My father’s older brother was a quiet, brilliant man. My uncle was a slight built man with darting eyes that rarely met another’s gaze. His hands seemed like new tools he hadn’t quite mastered. They would shake as he lit a cigarette. They would fumble as he put together his clarinet, but once he had it assembled, with those long thin fingers in place, he was seamless. That clarinet was an extension of those hands, and it was perfection.
My uncle spent most of his time in a small garage apartment where he could read, make music, or sit amongst the gardenias and watch the squirrels play. It was his refuge, and he let few people inside. In the summer, he would often ride his bike to my grandmother’s house, but after a few minutes of trying to answer a bombardment of her questions over the din of the television he would become cranky and flustered, and we would walk back to his place. There, we could sit for hours listening to Stan Kenton or Chet Baker and blissfully not utter a single word. He was not like other adults. He was like me.
My father was charming. He had a quick wit, and an encyclopedic knowledge about darn near anything. He had a fearsome, exacting moral compass all his own. Integrity was everything to my father. People liked him. He did well out in the wider world, and he hated every minute of it. He hated the noise. He hated the groupthink. He hated the constant inane chatter. As intensely as he loved the human race and all the amazing things it was capable of, he could not tolerate being amongst his fellow humans and all the horrible things they were capable of. Much to my mother’s dismay, he refused to socialize. His tolerance for human interaction was only enough to tolerate his workday. My father would leave the house each morning with a palpable sense of dread, and come home each night exhausted. He would keep up this cycle until he could not, and then he would quit yet another job without warning, usually over an issue he saw as black and white but about which his former employer clearly disagreed. In between jobs, he drank.
My mother was a people person. Everyone liked my mother. She understood what people expected of her, and she never let them down. My mother was a self made woman. She never needed help or accommodation. She had the same game plan for all arenas; work, church, friends. Start at the bottom, do more than your share, keep your head down, and make people happy. This plan worked everywhere. No matter where my mother was, it wasn’t long before she was in charge.
Much to her dismay, none of this carried over to her home life. My mother was at a loss in how to deal with us. She was bewildered as to how people so intelligent were so incapable of success. She was crushed by the unfair hand she was dealt. She had played by the rules, and in return got a husband who could not support her, and a child who could not interact with peers, was constantly ill, and scared away babysitters. She found solace in the Bible, often describing raising me as her own personal trials of Job. By the time I was twelve, my mother had given up on us. She stayed because nice women simply did not leave their families, but she had lost all interest in trying to fix me. Her focus became her career and the relationships she formed in the workplace.
My mother’s detachment created some problems for me. My father had been between jobs for nearly a year. He was drinking liters of vodka a day resulting in auditory hallucinations; voices that told him I was an immediate threat to his safety. I was often forced to leave home for a few days until the situation calmed down. Whatever explanation my father gave my mother for my numerous absences, it must have been completely plausible. Any alternate explanation is simply too painful to entertain. I got by relatively unscathed. I looked many years older than I was, so it was easy to blend into the adult world. My grades never suffered, and I made real friendships, something I’d never accomplished among my peers in school.
In many ways my mother’s change of heart was an immense relief for me. While there were still medical interventions that I did not love, the lifelong string of psychiatrists, psychologists, hypnotherapists and the like came to an end. Ten years of strangers attempting to make me acceptable had accomplished nothing other than building a mountain of credit card debt. If I was going to find a way to make my mother proud, I’d need to figure it out for myself.
My top priority remained gaining my parents’ approval, and toward that goal, academics were my only successful outlet. In school, I was in a gifted program, which meant I spent most of my days with the same twenty-eight students for every class, twenty-six of whom shared a common background; white, wealthy children of “respected” families. They floated in a cloud of starched oxford cloth and Polo cologne. Gail and I sat firmly on the ground below that cloud, outcasts by virtue of her skin color and my neurology. No one was outwardly mean to us, but even at thirteen, the others had mastered the icy tolerance afforded obligatory tokens. Gail and I were more amused than hurt by this. Alphabetical seating kept us together, and this was not a movie where every socially awkward teen wants desperately to be part of the popular crowd.
One late spring day, there was a party invitation from Laurie on my desk when I walked into French class. Laurie was the ‘funny one’ of the very popular girls. She was snarky before snarky was a thing. She had a quick wit that stung. I’d seen girls driven to tears by her so often I lost count. Our only conversations had been her asking me for help with algebra, so I had no idea why I was invited. I assumed I would say I had other plans, and the matter would be dropped. Laurie would have met her obligation to be polite in inviting me, and I could avoid an evening of bad music and perplexing conversation. Brian, the boy every popular girl crushed on, sat down next to me and asked if I was going. I told him no, I had promised my uncle I’d spend the weekend helping him paint his apartment. Brian asked me to please reconsider. I was thoroughly perplexed but promised to think about it, and like an idiot, I kept my promise and really thought about it.
The more I thought about this party, the more I wanted to go. Not that the party itself held any appeal to me, but the concept of the party, the ability to go home and tell my mother I was going to a party with kids my own age was too enticing to pass up. I would be a teenager going to a party with other teenagers. It was my mode of operation to pick a television show or movie as a pattern for unknown social scenarios, and I decided this was Happy Days. What could be more normal than that? It took all I had when telling my mother about the party not to ask her if it made her happy that I was going, because I knew that was not what Joanie Cunningham would do.
My mother must have been pleased, because that Saturday she did not go into the office, but stayed home and ironed my shirt. I had not been able to reach my uncle to cancel our plans. He had a habit of not answering the phone, so he rarely got upset over information he didn’t receive. Mother promised if he called, she would tell him I’d be over the next weekend.
My mother dropped me off at 7:35 with plans to pick me up at nine. I knew the party ended at ten, but I also knew my limits. The party did not seem to be nearly as intolerable as I anticipated. We were outdoors, so the music was kept to a respectable level. I got a Dr. Pepper, and surveyed the landscape. I then placed myself one third distance from the center of the large patio, not so close as to be an actual participant, but not so far back as to appear aloof. My plan was to simply stand in that spot for a little over an hour, and I’d be done, but somehow, the cluster of people drifted outward, and before I knew it, I was drawn into conversing. I held my own, stutter fairly in check, when I heard Laurie say my name, “Bridget.”
“Yes?” I replied.
Slowly, savoring every word she asked, “Tell us, Bridget, is your dad still a drunk?”
While the girls tittered, I stood there frozen trying to collect myself. I had failed in my attempt at social normalcy, this had all been a colossal waste of my time, and I didn’t know how was I going to answer all my mother’s questions when she picked me up. I did not feel sad, or embarrassed, but since I had nothing to lose, I wanted to at least satisfy my curiosity.
“Why?” I wondered aloud. “What do you gain by asking me a question like that? I really want to understand.”
I startled as a hand touched my elbow. It was Brian. His voice was quiet, and angry. “Yeah, why Laurie?” He didn’t wait for a reply, but led me over to a bench. There I sat, eyes wide, watching Laurie’s party fall apart. The crowd drifted apart, divided by gender. The boys almost universally derided Laurie while the girls stood behind her, not saying anything in her defense, but unable to take the risk of going against her. I sat on that bench another half hour waiting for my ride home, while boys shuffled by with mumbled words of encouragement to insure I wasn’t sad.
I said little on the ride home, fending off questions with the very truthful excuse that I had a headache. I was weary from trying to be a part of the world and wanted the day to be over. I went straight to bed, thinking next weekend I would not spend trying to please anyone. I would go to my uncle’s, and paint, and listen to real music.
What I didn’t know was that night my uncle was also weary from trying to be a part of the world as well. They found his body that Wednesday.