“So which one are you again?” the young girl asked cutting a piece of ice cream cake with her fork. The rest of Bree’s friends sitting on the asphalt looked up from their desserts and smiled. Over the years most of the family has grown accustomed to questions of this sort. All big families must suffer similar interviews: What’s your number in line?; Were you born before or after Sean?; How many years apart are you guys? Luckily I developed my own patented response for situations like these.
“Murph, I’m Brigid’s oldest brother. Eldest and best looking of the bunch.”
“Yeah right . . .” Bree mumbles her mouth full of cake. “More like a hairy sasquatch.”
Bree has developed her own counter-response apparently. Brilliant.
Last Wednesday my little sister graduated from middle school. Considering her open revulsion to science and social studies, this would prove celebration enough, but Bree is the youngest of our clan, the last of the siblings to graduate from middle school, marking the end of a quarter century of lunchboxes, book fairs, and slumber parties — personally I’m still regretting the loss of nap time; enjoy it while it lasts kiddies. Like any old fool, I remember changing her diapers, rocking her to sleep, screaming as she picked dessicated insects from the kitchen floor . . . I was Kevin’s age then, sprouting facial hair and harboring a passionate one-sided love with Buffy Summers (I’m still waiting for THAT phone call).
Still at the moment, time has no meaning for Brigid. Boyfriends and iPods are the sole focus at her friend’s graduation party, the first of three this weekend. Ironically all her friends chose to celebrate on the same Saturday, and like any young socialite my sister opted to make an appearance at each and every one. Deep down I’m thinking this has something to do with a boy, but wisely Bree has kept her mouth quite closed on the subject, knowing full well her brothers would hunt down the poor boy and force him through the ‘gauntlet’ (a deluge of physical and emotional abuse). If he should emerge unscathed, his mind intact, his soul still anchored to some corporeal body, we then — and only then — would offer our blessing. He would have earned the right to date our sister.
As Frank mentioned to us once, “If the guy comes back for more, he’s stupid enough to date my sister.”
As for driving Cinderella to the ball, I had the first and last shifts. Katie and Mom would drive her up to the second and third party leaving me alone for the evening with Mr. Muggins, our recently neutered black cat. The anesthetic from the morning’s surgery was wearing off when I had left the house, causing him to stumble about wide-eyed like a drunken sailor in dark hairy slacks. Not much of a Saturday night to be sure, but after my first pick-up, I’m quite sure that I received the better end of the deal. Even at my age, teenage girls have lost none of their venom — intentional or not.
“Are you the one that’s dating Mary?” another of the girls asked, absently twirling her pigtails.
“No, that’s Ryan.”
“Are you married? You have a baby on the way, right?”
“My niece or nephew. No, that’s Pat. I’m Murph,” I repeat, “Bree’s oldest brother. I also tutor her from time to time in . . . ”
“She doesn’t talk about you that much,” another girl interrupted without looking up from her MP3 player.
“Shannon then,” asked the first one again with furrowed brow, clearly confused. “You’re dating Mary’s sister, Olivia.”
“Er . . . no. Murph. Oldest.”
“So you’re not dating anyone then? But . . . aren’t you old?”
“Er . . . nope,” I sighed suddenly feeling very alone. Clearly I did not possess the exact change to enter this particular dialog. Come back later with wife or soul-mate, and then we’ll survey your opinions on Justin Beiber.
“Murph is single,” Bree added helpfully with her mouth full of cake. “He’s thirty years old and hasn’t had a girlfriend yet.”
The girls stared at me as if I had two heads, each spitting fire and citing love poems in ancient Sumerian. Even the one glued to her electronic playlist broke contact to gaze in horror. Their eyes seemed to scream “Dear God, what is this . . . thing?!” Several looked past me, seeking the sheltered safety of their mother’s arms. Pig-tails jumped up and fell into conversation with a passing boy, who walked over to the badminton court. She did not look back.
“Don’t worry,” smiled the first girl again with a wink, seemingly braver than the rest. “You know what they say: stay single, ready to mingle.”
“Uh . . . right,” I frowned. “Thanks.”
From here I made a few fruitless efforts at changing the subject, but the girls had grown bored or frightened by my marital status and scrambled to solicit more ice cream cake. Bree said her goodbyes, promising several of the girls that she would see them later.
“So I’m shunned?” I ask Bree once we reach the sanctuary of the car.
“Just until you get a girlfriend,” she shrugged.
“Great.” Relationships now required a resume in addition to experience. I wondered if reading Jane Austen counted toward some transferable credit. “Is this why you don’t talk about me?”
“Oh, Liz? Don’t pay that any attention. I hardly talk about anyone to her anymore. Not after she spread those rumors about me and Eli last year . . . the jerk. They just know about Ryan and Shannon through Mary and Olivia. We girls have this network you see . . .”
“Don’t worry, Murph,” she laughed. “Whenever I’m doing poorly in school, I tell everyone that you tutor me. ‘Course depending on what you buy me for graduation, I might be willing to advertise more. Particularly to any of the single teachers . . .”
Bribery, extracted promises, and planned propaganda. Ah, the eternal morass of the teenage mind. Luckily enough I had bought the iPod nearly three hours earlier, saving my fragile soul from the succor of temptation. Still, if my little sister should misinterpret her gift and honor her half of the deal with a few honeyed words to her new English teacher . . . well so be it. At twenty-nine years old (almost thirty) I need all the help I can get. Besides this gambit may earn me a few extra pieces of ice cream cake at the next graduation party. For a few extra scoops of mint chocolate chip, no sin is inexcusable.