By Katie Bowman
For the first time in two years we are all in one room together. All six of us—now eight, due to my marriage. I am the first child, the first son, the first to change the face of our family by adding more faces. My son disappeared a few minutes ago, and the only sign of him is the gradual movement of my mother’s scarf falling backward off the couch. No one moves to retrieve him, taking their cues from the calm woman beside me. My wife and child. My wife and child. I chant it to myself sometimes to make sure I understand the responsibility. Sometimes the mantra is a cry of joy, like when my son puts his hands on my cheeks and says, “Chee.” Sometimes the mantra is the catalyst for self-deprecation, like when I get stuck on Wikipedia and forget to help with the dishes. Tonight it feels odd. The living room of my aunt’s home has a spectacular view of Salt Lake City, and the little glowing lights from behind the window are reflecting off my dad’s glasses. Each of my little sisters is sitting on the couch in the same way with her feet tucked up. Katie is the oldest of the three, and she looks at me for a moment. Sometimes when we look at each other, it’s clear that our thoughts are the same. Mom has very casually brought up a boy Sarah had mentioned. There is no articulate communication between us, but Katie and I smile at each other. Katie is usually a little rude when Mom questions her. Sarah handles it much better than she does.
Sarah has been following the strange new toddler with her eyes all night. He was born while she was gone, and seeing her meet him for the first time yesterday was awkward. He takes time to warm up to people, and I could see the hurt in Sarah’s eyes when he pushed away from her to continue picking up blocks. Sarah didn’t say much. She just stepped back with the rest of the family, all riveted on my wife as she lovingly stopped the baby from eating crumbs he found in the carpet.
This whole day has been very normal, and I wish that didn’t disappoint me. Us talking and planning and bickering over who forgot to make dinner reservations. And Sarah smiling distantly. There has been a lot of build up to this reunion, and her fresh perspective on all of us makes me feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think any of us have changed, but time and distance allows you to forget the bickering. No one should have to see their family in such effective lighting. She’ll get over it. I got over it. Katie got over it. It’s funny to me how you can know a group of people as long as it is possible to know anyone and have so little to say. We should have things to say. We should. We have our whole lives to talk about. Just this year our sister Elizabeth went to India, our dad was fired and found a new job, my wife and I moved to the other side of the country, my son started to walk, and we are stuck talking about the fact that no one owns DVD’s anymore. I guess I can’t be too surprised. I’m not about to bear my new-father soul. Presenting my feelings for open discussion sounds like rolling in birdseed and lying down in a menagerie.
For some reason, Katie and I mostly see eye-to-eye on things, and I think that’s why I tell her about my stuff more often. Somewhere in our youth we formed an understanding. We had braces together, even though I’m two years older. The orthodontist said she was dentally advanced. She definitely let that comment go to her head. Sitting in the waiting room together once a month while our mother ran errands gave us a lot of face time. We complained and compared wax build up. She advised me on my color choices when I picked rubber bands for my braces. Apparently, if I chose to get red rubber bands, it highlighted my acne. When she chose orange and black for Halloween, it looked like every other tooth was missing. I didn’t fight her too much when she wanted to do that. I thought it was important for Katie to live and learn. Our teeth changed at the same rate and became beautiful at the same rate, and it has set the precedent for our whole relationship. That is, until I made some extreme progress without her. She still gets me though. Even if it will be years until she feels what I feel. Even if we only talk on the phone once every few months.
The little shrieks from behind the couch are turning into my son’s bedtime meltdown, and I know the evening is coming to a close. We all leave tomorrow. As I stand up to get my son, Mom calls for me to wait. “We need to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Katie! We’ve got to do it now since we won’t be here tomorrow.” Everyone sits up in their chairs at the same time as they remember the birthday. It was a mess getting time off from work, and I’ve been feeling bad that we are leaving the day before her birthday. I mentioned it when Katie picked me up from the airport. Many of our conversations these days are centered on what major things we are letting slide, but when the conversation was about our relationship she changed the subject pretty quickly. She probably knew my new job was burying me and didn’t want to make me feel bad, our youthful understanding holding strong under the strain of our fear and failure and resolution to become adults. There are simply more people to consider now. I told her about my mantra a few years ago. Wife and child. Wife and child.
Getting the crying baby to stop crying took a few Cheerios. I can’t tell if the glance from my wife is in approval of his silence or in disapproval of me feeding him so late. There is no time to find out because my dad is already setting the pitch like a tenor in a barbershop quartet. The enthusiasm from the group is commendable. The pitch is fine. During the second line, Dad throws in a harmony. Katie looks good. She has smiled most of her life, and I appreciate that about her. Her smile now goes bigger than it usually does, which makes me smile. On the second “to you,” my dad’s harmony misses a note, and I see Katie’s forehead pull together. Her mouth stays in the same place, but the rest of her face fights against it. The expression is so contradictory that I’m sure it is hurting her. Everyone’s attention is focused on her smile, and because of the song, we have to watch as her face folds around it. We’ve reached “happy birthday dear” when a betraying tear shoots down her cheek. We all see it, but out of confusion we finish the song with a flourish.