Just tossing out a guess, but for every…..hmmmm…..let’s say 5 relatively “normal,” functioning members in my family, I have at least 1 who is so far beyond the definition of bizarre that it would require words that have not yet been invented to convey to you their utter and saturating bizarreness.

Some of them I’ve never known, but are just central figures in the family rumors that are whispered behind closed doors. Apparently, I have 2 cousins with schizophrenia who have been in mental institutions since before I was born…..*ahem*…..for trying to kill their husbands. I don’t know their names, and I certainly wouldn’t publish them even if I did, but from what my mom tells me, they are her cousins, which I guess would make them my 2nd cousins. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…..on my mother’s side. Lucky for me, I got ’em on both sides.

Then, there are the ones I know very well. The ones I grew up with. Some of whom I’ve lived with at various times. The kind of people you, in the moment, know are a bit off, but never realize the extent of their offness until you are grown and removed from the situation. Then, you look back and you think, “What the ever lovin’ FUCK was going on there?”

It’s one such cousin who, at the urging of my oldest boy, I am going to tell you about today. And boy is she a winner.

For the purposes of thinly veiled anonymity, we will call her Cleo. Why Cleo? Because when she was a teenager, she used to tell people she was a direct descendant of Cleopatra. No lie. She even had this ugly, cheap gold necklace in her jewelry box that she said belonged to the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt herself.

Cleo is about 4 or 5 years older than me. She was a cousin, my mother’s sister’s daughter. And yeah, she kinda had a little bit of a rough childhood. Nothing Lifetime Channel worthy, but I suppose it did leave her feeling a bit unwanted. As a little girl, I looked up to her to some extent. I thought she was much prettier than me. At 8 or 9 years old, when most children start thinking of the opposite sex as more than someone to throw rocks at on the playground, I was so freakishly short and stubby that boys never took me seriously. To them, I’m sure I looked like a baby, and that’s just not girlfriend material. But Cleo was very thin and willowy, tall enough to look her age but still small enough to be considered petite in every definition of the word.

And yes, I looked up to her at that age. I felt sorry for her because it seemed that her mom saw her as baggage instead of a daughter. She never had the relationship with her mother that I had with mine. And I’d never known what it felt like to be unwanted by your own mother. And, in retrospect, I know that Cleo needed attention. But, it seems as though she operated under the assumption that negative attention was better than no attention. Either way, for a short time, she certainly had mine.

For several years, because of family situations that would just make this story more congested than it already is, Cleo and I lived under the same roof. During those years, I felt many times as though I was growing up in her shadow. The roof we were living under belonged to my grandmother, the mother of both my mom and Cleo’s mom. My grandmother let my sisters and me know point blank that Cleo was her favorite, by word and deed. I distinctly remember her taking all of us to the mall to buy Cleo clothes…….and “allowing” my sisters and I to tag along and watch. I suppose at a very young age I saw Cleo as a star and myself as her groupie. She’d tell me I wasn’t pretty……but she was. She’d tell me I was too chubby…..but she’d always be thin and beautiful. I remember her telling me shit like my cheek bones weren’t high enough, my knees were fat, my brown eyes were ugly because everyone knows blue eyes are better.

Wow. This is fucking cathartic. I never meant to get into this much detail. This girl was really a piece of work.

With her, I had many firsts. I first discovered there was no Santa when she made me hide behind the living room sofa on Christmas Eve so I could see Mom and Gram putting the presents under the tree. I played “doctor” for the first time. Oh yes we did. I broke into a house for the first (and only) time. I sneaked out of the house for the first (and certainly not the last) time. I went to a super cool high school party for the first time. And I danced with a boy for the first time. And that is the point of this story.

I must have been in the 5th or 6th grade. Cleo was probably in the 9th grade. Or maybe even younger. But I’ll stick with that. Every Friday night, the Rec Center in our little town held Friday Night Drop-Ins. It was a 2 or 3-hour event for junior high and high school-aged kids to come and hang out. The gym was the dance floor. Music was played. That type of thing. I was too young to go, but Cleo wasn’t, so many times I would go with her. And it was those times I really felt like I’d hit the red carpet…..even if I was playing the role of her purse-holder. It was during these times that I started to discover that her peers, the kids who were her age, didn’t exactly regard her the same way I did. Yes, even then, I knew she was strange. Her condescending attitude toward me did not go over my head. But it was a sacrifice I was willing to make to hang out with her. But, during these Drop-Ins, I would notice that the “cool kids” her age didn’t really pay much attention to her. I started noticing people would roll their eyes at her after she walked past. I was just starting to get the very beginning of an inkling that maybe it was okay NOT to like her.

