The young boy stood in the doorway and tried to fill his lungs with air. It was heavily scented with perfume and cigar smoke, but he managed a small sigh nonetheless.
He looked down at wooden floors and tried not to be noticed. He paused momentarily – a deliberate effort not to make eye contact with any of the attendees.
Wading into the sea of people gathered for evening dinner parties took great courage. Even for a 7-year-old.
Though he tried many times before, he couldn’t escape it. Even the most expertly staged sickness was quickly discovered by his parents and the curtains pulled back on it. An appearance was mandatory at all such weekend functions. Not just for him. His brothers and sister would soon be paraded around also. He was the youngest. So he was the first.
Before he could reach the safety of his spot and blend into the wallpaper once more, Grandma Gable rushed over. Pinching both his cheeks she declared, “Why ain’t you the cutest little thing?! Must’ve grown a whole inch since I seen you last.”
Not likely. Grandma Gable lived next door and had delivered some home-baked oatmeal raisin cookies just last week, but he let her pinch away. After all, she was the best grandma ever, and she made these such events bearable.
Short, with snow white hair, she always smelled like cookies or fresh-baked bread. Yes, Grandma Gable was his favorite relative. Unlike Aunt Olive.
Aunt Olive, a.k.a. “The Hugger.” Her perfume choked the air from the room, even more so than the cigar smoke from the log clenched between Uncle Bud’s teeth. He always smoked the largest and cheapest cigars. And the boy knew why.
They produced billowing toxic clouds of gray almost enough to counteract Aunt Olive’s perfume – almost.
Still, the bone crushing hug he’d just received from the big lady would ensure endless ribbing come Monday morning on the school bus. Despite bathing that night, the perfume would still linger.
The impression on him from such events lasted longer than Aunt Olive’s perfume. Years later, the boy didn’t attend high school dances because being wallpaper wasn’t popular. His fate in college was the same.
As time passed, he grew into a man and eventually married an elegant lady, one he considered much smarter than he. Her friends were likewise refined and well educated.
So much so that, anytime they gathered, he would quietly make his way to that familiar spot in the room – the nearest wall. After all, like so many years before, attendance was mandatory at such events.
Once in his spot, he’d blend in and hope not to be called upon for his opinion (on topics about which he was certain he didn’t understand).
“Better to be thought of as a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
At one such recent occasion, his wife came over and asked why he never mingled with the guests. Embarrassed, he finally answered the long-standing question.
She smiled, kissed him, and then whispered in his ear, “Silly boy. Don’t you know? None of us really fit in.” She held onto his arm and nodded, “See all those people? None of them believe they do.”
She pulled gently, and the little boy was led out into the middle of the room, finally joining the conversation, forever peeled away from the wallpaper.
Oddly – the knowledge that everyone else felt just like he did, that they somehow didn’t fit into this world, had helped him finally do just that.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His books are available at www.RickRyckeley.com.]