I thought that maybe I'd start this by posting part of the story I wrote about my sister, Tawny, since a lot of people have asked to read it anyway. Disclaimer: it's totally unfinished, I haven't read it in at least a year, it needs a TON of editing, and this is only part of it.
As I’m speed walking to a class I’m already late for, I almost ignore the new text message that just vibrated in my pocket, but I guess I’ve always been able to multi-task.
“I’m in the hospital…got hit in the head with a car door…have a concussion and a cut. Add that to your book,” my younger sister, Tawny, informs me.
So I did. And she told me that this all happened the night before.
“Dude, do you not realize that you are supposed to go to the hospital for a concussion WHEN it happens?” I said.
“I know, I know. Just don’t tell mom or dad. I told them one of my friends accidentally hit my head with a car door today when I got to work.”
“You’re an idiot, Tawny. They’ll never believe that. I mean think about how you would have to be positioned for that to happen. What, were you inspecting the underside of your vehicle? Come on.”
Yet somehow they bought her lame story or said so, anyway.
Here’s a step-by-step explanation of what Tawny says really happened to her disaster-magnet self:
1. A year shy of 21, she offered to be the designated driver for her coworkers after a shift one night. (She works at a bar on the campus of West Chester University (WCU) near Philadelphia, PA.)
2. Arriving at said party, Tawny parks and reaches into the back seat to grab her purse.
3. At the exact time she is attempting to retrieve her handbag, she butts heads with a drunken coworker and his bottle of some sort of liquor.
4. So, she gets smacked in the head with some dude’s bottle of Jack or whatever it was and is left with a bump the size of Jupiter on her forehead and perhaps a mild concussion. In her mind, this kind of injury can wait for tomorrow. I mean, most people go out and then have a good night’s sleep before treating a head injury, right?
“Why didn’t you just tell them what really happened? If you weren’t drinking, they wouldn’t care.”
“I don’t know. Whatever. Just don’t tell them.”
I totally told them, but she doesn’t know that (although, I guess she will once she reads this).
I will probably never know the whole truth to this story and neither will my parents, but none of us really care. We know if we prodded that we would hear thirty different versions of the same story that would continue to mutate until Tawny didn’t know the truth herself anymore.
But, that’s who she is.
And for better or worse, we love her for it.
I. Role Playing
We come from a relatively large family. At 22, I am the oldest of three girls. Tawny is 20, and Haley, the baby, is 17. We also have two older half-brothers, Heath and Taylor, from my father’s first marriage before he wed my mother. My brothers are 34 and 30, respectively, and were enrolled at boarding school for all of my childhood. Since they were always away getting a much better education than we were, my sisters and I only saw them on the weekends here and there. When I consider the effects that birth order has had on my sisters and I, I rarely, if ever, consider my brothers relevant to how it relates to us. We didn’t grow up in the same house and we were completely unexposed to their lives outside of their occasional visits. So, while I’m technically the middle child, I didn’t grow up like one.
To a large extent, everyone expected Haley and I to be the way that we are.
As the oldest female, my parents, especially my mother, were inexperienced in raising a child. My father, though he already had teenaged two sons, was completely clueless when it came to his first girl so; naturally, I was expected to be perfect. If I made a mistake I was scolded or sent to my room (where I preferred to be anyway) because my parents didn’t know whether my actions were normal or permissible for a girl my age. I was and still am expected to set a good example for my younger sisters. As a result, I am inherently everything psychology deems normal for the first-born child to be: a perfectionist, competitive, organized, independent and responsible.
My parents, worn out by Tawny and me by the time Haley was born, were always more lenient in disciplining her. Perhaps this is why she exhibits all of the normal tendencies of the youngest: she is deviant, spoiled, and demanding, but still outgoing and confident. She could get away with mass murders and pyramid schemes without batting one of her pretty eyelashes. Of course, Haley knows this and takes advantage of it to the utmost degree, manipulating my parents into buying her and allowing her to do whatever it is that she desires.
But Tawny’s personality is more questionable. While she exhibits many of the characteristics of a typical middle child (lack of patience, shyness, uptight, attention-seeking, caring) sometimes I wonder if she is who she is for other reasons unique to her. While Haley and I act in accordance with most of the expectations associated with our placement, Tawny seems to identify with her spot in the sibling line-up as if it were some sort of chronic disease. She speaks about being the middle child as if it were a form of leprosy. For her and many other middle children this affliction is often called Middle Child Syndrome (MCS).
There is no official definition for MCS, but most agree that it occurs “when a middle child—typically of a family of three kids who are close in age—feels left out or neglected” (ud 2). Since the oldest children are born first and it is common for them to be overachievers, they get more privileges. The youngest, not only seems to get the most attention, but also gets away with more mischief. It is when the second-born is stuck between these two roles that she has trouble finding where she fits within the family and develops MCS.
A popular example of MCS begins when the oldest child turns sixteen and gets a driver’s license. She oftentimes gets a car—as I did—and is expected to drive the younger siblings wherever they may need to go at any given time regardless of her own plans. The middle child, upon turning sixteen and expecting the same treatment as the older child, may think she is getting a car, but most often she will have to share the car with her older sister. The older sister, being naturally competitive and independent, will take the car at every available opportunity and basically deprive the middle child of virtually any usage. Yet when the youngest child turns the same age, she is likely to receive a new car solely for herself, which is probably because she typically gets what she wants and the parents don’t want to hear the wrath that will ensue if they deny her wishes.
