There is a reason I don't have children: I don't like them. My siblings hold an opposing view, judging by their breeding habits. Either that, or they're incredibly sloppy, considering the sizes of their families. A few nights ago, one of my nieces graduated from high school. My sister made the expected large commotion of the event, sending out invitations for the graduation ceremony and spending weeks planning a party that was to take place afterward. Work forced me to miss the ceremony, but I eventually made it to the party.
Angela, my niece, the newly graduated, is a fine, attractive, and outgoing girl, polite to her elders and reasonably open-minded for someone her age. When I showed up at her house at one-thirty in the morning, she was still these things, only drunk. Not having seen her very often over the last five years, I was surprised to find myself thinking that kids grow up very fast. Parents say that often, always sounding overly dramatic and a bit regretful, but that doesn't take away from the reality of aging. One day your child is six months old and pissing her pants because she's not yet toilet trained and the next your child is eighteen years old and pissing her pants because she's drunk. Who's to say one reason for involuntary urination is more valid than the other?
When I first arrived at my sister's house, I was greeted by my brother-in-law Steve, taking a smoke break out on the front lawn. I asked how the day and party went. He said the party was still going, and if I played my cards right, I could "get going," too. I've never been very good at cards.
After giving my congratulatory wishes to Angela, I went about the party talking to all the other eighteen year olds as they did their best to drink as much as they possibly could. Empty bottles lined every available shelf and table. Kids were piled on top of kids, thick comforters obscuring the movements underneath. Out back, three torches illuminated the metal table and chairs as the occupants joked and argued endlessly and pointlessly, frequently forgetting sentences midway, or being cut off by someone louder and more drunk than themselves.
I took a bottle of beer from a cooler and approached the group outside.
"Who is it? Who's there?" A girl called, surprisingly hearing my steps over the sounds of laugher and clanking bottles.
"It's me," I said, obviously. "Uncle Dan."
"Hey, Unca Dan." Disappointed at finding I was not the person she had hoped me to be, she turned back to her friends.
I've never cared much for the title of "uncle:" it reminds me of old men who distribute quarters and call everyone "slugger." I used it here, if only because it gives me the aura of a good-natured pedophile. Kids do appreciate older folks who share common interests, after all.
A boy staggered over to me. He looked all of ten years old."Daaaaannnn! What's up?""I'm up. How's it going?""It's... all good. This is my fourteenth beer, and I only weigh a hundred and forty pounds!""Quite an accomplishment," I said. "Fuck yeah! Maybe I'll--" He stopped, trying to focus. "Dude! What is that?"
He pointed to my cigarette filter. I've used it for the last decade, and it still draws comments wherever I go."It's a filter," I said."What's it do?""Filters.""Dude..." He took another drink. "My name's Dan. What's yours?" He held out an unsteady hand. I shook it."The same.""What?"
I looked around the yard, stopping at the above-ground pool. Steam hovered silently above the still water. My sister and her husband bought this house last summer, wanting a larger living space than their apartment offered. The house, full-sized with interesting architecture, sits on a huge lot twenty-four miles west of the city. Their only neighbor is a hundred feet away. This style of country living is far too remote from civilization for my tastes, but I understand that most prefer a home in a quiet area, away from the stresses of daily life.
In the dim light, I tried to make out the faces of the other kids. They all seemed relaxed and happy, although alert for something more. Whether that was sex or a fight, I couldn't tell. There were more boys than girls, which when mixed with alcohol always makes for a potentially dangerous situation.
"Is that where you work?" Dan asked, looking at the restaurant insignia on my shirt."Yes. I just finished a thirteen hour double.""Dude! My sister works there! You know Angie?"I could not think of anyone named Angie who worked with me. I considered the few people whose names I did not know. "Is she a hostess?""Yeah! That's her! You know her?"
I could suddenly see the similarities between him and a very quiet, pleasant-faced hostess who didn't speak very much. She rarely spoke to me, most probably because of some of the things I'd said to her. All in good humor, of course.
"No, I don't talk to her very often. I think I offender her.""What'd you say to my sister?" Dan asked, his voice rising with the socially expected defensive tone of one defending the honor of a sibling."I said I'd like to stuff her and mount her on my mantle. She is quite attractive, you know."Dan considered this a moment. "Yeah..." he said, nodding his head.
Ever since I took this restaurant job a few months ago, I've been continually amazed by the coincidences that surround it. Friends of relatives and relatives of friends I've not seen in years have turned up there, both as employees and guests. And now, here, in the middle of nowhere, I find myself having a conversation with the drunken brother of a girl I didn't know, yet felt inclined to compliment in an unusual way.
