Chicago, Illinois/August 9, 2001
My fourteen year-old sister occupies the passenger seat next to me. My traveling companion for the next nine days, she is five feet eight inches of legs and eyeballs, one hundred per cent self-assuredness. My plan is to mold her, to show her parts of the country she has never seen, to show her the things she can have if she continues to do the things she is doing. I will show her cities, art, monuments, untamed wilderness. I will show her baseball. I will show her things that come with an education, with sophistication, with worldliness. I will impress her with my knowledge of all things not small-town Nevada. I will prepare her for life.
We drive out of Denver, and I am already a little cautious. A college friend has spoken of strippers and Amsterdam hash bars. I want her to be worldly, but this is too much! Does she know what a stripper is? Does she know they are all “working their way through college,” but that none have actually ever graduated? Does she know many have suffered abuse of some sort during their childhood, and that their own children are also likely to be affected? I want to tell her these things, but then I wonder if she’ll ask me how much money they make. She has been asking me this question with regards to my friends and their professions. If she asks, I must answer honestly. She is mature, going into high school, and she deserves the truth.
“A good Las Vegas stripper,” I would answer, “can make six figures, and working just half the year. However, benefits are pretty much non-existent. Unless, of course, you’re looking for good coke.” Six figures for a half year’s work, and free drugs? This sounds pretty good to me. I opt not to broach the stripper and Amsterdam issue. I instead worry about her becoming a stripper. I worry about her going to college and having a bad sexual experience. I worry about her getting accidentally pregnant and ruining her young life. This is a valid concern. My family breeds like it’s free sex at a polygamy festival. I want to ensure my little sister is aware of the breeding process. I want her to know that contraception is spelled with a “tra” in the middle of it. I want her to be prepared.“So Erin,” I ask, “whadda ya hear about the fallopian tube?” She shrieks. She brings her legs up to her chest, leans away from me, curls into a fetal position. Her hands cover her ears. “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA” she says. I suspect she doesn’t want to talk about this. “I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS,” she says. She is fourteen. We drive on.
At Mt. Rushmore, we take a gondola ride to an elevated view of the monument. From our perspective, only three presidents are visible. “I thought there were four,” she says. I tell her they take one down every other month to give it a good cleaning. She eyes me suspiciously. At the foot of the monument itself, she sees that there actually are four. “Ha!” She says. “I told you. What are their names?” I can see she doesn’t know. “The left one,” I say, “is Samuel L. Jackson. Then John Elway, Will Ferrell, and George W. Bush.” She does not believe me. “You’re such a liar!” she says. “The one with the beard is Abraham Lincoln.” She is fourteen.
We drive through the great expanse that is South Dakota. I want her to look around, to absorb the Great Plains and all of its history. I want her to know the misfortune of the millions of Native Americans at the hands of white settlers and the United States Army. I want her to know about the great bison herds. I continue to point things out to her. Laura Ingall Wilder’s childhood home. The Badlands. The acres and acres of wheat and corn. At each of my observations, she gives me a token “uh-huh,” barely looking up from her Nintendo Game-boy. I am exasperated. “Erin,” I finally say. “I want to know what you think about all of this. Look around you! This is America! What do you say?” She stares at me, inquisitively. Reflectively. “I think,” she says, “you pick your nose almost as much as Kimberley.” She is, I remind myself, fourteen.
In a restaurant in South Dakota, a young male takes our order. After he leaves, Erin states that she believes he is gay. “Erin!” I furrow my brow and drop my voice an octave. “Why do you think that?” “Because,” she says, “he has a lisp. And his finger nails are long and polished.” I begin: “Do you know anyone who is gay? Have you ever met a gay man?” She admits she has not. “Then you are basing your opinion on stereotypes acquired from television and movies,” I state. “You are basing your opinion on misperception, and your generalization perpetuates the incorrect and unfair portrayal of gay men. Until you have solid knowledge based on first-hand experiences acquired over time, you are only showing your ignorance by making such a statement.” She is sufficiently embarrassed. I have shown her the path to open-mindedness.
In Chicago, we go to a party given for a friend and her peers, graduates of a PhD program for clinical psychology. The host of the party is also my friend’s mentor and supervisor. My friend tells us her mentor is sort of peculiar, but very nice and entertaining. He is also, she says, gay. He greets us at the door. Erin stands behind me, obviously curious to meet her first gay man. Bernie is slender, with slightly balding hair slicked down on top of his head. He has a pencil-thin mustache, and wears a gray polo tucked into his belted black slacks. His shoes are highly polished. His partner is an Austrian named Hans. Bernie’s fingernails are long and polished, and Bernie has, of course, a lisp. It is all Erin can do to contain herself. She is throwing me kidney shots, each one a connecting “I told you so!” She does not punch like a fourteen year-old.
Our trip together is over. Erin begins high school on Monday. She is on the dance team, she is in Honors English Composition, she is her freshman class president. Still, I find myself worrying about her. We drive together to the airport, silently. I hope that she has had a good time, that she has learned something new, that she has seen what can be hers if she keeps doing the things she is doing. In the end, however, it is I that am taught. It is I that am impressed. It is I that worry that I annoyed her too much, that I embarrassed her. I think she is a superstar, and I tell her so. She looks me in the eye, pauses, and says “thank you.” Clearly, confidently, appreciatively.
I miss her already.