Less Is More
© Wes Gow
Several of my misadventures involve my family. For reasons I’m sure you can understand, I’ve got to tread lightly, like the whisper of a ghost across a frozen pond. Sometimes, though, I’m certain that I’m going to crash right through that thin ice. I’ll probably end up dropping their names at different points throughout this collection, but here’s to hoping they find the humor and you don’t connect the dots!
I’m the oldest of more than one younger brother, and for everyone’s sake I’ll just stop right there on the descriptions. Because one fateful holiday season, one of them brought a potential suitor home to meet the fam. By the time it was all over I think we all needed counseling, some form of rehab, and probably an intervention.
Sharkbait (not his real name but he’s the youngest and therefore the most likely to get eaten) was by no means a rebellious fella. Out of all of us, however, he was always the most willing to groove to the beat of a different drum. Both of my younger bros spent time in the military, and that fall Sharkbait found himself out of the Naval Academy and buzzing around flight school in the Florida panhandle. Maybe it was the rush of flying or the newfound freedom, but Sharkbait worked up the cojones to ask out a nice young lady. Shockingly, she didn’t empty her can of pepper spray into his gold-rimmed aviators! The two dated happily throughout the fall, and I suppose he figured it was time to get some family feedback before things became irreversibly serious.
We were all about to live through one helluva Christmas holiday.
The stockings were hung and the lights all-aglow when Sharkbait pulled into the driveway and introduced Splenda (not her real name but you’ll get it in a sec). As you and everyone else knows, first impressions are huge. Probably you’ve been in her shoes: walking into the front door of a home which holds a lifetime of memories for your significant other and nothing but fear and anxiety for you. Family you’ve heard about but never met, a heightened awareness of your breath and general odor, and hoping to God your panty lines aren’t showing (sadly true of hipster males too these days).
Splenda walked into the family circle weighing every ounce of a cotton swab, with the skeletal support of a Q-tip. That fresh, smiling face was attached to maybe one hundred pounds of human form (were it squeezed into a tar-soaked wet suit).
Hugs and smiles and salutations abounded! “Hi there…welcome…so nice to meet you…I’m sorry did I just break your arm?!” Ok it wasn’t that bad. But close.
Once you got past the shallow end of my first impression, Splenda seemed like a sweet gal. Which was a real testament to her kindly demeanor seeing as how she turned out to be something of a galactic sugar Grinch. That’s right. Splenda was a sugar teetotaler. Claimed it gave her headaches. Basically the exact antithesis of Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf (in many ways). You may recall the scene from the instant Christmas classic where someone asks Buddy if he likes syrup. “Does it have sugar? Then YES!” Almost those words exactly, with the exception of the very last, became a regular occurrence that Christmas. For example,
“Splenda, we’re having baby back ribs for dinner tonight with homemade BBQ sauce, is that ok?” (We had to ask, after all).
“Oh that sounds wonderful! Does the BBQ sauce have sugar in it?”
“Yes, it does.” (That’s like asking if the atmospheric air in our house contains oxygen).
“Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have any.”
“That’s ok, there’s loads of sand and bird crap out back just help yourself mmmkay?” (I read that in my mother’s eyes with all the subtlety of a Vegas billboard).
Nonetheless, we obliged Splenda while secretly plotting Sharkbait’s demise for subjecting us to this passive but very aggressive form of torture. Days of this transpired: breakfast, lunch, and dinner required sugar-free options. One morning I almost poured her a bowl of rusted bb’s. Then I thought better of it and instead chambered a round into my old Daisy pump-action rifle and put my brother’s ass comfortably in the crosshairs (though I wanted to shoot him in the short hairs). But alas, I exercised a rare moment of adult abstinence and forged ahead with our mission to see this voyage pass into more welcoming waters.
However, it all went to hell once we actually did get out on the water.
We grew up across the street from the peaceful banks of the Alafia River, which empties into the Tampa Bay. Boat rides along the gentle tides of the river are generally positive experiences, where troubles are forgotten and memories are made (usually of the pleasant kind but not so much this time).
By the time we wrangled the family together for a river tour, we were already several days into “does that have sugar? ok then no thank you” cycle of doom. But I was hopeful that the Spanish moss, cypress knees, and lazy turtles could redeem the vibes and galvanize this family. My mother and step-father sat back at the center console, whilst us “kids” gathered along the front benches of the craft.
Thinking it a good ice-breaker/restarter, I proposed a friendly game of “most embarrassing moment,” which very shortly led to my single biggest regret ever.
Sharkbait went first. No idea what his answer was.
Then me. Can’t remember what I said. Probably definitely involved a college memory of public indecency.
My lovely wife went next. I’m guessing she told us about the time she — (yeah right; you think I’m that stupid?)
Then our attention turned to Splenda. Sweet, mild-mannered, malnourished Splenda.
She hesitated. Started to say something, then said she wasn’t going to. We urged. She started again, then aborted. We assured her that this was a safe place (mistake!). Splenda taught first grade at a Christian school for God’s sake! What could she possibly be hiding? She looked at Sharkbait. He responded with an expression that put the decision squarely in her court. We coaxed again.
Then, she ruined everything: the boat ride, Christmas, my appetite for weeks, a lifetime of memories on the river.
Splenda’s story began like this, “I thought for sure that I was wearing a tampon…”
WAIT! STOP! OH GOD NO! NONONONO! I HATE MYSELF!
I’m certain I was thinking all of those things, but I also believe that her intro served as a kind of paralyzing drug: I was so sadly conscious and coherent and yet unable to utilize any of my motor skills.
Dead man walking.
At some point in the story I must have momentarily broken free of the voodoo chains and inquired when this most embarrassing story took place. Given the nature of the account, there would have been a wide swath of grace and understanding had this occurred on a 6th grade field trip or something.
This happened – wait for it – ON THEIR DRIVE DOWN IN MY BROTHER’S JEEP ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!
Friend, lemme tell you a lil’ sompin’. When you find yourself in a “circle of truth” situation and you’re the newbie, you never, ever, EVEREVER, go with full truth. Ever. Like Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder, “You never go full retard.”
That boat ride is literally my last memory of that year; I think a dark part of my brain took over and just shut the whole damn thing down. Something of a mercy kill.
Splenda was a wonderful gal, really; but alas things didn’t work out in the end. Thankfully, Sharkbait is now happily married to the right life partner for him, one who happily eats a crap ton of sugar and seems to maintain a healthy balance of truth and lies. So far!
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