I have heard of this happening in a lot of families. Mine is a bit different in that Tawny did get a new car for the Christmas following her sixteenth birthday. While I was at college that year, my parents sold my car in order to buy her a new one. Though I was pretty annoyed that I wasn’t notified before this transaction occurred, I handled it like an adult, realizing that a car was not vital to my survival at that time and remembering how exciting it was to get a new one when I was her age. But when Tawny went to college and my parents did the same thing in order to get Haley a new car, the process didn’t go over as smoothly. Tawny felt betrayed and unappreciated, overlooking the fact that the same thing was done for her at one point. As she does many of the circumstances surrounding her life, she attributed this event to her role as the middle child.
II. Maybe She’s Born with it: Maybe it’s MCS
Tawny often claims that my parents praise me to the point of near reverence for my achievements, while Haley is smothered with unconditional love regardless of any inevitable scheme she decides to pursue. She feels that while I am respected and Haley is loved, she is ignored and considered unimportant. Though I’ve tried to dissuade her from feeling this way for as long as I can remember, sometimes I wonder if there is legitimate reasoning behind her convictions, or at least some of them. I don’t know if her feelings of unworthiness are caused by her own exaggerated manifestations or by the inevitability that the middle child is always treated differently than the other siblings. In her case, though, I think it may be a combination of both, along with some bad luck.
Her role as the middle child has always made her feel insecure. Having always believed she was an outcast among her siblings, her personal growth and development has been noticeably hindered. What concerns me is whether this hindrance has been self-inflicted or imposed upon her. My parents and I used to reassure her that her role was no different and denied her complaints in an effort to build her confidence (Haley, for her part, relentlessly teased and still teases Tawny, blatantly pointing out her differences). After seeing how useless these tactics were (this literally took all of our childhood to figure out), we tried a new approach. Rather than dismissing her attempts to identify with the role of the middle child, we now embrace her comedic bad luck and involuntary embodiment as the odd ball of the Binder family.
Tawny, as she gets older, is becoming more comfortable in her own skin and maturing into the young adult I’d live to see her become.
As time has passed, our entire family (even Haley) has begun to accept that maybe the misfortunes Tawny always deemed a consequence of middle child syndrome may actually be so, in part anyway, and maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Because of this new outlook, Tawny receives the attention she thrives upon and desperately desires and we can openly laugh together at her never-ending mishaps she believes result from her birth order.
III. “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves—a special kind of double.” -Toni Morrison
Like most kids, my sisters and I were subject to the cattiness of girls and the scrutiny of adolescent boys growing up. Much of the reason for being made fun of revolved around the fact that puberty came earlier for us. While all of our friends didn’t experience this transformation until the latter part of middle school or even a year or two into high school, we were fully grown by the time we finished elementary school. Before everyone else had acne, unshapely bodies, or menstrual cycles, we were living demonstrations of this awkward period. This phase, being so unfamiliar to our peers at such a young age, led to a lot of grief on our parts.
Each of us dealt with the painful teasing of others in different ways. Haley rapidly grew an impenetrable skin, never allowing anyone to upset her. It helped that she was always naturally attractive, which only increased with age. She was also severely hyperactive, which made the extra weight that Tawny and I struggled to lose less of a problem for her. I learned to keep to myself and care less, using journaling as an outlet for my emotions. Eventually I figured out a way to fit in and get by, always keeping in mind that high school wasn’t forever. Yet Tawny, two years my junior, handled her emotions differently. Whenever something bad happened, she would tell anyone who would listen of her despair. Her unfiltered retellings of her dilemmas eventually desensitized and exhausted us. It wasn’t long before we couldn’t muster up the solace she sought so frequently from us. All of our family considers her the most innocent and good willed of the group, which makes us feel guilty sometimes when we don’t take her seriously. Still, in our defense, she is always telling and retelling stories that at once, maybe even twice, were entertaining, but her constant repetition plays them out and is quite obviously a cry for attention. She tends to overreact to the smallest of crises, oftentimes manifesting the events into something more dramatic and unfortunate than what they truly are.
Though both of my sisters and myself stand at just above five feet, our bodies are all a bit different. We all are predisposed to easy weight-gain but Tawny is curvier and struggles with her weight most of all. While Haley is always moving and I am proactive (most of the time), Tawny lacks both qualities. It doesn’t help that from the time she learned to chew, she has obsessed over food. She has an appetite more like our brothers’, who would return from boarding school or college to devour every morsel of food in the kitchen—literally everything, including ancient cans of soup and condiments. It was a bit easier for Haley and I to diet and maintain a reasonable weight since we weren’t constantly hungry and thinking about food. Though all of the women in our family have felt self-conscious about our bodies at one point or another, Tawny had the hardest time dealing with the issues that arose from such a lack of confidence. Her hypersensitivity coupled with her constant desire for attention made her an easy target for the bullies whose approval she untiringly sought.
Her features also contrast with those of Haley and myself. Our skin is more olive and less likely to burn in the sun. We inherited more of our dad’s dark features, while Tawny took after our mother. She did manage to inherit a combination of my dad’s light blue eyes and my mom’s hazel, while both Haley and I have dark brown eyes unique to the two of us. Our hair is dark, mine nearly black like my father’s, and Haley’s a light brown. While Tawny’s lips are full, Haley and I have noticeably bigger smackers. Simply our appearances were enough to make Tawny feel different, not because we were more attractive, but because we looked more like each other than she did.
