"Look, I'm 21," I said to her. "What's the big deal?"
She closed her mouth but continued to study the plastic card, still captive between inch-long, blood-red nails, then peered beyond it at me. She seemed confused. Maybe retarded. If someone would just get in line behind me; maybe that would encourage her to snap out of it.
"Amy?" said the woman. She had the husky voice of someone who had sucked down two packs a day for twenty years. Her eyes were watery and the edges of her nostrils had turned red. "You're so big! Are you really Amy?"
Then it was my turn to look confused. It read "Amelia" on my license.
"Do I know you?" I asked. I started to bite on my pinky nail which, like the others, was already shredded. The woman grabbed my hand to examine my fingers, then threw back her head to gargle a mucousy laugh. I could see fillings in her molars. And that she bleached her mustache hair. Her earrings swung back and forth.
"Amy Beide!" she cackled triumphantly, then coughed. "I can't believe it."
Okay, so who was this lady? It's not like I didn't have somewhere to go. My boyfriend Josh had moved out of the dorm and into an apartment; it was going to be an awesome party. And I was the Alcohol Connection, a hero's role. This weirdo was keeping me from making my grand entrance. She noticed that I wasn't sharing her magic moment.
"Don't you remember me?" she laughed, giving me back my license. Was she kidding?
"You must be my long-lost sister," I snorted. I wished Josh were here to hear that one. It would be the highlight of the story when I was telling it to everyone later: "This freaky lady was staring at my license and crying!"
"Kinda," she smiled. "I'm your dad's little sister. I'm your Aunt Gail."
I studied her lifeless blonde hair. My dad. Her small, pointed nose. Dad. That smug look of superiority because she knew that she was right. Absolutely my dad. Holy shit.
"Holy shit," I said. Gail handed me my change. I waited for her to say the next thing. She just smiled. Someone behind me cleared his throat.
"Well, but," I said. "Can I talk to you?"
"Sure!" she beamed. "You just have to ask. I promised your parents a long time ago to leave you alone, but you're big enough now."
I moved aside to allow Gail, my aunt apparently, to sell the bum behind me his forty. Let somebody start his Friday night, anyway.
"Well, um," I said, shifting my paper sack to the other arm. "How come I don't remember you?"
"Don't you?" she replied.
"Not really," I said. I tried to think back to birthday parties, Christmases. The only photographs on Grandma's walls were of my dad and his brother. Eight-by-twelve geeks with crew cuts.
"Do you remember your Uncle Ray?" she asked. I closed my eyes and found my uncle pushing me on the swing-set in our park. He was short and stocky, with that same damned blonde hair. I have it too, but I perm the shit out of it to give it some body. There's no point in growing it out like Gail's—all it does is lie flat against her skull like a piece of suede. My ears used to stick straight through it in grade school. Uncle Ray had thick sideburns, which he let me pet with my pointer finger. They reminded me of hamsters.
"He was nice," I told Gail. "But he got killed in Vietnam."
"I see," said Gail. She crossed her arms and squinted her eyes. "Do you remember him going to Vietnam?"
The last time I had seen my uncle was at Grandma's house for dinner. When Dad had pulled over, I burst from the car and jumped up into Ray's waiting arms, just like I had always done.
He grunted, then hoisted me up onto his shoulders and laughed, "Honey, you're getting too big to do that!" Hours later, I couldn't even eat my ice cream; I was too sad.
I didn't want to get too big for things like that.
The throat-clearer had already bought his beer but seemed interested in our conversation and lingered, casually flipping through a magazine near the front door.
"Have a good one!" Gail called to him, waving. He took the hint and reluctantly pushed out into the night. Oddly, there was no one else in the store. Just me and my new aunt.
"No, I was little," I said. "How come your pictures aren't in Grandma's house if you're my dad's sister? Is there family information in the magnetic strip of my driver's license or something? Josh is right—it's like Big Brother!" I put my hand against the door handle, but something kept me from leaving. Gail stared at me a long time, tapping a nail against her bottom lip. I could feel my cheeks burning. What was she waiting for?
"Don't you get it?" she said. "I was your Uncle Ray."
"You what?" Not because I hadn't heard her, but to gain some time. To think. How was I supposed to react to this, this short girl-version of my dad, telling me it was her sideburns that I used to pet?
"I never went to Vietnam, Amy. They kicked me out because I was swishy."
"A homo," she said. "Gay."
