Please Don’t Push Me Away
“Ellen, honey, come with me. I want to show you something.”
I thought I knew who was speaking. Peeling myself from the plastic straps of my lawn chair, I turned to see my Aunt Diana behind me, standing imperiously in front of the afternoon sun, her broad figure rendered dark. I tried to act like I hadn’t seen her. Even on such a warm and celebratory day as my cousin Jordan’s graduation–– a day when I thought the heat might sap everyone’s energy for petty family conflicts––I heard in her words a hint of intrigue, a change in the weather.
I shuffled around to look at my little cousin, who was playing in the grass at my feet, throwing his older brother Jordan’s tasseled mortarboard like an ungainly frisbee two feet across the yard at a time. “I can fly!” he said. “I can fly!”
I ruined the act by turning back. Aunt Diana had not looked away.
My next thought was to buy time. “Just a few minutes, Aunt Diana, I haven’t given Jordan his present yet,” I said.
She gave me a skeptical look, eyes squinted half shut but clearly quivering into a smile. I could not decide whether she meant to reassure or discomfort me.
“Well, I’ll be waiting,” she said, smile departing. “Is that what you’re trying to do, to keep your poor aunt waiting on something important?”
With a thrill of embarrassment, I thought I had given her serious offense. “I’m so sorry, if you need me right now––”
“No no no!” she cut me off. “Not at all. You always take me too seriously. Come whenever you want. My son needs more pointless presents. This is a party. We’re supposed to be having fun!”
Aunt Diana glided away with that wry expression back on her face, and I did not know what, if anything, I was supposed to feel. To judge Aunt Diana was to have your expectations constantly undermined, rendered silly as if you had formed them years ago. In these moments, I hated her, but in the childish way you detest something good for you, the way my little cousin always complained that he hated his vegetables.
I told myself I had no real reason to feel bad towards anyone that day. It was, as Aunt Diana had said, a party. For once, everyone in my family seemed to be getting along. Jordan’s side of the family were observing the occasion in button-down shirts, dresses, even sweater vests. In protest, my little cousin had pulled off and thrown away his own vest, creating a navy blue puddle on the grass. My side dressed without ceremony. We were in t-shirts and shorts, occasionally tucked in, though I had gone slightly rogue and substituted a pleated white skirt. These were not the kinds of differences you noticed when you ought to be enjoying yourself, but Aunt Diana had put me in the kind of mood you needed to be in to spot the small but significant ways people were unalike. She herself was in a salmon pink summer suit, milling with a knot of relatives under the white party tent she had pitched in her backyard, still leering kindly at me.
I had to break eye contact. I knelt in the grass next to my little cousin, and picked up Jordan’s graduation hat.
“Can you fly?” I asked. “Can you fly?”
My little cousin laughed and clapped his hands. I wound my arm back and flung the hat across the yard, where it pinwheeled twenty feet, caught the air on its flat side, and alighted as a bird might, tassel up, on the grass. He ran to fetch it, still laughing, and brought it back to me. It was farther than my little cousin could ever have thrown it, or could ever have imagined it going.
* * *
I could tell that my cousin Jordan, holding court over his fawning family, was trying to appear more humble than he felt. With his trove of gifts beside him––a watch, a pair of monogrammed silver cufflinks, a necktie spangled with the crest of his chosen college––the canvas tent pitched in the center of his backyard might have been his personal kingdom. His wicker-colored hair sprayed from his head as if electrified, making him seem larger and more significant. In the family he might have been just the next kid to graduate, but in my life he stood like a sentinel, guarding my progress, always a year older and a year better.
Hunched over at the corner of the tent, my parents slipped me the present they had bought me to give Jordan, along with the card I had signed for him before the party. My father had not moved the entire afternoon. He never liked to be at the center––of the party, or of the family. With his slate gray polo shirt and bleach-mottled beige cargo shorts, he optimized his life to limit attention, sipping evasively on his Corona and lime whenever Diana or her family looked to be coming by. My mother, in her black and white sundress, had all of her sister Diana’s flair for attention, but none of her grace and wit to hold it. She would caper into the center of the crowd, become embroiled in airy conversations about summer homes and SAT scores and school tuitions and, realizing she was out of her depth, retreat back to my father. He would only smile at her smugly.