"Wait `til I tell her I saw you, man," he continued. "Dan the man. I saw Dan the Man!"
Words could not express how tired I am of hearing "Dan the Man." It only serves to remind me how unoriginal and tiresome humanity can be.
"Yes, that's right," I said. "But there are several guys named Dan at the restaurant.""What's your last name?""It doesn't matter. You won't remember it. Just tell your sister it's the Dan with the huge cock." I held my hands up, two feet apart, for emphasis. "Got it?""Huuuuggee cock!" he repeated, mimicking my gesture. He laughed and took another drink.I took advantage of the lapse in conversation to go into the house.
In the kitchen two boys and three girls stood around my niece, who was playing a pinball game on a laptop."Uncle Danny, look what I got for graduation."She held up the laptop with unsteady arms. Two of her female friends said "Unca Dan" for no apparent reason."Very nice," I said, honestly. It was a new model, compact and clean. I was concerned she would drop it in her less than sober state. She didn't, managing to keep it balanced in her lap as one digital ball after another fell down the screen. "Aren't you proud of me for graduating, Uncle Danny?" she said, laughing. She pointed to a picture of herself. "Aren't I sexy? I'm very sexy.""You're very charming, yes."
As Angela smiled satisfactorily, a young girl came in the back door. I had seen her outside in the dim light. She was wearing shorts and a very small t-shirt. Her hair was damp, as though she'd either been swimming or exercising heavily.
I watched her glance absently at the group of people in the kitchen, then turn in the direction of the bathroom. She knocked on the door. No answer. A tall, good-natured fellow with a basketball team logo on his jacket looked up from the laptop and said, "Matt's in there, Steph. He's pretty wasted." Everyone laughed at this.
Stephanie (assuming she had just been correctly identified and addressed) sighed and leaned her head back against the wall. She stood about five-six, and had the appearance of someone who works very hard for long periods of time, only reluctantly ever taking a break. Behind her back, she clasped her hands to her forearms, making her chest swell and her back arch. Her tight t-shirt stretched, stopping just above the navel, as is fashionable for girls in their late teens and early twenties. Her stomach was flat, but not sunken. I tried not to stare at her breasts too openly. If she were on a movie screen, cruel comments would have been made as to whether or not they were real. They were most definitely real, and she was obviously not wearing a bra. She was tan, athletic, and eighteen. An All-American Girl. I walked over to her.
"I believe there's another bathroom upstairs," I said, helpfully.She looked at me for a second, then smiled quietly. "No, thanks. I don't want to have to go upstairs.""Afraid of tripping over bodies?""No. It's just..."
I waited, but she didn't answer. She tilted her head back, tightening her eyes as though she had a slight headache.I suddenly felt uncomfortable, as though I was intruding on something best kept private. I started to make up an excuse for myself to leave. Before I could speak, she quickly said, "My boyfriend cheated on me."
Her eyes opened and fixed on mine with such intensity I felt for an instant like I was the person responsible for this infidelity. I was hardly shocked by the comment itself, knowing full well how men are in general, and especially at a young age, but I had not expected such a statement to come so suddenly without any preface, from a girl whose only link to me rested in a niece I spoke to once or twice a year. But then, strangers do make the best listeners. I've been told by many I'm quite strange.
I wondered how best to answer: compassionate and understanding, or mean-spirited and humorous. I've used both, but only the latter on people I know well. When the boyfriend is a drunken bastard known for sleeping around, it's more the woman's fault than the man's for staying with him. Expecting a person to change because of being in a relationship is not idealistic and optimistic, it's stupid and irritating.
Not knowing anything about this situation other than the five words just spoken to me, I decided to give the safest answer."I'm sorry to hear that."With that, I could either continue the conversation or pat her on the shoulder and walk away, having expressed sympathy to show my humane understanding of people and relationships. Generally, I enjoy hearing stories of relationship woes, simply because they make me feel that much better about my own life. On occasion, I run into the odd unbalanced girl who feeds on such drama. What they express or feel is not real sorrow, but manufactured pain, to bring about sympathy, conversation, or, usually, to fill a very empty space within themselves. I avoid these personalities whenever possible.
