Tamas paused in my living room and grabbed his Palm Pilot.
“What are you doing?”
I sink back onto the couch pillow, a vague itching inside my cast. He looks up, grinning wickedly, as if he had some great vast secret to disclose. This makes me nervous, as Tamas rarely smiles unless he’s up to something.
“Tomorrow will be ten years.”
“Ten years of what?”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
“What do you mean, you just do? Are you Rain Man or something?”
He goes into an explanation about Saturdays before Memorial Day, and counting, and having some strange hidden skill with remembering dates that I’ve never heard him talk about. All I can remember is wearing a powder blue dress (talking my mother out of blue eyeshadow to match) and half-breaking Tamas’ mother’s heart with my new short haircut.
Tamas’ mom. She’s Hungarian, a hairdresser owing equal allegiance to Robert Smith-sized knots of teased hair and the communists. I always thought Tamas was making it up, calling his mom a communist. All-American boy (who never spoke English until he went to school) mocking his poor mama straight outta Miskolc. But no. I once got an earful on how the Communists would have never allowed homelessness like she saw back home on her last visit and it’s a shame They’re not still in power.
I can’t resist mocking him, and drag myself from the couch. Oh look, I’m Tamas dancing. Is that the Cure? Oh, sigh.
Slowly spinning in a tight circle, pretending to put my cast-covered arm around an imaginary dance partner, I make a mournful face.
“Ohhhh, I’m Tamas, and I’m soooo depressed. I’m stuck here at the prom of doom. How very awful.”
If it weren’t for me, Tamas would have spent senior year stuck in his room like a veal calf. He glares at me, but you can tell he’s trying not to laugh.
The next night he rouses me from my reading and it’s his turn to make me go out. He wants to see a movie, and in my head I’ve got it confused with another terrible one, which makes me loath to leave the couch. I broke my elbow rather nastily early this month, and have a convenient excuse for not driving anywhere, particularly across town to see that movie, and besides, I’m poor. He offers further enticements – dinner at Phnom Penh, maybe frozen custard even. He’ll pay for the movie. Ok. Off the couch I go…on one condition, he says. I’m not allowed to whine if the movie is terrible. Fair enough. The movie is good, though a bit of a Run Lola Run rip-off. We drive back to his house and he tells me the day we met. 27 December 1990. Another Rain Man moment. He tells me I was snotty and aloof when we met.
“Oh, yes. You were a total snot.”
“In what way?”
“You weren’t particularly friendly, and you ignored me most of the time.”
I remember that day. Christmas vacation and we descended upon the least-supervised place we could find: Shay’s house. Band practice and my then pseudo-boyfriend Mark was the drummer. Shay’s father owned a chain of strip clubs and was dating a stripper two years older than Shay. He supposedly paid off the Jesuits to keep Shay in Catholic school. Either that or threatened their lives.
There was a dentist’s chair in the living room and a copy of Madonna’s banned-from-MTV video on cassette. His father didn’t care if Shay watched “Justify My Love”; after all, he lived with a stripper and, according to popular myth, she wasn’t satisfied with corrupting just the father of the family. As a sort of pre-band-practice ritual, they watched the Madonna video three times, then ran upstairs to play immediately, savages appeased.
It’s a comfort to know that I was me then, and am me now, and my very nature is suffused with a sort of me-ness that ten years, and hell, probably my whole life hasn’t changed and never will. I have never played well with others.
Flashback to the sunny field behind the church up the street from my parents’ and grandparents’ houses: I am two. Barely vocal, but opinionated. My grandmother’s next door neighbor has taken me to a church picnic with her grandkids.
I am an only child – my parents certainly couldn’t have handled another me – and I don’t do well with other kids. My whole world revolves around my mom, her Beethoven records, her canvases, paintbrushes and long hair, plus our German shepherd Tulip, who is the closest thing to a sister I will ever have. We are a small spot of culture in this hick town, far from the posh suburbs where my mother grew up, and while my dad is at work I am my mother’s only playmate. Unless she wants to drink coffee with my Grandma Fern and grandma’s friend Pudge, or my great-grandma Dorothy who also lives down the street. Needless to say, I am usually more fun than someone twice or three times her age.
The minister approaches. I am sitting alone, content. It is sunny and windy, the long unmowed grass beyond waving in the breeze. I’m sure he probably gave me a funny look, wondering why I’m not chasing the other kids or at the very least, sitting with my mom, who must be around here somewhere.
“Little girl, why aren’t you playing with the other children?”
This is my favorite part to imagine, my big blue eyes happily looking up at him, sunlight glinting off the golden-blond hair I had for years and which to this day will sometimes peek out from the brown. I answer him.
“Because they’re assholes.”
I don’t know what happened next. Did he want to hit me? Did he back away slowly, as if from a threatening dog? All I know is that the neighbor lady dragged me to my grandma’s house crying her eyes out, and my poor bewildered grandmother came running out thinking that I’d been hit by a car or at the very least, dropped on my head.
Fern, I can’t take her to church with me any more, she sobbed.
Was my grandma fighting back a smile? Probably. Did she pretend to be concerned and drag me inside? Yes, but I bet the minute the neighbor was out of sight she gave me a cookie, burst into laughter and called Pudge to tell her all about her smartass only granddaughter who could do no wrong.
Oh, Grandma. She died when I was five or six. I was still the only grandchild, and what I wanted, I got. She smoked constantly, and could do the coolest tricks, like blowing smoke rings. She even taught me how to make them, if only because I begged and pleaded. I told my mother that years later, to her horror.
Zinnias all along the back fence and Christmas trees my Uncle Mike grew to sell…
My great-grandmother told me excellent stories about her daughter-in-law when I got older. She’d eloped with my grandpa when she was barely sixteen, and had my father a year later. I love the pictures of her from that time – always smiling, and thin, and a knockout compared to the dour old women of the extended family surrounding her in dull housedresses and tacky brooches. She still wore saddle shoes, and I would, too. My dad was a fat little angel and she kept every card, every lock of hair, pasted into big books.
When my uncle Mike was little, some neighborhood bullies knocked him around, gave him some good bruises. Great-grandma Dorothy reported Fern tracked down those kids, some of whom were probably bigger than she (maybe 5′ 4″ max), and roughed them up in return, telling them how dare they pick on her son, and how do they like it? (slap, slap!)
The sheriff showed up later that night. Grandma mentioned something about an arrest, but Dad says that was bullshit, he only told her not to do it again and went on his way.
So I’m aloof. So what?