Relative Strangers

This essay was initially published in Fish Food Magazine, Issue 1, 2017

 

Relative Strangers

 “It’s your cousin Sharon!” said the clipped, nasal, distinctly New York voice. But we’d never met, never spoken. My family moved to California when I was six, the year before Sharon was born. Now the daughter of my mother’s sister Rose, a thin cord of my maternal lineage, was calling across the miles.

“I want to come to San Diego,” she announced. She needed to get away from New York, make a fresh start, become her own person, something like that. Could she stay with me, maybe a few weeks—“please?”—until she figured out what to do. I lived with my five-year-old daughter in a small two-bedroom apartment. I didn’t have room or resources to take in an unknown houseguest, family or not, for an indefinite stay.

Sharon sensed my hesitation. “I won’t be a burden. I’ll get a job, I’ll help, I’ll babysit for Jennifer.” She’d always wanted to meet me. We had a special bond—“our mothers are s-o-o-o close….”

I called my mother. I could see her eyes rolling when she said “Oh my god….” Or maybe “kina hurra” (Yiddish, loosely, for “lotsa luck, you’re gonna need it”). Sharon was twenty-four and lived with her mother, who housed and fed her, doled out cash, shouldered her problems. pick up after herr to cook one was

“She always was a handful,” Mom said. “This could be just what she needs.” Maybe getting away from Rose would make Sharon more responsible and independent. Rose would be so grateful. And she, Mom, would be so grateful. “But I understand if you think it’s too much.”

My life was dominated by work and single motherhood. I was barely thirty, frazzled and in a rut. I couldn’t recall my last act of spontaneity, yet I wanted to be open to new experience. Yes, I would rise to the occasion, do it for my mother.

 

Tall and thin, glossy dark hair flying, Sharon beamed as she sighted us and strode across the tarmac. She greeted us with warm embraces and an animated stream of chatter, punctuated frequently with “ya knows,” that didn’t stop all the way home. At my apartment I caught my mother’s eye and mouthed, “Help!” She patted the air in a downward motion: “It’ll be ok.”

Sharon knew she’d be sleeping on a sofa-bed in the living room. “Anything,” she’d said in her joyful anticipation. “I’ll sleep on the floor.” Now, as I wrenched open the stubborn bed and handed her a stack of linens, she eyed it warily. I assured her Jennifer and I would be quiet getting ready for work and school in the morning, and we’d be out by 7:30. She grimaced: “As long as you don’t expect me to get up. I like to sleep in, ya know?”

She didn’t budge in the mornings, even with muted noises a few feet away, the accidental clatter of Jennifer’s spoon in her cereal bowl, her childish decibels and my “Shhhh.” Sharon would be on the couch watching TV when we got home—the reassembled sofa the only clue that she’d moved.

“How was your day?” I’d ask, my enthusiasm more forced each time.

“Just hanging out, ya know?” Everything was so new, it was hard to get her bearings, find her way around. I reminded her of the map on the coffee table, the bus stop a block away, the beaches and downtown not far.

“There’s so much to see and do,” I said.

“It’s just my second (third, fourth) day,” she replied, adding the requisite “ya know?”

 

She slept past mid-morning on the weekend. The folded-out bed took up most of the room, and I tiptoed around, annoyed as much with myself as with her. When she got up, she dawdled as if she were in a suite at the Hyatt. “No room service,” I said, half joking, and asked her to make up the bed so we could move around the room. Ever the princess, she made her needs and wishes known. The bed was hard to maneuver, not flip-of-the-finger smooth like other sofa-beds. Could she have another pillow? She liked to sleep with two or three. There was a pea under the twelfth mattress—no, not that, not yet.

Jennifer had always wanted a sibling; she and her child-like cousin hit it off right away. Their age difference seemed inconsequential as they played with Barbies and plastic zoo animals, hunched over crayons and coloring books. I was happy to see Jennifer entertained, but Sharon was more of a burden than a helping hand. I thought she would jump up to help with dinner, but it didn’t cross her mind. I don’t think she went into the kitchen at home except to take a Coke out of the fridge. She’d watch sitcoms with Jennifer until I asked her to set the table or pour water. After dinner I suggested she dry dishes.

“Just let them drain overnight,” she said. “That’s what my mother does.”

I explained that we needed the counter space free in the morning. She’d shake her head, sniff, sigh.

I cooked quick and easy kid food—casseroles, spaghetti, tacos—you don’t make gourmet feasts for a five-year-old, especially after a long work day. I had some Melmac dishes with three compartments that Jennifer liked because they kept her fish sticks separate from her tater tots, prevented vegetable seepage from contaminating her rice. One of her favorite meals was a hamburger casserole with green beans, tomato soup and mashed potatoes, my mother’s cottage pie adaptation. I made it and dished it out for the three of us, salad and rolls in their cubicles. Sharonor the three of us on ‘eventingnifer and I od.  looked down at her plate, then up at me.

