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The Transitive Property of Black Sheep

We are the black sheep, Lydia and I. At least, that’s what Grandma said the last night in the beach house, during the storm that kept us inside, depleting the wine. Grandma led the charge on the wine. “You’re her favorite,” she said, referring to her sister, my great-aunt Lydia. This was after she commented on the length and color of my swim trunks (short, lavender) and asked for the fifth time if I was seeing anybody. “The two of you… you understand each other.”

The wine was stuck in her teeth like mortar, like her words lodged in my mind, where they remained weeks after the trip. Lydia was the only no-show on that trip. She claimed she was nervous to make the drive and, being eighty, was largely believed. Most of the family cited her terrible smoking habit as the reason for her supposed decline. A lifetime of vice catches up to you eventually.

My grandmother and I knew better. She, Lydia’s sister, and I, the other black sheep, understood Lydia’s inner workings. (Grandma never called me a black sheep, but I had heard it muttered about Lydia, so by the transitive property I also got the label.) She had accepted that the family would never appreciate her, and so she decided to isolate herself from it.

Now that I was a pariah too, I decided to visit Lydia. We could be black sheep together. We could talk.

We arranged everything over the phone. I drove down on a Saturday and found her waiting at the door of her enormous, empty house, with a smile and stories. I wasn’t prepared for the stories. I knew she had them, but their volume and rapidity overwhelmed me.

Suddenly it was Sunday afternoon, and I had hardly spoken. We sat on her patio, a blue cloud of smoke hanging above us. Lydia smoked tirelessly, averaging one cigarette per story. She was telling me about her brother Steve, whom I had never met, and why she despised him. “A no-good philanderer. You know how some people are no-good philanderers? He threw Sandy around like a doll.”

She hadn’t bothered to tell me who Sandy was. I was nodding steadily, trying to remain engaged in the conversation and not quite succeeding.

“That’s why I never married, personally. Too many no-good philanderers.” She pointed her cigarette at me. “You gonna marry? Anyone in mind?”

Her questions were rare, so I leapt on this one. “You know, Lydia, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and I realized something.”

She waved a hand. “No, you’re too young to realize anything. Wait ’til your thirties—maybe then you’ll start figuring things out. For now, you’re clueless. God knows I was.”

I gave up, and, after another forty minutes, told her I had to go. She gave me a bony hug and made me promise to visit again.

Driving back, I thought about something I had asked in a brief lull. Did she know anyone like herself—who had never married, who chose to live alone? She thought. “Well, yes,” she said. “Her name was Helen, and we were close friends for a few years. But she did something, and we don’t talk anymore.”

I knew she wanted me to ask, so I did. She leaned in. “I don’t know the term for it now, so let’s say this. She tried to…” And she raised two spread fingers to her mouth, bared her teeth, and wagged her tongue obscenely between her fingers. “You know what I mean by that, don’t you?” I nodded.

Her teeth were stained too, not lined with wine but mottled by decades of cigarette smoke.



he, him, his

College of Arts & Sciences

Class of 2020, English Area Program in Literary Prose (APLP)

Dan was inspired to write this piece through some interesting family interactions and conversations with friends about the concept of "othering." He loves David Hockney, Carmen Maria Machado, Oscar Wilde, and probably some straight people too. He paints in his spare time and is currently working on a creative thesis featuring queer love in a Southern university.

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