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Suzan Sherman

The Cousin

There are two kinds of lies. Lies and white lies. Lies are forbidden. But white lies, mom explained, are there for a reason.

We would have talks like this when I'd lied. When I'd changed my report card grade from D to B. Just a small thin line I drew, before bringing it home to mom. The line looked real enough, it looked like a B, and by the time I placed the card in mom's hands I almost believed I deserved a B in Social Studies. Lies were truth, if you believed in them hard enough. Mom's eyes scanned down the grades and then, as though she were going to flip a page of a story, she wet her finger with her tongue, and wiped it across my Social Studies grade, leaving a gray smudge, and a wide gaping hole in the center of the D. Stupidly, I had used pencil. I would know better next time.

She'd sit me down and it was like a meeting -- a meeting to mold my character.

There are lies and white lies. Learn the difference. You lied to me. But if someone says to you, what do you think of my new hair style? You would say it's very nice. This is a white lie. You would get the name and number of the hairdresser, even if you would never be caught dead, looking like that outside of the house. You would do this to protect yourself, as well as the other person, because honey, you wouldn't be liked if you really told people the truth.

Why wasn't changing my grade a white lie? I wanted mom to like me. There wasn't any difference, white or no, lies were lies. But I kept quiet with my own ideas. I shook my head and looked at my pale white hands, like dead fish, lying there in my lap.

***

I have a favorite picture of my mother. It sits on the shelf above my kitchen sink. I look at it when I'm washing dishes sometimes. Bubbles of soap suds have dried on the glass, leaving cloudy gray blobs that stick to the dust.

It's a hot day in Coney Island. Mom is young enough that she looks happy, lying on a clean white blanket, stomach pressed down to the sand. The sand must be soft, it looks clean and new, like the Parachute Jump and the Boardwalk in the background. Everything was new then. Mom's wearing a low cut bathing suit and I can see her deep woman cleavage. I tried imitating it, pushing my skin together until it formed a line.

There's a boy on mom's back I've never met before. My cousin Sam, who must have been about four. It was 1948, before mom had me, a child of her own. Sam has a crew cut and his arms are comfortable, reaching around mom's neck. Both my mother and Sam have the same squinty sun at the beach eyes and semi-circle smiles. The sky is as gray as mom's arms. No one is sitting next to them, they are all alone.

Sam lives on a farm in Minnesota now, with his wife and two kids. They have long wild hair, and Mom says they're hippies. Sam mailed mom pictures of his farm, him shearing sheep, the inside of their log cabin, Sam on a tractor, Sam's wife knitting sweaters for their children, my cousins.

We had never seen such a thing before. We'd lived in Queens, and before that Brooklyn, and before that, who knows? Although I never met my cousin Sam, I liked him. I wanted to be a farmer, like Sam. I told my mom this, when I brought home a C. It didn't matter, I explained, that I got a C in English. Farmers don't need to know English.

She looked at me and sat me down, on the familiar side of couch, which was now forming a dent, from all of our meetings on the molding of my character.

Sam is not like you or me, Mom began, taking my hands in hers.

I knew that Sam was not like us. Sam was a farmer. We weren't. Bugs Bunny was going on in five minutes, but I waited for more.

Sam's parents might have been farmers too, Mom explained. He realized he was different from us, and so he went away.

Sam's parents were my Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ralph. They weren't farmers. Uncle Ralph got hurt in WWII and Aunt Sylvia cooked. They didn't even have a garden to sink their fingers into. Had they ever even touched dirt before? Both had neatly trimmed hairstyles, and Aunt Sylvia certainly wore her share of make-up. I liked her nail polish, it was silver like metal, which she also wore on her toes. Although she had no nails on her pinky toes, Aunt Sylvia painted over the skin anyway, pretending. Was this a white lie? I didn't ask mom. I said, Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ralph are Sam's parents.

Mom let out a sigh, and squeezed my fingers until the tips of them looked like red balloons.

Sam is adopted honey, which means other people made Sam. Then they gave Sam to Sylvia and Ralph. Sam's parents couldn't take care of him, but Sylvia and Ralph wanted to. Ralph wanted a son.

I felt hot now. Bugs Bunny seemed stupid and childish, and I was confused. It felt like Social Studies. I could feel my brain stretching to fill what was coming inside.

Sam doesn't know though. Ralph and Sylvia told him a fib dear, by not telling him. A white lie, so his feelings wouldn't be hurt. So he would feel the same as all of us. Sam must have known though, deep down, that something wasn't right. No pictures of Sylvia pregnant and all. So he went away to farm, to be who was in his blood, though Sylvia and Ralph never did tell him. But honey, you're like us, living here in the city with us. No farms for you, get those pretty fingers dirty, no sir ree.

I liked going to Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Ralph's house. Uncle Ralph would tell me jokes that weren't funny but I would laugh anyway, while Aunt Sylvia stuffed cabbage. I would stick to the couch covered in plastic, and their calico named Cleo would rub up next to me. Uncle Ralph would get up slowly from his chair, and while he was in the bathroom I would look around.

On the wall, there were two photographs, the same size. One of Sam, one of Ralph, the same age. Both were tinted to look like paintings. Their cheeks were airbrushed an unnatural pink, and they looked so -- so similar. The same long thin nose and face, tiny eyes, full lips. They even had the same flat topped crew cut. When Uncle Ralph came back he'd see me there, studying the photographs. You two look so much alike Uncle Ralph, I'd say, like a cookoo emerging from a clock and chirping, at just the right time.

Uncle Ralph would put his hands in his pockets and lean his shoulders back. Yep my son and I do, don't we? he'd say, as though he were proud, like he'd made something.

I feel a chill now, looking at the photograph of Sam and my mother. That I should know something important about Sam without him. People would want you to tell them, if their haircut looked funny. Sam's fingers wrapped around mom's neck, mom and Sam, they seem so close to one another. If it was a horror movie on late at night, the cold color of the screen would make the room dull and foggy. The reception would come from some unknown point far away, and for a moment everything would be stripped to tiny dots that the mind could somehow make sense out of. The film would jump to a close-up, and in the next frame Sam's tiny hands would squeeze around my mother, until no air was left. He would still be sitting on mom's back with that same camera smile, and we would all hide our faces, terribly ashamed.

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