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A Circle in the Land of Squares
I know what they’re thinking when they stare at me, a homely, bookish girl sitting in the corner of the room reading again. Honestly, I’m not sure how they even see me with their noses pointed skyward, and their eyes averted from my face, but these vultures find a way to not only see me but pick apart my life and spit out what they see fit. Every day I deal with the monotony of their words, stating exactly what is abnormal about my character, appearance and behavior, and exactly what needs immediate transformation. This situation and subsequent feeling of exclusion is what one would expect when dealing with pretentious high school princesses or blonde sorority girls, however, it is not to be expected from the members of your immediate family. My mother, father, brother and sister are blonde haired, blue eyed, knockouts with athletic bodies and toothpaste ad smiles. I have never despised or resented four people more in my entire life. My mother and sister love to shop and spend hours being pampered, while my father and brother love to gamble and golf, but the one activity that unites the four seemingly “individual” members is the act of taunting and critiquing my daily activities. Needless to say, I do not fit into my family’s vain molding, I care not for their joys of shopping or the stock market and never once have I met the expectations set forth for me and took my rightful place as the middle child of the honorable J. household.
Physically, I am my mother’s daughter. I have her hard cheekbones and thin lips; small freckles dot both our noses every summer, and the same mass of dark blonde hair drapes over our narrow shoulders. Our similarities mostly end with appearance, and I know that occasionally she will close her eyes, as if overcome with fatigue, and wonder how her near genetic equal could be any less like her. I occasionally will look at this almost unknown relative and wonder what thoughts frequent her mind, what dreams come to her in the night; I could not even begin to guess. Our relationship did not used to be so strained, I would dutifully follow her around in department stores pretending to thoroughly enjoy myself, thinking it to be my civil duty as a daughter, and believing that every little girl hated it just as much as I did. As I grew, I fell into reading, and then writing shortly after, and the forced trips to the department stores turned into full-blown battles in la casa J. Me vs. Her was how I thought of it, and due to my lack of allies, her wins vastly outnumbered mine.
Our trips to the mall must have been an amusing experience for fellow shoppers. I would follow behind hesitantly as my mother pounded forward, eager to not miss any buying opportunity, tugging expectantly on my invisible leash. I would nearly faint when I saw the price tags on her clothes, and the sales assistants found it hilarious that a young girl was giving her mother a budget and money lecture. My mother found it impossible that I would rather sit in the food court and read Kurt Vonnegut or Mary Shelley. She would drag me, almost by force, to the fitting rooms to wrap myself in unnecessary, overpriced garments that would inevitably lie unused in bags at the bottom of the wardrobe. Needless to say words cannot even describe the amount of joy and gratitude I felt for my sister when she became of age to shop like a fiend with my mother. From then on even though I was still forced to accompany them on mall outings, never again was I verbally tormented by false feminist tirades or my lack of enthusiasm, for my sister had enough eagerness for the two of us combined. My sister perused the expensive silk like a pro, and as I watched my mother’s caring eyes follow my sister’s small frame around a wrack of jeans, I knew she had found her successor and current favorite child. My mother had never, not once looked at me with those eyes.
Church was my favorite family outing and dressing each Sunday called for meticulous care to be taken and special outfits to be purchased. Heaven forbid we where shown up by our own neighbor’s children. The five of us sit in one pew, and my parents would appear to be enraptured by the sermon, never really letting the meaning sink into their own actions. I soon came to realize that the service really didn’t matter; it was the social gathering after that caught my mother’s particular eye. She beckons all of us over and shows us to her friends like we were competing at a dog show. My brother and sister excel, of course, their charming smiles and personalities made the busy bodies at the local church go gaga over their polite manners. I, on the other hand, barely managed to mask my distaste for the whole situation and stayed on a bench writing in a journal, preferring to remain in my own fantasy world, barely suppressing a scowl. It is almost laughable to see how different my family acts in front of others, in contrast to their behavior alone in my own personal war zone. My mother places a gentle hand on my shoulder at parties, introducing me lightly before praising my younger sister. My father will mention my name in the passing before regaling his friends with tales of my brother’s impressive tournament wins. In reality, at home or in front of close relatives my name never passes my mother’s tight lips, nor does it enter a single of my father’s thoughts. Sometimes I feel as if I am not a sister or a daughter to them at all, but a forgotten ghost that frequently inhabits the background, neatly blending into the wallpaper.
If reading is my life then material possessions are my family’s soul. I have never met people so completely obsessed with adhering to such harsh social restrictions, or believing they must have more valuable material possessions than everyone in the neighborhood. I must have been absent in school the day that material belongings were deemed the standard by which people judged their lives, but I truly do not understand the fixation. I had no objects I deeply coveted or felt a close personal bond with, making bribing and punishing a difficult experience for my parents. They had no idea how to handle my foreign opinion on the matter and I believe they felt that family alienation would make it more difficult for me to infect my siblings with the thinking bug. My parents tried to ‘fix’ me, of course. I was given the latest gadgets and wrapped in designer labels from head to toe; yet to my parent’s obvious dismay nothing had even dented my blasé attitude on acquiring large sums of money or pretty diamonds.
