Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Last But Not Least

I stepped into my darkened apartment and sighed. I slipped off my shoes and collapsed onto the couch without bothering to turn on a light. I hadn’t had a hard day at work; not in terms of actual work, anyway. I’d been trying to ignore texts from my siblings all day, but when my younger brother turned up and started bothering my assistant with questions about my schedule and offering her coffee, I had to start paying attention.
Apparently my mother had told them that I wasn’t planning to attend the family reunion.
Logan walked into my office at set the cup of tea that my assistant had prepared on my desk. “What’s this about, Jack?” he asked.
I stared at him. Little Logan, the youngest of the seven of us, the one my mother occasionally referred to as “Last but not least” had gotten engaged to his boyfriend two weeks ago.
“You shouldn’t flirt with her,” I told him, casting a glance at my smitten assistant. “What would Doug say?”
Logan laughed. “He won’t care,” he assured me. Then he continued with the object of his visit: he perched on an expensive chair in front of my desk and began the interrogation. “Mom said you’re not coming to the reunion this weekend.”
“I’m kind of busy, here,” I protested.
“You’re not,” he scoffed.
“Well, I will be if I have to keep paying attention to all of you yelling at me!” I cried, as the text alert on my phone went off for the eightieth time that day. This time it was Amy, the oldest. I shoved my phone in one of the desk drawers in disgust.
“Jackie,” he said softly. “We’re not going to stop until one of two things happens: you tell us why, or you come to the reunion.”
I wasn’t going to do either of those things.
It didn’t have anything to do with my family, really. I loved my brothers and sisters and enjoyed it whenever I got to see them, which was pretty frequently, as my mother loved to have huge family dinners at her house several times per month. The last time I had been there was right after Logan and Doug announced their engagement, and something strange happened: my mother used her favorite saying not to describe Logan, but instead used it to refer to me.
Sure, all of my siblings were either married or in long-term relationships, and I was the only single one left. It had never bothered me before. There is nothing wrong with being single; I had a fulfilling career, wonderful friends, and a supportive family. But apparently all that my mother could see about my life was my long list of ex-boyfriends.
“Last but not least!” she had said, patting me comfortingly on the shoulder as I helped her carry scalloped potatoes into the dining room.
My brother snapped his fingers in front of my nose. “Come back, Jack,” he called, as though he had hypnotized me and was awakening me from a trance.
I rolled my eyes.
It would be easier to confess. So I gave Logan my best “don’t tell Amy” glare and my brother crossed his heart, zipped his lips, and threw away the key. Then I quickly explained that I didn’t want to be “last but not least” to my entire family: siblings, cousins, and distantly related aunts.
“Boo-freaking-hoo,” Logan sneered. “Try bearing that burden your whole life.”
“Yes,” I assented, “but you can’t help that you’re the youngest; the only reason I’m inheriting the title is because I broke up with Steven.” I paused to ready my best impression of our mother. “‘And Steven was such a nice boy!’”
Logan laughed. “Okay,” he said, and sighed. “I get it. But maybe that’s not what she means.” He gave me a serious look. “You should think about going anyway. Uncle Ralph is coming this year, and he’s bound to keep Mom distracted most of the time. She’s been after him to quit smoking.”
“I’ll think about it,” I grumbled.
So I did. I thought about it for the rest of the day, all the way home, and was sick of the subject by the time I got to my couch. My siblings could never have dogged me into giving in and going to the reunion, but apparently my conscience could.
Besides. I didn’t want to miss the yearly squirt gun battle with my nieces.