In fact, Tawny is very attentive to her appearance. With a few years and some experience, Tawny perfected her style to a well-practiced routine. Obsessively concerned with fashion, she adorns herself in the latest trends and always has her hair styled in a modern, but flattering cut. Her hair is synthetically blonde, streaked with highlights of various widths, and a tad course from the bleach it took to transform the mousy brown from dull to multi-faceted. Her tresses, usually just released from curlers, cascade halfway down her back, appearing as if every strand were placed strategically so. Her eyes are bluish-green, accented with long mascara-coated lashes. Her teeth are straight after a few awkward years in braces, but small and perfectly square like Chiclets. Her skin is fair, the redness from blushing and sunburn more noticeable on her than others. Whenever her heart-shaped face produces a glossy pink-lipped smile, she looks ten years younger, excited just to have her picture taken. When she giggles, always bubbly, she scrunches her shoulders up to her neck, tilting her head to one side—a long ago contrived pose she’d always used in photographs. She has fairly small hands, which are almost always manicured and sporting trendy silver rings that are conspicuously gaudy, yet typically Tawny.
Even the way Tawny sneezes is completely unique within our family; they come in a series of seven to fifteen short “ah-choos” that she squeaks out like a cartoon mouse. Whenever she laughs really hard, she does this thing where she kind of gurgles, as if there is salt water in her throat. Her laugh is contagious—or maybe not at all, since the laughing is probably a product of observing such an awkward action. She dances like a seizing sloth, completely offbeat with jolting movements that make those watching embarrassed. When she is happy she becomes giddy and hyper, rambling a bit too loudly and fast, like a nervous deaf person. This is another emotion we have a hard time handling because while we don’t want to rain on her parade, we certainly do not have enough energy to indulge her intensity.
She’s the kind of person who constantly updates her status on Facebook to include sappy song lyrics, conveying some ambiguous emotion she is feeling at that very moment, thinking it makes her seem deep and intuitive. She uses words like “irregardless” and “escape goat” with full confidence, and upon being corrected, she simply shrugs and joins in the laughter. Always trying to impress everyone, she embellishes any accomplishment to the utmost degree, indicating so by making obviously outlandish statements about her ‘feats’. My favorite example was her description of a job interview she had at a bar. Having absolutely no experience in the service industry, let alone bartending, and also legally prohibited to drink, she claimed that the place was fully intending on hiring her as a full time bartender. Additionally, she said she would “also be in charge of booking bands like Pretty Lights, which is perfect ‘cause I’ve totally met them before—really cool guys.” It turns out that she is simply a cocktail waitress, a fact I only learned through a personal visit.
Aesthetics aside, the ways that our parents treated us was probably the most distinguishing difference between the three of us.
Being the oldest child in the household, my parents expected a certain amount of responsibility from me. In exchange for setting a good example for my sisters, I received respect and trust from my parents that my sisters did not. When I screwed up, every little thing that my sisters did wrong was traced back to me. You know they look up to you, Britt. They want to be just like you. I’d protest that it wasn’t fair, but my parents would always tell me that I had something my sisters had yet to earn: their trust. Since a very young age, both my parents have confided in me or sought my advice even when they couldn’t do so with each other. While oftentimes it made me feel important, like I was in on the secrets of the CIA, but other times I felt like a therapist when I was the one who needed a listener.
From birth, Haley was a hell-raising brat who expected and got nearly anything she desired. Tawny and I often recall when our mother would be so tired from dealing with her that we would have to make and deliver her hot, pink milk before her bedtime only to have it thrown directly at our faces for not being hot or pink enough. At first, we’d complain, but to no avail. My parents were so exhausted that they would pretend to be asleep or order us to correct the balance somehow, as if making strawberry milk was a chemistry experiment. Even I loathed the unconditional tolerance and love that my parents gave Haley, but at least I knew that my parents took me seriously and respected my ideas and opinions. I also knew that complaining didn’t make the situation any better and as a result my lack of whining was openly appreciated, while Tawny’s grievances were met with weary indifference.
“But mom, she always throws it at me and it hurts! She’s such a brat!”
“Tawny, please just do it. I’m so tired.”
“She’s just going to say it’s not right. She does it on purpose!”
“Why can’t you be more like Brittany, Tawny? She never complains.”
The special treatments, that my parents bestowed upon Haley and I, though very different, made Tawny feel small and unimportant. In addition to her compulsive complaints about minor problems, she failed to realize that complaining to mom and dad about Haley only made things worse. Haley, on the other hand, took every opportunity possible to torture Tawny, knowing it wouldn’t be her that would get in trouble for it. Looking back, I guess it was my job as the big sister to explain this all to Tawny in a nicer way than I probably did. I was too concerned with my own life to teach her how to deal with hers and I can’t help but think I’m partly responsible for her feelings of exclusion.
IV. Out of the Loop
Every Christmas Eve, my brother Taylor and I take a picture of all our parents’ kids to give to them for the holidays.
Taylor considers me the responsible one, as all of our family members generally do, so he employs my help in choosing the best photo and frame from the 24-hour CVS in the wee hours of the morning—right about when Santa makes his descent down the last few chimneys of the nice children’s homes. I also have to wrap the picture (along with most of Taylor’s gifts), but this is simply due to my brother’s laziness and imposed air of superiority.
Each year after my parents have overindulged on multiple bottles of wine and retire for the evening, Taylor and I round up the siblings and find a spot to take the annual picture.
