James kicked the gravel as he and his friend, Frank, walked down the path.
They both looked straight ahead, and could see the path disappearing into a thick forest of leafy green trees: elms and maples, some evergreens, too. The sun made things seem alive, the trees swayed in a light breeze, but it was still cool for June. James was in a windbreaker, Frank in a hooded sweatshirt.
A jogger appeared on the horizon, in runner’s shorts and a tank top, left over gear from a long-distance race. He ran down the path toward them.
The jogger got closer. He was younger, in his thirties, medium framed, and muscular.
He looks like my cousin, James said, in a quiet voice.
Yeah? Frank replied. How’s that?
I dunno. Just the face. I haven’t seen my cousin in years. James paused for a long while, his brow fixed, revealing concentration as he calculated. Geez, it must be eight or nine years by now.
The jogger ran by, sweating and focused. He gave a nod to them and didn’t slow one bit.
Yeah, wow – dead ringer, James said.
Why haven’t you seen your cousin in so long? Frank asked. The wind gave a quick gust and his friend dug his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker.
Well, I’m not entirely sure of the whole story. I’ve just heard bits and pieces from my mom. She talks to my aunt and uncle on occasion. I never really do except at holidays.
A pause. They kept up their pace. Frank kicked some gravel.
James continued, My cousin was married – his second wife, third fiancée – and stabled horses next door to his parents, my aunt and uncle, in the country. Back in the woods. I don’t know if I’ve ever been there. Maybe once, years ago.
Anyway, James said, realizing he was getting off track, my cousin was married and had two kids, a boy and girl. He was a real cowboy, but in the Midwest. He wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats – talked with an accent. He thought he was an Indian, too.
Like, a Native American? Frank asked.
So he was a cowboy AND a Native American? Frank had a perplexed look on his face.
Well, he was technically a quarter Native American, but he played it up. Made a dream catcher for my cousin for Christmas one year. Wore moccasins. And then the cowboy hat and the cowboy boots. He liked to hunt and ride horses. I think he was having a constant identity crises.
Frank gave a chuckle. Sounds like quite a character.
Yeah, James said. He was also the star on his high school football team. Helped them to win the state championship. A running back. He was one of the best in the state. If you ever wondered what happened to those big time jocks in high school, they end up becoming middle school history teachers and running a horse stable.
Frank laughed again, a bit more this time.
The sun was starting to duck behind the trees. The sky getting a bit more dim. Lighter colors emerged – a whitish blue and bits of yellow.
Anyway – I hate how sidetracked I get when I try and tell stories, James said. ANYWAY, my cousin got married, had a boy and girl, and did his thing: taught school, stabled horses, etc. His wife did some kind of agricultural work in a lab. I don’t know. I think I only met her once or twice. After my cousin’s divorce, his second wedding was a quick affair. No one from the extended family was invited. But the new wife ended up having an affair with some guy much younger than her. A grad student at the local state university. Obviously it put her on the outs with the family, my aunt and uncle, but somehow she and my cousin made up with one another. But I guess living next to her in-laws wasn’t working well for her and they just upped and moved to Wyoming. Laramie, I think. Maybe it was Cheyenne. I can’t remember.
Well, you know two more cities in Wyoming than I do, Frank said. So it doesn’t make a lick of difference to me.
Okay, James said. He paused to re-situate the conversation. Then that was it.
What do you mean ‘that was it?’ Frank asked.
They just upped and moved and didn’t speak to his parents for years. I mean there may have been a few things here and there but not much. He kept them out of his life all this time. And he sure as hell hasn’t spoken with my parents or me in all that time.
There was a quiet and then Frank said, Man, don’t burn that bridge. It’s never good to burn that bridge. Family’s important. If they treat you well, they’re important. They may seem overbearing at times, but it sounds like your cousin’s parents weren’t crazy.
No, they aren’t, James said. They’re good folks. I think they were totally perplexed by the whole thing. Yeah, perhaps they were overbearing in a way – telling him to divorce her. I also imagine it was tough living so close to them, but to go all the way to Wyoming from the Midwest – it seems a stretch. But I suppose, too, that she felt she had to get away from that guy that she had the affair with if she wanted to make the marriage work.
I guess I can understand that, Frank said.
The trail had now become paved as they neared the parking lot where they had come from. The completion of a two-mile walk in a loop. Dusk was settling in firmly now.
So, now what? Frank asked.
I guess I’ll be heading home, James said. Julie will need some help getting Caleb and Samantha to bed.
No, I mean, what’s next for things with your cousin?
Oh, I don’t know. We were never that close to begin with, but I was always in awe of him, being older and bigger than me. And for being a sports star, even if it was only high school. It leaves me with this whole thing of, what is family, you know? I’m not talking parents and siblings, but how are cousins and aunts and uncles supposed to fit in my life? Some people are so close with theirs – see them every week and grew up playing with them. I barely ever see mine. I’ve grown so different than who I was as a kid, too. I suppose I have just come to accept that there are these blood relations I will never be that close with.
By now the two of them were leaning up against their respective cars parked next to one other. James against the driver’s door and Frank against his front, passenger door.
Yeah, I mean, I grew up with all my family living in the same city, Frank said. That’s why your story seems so weird to me. It’s so different than what I am used to. I still see my aunts and uncles and cousins every month. We go out to dinner together or they invite me over for drinks. They’re great people. I love them…like my own flesh and blood. Frank chuckled. It may be a cliché, but it’s true. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
In my mind, that’s how things should be, James said. But it’s too late for me now. We’re all grown up and my cousins are all living their own lives all over the country. When I see them once every year or two at the holidays, I get nervous before hand. You’re stuck with these random strangers for an afternoon. It’s honestly kept me from going home for Christmas a few times. I just couldn’t deal with the awkwardness of the situation. In a house with nothing to talk about. Vaguely caring, but realizing you don’t give a shit. I could not see those people for the rest of my life and probably be okay with that.
Yeah, Frank said. There was a few seconds of silence between them.
Well listen – thanks for the walk, James said. I should get going.
No problem. I’m glad we could hang out. They hugged firmly, and Frank slapped him on the back. As they held their embrace for a few seconds, James said, The whole thing is weird, especially given that you’re Julie’s cousin and yet I’m closer to you than any of my own cousins. Go figure.
Hey, Frank said, life is weird like that. I appreciate you being in the family. You’re a fine addition. Frank smiled.
Thanks, man. I appreciate that. I’ll see you later. Have a good night.
You too, Frank said. Drive safe.
They got in their respective cars and Frank backed out first in the paved parking lot, turned on his lights and exited to the right.
James sat in his car for a few seconds, smiled, and shook his head. He then turned on his lights, backed his car out and exited to the left, heading home to his wife and son and daughter – the family he had created.