The night before I started eighth grade our parents had some friends over, as Sundays were typically free of any of my sister Sara’s music lessons. Mr. Schmausheizer used to work at the same insurance law firm as my dad but left for the slightly more glamorous world of copyright law. Dad had been at Martin & Herman since he graduated law school, had just been promoted to junior partner, and at 36 he was the youngest to ever have that title. I got the sense that was the real reason he decided to have them over now. He was riding high and ready to show himself off for once, along with the usual parading of Sara’s captivating voice.
Dad almost never wore a suit outside of work, but this evening he was in a brand new, dark navy custom two-piece he had picked up the day before. A suit always sat well on his tall, skinny frame, but this was a clear step up from what he had been wearing for years. I tagged along with him when he got his hair cut the day before, and I overheard him tell Mr. Gates to make it look like Bruce Willis, which he tried, but my dad’s face was much longer and thinner than his inspiration.
The Schmausheizers hadn’t come over for at least a year, but I could clearly remember Mr. Schmausheizer making a few proud comments about being in a ‘creative field’ a couple years earlier, and my mom – who worked as a proofreader at an ad agency – getting offended at his belief that copyright law made him creative. As with every English major and proofreader, she was an aspiring writer, having completed one unpublished novel when she was twenty-two but pretty much nothing after they got married, and definitely nothing after I was born. She was also dressed to impress, with a black skirt and navy blouse ensemble fit for an expensive evening out in New York. Her broad shoulders, especially so when next to my dad, were covered up both by the blouse and blonde hair, with her short legs visually extended by dark gray vertical stripes on the skirt. The two of them could look like an odd pair sometimes, but when they were this put together and poised, it proved how in tune they could be.
I heard the doorbell ring and my mom yell back “Sara. Brad. Come out here please.”
Sara went running down the stairs singing “I’m cooooooming” on her way.
Slowly, I turned off the TV in my room and wandered towards the front door. I could see a look of surprise on the Schmausheizer’s faces as they examined my parents’ outfits. Mom and dad invited them into the kitchen and presented them with the bottle of wine for the night:
“It’s an ‘85 cabernet.” Dad said while presenting the bottle like a true sommelier. “The liquor store ordered it special for us and we have two bottles.”
“I love a good cab.” Mr. Schmausheizer said as he examined the label.
Mrs. Schmausheizer eagerly asked “what is that amazing smell?” as she put her nose in the air to sniff around.
Mom said “Oh, yes it’s going to be great. Jim prepped a prime rib on the grill. It’s quickly broiling in the oven.” She put her hand on my dad’s shoulder and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, then smiled brightly at Mrs. Schmausheizer.
“So fancy. I can’t wait.” Mrs. Schmausheizer replied as dad popped a cork.
Once the cork was out, he placed it on the counter. Then Mr. Schmausheizer picked it up to smell, with dad glaring back while he carried the bottle into the dining room.
The Schmausheizers were much more casual than my parents, right in line with what you would expect to wear over to an old friend’s place for dinner. But they were a very attractive couple in anything. His arms were not overly muscular, but slightly strained his polo shirt’s short sleeves, as his chest equally stretched the maroon fabric. If my dad was Bruce Willis, then Mr. Schmausheizer was Brad Pitt. His wife was equally gorgeous, with long legs in blue jeans that were slightly tighter than a typical cut, and a white shirt covering her large breasts under a nice brown waistcoat. She had the same blonde hair as my mom, but it sat more naturally on Mrs. Schmausheizer’s slim body.
Unlike typical company, the Schmausheizers didn’t have children, so without the solitude provided by a kids’ table, the adults felt the need to involve us in their conversation. We all sat around our new dining room table that was quite large for six people, but my dad made my mom leave the extra piece in so everyone could see how big his table really was. My parents were at the heads of the table, while I sat next to Mr. Schmausheizer, with his wife across from me and Sara next to her. After the usual pleasantries about how good the prime rib was, and how nice it was to see each other, Mrs. Schmausheizer brought up the promotion.
“So, James, I heard you got promoted to partner. Sounds like the company treated your loyalty well.” She said this to my father but finished the comment by looking at her husband.
“Yes, they really have been great to me. But I’ve just stuck with them through a bunch of long-term cases. Don, you remember Culler? We finally got that settled for over 5 million.” My dad said, moving back in his chair to sit up taller.
Mr. Schmausheizer looked down into his wine glass and responded “Never forget it. That’s what made me leave. That man was a royal pain. I’m impressed by your resilience.”
“I can put up with a lot” Dad smiled. “But just at work. It’s pretty easy at home.” He blew a kiss to my mom across the table.
