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I was wearing my old sneakers, paint-splattered jeans, a worn out t-shirt, and a Red Sox cap. Yep, I'd been painting. And I was late. Very late
When I got to the airport, I was running people over to get to her. Yes, her. Amy. My niece. I remember the day her mother, my big sis, called distinctly. I remember I was wearing my boxers and a white tee. I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, around 2:30. I remember the tone in her voice, the way she danced around the point, reminding me how many times she had helped me out over the past eight years when I was in a scrape. I remember it so distinctly because that phone call changed my life.
She needed someone to keep Amy for a week that summer. And I wasn't too happy about it. I hate kids. Don't get me wrong I love Amy and all but I was having a hard enough time taking care of myself. And now Lucy was trying to push her kid on me too. And I didn't want to spend a week of my summer babysitting. I didn't have a real job. No steady paycheck. I could barely pay to keep my apartment which wasn't much anyway. And now I had to keep my 14-year old niece. I had to feed her, make sure she didn't get into trouble, share my stuff with her. Not really my thing. It wasn't that long, really, but at this time in my life, a week was a very, very long time.
When I finally got to the terminal, I found Amy just sitting there, foot tapping away, arms crossed and face just about as sulky as a face can get. And the hat. I swear to this day she did it on purpose. On top of that bobbing head full of long, dirty-blonde hair was a Yankees hat. Oh, she knew exactly what she was doing.
I walked over to her and tapped her shoulder. 'You're late, Mike,' she said and started walking towards the exit.
'I know but I'm sorry. Please don't be mad. And I'm your uncle, a little respect would be nice, thanks,' I replied a little too shortly.
Amy rolled her eyes impatiently. 'I'm not mad at you, and I don't care that you're late. I'm mad at Mom for dumping me here with you while she and her new boyfriend go on some stupid cruise.'
'Look,' Her attitude was really starting to annoy me. 'I don't like this situation any more than you do but we both have to deal with it. I'll stay out of your business if you'll stay out of mine. Just don't get into trouble and we'll both stay on your mom's good side. And take the hat off. This is Boston and people are already staring. Since when did you become a Yankees fan anyway?'
'When you became a Red Sox fan. And no I won't take it off. It's one more thing you'll just have to 'deal with.''
'You still live in this old dump?' she asked with a disgusted look on her face as we pulled up to the parking lot of my apartment building.
Yeah the place was a bit of a stink hole but it was where I'd lived for the past seven years and it was home. At times it could be a pain, but most days, I wouldn't trade it for anything.
'Yep,' came my short reply. We walked up the steps in silence. When we finally got up to my apartment I was starving. 'There's cereal and Easy Mac in the pantry. Might be some ravioli.'
'No thanks, I'm not that hungry.'
'Suit yourself.' I grabbed the milk out of the refrigerator and poured some cereal. I was starved. Amy just stood there, staring at me. With my mouth full of Lucky Charms I asked, 'What?'
'You eat like an animal. Where do I sleep?'
'You can have the bed, I'll sleep on the couch.' Amy raised her eyebrows. 'Just 'cause I live in a 'dump' and like the Red Sox doesn't mean I don't have some sense of decency. I'm going to take a nap now, you can watch some TV if you want.'
When I woke up around seven I found Amy still occupying the TV, watching some soapy show. I grabbed the remote and switched it to the Red Sox game. They were playing the Yankees that night and I didn't want to miss it.
'Hey! I was watching that!' came Amy's inevitable reply.
'Oh, you were? Sorry, I didn't notice,' I said in a sarcastic tone and kept on watching the game.
'Well, flip it back,' Amy said. I could tell she was getting angry.
'Too bad. I'm watching now.' Amy got up off the couch, snatched the remote, and flipped it back to her show. Now I was angry.
'Hey, you listen to me. This is my house, my TV and my remote. We're watching the game.'
'But I'm stuck here for the week, Mom wouldn't let me bring half of what I wanted, and there's nothing to do. I wanna watch 'Gilmore Girls.''
'Aww'I'm truly sorry about all that but I pay for this and I want to watch the game.' I took the remote from Amy.
'Give it back!'
'No, it's mine! And I wanna watch the game!'
'And I wanna watch my show!'
