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  • Al-Lateef Farmer

An Unexceptional Life


I was washing dishes earlier today, staring out into my backyard, when something caught my eye. It was one of those things where I was just kind of looking at nothing, then, there was a flicker in the bushes out near my gate in the back. I tried to find the spot that caught my eye, but there was nothing. I figured it was just a bird or squirrel, then I saw what I thought was an arm. I stared harder and was finally able to make out that Jeremy Stephenson was hiding in the bushes.


It was Saturday, so the kids in the neighborhood were playing their weekly game of Manhunt; it’s a type of hide and seek game, but with teams. It looks like fun; something I would’ve loved to play as a kid. They take over the entire neighborhood, hiding, running, strategizing. Almost the entire neighborhood. Old Man Stokes doesn’t allow them to use his yard for hiding. He gives away any kid even close to his property. 


But, Jeremy was nestled so well in the bushes that it was nearly impossible to see him. The sun was fading, and he blended in with the bushes as if he selected his outfit for today’s game. Five or six kids came into the yard looking for him over the course of an hour and no one seen him. Only me. The oldest Jackson kid stood about three feet from him and completely missed him. His attention was drawn to something I couldn’t see or hear, but he ran off quickly. I assume someone was on the run. At one point, our eyes met, and he knew that I’d seen him. I realized then that the Stephenson boy hiding in my bushes was the way I’ve felt every day of my life.


Most people would say I’m awkward. Socially. I’ve always felt overlooked. Insignificant. Like I didn’t count. It started with my parents. They doted on my older sister, Candice. She was their star. They constantly reminded her of how pretty she was. How smart. How perfect. I was just me. My mother or my father never told me I was handsome or brilliant, or special or anything other than their child.


Even when my brother was born seven years after my parents gave up on having another child, he was their “miracle baby”, the special child that God delivered to them. My father even gave him his name, Robert James Sinclair Jr., while I’ve gone through life as Thaddeus Obadiah Sinclair. He got to be called R.J, Rob, Robbie, Junior and I carried the names of my grandfathers.


The more Jeremy sank into those bushes, the more I remembered what it felt like the day my father left. Invisible. My mother had taken Candice and RJ with her shopping, leaving me with my father, who was glued to the couch watching Westerns. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day and I was pretty hungry. I asked my dad if he could make me something to eat, but he reminded me that my mother was out getting food and she should be back any second now. My stomach was turning inside out from the emptiness and I begged him to at least make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me.


He finally got up and there was peanut butter in the cupboard, but no jelly. Or bread. He grabbed the cereal, but we were out of milk. I could see the frustration building on his face. He let out two deep breaths and told me to sit at the table. He went upstairs for a few minutes, then came back down, grabbed his keys and said he was going to run to the market to grab some milk for the cereal and would be right back. He told me not to move because I’d already caused enough trouble for the day.


I didn’t know what he meant, but I stayed in that chair at the table for the next three hours, when my mother and Candice came in carrying bags from the grocery store and a few other stores. It was obvious that they’d gone to the mall and the grocery store, leaving me home with Dad, while Candice and RJ got new clothes and toys.


“Where’s your father?” Mom asked.


I told her about being hungry and him saying he was going to grab a quart of milk so I could have cereal. She looked confused and reminded me that she was going to the grocery store. When she asked how long he was gone, I was scared to tell her, because I thought I was going to get my father in trouble. I figured I was already in trouble for being hungry.


“The clock said one zero seven.”


It was after four and she held my brother close to her while Candice brought in the remaining bags. As I suspected, in addition to the food, there were two dresses and a pair of shoes for Candice. RJ clutched a new truck in his left hand, as he used the right to cling to my mother. I wanted to ask if I got any new toys or clothes, but I knew this wasn’t the right time.


The next two hours were filled with panic. My mother called the police, who told her to call back the next day. Three hospitals. Nothing. She called all his friends. The two of them knew nothing. She even called the Quik Mart, the closest store to us and they didn’t recall anyone with his description. She paced the house, looking for any clue to where he may have gone or could have happened to him. She asked me the same questions every ten minutes and my answers didn’t change.


I was hungry.


To get milk.


1:07.


Thirty years later, I know my dad should’ve gone next door to the Jackson’s house and asked for a cup of milk so I could eat until my mother returned from the grocery store. I also know thirty years later that my dad just needed a way to get out of the house. Out of his marriage. Out of his responsibilities. I never saw my father again after that afternoon. My sister has seen him once or twice. He showed up to her high school graduation and I think her graduation from Harvard too.


Dad was the breadwinner, so we moved often over the next few years. We usually landed in a two-bedroom apartment, where my mother would have her own room, Candice and RJ would share a room and I would have the couch. I knew my mother blamed me for my father’s disappearance. At least that’s how it felt.


I never had many friends in school. It didn’t make sense to try to get to know people because I never knew when we were going to be moving again. I was usually picked on by other kids. They call it bullying now. But, they made fun of me; my name, my clothes, my height, my awkwardness. I was a magnet for jokes by other kids. I even had a teacher or two say things that weren’t too nice to me. I learned to ignore most of it.


By the time I was 15, my mother finally landed a job that made decent money and we got a place where I could have a bedroom. By this time, Candice was off to Harvard and RJ was about 8. My mom worked a lot, but she spent her free time either taking classes, talking to Candice or helping RJ with his math. I was left to fend for myself most of the time. It seemed like I didn’t exist most of the time. The entire family got in the car for Candice’s college graduation. My grandparents, aunts, Uncle Teddy and even Mrs. Jackson from the old neighborhood.