“Don’t make too much fuss over it,” my mother told me, as she handed me the gift-wrapped red box, “It’s not much of anything.”
“You see that, Ellen?” my father said. “Your mother is learning.”
“Well, this is Jordan’s party,” my mother said, in mock exasperation. “This is his moment. Ellen will have hers next year.”
“She’d better not get used to this!” my father cackled. “Diana always makes me feel like I’m at the circus. There’s always a big tent and a bunch of fucking clowns.”
I pretended to laugh along. In the cynical mood Aunt Diana had put me in, I felt like my father was trying to tell me something without saying it.
“Well, you can’t just…invite no one.” I said.
“Want to bet I can’t?” my father said, laughing again. “I won’t if I don’t feel like feeding them.”
“Look, we’ve had this discussion about you talking about my sister’s family like this before,” my mother said.
“I’ll talk about them however the hell I want.”
“Alan!” my mother’s voice dropped to an accusing hiss. “Give it a goddamn rest.”
In a saner world, this conversation might have been considered rude, but my father seemed to make a game of getting away with these kinds of casual insults. Just as disheartening, though, was the fact that my mother had not come to my defense. To me, this amounted to a tacit agreement.
It would be just like my parents, I thought, to temper my expectations like this––to let me down easy, and tell me that there would be no party or occasion to celebrate. No collection of gifts and well-wishes as I marched off to college, if that ever happened. I felt so childish for thinking this, and knew that they had an infinitesimal grain of a point, but it still stung to realize that I was already being set up on a lower pedestal than my cousin.
“Look, you don’t have to invite Aunt Diana if you don’t want to,” I said to my father, as an act of conciliation. “I just want someone besides us to be there.”
My father gave me a sardonic kind of frown. “We’ll see.”
* * *
As it turned out, I had gotten Jordan a decorative ceramic mug, embossed with the same school crest as his new necktie. I could not blame him for his momentary look of disappointment as he removed the cup from its tissue paper, but the expression was gone as soon as he looked up at me.
“Hey, thanks,” he said, face and voice equally blank.
I replied, cheerily but not convincingly, “Happy graduation!”
My arms reached around him for an embrace, but he returned the gesture gingerly, patting me twice on the back, drumlike. I pulled away and took him affectionately by the shoulders, but his arms dropped to his side like a puppet’s.
“Remember I said I’d get you a trophy?” I said to Jordan, shaking him playfully. “It was right here. You’d just beaten me at soccer again. You used to beat me at everything.”
You still do, I could have added.
“I didn’t win anything,” he said. “I just, sort of, did it.”
I wanted to hit him for being so meek! In another age, Jordan might have joked that I owed him much more than one trophy, or perhaps made fun of me for losing. Both would have been welcome at this point. Over the past few years, I’d noticed that Jordan, along with my other male cousins who were gathering round just then, had traded in their teasing for a kind of art-museum cordiality, as if their ascent through puberty had made them forget that I was the same Cousin Ellen they used to pick on, instead of some kind of ill-proportioned statue they had to observe at a distance.
Maybe Jordan was onto something. His cheap self-blandishment had drawn a crowd of cousins, aunts and uncles to praise him. Faces I did not recognize swirled past me, coming to shake Jordan’s hand, offer congratulations, and assure him of the inevitability of his success. They would then turn to me. Some of them asked me who I was, as if to inquire what right I had to stand at such a privileged place next to the man of the hour. Once they knew I was also a relative, rather than a friend or girlfriend, the next questions would come as if prepared.
“What year are you graduating?” asked a nameless cousin whose face I only knew from semi-regular Christmas cards.
“What do you want to do when you graduate?” asked his equally nameless father, a cousin further removed. “When are you visiting colleges?”
I told them I was due to graduate next year, but would probably need to take a year off after I graduated––no, not a “gap year,” I explained, but a year to get a job, to earn enough money to move out and start community college. That last phrase in particular seemed to rankle them more than anything. They told me, in a rather more patronizing way than they’d told Jordan, that I shouldn’t worry, that there was no way someone so smart and talented and beautiful could not be successful as well.
