Kissing Cousins
I had a relative who used to own a small amusement park. One day out of the summer, this relative opened the park just for the family. There seemed to be hundreds of us. As my mother, brother and I pulled into the parking lot, I felt we were entering our own country, full of our own tribesmen. I also had the general feeling of sexiness on this day, though I wouldn’t have known how to describe it at the time. I experimented with an assortment of struts as I headed towards the picnic tables. I noticed my older brother, too, put on different airs when mingling with our multitude of cousins, whose numbers seemed to forever expand and change from reunion to reunion. I always looked forward to seeing one cousin in particular, Pamela. She was around my brother’s age, but preferred me. In all honesty, I was an unbearably cute little girl and reveled in the attention, unlike my brother. He was always scowling and complaining about the heat, the sun, the food. I was eight, he was just eleven, but he behaved as though he’d outgrown the basic joy of thrill rides and water slides. He was an unusual boy.
For the most part, our mother neglected the two of us. She spent a great deal of energy trying to dodge our attention when we were all home together. She’d been widowed young, and had spells of depression which made her distant and irritable. Without school to distract us, summers were especially boring. Our mother wasn’t much of a planner, so we never attended summer camp. I spent most afternoons alone, watching soap operas, which had turned me into a romantic. My brother slept all day and watched TV at night. We were all on different schedules, allowing us to avoid each other. We never really connected. Whole days went by without any of us uttering a word to each other, without a single phrase passing my lips. As a result, my language skills were tragically impaired. My brother, however, had a prematurely sophisticated way of expressing himself, which led even adult men to call him a pansy, a fag when he wasn’t in the room. Our uncles greeted him obnoxiously, ruffling his meticulously combed hair, whining, “Rawwwny boy.” My brother preferred Ron or even Ronald, but everyone called him Ronny.
Pamela was my favorite cousin, though I still don’t know exactly how we were related. She’s what Mom called a Catholic cousin, though Pamela was from the English side of the family and Protestant. Ronny and I were from the more Italian half. My grandfather liked to boast that when he married my grandmother, his father told him, “You might as well marry a nigger.” He had Mayflower blood. My grandmother loved it when he called her a nigger. These racial distinctions between white people seemed to have lost their value long ago, and my generation had new understanding of this prejudice. Our grandparents’ racism sent a collective shudder through me and my cousins. We whispered to each other later, in secret denouncement, as though colluding in a coup d’état, “I can’t believe Pa uses that word.”
Ronny was different. He didn’t seem fazed at all by our grandparents’ offense, and instead played the devil’s advocate. “There’re deeper implications,” he’d interject. “Pa’s from a different time.” Ronny had a way of alienating himself. The rest of us were for full historical erasure. But our political differences weren’t all that separated Ronny from the rest of us. It was also the way he said things. He was too thoughtful, his brow too furrowed, and he lacked even a hint of colloquialism. It was off-putting, and he embarrassed me. The one thing I’d successfully learned to do was mangle my limited vocabulary with a thick Boston accent. I think this embarrassed Ronny.
The English side of the family didn’t make such efforts. Pamela seemed an aristocrat. She was thin and fair, with large white teeth that filled her perfect mouth. Ronny and I both had a snaggle tooth that got less adorable with age, but it was one of the few genetic details that bound us. Pamela and I seemed bound by nothing but the spoken pact of familyhood, and this amusement park. I had it for her bad, in the way little girls do.
We arrived at the picnic tables. I rubbernecked, spying for Pamela. My mother’s oldest brother found us first. He nooggied Rawwwny and lifted me in his arms, pulling me over his head. I was still small, and loved it. “Stawwp,” I giggled. “Get offa me.” I received more affection at the reunion than I would all year from my mother, and this made me careless and even a little insensitive to my older brother’s isolation. He’d have much preferred staying at home, reading books in bed and nodding off in the heat.
