I graduated to parent-unapproved parties when I was sixteen. I wasn’t a regular and I didn’t seek them out. I never stayed long for a handful of reasons. Barbara dragged me. She liked drugs, drinking and boys too much. Like most my friends, Barbara and I grew up together. I knew Barbara before she had hips and breasts. I happen to know her hair color, like a golden retriever, is natural. She has a heart shaped beauty mark the size of dime on her right inner thigh.
And Barbara’s not a close friend.
When the group of us hit puberty, all within eight months of each other, our eyes went a little crazy. I claim mine didn’t. Mom nods. We got manic, too. Well, not me, but all the other girls. Yeah, Mom nods some more. Within two years, as our systems balanced out, we calmed down and our eyes settled.
Barbara’s eyes stayed crazy.
I liked Barbara, her craziness, her unbridled energy. Fearless, bulletproof, forbidden. Some weekends, I’d tag along to parties. I liked the rush, maybe getting away with something my parents wouldn’t approve of. I drank a little, always holding a Rolling Rock or Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill so people thought I was drinking, held a lit cigarette often enough to keep people from trying to get me to smoke and I passed the pot on, sometimes smelling it.
I tried pot a few times in earnest. I got the same feeling doing three pirouettes in a row, which explains why I didn’t stay with my afternoon ballet classes when I was 10 years old.
Every unsupervised party always hosted a generic character we got to calling Uncle John. He was older, never over thirty. He was thin, even gaunt, his hair long and unkempt trying to mock or imitate Jesus from the pictures. He was an avant-garde bohemian, his eyes wild, yet penetrating, fixed like a predatory feline. He had tales to tell, often tall, from run-ins with the CIA, his close encounter of the third kind and trips to the Orient. Yeah, that’s what I said: the Orient.
His actual role had to do with the beer run, most the party attendees well under the legal drinking age.
He was an accomplished flirt, a master of the craft, often raising a blush on my cheeks.
“I’ll tell you what the problem with you people is.” Uncle John always knew what the problem with teenagers was, standing over us, Miller Lite in one hand, Marlboro in the other. “You don’t have a clue what impermanence is.”
Sweetly poetic coming from a man on his eighth beer, working through pack of cigarettes in two hours.
“Everything that is, passes away! It’s a fact!” He leaned toward me. I might have seemed the most innocent in the room. “You! Your parents!” He pulled hard, deep on his cigarette. “Your brother! Your sister!” He pointed his beer-laden hand at Barbara, a rookie error.
“Ya think?” I blinked mockingly, my sarcasm lost in the shadow of his hubris. “Do tell me more.”
Like a harsh winter rain, he poured Oprah-esque bubble gum philosophy down from above.
I have a picture on my bookcase, sitting between my Wicca Barbie and Ted Da Bear. Wicca Barbie’s not really Wiccan. I just call her that. She’s a Halloween Barbie. My grandfather won me Ted Da Bear at the New Jersey State Fair when I couldn’t see out the backdoor without going on my toes. I’m swaddled in the picture. I love that word, swaddled. Mom’s holding me to her chest. If no one told me, I’d not know she was holding anything but a blanket. Dad’s got his arm over her shoulder, facing her, looking at the camera. Dad’s smiling.
Dad’s shorter than Mom. Sometimes I think they look like Fred and Wilma. Mom’s the most beautiful human being to ever take flesh. The portrait could be improved with some cropping in tight, cutting out the negative space, the lush surrounding, weak rolling not-really-hills, peppered incidentally with gray and white stones in many shapes and sizes.
I actually remember the day the picture was taken. Rather, I’ve seen the picture so often and been told about that day so often, I’ve created a memory of when the picture was taken.
It was my first visit. I was six months old.
The cemetery was like a playground. Each Sunday, we’d go to church, stop by the cemetery and then home, Dad making breakfast. I’d run on the dirt path, sometimes meeting other people. I’d examine the statues and markers. I don’t know when I realized what a cemetery was.
I might have been five years old. I was playing, I think, chasing a butterfly. Mom floated to the grass, her lofty figure crumbled like a deflating parade balloon. I’d been told the graves were sacred space and not to walk on them. Now, Mom had fallen onto the sacred space. Dad stood over her, watching off to the distance. I came next to Dad, taking his hand.
“It’s all right.”
Mom held fists of grass as she arched up, her tears falling to the earth.
I held tighter.
“She misses your brother.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know I had a brother. That’s the only explanation I needed at the time.
The Sundays marched along one by one like soldiers down a narrow path. As my world widened and my ability to understand expanded, I learned about my brother never born. I learned the reason the picture’s not a tight-in portrait.
It’s a family portrait.
When I was eight years old, on December 10, I was told to wait in the car. I couldn’t. I came next to Mom, her head high, backdropped by the dark clouds, the rain pelting her face and the wind whipping her hair at the sky like a flag. Her eyes open to the storm, a challenge. Dad held one hand. I took the other.
I raised my face and my voice. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you –” We sang. We cried, even Dad. The sky cried with us.
My eyes never left his for twenty minutes. “Yeah, Uncle John. We kids can’t know anything about impermanence.”
“My name’s not John!”
No, but that doesn’t matter.