Monday, January 2, 2017

Ships Passing in the Night

People were always jealous of how incredibly tan she could get at the swimming pool. Her Filipino blood caused her to look like Princess Pocahontas. Pocahontas stood out in a sea of southern, white suburbians and her winning personality only made her that much more of a star.
I was happy to bask in her stardom. I was a quirky, awkward preteen who was as socially incompetent as I was fashion-challenged. My cousin always seemed to have the most “in” clothing and accessories. I’d discover them when I hung out with her and her cool friends. I’d save my money so I could get those Timberland boots or that Sax purse and by the time I used my hard-earned allowance to purchase these coveted items, they would have already gone out of style.
Still, we liked each other. A lot. We called each other best buds and would play and talk for hours whenever it was just the two of us.
When we got older, she became a cheerleader and (I assumed) extremely popular in high school. I never went to her high school and we didn’t hang out much in those teenage years. I was floundering in home school world, trying to grow out of social awkwardness and the disease of freezing or running whenever a boy would speak to me. My cousin—from my limited scope—had boyfriend after boyfriend. Whenever my grandmother would ask us about boys and boyfriends. My cousin always had something to say. I always had nothing to say.
In the college years, my cousin moved away. Considering the distance growing between us as we grew older, I knew this was the end. I valued the time we would spend together at holidays or at random sightings when I’d see her in town or when I would visit my aunt and uncle, but I knew those moments were dwindling and would soon be gone.
Years later, I found myself traveling frequently to Latin America, learning Spanish, writing, and considering a career in non-profit work or ministry. I heard snippets about my cousin, who was on a different continent. Learning Swahili and pursuing a career in NGOs. Over the course of several years, we emailed back and forth one time, when I was considering a major surgery that she had undergone in college. Other than speaking for a few precious minutes at her brother’s wedding, I didn’t see her at all.
I’ll admit I let the distance grow. Lingering memories of always wanting to hang out with her, but feeling like the enthusiasm was not returned, left a bitter and embarrassed aftertaste. I’d watched my parents scraping for attention from my uncle and aunt and bending over backwards to make that family relationship work. I refused to follow in their footsteps, merely accepting scraps of attention from my gorgeous and super-cool cousin.
I resolved to forget about her, or at least not think about her too much. For the most part, I succeeded. I had my own life adventures to live and put a great portion of my focus on getting out of my hometown.
My resolve broke one spring day when I happened to be in Alabama the week her wedding took place. I groaned when I realized my poor choice, knowing I couldn’t escape the wedding if it were only two hours away and my entire family was attending.
It was the most awkward wedding I had ever been to. That whole side of the family did not seem happy to see me and one of my cousins-in-laws completely forgot who I was. I was transported back to the swimming pool days and felt like I was, once again, the awkward, unmarried, and unpopular cousin. My mother was hounding me to part the red sea on the dance floor and get a picture with my cousin before I left. How could I explain to the woman who fought ceaselessly to keep my dad’s side of the family together that I had nothing in common with my cousin anymore? We had not seen each other in years and if it hadn’t been for poor timing on my part, I wouldn’t even be at the wedding.
A couple years later, I moved to DC. My mother made sure to inform me of my cousin’s impeding move to the same city. Uncharacteristically, my cousin reached out to me first. We chatted about getting together but I didn’t commit. I wouldn’t reenter the pattern of one-sided relationship. If I were keeping score, she had a lot of catching up to do.
Months passed. I was at an event. I was on the phone with my roommate, giving her directions to find me. I got off the phone and heard a familiar voice chatting somewhere near me. My subconscious registered the voice, but before I could act on the recognition, my long-lost cousin was standing in front of me. “Are you here? I can’t believe you’re here!” “Oh my god, is it really you?” “What the heck. What are you doing here?” “I’m going to cry.” “Let’s get a picture and send it to your mom.” “How are you here? How in the world are we at the same place?”
We hung out at this event all evening. I met her friend and she met my roommate and we had the best time making fun of the performers and freezing to death.
We made tentative plans to grab drinks the next week. At this point, I had a semblance of hope growing that the drinks might actually happen. Still, even as I was walking to meet her on the evening we’d decided, I thought something might keep it from happening.
That whole week, I’d been reflecting on an observation that only 10 years of separation could have given me the clarity to see. While my cousin was still gorgeous and was sporting the most trendy of DC fashion, I thought I noticed her side-glances at me throughout the night. Was she experiencing the same tentative enthusiasm I was experiencing? Was she reining it in, only because she wasn’t sure if I felt the same way?
In the text messages before grabbing drinks, I sensed the tension—not wanting to be pushy but also really hoping nothing would happen to keep it from working out.
Those first few minutes were like going to drinks with someone you just met, yet there was a twinge of comfort, of familiarity. We were already friends. Sort of. We picked our cocktails, ordered a sushi role, and asked basic small talk questions about work and living situations.
Somewhere in there—probably halfway through the drinks—things started to flow. We talked about our past adventures. We talked about work and careers, but the deeper stuff—what we found fulfilling, how we got to where we were, where we hoped to be.
The waiter asked if we wanted another drink. I didn’t want to order one if my cousin was ready to head home. There was a brief, uncertain, back and forth. I realized she was feeling the same way, but was waiting for me to want to stay.
I ordered another. So did she.
There was this pressing need when we were growing up to present the best, most brushed up image of our lives. Back then, I don’t remember why I felt like I had to be perfect for my cousin. Was it just girlish, catty, childhood competition? Was it because I inwardly thought she was better than me so I didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire? Did I have my parents’ voices in my head, telling me to set a good example for the “non-Christian” family members? Whatever the reason, I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t want to reenter the relationship feeling like I needed to impress her. Could I, as an adult, be comfortable with my flaws and my own unique qualities, even if there were a risk they wouldn’t be accepted?
We alluded loosely to this strain between our families. I could sense the things we weren’t saying.
I was hurt by those things.
Me too.
It wasn’t our fault.
I know.
But we were still collateral damage.
It happens in families.
Do you think it could be better now?
Yes, I believe it can be.
We walked to the metro together, laughing and talking really fast. The Moscow Mules and Mojitos lent their hand to break down the leftover inhibitions of 10 years apart.
We made plans to see each other again soon. I got on the train, realizing I didn’t want to leave, but the hope that we’d see each other again—it was bigger this time.

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