A candid moment of me and my sister.

Baby Jane

I don’t understand siblings who are born best friends. There is no way that someone is born into a family, nurtured for the first few years of their life, loved endlessly, and then another child comes along without scoff or contempt from the firstborn. Not only do these people live together for years on end, but they come to love and spend time with one another, voluntarily. It is impossible for me to rack my brain around or accept. I just think if they’re consistently that nice to each other after all those years, the siblings either are so emotionally traumatized that they assume repression or are sharing a secret that depends on strong alibis from both ends to keep it under wraps. What happened to the neighbor’s cat? Timmy and Joanne wouldn’t know! They were too busy sharing the chips and salsa special at Chili’s.

I understand the mere existence of triplets and twins and septuplets who accept each other’s existence as viable and amazing intervene this hypothesis, but these siblings have not known anything other than the circumstances under which they live. They have never understood not having a sibling, so the rivalries are potentially less intense or nonexistent. Families with an extended amount of children that depend on the checks from their guaranteed multi-season show on The Learning Channel may just be exhausted. There are too many potential rivalries to have with 19 kids and counting, so they just comply to save the time for better things in their 30-minute primetime slot. They’re also typically Mormon, and angry Mormons don’t exist.

Mormons don’t have much to be unhappy about. My sister Mackenzie, however, has seen better, Ryanless days. As an only child, she grew up moving from Maryland to Germany upon my father’s Army enlistment. She lived a life of zero-sibling luxury, taking advantage of her parents’ then happy marriage, absorbing all attention from them, and assuming the role of her grandmother’s sole grandchild. When I entered the world on August 6, 1998, Mackenzie was 4 years old and unpleased. She had already done so much in such little time, seen the world and settled in another part of the country: Colorado. What could I, a fresh, screaming plebeian child, offer her? When asked to hold me that day, she simply responded, “I don’t wanna touch it.” And that’s where it all began.

The stories from my infancy that my mom has recounted in front of our “family” friends– her friends– are vast in number. Mackenzie would poke me, harm me, and make me cry, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was sitting in disgust, plotting how to remove me from the family well before I knew I possessed that choice. One of my earliest memories as a child is from the time I petitioned for the right to play with my sister’s dolls because I got bored with my GI Joe. He didn’t offer much for me back then, and he still doesn’t today, even with the movie trilogy starring Dwayne Johnson. My mom heard my extremely convincing case and granted me full access to the wide array of dream houses, Bratz, and silicone Polly Pocket clothes that my basement offered. Everything I ever wanted was in that basement. Upon my mom’s exit from the courtroom– our kitchen– my sister retreated to her room, where I imagine she began playing with another doll, one that involves sharp objects and a lock of my hair. I immediately began playing in the basement, starting off by testing the capacities of the Barbie Dream House elevator, adrenaline later rushing through my body as I set up Chloe’s date with a Bratz Boy. Mackenzie was angry. She spent so much time staring at me from the basement stairs, possibly tallying how many times the couple kissed on their date. When she got too emotional, she would run back to her room, then come back, more frustrated than before.

A few hours later, she returned to the basement to find me sunning Ken at his Malibu beach house. That should’ve been her applying miniscule sunglasses to Kenneth’s dark, chiseled plastic face. They were her dolls, and she loved them unconditionally and endlessly. She walked up to me, calm and collected, making me think she was ready to play. Her face then turned beet red as she began whisper-yelling at me, so our mom didn’t hear. She kept asking why I wouldn’t play with GI Joe before grabbing him and throwing him against the wall. She then returned to me, grabbed my forearm, and twisted her hands in opposite directions to subsequently give me what is classically and inappropriately known as an Indian Burn. I began to cry and call for our mom to come and stop this madness, to which Kenzie turned around, walked two steps away, then turned back towards me, this time with a concerned look on her face as she asked me what was wrong and why I was crying, showcasing her tremendous potential to be a sociopath before my mother ran downstairs. That’s when I first felt true fear.