“Well, I know that,” I said.
My self-confidence was only half real. Maybe Jordan sensed this, because at that moment he gave me a haughty look of thinly concealed disbelief. It was the first time I had seen him express any sort of emotion the whole afternoon, but this wasn’t the old Jordan I was hoping for. I glimpsed a grown version of my cousin, one who knew he was better than me in every measurable factor––better grades, better college, better background. My childish sense of injustice reared up again. It seemed so unfair that all this was reserved for him! He, the embodiment of casual cool and uncaring, rather than me, the queen of all things awkward and overly sincere, the raider of school library bookshelves two years above my grade level, the collector of too many “Nice Try!” stickers to remember. In spite of all this, Jordan was about to add to the chorus of my skeptical relatives, asking me in so many words what business I had achieving anything.
A familiar voice came to my rescue.
“Go get the graduation hat from your little cousin so we can get a picture,” Aunt Diana said, loud enough so everyone heard. She came up behind me and cuffed me affectionately on the shoulders in a way my mother would never have. Grateful for her intervention, I ran back out onto the lawn towards my little cousin, who was still flinging around the mortarboard. He let me pick it up, and started running out into the yard as if he expected me to throw it. When I did not, and started walking away, he abruptly started wailing.
“I hate you!” he said. “Now I can’t fly! I hate you.”
I must have looked stunned. I had never heard him shout and scream like this before, least of all at me. I earned some accusatory glares, but Aunt Diana looked sympathetic as she raced past me to console him. She hoisted him on her shoulder, patting him on the back and carrying him back towards the tent. As we gathered for a picture, she kept one arm around him and one around me. I gave Jordan his mortarboard, thinking This is the real trophy. He smiled as he put it on, and hovered his hand over my shoulder. Cellphone cameras glittered, and Jordan lowered his arm, but Aunt Diana did not let me go.
* * *
She left my little cousin to play again on the grass and led me toward the house. Her grip was gentle but determined. I looked imploringly at her, seeking any sign of why she was taking me away from the party, and suddenly a picture of the whole scene imprinted itself on my mind, the way some moments do. I remembered Aunt Diana’s face, her ever-present half smile creeping back into its unnerving crescent, her brown hair––lighter than mine––shadowing her cheeks the way the thin lower branches of trees might dapple the light over a forest floor. The memory of my interrogating relatives seemed, in that moment, distant and insubstantial.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not going to ask you any questions.”
She guided me through a porch door into her kitchen, a room of sharp corners and burnished black granite surfaces. The floor, of chestnut hardwood, showed none of the grout stains I was used to seeing on my own kitchen floor. Walls the color of light coffee had no cracks.
Through the kitchen, we passed under a chandelier and into the hall, where a staircase climbed to the upper floor. She shepherded me upstairs to another hallway, this one muted with rosy carpet, and from there to her master bedroom.
My feelings of uncertainty became nerves, fully fledged. I had scarcely been allowed into my parents’ room, never mind Aunt Diana’s. Unlike the kitchen downstairs, Aunt Diana’s room was ornate and old-fashioned, as if it belonged to someone a generation older. The king bed that dominated the room was covered in a red-and-white paisley spread whose white had faded to light brown. She motioned for me to sit down on it.
“When I was your age, I hated going to other people’s parties,” she said. “I hated not being the one with the presents. I didn’t like not being the center of attention. So I wanted to make sure I gave you something too today.”
She shuffled through the top drawer of her bureau. I thought I heard the clatter of jewelry before she closed it. I looked for a box, or any sign of ribbon or wrapping paper, but in her hand was a wrinkled white card.
The writing was so faded, I thought at first it was blank when she handed it to me. I thought it was one of her jokes, or that she would break the silence by telling me that my life was a blank slate, and that it was my job to fill it in. But before I laughed, and made myself look stupid, I saw words on the card.
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Local 1355.
“I got that on the first day of my first job. I cleaned rooms at a big chain hotel, five rooms an hour or I was fired,” Aunt Diana said. “I was a member of one of the largest locals in the country organized by a woman.”