“These look like dog dishes,” she said. “And this looks like dog food.”

Jennifer stifled a shocked giggle and looked at me. I swallowed the urge to shove Sharon’s face in her dish, laughed instead to grab the moral high ground. “This is the way we eat,” I said, “ya know? You can fix dinner anytime you want.”

Her mother kept kosher, so I wasn’t surprised that Sharon coveted pork and shellfish, the forbidden fare. She yearned for ham, she said conspiratorially. I seldom cooked meat, just ground beef and chicken breasts, but I sympathized with her longing. I baked a small canned ham with pineapple rings on top, a festive meal with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. She took one bite.

“This isn’t like any ham I’ve ever tasted,” she said. The leftovers were in the fridge the next day when she brought home a deli ham sandwich.

On the weekends, we went to the zoo, parks and beaches. We often had lunch or a snack out, but Sharon never offered to share the check. One day I drove up to the mountains, but she didn’t want to hike the scenic trails. “Hiking?” she said, as if I’d suggested we dig up insects with our fingernails and eat them.

Drinking and dancing were more Sharon’s idea of fun than hikes and picnics. I wasn’t in a relationship then and didn’t have much of a social life. She wanted me to get babysitters for Jennifer so we could go out and party. “I’ll meet people, make friends,” she pleaded, bribed. I didn’t like the bar scene, but we went once to a place I thought would be lively enough for her, tame enough for me. We ordered drinks, and when they came I said, “You’re buying, right?” She couldn’t worm out this time.

She danced with a couple of guys, and one hung around. “He’s going to bring me home,” she said, so I left. I heard them come in around 2:00 a.m. The walls were thin … she wouldn’t, would she? I gulped in relief when I heard her “thanks, good night,” and his footsteps fading away. The next day she got up at noon and told me how inferior the place, the music, the guys were.

“This isn’t New York,” I said. “But if you decide to try it again, you’re on your own.”

She watched Jennifer a couple of times when I went out to dinner or a movie with friends. This was supposedly one of the pluses of having her here, but she flouted my instructions about Jennifer’s bedtime, snacks, TV. Payback, I assumed, for not feeding, coddling and entertaining her in the manner she desired.

Sharon had arrived on a one-way ticket with a little spending money. Her plan was to get a job so she could help out, do more on her own. I started prodding her after a week, since she wasn’t making any moves. She hadn’t worked much since high school and never held a job very long. She’d been a receptionist at a salon, a sales clerk in a department store, hostess at a restaurant. What about waiting tables, I suggested. Too menial; she’d work in an office. She looked at help wanted ads, made some calls, filled out a few applications but never got a call-back. Finally she registered with a temp agency and got an assignment photocopying at a law firm. After two days she told me she didn’t like the work or the people or the bus ride or the coffee or something. She didn’t go back or make any further effort to find a job.

 

How long she was with us—a month? Three? Too long. My tolerance ran out. Even Jennifer questioned her ongoing presence: “She isn’t going to live with us forever, is she?”

“This isn’t working,” I told Sharon. She’d have to go.

“But I don’t have money to get home,” she said.

Pay or I stay? It sounded like blackmail.

“I don’t either,” I told her, “but you’re going to have to figure something out.”

She couldn’t ask her mother, she said, but she had no qualms about going to my parents. My mother felt guilty for encouraging me to take her in; now she wanted to make amends. She would pay the ransom, buy Sharon a ticket home.

“You can afford it even less than I can,” I said. We agreed I would front the money, and they would give it to Sharon; that way she’d be more inclined to repay it.

The relief was palpable, hugs all around, slights forgotten as we watched her stride out of our lives as blithely as she’d marched in. I didn’t hear from her—not thanks, not “go to hell”—nor did my parents. After several months my mother told Rose how disappointed she was that Sharon had made no effort to repay their loan. Rose, ever-indulgent, mailed a check. “Sharon’s having a hard time getting back on her feet,” she said.

Jennifer and I returned to our harmonious routines. We joked for years about dog dishes and kibble diet. “Arf, arf,” she would bark when I set out her plate. She said “Ya know?” at every opportunity and laughed at my exaggerated snarls. Once, in the middle of an unrelated conversation, she said, “If you have another baby, I’d rather have a brother than a sister.”

I saw Sharon again fifteen years later when I went to New York on a business trip. My mother had died some years earlier, and I visited Rose in her Queens apartment. “Sharon’s coming over with her daughter Robyn,” she said. “She’s so eager to see you.”

Sharon and I greeted each other warmly. She was a single mother in her mid-30s now, but she still seemed flighty. Robyn was a beautiful child, but pouty and demanding, indulged by both mother and grandmother. Several years later, after Rose passed away, Sharon moved to California—fortunately the other end of the state. She called occasionally, chatty, oblivious. She wanted to see me and Jennifer, maybe come down for a visit. She didn’t see my raised eyebrows. Kina hurra, I thought (Yiddish, loosely, for “when pork chops fly.”)

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