Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Strange Plots 6

Got a better working title. This installment needs more editing than I have time to give it, but I'm so behind on my word count that I know you'll forgive me for nodding like Homer.


And so, a stranger came to town.

Me, of course. It was me. I came back to town, and I acted like a stranger with Grandpa, and it turned out I’d been a stranger to myself. My whole encounter with Vin kept replaying in my head. My prickliness  — no, my prejudice — at our first meeting.  My spectacular performance in the corn maze. My immature bluster, compared to his self-effacement. I told myself that Vin had low self-esteem, that he was cold, that it was no loss to never see him again, and I discarded each as false.

I didn’t call Grandpa when I got home, and I didn’t go see him the next day, and I didn’t answer his messages. How could I? What could I say? That I’d mortally insulted his blood kin? That his father was lynched by an ancestor of his cousin once removed?  There was no way I could bear the responsibility for breaking Grandpa’s heart. We had been so excited, he and I, by the prospect of a new family out there. Now I was out of sync with his happiness, and I didn’t know if I could fake it well enough to fool him.

But by the third day, I had to face the fact that my hesitations were all about me, not about Grandpa. Was I going to mess everything up. How was it going to make me look?I was disgusted with myself for being cowardly and for being the center of my own universe — and I realized that those are basically the same thing. So I asked myself, “What would someone who wasn’t the center of her own universe do?” This turned out to be way too broad a question, so I narrowed it down to “What would Vin do?” He would probably apologize about something that wasn’t his fault, and then go see his grandmother. I could do at least one of those things.

So I went to visit my grandfather, and I told him the truth, as far as it went. That I was sorry I hadn’t come to see him the minute I got back. That I hadn’t wanted to disappoint him. That Kay also didn’t come because she was too overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting him that she couldn’t leave her house. That she too was sorry and that she wanted to meet him so much.

“Did you think it was going to surprise me that someone else did the same thing I did?” he asked, as I wrapped myself in an afghan and curled up next to him on the couch.

“I don’t know, Grandpa. I just froze up,” I said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“Now that would have been worth seeing — you not knowing what to say.”

“I guess I’d had some big idea about how the trip would go, and then I felt like I’d mess things up for you if I didn’t have some great family news for you.”

Grandpa gave my hand a scolding squeeze. “I’ve done without extra family for a long time, and it won’t kill me to go a little longer. But I was lonely here without you, and I started to worry. It’s not good for me at my age to play too many what-if mind games.”

“Grandpa, do you think I lash out at people?” I asked abruptly.

He gave me a know-thyself glance. “What brought that on?”

“Just something someone said to me. Do I lash out?”

“Do you think you lash out at people?”

“Way to turn it back on me, Grandpa,” I said in exasperation. “I’m trying to figure something out here.”

“If you’re that worried about it, sounds to me like you already figured it out.”

“So you’re saying that I do.”

“‘You have said so,’” quoth Grandpa.

“But what am I supposed to do, Grandpa?” I asked, carefully not lashing out at him. “I’ve always tried to be true to myself. That’s what you and mom have always taught me. My dad has always told me he loves me just as I am. Everything I read, or I hear, or I watch, talks about not letting anyone change who you are or turn you into something you’re not. So what if I’m just stuck being the kind of person who lashes out and says whatever stupid thing comes into her head?”

“It doesn’t sound to me like we’re talking general life choices,” said Grandpa. “Maybe I’d be able to answer your question better if I knew what it is you regret saying.”

I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it against the wild urge to tell him everything about the weekend. And in that second of consideration, I felt the sharp sting of selfishness. I didn’t want to tell him about Titusville so that he could have the pleasure of learning about his ancestral home. I wanted him to feel shocked with me and so vindicate my reactions. Me, me, me.

Meanwhile, the silence was growing fraught as I wrestled with myself, and Grandpa was looking more and more concerned. How could I gracefully close out the situation without snapping at him or blurting out the whole story?

If my own personality didn’t hold a clue, maybe someone else’s did. I covered my head in the blanket and once again took a page from Vin’s playbook. “Let’s talk about something else for a while. Please?”

And to my surprise, Grandpa didn’t press for more information, but placidly prognosticated about sportsball while I wallowed in my cocoon.

A stranger came to town. All week long I pondered. If I were a stranger to myself, if I could learn things that I’d never realized about the way that other people understood me, then perhaps that meant that I didn’t fully understand myself. I’d thought that in doing and saying whatever presented itself to my mind, I was being true to myself. But if I couldn’t see myself through both my eyes and the eyes of others, I couldn’t fully see myself. And if I couldn’t fully see myself, was I really being true to who I am?

All this time I’d been true to myself, but what was I doing with myself? I’d scraped through college on the easiest classes and the lowest grades because I saw myself as proudly plebeian. I’d gotten fired because I saw myself as a rebel. I’d yelled at Vin because I saw myself as the protector of my family’s legacy.  But since I wasn’t truly doing any of these things for the sake of someone else, I’d never tried to see them through someone else’s eyes. The taste of that I’d had from Vin made me suspect that I wouldn’t be charmed by the experiment.

