May 05, 2009

Dharma Cowgirl Ch.2 - Familiar Strangers

“So, my cousin is getting married in Longmont in a few weeks. My family is driving out from Omaha. You want to come and keep me from being bored to tears?”

“Sure. I’d like to meet your family.”

I blinked from my spot sprawled across the bed that took up nine-tenths of the tiny room in the long-condemned trailer. “Uh…okay. You sure? I mean, I’d love it if you’d come with me, but they’re all a bunch of conservative ranchers.”

“They’re not gonna shoot me or anything, right?”

“Well, no. They leave their guns in the trucks when they go to church.” I worried that I was only half joking. “Besides, they’ll be delighted to see me bring a guy. I think some of them are seriously starting to worry that I’m gay. Plus, they’re Nebraskans, so they’re polite to everyone.”

“Cool. Just let me know when it is, so I can ask for time off.”

I spent a lot of time that summer hanging out in that trailer between the bath house and the recycling dumpsters, anytime I could escape from Boulder for the weekend, which was about twice a month. The trailer was part of Shambhala Mountain Center, where I had worked the summer before. It had been the first time I had ever escaped Nebraska for any real length of time. That’s where I met Stephen and we had clumsily managed something that the charitable might have called a relationship. Things had mellowed between us in the nine months I had been back at school, but we were both excited when I got the internship in Boulder the following summer. That summer, we were comfortable with each other.

He knew about my family, of course, and about Nebraska because I had spoken about them. He spoke significantly less about his own family and growing up in North Dakota, which he self-professed to hate. He never liked to speak of anything unpleasant in his life. I knew the feeling of not quite fitting in the place you are supposed to call home, but I never really understood why he disliked North Dakota so intensely. After all, it sounded very much like Nebraska, which I continued to love even while I was off having an affair with Colorado. In the end, I figured his reasons must have been personal and left him to his privacy.

It still surprised me that he seemed so eager to meet my family. My cousin Jeff is a few years younger than I. He was marrying a school-teacher, Melinda, in the Lutheran church in Longmont on the first Saturday of June, the same day my parents had married thirty-five years before. It was all very by the book. Melinda had been one of Katie’s bridesmaids at her wedding to Jim, Jeff’s older brother, a few years before. A year later, Jeff had brought her to a family reunion in Hay Springs, to meet Great-grandma P. and the rest of the family. We figured the deal was mostly sealed and no one was surprised when the engagement was announced a few months later.

Jeff is a stranger in a familiar pattern, dressed up like someone I should know but don’t. Jeff, like my other three cousins on my mother’s side, had a degree in agriculture from a public university and a respectable job as a buyer for a sheep slaughtering plant. He wore tight jeans with shiny belt-buckles he had won himself, boots, and a cowboy hats. He drove a big, rumbling truck, and helped to teach his three-year-old nephew, Cole, how to toss a lasso. He got along just fine with my other cousins, but I always had the impression he never knew quite what to make of me, and not because I was the only girl. Still, we coexisted after a fashion, even if we would never be close or truly comfortable with each other. It took five-hudred miles of interstate for me to find people I felt comfortable with, people who didn't feel like strangers even on the day we met.

My family is full of familiar strangers.

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