Seconds after I turn 30, my sister Ava hands me a tequila shot. The entire New Orleans bar had just erupted in a huge “Happy Birthday!”, undoubtedly due to the urgings of my two amazing baby sisters, and I am flushed with good feelings already, not to mention plenty of alcohol.
“Love you,” she says, kissing me right on the mouth. We throw the shots back together, and the night continues.
I freeze frame that memory for a few reasons. 1) There is actual video footage of this happening, 2) the moment I turned 30 was better than all of my twenty-something birthdays combined, and 3) Ava, the older of my two sisters, deserves so much credit for the joy that was that night and the weekend that preceded it.
Ava was my first friend. I didn’t go to preschool, so she was, perhaps to her detriment, my only social outlet. We were different animals as kids. I craved social interaction. I was precocious and loud, stating my emotions and opinions proudly, shushing Ava when she had even the tiniest thing to add. Ava was quieter, more reserved. She had a sweet, tiny voice and huge blue eyes. She loved animals more than anything, reading books about dog breeds in her spare time. She had messy, tangled hair and refused to change out of her “stretchy pants” for days on end. She was the cuddliest of kids, always wanting to hold our dogs close to her face or curl into one of our parents’ laps.
For a long time, she listened to everything I said.
We fought all the time. I used, caustic, biting words that I knew would hurt; she had a powerful little fist that always got the last punch. But we knew each other better than anyone else, almost to a fault.
We were two years apart in school. The more time went by, the more Ava wanted to separate herself from me. So it goes with so many siblings. She established herself as the “math and science type” pretty quickly, not long after I had secured my spot as the “writer” in the family. We wore different kinds of clothes, chose different kinds of friends. She had boys around, talking on the phone with attentive boyfriends late into the night; I went on dates with flaky older guys but spent most Saturday nights surrounded by my tribe of girlfriends. We both played tennis, but we were unable to play together because it always ended in a competitive explosion of frustration. I cried to express myself; she got angry.
At a certain point, she started to ignore everything I said. At least that’s what I thought was happening.
When our parents split up, we created a kind of silent alliance. We wouldn’t be friends, but we’d cry together during the hard parts and bitch together about the frustrating parts and show each other, every day, that we could keep moving forward and refuse to crumble. And so we did. Academics, sports, social lives. We kept on keeping on. We both got into colleges we really loved and didn’t consider each other when deciding where to go. There was that silent understanding that we had to create our own paths for ourselves, away from home.
I always liked it when she called me from school. Sometimes it was about boys, or her major, or how much she loved New Orleans. I lived vicariously through her during her Tulane years, spending hungover mornings in her comfy bed behind blackout curtains, slipping on Mardi Gras beads on the way to the bathroom. It kept on like that throughout the rest of her college years and into my sun-soaked days in Tallahassee – lots of visits, getting to know each other’s friends, feeling like equals, crying on the telephone when things hurt. We fought still, but it was different. We had figured out who were were apart from each other, and we were doing just fine.
We didn’t live in the same city again until after law school, back in Cincinnati. She’d make me bowls of sweet potatoes fries drizzled in Sriracha in her messy little kitchen and we’d talk about wine and life and money and our parents. We traveled through Italy together and caught up, finally, after years of too-short visits and phone calls. When I left home again, this time with a cute, dimpled boy and a new, shiny place in mind, I didn’t consider what it would mean for Ava and me. Looking back now, I think we were just getting started on something good.
Ava’s tiny voice is hardly tiny anymore. She has opinions, she shares them, she has convictions and plans and visions for what she wants in life. She demands respect and compassion. She packs her entire life into the trunk of her car every few months and settles in a new place, all in the pursuit of a career she truly loves. She plans things intricately and carefully. It takes a while for her to let people in; she has a very real wall up in front of those huge blue eyes, but past burns have hardly hardened her. There’s a side of her, a deeply vulnerable side, that just wants to curl up in somebody’s lap and be loved. Her biggest weakness is her impulse to give in to that comforting place no matter what the cost.
There’s a chance, and hopefully not a slim one, that Ava might be moving to Texas in the next month. I don’t want to get my hopes up. I’m trying not to boss her around this time and instead let her voice rise higher than mine. But I do know that if she does move here that I will get another chance at being her big sister, at really being there, at providing that comforting place when she needs it the most.
My 30th birthday in New Orleans, which will always be Ava’s city in my mind, showed me that Ava has been listening for all these years, intently even. She gave me the kind of weekend that only a sister can plan for another sister. I miss the buzz and the tequila-fueled giggles on those crooked NoLa streets, but I miss her more.
And so here I am, curled up with my bowl of sweet potatoes, content with my little dinner on the couch. I mix ketchup with the sriracha – Ava has always liked things spicier than I do – to tone it down, and sometimes dip the wedges in egg and panko breadcrumbs to find a nice crunch.
I’ll probably turn on Friends in a little bit, grab a blanket, and wish really hard that my sweet, blue-eyed little sister was here to share it all with me.