My Very First Dysfunctional Thanksgiving
By Paul Briggs
(This is sort of a sequel to "Venison.")
It was Thanksgiving. I was eighteen, and my parents were divorced.
I hadn't seen it coming. At all. Looking back, I should have — they were not the most compatible people. I'd just sort of taken it for granted how distant they were getting from each other without ever thinking they might be planning to separate completely. And they'd kept it a secret from me and Jody because, I was told, they didn't want me "trying to fix things." So they waited until I'd moved to L.A. and couldn't argue with them full-time.
So when it happened it still came as a shock. When I learned that the only reason they'd stuck together the last few years was on my account, that made it worse. And when I had to move my stuff out of the house because they were selling it, I kind of lost my composure. "THIS HOUSE IS THE ONLY PLACE WHERE I'VE EVER FELT NORMAL, AND WE'RE JUST GETTING RID OF IT! THIS TOWN IS THE ONE PLACE ON EARTH WHERE PEOPLE DON'T STARE AT ME LIKE I'M SOME KIND OF FREAK, AND WHO KNOWS IF WE'LL EVER BE HERE AGAIN!" At this point, the movers actually hid in the basement. (One of the drawbacks of being as big as I am is that every time you lose your temper or get emotionally overwrought, the governor declares a state of emergency.)
Anyway, I was spending Thanksgiving with Mom and Jody in Minneapolis. We were having dinner with the Marbury family at a vegetarian restaurant.
Why the Marburys? Because Jody was dating Wesley Marbury, and the grown-ups in both families felt this need to stay in touch and keep tabs on the two of them. (It was yet another shock for me to realize that my little sister who used to crawl into bed with me on cold nights when the radiator in her room wasn't working, my baby sister in defense of whom I once beat up four guys at once… was now fifteen going on trouble.)
Why at a restaurant? Because Mr. and Mrs. Marbury had personal issues of their own of which we knew very little, and the theory was that with both of our families together in a public setting with everybody staring at us (staring at me, anyway) we could keep the drama to a minimum. (Theory is wonderful.)
Why vegetarian? Because the Marburys are vegetarians. Some questions really do have simple answers.
Why do I get suspicious when I hear the words "vegetarian food"? I like fresh vegetables, and even if they're canned I'm generally willing to shovel them in. Maybe it's just knowing that whoever made the food was thinking of something besides making it delicious and nutritious… which, come to think of it, is very often the case anyway. Anyway, as it turned out, the food was not the problem.
For once, my size wasn't the problem either. I've learned how to handle sitting at a restaurant. Instead of using a chair, I bring in a couple of huge, fat cushions I've made, set them down on the floor and sit on those, crossing my legs yoga-style. This way I can fit my legs under the table. It also means that my head is about on a level with everybody else's, or maybe a little below, and that I'm less likely to brain somebody with my elbows by mistake.
The restaurant was in the middle of downtown. You'd think everybody would be home with their families and parking would be easier to find. I ended up parking about three blocks away. The neighborhood didn't look so great, but I wasn't worried about my car being broken into — I never leave anything valuable in there, and thanks to the customized interior nobody less than seven feet tall could possibly drive off with it.
I was dressed in my best clothes… which, unfortunately, were the black slacks, sweater and shoes I wore to work. I also had a dark brown canvas longcoat that flapped dramatically in the wind and made me look even more imposing than usual. Actually, judging from some of the looks I got, maybe "terrifying" is a better word than "imposing." I had the urge to whip out a kazoo and play a few bars of the "Imperial March" from Star Wars. (I think we all get that urge from time to time.)
I caught up with the rest of the family outside the restaurant. Mom was wearing a crisp navy-blue pantsuit with an off-white silk blouse. I never realized it before, but she wasn't that old — she was 41 and at the moment she looked maybe 35. As for Jody, she was wearing a very respectable winter coat… and, underneath that, a red dress that showed enough of her shape to make it clear she really wasn't a little girl any more.
Wesley looked… not bad. Good-looking, I guess. He had ash-blond hair and chubby cheeks that I kept wanting to pinch. He bit his lower lip nervously as he looked up at me.
I suppose I am a gentle giant, up to a point. In Rieseland it was understood that if somebody hurt Jody, I'd put my foot so far up his ass it would stick out of his mouth and I'd wear him like a leg warmer. I didn't see any need here to make any threats. I just said, "You will be good to my sister, I hope?" He nodded hurriedly.
The place had a standard Thanksgiving meal — tofu turkey, stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, green beans and cranberry relish. The waitress had magenta lipstick with matching hair, a nose ring and a spiderweb tattooed on the back of her hand, which would have all looked pretty out-there if I hadn't just spent the summer working at the Dutchboy. When I asked her if we could choose between light or dark non-meat, she gave me this look like she thought I was messing with her on purpose, so I apologized.
Sitting down to eat with Mom and Jody, I kept looking over to Mom's left, where Dad would normally have been sitting. I made a mental note to call him after dinner and see how he was doing.