One night, three years ago, they had their first and only talk with me about my asymmetrical fit into their world of squares and circles. I explained clearly and confidently that reading was my passion and writing was my flame that I kindled each day and through which grew swiftly and steadily. No words were needed, their faces told me what hid behind closed doors. What was to become of this child who held our petty wants in contempt, and saw only dancing words behind her eyes? They were confused, I was not like my beautiful sister or my daring brother, I was different with a capital D and God help them, for they had no clue what to do.
That cruel night I sat in a stiff chair and stared deeply into my mother’s depthless eyes as she spoke, searching for light or recognition that did not exist. She spoke of my ungratefulness and weird, wordless behavior. Through gritted teeth, my sister born without the grace of tact, spoke of her embarrassment at my messy appearance and lack of respect for what “our family hold precious”. I did not question their words, or ever discover what we Johnsons truly held precious; I just bit my tongue and waited for my own turn. However, my explanations, goals and loves fell on closed ears and my mother’s eyebrows, raised as high as the McDonald’s arches, only screamed her complete and utter confusion. She did not understand, nor would she ever; from then on I realized the most I could ever hope for was oblivious acceptance, not even touching on approval. They were oblivious to my world, my loves, my friends, my writing, and basically my life as a whole. Nothing changed; my parents were still reticent about my foreign passions and my siblings still taunted me mercilessly at dinner even long after they passed the age where it was somewhat understandable.
At meal times, my little sister regales us with her life’s journey as princess of the schoolyard, and after she established that my jeans were ‘so last season’ she hasn’t bothered with me since, unless it was to criticize me. A normal dinner in the House of Johnson would find me reading a well worn Lord Byron novel under the table while four pairs of incredulous eyes watch me balance my fork and book simultaneously. As if by synchronization, my sister begins her proclamation that I might be so into reading because of my longing to be a hobbit, with my brother eager to add counter advice saying that even hobbits have social lives. My father, emerging from the coma-like state he inhabits whenever my siblings endlessly taunt me, will shove a magazine under my brother’s nose and the conversation will suddenly switch to a less personally offensive topic.
With all that said, my parents are not bad people; they just did not know how to deal with an unruly child. With drug addiction, they would call for rehab and with boy friend problems, they would talk me through hard times, but with a child who disagrees with the family’s way of life, what can you do for that? Every day now, especially of late, I have tried to be more like a chameleon and acclimate to their world. Though I will not let their vanity or material pleasures become an uninvited focal point in my life, I silently vowed not to scoff at the next midlife crisis sports car my father brings home. That is really all they can ask for.
When I am with my family, the five of us unfortunately gathered around one small table; I try to keep my mind in the clouds and my feet completely off the ground. I feel more at ease when I ignore the incessant prattle of my mother and sister as they take turns reading passages from their glossy Bible, more commonly known as Vogue magazine. My sister recites the passages as if she, like a religious prophet, spends most of her time communicating directly with the Higher Power. While my mother contemplates the article, I contemplate my mashed potatoes and thank the fates for my lack of public torture. My mother rarely speaks to me about anything of importance, nations have warred and made peace, celebrity couples have wed and divorced and wed again, and yet still a meaningful question eludes my darling maternal relative.
I almost laughed out loud one night as I realized one distinct similarity between my mother and me. As my sister was quoting Vogue my mother had a look of pure concentration and admiration on her face, which reminded me of my first reaction to the works of Jane Austen. I could not hide my amusement completely though, because my mother had mistaken my look of recognition with a look of deep importance for the subject matter. My facial error rewarded me with a trip to the local mall, and due to my familial discovery, my one thin wire that connected me to my mother, I almost didn’t even mind.
My parents love me, and I love them. It took me a while to reach this conclusion but it was surely an inevitable outcome. Also, no matter how old I get or how different I may grow to be, some part of me will always long for the acceptance of my immediate family. My family is vain and shallow; they enjoy meaningless luxuries, and consider acquiring material possessions to be a culturally enriching experience. However, with the bad comes the good and even though I am stuck with their shortcomings, they too are stuck with mine. My mother will never be the sensitive, understanding caregiver portrayed in my favored books, and though she loves me as best she can, her ignorance and inability to be in harmony with me will be my cross to bear as I come into my own. To say that all is well and merry, and that I have learned to live silently with my concerns is a gross overstatement and definitely not an accurate portrayal of my respective situation. My awkward, unsocial behavior blemishes my family’s ideal nuclear setup, and their odd mania of being the richest, and the greatest makes my eyes almost roll out of my head. With a cease-fire not in the foreseeable future, this seems a most suitable tradeoff.