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Different From All Other Nights
When I was eleven, just after I’d learned basic algebra, my sister asked me a simple, but secretly convoluted question. But, I, a kid only eleven years old, couldn’t see all the twists and turns it posed. Rather, it seemed quite silly and obvious to me, though I searched my sister’s eyes for a hint of a trick question. It was a rather sudden, but common and expectable type of interrogation. One I was used to at the dinner table, between attempts at conversation. My sister always ask questions, masking it as a “learning” experience, when all I’d really resolve after the conversation was that I was stupid and that I should spend less time watching T.V. and more time reading books. Of course, that never happened. My sister, her name was Jeanie, found ways to remind people that she was smart and that she had gotten into a top international high school if everything she asked. No doubt, my sister was smart. Smarter than me, anyway. But she constantly needed a reason to reassure herself. But this question seemed different from the others. It rather stumped her, because when she said it, her eyes didn’t look at me doubtingly, but to my father’s.
My father was the classic oppressed genius, if there was any. Often, Jeanie spent hours screaming at walls, an excruciating process catalyzed by the revelation that her prized textbooks were missing. The culprit was almost always my father (who finds an unexplainable interest in every subject except pop music and politics), and time and time again she gave him lectures on how not to touch her stuff and how it would ultimately devolve to him paying the library fees, but these tedious lectures never swayed him from the lure of a good read. As a young child, my father frustrated me. He couldn’t tolerate my so-called “addiction” to consumerism and garbage. Watch T.V. in the living room always resulted in him to spasm and speak in acidity for the rest of the evening. But when folding our laundry, which consisted of a heterogeneous combination of thrift store clothing, Walmart clearance tee-shirts, and sweaters decades old, he was always watching a PBS documentary, usually telling the history of his childhood, experiences he missed out on in the naïve bliss of adolescence.
My father and I do share a good relationship, founded on immaturity. I baby myself, speaking like a toddler. Jeanie tells me to stop, but it just comes at a second instinct, any time I’m insecure or I just want to feel, like a baby. I guess I understand why my father watches the documentaries. We’re always searching for a way to return to return to our childhood. Even as a young kid, I think I get why adults tell me to the savor these moments. Moments and life and love just get more and more convoluted as we grow up. But understanding my father is always a tough feat. Remember, I said he was a genius. Though he swears he got Bs in high school, he somehow managed to graduate from the best schools in the country. But I really know he’s a nerd because I’ll catch him at the late hours of the night eating bargain donuts from the 7-11 while reading long equations etched into napkins and paper towels. It’s the brief encounters with this version of our dad, with eyes deeply entranced with book. It’s the Google searches of my father’s name, and discovering his published files, and attempting to understand them, and continuously failing, that grant him our respect.
And for those reasons, when my sister said this question, her eyes glanced to him. Not to me. Which made this night different from all other nights.
“Do you think math was discovered, or invented?”
For a couple seconds, she wore a face of curiosity and genuine interest. But, as my mouth opened to answer, hers did as well, already prepared to rebut anything I had to say.
Her membership on the debate team had taken a toll on all of us. Almost every night since she started in September, a dinner conversation often discussed some ethical or moral issues that would never be of importance outside the world that is her high’s school’s sacred collection of hormone-filled arguing teenagers. My sister is extremely competitive, even when she doesn’t like to admit it. There are points where she’ll go on for minutes about how football is a pointless, reckless, barbaric sport. However, when visiting aunts started complimenting me on my developing speed, she starts sulking and murmuring, reminding the diners of the evening that she has a natural arm. It’s constant. And debate let her think that her competitiveness was important Which it wasn’t.
“Well, what do you think?” She asked, annoyed as usual at our lack of response. I stared at her, not sure how to respond.
“Invented.” I blurted out.
She smiled rather quickly, and her voice piped up, more annoying then usually. My father moped, and continued to eat his chili, not paying attention to her usual antics.
“Well, math inherently exists in nature. Proportions, and mathematical qualities exist everyday in trees and-“
My father frowned, “I think you can argue both sides.”
“But-“My sister almost continued, but stopped upon realizing the expression my father’s face wore.
We always forget that my father at the beginning of time was a creative person, way before we were born. We forget that his proficiency in math did not make him completely rigid. However, this perspective also developed from years of little compromise and simple “No”s. We often found napkins with eloquent doodles (created with freebie pens), remnants of long telephone conversations with distant friends. They were beautiful and interpretive, with formatted and functional shapes, created to resemble the faces of people we’d never seen. Often the pictures reminded me of the god Janus, who represented decisions, doorways, and things of that sort (from Percy Jackson, obviously).
We continued eating dinner in silence, not actually contemplating the question. In fact, we never did answer the question, like most of the forced topics. Because our family was dysfunctional as any, and we only looked for fights we had weapons for. It was simply routine, this intervention, the façade of curiosity had swindled me yet again. But my heart and mind had not been wagered in the conversation, so my losses had been cut, my food left uneaten. I wasn’t very hungry. I never was.