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It began in St. Louis. St. Louis, says the almanac, has 448,649 people; is 61 square miles in area; has the biggest shoe company in the United States; and was named after a French king. But the most important thing for me last spring was that it's almost a thousand miles from the city of New York.
Not that New York City is that important. But it is where I was born, and where I lived with my parents before I lived in St. Louis. I live in St. Louis now. My parents live in New York. Both of them. But not together.
They got divorced. I don't know why. I'm not sure I want to. Besides, that's not what this is all about. The point is, when they got divorced they decided that what I needed was a good, regular home with two grown-ups living regular lives in regular ways, doing regular things. So, when I was about nine, I came to St. Louis to live with my regular Uncle Carl and my regular Aunt Lu. Aunt Lu is my mom's sister.
For the first three years I saw my folks pretty often, maybe four, five times a year. In between, there were letters, phone calls, presents. The next Easter--which was last year--I saw them in New York. I was supposed to go again last summer, but the only time I could have gone was when Uncle Carl could get me into this great scout camp.
I went to camp.
At Thanksgiving, Aunt Lu wasn't feeling too good, so I stayed home to help out while Uncle Carl was at a meeting. And at Christmas Uncle Carl decided we should go to Florida for Aunt Lu's health, which we did.
So, I didn't get to see my parents at Christmas. Also, for Christmas my dad sent me this huge model of a spaceship, andmy mother sent records, records of corny band music. It was the presents that really upset me. I just wasn't into those things at all. I felt as if--since I hadn't seen my folks for so long--they didn't know me anymore.
That was scary.
I began to think that something was wrong. I felt I had to be with them alone, without my aunt or uncle standing by the phone or reading over my letters for spelling mistakes.
Not that I said anything. I was afraid to, afraid to upset things. And my aunt and uncle got upset very easily. They were always nervous about me, about how I felt, worried I might get angry at them. 'Specially my aunt. So I had to protect them, take care of them. Mostly I did it by not saying what was on my mind.
So, I didn't say or do anything about my parents. I did think about them, a lot. And I got more and more worried, 'specially since I was getting fewer and fewer letters and phone calls. I just didn't know what was going on.
Finally, spring vacation was close--and I had always gone East then. I was really looking forward to visiting New York. I just had to see my folks. Then my aunt and uncle announced that instead of going to New York, as soon as school was out I'd be going to England for spring vacation.
"What if I don't want to go?" I said that morning in St. Louis. I said it quietly, almost as if it didn't matter.
"How could you not want to go?" cried Aunt Lu as she swirled the orange juice. "It's the chance of a lifetime, honey."
"I'll more than likely get other chances," I suggested.
"Now, honey," Aunt Lu said with one of her big smiles. "How many boys thirteen years of age have the opportunity to visit a foreign country? I wish I could go see Cousin Philip and the children."
"I never saw them before," I protested.
"They are family, Conrad, not strangers. Besides, you're so easygoing, you get along with everyone. Those're two of your blessings. He'll have a fine time, won't he, dear?" she said, asking help from Uncle Carl.
"It should be fun," he offered. "Meeting part of your family you've never seen. And England's very interesting, Conrad. Marvelous history, great tradition. . ."
I put on my listening look. When he seemed to be done, really done (I was never quite sure), all I said was, "I'd still rather visit my mom and dad."
They looked at me, they looked at each other, but they didn't say anything.
"I haven't seen them for almost a year," I said. "My dad told me that the next time I came he'd take me to the top of the Empire State Building."
Aunt Lu eyed Uncle Carl, which is a way they sometimes talk. He clasped his hands (a bad sign), leaned forward (a worse one), and said, "Aren't you happy here, Conrad?" He even tried to make a joke. "Isn't the Gateway Arch good enough for you?"
Somehow they had gotten it into their heads that if I talked about my parents, that meant I was unhappy. I was sorry I had said anything.
"Is something bothering you here?" Uncle Carl continued. "There's nothing you need, is there?" Where Aunt Lu was always hugging, he was always worried about things. And in his way, he was generous. But what could I tell him--that having the right things didn't necessarily make me feel right? I couldn't. He would have been insulted. So again, I said nothing.
"We're only trying to help you have a good vacation," he said. "A special one. You must know that."
"Sure, I know," I said, and I meant it. But I don't think it came out sounding right.
Aunt Lu snuck up from behind and lassoed me with a hug. "Conrad," she said, "it's just this one short vacation, and a wonderful opportunity.