I got back to a table full of chatter. I don't know what broke the ice, but it felt like Sunday dinner with extended family.
The Jacksons and my parents were talking like old friends, and Dr. Epstein was kicked back in his chair with his eyes closed, smoking a pipe.
Gina was involved in an alternate three-way conversation with Mother and her new-found friend Diwata.
Robbie was playing with his Nack,
With the pressure off, I could carry on a coherent conversation and even enjoy the rest of my food. The chatter continued while I finished my sandwich at a less frantic pace.
"So Dani," Dawita called across the table, "you mother has been telling us all about your family. You are the middle child?"
Apparently she'd not said enough.
"No, I'm the oldest."
"Really? I assumed Gina was the older."
Yes, you did.
"Poor Tipper thought you were twins."
Hearing his name, Tipper cut in.
"Wait, you're older than her?"
"Yes, she's my big little sister."
"How much older?"
"Three years. She's thirteen and I'm sixteen."
"I'm sixteen. Really."
"Yes, she is," my mother assured him. "I was there."
"R-r-rarin babies," Dr. Epstein's voice spoke from a cloud of smoke, "are often delayed in growth." His trill was impeccable.
"Rarin babies," Daddy asked, as the doctor leaned forward and emerged from his cloud of tobacco smoke.
"What are Rarin babies," he and Mother both asked at the same time.
Across the table, the Jacksons were looking grim. Dr. Epstein scraped his pipe out into a beanbag ashtray. He set it down beside his Zippo and placed his palms flat on the table.
"Jess," he said looking at everyone at the table, "R-r-rarin babies are people born sin gonads. The only t'ing we've found that dey have in common is all of der parents took Rarin when dey were in puberty, or embarrasado...pregnant."
My parents both looked at each other and then at him.
"Didn't joor doctor tell joo dat?"
"No," Mother replied, "all he told us is that Dani may have a birth defect, and that we needed to come here to all get checked out. He didn't say anything like that."
"Joor child may be a R-rarin baby, but we need to do more tests to be certain. It means, as far as we can tell, dat joo both must be carriers of de bad gene, and your o'der chil-dren may carry it. De effect is way too r-rare to not be r-recess-ive, and no known R-rarin babies haff parents who didn't take de drug."
"Dani?" Tipper did a double take, looking at me the way an etymologist looks at a shiny new beetle. "Are you a rabbit?"
"Not to the best of my knowledge," I answered him, trying not to laugh. But I reflexively ran my hands over my head, just to make sure I didn't have bunny ears.
Everybody else laughed for me.
"Sorry," he apologized, looking slightly embarrassed. "I've never seen one before. That explains why you look so much younger than your sister. I assume you two are not rabbits?" He looked at Gina and Robbie.
My sister giggled, but Robbie was ignoring us all.
"Rabbit," I asked again, a little confused.
"That's what some people call Rarin babies," explained Dawita. "It's not spelled like 'rabbit', the hare, but like 'Welsh rarebit', which is a dish that doesn't contain rabbit at all." She crinkled up her nose and frowned.
"Why," I asked.
"It is from R-r-rarin," Dr. Epstein explained. "R-r-rarin, r-r-rarebit. De words are si-mi-lar, but I do not like de term and dis-courage it's use." He looked at his wristwatch and stood, pocketing his pipe and lighter. "Now, if joo will all ex-cuse me," he nodded to all the ladies present, and me. "I must get caught up on my paper-work. Dani, I will see you at 1:15 in room 515."
As I watched him leave, my sister punched me in the arm.
"What did you do that for?"
She shrugged and gave me a conspiratory grimace but didn't say anything.
I shook my head and turned back to the Jacksons.
"Are you from Texas," I asked.
"No," Tipper replied. "I am from Memphis, and Dawita was born in Anaheim."
"But we met in Manila," Dawita explained. "My family emigrated from the Philippines. I went back in the sixties."
They must've met during the Philippino War.
"Are you a veteran?"
"No." Tipper grabbed his collar and showed me a badge. "I did a four-year stint there, from seventy to seventy-four."
That was too late for the war. I wonder what he was doing there.
"I was in the Peace Corps," he explained when I didn't get the significance of his collar-pin. "Still am. I'm a recruiter now."
"So, how did you like it," Mother asked him.
"Hated it. I got there just after Joan."
"Joan? Who is she?"
"Super Typhoon Joan," he gave a pained look and one of his eyes twitched. "It was brutal. That whole season was. Over a thousand dead from Luzon to Mindinao. I met Dee in June of 1974, after Typhoon Dinah destroyed her school."
"Wow," Gina said in a voice heavy with awe. "That must've been crazy, falling in love in all that mess." She had always been the romantic of the family.
"It was," Diwata answered, smiling her enigmatic little smile. "But it was grand."
It didn't sound like anything grand to me.
Tipper looked at his watch and fumbled under the table for his pack. "We have to go—we have to see Dr. Ronk...I bet he's waiting for us now."
"Dr. Ronk," Robbie snickered, looking up from his Nack. "Is he the opposite of Dr. Hr-rite?"
"Clever," Tipper said casually as he tried to grab all his stuff at once. He couldn't carry his tray, but Diwata bussed the contents to her tray and picked up the stack.
"It was very nice to meet you," She said, looking at us all. "We will probably see you again before the day is out...we are here about Rarin too."