Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Extended Family: An Ode to Ray-Ray

An only child has to make up a lot of her own family. And that happens, to some extent, in any case--plenty of people the world over have estranged family relations, or have made some change in their lives--come out as homosexual, changed religions, whatever--that produces some tension in the family, and so they make a conscious decision to find family elsewhere. I didn't have to do any of that, thank Blog. My family and I still get along well; my parents and I are friends, my grandmother watches my dog. But I don't have any sisters or brothers, and my cousin and I, although roughly the same age, rarely saw each other. I went all the way through high school fascinated by the concept of family, of siblings. Most of my friends--if not all--had at least one sister or brother, and I envied them and also was happy I was not them. Raising one child is a lot cheaper than raising two, and I got piano lessons and flute lessons (and a very nice flute) and a two-week trip to Europe one summer, because there was a little extra money to pay for these non-essentials.

It wasn't until I joined a sorority--and indeed, lived life some more--that I learned what sisters and brothers were, and indeed, what extended family could be. I learned that my close girl friends from high school, although very close to me indeed and certainly part of the family, aren't really my sisters, and I know this only because I know what a sister feels like, and I know they aren't it. I'm extremely close to some of them, call them first with fashion questions or boy problems, would count them definitely among my best friends in the world but we're not...sisters. A lot of my sorority sisters, on the other hand, really are my sisters. We don't always get along, even the ones I'm close to--crowded living with fifteen other girls will magnify a person's good traits and bad ones, so that now even the simplest conversation with a sorority sister can be influenced by the whiff of three years of constant history or more, concentrated and distilled into a perfume, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. And not getting along with a woman--at least not all the time, even though you still love her--is certainly not a trait confined to family-like relations. My best friends and I have had our share of fights. But it's different.

Right now I am lucky enough to have a man I can call a brother--perhaps two men--with no equivocating, they are the closest thing I've ever had to brothers in my life and I look upon them with a mixture of hope and consternation, wanting only the best for them even though I know that's impossible for any human, and other times wanting to give them a good smack upside the head for being such idiots, but at no time ever thinking of not having them in my life. The possibility simply never enters my head, and this idea--the LACK of ability to imagine life without them--may be one of the tenets that separates best friend from family member, although again that's not true in some cases because I certainly can't imagine life without my closest girlfriends; that future just does not occur to me.

But this post is not about my adopted brothers, as great as they are; this post is about my only big sister in the world (adopted): Ray-Ray.

Ray-Ray and I met when I was just out of college and about to move in--or maybe already had moved in--with T-Town, and I was footloose and fancy free and had some disposable income, enough to buy sugar-laden lattes every morning, keep my refrigerator stocked, and splurge on some adult beverages at night. She was new in the apartment complex, and myself and Alex--a guy about our age in the complex, who had a lucrative bartending job at the time and owned a pimped-out Jetta and a motorcycle, converged on her one afternoon in the dog yard and convinced her to go shoot pool with us. It must have been a Tuesday, as it was free pool night at The Swiss, way before that bar got its liquor license, and we went down to the Swiss and planned to shoot a little pool and get to know each other. (I believe, at the time, Alex--who had a girlfriend, although we never saw her--couldn't decide which of the three of us, including my roommate T-Town, he wanted to try to bed first, and so it was mainly thanks to him that we all hung out as much as we did. It's from that example that I learned that men mainly do things--including start wars, develop new computer programs, and lead countries--because they are hoping to really get to know a woman, or possibly a lot of women, if you know what I mean. And I think you do.)

This night was not to be Alex's night, but none of us knew that at the time, mainly because Ray-Ray and I were clueless and also because someone (read: Ray-Ray) had the bright idea, quite early in the night, of running next door to take tequila shots.

Yes. At the time, the Swiss, a fine bar, had no liquor license, so the only thing we could drink was beer and mulled wine. (Not unusual in Tacoma--that is, the beer-and-wine-license, not the mulled wine. The Swiss' mulled wine is a delicacy only available for a few months out of the year, and is a closely guarded secret.) But the pizza place next door had a full bar, so the three of us set up this pattern of playing a few games of pool, running next door for shots, and running back to play another few games of pool.

