You Can't Always Get What You Want
Heads up, this story is a bit more thoughtful and heart-warming than our usual embarrassing tales. It's sweet but still cool and edgy and the message might make you smile. You've been warned.
Some lives don’t start out super exciting. Especially when you’re an Italian girl in a suburb of Northern New Jersey. But then, maybe, you get lucky. Maybe your mother’s brother, Uncle Phillip, moves to town.
This story is about Andrea and her quest to find a real life that could measure up to her dreams. And also about her Uncle Phillip. More on him in a moment.
Andreas’s mom and dad immigrated through Ellis Island from Sicily right after the second world war. Her mother became the neighborhood’s most sought-after seamstress, at one point working in the most exclusive wedding dress shop on Madison Avenue. Her father worked as a welder, joined the union, and managed to retire with a pension and nine fingers. In a lot of ways, it was the American Dream. But it wasn’t Andrea’s.
She tried to make every day more interesting. In grade school, that landed her in the principal’s office. In middle school, it was three days of suspension. By high school, she narrowly avoided booking charges—only because, well, she was really, really pretty. That was 1966. That was when Uncle Phillip, her mother’s youngest brother, moved into The City. That was when —and how— this all started.
From what Andrea was told, Phillip enlisted in the Navy and spent years in Europe. The way her parents discussed him, occasionally in hushed voices and then as a warning to their mischievous teenage daughter, military service was not a great fit for her uncle. She heard once from a distant cousin at Thanksgiving that he had tried to throw the ship’s Captain overboard and was discharged due to mental health issues, or whatever they called it back then.
Instead of buying a home with a white picket fence upon his return to American soil, Uncle Phillip used his GI Bill money to study ballet with the late and very famous choreographer Jaques d’Amboise. Andrea was told, with genuine pride by a great-aunt, that her uncle had the “highest leap of anyone in class.” When she heard that he was moving close by, Andrea was (rightly) convinced that this family member was going to be her ticket to a significantly more colorful life. In her Vidal-Sasoon-ed hair and Whitesnake Jacket, Andrea became a regular fixture at her Uncle’s apartment. Because:
For one thing, Andrea’s downtown public high school was so overcrowded and understaffed that teachers mostly didn’t bother with attendance. This was the second reason that Angela stopped going. The first is that she was a very bright girl and thusly, in those tightly-packed classrooms, a very bored one. Uncle Phillip’s apartment was one Marlboro cigarette break away.
Angela would arrive at the door of his third-story walkup, knock twice, then let herself in as Phillip had lost his key a week after he signed the lease and never bothered to replace it.
“What are burglars gonna take?” He’d ask Angela, shrugging his broad shoulders and raising his dark unibrow so he looked a bit like Ernie from Sesame Street. His penchant for widely striped sweaters only furthered this illusion. Yes, it was meant to be a rhetorical question.
But not to Andrea.
Uncle Phillip allowed her to open all the drawers in the pantry and take what she wanted. And only one of those drawers had cookies. As far as she was concerned, there was a whole hell of a lot in Phillip’s apartment that anyone might want to take.
On his shelves where there should have been jars of sugar and flower were, instead, lots of 60s drugs— Weed and hash and Valium, and Quaaludes —these are the kind of treats she and other visitors would randomly uncover while while foraging for a bag of potato chips.
And he was generous with them. So very generous. And he was always game to roll a joint and light up in the middle of the afternoon while his niece should have been in the fourth row of Classroom C of Abraham Lincoln High School learning calculus. No matter how stoned they got, Uncle Phillip would insist that they sit down and do her homework together. She got a B+. It could have been an “A,” but her teacher noted her “lack of class participation.”
Andrea began to bring her friends over to Phillip’s apartment where everyone would get high and listen to records and war stories and vinyl records. This went on for a few years. During that time, Andrea memorized the Beatles catalogue as well as The Doors and Sly and The Family Stone. She learned about the war and the Old Country and met many, many of Uncle Phillips “friends” and girlfriends who all seemed comfortable pushing open his unlocked door at anytime, night or day. In retrospect, Andrea learned more on the smoky afternoons about history and the world than she ever would have in a classroom. And even though she managed to pull her grades together senior year, get into an Ivy League school, the one in Pennsylvania, she still looked to Phillip to fill that void of excitement, a feeling that would creep up and overtake her no matter how much she tried to shut it out.
