It’s hotter than normal, sticky hot. It’s stickier than a normal summer day here, at my cousin’s two year-old daughter’s birthday party. Sticky hot, sticky cake fingers and sticky relatives. The stickiest one is my dad’s wife, my step-mother. She’s crossed paths with me three times since I’ve been outside, looking on the ground instead of at me, picking up napkins blowing in the hot wind instead of saying hi. My dad loves me, she loves my dad, she says things about me to my sister, my sister says, “stay above it.” I look at her from across the yard, at her white pants. If I keep looking, I could tell you the color of her underwear. I look away quickly.
Since I’ve returned home, not quite prodigal son-like since I came here to help my dad not the other way around, I’ve been reconnecting with family. When you leave you become a voice on the phone. You’re not real anymore. You’re like a movie character, summed up with a sentence. My dad’s doing it now about my sister who moved away to Connecticut. “She’s the one who does the finances,” he says, talking to a complete stranger in my cousin’s back yard. “She’s the one who realized they should sell their big expensive house.”
It’s harder to talk about people in this way, summing their lives up in a stereotype, when you see them all the time. They aren’t so easy to box up. People don’t want to hear talk about complicated people at a two year-old’s birthday party. It’s easier to talk in generalizations. Generally, my sister does the finances. Generally, my step-mother ignores me.
Generally it’s too freaking hot so I go inside to hide in the laundry room and call my husband. He’s at a different party, a barbeque at a park across the street from the house he shared with his ex. Living without me, he’ll go anywhere to get hot food. He’s a hot food whore, switching up his social life for something besides a sandwich. He went to this barbeque even though his ex will be here, someone he's ignored for a decade. “My mouth won’t know what to do,” he says. “It’s used to cold food: cold cereal, cold sandwiches, cold Ben and Jerry’s. I’m not leaving until I get hot food. I saw the ex, but we hadn’t eaten yet. I have to stay.”
“Your ex? What’s she saying?”
“She’s talking about her fears. ‘If I could just overcome my fears. My fears are what’s keeping me back.’ That’s what she says.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s the way she talks.”
My husband’s ex has a name, of course, but he never says it. She was she. As in she wanted to sell the house and living in a trailer when money was tight. She had moods, as she called them, where she’d become quiet at dinner until she stopped talking, got in the car and drove home by herself on the first night of a spring break vacation. She left my husband with the kids and their friends to explain whatever the hell she was thinking, doing that.
“She has reasons for everything,” my husband says.
“Her fears are holding her back?” I say. “From what? Would she be Shakespeare if it weren’t for her fears?”
“I think so,” my husband says.
We paid for the right to criticize only one person on the planet each: our ex’s. Since I was there writing the checks, I get to criticize his ex, too. I have only met her three times: once at her daughter Crystal’s vocal concert, once in court, and once at their son Josh’s wrestling match.
The last time, at the wrestling match, she walked in late, holding her bag tight against her chest like she was fending off potential rapists. She stomped her feet on the bleachers so hard while trying to find a seat that I could hear it from the other side of the gym where I was pretending not to look. Everybody was looking, though. She isn’t even five feet tall but she sure could stomp. “Is that mean-cat-face woman your ex?” I asked. She didn’t have such a scrunched up face in court. My husband grunted, yes, it was she. She was in the house.
“Who else is there at the barbeque?"
“Josh is here, his friends are here. And Crystal is here. She said to say hi.”
Crystal is the me of his previous family. Crystal is she’s daughter from somebody previous to my husband. Crystal was seventeen when she and my husband divorced, a bad age to deal with the disappearance of the only normal adult in her life. “I have a demon inside me,” Crystal told my husband, as if that would draw her nearer to him when he stopped by to see her. “Do you like my hair?”
We’d take her out to blend the family. Crystal stared at her reflection in the restaurant window, where she always insisted on sitting. She could talk hours about her hair, the color, the color it could be and the positive and negative points of each potential decision, the cut, the style, the color again. It could go on all night. If the subject changed, she was silent, staring at her reflection. I watched her, curious to see how a demon could fit inside such a tiny young woman with such big eyes, only currently interested in herself. Why would a demon be bothered?
Now she’s married to a guy, Aaron, with two tiny young kids. She didn’t like the way Aaron’s ex treated his kids so she insisted, maybe with the demon’s help, on getting full custody. Without the hair-damaging hormonal pregnancies, Crystal became a mom. A really good one. The first thing she did when we visited Crystal's new home was show me the book full of drawings the little boy, her new son, did. The little girl, her daughter, pointed out the place in the hallway where Crystal did gymnastics with her. Crystal’s mom, I don't think, ever did gymnastics with her.
Aaron, Crystal’s husband, could easily make jokes about the amount of shoes Crystal has in her closet and how OCD she is about keeping them organized. He doesn’t. He loves her, you can tell. He doesn’t say a bad word about anyone, no matter how they’re related. We love him, he loves her, we love her, and she doesn’t love herself too much anymore. She can talk about lots of other things besides hair.
“How’s your family treating you?” my husband asks me.
“First thing my cousin said was, ‘I’m so happy you’re back here. I told your dad thank you, thank you, for getting you back here.’”
This compliment goes over my head until now. I would have forgotten it if he didn’t ask.
“Doesn’t that make you feel good?” he says.
