The Beginning of the End of Me
I should probably back up and explain what made me compose the Seven Misconceptions in the first place, along with my Last Will and Testament. The short answer is easy enough: I wrote them down when I was afraid that my death was a heck of a lot closer than “someday,” that the time frame which constituted The Rest of My Life was less an era and more an instant. I am still not sure if this conviction came from the physical symptoms occurring at the time, or the fresh realization that both of my parents were dead and, logically, I must be next. Every time I imagined leaving my son, Max, just two years old, I began committing all that I could remember to paper. And once I started, I realized that I also had to explain what was going on with my cousin, Alecia. Not just because, outside of my mother, she knew me best, but also because, when Max and I came from England to crash at her apartment for the two months before her wedding, everything changed for her as well. “The Beginning of the End—of Me!” she has since joked.
And so, if I am going to backtrack, I may as well start one humid day, early August, when Alecia and her fiancé, Ben, picked us up at the Pittsburgh airport. After ten hours of traveling, Max was in remarkably good spirits: high-fiving the flight attendants on the way out of the plane and, despite that he hadn’t seen them in over a year, gleefully kicking his legs in his stroller at the sight of my cousin and her mate. When Max asked, “We in Pittsburgh?” Ben staggered backward a few steps, as if blown away that my son could actually speak.
In baggage claim, after my fourth suitcase had been retrieved, Ben joked, “Jesus, are you guys moving in?” and I glanced up from my carpetbag, elbow deep, just in time to catch Alecia’s brown eyes flashing with panic that may have been mirroring my own. It seemed far too early to have to explain. Still rooting around in my oversized purse, I mumbled, “Housewarming gift’s here somewhere,” and wished I could dazzle them by producing a full-size floor lamp from the bag, à la Mary Poppins. Instead, my hands found the edge of a small box, which I offered with apology and high hopes.
“A Ken doll?” Alecia asked, after ripping off the paper rather unceremoniously.
“Outback Ken.” I did my best to make my voice sound like Crocodile Dundee’s: “He likes a bit of adventure, mate.”
I’m still not sure why Alecia acted so utterly baffled when for years—actual adult years—of our lives we’d written letters as our Barbie doll alter egos.
“For Meg to marry,” I said. “Remember?”
“If Meg isn’t a doll, she’s going to be a little disappointed in her mail order groom.” Ben laughed as he threw another suitcase onto our cart.
“Building a tower!” Max said and then clapped.
I explained to Ben how none of our Ken dolls were actually named Ken. They were Brian or Kevin or Lance or Derek. “And we could never find one good enough for Meg.” Meg, of course, belonged to Alecia.
Ben nodded solemnly. “I’m pretty sure I saw all of them in the album.”
“Oh, you kept it!” I turned to Alecia.
“Well, yeah, I kept it. But it’s not like I’ve looked at it in years. I don’t even know where my dolls went.” Alecia glanced over her shoulder as if someone might recognize her.
“Am I remembering wrong? Meg is still single, right?” I asked.
“That’s all about to change.” Ben wrapped an arm around Alecia, who glared at him. But I laughed, even if I wasn’t supposed to.
“Make tower higher?” Max asked, pointing at the suitcases.
“Oh, Boo. We’re done. This is all we brought.”
Ben glanced at Alecia, and then asked it again: “How long are you guys staying?”
“Indefinitely?” I asked and then watched as their smiles turned plastic, not unlike Outback Ken’s eternal grin. “Just until I get on my feet,” I added, never imagining just how long that would actually take.
Holly, Ben’s twin sister, happens to be a doctor and thus, often makes people rate their pain on a scale of one to ten. Even if you’re just talking about a chore you have to get done or complaining of someone being a pain in the ass, she loves to quantify it in numbers.
So, I put Ben on the spot one day and made him rate the pain of Max and I moving in. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Alecia’s perception of things, but she had such an inflated sense of discomfort (the premarital counseling required by her church was often labeled a ten, the traffic on Route 28 a ten and a half) that I was certain we ranked well above natural childbirth. We’d been there for about a month, and yes, the timing of the question was a bit calculated, considering he’d just dipped a wooden spoon into my homemade Bolognese sauce for tasting. The way his eyes closed and his head swayed to the side could only be described as swooning. Zero, I thought. Say zero.
