Let me say something right now: I would really like to be wrong. It would be nice if there was some way of connecting, if somehow we could reach each other in some meaningful way across the existential divide, as it were.
It’s not that I don’t want it, I do. I am, unfortunately, too realistic. My sister Carol says I’m too concrete and unimaginative, but I like to think of myself as scientific. If it can be proven, or touched or observed in some measurable way, it’s real.
This is very trying for Carol, at least she says it is. She says I can’t help but ruin the moment, and she’s demanded that I absolutely be on my best behavior today.
“What do you mean? I’m not out to ruin anyone’s day.”
“No, that’s just a bonus for you,” she snaps. She is driving with one hand and using the other to hitch up her pantyhose. Over the last six months she’s lost 30 pounds with Jenny Craig, but all she had this morning were her old size Qs. By the expression on her face, they are not helping her mood.
“Why don’t you just take them off?”
“No.” She’s standing on the brake at the light, and her arm is folded under her skirt past the elbow yanking the old nylon up behind her. Her granny panties are peeking under the hem, which makes me uncomfortable so I look out the window at the Seven Eleven.
“Why don’t we go in the store and you can get a pair that fits?”
“Mind your own business, Chris. I’m fine. You just be agreeable and we’ll have a lovely time.”
“Agreeable? You want me to agree with people?” The light has changed and her lead foot sinks back to the floor.
“Yes.” She swerves into an opening one and one fourth car lengths long between a blue corolla and a BMW. Horns blare, but she’s happy because we are slowly passing the two semi-trucks going ten miles under the speed limit in the left hand lane. “Those jerks,” she says, referring not to the panicked drivers fore and aft, but to the truck drivers. “They act like no one actually needs to get anywhere.”
She gets almost completely past the lead semi before her foot drops again and we roar back into the fast lane and down the road. We have another 30 miles to the reunion at the hotel, but the way she is driving we’ll be in purgatory in fifteen minutes.
“So, when people I don’t recognize hug me and tell me they’ve missed me…”
“You’ll hug back and say, ‘Me, too.’”
“And when they say they can feel Nana’s presence among us…”
“You feel it, too.”
“So, basically, you want me to channel Mom and not act like me for the next eight hours.”
“Finally,” she exclaims, thumping the wheel for emphasis, “signs of intelligence.”
We zip past a sign indicating our turn and Carol spins the wheel of the Miata without noticeably slowing down. It takes a huge act of will to keep my stomach down. I’ll be doing that a lot today.
“What about Mina?” Carol’s face darkens. This is the hottest potato that will be tossed around today.
“Mina’s doing great,” She growls through clamped teeth.
“No, Carol, she’s late stage—”
“She’s doing great!” She shouts. We could see the hotel down the road now. Carol took a deep breath and continued in a less eviscerating tone, “She has some very lucid moments, everyone says so. She’s doing very well.”
Before we get to the hotel, I have to tell you something about Mina.
Mina is our aunt, and for most of our childhood she lived three blocks away from us. We saw her almost every week. She was the fun, slightly naughty aunt, but aside from giving us forbidden snacks before dinner and talking to us frankly about sex and marijuana, Mina saw us.
She really and truly saw each person as themselves, no stereotypes, and no projections of her own assumptions or issues. When everyone else was giving Carol dolls and talking about how cute she’d be if she lost a little weight, Mina saw her competitive drive and taught her to play softball. This ability to see others is so rare that many of us don’t realize the lack of it until we finally experience it. In comparison, every other interaction fades to pantomimes and near misses.
When she looked me in the eye, she saw my disconnection and the care I took to hide it. She’d come over to help Mom with Carol’s twelfth birthday party. The house was filled with shrieking pre-adolescent girls high on sugar. For two hours, I’d be convincingly pretending interest in gossip, crushes, clothes, and which of my friends were the cutest. When Mina asked me for some help in the kitchen, I practically flew after her. Then she turns and leans on the counter and says, “Aren’t you tired yet?”
“Huh?” I lied, and covered it by getting a glass of water.
She laughed, a gentle cackle I loved, “Right. Okay. Well, you know, the stuff twelve year old girls obsess over is barely interesting to the rest of the world, so, save that great acting for the folks who’re really worth it.”
She pulled a five from her pocket and handed it to me. “We’ll need milk in about an hour, go get it. And don’t be back till then.”