The conversation was actually going okay at first. Then, well…
"You know what's different about Thanksgiving?" said Mom. "No venison."
"Venison?" says Mrs. Marbury.
"Derek was a deer hunter. Still is, I suppose."
"I take it you didn't approve?"
"I didn't think much about the hunting either way — it was what he brought home. Tough, gamy meat on the table every night, the basement smelling like marinade and blood for months — and let me tell you, the marinade smell was worse…"
"Don't forget the organ meats," put in Jody. "Every time he brought home a kill, he'd make this horrible meal of deer liver and kidneys and pancreas and God knows what else."
"You didn't eat any of it, did you?"
"Never," said Jody — proudly, even. "Not even once. No entrails for me. For one day, I can get by on good old-fashioned mashed potatoes and gravy."
At this point I felt a social blunder coming on.
"About that gravy," I said, "there were some organs in it you didn't know about."
"Without going into too much detail… did you notice that it tasted a little different if the deer was a buck or a doe?"
"You're lying, right?… Mom? Isn't she lying?" Jody actually turned a shade paler at this point.
"I kind of suspected it was a little more than store-bought gravy," said Mom. "It seemed easier not to ask. It's not like it was poisonous or anything."
Wesley looked at me with horror. "You knew all this and ate this stuff anyway?" he said.
"Reenie'll eat anything that can't sue her in court," said Jody.
"Hey, some of us burn 4500 calories a day. We can't afford to be picky." (Jody was one of those girls that hit a certain age and just didn't want to eat anything she hadn't tried before.) "And for your information, I liked the venison."
"You just liked it because Dad brought it home. You were his fav—"
"Stop it!" said Mom sharply. "We are not going to make a big production out of this. We are in public. People can hear us." I almost looked around the room to see who was staring at me, but decided I didn't really want to know.
A long silence descended on the table and did a little dance between Jody and me. Was she about to say I was Dad's favorite? He loved both of us… but… I was the tomboy in Big & Tall men's clothing, with a room full of sports equipment and books about dinosaurs, and Jody was the girly-girl in pink with the Barbie collection. He could share more of his interests with me than with her. Add that to the fact that he had to spend a lot more time with me, taking me out jogging and spotting me while I lifted weights… and I could see Jody's point.
For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder what it was like for her to grow up in my shadow — and not just literally. Always being thought of Big Reenie's little sister. It hurt to think she might resent me.
But hey, who was out shoveling snow at 4 a.m. with Dad? Well, okay, Jody wasn't exactly built for that sort of work, but who did the laundry in the Harris house? Who took care of the dog, when we had a dog? Who learned how to knit and sew and work leather so she could make clothes in her own size? I think I've earned a certain amount of attention.
At this point Mom started working to defuse tension a little more. "I have to admit, the broth was all right," she said. "So at least I didn't have to spend money on broth for a while." (I suspected she was being sarcastic, but taking her words at face value gave me a reason not to get mad.)
Eventually dinner came. The tofu turkey didn't really taste of anything — I was braced for something awful, so this was a pleasant surprise. Anyway, I think we all know the white meat on a turkey tends to be not all that flavorful. That's why I was asking if there was such a thing as dark tofu. And everything else was delicious.
(Although I have to say, I did miss the venison. I missed gnawing the meat off deer ribs and getting bits of it stuck in my braces and getting barbecue sauce all over my lips and fingers. Really. You'd be amazed at what you can miss.)
Jody got to talking about ballet. It was interesting hearing about the physical demands — I've never danced except for fun, and I'm pretty sure I couldn't have gotten into ballet if I'd wanted to.
Things were going okay until Mom mentioned that I made my own shoes, and Mrs. Marbury started talking about the handmade Italian shoes she was wearing. Naturally, my ears perked up at this. She took off one of her shoes and handed it to me so I could get a better look at the workmanship.
"Where did you get these?" I asked.
"I was on vacation in Italy with a few of my girlfriends," she said. "There was this shoemaker's shop in this tiny little village outside Campobasso."
"Tell me about it." (I'd love to go to Italy. There are all sorts of exotic and fascinating places I'd love to go if only it didn't mean getting on a plane.) "Do you have any pictures?" Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the pained expression on Wesley's face, but I thought it was just that he was tired of hearing about Italy.
"Yeah, tell us about it," said Mr. Marbury, a little angrily. "This shoemaker — was he the one?"
"Don't be ridiculous. He was 76 years old and he barely spoke English. For your information, the… man you're thinking of… was a very nice gentleman we met in a tavern who spoke perfect English."
"Oh yeah. Real nice. So nice he had chlamydia."
Oh. At this point, Wesley excused himself, because he had to get up and run screaming out of the restaurant. Jody followed him. Before she left, she did this little motion with her hands that said Don't anybody else get up, I know what to do, let me handle this. (I think she picked up that gesture from me.)
The silence that descended over the table this time could have beaten up the one that came before. Finally the Marburys apologized for making things so awkward.
"That's okay," said Mom. "You have no idea what a relief it is to have a dinner conversation that isn't about sports."