Going to the reunion turned out to be a good decision. I totally dominated the squirt gun battle, and lunch was provided by my sister’s amazing personal chef/husband. We called a truce about midday so that we could all find some shade and eat. I stood around talking to a couple of my sisters-in-law by the dessert, even though I was starving for one of Joe’s delicious burgers.
My Aunt Jacqueline was sitting near the grill.
It’s really unfortunate to be named after someone disagreeable, especially the type of person that tells an eight year old at her birthday party that she’s old enough to know that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Aunt Jacqueline was just such a delight.
I stood in the shade with my brother Ben’s wife and watched to see if my aunt would mosey on and find a new group of people to complain to about her useless ex-husband, but it seemed as though she had put down roots; besides, she had a good audience.
“Just go grab a burger,” Tanya said, nudging me. “Maybe she won’t even notice you there.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “If only…”
Keeping my eyes down and my mouth shut, I grabbed a paper plate and waited in line for a burger behind one of my really tall second cousins. I hoped that my aunt would continue to tell the tale of how her husband never pitched in to clean up the kitchen and would take no notice of me. When my cousin wandered off with his food, I stopped paying attention to what my aunt was doing and focused on my own burger, which looked delicious. My stomach growled loudly in anticipation.
That’s when it happened.
“Jacqueline!” my aunt declared. She was the only one who called me that. Probably she was proud of the fact that I’d been named after her. The rest of the world called me Jack (or Jackie), even my work associates. “You’re dressed like a harlot! I wouldn’t be expecting to meet any men here, dear, this is a family reunion. Although I suppose you may be at the point where you’re ready to take what you can get; your mother tells me you’re the last of her brood that’s still single!”
My face immediately went as red as the raspberry Sriracha sauce that Joe had just put on my burger. I shifted my weight from one sopping flip flop to the other, and considered my waterlogged and not terribly alluring appearance. True, the cutoff jean shorts I had worn over my swimsuit weren’t all that modest, and everyone could see the green and purple stripes of my swimsuit through the old t-shirt that had been clinging to my abdomen since earlier that day when my niece had bulls-eyed me with a huge water balloon. So maybe my Aunt Jacqueline was right for once; maybe I was dressed like a harlot. But it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I was single, and not for one second while choosing what to wear that morning had it entered into my head that I would be meeting the man of my dreams that day.
I slowly put down my plate, summoned a sweet smile from an alternate universe where my aunt didn’t exist, and turned around.
“You’re right, Aunt Jacqueline,” I said loudly, interrupting the story she had begun telling to her unfortunate audience. “I honestly didn’t think about what I was putting on this morning, so I apologize if my outfit offended you. I mostly just wanted to be comfortable while I played with the kids today. I’m not husband hunting; usually I schedule that for a day I’m not going to be completely drenched. So it really doesn’t bother me what I look like right now. And don’t worry, I’ll find the right person someday, but frankly, I’d rather be single for the rest of my life than become a bitter, hateful ex-wife like you.”
I grabbed my burger and exited the pavilion, walking across the park toward a picnic table under a tree where I could see some of my nephews and nieces kicking a soccer ball around. I wasn’t quite sure what the fallout would be after my little speech, but I felt elated, angry, and horribly embarrassed. I hopped up on top of the picnic table as scenes of my mom or my older sister Amy yelling at me flashed through my head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or laugh. Then I looked at my burger and decided that I didn’t care.
I devoured my food in silence until the unthinkable happened: some of the raspberry Sriracha sauce escaped onto my shirt. I had just put the burger down and whipped off my shirt to rescue the sauce when I heard someone walk up behind me.
It was a guy I didn't recognize, smiling at me while I licked sauce off my shirt.
"Uh... hi?" I said.
"Hi, sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to interrupt, it's just that... you forgot your napkin." He held one out to me.
"Thanks, I'm good," I said, wiping my face with my discarded shirt.
"You like the burger?" he asked.
I nodded and went back to my devouring.
"Glad to hear it. The sauce isn't too sweet, is it?"
I gave him a questioning look as I shook my head, then swallowed and mumbled, "It's perfect, why?"
“Joe told me I wasn’t putting in enough Sriracha,” he said, then held out his hand. “I’m Wade, one of Joe’s partners at the restaurant.”
“It’s nice to meet you, but I can’t shake hands with you while I’m devouring this,” I said, and took another bite of my burger.
“I guess I should take that as a compliment,” he replied with a smile. “Mind if I sit?”
I shrugged and finished off the burger, then wiped off my fingers. “That was really good,” I said, “How did Joe rope you into helping? I hope he’s paying you, at least. There are a lot of people here.”
Wade sat down next to me and looked at the ground. “I’d rather not say, actually. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Did you lose a bet or something?”
He sighed. “No, he… lured me under false pretenses. He led me to believe that there would be tons of girls here.”
I blinked at him. “There are,” I said, gesturing toward my nieces and nephews.
“I realize that now,” he said.
“Though I’m probably the only one here over drinking age,” I said with a laugh.
He smiled and looked down at the ground again.
“Wait,” I said, “is that why you came over here? Because I’m the only actual single female at this picnic?”
“No!” he said immediately. “Not… entirely. You did forget your napkin.”
“Great. I knew I should have gone in to work today.” I scowled, and glanced back toward the pavilion. After the burger, I was parched; I wished I had taken some time to grab something to drink before storming off.
Wade produced a bottle of water from the pocket of his big cargo shorts as though he could read my mind. He set it on the table next to me.
I gave him a wary look and accepted the peace offering.
“I have two older sisters,” he confessed. “They’re both married and have kids. But my mom is always after me to have some of my own, ragging on me that I’m going to ‘allow the family name to expire.’ She’s worse than your aunt.”
“Oh?” I said, taking up the challenge. “Your mom told you that you looked fat in your Tinkerbell Halloween costume when you were six years old?”
He choked back laugh. “Okay, you win.”
I took a drink of water. “So you’ve always been ‘last but not least.’”
“Pardon me?”
“My little brother Logan,” I explained, “our mom was always calling him that so he wouldn’t feel bad for being the youngest. ‘Last but not least.’”
Wade nodded in comprehension. “Last to be born, last to get married… if I ever manage to, that is.”
“Well, you’re definitely not ‘the least’ when it comes to making raspberry Sriracha sauce,” I said.
“That’s true,” he replied with a smile.
“I’m probably never going to wash my shirt again, just so I can go sample that sauce whenever I want to.”
He laughed. “Or I could make you dinner sometime.”
I smiled. “That’s an offer I don’t think I can refuse.”

Wade and I occasionally talked about the idea of “last but not least” over the first few months of our relationship. But it was only a year and a half later, on the night he proposed to me, that I realized what my mom really meant when she applied the phrase to me. It wasn’t that she was sighing over all of those I’d loved and lost. She was encouraging me. Because it doesn’t matter how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had or how long you’re single before you find that one person who is right for you. The last one will never be the least.

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