Soup is one of the great unsung heroes. In my life specifically, but also life in general. Sometimes I don't even consider ordering it when I'm out—I'm sorry, soup. I am seduced by avocado toast and goat cheese salad and forget that you have stood faithfully by all along.
In the romcom of my life, soup is the one that gets me in the end. But only after holding my hair back when I get massive food poisoning from that narcissistic sushi. And only after I reject the flashy circus antics of glamorous hibachi, do I realize that soup has always been the one.
The first soup I remember is my mother's French onion soup. She would serve it to my sister, J, and me in glazed green ceramic bowls—hand turned, I believe—a whole slice of bread topped with melted cheese floating like an island in the middle. To be honest, I was more excited by the cheesy bread, and I would eat the underlying soup quickly without much enthusiasm. But I was young then and didn't understand that the beauty of the dish came from the warmth of the broth and the sweetness of the onions. I didn't know a lot about life then.
The other soup my mother made was Bugs Bunny soup—a pureed carrot soup. My mother is very clever. My sister loved both these soups and always begged my mom to make them. This preference partially explains my neutrality towards soup: if my sister liked it, I found it blasé.
My whole life, my sister and I have tried to be as separate as possible. We are two years and four days apart—both Libras—and we've made every attempt to assert our individualism. She was "better" at drawing, so I acted in all the school plays. I was "better" at creative writing, so she had to be analytical and fact minded. She was the tomboy, so I was girly, sneaking lip gloss to school while she cut off all her hair. I was sweet, so she was tough. She loved spinach, so I spit my portion into my mother's nice cloth napkins and threw it out the window (for reference, spinach stains and I got caught). We both wanted cheesecake for our birthdays, but she had plain and I had chocolate.
I don't know why we felt the need to be different. Maybe it's because we look different so we assumed that we must be. Books of different covers have different content, after all. Or maybe we were avoiding competition Even when we both ran cross country, I dropped out of the team before we had a chance to run a full length race together. Which sucks because it would have been amazing to run through the woods of Vermont with her, the sun coming through the birch trees as we scanned the trail for roots. I would have really loved that. But we were afraid that if we did the same activities or liked the same things that one of us would come out as "superior," and we would rather be separate than compared.
And she loved soup. I remember her loving it and me rolling my eyes and asking for macaroni and cheese or something like that (actually, she liked mac and cheese too, but she liked it with way too much milk so that it was almost like soup whereas I liked a thick buttery paste).
When I was in college, I developed an impressive stress eating habit. But having been raised as I was—by a good mother on a good farm in a green place—I understood that if I ate a package of Oreos every time I read an invigorating article about the theatrical traditions of oompa loompas (or whatever silliness I was studying), I would become as round as I was tall, which was not preferred because I was fairly shallow at the time. So I started ordering organic dehydrated soup cups on Amazon (organic for my mother, convenient for me) and microwaving them in our suite kitchen that overlooked Riverside Park. Since one cup of soup was not nearly enough to sustain me through a four hour session of retyping my notes on Aristotle, I would supplement my small cup of tortilla soup (or whatever it was) with cartons of mushroom broth and whatever vegetables I would steal from the cafeteria salad bar so that it became a giant fusion soup extravaganza that filled an enormous class bowl. I believe this bowl was designed to serve salad to a family of four, but it was microwave safe and gave me enough volume to keep me entertained. I soon branched out and dressed up my soup with sprouts and peppers and peas and really anything—dried shredded squid from Chinatown even. I bought the squid when my sister was visiting for the weekend and we took a trip to Chinatown. We liked to go down there whenever she visited and go to the supermarkets. We'd buy a bunch of foreign snack foods and eat them on a bench next to the people doing Tai Chi, a big stature of Confucius presiding. She liked to buy interesting but certain things—green tea KitKats, rice crisps—things we were guaranteed to like even though they were new. She didn't see the point in wasting money on weird things. I liked to buy something "scary"—like dried shredded squid—to see if I'd like it (I pretended I did no matter what). Even now, I still choose something new, and she still shakes her head and tells me to "choose whatever I want" while giving me a disapproving big sister look.
When I lived in Prague, I ate soup every day. I lived there for a year, and because I was acting and wanted to be skinny, I avoided the heavy Czech meat dishes and fried cheese. Czechs aren't big on vegetables, so the only reliable alternative was soup. By the end of my time there, I was fairly small but mostly hungry. I loved soup then because I loved how I looked, but I also resented it because it was a kind of restrictive monotone meal. But at least I got to eat it alongside my friends at the strange Czech bagel shop down the street from our school. It was cheap, too, which was wonderful because I ran out of money twice during my time there. (Which was fewer times than four years before that, when I lived in Sweden and ran out of money at least five times…both trips were funded by institutions that were more interested in studies than in sustenance.)