During this time, Cleo had a raging crush on a boy named Crawford. He was the quintessential “Troy Bolton.” He was pretty beyond all reason, played football, and his family was very well known in our small community. And Cleo was absolutely in love with this boy. Her notebooks were peppered with his name in her very best cursive writing, her last name substituted with his in the typical teenage female ritual of passive-aggressive lustful expression.

And she was quite adept at using me as her fantasy sounding board. Since I was so much younger and so far removed from her peer group, my only source of information about her social life was from her. There was no talking behind her back, hearing the other side of the story, or catching the whispers from the rumor mill at that age (although, as I grew older, this indeed did begin in earnest). There was only Cleo and her stories. And as far as Cleo was concerned, Crawford loved her, too. Crawford was her boyfriend. They were getting married. But…….





(I’ll give you a moment to finish laughing and catch your breath.)

All better? Good.

One unremarkable Friday evening, I tagged along with her to another Drop In at the Rec Center. And again, I was feeling much the same as I always did around her- like her pet chihuahua she dyed pink to match her outfit. We sat on the bleachers in the gym talking with the few girls who, as I realize in retrospect, would give her the time of day. We watched the other kids dance. She swooned over Crawford and followed his every move with her eyes, giggling in my ear and clutching my arm every time he breathed in her direction. And as always, I felt a bit excited to even be part of her drama. As imagined and convoluted as I was beginning to realize it was, it did have a certain entertainment value for me. At this age, part of me was starting to feel a bit embarrassed to be with her as I slowly realized her entire reality was also her fantasy. Yet, another part of me was just having fun “hanging out” with much older kids.

As many times as I went to the Rec Center with her, as many times as I listened to her spin her tales of teenage romance and tawdry secrets, I was very much aware that Crawford was not her boyfriend. This is strange, but I think I allowed her to lie to me. I purposely never called her on it. I knew she was lying, but I think I felt as though I had no right to out her. And I hate to say that because it’s really not like me at all. But, it’s true.

So, as we sat there watching the other kids dance and laugh, and as I’m listening to her whisper in my ear that she swears he just looked at her, a slow song begins to play in the gym. Boys and girls start to pair up with stars in their eyes and sheepish grins on their faces. And none other than Troy Bolton himself begins to walk toward the bleachers. To walk toward us.

I remember feeling Cleo’s nails digging into the underside of my arm, doing everything physically possible to keep herself from wiggling and giggling, but what happened next was certainly NOT on my to-do list that day.

Crawford asked ME to dance.

Now, I know it would make this story much more exciting if, at this point, I started to spin a tale worthy of Stephen King himself. I know it would be so much more interesting if I said that I really was naive that night and assumed he asked me to dance for any other reason than to simply piss Cleo the fuck off, but I did know.

Regardless, the emotions that were racing through my subjugated little head at that moment were making me sweat. I waffled between wishing I could allow myself to be naively starry-eyed and wanting to high-five him right there in front of her.

Of course I said yes.

And I remember him being such a gentleman. And good god could that boy smile.

I can’t even begin to imagine how tiny I was out there with all those beautiful high school kids, with their make-up and their hair bows and their trendy clothes, most of them actually dancing with their boyfriend/girlfriend, and there I was. An insignificant, stubby little 6th grader dancing with Troy Bolton.

It was at that moment that It really dawned on me how ill-regarded Cleo really was among these kids. As we danced, I remember all the other kids around us on the dance floor slapping us on the back and laughing and high-fiving.

But I didn’t feel used. Maybe I should have? No one was being mean to me. They were being mean to her. They weren’t making fun of me. They were making fun of her. And up until that moment, for as long as I knew her, I had NEVER experienced anyone calling her out, telling her she was full of shit, letting her know this pointedly that she was NOT who she thought she was. And as I danced with this boy, for the length of the entire song, as I basked in the revelry of simply being there, I also basked in the realization that that bitch just got taken down a notch.

In closing, even though I’d never really known him or spoken to him or spent any time with him after this, I’d like to say that he was a consummate gentleman. And regardless of his intentions, regardless of whether or not he even remembers this, my life was changed in an ever so small, but significant, way that night. So, thank you, Crawford. That was pretty fucking awesome. And I’d bet anyone a million bucks you’re still pretty beyond all reason.

As for Cleo, she grew up to have her very own page on Mr. Skin and tries to pass herself off as 30 years old. Good job, girl. Good job. But you aren’t foolin’ me. Your tits are fake and you’re pushin’ 40. And New Kids On The Block didn’t write that song just for you. I asked them myself. And they asked me to dance.