Rachael hypnotized everyone upon arrival. Adorable, red-haired, cherubic Rachael was the only reason my older sister Dawn and I ever got to enjoy free baked goods. Between Dawn’s lazy eye and pigeon toes, and my freakishly large eyes on a tiny head, we failed to attract the cooing attention that so effortlessly fell upon Rachael. Her curls inspired the women working behind the counter at the bakery to offer her flat sugar cookies stuffed with M&Ms, and then me and Dawn, once they realized we were with her. Both parents were out-gunned by her wit, and she could cut off my mom by simply burping into her hand and blowing it at her, or wagging her finger at her in a parody of parental meltdown.
Initially, my approach to her cuteness and humor was psychological warfare. It seemed an injustice that she was so easily adored and even-tempered. I’d hide her toys in the back of the closet, aka the toy graveyard. When she asked me where they were, I’d say, “I don’t know. Where do YOU think they are?”
Her retaliation was carving the letter A for Amanda into my father’s guitar. Despite the telltale-looping scrawl of a five-year-old, I still had to make a case to my parents like a tiny attorney. To the bitter end, they were reluctant to concede something could be Rachael’s fault – and Rachael just sat there, quiet and blinking underneath her red curls. I would never beat her.
It was more interesting when we worked together, anyway. I wrote songs and poems and plays and then talked her into performing them. Our first and finest production was Hansel and Gretel, with Rachael performing as Hansel and our dog Pepper making a special appearance as the hungry birds. We rehearsed for days and then presented two performances for the family, with her comedic delivery stealing the show. We also sang weepy, desperate, Suzanne Vega inspired power ballads about dead flowers and nonspecific pain, and pressed the pause button while recording our voices to get slowed down versions of 80s classics like Careless Whisper.
By the time we hit high school Rachael emerged as oddly good at everything she attempted, but reluctant to get attention for it. She had awards for dozens of perfect scores on calculus tests, earned trophies for every racket sport, wrote with humor and grace, memorized whole books of sports trivia and statistics, and somehow managed to be the extremely rare combination of funny and empathetic. In high school she joined the literary magazine since I was her ride home and the editor, and Rachael provided crucial feedback for each submission so that the magazine included only the best.
And speaking of rides home: no one was more surprised that my driver’s license was legal than Rachael. She saw plenty of evidence that it should have been revoked. In one of many minor accidents, I was staring down a bus driver to my left when I smashed into a car in front of me. My glasses and shoes popped off, and the frame of the radio ended up around Rachael’s wrist like a bracelet. I rolled out of the car (no shoes, glasses askew) to ask the other driver if he was okay. Instead of responding, he asked for directions to the airport, while Rachael reported she’d also punched a hole in the heating vent. After this event she started collecting photos of people who fell or got injured and lost their shoes in the process. In another incredible feat of dumb, I somehow managed to get the car stuck on one of those raised gas station islands. For several minutes I drove back and forth, back and forth, and a couple of guys inside the gas station came out to marvel silently, their hands in their pockets. As I reversed and finally freed the car, I screamed, “Does my life ever stop sucking!” Though later this became a popular family catch phrase, somehow Rachael’s expression never changed. No, the accident where she completely fell apart and unleashed her trademark Rachael cackle was when I attempted to pull into the drive thru at Burger King and ended up a full car length away from the speaker. Since reversing only caused me more problems, I decided to put the car in park, open the door, and lean over while shouting my order into the speaker. I asked for a “chocolate shlake” instead of a shake, which unleashed the force of her first guffaw, and I lost my grip on the door and fell face first onto the concrete. As I hand-walked my way up the door and back into the car Rachael laughed so hard the whole car shook, her face red, tears running down her face, and she kicked her feet while the hapless drive thru worker repeatedly said, “hello? Hello?” I don’t remember her ever stopping, but I remember tapping out a beat on the car horn to salute the worker who had to deal with us, and then spraying shake all over my windshield. Even though I’m a better driver now, after leaving her condo to continue a road trip in 2011, she sent me a text that said, “my driver’s side door and window are broken, and I know it’s because you were here, you walking calamity.”
Over the past few years we traded text messages for hours late at night: a direct result of her night owl status and my own chronic insomnia. She suggested that I consider watching her favorite murder shows because, and I quote, “There’s nothing more soothing that partially submerged corpses.” Then we traded texts about what the various cats on the APL website must be thinking, before returning to arguing over which one of us had greater potential to be a character in the next Harmony Korine film.
The last time I was in Cleveland we explored thrift stores, and Rachael attempted to refuse a gift her nieces, Rayne and Simone, selected from the piles of miscellaneous merchandise: a sad wooden napkin holder dubbed Burglecut the Duck. When she intentionally left it behind at Dawn’s house, we hatched a plan. At Rachael’s condo, I was lookout while Simone planted Burglecut the Duck under Rachael’s bed blankets. When Rachael walked into her bedroom to discover what was happening, I had my camera ready to capture the exact moment of discovery. It was classic, and she finally accepted Burglecut into her home. Later that night we talked about having a slumber party with Rayne and Simone and our mom, with Burglecut supervising the shenanigans.
I am sad that the slumber party as imagined will never happen, and even more sad about only having one sister. Two sisters doesn’t sound nearly as good as three. And it is even more rare to encounter a person who is truly good people to the core – and no one will dispute that Rachael was a truly good person. And I’m certain that she’ll still be around in some way, laughing at everything, burping and blowing it at me for writing this, and beaming at every brilliant moment her spirit won’t allow her to miss.