MY Cousin

The phone rings on a June morning and my voice is brisk when I answer, salted with a pinch of wariness, diluted with necessity. The caller might be a telemarketer, easily bypassed, but I’m self-employed. Fake leather squeaks whenever I peek inside my wallet and confirm the paltry contents. So, I answer the phone—good news might be on the other end.

It’s my cousin Sharon. I curse myself for not letting voice mail do its job, for thinking the caller might be a client (clients communicate via email). I pick up the phone from its charging station and cringe at Sharon’s greeting.

“Hello, cuz,” she chirps.

“Hello, Sharon. Why are you calling?”

“Just wanted you to know I’m fine.”

She always insists she is fine. And her telling me that she is fine can’t be all she wants. “I’m on vacation. Jerry and I are taking the boys to Yellowstone National Park.”

Her voice sparkles with anticipation. The trip will be a chance, Sharon tells me, for her sons to sleep in tents and spot grizzly bears. I hear a thud on her end (her tablet, I guess) as she describes travel games to keep her sons occupied en route. Then she tells me about the food she’ll pack in the SUV. Maybe her anticipation is spilling over into bragging. Why else would she bother to share these details? Does she really think I care?

I realize that once again, I’ve let her keep a one-sided conversation going.

She is interrupting my work. I write manuals at home in my living room/office, a step-by-step composing of minutiae that has me wearing bifocals at age 34. I smell my coffee brewing and use its odor as an excuse to end Sharon’s phone call. I place a mug filled with coffee on my desk, on a coaster decorated with a seashore I admire and have never visited. I line up my pencils and papers on the desk. I work in pencil and paper before I use my laptop, its screen displaying artificially colored tropical fish swimming nowhere.

I like getting to the nitty-gritty of assignments containing essentials swamped under unnecessary details. Subject matter experts seem to enjoy volumizing whatever makes them whizzes. Clients praise me for clarifying matters. Tracy, one such email announced, this book is going to sell, sell, sell! Their approval never translates into payment increases.

After a few hours’ labor on a beginner’s guide to sewing machines (an appliance I’ve never used), through an open window next to the desk I hear children squabble with nannies until the children settle down, too. I guess they’ve left for their naps. I continue to work on the manual, inserting asides to refresh the do-this-then-that with some humor. (“How many sewists does it take to screw on an LED bulb?”) A tricky combination that this publisher likes. A dent forms in my second finger from gripping a no. 2 pencil. Soon I’m ready for a refill. (I drink a lot of coffee. Heading out to the baristas offers fresh air but I don’t get paid to postpone tasks.) As I go to my coffee maker, I wiggle stiffness from my shoulders. I’m a stranger to naps and aerobics.

Again, the phone rings and interrupts me. It annoys me, but I answer on the off chance the caller is the sewing machine client. And there Sharon is—ready to chirp, chat, ramble.

“Why are you calling, Sharon?”

“Oh, I’m fine, cuz.”

A non-answer. She flits from her difficulty today in finding cute clothing in plus sizes for the Wyoming trip (“You wouldn’t know about that since you shop at the opposite end of the rack.”) to her purchase of a gigantic ice chest (the envy drops, I notice near-bragging).

She bewilders me. Even if I could squeeze in a word, what would I say. Celebrate her buying the ice chest? Ignore the dig and sympathize about Rubenesque women like her? I want to know why she insists she’s fine.

“Sharon, how come you always call and tell me you’re fine?”

“I don’t know.”

I put down the phone, without ending the call, and stroll back into the kitchen. I return a few minutes later, my refilled coffee mug with me. Her monologue continues; remotely heard vim about hiking trails from a park website’s brochure she says she printed out. I picture the collars of fat under her chin and around her rump. She resembles many family members, as do I. We’re the progeny of black Jack Sprats and their wives. Sharon’s legs are powerful, though. I bet she’ll have no trouble with the trails she says she’s picked out for her family to hike. I mention none of this.

After a moment I become a little guilty about snubbing her and pick up the phone. She’s gabbing about wide-angle disposable cameras she bought today. Two of them are for her sons. She’ll use the other camera to photograph panoramic views of Yellowstone to show in the fall to the children she teaches. Her sons may earn Cub Scout badges because of their photography, she tells me. The bragging is back in her voice. I suspect she has been unaware of my absence. My deadline looms. I am definitely not on vacation.

