Monday, October 27, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 7

Back in 1969, the airlines offered student discounts, and you could fly standby for half price. I used to fly to New York from Pittsburgh for $12, and that included a meal and a complimentary cocktail. So, flying from Chicago to California, rather than hitchhiking, was a no-brainer. I probably paid no more than $40 for the flight to Los Angeles and the connection to San Diego.

I called Bim from the airport in Los Angeles and told him when I would be arriving. Bim was my father's half-brother, just eight years my senior. As a child, visiting relatives in California with my family, I had idolized Bim, the rollicking teenager with a stack of comic books in his closet as high as my head.

Back then, the entire clan would come out to the airport in San Diego to greet us – all my father's siblings and cousins and all of their children – cheering us as we emerged from the baggage area as if we were movie stars. Coming in for a landing, I wondered if I would get the traditional welcome, even on such short notice. But only Bim was waiting for me. I saw him before he saw me, touching up his neatly coiffed hair with a pocket comb, standing in the bright sunlight in a white dress shirt and black slacks, looking so adult.

And then he saw me, sauntering toward him in an old work shirt and bell-bottoms I had altered myself by slitting the legs and sewing in triangles of bandanna cloth; a knapsack flung over my shoulder, the long hair and muttonchops, the aviator sunglasses. Then he recognized me, although his face was screwed into a question mark. He said my name, but it was a question. We shook hands, and he tentatively touched my shoulder. He could not mask his disappointment.
"Jeez! Look at you," he said. "You got so tall, and… I just didn't expect… I mean, what's with the costume?"

He had expected me to appear clean-shaven and clean-cut, dressed appropriately for travel, a younger version of my father, the brother he idolized. I was a shock, from which he would recover, but he would spend the next week or so trying hard to make me "normal."

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