I knew Shannon couldn’t help being talented and intelligent. It wasn’t her fault that she always came home with straight A’s and that she had a natural talent for music and art. It also wasn’t her fault that her hair flowed softly over her shoulders and that she had the long willowy body of a model. But none of these things helped me any.
It was the summer before I was to enter high school. Everytime I looked in the mirror there was another freckle until they were all over everywhere, even on my toes. I was plump and dumpy, and I had hair that would only go the way it wasn’t supposed to go. I marveled that our parents’ genes could play such a dirty trick. How could one child turn out so lovely, enchanting, and full of grace, and the other turn out to be a homely little 16-year-old nobody.
That summer things were at an all-time, record-breaking low for me because I was to enter Jackson High School in September. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I begged my parents to let me transfer to another school, but they could see no sense in it. It made perfect sense to me. Shannon had been junior prom queen and secretary of her class and had sung the lead in the big musical just the year before. How could I follow in those footsteps? I also got nauseated at the thought of hearing those words again—the words I had heard all through Everest Elementary and Weston Junior High: “Is Shannon your sister?” (with the accent on the your). “Why she’s so beautiful … so talented …” (so everything you’re not). I knew I would hear those words dozens of times. They would bring tears of anger to my eyes. Yet how could they help being amazed? It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
Even though I knew no one was to blame, certainly not Shannon, I took my unhappiness out on her. There are subtle ways to persecute a sister. I knew them all. When she was trying to take a nap, I turned up my radio. When she tried a new recipe, I refused to eat it because it looked “funny.” I slipped into the shower just as she was getting ready to take one. I borrowed her shoes without asking. And I hurt her in thousands of more painful psychological ways.
But, Shannon never complained. It was always “Good morning, Janet.” Her cheerfulness made it worse, and I tried to think of more ways to make her angry. Nothing I did, however, seemed to stir her quiet grace. I guess the worst way I hurt Shannon was when I tuned her out of my life. I stopped telling her things, stopped sharing secrets, and stopped listening. When she came into my room just to talk, I would cut her off with “I’m busy right now.” She would walk out of my room sadly, and pretty soon she quit coming in. Our communication deteriorated to one- and two-word sentences. That summer we stopped being close because I wanted it that way.
Then it happened. It was just two weeks before school would start, and I had a date with Robert Bates. It was only the second date I had had all summer, and Robert was a pretty super guy. I had no idea why he had lowered himself to asking me out unless it was because we had had some fun times during roadshow rehearsals. I was excited and nervous, but I knew we’d have a good time because we got along pretty well. We doubled with Jill Quigley and John Turnbine and the date turned out to be even more fun than I had anticipated. In fact, I hadn’t had so much fun all summer.
Afterwards we stopped at my house for ice cream, and then we all sang around the piano. Jill could play the piano almost as well as Shannon.
“All I can play is the bass viol,” I proclaimed. No one believed me, so I went upstairs to get it. I had taken up the bass viol because I knew Shannon would never try to play one. She wasn’t the bass viol type.
The wall between our bedrooms is thin, and I was puzzled to hear Shannon in her room because I knew that she had had a date with Jack Smithson. I liked Jack because he was nice to me, and I set great store in a man who can be nice to his date’s little sister. The next thing I heard puzzled me even more. It was the sound of subdued sniffling. Shannon rarely cried. What did she have to cry about? My first reaction was curiosity, but I forced myself not to speak. I didn’t want to get involved.
Picking up my bass, I started toward the stairs. Getting it down the stairs was always the most difficult part. I had gone only a few awkward steps when I heard another sniffle. I wanted to just pretend I hadn’t heard: I could just go down the stairs and no one would know I had heard Shannon crying. Well, except me. I leaned my bass against the wall, walked back to Shannon’s door and knocked.
“You okay?” I didn’t get an answer and my duty was done, so I turned back toward the stairs, but there was another sob.
“I know you’re in there. Now, what on earth is the matter?” My voice was icy.
“Nothing. Just leave me alone,” she squeaked. “Just please, please, leave me alone.”
“Well, I’ll be back.”
I showed the group my bass viol and played for them. I think Robert was impressed even though I made a couple of bad mistakes. It was getting late, however, and everyone was tired, so they left—but I knew Robert would call me again.
When I went back upstairs, Shannon was sitting by her dressing table brushing her hair, pretending that nothing was wrong. I must say she didn’t look beautiful. Her skin was blotched and her aristocratic nose was swollen and red.
“What is it? Can I help you?”
“Can I help?” I was as surprised as she was that I had said it. I guess it was because she looked so pitiful sitting there trying to pretend nothing was wrong. The shock of my concern set her off again, and she began sobbing like smooth, collected Shannon had never sobbed since we were small. It affected me so much that I put my hand on her shoulder and patted it.
“Come on. Come on. Things aren’t that bad, are they? Does it have something to do with Jack? You can tell me if you want to. I mean I’d like to hear if you feel like telling me.”
“You would?” I was ashamed at her amazement.
“Yes, I would.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind? Oh, Janet, I’m so miserable.”
“Come on; tell me about it.”
She sobbed again, gulped, and got control of herself.
“I’ve wanted so much to tell you about Jack. He’s all I’ve been able to think about for weeks. I can’t explain what it is about him. He’s different from the other boys I’ve dated. He’s so good-looking and intelligent and a good athlete, but it doesn’t seem to affect him. None of that has gone to his head. He’s always courteous and kind to people, even little children. Now I’ll never see him again.”
“Oh, it was just awful. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was nervous and jittery, and my stomach was all twisted inside. I was a bore. Finally I asked him to take me home early. I knew he was having a lousy time.”
“Oh, come now, Shannon. It’s all your imagination. Things couldn’t have been that bad.”
“They were. They were.” She began crying again. Then suddenly she blurted out some words that took me entirely by surprise.
“And it’s your fault.”
“My fault?” I couldn’t imagine what she meant. “What do you mean my fault?”
“I guess I might as well tell you what ruined the date. Just as we were going out the door, you had to come in and do one of your cute little routines. You always do that when I go out with someone—come in and show off your personality. Then, on the way out to the car, Jack said, ‘Wow, your little sister is sure a little firecracker. What a personality!’ After that the whole date was ruined. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was like a dead battery. If I could have been like you, he would have liked me. You can always think of funny, witty things to say, and you always remember jokes and sayings. I get sick of people saying, ‘Is Janet your sister? Why she’s so bubbly and so full of energy!’ What they’re really saying is that I’m a bore.”
I was so stunned that I just sat there on her bed in a stupor. “Is she your sister?” I had almost hated her for those words. Then I began laughing, but I was crying at the same time.