I spotted Pamela by one of the barbecues, eating a perfectly condimented hotdog. A smooth zigzag of mustard curved up the meat, filling my life, this park, with the dutiful precision of a divinely cast Greco-fresco. I was shy at first. A whole year had passed. There was always a warming up period, but Pamela was older, and had a classy way of exposing her enthusiasm without coming across as hysterical, unlike me. She saw us and waved gently, mouthing a wide-eyed “hi” from her carefully SPFed face. I bounced and waved eagerly, like a monkey. Ronny firmed his shoulders and managed an Asperger’s level of eye contact. He maintained a more comfortable, almost entitled arrogance at home. He behaved schizoid around groups, probably in the attempt to fit in. He’d ask a lot of questions, but couldn’t keep from appearing uninterested. The effect was sadly the same either way. Most people felt as though he was putting himself above them.
Our mother sauntered off to the women’s bench, where she could smoke pot and cigarettes with her sisters and Catholic cousins. I had dubious feelings towards Ronny during moments like these. I was unkind, selfish. I wanted him there at first, so I wasn’t standing alone, but gone once I’d managed to firm my grip on Pamela. Sometimes Ronny would go off with a pack of boy cousins his age, but there had been an incident a few years earlier with our cousin Raffie. Ronny had never gotten over it. Raffie was a bully and a leader. He’d forced Ronny to ride the Ferris wheel with him and his father. Raffie and his father began rocking the cab at the top, scaring Ronny to death. Ronny ran back to the picnic area, and in a completely uncharacteristic act of vulnerability, buried his head in our mother’s stomach. Raffie and his father chided Ronny all day, making faces and calling him a girly-man. They carried on for far too long. Men in our family do that; it’s easier than apologizing. “Ehh, kid,” I remember my uncle saying. “We’re just trying to toughen ya up.” Ronny shot a look at him that caused our uncle to back off nervously. Though our mother made an effort to comfort Ronny, she was clearly ashamed. Our uncles were always trying to toughen Ronny up, cram in all the male influence they could on the rare occasions we saw them. They may have had good intentions, but their playful manliness seemed incessant and mean.
“Give them a chance,” our mother told Ronny.
“They’re dangerous,” he said. He was always so certain, so self-assured in his opinions. I think the problem with Ronny wasn’t so much his arrogance and air of superiority, but the fact that he was right and the rest of us knew it. We just wanted to continue being wrong.
Pamela was a stunner, even at twelve. Every year seemed to be a new kind of coming out for her, a new pageant, a new showing. The seniors of the family took special notice of her changing body. Some years they commented on her beautiful skin, others, her long slim legs. “She did nawt get those from ahh side,” both sides would insist. I was just beginning to notice the same kinds of compliments were not paid to me, that not all of us blossomed and bloomed the way Pamela did. I was also noticing that I wasn’t the only one who doted over her, loved her, wanted to be smothered in her. Pamela was the family’s shining star. Whole sections of the picnic area were unfamiliar to me, whole groups of family I’d never met, knew who she was. Everyone knew who she was. An unspoken hierarchical order seemed to keep some family apart from other family, but Pamela was a cross-over sensation. Other members of her immediate family then became more important too. People knew exactly who she belonged to, and what their names were. This was true of Ronny and me too, but we were known less for our beauty and more for our grit. Our mother’s widowhood was folklore, amplified by her fatherless son’s odd demeanor. Was he a genius? A retard? A budding sociopath? We were known, but we weren’t encouraged to make any attempts at crossing over, parading our new selves every year from bench to bench, raising our haunches for examination. We stayed at our corner of the picnic area.