I felt other kinds of fear as I got older, but all varieties contributed to the overall flavor of consistent anxiety and insecurity. This happened when I played the Jelly Belly game where you eat a jellybean and it could taste like a coveted Tutti Frutti or it could be a fart in your mouth. Sometimes, I would emulate what that felt like for Mackenzie, almost like she deserved it. I was 4 years old when my parents divorced, and I would spend the weekends with my father before going back to my mother’s for the other five days of the week. When our parents divorced and my mom took the larger part of joint custody, she also took the larger part of responsibility for answering our questions about what was going on. This can take quite a toll on any sensible person– especially when your children share a relationship equivalent to that of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis– so naturally, she attempted to silence us using a variety of different methods. On one occasion, she came home with toy gloves made of foam, the same size and shape as Hulk’s bulging green fists, and instructed us to “beat each other up with it.” We complied. Another instance, she was just so tired of our calling her to the crime scene whenever we believed the other sibling should be punished, so she threatened to change her name from “Mom” to “Michele,” and we would have to address her in nothing more than an inside voice. If we failed to abide, she would put soap in our mouths. We shut up pretty quickly, the soap remained in the cupboards, and Michele remained my mother’s exclusively social name; but we did have a new rule: “No calling for Mom unless someone’s bleeding.”

One time, whether out of exhaustion from answering our questions about divorce, wanting us to be nice to something, or a combination of both, my mother took us to our local Walmart’s pet section and let us select a betta fish each. These would be our own children. I would finally be a parent, able to let my new son do everything I wasn’t allowed to do. I would be a fun parent, probably racking up a few PTO awards on the way, and it would all be for how amazing I was as a father. I imagined going to book club, revelling in laughter as us members discussed our children’s accomplishments and the issues of parenting. “How old is he?” “I don’t know… Michele purchased him at Walmart a couple weeks ago.”

We bought our sons’ tanks along with cute rocks, fake coral, and other nautical decorations one could find a four-year-old reaching for alone before realizing he was lost in Walmart because his mother assumed he would just move along with her through the aisles. After a quick visit to customer service and a call through the intercom, we were back on our way to parental greatness.

In the car, we christened the fish with new names. Fitting for the year– 2002– and our ages– 4 and 8– we named our bettas after characters from Pixar’s Finding Nemo franchise. Kenzie chose Squirt, the baby sea turtle that’s only in one scene. I, of course, was very happy with Nemo. His name is in the title because of his importance. It has a deep cultural history of sea captains and oceanity, so he was obviously destined for better things than Squirt.

When we got home, we decorated their tanks with blue-and green sea glass marbles. Nemo’s tank had one of those fake plants you suction to the bottom. It was minimalist chic, if you ask me.

Next, it was our fishes’ time to move to a space larger than a container of sour cream, something they were subjected to in their Walmart days. We set their tanks on the kitchen counter, prepared for every move, coordinated like a synchronized swim team. Nemo, obviously ready for the transition into a meaningful life of getting to know his father, slipped into the tank when poured out of his container. We were bonded. Squirt was also ready for this new life, but my sister chose to extract him from his container by pouring him into a fish net. Squirt, a little too excited to be breathing the same air as his mother, jumped out and into our kitchen sink to breathe a little longer.

Both my mother and my sister refused to touch the fish, and they were yelling at me to touch the fish, even though they forgot to ask if I even wanted to touch the fish. Still, they assigned me to somehow exhume Squirt from a potential gravesite with my small, bare hands. It’s already stressful enough parenting one child. Now I have to do it for my sister, too? Disgraceful.

