How a mute neighbor girl taught me to fight Christmas cheer

At that point in my life, I was trying to understand what gave people like Olive and her parents such admirable, scathing authority, particularly when judging others. The few times I was acknowledged by Olive’s parents, I was called “the schmuck’s kid” who lived in “Chateau Gaudy.” Yes, they said this to my face. Don’t worry; their words didn’t wound me. On the contrary, I was intrigued.

How could this couple from next door — who didn’t even dress well — show such disdain for us, when most people in my father’s presence showed him nothing but respect? What did the family from next door see in us that other people didn’t? Did they simply dislike us because we had a larger house?

To Olive’s dismay, because we lived in the countryside, I was the only person to keep her company when there was no school. Usually we would sit in her bedroom and she would play tapes, mostly Dead Kennedys and Rage Against the Machine, and often she would forget I was there. Sometimes she fell asleep. Only once did she offer me a snack, but that was to play a joke by seeing if I would eat raw catfish by mouthing to me it was sushi.

I saw in Olive all the qualities of a cynic I so wanted for myself. Anything I said in earnest, Olive could shoot down with a rapid roll of her eyes, a subtle but powerful social weapon against which I am still defenseless. Olive dismissed as mundane everything I found interesting, from designer shoelaces to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Olive was oblivious to her immediate surroundings, and she hated the countryside and its people. But she was passionate about big, important issues. The hole in ozone layer, for example, or the encroachment of big music labels into the punk scene, or the size of Newt Gingrich’s head.

Only once did Olive venture to my house, and the visit occurred a couple days before Christmas. As I gathered from her vulgar thrusting gestures, the heavy snows had taken down her family’s phone line, and the utilities workers sent to fix it were perving on her.

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