I call her my niece, even though technically she isn’t. She is my cousin Dan’s wife’s daughter from another relationship, but in my family that makes her my niece.
I’m too old for her to call me her cousin, and too butch to be her aunt, so that makes me Uncle Ivan.
Just like my cousin Trish in Toronto is really my Dad’s mom’s brother’s daughter, which I think would make her my second cousin; to me she is just cousin Trish. Sometimes, with my family, it’s not so much about blood in the veins as it is water under the bridge.
The first time I met my new niece to be she was five or so, wearing a striped T-shirt and shorts. It was the heyday of those razor scooter things, and she was scooting industriously up and down the cracked sidewalk outside of my cousin’s apartment.
Dan and I were standing in the long and sideways summer shadows of the trees in the park across the street, talking.
She rolled up beside me, braking skillfully. Dan introduced us, and then my future niece said the most awesome first line I think I’ve ever heard from a kid: “You wanna see my calluses?”
Of course I wanted to see her calluses.
She went on to explain that she had been practicing a lot on the monkey bars, and had in fact just today broken her all-time monkey bar record of over two hours without ever letting her feet touch the ground.
I was duly impressed with her accomplishments, and told her so.
She made a little small talk and then excused herself. “Well, gotta get back at it,” she announced with a deep exhale. Apparently scooter skills such as hers required dedication and sacrifice as well.
She scootered off, the tip of her pink tongue placed determinately between her lips.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked him. “You said Sarah had a kid. You didn’t mention she was the fucking coolest kid ever.”
“I know. She’s something else, huh?” Dan smiled proudly.
I knew he had taken to soaking his smelly feet in scented water before his dates with Sarah, and had even started wearing underwear and changing the sheets. There was something special about this new girl, and her uber-cool daughter. They were going to be around for a while.
Somehow, inexplicably, that was almost 10 years ago. Dan and Sarah are married, and Layla is now 15, and just got her cell phone confiscated for not telling the truth and smoking cigarettes.
I went out for Dim Sum with her and Dan when I was in town last week. I had just spent the better part of the last three months sweating through a cold turkey nicotine withdrawal. I swirled shrimp dumplings in spicy yellow mustard, and described the first two weeks of insomnia, followed by a month of anxiety and random attacks of unexplained nervousness, topped off by a good six weeks of alternating crying jags and unfocused housecleaning.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say I don’t miss smoking.” I tell her. “And I’m not going to give you some bullshit line about how smoking isn’t cool.”
“Smoking is cool.” Dan agrees. “I loved it.”
I nod in agreement.
“But if I had it to do all over again, I never ever would have started,” I tell her. “Think yellow teeth. Think smelly clothes. Think about how much longer it will take you to save up for that digital camera you want. Think of the non-smokers who won’t want to kiss you. Then when you’re done thinking about all that, it will be time to consider the cancer.”
I remember this time when I was about 15, sleeping the afternoon away, when I was awoken by my cool Uncle John.
“I love you,” he whispered. “And that’s why I woke you up to tell you to quit smoking that stuff. Take it from me.” His breath smelled like beer and his flannel shirt smelled like cigarettes. “Do yourself a favour.”
I didn’t listen to him then, just like Layla wasn’t listening to me now.
I was supposed to be the cool uncle. I was supposed to be the one she could come and talk to about stuff she couldn’t go to any of her four parents about.
I was supposed to hook her up with wine coolers and let her smoke pot in my rec room and get her concert tickets for Christmas. I had the tattoos and everything.
Instead I was giving her a lecture about smoking, something I had seen fit to do myself for most of my adult life, until a mere four months ago. Just when had I become so totally uncool?
And wait, it gets worse. Layla made the mistake of telling me that her great grandpa had left her a small inheritance, and that she planned to spend it travelling around Europe for a couple of years after she finished high school.
“I want to, you know, see the world and stuff, before I go to college. Just in case I get into an accident or something, and can’t get around.”
I shook my head violently. I couldn’t believe the words my mouth was making, even as they passed over my lips.
“You really should think about taking that money and investing it in yourself. You should spend it on school, so that you get an education, which will get you a good job, so you can travel later in life whenever you want.”
I believe my mother had given me this exact speech, some 20-odd years ago.
Just then my girlfriend called me on my cell phone. She’s almost done her PhD. I passed the phone to Layla, hoping she could convince my niece of the value of an education.
“Nothing much,” Layla says. “Dan and Ivan are just telling me how I should open up a savings account before I go to Europe.”
That is not at all what I was just saying. In one ear and out the other. Kids these days.