When she was married with two children in her twenties, holed up in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side while she worked on her dissertation, Easter rolled around, sneaking up on the young mom. She was exhausted, broke, frazzled, and newly single. It was too much. And it could have been her breaking point. The moment she realized that she hadn’t bought chocolate or eggs or confetti was when her phone rang. It was, of course, Uncle Phillip. No sooner had she tearfully explained her situation when she heard the words that she hadn’t known how badly she needed to hear.
“Don’t you worry, sweetheart, I’ll be right there.”
And ‘right there,’ he was. But, in true Uncle Phillip style, he was not alone. Yes, there was a woman on his elbow dressed in head-to-toe “daytime” sequins. But there was also a large box. And the large box was wiggling. Inside were nineteen baby chicks, Yes, nineteen. And in his arms, a bunny, Yes, a bunny. Before Andrea could protest at the sight of farm animals in her New York City one-bedroom apartment, her girls were at the door, shrieking in absolute joy. Andrea couldn’t turn away her uncle or his chicks away. Or the bunny.
As the closed the door behind the menagerie, she simultaneously cursed and thanked Phillip. Because even with her now totally chaotic life, Andrea still craved excitement.
A few years later, he invited Andrea, her girls, and her new boyfriend out to his new home on Long Island. Andrea was grateful for the break in the day-to-day life of work and studying and raising children. At his invitation, she looked forward to something different to do on a Saturday night and an excuse to get out of the city. When they arrived, Phillip gave them a tour of his new digs.
On the phone, Andrea had noticed her uncle becoming increasingly eccentric but she hadn’t understood the extent of it until she stepped foot in his living room. Everything, everything was covered in tin foil. Every surface, every sofa, every lamp, every table. Only the shag carpet under her white boots had been spared. The girls thought it looked like a palace. Andrea was terrified. The new boyfriend tried, unsuccessfully, to run out the back door.
“What’s going on here?” Andrea tried to keep her voice even. It was a challenge.
Uncle Phillip gestured with a huge smile to his magnetic seating area, “Isn’t she lovely? I did it all myself.” Andrea hadn’t actually considered whether he might have hired an interior decorator to design the metal-covered mess. She didn’t know whether or not to be concerned. She’d relied on this man for a decade and a half to bring the drama and the fun into her world. Isn’t that exactly what he was doing? Was he going off the deep end? Possibly. Quite possibly. Maybe he was genuinely flexing his interior design muscles. Still, all that crinkling when she sat on the couch was hard to ignore.
It was only six months or so after that visit when Andrea got the news that her dear and Andrea had settled on the adjective centric— uncle was diagnosed with cancer.
“We have to have a big Christmas!” Declared Andrea, hanging up the phone with her sister. And she immediately invited Phillip.
Once Andrea put her mind to something, nothing could get in her way. She spent the next five weeks scouring the city for the most over-the-top Christmas decorations that she could find. She invited family from all over the Tri-state area. She prepped and chopped, cooked and baked. When people walked through the door of Andrea’s new three-bedroom apartment there were lights and sweets and tinsel (she had to pause before that purchase since it reminded her of her uncle’s apartment) and candle overload. Everyone was wowed. Especially Uncle Phillip and the new woman in purple who trailed him from room. Even in his last season of his life, Phillip still had ‘it.’
The wine flowed freely in the kitchen. Other things flowed from Phillip’s pockets. Andrea felt herself turning into a child, continually glancing at the stacks of presents underneath the tree. She knew that this was most likely the last Christmas with her cherished uncle and couldn’t wait to see what he had concocted for what he probably understood was his parting gift.
She sunk into a velvet armchair, a newly acquired piece purchased on layaway, that she’d shopped specifically for this night. She took in the noise and chatter and smells and chaos of her cozy, new home filled with people she both loved and tolerated. She took a brief trip down memory lane, listing all the incredible gifts that she’d received from him. There were, of course, the joints and the music, the concert t-shirts and the impromptu trips to Atlantic City. There was the jewelry of unclear origins and once, a red convertible that he had to take back after a month. This man and his presents were, as far as Andrea was concerned, the stuff of legend.
