Joel is a high spirited kid, weird, loud and attention seeking. He may or may not have been stricken by one or all forms of ADD-HD-QB-T-WWP or any of the other many lettered diseases so prevalent in the United States of Pharmaceutica. One of his favorite activities was to run into imaginary walls and fall down complete with rather compelling sound effects; a trait that kept other kids at a safe distance, bearing wide eyes and puckered lips. He laughed like a backfire, he'd sometimes move people out of their seats when something struck him as silly. "HA!" he'd explode. "HAHAHA!!!" and so on until his siblings and parents and nearly anyone else in the room would tell him to shuttup while swinging various appendages toward his head. And yet no one really disciplined him either by punishment, or by explaining to him why his outbursts were annoying. They'd simply ignore him until they could no longer.
So when Joel said "Pass the motherfuckin potatoes" at an Easter dinner in his 11th year on the planet, it was little surprise to me that everyone else at the table simply carried on as if nothing had happened; everyone butme that is. Without a second thought as to what his parents and grandparents might say about my barging in, I explained to the cute little tyke that the word motherfucker was not acceptable at the dinner table for a variety of reasons which I outlined as quickly as possible so as to not burden the assembled with too much negativity during such a wondrous gathering of positive vibeage. Thus begun our relationship, my one and only mentoring that had verifiable results; the one kid in the entire world who, as it turns out actually liked me for a time, and all because I'd kick his ass when no one else will.
Joel had a tough life in many respects. He's the son of pretty well off parents living in a high buck suburb and yet he spent the last two years of his high school sleeping on a couch in the basement because his room was taken from him when his mother decided his father snored too much and she needed a new spot for her own things. As a pest, he was ordinarily ignored and pretty well ran his own life from his cellar dwelling, so he learned to get by on an hour or two of sleep; particularly on those nights when a ribald movie might be on cable at 3AM, or a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright for all it matters.
We wouldn't see him often, but when we lived in the country Linda had him out to the house for a week a year as a sort of city mouse/country mouse adventure. She planned their time to the minute, and all of it she planned according to what she knew of his likes, his interests and his dreams. It was during one of these visits that he said to Linda "my mother says I'm crazy; you don't think I'm crazy do you?"
In the beginning it was tough; Lin is far more patient than I. Joel heard plenty of "stop that"s and "ok, enough"s while the three of us were together, but magically, rather than rebelling or even ignoring me, he minded my demands and seemed to actually understand why I was making them. One of his "things" was hugging by hanging off the shoulders of the recipient as if they were a tree. Linda would just put up with it but it was obvious she didn't like it. Joel clung to her like a puppy in a dog pound, never letting her out of his sight, following her everywhere, even to the door of the bathroom where he'd find some nearby photo or architectural fob to concentrate on until she'd re-entered the hall and he could latch onto the umbilical once again. One day I'd just had enough.
"Get off my wife!" I said through my teeth, pressing my face against his so he could feel the lines on my forehead scrunch as I spoke. "Don't hang on people Joel, that's obnoxious!"
He let her go and stepped back. "It's true Joel" Linda added; "I like you, but you're heavy!"
He thought a moment, then asked me "does this mean I can't hug you anymore?" I said, I never liked hugging anyway pal, how 'bout we shake hands."
Ever since, his Auntie hugs are heartfelt but subdued, and when he sees me he always thrusts out his hand as he walks to meet me with a grin on his face; he never stops thinking taunting me is fun. He tells his friends I'm his mean uncle, and then he laughs, and, thank the Lord, not in that backfiring way anymore. I'll take it as a compliment. He's asked more than once why we couldn't adopt him, though I'm sure much of that is the grass is greener syndrome.
His high school graduation coincided with his dance recital. Yes, he found that in his latter teen years, dance would be his extracurricular activity. The obligatory grad party started at 11am, and the recital started at 2PM, so after an hour and a half of hobnobbing at his parents’ house, guest of honor #1 had left for the auditorium and there we sat wondering how no one had anticipated the conflict in schedule. Though his father had gone to and even filmed every event his daughter the perfect overachieving princess had participated in since she’d learned to crawl, he’d declined to attend Joel’s. It’s one of those dysfunctional family dynamic things people love to throw out so as to compete with their friends in the “who had it worse” contest of life. I had considered not going to the event, primarily because I knew the majority of my time would be spent dodging tutus and slippered size 3 feet. But in the end Linda looked so sad, and was so cranky about her brother's disrespect for his son's accomplishments, that I was pressed into service by my own guilt. I knew I would be losing a certain amount of my manhood that day; but hell, I'm old, what do I need with testosterone anymore anyway?
Why dance you ask? No clue, and I don't think he has one either. Some kids grow attached to model trains, some to tying cat tails over clotheslines and some to selling dope to even younger kids. Joel had fallen in love with dance among other things, and the fact that he was one of only two boys in a 2-300 student dance school didn't deter him for a moment. He had taken a bit of malarkey about his hobby from other boys he knew, but I told him to remind them that he spent a few hours a day surrounded by girls in tights, and that if they thought that was a bad thing perhaps they should have a word with their fathers about how life works. He used the line at least once, much to the amusement of everyone within earshot in the school lunchroom. Luckily, he didn't credit me or I'd have been going to the principal's office for sure.
As for me, it was a nightmare. Were I a parent of one of the whirling dervishes perhaps I'd have had some remote interest; but I never was much of a fan of dance on that scale, I'm just not a big Rockettes guy. Joel was in two numbers. He looked a little out of place for obvious reasons, and he wasn't all that good, but his face showed more intensity than I'd ever seen on him, and he finished without tripping anyone, or body slamming a stray ballerina. It was over soon enough; I'd given him his due applause and boy type praise, along with a sincere handshake that served as a hug. And then Lin and I were on our way home as Joel left to play video games, as boys are wont to do.
It's funny what kids remember. I must have said a thousand things to him over the years, and dozens of things during his party and after his recital. I gave him the "proud of you" speech, and the best rendition of my "do what you love, everything else is bull" concert. Yet, when he wrote to thank us for his gift a few days later, he mentioned that he was still laughing over one line I'd muttered under my breath as we left the auditorium, smothered by girls and their moms and their costumes and their little white shoes.
"Man, I've never seen so many breasts in one room in all my life".
Yea, I'm sure it was a horrible thing to say in front of an impressionable young man, a rotten example to set. Some role model I am. And wouldn't you know it, he remembered it syllable for syllable. It's no wonder I didn't have any kids; just think of how weird they'd be!