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Where I Come From

Rivals

My sister Naomi was married last month. March 9 is a date she will never forget, but it marked a real milestone for me too. By the time the DJ packed it in, I understood that being a groomsman means women can dress you in colors typically reserved for babies and expressionist painters, that black people who have never left the city limits love to line dance so long as you don’t call it “line dancing,” and that what had been one of the most difficult relationships in my life is now something worth celebrating.

Naomi is my only full sibling. I’m less than two years older than her, and for some time early on we looked strikingly similar, like an urban version of Charlie and Sally Brown. This was more than enough proof that neither of us was adopted, but I still thought it was bizarre that we were related at all. Naomi is loud. As kids, shouting responses to my mom from two floors away was perfectly natural to her. I preferred the stairs. Even today, sitting in the back of her car on the way to church, you pray the gospel choir blaring through her sound system won’t burst your eardrums before service begins. She’s emotional, in-the-moment, impulsive. I’m cerebral. Naomi never seemed interested in world affairs, politics, or culture, and without meaning to I always gave her the impression that the latest bit of intrigue she’d experienced at work and news from this or that corner of the family was beneath me. For years, we couldn’t talk for more than eight minutes without annoying each other.

And what would have come out in that ninth minute was too painful. Because my mother would not let me lock her in the basement when Naomi discovered boys, we found that she gravitated to macho types, brash trash-talkers who seemed to alternate between beating their chests and brushing their hair. I did not expect her prom date to love classical music or Thomas Hardy’s rich, meticulous prose as much as I did. One can only hope for such luck. But with our father out of the picture, I thought my brother and I embodied a few traits worth searching for: intelligence, kindness, tact. Instead, my sister was a constant reminder of the girls that never appreciated me. I felt rejected by my own DNA.

All of this might have gone unsaid if not for the accident. A few years ago, a woman lost control of her car while speeding down Belair Road and clipped Naomi’s SUV. My mom called from the hospital while I was out covering a story. Naomi was fine, she told me. The x-rays were just a precaution. I made my way to the hospital for moral support, but it bothered me that I didn’t drive faster. All other things being equal, if a handful of other people had been in Naomi’s place, I would not have been so calm. I didn’t run any red lights that day, but later I called my sister.

I talked about feeling rejected. She talked about feeling belittled. She said we might never be the type of friends who hang out just because, but she knew that her son Destin, my nephew, gave us a lot of common ground, and we’d be wise to use it. So we did. I picked him up as often as I could. My play dates with Destin gave me and Naomi more opportunities to interact, and very quickly eight minutes turned into a lot more. Naomi is still loud. Call it “exuberant.” But she can modulate. And I gradually learned how to be more present for my family, not off in my own thoughts someplace far away. Apparently, we grew up.

One day last summer, Naomi called and asked what I thought of her boyfriend, Tony. I was quiet for a moment. She’d never solicited my opinion on anything so important, so I wanted to get this right. “Tony is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” I told her. “He makes me want to be a better human being.”

That was more than enough validation for both of us. I was a groomsman during the ceremony and emceed the reception, which was not without controversy. In my opinion, the men swept the battle-of-the-sexes dance competition hands down thanks to Destin, now 5, who stunned the crowd with breakdance moves and topped it off with the Robot. As I prepared to leave, Naomi sat in a recliner not far from the hotel lobby, exhausted but giddy. Destin was sprawled on her lap. “Uncle Lionel,” he asked, “who won the dance-off?”

Three years ago, my sister looked at the distance between us and thought her son could close the gap. We can all be winners, she told Destin.

Naomi, you were right—yet again.

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