The Writer's Voice

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Bill Keenan

I believe that people, like cats, have nine lives; nine births, nine deaths. One of my passings occurred in December of 1999. The tombstone left behind remains unmarked. It will take years to put it in the perspective required to etch the proper inscription. For now, it looms largely in my mind, more of a brain barrier than a stone marker. 

Ironically, the homicide occurred at a Christmas party. I could name the exact time, but it really is not significant. What is significant is the cause of death, or for that matter the rebirth, because with one comes the other.

It was a warm, almost muggy evening, much too warm for New York City the week before Christmas. The red wool sweater vest, a pre-Christmas gift from my grandmother, rubbed uncomfortably against the back of my neck. The coat and tie I was also required to wear, only added to the feeling of suffocation. It was a "family party," my mother said. That signaled "no fun" in blinking neon lights. The only other kids would be an odd assortment of my aunt's nieces and nephews by marriage. "No relation to me," announced my older sister. I could only hope for a good meal, something that my perennially dieting sister could not even look forward to.

The overheated, lavishly decorated apartment gave me a feeling of swimming underwater at night. The frosted tree lights leant a shimmering quality to the otherwise dimly lit rooms. The inescapable Christmas music provided an undercurrent that was oddly unsettling. "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel!" the disembodied voices sang. Mom, as usual, was trying too hard to be polite. Dad, as usual, was oblivious to anything that my sister and I were feeling.

My sister and I, glued to each other by an invisible adhesive, glided uneasily from room to room avoiding where possible all human contact. My aunt's "new" husband - they had only been married a few months - cheerily guided all those old enough to the bar. Observing the group from the safety of an out of the way sofa, I determined it was a mismatched collection of people brought together under the same roof only because the newlyweds felt it important that the two families get together and share in their happiness. This I decided would require far more than a Christmas party to accomplish. 

I didn't see one other person that I felt had anything in common with me. I particularly noticed one uneasy looking boy about my age who was playing nervously with the loose button on his too-small blazer. No doubt he hadn't had that jacket on since the last party his parents had dragged him to - probably two inches in height ago. I felt oddly sad for him; not realizing, of course, that what I was pitying was a reflection of my own uncomfortable self.

Dinner was finally announced. We were seated at one endless table whose centerpiece was an enormous china boar's head which had a rose colored apple in its mouth. It seemed to be grinning at me as I took my seat between two other teenagers who looked as gawky, and uncomfortable in their Christmas clothes as I did in mine. The "young people," as my hostess aunt called everyone between one and twenty-one, were all bunched up at one end of the table. I resented this age-based segregation. In my family, each of us is treated as significant members of a unified group. My thoughts, feelings, and opinions are given as much consideration as everyone else's. But at this table, I felt like a different species.

My spirits lifted when the swinging door separating the kitchen from the dining room burst open, and a line of waiters emerged carrying trays of food. However, my heart or perhaps I should say my stomach sank when a plate was placed before me containing what looked like a tiny flower of greenish pasta surrounded by squiggles of a red paste-like substance. I didn't know if I was to smell it, or eat it, but it definitely was not the appetizer I had hoped for. 

I searched the long, glittering table for bread, but instead found myself staring into the glassy eyes of the china boar. For a moment I could have sworn that it winked at me as if to say, "Don't worry, kid. I know how you feel. I was young once, too." I looked away embarrassed that someone might be reading my thoughts. I slumped in my chair, and played with the garden on my plate.

The meal droned on. As each plate was removed, and another took its place, my hunger increased. I had been served nothing that qualified as food. Beautiful, yes. Edible, no. Hungry, too warm and grossly uncomfortable, I entered a trance-like state ignoring those around me from whom I felt totally isolated. Suddenly, I was awakened by a chorus of muffled pops. It sounded like a distant gun salute. Instinctively, I sat straight in my chair. Champagne bottles were being uncorked, and poured into the long-stemmed glasses that stood at the right hand of each adult at the table. 

My aunt's new husband, a small, energetic man, rapped loudly on his glass with a knife as he rose to his feet. He gave the usual toast, emphasizing how glad he was that everyone could come - blah, blah, blah. But then, instead of sitting down, he launched into a story that was hard to ignore since he addressed it to the "young people" at the end of the table. It was an anecdote that he had heard from a friend of his who was a doctor. He started by saying that all the adults with teenage children would find it particularly humorous and truthful. 

This doctor had discovered a new life form. It was a tiny animal that lives in the mouth hairs of lobsters. "When it is born, it has a brain. But the brain disappears at the time of puberty. When the animal reaches adulthood, its brain mysteriously reappears. There's nothing else like it on earth." With that, he looked around the table with a smirk on his face, and all the adults, including my parents, started to laugh. "Obviously," he continued, "the doctor didn't have teenagers." 

There was lead around my heart; I felt as if I was drowning. I looked around me - across the table, to my left, and to my right, and there I saw it. Lifelines thrown out at me in all directions. My sister looked at me reassuringly from her lowered eyes. The sad boy I had felt sorry for earlier, looked flushed, but strangely proud. The girl to my right beamed with a newly discovered passion. The boy to my left, grasped my hand, and shaking it, announced that his name was Drew. We were a circle of strength, secure in our knowledge that the people in the room who thought us brainless, in fact, didn't have the brains to understand us. Therefore, we were something to fear.

At the end of the meal, we, the "young people" rose as one, and swung easily into the living room where we threw ourselves comfortably into chairs and sofas, loosening our ties, and kicking off our shoes. I actually had fun. My voice was part of a voice that rose above the rest. I was still an individual, but no longer an isolated one. The Christmas music took on new meaning. "Rejoice! Rejoice!" and I did. No one, not even I, mourned the little boy that died that night. Nothing was lost by his passing, but much was gained.

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