“Why don’t you call someone else, Sharon?”

“OK. Just wanted to have a chat.”

She does not sound put off by my suggestion that she call someone other than me. Her tone is unruffled, pleasant. It’s probably the same tone she uses with her friends, of whom she’s told me she has many. I cannot fathom how she can stay on the phone for endless hours of commentary that’s the weight of a butterfly. What’s beneath her steadfast contentment? Where’s the bad alongside the good?

I can’t concentrate on my work. How to install a quilting foot wanes. I aim my skill at stripping away surfaces toward my cousin. If I can get beneath her constant optimism, a clue might bob up about why I allow her to interrupt me and remain on the phone. On a legal pad I begin to list some possibilities:

Life in the suburbs. Could Sharon be bottlenecking stress? Hard to tell. She sounds fluster-free when she speaks of attending her sons’ soccer matches, schlepping them to and from science club and Cub Scouts, running errands to the supermarket and the malls. But maybe she is on trip number 9,989 of her repetition, edging toward claustrophobic ensnarement.

Career change, labor lawyer to kindergarten teacher. That’s got to cause seismic anxiety. Maybe, while wiping five-year-olds’ noses, Sharon is jolted by the contrast of her former work, defending the rights of laid off adults. These are sharply different occupations, enough perhaps to fuel self-justifying smugness.

Divorce and remarriage. They say divorce is an occasion for cloaking oneself. But Sharon was a divorcée for less than a year. When I attended her second wedding ceremony, nine years ago at sundown in a small chapel, candlelit pillars along the aisle harmonized with the deep pleasure she embodied. She is not shy about trumpeting Jerry, his handiness with household repairs, his ease with their children.

These are Sharon’s choices. And maybe she is fine, all the time. But this does not seem truthful. What human being is all yang and no yin? I tap my pencil against the coffee mug. If I understood, perhaps I would not brood about her.

Why does she choose me for her endless cheer? As children our connection was understandable: I’m an only child and she has only male siblings. As regularly as Saturday follows Friday, every weekend my parents dropped me off at Sharon’s.

Her bedroom was our arena of make-believe. Sharon played the mom and I played the dad to her collection of dolls which needed, she said, a mommy and a daddy. Because they were her dolls and I was indifferent to mothering (I owned no dolls, I collected books and raced my bicycle), she grabbed the maternal role and I got the only other part, according to her proclamation. Sharon dressed them in poufy sleeved, pink and orange gowns. My role had two parts. While Sharon dressed the dolls, I sat cross-legged on the floor and counted stacks of play money. Part two involved my crawling toward Sharon and the dolls (a make-believe traffic jam slowing me), handing over the money (a conflict since I wouldn’t give her the entire wad), and pretending to smoke a rolled-up cardboard cigar while Sharon exalted her and the dolls’ day. Sometimes I deviated. I used her bed as a trampoline. I crushed my cardboard stogie onto the bedspread. These were Sharon’s unwritten no-nos. When I complained on sunny days that we ought to play outdoors, she told me grouchy dads got ulcers.

In many respects she is unchanged. When she phones me now she speaks rosily of her two-parent family, as if our childhood game and her present life are threaded without knots and her first marriage is an unmentionable mistake. My never married status will end, she assures me as soon as I get over my distaste with online dating.

As an adult I’ve never visited her; she’s never invited me. Even so, the thought of renting a car to travel to her suburban home equals the same dead end as my non-vacations. I’m self-employed and credit my stubborn independence. Yet sometimes I’ve caught myself wishing for a flick of her praise for the 10-plus years I’ve managed on my own. Is this why I allow her interruptions? Am I craving a compliment from her?

Other than at holiday gatherings, I’m no witness to Sharon’s adult life. Nowadays, I confess she wears on me like an old shirt I can’t give away. But Sharon’s view of me might be different. Maybe she is looking at that old shirt in the closet of her life, and she’s convinced she can wear the thing—around me, someone whom she believes won’t mind if she’s a bit frayed.

Or maybe this is all in my head. Occasionally she invites me to see an August Wilson play or have lunch at an upscale restaurant. “I’m on deadline,” I always say; she chuckles as if she scarcely believes me. Really, I almost tell her, my income has no room for theater or dining out. But I don’t say this. Maybe if I did, she would come clean about her feelings. Maybe I should forego this gnarled analysis, play fair.