I think it was about here that the remote broke. We were stuck watching the game, me sometimes jumping out of my seat to yell at the umpire through the television, Amy sitting on the couch, sulking. Towards the end of the game Amy started to lighten up. In the ninth inning, the Red Sox and the Yankees were tied, three to three. The Yankees were up to bat and Amy and I were both on our feet, screaming at the TV.
The Yankees scored a run and Amy jumped into the air, I sat back down in defeat.
During the commercial break Amy and I bet on who would win. I bet ten bucks the Red Sox would win by two runs, she bet the Yankees would hold them off the rest of inning. With two strikes, two outs and two runners, David Ortiz scored a home run. The Red Sox won and Amy owed me ten bucks. I stood and cheered, Amy went back to sulking. This concluded our first evening together.
The next morning, I had a paint job. Amy didn't have anything to do so she came with me. She was still bored so I gave her a paintbrush. Turns out she's a pretty good painter. But then again, anyone can be a good painter with tape.
It's no fun to paint in silence so we got to talking about the game the night before. We discussed (or argued) who should have caught what, which calls were bad, who swung too slowly and so on. Then we started talking about the players.
'Johnny Damon is a traitor.'
'No, he's just smart. We offered him a better deal and he took it. Besides, no one wants to be on a loser team.'
'Hey, no one calls the Red Sox losers! They kicked Yankee butt at the World Series in '04. And last night too.'
'They just got lucky.'
'Well, they did. There's no other way they could have beat the Yankees.'
'I thought you and Lucy were into that God stuff. What if God wanted the Red Sox to win?'
'It's not just 'God stuff.' At least to mom anyways.'
'I'm not dissing you or Him or anything. Actually, I think it's pretty cool. At least you have something to believe in.'
'It's not so great when everyone's always judging your clothes and music and condemning you for hanging out with the wrong people or not showing up Sunday mornings.
'It can't be like that. I thought Christians were supposed to be all about love and stuff.'
'Okay, I may have exaggerated just a little. But that's what it feels like! It's all 'how strong is your walk with God?' or 'how many people have you saved?' The other day Mom was talking to another woman in the church about a relationship she was struggling with and the chick told her she needed to stop gossiping about it and ask God to forgive her. Then she left. Mom just wanted some advice. I don't get why they have to be such holier-than-thou jerks.'
'You've probably just had some bad experiences. I know lots of Christians who aren't like that at all.'
'I don't know. Maybe this Christian thing's just not for me.' We painted in silence the rest of that afternoon. We had given each other a lot to think about. This was our first semi-civil conversation since she'd got here and I'm not sure how it happened.
We didn't talk the rest of the evening but that night as I was going to my room to get something I saw the door was cracked and I heard Amy praying. Her prayer went something like this:
'God, I don't know what to think. From down here with the few Christians I'm surrounded by it looks like they're all just holier-than-thou, thou-shalt-not jerks. I know my mom isn't and she really loves you but I just don't understand. I don't even know if you really exist. I wish I really could believe and see you in my life the way Mom seems to. If you really do exist, please, please show me something, some sign. I don't care where or how but I just need to know. Well, I guess that's it...goodnight.'
We didn't have a true conversation again until Wednesday, the fourth day of her stay with me. Wednesday at breakfast, Amy asked, 'Uncle Mike, why don't you look for a real job?'
I hadn't really thought about it and I told her so.
'Well, why not?'
'Why haven't I thought about it or why haven't I looked for a steady job?'
'Both.' I didn't know the answer to this either.
'I don't know. I guess I'm just lazy,' I said with a laugh. 'Or maybe I'm scared''
'Scared of what?'
'My, aren't you full of questions this morning.'
'You're not going to answer, are you?'
'It doesn't really matter. Besides, I've gotten pretty good at painting.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
The rest of that week passed mostly peacefully. I didn't look for a job. I didn't care to. I liked my life, safe and predictable. It was hard sometimes but I got by. I wasn't ready to give it up. We watched more baseball together. When the Red Sox weren't playing the Yankees, Amy always rooted for the other team. I don't know if she ever got that sign of hers but she wasn't quite so sulky and disgusted with the rest of the world.
