I have almost never been single. If we were to psychoanalyze, this is probably because I was the last to have a boyfriend in high school. I wanted one SO BAD, but I was extremely moody in public, and openly read “The Babysitters’ Club” way past a time when it was socially acceptable, so. I wrote in my diary every night about how I would do ANYTHING to have a boyfriend, and how if I had one, I would take him on a train ride and put my head in his lap, innocently, so he could stroke my hair. (This was my main fantasy: train ride hair stroking. As an boyfriend-having adult, I have secretly made, like, six boys ride on trains with me to live this out. Can’t lie: it’s as amazing as I imagined it would be.) The moment a boy finally took interest in me (Eli, when I was sixteen), I clamped onto him and thought, “I am never, ever, ever letting this go."
We broke up after a year and a half, but I started dating someone else basically the next day. And after that guy, it took about a week before I was with someone else. And so on and so forth, well into adulthood. There just haven’t been a lot of times in my life when I haven’t had some version of a boyfriend. (I identify as bisexual, but I end up with boyfriends. Or like, “Oh him? Yeah, we’re dating”s. Boys hate being called boyfriends.) This is coming out kinda braggy, but I don’t mean it to. I am pretty good at manipulating people into thinking they want to date me — not because I am actually all that datable, but because I am terrified of being alone, so I say things like, “I LOVE TENNIS!” when I mean, “I have heard of tennis and if you like tennis, I can get into it I guess." The glaring lack of time I have spent uncoupled is actually a pretty unattractive quality. It means I haven’t really had all that much time to just figure myself out.
But there was this one window when I was actually single for a significant length. It was after my longest relationship ended, and I felt like I was ruined. I thought, “No one is ever going to love me again, and I will be alone forever, because I am old and I’m a pig who destroys everything good she touches.” There were actually MORE words than just those ones, but you get the point. The preceding breakup felt kind of out-of-the-blue, so I was a little blind-sided.* I felt very, very, completely, life-long-ly alone.
That was when I fell in love with Alexis Johnson.
Alexis is my sister. We have always loved each other and gotten along pretty well. (There were exceptions. When she was literally dying of a ruptured appendix and had to stay in the hospital for a week when she was five, I was jealous of all the toys that she kept getting as presents, so I would secretly steal them while she was sedated. That’s one example.) We traveled well together and liked a lot of the same things (Alexis was more into video games and fixing VCRs than I was; I was more into crying a lot and victimizing myself than she was; but we both really liked the Spice Girls). Until we were in high school, we played imagination-based games in the yard that made all our neighbors a little jealous. It was a good, normal, healthy sister relationship.
But when I was newly boyfriendless, I started reaching out to Alexis more. After all, Alexis HAD to love me, even if I was whining about the SAME THING for the THIRTIETH DAY IN A ROW. She had to love me, even if I was uncontrollably weeping about “Beaches;” even if I was trying to explain to her that Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me” is actually a pretty good song; even if I yelled at her about how everything was NOT going to get better. She was my sister, so she had to love me anyway. Right?
The truth is, your sister does not have to love you anyway. You have no obligation to love anyone, related to you or not. I took that for granted a little bit during my single time. But, lucky for me, Alexis was patient. She listened. She answered the phone in the middle of the night. And eventually, she started to make me laugh.
Alexis was single at that point in her life, too; it was this perfect, small period when we both had enough time and space for each other. We started to video chat during our work days. (This was kind of awkward, because I was a teacher, so Alexis would be video-chatting with me and also a room full of six-year-olds, but I think everyone got something out of that.) When I came home to Portland for Thanksgiving break, we did everything together. I spent entire days at the pizza shop where she worked, watching her, laughing at her jokes, and waiting for her to get off so we could play Mario Kart. Before I knew what had happened, I was in easily the deepest, most functional, most honest relationship I had ever been in in my entire life. And it was with my sister.
It’s not like the time lasted forever. Eventually I got a new boyfriend, and Alexis got a new boyfriend, and then we broke up with those boyfriends and got new new boyfriends, and so it went. But also, it felt like a shift had happened. We continued to touch base every day after that. I started thinking about Alexis in the mornings when I was making lists of what I was grateful for. She became the person I called first when things in my life were crashing and burning. And, likewise, she called me about her sadness too. We were both more open to each other than we had ever been before. Even though we were dating other people, I felt pretty strongly like Alexis was the love of my life.
During dinner with our extended family one day, Alexis said that she didn’t know if she would ever get married, but she wouldn’t mind if she and I had a life commitment ceremony. Our extended family thought that was not a great idea, and probably illegal. I thought it was an AWESOME idea. WE WOULD BOTH LOOK SO HOT AND IT WOULD BE THE MOST FUN PARTY EVER.
I know that you can’t be “in love” with your sister, exactly. We don’t have sex with each other, and sex is somehow implied with that “in love” thing. But she has taught me so much about love. I want to love other people the way I love Alexis: unapologetically, completely myself, and with total honesty. I want to trust that the people I love will forgive me, no matter what I do; that they will accept me as a person who makes mistakes; that they will take me as I am. I want to love people without expectation; without judgment; with the knowledge that if they fuck up, everything will be ok, and I will love them anyway. My sister taught me how to love that way, and so I know that it’s possible. You shouldn’t have to be related for that to be the case.
Still, in my other relationships, I am scared. I’m afraid that there will come a time when I’ll expose that I don’t actually like tennis (sorry!), and I’ll lose the people I love. But you know, I stole Alexis’ toys when she was so sick she couldn’t move. I lied to her that an alien named Hobart lived in our bathroom, and was delighted when it seemed like she believed it. I slashed her eyeball with a mini blind once. (OK, that was an accident, I promise, but STILL — I made her eyeball BLEED.) She loves me anyway. So maybe there is hope out there that we may all find each other as the imperfect human beings we all are, and love each other anyway too.
* This is an understatement, and I am not afraid to admit it. I was knocked completely upside down, and I haven’t fully recovered yet, even though this happened like five years ago. I basically couldn’t go to work, and felt like I could only watch “Gilmore Girls” or “Wonder Years” and I ate SO MUCH ICE CREAM. I began e-mailing local restaurants angry e-mails about how THEY SHOULD MAKE IT SO THAT YOU CAN GET ICE CREAM DELIVERED. And I don’t even LIKE ice cream that much. I didn’t wear makeup and I went to a mandatory professional development session in pajama bottoms.** It was BAD.
** When I say “pajama bottoms,” I don’t mean it the way that other women mean it, when they are just trying to talk down their work-appropriate yoga pants. These were PAJAMA. BOTTOMS. With a reindeer pattern on them.