Only mom was there when I graduated from college; Candice claimed she couldn’t get the time off work and mom thought it was too expensive to buy RJ a train ticket to come with her. It seemed like she was back on the train before I even flipped my tassel. I grabbed my diploma and never looked back. I got a job at a publishing company here in LA and made a life for myself. It’s not much of a life, an insignificant, unexceptional one if my say so myself.


But it’s my life.


As an editor, I spend most of my time in front of a computer or manuscript, probing, searching for errors or better ways to do things. I don’t spend much time talking to people. A few phone calls per day, e-mail correspondence, and meetings a few times monthly. It’s the perfect job for me. I’ve always wanted to write books, but I don’t have the life experience necessary to do so. At least I don’t think so. Some of the books that come across my desk are filled with words of people who have lived and have the stories as proof. Or, the imagination of someone who sees the world differently.


I don’t know how I see the world. I know it doesn’t see me. But Susan did. She was an administrative assistant to the Editorial Director at my publishing house a few years ago. Initially, she would walk past my office each morning to say good morning or good night, but then she began to come by more often.


Soon, we were having lunch every day and dinner a few nights a week. We were in a relationship and I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. I felt like Susan was the first person to truly see me. She thought I had a brilliant mind, a way with words and told me I was handsome. I was never told any of these things.


She didn’t break up with me as much as she just disappeared, just as my father had all those years ago. She got a new job somewhere in the Bay Area and gave her two weeks’ notice at the office. She gave me less than that. She showed up at my house with a box of things I kept at her place. She emptied it and replaced it with items she had at mine. She also told me I was distant, a pessimist and needed to talk to someone.


I was told those things plenty of times.


Not too long after Susan left, Candice landed in LA. She got a job with one of those prestigious firms downtown and decided that she would schedule one day a month for a brother she ignored most of her life. We’re only three years apart chronologically, but the distance between us is far greater. The first few months, we would eat, or I would show her different parts of the city and she would barely say a word the entire time.


Initially, I felt she was making a genuine attempt to connect with me, but I found out later that our mother put her up to it. It was her way of checking on me. Last year, I scored tickets to the Dodgers’ home opener and asked Candice to go with me. I was thrilled that she said yes. I thought it would be something different for us to do. Something cool. We had a good time. She smiled, and I saw her teeth. I knew it was real. However, she handed me your card as we walked to the car and it broke my heart.


I thought we were building something real and she hands me your card, suggesting that I give you a call, because I obviously have some things I need to work through. She said some other things afterward, but I pretty much tuned her out on the drive back to my house. I didn’t even say goodbye as I got out. I remember hearing her say “Thank you for a great time” before I closed the door. It was as if she didn’t realize how much she insulted me thirty minutes prior. She didn’t see me. She never saw me.


She texted me a week or so later and told me she never blamed me for dad leaving. But mom did. I looked at that message for a few days but never replied. She sent another, this time a bit longer:


Thad,


I know you got my message the other day and I know you’re still mad at me for suggesting you see Dr. Walker, but I think it’s necessary. I don’t think anything is wrong with you Thad, but I think you have a lot inside of you that you need to let out. I know I did. I started seeing her soon after I arrived in Los Angeles and she has helped me so much. You have too! Believe it or not. The time we spend together has really eased the anxiety of moving across the country and starting over in a new city. My time with Dr. Walker has allowed me to open up about the pressure I’ve felt from Mommy, Daddy and myself to always be my best. In that quest to always be the smartest person in the room, I missed out on a relationship with my brother, lost a husband, a great boyfriend, and nearly my mind. You helped me see that there was so much more to life than cases and accolades. It’s time you forgive yourself and let go of the pain, guilt or whatever it is you’ve carried all this time. Daddy didn’t leave because of you. He left because he was unhappy at what his life had become. He wrote me a letter that day he left. He planned to leave that day but didn’t plan on Mommy leaving you home with him. He wasn’t going to go because he saw how much you needed him that day. But, he made his choice. That choice affected all of us differently. But you more. Mommy treated me like a princess and RJ like a prince. But she treated you like a leper at times. That wasn’t fair. I was too wrapped up in myself to say anything then. But, I know it was wrong and I can only imagine how you’ve felt these years. I love you, Thad. I really do. That’s why I want you to see Dr. Walker. She can help the rest of the world see the brilliant, beautiful brother I’ve gotten to know over the last year.


Your Sister,


Candice Sinclair-Dozier Esq.


I replied that I will call and made my first appointment with you for the following Tuesday. It’s been a year and I can’t express how much our sessions have helped me. I don’t feel like the odd man out in life anymore. I recognize that I am different, but different doesn’t mean bad. My different gives me a different view of the world. A view of the world no one us has. It’s been a journey to get to this point, but I’m here. It’s all because of you Dr. Walker. I know you would say all you do was ask the right questions, I did all the work, but you worked extremely hard to get through to me.


I feel like a new man. I’m not running around speaking to everyone I see, but I also don’t believe everyone thinks I’m weird anymore. I still have my challenges. I’ll admit that. But, I embrace the journey of facing those challenges and that’s a huge departure from where I was. I used to believe that anything I needed to do to improve, to be better, would cause me pain. Thanks to you, however, I’ve learned I just needed to unlock what was inside of me all the time.


I’m telling you these things like you don’t know them already. We’ve gone over each corner of my life and worked to clear the dude of my past, of my insecurities. I guess I just felt different today. I can’t really put a word to it, but I felt the need to tell you. And to thank you for all your hard work. I see the world so much differently than I did just a few weeks ago and I’m sure it sees me differently as well.


Today, I stood at that window and let Jeremy Stephenson know that I could see him. Even though he was hiding. Trying not to be seen. He smiled at me and let me know that I was seen also.


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