Growing Up a Musical
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Whenever I go to my sister Amanda’s apartment she always has white wine even though I know she prefers red. This night was hardly different, there was still a double bottle of pinot set on the table next to all of the half-packed cardboard boxes. Instead of packing we decided to add to the nostalgia of her leaving the last apartment she’ll have with her fiancé on the east coast by streaming one of our favorite childhood movies.
Our house’s basement was always cold. The cement was painted a mundane shade of gray but our parents tried to salvage it by detailing small, green leaves along the wall. A ridiculously fake jungle leaf garland hung from a white picket fence that separated the kid side from the adult side. My sister and I would only ever go over to the adults’ side for outfit changes during our intricate games of dress up.
The sofa we’d sit on was aged, striped with white and grays. It was stained lightly in some places which is probably why my parents designated it to our side. At some point, a DVD player was added downstairs, probably when we reached the age when TV or movies seemed cooler than dress-up or when the dress-up costumes didn’t fit us quite right anymore. Maybe the DVD player came along because my sister wanted it down there. This may have been why we’d began opting for movies rather than any of the games I loved so much — cashier, restaurant, talent show. She was older so ultimately had the final say of what we’d end up playing and eventually this meant pressing a play button instead.
This cold, concrete basement with a well-intentioned jungle theme is where I watched Grease for hours, days on end with Amanda for two consecutive summers.
I became enamored with everything about the film from the era-appropriate fashion choices of pastels and pompadours to the hidden complexity of the supporting characters. To this day I still believe that Frenchie deserved a better song that one about her dropping out of beauty school. I loved seeing the conflicts, from Rizzo’s pregnancy scare to the numerous ups and downs in Danny and Sandy’s relationship, be solved through catchy lyrics and intricate choreography. I knew no matter what high school drama was thrown at the T-birds and the Pink Ladies, they’d harmonize their way to a solution eventually.
I could not say with confidence the number of times I’ve watched it at its full length – one hour and fifty minutes. The number of times I’ve watched it partially is definitely higher, though, considering for those summers I was reminded by my sister at around 36 minutes in to close my eyes and cover my ears.
I would do as she said diligently; learning quickly halfway through that first summer what frames came before the mysterious scene I wasn’t allowed to watch. Once Sandy finished singing her ballad of unrequited love and the scene changed to a line of cars parked on the overlook with intertwined silhouettes peeking through the car windows, I knew it was time. Curiosity always lingered in those foreshadowing frames. I considered looking through a sliver of the hands that were supposed to be covering my eyes many times but never followed through with it. I did as she said and didn’t think twice. I just wanted a way to spend time with her even after she grew out of our favorite vintage red sequined dress, the one we’d always use to impersonate Gloria Estefan.
Being four and a half years apart can make it hard for two sisters to relate to each other. Sometimes that age difference makes no difference and sometimes it makes all of it. In that basement, without even realizing it, I clung to that one hour and fifty minutes of relatability, even if I had to close my eyes. Between skipping over the intro credits and belting “Chang chang chanitty chang sha-bop”’s I found comfort in our sisterhood. For those two summers, she was my best friend.
I can’t say what happened between Amanda and I after those two summers. At some point our basement got redone (twice), my sister went through middle and high school then got accepted into her dream school early on the fall of her senior year. I went through middle school and dreaded what high school had in store – I knew for sure there wouldn’t be any epic end of the year carnivals and I knew the hand jive wouldn’t play at homecoming. My opinions on high school were tainted by images of saddle shoes and random outbursts of song like those in Grease. That is, until my expectations for high school became solely based on moments I didn’t get from a screen: my sister trying to run away from home after a particularly bad screaming match, my father enraged when she locked her bedroom door even though she knew we weren’t supposed to do that, my mother trying to be calm through it all. These moments aren’t as ingrained in my memory as is the plot to Grease because I couldn’t rewind them to watch them again and again – and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to.