It’s incredibly rare that all five of us are together during any Christmas season. Heath, formerly a self-proclaimed New Yorker, now lives in Southern California with his wife, and is usually the missing piece. Taylor and his wife live in Washington, D.C. I’m in Pittsburgh, Tawny is in West Chester, PA and Haley is about to move to Manayunk near Philadelphia. Always focused on the closeness of our family, Taylor makes it his priority to keep us as close as possible despite the literal distances we face. We don’t see each other often, but when we do it always seems as if nothing has changed.
Still, getting Heath home is a little more difficult. California is pretty far from PA and as a result, our Christmas photo is always incomplete—sort of. Taylor and I have gotten creative over the past few years that Heath hasn't been able to make the trip. One year, one of Tawny’s friends, Harrison, who we all adored for his witty, dry humor, stood in for Heath in the picture and actually fooled my parents for a second. The next year we drew the outline of a face on printer paper and wrote his name in the middle, holding it up in the middle. Though the picture is always a little different, all of them have one thing in common: Tawny looks like a professional photo bomber.
It is a common complaint of middle children that they are the least common person in family photos. This is true for Tawny not only in Christmas pictures, but in many, if not all, of the pictures we take together. It’s become a long-standing joke among the family that Tawny always somehow manages to look as if she barely made it into the picture. This began completely unintentionally and we wouldn’t even notice until Tawny pointed it out each time we had one developed. It took about four years of holiday photos for her argument to convince us and now we have a series of pictures that look as if she snuck in.
V. Into the Hole
Growing up, friends and family always compared our home to a zoo. At one point we had eight dogs (all different breeds), a rabbit, two parrots, two turtles, two bunnies, a horse (maybe even two, boarded at a nearby barn), a fish, and an outdoor cat. One of the dogs we had growing up was a moody, overweight basset hound named Beverly. She had short, stubby legs and a long torso with a belly that slid along the floor along with her long, droopy ears. She would steal food at any opportunity and waddle her way into pretty much any kind of mess she could find. Then she would retreat to her tattered dog bed and chew on her coveted items, growling at any of the other dogs if they tried to touch her stash.
In her younger days, Beverly had an extremely annoying habit of running away. Our parents, too lazy or maybe just indifferent, never made any moves to chase her, summoning my two little sisters and I to find the mischievous mongrel. Eventually we would find her rolling around in a clump of mud or a pile of dog shit somewhere in the woods in our backyard and have to dirty ourselves dragging her stubborn ass home.
Since Beverly’s search parties were a fairly frequent occurrence, I began to take on the same nonchalance as my parents when she would dart out the door.
“Brittany, go get her! She might not ever come back,” my mom would say to me, feigning worry.
“Fine. Let her go. She’s a pain in the ass anyway,” I’d argue.
Besides, we’d already gotten over the “old dog” upon getting the Papillion, Dachshund, Japanese Chin, Golden Retriever, and Yellow Labrador puppies within quick succession (we were starting to look like animal hoarders, which would only get worse years later when we acquired two more puppies). What did I care if one of them ran away? Still, I’d eventually cave in, imagining Beverly shivering in the woods, too dumb to find her way home, freezing to death or being eaten by a mob of rabid deer. Though I’d reluctantly join the search, none other than Tawny, the only compassionate one, really cared about finding her. The unfortunate picture I’d manifested of Beverly alone and cold after my mom’s predictable guilt trip was the first thing Tawny thought of when Bev would wander.
When I was about 7 or 8, and Tawny about 5, my family moved to our second and most recent home. Shortly afterward, my dad decided he wanted to build a door leading into the basement. In order to do this, he took his Bobcat tractor and spent hours on end digging a massive nine-foot deep hole on the right side of our lawn. At night, the hole was just a vacuous opening in the grass that we knew to stay away from. This wasn’t an issue, seeing as no one wanted to go exploring in a filthy, insect-ridden lack of earth anyway.
On one of the million nights that Beverly decided to flee, though, the hole received some attention. Tawny, true to form, took off like a bat out of hell, her naïve and innocent concern and anxiety in full force.
I walked/fake jogged after her, half-heartedly cooing, “Beverlyyyyy, bonesssss, c’mere, Bev,” while rolling my eyes and groaning dramatically. As I was approaching the side of the ivy-laden stucco house, I caught a glimpse of Tawny heading straight towards the hole. Uh oh, I thought.
But it was too late.
Before I managed to react, I watched Tawny disappear down into the deep abyss. When I heard the loud thud resound off the hard and rocky soil, I realized she was not performing a vanishing act. In disbelief, I think I just stood in place until the jumbled, nervous sobs that swiftly ensued let me know she was still alive.
I was a pretty shitty sister until I was a bit older and discovered a sense of morality. I refused to have anything to do with my two younger siblings, paying no mind to their individual lives, the good or the bad. Maybe that’s why my first instinct was to laugh hysterically when I looked down to see Tawny in such a pitiful state.
“Oh my god! Are you okay?” I said, doubling over with laughter.
“Help! Go get mom. Seriously! I’m hurt,” she screamed between sobs.
I thought she was an absolute moron for forgetting to mind the huge piece of land that had been missing from the yard for weeks.
“Okay, okay. Give me a second. I can’t breathe.” I was rolling around the grass struggling to compose myself.
Taking pity and realizing she might need to get some medical attention, which could send me straight to the doghouse, I eventually ran back to the house.
“What?!” she yelled from some other room.
“Tawny fell in the hole!”
