You knew it was coming. There were e-mails, conversations about pies and sweet potatoes and who would sleep where. You knew it was coming because it comes every year. And yet it is always such a shock to dismount a bus beside the strip mall where you and your girlfriends bought fake acid and pretended to hallucinate in the eighth grade, and where you and your high school boyfriend made out lustily in the dark space between JC Penney and the movie theater—and see your mother’s Subaru waiting there for you in front of that same Penney’s shop window.
Before you’ve even reached the pizza restaurant where you had your first job waiting tables, thick tension is building in the car. Your mother is pissed that your bus was late, that you smell like cigarettes, that you still have not bought your brother a gift for his wedding, which was over one year ago. You learn that your father and his wife will be there; you groan and your mother says that you’d better be nice to them because he’s your father, and you bite your tongue and fiddle with the radio. Your mother clenches the steering wheel, looks straight ahead.
The air in the house is stale, smells like baby powder. There are in fact two babies and you coo and make faces to entertain them, ask their parents polite questions about potty training and sleep schedules. Your mother appears pleased. In the bathroom, you confirm that she is still taking Wellbutrin and learn that Xanax has been added to the equation. You pocket one of each, then decide to take them both immediately, sticking your head under the faucet to swallow.
On top of the baby grand in the living room are framed yearbook photos of you and your siblings. As you sit on the couch facing them, examining the poufy Eighties hair styles and braces, you wonder how everybody wound up so pretty and sophisticated-looking. Dougan, the old beagle, curls up at your feet and you rub his head distractedly, then smell your hand. Everybody has gathered. Your siblings converse heatedly about mortgages and jobs and preschool waiting lists while you sip a glass of pinot grigio that you found half-empty in the fridge. From the kitchen, your mother inserts herself in every conversation (“She did not get the promotion because of an opening; they created the position for her because she deserved it”), shooting all dietary-focused questions in your direction; you remind her as you have every single year since you were nineteen that you are not a vegetarian but prefer locally and sustainably produced meat. Which reminds your siblings of your infrequent and thus special presence and prompts from them a flurry of inquiries about your current job or jobs and what’s-her-name-your-roommate-friend-from-college and your yoga practice, all of which you answer diligently, smiling, with responses you prepared in your head during the bus journey, aware that they see you as a sort of grown-up child, living out an extended sorority-girl-hippie-chick fantasy as you inch dangerously near to becoming an eclectic spinster, too old for law school or any other saving grace and who may begin siphoning money off your parents as you grow increasingly tired of stupid part-time jobs that drain your energy and never get you anywhere. As you are delivering packaged lines about the special assignments your boss has given you recently and how you feel you really have a knack for communications work, you feel the pharmaceuticals kicking in and you sink into the armchair. The room grows fuzzy and dark.
It is morning and you are lying in your old bedroom and something smells like putrid fish—Dougan is licking your face. You push him off and try to focus; you vaguely remember sitting at the dinner table and eating a few bites of salmon before staggering off last night, mumbling something about a headache. You look gaze at your old music posters and psychedelic tapestries. Lifting the covers, you discover that you are still wearing the jeans and sweater you traveled in and they now smell not only like cigarettes but also like diapers. On cue, a baby wails downstairs, the phone rings, and your mother yells for someone to get it for God’s sake.
You rise, shower, put on your carefully selected holiday dress, move slowly down the stairs. In the kitchen, you learn that your mother has given up caffeine so there is no coffee. You are handed a cutting board and an onion.
Later, there is football watching. There never used to be football watching but then, one year, your brother and your sister’s husband turned on the TV and bonded. So now, every year, the watching. You sip a champagne cocktail, pretending also to watch, when your father enters. He is trim and tan, as is his wife, who is on his arm. You remember: they’ve just vacationed in the islands. They are smiling, white teeth against bronzed skin. The wife’s dress is inappropriately short and she does not, you think, pull it off, but then again maybe she does just because she’s so thin. Your mother appears, kisses both of them on the cheek; you’d swear you can see your mother’s jaw clenching from across the room. She looks like a sad lumpy whale compared to them. You tip back the cocktail and desperately want a cigarette.