She got a boyfriend her the winter of her senior year of high school that we didn’t like. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t like him at the time. In the moment, I just knew he took the time that I could’ve spent with Amanda on a Friday night away. I know when they were together they weren’t watching Grease. He made my sister mad at my parents and made my parents mad at my sister and I watched it all. I never covered my eyes in those moments, I had to make sure I knew everything, I wanted to commit every word to memory. She was changing in a way I can understand better in retrospect. She was trying to be like end-of-the-movie Sandy for someone that didn’t even join the track team for her. I wanted to sing to her, “Fool forget him,” just like that one scene in the movie, but we didn’t like that song and always skipped over it so I didn’t know all the words. Even if I did know the words, I don’t think a song would’ve fixed anything anyway.
Movies don’t show you all the details that real life gives you. I never got to see if Sandy’s parents got mad when she came home late, I just knew that my parents did. I never got to see the right way to say no to a boy that wants to take you to the drive-in if you didn’t want to go and my sister didn’t teach me this either. I could yell at the screen when a part of the plot line bothered me but I couldn’t do the same to Amanda because I wasn’t watching her choose a boy over her friends and family from the comfort of our gray-striped couch, I was watching it happening as a supporting character, sitting at our kitchen table as she fought my parent’s for her car keys yet again.
Real life follows no script or storyboard. So when they had finally broken up and were miles apart at different universities, my parents and I thought it was over and the end credits would soon be playing. We never thought we’d get a call in the middle of the night saying he was on his way to Amanda’s school uninvited and that she was calling the police to make sure he’d stay away. This was a situation that not even a rhythmic reprise by the entire cast could fix and a plot twist I never would have thought to write. That’s just how this storyline goes.
I could not say with confidence the number of times I watched the same teen angst-fueled screaming match happen in my family’s kitchen but I can say that it still doesn’t beat the number of times I’ve seen Grease.
To this day I still wonder what it was that made her so adamant about my eyes being closed at 36 minutes, maybe one day I’ll ask her. I eventually found out years later that the forbidden scene I mused about for those two summers was actually just a cinematically unimpressive “sex scene” that depicted nothing but some heavy petting and a haphazard exchange of consent.
In whatever miniscule way, she was protecting me from something she didn’t think I should see. Now, years later that feels like a lifetime apart, she doesn’t shield me from anything because I’m finally her peer rather than her kid sister. We talk openly about that same thing Rizzo and Kenickie were doing on that hill and so many other things too. Nothing is off limits and her way of protecting me now is by having open conversations about the very things she thought I shouldn’t know about before. We’ve learned how to relate to each other in ways that don’t involve a mindless 1970’s musical.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment my relationship with my sister felt whole again. Sometime between my own freshman year of college and the release of the live television adaptation of Grease the four and a half years between us felt like nothing at all. It may have been the night she expressed her fears about sending me off to college on my own in between mixed drinks or my first winter break where I opened up to her about everything I experienced my freshman year of college, things I didn’t want to tell anyone else except her. It could have been any of those nights but it doesn’t matter which one it really was, it just matters that things changed. I didn’t have to close my eyes or let her choose the game we played to get her to hang out with me anymore because now she actually wanted to.
The first time I watched Grease all those years ago is blurry but the last time I watched it I remember in high definition. I am sitting cross-legged next to Amanda but the couch is not striped nor is it gray. It is a couple of days after we picked out her wedding dress and mere moments after she officially asked me to be her maid of honor. She gives me a hefty pour of wine, turns the television on and logs onto her shared Netflix account. We are in the apartment she shares with her fiancé, a man that accepts her at her beginning-of-the-movie Sandy and who always orders his milkshake with two straws.
Amanda and I are hesitant at first, not knowing if we still remember all of the lines like we once did but there are some things you just can’t forget. I’ll never forget the cramp in my stomach from laughing so hard after we hit every line and every key change of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” despite the number of times we fast-forwarded through the scene as kids. I’ll never forget moments like these and when I remember them I feel as if I’m watching them back on a screen but now, I never close my eyes. I want to make sure I know everything. I want to commit every word to memory.