She felt like a little girl when her cousin herded the family to the tree after dinner for the gift-giving part of the night. She scanned the big and little boxes for her name scribbled in Phillip’s shockingly perfect script. She tried to wait patiently as the kids opened their dolls and remote-control cars and new blue jeans. She reminded herself that she was an adult, that presents were silly and childish. She chastised the butterflies swimming around her stomach as she watched her uncle hand out shiny boxes wrapped with ribbon. She held her breath when he approached her with a shoebox and a shit-eating grin.
Andrea took her time unwrapping it, savoring the moment. She felt him hover over her shoulder as she gingerly slid her finger through the paper, her palm becoming just the tiniest bit sweaty. The plaid, iridescent paper fell to the carpeted floor. Inside was a box that had once contained mouse traps. Somehow, that made the possibilities of the contents even more intriguing.
She looked up at the man who had done so much for her. Who had saved her from more than he would ever know. She glanced at her daughters who gazed at him adoringly, clearly also anticipating the the gift to their mother.
Andrea moved slowly, drawing out the moment as much as she could, feeling surrounded by love and warmth and that special holiday feeling. She lifted off the top of the cardboard mousetrap box and allowed her eyes to look inside where there was….
A very, very large rubber band ball. Yeah. A ball of rubber bands. There could have been thousands but the plummeting of Andrea’s heart took all her attention and she didn’t bother to count or estimate the number.
She looked to her uncle. His smile was one of pure joy. There wasn’t even the glimmer of a prank.
“Thank you?” Was all that she could muster. The fumes of her disappointment gathered in her heart and condensed in her eyes. It wasn’t that she was expecting the Hope Diamond in the mousetrap box, it was that Uncle Phillip’s magic was something she’d been counting on for weeks, and dreading losing for longer. The heavy, oversized rubber band ball sat like dead weight in her lap. She watched as the younger kids ripped open their train sets and Barbie dolls. She smelled the pie her aunt had just pulled out of the oven and listened to a few of the teenagers bang on the old piano. One of those senses pushed her to cry. To full-on sob. And that’s the great thing about great family.
No one asked Andrea what was the matter or seemed put off by her tears. They simply put their arms around her and let her let it out. She glanced up at Phillip, feeling his eyes on her as she melted into a puddle on the new velvet cushions.
“Time for me to go, doll face.”
He pulled her up from the chair, his frame feeling smaller and more fragile than she remembered. He wrapped her in a hug that she knew she wouldn’t forget. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked her right in the face and with total sincerity asked,
“So, pretty great present, huh?”
For years following, Andrea would keep the rubber band ball in the kitchen, needing it for various projects with the kids. She’d absentmindedly move it to her office, using it to hold together large pieces of mail and folders.
It moved with her out to the suburbs after the kids left for college. It traveled in her briefcase to the summer home she was able to buy her family on the shore.
It took a long time, seriously, decades for the ball to run out. A band here to hold together the broken doorknob, another there to hold together the potato chip bag. Many, may used for holding together rolls of the architectural plans that had become her business. You never know how badly you need a bunch of rubber bands until… you need a bunch of rubber bands.
And Andrea finally had a moment. A stop you in your tracks, wind knocked out of you moment. She got it. She finally got it. She wished she’d had the moment earlier, years earlier, but it wasn’t until she was down to her last, solitary rubber band that she stopped what she was doing so abruptly, she almost gave herself whiplash, the band in her palm, that she realized what Uncle Phillip had really done for her. Sure, he’d given her so many fabulous material gifts. But what he’d truly gifted were the memories of him and all he had taught her about history and life and friends and people and memories and choices and love, those lessons that she could count on for the rest of her life. And then, through a freaking rubber band ball, he’d managed to stay in it, stay close to her, for another seventeen years. Yeah, Phillip made life more exciting. But it was because he taught her where to find meaning. And that, on this dark, insomniac night, is what it’s all about.