Social Mirror


Shit. I hadn’t seen my stepfather reach for his glass until my hand was around my own glass. I reacted in the only way I could: I froze, my arm stretched over my “Land of the Lost” Sleestak placemat. My stepfather saw me hesitate, but more than that, he’d somehow reached a deeper understanding about why I’d hesitated.

I’d never cottoned to synchrony, even as a child. It was all too obvious that uniqueness was a myth, but why cede to mimicry so easily? Particularly to such a loathsome creature as the man who sat across from me now. Our years together had taught me that relief came only as I defined myself in contrast to my stepfather, by embracing anything that might separate us. And, except for the little things–autonomic reflexes, involuntary functions, unconscious social graces–I had succeeded. I was his opposite incarnate, and had succeeded in alienating him as only an artist could. Indeed, in pissing him off, I was a craftsman. But I was young still, and not yet a master of my tools.

So it was that, in order to ensure that the social mirror would be broken, I held my arm in suspension a bit longer than necessary, watching as he went on to take a sip. But he was watching me as well, and though I withdrew my hand with great finesse, he was already onto me.

“Jeffrey, drink your milk,” he ordered. I was incredulous, and humiliated, and stared at him. I knew exactly why he was ordering me to drink, but I couldn’t believe that he would actually challenge me on such an esoteric matter. And I was not going to drink my fucking milk. Especially not now that it had become a prop in another one of his ad hoc deprogramming sessions.

My mother’s eyes flicked from one of us to the other. “Guys, what’s going on?”

“He’s being weird, again,” I answered, hoping that last word would help to establish what was obviously a contemptible pattern of behavior.

He rolled his eyes, “No, you’re the one who’s being weird.” He laid it all out for Mom. “He was going to raise his glass, but he stopped when he saw me doing it at the same time. Now he doesn’t want to drink at the same time I’m drinking.”

“It’s not just you!” I protested.

For a moment it looked like Mom was going to say something articulate and disparaging, but she couldn’t muster the energy. And in truth, there was no righting something as derailed as this situation. By that time in my life, my relationship with my stepfather was defined as a series of lessons. He remained on the lookout for some aberrant tendency of mine, at which point he would direct me, his budding avatar, toward right action.

Mom didn’t have time for character molding just then though, and retreated into the kitchen with her plate. She was efficient that way: matter resolved, and without a word.

However, now free of oversight, my stepfather was back at his latest lesson anew. “Drink your milk, Jeffrey.”

It was a campaign to exorcise me of eccentricity, and the man was clearly obsessed. He would find no rest until I was robbed of every shred of independence. “I’m done!” I said.

“Not until you finish your milk,” he said.

“Fine,” I said, and reached for my glass. At the same moment he reached for his glass, and I saw what this was all about. “What are you doing?” I asked.

Oh, but he couldn’t put words to it. His rationale wouldn’t have withstood the sheer implausibility of it, so all he said was, “Drink your milk!”

I considered my options. I couldn’t rely on any of the standard excuses to get me out of this one. “But there’s a bug in it.” “I feel sick.” “My hand is bleeding.” So I sat there, frozen, with my hand tight around my glass. The moments drew into horrible minutes, a silent showdown broken only by his periodic instruction: “Drink. Your. Milk.”

Sure I had the advantage of time on my side–eventually he would die–but I had so much more to live for, that much had become evident. So I took advantage of his advanced age, and, quick as lightning, catapulted my glass toward my face, squeezing my eyes shut against the milky splash.

Only I underestimated my stepfather. To some extent he had anticipated tomfoolery on my part, and had set himself on a hair trigger. The part of his brain that controlled restraint, therefore, was disengaged entirely, and when the milk cleared from my eyes I found myself staring across the table at my drenched stepfather, his glass, now empty, still clutched in his hand. I might have laughed if he hadn’t immediately jumped out of his chair and come at me.

By the time he had me by the scruff of the neck I was running entirely on instinct, and I found my fists clasped around his own nape in a death-grip. I was pinned under him, but not without some leverage, thanks to my quick reflexes. “Let go of me,” he said through his teeth.

Only I’d learned my lesson more quickly than he gave me credit for. “You let go,” I said.

And so it went.