"Oh." Holy shit. I knew about my dad's secret drawer filled with magazines of women getting it on with each other. But guys? No way. I once pointed out that football players slap each other on the ass all the time.
"They look like 'faggots,'" I added with pride. This was new vocabulary that I'd picked up at recess from Hillary Johnston. My father burst from his easy chair and spanked me. "Don't say that word in my house again!" I didn't.
I tugged on a split cuticle with my front teeth until the skin snapped with a smart. Blood oozed from the tear.
"You okay?" Gail asked, tilting her head slightly. Ray had once done the same thing when I hit a poor landing from the slide and skinned my knee. When he offered to kiss the wound, I shielded it with my hand. I had just learned about germs in school.
"Don't worry," he had said, pushing a stray clump of hair behind my ear. "Family germs are okay."
This is Ray, I told myself. I wanted to know everything—where he had gone to live, how he got a job, if he had a boyfriend, or girlfriend, or something. But Josh and the party were waiting for me. It was too much.
"Um, shit, listen," I coughed, sucking blood from my finger. "I have a date."
"You mean you're not going to drink all that delicious liqueur all by yourself?" Gail teased. My dad would have said the same thing: "You oughta drink something that tastes like booze, not Kool-Aid!"
"Amy," Gail said, "I hope you come back so we can talk some more. I'm so happy to see you." She smiled and I almost jumped the counter to hug her, but I held back in case this was some kind of bullshit.
"Me, too," I stammered. "I'll, I'll come back soon."
On the way to Josh's apartment building, I couldn't get it out of my head: This is Ray, Ray is gay. Over and over, like a playground rhyme. Ray is gay, Ray is Gail. I smothered an out-loud laugh with my hand. Ray, see Gail? Go, Gail, go!
None of my friends at the party noticed that I wasn't enjoying myself. After a while, I snuck into Josh's darkened bedroom and dialed my house. Please, Mom answer. Not Dad. Please, Mom.
"Well, hi, honey. Aren't you out to a movie or something on a Friday night?"
"Mom, when did Uncle Ray go to Vietnam?"
"What? How did that get in your head?"
"Someone at school asked me." Silence.
"Well, I don't really remember, exactly," she said. I imagined her left
hand clutching her collar, which she did when she was upset. I knew instantly that my mom was full of shit and that Gail was real. Gail was Ray, Ray was gay.
"Maybe I could ask Dad."
"—No! No, honey, just let it lie. It's still hard for your father to think about. He lost so many friends."
"Don't I have a right to know?" My stomach felt floopsy. Too much schnapps.
"No; I mean, what does it matter?" she said. "What's done is done."
"Don't you mean 'What's happensh happened?'" Pause.
"Young lady, have you been drinking?" Shit.
"Of course not," I lied. "I'm fine."
"Where are you, anyway? I hear loud music." Oh my god, what was I thinking? If she found out that I was drunk or seeing Josh or even off campus, I'd be toast. Why did I call home in the middle of a party?
"Never mind, Mom. I'll see you on Sunday." I put the phone down before I made things worse. Sitting in the dark, I tried to imagine bringing Gail to Sunday dinner. The words that would be exchanged, the furniture overturned. My parents would probably stop paying my tuition if I hung out with her. Or worse, put me in a private school out in the middle of nowhere. Grandma would have a stroke. Maybe it was easier to live with an uncle who had died in Vietnam.
The door cracked open, bombarding me with light and pulsing music. Josh closed the door behind him and pulled off his shirt.
"You're missing all the fun," he said. "Brian just puked all over me."
By the time I was ready to have an Aunt Gail, she was gone.
"Sorry, she ain't worked here in months," said the guy behind the counter, drumming dirty nails against the cash register.
I bought a fifth of Jack Daniels. Walking to a nearby playground, I remembered Uncle Ray calling me over to the TV once. A Nature Program was on. I hopped onto his lap and we slouched together in the easy chair. On the screen, a spring torrent had sent a rivulet of water into the path of a line of army ants.
"Look," he said. "They're making a bridge." The ants were plunging into the stream, drowning and piling up so that the other ants could cross on their backs.
"Why?" I bit the nails of one hand and reached up with the other to pet his sideburns.
"It's more important to them that somebody get across," Ray had said. He gently pulled my fingers away from my teeth, then readjusted my barrettes. "They don't care which one."
Gail is Ray, Ray is gay, I chanted. Ray is Gail, Gail is gone. I sat on the end of the slide, gnawing on my fingertips and grimacing through whiskey swigs. Waiting to get big enough.
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