Seeing my cousins is like seeing a mirror. We saw each other every week, every weekend, every year of my life until I moved away. Looking at her, I’m looking at myself. She’s still exactly the same. “Your hair,” she says when I first walk in, “you look good. Your hair, your face, you are still so pretty.” She’s better than looking at myself in a mirror. I have the demon now. The demon comes with age and it doesn’t say nice things when I look in the mirror.
“I’m on Prednisone,” my cousin says. “My face is so puffy. Here. Here’s a picture of me normally.” She points to one of many, many photos of her and her family on the entry hallway wall. The one she’s pointing at, a picture of her and her two year-old daughter, looks like it was taken in Hawaii. My daughter, two years old when we moved away, lives in Hawaii now.
“People pay good money to get their faces to look that good,” is all I can think of to say. I’m mesmerized by all these photos of lives lived while I’ve lived elsewhere. When you leave family, they keep living and other people take your place. Your stepmother, for example. They love her.
I can’t look at my cousin’s childhood pictures without thinking of a hundred afternoons, hanging out in her bedroom and singing to the Beatles while our parents were far, far away by the pool drinking Coors beer. Nobody bothered us to see what we were doing or if we were getting into trouble. Her mom, my aunt, knew she was good so we were good girls, too.
Her family’s house was white everywhere. It was big, light, and white. On the way home in the car, my mom would say to my dad, “Your sister has to paint everything white,” like it was a bad thing. I already knew my aunt was different from my mom who liked bright colors. My aunt made a big deal of whatever you said. She’d ask you questions about what you were doing and she’d repeat your answers. “You’re writing a book?,” she’d say. “Oh honey, you’re writing a book!” She’d tell her husband, my uncle, “She’s writing a book! Oh honey, you are so talented.”
I’m still writing a book, the same book, and she’s still as excited. My family doesn’t ask what I'm doing but my aunt asks every time. “Oh honey,” my aunt says again and again, “you are so talented.”
“Tell Crystal I say hi, too,” I tell my husband. He won’t and even if he did, she won’t care much. She's lived this long without my approval. I wish I'd given it to her. Any family would be lucky to have her in it.
“I will,” my husband says. He’s as ADD as me. He’s already forgotten.
“Really. I like her now,” I say, wishing I could erase every negative thing I’ve said about her. Now that she doesn’t talk about herself all the time, she has much more to say. I miss the opportunity to listen. “She was just a kid then.”
“You sound like you forgot what she was really like.”
“She didn’t get any good genes and look how well she turned out,” I say. “The only reason she’s not crazy herself is because of you. You’re a good dad.”
“Maybe,” my husband says.
He won’t take a compliment. If I don’t say anything maybe it will sink in. I learned, living with him, that you don’t have to say anything. Sometimes, when somebody says something really rude, if you let it hang in the air without saying anything, the rudeness amplifies so that everyone notices. When somebody says something nice and you let it hang in the air, it also amplifies making everyone feel good. Silence intensifies everything.
“She’s here,” my husband says. “She’s telling Crystal about her trip to New York.”
“She went to New York?”
“She had one of her moods. She sold everything, everything that wouldn’t fit into one suitcase, and drove all the way, all by herself, to New York.”
“What was she going to do there? Be discovered?” I’m thinking mean-cat-face thoughts about someone I barely know. Who sells everything she owns and drives to New York? Okay, Madonna. But she’s no Madonna, at least that wasn’t my impression the three times I saw her. She was more like just the first three letters of Madonna.
“She lasted three months and then she drove back. ‘All by myself!’ she said. She was telling me about how beautiful the mountains were in South Dakota,” my husband says. “That’s when I started to feel sorry for her. She meant the Rockies.”
“There are hills in South Dakota,” I say. “My ex has a beautiful old photo we bought of the Black Hills. He still has it. It’s a beautiful antique photograph, taken in the thirties. Everything looked so clean and happy back then.”
“She works at Walgreens now.”
“What happened to the house she bought with all the divorce money she got from you?”
“I don’t know.”
In my mind, I’d ask her if I were there. In my mind, I would have stomped right up to she's mean-cat-face expression and said something mean. In my mind, I'm a worse person than I probably am. I'm sure I was worse then, during the divorce, during the family blending. Everybody's worse then. With time, you forget either all the good you did or all the bad you did. You turn into your own movie character. With me, I forget all the good I did. I think my stepmother does, too. That’s probably why she isn’t talking to me.
“I’m so happy to be married to you, not her.” My husband isn’t like me. He forgets all the bad I did. This long-distance thing is working to my advantage.
“I’m happy to be married to you, too,” I say. He doesn’t do anything bad that I would have to forget.
“When you don’t see people for a long time and then you see them again,” my husband says, “you remember. I remembered how she would just disappear, probably like this New York thing. I forgot how hard it was to be married to someone who got in a mood and didn’t talk to you for two weeks. She’d get in a mood; sit in the bedroom with the lights out and candles lit all around her, listening to heavy metal music. She looked normal then. You should see her now.”
She didn’t look normal then. Even the people at the gym stared at her stomping up the bleachers wearing her bag-like armor, looking around for a seat through her mean-cat-face eyes.
If I said anything now, it would be unkind. My husband doesn’t think I’m like that.
I just remembered I was wearing white pants at that wrestling match. White pants I threw away right after that day, when my daughter told me it was too easy to see my underwear through them. I hope that's been forgotten by now.