“Don’s firm has been expanding pretty quickly” Mrs. Schmausheizer stated cheerfully “He doesn’t work in the music division, but they said they might have to move him over.”
“Yeah, with all the internet piracy, copyright infringement might be the next hot ticket in law. Record labels and artists can’t hire us quick enough.” Mr. Schmausheizer added.
“Maybe they’ll even make you partner someday” my dad interjected with a friendly smirk, breaking their momentum.
At this point, I think my mom sensed an easy transition to brag about Sara. “I know the internet has been a big problem for music, but Sara loves getting songs so easily. She’s learning them quicker than ever.”
“How are you getting them? It might not be legal.” Mr. Schmausheizer said, placing his elbow on the table and leaning forward, ready to cross-examine.
Before my mom answered, Mrs. Schmausheizer changed the subject. “Sara, honey, what songs are you learning now?”
Sara perked up and said “Cole Porter! I really love his showtunes! We used to play a bunch of Irving Berlin, but these songs are more interesting since they change keys more often. His lyrics are also funnier!” Sara immediately broke into song:
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
I turned my focus to my dinner, which was still bleeding, so I didn’t want to eat it but knew my mom would be furious if I let any go to waste after she made a point to tell us how expensive it was. The Schmausheizers were of course impressed by Sara’s knowledge and voice. My Dad had stopped eating, sat up straight, and beamed with pride – he loved to take credit for Sara’s natural talent.
“I’m so happy Sara got my creativity.” Mom said, interrupting Sara and smirking at my dad. “I don’t think Jim ever even sketched in a notebook!” The two of them always jabbed each other for taking credit, especially since mom not only had the writing background but insisted her ‘artistic empathy’ was the real catalyst for Sara’s growth. If it ever occurred to her to take real credit as the one driving Sara around all the time, she never brought it up. Maybe that felt like something anyone could do.
Everyone laughed at my mom’s gentle joke as she blew dad an apologetic kiss. Mr. Schmausheizer then asked: “So Heather, have you started another book yet?”
Dad’s smile disappeared as he waited for mom’s response. She said without blinking: “I’ve got a couple ideas, just trying to find the time between raising my talented children.” I smiled and accidentally caught my mom’s glance on my way back down to my plate. She asked: “So Brad, are you excited for Mr. Sterns’ class?” she Asked. Math was the only topic they could turn to with any hope of making my life sound interesting.
“I don’t know. We’re starting calculus.” I said, not even attempting to feign enthusiasm.
Dad seemingly tried and failed to muster the same amount of pride he had for my sister: “Brad’s going to take a bus to the high school every morning for class with a couple other kids because he’s so far ahead.” He then grabbed another slice of meat, slathered it in A1 sauce and slumped down to continue eating.
“That’s pretty impressive – I loved physics when I was in school. Have you started that yet?” Mr. Schmausheizer asked.
I started politely “Not yet. I think that’s a science class in high school.” But then decided to end my part of the conversation, having sensed an opportunity to sully the image my parents were projecting: “The buses sound like a pain in the ass.”
“Lang! – uage..” mom yelled in a tone that quieted and got more controlled as she went further into the word, seemingly remembering she had guests. She awkwardly smiled at everyone, giving eyes to my full-mouthed father to change the subject, but Mrs. Schmausheizer again chimed in to relieve the tension.
“Sara, do you know You Don’t Know Paree? It’s a bit of a hidden gem, but it’s one of my favorite songs.”
Sara was out of her seat before the sentence ended, but still looked to my parents for permission, finding eagerly raised eyebrows encouraging her to perform. They loved showing her off, but it was more like removing a harness – especially after that Anything Goes tease – since she was always singing anyway and loved an audience. That’s why Sara wore a recital dress whenever we had company over, even when my parents were extremely casual. I was the odd one out right now though, as she complemented their style perfectly in her billowing baby blue polka-dot number that looked a little childish for her, yet somehow still fit. But this performance was odd from the start, with Sara singing in a tempo even a tin ear would recognize as quick. She reached the conclusion in what must have been less than one minute.
You don’t know paree,
You don’t know Pareeeeeeeeee,
e. e. e. e. skee. Bahhhh. Ti. Laaa. Bop. Bop. Bop.
After finishing the song, Sara kept singing a completely new melody and rhythm, initially scatting, then describing the evening in tune.
We’re having dinner
The pot roast was delicious
I love this blue dress and I love mom and I love dad
The couch is blue my dress is blue but the rug is brown
Kitchen on the right bathroom on the left
It was kind of cool at first, but any novelty quickly became concern. My parents looked at each other hoping it would stop as the Schmausheizers just kept smiles on their faces, unable to find the right reaction because there wasn’t one.