“She fell in the hole!!! She can’t get out! Just come down here!”
I think my mom also laughed upon hearing what happened, but I can’t be certain. After all, if anyone were to fall into that enormous pit, it would undoubtedly be Tawny who managed to get into situations like these on a regular basis. After relaying the news to the rest of the family, my mom came over to the hole. Having no idea how to get Tawny back up to our level, she employed the help of my dad. They argued for a little while about their method of action, now attracting the attention of the other neighborhood kids and their parents, until finally it was proposed that my dad just jump in and get her.
“Donna, I am not going into that hole. My knees are bad. I’ll hurt my back,” he said to my mom flatly.
“Michael, get in there!” my mom scolded in return, to which my dad responded with a loud sigh and a hesitant descent into the muddy abyss. He eventually hoisted Tawny out and except for a few bruises, she somehow emerged completely unscathed. Upon determining that the situation was not serious, my dad became even angrier and instead of offering sympathy for enduring a semi-traumatic event, Tawny received a harsh reprimand for forgetting the existence of the hole and scaring the shit out of my dad.
VI. Home is Where the Heart is?
Tawny, Haley and myself hail from Upper Dublin, a small, wealthy suburban township about twenty miles from center city Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our parents’ home is located in a neighborhood called Dawesfield where all of the well-paved streets, professionally manicured yards, expensive cars, and massive houses all look the same. Our white stucco, four-story home was no exception: a three-car garage, an in-ground pool, and a finished basement we converted into an entertainment center were only some of the features it boasted. Yet we didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the community. We were newly wealthy—both of my parents came from lower middle class families residing in seedy neighborhoods—in a place where most of the population was born and bred rich as royalty. My dad having a knack for business, yet a degree in history, defied the odds and found a way to work his way up to become a CEO of a successful manufacturing company. He had slaved for years to establish his position and knew what it was like to work for his wealth. Some of the nastier neighbors called us white trash or accused of us of lacking class. But while such scrutiny horrified my sisters and I, my parents always laughed, never giving a shit about our stuck-up community members. They always knew there was more to life than money.
Though my parents were absolutely right, it was hard for us kids to understand that wealth wasn’t the most important thing in the world. The entire community was filled with families constantly competing with each other to see who had more material objects to signify their social class. Middle-aged attorneys would buy incredibly rare and outrageously priced convertibles that they only drove for a couple months because the weather sucked most of the year. Housewives who hated their husbands spent their days at the most elegant spas in the city, bitching about their rotten kids and asserting that they needed a vacation—three weeks ago was much too long. Their children would steal their credit cards, except for the really loaded kids who had their own, and buy the newest toy or gadget so they could impress their friends for getting it first.
Among this constant rivalry, it was challenging to avoid the hype without being a social outcast, but my parents were not like those people. Though we had some fancy things and went on extravagant vacations, they made sure that we appreciated every single thing they did for us. Maybe their efforts weren’t as successful as they had hoped back then, but with a little maturity and a couple years, we’ve all become very grateful for all of our privileges.
Wealth wasn’t the only requirement to fit in with our community, though. Most of the inhabitants of Upper Dublin, along with the majority of our friends, were Jewish. Twice a week until they turned 13 and had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our friends would attend Hebrew school together. The next day in public school they would make fun of their rabbis or complain about how much they hated going to the synagogue all of the time. In the summers, they would all be sent off to overnight camp while we stayed home and went to day camp or idly roamed around the house. The few of us who weren’t Jewish felt left out and were wildly aware that it was something we couldn’t change. Parents would make it abundantly clear that any romantic relationship between their son and a gentile was only temporary and some wouldn’t even let their children associate with non-Jews.
Technically, we were raised Sweden-Borgain, a sect of Christianity that I know nothing about, but we only went to church for a half-hour service on Christmas eve and were not raised to be pious. Religion getting in the way of friendships or life in general wasn’t something we understood.
Tawny had to deal with a particularly painful instance of religious separation. In elementary school, her and her friend, Dana, were inseparable. They had sleepovers every weekend and did their homework together after school. A few years later, Dana’s father decided that it wasn’t acceptable for her to be spending so much time with someone who wasn’t of the same faith. Despite my mother’s attempts to reason with him, he gradually disallowed Dana to see Tawny more and more. Eventually, without each other to argue against the parental influence, the two began to resent each other. Dana even told the other girls lies so that they wouldn’t want to be friends with Tawny. Tawny had lost her best friend for a reason she couldn’t comprehend. Even worse, her former partner in crime was the reason she had so much trouble making new ones.
I never had to deal with the discrimination to such an extreme (until my adult life, anyway) and my best friend happened to be a half-assed Christian too, so I never knew what it was like for Tawny. After that, she went through friends like toilet paper and in between them she would spend her time alone, watching TV or doing homework.
“Can I hang out with you guys?” Tawny said to my friends and I one day after high school.
“Um. We’re leaving.” I replied, unconcerned.
“Oh. Where are you going? Do you want to get food?”
“We’re just going out. We’re meeting friends.”
“Oh okay. See ya,” she said, defeated, retreating back into her room.
I don’t know if I was so uninviting because we were going to smoke pot and I didn’t want to risk getting caught doing it with her or if I just didn’t want to be around her. My little sisters’ presence at all used to drive me crazy, but Haley never tried to hang with us and if she did, she didn’t care when we said no. It kills me that I wasn’t more welcoming to her when it came to socializing with my own friends because even though she is close with many of them now, she needed it then. But Tawny’s a tough cookie—she figured it out and to this day, she has some friends that will last for a lifetime.