The park was a different story though. The kids didn’t subscribe to the same social propriety the adults did. We ran wild, ate sickening amounts of sugar and fried food, yelled and ordered the ride attendants to go faster, go longer, one more time. For the most part, we were all little Caesars, and we tyrannized the amusement park freely. It was our birthright. If there was an element of inner-tribe classism, and I’m certain there was, the carousel was our writ. We established the order with its cavalry of horses, carriages and zoo animals. Each carousel seat had been named for our parents who were in the immediate bloodline. Our mother was included in this elite group, as were our cousin Raffie’s father and Pamela’s mother. The carousel was a bore, but once we’d assembled our pack for exploring the park, this was the first stop we made. We’d each mount our respective parents and suffer through the long and monotonous cycling. Ronny never rode our mother, who was a stationary and disproportionately short giraffe. Pamela and Raffie both had their own buck and mare, which were ornately painted and mechanized to move up and down. I played up my enthusiasm for the giraffe, but I’d always felt a little unlucky not having my own glittering, studded, bounding pony.
I remember watching Pamela. At one point I caught her riding side saddle and yawning, as if to say “are we there yet?” I laughed and asked her why she sat that way. She laughed too, hopped from her bobbing mare while the carousel still twirled, and showed me how to ride my giraffe like a lady. I never forgot her warm hands, damp from summer, lifting the under part of my knee. Her warm hands fixing my unwieldy form, straitening my lower back and chest as I sat. It was one of those hyper-sensory moments when the world becomes louder. I was deeply aware of her touch. I also remember Raffie, making like a cowboy with lasso, hollering “Yeehaw,” and “Hey, Pamela, wanna be kissing cousins?” Pamela had the dignity not to respond, but the idea of a kissing cousin, a term I’d never heard before, sounded magical and fascinating beyond belief. I imagined special doors opening up, fireworks, some kind of other-worldly reaction, volcanoes, angels descending, mist. I wanted to watch them kiss. I enjoyed nothing more than when a romance on my favorite soap opera finally got to its make or break moment, and the two lovers rolled around together on a bear skin rug by a blazing fire. The men were shirtless and the women were bare shouldered, draped in white sheets. Sometimes I’d have to close my eyes, the excitement was so strong. I could only imagine what might happen to me if such a thing were to occur in real space and time. I got lost in the idea, and I could smell my own sweat.
Before I knew it, the ride was over. Pamela and the rest of the group were convening behind the entrance gate. Ronny had been standing there the whole time, arms tight across his chest. Pamela, ever the graceful debutante, stood beside him, politely answering his barrage of nervous questions. I heard him ask, with special ardor, if her class had read any of the Greek myths yet. Pamela had a private school way of complaining about things while also showcasing her knowledge. “I feel like we’ve gotten the basics,” she said, “but with the real interesting stories, like Oedipus or Smyrna, it’s like our teachers don’t trust us. You know what I mean?”
Ronny seemed to lose some of his reserve and excitedly confided that he liked how babies sprouted from men’s heads. Pamela laughed and said she liked that too. I could hear Raffie behind them, making arfing sounds and punching the other boys in the arm. He saved his last and hardest punch for Ronny, just as Ronny was beginning to feel cool and comfortable in the crowd.
“D’ya like that, nancy pants?” Raffie teased.
Ronny rubbed his shoulder and sunk back into himself. I waited for Pamela’s reaction. She lowered her eyes in the direction of our cousins and shook her head in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. This, I understood, aligned us as females. I wrapped my arm in hers and stuck my tongue out at Ronny. My brother seemed more stunned by this than by the punch. I hadn’t meant to add insult to injury; he was just the safer target. I now realize that this may have been the crux of his social problem. Ronny wasn’t dangerous, like Raffie. This left Ronny open to a higher level of ridicule, but also provided him a different and more sophisticated bravado, a kind of Mr. Darcy strength that, I think, affected Pamela in a way it hadn’t in past years. She appeared at ease in Ronny’s presence; they seemed akin despite Ronny’s gauche stuttering. It wasn’t overt, but I paid attention to every one of her gestures, and it looked to me like she preferred being on Ronny’s side of the pack. She had less trouble looking at him when they spoke, and laughed when she thought he was telling a joke. In other words, she treated him kindly, in stark contrast to the way Raffie and the others behaved. This was new. I didn’t recall her ever paying much attention to my brother before, and I took it personally.