Why hadn’t I told Grandpa yet about my visit to Titusville? Of course I wanted to protect and and spare him from pain, but if I took an exterior look at my interior motivations, what it seemed I really wanted was to spare myself the humiliation of coming off as a spoiled brat. The more I thought about it, the more I bumped up against the nasty realization that my universe revolved around me. And not “me” in the fullest sense of everything about me, but “me” reduced down to my idea of myself, my self-image. I had always been essentially secure in my personality, and if you didn’t like me, that was your problem. But was it? If someone found me unpalatable, did it say more about that person, or about me?

I had always been proud, secretly or not so secretly, of my temper and my willingness to go off on people. I wanted everyone to define me on my own terms and not put me in their little boxes. But what if I’d put myself in a box? What if, in my constant battle to define myself on my own terms, I’d ended up getting trapped in my own personality? Could I turn it off? Who would I be then?

I needed to see myself from the outside again, and I needed someone trustworthy to give me honest answers. And, if I was being honest, the person I wanted to talk to was Vin. I studied the photo of him and his grandmother, then put it away, then pulled it up again. He seemed self-possessed; how did he do it? And why did the phone not ring when I was willing him to call me?

And why was I willing him to call me? There was no law against my calling him. I had his number. I wasn’t shy. The jumpiness in my stomach was not at all related to the idea of putting myself on the line. The worst that could happen was that he might listen politely, thank me politely for calling, and politely sever all bonds of communication so that he never had to talk to me again. Easier, safer by far to look at him smiling at his grandmother and hope against hope that he would reach out to me…

My true self erupted, yelled,“Quit yer bitching, you big baby!”, and dialed. Before I’d fully braced myself, I was being told to leave a message for his voice mail.

“Hi, Vin, this is Erin from last weekend,” my true self said while the rest of me was suspended in self-doubt. “I wanted to apologize, first of all, for being so rude to you and to your grandma, even though she wasn’t there. I haven’t told my grandfather anything about what happened on Saturday, because I don’t know where to start. I wanted to see if we could get our grandparents back on track to meet, so they could start fresh. And I wondered if we could find out any more of the family history before they did meet, so some of the questions would be less mysterious. And I’ve thought about what you said about my lashing out at you, and you were right, so, again, I’m really sorry about that. Give me a call back if you want. Bye.”

There. Time to let it go. It wasn’t my business why he didn’t answer. If he didn’t want to talk to me, there was plenty of reason for that. And I’d proved something to myself, that I could stay calm when I was nervous. I was learning valuable life lessons right and left this week…

The phone rang and rang while I swiped frantically to answer it. “Hello?” I said as if in this day and age I didn’t know perfectly well who was on the other end.

“Hi, Erin, this is Vin. Sorry I missed you. I got your message, and I did want to call you back.”

“That’s good of you,” I said. “That sounded a lot more sarcastic than I meant it to be. I mean, it’s good-natured of you to even want to call me back despite everything.”

“And I wanted to say that I’d thought all week about calling you to apologize, and I didn’t have the guts to do it, so you’ve beaten me at my own game.”

“There you go again,” I said. “What on earth did you do that you need to apologize for? It’s not like you were destroying other people’s scarecrows.”

“Funny story about that. The guy who runs the maze was going to be really mad about having his scarecrow torn up, but then another group who went through that day were freaked out to find it all messed up, and they posted about it on Instagram, and now attendance has skyrocketed and this guy is raking in cash, so it’s no harm, no foul.”

“You saw it on Instagram?”

“No, I called the owner to see if I needed to pay for the damage. I went to high school with his brother.”

“Listen,” I said. “I do want to talk about the family, and ancestors, but first I want to ask you a question, because you seem like someone who knows a lot of stuff.”

“That’s debatable.”

“Why can’t you just take a compliment? I wasn’t trying to be snide.”

“Sorry. Was that your question? I’ve always felt awkward when someone compliments me because I usually feel like like I haven’t earned it…”

“No, of course that’s not what I wanted to ask. Are you done being silly? And don’t you dare ask me if that’s the question.”

“I’m listening.”

And so I laid out for him everything I’d been wrestling with since I drove away from Titusville. He listened without interrupting, and took a moment to consider the problem.

“You are being true to yourself after a fashion,” said Vin. “Everything you do is part of yourself. It just may not be your best self.”

“How can I be true to my best self when I keep blurting out whatever pops up in my head?”

“What if you don’t?”

I goggled. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t say the first thing that came to mind.”

“Is that what you do?”

“All the time. Every day.”

“But then you’re holding stuff in. That’s not healthy.”

“I probably am, and it’s probably not,” he conceded. “But I don’t know if it’s worse than letting it all hang out, and it is sure is easier on the people around you.”

“And why should the people around me have it easier?” I demanded. “It’s not like they care anything for me.”

“They should care,” he said. “And you should care for them. Don’t you think it would be a better world if that were the case?”

“Yes, of course, I guess, but how would it even happen?”

“Maybe if you started caring for others first, you’d convince some other people to try it.”

“Is that what you do?”

“I try.”

“But wait a minute. You said you try to hold things in. You said that you were used to people talking trash about your family, and letting it roll off your back. But when I stepped out of line, you went off on me, according to your mild definition of  ‘going off’. What was that all about?”

I couldn't tell whether his snort was amused or annoyed. “You got under my skin.”


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