narrative: i never


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I had a date last night and, even though I had home field advantage, I was nervous. I'm not really sure why. I hadn't even met the guy. It's not like I was invested in making it work. Dates just make me nervous. It's not completely irrational. Dates have a predictable continuum of outcomes. On one hand, you might meet the love of your life; the serious stalker lives at the other extreme.

We should have some fear of the stalker, but somehow I don't. Perhaps its a delusion, but I'm pretty scary myself and I generally believe that I can give as good as I get. Failing that, I have few qualms about restraining orders. It's the other end of the spectrum that scares the living daylights out of me: falling in love. Which is why, whenever I meet someone I think I might like, I tell stories about my family. It's a defense mechanism. It allows me to believe that (the inevitable) rejection is attributable to my family (I wouldnt date me with the possibility of "holidays" on the horizon!) and not to my lack of social graces, good looks or conversational depth. In short, my family, after years of actively constructing my neuroses, is now conveniently used to insulate me from the painful consequences of being a freak. And, stories about my family can be amusing.

It's not so much that my family is intentionally amusing or even really aware of being funny. That's what's most amusing in a way: the gaps in awareness and communication. For example, my sister and I didnt talk to each other for ten years when I received a phone call from her. It was father's day and she called to ask, "Do you know where Dad is?" I replied, "Yes." The ensuing silence implied that, although not eager, I might consider answering another question before replacing the receiver in its cradle.

Now, I should have known better because this is just the kind of rhetorical game that my therapist taught me is called a "trigger. " Just such a trigger caused the ten-year breach. It happened one evening when I was waiting for my friend John to pick me up for a concert. My sister was going to the same concert which I cringe to admit was Chicago -- but the previous summer she had been in a car accident and spent most of the last 12 months in traction and physical therapy. Although she had a driver's license, she was now, like me, still 15, beholden to the driving sympathies of her friends. She was also waiting for a ride, but used the time to eat dinner as I waited in the breezeway.

I had used the opportunity of my sister's hospitalization to undergo a puberty-inspired growth spurt and to sharpen my resolve that I would no longer put up with her shit. As crutches mediated the possibility of having the shit beat out of me, I was engaged in a game of actively testing my sister's limits. My sister's limits are a moving target, though, and this particular evening they were gunning for me.

My friend Johns family wasnt particularly large, but it had a certain element of disorganization. I generally found it glamorous and a little enviable. Whereas my mother was always on top of every detail of my adolescent life, John and his three siblings always seemed to be two or three steps out of synch with his parents intentions. This often made him late. This night I had already been waiting for 20 minutes for him to pick me up. So, when my sister asked the question, "When are you leaving," my testy response, aimed at John, was, "Whenever John gets here!" I'm not sure whether this statement, more precisely my sister's interpretation of this statement, was a last straw or if, indeed, it was a consequence of her lack of rational capacity, but my response generated an unexpected opportunity. It was the catalyst that inspired her offer to disown me.

There are moments when youre offered a choice. You can apologize for something youve never done or you can accept the consequences of sticking to your ground. As a surly 15-year-old, the choice was clear and, seemingly, resolved by Johns car pulling into the driveway. Indeed, no choice had to be made; I could just walk out the door. As I exerted pressure on the door handle, my sister shouted, "If you dont apologize right now, it will be like I never had a brother." I turned, looked at her, notices a tiny bit of foam at the edge of her mouth, and, finding it was the only response I could think of, whispered, "Fuck you."

Like animals sizing each other up, my sister and I circled each other a few times during the evening. She has a fierce glare that she had used to melt my most joyous childhood moments. Its an amazing thing that a single look can communicate a persons complete disdain for everything you find fun, interesting, and life affirming. Its the look that, ironically enough, kept me in the closet for an extra seven years. However, this night I wasnt giving in. This night I was two inches taller than she, stronger, and, barring the use of physical violence, which, given her use of crutches, wouldnt curry favor to me in any quarter, I could still run. So, I glared back and walked away.

When youre a 15-year-old boy you break curfew. Its expected. My father expected it and devised a system to keep him oblivious of it. Because my parents didnt trust my sister with house keys it had something to do with a keg party she threw when she was 15 and her use of keys to lock the dog and my 12-year-old ass in the den throughout the event my father came up with the note system. There was a note in the kitchen with both of our names on it. The first person home would cross their name off the list, signaling the second person to lock the door. When I arrived home the house was locked. The system had been sabotaged.

My sisters never been as resourceful as me and Im sure it never occurred to her that I had contingencies. Breaking into the house was no problem and I actually found it amusing. It wasnt until I got to the kitchen and found that shed not crossed her name off the list at all. Shed thrown the note away. The stakes of the game had changed.