I still could not see why she had given me the card. I knew I should feel appreciative, that it was likely a treasured keepsake and that I was being done a great compliment. But I could not let go what I’d felt in the tent earlier, that I was being judged by a different––and lower––standard than Jordan and the rest of my cousins. She had not given this tattered union card to her son. She had given him a diploma and a college education. I tried to smile and hide my surprise, my increasing discomfort, but Aunt Diana knew my face too well.
“Thank you,” I said to her, reaching to take the card, but she retreated her hand a few inches and left me with my own extended, looking foolish.
“I was always bad at pretending to appreciate gifts that I really didn’t.” Aunt Diana said, in a tinkling yet dark sort of way, like the sound of clinking glass before it breaks. “You don’t have to pretend, Ellen.”
“But I’m not pretending,” I said out of instinct. “I’m really not––”
“Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen…Ellen.” Aunt Diana had mastered the art of the pleasant interruption, the way of being impolite but making me seem like the rude one. “I’m trying to teach you something here. Please don’t push me away. You can’t just do everything by yourself.”
My fury at Aunt Diana waxed suddenly.
“I never said that,” I insisted, “I never said anything like that, you’re putting words in my mouth.” It was a phrase my father used often when he got in an argument, and I liked the way it lanced off my tongue.
“I promised that I wouldn’t ask you any questions,” Aunt Diana said, “but I’m going to break that promise right now. I am going to break promises and put words in your mouth because I won’t be the last one to do it. Do you think that the drunk hotel guest who bent me over a bed while I was cleaning his room, and then reported me to my manager when I kicked him in the face, cared that he was putting words in my mouth?”
There was no tinkling in her voice anymore, no hint of politeness, only anger and glass shards.
“Do you think that my manager, who hit me and threatened to fire me, cared that he put words in my mouth?” Aunt Diana continued, gaining vigor. “Do you think that, if I didn’t show him this card”––she brandished it at me––“and threaten to call my union lawyer, that I would have kept that job? Do you think, if I’d lost my job, that I could have just moved home, where my late father wanted to marry me off to his friend’s asshole son, who would have done far worse things to me?”
Only when she paused did I realize I was bending backward over the bed. Aunt Diana had advanced over me, but she backed away as she drew breath. Her voice regained a tremulous calm.
“Now, how many of your dear relatives do you think would believe me if I just went out there, right now, and repeated exactly what I told you?”
I sat unmoving, unspeaking, because it had never occurred to me to disbelieve her. She waited for me to respond, and went on when I said nothing.
“I haven’t even told your mother––my own sister––that story,” she said. “She would call me crazy. So would everyone else. Just another nutty story from crazy cousin Diana, who we put up with because she gives our richie-rich spoiled rotten kids more money than they deserve on their birthdays. No one would ever call my Jordan crazy. No one will ever call your little cousin crazy when he grows up.”
Aunt Diana’s lectures always featured this preacher-like repetition, some self pity, a lesson. But it somehow felt different this time. It was as if Aunt Diana heard the small voice inside me that cried foul at small unfairnesses and easily-missed slights, and had read it through a megaphone. This raw confrontation with something I had recognized in myself, but never directly acknowledged, made me recoil.
“But, but––no one’s ever––I haven’t had anything like that happen to me,” I said, “No one thinks I’m crazy. No one thinks I’m crazy, I swear to God.”
“Ellen…Ellen…Ellen.” I could see Aunt Diana struggling not to address me like a child. “No one who cares about you at all is going to call you crazy. But that doesn’t mean they don’t think it. Do they give you a weird look when you tell them you want to do something other than fold laundry, take notes and answer phone calls for a living? Do they tell you that you’d better find a nice husband who can make you lots of money? Do they ever ask what such a nice beautiful girl is doing all by herself?”
I felt that thrill where my body agreed with her before my mind did. A rush of familiarity. But at the same time, I still felt like this was some kind of trap she was laying for me. I did not hate my family. I didn’t want to be summoned onto Aunt Diana’s side where I might have to oppose everyone else.
“Well, I don’t know––I mean, yes, people have said those things before,” I said, “but it’s not a big deal. I don’t care. I don’t need anyone’s help making up with my mind. I don’t need your help.”
I said it without intending to be mean, but with a shudder I realized my error and backtracked.