And she was off, talking about how Dad was boring, his friends were boring, there was a whole world of art and culture and stuff that she couldn't share with him, blah blah blah. Mom had actually been keeping the peace here, but that was one hour and three glasses of white wine ago. (I wouldn't have minded some wine right then, but I was only 18 and they wouldn't have served me any. Ridiculous, isn't it? I'd have had to chug the whole bottle at once just to get a little buzzed.)
The worst part was that I'd already had this argument with Mom. According to her, she got married young (two years older than me at this point — thanks for the implication that nobody in my age group has the sense God gave a turkey), and she doesn't regret anything, because the marriage brought her me and Jody, but the only thing holding the marriage together was that they both had a job to do that was bigger than both of them put together (literally) and now that it was done, it was time for her to live for herself while she still had the chance. I really, really didn't want to go over all this material again.
Finally I reached over, put my hand on her arm and said, "Mom. Please. Stop."
I didn't think I was all that loud, but the whole room went completely silent. No more conversation. No more little clinking noises of silverware. Just the bustle in the kitchen and the sound of central heating. I swear I could feel everyone's eyes on me. There must have been something in my voice telling everybody I was not having a good time here.
"I'm sorry, Reenie," she said. "I know you miss him, and sometimes I miss him a little myself. But most of the time, I'm happy. I've got a great new job, I'm making new friends… I wish you could be happy for me, but I understand."
I've mentioned how people react when I lose my temper. What that means is that I've had to learn to look a little ahead in the conversation and see where the pitfalls are. I realized at this point that there was just no good direction this could possibly go. I wanted to tell Mom she was having a mid-life crisis, but to any woman under fifty, dem's fightin' woids.
So I just said, "Excuse me," got up and walked out. I didn't run. Well, maybe I did stride a little… and yeah, I have a pretty good stride.
Outside, I stood on the sidewalk and gave my back a little stretch. I looked around at the city, watching cars go by, politely ignoring Wesley and Jody, who were standing about ten feet away, leaning on each other's shoulders. (Well, maybe it wasn't just politeness. Maybe it was the fact that my kid sister had an active love life going, which was more than I did.)
I've discovered I like cities. I like having all sorts of interesting things within walking distance. I like the light show that a city turns into at night. I'm even starting to like the puce sky. (That orangey-purple color you get in the sky at night where there's low-hanging clouds over a place with a lot of sodium-vapor lamps? That's puce. Bet you didn't know that.) Admittedly, in a city there are a lot more people around to stare at me, but I can live with that. It was cold and windy outside, but cold is another thing I can handle.
It was everything else that was a mess right now. Maybe I should have been happy Mom was doing okay. And maybe Dad wasn't the smartest or most ambitious or most cultured guy around. Maybe he was just… ordinary.
But he was my father, there was never a problem I couldn't talk to him about, some of the best times of my life were spent with him, and, oh yeah, the diet and exercise regimen he put me through when I was growing up was the main reason I could play basketball well enough to get a college scholarship. For that matter, it's the main reason I can stand and walk without leg braces or anything.
So you can't blame me for loving him, you can't blame me for getting mad when Mom and Jody were talking about him like he was an ugly worn-out piece of furniture they finally got around to leaving on the curb, and you can't blame me for what happened next.
The restaurant was only a couple of places down from an intersection. While I was standing out there on the sidewalk, I saw this idiot cruising by in a red sedan. He blew right through a red light and got T-boned by an SUV. It happened very quickly — out of nowhere, there was just a screech of brakes and a loud crunch. I felt a certain responsibility to go make sure nobody was hurt, especially since I had my suspicions about how and why this had happened.
Sure enough, the guy in the red sedan had been too busy staring at me to watch where he was going. It wasn't the first time, or the thousand and first, that somebody driving by had been distracted or slowed down or even come to a dead stop to get a better look at me. (Jenni Straight, this girl I knew in high school, used to get the same sort of reactions — and she was only gigantic frontwards of her ribcage.) There had even been a few fender-benders on account of this. But this was definitely the worst one.
The red sedan man had been out driving with his family. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the girl in the rear passenger side was badly shaken — she'd more or less had the door implode on her. The SUV driver was, understandably, mad as hell. He got out of his vehicle already cursing at the top of his lungs. I had to reassure him that I'd seen everything and would be happy to testify that the sedan driver was at fault, while standing in his path in a blocking stance I'd learned on the basketball court, to keep him from going over and picking a fight.
When the police showed up, the girl didn't want to get out of the car. I don't blame her — there was a lot of broken glass all over the seat. She did take her seatbelt off, so I was able to reach in and lift her out. (She couldn't have weighed more than eighty pounds, but I had her at kind of an awkward angle.)
Then we all got questioned, the red sedan man handed over the insurance information… and it was time for me to go home. By this time, Mom, Jody and the Marburys had joined me.
I can't say we were all reconciled right then — that took a little longer — but at least for the rest of the night, I wasn't thinking about my own problems.