"I'm concerned about this Rochester Rachel," Uncle John said in a low voice once we were comfortably settled in Aunt Sully's study, and the aforementioned Aunt had fallen asleep with her head in Uncle John's lap.
I was, too, but I was sure my concerns were different than his. "How so?"
His brow wrinkled up like a shar-pei's when he was thinking hard. "She was driving by herself. That makes her what, sixteen?"
"Aunt Sully started to ask the same thing. I don't know. We haven't talked about ages, we've just talked about books and family a little on the bus to and from school. We're not dating, we're barely even friends." My brow furrowed a bit, too. "Why are you so worried?"
He cleared his throat, checking to see if that noise stirred Aunt Sully. It didn't. Between the morning ride, the turkey sandwiches, and the two glasses of wine she'd had, she appeared to be out for the count. "Sixteen isn't interested in Fourteen, Owen. That's a mean thing to say, but it's true, even when the Fourteen is as tall and nice-looking as you are."
"I sort of ... know that."
He pulled at the hairs of his eyebrows. "And she's a real looker, Owen. She doesn't have to hang around with -- with -- younger boys -- to get attention, you know what I mean?"
"Yes, she told me that the boys in her class were sizing her up."
"I'm just worried that she might be, well, too interested in ... "
"Money?" I finished for him. "She told me that a few of the girls in her class were calling her a gold-digger, and Marca has already collared her and threatened to knock the crap out of her if she hurts my feelings."
Uncle John shook his head and looked away. "Sounds like you know what you're doing."
"I'm not doing anything," I said quietly. "I'm just watching what other people are doing. I'm too young to know what I'm doing, in the long run; I understand that. Rachel is pretty, and nice to be with. I'm not proposing to her or trying to jump her bones. Or signing over my birthright to her."
"Sorry," he said, massaging his brow with one hand. "Sorry."
"Don't feel you need to be. I know you have my best interests in mind."
"You kids have all grown up so fast I'm still stuck in the past, thinking you're little guys, needing to be protected all the time."
"But we do, we all do. Maybe making friends with Rachel is just an exception, you know, not something that we -- I -- have to be protected from, Uncle John."
"You don't have to call me 'Uncle' any more. Why don't you just call me 'John'?"
"Is that what you'd prefer?"
"Yeah, I think so. Then we're just guys together, and not some kind of polite hierarchy thing."
Grinning, I held out my hand. "John, I'm Owen. Pleased to meet you."
For an instant he looked puzzled, then held out his hand, the wrinkles fading from his forehead. "Owen. I've got your back."
Letting my voice drop into its sporadic baritone, I said, "You do realize, of course, that with the dropping of the honorific, you lose your immunity in cases of random mayhem."
"Bring it on, Cubby," he retorted.
Aunt Sully chuckled, indicating that she had been awake all along, and had heard the whole conversation.
Uncle John -- John -- poured some of his glass of water into her face.
She sat up, sputtering. "Jerk."
As she stomped out of the room to find a towel, he observed, "That'll teach her about playing possum."
"A woman as clever as my aunt could exact a harsh vengeance."
Grinning, he agreed, "If we were at her house, she'd be coming back with a bucket of water for me. Good thing we're here, isn't it?"
"My guess is that she'll wait until next summer when you visit, and when you get out of your car, she'll have the hose hidden behind the shrubbery, waiting for you to lock its doors."
His pale gray eyes focused on me intently. "You're right. You learned this from experience?"
"No, I have known la belle tante from my infancy. I would never have had the guts to pour ice water on her face.
"Once, when we were little, we visited her on a summer weekend -- before Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol moved here (before Father died, my mind supplied cruelly) -- and Uncle Bodie shoved her into the sprinkler, starting off a water war between the three of them that was apocalyptic. Uncle Bodie thought he was good at dodging, and even gained control of the hose ... until Aunt Sully walked right into the spray of water, allowing herself to be soaked, and wrestled the hose in his hands until she could turn it on him. 'No quarter asked nor given,' isn't that what they say? That would be my aunt."
As if at a cue, my aunt appeared in the doorway, dry, in a different shirt, this one a baggy dark brown linen thing that indicated she was done with any real socializing for the rest of the day. It had some paint stains on the sleeves, and a small rip (repaired) in the tails, from over-energetic play with Gabe. She had murder glittering in her green eyes; John was in for it, I suspected. They were courting, and if I stayed, I would be -- not unwelcome, I was sure -- but a bit of a hindrance. I stood, and excused myself, saying quite honestly that I wanted to have a bit of writing time before bed, and letting them know I would be just down the hall if I was needed.
* * *
We have no friends, I wrote. And yet I never really realized that until today.
Along comes Rachel, ready to be a friend, and Uncle John and Aunt Sully are immediately suspicious, uneasy about her presence, wanting to do more research into her background. Probably Mom and Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol would have been, too, if it wasn't for the pregnancies. Well, Aunt Andersol would have. I knew Mom loved us, but she was kind of abstract about her love. Her passions were her work and Uncle Bodie.
I did understand what John -- calling him that was going to take some getting used to -- had been saying about protecting us; after all, that was sort of why I'd lied to Rachel about my name in the first place. But what about before this? Why didn't we have any friends, held over from elementary school to be old chums now that we were in high school?
I can remember going to some birthday parties when I was in first and second grade; clear and grotesque in my memory is Charlie Casamir eating three pieces of cake and a can of orange soda at his party, and then puking all over his presents before they were even unwrapped. I remember sitting quietly bewildered at a 'boys'' birthday party, where the screaming and crashing appalled me so much all I could do was watch the clock and long for home.
The parties we had at home were always quiet and peaceful, maybe punctuated by rounds of giggles and silliness, but no destruction or ... unseemliness. We didn't get to invite the entire class over to attend birthdays; it simply wasn't to be done. Marca asked once, I think I remember. And I think Nanny just told her, "No, dear, we don't do that."
We were We and They were Them. By the time I was in second grade, I accepted that. Our strangeness had already begun to set us apart. We relied on our family for company, our home for our haven against the rowdy, contentious altercations of spite and jealousy and meanness. As we drew back to the safety and comfort of each other, the kids in our school had, by and large, formed an almost solid bloc of hatred for us. While Dad was still alive, he personally came to pick us up from school every day, and attended school functions with us, his size and graciousness forcing mamas to make their children be nice to us. And his wealth, probably.
But once he was gone, there were more and more incidents of being shoved or punched, always bearing the slogan, Who do you think you are? I was all for begging for a new governess and home schooling, but Mother was unwilling to add one to the household after she and Nanny had their bitter showdown over Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol being added to the family. ( I never did quite understand that one.) Mother had no patience for "Parent-Teacher Nights" or "Award Assemblies", so we didn't attend them.
After a while, school became intolerable, so we set out to get all of us expelled. It was surprisingly easy, and none of us seemed to miss any of the kids from that school. Once we were in public school, it was easier. There were lots of clumps of freaks, from the kids who wore all black and dyed their hair and had piercings all over (and I do mean all over) to the jocks, whose only goals were to get college scholarships, to the geeks, who lived for computer games and spoke an incomprehensible dialect among themselves. The Reich-Ambris Tribe, never before seen outside a Private School, were unremarkable.
When it was known who we were, the wealth of our family was overshadowed by the Freakdom of our lifestyle. "Yeah, they're rich, but they're freaks." It was an incredibly freeing insult.
The shallow world of the popular kids was not for us; worries about clothing and hairstyles and parties were far beyond us. Our guardians supervised our clothing, insisted on hair that would be acceptable at a formal dinner, and forget parties, as if we were ever invited. We were ruined by evening clothes at dinners, and adult company, and a peaceful household.
School wasn't horrible; the orderliness of classes was all right. My writing habit was important enough to me that I didn't want homework impinging upon it, so I did as much of it as I could while in the school building. Using study hall to do homework was yet another example of my freakiness, so again, I was set apart.
I didn't know Michel and Kelsa's habits in school; they were still in middle school, and I don't know that they had that much homework. Marca was as diligent as I in doing her homework at school, but that was because she had soccer practice and afterwards, was too worn out. She loved her soccer; in order to keep it, she had to maintain a decent grade-point average.
Oesha spent a lot of time with Grandmother Claire. I thought that more than any of us other kids, she had a sense that no matter what happened in school, our destiny was far beyond taking summer jobs at the coffeehouse or fast food restaurants. She kept her grades up and her figure perfect, and her thoughts and dreams and aspirations completely to herself. Grandmother favored me greatly because she said I looked like my father, her only son, but Oesha bore a remarkable resemblance to Grandmother in pictures of her in her youth. If I were to lay bets on the future, it would be that Oesha would one day take over the little villa in Tuscany as her own.
So, we had no friends. Aunt Sully had said that my father confessed he had no real friends until he went to college. How did he deal with the alone-ness? Did he ever consider that his children would grow up to be "freaks"? The journal I had of his was started in January of 1996, seven and some months before he died. Surely he hadn't just started a journal that year, I thought with a sudden jolt. Wouldn't there have been something before that? Something that might have speculated on how his children were being raised, something that might have shed some light on how he felt when we were born, something -- more of him, my father ... who through his journal, had become my friend.