VII. The Closest of Enemies: Haley and Tawny
Episode 1: The Minivan Massacre
One summer when I was around eight, my parents took my two sisters and I to Dorney Park, a small family theme park in Allentown, PA. My memory is vague, but I imagine it was sunny and humid, as summers always are in the Philadelphia area. My parents had rented a camel-colored minivan and we had been driving for about a half an hour. Tawny and Haley had been persistently arguing over something trivial, as was their habit anytime they were forced to be in a confined space for any length of time. Every now and then, my parents would yell at them to stop, threatening to pull over or turn around if they kept up the bickering. For the most part, though, they blocked my sisters out, listening to the monotonous voices among the static of sports or the news on AM radio. Since I always made a point to stay out of my sisters’ quarrels, I idly stared out the window listening to my Discman as loudly as possible, watching the white lines on the highway until they blended into continuity.
I thought everything was fine until I heard Tawny’s piercing scream followed by the abrupt stop of the van as my dad slammed on the brakes. What the hell? I thought, confusedly trying to recover from the jolt. I turned around to look at my sisters, knowing they were the source of the commotion, and cringed as ruby red blood spilled from Tawny’s nose and mouth. The music in my ears had been so loud that I hadn’t even noticed when Haley decided a minute earlier to drop kick Tawny in the face, triggering the wounded orifices, and the loss of some baby teeth. The two of them always fought like animals, but this time Tawny actually looked like one of those wildebeest savagely ripped apart by a vicious lioness on Animal Planet. It was immediately assumed that Haley, of course, was the culprit behind Tawny’s injury.
Before I could gather any sense of what was going on, I shivered at my dad’s red-faced glare. I knew the look. Usually he was goofy and playful, chasing us around the kitchen with his hands contorted to look like claws and threatening to “slime” us, i.e. sloppily lick our faces, as soon as he came home from work. But when he got angry, he got really angry. In my memories, the veins in his forehead and neck would bulge and pulsate furiously. All of his blood would rush to his face turning it from red to near purple. As his panting mouth foamed like a rabid wolf, steam burst out of his ears, and horns grew from his head, everything around him would turn black and become engulfed in flames. We knew not to cross my dad when he turned into this raging beast. This time, though, dad had already been crossed—Haley and Tawny were doomed.
Even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, I trembled, my heart racing, along with my guilty sisters as my dad struggled to lucidly convey his anger. Eventually I collected myself enough to realize I was in the clear, mentally checking out of the intimidating lecture and returning to my apathetic gaze through the window. I don’t remember the rest, but I bet my dad didn’t relent until they were both crying and begging for forgiveness.
At some point after the climax of the disaster, my parents announced that we would not be going to Dorney Park anymore. Tawny bled so much on the van’s interior that my parents had no choice but to cancel the trip. It wouldn’t be good for appearances to tote around a bloody faced child with missing teeth in an amusement park. Aside from their obvious fury over the situation, my parents were mortified at the task of returning the completely blood soaked car to the rental company. The disastrous outcome that would have ensued by attempting to continue to the theme park had been averted, but now they had to find a way to make what looked like a bloody massacre into an accident between two siblings. I can’t imagine how, but I guess it worked out somehow because the social workers I was expecting never came to place us with foster parents.
As Tawny describes it, Haley had taken it upon herself to jump off the back seat, strategically landing with her foot lodged in Tawny’s throat, all over a dispute involving the trade of Pokémon cards. This is probably the truth, but no one ever believed either one of them when it came to their brawls. My parents held both parties equally guilty, ignoring their individual accounts. It would seem that they might favor Tawny, flushed and teary, pulling out loosened baby bicuspids and using her shirt as a bandage while Haley sat crying and denying her crime, but my parents undoubtedly thought Tawny somehow provoked Haley’s violence. Even I had to admit that wasn’t fair.
Episode 2: Lumber Hurls
Before we were teenagers and refused to do our chores, deeming our social lives much more important, we were generally obedient children, at least when it came to helping out around the house. In the summer, our dad used to make us weed the lawn, help plant flowers, and do loads of carrying plants for the landscape. We hated weeding probably most of all so to make sure we didn’t do a half-assed job, dad would promise concert tickets to see the Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls. He also accepted head scratches, neck rubs, remote retrieval, sandwich-making, wine refills, any other form of comfort producing favors as a means of trade. In the winter, we always had to walk over to our next-door neighbors’ house, the Stortz’s, to pick up logs for our fireplace in the living room. On one particular winter afternoon, we were put to the task of wood fetching. Warmth, I believe, was the motivation for this one—a mutually advantageous task. Wearing snow boots and mittens, we trudged down our slippery snow-covered driveway over to our neighbor’s to grab one or two logs at a time (we weren’t the strongest children). The whole process couldn’t have taken more than five minutes, but it felt like an infinitely long endeavor every time we had to do it.
At some point during the several trips we made from outside to the living room, Haley and Tawny managed to start arguing over something undoubtedly absurd in our driveway. Outside, away from my father in the living room, they were provided with better opportunities to duke it out. It was during one of these instances that Haley decided to drop a fairly heavy log on Tawny’s hand, resulting in a shriek so loud that the distance between my father and the driveway was no longer relevant.
