Soon Michelle’s speech problems became the nuclear bomb of West family fights. You could whip it out once every few years, and only if the situation was approaching critical mass.

I used it when Michelle and Theresa threw me into a bedpost. Only after I exhausted all other ammo: “Do you think you’re thtrong? How’s your thpeech class going, Mithelle?”

This was years after Michelle perfected her speech, but she still beat the crap out of me. I thought my mom would chain me up in the basement until I was 30. “Do your wortht, woman!” I yelled, laughing manically as she dragged me to my room.

I didn’t use the nuclear insult again until I was 19, when I was a sophomore in college. It was December and I was visiting my sisters in Milwaukee. At the time, they both went to college at Marquette University, where my dad had gone. It’s sort of the family school. I grew up a Marquette basketball fan. It was a bit of a shock when I chose to go to Michigan, five hours away from home.

My parents were in town for a basketball game, so they took us to get dinner at a restaurant downtown. My sisters and my dad talked about the season so far — I’d stopped watching. I didn’t actually talk much through the meal.

Then we headed to the Old German Beer Hall, a Milwaukee stein-and-polka joint. It’s been a Marquette student favorite since my dad was in school in the ’70s. My sister’s friends showed up — my parents knew them pretty well. Again, the conversation strayed into things I knew nothing about. My family talked about Milwaukee bars, sports teams, etc. They referenced nights I’d missed, and they’d have to recount them for me, the Ann Arborite.

Since I had nothing to say, I had plenty of time to drink. I worked through a few boots of Hefeweizen. I watched the band play polka versions of classic rock songs.

I hinted to Michelle that I wanted to leave, since I was staying on her couch. She didn’t want to go, but we stumbled to the edge of campus through the snow, toward her apartment.

We passed a chili joint called Real Chili and she dragged me inside. Fifty students waited in line for a bowl. “It’s the best chili in Milwaukee,” she said. “Probably in the country. Dad used to come here when he was a student and play Risk in this booth for hours. Theresa and I get it every Friday.”

“I get this pizza called South U at Michigan. It’s probably the best pizza in the world,” I lied. “It got like, a bunch of awards. It’s real New York style — not anything you’d get in Milwaukee.”

She wasn’t paying attention. She pointed at my bowl of chili. “Here: you’ve gotta mix it up. No — you’re doing it wrong. All the beans are at the bottom. Dad says that’s the best part.”

“You don’t have to be thuch a bitch about it Mithelle,” I said. “It’s just thitty thtupid chili.”

I slept on a bench outside her apartment that night. We had a screaming match over chili, of all things. You’re not better than this chili! was the central theme, and You can’t turn your back on the family chili, Tommy!

Michelle almost went to Michigan, too. She got in, a fact she never lets me forget. When she visited, she said no one looked happy. It was too competitive. Even the partying seemed competitive. So she chose Milwaukee, and the family chili.

Milwaukee is a poor city, barring a few lakeshore neighborhoods. Marquette University sits between downtown and the less-privileged neighborhoods. I shared a bench with two other homeless people.

But in an hour Michelle came down and picked me up off the bench. I was frozen, drunk and angry and grateful and trying not to be tearful around my sister. She supported me upstairs.

I told her that, in a lot of ways, she was right about Michigan. I wasn’t happy sophomore year. I missed feeling smart in high school. I missed feeling athletic. I missed having my best friends. I missed having fun that wasn’t just fucked up times. I missed my family. I didn’t like coming home and feeling like a stranger.

Two years after that night, I listened to Michelle nail the maid of honor speech. She told the story of Theresa and Dave’s engagement. It went like this: Dave was about to propose on the shore of Lake Michigan. Then another family came down and started spreading the ashes of a loved one. Dave panicked. He knelt down and proposed anyways, and my whole family (me included) cheered. We felt bad about the family spreading ashes, but it was one of the happiest moments our family has ever had. How could we not cheer?

Once the guests stopped laughing, Michelle tied the speech up with a comment about the circle of life. It was flawless. The room loved her comedic timing, her tear-jerking sincerity. They ate it out of her hands.

I hated it. As kids, we decided I would be the funny one, Theresa would be the cool one and Michelle could have the brains.

But Michelle’s grown out of that role. She can be smart and funny now. Maybe not cool, but give it a few years.

Around 3 a.m., after everyone was good and drunk, Theresa ordered three vats of real chili to the hotel. Me, my Dad, Michelle, Theresa and now Dave sat in the lobby and ate. We stayed up talking until Michelle’s head literally hit the table. She was exhausted from 12 months of planning and the greatest wedding speech of all time.

Dave has this absurd laugh — it sounds like a hyena getting shock therapy. When I first heard it, I pulled Theresa aside to ask if she knew her boyfriend was a serial killer. Michelle and I probably could have bullied it out of him, though. But we don’t really do that anymore. Because he’s our brother, and we love him

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