We pull out our stories like party tricks; and, like party tricks, they deceive more than they reveal.
G and I are pretty good at keeping each other’s stories on track. “Tell the story about that time your dad burned the possum,” he’ll say, or I’ll cue him with “the time the Chief shot the helicopter.” They’re good stories, well-told and well-trodden, and they make up the bulk of what we like people to know about us. Safe stories.
I once defined family as the people who remember your stories when you forget them.
We’re popular enough at parties, G an outgoing, extroverted Leo (if you believe in that sort of thing; I don’t) that I wield as a psychic shield when the press of people gets to be too much. “Tell the one about the date palm.” And he does, and I have some space in the crowd, only called upon to remind him of the order of punch lines, to point at the scar on his shoulder, too far behind him to reach. “What about when Katie the Cop used to do exorcisms out of her police car?” he’ll ask me, when people wonder how small a town we’re from, by different routes and through different years.
If the stories we tell define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves.
I explained once to a therapist why I don’t like making phone calls; told her the dressed-up version of the story, how my dad thought it was time for me to learn to call, how big the holes on the rotary phone felt, how small my finger was. How angry the wrong number I dialed was. How when he held my finger to dial and we finally got Michelle’s number right I couldn’t speak. Probably that story’s true. It’s mostly-true. Sometimes the mostly-true stories are truer than the real ones.
G and I tell the story of how we met. Frequently. Of how tiny our dog was when we got her, how we let her sleep in the bed. We tell the story of our engagement, even though it doesn’t show me in my best light, so naked and cranky in the August heat that I missed the proposal entirely. Sometimes we touch on what it’s like to live together, trying to stay in the spaces between my neuroatypicality and his PTSD. Mostly we don’t.
I tell the story of my mom as Montessori teacher, of the time the other teacher made me walk across the school, barfing at every pole in the breezeway, to ask her to take me home, not because I was sick, but because I couldn’t stop throwing up in the sink rather than the toilet. The time she covered all the windows with green cellophane for my Oz party. The time she came as the witch to my third grade Halloween party and let every kid put an “ingredient” in the punch cauldron. I don’t tell the ones about why we mostly communicate by text.
I tell the story of my dad promising us each our own rooms when we moved, of climbing my first mountain. Of how he knows all the trees and plants. I tell the story of working for him moving rocks in the sun, how he taught me to sing little made-up songs and to play guitar. Not the one about why I have a button that says “LOOK THIS BUTTON SAYS FUCK ON IT.”
We tell the stories we want to be, the stories we want to have been. The ones where our families are exasperating but never damaging, the ones where the plot arc resolves. The ones where all your buddies come home safe and you’re embarrassed but only as badly as you can survive.
We live in the stories that keep us up at 3am trying to find the punch line.