Sunday, February 28, 2010

Have you actually met me before?

It's a question I've asked my family many times (not Beanie, of course) when they say something or characterize something I've done that is completely foreign to me. It's as if all the years we've spent together, and apart, have been meaningless and they just have not been paying attention. I expected my immediate family to know me better. I was wrong.

I can excuse someone like Beastly Bobbie, my ex-sister-in-law, to be so ignorant as to go to my brother The Idiot and ask why he couldn't control me better. No one who has ever met me and paid the least bit of attention would even consider the possibility that I can be controlled. No wonder The Idiot laughed in the face of her tears and recriminations when she shoved my letter to her in his face. Well, she did ask for it when she asked for my address so she could send me a wedding invitation to Alisha's forthcoming day of days after decades of ignoring me and making it plain I was not welcome in her home or as part of her life. She was merely trawling for gifts and figured I'd be sure to give her a really good one since I'm a rich author. Right. Just goes to show how greed can overrule any and all common sense. Having not invited me to her children's birthday parties or family get-togethers, she must have been drunk or high or just plain stupid to think I'd respond to an engraved wedding invitation with sweetness, light and a pricey wedding gift. I don't do nice and I don't stay silent when I have something to say. No one controls me or my words. It's a given -- if you've ever actually met me before.

When I relate this story to casual acquaintances or to people who have come back into my life after decades of living their own lives, and after having read my stories in anthologies or my novel, they laugh when Beastly Bobbie demands The Idiot control me. They get the joke. My family still doesn't. How could I be so cruel, so rude, so uncontrollable? Because I can and because I am too old now to be anything but honest. I have nothing to prove and no one left to impress. I am simply -- as Popeye says -- what I am, and that's all that I am. Read my writing and you'll know me better than the people who claim to be family.

But I know why they're so clueless. It's the same reason I still think of my cousin Ellen as the beautiful little girl with the long golden ponytail wearing the "I Dream of Jeannie" costume I made for her from a yellow satin and chiffon dress Mom picked up at Goodwill the year she represented Iraq in our annual summer beauty pageant. Ellen is still little, but her hair is a deep dark brown, almost black, and she is no longer a child, although she still remembers the harem costume I made her. I think that year I represented Monaco, but I don't remember the costume I made for myself. I do remember I won that year, beating out the girl whose mother had her costumes and gowns made by a dressmaker. The girl was furious, but not nearly as furious as her mother. They thought it was rigged for me to win and thought I'd cave in, but they didn't know me very well. They found out I was no pushover and wasn't about to give up my hard earned crown, whether it was covered in diamonds or glass. It was mine.

My appearance and voice are perhaps deceptive. I smile easily, laugh easily and sound innocent. A classmate from high school wrote me this morning to tell me I sounded like I was in my early twenties, and he knows how old I am because we're about the same age. He can count. He's met me before. I am playful by nature and especially like it when people loosen up enough to say what's on their mind, like another classmate who called me a smart ass last night. For the first time since we became reacquainted he unbent a little and let the real person show through. He'd asked if I was still there and I responded, "No, I'm here," to which he responded, "Smartass!" It was the best part of a very technical and involved discussion on global warming and historical evidence of socialism in an otherwise democratic republic, not that I didn't enjoy the discussion. He's an engineer and a guy (obviously from the "he" part of the sentence) and I enjoy lively debate, even when we don't agree. I surprised him that I'm not a lightweight when it comes to politics and environmental issues and he paid me by giving in to his sense of humor, something I remember he had in abundance. He always smiled and laughed easily, a little deceptive in his appearance since his affability disguised a bright wit and a brilliant intellect. I got to meet him all over again and I hope he looks forward to our next encounter.

We all have preconceived notions about people from appearances and demeanor, but it doesn't take long before the real person comes out from behind the curtain to take responsibility for the holographic shill center stage spouting fire and calling names that protected the soft chewy center of the soul and psyche. Brash, preening peacocks turn out to be dun-colored killdeer pretending a broken wing to hide their vulnerability from potential predators or cruel jibes delivered with deadly aim. Duck and cover. It's doesn't always help, but often minimizes lasting scars and pain.

As we grow older and learn to recognize predator from casual onlooker, we loosen up, unbend and stop worrying about what people think. Well, many of us do. The rest remain behind the curtain, hoping beyond hope that they will be overlooked and ignored while their alter ego is center stage full of bluff and bluster or coy looks and seductive poses to throw everyone off the scent, emotional chameleons. Some people are so caught up in their camouflage they don't pay close attention to the image they project or care to get closer to anyone else to look behind the facade until they are brought face to face with the truth. They have lived in a dream world where nothing is real and everything and everyone are shams. It's hard to get to know someone who never lets down their guard or care about anyone else when caught up in the need to hide who and what they are. I'm sure most people find themselves asking, "Have you ever really met me before?" to spouses, friends and, yes, even family. It's still frustrating, at least for me.

Yank off the bandage, forget about your chipped nail polish or lack of war pain and just be yourself. It may be one of those Jane Jetson days when you instantly reach for the mask so the caller doesn't know you look like hell and haven't put on your face or you've been so intent on finishing a difficult part in the latest story you are still wearing the ratty robe that should've been washed a couple days ago, but it's all right. Everyone has bad days, weeks, months, even years. It's best to let the worst be seen so every good day after that is a bonus. When you've seen the worst, everything else shows up in a much brighter and more flattering light. Face it, the worst will come out eventually. Get it over with right up front so the cowards can run, the phonies can excuse themselves to tend to a sick relative they just remembered was in the hospital and may die at any moment and the people who matter, and the ones who love and care about you can relax and call you a smart ass so the laughter can begin. Those are the ones worth having around, the ones who have actually met you and still think you're worth knowing, warts and all.

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