We made our way to the Scrambler. The seats could fit three comfortably. Ronny joined Pamela and me in our bucket, which was unlike him. I sat in the middle and shrieked when the ride began building speed. I pressed my body into Pamela’s as we swerved and she put her arm around me, letting the back of her hand graze Ronny’s shoulder. He didn’t utter a sound. He mashed his body to his side of the seat and avoided letting our thighs touch, even when the centripetal force demanded it.
Though he didn’t speak much, and made the strongest effort to go unnoticed, Ronny’s presence dominated. Maybe this was his problem, too. It was as though a thick, teeming cloud surrounded my brother. It made him a little scary, but also attractive, magnetic, for better or worse. The boys always tried to penetrate Ronny’s cloud, but none were clever enough to use anything other than brute force. Raffie was the biggest culprit. He must have been especially perturbed with the attention Ronny received from Pamela that day, because he couldn’t keep his hands off my brother. He came up right behind, before Ronny had a chance to get off the Scrambler, and wet-willied him. I’d never heard of this before, but it seemed fun. I slobbered on my own index finger and stuck it right in Pamela’s ear. She shrieked and grimaced in disgust, and I’d never felt so ashamed. I apologized. “You can do it to me, if you want,” I told her, but she just dried her ear with the fabric of her shirt and ignored me. I blamed Raffie for my indiscretion. One of the other boys was handing out wedgies, and made his way to my brother’s underpants. Raffie encouraged the perpetrator to go atomic, another term I’d never heard before. “Pull em over his head,” Raffie shouted, turning to Pamela. He was showing off. He hadn’t learned what I’d learned, Pamela wasn’t impressed.
“Let him go, Billy,” I said, for Pamela’s benefit. “That’s not funny.”
“Seriously,” Pamela seconded.
The attack must have been painful, but my brother didn’t even wince. “You guys are cavemen,” Ronny grumbled. Pamela laughed at this, but when Raffie and the others began ooga booging, her face went straight again. I thought their imitation was hysterical though, and throughout the day I’d periodically beg Raffie to do it again. He obliged me, and sometimes he’d tickle me with his aping arms. He was strong enough now to pick me up too, like his father. I didn’t have this kind of attention at home, and I didn’t know I was starving for it until someone lifted me into the air. It was as thrilling as the rollercoaster, only freer, like flying in a dream.
I got so caught up in Raffie’s attention that I lost sight of Pamela and Ronny, who’d gone off together to play some games. One was called the Electric Shocker. It had a similar objective as the game Operation. With the Electric Shocker, a metal wand with a ring in the center was navigated down an electrically charged metal spiral. The player had to maneuver the wand down the spiral without letting the two metals touch. If they did touch, the player would feel a small jolt of electricity. We found Ronny and Pamela there, hunched over and focused, trying to make it to the bottom of their spiral. I was on Raffie’s back, having manipulated my way into a piggyback ride.
“You guys disappeared,” Raffie said.
“We were bored,” Pamela replied, not looking up.
“Arf arf,” Raffie teased.
I laughed, having found myself now smitten with Raffie and a little neglected by Pamela. I’d felt a sense of betrayal which I only now understand in adult terms. It was all very animal. I’d built up a primitive understanding of how my family should relate, partly because the adults themselves seemed to affirm certain truths. Pamela was an alpha, Raffie was an alpha. Ronny was the very parody of an omega, and Pamela shouldn’t have gone off with him. It was unnatural. She should have been with Raffie and me, arfing and tickling, not standing pensively beside my effete brother. Though I’d learned from Michael J. Fox and John Cusack movies that the intellectual weakling always outshines the brute, it didn’t quite translate in reality. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been viewing my cousins as romantic entities, but this was beside the point. These family gatherings always felt innately sexual. Also, I had been over-exposed to daytime TV.