“Three,” Ben finally said, opening his eyes. “At any given time. But it’s tough because pain is a very fluid thing. Like, you being here right now? It’s great.”
Which meant that at other times, our presence must’ve reached at least a six, understandable, of course, in a cramped apartment such as this one, but a letdown all the same. Alecia would’ve pointed out that Max woke us up at seven o’clock on Saturday mornings, and how his Matchbox cars had tripped each one of us at least twice, and how he’d broken her favorite vase before it was even unwrapped. Still, it wouldn’t have rocked me in quite the same way. After all, Alecia and I had the history of our entire childhood, not just sharing Barbie dolls, but everything else as well. As surrogate sisters, we were supposed to find each other’s presence both completely exasperating and altogether comforting.
The disappointing part was that it was Ben calling us painful. Ben who loved my cooking, who’d called me brilliant, or at least, said that my collages were. (I’d overheard him defending me one night, when Alecia was complaining about my habit of cannibalizing magazines for the purpose of art. “Just for once, I want to pick up a People and be able to read it without half of the words and advertisements missing!” she’d snapped.) It was possible I’d developed a crush on my soon-to-be cousin—the innocent kind of crush.
That day in the kitchen, as Ben went on about how his pain was really a mere aggravation, not specific to Max or me, per se, but toward any guest who might compromise his ritual of walking around naked at night, I realized for certain that my crush on him was most certainly not of the romantic variety. I didn’t want to imagine him naked. Still, it was a confusing sort of affection.
Before sauce dripped all over the floor, I reached for the wooden spoon in his hand. “We’re going to move out soon. I promise.”
“Don’t move. I mean, go when you’re ready. But don’t worry about me. I love having Max here. It’s great practice for us. And thanks to you, I’ve gained five pounds,” Ben added, patting his new gut. “You didn’t ask me the pain of living with Alecia, which is also a very fluid thing. And I’m marrying her.”
I still didn’t ask, even if his eyes were goading me to. It seemed more than disloyal: I was suddenly worried he might change his mind about her. And just to make sure he didn’t change his mind about me, I kept cooking.
“Oh, my God, Di. This pork is amazing,” Ben said a few days later, early September, when we were sitting around the dining room table. “What did you do to it?”
“I brined it in salt water with twenty cloves of garlic.” I laughed when he groaned.
“Baby, do you see this?” Ben turned to Alecia. “You can cut it with a butter knife. Who can cut pork with a butter knife?”
“Great. We get it. The meat is juicy. Ra-ra,” Alecia said, spearing a carrot.
“Ra-ra!” Max cheered, waving his fork.
“So, Di, where’d you apply today?” Alecia asked.
The question always made me feel as if I was starring in one of those reality shows where people were constantly fired or voted off. Next Alecia would ask me to pack my bags and leave the apartment immediately.
“The Dressbarn.” I gave Max another bite of garlic pork. “But I think they want someone with retail experience.”
Alecia curled her lip. I knew she wouldn’t be happy, considering she’d begged me to apply at Banana Republic so I could get her a discount. “Is that why you’re dressed for the farm?” she asked, with a nod toward my tank top and overalls.
“I wore a skirt and blouse for the interview, if that’s what you mean.” Lucky for me, peasant tops had come back into style, and an even flimsier version of my own could actually be found at some of Alecia’s favorite stores. “And I don’t think their dresses are actually manufactured in a barn.”
“You’re never going to get a job with your hair in braids.” When I flipped my head around to show her it was just a single, she added, “One braid or two, it doesn’t matter! And when you pull your hair back, you can see your bald spot!”
It was a disconcerting fact: I seemed to be losing my hair that summer and, as of a few weeks before, had even acquired a small bald patch. I’d been falsely assuming that no one else could see it.
Excerpted from The Goodbye Cousins by Maggie Leffler. Copyright © 2009 by Maggie Leffler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.