After a few hours of this, Ray-Ray--a Southern Belle from Tennessee--had become obsessed with a fragrance in the bar, which meant she was walking around taking deep whiffs of the men around us, trying to track down the cologne, and the bartenders at both the Swiss and the pizza place had fallen for her so completely that they were allowing her to take trays of shots OUT of the pizza place and INTO The Swiss, breaking I don't know how many state and perhaps federal laws. Speeding up our shot consumption, surprisingly, did not make any of us more sober, and all the men in the bar that Ray-Ray had sniffed were beginning to take a strong personal interest in her, and about this time Alex and I and Ray-Ray decided we should get the hell out of there.

Ray-Ray and I got into her silver Mercedes, which she called her Grandma Car, and just then, a cop car pulled around the corner, and my heart stopped. (Kids, don't drink and drive!) Amazingly enough the cop kept driving, or would have had Ray-Ray not said, "Hey, he's cute!" And--here's the insane part--rolled down her window and flagged him down.

He stopped and rolled down his window, grinning, as Ray's charm had already flown out her open window and hit him full in the face. "Can I help you, ladies?" he asked, and Ray-Ray was about to answer him when I urgently tugged on her arm. "DRUNK," I shouted, "and we're about to drive to our apartment!"

Whether she heard me or not, I have no idea, but she made some non-committal answer to the cop and he drove off, and we drove home, a terrible idea but let me point out we were VERY CLOSE to home, maybe five minutes, on roads we knew well.

Whether T-Town was home or not, I don't remember, but I do remember the three of us opened beers and attempted to play Scrabble, a bad idea when none of you can even remember how to spell "what". I eventually threw up and then passed out, waking a few hours later to find them gone. Knocking on their doors the next morning to make sure everyone was still alive, Ray-Ray told me she had gone back to her own apartment and suddenly decided she needed a casserole. "There I was, chopping up onions and browning the meat and grating cheese at 4:30 in the morning," she said, "and then I put the whole damn thing in the oven and passed out, slept right through the buzzer. I woke up this morning to a charred brick, and took the whole thing straight from the oven into the trash.

This was the start of a long and beautiful friendship. We went out when we could, but other times we just stayed in our respective apartments and talked. Of course, she was from Tennessee, and my mama was a Delta Gamma at UT, so we felt like we had some common roots from the start. (As proof, just recently I saw Ray-Ray for her going away party, and she had a few girls from the South there and the first thing she said to them was, "Her mom's a Lady Vol!" (The Lady Volunteers are arguably one of the most famous female college basketball teams in the country; they play at UT.) But the fact that really cinched our sisterhood was when she said I reminded her of her sister, early on in our friendship, and said she had something to show me. She handed me a picture and for a second I though I was looking at myself. It was Ray-Ray's sister, her middle sister not the baby sister, and goddamned if we DIDN'T look almost identical. It was freaky. Liz, being Southern, is actually much prettier than I am; her hair is always groomed and in all the pics I've seen of her, she's wearing light and perfect makeup, whereas a typical picture for me is eating a fry with my mouth open on the way back from a ski trip with the worst helmet hair ever. But we have the same eyes, nose, and chin, and we wear our light-colored hair the same way, hers lighter than mine. It truly is weird.

I saw Ray-Ray for the last time until I go to Tennessee to see her just a few nights ago, and at the end of the night I had a hard time blinking back tears. This is a woman who supported me in my waiting tables but reminded me over and over again that I was meant for better things; who allowed me to goof off and fart around but wasn't afraid to express her relief when I said I had a real job offer from the Lazy B; who indulged my bad habits and taught me some new ones but wasn't afraid to tell me on a Saturday night that she felt like staying in and wasn't ashamed of it. Every time I see her, she gives me a million hugs and tells everyone around her who will listen that I'm the smartest girl she's ever met besides Liz, the girl who's like me, and how beautiful and talented I am, boosting me up until I almost believe it myself. This last time was no different, she grabbed my face in both her hands and said, "I read your blog, and I read your novel excerpt and girl, I had no idea. I mean, I knew you were smart and I knew you were gorgeous, but girl, I had NO idea you could write like that. Write that damn novel, write it, because you're going to be a huge success and I know it."

I would walk a barefoot mile on hot lava for that girl, but of course I don't need to because a more together and attractive woman I have never met, and whatever she can't do for herself--damn little--she could have any number of men do for her. I hope that she has a terrific time back in her home state, and I know she wasn't truly happy here but I'm sure glad she showed up because my life was forever changed because she walked into it.

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