Brooke and Katie, ‘Sconset 2013
Katie and I are walking down South Beach Street, headed toward town. She’s telling me about a new favorite book, I Funny.
These are the moments – the ones when she starts talking, really talking. Yes, these are the moments I grasp onto by my fingernails now.
Her voice undulates, rising and falling with the distinctive exaggeration of twelve year-old intonation.
“It’s about this kid named Jamie,” she says, “His parents and his sister are killed in a car crash and he’s paralyzed. He goes to live with his aunt and uncle and his cousin, who is a terrible bully.”
“Oh, geez,” I say, “did his parents die a long time ago or was it recent?”
I’m not sure why I ask, but I need to know.
“Nope, happened just a couple of months before,” she says.
Somehow this strikes me as all the more tragic, though my logic in determining it so is pointless, of course.
“Yikes, I say, that’s awful.”
“Yeah,” she says, “but he’s a comedian. So even though the circumstances are sad, the book is actually funny. I know; it’s weird. But it’s really good.”
She goes on to tell me more as we walk. I revel in the barrage of words coming out of her as if from a machine gun. Rat a tat tat a tat tat. She’s like her Mama, this kid – her brain always four steps ahead of a mouth trying desperately trying to keep up.
“But there’s this one part where he actually ends up liking the bully,” she says, “because, well, he beats him up and then takes his wheelchair and leaves him lying there helpless.”
We stop under the lights in front of Lola 41. I inspect her face to see if she’s putting me on, but her face betrays nothing.
“He likes him because he beats him up?” I ask incredulously.
“Yeah,” she says, and then adds, slowly, deliberately, “He beats everyone up. He’s a bully. So, in a twisted way, it shows that he respects Jamie because he treats him just like he treats everyone else.”
She waits, knowing it will take me a minute, knowing that the story is absurd and extreme, knowing that, with it, she has my attention, knowing that I hear the message that she’s delivering.
We walk silently for a minute or two. She allows me take her hand, then lets it drop as we turn the crowded corner onto Broad Street.
I think of a conversation that I had with my friend Barb a few months ago.
“Dont’ be afraid to tease,” she said.
Especially in our house, where, without sarcasm, we’d have to rely on interpretive dance to communicate, equally (lovingly) teasing means equally (lovingly) valuing. Treating Brooke as we treat each other means respecting her.
“We don’t tease people we pity,” Barb had said.
“We don’t tease people we pity.”
The words echo in my head as we turn toward onto Easy Street and then into the cobblestone alley, snaking our way through town toward the wharf.
Katie starts talking again as we emerge from the alley into Harbor Square . She’s telling me a joke that Jamie tells in the book. It’s funny enough that she giggles as she tells it, but then she gets serious.
“More than anything, he just wants people to know that it’s okay to laugh with him,” she says. “And he’s funny, so you kinda can’t help it. But the whole point is that he just wants to be treated like everyone else,” she says, “Not have anyone feel sorry for him, ya know?”
And suddenly, in that moment, I do know. I know exactly.
I reach for her hand again as we turn onto Straight Wharf. I know she won’t let me hold it for long, but I’ll take what I can get.
And we walk.
Amended to add:
Ed. Note: I want to be very clear that I am not encouraging nor condoning a free-for-all on those with differences. For literal thinkers and those with acute social challenges, the concept of teasing, especially in the form of sarcasm, can be extremely complicated if not totally incomprehensible. As such, the perception and consequences of even loving teasing are likely to be radically different than one might have intended.
When we use sarcasm with Brooke, it’s tailored to ensure that she knows that we are teasing. To that end, we often ask “I’m being silly, aren’t I?” and always check that she sees the humor before moving on.
It’s vital to understand that for the many among us for whom sarcasm simply doesn’t compute, its use might well feel far more like bullying than love.