My mom, dad, and I, hearing the noise, sprinted from the living room, through the kitchen and the laundry room, out into the driveway. Tawny stood crying hysterically, holding up her hand, the pinky finger mangled and swollen to twice the size of the others. Haley was professing her innocence, also crying (she had this amazing ability to cry on call), while Tawny screamed accusations at her through heavy breaths. My dad yelled at both of them while my mom was the one to take action, putting Tawny in the car to go to the hospital.
We knew it was broken a few hours later when Tawny came home beaming and proudly holding up her hospital bracelet clad hand, exposing her sling-strapped pinky. To this day, her and Haley are still at odds about whether there was intent behind the “accident” or not, but her finger will probably always look a bit crooked and inflated.
Episode 3: False Pride
“Britt, wake up. We have to go to the horse show,” my mom said, shaking me awake.
“Ughhhhh. Do I have to go? I’m soooo tired.”
“I need you to help me sell jewelry and it’s your sisters, you should support them. They always go to your tennis matches,” she lectured.
“I don’t ask them to! I really don’t want to go. Please,” I begged her.
“We’re leaving in fifteen minutes. Get up,” she ordered and walked out of my room.
Definitely more than fifteen minutes later, we finally left the house. It was earlier than anyone should be awake on a Saturday morning. The grass was still wet from the morning dew and the dirt paths leading to the show ground were muddy, ruining my shoes. I hadn’t prepared for the weather. It was cold for May and I only had a sweatshirt. My mom nearly had to drag me to the horseback riding show both of my sisters were competing in. I loathed the whole thing: the barn was dirty and dusty, the horses smelled like shit, the people were totally weird and awkward, my mom was ALWAYS there, giving me even less attention than usual, and her car always smelled like dead people as a result. Horseback riding was the bane of my existence for years before I got my driver’s license.
Even though Tawny was the one who relentlessly pleaded for lessons from my parents, they signed both of them up at Timber Edge Farm. While both Tawny and Haley were beginners, Haley was a champion rider immediately. Her coach considered her a prodigy and rightly so . Tawny, on the other hand, wasn’t bad, but when compared to Haley, she didn’t stand a chance of recognition. They rode in different classes, or levels, based on age, talent, and other factors I know nothing about, but they competed in the same shows. On this particular day, it was one of the more important competitions at Timber Edge Farm and everyone was a little nervous.
My mom signaled for me to join her on the bleachers. I reluctantly walked over, dragging my feet and praying this show might somehow be different and not take a minimum of five hours. The rest of the show proceeded without anything special happening. All that I remember are horses jumping over miniature fences decorated with potted flowers on either side and small children atop their backs somehow controlling this process. Eventually it became time to announce the winners.
“In first place [for whatever the name of the class was] is Haley Binder!” someone announced over the loud speakers. Haley rode over to the judge’s corner to receive her blue ribbon as if she knew all along she would win. Next up was Tawny’s class. All of the contenders rode into the ring and stood upon their horses in a large circle, awaiting the verdict. After announcing the fifth, fourth, third, and second place winners, Tawny sat nervously.
“And in first place…is Tawny Binder!” Tawny beamed from ear to ear, finally getting first place in a horse show. As she trotted over to obtain her own blue ribbon, she couldn’t help but notice the looks on the judges’ faces. Approaching their stand, one of the judges called Tawny over and whispered something in her ear. Tawny nodded, her face dropping, and trotted away.
“There has been a mistake. First place actually goes to…[insert name here]. We’re sorry for the confusion,” the judges announced.
My mom and I just looked at each other in disbelief. We couldn’t understand how they could do such a thing. Tawny was so excited to win first place. Finally, she measured up to Haley in the sport that she always dominated. But Tawny didn’t win first place. She didn’t win at all. She tried her hardest to pretend it wasn’t that big of a deal, but she couldn’t help but feel rejected in the most blatant way possible. This was the start of her disassociation with horseback riding—about a year later she would be finished with the sport altogether.
VIII. Tawny Goes to College
“I got into Tampa!” Tawny exclaimed one day towards the end of her senior year of high school.
“That’s great, but don’t you want to look at other schools, too?” my mom replied.
“Mom, I’m going to Tampa,” Tawny said adamantly.
Tawny did consider going to other schools, particularly the University of Pittsburgh, so she could be at the same school as me. When she didn’t get into Pitt or several other schools closer to home, Tawny decided on the University of Tampa.
We all teased her that she would never last at Tampa because she had a history of homesickness and often left trips early to come back to her comfort zone. We didn’t know that our half-serious predictions would become a reality.
Tawny left for the University of Tampa in the fall of 2009. Her move in to her dorm went well and she seemed to make a lot of friends off the bat. My mom flew down with her to set her up in her new place and get her acquainted before leaving her on her own. On the first night after Tawny went to sleep, my mom called me.
“How did the move go?” I asked her.
“It was really good. I’m a little worried about her roommate though. She’s weird,” she confided.
“Why? Does Tawny like her?”
“Yeah, but you know Tawny. She likes everybody. This girl comes from a rough background. She was in jail for petty crimes and used to be a drug addict.”
“Jesus. Well, is she better now?”
“She says so. Tawny seems happy, at least. They’re getting along.”
“Well, that’s good. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Get some sleep,” I advised her.
“Yeah, we’ll see.”
The next few weeks went by smoothly.
I often got jealous when Tawny would post pictures of days on the beach and weekend excursions, while I was stuck in Pittsburgh where an ocean seemed eons away and the rain came more often than not. She looked happier than she’d be in a long time.
