Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I triple dare you

I don’t think of myself as a particularly brave person. In many a situation I practically cluck, so chicken am I. It strikes me, however, that bravery is something that can only be judged by others. A person facing a situation in which they have to be brave probably won’t feel “brave” so much as terrified, resigned, determined, or a sort of what-the-hell-why-not-ness. People do brave things because they feel they have no choice, because they believe it is their duty, because they have calculated the potential rewards as greater than the risks or because they are too ignorant to know the risks. There have been things I’ve done that other people called “brave” that struck me as nothing of the sort. Travel all over the world alone? Eh, it was either that or never leave my zip code, and my zip code is boring. Run a marathon on a broken leg? Well, my car was parked at the finish line and my sandwich was in the car. Choose a profession that requires standing up and speaking before large groups of highly judgmental people when all your life you’ve been painfully, paralytically shy? Um, hello: summer vacation.

In recent days, however, a situation has developed that requires me to be brave: I’ve had to meet the BF’s kids. He has three daughters, one early 20s, one late teens, one mid-teens. Solo travel? Child’s play. Broken-legged marathon? Piece of cake. Teaching? Pfff, do that standing on my head. Play the part of step-girlfriend? Say, isn’t there a burning building somewhere nearby that I could rush into to save some kittens? Or, like, an active volcano I could fly a helicopter over? A crocodile I could wrestle? A bomb to diffuse? My odds of coming out unscathed would be far better, after all.
They came over for dinner on Friday evening: salmon croquettes (because it’s Lent), edamame (because it’s the only veggie the youngest likes), and mac ‘n cheese (because it’s mac ‘n cheese). Usually it’s just the two of us on Friday evenings, or, if his kids are coming over, it’s just them; on those occasions I’ll have a girls’ night out or (more frequently) a night of wine and reading alone. But the BF doesn’t want to feel like he has to choose between me and them, and he figured it was time. I agreed with him in theory. In reality I damn near pee’d my pants in fear.

The BF put no pressure on me about this, mind you, and his daughters are, by all accounts, good kids, with good grades, active in sports, talented in music, art, and drama. They are also good friends, the three of them, despite the age differences and despite the fact that they are…well, related. My own sister and I get along great now, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we were all that close when we were kids, nor could we really be described as “friends” back then. Last Friday night watching the BF’s daughters chasing each other around the house, shrieking with laughter, singing songs about diarrhea (don’t ask), I felt astonishment start to mix in with my anxious terror. I had no idea such things were possible.
It helped that they had each other to lean on during the initial awkwardness—at least they could be a little more themselves and wouldn’t end up like me, making a big production out of filling my water glass, chewing my food with extreme thoroughness, petting the BF’s dog like it was my job, because I didn’t know where to look or what to say or do. And then at one point one of three mentioned a trip to a water park some friends were taking this summer. The other two snorted and made faces at her. The BF looked surprised. “You all used to love going to water parks when you were little!” The middle one rolled her eyes. “If I wanted to walk around self-conscious all day, I’d just be myself,” she said.

I laughed. Loudly. I couldn't help it; that was a damn funny line. “I’m stealing that for Twitter,” I said.
The middle girl met my eyes. She grinned. As if the heavens called out “cue metaphor!” the ice cubes in my water glass shifted.

Ice broken. Yes.

I don’t have any illusions of pal-ing around with them any time soon the way they do with each other; my expectations are so modest I’d be satisfied with polite tolerance of my presence. After all, it took a couple of decades for my own flesh-and-blood sister and I to become good friends, and we share most of the same DNA and a lot of memories of our parents’ hugely dysfunctional marriage. That’s another funny thing about bravery, though: we tend to think of the situations that require being brave as quick and sudden and dramatic. The truth, I think, is that like a lot of things, bravery requires time. Anyone can be brave once; anyone can do something daring and risky for the adrenaline rush of it beforehand and the bragging rights afterward. Anyone can run a marathon on a broken leg, though I do not especially advocate trying it. The marathon will eventually be over and the leg will eventually heal; when it does, and you go back to your everyday life, that’s the time to figure out how to be brave.



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