Under the pretext of walking Dougan, you light a cigarette down the block. Someone calls your name and your sister is suddenly there. You like her perhaps most of your siblings. She has always been the odd one out, forgoing a car for a bicycle even in winter, ever ready to refuse plastic in favor of the tattered cloth tote she carries everywhere. The company is welcome and the conversation is pleasant until she asks how long you’ve been smoking and how much. You say on and off and not very much and change the subject. Your sister talks about house renovations, ongoing IVF attempts, local politics. As you return to your mother’s house, she wrinkles her nose at you and says that you should really stop smoking because the longer you go on doing it the harder it will be to quit, and then her expression becomes concerned and she says you can always call if you need anything. You nod and blink.
At the house, Dad is on his third Kir cocktail and wifey is pinching the babies’ fat cheeks. Your mom, sober, cooks and seethes in the kitchen. You tiptoe by her to make another drink and notice a wet streak under one eye. Briefly you pause, to maybe hug her, but are then distracted by yelling coming from the living room—and at the same time from the dining room. You stand in the hallway between the two locations and surmise that, in the living room, your brother and sister’s husband are groaning about a lost opportunity for a touchdown while, in the dining room, where your sister and her partner were setting the table, your father has walked in on them making out and has had an inappropriate outburst, possibly calling them disgraceful. You hold one hand to your chest to make sure you are breathing and decide to come to your sister’s defense. Within moments it’s you and her against your father, your father who never loved any of you the way you are, and your father’s wife is calling him to back off but you see that she enjoys the drama, probably lives to enable his drunken tantrums. Your sister’s partner escapes into the kitchen and your sister follows her, and your father and his wife announce in shouting voices that they are leaving, muttering something about thank God we kept those reservations. When you go to console your sister she is saying nasty things about your father to your mother, who is basting the turkey with a tired, bleary look. Your sister’s partner leans against a counter, gazing out the window at the oak tree standing in an orange donut of discarded foliage, probably wishing she’d dragged your sister to her folks’ instead of coming here.
You all sit. Another sister has carefully and quietly removed the place settings for your father and his wife. Everybody gives thanks for their spouses and babies (or in your mother’s case for her children and grandchildren, delivered in a surprisingly positive tone) and when it is your turn you look at the beautifully set table your mother spent hours preparing and say that you are thankful that this turkey died following a short, painful, unnatural life, at the hand of a mechanical slaughtering machine, so that you all could enjoy its chemically enlarged carcass at this meal in celebration of an oppressive colonial legacy that has birthed this wonderful country, its wonderful capitalism and its wonderful oil wars.
For a moment it is silent, then your sister’s husband says Amen and eating commences. Through a mouthful of creamed onions, your brother asks how long you’re in town and you say you have to get back to the city tomorrow. He nods, asks if someone can pass the cornbread. Beside him, his wife spoons yams into their baby’s mouth. You watch, wondering if one day you’ll be dragging some poor man to this table with a small creature of your own, or if you’ll simply stop showing up at all. You wonder if anyone will care, or even notice. You taste the turkey and tell your mother that it is quite delicious; she smiles wanly in return as she pushes large forkfuls into her mouth, hunching over her plate. Conversation picks up and begins moving steadily toward gentle, approachable subjects like movies and casual news from the extended family. Dougan breathes on your leg and you pet him without love, explaining to him in plain English that you cannot give him any turkey because tryptophan will kill him. He accepts this and lays his head on your foot. Across from you the baby masticates, dribbling orange blobs down his chin, and you squint, concentrating on the movements of his tiny mouth moving up and down, up and down, up and down.
Rachel Signer is a writer living in New York. She was a 2014 Fiction Fellow at The Writers’ Institute.