I couldn’t help but grin with relief at this reprieve, but being it was Mina, and I hardly ever got to talk to her alone, I turned back on my way out the door. “Mina?”
“What if people see, that I don’t…”
She cackled again and checked to make sure Mom and the girls were still occupied in the living room. Then she said, “Kid, most people don’t actually connect most of the time—it’s just they believe their own pretending, and you don’t. But the people who do touch you, treasure them. Invest in them. Pretend for them.”
It was the best advice I ever got. If there was anyone I had a shot at really touching, it was Mina. Sometimes, in my more sentimental moments, I think she got to me, but I can’t be sure.
The Alzheimer’s hit early. Carol and I came home from college one summer, and Mina was already fading away. Mom couldn’t take it; she never handled stress well, so she had a fatal heart attack before she had to see Mina finger-painting with her applesauce. Mina’s been in a nice care home for the past couple of years, our cousins insisted on bringing her to the reunion—even though she hardly ever recognizes anyone anymore.
Carol wrenches the wheel again and we screech into the hotel parking lot. We find a space almost immediately and she slams the car to a halt. I check my vital organs while she touches up her lipstick.
“C’mon, Chris.” She is already out of the car before I’ve got my seat belt off. I stand up and survey the scene. It’s an airport Hilton. Not the location for a major get together that I would have chosen, but most of our relatives are navigationally challenged, so it was decided that they should not have to travel any farther from the airport than absolutely necessary.
After unfolding myself from the tiny car, I turn to find Carol facing me. Her usual, stony-kickass-D.A. expression has been replaced by something slightly less ferocious.
“How do I look?” she asks.
“Honestly or agreeably?” I ask back.
“Honestly.” I look again. Without the extra weight, Carol has turned out to be really beautiful—stunning actually. Typical of Carol, it took seeing another female attorney who happened to be gorgeous win in the courtroom with less than 130% effort for her to finally give up the pastries and go to the gym. Unfortunately, outside of killer suits, her taste in clothes veers toward floral-printed frump.
“You look like a playmate wearing Mrs. Olson’s Sunday best.”
“You know, Little House on the Prairie?” Blank look. “Mom of Nelly, bossy wife of the only shopkeeper in town?” Irritated look, we have recognition.
“Thanks a million, bro’.” She turns and stalks toward the lobby entrance, so I jog after her.
“You look great.”
“Okay. But you will blow away everyone else in there.” She smiles, but I can’t tell if it’s because of what I said or because she’s getting ready to reunite with our extended loved ones. The glass doors part and our hair is briefly blown back by escaping air-conditioning as we enter the lobby.
The reunion has its own conference room, but it’s depressing in that beige corporate way hotel conference rooms have, so everyone is hanging out in the lobby; sitting on the chairs and couches that have never been sat on, making rings on coffee tables that have never been used. The staff look like they’re not sure whether to be delighted or upset—not that it’ll make a difference.
Cousins Joan, Janice and Jonathan (our clan has a thing for alliteration) catch sight of us first. Within seconds we are enveloped in bear hugs and enthusiastic greetings.
“My goodness, you look fantastic Carol!”
“Have you lost weight? Wow, you look amazing.”
“Christopher, how long has it been?”
“Six months, maybe a year,” I answer them, not being able to keep track of who said what.
“Oh my goodness,” Joan exclaims, “how can we let so much time go by when we all live in the same town?”
“Search me.” They really are nice people, my cousins by my other aunt, Maddie. Jonathan and I played on the same basketball team in high school, but that’s about as close as I ever got with any of them. They’re so affectionate, so bubbly, and I can never figure out why.
I glance over at my sister. She is smiling and catching up with serene enthusiasm. She’s beaming. I forget about this side of her, it’s really attractive. The side of her that is not preparing for war, competing with an adversary, winning a case, or working herself to death. She’s just relaxed and happy. I make an excuse and head for the bar. It’s 10am, but hey, this is a party, right?
I think about hiding in there for awhile, in the darkness, but realize this would never be allowed and would bring only greater attention. Aunt Maddie catches me as I’m returning, drink in hand. She’s with her cousin, Abigail, and Mina.
“Christopher! How are you? You remember Abby, don’t you?”
“Yeah, totally,” I reply. “I’m doing great, how are you doing?”
