Saturday, November 24, 2007

Feel the Love

Anyone who's familiar with my blogging will be familiar with this old tale:

During grad school I came back to New York for a quick summer visit. This visit included a lunch date with my grandmother who, oh-so-smoothly, oh-so-gracefully, picked me up in her minivan and, as she pulled out of the driveway and pointed us toward a Chinese buffet she spoke highly of, asked me if I had girlfriends or boyfriends.

How we'd gotten to that point in the conversation was simple enough. She asked me who drove me to the airport. The answer to that question was simple, too. The Wily Republican had driven me to the airport. He'd picked me up in the afternoon and we'd had a leisurely drive up to Minneapolis--him singing Cat Stevens songs all the way. I wasn't exactly sure how to label the WR and because of that I told my grandmother that a friend had driven me to the airport. This was a true enough answer, and I didn't think it was particularly controversial. But my grandmother chose that moment to air some of her concerns. She squinted my way and hesitated before saying, "Well now, Jessie, do you have boyfriends or girlfriends?"

My grandmother was asking me if I was a lesbian. Somewhere deep down in her chili sauce-making, pickle-brining, pie-baking heart, my grandmother thought there was a chance that I was a lesbian. It's true that I was the least successful of the oldest granddaughters, but it wasn't like I was exhibiting any telltale signs of same-sex attraction. There were no boxy jeans or bobbed haircuts, no attraction to power tools or men's underwear, no exclaiming over the cuteness of Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts. I just hadn't brought a boyfriend to a family function in, say, four years, and that made my grandmother nervous--especially because her oldest granddaughter, who is a few months older than I am, was engaged to be married and happily tripping toward wedded bliss. And what was I tripping toward? Not so much wedded bliss, that's for sure. I was the granddaughter tripping toward a world of hurt and a bucket of vodka to get me through the cold Minnesota nights I would spend without possibility of winding up in the Wily Republican's very comfortable, very large bed.

That's just the thing about my grandmother--she's got this way of tearing down a person in an easy, quiet, methodical way. She can highlight a person's most tender spots and rub them raw in such a graceful way that you have to admire her precision. This is, after all, the woman who one year acknowledged my parents' wedding anniversary by presenting my mother with a plastic bud vase she'd picked up at a garage sale. My grandmother didn't even bother to hide the bargain based nature of her buy. The design of the packaging clearly demonstrated that the vase was from the 1970s, and the giant circular sticker that bore the price of ten cents hadn't even been plucked from the bottom. From what I've heard and gathered over the years, my grandmother did not like my mother and that was her way of saying, I will acknowledge this event, but I won't celebrate it.

When my grandmother needled me about whether or not I liked girls or boys, it made me realize (again, again, again) that yes indeed I was having trouble with the opposite sex when I should have been caught up with my cousin, who was shopping for wedding dresses and veils. It made me look back on my time with the Wily Republican and realize that, yes, yes, it was a phenomenal waste of time and probably wasn't helping me get any closer to where I wanted to be: with a good man who could love me no matter what. My grandmother's question gave me a second's worth of panic. Oh God, I thought to myself as my grandmother drove us toward heaping plates of General Tso's and Hunan Beef, I'm getting to that age where if I remain single, polite society might start wondering if I'm trying to pull something over on them.

But it's not just my mother, and it's not just me. This Thanksgiving my grandmother detonated another quiet bomb whose aftershocks quickly reached my father's house and me, where I was sacked out on the couch, watching the National Dog Show that had come on after the parade had finished.

"Well," my father said as he stood warming himself in front of the stove, "your grandmother wrote a letter to your aunt that said she was quite glad your cousin hadn't brought that girl to her Christmas-in-November party."

That girl was my cousin's girlfriend.

This particular cousin is young. He's in the lower end of high school and already he's dealing with this. His girlfriend isn't all that bad really, just kind of shy and strange and nervous--like so many girls her age. I'm sure I was like that when I was her age. I'm sure if I'd been lucky enough to land a boyfriend at her age, I would've been twitchy-itchy around his relatives, too. And it's not that she's rude, and it's not that she smells bad, and it's not that she's crazy, but it is that she's sort of Goth. But not. Not really. There's very little weird makeup, and I don't think there's any listening to music that talks about Satan or sacrificing kittens for the black arts. There is, however, some strange outfit choices: thick stockings paired with skirts and tattered black sweaters or hoodies. Sometimes there is something Hello Kitty-inspired thrown into the ensemble, which, if nothing else, sort of proves there is very little actual Goth-ness to her.

I think she's cute. She's got thick, dark hair and glasses that make her look like she's suited to the life of a librarian. She gazes at my cousin the way all good high school girlfriends should: with blind, blind devotion. She curls into him, she hides behind his shoulder, she giggles at everything he says.

For a brief period of time this summer my cousin and I worked at the same restaurant, and it was there that I first saw this girl. She liked to come visit him and sit with him on his breaks, which he took at a small two-person table along the wall. He would bring her a basket of fries or a slice of pie, and they would sit with the food between them. They would share.

One time he brought out a bucket of crayons usually reserved for fussy little kids, and his girlfriend drew me a picture on the back of their placemat. The picture had my name on it and a heart around my name. A demon girl, to be sure. Clearly a girl worthy of being witheringly referred to as that girl in a letter from my grandmother to her daughter.

And because of this, my cousin was robbed of his opportunity to have his girlfriend over for Thanksgiving this year. According to my father, my aunt had to dance her way around the real issue at hand. Grandma was going over there for Thanksgiving, and because of the loaded sound of the letter my aunt knew it would be uncomfortable to have the two ladies seated at the communal Thanksgiving feast. So she first tried to appeal to her son's sense of family. She told him it was just going to be a family gathering that year--wouldn't that be nice??--and that they would keep it small by not inviting non-family members to join them. My cousin wasn't having that. He didn't like that logic. After all, I'm sure he's grown to think of his girlfriend as a part of his family, and not having her with him for part of the day probably seemed cruel. So he pouted a bit. He didn't give in as easily as his mother had hoped. And that's when she had to tell him the truth: his grandmother didn't like his girlfriend--so much so that she'd been compelled to write it in a letter and send it off to his mother so that she would know that the girlfriend wasn't exactly the thrill and joy she could have been if she was the proper type of girlfriend, the anti-that girl.

I was slightly appalled when I heard the news, but I can't say I was surprised. I felt pretty bad for my cousin, who was no doubt spending his Thanksgiving stuck in some corner, chewing on a piece of turkey and thinking of his girlfriend who was probably stuck in her own corner, sad that she had not been invited to his house, had not been invited into his family like she could have been on Thanksgiving. I understood what he felt: a little angry, a little confused, and, probably, a little like he'll never get it right in Grandma's eyes. When he's older, maybe I will take my cousin out drinking and I'll tell him stories about how I never got it quite right either.


Diana said...

I wish my son would fall madly in love with a Miss Kitty-loving goth girl instead of the slender, adorable, uptight, prissy, wouldn't-say-shit-if-she-had-a-mouthful goody-goodies he seems to favor. My lord, the boy has the most boring and predictable taste. I'm hoping he'll grow out of it. I'm hoping that someday he'll bring a wild-haired, sassy, snarky girlfriend to my Thanksgiving table that I will look at and love at once, species recognition.

Jason said...

That's the common misconception about goths--that they have anything to do with evil (real or imagined). Their music, generally, contains lyrics about how sad they are, how inviting suicide might be, and how nobody understands them.

Basically, it's whiny, teenage angst set to keyboard-laden dirges.

What's really frightening is when some thirty-year-old goth is still mired in that material.