The Beginning of the End
A couple of months into her first semester, Tawny contracted the Swine Flu. I had just gotten over the same sickness a few weeks before, but it wasn’t as bad for me. I just stayed in solitary confinement for a week or so while my roommates spent their nights at their boyfriends’ houses. Tawny, on the other hand, went to student health at her school and they told her there were no available appointments until the next week. Continuing the course of the flu, she only got sicker and eventually ended up in the hospital with both the H1N1 virus and pneumonia.
“Britt, you should really call Tawny. She’s in the hospital for pneumonia and she’s really worried about missing classes,” my mom told me.
“Alright. Is she okay, though?”
“Yeah she’s just really upset.”
I called her and tried to tell her it wasn’t that big of a deal, that her teachers would understand and that it wasn’t her fault she was sick.
“Yeah, but I’m missing so much work,” she countered.
“Tawny, you’ll be fine. I had to miss a lot of class, too. My teachers were really nice about it and gave me extra time to do the work.”
“It’s not even really that, though, Britt. Like I’m in the hospital and I’m really upset and all I want is support and even my friends aren’t helping.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I posted that I had Swine Flu and was in the hospital on my Facebook wall and everyone just said ‘oink’. Not like, ‘hope you feel better’, or anything. They’re so not understanding,” she complained.
I had to hold my hand over the receiver to hide my laughter. I mean, come on. It’s pretty hilarious that her friends responded with ‘oink’ rather than pity.
“Dude, they were probably just trying to make you feel better by joking. It’s not that they don’t care, they’re just trying to make the situation feel less serious,” I reasoned.
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. They could have been nicer.”
Tawny was out of the hospital after a day or two and caught up with all of her work. Once again things moved along without incident, until one night when my mom called me, begging me to calm her down.
The Enemy Next Door
Tawny was crying hysterically and hyperventilating when she picked up the phone. She could barely form words as she struggled to tell me what happened that night.
“Calm down. Tell me what happened,” I said in a steady tone.
“I came home with one of my friends after we went out and I went into my dorm room. Everything looked messed up and I knew something was wrong so I went into my room and realized all this stuff was missing.”
“She stole my Macbook! I had, like, over $200 in cash in my drawer and it was gone, along with my medication and all of my CDs. My Xbox was missing, too, and so were a bunch of my clothes and other stuff.”
“Jeeze. What did you do?”
“I knew it was my roommate, so I didn’t know what to do. The guy I was with said to call the police and so did mom so I did that.”
“They came and then they went to look for her.”
“Did they find her?”
“Yeah, with two guys in a parking lot nearby. All of my stuff was in the trunk of the car. They’re all at the police station now. I’m at a hotel. Mom bought me a ticket to come home tomorrow. I’m never coming back her again.”
Not Over Yet
True to her word, Tawny came back the next day and never returned to the University of Tampa. She enrolled in Montgomery County Community College for her second semester and lived at home with my parents and Haley. I studied abroad in South Africa that term. The Internet and airtime is prepaid and very expensive there, so I rarely got to speak to my family. From what I heard, Tawny had a hard time living in the same house with Haley again. She also felt depressed about leaving Tampa and downgrading to community college. It was as if her future had been halted. Perhaps worst of all, though, was that we all predicted she’d be back.
She spent the entire semester applying to various universities both nearby and a few states away. For every school she applied to she would get equally as excited to apply and then just as upset upon getting rejected. Finally, she applied to West Chester University and got in. She was pumped to get back into the college lifestyle and to be around people her age who were motivated to succeed. She also looked forward to living on her own again and being far enough away from home so that she could feel independent, but close enough so that she could easily come home if anything went wrong.
The rest of the summer of 2010 Tawny spent buying things to decorate her room with and contemplating a major to study in the fall. Time couldn’t pass quickly enough as she anticipated the new school year. Finally, the day came to move into her new apartment. My mom and her were just about to walk out the door when Tawny noticed one of the dogs wasn’t moving.
“Mom! Lucy isn’t moving. Mom! Oh my god,” Tawny screamed.
“Shit. Michael!” my mom called to my dad.
I’m not exactly sure what happened next, but I do know that this debacle delayed the move in period by a couple hours. My dad took care of the dog, who had indeed passed away, while my mom pushed Tawny to keep moving because the move-in period was limited. Tawny kept repeating that this was a bad omen and that it was just a sign that something was going to go wrong, but for once Tawny’s luck was about to change.
IX. West Chester
Tawny had a couple of jobs before she found her current one, one of which being a bar where they hired her solely as “the token white person”. This place didn’t work out too well for her, as she often felt awkward and out of place. Eventually, she stumbled upon Doc MaGrogans, a bar on campus known for its seafood and great drink specials. She got a job as a cocktail waitress and immediately liked her coworkers and the overall atmosphere. This job turned out to be a positive thing for Tawny as it kept her busy, made her money, and introduced her to a lot of really great people.
The academic part of school has been going great also. Tawny has been studying elementary education, something she may have been destined to pursue since she’s always been great with children. She is getting good grades, gets along well with her roommates, and visits home every so often since she is only thirty minutes away.
I talk to her on a fairly frequent basis and though she still finds herself in ridiculous situations where her luck seems to be lacking, she is happier than she’s ever been. She tells me her stories of disaster with a smile on her face and laughs them off as silly missteps. No longer does she complain about being the middle child. Rather, she embraces it and gladly identifies with this role. Just as Haley and I are the youngest and oldest, Tawny is right in the middle and for once, that’s okay with her.