While I was in Prague, my sister was in Washington DC working overnight at CVS to help cover the cost of university. Or maybe she had transitioned to Starbucks already, riding her bike in the dark early morning (and later, after hers was stolen, my bike) to work a shift before class. She ate a lot of cabbage then because it was cheap. She also learned to clip coupons, and I remember being surprised by how much she loved going through the newspaper flyers while making very precise shopping list. I don't remember her making soup, but she made a lot of curry. She was also cooking for her boyfriend at the time, and he had very boring tastebuds being a Midwesterner. He cramped her style in many ways, and I was worried he would cause her to suppress her power and turn her into a Ranch dressing corporate employee. But she dumped him and joined the Peace Corps because she is a bad ass. Even though it was hard and miserable for her to end it, she understood that she can change the world and no baseball stat obsessed boy can stifle that drive.
I was a terrible sister while she was serving in Paraguay. My work schedule was out of control, and I basically ignored her for over two years. But while she was gone, she wrote a novel. Which was funny because writing was kind of my thing. It was what I studied in college, and I actually got a substantial grant to finish a book I was writing. My novel was—and is—a modern adaptation of Hamlet, and I was very proud of my female antihero. She's very unlikeable and has prevented any agents from representing the book to this day. So proud. J's main character was very noble, and I remember reading her draft and thinking that it was more complex than anything I'd ever write. I don't recall eating a lot of soup during that time, and I don't believe she did either—it was too hot in Paraguay.
When I first graduated from college, I only had one job: babysitting for cash. I paid $600 a month to rent a room in Spanish Harlem. I was going to be an actor, and I turned my nose up at any security in favor of jumping off the artistic cliff. Or slamming my face into the artistic wall as it turned out. I was constantly afraid I was going to starve, so I ordered a bulk order of Ramen noodles ($50 worth or enough to fill the bottom of my closet). I knew if worse came to worse, I wouldn't starve with my stockpile of Ramen. I never used the flavor packets, but I would microwave the noodles in water and mix tomato paste in for flavor. I knew it was terrible for me, and I tried to avoid eating it frequently, opting instead to hoard them for peace of mind. I moved these noodles to two different apartments over the next years before finally donating them to a food drive only to have the kind lady point out to me that they had expired. My roommate at the time teased me about my expired bunker, but she didn't understand that I was poor, afraid, and proud, trying to make the choices that would lead to happiness. My sister understood. She'd been eating cabbage and rice and clipping coupons for years by then.
Then we were 25 and 27. Our birthdays were just a few months away. She was preparing to apply to medical school and I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Bali eating an unapologetically large bowl of pho. I stayed in Bali for 20 days studying yoga, on a break from being a trainer and writer living in New York City. I love eating alone and although I was alone, I wasn’t lonely. That was the greatest pho of my life, and I alternated between writing and slurping, holding both my pen and my chopsticks in my left hand. I flew home the day after the pho. I flew home to nobody because, like my sister, I was single. She worked weekends as an EMT, and she posted the day before that she had gone on over 50 calls now, which was a lot for Vermont.
Some people raised their eyebrows when I said I was going to Bali alone, when she said she was joining the Peace Corps, when I went to Sweden at age fifteen, when she decided to apply for med school at age thirty, when I moved into my own New York apartment at age twenty-three. But it was only the people who don't know me or my sister that well. We both work as a kind of healer—her with medicine, me with exercise and stories. We both do whatever it takes and can live off cabbage and mushroom broth. We are both tomboys but love to dress up and dance. We both cry at movies. We are both still Libras and love music. We love soup and adventure and science and art. We aren't intimidated but worry a lot. And I find myself slurping and thinking of the savings account I've started so that when she gets to med school, I can Amazon subscribe and save dehydrated soup to her so that I don't have to worry that she's starving while she's learning to do the job that most people are too lazy to even dream of doing. When I’m daydreaming, I'm back eating pho in Bali, writing these sentences in between bites, holding my pen and chopsticks with my left hand, thinking about how soup and my sister are the unsung heroes of my life. And isn't it a nice life.
UPDATE: Now we are 27 and 29. She was accepted to three medical schools and will make up her mind in the next months: Chicago, Arizona, or Vermont. She is also an ED tech and an avid hiker. I am no longer single, but I’ve been feeling singular recently. She has too. I am still a writer and a trainer. She is a hiker and a soon-to-be doctor. I am creative and I like science. She is the same.