“Whata you guys,” I spitefully sneered over Raffie’s shoulder. “Boyfriend girlfriend?”
“We’re cousins,” Pamela answered.
Neither looked up from their game, and, before I knew it, Raffie was in full gallop towards a small patch of woods. A mini-locomotive passed along the periphery of the park, and this was one of its pick-ups. I tightened my arms around Raffie and shrilled. I was elated, and with the fickle synapses of a child, I’d already forgotten about Pamela’s betrayal. Raffie released me onto a solitary park bench hidden behind trees. He panted. I sat and he sat next to me, catching his breath. After that, it’s difficult to decipher what memories are real, and which are imagined. I’d spend the greater part of my nights fantasizing about this day for the rest of my childhood. There was a good chance I was the instigator. Perhaps I goaded Raffie, or asked certain titillating questions I’d thought up having to do with middle school dances. Raffie was in the seventh grade. I do remember asking my cousin if he had a girlfriend. He said he did once, but she was a fart. I remember a silence, and then Raffie telling me I was pretty. Perhaps I’d asked that too. Either way, the word alone sent a warm flow everywhere, like I was floating in bath water. I thought that Pamela must feel like this all the time. I remember Raffie’s touch was not quite as nice as Pamela’s, not as gentle and he had a moldy smell to him, but I still felt divinely weightless, outside myself, and behind this feeling, the excitement of doing a terrible wrong. I remember looking into Raffie’s eyes. They were empty and unfocused, like the boys I’d known with ADD, but his eyes were the same color as my own, and we had the same brows, the same stiff arch in our noses that we’d inherited from our grandmother. I wanted to stop then. I’m sure he would have, had I said so, but we got carried away. And maybe I wasn’t quite as precocious as I remember. Maybe I became precocious afterwards, or I added new intelligence to these memories once the door had been unlocked. It’s hard to say, but I don’t feel victimized or tainted now because of what happened, and I didn’t at the time. In fact, I feel guilty, responsible, because deep down, I knew Raffie was not the brightest boy. I’ve been to therapists and I’ve told this story, and they’ve all said guilt is very common.
It’s hard to tell exactly how long we were at it, or exactly what crimes we committed. I knew very little about my body. It all seemed to happen instantaneously, but before anything irreversible took place, things halted in unforeseen violence. I can’t recall the exact choreography of Ronny’s attack, or where I was in position to the blow. He just appeared from nowhere. I heard him say, “She’s just a little girl.” I heard Raffie say, “So are you,” with a retreating quiver in his voice. I remember Raffie standing, holding his pants up. A rush of blood seemed to just drop from his nose, which was now skewed to the left, as though a wire inside was bent. I remember Pamela just outside the circle, a spectator, and I ran to her. I was overwhelmed and stunned, as though rudely awakened from a dream, and I began to cry. I expected her to hold me, but she was fixated on the boys. Ronny shook his punching hand and inspected it for injury. Raffie held his face and he too began to cry. The amount of blood was frightening, and for a moment none of us moved. Ronny didn’t look like himself; he looked taller and wild and I wasn’t sure if he was going to start punching again. It looked as though he wanted to, and it felt like the obvious thing, the natural thing, to finish off his victim, but Ronny collected himself. His normal sober face fell back on like a mask. He refused to be intoxicated, like the rest of us.
“Come on,” Ronny said. “Tilt your head.” Ronny took Raffie by the arm and escorted him back to the picnic area.
Pamela and I walked behind. Ronny made sure Raffie kept his head back, so the blood would stop pouring. There was something both maternal and profoundly masculine in this act. None of us mentioned what had happened to cause the injury, and Raffie’s sin was all but forgotten. His terror and his broken nose were far more pressing than the violation, which had left me physically unscathed. Even I forgot, until the adults came rushing toward us, horrified.
“What the hell happened,” Raffie’s mother shouted, squatting in front of her son.