I had only so much knowledge about life at this point. Much of my awareness now has stemmed from my sister breaking the seal on what “real” life was actually like approximately 14 years before I needed it. This happened when I was 7 and Mackenzie noted the eerie similarities between Sandy the Leprechaun and the Tooth Fairy’s handwriting compared to that of my stepfather’s. This procedure was repeated the following year when asked by my sister why I thought Santa set out the gifts a week before Christmas– though, to be fair, my parents tried to keep the magic alive by saying that Santa gives the gifts to their parents weeks in advance, but this notion was demolished when I returned to school after winter break and asked around.

Mackenzie realized the world for me, intentionally ruining everything for me like I ruined independent ownership of Barbie dolls and existing without a sibling for her. She also had a right to be angry, beyond just our childhood. When she broke her wrist from playing volleyball in high school, her arm was under plaster and gauze for weeks. She was able to move from a cast to a brace, and lucky enough to fight me the summer her brace was on. She began making fun of my middle school scarf phase, the fuel for many bullies of my time. Out of anger, I pulled her arm and slightly refractured her wrist. At the time of Squirt’s sink situation, though, much of our frustration with each other wasn’t very complex; we were primal, slightly sadistic, and burdened with having the other as a sibling, and that was that.

As for Squirt, I don’t really know why my sister decided I would be capable of saving her fish, let alone my 38-year-old mother, but they believed I could. When elected to grab a fish from a sink, there is a method to not, you know, kill the fish. This can typically be accomplished by scooping your hand, pushing the fish’s floundering body to a corner of the sink with your handscoop adjacent to the sink. Once the fish hops into your hands, you cup your other hand over its body, forming a ball with your hands. From there, you move your hands over the tank and release the fish into its home. You have saved a fish, so you congratulate yourself, the fish thanks you for your service, and you’re the hero of the day.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t even know how to read, let alone save the life of an animal with which I had no emotional attachment. I didn’t know how to tie my shoes, cook food, pour a glass of water, or dial 911. So here I went to grab this fish. I ran the water so he didn’t die, then tried prying him out with my fingers in a crab claw formation. These actions proved faulty, and Squirt kept jumping all around the sink. After one more attempt, I grabbed him! I did it! Look at me! At that same moment, I discovered how slimy fish are. This was not the same consistency of a breaded fish stick, as I previously thought, and per my disappointment and disgust with Squirt’s, er, texture, I dropped him back in the sink. He fell into the stream of water, swirling down the drain. Luckily, he went down the garbage disposal drain. There was a chance of saving him! I just had to scare him back out by turning it on. Thank God, I thought my sister would be angry.

I reached for the switch, flipped it, and like a slow-motion scene in any action movie, the blades turned on. My sister fell to her knees in terror, screaming and beginning to cry. My mom watched in horror, before looking over at me in absolute shock, her jaw dropped as she began gasping for air, much like Squirt moments before. When I looked back down at the drain, I noticed the fish never came back up. I turned off the garbage disposal, confused and outraged that my plan didn’t work, but understanding that Squirt didn’t want to come out of the drain. Who would want to spend the rest of their life with Mackenzie anyways?

My mother tried her best to console my sister, saying that Squirt, or at least parts of Squirt, would end up in the ocean. He was already there swimming with the whales! This was extremely plausible, as the coast of Colorado is famous for its abundance of humpbacks. I was sold, but Kenzie was less so. She learned to resent me that night, more than she already did. She became more aggressive than she already was, and that remained the case for much of our growing up together.

I never understood at full capacity what happened that night until my sophomore year of high school when I realized why I hate eating fish. It’s just so slimy, and even looking at fish in the grocery store brings back an immediate distaste for the scales that Squirt once had. At that point, my sister was in her freshman year of college. I called to apologize, and for the first time in her life, she considered forgiving me. She didn’t, but I know that hesitation in her response was at least a thought of coming together. We didn’t end up voluntarily enjoying each other’s time until I went home for Christmas during my own freshman year of college. Eighteen years of living to get to the point where we called each other just to talk and vented about our parents’ attempts to control us in adult life. We were an atypically aggressive sibling pair, but hey, only dead fish go with the flow.

Nemo lived for 4 years.