I could not yet judge this girl, so I pressed on. I had no real reason for doing so."Have you two been together long?"Her eyes stayed locked on mine. Such eye contact is rare in one so young. Her eyes were beautiful. They were the eyes of a teenage girl, but not without strength and conviction. The force of her look made me feel she was daring (or expecting) me to quickly leave and move on to someone with more conventional conversation topics. I returned her stare, making a point to not be the first to look away. Her stare remained level, and I felt stupid for testing her. I looked at the drink in my hand.
"Since sophomore year," she said."Three years?""Yeah.""I see." For some reason, the chance to get inside a woman's mind of any age and root around is infinitely interesting to me. I wondered how deep I could go before she closed herself off to me and went back to resignedly waiting for the bathroom.
"Has this sort of thing happened before? With him, I mean?""Yeah. Twice.""How long ago?""He kissed a girl a month after we started dating, then another six months later.""Just kissed?""That's what he said.""You believed him?""I... Yes."
I had the impression that she did believe him, but didn't know if she should. Such contradictions in relationships are unfortunately not limited to adolescents.
"What happened this time, two and a half years later?"I paid close attention to her here, to see how readily she told me the story. Had she begun easily rattling off a long narrative, I'd know this story was either rehearsed or had already been told to many people.
"Well, he... The other night, he was... I..." She was having trouble focusing her thoughts. She didn't know where to begin.Of course, she could have rehearsed the stutters and false starts, too, but my cynicism doesn't go to those extremes.
"Last Sunday, he was out drinking with a bunch of people, when a girl asked him if she could come up to his apartment for a cigarette. He said yes, and--""Your boyfriend has an apartment? Is this a much older guy?""Not much older. Only a year. He's nineteen. Shares a place with two friends." She brushed a lock of wet, stringy hair out of her eyes and tilted her head from side to side. I heard her neck give a series of light pops, and her face relaxed a little.
"So he invites this girl up, gives her a cigarette, then sits on the couch. She sits with him. They're talking, when she starts rubbing on him. Then kissing on him."She paused here. She was clearly picturing the scene. Not knowing exactly how it looked--this girl's position next to him, his expression as she touched him (Was she more attractive? What did she do to him that he liked better?)--made it even more painful.
"Then he went up to bed, and she followed him, got into bed with him, and then she..." She looked at me, wondering if I'd be offended by her next words. She must have made the judgment quickly, because after only a second's pause, she continued. "...gave him a blow job."
"Ouch," I said, hoping she could tell by my expression that I wasn't offended in the slightest. I'm the only person I've yet met who has never been offended by anything. Few people believe me when I say that.
"He says they didn't do any more, but--""But you don't believe him. Not totally. How did you find out?'"He told me.""How did he tell you?""Well, Tuesday night, we went out, and when we got back to his place, he told me he thought we should break up. I had no idea anything was wrong, so I asked him for reasons. He was vague at first, but eventually he told me about this other girl. At first, he only told me the part about her kissing him. An hour or so later, he added the part about the blow job."
This was all predictable. No men are as cowardly as when confessing sins to women. Men advance their positions slowly, hoping to somehow get off on a technicality. They seem to think that maybe "I had sex with six women" could be equally expressed as "I stayed late after work, and, oh, yeah, met up with a few people."
If the thought of confessing even a portion of one's wrongdoing is too great, then one can always turn to the alternative of ending the relationship altogether. If there's no woman, there's no need for confession. Simple logic, if you think about it.
"So what are you going to do now? Leave him?""I don't know. I think I should. But we've been together three years. That's a very long time to get to know one another. Build up trust."I had the feeling she had just then realized how much of that trust was gone, and was wondering how long it would take to rebuild. To a girl of eighteen, three years is a very long time.
"But he's the only one for me," she continued. "We were going to get married..."She choked the last word out distastefully. She had probably never given serious thought about marriage, or what it meant.
"Don't think about that now. Unfortunately, all you can do is hope that this guy realizes--"
Just then the door to the bathroom opened. The occupant, Matt, stumbled out, eyes teary, legs unsteady. The basketball player had understated his condition of "pretty wasted." Matt looked at us with carefree disinterest and barely managed to say, "'S'all yours." The group of people in the kitchen laughed and cheered as Matt held up his hand for a high five from one of them. This simple act would have sent him tumbling to the floor had the two boys not stood beside him for support.
I turned back to Stephanie. "Looks like you're up.""Yeah."
She went into the bathroom, leaving me unsure of what to do. I had two options: wait for her to come out so we could resume the conversation, or wander off in search of other people. I had yet to meet anyone here who was all that interesting, and at least with Stephanie I could put my mind to work around a problem, trivial as it was to all who weren't involved, as all relationship problems are. There is a reason it's easier to fix other people's problems than it is your own.
