DeenaByrne.com
Author.Traveler.Eater

Essays

I've written a bunch of nonfiction essays as an as-yet unpublished collaboration with my sister I wrote several years ago. Read on and let me know what you think!

Birth Order

There’s a home video of me sans my two front teeth, roller skating up and down the driveway while swinging around my near Crystal Gale-length hair. I had a hoarse voice due to a minor head cold, but it was clear I would have been healthy enough to sit in Ms. Parker’s first grade class and participate in a discussion about the philosophical meaning of “The Baby Uggs are Hatching.” For the first and last time in my life, I begged to stay home “sick” from school. My request was granted, luckily. I was too antsy, and I probably would have been misdiagnosed with ADHD if I tried to sit in school. My mother lacked the energy to argue, anyways—she was a little preoccupied going into labor with my baby brother.

At barely seven years old, I was accustomed to being the baby of the family. It was a role I relished, easily taking on the traits of the sensitive attention-seeker and occasional Drama Queen. I took no issue with following in my big sister’s footsteps, and I adopted everything from her penchant for Little Debbie’s Swiss Cake Rolls to her spot-on Urkel impression. When we played school, I rarely objected to being the student, while my sister taught me math equations by taking chalk to the dark wood of her bedroom door. I cried when she had her first big girl sleepover at the age of nine, and I insisted on curling up in my sleeping bag and listening from the sidelines in the living room, while the older girls made prank calls and played Truth or Dare in the neighboring family room. Needless to say, the addition of my brother, Jordan, as the new baby in town could have sent me on a soul seeking mission that led me to adopt body art and multiple piercings to re-capture my parents’ attention. Instead, much to my parents’ relief, I avoided becoming a seven-year-old version of trampy Courtney Love and chose expressive hair bows, painting my nails with intricate designs, and clothing with embellishments as my anti-rebellion. As my quirky fashion sense now set me apart from Amy and baby alike, I was free to embrace the role of big sister.

Since my sister had expedited my reading comprehension by playing the aforementioned schoolteacher to my student, I decided to return the favor by reading frequently to my brother. We also worked on music appreciation as I integrated “Proud to be an American,” the song my first grade teacher required we learn for the soldiers in Desert Storm, in with the entire musical score from “Barney in Concert.” I asked to hold him on occasion, sitting far back on the couch with my legs dangling far above the floor. As I stared down at his perfectly round head and large, almost black eyes, I was so overcome with fascination at this tiny person that I had no room to feel neglected.

And then he began to talk.

At first, his attempts at speech were so far removed from comprehensible English that I laughed along with everyone else as he uttered “Cun-geeee” for cookie and “yai yai” for french fry. Suddenly, though, it seemed as if he was trying to steal my thunder as the ostentatious sibling. As his vocabulary increased, so did his interest in using it. My father used to plug a microphone into our stereo system and record our voices on cassette tapes. One day, I insisted on singing “A Whole New World” with gusto, giving those primitive sound speakers a run for their money. As I performed both Aladdin and Jasmine’s parts with my intentionally wavering, non-intentionally nasal voice, I failed to notice my then-two-year-old brother waiting in the wings for his moment. After I concluded, my brother took the mike for his virgin debut. He answered a few of the standard questions posed by my dad, such as which pre-school he attended and what his favorite food was, and then he launched into song. With seemingly no fears of upstaging me, he executed a, frankly, juvenile rendition of “A Whole New World.”

Cue the sibling rivalry. Though my sister and I were close in age at just three years apart, I butted heads with the boy seven years my junior. His affinity for Aladdin was not a good start, because I was the one who obsessed over cartoons in the Wlodawski household. Did he dedicate four hours each Saturday morning to the Nickelodeon cartoon line-up? Hardly, it was I who rose at seven with my pink blanket and bathed in the blue glow of the television set, standard blue plastic cup full of orange juice in hand. He knew this, and yet he challenged me.

While my friend Kristina and I choreographed a dance to Aladdin’s “Friend in Me” for the school talent show, Jordan insisted on interrupting our daily rehearsals. The grand finale was when Kristina and I did matching back walkovers, ending in opposite leg splits. Jordan, then two years old, could manage to lay on his back with his arms hyper-extended above his head.

“Daddy, watch my back ‘wover!’” He’d say, not only getting in the way of rehearsals, yet, I was convinced, making a mockery of the most difficult part of our routine.

