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Saying Goodbye
By Heather Scott

With the subtle cool posture that one assumes when trying to persuade a maître de for a seat at the finest table, she lifted her arm just high enough to reveal a wad of cash cupped in her downward facing palm. I, with the deflated slouch of the maître de who realized my inability to say no to the offering, raised my arm to greet hers. My eyes darted back and forth, scanning the crowd for witnesses. As soon as our hands met, I grabbed the cash and quickly stuffed it into my front pocket. Without looking, I knew that it was $145 -- five dollars for the in-flight movie, forty dollars to take a cab home from the airport, and one hundred dollars for general spending. My mother and I were standing at the gate waiting for my plane to board. Nervously, we shifted our weight from side to side like synchronized dancers who both had to go to the bathroom very badly. The exchange made us both visibly uncomfortable -- I, because I needed the money so much, and she, because I needed the money so much. This ritual felt forced and embarrassed us both, yet we still practiced it and incorporated it into our individual budgets after every visit. It was the monetary equivalent of saying a prayer before each family meal.

Usually after the handoff we would awkwardly hug and promise to keep in touch. But this time, unexpectedly, something went wrong. I tucked the money securely into my pocket and psychologically vomited. "You never ask to see any of my photographs. Why don't you ever ask to see anything I do?"

My mother wasn't expecting this turn of events. She was sticking to the script, while I decided to improvise. In two sentences, I had shattered our strictest family rule -- no public outbursts. There wasn't any amount of pain or anger that justified the indignity of an outward display of emotion. Dogs have attacked us on the street. Bicyclists have run us over as we hiked. And lovers have dumped us in restaurants. In response, we quietly wrapped the chewed sleeve around the bite, silently reinserted the dislocated shoulder, gathered our broken hearts, and headed to the privacy of our home where the tears and blood flowed freely. We prefer self-conscious implosions. Consequently, we are a bloodline filled with stomach ailments, ground-down teeth, and heavy drinking. At the age of twenty, I was diagnosed as a possible alcoholic with a pre-ulcer condition and finally entered a rite of passage that confirmed that I was truly a purebred Scott. When I returned home from the doctor, my mother patted me on the back, handed me a bottle of Pepto Bismol, welcomed me to adulthood, and reminded me to never tell the doctor how much I drink.

Work, the weather, and gossip were the three topics we stuck to during holiday meals -- the only times during which my whole family was together. Sympathy and commiseration are deceptively taxing emotions that stopped us from even sharing the misery of our familial ulcers. The only person who contributed any real conversation was my oldest brother John's wife Dana who, as a relative through marriage, was free of the genetic handicaps that bound all our other exchanges. Exhibiting the subtlety and restraint of a drunken sailor, she had openly postulated that, my older brother Rob's dating problems stemmed from his latent homosexuality, inferred that it was time for my father to resign as head of the family, and accused me of stealing her credit card; all in the time it took the waiter to recite the daily specials. When she informed me that my parents had sex every Tuesday, it was clear that Dana saw her presence in our family as a church-endorsed, state-sanctioned mandate to introduce my family to every topic we'd ever hoped to avoid.

The mystique of the unknown originally caused me to open up to Dana and confide in her my innermost thoughts and feelings. In turn, Dana confided those innermost thoughts and feelings to her friends and neighbors, and my friends and neighbors. Two weeks ago, the guests at her Christmas party met me with the collective look of someone watching a movie where they already knew the ending, but were curious about the plot twists anyway. Dana's friends asked deep and personal questions, and listened to my answers, with the same astonishment and anticipation of someone hearing that Thanksgiving would fall on a Thursday that year. It felt like the start of a refreshingly banal conversation when someone asked, "What does your mother think of your photography?" And so I answered, "I don't know, she hasn't seen it."

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