There was an invitation in the mail. It was my Aunt Bridget’s birthday party. We’ve been celebrating Aunt Bridget’s birthday every four years for as long as I can remember. When I was little I wondered why they made such a big deal out of it. My mother’s reply was always the same: ‘Because Aunt Bridget was born on the twenty-ninth day of February.’ Then she would squeeze my face, give me a hug and gulp down the remainder of her highball. And I, not a bit wiser as a result of that answer, posed the same question to my father, to which he replied: ‘Because, my boy, they are all idiots.’ I was only nine, but I could feel the contempt my father had for my mother’s side of the family, and something told me that on their part the feeling was mutual.
So I found myself at a birthday party on a Wednesday evening. I did not want to be at this party, so it was easy for me to resent everything and everyone I came into contact with; especially my mother, whose casual remarks always made me feel guilty about the most trivial matters. I felt obligated to attend. I decided to make the best of it; besides, having a few drinks would ease the tension.
Aunt Bridget sat in her rocker by the fireplace the whole evening; her favorite afghan on her lap. She must be about eighty-eight. That would be twenty-two birthday parties. How complacent she looked sitting by the fireplace, watching everyone get drunk—a pleasure she never indulged in herself.
My mother’s sister and her husband were there. I was pleased to see my uncle. My aunt lost no time in making me feel uncomfortable; asking if there was anyone special in my life. My uncle intercepted the question and ran in another direction with it. He said that he supposed I would share that information if I had a mind to, and then brought to her attention their own son, Richard, and his love life, which I assumed from my aunt’s reaction was not going to be discussed with me standing there. So I excused myself and went to the john. I could hear them speaking from the bathroom. She told Paul that she thought there may be something wrong with me in a “sexual sense” if you know what I mean. I suppose she thinks I’m gay. I heard my uncle tell her that if I was it was my affair and none of her damn business. She just went on and on about how, even if I wasn’t a homosexual, I was most assuredly an introvert, and that it was all my father’s doing. I came out of the bathroom and saw my uncle’s angry face. She quickly added “God rest his soul.”
My cousin Richard and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and, although we were only cousins, we were more like brothers in the earlier years of our childhood. When we were a few years older—he was thirteen and I was ten—things began to change. He was not around that much for me. When you’re ten years old it’s pretty devastating to be left in a cloud of dust while your best friend prances off into the sunset with a group of kids who want nothing to do with you. I could never catch up to Richard after that.
Richard was kneeling beside Aunt Bridget chewing her ear off about something. I didn’t want to speak with him for some reason, so I tried to avoid him. Unfortunately he turned his head suddenly and caught me in my attempt to leave the room. “John. How are you? What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Same old stuff. What about you?” I replied.
“I’m doing OK. How’s work going?
“It‘s good. How’s your job going?”
“Pretty damn good. I received a great review that I did not expect until June. I may be in for a promotion. We’ll see.”
“Very good.” I replied, with my usual dead-pan expression.
There was no hiding my indifference. It’s not that his life is of no consequence to me, I just cannot feign any interest in his career. I never liked the business world to begin with, so to hear about it nauseates me. Richard may or may not have picked up on my attitude. It was difficult to tell. He winked one of his bloodshot eyes and waved a pointed finger at my face. “Maybe I’m imagining things, but I do think you could care less whether I’m dead or alive. Do you have a chip on your shoulder I should know about?”
“I thought you’d never notice it.” I responded, half jokingly, but with enough seriousness for him to pick up on. Richard’s smile disappeared. “I’ve always suspected it, but now I’m certain. You’re jealous of me.”
It was as though Richard could see into my soul. His eyes confronted mine with a vengeance, stealing away the very nerve that had influenced my behavior. My expression of complacency turned into a tormented smile. Suddenly we were kids again, rough-housing in the back yard of my parent’s home. I looked Richard straight in the eye, not really sure of what I wanted to say. After a moment I responded.
“I really looked up to you at one time. I don’t know if you remember this, but I would always follow along with you and your friends until it was obvious you didn’t want me hanging around. You never came right out and told me. It was evident. It really bothered me because at one time we were close. Then, suddenly, we didn’t see much of each other; only on occasions like this—and even then, alone in a house filled with adults, we had nothing to talk about.”
I had never known Richard to be very sensitive. Maybe I never really knew him at all, but he was visibly upset by what I said. “First of all” he replied, “if I have done anything in the past that offended you, I can truthfully say that it was not intentional. As far as giving you the cold shoulder when we were kids; did it ever occur to you that our age difference had something to do with that? Would you have tried to be friends with any other seventh-grader? I certainly would not have tolerated the constant surveillance of a fourth-grader if it hadn’t been you. And you say you looked up to me….” Richard stopped there for a second to drink his scotch, looking as though a battalion of memories were marching parallel to his thoughts. “If I had known that” he continued, “I might have told you that you were looking up to the wrong person.”
The two of us were silent for a few seconds until Richard broke that silence. “You know, John, I really think you have a problem. I don’t think it’s a chip at all. Maybe it’s some kind of complex. Whatever it is, it’s a shame, because you’d be one hell of a nice guy if you’d come up for air.”
Richard looked at me as if he were seeing me for the first time. I said nothing and let him go on. “You’re an intellectual snob, John...” he added, “...and that’s one thing I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time.
Do you know what it’s like to formulate aggression over a period of years? To spend countless nights drinking to its health, savoring each moment of ecstasy while your glass is filled to capacity by the bartender, then emptied by the loathsome creature hidden inside you? By the power of a few spoken words my cousin had succeeded in making my animosity toward him feel inappropriate and unjustified. I felt like hiding in a corner. What made me think I could say something like that to him and get away with it. I had been behaving like that for a long time. And I wondered why I didn’t have any close friends. Richard, on the other hand, had a truckload of really close friends; friends he had kept from high school. What was I going to say now. Richard was staring me down; waiting for a response. I must choose my words carefully, I thought, or I might lose a family member.
But did I really care? When have I ever cared? Maybe a long time ago when I was small. I cared so much that it sometimes hurt when nobody cared back. I did not come from a close-knit family. I knew I was loved, but it was not the kind of hands on love that I wanted or that I needed. When I was seventeen I had one close friend named Anthony. I loved going to his house because I felt at home there. His mother would always hug me as if I were one of her own. She was a nice woman, with silky black hair and large brown eyes; eyes that produced visions of homemade dinners, Christmas stockings and cozy nights. I really couldn’t see anything like that in my mother’s eyes. The love I knew she had for me must have stopped at her mouth. It poured out into words of praise when I had been good, and verbal judgment and retribution when the circumstances were otherwise. I was either good or I wasn’t. There was no in between.
I suppose I did care about Richard. Something deep inside of me always wanted to impress him. I can’t imagine that I’ve impressed him at all. What the hell was wrong with me. I’ve been burning bridges a lot lately. I suddenly caught myself looking at the floor. When I looked up again, Richard was gone.