He applied similar techniques a couple of years later, when Kristina and I choreographed an African inspired number set to music from “The Lion King.” At that point, I was getting a little old for cartoons, so I left my public legacy of obsession to Jordan. Though he enjoyed Mufasa as much as the next toddler, he extended his appreciation to all things superhero. He watched Spiderman cartoons and insisted on getting a uniform to parade in around the house. At this point, I was in middle school and found his lowbrow form of entertainment worthy of frequent eye rolls. One day after school, I stood around with my friends, blowing bubbles of cotton candy-flavored Bubblelicious while I waited for my mom to arrive and chauffer me home. I must have been distracted by talk of the latest pleather craze, because I didn’t notice my mom honking her horn to signal her arrival. I did, however, notice Jordan hanging outside the passenger side window, clad in a Spiderman unitard, yelling that I had to hurry and get in the car. I blushed through my terra cotta colored mask of foundation and ducked into the car in mortification. At that age, it seemed as if he existed merely to upstage or humiliate me.

Once I started high school, it was to be the first time my sister and I were in the same school together since elementary school. She was a senior and I was a freshman, so the disparity in our roles couldn’t have been more obvious, but we found a slight common ground. Rather than wait for my parents to pick me up or be forced to hitch a ride with a reckless upperclassman, I was fortunate to have a guaranteed ride with my sister each day. As a gawky freshman, I felt my cool quotient rise as I walked beside her in her dance team uniform. At her encouragement, I joined the Honor Society and the Student Council, and we attended the collective general meetings together. When she ran for Homecoming Queen and wrote a promotional skit based on “One Night at the Roxbury,” I felt cool to be included as the Cheri Oteri-type of character who spent the majority of her time onstage getting bounced between the overeager chests of two upperclassmen. My sister lent me her freshman year homecoming dress for the skit, so I was bounced in style. People came to know me as her sister, so the task of making a name for myself was a double-edged sword. Fortunately, with our age and maturity differences, no one was mistaking us for each other.

During high school, I had abandoned all desire to fight with Jordan, and, for the first time since the Barney years, I embraced my role as big sister. At his request, we installed a basketball hoop in the driveway. Countless days were spent playing “Horse” and “21,” and considering my age and height advantage combined with my athletic inadequacy, it was decent competition. During summer, we both enjoyed swimming and playing netless volleyball with bouncy balls in the pool. With Amy in college, the family adjusted to dinners with just four palates to please. As he was making his way through elementary school, Jordan developed an undying love for Reese’s peanut butter cups, and King Sized packages filled the freezer and cabinets daily. For the first time in about a decade, we had pre-packaged sweets in the house, which was any teenager’s dream. I complained when he would change the channel from “Full House” to “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” but I secretly enjoyed the action and unexpected romance between Kimberly, the pink ranger, and Tommy, the green ranger. We formed a bond despite our age difference and incomparable interests, and I found I missed that most of all when I moved away to go to college.

I was the acting oldest child for three years while my sister was away at school, so by the time I joined her in college there was a bit of an adjustment period. After years of trying to assert my independence, I knew I didn’t want to fall back into my role of follower. Of course, we share so many common interests that it was inevitable I would seek her advice and lead, but I was determined to be different. While she preferred cereal in the mornings, I chose oatmeal, and though she chose to major in psychology, I chose journalism. Aside from those two disparities, we enjoyed the same food, friends and activities, so it was basically like living with an extension of me. Because I knew nothing other than living with her, I took it for granted that we were comfortable enough to take chances cooking, and in the same breath discuss how it adversely affected our stomachs. Future roommates proved not so eager to do the same, so I wish I hadn’t taken it for granted back then. Though I wouldn’t realize it until afterward, I fell back into my role as little sister, declining to take out the trash or deep clean the apartment until told to do so. I knew she would take care of it, and she always did. I never had to worry about mismatched values or standards of living, because we were raised within two feet of each other our entire lives. Issues were never given the chance to build up, because if we did not agree on something, we would have a tête-à-tête right then and there. Despite our repetitive argument that I thought she was trying to mother me, we grew closer than ever before in those three years.

When I moved to New York immediately following graduation, Jordan was in high school and starting to get involved with the musical theatre department. Post-Spiderman impersonation phase, he was a reserved child, so everyone was surprised to see how animated he got while playing the cop during his school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” As a former failed drama student, I was impressed that my brother’s talents seemed to exceed mine about a hundred times over. While I would never grow to play Blanche Dubois—a character after my own heart—in any believable fashion, he was convincing as the antagonistic cop that was as removed from his personality as could be. As he added more plays to his repertoire, he continued his artistic exploration into music by learning to sing and play the keyboards. He was the classic case of the shy child-cum-multi-talented actor, and for the first time I began to see how his version of “A Whole New World” had been preferable for a reason.

As our relationships have continued to mature, I’ve come to relish being wedged awkwardly in the middle of my siblings. They’ve both grown into people I truly respect and enjoy spending time with, rather than being forced to while crammed into our childhood living quarters. We continue to grow and diverge in certain areas, but we all agree on our appreciation for musical theater. Amy and I can appreciate theater with the verve of a thousand “Les Miserables” revivals, and Jordan could actually grow to star in the Broadway version. And maybe he’ll get us backstage passes? He kinda has to—we’re family.