I decided to leave. Stephanie was now alone with her thoughts, and chances are she was thinking about both her boyfriend and me, the stranger to whom she'd just confessed something very personal. For her, I was a one night psychiatrist, and her feelings for me were probably very similar to those a man feels for a one night stand immediately after finishing his use for her. The only desire is to get away.
I took this time to get another drink. Mine was barely half gone, but it was warm and I wanted a new one. Drunken parties with teenagers is not a time for conservation or frugality, so I took a bottle of beer out of the fridge, and walked into the dining room.
My sister and brother-in-law had decorated the table with pictures of the morning's graduation ceremony (the pictures no doubt recently picked up from a one-hour photo developer). Pictures of Angela hugging various girls with remarkably similar hairstyles, and, on some, faces were tacked to a large colorful board proclaiming "GRADUATION 2001!!!" I looked at each picture, but did not see any with Stephanie. I wondered if she was a close friend of my niece's, or if she was invited to this party by proxy. It was then that the obvious question struck me: Where was the boyfriend? She had not told me his name, or even offered a description. He could be any number of faceless drunk youths out in the back yard, or buried in the heaps of sleeping bags lining the floors.
The door to the bathroom opened, and Stephanie walked slowly out. I strained my senses to hear this, not wanting to turn to look. I believed myself clearly in her line of sight, standing where I was in front of the picture display, and thought it best to let her make the decision to continue our conversation, in case she wanted privacy.
I can only guess she wanted privacy, because I heard the back sliding door open, then close. I risked a sideways glance and saw that she was gone.
I felt a combination of disappointment and resentment at being voted out by her conscience, regardless that I understood her reasons. I smiled at my own selfish pride--a slow, broad grin that gives people the impression that if I'm not insane, I'm most probably dangerous with a knife. I wondered if somewhere in the back of my own head I'd hoped to eventually end up with this girl, letting her take solace in my warm understanding of the male animal. That it was all right, dear, he cheated on you, now you can cheat on him. Yes, that's right: You'll show him. I told myself I was above this, and believed it. Even though she was very attractive, I wanted nothing to do with her in that sense. She was an interesting diversion in an otherwise uneventful evening. A girl whose life was only temporarily difficult because of the lack of willpower of a nineteen-year-old boy. In time, she would graduate college, get a good job, marry (someone, if not her current boyfriend), have children, retire, and die like everyone else.
I wandered back and forth for the next hour, making obvious jokes at the expense of any kid who couldn't stand up properly, or who wore pants several sizes too big for himself. I did not see Stephanie anywhere. At first, I thought I would happen upon her, making a surprised, "Oh, there you are!" comment as though I had been looking for her for some time. When she didn't surface, and finding no one else of interest to talk to (my sister and brother-in-law had long since fallen asleep), I decided to leave.
As I opened the front door, I heard my name."Uncle Dan."It sounded so foul and wrong coming from her lips, I almost felt embarrassed. "Uh, yeah? Oh. Stephanie. There you are."And that just sounded wrong.
She was standing in front of the sofa, and it seemed to me she had been sitting there for some time. I had walked by it several times that evening, noticing the outlines of people sitting there, but I couldn't recall her as being one of them. I decided I probably hadn't been paying close enough attention.
She walked over to me, standing closely, so she could speak quietly."Thanks for the talk earlier. I didn't want to tell anyone here, because they might...""Yes, I know how kids are."She didn't seem to mind her friends being referred to as kids. I wondered if she included herself in that group."Well, thanks. I just wanted to talk to someone impartial.""We only talked for about a minute. If there's something else you--""No. No, I'm good. I know what to do. I just need time to get over this. Thanks, again."I've had many female friends over the years, and have played the role of counselor to almost all of them. Usually these hours long sessions would end with a hug and a reassurance that if you ever need me to talk or anything, just call.With this in mind, I stepped toward Stephanie and held my arms out. "I hope things work out for you. If you need anything..."
She did not move toward me. She kept her arms close to her sides. She cast her eyes down and to the right. It occurred to me right then that there's another reason strangers make good listeners: When you're finished with them, they go away.
So I rested my hands on her shoulders, smiled, and said good night. Very few times in my life were so socially awkward. I left her standing there, in tired thought, arms wrapped around herself, surrounded by former schoolmates, nearly asleep, most in the arms of another.
As I got into my car, I felt relief and regret that I would probably never see her again.