Pamela, Raffie and me looked to Ronny and didn’t say a word. Ronny didn’t flinch; he looked our aunt square in the face and said, “He was playing rough.” Ronny could have said anything and we would have agreed, but I remember thinking it odd that Ronny lied. Raffie would have gladly boasted about punching somebody in the nose, and maybe the women would have scolded him, but our uncles would have been proud. Ronnie didn’t want that kind of credit to his name, and instead put the onus all on Raffie, where it rightfully belonged, and he did it in a way that seemed to patronize even the adults. “He was playing rough,” as though Raffie was a child and he wasn’t. As if everyone was a child but Ronnie.
“Well, boys do,” Raffie’s father replied. He was attempting his own innuendo in Ronny’s direction, but it fell flat. Our uncle gestured for Raffie to come closer to him and he inspected the nose. “It ain’t so bad,” he said. “I’ve seen worse.”
“It didn’t even really hurt,” Raffie said, sucking back tears and blood.
The bleeding had mostly stopped once the medic arrived, but Raffie was still taken to the hospital. They set his nose and he recovered just fine, though our once common feature was forever changed. The small roman bump became a strong crooked angle, and his nose grew larger and more prominent on his face as he aged.
What happened between Raffie and me, whether or not it traumatized me, did not ruin my day. Nor did it ruin later days, or later reunions. I do find myself oddly aroused by men with broken noses and never miss an Owen Wilson movie, even the bad ones. We all have our fetishes from childhood. There were some other changes though, for Ronny in particular. I remember that car ride home and how solemn he seemed, like he’d been beaten up. I think now he felt that the family had gotten the better of him. The boy cousins never picked on him again though, under Raffie’s newly benign leadership. Our uncles laid off for the most part too, especially when Ronny got accepted to an elite middle school, and then later got a scholarship for a private high school. People started accepting him for who he was, or they’d lose him completely. By that time though, the family had stopped having the summer reunions at the park. The relative who owned it sold the land, and for two years the place sat deserted. I didn’t see much of Pamela once the reunions stopped, and when I did, I avoided her. I was older by then and had long gotten over my crush. Her beauty didn’t thrill me anymore. It made me angry.
It wasn’t like the end of the reunions at the park came as any big loss either. Some years, I hadn’t even wanted to go. When our mother told us the land was being sold, Ronny and I didn’t care. We’d outgrown the place. It’s been so long since the reunions, it feels like I made the whole thing up. I think about the park often. I think about the carousel. I see myself as a grown woman riding the giraffe, miserable, my mother’s name etched down its neck. It’s funny, in memories I see myself so grown up, but in present day life I feel so much like a child. I see Raffie and Pamela as they were, bustling and young. My brother isn’t there at all, except in this story. I don’t know what this means.
I’ve been thinking about the park a lot lately. Ronny is having a baby, and I assume this is why. I went online and searched for the park and found a site from years earlier, dedicated to saving the park for historical preservation. They’d failed. I found another site from a local artist who’d gone to the park to snap photos a few days before the bulldozers razed it. It was scary how quickly the place got overgrown, rotten. The park looked haunted. I called my brother to tell him what I’d discovered. “Ronny,” I said. “They tore the place down. It’s all gone. Isn’t that so sad?”
“It really is,” he said.
We sighed. I felt the need to stay on the phone a little longer, even though we had nothing to talk about. Our lives have taken separate trajectories, and I don’t like his wife. Still, I call him sometimes. We sighed some more, grumbled. I expected Ronny to excuse himself, but he didn’t.
“It’s really sad,” I said one more time.
“It really is,” Ronny said. “It’s all very sad.”
His words still sound like truth to me, like little boxes inside me I can’t open myself. We hardly ever see each other.

DAWN RYAN is a recent graduate of the Rutgers Newark MFA and a member of the Neumann Leathers Writers Group. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Fivechapters, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica Vol. 8, and others.