“But I appreciate it,” I added hastily, “…and thank you for the gift.”
“No, I understand,” Aunt Diana said, reverting to her smile with a quickness that startled me. “If I were you, I wouldn’t want my help either.”
I took the card from her, and said, almost as an afterthought, “I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“Oh I disagree, but that’s very kind of you to say.”
* * *
Going back outside, it was almost shocking to see how much everything was still in place. It seemed like everything should have been blown on its side, from what had happened upstairs with Aunt Diana. Yet nothing had uprooted the tent where Jordan still entertained a press of well-wishers, or toppled the corner pole where my parents still huddled, or blown away the graduation hat, which my little cousin had found again, off into the next yard and beyond.
In the moment, the conversation had seemed vivid, almost unreal, and now the smallest doubt came to me that it had ever happened. I knew it had––absolutely. But all my life I’d been taught to doubt my own experiences, told to say when something unusual or even traumatic had happened that it in fact had not. Had Aunt Diana really told me one of her most intimate secrets, or had our conversation merely been a pleasant exchange of gifts, of lessons between generations?
I rejoined the party, worrying how my parents would react to the story. Initially I thought to show them the tattered union card as I came towards their corner of the tent, but Aunt Diana was hovering close by. I imagined having to recount her whole story to my parents with her in earshot, and slid the card into the waistband of my skirt, at my hip where my shirt would cover it.
In keeping the secret, I felt a sense of certainty, as if my concealment verified or heightened the magnitude of what had happened.
“What did Aunt Diana want?” my father asked.
“She wanted twenty minutes of nothing really?”
My mother rolled her eyes, “What’s she doing now?”
“She isn’t doing anything.” I said, and I clenched up as I thought how much like my little cousin I sounded, and how Aunt Diana had perhaps, most likely, most definitely heard me. I looked. She had not moved, but that meant nothing.
“Look,” my father said, dropping his voice, “God bless Aunt Diana. I won’t say anything bad about her or your mother will kill me, but you’re becoming a little like her.”
“What are you talking about?” my mother said. “Kill you? You’re being too nice to my sister. She’s lost it. If she’s doing something so secret with you, Ellen, that you can’t even tell me about it, then I don’t know what her problem is.”
I sensed that, in so many words, they were saying just what Aunt Diana thought they would. Unsaid, I heard the word crazy. Crazy. Crazy. I wanted desperately to tell the whole story, to let them know about everything Aunt Diana had said––and about the card. I was stunned at how quickly I had come to care about this thing that, not a half hour ago, I’d had to lie about wanting to keep.
I took a deep breath and ignored my mother.
“I’m becoming a little like her?” I said.
“Look, Ellen, you’re still young,” my father said. “You have time to be different. You can avoid that reputation.”
“Avoid what reputation?”
“Look, Ellen, no one has to believe you,” my mother said. “No one has to show you any respect. We do it because we’re your parents, and because we care about you. But other people don’t have to, if you don’t do anything to earn it. Do you get it?”
I imagined that if Aunt Diana had been looking at me right then, she would have winked in that roguish manner of hers. I wondered how she rendered people so predictable, and how I could gain this power myself.
“Yes,” I said to my mother, turning away. “I get it.”
The orange glow over the yard in the late afternoon always made me feel a little melancholy, signaling as it did the coming end of the party, the close of the day. When I was younger, I would always cry when my parents took me home from a party. I would cry and cry and wait eagerly for the next time I would see all my relatives again, when everything would be made new. Today, however, I felt an overwhelming sense of sameness. A sense that everyone was acting a part––had always been––and that I had only just now been handed a program for the play. Jordan’s role was to talk down to me. My relatives’, to undermine my self-worth. My parents’, to misunderstand me.
I wondered if this was how Aunt Diana saw the world, and if I could stand to see it like this myself.
About the writer:
John Perilli works at a PR agency and is based in Manhattan.
Image: “Metamorphosis XI” by Elena Anastasiou Neokleous. Largely self taught, Elena Anastasiou has experimented with color, form and content and the result is her new series “Metamorphosis” that, through the use of a floral crown and companion geometric shapes, explores the true nature of all women.