My response, admittedly, wasnt in the service of resolving our conflict. Throughout my childhood I had developed the skills of mediation and was the one who smoothed over the tense relations that pestered our domestic arrangement. My sisters long hospitalization had made me less sanguine about this role. Her absence had removed the tension in the house and the summer she was "away" was actually pretty easy. Clearly, I theorized, she was the root of the problem and new steps had to be taken to contain her. In short, I escalated the crisis. The details of the escalation arent important (or pretty), whats important is that they resulted in finding myself on the phone ten years later talking to a sister I barely knew.

Of course there had been gossip. My parents, unlike me, werent happy at all that my sister and I had cut each other off. I suspect that they, go figure, construed our estrangement as a pesky detail that they had to explain to friends and that might result in whispers behind their back. No one wants to consider that the actions of their children might be construed as "bad parenting." The result was that most visits with my parents inevitably wound around to some, seemingly interminable, conversation about my sister. The funny thing is that my parents didnt know anything about my sister.

When we were kids my sister would brag that she was moving out of the house the minute she was eighteen. She wasnt going to hang around into her twenties the way the neighbors kids had. No sir, she was getting out as soon as she could. I hadnt really thought about what Id be doing at eighteen and the irony is that I was the one to move out at eighteen never, as it turned out, to live there again. This incensed my sister who, as it turns out, didnt leave until she was twenty-four. She moved out when my parents were on vacation, left a note with a phone number. When asked where or with whom she lived, my parents were vague. Theyd never actually been invited to her apartment nor had they met "Sue," the woman no one had heard of before my sister moved in with her. These "facts" were the full extent of our knowledge of my sisters life.

I remembered all of this in the ten seconds of silence when my sister called looking for our father. I remembered the idea that I might be "triggering" something with the silence and jumped in with, "Do you want his number?" "Yeah," my sister replied, "Are they on Cape Cod?" "Yup," I said. And we were silent again. Sensing an opportunity, I said, "So what are you up to?"

Its at this point I learned that she and "Sue" had just moved from an apartment in the city to a ranch house in the suburbs. I was intrigued, yet, somehow wasnt stalwart enough to articulate the phrase, "So, youre a dyke?" Instead, I offered that the particular suburb they chose was probably nicer than the one we grew up with. She agreed and we hung up.

When my parents arrived, and the conversation inevitably turned to my sister, it was me who initiated the conversation. Had she called? So, she moved into a new house? What do you think of that? Its at this point that my grandmother interjected.

My grandmother was a sharp ticket. She knew how to work a room and she knew how to manipulate a conversation in a way that no one knew she was even aware the conversation was taking place. Excitedly, she asked me, "Did I tell you my exciting news!" "No," I replied smiling. "Danny-boy had puppies!" she sparkled back to me. I knew I was in for something good.

Danny-boy was her tenants dog, an Irish sheepdog, that, to this moment, I was sure was a boy. So, I asked.

"Oh no," she said, "it was the funniest thing. I was in the kitchen baking when I looked out the window. When they bought Danny, they also bought a girl dog for Wendys father. The two of them were playing in the yard. Then, Danny started hurting her."

"Hurting?" Can this possibly be going where I think it is? I smiled and glanced at my parents who are not smiling. I look back at my grandmother.

"So, I went down to break them up, but Pat stopped me and told me what was happening. I had never seen anything like it in my life."

The silence in the room was a knowing silence. My parents and I had, indeed, put together that my grandmother was telling us a story about copulating dogs. I was delighted. My parents were slack-jawed. Yet, this story was unexpected, told via indirection, and clearly with the intention of delighting me while disorienting my parents. My grandmother knew something; she smelled that I knew something, too. I swallowed, preparing to take the next step in complicit tango that we had started, when my mother broke in.

"Mom, I grew up on a farm. We saw things like that all the time."

"Shirley, I had never seen anything like that in my life," my grandmother countered sternly, gathering every bit of propriety she could muster.

"Mom, dont you remember when the cow had a calf, the horse" my mother countered. I could see in her eyes that she was invoking some association technique she probably read about in Readers Digest. She was testing for Alzheimers.

"Shirl, I never saw anything like that in my life."

"What about the cats and dogs," my mother offered, rapidly conjuring a barnyard bordello, in her effort to get her mother to admit that she was familiar with animal husbandry.

"Shirley, I have never seen any thing like this in my life." Pause, breath, "And, besides, I dont know what two women would do together any way."

Now, be honest, would you want to date into this?