Friday morning I had another paint job. I took Amy with me and we got right to painting. It was the first day she hadn't worn the Yankees cap and I was wearing my Red Sox hat but she didn't seem to notice. So I pointed it out to her.
'Guess I forgot. I'd never consciously go anywhere with you in that hat without it.'
'What's so great about New York anyway?'
'It's cool, it's big, it's the city. I've always wanted to go there.'
'What's wrong with Boston?'
'Everyone in this family is a Boston fan. I like New York so I figured I'd be different.'
'You won't give it up will you?'
'Well, in that case'.' I said and slung paint at her. Amy shrieked and slung paint back at me. We were still slinging paint at each other when the owner of the building stopped by to check our progress. The wall had barely been touched.
'I suppose you have a good explanation for this, Mr. Porter?' Me and Amy straightened up immediately.
'Yes sir. Loyalty and patriotism to my hometown,' I said proudly, but trying not to laugh at myself.
'I see,' he said disapprovingly, though he obviously didn't. 'I want this building done by five o'clock tonight and if I come back here and it isn't, you and I will have to have a little chat.'
When he left, Amy and I both burst out laughing.
''Loyalty and patriotism?''
'It's true!' I said defensively but then started laughing again. We finished the building before five without any further excitement, and by the time we got home, we were exhausted. We slept through most of the day Saturday and watched TV. Before I knew it, it was Sunday and time for Amy to go home.
We didn't say much at breakfast or in the car. I watched her board the plane and she turned and waved. As I waved back I suddenly wished I had hugged her. I just sat there for a while, watching the airplanes take off. I counted three. Then I went home.
About a month later Lucy called me and told me about Amy. She had run away and I could tell she was really worried. She sounded like she had been crying. I told her I was on my way. As soon as I hung up the phone, I knew exactly where Amy had gone. There was no time for a plane; I'd have to drive. I drove all the way to New York City, to the first train station in sight.
There she was, duffel bag in one hand, looking pretty scared. Then she saw me, her eyes widened in surprise and her face brightened into a smile. She ran over to me and I hugged her.
'Uncle Mike, I was so scared. I'm not so sure I want to run away anymore...'
'It's okay, I'm here now. Come on, let's go home.' In the car I called Lucy and told her I'd found Amy. We decided she would stay with me for the night and my sister would pick her up the next day. 'Now, do ya mind telling me why you wanted to run away?'
'I don't know. I don't really have any friends, life is incredibly boring, I hate Mom's new boyfriend, life just sucks.'
'Why does it suck?'
'Because it does.'
'Well, why don't you like your mom's boyfriend?'
'He's a psychiatrist, he's rich. I doubt he really cares. The guy's paid to care about people every day.'
'Is it really that or is he just not your dad?' I asked softly.
'I don't know. Yeah, I guess. Yes'.' Amy's eyes watered.
'It's okay, Amy. I know Lucy, she wouldn't still be going out with this guy if he didn't genuinely care. She needs somebody to love her and you need a dad. Maybe this is the guy. Maybe you don't like him because you're scared.'
'Scared of what?' Amy said, shaking her head, confused.
'Scared of change. The same scared I was of getting a job. The same scared I still am. You're scared of something going wrong, but you're more afraid of something going right. But we all have to face our fears sometime or else they just get bigger and bigger. They'll never go away.' Amy nodded, thinking.
'Tell ya what, I'll look for a real job if you'll go back and give this guy a chance. Deal?'
'Deal,' she said, and we shook on it.
'Mike!' she screamed, pointing at a man crossing the street.
'What? Oh!' I said, braking just in time. 'That was close!'
'Tell me about it!' We both started laughing with relief.
Amy went home the next day and this time, I hugged her. Her mom was so relieved to see her safe. Lucy's new boyfriend was with her. He didn't seem like such a bad guy. Not bad at all. In fact, they got married the next January. Amy started making friends and having fun and finally came around. She tossed her Yankees hat and started rooting for Boston.
Me, I found a job, painting still. But it's a real job this time. I have steady work and I'm doing what I love. I'm even thinking about giving this 'God stuff' a shot.
Amy taught me a lot that summer. She taught me so much about life and love, and family. And that change isn't so bad after all. I've been living like it ever since.