Backstory

Talking family with a stranger is one thing because they’ll never think about it again. And what are the odds that they would ever meet said family? Approximately none, so there’s no pressure. But talking family with someone who, by some far stretch of my hopeful imagination, might one day meet those same people in the stories? That’s terrifying, for a lot of reasons, but it seems unavoidable.

It starts with some questions about childhood. I tell him about my favorite age, ask about his earliest memory. Conversation moves to vacations and things we used to build. Siblings get mixed in, we learn their names and take in pieces of their personalities. And just like that, the backstory begins to unfold. I worry a few times that this is too touchy a topic for him and offer to change the subject. He says no. At some point later, I guess I’m too quiet, and he nudges me reassuringly.

It was strange for me to open up the way I did. Normally, I tried to be more graceful, use words that taste a bit more forgiving. But this time, I opted for raw and uncensored. And that night, our spiraling conversation dropped us on a slab of solid common ground. It connected us in a way that we probably wouldn’t have expected. It isn’t my place to tell his story to the world, but I can share my half and maybe have it make enough sense that way.

I asked him his favorite age, fulling expecting the question to be turned back on myself, and I thought I had an answer ready. For almost four years now, I’ve declared my seventeenth year as the best, but something in his answer made me reevaluate. Then before I knew what was happening, I’d given him my answer. 11 was the best age. And why? Because it was the year I got my first dog, I was still into all kinds of sports and still loved them, and because my family was less of a mess then. I explained that it was before I knew anything about my half-sisters, before I gained step-sisters; it was just me and my kid brother and everything was so much easier to explain.

There was so much else I could say, but we quietly agreed that was best left for another time.

Still, I almost told him that I’ve never felt confident enough in a boyfriend to bring him home. I almost told him that I swallow down a pang of guilt every morning because, if not for me, my mom and dad never would have ended up married. They could have spent all those years so much happier. I almost told him that, when my mom met her new husband, I didn’t even recognize her because she wasn’t miserable anymore. It took my grandma saying she was back to her old self for me to realize how fucked up that was. I almost told him that my brother has grown into one of the best men I’ve ever known, and that I’m often jealous of him.

But I didn’t say any of those things because a part of me hopes that someday he might work his way into my family, and it seems unfair to send him in with those sorts of prejudices. Sure, more of my concerns will surface once I’m confident that he, or whoever it ends up being, won’t run away screaming at my “meet the parents” invitation. But until then, my gut is telling me to wait it out. Now, if only my heart wasn’t ready to pour open into his hands.

It seems as though we all like to believe that our own behind-the-scenes is messier than most others around us. Sometimes we’re embarrassed about it. Sometimes we’re ashamed. Sometimes we just aren’t sure what to say about our bloodlines other than, “well, it’s kind of a fucked up situation.” And that’s okay, but very seldom is it the case that one person’s family is hanging on by a thread while the other’s is just picture perfect. We’re all a little messed up.

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