The Kid Stays in the Picture (Part Two)

Oddly, it turns out, I was never that keen on Gertrude Stein, but I agree that a rose is a rose is a rose.  There is a lot that rests on a name and I was going to get it right with this one.  I like alliteration and we already had George and Gracie, so I knew it had to be a “G” name.  Andrea and I had been talking it over, but I took her advisement with caution.  She and Tara had named their dog Elvis Louise.

Something about the big green eyes, the disarming little nose that’s half pink and half brown, and the alarming level of sass that makes all the cuteness feel deceptive told me this kid was a Gert.  Kind of a 50s vixen all dressed up proper for tea.  Another little angel all devil in disguise.  With the epiphany came a call from Andrea, “We should name her after Gene Vincent!”  Be-Bop-A-Lula?  Precisely.

So, while she goes by Gert, her Rockabilly sensibility is accounted for in her full name: Gerty Gene Vincent.  Unfortunately, Tara was the only one who could get off work to take her to the vet for her shots and as details of pop-culture allusion—well, most details—get lost in that pretty little head, the birth certificate reads Gerta Jean.  Like what?  She’s a Swedish nanny?  She’s shooting a Ricola commercial?  Heavens.

By the time we got rid of her fleas and had her up to fighting weight, the other girls liked her even less.  Drive by hissing was their standard practice whenever they crossed her path.  She was street though and she is savvy.  By the end of six months she’d divided and conquered and she’s ruled with impunity ever since.

But before that political realignment took place, there was Thanksgiving.  It’s my favorite holiday—non-denominational, geared toward gluttony, celebrating civil harmony (theoretically, at least).  Oh, and I was born on the day.  For some reason I had planned a trip back to Minnesota that year to celebrate with my family.  Why was that?  Right.  The big love.  Well, the other big love.

A little about me: I’ve been this feisty, cynical, mouthy pip for a very long time.  That said, certain aspects of the way I grew up made me…more so.  An absentee father who went through women and wives like a Jehovah’s Witness knocks on doors; a mother who rarely dated and never remarried after the divorce; a complicated relationship with a boy that eviscerated my self image.  Everyone went through something like it, I suppose, but you don’t know that at the time.

Predictably, after being bullied by the first boy I was too worn down to fight the second.  I went all the way and pretty quickly too.  He wasn’t very nice and he wasn’t even that into me.  He’s not someone I think about anymore except to realize that if I hadn’t made that mistake in just the way I did, with him, I never would have met Michael.

Michael was his friend and then he was my friend and after a good while I understood that he was the guy you wait around for—the one you hope you meet at that party you really didn’t want to go to or out to dinner with your parents and their friends.  He listened to you and had something to say; he called you on your bullshit and was impervious to your coy, ambiguous flirtation when he had a girlfriend; he remembered that you never had your ears pierced and wouldn’t think of teasing you about your horrible powder blue bowling shoes; he was very tall.  Michael was the best-case scenario.  And when the time was right we fell in love.

Memory is a crafty mistress.  I’ve been thinking that sentence for months.  She flatters and fibs and she’s unpredictable and often unavailable, but almost always conveniently.  At least, that’s how it seems to me.  I think I remember how and when a thing happened and then I wonder, is that true?  Or is it just irresistibly pretty to think so?

What I remember about Michael is that I trusted him.  He was always happy to see me and his arms felt like home.  Once when we were kissing in front of a fire he separated my hair strand by strand into a wide fan across the floor.  And then I remember that he left.  He was a couple of years older than me and smart enough to see that he wasn’t going anywhere with his life.  He wanted to be a doctor, but he couldn’t pay for school.  He hated living at home and he needed a way out, so he joined the Army.

It was a perfectly sensible thing to do.  It was clear that I was leaving as soon as I graduated high school, which wasn’t that far off.  He would get an education and the whole Iraq thing was over, so it didn’t look like Russian roulette or anything.  But I was seventeen and it felt like he’d left me.  And I couldn’t forgive him.  My father was getting another divorce, going back on is promise to pay for any of the colleges I was applying to, and ultimately I moved in with Blanche after fourteen years of weekends only.  I stopped writing Michael and I tried not to wonder whether or not he would forgive me.

Six or seven years of dating in New York later, my memory was plaguing me with best-case scenario reruns.  Google nudged me along.  I wound up calling his dad, who I’d never talked to in my life.  But I got the story.  He was in Minneapolis.  And I got the number.  What a conversation that was.  We caught up like you do.  And then, being Michael, he asked me, “Why are you calling me now?”  I’m not a very good liar, but I could never have gotten away with it with him.

Michael was getting married…to a German girl he’d met while he was stationed there.  I was simultaneously crushed and determined to be adult about the situation.  But he had atypical answers to all the typical questions.  They were definitely not planning on having kids, though I knew he was a ‘someday’ kind of guy.  They were getting married because “she really wants to.”  He did not sound like someone in love.

But we were grown up now.  I hadn’t spoken to him in ages and he was obviously free to marry whomever he liked.  Except suddenly I was coming home for Thanksgiving and wouldn’t it be fun to see each other while I was in town?  It turned out that it would.  I resolved to remain adult.  I would reminisce, but I would not try to reason him out of or into anything.  That kind of thing, it wasn’t who he was or who I wanted to be.

But there was the kid to think about.  I couldn’t leave her alone with the hissers terrorizing her the 22 hours of each day that Tara and Andrea weren’t there to feed them and play a bit.  I would have to take her with me to the Arctic regions and expose her to suburban sprawl and wall-to-wall carpeting.  You can only protect them so much…


Hillery eventually learned not to say everything that came to mind. Some were too good not to write down.

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