“Anything bothering you, Sharon?” I ask the next time she calls.

“Not a thing, cuz. Why would you think something was wrong?”

I lose my resolve. She’s kneecapping my mission to shovel out the truth underneath her pleasantness. Besides, I hear her teensy reprimand from when I jumped up and down on her bed.

“Why is it that every time you phone me, you’re chirpy as hell?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at, cuz. I’m fine.”

I will not end it here. “But Sharon, what do you really want to say?”

“Nothing. Talk to you later.”

“Wait a sec.” In my head are bloops and womps about my cousin, the puzzle. Sure, I could screen my calls, cut off her chatter, interrupt with my own talk. Except: Why can’t she be anything other than chipper when she talks to me? Unless I find out I suspect I will go nuts.

“Sharon, what makes you like this?”

“Don’t know, cuz. It’s nothing worth talking about.”

I am rattled once again.

Late evening on another day. The neighborhood is quiet. My apartment is dark. I walk around the living room, shaking my legs, feeling them uncramp, turning on lamps. I realize I am hungry and go into the kitchen. In my cupboard is a can of tuna fish. Before I open it, I expect my cousin will phone me. This is one of her customary times to call.

I hear her lilting voice after I answer the phone. “This is so funny,” she says. Arbitrary laughter drones in the background, her two kids and second husband chuckling alongside her review of what sounds like a TV sitcom. She does not seem to notice I am on the line. I lean against the refrigerator and listen to Sharon segue to telling me about a post-Yellowstone bake sale for neighborhood soccer team uniforms.

Everything on my end contains a wealth of slippered sounds. I remain motionless and begin to catch them. The humming of the refrigerator against my back. The click of a ceiling fan in the apartment next door. A dog barking down the street. Urban murmurs, somehow pacifying.

My cousin’s talk of sweets and the grumble in my stomach nudge me. I open the refrigerator, grab mayonnaise and pickles. “Listen, Sharon,” I say.

“Yeah, cuz?” Her voice is undemanding, childlike.

I pick a neutral question. “Why do you talk on the phone while the TV’s on?”

“We always watched TV while Mom was on the phone when we were kids, remember?”

My mouth forms an “o” and I begin to see my childhood visits on Saturdays. After playtime we spent an hour or so watching TV in their walnut-paneled family room, my boy cousins on the sofa, my uncle at the dining table, munching peanuts and reading the newspaper, my aunt in a green leather recliner. My aunt is on the phone and the TV is on—Family Matters or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I remember frowning in confusion at the canned ha-has while I sat on the floor by the sofa. I picture Sharon, a chubby, nut brown-skinned girl, kneeling at the foot of the recliner, her stare fixed on the TV screen, her stomach jiggling in sync with the laugh track.

I remember the constancy of those moments while I stand in the kitchen listening to Sharon recall her favorite episode when Will Smith’s dad returned and then abandoned him again. Not funny at all. I remember how she dabbed her eyes with a tissue, then handed me the box, certain I would need it. She was right.

It takes me a minute to ask, “You call me to chitchat for no special reason?”

I’ve never been to their house, but I’d stake every manual I’ve written on the probability of a family room in that house, a recliner on which Sharon sits as she speaks to me, a sofa on which her husband stretches out with one of their sons, the other boy plopped close to Sharon.

“Well, sure.” Her voice is undiluted honey. “Can’t imagine a day without phoning you.”

I reach for a bowl. Tuna salad is my favorite dinner.

“Talk to you later, Sharon.”

“Later, cuz.”

Then I stop mashing tuna fish with a fork. “Anything you want to tell me, Sharon?”

She sounds peaceful. “Just the usual, you know.”

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About the Author

A native of Chicago’s South Side, Mary Lewis’s career began in 1977 as editorial assistant of Ebony Jr!, Johnson Publishing’s magazine for children. Six months later she became managing editor and in 1980 became a fulltime freelancer. Articles for children and adults followed, as did editing and proofreading projects. She’s been published in American Visions and Black Enterprise magazines. She’s the author of Herstory, about Black teenage girls. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Sleeping with One Eye Open, a Chicago Tribune critic’s choice; In Praise of Our Teachers; and Under Her Skin.

Mary Lewis
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