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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Surface Normal

The last girl I dated before I met my wife was not a fan of my family. She came from a thoroughly dysfunctional family, outwardly so. People knew it. Her father had died too soon, and her mother was callous, embittered, rageful and quite insane. Her brother was a budding homosexual. She was an emotionally confused, drama obsessed young woman who viewed any type of stability as a disease not worth having.

I remember vividly bringing her home to have dinner with my family. There we all were-- my parents, married for upteen million years, my two sisters and me, all seated at our assigned-by-tradition seats around the dining room table, where we ate together as a cohesive family unit. Every night. We chatted amicably and, when dinner was through, we had our coffee and out tea. Amicably. Sure, my father probably made some inappropriate comments in broken English about the latest Catholic boy-touching scandal or what-have-you but, assuredly, on the surface, it was as normal a family gathering as one could expect.

When she broke up with me two weeks later, my then-girlfriend stated that one of the reasons for the demise of our tumultuous and brief stint was that she felt "suffocated by the normalcy of my family." I found this statement to be both confusing and amusing. My family-- normal? It didn't seem to make much sense at the time, but I realized later that she hadn't stuck around long enough for the cracks to show. Some peoples' families are crazy at the first glance-- like the Kennedys, but some you need to squint and poke and prod so that you can truly appreciate the bumps, lumps and irregularities that make almost every family nuts.

We are most certainly what I would call S.N. This stands for "Surface Normal." (I'm trying to use acronyms in honor of Heidi Murkoff, pregnancy guru and author of "What to Expect Before You're Expecting." How am I doing?) We're S.N. in as much as if you attend a gathering hosted by my family, we'll be on our best behavior until we get comfortable with you. Then, my eldest sister will start belching at the table like a construction worker, my other sister will lob a "Fuck you, scumbag!" across the dinner table in my direction, my father will retire to the living room to commence doing situps on the floor, and my mother will disappear to do laundry, wash the dishes, make her bed, clean the roof, milk the goats, or any other number of diverse activities that will enable her to avoid the rest of us for twenty minutes.

Surface Normal.

Last night, there was a gathering of the three children, at my eldest sister's condominium that was definitely S.N. I'm rather excited to tell my parents about it tonight when my wife and I go over to their house for dinner, because I know they'll be happy that all three of their children were having a get together at which nobody screamed obscenities, threw something of value, or received an Indian Burn.

Not only were the three children in attendance at this S.N. event, but my wife was there, and the middle sister was there, too, with her boyfriend, her boyfriend's son from a one-night stand, and the unborn fetus that her boyfriend sired in January.

Mmmm... not so normal anymore, are we, ex-girlfriend bitch?

Or maybe this is the new normal. I don't know. All I know is that it all seems very white-trashy to me. This wasn't supposed to happen to our family. But, then again, my mom did get knocked up at age 17, so maybe we're not so lily-white after all.

Anyway, we all congregated on my eldest sister's balcony to watch the fireworks. She lives on the eleventh floor of an eleven-story building in a pristine condo that she obsessively cleans every single weekend. This was the first time a four-year-old had ever entered her domicile, and she was seriously shitting herself with worry that this kid would single-handedly break everything she owned, right down to the stemware. Fortunately, he only knocked over one lamp, whilst jumping up and down on her guest bed.

As fireworks from several different towns exploded (mostly below the tree-line) all around us in the panoramic sky, I heard my sister's beau seeth the words, "This sucks" into her hair. I turned and glared at him in the pitch darkness.

"No," I thought, "you suck, fucktard." I was actually enjoying myself, on the balcony, way up high, with my family. The people who are my family. I didn't get to choose any of them, except for my wife. I certainly didn't get to choose my sisters-- and I sure as hell didn't choose the 6'3 guy with tattoos all over his arms, basketball shorts and a four year old kid who likes to yammer on incessantly about chicken toots. I didn't choose the entity inside my sister's belly, the result of super-sperm that, somehow, only manages to fertilize the eggs of unmarried women.

But that little bastard's going to be my family, too. And I couldn't care less if we can see the fireworks or not-- as long as my family's there.

There was a very unsettling time in the months before my wife and I got married where my middle sister and I didn't speak to each other. Her invitation to the wedding was late getting out because I didn't know her address, and I couldn't get ahold of her on the phone to ask her for it, and my parents didn't know it, so pretty much everybody ended up getting their invitations before her. Even people in Australia. I was lazy about getting the address, and negligent, but it didn't occur to me that it mattered much. What was I going to do-- not invite her? Please. But she wigged and didn't speak to me for a couple months, except to blow up at me a couple times when she felt like losing some steam.

My parents had a talk with me during this unpleasantness, this disruption of the S.N. we had prided ourselves on for so long.

"You know, after we die," my father said, "all you will have is each other."

"Well," I replied, "that's a pleasant thought."

"No, it's not, you asshole," my mother chimed in, "my brothers and I didn't speak to each other until my father died-- is that what you want? We're only now just beginning to repair our relationship. I'm almost 60, for Christ's sake. You all have to grow up."

But is it possible? Is it possible to grow up? I wondered about that last night, as I sat on the balcony in the cool Independence Night air. My sister, her boyfriend, the little kid, and the fetus had departed-- before the very visible and very cool fireworks finale of one of the towns off in the distance. My wife, my eldest sister and I were busy clucking with disgust about my other sister's, um, predicament. We laughed and tsked and gossiped and vented. We did what we needed to do to stay sane. To stay S.N. Because, really, on its surface, it was a perfectly normal evening. We did okay, even if we let loose after they left. I mean, hey-- you know they knocked the rest of us in the jeep on their way home, as the kid was asleep in the back dreaming of chicken toots.

And that's okay, I guess. Because tonight I'll tell my parents that we were all at my sister's on the balcony, watching the fireworks as a family. And that we all had a great time.


  1. Surface normal - I like that! S.N., not so much.

  2. I love this line: "I didn't choose the entity inside my sister's belly, the result of super-sperm that, somehow, only manages to fertilize the eggs of unmarried women."

    I'm pretty sure in was just like your ex in the past, because I've always felt uncomfortable in front of S.N. families given my own visibly screwed past family life. But we're working our way to becoming S.N., just like everyone else.

  3. That should have said "pretty sure I was" not "in."

  4. "my father will retire to the living room to commence doing situps on the floor"


  5. "Happy families are all alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way." A Dead Russian Writer


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