Water and wine on the table just like…
“Sara! Do you want desert?” My dad asked in a soft yell.
Yes I’d love some Jell-ooooo
She stopped, sat down, and everyone looked relieved. I wanted to ask what the hell just happened, but the whole room was quiet as my Dad went in to grab the jell-o and cookies my mom had made with Sara that afternoon. While I was a little confused, I stayed quiet, knowing this would make mom forget any anger towards me. I also wanted Jell-O.
The Schmausheizers left shortly after desert and my parents went to clean up the kitchen without acknowledging to Sara or me that anything out of the ordinary had just happened.
After we got upstairs, I followed Sara down the hall to her bedroom to lay some ground rules for the next day. She was beginning sixth grade, which meant we were going to share a school for the first time, and instead of bragging about my sister, I was going to distance myself from her. Even if nothing was going to make anyone forget we shared a last name, I could show them how little I cared about her. How “cool” I was. Instead of having pride in a sister who was actually passionate about something.
Sara’s room was decorated just like her clothing and pretty much everything in her life outside of music: unexpressive and utilitarian, with all personality coming from gifts she received. Because of that, there were no significant changes to this room over time. There were no superfluous items from abandoned hobbies, like the binders full of Pokémon cards sitting on my bookshelf. Her walls were a faded pink color that remained from before she was born, and only three items – a miniscule amount compared to me and all other normal 90’s kids – hung in there. Ms. Mantz gave Sara a promotional one-sheet for Sarah Vaughn in Hifi and a framed, signed bill from Billie Holiday at the Apollo, which were joined by a Madeline Peyroux tour poster that mom bought Sara at a concert a few months earlier. When you walked in, the back-right corner included a bass and guitar, which she got by combining her Christmas and birthday gifts the past two years, but rarely touched. Following that wall down to the right of the door was a full bookcase, but there was no RL Stine, no Nancy Drew, just dozens of composition books filled with her transcriptions, and sheet music she rarely used more than once due to perfect pitch. The lone non-musical item in the room, an American Girl doll she received from our grandmother when Sara was three, shared the top shelf with a picture from her first recital. The other wall had her bed, with a black and white comforter – covered in microphones and music notes – that our parents found on-sale at Kmart two years earlier and brought home ecstatically.
I burst through Sara’s door to make sure she knew the power balance shifted once we left our house the next morning. She had already sat down at her desk next to the foot of the bed, writing down another melody and singing quietly when I screamed loudly: “What was that? You’re so weird! Starting tomorrow, you’re not my sister between the hours of seven AM and three PM.”
Without looking up or even pausing her pencil, Sara asked “Did you like my new song? And what is Ms. Grim like? Is she nice?”
“Listen to me, dork! Don’t ask me questions, don’t tell anyone you know me, and don’t say hi to me in the halls.” I was emphasizing throughout by jabbing the air with a pointed finger. “When the bus comes, you walk on behind me and Shannon. We’ll sit in the back. Do NOT try to sit with me. Stay with Jason and Clark.” At this point my finger was right at the back of her head.
“Where should we sit?”
“I don’t give a shit! Just not with me.”
Sara started lightly singing to herself.
I grew frustrated that she didn’t understand the importance and yelled again: “This is important! Stop ignoring me!’
“I’m listening. I promise…” Sara said quietly while continuing to hum.
“You already ruined enough of my life with your stupid music. Now you have to pretend you don’t know me or I’ll tell everyone you still wet the bed!”
But that’s not true! Sara sang to me.
“Everyone will believe me anyways! ‘Ewwww she had to wash pee off this morning.’” I mockingly sang out of tune with a high pitched nasally voice.
Sara said “Fine.” And began singing Embraceable You to herself – I always wished fewer songs were about romantic love when I heard them in my sister’s voice – so I left her alone hopeful that my message got through.
All of us called it an early night, with even my parents in bed by 9. But I doubt anyone got a good night’s sleep, as Sara’s singing didn’t stop. There was more of a struggle than usual in her voice, like she was trying to hold back but simply couldn’t. It also went beyond her usual tunes, but the actual lyrics were muffled. What I could make out sounded like more straightforward descriptions of her surroundings, until I woke up from a short stint of sleep to hear melodic begging.
Please please please.
Sara’s cracking voice trailed off after that, and I was finally able to sleep for more than 15 minutes. But every time I woke up for a minute I could still hear a little bit coming from her room.