“Well, very well,” says Abby, a little moistly. “I just can’t believe how well Mina is doing, it’s just such a blessed miracle.”
I blink and look down at Mina. She is in a pink sack I’m pretty sure she would’ve hated and seated in a wheel chair, looking abstractly at each of us.
Maddie bends down to her and offers her a sip from a Big Gulp attached to one of the arms of her chair.
“Oh, Mina. You remember Christopher don’t you?” Maddie points to me and Mina looks up at me obediently. She smiles hesitantly in the way children do at unfamiliar relatives who clearly expect friendliness. I smile back at her.
“Hello, Mina. It’s been a long time.” She smiles a little wider, but her gaze wavers and falls.
“Oh, Maddie!” Abby exclaims, her eyes on the door. “Katie’s here with my new granddaughter Lisa. You have to see her, she’s just adorable.” Maddie’s eyes light up. I remember that about her, she loves babies.
“I’d love to, bring them over here.”
“Oh, come on, Maddie, it’ll just be a minute. Christopher will watch her, won’t you Chris?”
“Oh, thank you, dear,” Maddie says, “You’re a lifesaver.” And they’re gone.
I sit down next to Mina in the armchair Maddie must’ve occupied earlier, next to the potted plant next to the entrance to the bar.
I sip my drink, absently. Mina sips her Big Gulp, absently.
Our family in all its multiple generations and branches swoops in, alights, and flies away again, like dragonflies on the surface of a pond. Joan, Janice and Jonathan, with Maddie, then later Abby comes by with her K-named kids. Sometimes Mina looks nervous, especially when someone hugs her or grabs her hand, but somehow, I muster enough charm to distract them from mauling her, and soon she settles back into an absent smile. We get groups of Bs, Rs and Ws. Carol hovers anxiously; but we are so zen, Mina and I, that she relaxes and brings me a plate from the buffet.
“This could be okay, Mina.”
It can’t last forever of course. Eventually, one of us will need to go to the bathroom, which will mean roping someone else deeper into our peaceful detachment and it’ll be over. I’ll have to wander back into the bar again, or get seconds at the buffet. Or something.
Thinking about it, I feel the beginnings of a need to pee, and I shift in my seat to relieve the pressure. It’s then that Mina’s hand lightly brushes my own.
I blink and look at her, but her expression hasn’t changed, or has it? People say they can tell about people by their eyes, but I’d always thought they were lying. They go by the expressions made by the flesh around the eyes.
Except, as I look at Mina, her expression is blank, but is there a little more energy in her eyes? I shake my head and turn back to watch our milling kin. This is Carol’s influence, I’m just seeing what I want to—”
“Stay a little longer, Chris.” She takes a deep breath and sighs as she lets her head loll back and tips her face toward me in an attitude of lethargy. I unconsciously find myself imitating her, sitting with my head back, as though half asleep.
“Mina,” I murmur, “Maddie told me you were doing well, but I didn’t believe her. I’m so sorry I didn’t…”
She sniffs delicately, “As far as she’s concerned, she’s lying. Half the time the fog lifts, she or one of her J-brood are yapping at me about how darling everything is and how well I look and I’m in some god-awful pink sack.” She blinks and reaches for her Big Gulp and I automatically pick it up and lift it to her lips. As she sips, I process what she’s said.
“So… you do have…”
“But…” She leans back again and almost scowls as I put the drink back in its holster.
“Well, if I gotta have the goddamned disease, I might as well get some use out of it.” She looks at me directly. “No more pretending that yapping at each other is connecting. I’m tired.”
I return her gaze as I think back to Carol’s birthday, and Mina’s detached understanding of me. Was that the source of her clarity, and her compassion?
“I miss you,” I hear myself mean it.
After a moment, she says, “I miss you, too.”
I’m not used to this, not used to caring so much about what someone will think or say, but I manage to stammer out, “Can… can I visit… I mean, if I come, will you…”
“I’ll sure try. I’d like that.”
I relax and sink back in my chair, and realize I’d been holding my breath. Movement across the lobby catches my eye. It’s Carol, and Maddie, and they’re walking purposely toward us.
“What about Carol?”
There is silence, and they are almost here and I start to think she won’t answer. “Maybe if she brings me a pair of sweatpants and a danish.”
All I can think about now, is visiting Mina, and getting her to laugh.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED