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June 27, 2022

Transitions 56

By Sand Pilarski

Fifty-six: The Stumble of the Heart

"It was kind of weird," I told the pair. "My mother was going to a symposium in New York City, about mummification. You know, the mummies in Egypt, but also the mummies in the bogs in Great Britain, and the ones buried in sand in the Gobi desert, and the ones in various cemeteries in Europe. They called it the MummiCon, or something stupid like that." Here I gauged my audience, and found the pair (well, and Rachel, too) rapt. "The presentation on the mummies of Urumchi was sponsored by the St. Clair Foundation, which my mother thought interesting, because her grandmother was one of the St. Clair's who dedicated their fortune to the advancement of anthropology.

"She made an appointment to meet with the representative of the St. Clair Foundation -- that was Rachel's mother. When they found out they had kids near the same age, they arranged a family meeting. We were only about eight years old at the time, but we really hit it off, the families, I mean. Well, the families weren't eight years old, but you know what I'm talking about, right?"

The nosy girls nodded; Rachel looked concerned. I forged on. "Rachel and I played dinosaurs together, and my sister Oesha did Rachel's hair in braids so that she looked like an Egyptian princess! Marca was so happy to be with family that she raced from pavilion to pavilion, bouncing randomly off shade trees. And then, Michel came screaming that Kelsa was in trouble. Her curly hair had entangled in a bramble-bush -- by the time we got to her, we found Rachel carefully unwrapping her hair from the thorny branches. Our mothers could possibly point to that very afternoon as the start of this scenario."

The bus stopped, and the pair of pests exited. "You're just getting us in deeper and deeper, Owen," Rachel said in a whisper.

"It's a disease -- I can't resist. I'm sorry. Do you want to divorce me so as to find new interests?"

"No, you moron, but my mother thinks I should. She wants me to find 'regular' friends, not you rich shits. She says you'll only let me down in the long run."

I felt my face grow tingly. "Let you down?"

"There's really no place for me in your world."

Gaping at her, I automatically braced myself for the braking of the bus. I had no words for her, as what she had said had kicked me right in the heart.

A measure of how much what she said upset me was that I called a conference with Aunt Sully and John that evening after supper, and even shut the door of Aunt Sully's study so that I could relate what had happened. "What did she mean? What did she mean? Am I stupid to not understand?" The telling of the incident had made me angry and hurt and afraid all over again. I felt almost like crying, but didn't want to, which fueled my anger and made me loud. "Are we that exclusive?"

Instead of telling me not to worry, that it was all teenaged drama, which I would have liked to hear, Aunt Sully sighed. "You're not stupid, Owen, you just haven't had to deal with this much before. Which in itself should have raised suspicions in us ... us adults. The world is so different than when your mother and I grew up ... and ours was so different from my mother's ... you five kids have always seemed content not to socialize with your classmates -- "

Interrupting, I growled, "I could not stand those horrid snobs at Port Laughton Academy! Please excuse my language, but they were a bunch of mean-spirited suckasses! None of us wanted to have anything to do with them, except Marca, for a while. We hated it there, hated the people there. But those were the so-called 'elite' -- I know it cost some big bucks to enroll there."

My aunt crossed her arms. "And how are the kids in the public school different? Are they better people?"

I stopped pacing and thought. "Well, some of them are. They're mostly not interested in the one-upsmanship thing; they're more interested in music or TV or sports or drugs or sex. They pretty much leave us alone."

"Which you are okay with, right?" At my nod, she continued, "So let's review your words: they pretty much leave us alone. A 'them' versus 'us' thing."

"That's not what I meant -- I meant us kids -- the Five of us --"

"Are you sure, O favored nephew? What about the girls who were quizzing you and Rachel? Why wouldn't you invite them to go downtown for pizza?"

Before I even thought about it, I grimaced. "They -- they -- God, I've seen them eat in the cafeteria -- "

"So they wouldn't actually fit in your world."

They wouldn't, but maybe they should? We should accept the gross lack of manners, the inability to think beyond the present comfort-zone, the alignment with popular school groups or gang affiliations?

"No," I said frankly. "They have no perception of the world except what they find in front of them, and their reaction to the world is informed by television sitcoms.

"We, on the other hand, have been dragged into the real world, expected to have fine manners at table; to know how to greet strangers with aplomb, to rise above kiddie drama, to face school as a necessary education rather than a jokey hoop to jump through. We were brought up to believe that those things were necessary -- are you telling me that those things are what make people us or them?"

"Calm down. What you're saying, what you're realizing, is that some people are raised differently, that's all. But that upbringing can mean a vast gulf between you and those 'some' people."

"But it was a common ... matrix ... that let me and Rachel -- oh, hell, Rachel and me -- become friends in the first place. She wasn't like those mouth-breathers and drama-jumpers!"

"She's not arguing that, Owen," John interjected, protecting my Aunt, which should not have been necessary. "Rachel has been raised kind of like you have -- and from what I hear, her mom wants her to have a better life than the rest of her family. Weren't you telling me that back before Thanksgiving?"

My aunt's green eyes took on a hardened look, which made me wince in expectation. Whatever she was about to say, it would not make me happy. "Owen, you live in a world in which your family can have the leisure to flap off in a flock to Italy to disguise an aunt's indiscretion, and make it a family lark. Rachel lives in a world in which her mother works hell-hole hours as a nurse, far from family, and without any kind of support structure. Her mother is bound to be protective of her. Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're honorable."

"But I am," I asserted.

"Dearest Nephew, I know that, I really do. And I knew your father to be the same way. He was a great man, kindly, welcoming, understanding. But even though he was all that, my mother -- your grandmother -- refused to acquaint herself with him because he was so rich that she felt sure that your mother's marriage with him was a mistake.

"That's why she barely acknowledged you Five's existence. She said she refused to become attached to children that would never be part of her life. She said she knew the moment she became close to you kids, you'd be snatched away from her, and she didn't want to experience that kind of hurt."

"And she was snatched away from us only weeks before Father was."

"Yes."

"Then what I should take away from this is that the separation is a stupid preconception and just wastes our time, is that it?"

"Maybe." My aunt looked at me as though she was looking at my soul. "What is it about Rachel that has you so upset?"

I turned away from her to the dark window in the study. "I don't want her to think I'm untrustworthy. I don't want her to think I'm a shit, that would be the basics."

"Who are her friends, other than you Five?"

"She doesn't have any, at least not that I know of. She's only been here a couple of months." I folded my arms. "And I think that her making friends with us is probably making it harder for her to get to be friends with other kids."

"That's likely."

"You think she's after you for a boyfriend?" John asked bluntly.

"I wish. Oh, I know I'm not supposed to be thinking about attachment to a girl, but that's nonsense, isn't it? John, did you totally ignore girls as girls when you were my age?"

He reddened, but grinned. "No, I guess not. My friends and I pretended to not be interested, but any guy who got a kiss or held hands with a girl was the lucky one."

"You look angry," I said to my aunt.

"I'm not angry, I'm annoyed. I'm thinking right now that there's some gender discrimination involved here."

John and I both looked at her with a lack of comprehension.

"If the new kid in town, on the bus, out of the social loop was named 'Robert', which of any of us adults would be saying, 'Oooooh, look out, this one could be trouble!'? Seriously. We're all freaking out because Owen made friends with a girl. A Girl could mean trouble. A Girl might want to marry our precious nephew. A Girl might lead him astray. If the friend was a boy, we'd be saying, 'Invite your friend to dinner, Owen, what are his interests, would he like to accompany us to the Sacramento Zoo next weekend?' Wouldn't we?"

John frowned with his eyebrows. "Yeah, probably. But he's just admitted he's got a crush on her."

"Come on, you know what she looks like, how she is -- you met her! I think the word "crush" is -- well, I wouldn't use it to describe my feelings about Rachel, but she's beautiful and intelligent and I like her! I'd be a pretty pathetic excuse for a boy if I didn't think she was wonderful!"

"But she's having some doubts about you, or her mother is, and it's rubbing off."

"What can I do? Is it wrong for me to want to hang around with someone who gets my jokes, likes the same kind of books, and talks like she has a brain in her head? I don't think so!"

"Jeeze, Owen, calm down. Nobody's saying you're in the wrong for liking her."

Aunt Sully shook her finger at me. "I want you to think, all right? Why would Rachel say such a thing, today, but not before? Has she said anything like that to Marca? Or to the rest of you? No? Then why you? And why now?"

My hormones must have been clouding me into some kind of emotional fog, because it hadn't occurred to me to call to mind the conversations Rachel and I had had, or that she had had with my siblings, either. "It's because we're all leaving next week for the holidays, isn't it? Leaving her alone for Christmas break." Selfishly, I'd only been thinking of myself, and seeing my family all together again. "That makes sense now."

"She needs to get over it, my dear. You're not treating her badly; you have no choice but to go with us to Europe. Maybe Rachel will find other friends while you're away, maybe not. But she's going to have to accept that your family is different. If she doesn't want to be friends when you get back, you'll have to accept that."

"You're right, Aunt," I told her. "I feel a little better about this now. I think I understand. Thanks for listening to me rant. I should go do my homework, and nag Marca about hers." With that, I took my leave of them.

There wasn't much homework at all; the week before winter break the school teachers were gnashing their teeth at the absenteeism. Parents took their kids out of school early to suit their ski vacations, or shipped them off to divorced spouses, allocating equal amounts of holiday time with Dad and with Mom. The little math I had to do was less pressing in my mind than being alone to think about the other bit of Aunt Sully's question.

Why now? Well, yes, it was because we were leaving next week for Europe. But Rachel hadn't said anything to Marca ... Then why you? Why me, indeed?

She knew I had no choice but to go. She knew I wanted to see my family again. She knew that we were all still in touch, because we were on our computers every evening, emailing and instant messaging each other.

The only reason Rachel could have had for making her unhappiness known to me was that she wanted some kind of reassurance from me. There's really no place for me in your world, she'd said, hoping that I would tell her that there was. I'd been too shocked and dopey to see that at the time, but I planned on making amends before another day had passed.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-06-28
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